Monday, 5 November 2012


Our default behavior as animals is pain-avoiding and pleasure-chasing.  [1]

Asceticism is roughly gaining the skill to control your animal nature. If we can rid ourselves of “if only” thinking and let go of desire (the theory goes) we accept and love the world as it is.

Tibetan Buddhism makes a life-long study of controlling our animal nature and doing no harm. But leading a human life is more than just being happy and doing no harm. This is a zero sum life. Life should be about actively creating good in the world.  [2]

To improve the world, step in and make the improvements that you have to power to when you see something that could be better.

And so we have a conflict:
  1.  A good life is one that is happy and improves the world.
  2.  To be happy one must accept the world as it is
  3.  To improve the world one must not accept the world as it is

How does one act to improve the world, without being attached to the result?

If you throw yourself 100% into something, do your best with no reservation, then even if you fail to make the change you envisioned you can’t feel bad because there was literally nothing more you could have done.

What if you chased the wrong goal? Similarly, if you can honestly say that you chose the goal you did because it was the single most important thing you could be doing, you will not feel ashamed for having done what you thought was right.

And so, to improve the world without being invested in the result (ie to remain unshakably happy in any outcome) one’s behavior must have a certain pattern:
  1. Be honest with yourself about the state of the world and your own power to change it
  2.  Decide what is the most important improvement you can make with one immediate action (for a loose definition of “one”)
  3. With no hesitation or distraction, and a sense of urgency and ruthlessness [3] do that one action completely and thoroughly
  4. Evaluate the outcome. Watch the result and learn.
  5. Repeat


This is the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen. It is interesting to note that through only thinking about leading a good life, we have arrived at the central principles of agile software development. [5]

It seems rather surprising that thinking through the nature of happiness and action in the most abstract way led to a concrete suggestion on how to develop software. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised: developing software is, after all, a subset of “everything that you do”

When you exercise regularly in a variety of ways because you want to be healthy and happy you become better in many physical ways. You look sexier, you can lift heavier things, you get tired less easily.

There is a temptation to exercise solely for one of these improvements.  Perhaps you’ve seen someone who lifts weights just to get big. People that meditate because of stress, or follow Zen practices for professional success are similarly stunted. Focusing on improving just one thing improves that thing without improving anything else, and that is wasted effort.

If you continuously look to improve the whole of your life, the benefits you gain will similarly bleed into every aspect of your life.

[1] -  This is the “id” in Freudian psychology, also called the pleasure principle.  If I had to word in this framework the behavior of free will I would say that humans should be stagnation-averse and kindness-enthusiastic.
[2] – Thai and Tibetan Bhuddists would argue that being an example or teacher is a solid improvement to the world, and I would agree. That is why I am sharing this with you J
[3] – at least this is how Zen actions tend to look
[4] – “the state of the world” includes the state of you. Sometimes the best action you can take is gaining some knowledge or skill to improve your power to effect the world or the accuracy of your world-model

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Optimize your time

Optimize Your Time

Most people think that getting the most amount of work done per day is achieved through minimizing the number of distractions you have while at work. While having the right breakdown of time _during_ work is important, far more import is what you're doing when not working.

If you're working 8 hours per day, but only sleep 4 hours per day this is clearly not sustainable.

Society as a whole has decided that 8 hours / day, 5 days per week working and 8 hours / night sleeping is the right mix (with the rest "personal time")  This is probably pretty close to right, but if you are fortunate enough to be able to set your own hours, I highly encourage you to experiment with this yourself.   Keep track of how many hours you're working, what you're doing when you're not working, and how focused and productive you feel.

The result of this is that you come to realize what you do for those 8 hours not working and not sleeping is super important.  This is probably not surprising but the corollary to it is: if you're at work and not feeling productive: STOP.  Don't try to keep going and power through it.  Creativity doesn't work that way.  

Go home. Go jog.  Write a snarky blog post about how you feel ;)

You can come back to work later, and when you do you'll be amazed at how much more you can do.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


Just a quick note about the name of this blog:

The philosopher Eric Zinn, publicly thinking.

Many [ ] have realized that good thinking happens in private, particularly when you don't have anything better to be thinking about.  It seems to me that we have only a few such places left:  in the shower, on the toilet, and on a bus or train.

It is interesting to note that driving, while not the most demanding task, still engages too much thought to be a good spot for thinking.  This is why, even if public transit takes longer, I would recommend that you take it over driving yourself to work.

