Sound of the true

“The sound of the true is drowned out by the noise of the new.” | Eric Weiner in The Socrates Express.

A beautiful articulation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s riff on our urge to seek the new.

It is one of those reflections that has became infinitely more powerful since Schopenhauer’s time.

PS: In case you’re curious about the original reflection – No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress. Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.

Bikes and optionality

We bought bikes recently (yay!).

On the day we bought them, we had a choice. We could buy any and all accessories (think: carrier, toddler seat, lights, etc.) for a 15% discount on the day of the purchase. Or we could choose to wait to see which ones we’d really need and forego the 15% discount.

We decided to do the latter.

In the weeks following the purchase of the bike, we ended up purchasing – in batches – nearly all the accessories we’d considered purchasing on the day we bought the bikes. As we fitted the final accessories, I was thinking about the lessons we’ve learnt from the process.

The first lesson is the cost of optionality. When we chose to wait before we made any further purchases, we chose optionality. We could have chosen a bunch of accessories in our first day enthusiasm that we didn’t need. This way, we’ve only purchased things we know we’ll use. That optionality cost us that 15% discount we’d have otherwise gotten.

This is the case with all decisions in our lives. An example here would be a career decision students in graduate school often face. I have had many conversations with students who are torn about whether to go work for a management consulting firm or go into whichever industry they desire. Working in management consulting after graduate school for folks who have a strong hypothesis that they’d like to go elsewhere eventually is an example of optionality one could choose to exercise. It doesn’t come for free.

The second lesson here is removing regret from thoughtful decisions by reminding ourselves of the thoughtful decision making process. It is easy to look back at the purchases we’ve made since we bought our bikes and kick ourselves for not doing this when we had the discount.

But, that is an example of hindsight always being 20:20. We assume, for example, that every purchase on that day would have been the right one. There’s no such guarantee. One needless purchase could have eliminated any gains from the discount.

That, then, gets to the importance of reminding ourselves of thoughtful decision making processes.

I was recently on a panel where we were asked about career decisions we regretted. I explained that I didn’t have any regrets. This wasn’t because I haven’t had decisions with bad outcomes. I have too many to count. Instead, it is because I know that I always made the best decision based on everything I knew then. And, now that I know better, I’ll do better in the future.

We can’t guarantee good outcomes. But, if we’ve run a thoughtful process, reminding ourselves of that process helps eliminate needless and useless regret.

A modern(a) leap

In my past life as a management consultant, I spent a year working for Pfizer in the UK early in the past decade. It remains my only stint working with big pharma and it was fascinating to be exposed to a world I hadn’t previously known – patents, clinical trials, and such.

Pfizer, at the time, was facing patent cliffs of some very lucrative products in the coming years and there was a lot of debate about what would be the next superstar drug. Speculation was rife that the way forward for Pfizer and other big pharma companies was to acquire themselves out of trouble. That meant finding promising biotech companies doing interesting work, partnering early in the drug development process, and acquiring them if things looked promising.

The promise of biotech was that we’d see a democratization of drug development as technology would make it make it possible to produce drugs/vaccines with newer and more innovative methods. But, just as there was promise, there were big questions that remained to be answered. How would a small company survive the process of bringing a new drug/vaccine to life? What about the challenges of taking that to market? The heavy investment involved favored large incumbents.

So, I was curious about what we’d learn from the process of creating the COVID-19 vaccine. I expected the usual suspects – the likes of J&J, Roche, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, et al – to be among the leading contenders in creating and eventually mass producing the eventual vaccine.

But, following Pfizer’s announcement, it was heartening to see a much smaller Biotech company come out with a solution with impressive efficacy. It was particularly heartening because their story had all the elements of the biotech dream – find a problem, plug data into a computer, give software a day to figure out the solution, and then test it.

Of course, if it were a software company, you might A/B test it immediately. That’s not how medicine works – for good reason. We need randomized controlled trials with large enough populations for statistical significance. But, these comparisons aside, Moderna’s story was just as magical. Two days after the COVID-19 genetic sequence was released on January 11th, the Moderna vaccine was ready.

By the time the first American death from COVID-19 was announced, the vaccine was already manufactured and shipped for its Phase I trial.

