Tit for Tat

Pleasantries exchanged, we got down to business. 

Rather new to each other, we moved deliberately. The context of the meeting was potentially explosive. It had all the makings of “your word against mine” scenario.

But it started out well. Facts, or perspectives of the facts, were exchanged, and these facts turned out to be decently aligned. We were both professional but cordial. Probing; questioning.

If there was one thing I know about disagreements, having been on the wrong end far more times than I’d like to admit, when two people looking for the same ends disagree, more often than not one or both are missing the complete picture.

By putting aside early on what seem to be differences, and sharing information and perspectives, this can just as often be overcome.

Then his tone changed. Suddenly.

“Do you know what this means for us? Do you not know the implications?”

Jobs, he explained, were on the line.

As much as I had expected something like this before I had got on the call. But I did not expect it then. Not after the dispassionate exchanges since the start of the call.

And I felt offended at his statements – was he implying I wasn’t taking what we were doing seriously? Because it was anything but.

I knew how this work affected others I had gone through extra lengths to make sure it was as good as it could reasonably be. For someone to say otherwise was an insult.

It was at this point that I engaged my own rhetoric. I matched him in content; in tone of voice; in decibels. Two could play this game. 

But then I let up.

Maybe he was frustrated (he probably was). Maybe he was having a bad day (he probably was). Maybe he wanted to get this right, like me (he definitely was).

So I gave him an opening. He took it. 

No, we didn’t manage to settle everything then and there. There were many questions still left unanswered.

But we did manage to do was to return to civility, and an agreement on what we needed to do next.


What transpired above reminded me of the tit-for-tat strategy in game theory, which I first read about in a book on strategic decision making.

It was a rather old book and it didn’t mention the act of generously “being nice” again, which is actually now considered an important improvement to the strategy.

The City of Sophronia

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can being again.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

How to save time

Try one of the following:

  1. Learn how to programme the TV recorder in the quickest way. Two buttons, three steps. Take four minutes, not five.
  2. Use a TV recorder to save your favourite TV shows and skip through the ads. Save 30 minutes every two hours.

Or… stop watching the damn TV. Save two hours every two hours.

Don’t save time. If you choose your activities wisely, time saves itself.


See also: https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_vanderkam_how_to_gain_control_of_your_free_time/up-next

Two stories

Today was an awful day. It started with me waking up a little later than hoped. I’d planned to go in earlier, get a head start on the tons of work I’d left outstanding from the previous day. But by the time I managed to get to the station it was peak and the trains were packed, and I barely made it into the first that came my way. An important project I was working on felt impossible; for hours I sat on end looking for solutions, probing but not finding. I left work feeling stressed, exhausted, and defeated, thinking to myself there had to be easier ways to earn my keep. Back at home I decided a run would do me good, loosen me up a little. Putting on my new shoes I headed out. Within 15 minutes the unseasoned shoes rubbed into my skin so badly it started to bleed. Coupled with the fatigue I took home from work, the run was far slower than expected and a complete waste of time.


Today was a great day. Though I’d woken up a little later than I’d hoped, I managed to catch the first train to work despite it being peak (missing two, three trains in a row wasn’t uncommon). I continued my work on that important project – something that’d been causing me a lot of stress of late. And despite spending hours on end I made almost no progress today. No, wait, I lie. I developed 23 solutions that didn’t work, so I’m 23 solutions closer to the one that will. And you know what? I felt great – this was what I signed up for. This is what progress and learning looks like. At the end of the day I was spent and had nothing left to give. I’d given my all, and in a funny protestant-ethic-kind-of-way it made me feel good about myself. Back home, I decided to go for a run. After a day like this, I needed to get out. I put on my new shoes — a great past-season pair that was 40% off retail, can you believe it? — and headed out. 15 minutes into the run they chaffed a little, but it was to be expected; so I went a little slower, taking in the scenery. Halfway along I ran past this 70-something Malay lady on a wheelchair, watching the water, ships, and the opposite shore, while a young man prepared his fishing line and a young woman held the lady’s hand. It was so peaceful; so serene. I had half the mind to just stop and ask if I could join.

