Briefly, some updates:
*I've got some bonuses and downloads for Gateless, some really good ones coming. The book is getting great reviews -- if you miss the blog here and haven't gotten your copy yet, go get it.
*My next book, aiming for Q2 or Q3 2015, has "crossed the threshold" where it's definitely going to happen. I'm going to engage in a little less conversation and a little more action as a general rule, but my writing practice goes well and the quality goes up. I'll be more publicly involved sooner or later; for now, I'm enjoying my intense private work cycles and quality improvements.
*Thanks for all the well-wishes, emails, and the positive reviews/feedback of Gateless. Love you guys.
Ok, without further ado --
The High Performer's Performance Distribution Problem
Here's a graph from Wikipedia. We're going to start by looking at what's called a "normal distribution." A lot of the world falls into normal distributions.
A heck of a lot of the world falls into normal distributions.
Without getting into the statistics behind it, just trust me when I say this -- if your performance follows a normal distribution, a little bit more than 68% of your performance comes in within one standard deviation. We could call that "a normal day." Then, a little more than 27% is within two standard deviations, meaning that 13.5% of the time you'd be having a "pretty darn good day" or "really kind of a crummy day." Almost all of the remaining 5% still fits within three standard deviations, meaning 2.5% of the time you'd be having "an absolutely incredible mindblowing day" or, on the other side of the equation, "a day from hell."
Anecdotally, these numbers seem correct-ish for a lot of people. There's 30 days in a month. That means you'd have 20 or 21 normal-ish days, 4 really great days, 4 really bad days, and 1 or 2 "mindblowing" or "utterly awful" days each month.
Of course, any given month can be great or not so great. Having a disastrous week makes it more likely next week is a bad week. Having an amazing week -- if you don't have destructive celebratory habits -- makes next week more likely to be a good week.
Now, let's look at the Wikipedia image above. You'll note that the guy who is green is doing much worse than the guy who is blue. The green guy's best days are only about as good as the blue guy's average days.
Note that down; we'll come back to it.
Next compare the red and blue guys. The blue guy is much more consistent -- even on his bad days, he turns in a respectable performance. He doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel too often.
Red, meanwhile, is much more varied. To me, this is the difference between the consistent steadfast performer running proven processes (blue) but not really trying to innovate or grab huge gains, as compared to the the person who does more random exploration and, when having a great idea, goes on a caffeine and sugar all-night binge trying to invent new models of the world. There's more days that make breakthroughs and more days that fall absolutely flat.
Red still is respectably consistent though. Yellow? You got no idea what you're getting out of yellow. Yellow has manically amazing days reasonably often, and "depths of hell" days reasonably often.
Performance Relative to Oneself
Here's the problem. Here's why I'm writing this.
No matter how much you level up, you'll still have some distributions of performance, and if underperforming bothers you, it'll always bother you.
It's straight-up better to be Yellow than to be Green... Yellow is like being a hyper-driven, erratically consistent nonconformist inventor in South Korea. Life will feel like hell much of the time, being misunderstood and not having one's science or inventing understood very well.
Meanwhile, green is like being a minor party official in North Korea. Your life sucks almost all the time. The best day you have any given month would be utterly forgettable by English, American, or South Korean standards.
But human emotions are a funny thing. The NK minor party official, ironically, probably goes through less emotional swings and "feels bad" less often; his life is reasonably consistent. Yeah, the electricity isn't working, the water is out, and his cousin that he liked disappeared for watching a South Korean soap opera last year and probably died at a prison camp, but everyone learned the lesson and now no-one watches soap operas... but it is what it is, and it's regular.
A pretty bad day of an eccentric South Korean inventor would be better than a pretty good day for a North Korean petty bureaucrat -- but it won't feel that way.
Oh, but it gets worse
Well, we could figure out some takeaways from these charts if we really wanted to. Whenever you can shift your entire curve to the right -- for instance, by planning each day the night before, and starting every day with a morning routine and brief fitness -- that would be good. It would make sense to do.
You can also reason out what mix of consistency and inconsistency is valuable for you at different times in your life. Okay, that's fine.
Here's the thing though -- that's not the only kind of distribution. Let's go bimodal, this image from this smart article --
That author makes the very smart point that all the standard probablity graphs are wrong. He writes --
Most distributions are not unimodal.
Most distributions are not symmetric.
Most distributions do not have mean = median = mode.
Most distributions are not Gaussian, Poisson, binomial, or anything famous at all.
