What if there was a step by step way to solving any problem?
A simple, straight-forward path to getting everything you ever wanted?
To avoiding pitfalls and obstacles? To maximizing your potential and living your best life?
It’s called the Logical Thinking Process.
It’s got five simple pieces.
Five simple ways to think more effectively and see the world more clearly.
Over the next few emails, I’m going to be showing you how you can immediately apply these steps to your own life.
Let’s talk about problems.
What is the Logical Thinking Process?
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
W. Edward Deming
Every human organization is a system.
This applies to “organizations” like your workplace…
But also to your relationships.
Your marriage is an organization of two. Your family is an organization of three or four or five or more.
The social groups you interact with are systems. The restaurant you order takeout from is a system….and, of course, the app you used to order is a system as well.
Systems grow in complexity as they grow in size. Changes in one part of the system affect other parts of the system. Often, these chains of causation grow so long and so complicated that the true “inciting event” may be completely invisible to us.
It’s the “butterfly effect”: we don’t see snow and know that a butterfly has flapped its wings in India. We see the effect, but we rarely understand the cause.
That doesn’t stop us from placing blame, though.
When something happens we tend to assume the cause is “proximal” – i.e., nearby. What happened immediately before our problem emerged? Surely, that must be the cause, right?
These dual tendencies – to miss the true causes of an event, and to place blame for the problems we run into – lead us to blame ourselves for most of our problems. After all, WE are the proximal cause of most of the things that happen to us.
Weigh more than I’d like? That’s my fault. I should have more willpower.
Needed to study, but didn’t? That’s my fault. Why can’t I focus?
Hurt someone I love? That’s my fault. Why am I so careless?
It’s a very, very short leap from my personal shortcomings are the source of my problems…
To I am not a very good person.
And that’s a tough place to get out of, once you’re there.
But, as Deming said: A bad system will defeat a good person every time.
It’s pointless to shame ourselves, degrade ourselves, beat ourselves up…
If we haven’t at least tried to address our problem from a systems perspective, first.
Weigh more than I’d like? Maybe if I remove trigger foods from the house…
Needed to study, but didn’t? Maybe it’s too noisy…what if I got noise-canceling headphones…?
Hurt someone I love? Is there something in our dynamic that sets me off? Could I prevent that from happening…?
That’s what the Logical System Process is all about:
We don’t focus on the person…
We focus on the systems that the person operates within.
And that makes all the difference.
What is the Logical Thinking Process, anyway?
It’s a process. You can run absolutely any problem you want through it – from purely personal issues to international.
There are five steps.
Each step has a specific purpose, and each will move you further towards solving your target problem.
The first step, the Goal Tree, is used to define a single goal we aim to achieve and what is necessary to get there.
Next is the Current Reality Tree, which explores why we have not already reached the goal. What’s in our way?
Once we define why we haven’t already solved our problem, we often discover deep and seemingly-insurmountable conflicts within us. The third step is to solve these conflicts with a Conflict Resolution Diagram.
The fourth step, the Future Reality Tree, is used to map out a strategy to achieve our goal.
Finally, the Prerequisite Tree is used to define the individual steps you need to take right now.
And that’s it.
Sometimes, you need all five steps to address a problem…
Sometimes, you’ll only need one or two.
I said these steps were simple…and they are.
That doesn’t mean that they’ll be easy, however.
Thinking logically – really examining our biases and assumptions about the world – can be difficult.
They payoffs, however, are incredible…and will radically transform your life.
Next week, we get right into things…with the Goal Tree.
Interested in a simple yet massively transformational practice you can immediately apply to your own life?
Then this week’s email is for you. 🙂
Where can I Gemba Walk in my own life?
If you’re at all like me (and you probably are, since you’re here), you set some goals for 2021.
In all likelihood, you’re going to struggle to achieve those goals. I know I will. After all, if our goals were easy to achieve we’d have achieved them already!
The good news is that there are a few simple processes that can make that struggle much less intense.
Today, I’m going to share one that’s had a profound effect on my own life:
The Gemba Walk.
Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “the real place” – as in, “this is where the real work happens.”
A Gemba Walk is a process first codified by Taiichi Ohno, and executive at Toyota behind much of what today is known as “Lean” manufacturing.
In a manufacturing context, a Gemba Walk meant “walking the plant floor, observing production, and interacting with employees” to identify and solve problems. That’s an extremely simple concept, but it was highly transformative in practice.
Gemba Walks have three critical components:
Presence: the leader literally walks the floor, observing the work area in person. Gemba Walking is rooted in direct observation. We’re not thinking about where things ought to be, or how they ought to work; we’re paying attention to what is happening in practice.
Asking Why: Identifying problems is one thing; solving them is another. As students in my Difference Engine seminar will remember, multiple problems can be solved in one fell swoop by finding and addressing root causes or surface-level problems. The simplest way to find the root cause is to continuously ask why something is happening until you can’t get any further.
Process, Not People: Gemba Walking is never about blaming the individual. It’s not about one particular person’s performance. Why? Because an individual’s performance (assuming they deserve to be there in the first place) is more a product of the system they’re put into than it is their individual work ethic or ability. Blaming someone solves nothing; addressing the underlying causes affecting their performance is the only way to see real improvement.
What does a Gemba Walk look like outside of the factory? Let’s explore an example from my own life.
I’ve been developing the habit of cleaning my desk before I leave work each day.
In the beginning this was simply for peace of mind; I prefer a tidy desk, especially in the morning, when I tend to be most productive.
It’s a simple process: before I leave work I spend 5 minutes moving mail off my desk and onto a chair, putting pens away, arranging notebooks, putting books back on shelves, etc.
After the 7th consecutive day of moving mail off of my desk and onto a chair, however, it occurred to me that I could transform this cleaning process into a Gemba Walk by adding one additional step:
Why am I moving this mail off my desk every day?
Well…because I don’t have a mailbox, someone slides new mail under my door.
And I don’t want to leave it there, because I’ll step on it. Since I see it on my way to the desk when I come in each morning, I just….put it on the desk.
I don’t like having it on the desk, but I’m afraid that if I put it away somewhere I’ll forget about it. So it stays on my desk.
My schedule is pretty packed lately, so I haven’t had much time at work to do anything outside of my scheduled tasks. That means that the mail on my desk piles up over time.
When the pile stresses me out, I move it to the chair, because the chair is still in view.
Asking “why” something is happening can reveal a series of interlocking causes beneath the surface of even the simplest problem.
For the above, I pinpointed two primary issues:
There was no time scheduled to deal with my mail;
There was no dedicated place to put the mail.
Putting some mail time on my calendar on Fridays took care of problem number one; buying a wire basket took care of problem number two.
What’s the value of a process like this?
For one, performing regular Gemba Walks through the various parts of your life can be deeply transformative.
We don’t realize the effect these “little nuisances” have on us. These little problems all take a toll on our cognitive capacity.
Secondly, fixing these issues not just at the surface-level but at their root, can have significant second-order effects that we don’t anticipate.
I am extremely bad at processing my mail. I pay bills late, ignore tax notices, accidentally throw away checks.
Fixing my mail problem will lead to increased income over time, since I’ll be paying fewer late fees and interest. My overall stress levels will decline, since I’ll actually be on top of my taxes instead of waiting until the last possible second… And I’ll feel happier and more productive on average.
Gemba Walks are a way of practicing systems thinking.
They teach us to deal with problems not just as they present themselves to us, but as the final manifestation of a web of systems interactions. They teach us that the “little things” are often symptoms of larger, more serious issues…and that it’s pointless to blame ourselves without addressing the systems we’re enmeshed in.
Making a regular practice of improving our lives from the group up is what Gemba Walks are all about.
And that’s something that I, at the very least, need more of.
The article does a good job of pointing at some of the more problematic aspects of online “productivity” culture. This section, in particular, forms the basis of my own productivity system (lovingly named Personal DanBan), as does Gemba Walking. I’m hoping to make a course on that system this year.
“Consider instead a system that externalizes work. Following the lead of software developers, we might use virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time. With this setup, optimization becomes possible.”
This post is about the election, but it is NOT about politics.
I would really, really appreciate it if you would give this one a read.
Grab a coffee, get a quiet place, and give me a bit of your time. Even if you’re sick of the news by now.
If you like it, please do me a favor and share it with someone who’d like it.
OK? OK. 🙂
—- Should I extend empathy to my enemies? —-
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
It’s been quite the week, eh?
Emotions have run high during this election. The electorate is more driven, more engaged, and more motivated than ever before (at least, as measured by voter turnout, which sites at a record high of 72.1% as of this writing).
As a result, the reaction to the A.P.s call for a Biden victory was also extremely strong.
I am not going to talk about the election itself, or the decision to call the race despite the Trump administration’s legal challenges, in this email. If you’ve been repeatedly “doomscrolling” or “joyscrolling” over the past few days, this is something different.
I want to talk about us.
You know. The People.
I want to talk about what this election – and our politics in general – is doing to us.
And I want to start with empathy.
It wasn’t long after the A.P. announced their results that I started seeing reactions like these all over Twitter:
(Below are a few random samples from my timeline)
It’s very clear that many on the left don’t feel empathetically inclined to those who support or voted for Trump.
For many who remember the feeling of disillusionment that followed the 2016 election – and the mockery that came after…
…2020 feels like a time to even the score.
They don’t deserve empathy because they would never give it to us.
Let me make an argument:
This is completely the wrong way to go.
I know emotions are high, and changes are that if you’re a Biden voter, you’re not feeling particularly forgiving.
And if you’re a Trump voter, you probably don’t think “the left” has any empathy in them, anyway.
Wherever you fall on that spectrum, give me this email to make my case. Let’s start at the beginning:
What is empathy?
Empathy is Not Sympathy
Empathy is a form of perspective-taking.
