Newton’s Laws and the world of work

Part of this post was written when ~6 miles high, and the other on the ground. I wonder if you can spot the transition!

The idea is born..high up in the sky

Hello from the Canadian Prairie! (Full disclosure: started this while still in the air, so, technically, hello from 38,000 ft above the Manitoba — Saskatchewan border)

If not for a distinct smoky haze (from awful forest fires) covering the otherwise clear and expansive skies, summer looks to be shaping up just like all the previous ones I experienced here, in what you might call the Canadian midwest. Beautiful clear skies flaunting orange and pink hues (at sunrise and sunset respectively), colourful hot-air balloons punctuating the horizon as if like gemstones encrusted on a smooth silky blue fabric, migrating geese in large formations flying with almost military-precision, hot days, dusty gusts, starry nights, jazz festivals, pellucid waters, and last but not least, Saskatoon berry pies.

I am here to see my parents and my sister, and to celebrate my growing a year older, in their company. We have been a traveling family for just about 25 years — 4 countries on 3 continents (and 2 island nations..which I think don’t technically, er, geographically form part of any continent, right?), and so always welcome an opportunity to be under one roof, regardless of geography, even if for a few days or weeks. I get to be a kid again (well, ‘again’ used loosely here), enjoy my parents’ instinctual adulation, and bond(/tease/argue) with my sister.

Given this setting, the thoughts I intend to share in this blog post are quite timely and appropriate. Is it the ‘wisdom of aging’, the introspective mood induced by a quiet mid-afternoon flight away from a bustling metropolis, or, more simply, freedom due to the absence of (free) wifi? Whatever it is, I am excited to share with you all this philosophical reflection from high altitudes!

Professional Inertia

I wanted to talk about the concept of inertia at work, or ‘professional inertia’ as I call it. Here is one definition (from Google) of the general concept of inertia:

a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

Here’s Newton’s First Law, which essentially illuminated this concept to the world:

every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.

All of you have experienced this at some point in life, and many of you also recognize that it is inertia you are experiencing. It is a phenomenon that is part of everyday life, all the time, literally. Any time you let off the gas pedal in your car and find the car still moving, or stop paddling and see that your canoe is still floating forward, or simply roll a ball on the ground and watch it continue to roll for a while, you are witnessing inertia at work. I mean, how awesome is that to recognize, to witness such a global, no, universal force in play during such simple everyday activities. [Pause] Time to stare up and into the distance, and think of how remarkable Newton’s discovery (and the man himself) is. [End Pause]

This ‘physical world’ inertia is not my focus here. What I realized over the past few years is how many (perhaps, all? ok no philosophical digression for now) physical laws that govern bodies (read: tangible) also seem to apply to minds and emotions (read: intangible). I am quite fascinated by this idea that laws and ideas of physics (e.g. gravity, inertia, relativity, etc.) can apply in psychological and behavioural phenomena. As tempted as I am in wanting to go into this at length, I shall refrain and just pick up a sliver of this idea — that of intertia of the mind.

More specifically, I want to touch on the inertia of one’s actions in a professional context — professional inertia. After I recognized the applicability of this concept, and knowing what I knew about inertia, I was able to understand the motivation and impact of many of my actions in my career, allocate adequate resources for their processing, and learn from them to prepare for inertia of future actions. Yeah, kinda abstract, but bear with me.

I define professional inertia as the tendency of one’s workday/job/career to stay in a certain constant state unless acted upon by an external force, such as a new project, a new teammate, a new job, a new boss, etc. So, people tend to keep doing things they have been doing unless some external trigger/stimulus makes them change that state.

So far so good? Pretty understanable I hope. I just find it helpful / interesting to think about the world of work in this manner. It helps recognize the general tendency of people to stay in the same mental state / job / tem for years. It is, after all, just physics!

Resistance (to professional inertia)

What is even more interesting about the world of work is a concept closely tied to inertia, called force of inertia, or more generally, resistance. This is where Newton’s Third Law comes in, which in a simplified version states that:

Every action has an equal an opposite reaction.

Again, the Third Law is everywhere around us. If you push against a heavy object, the object is effectively pushing back at you with the same force. If the force of your push is stronger than that coming from the object, the object will move. The direction of your force will direct the resulting direction of motion of that object. (This description makes the object sound like a living being; not really — every object with mass has the ability to exert force, etc. — another huge and superbly interesting topic in physics that I will once again refrain from discussing. Just the usual temptations of a science nerd..).

Changing directions of a soccer ball, or a hockey puck, or dragging your coffee table around to find that perfect spot for it, are all examples of forces acting on you and the ball/puck/table; Newton’s Third Law is in wonderful effect here. Objects essentially exhibit a force de résistance in response to any external forces trying to change their current state.

Ok, how does this relate to professional inertia? Herein lies the beauty. A person (or their circumstances / state of affairs) continuing in a state of professional inertia in their job/team/company/project inherently possess a resistance force working against any potential change in state. This resistance will be felt by the agent attempting to make this change in state — be it the person themselves (driven by some trigger) or others around them.

This ‘resistance of professional inertia’ is really the crux of this blog post. It is the idea that people will inherently face a sort of resistance anytime they attempt to change their current state of work. Again, it is ok, it is just physics! We just need to learn to recognize it, and harness the phenomenon to our advantage. At least, that is what I have been attempting to do, and I think it has been working for me.

