Friday, September 16, 2016

Progress: It's Always Harder Than You Expect

Man who stand on hill with mouth open will wait long time for roast duck to drop in. - Confucius
We have a vague idea that progress looks something like this,

Climbing the side of a mountain, reaching the peaks, trudging forward, ever progressing towards the goal.

Every day you look back and get a gratifying sense of accomplishment at the heights you've achieved. And then look forward to the dizzying heights ahead, and be inspired and challenged.

If you were to graph how people view progress, it would look something like this,
The slope of the line is determined by the effort that one makes. Sure, this is unrealistic, you can't always expect to go up and to the right. Some days you're lazy and stop putting in as much effort.

But the key is effort. If you don't see results, then most likely effort is missing; you don't want it bad enough.

This is the fallacy about progress that we subscribe to.

The truth about progress

Instead of thinking of it as climbing a mountain, think of progress as building the mountain,
The initial time is spent laying down the foundation. Effort is spread thin and progress is slow. But as you near to the top, things start begin to come together, fall into place, and you seem to be accelerating towards your goal, with less and less effort each time.

If graphed it would look like this,
The slope of this curve isn't effort, instead it's the accumulation of knowledge, gained from effort. It is the wisdom that you have attained through trial and error.

When we look with envy at successful people, what we're seeing are those near the top of their mountains. To us, everything they do seems effortless and natural, we're in awe of their magical abilities, their god-given talents.

In contrast, the people who are still toiling away at the foundations of their mountains are pitiful failures. They don't seem to be going anywhere despite how hard they're trying, and we wonder if they should give up already.

Yet even they are the lucky ones. Sometimes the mountain cannot be built, despite how much effort is spent. Here is an example of what it is like for the rest of the 90% that will fail utterly,
This is the painful reality that most of us face when we try and do something different in our lives. It either seems pointless because of how slow progress is, or it seems impossible because we can only get so far.

The dysfunction

Our species have been progressing for thousands of years. We are at the current heights of achievement, thanks to the foundations laid down by our ancestors. It's easy to lose sight of how difficult things can be, when everything around us seem to be so magically simple. A little bit of effort here and there, and we are flying through the air, talking to strangers instantly across the world, and making money while sitting at home.

Because our concept of progress has become dysfunctional, we have lost sight of how things actually work. We're disconnected from the massive effort it takes to do anything, so our expectations are free to float around in fantasy land. We demand all sorts of wonderful results from the minimal of efforts.

This has made it more difficult for the ones who are still toiling away at their mountains. The effort and accomplishments are underestimated, the expected results overestimated. They are viewed as stick-in-the-muds, branded as people with a negative attitude. Always "complaining" about how difficult this or that is, how you have to be careful all the time, how you have to have concern.

Keep on keeping on

Despite the hardships, the reward of having built the mountain will always remain, the accomplishment cannot be diminished. It is an objective reward that can't be taken away from you. The mountain itself can be taken away though, life is unjust sometimes. But the fact that you built that mountain will always be yours.

I'd rather be in the shoes of Steve Jobs the morning after he was fired from Apple, rather than be in the shoes of someone who has never tried, doesn't know, and can't appreciate.

Friday, September 2, 2016

How the infinite is wrapped within the finite

The closer you approach, the further away it becomes.
Growing up I was fascinated with encyclopedias. I remember in 3rd grade I missed my chance to sign up for music class with the rest of the students. Probably because it required $10 to register. I wasn't going to ask my parents for that kind of money, you can understand why from my previous post. So while everyone shuffled out for music class once a week, I was stuck with my teacher, and cranky Mrs. O'riley didn't want anything to do with me.

She told me to go do a report on something from the encyclopedias stacked in the corner farthest away from her desk. That was the beginning of my interest in encyclopedias. It's also where I learned about aviation. My report on aviation was pretty kick-ass, I don't think Mr.s O'riley gave a crap though.

Years later I would get my own encyclopedia. It was a used set that the library was selling at a discount, my brother (don't know why, he never read them) insisted that my parents should get them for us. I ended up being the only one to use them, and since I was a bored, lonely child, I'd pass the time by perusing through them.

I don't remember anything I learned from those encyclopedias, didn't repeat my experience with aviation, and no retention of that information. What I do remember was just how MUCH there was in the world to learn about. The amount of things we know about and put in these encyclopedias is vast. And what we do know is only a fraction of what we don't know. So imagine how much more stuff there is out there to learn about!

What I found even more amazing was how there was someone who cared. Somebody found cockroaches, the most vile of insects, interesting enough to do deep studies into them. Someone else zoomed their microscope on some random spot and found some crawly thing as said "I wonder what that is" and then spent the rest of their lives learning about it.

That's what amazed me as a child, and it still amazes me today. Through our wonderful Homo Sapient curiosity, we can take something we consider insignificant, and then blow it up into a giant topic of study. And what's more, usually the most mundane things, like how objects fall to the ground, turns out to be the most mysterious things known to man.

One answer becomes two questions

There's a problem in cartography, called the Coastline Paradox, where the more accurate you measure for your map, the larger the circumference of your land becomes. The link to the wikipedia article does a better job of explaining it, and the pictures makes it intuitively clear, it's not a difficult paradox to grasp. Basically the more refined your measurements, the more things there are to measure and the larger the final sum becomes.

This paradox crops up in lots of other ways. If you're aware of it, you'll come by it eventually, or already have. At my old job we adopted a new method of planning our projects. These projects are decade long ventures for an aerospace company (can you imagine? I went from studying about aviation in 3rd grade, to working in the industry years later!) so measuring the tasks within a project with finer accuracy should help us track costs and inefficiencies.

It was entertaining for me to watch the exercise. For my seniors and managers, it was two weeks of hell. At the end of the first week of planning, it was obvious to everyone that it was "impossible" to do all that work in a year. "But we can do it. We've done it in the past! Why doesn't the numbers add up?" Were the complaints from the senior members of the team. That was the frustrating part, when we accounted for all the tasks, and all the hours we'd spend on these tasks, it turns out that we would need twice the time that it should take to do what we were doing. Now, these are people who have been in that same job for a decade. They've been working in the same team for two decades. These people know their shit, and they know they can do it, they just can't prove it with the numbers.

The Lion

This particular phenomenon of reality, like the Coastline Paradox, can be emotionally challenging to deal with. Just when you think you know, you find out more things that you don't know. It's like a nightmare I often have, where I'm trying to fight against some enemy trying to kill me. And the harder I try to fight, the slower my movements become. The more I push, the more my body resists. I wake up from these nightmares with a twisty feeling in my stomach.

Life can feel like that sometimes.

But I like to think back to those encyclopedias when I was a child. I imagine some guy digging around in a jungle in South America. Picking up giant disgusting roaches with his bare hands, a smile of triumph on his face. To that entomologist (my dad was an entomologist), not knowing was the fun and exciting part. They've probably already experienced the Coastline Paradox, struggled through their emotions, and got to the other side. Now they're lovingly putting those disgusting hissing roaches in containers and dreaming of writing research papers about how all the new questions they have about cockaroaches.
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. - C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle