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Education Lifestyle

My Must Read Book List

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin (1948 – )

Here’s a list of all the books that had a massive impact on my life and would bring tremendous value to everyone else too – in no particular order:

Laws of Human Nature (2018) – Robert Greene

This is hands down one of the best books ever written. When I read the title, I thought it was too ambitious to try to capture human nature in a book but Robert Greene was the perfect man for the job and he did it fantastically. Greene beautifully outlines the underlying forces that control our behavior and gives us the tools to recognize them within ourselves and others. After reading this book, I was given new insights on what really drives human beings and the pitfalls that we should be aware of as we navigate life. I was especially impressed and surprised with the chapters on narcissism and envy. Greene opened my eyes to how deep those two forces run in our society today and how dangerous it can be. I went to a book signing when it was first released and Robert said it’s important to read this book as as insight into ourselves rather than as insight into other people. I cannot say enough positive things about this book. Right now, it’s my #1 most recommended book for everyone to read. Buy a copy for yourself. Buy a copy for someone you really care about. Then buy another copy for someone they care about. This book is too important to skip over.


Outwitting the Devil (1938) – Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill is the O.G. when it comes to writing about success. OTD isn’t as popular as Hill’s best seller, Think and Grow Rich, but it shares many similar themes. The concepts that Hill uncovers in this book laid the foundation for a majority of my own personal development. Styled as an interview between an intelligent human and the devil himself, Hill captures how the devil is very much alive and well in our world — just not in the way that we think. Idle hands truly do the devil’s work. He cautions us of the dangers of being a drifter, the power of definitive purpose, independent thought, and hypnotic rhythm. A fantastic read for anyone who wants to get into reading and doesn’t know where to start. This book really helped me out when I first got out of college. It really gave me the tools to outwit the devil that I didn’t even know I was battling.


Tao Te Ching (~4th Century BC) – Laozi

This ancient Chinese religious text details the common principles of Eastern thought. A must read if you want to live well. The wisdom written in this book is timeless. The book itself is a practice of minimal necessary effort. So it’s a short, easy, but deep read.


Show Your Work! (2014) – Austin Kleon

This book is so great for creative types who have trouble putting their work out. It’s also great for those wondering how to get their creative endeavour started. It’s given me new and fantastic perspectives about creativity and what it means to make art. We should all strive to be amateurs – Sharing my art inspires others and contributes to the culture around me – No one artist or genius was created in a vacuum. This book has shown me countless ways to be inspired by and inspire others. It’s also filled with creative methods from so many unique creative types. If you want to unleash the creative side of yourself – read this book.


Lord of the Flies (1954) – William Golding

Lord of the Flies is a masterpiece. It’s about a group of boys stranded on an island and their attempt to govern themselves. Golding perfectly nails the complexities of the human spirit. He captures the everlasting struggle between our desire for order and tendency for chaos. This book is gripping and perfect for anyone looking for a good story. Even putting the themes aside, the plot is interesting and the characters are lovable. This was one of the first books that opened my eyes to the power of reading. For the first time, I saw that characters in a book can be as complex as people in real life. I used to think characters in books were just representations of the author, but Golding showed me that people can put enough thought and care into a book and create a literary mural that represents humanity.


The 48 Laws of Power (1998) – Robert Greene

I think about this book at least four times a week. This is the book that Andy from The Office should have read to truly win over Michael Scott. This was Robert Greene’s first book and it took the world by storm. He explains each of the 48 laws of power with examples from history of how each law can be used to one’s advantage and disadvantage. In his early days, similar to Benjamin Franklin, Robert Greene found himself getting the short end of the stick on many situations. He took his intense frustration and anger and articulated each and every trick that his superiors would use on him. This book helped me understand the power plays used on me in the past but the best part, is being able to spot the power moves others try to pull on me now. The world belongs to those who read.


Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732) – Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is one of my favorite people in history. He’s accomplished enough for 10 men and in Poor Richard’s Almanack he lays out his basic principles which set the foundation for his success. I love this book because the principles are so simple and, for the most part, common sense. It’s essentially a list of 670 nuggets of wisdom. Most people link the famous idioms “Early to bed and early to rise makes and man healthy, wealthy and wise,” or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” with this book. One of my favorite quotes was “Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep the.” It’s one of those books that you can go back to and always find something new. The best part is it’s free and you can probably read the whole thing over your lunch break.


