Before writing anything on this blog I wanted to share some principles that I have been (more or less) using in life and that may subsequently be referred to within this blog. While these may seem obvious upon reading, it’s the careful application of these that I consider important and not simply the knowledge of them.
Whatever you do, do it in depth
Whatever you do, you should do it in depth. This also implies you must pick what you do carefully. You may not be well suited (due to your natural interests or current capabilities) to do everything. Once you pick something you should do your best to learn, explore, immerse yourself, and make an outsized impact in that area. This tends to be a natural desire if you pick something that you fundamentally care about.
One reason for thinking this at the organizational level is that many economies of scale are “winners take all”. If you truly believe in what you’re doing you usually desire to scale what you’re doing up to the largest possible impact. But in a winner take all economy the best X will likely have some 80% of the market share and the remaining 20% will be split across its competitors. Most businesses that scale well are providing platforms that connect services, businesses, or people to one another (rather than offering the services or content itself), rather than provide services directly. Think Uber as a platform that connects drivers to passengers compared to a localized taxi company. Network effects usually compound the advantages that any one platform has over another (in Uber’s case say due to the number of drivers and riders) and therefore it pays exponentially to be the best. When dealing with things that can scale very large like this, focusing on the one thing that you can be the best at will yield better results than focusing on many things, even if you are competent at those many things. Even when dealing with things which don’t scale, it pays to be top of mind to a consumer in some category, rather than 2nd in many.
At the individual level, once you start working on a particular project you gather a lot of context. As you leave that project you lose the context. Context switching can be very costly and is one reason why you want to focus on one thing at a time in depth. Once you have that context and the time set aside to work on that thing, the marginal cost of improving the process you’re going through is smaller compared to if you set that improvement aside to come back to later. And the benefits of such process improvements are usually much larger than just the scope of your current project or work. When you dig deep into a project you notice more of those potential improvements and gain an understanding of the domain you are operating in that is itself a compounding investment for the future. In addition, going in-depth on a project can foster a sense of ownership and craftsmanship, especially if you care deeply about what you’re doing. That craftsmanship can be a source of enjoyment and motivation in and of itself.
From a learning perspective going in-depth means doing your best to understand the fundamental concepts of what you’re learning so that your time is a compounding investment. Gaining an intuition is usually a more important outcome than memorizing some surface-level facts.
All time is not equal. In many things, a linear increase in quality time you spend on a particular thing can have an exponential benefit as you make improvements that span to other people, teams, organizations, or yourself in the future. Choosing the projects where your time can be leveraged to produce outsized gains, and then pushing a lot of time into those projects is an effective strategy.
At the personal level, the idea of going in-depth on one particular thing can also be interpreted as hyperfocus. That can lead to tunnel vision and your inability to synthesize information across projects and areas which is critical for creativity. Hyper specialization can lead to the Einstellung effect, colloquially if you have a hammer, everything is a nail. It is important to recognize that to solve a problem you must sometimes focus away from it, and look to different, wide-ranging areas for inspiration. Focusing on solving the problem is not the same as focusing on the problem. Furthermore going in-depth to solve a problem may mean going through a wide and broad range of things for inspiration.
Additionally, the idea of going in-depth on a project could be superficially interpreted as spending more time on something is automatically better. However, the activities you do during that time are important.
At the end of the day, the effective use of your time is up to you. Principles are guidelines and are meant to be followed to the spirit, and not to letter if you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.
- “Do less, then obsess” from Great at Work
- Great by Choice talks about Amundsen and Scott’s race to the south pole, and how Amundsen focused on a solid plan and mastering a single means of transport (dog sledding) whereas Scott diversified and did not go as in-depth into various facets of the planning, relying on systemic redundancies that ultimately failed
- Do something that you can be the best in the world at, part of “the hedgehog concept” from Good to Great
- The idea of building a “Monopoly” from Zero to One
- Edison (biography by Edmund Morris) exhibited the idea of going in-depth, trying thousands of variants of lightbulb filaments, thousands of plants as sources of rubber, and so on to solve various problems
- Steve Jobs (biography by Walter Isaacson) was someone who went in-depth on almost everything he did. Refer to Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda to see stories of how he dove into every detail of the iPhone
- The idea of niche specialization from The Passion Economy by Adam Davidson
- Less is More from the book Range
Stick to things
Stick to things. This means that you should be careful about what you pick to work on. This is especially pertinent when also following the first principle, whatever you do, do it in depth. Value is only realized when you finish whatever you’re working on. Most projects don’t deliver incremental value (e.g. a half published book is not valuable to anyone but yourself). Therefore either work on incremental value projects or stick to the projects you work on.