This, of course, hinges on what "most distributions" are. I won't go as far as the author; simplified math can be useful if not misapplied.
Let's turn our attention back to this graph above. In this case, the person having those days would be having "below average days" almost all of the time -- with a few breakthrough days.
As you get towards high-performance, this becomes the case in many fields. Grind, grind, grind, grind, grind... get miserable... go crazy... breakthrough!
Too bad our minds aren't set up to accommodate that.
In the yellow line from the first graph, our eccentric South Korean inventor had "I'm in the depths of hell" type days precisely equally mixed in with those days where the plea that "O Muses, O high genius, aid me now" is answered.
In our second graph, the Muses don't answer so often. Most days are below average. If you've got standard untrained human emotions, you're going to feel bad most of the time.
And you know what? I know a lot of high performers intimately, and I'll say that -- with notable exceptions -- the majority do feel bad and like they're underperforming far more often than not.
Higher Performance Doesn't Solve This Problem
It just moves the lines around. Almost by definition, if you're a high-achiever, as you improve you start to look for higher achievements. This introduces new variance and randomness. Perfect consistency in output implies no experimentation, risk-taking, or variance.
If you're bothered by your underperforming days, you're always going to be bothered. It doesn't go away. You can't outrace it.
Cordon Sanitaire de son Esprit; Peut-être, L'équanimité
The problem is this:
Many high-performing people have a wider range of outcomes in performance.
The North Korean petty bureaucrat has only bad days and slightly less bad days, but the human mind is remarkably good at adapting to consistency. It's quite possible that he experiences less existential distress, neurosis, and anxiety than the erratic sometimes-brilliant South Korean inventor.
I hope that this post has shown you that you can't outrace this phenomenon just by performing better. All it does is shift the curve. Take the blue curve in the first post and move it to the right -- perform better every single day.
That's well and good, but the blue-line performer will still be upset on his worst days, just like the South Korean inventor is upset on his worst days.
That's the main thing I wanted to show you -- you can't outrun the bad feelings that come from the days you underperform, because as you get better, you establish a new baseline of performance.
You'll of course remember that my ethical system is all about doing things that are worth doing; I'm not advocating chilling out on the beach as the answer. (I've actually tested it out -- it doesn't work. If you're driven to achieve stuff, you'll go crazy if you sit on the beach for more than a few days.)
No, I think the answer is a sort of mental training to reach equanimity -- where you care about the outcomes, but you cordon off your emotional well-being from external events.
This doesn't result in lower performance -- it gives you the resolve to do long-term things that result in days that feel awful, knowing breakthroughs are on the horizon.
How to get there? Well, that's another subject for another time. But I'll say that I've found remarkable similarities in materials that aim to train this attitude up. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is of course the most currently in vogue, but I've seen lots of similarities across traditions. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Laozi's Tao Te Ching, Kempis's De Imitatione Christi, and really all of the Stoics, most of the Scholastics, and most of the Taoists and Zen Buddhists I've come across follow similar patterns, mental models, actions, and training regimes.
Going more in-depth on the training is another question for another time. The big takeaway I'd like you to take from this -- you can't outrun bad feelings that come when you underperform your potential, because your potential increases every time you improve. Know that and start working from there.
Happy Black Friday.
Gateless is up on Amazon right now.
If you're normally not doing the consumer-thing on Black Friday, maybe go get yourself a copy to celebrate.
Feedback and questions are of course welcome. Happy holidays.
Dashed off a quick piece about learning history at LessWrong --
Crossing the History-Lessons Threshold
Comments/questions welcome there or here.
Brief update: I'm working on longer-form writing that's more focused and deep. I've finished around a dozen pieces but haven't struck the tone I want yet. I don't know when the next iteration will come, but it's going to be terrific.
I've gotten lots of inquiries as to how I'm doing -- very well, thank you. Well, that's not 100% true. It's a difficult metamorphosis. Some days, things go exceedingly well. Others, it's frustrating. I'm studying technical materials and looking to seriously improve. There's been some results that are remarkable to me, but other days it's really tough.
My average time for writing a moderate-length piece used to be maybe 30 minutes, plus or minus 20. Now I'm up around 7 hours, plus or minus three. Lots of outlining beforehand, carefully citing facts and sources, footnoting, getting deeper points, and then editing afterwards.
Sometimes it's tough, because I'm putting a lot of work in, but I'm losing that natural free-flowing tone that I was able to strike when just writing.