I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Second Edition (2019) – Ramit Sethi

Yeah, the title is sounds scammy but it’s legit. Ramit Sethi goes over all the financial knowledge necessary to build an automated money machine that can help you live a rich life. This book gave me a solid understanding of financial fundamentals to take control of my own finances. Since I didn’t study anything financial in my formal education, it was really helpful to learn about credit card optimization, 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, Health Savings Accounts, Target Date Funds, stocks, and bonds. He even includes scripts to negotiate down interests rates, remove banking fees, and asking for raises. Admittedly, I read the book in two weeks and applied the principles over a four week period but by the end of it, I established my own automated money machine equipped with an emergency fund, multiple savings accounts and a retirement investment portfolio. However, the most important thing I learned from this book is that we can learn how to do anything if we decide to go out and look for the information. Investing my money and learning all the financial jargon seemed out of my depth, but this book showed me that everything can be learned.


On The Shortness of Life (49 AD) – Seneca

I first heard of this book from Maria Popova. She is a fantastic writer and runs a blog (there really should be a different word for what she does) called Brain Pickings. It’s a huge archive of the deepest ideas from an extremely well articulated writer. Maria recommends people to start with her post about this book. I read her post and loved it. Then I read this book and it changed my life. Seneca talks about how there is more time than life. So much more that we actually waste it. How much of our lives are spent trying to answer the question at a dinner party, “so what do you do?” We give most of our time to others and much of the time dedicated to ourselves is in the service of impressing others. It’s no surprised life is exhausting. The key is to take the time back for ourselves. Seneca suggests that if we were to give all the time we were allotted on Earth to ourselves then we would greet death with open arms. This book has given me a damn good reason to let go of the idea that life is short.


The 4-Hour Workweek (2007) – Timothy Ferriss

Oh boy. To be honest, I’m not sure where to start with this book. Read it. It’s literally a manual to escape the 9-5 and live like the new rich. This is the first book I’ve read from Tim Ferriss and I fell in love with it. Tim breaks down what it means to start and automate a business that gives you the money and freedom to live your dream life. Tim started a mega successful online business in his 20s which gave him a pretty solid fortune. However, he was spending literally all of his time working (specifically replying to emails). Tim, being the unique thinker he is, found a way to restructure his business to maximize his efforts and run his company with only a few hours of work a month. This book isn’t literally about cutting your workweek down to 4 hours, its about maximizing the output of the work so you can free yourself up to do the things that really matter. He has ways to increase productivity with lower levels of stress and effort for all types of jobs. Whether you own your own business, work for an idiot boss, or are looking for a way to escape the rat race, this book is a must read. He’s included little “life hacks,” mindset switches, and resources that you may need to start an automated business. Pair this with Ramit Sethi’s just as scammy sounding book I Will Teach You To Be Rich and you have the tools necessary to design and live out your rich life.


Mastery (2012) – Robert Greene

Robert Greene is a powerhouse and heavy hitter when it comes to writing damn good books. This book is a guide to mastering anything. Robert researched masters from all walks of life throughout time and found the common threads between each of them. He covers everyone from Mozart to Charles Darwin to Temple Gradin to Freddie Roach. My favorite person he writes about in this book is Benjamin Franklin. I love how Greene outlines Franklin’s journey to mastery in writing and social interactions. Robert goes above and beyond for this book (as usual) and takes things much further than the typical skill acquisition advice like the 10,000 hour rule or practicing every day. I saw Robert Greene at a book signing and he said that he writes books out of anger. When he wrote this book, he said he was angry that people couldn’t make things well anymore. So I like to think of this book as a guide to learning how to do things well.


The Art of War (~5th Century BC) – Sun Tzu

Perfect reading for learning war strategies on a battlefield. Also perfect reading for MBA types about to enter the business world. Also perfect reading for anyone who finds themselves in adversarial situations. This book is pure wisdom when it comes to war, or anything that can resemble a war. Sun Tzu’s philosophy on war is to win without fighting. Running in head first into a battle is a sure way to get yourself killed, lose resources, and cause long term damage to the state. It’s better to cultivate your defenses, fortify your plans, and only fight when you know you are going to win. This is a quick and short read. The Art of War was originally written for military strategy but that doesn’t mean it can only be applied in the literally battlefield. Much of our encounters and challenges we experience today are war-like and the principles discussed in the book are worth applying to other areas of life. I have a thing for books written mad long ago but are still relevant now. This was written around 5th century BC but the lessons have been true throughout time. Timeless books are the best books.