Similarly, don't read on the toilet, or play music while you shower. Leave yourself alone with your thoughts every now and then, and see where they take you.

The Inexhaustibility of Talent

Passion is what makes someone good at something.[1]  Since passion is what makes a great employee, and passion is an unlimited resource, it stands to reason that great employees are also an unlimited resource.

Of course passion isn't exactly enough for most jobs.  You also have to have skill.

While my experience is limited, I was amazed that very few people at Microsoft made me wonder why they were there. That's a company of over 90,000 people. I met no such person at Google. They also turn down a lot of people I think are great.  Both type 1 and type 2 errors are from the difficulty of making good hiring decisions, not from the availability of talent.  

Is this true for areas outside of tech? Perhaps Google attracts the best to the suffering of others? Tech is, however, the _most_ likely space for companies to run out of talent, due to the relative scarcity of good programmers compared to the market size. If huge tech companies are able to hire thousands of competent people, I don't see how a grocery store should have a hard time finding competent clerks.  

The problem, really, is that companies don't understand that _every_ employee matters. They don't care about certain positions enough to bother hiring competent people.  Or, for that matter, treating their current employees well.  We've all suffered from a run-in with an incompetent sales associate or an underpayed security guard.

Creating a great product starts, then, with hiring the best and creating a great place to work: one that encourages and rewards passion.  This a truth in a service-oriented economy that wasn't true when we were a manufacturing economy. How happy Foxconn workers are doesn't matter the same way that the happiness of the Genius Bar staff does, or the passion of Apple's designers for that matter. In many ways, employers are stuck in an old economy where passion didn't matter.

It is interesting to note that I reduced skill to happiness.  There is always more talent out there[2].  Keeping your workers happy attracts the talent, keeps them, and keeps them working well.   Because happiness is clearly inexhaustible, I argue that talent is as well.

[1] - You work hard and constantly improve if you care. Natural talent is only a multiplier, or worse a head start.
[2] - Even if you run into the talent wall, you can make schools that generate more talent. This is what Henry Ford did. More recently, Microsoft donated money to the University of Washington because UW generates good programmers. UW now has twice the number of CSE students, thus increasing the talent pool in the Puget Sound.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Engineer as Investor

Many talented engineers see the startups that pop up and are successful and think "I could build that." From a technological perspective they are right.  Because they are smart and generally see things as they could be, many talented engineers also have pretty good ideas on what the next big thing may be too.  With the confidence that one can predict what's next and build it many engineers think they should go and start their own startup.

The interesting thing is that a similar question can be asked of investors:  building a great company is about identifying green space and throwing talent and money at it. Great investors already have the connections and money and know-how to build companies like this.  Why don't more investors start their own companies?

The problem with this is that it takes more than that to found a great tech company. At least one founder needs to be focussed on sales, PR, design, etc. Most engineers are bad at this, or at least don't really enjoy it.  It takes a team with great communication and a singular vision to bridge that gap.  Larry and Sergey had Eric.  Wozniak and Jobs had Markkula. They worked great together and their skills complemented well.

If you have that friend and a great idea go for it. In fact you don't even need the idea. Complementing talents, being really talented and having hustle are way more important than having a good idea because your idea can change as you learn.

But what if you don't have that business-savvy friend?  If you're a proper engineer, and the idea of doing sales pitches the rest of your life is truly frightening, the best thing for you to do is to treat your engineering skill the same way a VC treats their money:  you need to be an investor.

Your job as an engineer with lots of places you could invest your talent is the same as a VC: find the company that will be the next Google / Facebook / Microsoft and be the 10th employee there.  Keep an eye on the companies getting funded by top VC's and evaluate their markets and potential the same way.

The benefits to this over founding your own company are huge.  You're already funded by top investors and growing rapidly.  If it works out you still get quite wealthy, but you don't have the bagage that founders do.  Founders have to stay with their baby forever. At the very least they can't go do something else apart from retire. Early employees have no such limitations. They are free to go start their own company or join another and can still retire early if they want.

If you're trying to get in on the tech boom to get rich, you must be confident the company you're joining can be the next many thousand employee, multi-billion dollar company.  Tech companies follow a power law distribution[1] and thus most of the growth is concentrated in a couple big wins.  The vast majority of companies (particularly those chasing tiny markets) will experience respectable growth, but will never "blow up" the way a couple do. Every year you get another Google, Facebook, Zynga, etc but their explosive growth happens once and never again.  To win you need to jump on board before that explosive growth.


