Searching for Pencils

Sometimes it pays to keep things simple (even though people insist on making things complex).  Take for example this old joke about NASA:

In the early days of the space program, NASA discovered that using ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity.  NASA scientists — some of the best and brightest people at the time — spent a decade and a billion dollars developing a pen that wrote not only in zero gravity but on almost any surface, at very low temperatures, and in any position the astronaut happened to be in.

The Russians, not to be bested, did something a lot smarter: they used a pencil.

This story illustrates a couple of things: (a) keep it simple and (b) solve the right problem!  It’s also a good story because it’s a memorable way to learn vicariously through the mistakes of others.  Two quick thoughts:

  • People naturally like to make things more complex than they need to be.  Maybe it’s an ego thing, complexity is sometimes related to importance, and who doesn’t like to work on important stuff?  This is especially true of intelligent people (or at least people who think they are intelligent).  The truly wise ones are the ones who can see how to make things simple, not complex.
  • Engineers and technical people usually get carried away in their craft.  Architecting an elegant solution, digging deep into the details, and handling all the corner cases is second nature (and fun!) to them.  This, however, does not lend itself well to an on-time and on-budget project.  The most creative solutions are usually time and budget constrained (not the opposite!).

I think it’s fun learning vicariously through others (less so when it’s my own mistake).  One of my favourite people, Charlie Munger, has one liner about that:

“If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.”

Have fun!

Holiday Wisdom

Some wisdom from Charlie in time for the holiday season[1]:

“Do the best that you can do. Never tell a lie. If you say you’re going to get it done, get it done. Nobody gives a shit about an excuse. Leave early for the meeting. Don’t be late, but if you are late, don’t bother giving people excuses. Just apologize… Return your calls quickly. The other thing is the five-second no. You’ve got to make up your mind. You don’t leave people hanging.”
— Charlie Munger

Some additional commentary from me:

  1. “Do the best that you can do.”
    What could be more obvious?  But sometimes I get the feeling that many people don’t follow the same set of values that I do.  Instead they eschew this virtue and instead “do the least to get by”.  Obviously not something we should be striving for.
  2. “Never tell a lie.”
    I’ve always found lying difficult, too many “versions” of the truth to keep straight.  Chalk it up to my like for keeping things simple.
  3. “If you say you’re going to get it done, get it done.  Nobody gives a shit about an excuse.”
    This is another obvious one but somehow not everyone has internalized it.  There’s something to be said about someone with a lot of assiduity (as Charlie puts it, “Sitting on your ass until it gets done”).
  4. “Leave early for the meeting. Don’t be late, but if you are late, don’t bother giving people excuses. Just apologize…”
    Punctuality is just another form of respect, definitely a virtue to strive for.
  5. “The other thing is the five-second no. You’ve got to make up your mind. You don’t leave people hanging.”
    This is another great one.  If someone asks you to go out, just make up your mind.  Don’t wait and see if something better comes along, just decide.  Don’t be “that” guy.

Happy Holidays!


  1. Quote from Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin p. 251

The Best Hour of the Day

What do you do with the best hour of the day?  Is it wasted time watching TV or browsing Reddit?  Sold to the highest bidder?  Here’s a (not so novel) idea: give it to yourself.  Let’s listen to some advice from Charlie:

“I said I would sell the best hour of the day to myself in order to improve myself.  Only then would I sell the rest of my time to my clients… To make a man of yourself intellectually, you need to work at it.  I don’t think even Johnny von Neumann did it naturally… if you’re a person of good cognition, you can learn a lot more if you put your mind to it.  I don’t think there’s any substitute for just sitting and thinking.”
— Charlie Munger

Much of the extraordinary results we get come from consistent incremental progress but it takes work.  You have to build habits to make it happen.  Just like most people don’t spontaneously get into the habit of exercising and eating right, most people don’t suddenly take an hour each day to improve themselves or their craft.  But if you do (and live long enough), you’ll inevitably get some extraordinary results.  So instead of giving the best hour of each day to Netflix, or YouTube, or even your job, give it to someone that matters: yourself.

Passion is Not Linear

Passion[1] is one of those interesting human phenomena where we too often confuse cause for effect.  The usual story about passion goes something like this:

  1. You have a passion. Either you have had it all your life (presumably since you were in the womb), or perhaps you had a life changing experience where you all of a sudden developed a passion.
  2. Your passion leads to motivation, which allows you work and think about your passion night and day.
  3. Over time, you naturally learn more, become better than all the other soulless individuals without passion.
  4. You now reap the rewards of following your passion.

Sounds like quite the motivational story, even if it’s not true.  The real flaw in this line of thinking is that it’s linear — it’s not.  The process is not so simple that after step 1 is nicely wrapped up, you go onto step 2. Once step 2 is finished, proceed to step 3.  With step 4 being the culmination of this grand process that you started when you decided to follow your passion.  The only thing missing is to pass Go and collect $200 (maybe that’s step 4 though?).