Then I realised — I already had.

Training for a Marathon

For the past half a year I’ve been in the midst of training for a marathon. The decision to participate this year came after incessant badgering by a colleague. As I remember, when I finally agreed it came when my defences were low following a particularly stressful period at work, during which I couldn’t think straight.

But that’s over now. No time for regrets.

The training has been interesting so far, and getting increasingly intense.  Just a couple of days ago, for the first time in a long time I cut a run short because I was too hungry. Desperately seeking calories, my original goal to run to the end of a park still ten kilometres away turned into a run to a vending machine that was just three. It was funny how when I reached the machine and looked through the nutritional information on the label I was disappointed it contained as little energy as it had – 98kcal  – the first time in my life I was looking for the highest caloric option my money could buy (which was $2).

When it dawned on me what I had just done, my mind was blown. What a different lens to see life by.

Seek feedback and iterate

As I sat there in front of my screen developing the spreadsheet/tool that was to be shared with the more than hundred salespeople in the company I realised I had doubts – would this really work? Was this an improvement to what they already had? Or was it more change for the sake of change?

I honestly felt that it was a genuine improvement, but I didn’t know. And having spent so much time already getting to where I was on its development, the last thing I wanted to hear was that I was on the wrong track, and that my work would come to nought.

Also, I was in a state of flow, and getting feedback was an overhead that would break that. Did I really want that?

I got up from my seat, walked over the coffee machine and made myself a coffee while mulling over this: to get feedback or not to get feedback – that was the question.


Development’s fun – I enjoy it. Solving technical problems and shipping something useful is one of the main reasons I entered the tech/data space. But having moved into a managerial role it’s something I do less and less – development’s now a team sport, one in which I’m no longer the star.

That sense of accomplishment when something you create goes out into the wild and receives accolades is something I really miss.

If this piece of development went live, I would well get back that high.


The steaming cup of coffee in my hand relaxed me and made things a little clearer: I made a mistake of having worked on the development as long as I had without getting feedback. I should have followed the same advice I always give my team: don’t work on something for too long without getting feedback, otherwise you may just find yourself spending days or even weeks on end working on something nobody wants to use.

(Thank goodness I also always drill it into them: “Do what I say; not what I do.”)

The longer I went without feedback, the harder it was psychologically to want to seek it. But I knew I had to do it.

I personally had doubts, and this was my baby here. I gritted my teeth, got up from my seat, and started seeking feedback. Like Sun Wukong (aka Monkey King), I reluctantly travelled to collect the sutras, during which I had to bear the pain of hearing things like “it won’t work” and having my “great” ideas turn bad.

It was emotionally draining, but it had to be done.


Hard as it was, I stopped development that day. The week (and weekend!) of frantic development came up to nothing.

Still, there was something I got out of it — like they say, there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. And for me, it was a reminder to myself to seek feedback early, and iterate.


It was ironic that it was about this time that I was reading the Lean Startup by Eric Reis, one of the pioneering books on iteration and getting feedback. I leave you with this passage that I always use to remind myself before I go too deep into a development or process rabbit hole (text in bold mine):

From the point of view of individual efficiency, working in large batches makes sense. It also has other benefits: it promotes skill building, makes it easier to hold individual contributors accountable, and, most important, allows experts to work without interruption. At least that’s the theory. Unfortunately, reality seldom works out that way.

Consider our hypothetical example. After passing thirty design drawings to engineering, the designer is free to turn his or her attention to the next project. But remember the problems that came up during the envelope stuffing exercise. What happens when engineering has questions about how the drawings are supposed to work? What if some of the drawings are unclear? What if something goes wrong when engineering attempts to use the drawings?

