Works, Life and Marshmallows: Iterative Design

marshmallow

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single marshmallow.  Ok, I say that, and more specifically I am talking about your life, job or relationship rather than a journey.  I am coming back to my practice from a brief sabbatical, and have been noticing that while many things are going to stay the same, a few are changing as well.  I’ll get back to the marshmallow in a minute.

One thing I learned on my sabbatical is that I definitely want to continue my therapy practice.  As I said to some friends on Facebook this week, “You know, I’m kind of grateful that I get to challenge the self-hatred of others for a living.”  As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist I get paid to do that.  One thing I also decided on my leave was to withdraw from the last managed care insurance panel I was on.  It made no sense to continue to decrease the time I could be seeing people due to paperwork and bureaucratic hassles, and it made no financial sense to have a waiting list of people who are willing to pay my full fee and also deserve treatment just so I could work at half my rate.  I have always built pro bono or sliding scale slots into my practice because I have a commitment to serving a diverse population, so why was I doing that and letting an insurance company slide the remaining hours of my week?

Part of the answer to this and most “why-have-I-been-doing-this-this-way-when-it-doesn’t-work-in-my-favor?” questions is fear. Most of us are afraid of change.  Whether we are staying in an abusive relationship, having difficulty getting sober, flunking out of college or missing days at work, most of us have moments when we see what we are doing to ourselves and ask the above question.  And then we often resume whatever the pattern is, leaving an interesting question unanswered and instead turning it into self-recrimination, which is really just evasion.  Another part of the answer is that we often act is if we only get one shot at answering the question of life satisfaction.  Here comes the marshmallow.

Invented by Peter Skillman of Palm, Inc. and popularized by Tom Wujec of Autodesk, the Marshmallow Challenge may be familiar to some of you:  “It involves the task of constructing the highest possible free-standing structure with a marshmallow on top. The structure must be completed within 18-minutes using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one yard of string.” (per Wikipedia)  You can call it an exercise, or play, but in either event the creators of the challenge have observed something very interesting about how different groups tend to approach it.  Children tend to make a first structure, stick the marshmallow on top, and then repeat the process over and over, refining it as they go.  Adults tend to engage in group discussions, arguments, power plays and plans to produce one structure built once to which the marshmallow is added.  In other words they tend to approach it derivatively rather than iteratively.

Iterative design is a method of creating a thing or addressing a problem by making a prototype (first attempt,) testing it, analyzing the prototype, and then refining it.  Rinse and repeat.  Iterative design isn’t good for everything: As parents know, often there is not time in the world for everything to get done in 18 minutes or before the school bus gets here.  But a life built on derivative design alone is destined for stagnation and rigidity.

Derivative design, as the name suggests, takes something from a pre-existing something-else, whether it be a rule, materials, social construction or interpretation of the something-else.  When you psychoanalyze a patient’s dream and interpret it as a manifestation of their Oedipus Complex, you are deriving your interpretation and their dream from the something-else of Freud, who in turn derived his Oedipal Conflict theory from the something-else of Greek mythology.  Derivative design can save time and effort in many important ways, by collapsing cultural memes and thinking and transmitting them forward through time from Sophocles to your office.  But as feminist thinkers and cultural critics have shown us, we might have arrived at a different “complex” if Audre Lord et al had been in on the prototyping of it.

Derivative thinking left unchecked can get you in a rut.  One of my most recent examples of this comes from The Little Prince, where he encounters the drunkard:
“- Why are you drinking? – the little prince asked.
- In order to forget – replied the drunkard.
- To forget what? – enquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
- To forget that I am ashamed – the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
- Ashamed of what? – asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
- Ashamed of drinking! – concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
And the little prince went away, puzzled.
‘Grown-ups really are very, very odd’, he said to himself as he continued his journey.”

Everything derives from the previous thing, but in the end it sometimes gets us nowhere.

