Dropping baggage

There’s a famous zen parable about the importance of dropping baggage and letting go.

Two monks were at the banks of a river with a strong current when a young woman asked if they could help her cross. Carrying her would be against their vows. But, without a word, the older monk carried the woman across the river and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what happened. A few hours passed before he blurted out – “How could you carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

Simple reminders to reset, like this one, are powerful because we all accumulate baggage on our journeys. We develop preconceptions about some relationships, projects, and ways of approaching problems. These preconceptions erode our ability to approach things with a beginner’s mind and listen for learning. Most importantly, they make it impossible for us to simply “be” in the present moment. The baggage weighs us down and muddles our focus.

Take the time today to think about (or meditate upon) areas of your life that seem spew negativity in your day.

Perhaps it is time to let go and journey lighter.

Separating the writing from the thinking

“For the average business or professional writer, producing more literate memos and reports does not mean writing shorter sentences or choosing better words. Rather, it means formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write.” | Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

I’ve decided to spend more time learning how to write better and thought “The Pyramid Principle” and “The Elements of Style” would be my go-to textbooks for the structure and style portions of this journey respectively. But, as Barbara Minto thoughtfully points out, we often confuse feedback in our ability to structure our writing as feedback to our style.

Structure is the first summit to conquer. To do so, I’ll need to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process.

In data we (don’t) trust

There’s a growing legion of companies and product teams that aspire to call themselves “data driven.” When they make decisions, they tell tales of how Google tested 40 shades of blue and eliminated the need for intuition and gut-based decision making.

But, as data might suggest, extreme beliefs in any approach are problematic and a belief in data driven decisions is no exception.

For the data to point the way, we need suitable problems, the right inputs and tracking based on good questions and thoughtful hypotheses, reliable data pipelines, good analytical judgment in overlooking outliers and picking a robust methodology, and versatility in the tools to analyze and interpret the outputs. Every once a while, all of these align and it all just works.

But, for the most part, we’re better off marrying a desire for data with a healthy skepticism for what it is telling us. It is that skepticism that will ensure we keep pushing for the right questions and iterate our way into insights that get us closer to the truth.

Better to be data informed than data driven.

Don’t seek great mentors, seek great influences

Mentorship is a luxury. A great mentor relationship requires many favorable conditions – chemistry, good timing, and proximity among them. And, yes, when it works, it can have a magical effect on the learning curves of both the mentor and the mentee. But, so much of finding that great mentor relationship is outside our control that it is a reactive approach to learning at best, and lazy at worst.

Great influences, on the other hand, are all around us. We have more access to admirable folks than ever before. The life, work, and thought processes of luminaries like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Marcus Aurelius are just a book away. That person you admire likely has a blog, a book, or an active twitter account. If we are the average of the five folks we spend our time with, it is easier than ever to be exceptional by simply letting ourselves being influenced by the wisest minds in human history.

The best part about great influences don’t have to be famous people. Your inspirational co-worker or parent can do the job as well.

We can, of course, wait for that great, uber successful, mentor to pick us and continue to let ourselves off the hook until they do.

Or, we can go seek great influences, learn from them, and keep plugging away.

Our choice.

What policy led to this bad outcome?

Julia Galef, a writer on rationality, had a great spin on how we can better separate processes and outcomes and pick where we want to maximize. When things go wrong, she asks herself – “What policy am I following that produced this bad outcome?”

For example, she shares a policy example wherein you always arrive 1 hour 20 minutes before a flight. However, this policy may result in you missing the occasional flight due to an accident on the road. But, if you over react to the bad outcome and change policy to be at the airport 2 hours earlier, as a frequent flier, you’re going to be spend hundreds of hours waiting at airports.

Similarly, I could spend 2x the time before sending every email to ensure there isn’t any typo or mistake. But, that would be a very expensive policy that would eat in to other productive time. So, it is best I assume that there will be mistakes and repeat sends that fix them from time to time.

There are a few places in life where we need a 100% success rate. It makes sense to choose fail safe, rigorous policies in those cases. But, otherwise, we’re better off picking good policies/processes/decisions that do the job most of the time.

And, in the off chance they don’t work, we must learn to habitually separate bad outcomes from good processes.

(H/T: Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss)

The jerk threshold

Every one of us is capable of exhibiting jerk behavior. We just have different ways of doing so – we either move against people, move towards people, or move away from people.

Put differently, some fight fire with fire, others fight it by exhibiting passive aggressiveness, and yet some others attempt to ignore the situation. Each of these behaviors are counter productive in tough situations. But, it is hard to catch them because they are flip sides of our strengths. There’s just a threshold after which these strengths become counter productive.

The questions that follow are – i) when is that threshold triggered? and ii) how can we better catch ourselves?

Some triggers are relatively easy to solve for. For example, most folks are triggered by a lack of sleep or food. The harder ones are when baggage in relationships activates a pattern that results in triggering jerk behavior.

Catching ourselves is really hard – there is no fail safe way I know of. The best solution is a consistent, high degree of self awareness that isn’t easy to sustain. The next best solution is acceptance of our own fallibility. If we can accept that we exhibit jerk behavior from time to time, it becomes easier to catch ourselves when we do…