Posts tagged with organised

supervenes and I were discussing our New Year’s resolutions. He said he partitions people into those who:

  1. already work on their goals without NYE resolution or "wipe the slate clean" dreams — they don’t need a New Year to follow through on their goals
  2. set goals they won’t actually follow through on (like a perpetual weight-loss goal).

I feel I fall into a third category, which is not knowing what would be worth setting a goal to achieve.

I do think that

  • setting achievable goals,
  • organising your time so you make sure you do the things you want to (including have fun),
  • personal accountability,
  • writing down long-term aspirations,
  • balancing the short-term versus the long-term 1 2 3,
  • nudging yourself,
  • cutting out crap,
  • and so on

can be really effective. I’ve done those things before and I’ve felt the thrill of looking over past to-do lists and thinking “Yeah, I really did that! Score one for me!”

I tried to learn to do a flip last summer. Didn’t get there. I guess I will try again this summer and try to remember to do stretchy back-bends in the winter to prepare. It would be nice to be fast again, or faster than I ever have been. I’m not sure if I care enough to really do what it takes to be fast. I’d like to learn a lot of things. I’m not sure that’s really worth committing to either. I know if I really made it a priority, cut out  I could accomplish ≥1 of those.

But what’s really worth doing? What would make me truly, deeply happy and what’s my Engel curve on the way to there? Who would I become if I actually achieved my goals and do I want to “feed” or be that person? Those questions are beyond my ken.

Everyone around me is full of robust certitude. I alone am tentative. Lao Tzu

I couldn’t even answer simple ones, like:

  • Should I buy an iPad? They look cool so in a sense I “want” one. But from observing how I react to other computing opportunities (addictively), I think buying it would lessen my self-control and I would just end up reading a bunch more news instead of doing what I want to.
  • Should I read Steve Awodey’s book? It looks good and I could find a copy in a nearby university library. But are those 300 pages worth all the other time I would have to give up? (And how much time might that be?)
  • You never know until you try. Let’s take a longer-term goal to add even more uncertainty. "Grad school is a gamble"—if I set the goal to get a Ph.D., I barely know what I am in for, much less what I will turn into at the end, what kinds of new opportunities it would present for me, whether I would use it later, or whether that sum-total package is "worth it" to me or not. Without knowing what will result how could I say whether I want it or not?
  • Will I keep blogging? It has been a huge timesink. However it’s also very flattering to have so many people listening to my various opinions. It has felt good to get certain things out of my brain-soup. And I have met some cool people here and on twitter. Still it is a huge timecost. I’m not really sure where the balance lies. So for lack of a confident reason to choose one thing or the other, and with my natural risk-seeking personality wondering what “might” happen at 100,000 followers or what “might” happen if I finish writing down all the ideas I wanted to since before I decided to try writing—inertia will probably win and I will continue as is.

If I decided some concrete, measurable, not-too-large goal like “Run 300 miles over the year”, it could be easy to achieve. But start from a real goal like: “I want to be happier”. Well what will make me happier? I don’t know, it could be a raft of things. A complex of big & small and once-off & daily changes. I could try some and maybe they wouldn’t or would work. Maybe I would be able to tell and maybe not. Maybe I should continue what I’m doing and it will just take longer to work.

"never give up" -- nonmonotonic returns

So I’m going into 2013 without any measurable goals or definitive plans to achieve them. Yet hoping 2013 isn’t a repeat of 2012.

After talking to a number of PhD students, I’ve come to conclude two things. First, that many (especially in “genius disciplines” like maths or physics) are motivated by the goal of being the smartest human who ever lived—“the next Einstein”, or Feynman, or Grothendieck—not like the humans themselves, but rather like the symbols: revolutionary rarities who personally transformed some small corner of the world.

Second, I’m tentatively concluding that base hits are “actually the way forward”—that is, that home-run projects become magnum opi that never get finished because they’re not perfect, or the passionate ego-drive weakens, or the idea of expressing the ultimate moral worth of one’s psyche through academic paper-writing does not lead to successful ideas. Maybe the cure to cancer doesn’t come from a flash of insight but from a more mundane process of trying this, then that, then another thing. The dissertation that gets done comes from a concrete plan, consisting of steps, which lead to a sequence of words on a page.

