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.

The absurdity of running

I’ve clocked 80.76km so far in runs this month. That’s almost 80.76km more than what I ran last month.

The reason, I tell myself, that I have run so much is because there’s quite a bit of a competition in the office. We’ve signed up for a marathon; we’re tracking our runs; and being competitive bastards we all want to outdo each other.

But, hand-on-heart, the real reason I run is… just because.


“Tell me, what is that hole for?” I ask the Colonel.

“Nothing at all,” he says, guiding a spoonful of soup to his mouth. “They dig for the sake of digging. So in that sense, it is a very pure hole.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It is simple enough. They dig their hole because they want to dig. Nothing more or less.”

I think about the pure hole and all it might mean.

“They dig holes from time to time,” the Colonel explains. “It is probably for them what chess is for me. It has no special meaning, does not transport them anywhere. All of us dig at our own pure holes. We have nothing to achieve by our activities, nowhere to get to. Is there not something marvellous about this? We hurt no one and no one gets hurt. No victory, no defeat.”

Above taken from the wonderful book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, incidentally by an author who runs.


As an aside, I’d always been one who sought meaning in things (well, like pretty much 99% of the rest of the world).

But of late I’ve been doing some readings on evolution; physics; cosmology; and the nature of our mind, and these have given me… how do I put it… a different perspective on life.

A perspective devoid of meaning.

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not in a bad way; but not in a good way either.

It just is.

And you know what? This acceptance of life’s meaninglessness has made me far more accepting of running’s meaninglessness, giving myself permission to embrace the, let’s face it, absurd act of running.

Life’s too short

Sometimes I think life’s too short. There’s so much I want to do!

But then again, maybe it’s just right, as said so beautifully by Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living:

The situation then is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon this earth. All questions of living in heaven must be brushed aside. Let not the spirit take wings and soar to the abode of the gods and forget the earth. Are we not mortals, condemned to die? The span of life vouchsafed us, threescore and ten, is short enough, if the spirit gets too haughty and wants to live forever, but on the other hand, it is also long enough, if the spirit is a little humble. One can learn such a lot and enjoy such a lot in seventy years, and three generations is a long, long time to see human follies and acquire human wisdom. Anyone who is wise and has lived long enough to witness the changes of fashion and morals and politics through the rise and fall of three generations should be perfectly satisfied to rise from his seat and go away saying, “It was a good show,” when the curtain falls.

0445club

Read Tim Ferriss’ Tool of Titans on the train yesterday evening on Jocko Willink.

There was this thing about the #0445club, which after a late night of drinks seemed to me like an incredible idea I had to try.

So this morning… #0445club

0445clubA pity about the rain though. Had gotten my gear all readied for a run.

Still, managed to get some work done; have breakfast; practice a little mandarin (Duolingo!); and do a few push-ups and pull-ups.

And whaddya know, it’s not even 0730 yet. Probably going to feel awful in the afternoon but still, what an interesting concept.

If I keep this up, though fourth place in May I could well get to first place in June on Nike Run Club. Watch out John, Lorna, and Neil.

A single cloud leaves the peaks

From the book Master of the Three Ways (菜根譚) by Hong Zicheng:

A single cloud leaves the peaks:

Going or staying, with neither is it tangled.

A bright mirror like moon hangs in the sky:

Peace or noise, with neither is it concerned.

I must have read the above passage twenty times before, without really grasping what it was meant to convey. The twenty-first time, though, I was ready.

Though I started the passage with my mind filled with turbulent thoughts, I ended it calm and at peace.

It was, I think, the part about the moon; for some reason as I read that I was on the Moon looking back at the Earth. It was deathly silent. And my troubles seemed, like The Beatles’ the day before, so far away.

Not waving but drowning

“Just smile and wave boys,” he said, as he walked out of the office door. We were going for lunch, and our poor colleague was stuck with the boss.

It was a Madagascar reference. A cute, funny scene.

But what it reminded me of was a poem by Stevie Smith; not quite as funny; not quite as cute; but just as apt.

“You know,” I said, “this reminds of a poem called ‘not waving but drowning.'”

And something in me made me google the poem and share it.


To be honest, I felt a bit uncomfortable doing that – he wasn’t/didn’t look like a poetry buff.

And I was afraid of coming across a little too bookwormy.

But I couldn’t help it. Not Waving but Drowning was one of the first poems I’d ever read and loved; one of the first that made fall in love with poetry:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

It was a poem that made me realise that not all seemingly happy people are happy, myself included; that we may not be waving, but drowning.

 

On reading novels and living the life you cannot live

I’m an avid reader, but have grown up reading almost exclusively non-fiction.

Not because I don’t enjoy them, or think any less of fiction than I do non-fiction; it’s mostly because I can never remember the names of all the characters! (Especially in novels…)

In non-fiction, the cast of characters tend to be ideas. And ideas I can deal with – most of them already exist in some shape or form in my head, so it’s a matter of associating or hooking these new ideas to existing ideas.

For example, the first time I read about machine learning, I hooked it onto existing ideas in my head related to data mining, as well as ideas related to probability. When I first read about baseline happiness (did you know our happiness tends to be somewhat set regardless of circumstance? And that the happiest among us tend to be those who have won the predisposed-to-happiness genetic lottery?), I hooked it onto ideas related to Buddhism, psychology, and biology.


And since I’m writing about this already… to me, it’s true: I find that the more I know, the easier it is learn. How about you?

On the flip side, it’s also true that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Which can make you sad.


Back to the names of characters though…

I remembered once reading through a novel and thinking it didn’t really make any sense. I just couldn’t understand why the main character was treating his wife (ex-wife?) in some way, and his mistress in another, while it many other parts of the story it seemed to be the other way around.

Frustrated, at about the halfway point I googled the plot summary and realised I got both characters mixed up; and they weren’t the only ones.

I decided to re-read the book, armed with the plot summary and the full cast of characters.

This time the book made all the sense in the world, and was an intensely satisfying read.


Armed with the newfound power of the internet (newfound for me), I’ve recently taken up reading novels again. Remembering who’s who is no longer a problem!

And that has added a wonderful dimension to my life. Novels really create this “mind space” unlike anything else. Well, sort of like movies, but one in which you’re much more involved. When you’re spending hours upon hours with a book, it’s hard not to be.


What I especially like about about novels is that it gives me a chance to live a life I never/cannot live; or lives I choose not to live.

Novels have given me a chance to feel what it’s like to:

They break the mundanity of everyday life.

Used to be: to work; back from work; to work; back from work; into weekend; out of weekend; etc.

Now it’s: to work; back from work; become POW working on the Death Railway; get flashback committing adultery; to work; back from work; get transformed into insect; into weekend; work on Death Railway; out of weekend; etc.

It’s quite a varied life now.


Rreading novels is not just the “escapism” part of it, though.

It’s also about learning how your mind reacts to different circumstances.

“What would I do? What would I feel?” are two questions that constantly pop up when I’m reading, and answering those two questions makes me far more aware of who I am, and the kind of life I would like to live.


Just to end on a rather depressing note, this time courtesy of the non-fiction that I’m reading: The problem with being more aware of who I am is that who I am may well be a bunch of algorithms.

My being more aware may just be a feeling of being more aware, which despite sending a hit of dopamine does little else.

Why do I run?

When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. Why does Polly want a cracker rather than a cucumber? Why do I decide to kill my annoying neighbour instead of turning the other cheek? Why do I want to buy the red car rather than the black? Why do I prefer voting for the Conservatives rather than the Labour Party? I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free.

The above taken from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I thought I’d not enjoy, but which gets better with every page.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, as God and dice have determined, I have a run to go for.