Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.

Perspective: Million vs. Billion

"How long is a million seconds? How many days do you think that is?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, then started counting, realised it was pretty hard to do in your head, then stopped.

I gave her the answer: "approximately 11 days".

"Now," I continued, "how about a billion? How many days is a billion seconds?"

This time she was ready. The answer was intuitive now. A million and a billion – they're not too different. We talk about millionaires and billionaires in pretty much the same breath. A little rough arithmetic and we're done.

"A hundred days?" she guessed. "Maybe a little more?"

31 years.

 


I was reminded of this fact recently in a book on financial planning by Tony Robbins, where he was trying to push the point on how we often think we know what we want, but because never thought about it in greater detail are probably really wrong about that. He used the example of how we think the road to becoming a millionaire and the road to becoming a billionaire are pretty much the same.

They're different. Very different.

Another recent story came to mind, this time in the world of fitness: that of how a pro gambler won a $1 million dollar bet to go below 10% body fat. Reading the story, I was reminded how different it was to go from 25% to 15%, as compared to going from 15% to sub-10%. Seemingly similar goals, but in reality very different.

I wonder how many other things we take for granted to be similar but in reality are anything but.

Falling to the level of our training

I first saw the following wonderful quote in a book by Joshua Medcalf (called Hustle),  attributed to  an anonymous Navy SEAL:

Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.

What a beautiful principle to live your life by. (I was particularly inspired because I have been doing quite a bit of training for my upcoming IPPT – haven’t had an IPPT gold in ages!)

PS: A little research brought me to Quora where I learned that the origin of that quote could probably be attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus:

We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of the training.

Tell me what you want to see

Caught this magnificent optical illusion on kottke.org today. I’d say that is definitely  this is worth a minute or two of your time.

Was in my “data” frame of mind when I watched this, and couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly how data works: control the content, control the angle (i.e. perception), and you can make a square block look like a cylinder.

On Facebook’s French Flag – Or: If one needy person, charity is done; if ten, none.

About a month ago what is now known (at least on Wikipedia) as the November 2015 Paris attacks happened, with more than a hundred people killed in mass shootings and suicide bombings.

I vaguely remember first seeing reports on this on Facebook, thinking it was some sort of joke. It was unreal; classified in my head with the other “how can that be true?” events, in the realm of the Boston Marathon bombings; the disappearance of MH370; the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre; and Steve Job’s and Michael Jackson’s deaths, both of whom played a huge part in shaping my childhood.

Over the next couple of days I noticed that many people’s profile pictures were overlayed with the French flag. It was a movement that felt bigger than myself, and I wanted to be a part of that. I did a quick Google search and found that it was easily done. A few clicks and I could get myself a profile picture overlayed with the French flag. Facebook made it really easy.

But I had my doubts. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. Despite my feeling of loss, I knew it was temporary and didn’t want to commit to changing my profile picture for an indefinite length of time – what would it mean to me or anyone? It felt hypocritical to have that overlay longer than the feeling lasted.

The Facebook developers, though, probably thought and felt the same thing. And in what I must say was a masterstroke, they provided users the option to have that overlay be temporary, defaulting to a week (which was exactly the length of time I’d felt was appropriate). That nudged me in the direction of going ahead with the profile picture update.

I must admit, though, that I still had my reservations. It felt, in a way, overtly political, which is something I go out of my way to be not; but at the same time it felt comforting and it gave me the feeling of being part of a bigger collective, a collective saying yeah let’s show the terrorists we won’t be put down.

Yes, I knew that this reeked of slacktivism: it certainly wasn’t the least I could do (i.e. nothing) but it probably wasn’t too far off. But what else could I do? And if it made me feel better without causing others too much distress, why not?

Still, I started to worry: had I done the right thing? I wondered if others would view me as a herd-follower, mindlessly following others because it was trendy or just because. (Just thinking about what I thought others were thinking about me made me second-guess myself — this wasn’t about me so why was I making it about me?)

And seeing many others writing about why they weren’t doing the change made me worry as well, because I’d frankly not thought too much about it (remember the nudge mentioned above? I was on the fence and a silly thing like the Facebook default of a week made me finally do it!)

So I did the only rational thing I could think of and read the arguments of those who were against the overlay (and there were many). From what I gathered, most dissenters were from one of two camps.

The first camp essentially said, “having the French flag on your profile picture is meaningless and a form of slacktivism. It doesn’t do anything and is a pointless exercise.”

The second camp, funnily enough, in effect stated quite the opposite. “Why do we only care so much about France when there are so many other countries suffering similarly? Why should the attacks in France be so special? Because no flags were put up for the other countries, I’m not going to do so for France.” Their act of refusing to take this French flag action seemed to place undue weight on the importance of this exercise.

In the end I bought more into the argument of the first camp. Putting a French flag overlay on your profile picture is a little pointless – I mean, what purpose does it serve? But then again so many of the things we do are like that, but we still do them anyway in the hope that it might make a difference, even if in the smallest of ways. (Reminds me a bit of e-mails that I send out asking for action before a deadline – I know it’s not going to happen before then, that people being people will dally and deadlines will be pushed back. But still I do it, in the hope that deadlines might one day be met.)

The second camp reminded me a bit of how charity works. If I see a single beggar I might decide to give a coin. If I see ten, I avoid them like the plague. If I gave one of them one, I would then have to give to the others. And if I couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be fair to those who receive nothing. So I just avoid giving altogether. But this just makes me feel like a prick, and keeps them all feeling hungry.

