2021 Curated Short Form Round-up 1

Credit: Eric Muhr on Unsplash
  1. Junk food

What’s the work equivalent of junk food? It’s the stuff that we find easy and brings instant gratification to us. It circumvents the cycle of discomfort, discovery, and debate. Engagement in such kind of work meets a bare-minimum purpose: we’re getting something done. But it carries the opportunity cost of not spending time on high leverage tasks.

What I’m talking may seem like comfort food but is actually junk. It is unhealthy because it leads to lifestyle ailments down the road. We get better at the things we’re comfortable doing (this is a logarithmic curve anyway) and steer clear of any kind discomfort. Because we do not broaden our palate, we cannot enjoy new flavors. We cannot measure the worth of what we’re losing out on.

There may not be one kind of junk food we’re always drawn to. It depends on what’s the junkest in the meal on offer. In a new role, we may be drawn to the most familiar element even if it is not our strongest suit. We may even try extra hard and be a perfectionist at something that’s unlikely to move the needle, so as to feed off that feeling of accomplishment. This may lead to intervention bias where we shoehorn our two cents into every solution when without our input nothing really would fall apart. When we do so, we erode the enthusiasm of those we work with. All because we want to feel good about ourselves.

When you catch yourself reaching for the familiar, there is one question worth asking: Where are you seeking comfort when what’s called for is some discomfort?

2. Flywheel

Picture yourself biking. You catch a tailwind. You get pushed ahead. You gather speed. Soon enough another gust propels you, and yet another. You have taken off. You’re flying now.

When multiple forces are acting in the same direction, your velocity is compounded. This concept is known by different names. In systems design, this effect is called a ‘reinforcing loop’. Charlie Munger, partner to Warren Buffet, used the phrase ‘lollapalooza effect’ to suggest a scenario when multiple factors come together in concert and create an unstoppable force that pushes a stock up. Sourav Dutta, who has been very much a mentor, picked the term ‘internal consistency’ to define more or less the same thing. (All of this contributes to unchecked negative consequences as well.)

A ‘balancing loop’, on the other hand, carries an internal resistance that counters forward movement. Think of it as a U-turn even. While it has its use, in the operation of a thermostat for instance, its stabilizing influence is what the best businesses want to shake off. The hungriest companies want unmitigated progress, not trade-offs. They want flywheels and monopolies.

Typically, there’s enough talk about the forces pushing forward. We pay careful attention to them. We pile them on top of each other. Somewhere we underestimate the impact of balancing forces. We move ahead but don’t fly. We gather speed but fall short of escape velocity. We accrue interest that is simple, not compound. We reach good but miss great.

3. Procrustean bed

There may be something wrong with our attention.

In Greek mythology, the robber Procrustes had an iron bed on which he would ask travelers to lie. If the traveler was too short for the bed, he stretched them to fit the bed; if too long, he cut off their legs. The term Procrustean describes situations where an arbitrary standard is used to measure utility, while disregarding harmful trade-offs that result from the effort.

Our attention is a Procrustean bed. Treated by the world as a commodity and shaped by arbitrary standards, we continually employ it to do just one thing: fit information in it. A song is 3 minutes, a work week is 40 hours, and a movie is 100 minutes of our attention. What is the end result? We doomscroll social media feeds for hours (because there’s so much of shit around) and look for a one-min summary of a David Foster Wallace essay (because there’s so little time). We entertain all travelers that come our way only to force-fit them into pre-constructed containers.

Instead: let’s think of our attention as something generative, like a dynamo. The more the mechanical energy acting on it, the more power it produces. That power is our focus. Let’s not pre-decide the amount of power we have to generate for something. Let that be dictated by how much it moves us, emotionally and intellectually.

Hit a bullet list of spots on a trip to Spain or just stick to one for as long as it is meaningful. Read a book a week and mark your calendar or just let one chapter take root in your head for weeks and lead to a hundred new ideas.

We waste our attention on next to nothing. And we’re stingy with it when we stand to gain everything. All because of some arbitrary measure of success and a deep-seated fear of missing out. We don’t have to entertain every traveler. And not all of them deserve something either. We reserve the right to say No or Hell, yes!

4. Value versus cost

A great hire at a good compensation is superior to a good hire at a great compensation. Why?

Compensation is just one variable. Talent is the result of several interconnected skills that produce a vastly exaggerated result when given an environment to flourish in. What you save in personnel cost pales in comparison to the value quality talent allows you to create.

Your best performer may test your internal compensation parity guidelines, yet she may be the glue that holds the team together. Take her out and you may have to build all over again. How so?

Assume first that your best performer is more than a 7; if she’s only a 7, you may have a bigger problem at hand. Now imagine what not having her may look like. Say you replace her with a 7. 7’s are easy enough to find. Yet 7’s kill companies (attributed to Eric Vishria). They signal potential and demand effort. Whether or not they deliver on their promise, their seat carries an opportunity cost: an 8, 9, or 10 could’ve filled it. Also, a 7 is likely to hire a 7 (they’ll be worried about their jobs) so multiply that opportunity cost. Now you’ve set off a chain reaction.

In complex systems, cost works on addition, value on multiplication. In the short term, the difference may be manageable. Over the long term, value has nothing in its rear view. How to make value your North Star? Remove 7 from consideration.

5. Carpenter or gardener?

Are you a carpenter or a gardener?

A few years ago, in a conversation with my boss, I remarked that I liked my job because I felt a sense of control when I was at work. In contrast, life outside was full of variables I had little grip on.

Another way of saying what I meant was that I liked being a carpenter much more than I liked being a gardener. A carpenter has control over her work. She gets to decide the wood, the tools, what to build, and other particularities of her environment. A gardener, in contrast, is at the mercy of rain, humidity, pests, and a host of other variables outside her influence. A carpenter draws a straight line between input and output and traverses it, while the gardener is more at ease with making lemonade of lemons and accepting surprises along the way.

By choosing control over proceedings as the key ingredient for happiness, I was suggesting that a carpenter is happier than a gardener. The idea sounds arbitrary, if not outright ridiculous. I was also implying that a successful carpenter is precise and meticulous, while a flourishing gardener is plain lucky.

The carpenter’s world view hindered my progress for several years. When things spiralled out of control at work, as they tend to do, I found it hard to let go. I had a difficult time owning up to the outcome. I searched for narratives that were charitable to me. And when a fortuitous turn of events swayed things my way, as it also happens, instead of savoring the lucky break, I plunged myself into working out ways to control the uncontrollable.

Adopting a gardener’s world view in such situations would’ve allowed me to acknowledge that any control I enjoyed was inadequate and that, instead of fighting for more, I ought to make the most of what was at my disposal. And would’ve let me explore uncertainty with curiosity instead of feeling anxious and nervous.

I can’t say I’m a gardener today but a gardener’s model of the world is one of the better gifts I can offer myself. Are you a carpenter or a gardener?

Credit for the carpenter-gardener metaphor: The Gardener and the Carpenter, a book on child development by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik.

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I write about decision-making, mental models, and better thinking and things in between

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Satyajit Rout

Satyajit Rout

I write about decision-making, mental models, and better thinking and things in between

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