Range of precision

Humans are poor at thinking probabilistically and this is mostly because reality tends to be a collection or a series of outcomes. Things happen and it seems like things are one or none. There’s no ‘chance of’ rain because it either rains or it doesn’t. So it would seem that probability is an abstraction, something that exists only in the minds of people.

So it might make sense to think about a range of outcomes instead. When we consider our goals and our visions of the future, it’ll be useful to think in terms of scenarios and to actually be rigorous in thinking about them. It is useful to consider if you want to be a manager, what are the conditions to fulfill it, how it would look like in terms of your family life, your friendships and relationships. If we think of our goals in the isolated way in a single dimension, we will never be able to grasp its implication in other dimensions of life.

By thinking of scenarios in a more complete manner where you look at the various goals and the claim on your resources, you can better think appreciate the “chances” of realising some of your vision. Because quite likely, they can be mutually incompatible.

Meta falling

I struggle with Meta’s value creation model; it takes people’s attention, passing it to those who value it, and makes off with the money in return. They then mine for more attention, more screen time, more private data to get more value. This sounds compelling but if their interest remains diametrically opposed to the large user base they boast of, it’s doomed to fail at some point.

Why not focus on long term value that is sustainable, aligning their own interest with the users’ interests. Collecting a fee from companies to provide identity verification services based on user data without handing over private data. Or collecting subscription fees to help users protect their private information and allow it to be securedly shared with treasured connections?

There are ways for Meta to reinvent itself to be a giant worthy of its position amongst the tech firm. Just exploring the metaverse isn’t going to be enough.

Why better can be different

I pondered about what innovation means to us practically and psychologically. And the implications for individuals stepping out into the world is huge. We have been trained by the education system to keep getting better along the same dimensions or at least along the pathways that are given to us. But that is the sort of incremental improvement that is not really innovation.

Innovative individuals probably won’t be efficient or “the best” by measures that are already established. But they can create and invent new ways, new measures to approach the same problem. We can improve along existing out outcomes we care about by working on different areas, using a system engineering approach. Or we can decide that we want to target a different outcome instead, having exhausted the gains in the dimensions we previously worked on.

Take fuel economy of a car for example; traditionally, the internal combustion engine have enjoyed incremental improvements through better design of combustion chamber, the way the torque is produced and the design of the axes etc. But when it comes to electric cars, the electric motors tend to be already quite efficient so fuel economy improvements are achieved through making the car body with lighter materials and reducing the weight of the batteries, improving the battery capacity and ability to hold charge, or to discharge more efficiently and so on.

On the other hand, road safety has been traditionally improved through encouraging safer driving, being stringent about what happens in the cars (no texting, putting on seatbelts), as well as road design, traffic signs, etc. Most of these gains are exhausted already. But we know it can be remarkably improved through widespread coordination of autonomous driving systems. The difficulty is for us to finetune the technology and get authorities to eventually allow the adoption.

But all of these points to the fact that being better involves being different. It can start with exploring the fringes of status quo and picking something that resonates with you to work on.

Getting or finding satisfaction

Do you think a sense of satisfaction in all you do is a right or a privilege? Do you expect to receive satisfaction or do you seek to find it? At work if you only expect to feel satisfied but not try to find it, you’ll be bitter against the boss, your colleagues and clients. In relationships, the same attitude can drain the joy out of simple moments.

Time to realise that finding satisfaction is our own responsibility. And the good news is that it can be found in the simplest places and things. It is about working out the story in our head for what we do, and being aware of our hedonic adaptation. What we found exhilarating probably won’t be the same after 5 times of doing it.

Thinking of reasons for your dissatisfaction may not be as useful as recognising satisfaction is something to be hunted down and found. It requires a high degree of introspection. And it is not up to someone else to give it to you!

Burning out from responsibility

Responsibility without authority burns people out. Nurses who care for patients but have little means of controlling the pain and comfort of those they care for will be drained. Likewise the social worker who tries to help those disenfranchised but gets flooded with paper work and a mammoth system to navigate. And the public servant who is sent to “help” members of the public, or small businesses, but are given few tools that really can be used to benefit those truly in need.

We all burn out when we feel and are made to feel responsible for things which we do not have control over. In many sense, corporates confronting sustainability targets can feel that way. They’ve been consuming energy from the grid and traditional sources of power they don’t realise they have the authority or control even when they feel responsible for carbon footprint. They will have to start looking to take control of the way they produce the products, and consume the energy, as well as be more conscious about who they work with across the supply chain.

The decarbonisation movement isn’t just about mimicry or words put out in the public, it is a reflection of taking leadership over what a firm has been doing to be able to provide things of value. Because as the economy is pivoting, if you are just trying to make a living by being a copycat, it’s only going to keep getting harder. Taking responsibility for sustainability is kind, but taking control is effective.

Thinking about money

We are not all self-sufficient. We rely on our butchers for meat, bakers for bread, and blacksmiths for bronze. Okay maybe not so much the last point. But we need things others produce and create. And our own creations? We can’t survive on them alone. But there are others who want what we produce? Don’t they?

And so we create promises; if you produce this for me, I’ll produce this for that guy who wants this stuff and he’s gonna produce for another girl who wants this other stuff, who’s good at producing yet another thing which actually you sought after. So now you take my promise and your needs are as good as fulfilled when you produce for me. Money is that promise; it is the promise of value for our labour, the promise of fulfilment of our needs.

