This week I’m sharing a quote, a tweet, and a library.
Quote I’m Pondering
“The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.“
Human memory is fallible, where written notes do not forget. The quote encourages note taking, but implementing that lesson is not trivial. As the exercise of observing a candle can demonstrate, a common occurrence can give rise to tens of distinct observations. Time is finite, and so is the detail in which notes can be taken. I tend to take comprehensive notes inconsistently, which suggests that I attempt an unsustainable level of detail. Ultimately the value of memory or note taking to a situation that has not yet occurred is unknown.
Problems in Science
Science can seem apolitical from the outside, it is often perceived as a rational and collaborative exercise in furthering understanding of the natural world. In reality humans, their endeavours, and the systems they build to achieve them, are all flawed. The incentives of academic research prioritise production of highly cited research papers, creating races to publish ideas first, which ultimately stifles collaboration and sharing. This tweet shares the story of an observation stolen by a visiting professor. The subsequent conversation between scientists in the thread reveals a nasty and paranoid reality of scientific research.
I’ve been doing some 30 Year Thinking, and after some difficult conversations I condensed one aspect of my personality: I enjoy asking difficult questions. I like to poke and prod at an idea, sometimes callously, in a relentless search for truth. I want to understand why. That energises me, where it might drain others.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin uses experiences from their military career (primarily during the Iraq War) to describe principles of leadership. I found the book helpful, particularly as it addressed several weaknesses I see in myself. Both in war and business, the contexts used to describe implementing the principles were higher stakes and more challenging than the situations I find myself in, so I feel the solutions offered would also help solve my problems. Since encountering Jocko’s philosophy via his podcast over a year ago, I feel implementing the ideas in Extreme Ownership have helped me to grow and succeed.
The military content, which makes up a majority of the text, at times glorifies war and some readers will find it distasteful. I would suggest simply reading and considering the core principles, which together make up approximately 30 pages of the 320 page book. The 12 chapters each follow a structure of: 1. military anecdote 2. leadership principle 3. application to business. I found these anecdotes illuminating. In the first chapter, where Jocko describes taking ownership of mistakes leading to a death by friendly fire, he writes “I dreaded opening and answering the inevitable e-mail inquiries about what had transpired. I wished I had died out on the battlefield. I felt that I deserved it.” Even within the intense environment of war, something as common as email can cause “dread” because of the courage required to take ownership of mistakes. The example uses the dire consequences of war to motivate me to take ownership of my own mistakes.
The Principle of Extreme Ownership
Everything that happens to you is your responsibility. Do not make excuses. Do not blame others. Inevitably things will go wrong, and you will fail, but taking ownership can lead to learning, growth, and overcoming that failure. Making excuses, and blaming others, prevents growth and leads to more failure.
I find this a useful mindset. I have much more control over my own actions than others. I can choose what I do, but not what others do. If I externalise control to the world or others around me, and blame the world and others, then I am unable to solve my problems. If I focus on what I can do, on what I can control, then I can make progress.
Quotes I Found Helpful
Note: I hope to add more quotes and expand on these quotes later.
Every leader and every team at some point of time will fail and must confront that failure (p. 8)
This is consolation, failure is to be expected rather than feared. Failure does not mean an individual or team cannot ever succeed. Knowing this, it is possible to move past the embarrassment of one’s failure, and focus on how to improve and overcome.
It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. (p. 54)
Standards are set and maintained through tolerance. While an individual or team can have lofty aspirations, consistent performance requires intolerance of sub-standard behaviour. In short: Hold the line.
Relax, look around, make a call (p. 161)
Mantras like this help the right decision be made in difficult situations. This needs to be balanced with hesitation, which can be more damaging than haste. Relax: take a deep breath, move past the adrenaline and the pounding heart, clear your thoughts. Look around: detach, take in the bigger picture, understand the context of the situation, what is actually happening here. Make a call: once the situation is understood and a pause can be taken, only then make a decision.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been focusing on process, rather than outcome. Optimising my routine and input to work, especially when the output of that work is inherently probabilistic, avoids the emotional rush and crash of success and failure.
In order to optimise, I like to collect data. I measure how long it takes me to perform tasks throughout the day, which approaches succeed more often, which channels and sources are more fruitful. That optimisation, though generally useful, can become a distraction. When I become more upset at a failure to collect data than a failure to deliver an outcome, it is a sign I have lost focus.
In noticing this, while keeping track and optimising are important, that cannot replace awareness of the actual desired outcome. Do not let excitement about tools and processes distract from the simple question: am I getting closer to my goal?