Former FBI hostage-negotiator Chris Voss defines empathy to his students as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.”
It’s critical to understand that when we discuss empathy, we do not mean “sympathy,” which is feeling someone else’s feelings.
Neither is empathizing the same as agreeing. Empathy does mean that we accept or validate another person’s thoughts or feelings. We don’t even need to understand why the person feels the way that they do.
The core element of empathy is presence. We are truly present, here, in the moment, aware of what the other person is experiencing. We try to perceive it as clearly as possible, without judgement, and reflect that perception back.
So…if empathy is not agreement or understanding, why is it so important?
1. Empathy is the beginning of all communication; 2. Empathy is tactically effective; 3. We need it ourselves.
Failure to Communicate
If you deeply disagree with a great number of your fellow Americans (as I do, on any number of issues)…
The uncomfortable fact remains that they still…you know…get to vote. The virtues of democracy – and it’s endless frustrations – all stem from the fact that we need to accommodate one another. The minority often has power enough to make any change you care about difficult.
And while Joe Biden and the Democrats may be riding high at this very moment, they will still have to get things done. They’ll need the support of Congress, and, sooner or later, they will need the support of some Republicans.
If you care about societal change, you need to convince people to support you.
In other words, you need to communicate.
And all communication begins with empathy.
Note that I didn’t say empathy improves communication, or that it makes communication more effective. Communication literally begins with empathy…and can’t exist without it.
Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, puts it this way:
“When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves….
When people are upset, they often need empathy before they can hear what is being said to them. “
You may disagree with someone’s political beliefs. You may think that all of their suppositions are incorrect. You may think their beliefs are dangerous, or harmful.
But if your goal is to convince them of this fact, you will need to truly hear and reflect back their needs. They will have to feel understood before they can actually hear what you are saying.
If you’ve had an uncomfortable or confrontational political argument lately, this is why. There is little to no actual communication taking place. There is no exchange of ideas, or evaluation of evidence.
Instead, we desperately seek to be understood. We seek a sense of connection and empathy…
But if communication is important to you – and it should be – then it has to start with empathy.
Communication begins with empathy…
But influence is strengthened by it.
If your goal is to “move the needle” of our democracy – to build a coalition, launch a movement, pass a law, or right a wrong – then empathy will be one of the primary tools you use.
Salesmen and women have known this for centuries. In any sales training you ever take, what’s the very first thing you do?
It isn’t list your product features. It isn’t finding the prospect’s pain.
It’s building rapport.
It is a core element of human nature that we’re far more likely to work with people we like, and whom we believe are like us. And empathy gives us a tactical advantage in building that impression.
Let’s return to Chris Voss. Voss was a hostage negotiator for the FBI, and has spent years training people in negotiation tactics. He’s hardly the touchy-feely type. And yet, Voss begins his negotiations in the exact same way laid out in Nonviolent Communication – with empathy.
“Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow.
“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there.
“By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.”
Communication begins with empathy…but influence is strengthened by it. Once people hear what you say, we still need them to change their behavior. It’s one thing to rail on about racists and socialists, but if you actually care about the problems of the world than we need people to do something different. And changing the behavior of humans is notoriously difficult.
Want your kid to stop finger-painting the walls?
Figure out what their needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.
Want your uncle to stop sharing articles about vaccines during Thnaksgiving?
Figure out what his needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.
Once someone feels heard and understood, their defenses come down. They open up – even if just a little bit – to new ideas and experiences. Fight or flight is replaced by receptiveness to influence.
Will you always be successful? Of course not.
But will you do FAR more good in the world? Yes.
And that’s what this is all about, right?
It’s not about winning the argument.
It’s about changing the world.
Finally, there is an even deeper-seated reason we should extend empathy to those we disagree with:
We need it ourselves.
I think often about the James Baldwin quote at the beginning of this email…
“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
Baldwin certainly had more than his share of “open wounds.” He wrote vividly about race, homosexuality, about living in a society that didn’t “see” him.
Ultimately, the practice of empathy is just as much about facing our own wounds as it is about recognizing the wounds of others. And right now there is precious little of that to go around.
I think one of the reasons our public discourse has become so toxic – and why we have become increasingly polarized, with our political positions drifting further and further apart – is that we are all desperately seeking empathy. We need to feel seen, heard, understood; we are social animals by nature, and the feelings of isolation and alienation that are typical of of our current society are experienced as distress.
We feel like we’re under attack all the time, which makes us angry. And the less we feel heard, the angrier we get. The angrier we get, the less capable we are of feeling empathy.
Rosenberg acknowledges this directly:
“It is impossible for us to give something to another if we don’t have it ourselves. Likewise, if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to empathize despite our efforts, it is usually a sign that we are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others.”
Like a playground fight:
You hit me, so I hit you, so you hit me…
On and on until everyone’s got a bloody nose and two black eyes.
Ultimately, we need to give empathy because we need to receive empathy.
Which means that someone needs to go first.
Someone needs to be the one to stop the cycle of recrimination and anger. Someone needs to be the one to stop and listen.
And no – you shouldn’t have to be the one to go first. Those other people should have already done it..
And yes – you have every right to be angry over what they said to you in the past. Over how you were treated. It was unfair, and unjust.
And yes – the other side has acted badly in the past. You have been mischaracterized. Words have been put in your mouth. None of that was right.
But the fact remains that unless someone goes first, you will never get what you need.
You won’t be able to communciate.
You won’t be able to persuade.
You won’t be understood.
Children are obsessed with “fairness” – with evening the score, with everything being equal.
“He hit me, so I hit him” is the oldest moral code known to man – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is deep inside our collective subconscious. But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s effective.
It won’t make the world a better place. And it certainly won’t advance YOUR agenda over anything except the shortest of terms.
Get rid of fairness. Get rid of what you “shouldn’t have to” do. Get rid of the past.
If you want to make the world a better place, you will need to start with empathy.
Extend empathy to Trump supporters who told you “Fuck Your Feelings” for the last four years.
Extend empathy to the Biden supporters who called you a racist for the last four years.
My crime was naively wandering into the world of online conspiracies, believing I could set things right with “better information.”
Here’s the story:
A mixed martial arts account I followed on Instagram posted a story about a California law called “SB-145.”
The post claimed that SB-145 “legalized pedophilia” as long as the criminal was “within 10 years of the age of the victim.”
If that sounds insane to you, that’s because it is.
Who would pass such a law?
Who could possibly benefit politically from such a thing?
Why wouldn’t every single TV station and newspaper be screaming about it?
The experience was very similar to the one I described in Just Perfect, where I wrote about the Kevin Carter story:
“We are much less likely to give it the scrutiny it deserves when it reinforces our preconceived notions about how the world works.
…to create any narrative – be it historical, or social, or personal – we must first sand down the edges of reality.
The problem with the internet is that in all it’s chaos, it’s very easy to miss the narratives…
And mistake them for reality.
So the next time you find yourself immersed in something that seems too good to be true, too perfect, too chef’s kiss….
‘Is this real?
Or is it Just Perfect?’”
After a brief Google search, I discovered a few things:
– SB145 in no way legalizes sex with minors. Sex with any minor remains illegal in California.
– Existing law in California already gave prosecutors some leeway in deciding whether to charge offenders with a felony or a misdemeanor in cases where vaginal penetration was present.
– This meant that gay teens, having sex underage, would always be charged with felonies, while heterosexual teens could receive leniency if the court felt it was called for. SB-145 sought to remedy this.
– The 10 year age gap is in the law to make sure it doesn’t get applied past a certain age range, regardless of the particulars of the situation.
My “crime” – for which I was harassed, bullied, stalked, etc – was posting the text of the bill in question on the original post.
Now, maybe you think SB-145 is a terrible idea. Maybe you think it’s great.
Maybe you think the age range should be larger, or smaller, or shouldn’t be there at all.
These are all perfectly reasonable positions to hold. Debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and should be encouraged.
What isn’t a valid position to hold is that all interpretations of reality are equal, and any rebuttal of your position is evidence of a satanic conspiracy to kidnap your children.
Irrationality is not new.
Mob mentality is not new.
In-group thinking and “logic-proof compartments” are not new.
What is new is the extent to which the internet makes irrationality viral.
Case in point:
After my comment on the original post because a flash-point for harassment, I blocked the account in question and everyone involved.
Done and done, right?
People found my comment, then created fake accounts to make wild allegations on my personal profile.
Other people – unconnected in any way – saw these comments, then commented on them, raising their visibility.
Still other people saw those comments, and soon there was a post on Reddit, asking about the “allegations” against me.
“I can’t find anything on Google,” one post read. “Does anyone know anything? It’s really disturbing, if true.”
Disturbing, if true.
People responded, expressing dismay, wondering if I was secretly a monster this whole time.
Because there must be something to it, right?
After all, there were all these comments…
…And where there’s smoke, there must be fire.
See what happened here?
An idea, with zero evidence, zero connection to reality…
Had somehow manifested itself into reality.
If I hadn’t taken steps to remove the content in question, it would still be out there…
Providing a form of “evidence” to those who sought it out.
Smoke, implying fire.
From this irritating, idiotic, and frustrating experience…
I learned a secret of Power.
Here it is:
You can gain power by becoming expensive to deal with.
Michael Korda wrote about this in his manual of “corporate warfare”, conveniently titled Power:
“A person who has required the reputation for being hysterical, thin-skinned and oversensitive will usually get a raise or a larger office more easily than a placid worker, for the excellent reason that no on wants to provoke a nasty scene….
When you’ve got treat somebody with kid gloves all the time, you pay more attention to them than you would to somebody else, and in the long run, they get more.”
True of the individual…and doubly true of the mob.
Irrationality, mob mentality, herd dynamics…
Whatever you want to call it, it spreads because regular people choose to do and say nothing.