In the end though, there did seem to be common thread. A theory that unified both seemingly disparate camps. Other than the fact that those who wrote about it tended to be a little more political, I realised that if the campaign wasn’t as successful as it had been, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Because nobody would’ve cared, and neither would I.

For every mindless Facebook user who applied the overlay (me included), there was a dilution of (political?) meaning (though it seemed to me to somewhat increase the feeling of solidarity and community). In the end, the more political among us probably found that making a greater statement was to not have an overlay, but to write about why not to have an overlay.

On the Why only France Question

I want to address separately the “why only France” question though, because this did stump me a little bit. I sort of got this argument at an intuitive level – France is no more or less special than other countries that had been attacked, and having it elevated to such a “special” status can be irksome feel horribly unfair.

But, like a number of commentators have mentioned, one big difference is that the attack in France was so rare and unlikely that it shocked us. A bombing in Israel or Palestine (or the general “Middle East”) seems like a once-a-week affair. Horrible as it is, it’s not unexpected and doesn’t make the news. When it happens in France, it does.

And if you ask me which makes me sadder, the deaths in Israel/Palestine/Middle East or France, I must admit it’s France. Not because I think France is greater in any way, but because I relate more to the French. I know more about them, have dreams of vacationing there, and find them more relatable because they seem more like me.

I remember the Boston Marathon bombings hitting me especially hard. Being an avid runner myself, one who aspired (still do, sometimes) to one day run the Boston Marathon, reading about the bombings made me literally sick. For weeks I felt down, and running just didn’t give me the same high. I would look at images of runners with severed limbs and ask myself what for do we run so hard?
It felt like my family was being attacked; it felt like me being attacked.

If most of the Facebook community looks like they’re treating non-Western countries unfairly, it might just be because most of its users are from Western countries, and people tend to sympathise more strongly with people from similar cultures, people who are more like them. It’s just the way we are.

And if Facebook itself does it, as a for-profit company seeking to make its users happy (so they return and drive its revenue), should we be too surprised?

The Default Option

Saw the following via Avinash Kaushik on Google+. Too good not to share, and on so many levels.

If internet explorer is brave enough to ask you to be your default browser, you're brave enough to ask that girl out.

It is worth highlighting that the power of the “default option” is a very real one.

Organ donation is a good example. Whether organ donation is an “opt-in” (i.e. the default option is not donating), far fewer people tend to go for it, as compared to when it’s an “opt-out” (i.e. the default option is donating).

I’m a big believer in this effect, and use it often when scheduling meetings, among other things.

For example, when scheduling meetings, I like to give options, but always ensure that one of them is the “default” or “preferred” option, even though there’s no reason for it to be (“We can meet either Thursday 2pm or 5pm, though I would prefer 2pm. “)

It helps expedite things: if the recipient can’t make it at 2pm or 5pm, it’s an easy choice, the recipient just chooses the alternative. If the recipient can make it for both, the recipient just chooses the default (2pm).

Without the default option, if the recipient can make it for both, it’s likely the recipient would wait till the last possible moment before responding, keeping options open in case another meeting crops up.

Different, with a better story

I’m currently watching The Voice of China. On that show, there’s this singer called Perhat. He’s, in the words of his fans, an “Uyghur Rock Star”. I’m not really a fan. But that’s just me. Many, many others think he’s the next Bob Dylan.

There is something about him. He’s different from the other contestants. He voice reminds me of Tom Waits (whose song The Piano has been Drinking, video below, I fell in love with at first hear).

The thing about Perhat is that he seems really loveable (I remember in an earlier one-on-one round, when he kicked out his adversary he refused to raise his hand in victory. His adversary had actually helped him a lot with the language of the song, as he wasn’t fluent in Chinese,  and he felt bad at kicking out the very guy who helped him win).

He’s also got a really sad backstory (I was almost going to say “blessed with” but if that’s blessed leave me out of the blessing please). Every time he sings, if you’re aware of his backstory, you really want him to win. To do otherwise just seems heartless.

But… BUT…

It just seems odd that he’s gotten this far in the contest, and I’m just wondering if it’s due to his being different.

By remaining uncategorisable, essentially in a different league but not necessarily a better one, Perhat has made it extremely difficult to judge him.

During the one-on-ones, we have singers singing standard songs, with standards of quality we can easily make sense of (“she sings well, but she’s no Adele”). Perhat, on the other hand, sings in a way that we’re not really accustomed to hearing. We have no real benchmark. Because we can’t make sense of how to score Perhat, we might be inclined to think it’s much better than we think.

The proliferation of English songs in The Voice of China has also been a little put-offish. They sing technically well, but because you know it’s their second (maybe third) language, it’s difficult to really believe the emotion behind the songs (I can’t help but think they’re focusing harder on recalling  the phonetics than the singing).

But still, they insist on singing English songs. And it seems to pay off. Of the episodes I’ve seen, those who’ve sung English songs, have managed to overcome stronger opponents who’ve sung in Mandarin. Foreign songs are a novelty for Chinese singers, and difficult to judge due to unfamiliarity. And, like Perhat, because it’s difficult to make sense of how well the song has been sung, we might be inclined to think it’s better than it really is.

Could it be the blue ocean strategy at work?