The potential if I can nail this style is A+ work. But right now, I'm doing C- execution at that A+ style. The building blocks are all there, but it's slightly wooden and tough still. I think some of the core readers here will really love it, but the general public won't dig it. The stuff I'm writing is coming in at the 2500 to 7000 word range per piece, but doesn't quite move fast enough. Deep-thinking-love-to-critically-analyze people will dig it, but I can do better. I want to get that musical sense, that really grand and enjoyable tone.
A few notes --
1. Kai and I co-authored a book a while back. It’s basically done. I still keep wanting to do tweaks and edits, but I’ve got to send this baby off into the world. We’ve had some great early reviewers of which I’m grateful. Now, if you'd like to be involved, here's a good opportunity --
We’d like to have 15 small samples of the book get sent to people when they sign up via email.
I’ve been trying to do this, but I’m too close to the work — I can’t tell which samples/excerpts would be most interesting and relevant to people, in the right order.
So, if you’re interested, you get an advance copy, you read it, you get any questions answered you want, you pick out 15 sections that you think are relevant, you format them into Mailchimp. Pay is $100 for it.
I'm both surprised and flattered to get a number of concerned emails wondering where I'm at. I guess that's not-too-crazy: I used to post basically daily here, and now there hasn't been a post in almost a week.
So, where am I?
The answer is, I'm looking to do an order-of-magnitude quality improvement in my writing. Putting concepts on more solid ground, making them more actionable, writing in a more service-oriented fashion, covering things from first principles and background knowledge (so someone seeing something for the first time could put it into action right away), etc.
A problem with a lot of my writing in the past was that I wrote strictly about what interested me. This turned out some good pieces, but erratically and with no scope.
This resulted in an amazing regular readership of just absolutely marvelous people here who like to put together patterns and extract general principles from history, science, business, philosophy, etc. Which has been terrific and has greatly enriched my life, and I think a lot of readers and people in the dialog here have made some amazing gains too.
What have your favorite posts been on here? Why? What's been most useful to you?
I got a really nice mix of opinions yesterday (though there seems to a strong undercurrent on history, practical interventions, and maybe some more "narratives" instead of abstract pieces) -- now I'd really like to hear about your favorite pieces from the past, either series or specifically.
I'm going to go back and select a number of pieces that were pretty good and edit them to be something coherent and better. I really want to step my quality level up and do really great by you. This blog has long been a source of inspiration and a great way to connect with people, but I want to take it to the next level and really deliver stuff that's outstanding on all fronts.
All feedback super appreciated. Especially doubly true if you're on email and don't normally comment; the opinions of people who regularly obviously matter a lot to me, but if you're normally quiet -- your opinion matters to me too and I'd love to hear it.
So... What have your favorite posts been on here? Why? What's been most useful to you?
Any feedback on what you'd like to see going forwards?
Major changes are coming.
Thanks for reading here. I appreciate it. You'll be excited to see what comes next. Any feedback on what you'd like?
There is a memorable scene in The Terminator where the machine has taken damage, shuts down, and then boots back up.
Napping works somewhat like that for humans.
In the course of being alive, you're always doing little subtle damage to your brain and body and organs. Sleeping can help alleviate this damage and let your body repair itself.
What's miraculous about napping, though, is just how much can be repaired in such a short time.
I'd eventually like to spend time researching the exact mechanics, but I suspect that a lot of hormones and chemicals that have pooled in various places in the brain are -- for lack of a better word -- "flushed away" when you nap.
Thomas Carlyle; useful points on happiness from a more old-school perspective --
The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about, was happiness enough to get his work done. Not "I can't eat!" but, "I can't work!"--that was the burden of all wise complaining among men. It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man--that he cannot work,--that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold, the day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly away, and the night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our happiness, our unhappiness,--it is all abolished, vanished, clean gone; a thing that has been: "not of the slightest consequence" whether we were happy as eupeptic Curtis, as the fattest pig of Epicurus, or unhappy as Job with potsherds, as musical Byron with Giaours and sensibilities of the heart; as the unmusical meat-jack with hard labour and rust. But our work!--behold, that is not abolished, that has not vanished: our work, behold, it remains, or the want of it remains--for endless times and eternities, remains; and that is now the sole question with us for evermore! Brief brawling Day, with its noisy phantasms, its poor paper-crowns tinsel-light, is gone, and divine everlasting Night, with her star diadems, with her silence and her veracities, is come!