Because it’s simply too expensive.
Most people are simply trying to live their lives. They don’t want to be stressed, or worried, or looking over their shoulders all the time.
Commenting on someone’s online profile may not seem like a big deal; amplified across dozens or hundreds of accounts, it can be terrifying. It is a “tax” on speech – making it just painful enough to speak up or speak out that regular people choose to look the other way.
In the incredible Among The Thugs, Bill Buford describes how large, unruly gangs of soccer “hooligans” would get to games via train, despite not having any money:
They’d simply make it difficult to make them pay.
“They’d scream, holler, and make a fuss. They’d crowd into trains in large throngs, so that it was impossible to pick out any individual. Instead of handing over a ticket when asked, they’d make a game of handing over something else – a sock, some belly-button lint, a cigarette – until the ticket-taker simply moved on…
‘[The gangs] had learned two principles about human nature—especially human nature as it had evolved in Britain.
The first was that no public functionary, and certainly not one employed by British Rail or London Transport, wants a difficult confrontation—there is little pride in a job that the functionary believes to be underpaid and knows to be unrewarding and that he wants to finish so that he can go home.
The second principle was the more important: everyone—including the police—is powerless against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules.
Or put another way: with numbers there are no laws.“
To be clear:
I don’t think I’m “better” than these people.
I don’t think I’m “above” irrationality or the rush of the mob.
We all get fired up by misleading news stories, share articles we haven’t read, form opinions on things we barely understand.
But we have an ethical responsibility to resist, as much as possible, the lure of the irrational.
The alternative is not simply misinformation…
It is destruction.
Eugene Ionesco knew this.
The avant-garde playwright had watched his homeland of Romania fall under the sway of fascism.
He wrote vividly about the experience in his haunting play, Rhinoceros.
In Rhinoceros, Berenger, the everyman main character, watches in horror as the citizens of his small town all gradually transform into rhinoceroses.
BERENGER: [He opens the staircase door and goes and knocks at the landing door; he bangs repeatedly on it with his fist.] There’s a rhinoceros in the building! Get the police!
OLD MAN: [poking his head out] What’s the matter?
BERENGER: Get the police! There’s a rhinoceros in the house!
VOICE OF OLD MAN’S WIFE: What are you up to, Jean? Why are you making all that noise?
OLD MAN: [to his wife] I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s seen a rhinoceros.
BERENGER: Yes, here in the house. Get the police!
OLD MAN: What do you think you’re up to, disturbing people like that. What a way to behave! [He shuts the door in his face.]
The horror is magnified by the fact that nobody seems particularly upset about this transformation.
The intellectuals rationalize and explain it.
The religious adopt a posture of resignation.
The political assure him that there are “good points on both sides.”
DUDARD: Oh stop thinking about it. Really, you attach too much importance to the whole business. Jean’s case isn’t symptomatic, he’s not a typical case—you said yourself he was proud. In my opinion—if you’ll excuse me saying this about your friend—he was far too excitable, a bit wild, an eccentric. You mustn’t base your judgments on exceptions. It’s the average case you must consider.
BERENGER: I’m beginning to see daylight. You see, you couldn’t explain this phenomenon to me. And yet you just provided me with a plausible explanation. Yes, of course, he must have been in a critical condition to have got himself into that state. He must have been temporarily unbalanced.
At some point, the balance is tipped; people switch from explaining and excusing the rhinoceroses to accommodating them.
Bewilderment becomes resignation, which becomes acceptance.
Before long, only Berenger is left. The streets are overrun:
BERENGER: There’s a whole herd of them in the street now! An army of rhinoceroses, surging up the avenue…! [He looks all around.] Where can I get out? Where can I get out? If only they’d keep to the middle of the road! They’re all over the pavement as well.
Where can I get out?
Where can I get out?
Of course, by then, it’s too late.
With numbers, there are no laws.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Nowhere is it written that we have to give in to our worst impulses:
Our tendency to trust what’s in print (regardless of who wrote it…)
Our tendency to jump to conclusions (regardless of whether we understand the issue…)
Our tendency to dehumanize our intellectual opponents (regardless of whether we know them or not…)
Our tendency to lose ourselves…
And become the rhinoceros.
Nowhere is it written that it must be so.
How do we resist?
How do we fight?
How do we retain what makes us reasonable, what unites us as citizens, what makes us human?
For one, we can simply hold ourselves to a higher standard.
To stop, as I have, sharing articles we haven’t read completely.
We can require a higher level of journalistic integrity from our news sources.
We can keep an open mind, especially on complex issues.
To admit, without shame, that the world is complicated and that we’re probably wrong.
But I also think we need to admit that these conversations –
the important ones, like the one we’re having right now, you and I –
These conversations can’t happen on social media.
Every aspect of the online experience makes deep and reasonable conversation unlikely, if not impossible.
These platforms pretend to be the “town square,” a place for people to meet, exchange ideas, and debate…
But they aren’t.
At worst, they are Skinner Boxes, rewarding our very worst tendencies.
They are the city streets upon which the rhinoceroses trample each other.
We can do better. Be better.
Build something better.
This is me, trying to build something.
A place for thought.
For becoming a better person.
For intellectual humility.
Is it working?
I don’t know.
But I am trying.
And you can do the same.
Could be a conversation at the dinner table…
Could be a text-chain with friends…
Could be a book you pass to a colleague…
Or holding yourself to a higher standard when you debate politics.
You make your way to your desk, shoulders back, conscious of your posture, your smile, keeping a brisk, “can do” attitude about you.
You look out.
They’re all spread out. Some have their heads down. Others are lounging with their feet outstretched, sending an unmistakable message:
“We don’t want you here.”
Some have piercings. Others seem quiet. Still others look ready to go, but not wanting to seem too eager. Can’t know what the others would say, after all.
A pencil, restlessly tapping.
One whispers to another. They laugh.
If I don’t turn this class around, you think, none of these kids are going to graduate.
How do you do it?
Every year, all across the country, teachers –
(You know, that profession that we all agree is critical for the functioning of a healthy democracy? The one we can’t manage to pay very much?)
– face situations like this one.
It’s scary, and frustrating, and difficult, and rewarding – all at the same time.
But really, this situation isn’t much difficult from ANY situation where we need to change things for the better.
You come in with high hopes. You KNOW there’s a gap between where things are and where they should be.
Imagine you’re this new teacher. You’ve got this room full of vaguely-threatening, disrespectful, unmotivated kids. You know for a fact that if you fail them – if you can’t make this happen – they’ll all be worse-off.
How do we go about making a change?
First things first – we need to know how we’re being graded. We need a measure.
It might be scores on a standardized test.
It might be their grade point average.
It might be improvement in reading.
While some measures might be better than others, we need a measure, regardless.
Once we’ve determined a measure, we need to understand what our current score is. In other words, we need a baseline.
If we have an objective standard we’re trying to meet, we need to know how far off we are.
Once we know how we’re being measured, and we know where we currently stand…
We need to know where we’re going.
In other words, we need a standard.
What does our score need to be to qualify as a success?
Are we far behind? Just a tad off?
Knowing which it is will determine a lot about how we proceed.
1. Defining the measure;
2. Establishing a baseline;
3. Setting a standard…
…is the starting point of all improvement.
It’s not just a way of trying to improve a class, but the exact same framework you’d use to start a business, perfect your physique, learn a language, or colonize Mars.
Is the starting point of everything.
The foundation of all success.
And we can summarize it in one word:
I’d like to switch subjects for just a moment, to:
(And yes – I bet you know where this is going…)
The birth of scientific forestry.
The 18th century in Europe was one of rationalization.
Everywhere, science and mathematics were being applied to traditional practices. The hope was that, by applying reason and modern knowledge to time-honored ways of doing things, progress could be accelerated.
Scientific Forestry was the name for this process of rationalization as applied to traditional forestry practices.
If you were a landholding noble in the 17th century, forests were incredibly important. Wood was the primary fuel source, important not just for heating your keep in the winter but also as an engine of war. Fire was necessary for metal smelting, not to mention crafting arrows.
Imagine that your neighbor, the Duchess of Flapjack, had been making sorties into your territory. War seems to be on the horizon. It’s critical that you begin to marshal your forces and make preparations.
A steady supply of wood will be instrumental to your success. But how much wood can you expect from the nearby forests this year?
This question of wood production was incredibly difficult to answer. Oftentimes the exact outline of a forest was unclear. How big was it, exactly? What kind of trees were in it?
Local people had a rough idea – one that perfectly suited their traditional uses of that particular resource – but nothing approaching the accuracy required by local government.
Enter scientific forestry.
Assayers were dispatched to establish the exact boundaries of a forest. Tree counters wandered around, marking trees and making exact tallies. Experiments were conducted to figure out how many cords of wood could be expected from a certain species of tree over a given period of time. “Top Producers” were ascertained.
For the forest scientists (Forstwissenschaftler) the goal was always to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”
A measure was defined (cords of wood produced…)
A baseline was recorded (historically, the forest produces X cords of wood…)
And a standard was established (could we somehow engineer an increase to 2X cords of wood?)
Entities were named, scored, measured and tallied.
The chaos of the forest became legible.
It is through these layers of abstraction – these human categorizations – that an incredibly complex reality becomes real to us for the first time. We are literally able to see the trees within the forest.
Heinrich Cotta – the father of scientific forestry – had a word for this new, abstracted forest entity: the Normalbaum.
Cotta and his followers used this layer of abstraction to apply scientific principles to the management of natural resources. Thinking in terms of Normalbaum – of, not a tree, with all it’s inherent complexity, but of a number on a spreadsheet – allowed a kind of “forest accounting” to emerge.
As Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider write in The Quatifying Spirit of the 18th Century:
”The annual accounting of the bureaucrat had to be linked with a long-term plan of resource management based on scientific principles. One prominent Forstwissenschaftler , Friedrich von Burgsdorf, called the common problem “keeping the forest’s books,” and defined procedures to follow in terms of the quantities of interest to forestry science. The bond between forestry science and cameralism was the conversion from an amount of wood to its value. From that point, the practitioners could go their separate ways, the cameral official to the preparation of the Geld-Etat , or monetary budget, and the forestry scientist to the Forst-Etat , the budget that compared the yield to what the forest could bear over time.“
It is hard to underestimate what a revolution this was – and what a monumental effect it had on forestry the world over.
Once mathematical abstractions made the forest and it’s output legible, forest scientists began to experiment with different methods of management.
Undergrowth and brush were cleared away.
Insects that damaged valuable tree species were eradicated.
Less-productive trees were replaced by better-producing ones.
And, finally, trees were planted in grids to allow easier access and better care.
Germany (where Cotta’s teachings were implemented) experienced record yields. Their wood production dwarfed that of neighboring states, and provided a lasting economic benefit.
Scientific forestry became the dominant model of natural resource management the world over. Many of Cotta’s principles are still in use today.
Historian Henry Lowood observed (as quoted by James Scott in Seeing Like a State):
These innovations “produced the monocultural, even-age forests that eventually transformed the Normalbaum from abstraction to reality. The German forest became the archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well-managed forest; in turn the rationally ordered arrangements of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature.”
In the beginning, there was the forest;
In the end, there was the Normalbaum.
The abstraction had become reality.
We will finish the story of the Normalbaum next week…
For now, let’s return to the concept of Legibility.
The universe that surrounds us is infinitely complex.
Through interaction, even seemingly simple systems can take on breath-taking levels of dynamic variance.
In other words:
The world is fucking confusing.
Without legibility, this world is too complex to affect, too complicated for man or woman to master.
It’s a world that is, at it’s depth, religious; dominated by old gods.
The application of abstraction is, in this sense, mankind’s greatest skill. Simplification begets pattern recognition; pattern recognition begets improvement.
It is for this reason that legibility is the foundation of all improvement, all creation, all invention, all progress.
To close the loop on our well-meaning new teacher:
How do we improve the performance of the class?
Well, first, we probably want to figure out their names.
You’ll probably make a seating chart, and ask everyone to stay in the same seat all year. That way, you’ll memorize their names faster.
Makes the class a little less intimidating.
Maybe you have a conversation with each student individually.
What struggles are they facing?
What are they good at? What’s hard for them?
The picture becomes a bit clearer for each student. You have a little more context now. A little more understanding.
You check with an administrator. It turns out, each of them needs a minimum 3.0 GPA to graduate this year.
That’s your measure. Now you know how progress will be judged.
You go around to each of their teachers, tallying their existing grades and doing some math. You figure out everyone’s existing GPA. The class average is only a 2.0.
That’s your baseline. That’s where you’re starting from.
You now know that for each kid to graduate, they’ll need to raise their individual GPAs to 3.0. You resolve not to let a single kid fail.
That’s your standard.
All attempts at improvement must start with legibility.
You can’t get the kids to graduate without learning their names.
O! Wanderers in the shadowed land Despair not! For though dark they stand, All woods there be must end at last, And see the open sun go past: The setting sun, the rising sun, The day’s end, or the day begun. For east or west all woods must fail. J. R. R. Tolkien
You wake suddenly into a room you do not recognize.
This is not your bed.
Not your dresser.
Not your table.
The floor is rough-hewn wood. There are windows, but they are opaque. Light filters through, but nothing of the environment is visible.
You blink; you give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts, to remember. Nothing comes.
You cautiously place a foot on the floor: cool, smooth, unfamiliar.
You tiptoe to the bedroom door.
The knob is large, brass. It looks ancient.
Above the door knob is a large brass plate. In it’s center there is a keyhole. You bend down.
You close one eye and peer out.
What’s on the other side of the door?
Forest forever, in every direction.
For all our pretending…
Our intellectual strutting and preening, Our claims of omnipotence and rationality, our technological marvels and accomplishments…
The world is as uncertain as ever.
Whenever humanity’s understanding seems to encroach, fast and sure, onto the ends of the universe… I try to remind myself of the scale of what we’re discussing.
I think about chess.
Chess has 16 pieces per player and 64 spaces.
The rules are defined.
Everything that needs to be known is known.
But there are more potential games of chess than there are subatomic particles in the universe. It is infinite…
Despite its simplicity.
That’s been my biggest takeaway from studying game theory, risk, and COVID-19 these past few months:
The universe of unknown unknowns is impossibly vast…
Even if we understand the pieces.
Even if we think we understand how they all fits together.
I’ll give you one more example, before we head off into the forest in search of practical solutions… Isaac Newton published the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In it, he proposed three laws of motion:
1: An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.
2: The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by its acceleration.
3: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
We’ve had 333 years to sit and think about these laws.
In that time, we’ve managed to invent computers with computational powers exceeding anything a human being is capable of.
With these tools – Newton’s Laws and our computers – we can precisely model the movements of bodies through space.
If we know their starting points and their velocities, we can perfectly plot the paths they’ll take. We can literally calculate their future.
Of course, for each body we add into the problem, the calculations get more complex. Eventually the system interactions become so intricate that it is impossible to calculate. It becomes chaotic, non-repeating.
How many bodies does it take for the problem to become incalculable?
With our 333 years of pondering Newton’s Laws?
With our super-powerful computers?
With all the human knowledge in all the world?
How many bodies?
The door swings open.
It creaks, briefly, but the sound fades, absorbed into the thick, humid air.
Tress in every direction. They are massive, towering things.
Sun filters through the pine needles and dapples the ground like so many little spotlights. It’s not morning, but it’s hard to tell exactly where the sun is overhead.
The trees seem to come straight up to the door. There’s room to walk, but only just. It should feel oppressive, like they are crowding you. Instead, it feels like you’ve interrupted a conversation.
You step out; the forest floor is soft and dry. As you look around, the door behind you swings shut.
You reach out, but it latches. You try to open it but it’s locked.
You take a breath and hold it.
The sweet taste of undergrowth, copper in the soil, a sense memory of an old Christmas tree.
Which way do you go?
Complexity at the root of the universe.
So uncertainty is at the root of the universe.
So anxiety is at the root of the universe.
Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to the impossible task of trying to understand and predict a chaotic infinity of possibilities…
With a very limited, very non-infinite mind.
Despite that fact, we all have to wake up each day and do what needs to be done; to honor our commitments to ourselves and one another.
How do we navigate an uncertain world?
We choose the best path we can with the minimum amount of anxiety.
We use simple systems that allow us to quickly compare risks across categories.
We acknowledge our tendency to endlessly re-think, re-play, and re-consider our decisions…
And figure out how to let go.
We do the best we can, while minimizing our chances of losing too much.
Exactly how you can use these ideas to get a simple, practical estimate of how much risk you are willing to take on…
And to use that estimate to help you make the everyday decisions that affect your life.
You walk until you get tired.
Something’s wrong, but you’re not sure what.
You don’t know where you are, so you could’ve chosen any direction at all.
You decided to simply go wherever the forest seems less dense, more open.
After a while (hours? days?) the trees have gotten further and further apart.
The slightly-more-open terrain has made walking easier.
You’re making more progress; towards what, you don’t know.
Every now and then you reach out to touch one of the passing trees; to trail your fingers along its bark.
The rough bumps and edges give you some textural variation, a way of marking the passing of time.
You look up. The sun doesn’t seem to have moved.
The sunlight still dapples. It’s neither hot nor cold. It isn’t much of anything.
Then you realize:
You haven’t heard a single sound since you’ve been out here.
Not even your own footsteps.
Every good heuristic has a few components:
A way to search for the information we need…
A clear point at which to stop…
And a way to decide.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
We’ve discussed the “fog of pandemic” at length over the past few months.
With so much information, from so many sources, how do we know what to trust?
How do we know what’s real?
The truth is,
In the moment, it is impossible to determine what’s “true” or “false.” As a group we may slowly get more accurate over time. Useful information builds up and gradually forces out less-useful information.
But none of that helps us right here, right now – which is when we have to make our decisions.
So what do we do?
We apply a heuristic to the search for information.
What does this mean?
Put simply: set a basic criteria for when you’ll take a piece of information seriously, and ignore everything that doesn’t meet that criteria.
Here’s an example of such a heuristic:
Take information seriously only when it is reported by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Why does this work?
1. These are “credible” sources that are forced to fact-check their work.
2. These sources are widely monitored and criticized, meaning that low-quality information will often be called out.
3. These sources are moderate-left (NYT) and moderate-right (WSJ). Thus, information that appears in both will be less partisan on average.
While this approach to vetting information might be less accurate than, say, reading all of the best epidemiological journals and carefully weighing the evidence cited….
Have you ever actually done that?
Has anyone you know ever done that?
Have half the people on Twitter who SAY they’ve done that, actually done that?
Our goal is not only to make the best decisions possible…
It’s to decrease our anxiety along the way.
Using a simple search heuristic allows us to filter information quickly, discarding the vast majority of noise and focusing as much as possible on whatever signal there is.
You don’t have to use my heuristic; you can make your own.
Swap in any two ideologically-competing and well-known sources for the NYT and the WSJ. Specifically, focus on publications that have:
– A public-facing corrections process – A fact-checking process – Social pressure (people get upset when they “get it wrong”) – Differing ideological bents – Print versions (television and internet tend to be too fast to properly fact-check)
Whenever a piece of information needs to be assessed, ask:
Is this information reported in both of my chosen sources?
If not, ignore it and live your life.
