Michael Nielsen

Conversation with others often emphasizes the most well-understood elements of an idea

There’s an unintuitive danger in talking about an emerging idea with others. The clearest, most familiar parts are the ones which you’ll have the easiest time communicating and which your conversation partner will have the easiest time grasping. Often, those notions are already somewhat mainstream or even clichéd; others are likely to have lots of cached thoughts around that idea, and they’ll tend to interpret it incrementally.

But if you’re doing something original, the most interesting elements are the ones which others—and you!—understand least well. Particularly early on, you may not be able to articulate the new element you’re reaching for very clearly. It may just sound like an unusual adverb choice or an innocuous-seeming qualifier. In any case: because their replies will tend to emphasize the most mainstream elements and pass over the elements you least understand, conversation will often drag you back towards the mainstream. It’s a kind of “regression to the mean” for ideas.

Of course, the best colleagues and collaborators actively avoid this trap! One of my favorite Michael Nielsen behaviors is that if he hears me talking about some idea that seems fairly banal, he’ll deliberately tug at the places where I’m straining to reach past typical interpretations.

This idea emerged from an early 2018 conversation with Bret Victor. He’d just returned from a visit to a major research lab, where he’d presented and discussed some of his work. I asked whether the conversations had been useful, and he glumly replied that he felt he needed to go isolate himself in a cabin for a week to begin to hear his own thoughts again. This was quite a confusing reply in the moment, but I soon experienced this challenge myself in conversations around my Khan Academy research and understood what (I think!) he meant.