Like most things dealing with humans, things are rarely so linear.  Scott Adams has a great presentation on this idea titled Passion is Overrated and Goals are for Losers, quite the title.  One of his main points is that:

“Just maybe [success] causes passion.”
— Scott Adams

Of course it’s a bit harder to think about how this might play out because steps 1-4 are no longer sequential.  They’re mixed up, twisted and intertwined.  If we look at passion as a scale from 0 to 100, the process probably goes something like this:

  1. Start doing an activity (passion = 0)
  2. Have fun doing the activity (passion = 5)
  3. Keep doing the activity (passion = 6)
  4. Get praised for being good at the activity (passion = 10)
  5. Take a class on the activity (passion = 12)
  6. Figure out how much better other people are than you at activity (passion = 7)
  7. Work damn hard to improve your skills at activity (passion = 10)
  8. Get praised for how much progress you made from hard work (passion = 15)
  9. Repeat steps 5-8 until it becomes a full-fledged passion.

Notice that step 1 is not suddenly knowing your passion.  That’s more like the last step.  The first few steps take you from apathy to liking, then with some work (and success), perhaps from liking to liking a lot.  Repeat that over many years.  At some point along the way, if you’ve worked hard enough and you’ve had enough successes, you’ve might end up with something most people call a passion.  One of the most important points is that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.  You can see in step 6 passion actually drops.  This is probably more realistic.  The people who actually develop passion have the discipline to persevere through the lulls and down moments.  This is why you need both discipline and a system.

Pretty words and Hollywood movies have a way of making you believe that the world is a simple place.  Passion is one of those nice simple ideas that is the panacea to all your woes.  Unfortunately, things rarely are so clear-cut, they’re usually much messier.  That’s why it’s important to not get fooled into such simplistic thinking by thinking at the next level.

Having said that, I’m going to go watch the latest romantic comedy.  It’s supposed to be good because of the great acting and realistic portrayal of love…

  1. I’ve written about passion a few times (here, here and here), so why not again?

Motivation vs. Discipline

An interesting question, if you have to get a task done, which is more helpful motivation or discipline?  An interesting article titled “Screw motivation, what you need is discipline” contrasts the two:

“Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task.

Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby ironically circumvents the problem by consistently improving them.”

Clearly a not so subtle answer to the question but it hits on a really important point: people are generally lazy.  A little explanation is required.

A common misconception is that somehow what we feel and think drives what actions we take, a clear cut cause and effect.  The reality (as often is the case) is quite a bit more complicated.  Actually, our feelings and thoughts are much more intertwined with actions than our intuition lets on.  Let’s do a thought experiment.

You come home from work and are feeling a general malaise; if you were a colour, it would be grey; if you were the sky, it would be cloudy; if you were a word, it would be “blah”.  Now, what would you do in this situation?  Probably plop yourself on the couch, turn on the TV and zone out for the next few hours[1].  So clearly, feelings/thoughts caused you to do this drab activity, or did it?  Let’s look at an alternate reality.

You come home from work and are feeling a general malaise; if you were a colour, it would be grey; if you were the sky, it would be cloudy; if you were a word, it would be “blah”.  As you are about to plop yourself on the couch, the alarm on your phone goes off reminding you that you’re supposed to go do your 6 pm workout (4 times a week no less!).  So you moan a bit and drag yourself to change and go for a run outside.  After the run, how would you feel?  Some words that I might use (depending on how the run went): tired, exhausted, energized, proud, happy, relieved, satisfied… the list goes on.  In no case though would I imagine that we would use the word “blah”.  Interesting isn’t it?  The action of running really caused our feelings (and most likely thoughts) to change.  So the cause and effect of feelings and actions aren’t so clear cut after all.

Now circling back to the original question: motivation or discipline?  Of course, we’d prefer motivation.  Motivation makes things easy.  When we’re really raring to hike up the mountain, it becomes (almost) fun.  When we’re determined to finish that assignment, it becomes effortless.  When we’re hungry to learn that new lick, practice seems like a breeze.  We like motivation because we like things easy.  The opposite is also true, we don’t like things hard, which is just another way to say we are lazy[2].  But clearly the article is onto something that is obvious to everyone: we don’t always have motivation.  Some tasks are hard, sometimes we can’t see the finish line and we lose motivation.  And this is the reason discipline is so important.

Discipline gives us a reason (along with habits) to do some kind of action that we would normally not do left to our own devices.  And here’s the part that’s unintuitive: discipline can affect *gasp* your motivation.  So then, discipline is a tool to help us get stuff done but also to help us gain motivation.  It’s easy to see examples all over the place such as when a kid does well on his math test because he did all his homework, it will encourage him to study more next time.  Or perhaps practicing a guitar solo every day for a month, and then killing it at an impromptu performance for your friends.  And we can’t forget everyone’s favorite activity of seeing the pounds on the scale go down through a consistent exercise regimen (and probably reduced calorie intake).  Discipline can help us do more particularly through difficult tasks, and ironically make them easier (by giving us motivation).

So now then, motivation or discipline?  Both of course!  Not sure why there always needs to be a dichotomy between things.  We should use the right tools for the right job, and both motivation and discipline are two powerful and complementary tools.  Because you never want to be left with just one tool, as the old saying goes:

“To a man with a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail.”

I don’t know about you but most of my problems are much too varied and delicate to use a hammer.  Now a screwdriver on the other hand…

  1. Obviously dating myself a bit.  How about something more modern?  Plop yourself on the couch, open up YouTube on your iPad, and spend the next few hours watching videos of cats spinning in circles.
  2. Laziness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes great innovation comes out from being lazy (as a way to avoid doing things that are hard).  Moreover, it’s just a fact of human nature (and nature) that we try to minimize hard things.  We don’t lament our limited capacity to see the visible light spectrum, why attach negative connotations to our natural tendency to be lazy?