When do you stop looking for more information, and simply make a decision? This is a complicated problem. It’s even got it’s own corner of mathematics, called optimal stopping.
In our case, we need a way to prevent information overload…the constant sense of revision that happens when we’re buffeted by an endless stream of op-eds, breaking news, and recent developments.
The key to reducing the amount of anxiety caused by the news is to slow it’s pulse.
If we control the pace at which information flows into our lives, we control the rate at which we need to process that information and reduce the cognitive load it requires.
My preferred pace is once a week.
I get the paper every Sunday. I like the Sunday paper because it summarizes the week’s news. Anything important that happened that week shows up in the Sunday paper in some shape or form.
The corollary is that I deliberately avoid the news every other day of the week.
No paper, no radio, no TV news, nothing online.
This gives me mental space to pursue my own goals while keeping me informed and preventing burnout.
Presuming that we’re controlling the regular pulse of information into our lives, we also need a stopping point for decision making.
Re-examining your risk management every single week is too much.
Not only is it impractical, it predisposes us to over-fitting – trying too hard to match our mental models to the incoming stream of data.
My recommendation for now is to re-examine your COVID risk management decisions once a month.
Once a month is enough to stay flexible, which I think is necessary in an environment that changes so rapidly.
But it’s not so aggressive that it encourages over-fitting, or causes too much anxiety.
We are treating our risk management like long-term investments.
Check on your portfolio once a month to make sure things are OK, but put it completely out of your head the rest of the time.
You walk on, always following the less-wooded trail.
The trees are more sparse now.
It’s easier to walk, easier to make your way.
Eventually, you come to a clearing.
Your legs ache. You find a small log and sit down, taking a breath.
The air is warm. It hangs over you.
You breathe again.
Your eyes close.
Maybe you sleep.
You’re not sure.
None of it seems real.
Maybe you’re still dreaming.
But maybe you aren’t.
You could lie down, here. The ground is soft. There’s a place to comfortably lay your head. It would be easy enough to drift away. It would be pleasant.
Or, you could push on.
Maybe progress is being made.
Maybe it isn’t that far.
But maybe it is.
We come now to the final stage of our process – deciding.
We’ve set parameters for how we’ll search for information…
And rules for how we’ll stop searching.
Now we need to use the information we take in to make useful inferences about the world – and use those inferences to determine our behavior.
This stage has a bit more steps to it.
Here’s the outline:
1. Get a ballpark risk estimate using micromorts for your state. 2. Play the common knowledge game. 3. Establish the personal costs of different decisions within your control. 4. Choose the decision that minimizes the chances of your worst-case scenario.
Let’s break each of these down in turn.
1. Get a ballpark risk estimate using micromorts for your state.
I’ve actually built you a handy COVID-19 Micromort Calculator that will calculate your micromorts per day and month based on your state’s COVID-19 data.
But if you don’t want to use my calculator, here’s how to do this on your own:
– Find the COVID-19 related deaths in your state for the last 30 days. Why your state? Because COVID-19 is highly variable depending on where you live.
– Find the population of your state (just google “My State population” and it should come right up).
Take a look at the list and figure out how much risk we’re really talking about. For example, the risk level in the image above is 4.63 micromorts – let’s round that to 5. That means that I have about as much risk of dying from COVID-19 as I would of dying during a scuba dive, and more risk than I’d take on during a rock climb.
It’s also riskier than would be allowed at a workplace in the UK.
However, it’s less risky than going under general anesthetic, or skydiving.
Keep in mind, however, that these risks are per day.
Comparing apples to apples, I can ask:
“My COVID-19 risk is equivalent to the risk of going scuba diving every single day. Is that an acceptable risk level for me?”
2. Play the common knowledge game.
Now that we’ve got a rough estimate of risk, let’s think about other people. You know.
Statistical risk matters, obviously.
But COVID-19 has a unique property:
If I’m riding a motorcycle, my risk does not increase if other people ride motorcycles, too.
For COVID-19? The actions of others have a big effect on my personal risk level.
This is where the common knowledge game comes in handy.
We need to weigh what we think other people will do.
As an example:
My own state, Connecticut, has seen declining case numbers of COVID-19 for a few months now. That gradual decline has led to a loosening of restrictions and a general increase in economic activity.
And that’s great!
But when it comes to sending our child to school next year, I’m still extremely worried.
Because I’m assuming that other people will see the declining case count as an indication that they can take on more risk.
What happens when people take on more risk in a pandemic?
Case numbers go up.
I ran into a similar issue early in the pandemic with regards to where I work.
I have a small office in a building downtown.
My room is private but other people share the space immediately outside my door. Throughout the highest-risk days of the pandemic, when everyone else was staying home, I kept coming into the office to work.
Because everyone else was staying home.
They reacted rationally to the risks, and so my office building was empty. Since it was only me, my personal risk remained low.
Now that risk levels are lower, people have started coming back to work…
Which means I am now more likely to work from home.
My actual risk remains the same, or higher, since more people have COVID-19 now than they did in the beginning.
But because case counts are declining, people feel safer and are more likely to come into the office, increasing my exposure.
Statistical risk matters…
But so does what other people do about that risk.
While our micromort number is extremely useful, we need to run it through a filter:
How do I think the people around me will react to this level of risk?
What is “common knowledge” about our risk level?
What are the “missionaries” (news sources that everyone believes everyone listens to) saying, and how will that affect behavior?
Factor this into your decision-making.
You keep moving.
Little by little, the ground becomes a trail, and the trail becomes a path.
Have other people been this way?
It’s hard to tell.
Maybe just deer.
But it’s a path. A way forward.
You think you detect some slight movement in the sun overhead.
Maybe, just maybe, time is passing after all.
With the path, there’s something to cut through the sameness – some way to judge distance.
Forward movement is forward movement.
You keep moving.
And then, something you never expected:
One to the left, one to the right.
They each gently curve in opposite directions. You can’t see where they lead.
Something touches your back.
Wind? you wonder. Was it always there?
Which way do I go?
3. Establish the personal costs of different decisions within your control.
We’ve thought about risk, and we’ve thought about how other people will react.
Let’s take a moment to think about costs.
Every decision carries a cost.
It could simply be an opportunity cost (“If I do this, I can’t do this other thing…”)
Or the cost could be more tangible (“If I don’t go to work, I’ll lose my job.”)
One of the things that’s irritating about our discourse over COVID-19 is the extent to which people seem to assume that any action is obviously the right way to go…while ignoring it’s costs.
Yes, lockdowns carry very real costs – economic, emotional, physical.
Yes, not going into lockdowns carries very real costs – hospitalizations, deaths, economic losses.
Even wearing masks – something I am 100% in favor of – has costs. It’s uncomfortable for some, hampers social interaction, is inconvenient, etc.
We can’t act rationally if we don’t consider the costs.
So let’s do that.
Think through your potential outcomes.
You could get sick.
You could die.
There’s always that.
Maybe the kids miss a year of school.
What would the emotional repercussions be?
Could you lose your job?
Have trouble paying bills?
What if there are long-term health effects?
What if the supply chain gets disrupted again…what if food becomes hard to find?
Think everything through.
Feel free to be dire and gloomy here…we’re looking for worst-case scenarios, not what is likely to happen.
Once you’ve spent some time figuring this out, make a quick list of your worst-cases.
Feel them emotionally.
We’re not looking to be most rational here. We’re getting in touch with our emotional reality.
We’re not saying, “What’s best for society? What do people want me to do?”
Which of these scenarios would cause me the most regret?
Regret is a powerful emotion.
It is both social and personal. In many cases, we would rather feel pain than regret.
“Tis better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”
Rank your potential outcomes by “most regret” to “least regret.”
Which one is at the top?
Which outcome would you most regret?
THAT’S your worst-case scenario.
4. Choose the decision that minimizes the chances of your worst-case scenario.
Once you know:
– your rough statistical risk (micromorts) – how other people will react (common knowledge game) – and your own worst-case scenario (regret)
…You can start putting a plan in place to minimize your risk.
Here we are utilizing a strategy of “MinMax Regret.”
The goal is not to say “how can I optimize for the best possible scenario”….
…Because that’s difficult to do in such uncertain times.
It’s much easier to simply cover our bases and make sure that we do everything in our power to protect ourselves.
Thinking about your worst case scenario from Step 3, what can you do to ensure it doesn’t happen?
What stays? What goes?
Visiting your parents?
Play dates for the kids?
What are you willing to give up in order to ensure the highest regret scenario doesn’t happen?
My own worst-case scenario?
Getting someone in a high risk category (like my Mom, or my son, who has asthma) sick.
What am I willing to give up to avoid that?
Eating at restaurants is out…
But we’ll get take out and eat outside.
Business trips are out. Easy choice.
I wear a mask.
I haven’t visited my mom, even though we miss her.
Can’t get her sick if we don’t see her.
But I visited my grandmother by talking to her through her window, with a mask on.
I’m not saying these decisions are objectively right or wrong…
But they were consistent with my goal:
Avoid the regret of getting the vulnerable people I love sick.
Once you’ve thought this through…
What’s my current risk?
How will other people react?
What’s my worst case scenario?
What am I willing to give up to minimize the possibility of that happening?
…Set up some ground rules.
What you’ll do, what you won’t.
What you’ll avoid, what you’ll accept.
And then don’t think about it at all until next month.
Give yourself the unimaginable relief…
How long has it been?
Time seems to have stopped.
Or perhaps, moved on.
You keep walking, mostly as a way of asserting control.
My choice. Keep walking.
The path curved for a bit, then it straightened back out.
Slowly, but surely, it got wider and wider…the edges of the forest on either side drifting further and further apart.
It was like a curtain drawing back.
Your eyes were on the road, but as you look up now you realize…. You’re not in the forest anymore.
You’re not even on the path.
It’s open, all around.