We all get in these difficult spirals.  A good therapist or supervisor can point them out to us and then encourage us to become iterative in our design:

  1. So what are you going to do this time?
  2. How did that work out?
  3. So what are you going to do differently?

Therapists starting their private practices also come to see me, often stuck in derivative thinking:

-I need my NPI number.
-Ok, why?
-To get on Medicare.
-Ok, because?
-So I can get on insurance panels.
-Ok, why?
-So I can get patients who will pay me so I can rent an office so I can have an address to register for my NPI.

If you are one of my consultees reading this rest assured I am NOT talking about you in particular:  I have had this conversation a hundred times with people.  We get indoctrinated into the world of managed care and get, well, managed.  In this case, I usually recommend the consultee start by imagining what kind of office space they want.  Answers have varied and included: Sunny, exposed beams, plants, yellow paint, toys, music system, waiting room with receptionist, friendly colleagues in suite, accessible to public transportation, elevator, warm colors, cool colors, and all sorts of other iterations.

Once you have a mental prototype you can either build or design your office, or find and rent it.  Again I tell folks to walk around the areas they want to work in, find buildings that look interesting to them, then walk inside and ask to speak with someone about seeing a unit.  Testing involves going to see several spaces.  Then they can analyze the results: Does the space look like it would become what they imagine it to be furnished? Are there things about their ideal that need to be discarded? Do they now realize that they could be even more wild in their expectations?

This is just one example of the ways that iterative design can open up possibilities.  But be warned, iterative design can be daunting for many of us raised in our current education system.  We have been trained to create one product presented in final form with the expectation that we will be graded on that product alone. Everything becomes about that one paper or exam, which is often more about regurgitation rather than innovation.

I have colleagues who take my breath away with the number of projects and ideas they are consistently throwing out there to see what happens:  It takes guts to do that.  I myself often am afraid that the Project Police are going to pop out and say, “What happened to your idea of a Minecraft group?  Shame on you for proposing it and not completing that project!  You are not allowed any more ideas until you show us you can carry that one out.”

Sound ridiculous? Of course it is, but does it sound familiar to you as well?  If it does, go out and buy yourself some spaghetti, tape and marshmallows:  The quality of your job, relationship and life may depend on it.

Interested in setting up a consult for your practice?  I have some openings come March.  Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

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Mike Langlois, LICSW

Mike consults, writes and teaches about online technologies, video games & psychotherapy. He provides private supervision for psychotherapists who seek to start, grow, & market their private practice.

Latest posts by Mike Langlois, LICSW (see all)

About Mike Langlois, LICSW

Mike consults, writes and teaches about online technologies, video games & psychotherapy. He provides private supervision for psychotherapists who seek to start, grow, & market their private practice.

Comments

  1. Oh, so my process has a name! Iterative design. Thanks for clarifying that for me.
    Trying new things, testing and trying again is a process developed like a muscle. One thing I have learned is that nothing ventured, nothing gained AND most people are not paying any attention to what you are doing anyway, so they are clueless if we start a project and then drop it when we figure out it isn’t working.

    The real key is to try to remain objective to the projects and assess the data realistically. We can’t get emotionally married to something and hang on even with the evidence points to it being a non-starter. As one example – I find many people get stuck on, “I want to be a generalist therapist. Specializing isn’t for me,” and then spin and spin and spin with that “rule” frustrated they aren’t attracting clients. Test, assess, adjust, repeat.

    And, congrats on kicking that final insurance panel to the curb. It will feel soooo good. And you’ll still get great, motivated clients.

  2. Iterative vs derivative – it’s so very interesting. Up until a few years ago, I had definitely been more inclined to work with the derivative model.

    However, since I’ve opened myself up to the range of possibilities, the results are far more interesting. Suddenly, you are no longer confined to what the “rules” are [although you may still have them in the back of your head] but you are able to see past them and in so doing, come with new and creative ways of doing whatever it is that you want to do.

    For example, I now occasionally use poetry as a way of expressing ideas or emotions on a particular topic – and I do so in a rather free-flowing manner [exactly the opposite of what most of us have been taught in school with outlines etc]. The end result is that I enjoy writing poems. They literally flow out of me.

    There are probably many different routes to arriving at this place. For me, meditation is what helped open up and gradually release my prior shackles.

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