I’m thankful that my physical and mental health are good. Time spent around writing leads me to explore interesting ideas, but the actual output (this post) is relatively unsatisfying. Maintaining the habit of posting weekly feels important though, so as usual, some partially refined ideas:
I was reminded to take ownership of certain projects this week. It is advice I am primed to hear, but even having accepted it, the actions needed are not trivial. It requires overcoming ego, as Jocko describes in an early chapter of Extreme Ownership. The idea, also presented in the quote below, implies a certain arrogance, but I feel it can be accomplished with humility.
“There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.”
On the topic of ego; this heartwarming 51 second video from Clay Tall Stories also points out how ego can be dangerous. I hope that content like this can defeat the stigma of talking about mental health that exists in so many parts of the world.
Thoughts Better Expressed as Charts
A joy of studying and thinking mathematically is that functions (easily visualised as plots or charts) express relationships. By identifying functions that approximate (model) real world experiences, an optimal outcome can be predicted. I describe two examples that came up this week.
Discontinuity: Sudden Drop Offs
One of the most familiar relationships is the straight line, linearity. If we travel at a fixed speed (e.g. our walking speed) going twice as far takes twice as long, and three times as far takes us three times as long. If we are moving bricks, the more time we spend moving them the more bricks we shift. Sometimes though, there is a discontinuity, a sudden change in output.
Examples (Be wary of the discontinuities in life): 1. If we consider the example of moving bricks, the more bricks we carry per trip, the faster we move them, until the load becomes too heavy to move and we are stuck. 2. I can read so many articles per day, but after a certain point I no longer am able to remember what I am reading. 3. I can physically train so many hours, but after a certain point over-training leads to injury and I would have been better not doing any at all.
Linear Expectations Meet Logarithmic Reality
Because linearity is common and familiar, it can become an expectation, but in fact often each additional amount of effort or cost spent may offer less and less. Notably in the plot above, if linearity is the expectation, and the actual relationship is logarithmic, the difference (expectation – reality = disappointment) increases approximately linearly.
Example: The first book I read on a topic gives me a lot of information, but each additional book has more and more overlap with content I have already consumed. This means that even though the trend is to know an area of knowledge better, I learn less and less with each subsequent hour spent reading. If I expect to continue learning as rapidly as in those initial hours, days, or months as in the subsequent ones, I will be disappointed.
Predictions on Remote Working in 2001 from 1976
I am trying to better apply hypothesis testing to my own life, so it is amusing to see the predictions made 44 years ago around remote work and computing knowing how there has been a rapid acceleration in 2020 due to the pandemic.
It is joyful that, having run thousands of kilometres in Oxford, I continue to discover new routes that are fun, beautiful, challenging, and sometimes all three. This week was the first time I ran through Lye Valley Nature Reserve and Mesopotamia, Oxford.
Adrenaline is not the friend of efficient work. I had some exciting events occur this week, but as thrilling as they were, they cost a lot in disrupting and distracting from the routine.
Things take longer to read when you have less familiarity with them. I was surprised how long it took me to read a friends manuscript this week. I suspect that there is a parabolic curve on the [amount learned] vs. [time spent] graph. There is an optimal level of novelty where ideas are able to be grasped but not already understood, and the further away from that point the faster the intellectual returns diminish.
Living in a different timezone
A friend is working in a drastically different timezone to where they are living during the pandemic. An untested suggestion I made, inspired by the excessive Casey Neistat monitor set-up, is to loop a 24-hour video of a landscape set to be in the timezone of work (and hence sleep). I suspect that the subtle cues of being able to sense the time of day from a landscape help with shifting and living on a different timezone. More trivially, if you have to do this, shift your meals, exercise, caffeine, etc. onto the desired timezone, and black-out windows to prevent being woken by the local time-zone. This is something I’ve only ever had to do for short periods to pre-acclimatise before long distance flights.
I watched Howl’s Moving Castle on the weekend, finding myself repeatedly muttering under my breath “that’s beautiful” at the imagery. One piece of magic featured in the film is a door which, at the turn of a dial, opens onto four different locations. A discussion of the film that followed asked “if you could have a magic door connecting you to four places, where would you choose?”. A cynical answer would be to place doors in two cities with significant air traffic and charge for the teleportation service, e.g. near instant transport from London to Los Angeles. People have gamed real systems in this way. Perhaps the question is really asking “what are your four most important places”, e.g. a family home, your best friends house, your favourite holiday spot, and your place of work. Assuming the freedom to choose where to live, the playful question can have a very serious implication; where is the best place for someone to be?