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.
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.
Working with people in a scientific context, I’ve noticed a disparity between the precision offered by language and the concepts it communicates. Physical parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and white blood cell count can all be measure and conveyed, which will give an indication of someone’s physical health. Scientific concepts such as the Brillouin zone may not be commonly discussed, but when communicated there is a precise understanding being shared. Concepts such as love, stress, and pain, are much more frequently discussed, but it difficult to ensure what is being expressed by the speaker is also being understood by the listeners. In some conversations, it is easy to remove ambiguity through numbers: “it was a heavy bag” becomes “it was a 30 kg bag” or “the car was driving fast” becomes “the car was driving 100 km/h”. In contrast, I am yet to learn how to make “the cut hurt” or “they love her” more precise.
Starting something new is hard. Elon Musk describes founding a startup as “like eating glass and staring into the abyss“. In trying to better understand stress I found this NASA technical report describing the effect of stress on human cognition. It begins with the difficulty of defining what “stress” actually is, and the document as a whole serves as an example of the difficulty of bringing scientific precision to a commonly understood concept.
Energy and power are more accurately described than emotional states. This paper titled Human power (HP) as a viable electricity portfolio option below 20 W/Capita includes a numerical description of the amount of power (i.e energy per unit time) that a human can exert. Novice runners often start out too fast, and thus feel they “cannot run for more than 10 minutes”. The chart below explains this: the power output that is comfortable for around 1 minute (e.g. rushing for a bus) is unsustainable for a longer effort.