Data, Despair, and the FLOWBEE
Those who can't do, think. Those who think, turn into aliens.
Another “I’m giving up on data work” article made the rounds last week and it offers a great chance to revisit one of my favorite topics: metrics nihilism.
The author laments a lack of influence and purpose, describing up to 90% of data jobs as meaningless. I’ve argued myself that many data teams are mired in a middleware state and lose themselves spiritually, if not financially.
The profound personal despair, though, is what makes this latest entry stand out. It echoes other recent articles and my own occasional experiences on the sidelines of the business. But really, it should be no surprise to folks that pursued “the sexiest job in the 21st century” when they are asked to wear singlets and line-dance for executives.
So why is the data scientist so personally vulnerable to this form of despair?
I want to explore an idea I call externalized intelligence as an answer to this question.
Externalized intelligence is when a certain set of knowledge, or a certain type of thinking, is not integrated into the daily activity of the organism and is instead treated as “importable” or “referenceable” on demand.
For example, I know the concept of multiplication, and like everyone else, I know how to multiply numbers in my head up to, say, 47 squared. But what sort of “intelligence” does it take to multiply 153 by 238?
Not the kind I care about. I can defer this knowledge to a calculator or to ChatGPT. I can treat it simply as something external to me that can be summoned at will.
In fact, I would be disturbed if someone were to boast that they spent the weekend learning multiplication tables up to 300 by heart. At a certain point, knowing this begins to make you seem different — alien.
This position as an alien intelligence is exactly the position I think many data professionals find themselves falling into at organizations. While his peers may respect or even admire his skill with the numbers, he is nonetheless isolated as someone who is not quite on the same team. He is other.
Both the organization and the data scientist conspire towards this result.
In one simple model, the business hires “thinkers” and “doers”. The doers generate value through specific, concrete actions with the external world. The thinkers provide value by optimizing and coordinating doer activity.
Doers are the friction point with the real world. Except in rare circumstances (think tanks come to mind), companies cannot generate revenue without the Doers, even as these Doers often treated as replaceable commodities.
Thinkers — and data professionals default to being thinkers — inhabit an abstraction: The Company. They are not grounded in the real world the same way that doers are. This is a feature: to have a broader perspective, you have to climb higher. Thinkers are valued because their thinking can generalize across new contexts, and growing into new contexts is the path to greater revenue.
But their feedback loop is also abstracted. Thinkers rely on social influence to orient and calibrate their thinking. In healthy situations, they are symbiotic with doers: they promise 20% efficiency gains in return for stories from the real world. In unhealthy situations, they are predatory: trading in doer experience to advance a plan that is counter to their best interest.
In all cases, they need doers to listen.
If no one is listening, the thinker becomes untethered. They float into space. Their plans and strategies and arguments bounce around in their skulls, microwaving their brain. They post selfies with their prototypes and get zero likes.
So the thinker begins the doom spiral: No one reads my reports, so I guess they don’t care about THE TRUTH! And if no one cares about the truth it’s probably because they’re selfish BUREAUCRATIC PIGS! And if they’re pigs then I’m going to feed them INSIGNIFICANT NUMBERS!
The doer, ground to a pulp by endless friction with the real world, tends to burn out. The thinker, allowed to drift, floats into space, getting further and further away from any meaningful signal. Eventually, she tunes out.
Players and Pundits
Thinkers must get others to pay attention, then. But people are bad listeners. They will listen in only three circumstances:
You bought them a free Outback Steakhouse dinner.
They are avoiding doing something else and cannot find their phone.
You are surprisingly interesting and/or authoritative.
The first two options have external dependencies, so they can’t lead to a reliable playbook. The final one, though, is worth discussing.
To be interesting, the thinker has to be tightly integrated into the environment — tuned in, sensitive, and receptive. To leverage her mind, she must hold herself at a distance, but that space should span feet, not miles.
To be authoritative, the thinker must be endorsed by the leadership. Perhaps the thinker should even be the leadership. In many startups, the data person nominally sits in engineering or marketing or operations, but in reality serves at the pleasure of the chief executive.
In either case, the thinker must be publicly recognized to be on the team. They must be close to the doings, or highly invested in the doings. They must have skin in the game.
Social forces conspire to push thinkers away from the team, towards the sidelines. When doing a lot, quickly, the bare minimum amount of thinking is tolerated. Anything extra is externalized so that it doesn’t get in the way. So a person who prides themselves on thinking will be pushed away, not from ill will, but simply out of necessity.
This is why your brain is not in your hands, by the way.
The thinker could stop this, of course, but it takes sustained effort, like treading water, or the cartoony reverse, where a person starts floating into space and has to swim downwards to stay on the ground. They have to be radically focused on staying relevant to the team of doers.
Despair occurs when a person thought they were going to be a starter on the team, but finds themselves increasingly isolated. They become a pundit on a broadcast that no one is listening to. And they don’t know how they got there.
The healthiest place for thinkers to sit is on the coaching staff. The coaches, and especially the assistance coaches think through proximal abstractions: what are the opposing team’s strengths? How will health and context affect our strategy? What can we learn from the tape?
The alternative is to stop being a thinker and start doing. That’s where the author finds inspiration: the friend who works in a bookstore, the immigrant who starts a barbershop.
What is more universal, more human than the haircut? Fingers on a foreign scalp, mindless chatter about the weather, hot towels smothering your face. If there’s anything less vulnerable to overthinking and abstractions, it must be the haircut, right?
But nothing is safe from externalization, from alienation. Confer the FLOWBEE, the thinker’s answer to inconsistent haircuts from amateur barbers. It is a razor, attached to a vacuum, affixed to the head.
The FLOWBEE is the product of an alien intelligence, a thinker unmoored from the social realities of the barbershop. This is an intelligence that said, “How can we do away with the foolish dependence on the human body for proper hair tailoring?”
He’s not wrong, by the way. As a FLOWBEE user since childhood, I respect the commitment to precision and tidiness. And I myself have absorbed this alien suspicion of barbers. I don’t care for them in the least.
But being right is not the same as being fulfilled, and if I wasn’t already losing all my hair due to age and children, I could see a world where the FLOWBEE is symbolic of some obscure form of first world despair.
No, the intelligence that brings fulfillment is always embodied. The thinking moves out of the head and into the skin. It’s in the fingertips, the words, the human interaction, the eyes, the smile. It is not the cold intelligence of abstract analysis, but a warm one that hovers right around 98.6 degrees.