For a novel that is 88 years old, the future imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World feels remarkably relevant. Soma feels prescient in a world with ever increasing prescriptions of anti-depressants and an opioid epidemic. It poses a question that I have yet to resolve: how to choose if it is better to live a happy and comfortable life, or to suffer in the name of a good cause?
V for Vendetta
On the 5th of November, the start of the UK’s second lockdown, I watched the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic series V for Vendetta. Some plot elements felt eerily familiar in the context of a US Presidential election during a global pandemic. As a “Bush-era parable” (see quote below), I found the undertones of the 9/11 Truth movement unpalatable, whilst the reminder of the threat of fascism felt necessary given a US president with a fondness for white supremacists. Valerie’s letter made me cry (for the third time).
[The movie] has been “turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country. … It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives – which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.Alan Moore on the film adaptation of his comic book V for Vendetta
For most of my life, the United States looked to be the leading country in the world. It was an American flag that flew on the moon, Hollywood told stories from the American perspective, American soldiers protected the weak from tyranny, and American universities were home to the world’s leading researchers. I was a high school student when the election of Barack Obama on a platform of hope looked to be a rejection of a racist past. The promise to fix a broken health care system and an acknowledgement of the burden of climate change made me feel optimistic in a world of cynicism following the Iraq War and the financial crisis. I first visited the US in 2012, and was enthralled at the sense of opportunity as I lived on the energising chaos of Silicon Valley Hackerspaces. I think fondly of my time in New York and Boston in 2014, every new relationship a wonderful opportunity to learn. The mix of cultures, of passions, and the uniting desire to do something made me feel that this ought be home.
Hard Work and Sacrifice
Americans work hard. Compared with Europeans and Australasians they take fewer holidays, they work more hours. They set ambitious goals. The technological prowess of the United States is most famously demonstrated by the space program. NASA continues to be science’s most recognisable and captivating brand.
Some of the hardest work to be done in the US is mending a racially and politically fractured society. Consider the following:
Racial harmony is not going to come by us holding hands and singing Kumbaya. That understanding has to be earned, it has to be worked for, and there are sacrifices involved and I think that breaking isolation requires work and sacrifice.
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.
Alex Ferguson combined an incredible work ethic with an obsession for football to become the most decorated football manager of all time, having won more trophies managing Manchester United from 1986 to 2013 than any other manager in the history of football. ONI is not a particularly football focused work place: I rarely hear the game discussed around the coffee machine, but Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz is recommended reading here. The lessons shared on leadership can be generalised; perhaps best explained in the extended epilogue by Michael Moritz, who states Ferguson would have been a successful founder “if for some reason Silicon Valley had developed between Glasgow and Edinburgh”.
Leadership in brief
In 3 words: Preparation. Perseverance. Patience. In 1 word: Consistency.
Throughout the book, anecdotes about travelling to distant fixtures, taking little holiday, waking up in the night to watch games, and being the first and last at the office, emphasise the amount of effort expended by Ferguson to achieve. He describes the need to work very hard as “baked into [his] marrow” (p. 38), and gives the examples of playing football on his wedding day and the day his first son was born. Pointing out that “an hour … squandered is time you will never recapture” (p. 164) Ferguson explains that he “cannot imagine how, if you aspire to be better than everyone else, you can have balance in your life” (p. 167).
In the first chapter titled “Becoming Yourself”, Ferguson begins his guide to leadership by emphasising the importance of observation. Listen to others, detach and watch, and read. He guides this by suggesting the test of being surprised: “When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised” (p. 17).
Ferguson’s partner Cathy, married since the age of 24, has supported his obsession throughout his career. Ultimately it was the death of Cathy’s sister that drove Alex to retire. He writes: “It is hard to conjure up a more tangible reminder of mortality, and I felt that, after all those years during which Cathy had put me first, it was time that I took care of her needs” (p. 335). The singular focus on work that Ferguson demonstrates often comes at the expense of an enduring relationship, but in this case that relationship seems to not only have survived, but thrived.
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
How does one procrastinate on holiday? I took this week off work, with the weekends either side giving a total of 9 days for rest and recuperation. Somehow I don’t feel particularly rested or recuperated as I write this. I was aware at the start that I would need to deliberately focus on taking time off, else the fascination with my work would keep me flitting into and out of tasks yet undone. That awareness was not followed with action: I managed to simultaneously not disengage enough to benefit, but also not to be productive enough to return tomorrow with an empty in box and a clear to-do list. Some habits are hard to break.
Two Thoughts on Time
There are 102 days left in 2020. This coming Wednesday 23rd September marks the first of the final 100 days of the year, and in a year featuring a US presidential election, the significance of 100 days is prominent. Locally, it feels alarmingly short, yet long enough to attempt some ambitious goals. I hope to follow this post up with some promises by Tuesday evening.
I feel my intuition for currency is clearer and more comparative than my intuition for time. Asking if an activity or pursuit is “worth it”, or for someone to “prove their worth”, or even if something is “worth their time”, all conflates time with some type of quantifiable value. Perhaps an alternative way to consider individuals and their time is the extent to which they support or are supported in hours. Fiat currency can be created, and the amount of currency is substantially less than the value of things in the world. People, and thus people-hours, are not so easy to create. Every day, every person has the same 24 hour span to use. Some give more hours to society, by supporting others, while others who are supported consume. This is an idea I would like to explore further.
This week I finished Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. Among detailed lessons in achieving football dominance, what stands out is Ferguson’s discipline and obsession. The discipline to outwork his staff and his competition, fuelled by an obsessive passion for football. Paul Graham describes the necessity of obsession in his Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, and I am growing to believe it is a necessity of becoming truly world-class in any pursuit. Of course, there are many people who follow football fanatically, so if this is a truly necessary requirement for success, it is not the only one.