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.