2020 Week 53: Reflections

Weeks in a Year

A quick note on week numbers: Typically when asked how many weeks are in a year, 52 is a good answer. Keeping time is a little more complicated, and this week we are still in the 53rd year of 2020. Interestingly, this can cause issues in systems like GPS if the unusual 53 week year is not accounted for.

Reflections

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.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 51: Ideas

A couple brief ideas:

Conservative vs Progressive

I have commented that an advantage conservative political parties have over progressives ones, is that there is only one way to maintain the status quo, but several ways to change. Therefore progressive parties are far more vulnerable to factions and infighting over disagreements of how to change, entrenching status quo bias into political systems. Perhaps Trump changes this dynamic by creating disinformation: if there are multiple versions of the status quo, there can be multiple ways to conserve it. Side note: I’ve been following the President’s Twitter feed, and Trump’s attempts at undermining the democratic process are frightening.

The Feeling of the Page

I tend to think that the medium of consuming text (printed page or screen) is trivial compared with the content, but increasingly the evidence is to the contrary. If something is more comfortable to read (e.g. font size) or the texture of the printed page is pleasant to the touch, the way the content is received is different. Valuing the subtle details of a medium and how it affects interpretation is something I can improve.

2020 Week 50: Decision Fatigue

This week I’ve found myself gravitating to videos of drill instructors at boot camp. Craving that spartan lifestyle is for me the sign of decision fatigue as I sprint to complete projects at the end of a challenging year.

I’m about to embark on some holiday reading for personal growth, including Ray Dalio’s Principles. A 30 minute summary is provided in the video below, and more extensive notes to come soon.

2020 Week 49: The Daily Test

Talented Colleagues

I am thankful to enjoy working with really talented people. Musically gifted physicists, roboticist poets, athlete immunologists, and project managing dancers. One significant benefit of spending time with inspiring people is being close enough to see them fail. At a distance, from where we see our heroes and legends, the bar can seem impossibly high. This saps motivation: why attempt the unachievable? Seeing the daily struggle of what it takes to be great, makes it possible. Great people do not only raise the bar, they also set it within reach.

Quote I’m Pondering

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.

Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John McCain

As the Trump coup slowly and painfully fades from the news cycle, Obama’s eulogy for John McCain is a reminder of what leadership can look like, from both sides of politics. This quote is a reminder that from positions of immense power, and crippling powerlessness, not to forget the significance of the immediate decision that is before us.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 48: Community

This week has been a reminder of how fortunate I am in the people that form my community. The people I live, work, and take time off with are wonderful. They inspire me to learn both deeply and broadly, write poetically and analytically, to run faster, and to laugh more easily. I don’t often take pause to be grateful, but this week I am thankful to have them in my life.

2020 Week 47: Ego

This weekend I’ve been thinking and reflecting on problems of ego. I have an intuitive but imprecise understanding of the concept, and doing some reading (and YouTube watching) to better understand ego has left me with muddled thoughts. Humility is not the opposite of ego, but arrogance and ego are intertwined. Insecurity, the need for external validation, and overconfidence all seem to be connected to problems with ego. The way to overcome ego seems to be detachment from the individual, focus on upholding principles, and adherence to logic and reason. Sharing some resources:

Freud: Id, Ego, Superego

Jocko: Dichotomy of Ego

2020 Week 44: This is America

Political news is loud this week, as we approach a presidential election in the United States of America, and locally England enters a month long lock down. On Tuesday the US will likely elect Joe Biden to replace Donald Trump as president of the United States. This will make President Biden the oldest person at the start of their presidency, a record currently held by Trump. As the leader of the free world ages, and the polarisation of America’s politics grows more divisive, the ever less inspiring presidential debate becomes ever less relevant. It is in reading about the last four years under President Trump that I realise, uncomfortably, that my future no longer leads to a life in the United States. In this post I explore this idea.

The American Dream

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.

R&D Spending as a proportion of discretionary spending has fallen since the height of the space race.

I have a sense that science no longer occupies the pedestal it once held in the US. Disinformation in the name of free speech, and scepticism without rational thinking, are symptomatic of a failing education system. Whilst migrants are common amongst the top scientific researchers in the US, the Trump administration has made it harder to employ skilled migrants.

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.

Barack Obama speaking at the Cambridge Public Library. 20 September 1995

Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential race was John McCain, who sought to quell fears rather than stoke them during his time on the campaign trail.

I have to tell you, he [Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Senator John McCain at a rally 10th October 2008

Trump has vindictively and cynically stoked the same racial tensions, and appealed to the worst aspects of the Republican base.

More thoughts to come later.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 42: Success part 2

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.”

Angela Merkel

Diagram from Merkel’s Doctoral Thesis on the Quantum Chemistry of Decay Reactions depicting energies of intramolecular conversion for unimolecular reactions.

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.

Catherine Hamlin

File:Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia 2009. Photo- Lucy Horodny, AusAID (10693376835).jpg
Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia 2009. Photo- Lucy Horodny, AusAID

Hamlin’s hometown newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald provides an insight into her incredible life of service. Her death was covered by The Lancet, but reading her obituary in The Economist is the last time I remember crying.

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski

SGP is a pilot and physicist with an incredible list of achievements, including that her first book is on the moon.

Cathy Freeman

Australia is a sport loving nation with a dark history of abusing its indigenous people. Cathy Freeman not only won an Olympic gold medal, but helped change the way Australians saw the traditional custodians of the land.

Some other things to share

Ryan Caldbeck with some radical transparency on his transition stepping down as CEO of CircleUp. It covers mental health, physical health, board politics, and generally the stress of founding and running a startup.

Yesterday I attended GDG UK and Ireland DevParty, and listened to some great talks on cloud engineering and web development.

Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund created an award winning deepfake based on the alternative speech prepared by Nixon in the event of moon disaster.

Startmate celebrated its 10th birthday and first Demo Day featuring a New Zealand cohort.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 41: Success

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 these three tips on reflecting on your values.

Start with the basics

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

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:

Being an Interesting Person

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.

Prizes

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.

Masculinity

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.

Things I don’t want

Running a bank on Wall Street is not my conception of success, but I do aspire to build something useful and strong enough to outlive me. I would be proud to have The Economist consider my succession worthy of a significant briefing (The house that Jamie built – Is Dimon’s work done at JPMorgan Chase?).

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.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 39: Changes to Make

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.

Some things to share:

TEA Framework

I stumbled upon a blog post from Asian Efficiency that segments productivity into 3 elements; Time, Energy, and Attention. I had not really considered the components of productive time before, and this is a compelling segmentation.

Strava Metro

Strava Metro uses data from human powered commuters to help urban planners and advocacy groups design for healthier, more sustainable cities.

Photos from the Week