The 4-Hour Body (2010) – Timothy Ferriss

One of Tim’s main goals in life is to learn something once and never have to learn it again. To make this happen, he takes meticulous notes on his diet, work out, habits, etc. so when he sees a picture of himself years prior he knows exactly what he was doing to get the body he had. He also keeps journals too, so he can do a similar type of assessment with his mental health as well. The combination of his meticulous note taking, years of experimentation, and hours of consulting physicians has given us this unconventional guide to healthier and easier living. Similar to The 4-Hour Workweek, this book is about getting the maximum results for the smallest effort. This book is filled with Minimum Effective Dosages (MEDs) for fat-loss, muscle gain, better sex, better sleep, reversing injuries, and much much more. I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants a guide to the human body.


Letters From A Stoic (65 AD) – Seneca

This book came up in the afterglow of reading On The Shortness Of Life. It’s a collection of letters Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius. There are 224 letters and each one is on a profound topic. Reading these letters made me feel like I was getting to know Seneca personally. I love his humor and his unapologetic fanboy attitude towards Epicurus. What I loved the most about this book is that it explains Stoic philosophy within the context of something relatable which made it easy to see the usefulness of stoic practices. Wisdom is an art and this book is filled with it. Each letter is short but the ideas introduced will have you thinking about them for years to come. Every time I pick up this book it’s an absolute mindfuck. Seneca was able to articulate some of the most complicated thoughts I have ever had but never been able to say. This book was simultaneously a justification and condemnation of my perspectives and value structures and I love it. This book has wisdom beyond my years and I’m excited to see what else I’ll learn as I read the book with older eyes. This book has an extremely high reread value. Similar to Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature, this is a book that you study – not read.


12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) – Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

Let me start by saying if you haven’t checked out Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s work – check all of it out. This is his 2nd book and it’s more than worth the read but diving into his hours of lectures on YouTube will really take you for a ride. Peterson is a clinical psychologist from Canada who taught at the University of Toronto and Harvard. He’s spent decades studying the world’s best thinkers and reading some of the most complicated and influential texts. And through those studies, he’s articulated the true importance of meaning and responsibility. This book is a small part of that perspective. It originally was a list of 40 rules Peterson wrote in response to a post on Quora: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Peterson cut down the list to 12 and wrote this book. Peterson said that these 12 are not necessarily the most important rules, but they do make a cohesive narrative together.


Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (2016) – Tim Ferriss

Another Tim Ferriss masterpiece. Tim Ferriss is to me what Epicurus is to Seneca. Tools of Titans was written after Tim’s 4-Hour trilogy. The book was created from a plethora of interviews from The Tim Ferriss Show. Tim interviews the world’s highest performers about their habits, mindsets, and personal quirks that make them successful and put that in this book. He interviews everyone from Jocko Willink to B.J. Novak to Rick Rubin to Sam Harris to Maria Popova. Since there are so many people in this book, it’s easy to look up people that you already admire as well as discover new people to learn from. He breaks up the book in 3 sections (I love that it’s inspired by Ben Franklin): Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. My favorite chapters were in the Wise section, but that’s just me. There is enough information in this book to build empires and has an extremely high reread value.


Updated October 20th, 2020
The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer: The Wisdom of Life (1851) – Arthur Schopenhauer

Probably my favorite piece of work from the Great pessimist. I thought the title was too grandiose at first, but Artie delivered. This book truly contains the wisdom of life. There are some things he was pretty off on, but for the most part he was on point. He captures the beauty, rarity, and absurdity of life in a way that doesn’t play them up or down.

I also think this book is great because it’s like a collection of blog posts Schopenhauer would have written if blogs were a think in the 19th century. I’ve already written things in my blog that I don’t completely agree with and I could imagine that if Schopenhauer wasn’t bounded by his time that he would redact some of what he said. When we write down what we know, we are sure to be wrong but I believe it’s worth it to capture the things we got right.