Wide, impossibly wide. The sky and the earth touch each other.
Right here, at the beginning of our penultimate COVID-19 email…
I’d like to take a moment to mourn.
It’s very possible you haven’t taken a moment to let it all settle in.
What we’ve lost.
For us, it was Dolly, the wonderful woman who knit my kids caps in the winter and always had a kind word for me.
It was the end of Max’s pre-school year – the sudden vanishing of his friends, teachers, and daily schedule.
It was the loss of Oliver’s birthday party. He loves parties. He’s turning 6 and it feels like a very big deal to him. He doesn’t quite get why no one can be there to celebrate.
It was the surprise 40th birthday party my wife had planned…
The ability for my wife to go to the gym (or, indeed, have any time to herself at all)…
The tension we feel now when a neighbor’s kid comes over to play.
There’s no sense time.
It’s everywhere, constantly.
We’re always afraid, or unsure, or angry, or judgmental, or worried.
For you, it might have been a friend or loved one.
Or your job.
Or your health.
Or maybe it was just the ability to duck out to the store for a few minutes.
To grab a bite to eat and chat with your server.
Whether you measure the cost in lives,
or economic impact,
or disruption of everyday routines,
or the pervasive anxiety and loss that now seem woven into the very fiber of everyday life…
The cost of the Coronavirus pandemic has been high.
And while the actual virus has not been evenly distributed…
There isn’t anyone who hasn’t paid part of that cost.
And I could see you reading this series of emails we’ve been working on and coming away pretty bummed out about the future.
After all, the case we’ve been building has been fairly pessimistic in regards to our ability to understand what we’re going through.
In Bad Priors, I wrote that people primarily understand probabilities by referring to their past experiences (called “priors”).
In Map Meets Territory, I argued that base rates (the average outcomes of similar events) often provide a better view on how the world really works than priors do.
In 8 Months To Live, we complicated that picture a bit by pointing out that individuating data is necessary…even if it sometimes throws us off track.
In No Basis, we discussed the different between risk (where the probabilities are known) and uncertainty (where they aren’t). We also explored ways in which our use of both priors and base rates can lead us astray when the underlying relationships between things change over time.
How should we make decisions? By using statistical analysis for situations of risk, and game theory for situations of uncertainty.
In The Beauty Contest, we discussed one such application of game theory: the common knowledge game, where we act based on what we believe other plays believe.
That begged the question of how we know what other people believe.
In Missionaries, we discussed the role of “common knowledge,” and how injections of information by well-known public authorities can have widespread effects on seemingly-stable systems.
By that point, we’d covered both decision-making tool sets: statistical analysis (priors and base rates) and game theory (common knowledge games being just one example). We then addressed the core problem behind all of this: how can we tell if what we’re facing is risk, or uncertainty?
In False Positive, we discussed zero-risk illusion (where a sense of certainty leads us to overlook probabilities, as with medical testing) and the calculable-risk illusion (where we think we know the odds, but don’t know what we don’t know…as in the “Turkey Problem.”)
In Monty Hall, we brought all of these ideas togethers to discuss the “Monty Hall Problem,” a fascinating riddle that combined probability, statistical analysis, game theory, and, of course, our tendency to confuse which is which.
In All In Our Heads, we finally got around to discussing the virus itself. I argued that part of why COVID-19 is so frustratingly hard to understand is that we mistake the very-public scientific process (which is self-destructive), with “getting it wrong.”
The problem isn’t lack of information, but having too much information with no widely-accepted criteria for choosing what to believe.
That’s led many of us to simply tune-out, or pick whatever interpretation of the data best fits our desired outcome.
Where does this all leave us?
Should we, as I implied in our last email, simply throw up our hands and go to the beach?
If not, when CAN we go to the beach again?
Is there a way of navigating the anxiety, of taking back control over our lives…
Or is it just loss after loss until there’s nothing left?
Because let’s be very, very real for a moment:
Lives are not the only thing we can lose.
Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of another. One of the disturbing effects of COVID-19 has been the way that it has encouraged schadenfreude to make inroads into American life. Do you recognize this guy?
If you recognized him, it’s probably from one of dozens of social media posts that went viral about his death.
His name was Richard Rose.
Rose made several sarcastic, snarky, anti-mask posts on his Facebook timeline.
He then contracted the disease…
…And passed away.
He was 37.
Facebook left his profile up “as a memorial.” Predictably, these last posts now serve as places for people to dunk on Rose post-mortem:
It’s the same on Twitter and Instagram.
Let’s be clear:
1.) I think mask-wearing is an obvious and low-cost way to hopefully lessen the spread of COVID-19.
2.) I’m very tired of the “anti-masker” discourse and find their argument unconvincing.
But you know what else I am?
Mad as hell.
You know what Richard Rose was?
Go through his posts. Scroll down a bit further on the page.
What’s he doing?
Posting dumb-ass memes.
Making corny jokes.
Sharing pictures of nights out with his friends.
Talking about NASCAR.
Are some of his posts tasteless? Yeah.
Do I disagree with most of them? Sure.
Was this guy wrong about a lot of stuff? Probably.
But you know what?
All of us are wrong.
You know who else thought that masks wouldn’t help to fight COVID-19?
The WHO and the CDC.
You know, the “experts” all of us “right thinking” people put our trust in.
They explicitly stated that masks wouldn’t help to fight the spread of coronavirus.
And yeah, maybe Richard Rose didn’t listen to the same experts you do, or watch the same news channels, or read the same papers.
Maybe he didn’t update his priors when he should have.
But I can absolutely guarantee that every single one of us is doing the exact same thing about something.
Maybe not to the same degree. Maybe not about the same issues.
But we’re all doing it.
We’re all wrong.
And you know what?
None of us deserve to die for it.
And Richard Rose didn’t.
He was a 37 year old man.
He had friends.
He had a life.
He had value.
The moment you fall into the trap of hoping – just a little bit – that the other side “gets what’s coming to them…”
That they “learn their lesson…”
And “pay for their mistakes…”
The moment you start wanting to “own the libs…”
Or “shut up the Trumpers…”
More than you want to save lives?
The moment you start caring more about being right than about being human?
You throw away the only tool for change we really have:
Empathy is how we bridge the gap.
Empathy is how we work together to solve problems.
Empathy is how we discover – and fight for – shared values.
Without empathy, there is no “us.”
There is no country.
There is no “greater good.”
There’s just our party vs. their party.
Our numbers vs. their numbers.
And then every conversation looks like this:
What if they had “One foot in the grave?”
Not to be insensitive.
Give up the work of empathy and you start to believe that life matters less if you’re old…
Or you’re fat…
Or you’re a minority…
Or you’re from the wrong part of the country.
The wrong party.
The wrong side of the debate.
The wrong side of history.
You want the country to be less polarized?
You want to push back in the other direction?
Start caring about people more than you care about being right.
Stop treating being wrong as a cardinal sin when THEY do it, and as a simple mistake when WE do it.
Stop dancing on graves and start helping.
Because we can’t do this alone.
The virus can take your life.
But your empathy? Your humanity?
You have to give that away.
Let’s talk numbers.
Despite all my discussion of the self-destructive nature of scientific knowledge..
Of the massive influx of noise into the system…
Of the layer upon layer of game theory and statistics and yadda yadda yadda…
We all still have to decide what we’re going to do.
How we’re going to live.
How much risk to take on.
Do I send the kids back to school?
Is it OK to go to the movies?
We don’t get to opt-out just because it’s hard.
And I think we can all agree:
If the “authorities” were going to swoop in and figure this out, they’d have done it by now.
No one’s coming.
We’re on our own.
This responsibility to constantly choose – to make what feels like they COULD be life or death decisions – can be anxiety-inducing.
Even if you think the whole thing is overblown, navigating the topsy-turvy terrain of our all-new-everyday-lives is exhausting.
Let’s talk strategy.
By the end of these emails, I’m going to try and leave you with a:
1. Simple 2. Concrete 3. Specific 4. Data-driven
…plan for wading through the endless sea of information and planning your OWN Coronavirus mitigation strategy.
To do that, I need to spend a little bit of time introducing you to three more (last!) important concepts:
And MinMax Regret.
Heroin on Mount Everest
Let’s start with a coin flip.
If you flip a coin 20 times, what are the odds you’ll get 20 heads?
It’s about one in a million.
This is a very useful little number.
We each take on roughly a one-in-a-million chance of dying simply by getting out of bed. On average, each person has about a one in a million chance of not making it to suppertime.
That one-in-a-million chance of dying?
That’s a micromort.
Now, your individual risk varies, of course; it changes depending on which country you’re in (it’s actually higher in the US), how old you are, your health, and so on.
But as a unit of risk, it provides a useful jumping off point.
If every assumes about one micromort of risk per day, we can compare the fatality rates of different activities in micromorts.
It becomes a level playing field where assessing risk is easier.
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter in a sitting? One micromort.
You also take one additional micromort for every two days you live in New York City or Boston.
Driving a car gets you one additional micromort for every 100 miles. A motorcycle? That’s 17 micromorts per 100 miles.
Skydiving adds approximately eight to nine micromorts per jump.
Running a marathon? Roughly 7 micromorts per run.
Going swimming? That’s actually 12 micromorts.
Playing American Football gets you 20 micromorts.
Using heroin? 30 micromorts per injection.
Giving birth is worth 170 micromorts.
Scaling Mt. Everest? A whopping 40,000 micromorts.
Of course, your circumstances affect your individual risk.
But calculating individual risk is incredibly complicated.
Micromorts provide us a fast, easy way of comparing risk levels. If you’re an avid football player but would never THINK of injecting heroin, micromorts provide an easy way of comparing the two.
They also provide a useful way of cutting through the statistical noise surrounding COVID-19.
