Develop the instinct to be comfortable doing things that feel uncomfortable

Here’s a long riff by Seth Godin from the Q&A section of an episode on his Akimbo podcast, The long term.

It stuck with me when I heard it a few weeks ago. For one thing, I’m not a very compliant worker, so I guess I ought to find a way to be a pathfinder before getting reassigned to the Island of Misfit Toys. Another reason it stuck with me is because I recently finished taking a machine learning course at the U of Illinois this spring. About a third of the way through the course, there emerged this mania among the students for having a defined rubric for the homework problems. What a waste. The main thing that I took from the course was that there is plenty of room for art in machine learning—the answers aren’t completely defined. There is a mathematical underpinning to the work (for the most part) but there is room to try things, in some cases very simple things, to make the algorithms provide better results. But I’d hesitate to call the results answers.

I sympathize with the students for demanding some determinism on how their results would be graded because their grades will have a bearing on their probability of employment and how much they earn. I get the pressure to do what it takes to pump up those variables. But that comes at a loss of the real reward from that class, which would be to explore the problems and see how they work, explain the approach and results, and accept that there may be no answer. I enjoyed the freedom, as an old guy taking a single class with no GPA to protect, to play.

Anyway, here’s the riff:

Consider the typical day in the typical school.

Of those six or seven hours that the student is at school, how many minutes are spent on compliance? How many minutes are spent on doing what you’re told? Then let’s look at how much time is spent on finding the right answer. Minute by minute. Compliance. The right answer. Getting a good grade. Fitting in. Doing what you’re told.

Of the 400 minutes that someone is going to spend in school–300 minutes that someone is going to spend in school today, how much time are they spending on those two tasks? I think if we’re honest, in the typical school, we’d have to agree it’s between 90 and 95% of the time. The rest of the time, perhaps, the student is left alone to daydream, to think bigger thoughts, to come up with something new. But rarely.

Leadership, and relevant to the last podcast, genius, an act of genius, isn’t about that. It’s about solving interesting problems. We rarely give our kids a chance to solve an interesting problem. We’d prefer to give them a problem where we already know the answer. Because the purpose of giving them the problem isn’t to develop their creativity, their insight, their ability to lead. The purpose is to gain compliance, predictability, to produce compliant workers who will do what they’re told for years to come.

So the answer to your question, I think, is that we need to figure out how to give students the chance to solve problems that they are probably going to be unable to solve. Not because they’re too hard, but because there is no answer. There’s merely an attempt, and then another attempt. That we can train our kids for ourselves to get comfortable with the idea that we can be uncomfortable. To be okay with the thought that we can write something down that isn’t the right answer.

So, how do teach somebody to write something original? How do we teach them to work at figuring out an advanced math theorem that has never been solved and might never be solved? How do we help them pathfind? Because pathfinding is the task that is in highest demand right now. Pathfinding says, “We’re lost, not completely lost, just a little lost. We’re not exactly sure where we want to go. We’re not exactly sure how to get there. Does anyone want to help us find a way?” And if we can help kids–6 year olds, 10 year olds, 15 year olds–develop the instinct to be comfortable doing things that feel uncomfortable, then we develop the ability to act, at least for a little bit, like a genius.

Slouching into training shape

Ain’t as good as I once was, etc.

Rockin’ Rockwoods is on 29 September. 53 km. Summer training. Hot and humid. No more endurance strength in the legs. No more endurance neurons in the head. Not fat as in adipose tissue, but fat as in out-of-shape motivation. No trail calluses. No trail ankles. No hill quads or gluts. Mortal.

Boo hoo, etc.

It doesn’t bother me that much. I mean, I don’t prefer it, but if we’re going to start from junk, we’re going to start from junk. Last Friday I decided to pile on my first 10+ mile run and first run up the Missouri river bluff in a few weeks or months, along with my first 35°C run of the year. Why not. Embrace the suck. No bueno. Gaze into the abyss. Mostly the same today, but on the 8.5-mile course, but no shake-walk on the last three-quarter mile. Some progress.

That’s the trick with everything right? Compounding. Some progress. Some progress. Some progress.

Maintaining shape is nice. It’s better than the alternative. But it’s more fun to compete. I wish I had my California hill running shape here. That shape is gone, and those hills stayed back in Cali. That’s the really hard part: not comparing myself to my 2012-2013 self. But I don’t need 100 km shape or 100 mile shape in 2018. 53 km shape isn’t that hard. It’s there. I kept the pilot light running. Now add gas.

Why I write code at work

I quit coding at work for a while—couldn’t remember what the point of it was. I used to play around and make things in VBA or DXL or Python for both fun and utility. Mind you, I work in a job function that doesn’t require code. In fact, systems engineering, especially in a larger company, is a kind of untechnical position. It’s not an insult—it just that being an engineer isn’t required anymore. The engineers design and the systems engineers integrate.

No, it goes a little farther than that. Systems engineering isn’t just an untechnical position—one is unwelcome when one starts getting involved in technical work. And writing software tools on the side is doubly unwelcome because it’s not even a flight part. And it wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember the point of coding, it was that I had actually received negative marks on my 2017 performance evaluation for “doing non-value added work without managerial permission”. Never mind that it saved time and money.