I tend to suffer from analysis paralysis, or a form of it, where I frequently switch projects and priorities only to find myself looking back and realizing I have not finished many of them. In general, you learn more from a project you finished (and that sucks) than from one you didn’t. It’s also generally better to do something that is only partly useful than nothing at all.
By contrast, knowing when to give up is a difficult thing. Not everything should be pursued indefinitely or under all conditions. It may make a lot of sense for a startup to pivot at any given moment, though doing so with care and forethought. As for most things, what counts is the intention and reason. Giving up to work on another thing due to a minute change in priorities, being more excited about another thing in the short term, self-doubting, being unsure about the outcome, or even just being more excited about the idea of things than doing them are all invalid reasons to give up on something. Having a rational reason to give up may be valid, but beware the distinction between rational reasons and a rationalization. Also, keep in mind that what you’re working on should be worth the time spent. If it’s not worth 10 years then it is likely not worth 10 minutes of your time.
Another thing to be aware of is the distinction between sticking to something and falling into a habit. Just because you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that you need to continue doing that to stick to it, that’s not the kind of tenacity I’m talking about. It’s very difficult to evaluate your life objectively, and people tend to evaluate potential outcomes relative to their current positions and tend to value losing certain things more than gaining others. For example, quitting a well-paid job to pursue an independent business idea with no guarantee of funding or success can be very difficult since the idea of losing the job is overvalued due to loss aversion and the idea of doing something new and risky could be undervalued due to the probabilistic nature of the outcome and the comfort of not changing. Reframing your decisions in more absolute terms can be a way to deal with loss aversion and stagnation.
- Grit (from the book Grit by Angela Duckworth)
- Edison (see biography by Edmund Morris) was a great example of someone willing to spend decades on a specific area of problems. He is also attributed to saying success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration
- John Keats finished the 4000 line poem Endymion, even though he hated it around ¾ of the way through, as it was a test he had set to himself of his abilities and creativity. He did this poem as an exercise in tenacity
- Paul Graham and others who talk about startups frequently highlight the necessity of persistence in face of the numerous challenges
- The book range talks about the potential pitfall of having too much grit, and that similarly “The important trick…is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance or astute recognition that better matches are available.”
- Beware of false fails from Loonshots by Safi Bakhal
Produce more and consume less
Produce more and consume less is a reminder that consumption for consumption’s sake does not produce anything meaningful. It can feel very productive to go read ten books, but on the other hand, you can also learn a lot of things that stick while creating value. A project in the hand is worth at least a dozen in the bush. Choose something worthy, stick to it, and learn from doing.
This doesn’t mean don’t rely on the wisdom of others. Just that there is an extent to the utility of learning from others without implementing those things in practice.
- The book Mastery focuses on the apprenticeship and the necessity to practice your skills in a real environment
- Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others who did not pursue a traditional education (though were very astute learners) by dropping out of college are examples of people who learned through doing
- Great at Work highlights the importance of not just learning but looping over your behaviors and iterating in the real world on the things you want to improve
Goals should be concrete
Abstract goals can be useful for defining your desired intentions but when it comes to putting them down on paper and measuring yourself against them they can prove difficult. The primary problem with abstract goals is that you get caught in the inability to define a consistent course of action over time and a way to measure them.
“Become a good cook” is a bad goal because you are unable to determine what to do to achieve it and how to measure what a “good cook” is. “Work through and master La technique by Jacques Pepin” would be a better goal. There is a clearly defined course of action and a way to measure yourself against that goal (how many of the techniques I’ve worked through). My intention can still be to become a good cook, but what I should hold myself to when I’m living my day to day life should be the course I set up. KPI setting and measuring can be another way to measure yourself against complex goals. TODO lists are a great mechanism for short term actionable goals.
Not everything should be a goal. And goals do not preclude the necessity for a higher purpose of mission that ties your activities together. In general, having goals may actually make you less satisfied with your life, therefore not everything should be a goal. Try to have some things that you do just because you want to.
Beware of Goodhart’s law, which is that once a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure. To phrase it in another way the gap between what you intend to measure, and what you actually measure will be realized, so choose carefully what you’re measuring.
