Difficulty at the Beginning

“It’s difficult to start things. That’s very natural, it’s the way the universe works really”

That’s exactly the kind of wisdom I would expect to hear from Irene. We first met in Hong Kong about 10 years ago, and we dated briefly. Being lovers didn’t work out, but we maintained our friendship, and I was very thankful for that, for she is wise beyond her years. Every time I pass through I make sure to make time to at least have a cup of coffee with her, and our conversations invariably end up revolving about the nature of the universe.

Irene is a physicist, more precisely an astronomer. Not the kind that plays with telescopes, as in the light polluted sky of HK it’s rare to be able to see much, but the kind that analyses data in heavily parallelised clusters of computers. So I guess she is more of a computer vision expert than many of the RPA kids these days doing optical character recognition and whatnot.

We’ve been talking about the challenge I am having currently with getting a new project up and running. She never worked in a corporate environment, but her insight is always on point. I really enjoy digging into her vague philosophical statements, you can always find more depth.

“The idea of inertia is very powerful, and I believe it applies to everything. Things that are at rest want to remain at rest. Getting something moving demands a lot of energy.”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the concept. But the same applies for things that are already moving, no?”

“Exactly. Once something is already in motion, it tends to remain in motion, and to stop it demands energy too.”

“But not that simple, right? I mean, if all that something needs in order to begin is for energy to be put in, then any amount of work on a project would be good, but what I tend to observe is that, although some work is better than no work, if you don’t spend enough energy at the beginning, the momentum tends to die out.”

“That makes sense, and we can still maintain the analogy with the laws of physics. When you have a piece of wood lying flat on a rough surface, if you tilt the surface a little bit, it won’t start moving straight away. There’s an initial resistance, due to the friction between the surfaces. You need to tilt it enough for the potential energy to compensate for the friction. Once you do that, the slab of wood will move suddenly.”

“Yep, I get it. So depending on what you are trying to do you might have forces that act as friction too, I guess, right? So you would have to either remove those sources of friction, or add more energy. I guess that the first is preferable to the latter, since simply adding more energy might just break everything, or get a sudden uncontrolled movement. It’s better to work on removing the friction.”

“Wow, that’s a great insight…” says Irene with her eyebrows raised. I blush a little bit. “I like to think of systems that are designed from the start to deal with this initial difficulty. Like life itself: being born is a traumatic experience, but over many iterations life has adapted to be able to push through, navigate through the difficulties. Of course there will be unforeseen circumstances, but most of the common problems will be able to be circumvented.”

“That sounds exactly like making a plan and being prepared.”

“Yeah, that’s the idea. A blade of grass pushing against an obstacle as it sprouts out of the earth is a great image: the seed contains in itself all the information from many generations on how to deal with that initial problem of being buried. Not only does it ‘know’ what to do, it actually needs that difficulty in order to flourish. If the seed wasn’t buried, it would not find the nutrients it needs.”

Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success,

Furthering through perseverance.

Nothing should be undertaken.

It furthers one to appoint helpers.

We have been chatting for hours. I am still curious about her thoughts on this topic, so I order another cup of coffee and a cookie. The afternoon promises rain, but we are relatively close to her work place, and I can always get a taxi later on. From the coffee shop window I can see the vibrant city preparing for the evening, despite the rain forecast.

“All right, the problem I am having, time and again, is actually more on after I manage to get a project going. I have the whole team assembled, we have a vision, we know where to go. People seem motivated. We have a plan. But then, invariably, we start to fall out of sync, as if losing control.”

“Hmmm, I know the feeling. It’s like, everything is in motion. So there is chaos. What do you usually do then?”

“Well, I just plough through. Try to keep it all together some way or another, and get past that initial chaotic phase.”

“Perseverance is always a good idea. But do you ask for help?”

“Well, not explicitly. I am the person responsible for the project, so I don’t want to appear like I don’t have things under control.”

“That’s so very typical of you, so proud.” she says, reprovingly. I blush for the second time. Praised and scolded in the same conversation, that’s how it goes with Irene. “In moments of chaos, of beginnings, you have to have helpers. When things are unformed, dark, it’s important not to act prematurely and alone. Instead you have to seek helpers, and lend a hand and participate with inspiration and guidance. Only this way you can attain form from chaos.”

“Yeah, I get your point. But it’s not just that, right? If you have all these voices, how do you know what to concentrate on first?”

“In mathematics we separate, classify, and unite. When you are trying to understand a pattern, you have to separate the components into the underlying patterns, apply the transformations to those patterns, then unite the strands again. How does that translate?”

“I’m not sure. But it’s a start.”

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The Book of Changes is a great source of insight. We explore each of the hexagrams in a modern context.

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Marco Zanchi

Marco Zanchi

Interested in mathematics, philosophy, and language. Head of engineering for BridgeU

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