A few weeks ago the same manager that screwed me on the performance evaluation asked me to come back to the old team and show him how the tool works. Imagine. Negative evaluation marks means a smaller raise and no chance at a promotion. Money out of my pocket. And then what does he want? To get the goods for cheap. Someone needs to study the opening scene of The Godfather.

Nope. No deal.

And then I hit a low spot on the road for a few weeks.

I’m in a better spot now. Better team, better management, etc. So why let it bother me? But it did. For a while. Then I opened my eyes and paid attention—why do [some work process] manually all the time? That’s stupid. Frustrating. There Has To Be A Better Way™. So I hunkered down and put together 1000+ lines of VBA to replace the frustration. (Not that more lines of code is better, just indicating there’s a lot going on.) I don’t have access to database servers, so I worked with loading/saving csv files. Used buttons to pull in info from other Excel worksheets. Allowed some weak form of configuration control by saving the csv files off to the side. &c.

VBA is a commodity, and my code looks like it was written by an enthusiastic 12 year old. But so what? It’s fun to create it. It produces better work, even when it isn’t appreciated. And the most important but least measurable reason: turning a manual process into code means no bullshit. There’s no papering over bits of the process that don’t work but can be handwaved through with a little human intervention. One must understand how the whole process works from tip to tail in order to code it. Understand that and then start improving it, pruning useless branches, fixing things that never worked anyway. Solve problems, build a library, solve more problems, build more libraries, etc.—it’s a ratchet.

Fix enough things and become a rarity in systems engineering: one who knows how things work. I’ve got my own problems, but that’s not one of them anymore.

“Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

—Kurt Vonnegut, “Chapter 22,” Player Piano, 1952.

When we get comfortable with procedures, we may stop trying to develop more skills. Why bother, if the procedures usually get the job done? The result may be an erosion of expertise in organizations that rely too heavily on procedures. That’s what the Accuweather executive was finding.

Research supports this idea of eroding expertise. A number of studies have shown that procedures help people handle typical tasks, but people do best in novel situations whey they understand the system they need to control. People taught to understand the system develop richer mental models than people taught to follow procedures.

—Gary Klein, “Procedural drift”, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, 2009.

Image, or results

There’s this exchange in “How to Love Criticism” in WorkLife with Adam Grant, where he’s talking with Ray Dalio—intellectually I love the idea, but in real life… I don’t know.

[10:38 AG] A challenge network can only help you if you’re ready to listen.
[10:42 RD] It’s particularly important for me to be showing anybody what I’m doing, including my failures, my successes. Yes. Why would you not do that?
[10:52 AG] Well, because you’re afraid of the answer.
[10:54 RD] What are you afraid of?
[10:55 AG] Of the emperor being discovered to have no clothes.
[11:00 RD] If your objective is to be as good as you can possibly be, then you’re going to want that.
[11:07 AG] I think a lot of people would rather maintain at least the illusion of a decent image than to actually improve.
[11:13 RD] But then they care more about their image than they care about results.
[11:18 AG] And you’re not willing to tolerate that.
[11:21 RD] You know, life’s much better with good results.

I think, when I’m pretending to be objective, that this is what I want at work. (By the way, if you don’t know who Ray Dalio is, or haven’t seen any of the marketing for his book Principles, there’s going to be a lot of missing context here.) Be a Straight Shooter. No Bull. &c. On the other hand, what has 37 years of being alive confirmed but that my lizard brain really wouldn’t be that interested in radical honesty anywhere.

But it’s that part at the end that still resonates: how could you expect to get the best results if you can’t see yourself as you are, not as your ego wishes you to see how you are in order to avoid the pain of coming up short?


[45:08] Guy Raz: If you could go back to Nolan Bushnell in the late 70s or early 80s and say, “hey, you know, I wanna give you some advice”, what would you tell yourself?

[45:19] Nolan Bushnell: Boy, that’s a real hard one because, you know I… Some of the bad decisions I’ve made, I’m not sure if I’d like my life to not have had them. And I’m not sure that if I were to give myself advice and change that trajectory, I would end up where I am right now. And I like where I am.

—”Atari & Chuck E. Cheese’s: Nolan Bushnell“, How I Built This, 2018-03-25.

That makes a good tonic for this. I don’t really have to be convinced that it’s a good thought. When in the right mood—or at least not in the wrong one—I think the same way. But on the other hand I’m also a serial optimizer. Just tweak one more variable and get it right. One more. One more. That’s what made the endurance running so attractive: so many variables and so much available to work on them.

And the past is also like that, right? And the model is so much more developed because you can see—at least from one perspective—how things turned out, so you can kind of work the result backwards and try to reverse engineer how it turned out that way. Apply that kind of model to Future You and maybe there’s something there worth thinking about. Unless the voices in your head have more discipline than the ones in mine, that’s not how it works. In mine, it’s just picking and picking and picking at suboptimal performances.

But what the hell? Remembered line from a long-forgotten poem: Buy the ticket, take the ride.