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Insights from The Black Swan, Part 2

April 5, 2013

I am in the process of reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and reflecting here as I encounter insights that excite me as a tester. If this news comes as a shock to you, please read this immediately.

Now, this:

“…that not theorizing is an act–that theorizing can correspond to the absence of willed activity, the ‘default’ option. It takes considerable effort to see facts (and remember them) while withholding judgment and resisting explanations. And this theorizing disease is rarely under our control: it is largely anatomical, part of our biology, so fighting it requires fighting one’s own self.”

First, it’s heartening to learn that my constant theorizing (about what is causing a bug, about how to reproduce a bug, about how a feature is or should be working, about how a user might respond to something) might be natural and largely out of my control.

Second, it’s disconcerting that my efforts to hold back judgment and explanation while collecting observations and information may be largely futile — and that I may in fact be fooling myself when I think I am succeeding.

Third… wait, do I actually try to hold back judgment and explanation while testing? Sometimes, yes — which may explain, according to Taleb, why a bout of intense testing and exploration can be so taxing. But perhaps more often, no, I think that I let my instincts run the show and theorize away. And it gets to be dangerous. When my brain wants to theorize, it’s like being trapped with a car salesman:

Me: “I want to investigate some factors before I start making any decisions. For example, what’s the price difference between the LS models and…”

Brain: “Yeah, yeah, sounds good. But wait! I think you’ll like last year’s sedans. C’mon, let’s take a look together.”

Me: “Fine, but then I want to get back to this.”

Brain: “No problem.”

Me: “Yeah, you know, these sedans look pretty good. I could be persuaded, let me just check the mileage…”

Brain: “OH! You know what you’d LOVE. This new SUV. C’mon, let’s go.”

Me: “Shoot, ok, but then I want to revisit these sedans, and also go back to my original questions…”

Brain: “This will only take a second, I SWEAR.”

Me: “Oh, you know what, this SUV is nice. Geez, I’m losing track of…”

Brain: “HEY! Let’s check your credit score. Super quick.”

Me: “Um, ok… wait, why did I come here again?”

And so it goes in my mind while I’m fact-collecting and trying to hold multiple theories in my mind, hoping that I don’t start to drop the threads, or worse, end up with a tangled ball of nonsense to show for my efforts.

Taleb suggests that fighting this natural tendency to theorize may not always be worth the effort. But what I’ve come to understand through this reflection is that I can at least train myself to simply be aware of it more. And, better yet, take note of the theories and possible explanations as they come to me.

My head is good at doing some things, but terrible at doing at least two things: Storing information and understanding my own thoughts. Paper and computers are far superior at accomplishing the former and enabling the latter. I know that when I jot down my theories as I test and move on, rather than hold them in my head (or fight them off), the results are much more useful and productive. I get to the exploration that I intended, and, not only do I not lose track of the ideas I had earlier, but I can consider them clearly later. I can act on them, expand on them, test them, even destroy them.

So, no, we can’t avoid spinning theories and explanation for the things we see while testing. But I think something as basic as effective note-taking can get them working for us instead of against us.

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