We’ll get to those calculations in a bit…
But even after we tally up our micromorts, we may still have questions:
Are cases going up because of testing, or spread?
Are deaths really surging, or is this a backlog of unreported cases?
Are hospitals getting paid for every COVID-19 death they report?
These are all totally legitimate, interesting questions.
The problem is, neither you nor I have any reliable way of finding out…
And we need to make decisions affecting our safety, and the safety of others…
That brings us to heuristics.
Close Enough For Government Work
My Dad had a saying:
“Close only counts in grenades and horseshoes.”
His point was that “kind of” being right wasn’t enough. Accuracy counts.
And he was right.
As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to have a perfect understanding of what COVID-19 does, or the risks it poses.
Sure, a consensus is slowly forming.
But the consensus has been wrong in the past, and it would be intellectually irresponsible to suggest that we’ve definitely got it right now because “this time it’s different.”
Yes, we need to pay attention to what the experts say. Doctors, epidemiologists, statisticians – these people bring decades of knowledge to bear on a complicated problem.
But complicated problems are just that: complicated.
The good news is that, despite my Dad’s advice, close does count…a lot.
We don’t need a perfect understanding of the future to manage our risk.
After all, we do this every day with our investments.
You split your savings between bonds and stocks, money market and securities. You keep some of it in cash.
You don’t do this because you know what the stock market is going to do. The future is always uncertain.
But we can be certain about that uncertainty.
We don’t have to know exactly what’s going to happen to know that anything could happen. Every day, we accept our inability to predict the future and adjust our strategies accordingly.
How? We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
For investing, it’s “invest more in bonds as you get closer to retirement.”
Simple, straight forward, no crystal ball necessary.
And, there’s research that shows that general rules of thumb (or “heuristics”) perform just as well or better than complicated mathematical decision models that try to predict the future.
In cognitive science there is something known as the “accuracy-effort tradeoff.”
The basic idea is that accuracy takes effort. There’s a cost to going for perfect accuracy.
That may seem counter-intuitive, so let’s use a familiar example:
You’re playing baseball.
You’re out in left field.
The batter hits the ball up into the air. It’s headed in your direction.
How should you figure out the best place to run to, in order to catch the ball?
Complex mathematical equations are probably the most accurate way of predicting the path of a flying object.
We could model the arc of the baseball, given enough time and effort.
But that’s the thing: that accuracy requires time and effort.
And since baseball players are not likely to be able to do differential calculus in their heads during a game…
How do we figure out where the ball is headed?
We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
The baseball problem, for example, is solved using the Gaze Heuristic:
Fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant.
Studies show that people using the gaze heuristic will consistently end up at the exact spot where the ball hits the ground.
Not bad, eh?
But here’s an element of this you may have missed:
We require zero knowledge of the variables affecting the ball to use the Gaze heuristic.
We don’t need to know how hard the ball was hit, or the wind speed, or the weather.
We simply look, apply the rule, and act.
And surprisingly accurate.
Yes, we can get more accurate if we measure everything exactly and do the math.
But that requires effort. And if we can still get a good result from the heuristic, our rule of thumb ends up being the most efficient choice.
Even though there’s not a feasible way for us to truly understand everything about COVID-19…
If we wise up to the fact that COVID-19 is a situation of uncertainty (where the odds and risks are unknown)…
Rather than buying into the media narrative that it’s a situation of risk (where we totally are getting the odds right this time, even though we got it wrong literally every other time)…
We can still make rational decisions about how much risk we’re willing to take on.
Just stop trying to do the math, and start using heuristics.
Worse Than Death
If we accept that using heuristics can help us make rational decisions under uncertainty…
How do we do that, exactly?
First, we need to figure out what we’re up against.
What are our risks? What are our potential payoffs?
One of the critical insights we get from game theory is that rational actors can have very different ideas on what the “best” and “worst” outcomes of a game are.
You might, for example, prioritize personal liberty over physical well-being (Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”)
Someone else might think that wearing a mask is a small price to pay for even a marginal decrease in risk to their community (JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”)
Both of these people can be perfectly rational, despite having very different conclusions.
In game theoretical terms, rational doesn’t mean “I agree with your evaluation of payoffs and risks.”
It means your actions are consistent with your evaluations.
Everything comes down to what we value.
What do you value?
Let’s make a list of some of the possible risks of COVID-19.
Death is an obvious one.
Even if you think COVID-19 is overblown media hype – let’s say, no more dangerous than the average flu…
There’s still a chance you could die. After all, the flu can kill you, right?
Death is the risk that gets all the press because…well. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing sort of deal.
When you’re dead, you’re dead. You’re out of the game.
Are there other risks to COVID-19?
You could get someone else sick.
Even if you’re very unlikely to die from COVID-19, you could pass it someone who is.
How would you feel if you knew that someone died because of you – even if it was an accident?
Maybe you feel responsibility for that. Maybe you don’t.
How would you feel if it was someone you knew?
A son or a daughter?
I’m not saying these risks are likely – I’m just saying they exist.
What other risks are there?
It’s unclear what the long-term consequences of COVID-19 are.
Some say there are no long-term consequences.
Others complain of symptoms lasting months, or of structural damage to the lungs that could pose a problem for the rest of your life.
This is highly uncertain, of course. Just like everything else.
But the risk is there. So it goes on our list.
Hospitalization is a risk.
There’s a significant economic impact to going to the hospital.
Maybe your insurance covers it, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you have money saved up, maybe you don’t.
Time off work might be an issue for you.
Add that to the list.
I’m sure you can think of some more. Add those to the list as well.
Of course, we have to weigh the risks of reacting to COVID-19, as well.
Lockdowns bring their own risks. Lack of exercise, lack of social interaction, depression.
All those go on the list.
There’s the economic impact.
You might have lost your job. Or you might be right on the edge.
Others might lose their jobs as well. A staggering number already have, with US jobless numbers for May rumored to be near 20%.
That’s a lot of desperate people.
Add it all to the list.
We could keep going, but I think you get the picture:
No matter what we do, there will be serious consequences.
There’s always an opportunity cost.
How do we choose?
Game theory’s goal is always to analyze the potential strategies in any game, finding the ideal solution.
But in some games, finding the ideal solution is difficult because the outcomes depends on what the other players do.
If you’re uncertain about how the other players will act, how do you choose the path forward?
The two most common game theory strategies are:
Maximax, where you take the action with the highest potential payoff (i.e., you maximize your maximum return.)
This strategy generally correlates with the highest risk, but it’s got the highest possible reward, too.
Maximin is a strategy where you maximize your minimum payoff. You cap your downside, knowing that even in the worst case scenario, you’ll get something decent.
This strategy reduces your potential losses, but at the cost of losing out on big payoffs.
Both of these strategies are all about the numbers.
For purely rational people, they make a lot of sense.
But we aren’t purely rational, are we?
We’ve got emotions to deal with.
We’re loss averse – meaning we feel more pain when we lose a dollar than we feel joy when we gain a dollar.
Luckily, there’s a strategy that incorporates that human messiness into a nice little package:
MinMax regret is unlike the other strategies we’ve discussed so far, in that it isn’t concerned with the raw numerical values of your payoffs.
Instead, MinMax regret seeks to minimize the maximum amount of regret you’d feel.
Regret is a little more nuanced that pure mathematical payoffs.
For example, you may feel that a certain investment is riskier than you’re comfortable with.
But how would you feel if your friends were already invested?
What if they all get rich, and you were the only one who stayed out?
Sometimes, the regret you’d feel being the only one missing out on a massive payday is actually worse than the potential monetary loss.
Regret, in a game theoretical sense, is the difference between the decision you made and the optimal decision you could have made.
There’s an opportunity cost to everything we do…and that needs to get factored in.
Let’s bring this back to COVID-19.
We’ve made a giant list of all of our risks…
Death, hospitalization, feeling ill, getting someone else sick, losing a job, someone else losing their job.
Let’s leave our “objective” assessments to the side for the moment…
And really feel these alternatives.
Visualize the scene. Get the details right.
What is it like?
What’s going through your mind?
Spend too much time thinking about this statistic or that statistic…
And you lose touch with the lived reality of what we’re talking about.
None of us are going to live through a statistic.
ALL of us are experiencing the lived reality of COVID-19.
We’ll also have to live through the repercussions of whatever we do.
Maybe the guilt of getting someone else sick.
Or the shame of having been wrong.
Or the frustration at taking every precaution and still getting the disease.
Or the anger of sacrificing, only to find out that it all meant nothing.
Over the past few weeks we’ve built a system for understanding how we make decisions.
First, we needed to understand that people come to problems with different priors – good and bad.
Then, we needed to understand the importance of consulting the base rate. Last week, we added a wrinkle:
The usefulness of the base rate depends a lot on whether it is group indexed or individually indexed.
Why spend so much time on probabilities?
Because we need to understand probabilities to estimate our level of risk.
After all, nearly every decision we make entails some form of risk…whether we know it or not.
This week, we introduce a big idea that will that I will reference many times throughout the rest of this series:
The difference between risk and uncertainty.
Risk is a situation where you have an idea of your potential costs and payoffs.
“Hmm. I’ve got a 50% chance of winning 100$, and it costs 60$ to play. Is this worth it?”
When you’re faced with risk, statistical analysis is your friend.
“Well, let’s see. 50% of 100$ is 50$, so that’s my average payoff. The cost is 60$, so I would average out at a 10$ loss. That’s not a good bet.”
Uncertainty is a situation where you don’t know the potential payoffs or costs.
“Hmmm. I’ve got some chance to win some money. I don’t know how much, or what my chances are. Is this worth it?”
Using statistical analysis in situations of uncertainty will almost always lead you astray. Instead, we need to turn to game theory (which we’ll discuss in a future email).
