When I wrote about using an AI as an assistant a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’ve always resisted hiring an assistant.
Last Friday the kids selected Frankenstein (1931) as our pizza night viewing. It’s a wonderful movie, directed brilliantly by David Whale.
I laughed a lot at this scene in which Dr. Frankenstein sends his assistant, Fritz, to go steal a brain for the monster. Fritz drops the “normal” brain in the lab so he takes the “abnormal” brain instead. This scene was later parodied in the also-brilliant Young Frankenstein (1974).
Some trivia: Fritz does not appear in Mary Shelley’s novel! Fritz was invented for an 1823 adaptation by Richard Brinsley Peake for his play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein. In the early scripts for the 1931 movie, Fritz was mute, and, supposedly, this scene with the brains was only added late in the process. (Fritz also tortures the monster and, in general, makes things worse.)
Shelley’s Frankenstein is often mentioned these days as a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, but read another way, the 1931 version of Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about hiring an assistant to do your dirty work!
In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, he writes about “one of the best pieces of advice” he ever got: “to have no assistant.”
The mere presence of an assistant suspends your natural filtering—and its absence forces you to do only things you enjoy, and progressively steer your life that way. (By assistant here I exclude someone hired for a specific task, such as grading papers, helping with accounting, or watering plants; just some guardian angel overseeing all your activities). This is a via negativa approach: you want maximal free time, not maximal activity, and you can assess your own “success” according to such metric. Otherwise, you end up assisting your assistants, or being forced to “explain” how to do things, which requires more mental effort than doing the thing itself. In fact, beyond my writing and research life, this has proved to be great financial advice as I am freer, more nimble, and have a very high benchmark for doing something, while my peers have their days filled with unnecessary “meetings” and unnecessary correspondence.
Taleb also writes, of trying to “optimize” the writing and art-making process in general:
Anything you do to optimize your work, cut some corners, or squeeze more “efficiency” out of it (and out of your life) will eventually make you dislike it.
Of course, art history is full of assistants and whole workshops full of helpers, and many of the great artists were at one time apprenticed to a master.
Maybe that’s the important point: making a distinction between assistants and apprentices.
Because they eventually want the master’s job, apprentices have more skin in the game…