Positive auto-reenforcement
Monday, Jun 07, 2004
Positive reenforcement has been proved successful time and time again. Expressing joy at another person's kindness, gratitude at their thoughtfulness, or mirth at their jests, it all feeds back into the mix to produce more of the same. Somewhere along the way, quite non-deliberately, I took this principle and internalized it, and now I wonder if I'm alone.

I love to create. I like to make beautiful things, useful things, things that other people enjoy. It's probably a good thing that I'm an interaction designer, because when I put something out there I get far more satisfaction from seeing the impact it has on others than I feel from the simple creation of the work. On the basic level, public reaction is the loopback in my positive reenforcement feedback loop. I make good things, and people like them, making me want to make more good things. But the desire to make good things isn't enough.

Some time long ago, possibly in high school, maybe a lot earlier, I got in the habit of giving my subconscious positive reenforcement. In grade school I was always a procrastinator (who am I kidding? I'm at work at 10pm writing a post when I should be finishing the presentation I'm staying late to finish) and when it came to writing papers, I'd often spend the first 13 days of a two week assignment with the subject in the back of my head, taking up spare cycles in the shower or on the bus. Come 10pm the day before the paper's due I'd crack open the word processor (or piece of paper) and empty the tank that had slowly been filling in my head.

Thanks to spellcheckers, I often didn't even have to read my paper before turning it in the next morning.

It usually worked out okay. Somehow while distilling in my think-tank the thoughts polymerized into strands that came out well without doubling back or making logical knots. Sometimes it was disastrous. By the time I was a senior in high school I'd determined that anything I write had a 2/3rds chance of being terrific and a 1/3rd chance of being absolutely awful.

I used to brag that I never knew which it would be until it came back with a grade. In truth that probably has more to do with my frequent skipping of the proofreading process than any auto-aphasia relating to my own writing. I'd never add that part though. I preferred the mystery.

But I digress.

Inevitably, the paper would come back with a grade on it. As Miss Griffith walked around the classroom, handing back papers, I honestly had no idea what I'd find on mine; the subjectivity of grading prose multiplied by my own inability to judge my own work. The uncertainty always came to a sudden clarity when the paper made its way to my desk. (Ever notice how some teachers place the paper face down on your desk, forcing you to execute the revelatory act yourself, like pulling off a band-aid, or possibly a scab?) Either way, seconds later I would know whether I'd written something good or bad. The marks of red completed the greater, outer feedback loop.

This moment is when my own inner feedback loop begins. If I got a bad grade, I'd file the paper away in my backpack, never to be read again. If I got an A I'd re(?)read the paper carefully from beginning to end. I'd read it with pride, and that warmth would drift down to my subconscious, telling it that this is what good writing looks like.

The funny part is that I didn't have the intention of making my own writing better, only to read what I sound like when I'm doing it right.

Nowadays, now that I realize the net benefit, I do it more than ever. When someone gives a particularly laudatory comment on this site, I'll frequently re-read what I wrote, often re-reading the same piece several times. It's like watching a well-worn videotape, looking for clues you missed the first five times. Sometimes I find alliterations and nuggents of metaphor that were so buried in the stream of prose that I don't even know they were there until the fifth time I panned for the gold within.

It's not just papers anymore. I'll relive conversations, re-examine designs, sites, even code. I try to view each with the fresh eyes of he who provided the praise. I wipe my own mental slate clean and pour the sand down slowly and metered to experience not only the resulting work, but the formative process of taking the work in.

I don't know what my bad writing looks like, but as time goes on I seem to have less and less of it, because I understand much better where I find my successes. This might be true in the broader context of life as well. I don't dwell in the past, and when I do, I find it filled with nostalgia, and only very rarely pain.

It may be that I'm doomed to repeat past mistakes, but I don't think so. Tromping through the forest of life we all build trails, and if we backtrack to relive the more enjoyable ones, we can set forth in the future using these well-trod paths as guides, without the need to set warning markers on the rough paths traversed but once, all illusory allusions to Robert Frost aside.

Perhaps it's a form of egotism, or maybe selective memory, but I like to think of it as taking good care in raising my own homunculus.

As a parting thought, I wonder now how far this rabbit hole goes. Does my inner creative self encompass a homunculus of its own? The spark of creativity? Is it a tiny flame that is constantly fed, or one like I, who feeds on his own successes and starves on his failures? Food for thought, as it were.

I wonder if I'll ever read this.

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
I can be reached at .

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I'm co-founder in
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I post most frequently on Twitter as @kfury and on Google Plus.


I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

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