#235: Production Function

A podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Conversations With Tyler, hosted by the economist Tyler Cowen. It’s recorded from live interviews at George Mason University, and his guests all have their specialties yet are also able to talk knowledgeably about a broad range of topics from science and technology to economics and Russian literature. Cowen’s end of the conversation is almost entirely in the form of rapid-fire (but no less thoughtful) questions.

Podcast have at least one thing they ask every single guest, and Cowen’s is this: Explain the [name of guest here] production function.

A production function, in economics, is a formula that describes how a company or economy’s inputs relate to their outputs. How labor and raw materials, for instance, turn into steak burritos. Thinking about production functions on an individual human basis is great twist. It’s asking: What do you do differently from others that enables you to create what you create? How does what happens in private line up with what happens in public?

Here’s Cowen posing the question to science writer/humorist Mary Roach:

COWEN: Now, you have six main books out, and they’ve all been very successful. Forgetting about what might be your central talent intellectually, but just in terms of your work habits or schedule or how you organize what it is you do, I would call it the Mary Roach production function. How would you describe to us the Mary Roach production function? What is it you do that you think other people maybe could learn from?

ROACH: I am essentially a massive filtration system. So when I begin a project, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what will be in the book. I know that my job is to cherry-pick the most interesting, surprising, funny, bizarre material within this quite broad topic that I’ve selected.

So there may be mornings when I . . . For Bonk [her book about sex research], I recall going to the basement of UCSF Medical School Library where they had the Journal of Sex Research, which started sometime in the late ’50s, I believe, and going through every table of contents and going, “Boring, boring, boring . . . Oh! Masturbation is a potential treatment for intractable hiccups.”


ROACH: And then running off to the Xerox machine, or these days, taking a picture.

When I try to answer the production function question for myself, I discover that it’s a harder question to answer than I expect. I’m having to describing what I think I do differently than other people, without actually knowing the private experiences of those other people.

For instance, I think that I show drafts early. That showing a piece of writing with parts that I know will need to change is a part of the Jack Cheng production function. The story I tell myself is that it’s a carryover from my days working in tech – this comfort (or lesser discomfort) with pushing out code that’s good enough to work for now, because I’ll be iterating on it later.

In writing, when I do get feedback about the things I already know I have to change, it’s confirmation that I’m on the right track. And when the feedback comes in a different area, and completely obviates the stuff I’d planned to change, then I don’t waste time making those changes up front. My ego has to face criticism earlier on (and perhaps more frequently), but the criticism ends up being less devastating and unraveling.

But then again, that’s just the story I tell myself.

Let me ask you here, dear reader: What’s the [your name] production function?