Read it with a Scotch.
Trailhead: Ian Leslie. "Before You Answer, Consider the Opposite Possibility". The Atlantic (2021-04-25).
I've heard of the concept that if you take the summary of a group's individual estimate about some objective measurement, e.g., the number of beans in a jar, that the average of the group is better than any of the individual estimates, even the estimates of an expert bean estimator. That phenomenon seems simple, or at least it makes intuitive sense. Getting a pile of different estimates means that you're also getting a pile of different assumptions and biases. "Pile of biases" sounds problematic, but if you take a single individual's estimate, you're still getting an assumption or a bias. However, you're only getting that one person's biases—more biases will be more diverse and will likely distribute themselves about a better value.
Can you do that in your own head? Maybe.
"Eliminating bias" or "total objectivity" sound like fine ideas, but it's nonsense to believe it's possible or true or even desirable. What you want are those biases being aligned in a way that give you multiple vantage points on what you're trying to understand. Maybe "alignment" is better when randomly distributed, but that sounds like some Monte Carlo business in a model, not a way to think in your head. What you can do in your head is consider what happens if the opposite of what you think is true, or how someone with an opposite view would think. This gives you some of the benefits of tapping into the distribution of biases that you would get from a group of people.
Keep yourself on your toes and don't grasp on to an approach too soon—especially don't take your own approach too soon. Eventually you'll have to decide what to do, and you still might do what you would have done in the first place, but considering alternative approaches will help you cover blind spots.
This is perhaps my favorite strategy paper now:
Pascale, Richard T. "Perspectives on strategy: The real story behind Honda's success." California Management Review26.3 (1984): 47-72.
In short: there was no coherent strategy behind Honda dominating the motorcycle market in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. They made a lot of mistakes and then reacted and reacted and reacted until they won. And they weren't even trying to win.
[p. 64] What saved Japan's near-failures was the cumulative impact of "little brains" in the form of salesmen and dealers and production workers, all contributing incrementally to the quality and market position these companies enjoy today. Middle and upper management saw their primary task as guiding and orchestrating this input from below rather than steering the organization from above along a predetermined strategic course.
Trailhead: Rob Walker. "Time for Nothing". The Art of Noticing (2021-06-04).
Grousing about a lack of attention yesterday seemed to have helped today. After a few days (weeks?) of mangled attention, today was more solid. Of course, deciding not to re-download a certain game to my phone helped—and it was like getting more hours in a day. I don't know how that works. It's not the same as using existing hours in a different way, it really feels like receiving a gift of more hours. Stopping for a moment and feeling that feeling is helpful—it counteracts the weird itchy urge to get the game again and burn time until I feel guilty and awful, then delete it, then get the urge and download it, and on and on. It's a stupid cycle, and I know it's a stupid cycle, but I cycle through it anyway. Not anymore.
One more thing about attention: attention to nothing. Not inattention, I think, because that implies some negligence, but being attentive to nothing. Not feeling the itchy urge to do anything—or, rather, more realistically, feeling the urge and letting it glide by, or holding it in your hand for a while and then transferring it to a pocket. Whatever the case: not indulging the urge to do something, anything.
Lean into its waiting, uncomfortable arms and do nothing.
That's where the good ideas come from. There's a spring in there somewhere—wherever there is, I don't know—but you can't draw from it directly. You have to come at it obliquely. And you have to come at it directly, still, somehow, treating it with respect, treating it as if it is important, not sharing your attention with any other thing. It's paradoxical. The creative flow resists attention and resists inattention. You have to give up control of it to let it exist. Yet you have to be willing to spend time with it to transform the raw ideas into something more refined.
It all reads like some nonsense, but it's something easier to feel than to explain.
Doing nothing—maybe not exactly nothing, but not being committed to any one thing or open to disturbances from outside—frees up a lot of resources in your head. And then there's that long moment of discomfort as the parts of your brain that are used to being activated with trash inputs go without. Was that brain effort worth it? Nah. Often enough we feed our brain the intellectual equivalent of sawdust—fills it up, but doesn't give it any nutrients. Give those parts of your brain a break, and then wait and see where they go—maybe somewhere, maybe nowhere, it doesn't matter. The worst result is relaxation; the best result is a creative act; the many results in between are fine as well, much better than the alternative.
Book I've been meaning to read: Jenny Odell. How to Do Nothing (2019).
Trailhead: Mark Manson. "The Attention Diet". markmanson.net (2019-06-27).
In short—because I wasted so much time and attention today, unironically—being able to reserve time and attention is an incredible skill to have. Some days it's the only skill worth having—today, for example. I feel like I'm standing outside a train station watching the day recede into the distance, wondering how and why it could be going away so quickly. It's frustrating. It feels bad every time and I vow not to waste the next day. Then the next day gets wasted. And it feels frustrating and bad again. And on and on and on in a vicious cycle.
I'm not very concerned with productivity. Productivity has its place, but my entire day is not spent in a factory producing something. I'm not being measured constantly—not by myself, not by others. I don't want to reserve my attention for more production. I just don't want to invest my attention in trash.
I suppose it's no coincidence that I was thinking about it earlier this week when Oliver Burkeman's newsletter came out (see: Undistracted). There are so many easy ways to burn time and feel lousy about it. It's easy to fragment attention—spend a little here, and a little there, a thousand little bits sprinkled around so that it all gets spent and doesn't accumulate enough in any one place to account for anything meaningful. There is no shortcut to fixing that. I wish there was a shortcut to fixing that.
