Chess and Checkers

I’ve heard some discussion in the press lately about whether or not a certain politician is “playing chess, while everyone else is playing checkers”. Whether or not that’s true – it got me to thinking about some people I know that probably think that about themselves. If I’m honest with myself, I’m sure I thought that’s what I was doing at times (or at least what I was trying to do).

It’s seductive to think that you’re operating on a completely different level than everyone else. Unfortunately, I think you’re usually just outsmarting yourself, not everyone else. Are you really going to be able to figure out a way to do this better than any one else has before? Occasionally – yes. Most of the time – no.

In many cases, I think this is looking for a shortcut as opposed to just doing the work. You’re probably better off just trying to get better at playing checkers.

 

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Less is more

I’ve noticed that a couple of non-fiction books I’ve read recently have really short chapters – frequently just a page or two. My initial reaction was “I didn’t know you could do that.” But I’ve realized – it’s good to make your point and move on.

As Jerry Seinfeld said – “Showmanship, George. When you hit that high note, say goodnight and walk off.”

 

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Unsubscribe

I heard the always insightful Seth Godin say something along the lines of – great writing makes you feel like ‘That’s what I think. That’s what I meant to say. She just said it better.” (I can’t remember the exact quote, but that’s close enough for my purposes here.)

That’s how I feel about a book I just discovered – Unsubscribe by Jocelyn K. Glei. I had just written this post when I heard Gayle Allen’s Curious Minds podcast where she was talking about the book. If email is running your life (like most people), this is a great read.

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That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

I’ve observed that humans (myself included) are more interested in having been “right, all along” than in being “right, right now”. If we get new information that reveals our previous position to have been incorrect, our natural tendency is to deny it or to try and somehow justify that our previous position wasn’t actually incorrect after all. For some reason, this (defending ourselves from having been wrong) is more important than adjusting our position to be right at this point in time.

I first became aware of this from an unexpected source – college football polls. Until very recently, the NCAA didn’t award an official national championship in Division IA (now FBS) – so fans (myself included) paid (and still pay) a lot of attention to polls of sportswriters or coaches to determine “Who’s #1?”

Most voters have a preseason ranking of their “Top 25” teams and then release an updated ranking after every weekend’s games. Inevitably, some team (“Team A”) who was expected to be very good gets off to a slow start. They may have not lost a game yet, but their early season games against teams they were expected to trounce were much closer than expected. At the same time, some other team (“Team B”) that wasn’t expected to be as good is basically killing every team they are playing.

At that point in time, based on the actual performance on the field, Team B is clearly having a better season than Team A – but there seems to be some inertia keeping Team A ranked higher. It occurred to me that all the voters who predicted Team A to be #1 don’t want to admit that they were wrong. As long as it’s possible to apply some convoluted logic that lets their initial prediction be right, they’re going to stick with that.

I think we’re seeing this phenomenon in American politics now. At some point in the past, we picked a “team”. Now there are some things going on that suggest our team isn’t perfect, but we are hesitant to admit that because that might mean that we were wrong before. (I think this true of both sides.)

I think this is interesting because it’s possible to admit your team isn’t perfect without having to change your mind about your team being better than the alternative. But we don’t even like to do that. We want it to be obvious that we were right (and that you were wrong, which means that I’m better than you – right?)

None of us really knows what’s going to happen, but for some reason – we like the idea of being able to “read the tea leaves”. We like this so much that we subconsciously contort logic to keep our “prediction batting average” high. Let’s just admit that we don’t know (there’s no shame in not knowing) and take positions based on facts, without the inertia of needing to have been right all along.

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Trying to become addicted to “slow and steady”

I’ve been reading about how our desire for quick dopamine fixes has led to our smart phone addictions. (“Did anyone reply to my Tweet yet?”) When something new shows up on our phone, we get a quick shot of dopamine that makes us feel good. We like that feeling so we seek out ways to get another shot.

As soon as I read this, I was convicted that this was exactly what I was doing. I hope that “admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” I think being conscious of this has helped, at least a little so far.

The constant pursuit of the quick dopamine fix competes with spending time on long-term goals. Losing weight, writing a book, starting a new venture – none of these can happen instantly, overnight, or even in a few days or weeks. They require plodding, day after day, continued effort. That’s nowhere near as fun as the instant gratification you get when some “Likes” the picture from your recent trip.

“Gamification” has entered our vocabulary in the past few years. It’s why apps like Waze and Foursquare award you points for participating. Points and trophies make you feel like you are accomplishing something, even if it’s virtual.

When I think of gamification, it makes me think of someone else trying to get me to use their app, service, etc. more frequently than I otherwise would. But – you can use the same principal on yourself to help “addict” yourself to the daily grind on the path to your long-term goals.

Some fitness apps do this for you. The FitBit app rewards me for meeting my exercise goal 5 days in a row.

Try to gamify (“gamificate”?) your projects and goals. Do you want to write a book? Set a very reachable goal, something like – write 300 words a day. In 6 months, you’ll have written about 200 pages. Remember that 180 days x a few pages/day > 180 days x 0 pages/day.

This multiplying effect is the key to long-term success.  Just like the tortoise – slow and steady wins the race.

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Comfort zones

I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort zones lately, mostly in the context of trying to get my teenagers to try to expand theirs. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized this isn’t something you outgrow as an adult. I like to think that, as an adult, I have outgrown fear of being judged by others – but if I’m honest with myself, that’s still a big part of my internal narrative.