These problems inevitably turn into interruptions for the designer, and how those interruptions are interfering with the next large batch the designer is supposed to be working on. If the drawings need to be redone, the engineers may become idle while they wait for the rework to be completed. If the designer is not available, the engineers may have to redo the designs themselves. This is why so few products are actually built the way they are designed.

On doing a great job, and not.

There’s this post on Seth Godin’s blog called “Avoiding the GIGO trap” that other than being brilliant as Godin’s posts so often are, also reminded me of what I’ve always felt differentiated the people I’ve worked on the spectrum of face-slappingly awful to walk-on-water great.

On the awful side of the spectrum, you have people who just don’t do anything beyond the bare minimum, and they don’t care that they’re doing that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for ‘XYZ’, we give her ‘xyz'”. It’s close enough, and with some semantic manipulation even meets the requirements.

On the great side of the spectrum, you have people who do all that they’re asked within their power, care tremendously about the product or service they’re looking to provide, and look to go even beyond that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for XYZ, but we know that isn’t the best thing for us. What if we give her XXZ? Based on my experience, that’s likely to work better and allows us to deliver us even earlier than expected.”


But… let’s introduce context for a moment.

The phone rings. You pick it up. At the same time a nasty e-mail comes in from a colleague whom always seems to make it hard for you. The person on the phone asks where’s the report you promised him. You tell him you’d sent it two days ago only to realise it’s stuck in your Outbox – for some inexplicable reason it never went out, perhaps to do with the e-mail IT had sent earlier but which you didn’t have time to read. You apologise. As you listen to him say he’s “disappointed” you realise you’re at the start of a marathon list of back-to-back meetings.

Imagine that’s a typical day.

Now, to be on the “great side of the spectrum”… perhaps you could push yourself to give that bit more of emotional labour, and still come out on top, but what would that mean for you at the end of the day? What’s the post-work you like after you’ve given it your all? After mental fatigue sets in?


I hadn’t actually expected to write the passage on context above. I was going to end at the first section – “ra-ra great people do this and so should we”. But I realised that in our lives it’s not always easy to be on that “great” side of that spectrum because we have limits. Some less limited than others, but eventually we hit those limits. Just think of Elon Musk on a great day and Elon Musk on an awful day.

I know of people who, if they hadn’t had so much on their plate, would be great. But because of the nature of the job find it difficult to. Going “above-and-beyond” on second- and third-priorities is never a good idea when even “meeting spec” on first-priorities is a problem.


But in the end I am optimistic that it is possible. I personally like to think that we have more opportunities for great days than awful days.

Luck plays a part, surely, but there’s also an aspect of it that involves an investment of time and labour. The concept of “sharpening the saw” that I first read in 7 Habits was one that changed my life. Though I can’t remember exactly what I read, the one key takeaway for me was that despite the allure of “chopping wood”, where your results are instant, once in a while we need to step back and sharpen our proverbial saw, allowing us to chop more wood at a quicker rate in the future.

Sharpening the saw isn’t sexy, and the results can be quite indirect. For example, for me one of the things I did in school was read lots of books on psychology and management, which didn’t do much for me academically at that time.

But by the time I entered the workforce, many of the things I saw and experienced I could relate to because I had already gone through that in a “virtual” manner through books. And when I eventually took on a formal leadership role, the transition was relatively smooth because I knew what to look out for. Same goes with analytics – I was reading and playing around with scripting and data manipulation years before I formally took up a Masters degree and started working professionally with data.

(As an aside, I also read books on Alzheimer’s, Autism, post-retirement activities, and coping with the loss of loved ones because I know one day I’ll be in a situation in which I may have to face these things – even if not directly, through friends or family. My way of sharpening the saw, in the context of life as a whole.)


Awful people aren’t always awful. They could just be great people in awful days. But whom, perhaps, are working diligently in the background sharpening their proverbial saws, so they may one day come out of their chrysalis and show their walk-on-water greatness to us, positively changing the world.