Schopenhauer is a thinker for the ages and I highly suggest this book is someone who wanted to check out his work. He wrote it later in his life so his words carry the wisdom of his past works and it shows.


Games People Play (1969) – Dr. Eric Berne

This fantastic book goes over something called transactional analysis which is the study of how humans interact with each other. Berne suggests that everyone had 3 primary ego states — Child, Adult, and Parent and those ego states communicate with each other. The “games people play” are dependent on which ego state is communicating with what and how they do so. For example, there’s a game refers to as NIGYSOB (Now I’ve Got You Son Of a Bitch) is a game played between one’s parent ego state and the other’s child ego state. I might do a post on the different games mentioned in this book (at least the one’s I’ve found most prevalent) sometime because it’s almost unbelievable how much of human interaction are simply games.

On top of the incredibly deep analysis of human interaction, he sprinkles in humor throughout the book with smart ass comments and witty names for the games. This is book spelled out many ideas that I knew existed, but couldn’t articulate for myself and having access to these ideas gives me a greater understanding of human interaction and a special peace of mind.


The Seagull (1896) – Dr. Anton Chekhov

This is the first play I’ve put on this list and admittedly, the first play I’ve read since my appreciation for literature blossomed. I read this when I was at a point in my life when I felt like I had to choose between pursuing medicine and being creative and I was shocked to discover Anton Chekhov, famed playwright/physician. I first heard of Chekhov in Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature and I was so blown away from his story that I had to check out his work.

This play is super short and can easily be read in a few hours. The characters are brilliant and the story is beautiful. It’s a fantastic dramatization of the violence that occurs when a beauty is misplaced. One of the ideas I took from this play was “beautiful creatures in beautiful places will lead to destruction if things are not in their right place.” Chekhov created an excellent depiction of the realities of true rage, the struggles of the creative spirit, and the dangers of not being seen in the hearts and minds of others.

This play also gave me insights into what I was feeling as a creative person. If a Russian playwright could perfectly write about a similar struggle and capture my feelings perfectly, then what I was feeling must have been universal and archetypal. This realization lifted a huge burden on me because I realized that what I was dealing with could be surmounted by man and didn’t have to crush me.

If we’re not careful, we can all be like Treplyov.


The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009) – Dr. Atul Gawande

I wouldn’t suggest this book to beginner readers, as most things written by doctors are long-form and operate at a certain level of complexity, but if you’re comfortable reading lengthy texts, then this is a great book.

I originally didn’t want to put this book on the list, but as I continued to write my blog and work with my students I’ve noticed how much this book changed my thoughts and actions. Any book that changes how I act and think on a daily basis for the better is worth putting on this list.

I guess that’s precisely what Dr. Gawande was referring to in the book as well — the idea that checklists are so easily overlooked, but also so effective.

Checklists are my primary go-to method for organizing the chaos and getting things done right. They are too simple and too effective to ignore.


Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959) – Dr. Carl Gustav Jung

This is the deepest book I’ve ever read. On top of that, Jung is the smartest person I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. He accurately sums up the most abstract and complicated ideas in a concise way that’s easy to understand. Jung believes that humans encounter the experience of the unknown in similar ways, through archetypes. These archetypes are patterns of behavior coded in us from millions of years of human evolution and are the same no matter what society we’re from. The archetypes give us access to the collective unconscious which allows us a greater understanding of the human psyche.

Jung puts this way better than I could and has been a MASSIVE contributor to everything I do. The way I teach and conduct myself in the world is informed through my knowledge and understanding of the collective unconscious.

He doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d like in this volume, but he touched upon his famed archetypal ideas in a way that provides a rudimentary understanding to those who aren’t familiar. He talks in depth (by not deep enough) about the Shadow, the Anima (Great Mother), the Animus (Judgemental Father), and so many more.

This is the only book (so far) that I haven’t finished yet, but I’ve gotten through a good chunk of it. It’s so dense and rich with knowledge and wisdom. I knew that I had to put this book on my list when I was just a few pages in.

This guy sees the edge of human knowledge and goes there. Jung is probably my favorite author of all time. Read this book and get your mind blown.


Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) – Dr. Viktor Frankl

This book changed me life and I cannot understate it’s value. Everyone needs to read this book. It details the horrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of Jewish psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl. He is an incredible writer and captures such powerful images despite being traumatized himself. The images he describes were vivid and dark, but the lessons he learned about human beings are both beautiful and tragic. This book also outlines a method of created for his medical practice – logotherapy, which is based on the premise that meaning is our fundamental driving force as human beings.

This book is one of the most beautiful pieces of work ever created. Frankl showed us how people can really find meaning, even in the most hopeless situations. Meaning will carry us through any and all suffering.


Self-Reliance (1841) – Ralph Waldo Emmerson

This book is so dope. It’s written in a slightly outdated language, but the message is evergreen and powerful. He talks about the importance of self-reliance, giving to yourself, and the morality of only involving ourselves with the things which concern us.

In a weird way, this book was able to give me the reasoning I lacked to only concern myself with matters that concern me. I used to feel like I couldn’t act purely in my own interests, but this book has shown me that it isn’t only okay to act in my own interests but a moral duty, especially if my interests can make things better for me, my family, and my community.

One of the most amazing parts about it is that this was written while Emmerson was away from society locked up in a cabin in the middle of the woods. Then fast-forward almost 200 years, I’m reading it on an iPad in the comfort of my own bed. This realization had nothing to do with what he wrote, but it speaks to the power of writing. After I read this book, I was able to find the strength within me to write more vigorously and focus on myself and that led to incredibly important groundwork.


The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life (2006) – Thomas M. Sterner

Everything worth achieving requires practice and Thomas M. Sterner gives us techniques to develop the focus and discipline necessary to practice successfully. I’ve written an entire blog post based on the principles from this book that highlights some of the ideas that I thought were the most worth knowing.

Reading this book gave me a much-needed perspective on what it means to practice effectively. It’s so easy to see practicing as work, but after applying the methods Sterner talks about in the book, practice becomes a time full of meaning and purpose. Focusing on the process and intentionally staying present are highly underrated ideas that will bring out the best in anything.


The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business (2010) – Josh Kaufman

This is a fantastic book on business. Honestly, it could be THE book on business if there was one. It’s cool to see all the fancy business jargon wrapped up all nice and neat and it’s doubly cool to see a book that’s kind of like the book I’ve been writing but in a completely different field.

It’s been a huge influence on me and how I run my business and is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in entrepreneurship. It goes over everything from value creation from marketing to sales to finance to the mind to creating systems and so much more.

I’m constantly finding myself going back to this book. It’s full of amazing information that is extremely useful when starting a business, especially since I never had any formal training. I read it shortly before starting my 1st official company and while I was reading it, I knew that I was going to be going back to it for years to come.

Whether you’re an expert or a beginner in business, this book is a must-read if you want to be intentional about your business.


The Slight Edge (2005) – Jeff Olson

When I first read this book I didn’t think the slight edge could be true because of the sheer simplicity of it, but then I started trying it in my own life.

I think everyone should still read this book (obviously because it’s on this list), but the slight edge as a concept is pretty simple — small disciplines over time is what determines our life outcomes. The good things we do make our life better, the bad things we do make our life worse. These outcomes work on an exponential basis so over time, the successful win more often and the losers lose more often.

The slight edge really is what separates the successful from the failures. Olson says the slight edge is what’s the difference between a beach bum and a multimillionaire because he’s been both.

I’ve also seen Kobe Bryant talk about this being the reason why he was so much better than everyone else in the NBA. He kept pushing when everyone else didn’t. It’s probably a cognitive bias thing, but after I read this book I’ve noticed it in so many places.

Like everyone – this list is forever in a state of becoming.

Categories
Education Productivity

Algorithms for Every Class (Part 1)

“If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly.”

Colonel David Hackworth (Former United States Army Colonel & Military Journalist)

Most of the educational content on my blog is pretty specific and I wanted to try something a little different.

This post is going to be a bunch of seemingly disjointed advice, but they are connected through the idea that they work for all kinds of classes.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge is something I like to keep in mind when it comes to understanding our educators and ourselves. The Curse of Knowledge is the idea that — once we know something, it’s extremely difficult for us to imagine what it’s like not to know it.

