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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.