The interesting next question is: what if you're not an engineer. What if you're more in product or finance and really want to work in tech?  Does the equation change?

My intuition is that yes, it does but not as you might think.   Fewer of the next Apple's first employees will be sales / econ people. By the time a tech company gets big enough to hire teams of these people the company is probably too big already for your career to grow with the company.

Because of this it is probably better for non-engineers who want to get in on tech to find a talented engineer or two and found their own company.  If it doesn't grow to be the next Google, hopefully you can at least sell to Google and get to work there as a PM or strategist, which would never happen if you applied directly.


Startups need money and VC's are the investors that give it to them.
Startups also need talent, and employees are the investors that give them it.
Employees should evaluate companies the way investors do before joining.

[1] -

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Continue to Fly the Plane

Most people in life are pretty aimless. We find some things that we enjoy doing that people encourage us to do and we do those things.  Very few people do only one thing.  We see the many things that we could do and we like to kind of do them all instead of doing one of them well.

As any self-help guru will tell you: the key to a happy life is complete focus.  If we can just find that one thing that makes us happy we should throw everything else away and do just that one thing, because after all that's the thing that makes us happy right?  All the rest is distraction.

To be happy you need to be good at doing the thing that makes you happy and to be the best that you can be at something you need to focus your entire life around it, at the cost of everything else.   If you choose to be a photographer, you need to spend every minute learning about photography and perfecting your craft.

When you decide that you are doing something, you should do it with your whole being, and you should actually be there doing it.  Do not think about the cereal you had for breakfast or that itch on your head or that airplane flying overhead:  think only about taking the perfect shot.

Life is so much more fulfilling when you are actually present in the moment, feeling the agonies of failure and the high of success, and putting your all into something that you enjoy.


In his book "Checklist Manifesto" Atul Gawande tells the story of how checklists for airplane failures are designed.  When something goes wrong on a plane (any plane) there is a binder with checklists that tell the pilot exactly what steps should be taken in order to address the issue at hand.

These checklists are designed by the engineers that build the plane and are tested in simulations to remove all unnecessary or confusing steps.  They repeat this testing process until they're confident that the checklists they produce are intelligible and complete but not cumbersome.  These checklists are some of the biggest successes of this kind of design methodology and have resulted in an extraordinary safety record for modern flying.

There was, however, a problem with a particular checklist.  Many recreational fliers were crashing to their death when their planes' engines gave out (not an uncommon thing for small planes).  The engineers looked back at the checklist and the steps definitely got most engines running and guided the pilot through a safe landing if that failed.

It wasn't until they decided to take pilots up, kill the engine, and actually observe some pilots that they learned what was happening.  When an engine goes out, the pilot is very concerned about this (understandably!) and tries to get their engine back up and running.  They turn to the check list and start going through the steps to get the engine running again, just as they were told to in training.

In their complete focus on the task at hand, however, most inexperienced pilots will forget about the most basic task they should be doing: flying the plane.  They take their hands off the controls and start reading the checklist. While they are trying to restart their engine the plane nose-dives into the ground: killing them instantly.

Based on this experience, the engine restart checklist, in bold letters at the top of the list, now says "Step 1: Continue to fly the plane"

Take a second to appreciate that.   Telling a pilot to fly a plane.

Everyone knows that you're supposed to be doing that!  But when faced with engine failure, you're most likely to forget to fly the plane without someone reminding you.


Complete focus is in many ways something to strive for.  Many worthwhile things can only be done with focus.

Life is not one of those things.

Life requires you to be doing many things at once (even if that is just "eat" and "breath") and many of these things are contradictory or overlapping.  We cannot avoid multi-tasking even if we wanted. We must balance many priorities and try to find ways of doing things that accomplish our many disperate goals: to maintain friendships, help people in need, maintain a comfortable life, etc.

While we idealize the artist that can produce beautiful work from years of solitude, their story simultaneously fills us with a sadness.  For when the focused life is actually lived, it looks less like happiness and more like madness.

If you spend your life developing one skill or one way of thinking, you are lost when things change.   Change in the world or in your life is inevitable and if you're not open to that you will miss out on most of what life has to offer.

So despite what you may sometimes hear or feel: here's to the aimless life!
And being able to continue to fly the plane :)