That vaccine was approved by the FDA today. It is a giant leap forward for the Moderna team and for the many scientists and technologists who’ve been championing the potential of biotechnology for over a decade. The future is here.

Ozark and slippery slopes

We recently watched the Ozark series on Netflix. It is the story of a financial planner who relocates his family to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri after a money laundering scheme goes very wrong. It is a good show with strong and well developed characters.

The one idea that the show hammered home for me was the idea of the slippery slope. It shows the downstream impact of one decision that compromises our ethics. That decision leads to the next bad one and the one after that. Covering the tracks of each of these decisions lead to many more decisions that further compromise our ethics.

Before we know it, we find ourselves in a place that is unrecognizable from where we started.

It reminded me of the Clay Christensen anecdote about a cyclist who made the decision to dope “just this once.” No cyclist starts cycling with dreams of becoming a doping addict. But, he might make an exception “just this once” for an extenuating circumstance. And, before he realizes it, doping becomes the new norm. A slippery slope.

Clay’s advice is two-fold. First, make sure you have ethics and principles that you care about. And, second, stick to those ethics and principles 100% of the time. Never make allowances for extenuating circumstances because life is a never ending series of extenuating circumstances.

We know this to be true. The Ozark story arc brings it to life on the screen nicely.

The Morgan Housel compilation

I had 3 notes to share as part of this year end “Morgan Housel” goodness compilation –

(1) The first is a post titled “We have no idea what happens next.” As is his wont, Morgan Housel shares a fascinating story about the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 that disrupted the world for more than a year.

After it resulted in a famine in Germany, it inspired Justus von Liebig to devote his career to improving agriculture. That, in turn, led to Ammonia based fertilizers that changed the course of large scale agriculture. A great example of innovation that was likely inspired by a global catastrophe that was also simultaneously impossible to predict. Morgan then concludes with –

Then there’s the big unknown: the crazy, disconnected, counterintuitive change set in motion this year that we’ll only be able to piece together in hindsight. The kinds of things that only happen when seven billion people have their lives thrown upside down, experience a bunch of stuff they’d never imagined, and are either motivated or forced to do something completely different than they had considered in January.

No one should even guess what that might be. The unpredictability is the point.

But when good vaccine news came out this week, several people said, “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Maybe. But I suspect we have no idea what happens next.


(2) Next, he made an insightful observation in another post about low interest rates.

When interest rates are zero, stories about what the future could be are more important than what the present actually is. Interest rates tempt investors away from stories about future potential with promises of returns right now, this year.

Once those returns fall to zero, stories about what could potentially happen years from now – even if it’s low probability – gain most of the market’s attention. And people are good at coming up with awesome stories. That’s part of why Tesla is worth two-thirds of a trillion dollars, and the market is at an all-time high with 10 million people unemployed.

(3) Finally, after reading his book – The Psychology of Money – I shared a few copies with friends. It is an interesting book because it isn’t about how to invest or how to think about money. Instead, I describe it as a book that is about how to think about thinking about money.

The book is a collection of stories and anecdotes that provide food for thought. And, it can either be a light heavy read depending on how you’re feeling.

I walked away with a list of questions that I intend to work through in the coming days. It made me think. And, for that I’m grateful.

Thank you, Morgan, for your excellent work.

A hierarchy of feelings we need/crave

A theory I’ve been mulling of late is a hierarchy of feelings that we need/crave.

I think said hierarchy is safety -> love -> belonging -> respect -> admiration.

It starts with physical safety. That means a certain amount of money combined with good health. That money buys us space and essentials. In its absence, we are at our worst, are overwhelmed, and function well below our normal intelligence levels.

Once we have that, we crave mental safety. This means being surrounded by people who we trust. Staying clear of bullies and/or mental or emotional abuse moves us past this.

Next, we yearn for love. Living with someone we love and who loves us is a very special gift.

After love, we seek belonging within a group. We typically find it in our work, with our friends, as part of our faith, and/or some other social group.

Most humans spend their time seeking one of safety, love, and belonging. The absence of these at critical points in our life spawns insecurities that stay with us for the rest of our lives.

For those fortunate enough to move past these, the next needs are respect and admiration. These move us from the realms of insecurity to confidence.