- Measure what matters by John Doerr
- Getting Things Done by David Allen talks about the importance of making your next steps actionable
Understand and respect motivations
Context can be everything. You can start a company because, as Max Levechin says you realize you can’t work for anyone else. You can do it because you want to do something important and what you’re doing now doesn’t feel important like Tony Hsieh. You can do it because you want to have an outsized (hopefully positive) impact on the world like Steve Jobs, maybe even in a specific (and personal) way. A person may resonate with any of those narratives and more. It is important to recognize what resonates with you and what drives you to do things.
For myself, the idea of “doing something successful for the sake of success” is simply the hedonic treadmill. I respond to internal motivators more than external success factors. I’d likely never start a social media company or advertising company. For one thing, because I don’t particularly care about those things, and I may see them as having a large but potentially negative impact on the world. Recognizing what things I do think are important and the things I’m passionate about and respecting those things are important. Don’t ignore your sense of what you like to do and what you think is meaningful. You will have more success doing something you care about that is hard, than doing something you don’t that is easy. In addition when dealing with an organization having a higher purpose can bring a team together and define a culture.
Never assume that another person has the same motivations as you. Each person operates differently and it can be easy to be rubbed the wrong way when you try to view their actions through your motivations. As long as they’re doing good work try to understand what motivates them and leverage that rather than conflict with it. How you frame things can be very important to people.
It’s usually helpful to communicate your motivations to other people so that they know what you’re going to be motivated to work on and what you won’t. Be careful not to look down on others who don’t have the same motivations as you, especially if those motivations are more basic (such as in pursuit of titles, money, etc.). Prefer to work with people who are motivated by non-personal agendas though, as they’ll be more likely to help you if your goals align with what they want (regardless of credit or optics).
- All of the “Why” books from Simon Sinek
- Passion and Purpose principle from Great at Work
- Warren Buffett famously quoted that he tap dances to work. He claims to love what he does and would likely not be as successful in doing something else
- The “Inside-Out” chapter from the 7 habits of highly effective people highlights the effect of different motivations on outcomes
- The Culture Code highlights the importance of establishing a higher purpose as a means to create an effective organization
- In the book Range the context principle is the idea that the behaviors people exhibit are highly dependent on the context in which they operate
Prefer probabilistic over deterministic thinking
Prefer probabilistic over deterministic thinking. I think deterministic thinking is the default human behavior and that thinking in probabilities is quite difficult since anecdotally to each person something either happens or it doesn’t. As an example, I casually mentioned to my friend that the success of most business ventures is fairly low (maybe < 10%) and that I shouldn’t assume that I am impervious to those statistics and therefore should assume that my business venture has a low chance of success. This made her question why I would pursue my business at all if it was doomed to failure. As someone directing the business, my goal should be to do everything I can to prevent that failure (be productively paranoid), because I know that there is a large probability I could fail. To ignore the statistics would be bravado, and to succumb to them would be boring. To assume that I am practically guaranteed failure or success is a false dichotomy.
A great way in my mind to develop probabilistic thinking is to at least tread the waters of professional poker or gambling. Professional poker or gambling is not about luck but about expected values, and gaining an edge over the others at the table.
Probabilistic thinking embraces individual failures. You do your best to play every hand as well as you can to gain an advantage over time, but when you do fail an individual hand you aren’t devastated because you know there will be failures. Life is not a pure game of deterministic skill, but one with variance and sometimes you can fail even when you play everything correctly. It’s important to accept the blame for your failures and correctly analyze why you failed. Blaming bad luck when you fail at something isn’t a good solution for winning more in the long run. Sometimes you fail when you don’t play things correctly and from that, it’s important to learn. You could also think about probabilistic thinking as being process-oriented rather than individual outcome-oriented. A growth mindset (believing that you can change your abilities over time) is something that also comes when you focus on the process as opposed to individual outcomes.
Thinking probabilistically you may find yourself relying on luck and going after a large number of opportunities. That can be an effective strategy especially for creative endeavors but you’ll need to recognize that luck favors the prepared. Once you find something in your search you still need to dig in and do it to the best of your abilities. You are never entitled to success.
- Growth Mindset from Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke
- The game of poker (the biggest bluff by Maria Konnikova is a fun and adventurous introduction to the game for a non-player)
- Warren Buffet (a proponent of value investing), one of the most successful investors in the world, tends to ignore market fluctuations and values long term results. One of the most important qualities in an investor is the emotional fortitude to weather market fluctuations while keeping in mind the true underlying value of the assets
- Fermi problems and thinking as mentioned in the book Range
- Return on Luck and being productively paranoid from Great by Choice
- Confront the brutal facts from Good to Great
- Embrace reality and deal with it from Principles by Ray Dalio