In an exciting week, I’m reminded that science is less about knowing things with certainty, and much more about knowing how to deal with uncertainty. A growing debate amongst scientists regarding the best policies to fight the second wave of the pandemic draws attention to this.
Last week I was reflecting (incoherently) on success, and I continue this week with some more examples of what I think success could look like as I try and understand what it should mean for me.
Zanny Minton Beddoes
Editor in chief of The Economist since February 2015, Beddoes is an established economist and one of the most influential voices in financial journalism. In the video above Beddoes describes that at The Economist she leads “some of the smartest people in the world who could almost all be either more famous or a lot richer if they work somewhere else, but yet they choose to work at The Economist.”. Success for me includes a workplace with such a “collegiate spirt” and getting “to think about the most important issues at the moment.”
As Chancellor of Germany for the last 15 years, leading Europe’s largest economy has occasionally made Merkel the de facto leader of the European Union. Along with her political success, Merkel is also a published scientist, receiving a doctorate for work on quantum chemistry.
I realised I don’t have a clear vision of what success means for me. Reflecting on Leading by Alex Ferguson last week, his career as a football manager was a success, but it is not a type of success I am pursuing. I am fortunate to regularly meet people who impress me; by what they have achieved, by their conviction in their beliefs, by the clarity of their vision, or simply by the goodness of their actions. This was one such week, and it gave me pause to reflect on what my definition of success is.
Writing this post sent me spiralling into several topics, from classical philosophy to hip hop, from pure mathematics to politics, and from the very personal to the pragmatically populist. Below are some of the more coherent strands to share as a starting point.
Exercises to try
I think a conception of personal success is intimately connected with values. Angela Duckworth is successful, and shares thesethreetips on reflecting on your values.
Start with the basics
Whilst acknowledged by Maslow himself to have little scientific basis, this simple model (pictured above) for the needs of any person are a valuable reminder of the privileges I enjoy. For most of the existence of homo-sapiens, “success” was simply meeting basic physiological needs. I enjoy that my basic and psychological needs are almost always met, and can define my version of success at that final stage of achieving potential and creating.
Hard work (Obsession)
“I do not give up” – this is the thought I come back to when I feel the desire to quit, usually while exercising hard. Living this identity is part of how I imagine success.
There are two related elements here. I think Alex Ferguson had the obsession for football that matches Paul Graham’s Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. Obsession can look very similar to hard work, but there is a separate satisfaction that I have found easiest to learn in physical exercise. To me, success looks like being the hardest worker in the room:
Gut check. Always be the hardest worker in the room. A philosophy I still embrace, & one shared by the athletes in my new @UnderArmour campaign. We’re all from different backgrounds & struggles. It’s either the excuse or the reason…So how are you gonna get here? #WillFindsAWaypic.twitter.com/PW09VzYn7W
A close friend shared an insight several years ago, “Nick, you don’t want to be generally liked, you want the respect of people you respect”. It is valuable when people you trust can share an external perspective. Some common markers of success are easily quantified: dollars in the bank, gold medals, or even social media followers. How interesting one is, or how well respected, is difficult to quantify. Perhaps this is why those other, shallower, metrics are more often compared and pursued. This weekend while running I happened to meet someone I respect, who expressed happiness to see me. For now, being able to bring joy to my friends is a way I feel successful.
This week the Nobel Prizes were awarded, and I suspect winning one is a dream most scientists have dreamt. The criteria for the Rhodes Scholarship have inspired some of my pursuits, particularly attempting to become a “renaissance man“. I will never achieve either accolade, but they are not ends in and of themselves, rather ways of recognising a certain conception of success that I can still work towards.
Barack Obama and Steph Curry answer a question of how to change the narrative around what it means to be a man. Achieving self confidence is part of my vision for success, as is using strength to lift others up and not put them down. Expression of sexuality through healthy sexual relationships is also an important part of what a successful life means to me, and Barack and Michelle Obama demonstrate that, albeit heteronormatively.
I value both the utility and aesthetic of mathematics, and solving one of the Millennium Problems would absolutely meet my definition of success, but I would not be willing to pay the cost of living a reclusive life like Grigori Perelman.
Similarly Bobby Fischer achieved incredible success in chess, but suffered from a range of personal problems and health issues that ultimately leave his life as a whole undesirable to me.
Steve Jobs’ vision defined the way the world interacts with technology today, but his death (caused by a treatable pancreatic cancer) was hastened by pursuing alternative medicine.
Rapper Eminem and runner David Goggins have both overcome difficult childhoods to succeed, and to achieve success without privilege is admirable. I do not desire celebrity, nor to court controversy and exist in a social media spotlight.
Turning the corner into October and the final quarter of 2020 this week, with generally a positive outlook both personally and professionally. ONI launched a new website and hiring is beginning to accelerate out of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
I shared some notes about Leading by Alex Ferguson. I’ve largely been an outsider to football culture, and so this book has been my most significant exposure to The Beautiful Game. Reading about legends Ronaldo and Rooney from their manager’s perspective reminded me of the following ad (directed by Guy Ritchie).
12 days have passed since I started the Last Hundred Days habit project. I’m measuring an 88% success rate at present. The failures are causing embarrassment, but the overall direction is positive, with my behaviour generally improving.
