Getting Results By Not Fixating On Them
I can honestly tell you that I am a results-oriented individual. However, if I were to continue being honest, I would have to add that this makes me less likely to get results. How come? Well, that is what this article is about. But that’s only part of it. It’s also about what I plan on doing to overcome this problem.
The reason I am writing this article? To better understand the problem myself. They say realizing you have a problem is an important step in solving it. I would say the next step is understanding it.
The reason I am publishing this article? First of all, I would like to hear from others that might have had similar experiences. Secondly, I feel as though I have just discovered the elephant who has been standing beside me all my life, hindering me in all sorts of ways. In retrospect, it seems absurd that I didn’t see it earlier. If there are others like me who are long overdue for an introduction to their elephant companions, then perhaps this article will give them the nudge they need.
Strategy is the sort of term that isn’t easy to define. I even had a senior executive ask me what I thought it meant during a job interview. The dictionary definition is “a plan of action designed to achieve a major or overall aim”. This definition does not tell you anything about the nature of the relationship between each of those planned actions and the desired outcome, nor does it indicate how one would go about coming up with such a plan. All it does is hint that there is in fact an intentional relationship between what you do, and the result you get. Cause and effect.
The way I filled in those gaps felt intuitive, but it was deeply flawed and counter-productive.
To me, this relationship had to be discernible and direct. That means, you needed a clear and precise understanding of why you were doing something, and how exactly this brought you closer to your goal.
Life, however, is unpredictable and full of surprises. Sure, you can deal with uncertainty by planning ahead and accounting for anything that could happen. Unfortunately, you can only do so for a very small number of possibilities before being overwhelmed.
I have begun to realize that being a good strategist also requires knowing when to compromise. When deciding what to do next, you should not expect to fully understand how that action brings you closer to your goal. Sure, without knowing that you can never be absolutely certain that you are doing the right thing, but you don’t have to. There is another way, which I will shortly talk about. Moreover, it really isn’t up to you, because you couldn’t deal with all the subtleties and complexity even if you tried. You will either incapacitate yourself, stuck on the very first decision, or you will be lost in a sea of complexity, ending up making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons, fooling yourself into thinking it is the right one.
Let me give an example by admitting something I have always felt somewhat embarrased about. I have always wanted to be good at chess; sorely. I never have been. Back when I was little, my most effective strategy was boring my opponent into abandoning the game because I was taking too long to make a move. I would be trying to recreate the game in my mind, like they do in the movies, so that I could freely experiment, trying to decide which step brings me closer to victory. Of course I would constantly lose my train of thought, having to start again. The worst part of it was that I would finally convince myself to make a move based on some fleeting vision of a vague benefit to be reaped in five moves, only to discover that I just made a huge blunder with immediate consequences! Getting caught up in the complexity of the future would make me oblivious to what was right there in front of me. I wonder if any of my opponents ever refrained from exploiting such a mistake because they thought making a move that was so obviously disastrous after ten minutes of thinking could only be a trap. Needless to say, the sort of experience I am describing is not fun for anyone involved! As much as I wanted to be good at chess, I was better off without all the anguish it caused. And so, I stopped playing.
My approach was altogether misguided. Computers are far more capable of systematically dealing with large amounts of information, and even they cannot consider all possible scenarios when playing chess. The optimal strategy is simply too hard to find. Instead, they relegate to heuristics. You can call these guidelines or principles. They are a set of rules that guide you in how you should behave in a given situation. You trust that they will bring you closer to your goal, and this trust might be justified in analytical reasoning or experience. However, they are not guaranteed to lead to success.
Heuristics define the framework in which the computer can evaluate the strength of their position in any arrangement of the pieces. The problem is no longer, “Which action leads to checkmating the opponent in however many moves it takes?”. It is, “What is the move that is most likely to improve my situation the most over the next 5 moves?”. The goal driving the decision making process is no longer winning the game. It is improving your current situation, with reason to believe this will somehow make you more likely to win the game later on, without fully understanding ‘how’. The relationship is no longer direct, but indirect.
The more experience you have playing chess, the more heuristics you get to try out for yourself, and see which one work and which ones don’t. Along the way, you will start to recognize themes and patterns. You will learn what to watch out for, and what to expect. You will start to gain a feel for the game. This should free your mind to focus on a higher level of strategic decisions. Or at least this is what I expect happens to people who are actually good at chess.
I was a lousy chess player because I was fixated on winning, and didn’t feel comfortable making a move without convincing (or exhausting) myself into believing it was the right one. Even worse, this left me demotivated and with an aversion to playing chess, robbing me of the one true means to becoming a better player.
Earlier, I mentioned that my wrong interpretation of strategy felt intuitive. I think this has got to do with an obsession for control. I feel uncomfortable when I do not feel in control. Mind you, this is not a rational attitude, but obsessions seldom are. Right off the bat, you never are in control no matter how you feel. You can die at any moment in all sorts of ways. This is surely not something you would expect from someone who is in control. If you know you can never be in control, how on earth can you expect to feel that way? Well, what one should not expect is rationality in obsessive behavior.