Some personal experiences

Examples of the resistance of professional inertia abound in the working world. I have many personal examples. For years, I did not have a habit of taking notes and creating action items in meetings. I always thought I’d remember the action items mentally and act on them. Even after realizing the shortcomings of my habit, changing it took me almost two years. My original habit was my professional inertia and the desire to stay with it the associated resistance, which took 2 years to change.

Similarly, I would always create work presentations by directly launching into PowerPoint and creating slides on the fly. This would often take an excessive number of revisions as I would develop my overall thought while also putting it down on a slide; if the former changes, the latter would need to change. After many frustrating revisions and unncessary late nights, I realized that I should first build an outline (a ‘ghost deck’) on paper, ponder over it and refine my thoughts there and then create a presentation in PowerPoint. This took me just about 3 years to change. First step: recognizing the underlying issue. Second step: trying (and failing many times) to change. Third step: sustaining the change over a period of time (a few months, until a new habit is formed). Again, in this case, my old habit was my professional interia and the 3-year journey to change it the associated resistance.

Another more recent example: After 8 years and 2 startups together, I left my team at Dynamic Signal (and prior to that Adify) at the end of March, 2015. It certainly was a bittersweet event, and I shared more about it here. It is relevant here because, after 3.5 months, I am still uncovering the extent of my professional inertia (and associated resistance) from the past 8 years. I have been identifying various components of the professional inertia, and working to build ways to counter the resistance in order to gear up for my next professional chapter (tldr: it is self-directed unstructured work, aka launching a startup).

What all this taught me

So, what have I learned about my most recent professional inertia?

i) Craving Chaos: I spent most of those 8 years in client-facing positions as ‘chief problem solver’ of sorts. This meant being in an ever-ready state, to anticipate problems, react to them calmly (though freaking out inside), and present solutions amicably, diplomatically and conducive to your employer and the client. This left me fine-tuned to be always alert, restless, and essentially craving chaos. Growing customer success teams at two B2B SaaS startups in Silicon Valley does that you see. You are looking for that next fire, that next angry email or phone call, or that next technical-difficulties screen. If I didn’t see chaos, I didn’t know how best to be productive. Now, having left that role, I’ve am trying to build a daily rountine that does not depend on such highly unpredictable inputs!

ii) Need for frequent interactions: I worked with a number of wonderful colleagues, and built a number of strong professional relationships and friendships over the past 8 years. Many times, working remote was not an option for me purely because I would miss working with and interacting with these people in person. From marathoners and video game experts to data scientists, multi linguists, and ‘serial CEOs’, I’d interact with them all on any given day at work. It fed the extrovert in me so wonderfully well. Entrepreneurship, particularly in the early stages, can be lonely. Building on a nebulous idea, trying to develop practical use-cases, attempting to convince a busy investor on the (awesome) longer term vision, as a team of one, in a new city+country have certainly taught me so many new ways to cope, in addition to new advance courses in patience, perseverance, keeping your idea-passion alive. Blogging more frequently is actually one of those ways to cope — to share my thoughts and my creation process. What a great start it has been!

iii) Nostalgia: This isn’t strictly a ‘professional inertia’ example, but is something that I consciously and subconsciously think of the most. So, let us call it ‘associated professional inertia’. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for just over 14 years. My graduate school, my twenties, my most memorable hiking trips (and associated near-death experience — one of two — the other being in Whistler, BC), my favourite burrito places, my ex-convertible (something like the red one here; oh so beautiful), and many other ‘my favorite this / my favorite that’ phrases, all were coined in California. Moving to Toronto continues to unfold in a really nice way. I continue to fall for this cosmopolitan city more and more, but certainly feel the resistance of having been in the same, familiar, comfortable surroundings for a long time. However, the beautiful aspect of life is that you can forge new memories (where there is a will, and so forth..). Every weekend drive, shawarma stop, open-air beer garden, and new exciting startup I encounter, I take one step closer to overcoming the ‘familiarity’ resistance!

So, that is my personal example of professional inertia. I’ve grown used to a certain professional inertia over the past decade, and spent the past three months trying to unravel it, understand it, and build steps to overcome the associated resistance to march forward in my next professional (and ‘associated professional’) chapter.

Hope these examples and frameworks help provide a idea of what professional inertia and its associated resistance can be, how to recognize them, and address them in a beneficial manner.

[Aside: I started referencing Einstein early on in my earlier posts, and am now on to Newton. I am pleasantly surprised at this ongoing science-meets-startups school of thought prevalent in my blogs. I’ve got to think of who to invoke next!]

In closing..

I will wrap up with just a few (of my) ‘key takeaways’:

a) Learning Physics isn’t just helpful if you want to become a scientist. You can also draw cool comparisons and write interesting introspective blog posts.

b) Professional inertia is ubiquitous and recognizing it can be extremely comforting.

c) Recognizing it, building steps to overcome its associated resistance, and realizing results, all take time. Be patient and forgiving of yourself.

Please excuse the bulleting and the corporate phrasing at times — I am, after all, working to overcome past resistance and change the direction of my professional inertia :)

Until again.

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