This week I started a project to change my habits over the last one hundred days of 2020. Most of these habits are tangible activities, but in my personal development I also need to shift some mental frameworks. My thinking tends to be overly binary, or too focused on questions that are difficult to answer but ultimately unimportant. Thoughts to expand on another time.
Today (Wednesday 23rd September 2020) is the first of the last 100 days of the year. That is, to achieve a 100 day streak in 2020 one needs to start today. I find this arbitrary allotment of time a motivating opportunity to build new and better habits; it is a race to create change before the year is out. I also think sharing the process publicly will help me keep more accountable. Here are the habits I aim to build (and break) by the end of 2020.
Exercise to start the day
Sweat for at least 10 minutes
Work on mobility and flexibility too
Avoid consuming junk content
Avoid consuming junk food
Achieve “Inbox Zero”
End the day by reading a (physical) book
Avoid eating in the middle of the night
Health and Fitness
It seems universal that people want to improve their health, but almost equally common that people’s habits don’t perfectly align with that desire. I am trying to correct that cognitive dissonance in myself.
Exercise Start the day with exercise; I know days where the first thing I do is exercise go better than days when I don’t, but it’s not an ingrained habit yet to train first thing in the morning. Exercise every day as consistency beats intensity. Gentle recovery work outs are better than nothing at all. Additionally the physical and mental improvements from regular exercise are felt almost immediately. I want to focus on consistent flexibility and mobility work, i.e. stretching (static and dynamic) and foam rolling every day. When I do this regularly my strength and fitness improves. When I stop I get injured.
Mindfulness For me, meditation primarily builds awareness. From this awareness, I can make better decisions and know what the state of my mental health actually is. Practicing mindfulness and meditation also leads to calmer, more focused days.
Diet I generally eat well, but my worst food habit is waking in the small hours of the morning and eating a bowl of porridge oats or a tub of leftovers. Whilst occasionally a 150 g serve of oats at 2 am can be helpful (e.g. the morning of a long run) it is currently unnecessary extra fuel. Usually the midnight snack is not followed by appropriate dental hygiene either, so increasing my risk of dental issues. Some foods are simply not good nutrition (e.g. potato chips, doughnuts). I aim to shift these from being “sometimes” foods to being “never” foods.
My thoughts reflect the content I consume, and so improving that content should improve my thinking. For improving sleep, taking the time to read a physical book as the last event of the day avoids the physical effects of backlit monitors, and provides more focused content free of attention grabbing digital distractions. Those distractions I could do without more generally: Reddit provides the anonymous opinions that I don’t actually need to read. Chess is mostly an escape from stressful thoughts where I should action the issue at heart. Shopping websites pit my simple mind against elegantly a/b tested marketing research, and I could be less consumerist. Pornography is stimulating, but can be desensitising.
Productivity and Personal Development
Get more organised to get more (hopefully good) done. “Zero Inbox” is the one habit I’ve already failed on the first day, but it is an ideal I am working towards. Action or deliberately postpone everything in my inbox at the end of the day.
Personal reflection is a habit I have mostly developed, but could improve the consistency of. I can guide my own personal growth by taking some time at the end of each day to reflect on the events of the day, what I did well, what I could have done better, what I learned, and what I need to focus on in the days to come.
These habits are not on my list for the last 100 days, but if you are inspired to try achieving a similar 100 day streak, these are the first few I would recommend:
– Don’t smoke cigarettes: probably the best thing a typical person can do for their health – More generally, avoid abusing substances, including alcohol – Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding prescribed medication (seems obvious but actually is a significant issue in health care) – Stop eating meat: a significant improvement to impact on land use and climate, with some possible health benefits – Decrease expenditure below income: simple financial management
Creating copy, companies, or cultures, produces imperfect products. I am grateful to have autonomy in the creative environment of a startup, but so much of what I produce is so very flawed. I seek to balance a necessary awareness of my failures with motivation to carry on in spite of them.
Quote I’m Pondering:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
The quote celebrates action, commitment to an attempt. It places failure above inaction, where cynically one could argue that to have tried and failed has the same outcome as not having tried at all. It is encouraging, it inspires action and the continuation of action in spite of criticism.
While I have heard “the man in the arena” quoted in several places, I found the preceding passage of the Bull Moose’s speech interesting:
Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.
Over the last few years I have been striving to better respect and understand my emotions, and to hold myself true to worthy beliefs. This quote resonated with me as a criticism of my earlier self, with much less respect for emotion and a much more nihilistic view of belief. It is tempting in today’s political media landscape to take on that cynical view. Perhaps, philosophically, all systems of value are equally justifiable. Perhaps emotions can leave one vulnerable to irrationality and pain. One could maybe live a more comfortable life by facing it with a sneer of indifference. I would rather be marred by dust, sweat and blood, and to have dared in service of a worthy cause.
Don’t Shave the Truth
If you want to be known as honest, then not telling lies is not sufficient… don’t even shave the truth.
In a speech on accountability, it is a useful reminder that to be honest takes more than just saying true things, it is considering how a message is received, it is working to ensure that truths are not told so as to imply a lie.
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.
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?