Connecting the dots that make up the chain of causality starting from your action and leading to your ultimate goal makes you feel in control. Relying on some other approach that is more focused on evaluating and improving your situation so that you might be better equipped to seize opportunities in the future, not so much. At least, not for me.
This attitude has all sorts of ramifications. One of these is the problem that actually got me into thinking about all of this in the first place. Programming is a large part of what I do. I have made sure this is the case because programming is also one of the things I like doing the most. Especially when I’m in the zone. I love being in the zone.
How does one get in the zone? Trust me I have searched high and low for the answer. Someone appropriated Paul Erdős’ quote about mathematicians into saying “A programmer is a machine for turning coffee into code”. The point is, caffeine is a catalyst that helps you feel more focused and be more productive. So are certain kinds of music. So is meditation.
Let’s assume you lead a healthy lifestyle. You sleep well, eight hours a day. You eat nourishing food, and do not skip breakfast. You exercise daily. You spend time socializing with your friends. You sit down at your computer to write some code, and you feel alright. Then you have a cup of coffee, and suddenly you feel much better. For a while, you drink coffee and enjoy the same benefits each time. I think what is going on here is that you are learning of a direct causal relationship: drink coffee, improve coding experience. Instant gratification.
Now, suppose you want to prolong that coding experience as much as possible, and you rely on coffee to do that. Your sleep schedule starts getting disrupted because you don’t want to stop coding until you absolutely have to, and because caffeine makes sleeping more difficult. You sleep for as long as it takes for you to wake up. You no longer have a ‘daily’ schedule to speak of, as night and day no longer play a part in your life beyond your decision on whether or not to turn on the lights. Instead, you alternate between sleeping and waking episodes. Once every waking episode, you eat a large pizza or four cheeseburgers as your only meal. The highlight of your daily exercise routine is getting up from your desk. Friends? What friends? Live like this, and at some point you will find that coffee no longer does the trick. Neither does music nor meditation. Well, they might every once in a while, but that’s it. Also, even though the coffee no longer helps you get focused, it sure will help you feel jittery and agitated.
The coffee, the music, and the meditation are all direct actions you can take with hopes of getting a particular result: inducing a state of being focused and productive. Sleeping well, eating well, and exercising frequently are not. Eating well once a blue moon will do nothing for you. These only work if you do them regularly: if they become principles that you adhere to. Why? I don't know why, at least not precisely. That's why I don't consider them direct actions.
The point that I would like to make, which is a working theory at this point, is that these indirect factors are precisely what is needed to establish the foundation on which the direct actions depend on to be effective. Coffee will give you a boost because it influences your brain chemistry in a particular way. Eating, sleeping, and exercising also influence your brain chemistry in much more complicated ways. However, in order to truly reap the benefits of drinking coffee, you need all those other influences to be there. It’s not as simple as do this and get that. It is a number of indirect relationships that you can benefit from in the long run by sticking to some rules. You might have off days even if you live a perfectly regulated life, but I'm guessing they would be less.
Let me give one final example from a very different area. I have been in a loving long-term relationship for the better part of a decade, so it has been some time since I was asking girls out on dates. Here is my second confession: back in the day there was something else that I wished I was better at, much more than chess! In hindsight, let me apply my theory and try to explain what I think was going on.
Whenever I had a crush on someone in high school, I would immediately start interacting with them exclusively in my imagination. This would leave me feeling more and more infatuated, up to the point that I really had to do something. So, what could I do? As is customary, I would immediately leap to direct actions. A grand romantic gesture out of the blue perhaps? Or at the very least, ask them out on the very next opportunity regardless of the context. No wonder I wasn’t any good. It really seems absurd when I put it this way, but please do realize that at the time I sincerely saw no other way of approaching the matter.
Be it romantic or otherwise, relationships are founded in mutually shared experiences and interactions. Each interaction teaches you something about the other person, and vice versa. Over time, these accumulate to form an opinion, positive or negative. For one thing, forming your opinion on a person based on an imaginary copy, needless to say, leads to a very strong positive bias. Interacting with someone teaches you whether or not you actually like, well, who they really are. If a current-day version of me in high school is reading this, my advice to you would be to actually spend more time with people and see where it goes from there. Here are those indirect forces at play again. Don’t go searching for the idiot’s guide to stealing someone's heart. That is a fool's errand.
In conclusion, I noticed that I rely far to heavily on direct actions in trying to achieve goals that I set for myself. I do this mainly out of an irrational desire to feel in control; whereas in actuality, it is counter-productive and makes success more difficult. The first step in improving is coming to terms with the fact that I cannot control everything, even if I could, I don’t have to. I have to learn to trust in certain guiding principles that I can follow in order to help reduce complexity to manageable levels. I should not expect to be able to understand the intricacies behind why these work in order to accept that they do, and take advantage of them. I should be more mindful of what these guidelines can be, and I should treat other people’s experiences as a valuable source for discovering them.
In doing so, I believe that I will become more successful in whatever I do. More importantly, I believe this will help me lead a happier and better life.