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April 11th, 2019

In the realm of probability, it’s often been mentioned that if monkeys were left to bang away at typewriters, they would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare verbatim.


Indeed, the evolutionarily informed thinker might look at our long biological history and see that’s exactly what happened.


A different thought experiment might sub-out the typewriter for something else.  Say a pencil and paper.


Both the paper-pencil combo and the typewriter are equally capable in producing a reproduction of Shakespeare’s works, and yet there’s an obvious and fundamental difference.


Not only is a typewriter faster, but it’s usage is also far more narrow.  It only produces letters, numbers and punctuation, whereas a pencil and paper can produce an infinitely larger set of graphical combinations.


In this way the pencil-and-paper combo might seem superior, but if we remember our thought experiment about the Monkey’s producing Shakespeare, it’s clear that given the pencil-and-paper, there are far more actions and combinations of actions that the Monkeys could undertake, and therefore in all likelihood it would take far longer for Shakespeare to materialize on the page than if actions were limited to the keys of a typewriter.


The two concepts at play here are Constraints and Speed.  The typewriter has far more constraints, but given the task we are testing for, it is far faster, not just in the production of each iteration but overall, whereas the pencil-and-paper combo lacks constraints and speed. 


The typewriter in this thought experiment may function as an allegory for our habits and discipline.  What we do routinely, within the constraints of habit inevitably aim towards a narrow set of eventual outcomes.  By narrowing the variety of actions we take in these realms there may be a higher set of these actions that actually hit the button – so to speak – regarding our progress towards a goal.  Habits and discipline, if mindfully designed and carried out can have a compounding effect.  Poor habits likewise have a compounding effect that can sink us on a slope that gets steeper and steeper as we go.


But unlike the Monkeys of our thought experiments who are either relegated towards fast and narrow iteration with the typewriter, or slow and open iteration with the pencil-and-paper, we humans get to have our cake and eat it too.


Not only can we initiate and entrench good habits that continually give back to us, but we can make a habit of pausing, to zoom out from our own circumstance to try and look at that circumstance in a larger context where the narrowness of habits dissolve for an important moment. 


From such a standpoint we can imagine forward and wonder if our discipline and habits are aimed in useful directions, and if not, we can creatively change up our habits, like switching tools, in order to hone in on a more interesting future.



This episode references Episode 23: Pause and Episode 54: The Well-Oiled Zoom.

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 361: Monkeys & Typewriters

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