But, both of these are tricky needs to navigate. That’s because they often have us fooled into believing we need widespread respect and admiration.

In reality, respect and admiration from ourselves and a few others we care about is all we need. But, that is tricky in its own way because the one person whose respect we crave the most – the person we look at in the mirror – is the hardest to win over.

A tree that grows quickly

“In undisturbed ancient forests, youngsters have to spend their first two hundred years waiting patiently in their mothers’ shade. As they struggle to put on a few feet, they develop wood that is incredibly dense.

In modern managed forests today, seedlings grow without any parental shade to slow them down. They shoot up and form large growth rings even without a nutrient boost from added nitrogen. Consequently, their woody cells are much larger than normal and contain much more air, which makes them susceptible to fungi—after all, fungi like to breathe, too. 

A tree that grows quickly rots quickly and therefore never has a chance to grow old.”

| from a summary of “The Secret Wisdom of Nature”

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for all of us.

Getting distance

Every year over the past eight years, I’ve made it a point to take time off after the 10th of December (give or take a couple of days) through to the new year. I do this with one goal – to get some distance from the rest of the year.

The first eleven months are dedicated to the pain and joy of day-to-day living. In these months, I attempt to live my life in a way that is consistent with values and principles I hold dear.

December, on the other hand, is focused on figuring out what these values and principles should be. Of late, that has meant figuring out how they should evolve for the next year based on everything I’ve learnt this year.

That comes with distance, reflection, and an accompanying dose of perspective.

As I start on that journey this year, I feel very aware of the many amazing things I take for granted during huge parts of the year. Articulated in the language of the things that matter to me – I like what I do, I think it matters, and I do it with people I care about and learn from. These are massive blessings. Especially so in a year that has revealed the enormous privilege that comes from having a steady income from a job that can be done remotely.

And, perhaps, most of all, I have the luxury to take most of the last month of the year off for said reflection and distance. In nearly every other year, this has coincided with either visiting our parents or having our parents visit us. However, given the circumstances, that isn’t possible this year.

But, the extended time off tradition remains more important than ever. That’s because I’ve also come to believe/realize that taking extended time off at some point of the year is critical for anyone who is paid for their judgment and creativity.

Why? Aside from all the good that breaks do for us, I keep going back to that word – “distance.” A long break helps us get that space to think, to take stock, and to get some perspective. Given that time and space and an insightful book, we realize the futility of some of the battles we fight and the importance of the many little things and wonderful people in our life that we take for granted.

That in turn helps us zoom out of the minutiae and refocus on what matters. We do this by reflecting on what we’ve experience and synthesizing the essence. That essence may just be one or two insights that change how we operate – i.e., those one of two insights form the most important lessons we’ve learnt this year. And, those lessons compound over time and step change our productivity.

For many of us, they also do more than just that. They remind us just how much we have to be grateful for. And, that gratitude inspires happiness. The kind that sticks around.

If you haven’t managed much distance this year, here’s hoping you get some ahead of 2021.

Flow is something the reader experiences

“Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.
If this is the case – making, fixing, killing, arranging – how can your writing possible flow?
It can’t.

Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.

A writer may write painstakingly,
Assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic,
Fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years.
And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.”

| Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s warnings about flow are as articulate as they are important. This passage reminded me of a quote from five time NBA All Star Damian Lillard – “If you want to look good in front of thousands, you have to outwork thousands in front of nobody.”

You can bet that the process of outworking thousands in front of nobody was fraught with pain and struggle. Few would describe that process as “natural” or filled with “flow.”

But, given time, energy, and patience, that process will create performances filled with flow. Or as Verlyn Klinkenborg notes in the context of writing – “Flow doesn’t describe the act of writing. It describes the effect of writing.”


PS: In case you are intrigued by all these notes on sentences, Anna has a fun blog where she deconstructs the first sentences of books.

Who we spend time with, by age

The Our World in Data team had a fascinating chart visualizing who we spend time with, by age. While the data is from Americans, I suspect some of these patterns hold in various places around the world.

This chart struck me as the single best argument made for the importance of self-compassion.

Be kind to yourself or the many hours you’re going to spend with yourself as you grow older are going to be * awkward *. :-)