It occurs to me that a comfort zone is an area where we can operate without fear of “them” noticing us. “What will they think of me?” is basically the border guard at the edge of our comfort zone. Inside the comfort zone is where we feel like we’ve negotiated with “them” that they won’t pay too much attention to is, or – at least won’t criticize us.

Of course “they” didn’t participate in the negotiations at all. Once we realize that we negotiated the location of the boundary, it lets us see that the location is arbitrary. Not only that, but the “penalties” for crossing the boundary aren’t nearly as bad as we have made them out to be.

I’m not sure we can ever completely eliminate comfort zones, but if we will force ourselves to push our comfort zone boundaries a little bit every day – they will certainly expand.

It’s worth it. There’s good stuff to be found out there.

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Marlins Park

Marlins Park
I got to see a game at Marlins Park in Miami at the beginning of the 2016 season. I’ve never been much of a Marlins fan, but Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up – so I’m rooting for them now.

When I saw that Marlins Park was in Little Havana, I was expecting some good walking around atmosphere – outdoor cafes, cigar bars, etc. I did find a cigar bar, but that was it. I’m guessing there’s another part of Little Havana that’s like that, but the “restaurants” I saw were Wendy’s and Subway. We parked in someone’s front yard who was charging $10.

We were outside the stadium on the west side (where the retractable roof slides out – you can see the tall supports that it slides out onto), and there wasn’t really anything to do except go into the game, so I was a little disappointed at that.

Once we went inside, the stadium is very nice. It’s still pretty new – having opened in 2012. I didn’t realize it is on the site of the old Orange Bowl. It’s very small – capacity is only about 37,000.

Here are some pictures taken before the game to help give you a feel for the seating levels. FYI – the Marlins dugout is on the 3rd base side.

Marlins Park

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Friction

I keep a small desktop computer next to the TV in our family room, primarily to use the TV as a big monitor for showing the digital photos and videos that were taken before camera phones, cloud storage and Chromecasts. I recently ordered a new wireless keyboard with a built-in trackpad to simplify controlling the computer from my lap while I sit in the chair across the room.

When the keyboard arrived and I started to plug it in, I realized that the primary hard drive on the computer had died. This wasn’t really a big deal because all of that was on the hard drive was the operating system (the photos and videos are on an external USB hard drive) and the computer was really old. I think I bought 4 that were just alike in about 2007. (They came with Windows Vista.) I knew I had at least one more just like it in storage somewhere.

A couple of weeks later, I caught a bit of the spring cleaning bug (which is very unlike me) and wiped the old hard drive and threw away the old computer. (Usually I leave stuff like that sitting around in the basement for months before dealing with it.) The next day, I got one of the identical computers out of storage and was about to plug the new keyboard in when it hit me – I had left the small wireless dongle plugged into the USB port of the old computer and hadn’t retrieved it before throwing the old computer away. All of a sudden I had a flashback to when the keyboard had arrived and I had unpacked it from the box before realizing the hard drive was dead. I remember thinking that the USB port of the old computer was the best place to leave that little piece because if I just left it sitting on the counter, it would get lost.

After yelling some, the thought that popped into my head was “no good deed goes unpunished.” If I had only been my normal procrastinating self – the old computer would still be in the basement and I could just go get it and everything would be fine. Instead – I had a brand new, utterly worthless keyboard. (My next thought was that I if threw the keyboard away – the missing piece would turn up immediately proving that I hadn’t left it in the old computer, but that if I hung on to the keyboard, it would sit around for months waiting for me to decide that the piece was, in fact, plugged into the old computer and gone.)

I think the keyboard cost around $30, so it wasn’t exactly an economic catastrophe – but it was frustrating on principle. Maybe I did need to keep old computers around to ensure that I never threw away something that I was actually going to need later.

In the field of dynamics (the physics of motion), friction is always something that has to be accounted for. Friction makes processes less efficient than they might be. Friction is why we can’t have perpetual motion machines.

For an engineer trying to improve efficiency, friction can be frustrating. It can be reduced, but never completely eliminated. Engineers have accepted that there will always be some friction. Trying to completely eliminate friction would be a quixotic quest, and would just suck up time that could be spent actually getting things done.

It occurred to me that my brand new, worthless keyboard was friction. Stuff like this is going to happen. It’s a cost of doing business. I could spend a lot of time trying to figure out “how can I make sure this never happens again” or I could throw the keyboard away and move on to try to do something productive.

Friction exists in life. Try to reduce it, but don’t waste time trying to eliminate it. Once you accept that – you can move on and get something done.

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Who’s the jackass here?

Whenever there’s a misunderstanding between you and a customer, you have a choice of how you respond. If I’m your customer and your response leaves me thinking “Really – I’m the jackass here?” (whether I say it out loud or not) – you’ve chosen poorly.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people (most people?) – that’s their reflexive reaction. Regardless of how good your product or service is – if you make me feel like a jackass, I’m not going to be your customer for long.

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Microsoft – development tools for old guys

I’m sitting in a conference room at a Microsoft sales office watching a presentation on the latest version of Visual Studio (Microsoft’s software development tool). Looking around the room at the other attendees, the majority of attendees appear to be 40-ish and older (including me). By my estimate, there are only 1 or 2 that could be younger than 30.

This is hardly a statistically valid sample size, but it’s consistent with my observation. (I wrote this several years ago reflecting on Microsoft following the path of IBM.)

This isn’t a reflection on the product. I’ve used it for years and think it’s the best tool there is for software development. I wish the environment wouldn’t change to make skills that I’ve honed for years become obsolete.

But – if you’re a Microsoft guy (like I am), you need to realize that the winds are changing.

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