Stoicism

“According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.” | Wikipedia on Stoicism

Someone recently asked me about the kinds of changes writing here for a decade had inspired. I always share a few example themes when asked this question – learning to focus on process vs. outcomes, to reflect and synthesize, to be intentional, etc. It is hard to tell the full story as the change daily public writing has inspired is both vast and deep.

But, in the spirit of synthesis, it occurred to me recently that a lot of these coalesce to form some of the tenets of stoicism. To accept things as they are, to prioritize discipline and commitment over desires and fears, to be thoughtful, to seek to be aware of the environment, and to view the world from a lens of abundance and collaboration.

Interestingly, and perhaps most significantly, the stoics believed that the truest measure of what people believed lay in their behavior. The idea that we shouldn’t listen to what people say and, instead, watch what they do has been among the more hard earned lessons I’ve taken away in the past decade.

So, a better description of the impact writing here has had on me is that it has helped me understand some of the fundamental principles of stoicism without seeking to understand it.

If I had to boil it down to four words whose meaning I’m slowly beginning to understand, I would choose “awareness,” “thoughtfulness,” “commitment,” and “perspective.” I think the act of writing about what we learn everyday inspires this journey toward understanding.

I am grateful for that and for your role in that journey.

Don’t optimize sub-systems

If you are manufacturing cars, there is no point doubling down on manufacturing doors or steering wheels if the rest of the car isn’t being produced at the same pace. “Understand the goal” and “don’t optimize sub-systems” are thus key principles in operational effectiveness.

These principles have powerful life lesson equivalents. First, they ask the question – what is the car equivalent we’re building in our lives / what are we optimizing for? And, what is the right amount of production for each of the aspects (work, home, social or however we define them) in our lives to build it well?

Second, they speak to the futility of comparing certain aspects of our lives with that of others. Unless we’re optimizing for the exact objectives someone else is optimizing for, there is no point comparing the sub-systems.

The FIRE movement – tactics versus principles

In case you missed it, there’s been a lot of recent press about the “Financially Independent, Retire Early” or FIRE movement. The news is a mixed bag with many strong criticisms about the idea. Amidst all this varying sentiment is a lesson for all of us on taking the time to separate tactics from principles as we communicate ideas.

While the “retire early” part of the name is provocative (and seems to be drawing most ire), the central principle behind the FIRE movement is to become financially independent by being conscious about our financial well being.

Financial independence doesn’t mean not working – it just means being able to build a career and life without worrying about money. This is done with a strategy based on 3 simple tenets – i) Save more by living simply and cutting costs, ii) Invest aggressively in low cost index funds, and iii) Increase your income.

Would anybody argue against these principles? I’d posit that we should all be part of this movement.

The deeper learning here is that it is human nature to lose sight of the principles as we get caught up in the details. So, as we work to communicate our ideas every day, it is on us to obsess about sharing principles versus tactics.

Is right vs. looks right

Shane Parrish, author of the generally excellent Farnam Street blog, had a great post this morning about defensive decision making – the type of decision making that focuses on what “looks right” vs. what “is right.”

Defensive decision making is the “IBM” option. Since “no one got fired for buying an IBM,” it is intended to protect the decision maker. Organizations can often create a massive decision-consequence asymmetry in that they become so risk averse that most decisions come with small upside if they go well and large downside if something goes wrong (e.g. get fired).

So, the natural incentive is to just make the “default” decision. There is no risk to one’s reputation and it is always defensible.

This points to why so many cultures talk about “thinking out of the box” but never actually do so. It also speaks to why cultural change is very hard.

And, finally, it is a great reminder that approaching building products and services for customers with first principles thinking and hypothesis isn’t just about hiring the right people.

It involves building a culture that incentivizes attempting decisions that are right instead of rewarding those that look right.

Cleaning and insecurities

Does cleaning ever get done?

It doesn’t matter how beautifully we vacuum our home this week. We will still need to vacuum next week.

Of course, it helps that we don’t expect to ever be “done” with cleaning or washing vessels or exercising. We understand that our commitment to being clean will be tested every day of every week. It is on us to recommit, take action, reflect, and keep improving how we take action.

It turns out that dealing with our insecurities works the same way. Our trysts with imposter syndrome, our deepest insecurities, and most powerful demons never go away. They are ever present and part of who we are.

And, we must deal with them like we deal with dirt or unwashed vessels every day. Re-commit to acting from wholeness instead of our wounds, take action, reflect, and iterate.

Familial

I recently had to take our two year old to the Emergency Room. She was having breathing difficulties due to a viral infection. I had many reflections from the experience and I’m guessing a few will trickle down as part of “Parenting Saturdays” (the unofficial name of this series :-)) in the coming weeks. But, one concept I was struck by was familial responsibility.

But, before I go there, a quick public service announcement. One of our biggest lessons from the incident was to waste no time when children have breathing difficulties. Children move from “normal” to unconscious with surprising speed. Our nurse explained that delays tend to have serious consequences. We were lucky we didn’t have to deal with that.

Now, back to notes on familial responsibility. As part of her breathing difficulties combined with the strong retching reflex that kids have, she projectile vomited her day’s food in 4 spurts. 3 of them were when I was carrying her.

But, as we didn’t have a change of clothes or time, I just went with it for the next 3 hours.

Somewhat disgusting details aside, this is no big deal of course. Most parents/people will go through a lot worse for their kids/family.

That precise thought gave me pause.

Isn’t it amazing how much we’re willing to compromise, sacrifice, and endure for someone we consider family?

Why doesn’t more of that extend to the many human beings we encounter over the course of our lives?

And, perhaps more importantly, what if it did?

The HQ3 fiasco

I’ve shared a lot of nuggets from Jeff Bezos over the years on this blog. His notes on the importance of being open to changing your mind, on strategic patience and tactical impatience, on using long form memos for business decisions, to name just a few, have all had a big impact on how I think and operate.

As someone who admires much of his thought process and approach to things, I found Amazon’s and Bezos’ approach to their second (and now apparently third) HQ deeply disappointing.

NYU Professor Scott Galloway outlined the many issues with this fiasco in his weekly note today. 2 excerpts –

Amazon’s HQ2 search was not a contest but a con. Amazon will soon have 3 HQs. And guess what? The Bezos family owns homes in all 3 cities. And, you’ll never believe it, the new HQs (if you can call them that) will be within a bike ride, or quick Uber, from Bezos’s homes in DC and NYC. The middle finger on Amazon’s other hand came into full view when they announced they were awarding their HQ to not one, but two cities. So, really, the search, and hyped media topic, should have been called “Two More Offices.” Only that’s not compelling and doesn’t sell. Would that story have become a news obsession for the last 14 months, garnering Amazon hundreds of millions in unearned media?

We are not only witnessing the 1% pull further away from the 99% in our hunger games economy, but certain metros begin to pull away from the rest. Of more than 400 metros in the US, five account for over 20% of the growth. And, you guessed it, two of those five are DC and NYC. This is not Amazon’s problem, but this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Locating HQ2 in Detroit would have been transformative.

Scott Galloway’s conclusion is withering in its assessment of this move that displayed canny PR and negotiation and a disappointing display of capitalism taken to its extreme all at once.

I keep going back to a note from Seth Godin on capitalism – capitalism exists to maximize civilization and not the other way around.

This was a classic case of the other way around.