Instead of indexing things like I thought I might do this week, maybe I need to index time instead. I don't think that's a long term thing to do—it feels oppressive to account for everything, constantly—but maybe as that day recedes into the distance again, I could understand how and why, and maybe feel satisfied in the time, or at least know what I would change.
"Mindfulness" sounds like a square on a buzzword bingo card, but I'm willing to believe it has some utility in the real world. To be able to hold a moment in your mind and consider it before it goes away—as it goes away—is to consider the value of that moment. To consider the value of that moment might be enough, honestly. The moment doesn't need to be filled with anything to be valuable. It certainly doesn't need to be filled with trash.
Today in class (OB 523, Power and Politics in Organizations) we covered a case about Keith Farrazzi, a guy who shows up in several classes as an example of an Extreme Networker. I'm not advocating that extreme—which will have to go unexplained for the moment, it's late—but there are a few useful lessons to pack up and take away.
The main one is something I think I do when I play a game of networking: make sure the other players get something out of it. The second thing I don't do: make sure I get something out of it.
Networking feels like an icky game—something slimy that slimy people like to do. But I suppose that's just another extreme case. Really, it could be a creative act—something that creates possibilities wherethere was nothing before. The best networking I've ever done has done that. People get to find resources or ideas or people, and it's just a fun game to make it happen. I probably had access to a wealth of resources for myself, had I thought about collecting those chips and cashing them in.
Now I'm thinking about those chips.
What made the game of networking and connecting fun was that there was no pressure to take from it. It was really a leisurely game, just doing it for fun and the hope of being helpful. Now I'm thinking about consciously benefiting from it myself. It doesn't need to feel like extraction. It doesn't need to be extraction. You can't provide if you don't eat. It's not sustainable.
Trailhead: Oliver Burkeman. "The truth about distraction". The Imperfectionist (2021-05-xx).
I’m constantly amazed at how low the threshold is, for me – how just a tiny feeling of being challenged or tired or bored, while doing something I really want to do, is enough for me to leap eagerly away to fritter an hour on social media instead.
I appreciate the reframing. Facebook, et al, aren't trying to trick you into coming to their site to burn your time—you're going to them because you'd rather be there than whatever else it is you were doing. And then when you're there they've invested billions of dollars into making the visit last forever.
There are no tricks to staying away—no self help books, no pills, no shortcuts. If a trip to Facebook is less bad than whatever else you were doing, you're going to think about it, consciously or unconsciously. When it's there in your mind it's going to itch until you go and scratch it, which may not take long at all.
I don't have any populist angst against social media. I don't use it too often anymore. What I write, I write here. I don't keep the apps on my phone. That alone seems to keep out from being an uncontrollable habit for me.
Granted I still waste an enormous amount of time. The only time I don't seem to be wasting too much time is when I'm outside working in the yard where there aren't any other options for distraction —but it's not just that, it's also that I choose to be out there, and finishing the work on the wall and garden is something I really want to do, so there isn't that much opportunity for the itch to start. I'm not sure if that's a general rule, but it's worth a shot: have something worth working on.
Trailhead: Austin Kleon. "Indexing, filling systems, and the art of finding what you have". austinkleon.com (2021-05-20).
I love the idea of indexing the things I have—the words, the photos, the audio files, the things—but I've never loved the idea so hard that I actually something about it. I type quite a bit into Evernote, so I can search for what I want if I happened to write it down there. (And Evernote used to have this fantastic context feature that showed similar notes to the one you had open, which often showed that you had once written down thing you were writing down at that moment. I fill my photos with EXIF data so that I could, nominally, index and search them.
I guess that's not really an index. It's just a lazypile to be sorted through under duress when something needs to be done.
The reason I love the idea of indexing is that it's so easy to forget what I've written—not in the far past even, but more recently. Words blur together. Thoughts drift into the air and dissipate like smoke. Ideas—good or bad or neutral—wither and die if they aren't retrieved. Revisiting old words and thoughts is often like seeing them for the first time.
The block to doing it? It takes time to revisit and that time feels like a waste. Why do the same thing again? Why not try something new? Move forward not backward, eh?
I don't believe it. But I also still fall into that trap. A novelty bias, I guess. So: that's my mission to think about this week—what do I have and where do I have it and how will I know what I have and how do I retrieve it? Those great ideas aren't that great if they disappear.
Hi, my name is Kirk and I have a problem. I eat things and then I look at the seeds that I didn't eat and I think, "I could grow that. Here is a 香瓜 (xiāngguā) or muskmelon that we got at the grocery store today, with its seeds being dried for future planting.
I don't know. It's a habit, or a quirk, or some other sobriquet for problem. It's really just a food-oriented version of the same issue I have with other things. Read a book about endurance runners—sure, maybe I could run 100 miles. Work with people who develop embedded software—sure, maybe I could automate things in C. Watch some YouTube videos about professional contractors building retaining walls—sure, I could flatten my backyard. And so on and so on.
On one hand: save me from myself and my delusions of what I think I can do.
On the other hand: I've been pretty bad at failing at each new strange thing I've tried.
I'd hesitate to call each thing a Success I've tried and not failed at, but I've survived this far dilettanting around, and I enjoy it, so let's keep it going. Like Feynman said, it's the pleasure of finding things out.