Striking out from the safety of the harbour

When life overwhelms, it crashes right over our heads like a wave – sweeping us off the deck of our ship and dumping us into a cold, stormy sea.

It’s an awful experience, made all the more insidious by the fact that it can be triggered by the smallest things. No matter who you are or how much money you have, circumstances can rush in on a king tide and sweep you off your feet at a moment’s notice.

Given that complete overwhelm is such a disorienting and all-consuming feeling, it’s natural for us to want to avoid it. It’s reasonable for us to choose paths which allow us to remain in the sanctuary of a harbour where the waters are calm. To not take on anything which might overwhelm us. To keep our hands clean and our legs dry.

But in her wonderful essay We were made for these times, Clarissa Estes reminds us of some important perspectives which we often seem to lose sight of.

…we were made for these times… For years we have been learning, practicing, in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plane of engagement.

While we often feel ill-equipped for the challenge, we’re more prepared and more able to make a difference than any group in history.

We just have to remember to not be daunted by its scale.

It’s easy for us to be weakened and disheartened by what is outside our sphere of influence. But in doing so we forget that larger things are improved by focusing on own immediate interface with the world.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world which is within our reach.

And that dramatic change doesn’t require everything, from everyone, all at the same time.

…but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

We’ll face gales that whip us around and lash us to the rocks – but we are build to withstand even the stormiest of seas.

Our job is to show up, repeatedly. To show up and to bring the best combination of ourselves to face the challenges before us.

…to be fierce and to show mercy towards others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

It’s a long battle before us, but it’s the most worthwhile battle there is. To make things better. To contribute to a critical mass of enduring good. To leave things better than when we found them.

And in those times when it would be easier to seek the quiet life and avoid confronting all this trouble, we would do well to remember:

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Read her full essay We were made for these times.

Silver and lead bullets

Silver Bullet by Ed Schipul

There’s a great passage in Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things in which he’s chided by a veteran at his company for trying to find a simple solution to a particular problem.

Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web Server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that. No, we’re going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.

Of course we want the simple solution. We want the answer that allows us to tighten one nut and fix the entire machine. But a lot of the time, those solutions either don’t exist or they distract us from focusing on the bigger problem.

Is it possible that the machine we’re trying to fix just sucks? Is that the big problem we’re trying to avoid?

It’s great to have silver bullets. They can sometimes, genuinely be an elegant solution. But a lot of the time, we’re better off just facing into the hard problem.

And you can’t always kill hard problems with silver bullets. Sometimes it just takes a lot of regular, lead ones.

Correct play doesn’t guarantee a good outcome

When we get a shitty outcome, it’s easy to assume that we should have done something differently. After all, it didn’t turn out how we wanted, so we must have done something wrong. Right?

But there’s a great lesson that poker players learn quickly: we can make the correct play and still lose. Often.

Correct play doesn’t guarantee short term wins, but it will give us the best odds of success in the long term.

In the face of a short term defeat, the worst thing we can do is to automatically assume that we got everything wrong and change our strategy entirely.

A short term loss is a data point, not a life sentence.

Getting comfortable with short term loss can help inoculate us against the type of behaviour which will guarantee long term disaster.

There is always a chance of course that we should have / could have done something differently for a better outcome. But it’s never certain. It’s never guaranteed.

All we really do is learn the game, learn the odds, learn the players, learn the situations and make the best decisions with the information we have to hand.

It’s just another reason to play the long game.

Yesterday’s lessons

On the ground in the light by Isthinking

Every day, life hands us lessons.

They’re laying there, like leaves on the ground – slowly rotting. And for the most part, we carry on, trampling all over them, oblivious to their presence.

We’re not always paying attention.

We’re not always ready to learn.

We’re not always ready to hear that there is more to learn.

This is true at every level: individuals, organisations, groups, teams, countries. Even groups of countries.

We don’t tune ourselves to see the lessons – in fact sometimes we wilfully block them out.

So then we pay for consultants, coaches and therapists to come and point out the blindingly obvious.

They enforce the discipline of the end of day summary, the project wash-up, the post-game analysis.

The force us to see the lessons – so we have a better chance of learning them.

But we shouldn’t let the lack of a coach, consultant or therapist stop us from looking for ourselves.

The lessons we need to learn are littered around us. We just need train ourselves to see them and be mindful enough to pick them up before they rot.

The powerful influence of environment


I’m really, only productive when there are too many things to do.

It forces me to schedule, prioritise and then hustle to get it all done in the allotted time.

I list out all the candidate activities and then choose from that list the things I will do. Some get done, some move to tomorrow, some end up on the scrap heap – sacrificed to the productivity gods.

But I need the pressure of too much to get anywhere near that optimal level of activity.

If I have only a few things to do, they expand like gas to fill the available space. Less urgency = less productivity (for me anyway).

To be clear – this isn’t just about work. This is also about making time for the things I really want to do, like hanging out with my kids.

While I still want to be productive when there’s less pressure, the difference isn’t the intention, it’s the environment.

This is important because our environment plays a huge role in our behaviour. Our behaviour is not just a product of what we want to do, it’s also a function of the world around us.

In fact, the psychologist Kurt Lewin even proposed an equation for explaining this:

B = f(P, E)

– where behaviour (B) is a function of the person (P) and their environment (E).

To understand how influential the environment is, consider the following:

When US servicemen were returning from Vietnam in the early 70s, it turned out that about 40% of them had tried heroin while on deployment. More startling, was that 15% of servicemen were actually addicted to heroin on their return.

That sounds insane and ridiculous, right? If you’re interested you can read about it on CNN or the excellent NPR report.

Of those who were addicted, all but 5% were able to overcome their addiction without relapse within the year. To understand just how staggering that is, consider that the typical relapse rate for heroin addicts in the US at the time was about 90%.

It was later discovered that the primary difference between the two was the environmental change. The soldiers were now completely removed from the environment in which they had used heroin. Few, or none of previous cues, prompts or triggers associated with using were present.

Unfortunately for the US addicts, the same level of environmental change wasn’t there when they wanted to quit. They still lived in same place, kept the same friends, the same job, the same pressures, triggers and prompts. With all those environmental factors remaining the same, 90% of them relapsed into use.

This illustrates just how powerful environmental factors can be in determining what we actually do – irrespective of what we want to do.

So coming back to the original challenge – how do I maintain productivity even when the to do list isn’t overwhelming?

Well in this case the behaviour (being productive) is more difficult to maintain because the environment has shifted (there isn’t as much super-urgent stuff to do).

Rather than fight Lewin’s equation, I seek to reset the balance by restoring the strongest influence – the environment. I put more things into the to-do list – frivolous things, even – that force me to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Sometimes, it’s only when I see “piss about on twitter” as an option for my time and attention that I see what a ridiculous waste of time it is – cutting quickly to the chase.

Whether you’re seeking to maintain a behaviour or unseat one entirely – don’t forget the powerful influence of the environment.

B=f(P,E) can either be the albatross around your neck or a lifeline – the difference is whether or not you’re paying attention to it.