Learning one line

There’s an old Indian story about a child who once told his teacher that he only learned one line during the few days the teacher was away. As all of his classmates claimed to have studied multiple chapters in this time, the teacher was upset about the child’s progress.

As he pressed the child further on this lack of progress, the child calmly explained that he’d put in maximum effort. As the conversation progressed, the teacher became increasingly infuriated, insulted the child’s intelligence, and slapped him.

The child stayed calm throughout this fit of anger.

Surprised at the child’s reaction, the teacher finally asked him what was the line he’d learnt.

“Don’t get angry.” – came the response.

On occasions when I think of this story, I’m reminded of the power of doing few things well.

And, of the fact that to learn and not to do is not to learn.

More and better

I was trying to get more push ups in at the gym the other day. In isolation, that’s not a bad idea. However, there was plenty of room for me to do fewer, much better.

I realized soon enough that this behavior was due to an incentive I had in place. I used to give myself a small check mark at the end of the week if I counted 100 push ups as a proxy for time spent at the gym. However, it wasn’t relevant anymore. So, I took the check mark row off. But it got me thinking about incentives.

First, whenever you see a person or an organization pushing for more/faster instead of better, take a good look at the incentives. People compensated for the short term will push for short term wins instead of longer term value. And, this compensation need not be in terms of pay. It could also just be about more praise in the short term or “culture currency.”

Second, we overestimate the amount of time “more” is useful. This is likely because our emotional system, the amygdala, was trained in thousands of years of scarcity. The last hundred years have created more abundance than our amygdala can ever imagine. So, yes, every once a while, we do need more in our lives.

But, as a general rule, better is always better.

Bad is far worse than none

This is a simple truth that is particularly hard to internalize. But, the fact remains that –
– bad food is worse than none
– a bad hire is far worse than no hire at all.
– or, for the most easily understood example, a bad relationship is far far worse than none at all.

Yes, you can scale your team really quickly by bringing bodies on board. But, bring in the wrong people and you’ll kill the motivation of all those who made your team successful, destroy the culture you worked so hard to build and spend all your time dealing with the kind of crap that comes with bad hires. Your team would much rather shoulder more effort than deal with the wrong person. So would you.

As humans, we’re wired towards feeling good about choosing quantity over quality. It is hard wired into our brains after centuries spent foraging for food in tough conditions all by ourselves. But, in our age of endless choice, it is vital we learn this lesson.

Great things are easily destroyed by a few bad choices made in a hurry. So, choose wisely, and remember – bad is far worse than none.