If I could leave you with a single takeaway, it would be this:
To act rationally, we need to understand whether we are experiencing risk or uncertainty.
This is much harder than it sounds.
To explain why, let’s borrow a bit from the world of investment…
And discuss derivatives.
A “derivative” is something that shares a relationship with something else you care about.
The thing you care about is called the “underlying.”
Sometimes it’s hard to affect the underlying. It can be easier to interact with the derivative instead.
I’ll pick an embarrassing personal issue as an example, because why not? Let’s discuss body fat and attractiveness.
I was (and sometimes still am) insecure about how I look. I think this is a pretty common feeling. I didn’t think of myself as physically attractive, and I wanted to improve that.
My physical attractiveness is the underlying. The thing I cared about.
It’s hard to directly change your attractiveness. Your facial features, bone structure, facial symmetry, etc, are permanent, short of serious surgery.
So, instead of directly changing my attractiveness, I looked for a derivative, something that was easier to change.
The derivative I settled on was body fat percentage.
“The less body fat I have,” I reasoned, “the more attractive I will be. Body fat and and attractiveness are related, so by changing the former I can improve the latter.”
(Of course, this sounds well-reasoned in this description. I’m leaving out all the self-loathing, etc., but I can assure you it was there).
The relationship between the derivative and the underlying is the basis.
In my head, the basis here was simple: as body fat goes down, attractiveness goes up.When we express the basis in this way – as a formula that helps us to decide on a strategy – we are solving a problem via algorithm.
“If this, then that.”
Humans are hard-wired algorithmic problem solvers. Our super-power is the ability to notice the basis and use algorithms to predict the future.
We are pattern-seekers, always trying to understand what the basis is (“I’ve noticed that the most attractive men have less body fat…”)
And once we think we know the basis, we tend to use it to try to predict the future…
(“If I lose body fat, I will become more attractive…”)
Or explain the present…
(“He is attractive because he haslittle body fat.”)
The amazing thing about this kind of judgement is that it’s often more accurate and useful than, for example, complex statistical regression or series analysis.
Simple rules of thumb have served us well for thousands of years.
But there is a danger hidden inside this way of thinking.
Let’s introduce one more concept:
Basis risk is the damage that could occur if the relationship between the underlying and derivative isn’t what you thought…
…Or doesn’t perform as you expected.
You believe that the more water you drink (the derivative)…
The better you will feel (the underlying).
Thus, the basis is:
Drink more water = feel better.
So you drink 3 gallons of water a day from your tap.
You didn’t realize that your tap water comes from a well located just off the grounds of a decommissioned nuclear power plant.
The water you’re drinking contains trace amounts of radiation that will, over time, cause you to grow 17 additional eyeballs.
In small amounts, the effect was unnoticeable…
At your current rate of 3 gallons a day the effect is…
(hold for applause)
Your problem was misunderstanding the basis.
Drink more water = feel better
Drink more water = feel worse.
The basis risk was severe health complications and an exorbitantly high optometrist bill.
We love to solve problems via algorithm, but if the relationship between derivative and underlying isn’t what we thought it was – or isn’t as tight as we thought it was…
It’s critical that we get the basis right. We must understand how changes to the derivative affect the underlying.
But this is much harder to do than it might seem.
For one, the world is complex.
Things that seem related often aren’t; things that ARE related don’t behave in the ways we expect.
Every part of the system affects every other part; the chain of causation can be difficult to pry apart.
But even when we DO work out the basis correctly, it can change over time.
Let’s return to my struggles with body image; specifically, the relationship between body fat and attractiveness.
Assume, for a moment, that you believe my presumptions to be true, and that less body fat really does make someone more attractive.
From this came the idea that it is an unqualified good to get ever more output from the same amount of input.
No matter what.
Enjoying the sunshine can go fuck itself – we have screws to tighten!
So, let me make a bold claim:
Productivity is dehumanizing.
But what do we really mean, when we say something’s dehumanizing?
We mean we are removing the biological – the human.
What defines the biological?
Redundancy, variation, diversity – in other words, randomness.
Capitalism abhors the random.
After all, economies of scale only emerge when every Big Mac is identical…
When the experience is guaranteed no matter what town, or state, or even country you’re in.
A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac.
Unreliability means uncertainty and uncertainty means lost profits.
Businesses need reliability, because reliability means you can calculate a profit margin.
To achieve this, systems must be constructed, and then subordinated to.
Redundancy is eliminated.
Variation is reduced.
Diversity becomes monoculture.
As Taylor himself put it:
“In the past, man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.”
This is the logic of the factory floor: an unending conveyor belt attended to by automatons.
Pure, logical, productive, and efficient.
In other words, inhuman.
(This is the system’s greatest weakness…but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Now let’s move this unrelenting logic of the factory floor to “knowledge work” – You know, the stuff that’s creative, requires originality, involves personal interaction….
The human stuff.
People are just so damn variable.
Our day to day performance changes depending on how we slept, whether we’ve had sex in the last week, whether we’ve gotten enough sunlight, whether our blood sugar is too high (or too low).
These squishy bits might help with survival, but they’re terrible at work.
If that’s the case, why the drive to be more productive?
Why the creeping dread that our inboxes are full, our schedules packed, our phantom phones buzzing in our pockets?
Excess Capacity Goes To The Bosses
The lie was that increased productivity at work would mean more free time at home.
This has been the promise of all since technology since the wheel.
As recently as 2013, Ross Douhat wrote in the New York Times that we were experiencing “a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up.”
Wonderful. How’s all that awesome free-time treating you, post-employment?
In fact, technology almost never “frees up” time for leisure. Excess capacity always goes to the bosses.
More time means higher standards and more demands on that time. After all – if you can respond at midnight to a work text, why shouldn’t you?
We saw this with household labor. The promise of the dishwasher, washing machine and vacuum cleaner was they would provide household workers more free time.
Instead, standards of cleanliness rose with the excess capacity, and now mom is on her hands and knees cleaning the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush instead of reading Proust in the garden.
(Happy Mother’s Day, by the way!)
What this expansion of “work time” does is suffocate our “work-less” time.
“Work/Life balance” is a meme in our culture because one always overlaps with the other. There’s never a clean break.
So, rather than becoming more productive at work and finding ourselves with oodles of free time…
We find ourselves becoming more productive at work, and having less free time as a result.
And so, why not try what worked for the boss – and turn the tools of scientific management on ourselves?
And so Taylor waltzes into our homes, clipboard in hand.
Our desperate hope:
If we can become more productive in our vanishing “free” time…
We can cram more life into less hours.
Kanban Boards – popularized inside Toyota manufacturing plants – in our kitchens, helping keep track of chores.
Bullet journaling – “the analog method for the digital age that will help you track the past, order the present, and design your future” – to keep track of self-care.
Sex, intimacy, and date nights – scheduled across a shared Google Calendar.
We’ve bought into the belief that because business is effective, it must be good;
And so the tools of business can help us live a decent life.
But they can’t.
Because business is about efficiency;
And efficiency is about process;
And efficient processes cut variety, chance, and waste;
And thus, efficient processes are dehumanizing.
And living a good life is all about being human, with all the messiness that entails.
You and I both know what the ultimate extension of this thought process looks like.
You and I have both seen the logic of the factory floor applied to living things.
Because a slaughterhouse is just another kind of factory.
Just one pure moment of silence
You’ll never see it coming –
you’ll be far too busy.
Because I don’t want to end it there…
And because I stated at the beginning that I’m working on a course on productivity…
What’s to do about all this?
I have a few thoughts:
1. Productivity needs to be, first and foremost, hedonistic.
By which I mean, it is designed to produce pleasure in your life. Fuck your boss, fuck your job, fuck your sidehustle –
The goal of productivity is pleasure.
2. Productivity needs to be humanizing.
We don’t build a system so that we can imprison ourselves in it.
We need to build a system that is human; one that allows for serendipity, for aesthetic joy, for the days when we just don’t feel like getting shit done.
It’s not about doing more. It’s about being effective in our human pursuits.
If you’re wondering what that looks like in practice…
“During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.”
The version I read mentioned that NASA scientists eventually settled on some kind of nitrogen-powered mechanism that would literally force the ink downwards and onto the paper.
Everything about this story is perfect – and it seems perfect for illustrating a very specific kind of lesson.
Of course, the world is not so kind.
As Scientific American continues:
“Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.”
Regardless of whether it’s complete bullshit or not – as, I would wager, most morality tales are – the lesson remains:
We love complex solutions to simple problems.
Why is that, exactly?
My guess is that there’s a few forces at play – but the main two I can see:
Simplicity is more confusing than we expect.
The questions we ask shape the answers we come up with.
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?”
While the formal trolley problem can seem a bit dour, the Trolley Problem MEME turns it on its head by rejecting the duality of the question and positing any number of humorous or absurd problems and outcomes.
The humor – for me, anyway – rests on the idea of subverting the question itself, rather than putting yourself in knots trying to come up with the “right” answer.
Similarly, you get very different outcomes if you ask “How do we make pens work in space?” or “how do I most conveniently write in space?”
It’s important to take a moment and analyze the questions people ask you…and wonder what assumptions are embedded within.
Which brings us to the next force pushing us towards complexity:
The fear of simplicity.
It’s possible we lean on “complex” solutions because nothing scares us more than the complexity of the simple.
What happens if we do the “simple” thing and it doesn’t work?
The more time we spend planning, building, complicating…
The less time we spend throwing our ideas against the walls of reality and seeing what sticks.
The feedback we get is far too often, “Hey – you don’t even understand the basics.”
No point in making an elaborate diet plan involving limiting specific types of macros…
If you can’t simply measure what you eat.
Or control your food choices.
And so on.
The simple is more complex than we give it credit for…
And our retreat to complexity is based more often on fear than it is on sophistication.