The revolution, if it happens, is more likely to come from a sequence of papers which actually get written, than from an unhatched geniusling that doesn’t get written. And let’s face it: most of us aren’t geniuses, nor would we want to be, but we’re still interested in being productive.


In business one can think about base hits as well. My first business was a base hit. I didn’t sell for a jillion dollars, I just gave myself and some other people jobs for a number of years and didn’t fail. Which was my goal at the outset: not to be unprofitable. My plan was to copy an idea I had seen work somewhere else, make a few tweaks, and do it.

OK, so maybe it turned out to be more of a bunt and I should go for a double next time. But at least I wasn’t trying to dream up a revolutionary mobile app that will change the world, justifying paying $250k to various programmers as justified on a massively outsized conception of the “genius” of my “idea”, and ending up with something looking suspiciously like a mashup of Foursquare, Linkedin, OKCupid, and airplane reservations.

I definitely keep my left eye on acquisition prices as a way to gauge interesting spaces to enter—but I’m also thinking about what are the things I can accomplish, with the team I could reasonably assemble, the skills & knowledge I actually have, and the hours I’m actually going to want to work. What are the high-probability base hits I could string together to get from here to there?

(Just to give an example, I will not be founding the next Heroku. That got a nice bid, but the founders were engineers who knew a lot about hardware. That’s not me.)

Maybe Citadel wasn’t built from a “genius” signal using all the latest machine-learning hoopla, but from a smart (and obsessive) kid making trades he thought he could win on, and not making the other trades. And then building from there. Learning what’s a good opportunity, how long it takes to scope out a trade, how much research can reasonably be done in a month, and so on.

In short, maybe all of the “homeruns” I can think of, are actually just a sequence of small steps definitively forward.


In writing I find myself looking more and more for base hits as well. When I first started, I had very, very high hopes for how awesome the material would be. (I won’t admit how high.) But now after posting 250 short bits of mathematics, I’m much more focussed on

  • write everything down somewhere, perhaps for later;
  • publish 2-3 things a week;
  • try to make them not suck.

I still think that after some unspecified amount of time, I may be able to string together a more magnum-opusy kind of work—once the pieces (short blog posts) are mostly there on the cutting-room floor. But that’s much more like stringing together a series of base hits than genius-ing out the heartbreaking work I would like to imagine I’ll create.

But what’s my rush? I’m accumulating tumblr followers every day, I’m plugging away at the craft, I’m putting out material. Looking back over a year of following that formula, I’ve put out a surprising amount of text and have a surprising number of subscribers. It’s kind of like the short-term/long-term fallacy working in reverse (working in my favour). ∫short term adds up to more than I thought it would.

Maybe Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst didn’t succeed because they were inspired geniuses who one night invented one of the best songs ever. But instead, first they learned to play the guitar, then they wrote one song when it occurred to them, then they wrote another. That’s the way Phillip Glass describes his own journey in the biopic about him.


Elon Musk and Larry Summers take a contrary perspective. @elonmusk says “I don’t know why all these entrepreneurs are trying to solve small problems”. Larry Summers says “It’s just as hard for an economist to think about important problems as about unimportant problems. The intellectual effort is the same, it’s just the output that’s better.”

Well, maybe they know better than I do. I still suspect in the day to day it’s about “What is the paper I can write, rather than the paper I’d like to be able to write” or “What are the practical steps I can take today to get closer to my business goal?” rather than “What do I wish for?”.

I can’t prove I’m right, this is just where my thoughts are at the moment. I think there’s a cult around genius and a cult around business superstars. Both of which do harm by increasing people’s appetites for success—feeding ambition, feeding vanity, feeding swagger, feeding overexuberance, feeding bad investments—above what’s reasonably achievable in a succession of 3,500 days.