Then as humans, we realised if you can promise that whole cycle of bartering executed with money, then you can promise a barter with the future self, or future wants, etc. So from the promise of inter-spatial movement of products and services, we move to the promise of inter-temporal movements. This creates a new dynamic because promises age as time passes. Time will tell the quality of the promise; and that will manifest in terms of the value of that promise as time passes. Alas, born the concept of interest.

And because at any point of time, there is going to be lots of overpromises, failure to fulfill them; the system has to make good of it. So when there is overpromising, the value of promise also falls over time. That is where inflation came from. Money in itself has really no value; but the legal tender provides a tool by which government enacts and extracts taxation. This is important because it keeps an economy demanding the instrument as opposed to just using another, more established currency. Taxation as a form of revenue is ultimately more effective to keep the money system from destabilising; compared to just using seignorage as a means of revenue.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation with a friend about Bitcoin. He thinks that using excess energy such as those which would be wasted through flaring, venting of gaseous fuels, or from curtailment events of intermittent renewable energy can be used to mine bitcoins. That way, the energy otherwise wasted is converted to a form of value. It is used to do some kind of work in the bitcoin network, facilitating transactions, securing it.

I am not sure how practical this is but the idea is appealing on the count that we are actually creating a new value stream rather than have mining capture and squander existing energy resources. If bitcoin mining becomes such a “flexible” load in the energy system, it’ll prove incredible value in highly practical ways.

It’s gonna suck

We can’t think our way or optimise our way to full excellence. And that’s why it is important to put things out there. So you can gather feedback, so that you can build an audience. It won’t be for everyone so find your audience. You can’t have an audience if you’re hiding your work. But that first piece of work, it’s going to suck. What you then need are people who care about the same work you do, who would be generous with constructive feedback, generous with offering themselves.

Great products, artists, companies and brands are not overnight hits. They build their reputation, cultivate their audience bit by bit; and it takes time to create something that sustains. Most of the musical hits don’t last past the year they get on billboards and growing fast overnight isn’t that much to be proud of if it collapses just as fast.

Ultimately, putting the work out, gathering more data, going back to the work is the best system we have ever known to truly practice creativity and generate hits. Though not before shipping lots of work that suck.

Differentiation matters

Being different matters. Differentiation matters to those who care about the differentiation. So while you try to differentiate your product, service or yourself, think about who are you doing it to, and what you are doing it for.

Take for example a food product. The farmer may care about the sourcing of that ingredients: is it fresh, how was it transported, where was it grown and with what? The TCM doctor may care about whether it is heaty or cooling, whether it is suitable for the old or young. The parent may be concerned if it’s good for the teeth of their child. The foodie may care abouts its taste. The food critic about the variety of textures. And the list goes on. Who are you selling the food to? And that will define what distinguishes you.

The same can be applied even to a Renewable Energy project. The impact investor may care about how much local labour was used to do the project. The sustainability investor would be concerned if the environment, social and governance matters were properly dealt with. The bankers will be concerned about the numbers. An engineer may want to know whether you used micro-inverters. Equipment manufacturers may ask what is the brand of the solar panels or wind turbine.

For most other people, they are just wondering if the lights can remain on when they switch to renewable energy. Especially if they don’t care about climate change.

Marginal Thinking

In Clayton Christensen’s “How will you measure your life”, he keeps his final idea about life to a warning about marginal thinking. It was surprising because he was a business school professor and trained in Economics. One of the gifts of the subject of Economics is actually the ability to think in terms of marginal costs. And this marginal thinking allows us to achieve great optimisation.

The warning that Clayton was sounding is really about over-optimisation in a context and environment that is ever changing. And because the context and actions of others are going to change and influence your flow of cost and benefits, thinking marginally can cause you to miss the big picture and fail to take the right pre-emptive actions. You will fail to realise the cost of not investing in something new and disruptive.

His application to life is equally surprising. It was to issues of moral and integrity. And I think his idea is important because so many of us have begin to think of cost-benefit analysis exactly in the marginal way prescribed by economics textbooks that we no longer leave room for discussion of values and morals. The economic principle of marginal thinking assumes that the costs and benefits assessed are independent of the context and unlike to change any of the future costs and benefits. Either that, or the dynamic element of time do not exist in the decision-making framework here.

Clayton encourages us to understand the full costs of our seemingly one-off deviations from our values and principles. Because when we perform cost-benefit analysis and think that the once off deviance would be worthwhile, we do not realise how the deviation changes us as a person, our identity and relationship to our principles.

Articulating angst

Sharing some common phenomena at workplaces to help you put words to your angst:

  • The boss want us to solve all kinds of problems instead of the problems we’re supposed to deal with!
  • The team/colleague is nice. They just disappear when work needs to be done.
  • One of the job requirements is mind-reading.
  • There are too many managers and no one to manage!
  • None of the managers want to roll up their sleeves and do the work
  • Colleagues are too competitive; most of them specialise in humble bragging.

Sharing some ways to think about seeking new opportunities and change. They are not necessarily direct quotes but lines adapted from some people who articulated them so I attributed them here.

  • Why make a living when you can make a difference? (Seth Godin)
  • Are you working hard to avoid mistakes or to achieve something? (Angela Duckworth)
  • Whether you’re important or not does not matter as much as whether you’re working on something important.
  • If the work is going to be uncomfortable, then at least work for an outcome you can be comfortable with.
  • What are you contributing – your labour or your work?