It has been an unusual year, one filled with new challenges and opportunities to learn and grow. I enjoyed a friend’s suggestion to use Year Compass to direct some personal reflection. A few things to share:
Building things other people use is very satisfying. 2020 was the most productive year I have had in terms of programming, oddly brought about by moving into a People Team role. Compared with cutting edge research, the smaller challenges of automating office applications provided an opportunity for me to see a project from start to finish, and learn a lot along the way.
Overcoming hesitation is a way to get more done. Trying to keep pace with ONI’s founder has been a wonderfully challenging growth opportunity. One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away is that hesitation is a barrier to getting more done. I’ve tried to push harder to overcome my activation energy and been rewarded with more productive days.
People will talk if you ask nicely Thank you to the people who spoke with me this year. Working in Talent Acquisition led me to (virtually) meet many people over the last few months, and it has been a pleasure to gain insights from people across the world with a diverse range of experiences.
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.
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.
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.
I’m taking some holiday at the end of this week, and the change in routine is a moment for reflection. I have been thinking about the past years, the progress I’ve made and the things I still need to work on. A goal of this blog is to create posts that are interesting and useful to others, but also to maintain a routine of writing regularly. Moving forward I’ll (try again to) keep these weekly posts brief, and put more time into longer, higher quality posts.
Things that keep me happy
I am happy with my life, and part of that is having developed habits that cultivate happiness.
Physical Exercise Regular physical exercise. Days that start with sustained high-heart-rate exertion go better than days that do not.
Meditation and Mindfulness I’m learning to be more present, more focused, and more aware of my own thoughts. Practising meditation develops these skills.
Personal Reflection Knowing what actually happened in the past through written reflection helps me get a better perspective on my own life. I can keep myself accountable, and see a bigger picture to better plan and act.
Taking time to appreciate When things go well, or are pleasant, taking a little extra time to appreciate having those things in my life makes my usual focus on problems less of an emotional burden.
Good Relationships I am most appreciative to be able to call so many good people my friends.
This week has been challenging, but that is a good thing. I am still overwhelmed, and still happily so. While I struggle and fail at some of my tasks at ONI, in others I am bringing the company closer to achieving its mission. I am reconnecting with friends and family, and helping them where I can, while they help me see my flaws and weaknesses. In physical fitness, I miss the mark in many sessions, but the overall trend is improvement. My discipline is too weak too often, but it is getting stronger.
Does success come at the cost of happiness?
Some incomplete thoughts I would still like to share, with two motivations. 1. By sharing the fears I am uncomfortable with, I become more comfortable and less afraid. Those insecurities become less powerful. 2. I hope that others who suffer the same fears might find my example useful.
A couple years ago I caught up with a friend here in Oxford, who I had worked with in Australia. He asked me about a theory I shared when we worked together in 2014: To succeed you need to be unhappy. I had suggested that contentedness leads to complacency, if you are happy there would be little motivation to work hard. I believed that to truly excel one had to be pushed by some sufficiently powerful force to suffer and sacrifice in pursuit of excellence. The pressure driving me in 2014 was an unpleasant insecurity, and I extrapolated that others’ driving forces would be emotionally negative. Working for several days with little to no sleep hurts. Studying personal failures in detail is unpleasant, but necessary to overcome them. Satisfaction would mean that what was achieved was sufficient, and therefore prevent further progress. To be great, one needed to feel deeply unhappy. At that time I felt that “being clever” something I thought I understood then but now struggle to define, was all important, and I was driven by insecurities around my own intelligence to demonstrate just how clever I was. Taking too many university courses at once, obsessing over intellectually competitive extra-curriculars, and plotting my path towards the meccas of academia.
Nearly 6 years have passed since I espoused those ideas. Only in the past year have I really felt those insecurities melt away. It hurts much less to think about the various failures of the past, in part because the passing of time makes them seem less significant, but much more because the things I value have shifted. I care less about some abstract conception of intelligence, and much more about my actions and processes. Rather than attempting to placate my ego by proving to myself and others that I am clever, I am more detached from how my abilities are seen and more focused on working towards a “good”.
As I stand here, a little excited that this will be my 101st post, I feel happy and content, but also anxious and driven. Life is more pleasurable when time is taken to appreciate the moments of happiness and peace, however or whenever they occur. More than this simple hedonism, these positive emotions help relieve the burden of the pain that comes from growing and struggling to make our world better. I am often distracted, and I view distraction as hesitation or aversion from facing pain. Writing is hard when there is a gap between the initial and desired output; I must face the weakness of my ideas and words. Too much pain is paralysing, but to avoid pain totally gives in to the easy path of complacency.
In short, I still feel that to excel, to grow, to build, requires suffering. That suffering need not be constant, and the desire to suffer can be driven by happiness, and by love, and these positive drivers make the burden of growth all the easier to bear.
Hesitate less – the lesson I’m trying to implement now
“I have not slept. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream. The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council, and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.” (Julius Caesar 2.1.63-71)
I am noting when I hesitate, and attempting to hesitate less. Some decisions are better made after investing time to carefully consider the choice, particularly decisions where the costs are high, but many tasks are made more daunting by postponing them. Fear and doubt build, and the cost to act increases. To get more done, I ought to act with more urgency.
Some things to share:
Books and Blogs How to choose what to read, or listen to, or discuss? What ideas ought I visit (and subsequently consider, and sometimes write about). It is impossible to read everything. Roughly as many books fit in a shipping container as there are days in 100 years, and content comes in many forms beyond text. In this time of ubiquitous technology and physically distanced communication, each interaction begins with a choice of what content to consume, who to connect with. In a moment I could reach out to someone new, or call a close friend, or read the words of an author long dead and buried. Dwelling too much on that choice might lead to choosing nothing at all (see hesitation above), but making the right choice seems so important.
Too often I choose randomly. Occasionally I come across an abandoned blog, such as “Where’s my backpack?” and I want to study it, fearing the hosting will expire and the content will be lost (though archives of the web exist). On one rare instance I came across a blog and found myself. Part of why I write this blog is to refine and condense my thoughts, but as I approach my 100th post it becomes difficult to recall which topics I have already visited and what I have said about them. Simply to read my own words (of varying quality) now takes significant time. If in this moment your choice was reading my words, thank you, and please share your thoughts with me (my email).
Currently most of my conversations are about work, exercise, and food. Work is interesting but continues to be mostly confidential. Exercise is going well, and I’m micro-blogging my training in the description of each session on strava. Food continues to be tasty, the importance of which is highlighted in the amusingly titled paper:
Here is an unrefined thought that is not about work, exercise, or food:
A thought experiment about the absence of money
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking on debt to keep their economies functioning. I’ve been considering the thought experiment that, perhaps, society could function without money at all. As increasingly individual income and expenditure are merely editing a number in a database, those numbers could remain static and people could simply act as they would in a system governed by money. Obviously the existence of money serves many purposes; a store of value, a medium of exchange, an incentive to not over consume, a signalling mechanism in a variety of contexts, a decision making mechanism via auctions. But the actual changing of numbers in databases (or exchange of paper bills) is not necessary for the actual construction of buildings or transport of commodities. At the outset, if all consumer goods were priced at 0, initially people might over-consume or hoard, but ultimately what would be the purpose? They could not on-sell the goods, not would consuming beyond their need be a positive outcome for themselves. If we assume generally rational and socially minded actions from individuals, would this system be possible? Further, in considering where the system is hardest to implement (how would we ensure just allocation of unique property e.g. housing?) it highlights the different roles money itself plays in organising a society.