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How to make rows more creative

October 4, 2007

I often write papers with my friend Bill McKelvey, professor of strategic organizing at UCLA. It works like this. He flies into Barcelona and stays with my wife and me for a few days. He admires the view of the sea from my terrace and we go for frequent walks. The view from my terrace has a calming effect on Bill, and as you will presently see, this is important to our collaboration.

The need for calm is explained by the fact that Bill and I often end up rowing over some issue related to the paper. A row is a violent disagreement that, for reasons of timidity, laziness, or inertia, fails to lead to violence – its cathartic resolution. Often, it does not even lead to verbal abuse, just to episodic glares. Now here is the thing. We would be much worse off without rows than with them. We have recently discovered that rowing is often a source of new creative new insights and often radically improves what we write. Why? We don’t yet know. We need a statistically respectable sample of rows to see a clear patter emerge. When that happens, we have been thinking of patenting our rowing technique since we could then model it. But, since we are scientists and not very commercially minded – we are making it available to you for free in a spirit of Beta testing. We will make our money later, on the back of those who are not reading this blog. So for amateur intellectual gladiators here are a few tips:

A good row needs an ‘ontological gap’ between the rowing parties. Things must exist for me, for example, that do not exist for Bill and vice-versa. For example, Bill lives in L.A. and so naturally, an actor like Tom Cruise has a certain reality for him. For me, on the other hand, he is just Ron Hubbard’s avatar.

A good row also needs an ‘epistemic gap’ between the rowing parties. I must know things that Bill doesn’t know and vice versa. But for the row to keep going, I must undervalue what Bill knows and vice versa. It is important that the epistemic gap remain reasonably balanced. If the information asymmetries grow too large, an authority relationship emerges to deflate the row and reduce one of the parties to a state of passive acquiescence.

Ontological and epistemological gaps must be discovered only once the paper has reached the stage of a first draft. Before that neither of you will have sunk enough time in the venture to find your position worth defending and you will just drop the collaboration

It is important that you don’t try and win. The best ideas come when both sides have argued themselves into an intellectual stalemate and are absolutely exhausted by the experience. Neither side can coerce the other into changing his or her views. This relaxes the mind and leaves it open to absurd ideas – like boiling the opponent.

Make sure that you only row when sitting down at the terrace rather than when walking up or down the hill to the house. In this way you channel your intellectual energy into the row rather than in watching where you put your feet as you climb down or up the hill. Moreover a seating position makes it more difficult for either party to hit the other spontaneously, thus ensuring that the row does not end prematurely.

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