This is why a lot of educators can skip over simple concepts when teaching complicated subjects. It’s easy to assume that our understanding is the same as everyone else’s, if fact that most people’s default way of communicating. Someone who’s blinded by the Curse of Knowledge would probably think something like “This made sense to me, so it must make sense to them.”

People around us don’t know what we know and we can’t assume they do. If we find ourselves in a position to teach, then we have to make a conscious effort not to “burn down the schoolhouse” after we learn something.

Everyone Has Something to Teach

We will never go far by pre-judging people – try to learn from everyone we can. A few years ago, I adopted the idea that everyone has something to teach me and because of that I’ve made more meaningful connections and learned so many fascinating things.

Self-education is a big value of mine and it’s something that I want my students to be able to effectively participate in. The key to self-education is being open to lessons from all around us and that starts by seeing everyone as a potential source of knowledge and wisdom.

Yes, sometimes people waste my time and don’t have something to teach me, but when they do it’s incredibly delightful.

Scheduling is Most Crucial at the Beginning

I’ve written a fair bit about time management and scheduling and I highly recommend checking those posts out here, but there are a few things about scheduling that I want to mention.

Take the time to make schedules for every class. Know when and where the exams are and any significant due dates. When I was in college, I even created a separate calendar for my professor’s office hours so I could easily find out when I could see them. It’s so worth it to have easy access to all the exams and due dates as well as office hours. It makes things so much easier later and we’ll have a lot fewer surprises to deal with.

Syllabus week is a perfect time for creating these schedules and getting situated. Most students treat syllabus week and an extra vacation week but take the 2-3 hours to calibrate yourself and your calendar. Future you will thank you so much when things start getting stressful.

Additionally, the brain is more receptive to changes in schedules and habits at the beginning of every semester. So syllabus week is the time to get adjusted to the changes. Make this tiny sacrifice and the semester will be at least 10x easier, I know this from experience.

Follow the path less travelled.

Playing Teacher’s Pet

This has a bad connotation, but if we want letters of recommendation, potential job hookups after college, or mentorships it’s in our best interest to have a few strategies for being buddy-buddy with our professors. This section is more applicable for college students.

Introduce yourself to the teacher/professor, take time to get to know them, and allow them to get to know you. Do this early on in the term, but don’t just walk up, say hi, and expect them to carry the conversation. We need to take responsibility for our presence and give them something to go off of. Maybe mention a question or a genuine compliment.

Speak up. Teachers like students who are actually people. Being another person floating around in their class is a perfect plan for being forgotten. I know this because I’ve taught many classes. This will also be important for getting letters of rec. Most of the time, letters of recommendation are on statements of character, and character is built through action. Teachers and professors can only speak on who we are and that is created from what we do.

Sit in the 2nd row. Sitting in the back is too secluded and sitting in the front draws too much attention. Let’s be honest, no one likes a try-hard. Plus, the teacher would be more inclined to call on us. Sitting in the second row is conducive to paying more attention, but gives us a little more anonymity.

Get to class early and sit in the same place. Studies show that this helps with retention, plus the professor will notice who cares enough to show up early.

Two Efficiency Tips

Here are two tips that I used to manage the student-work-life balance.

Chunking – breaking big tasks into smaller tasks. This is fantastic whenever I feel overwhelmed. I used this a ton when I was doing my senior design project for my bachelor’s degree. I had to design and project costs and profits for a liquid natural gas plant. The project took the entire semester and I only got through it because of chunking.

Batching – this involves doing similar types of activities at the same time. For example, I don’t wash my clothes every time I use them. I wait until I have a critical mass, then I wash it all at once. I do this to manage my youtube channel and tutoring sessions especially. I also try to batch tutoring sessions – knock out as many of them as I can in a short amount of time rather than scattering them all throughout the week.

Combat Procrastination

Procrastination is a huge topic, but I wanted to include a few tips to help with it. I have a few posts I’ve written that cover topics surrounding procrastination, but I haven’t written a focused post about combating procrastination yet. Here’s a list of the posts that, when read together, could give us an effective arsenal for combating procrastination:

The Myth of Motivation

Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2)

Our Proclivity for Comfort

The Art of Practice

Obviously, no one’s life is going to change off a quote or a few tips, but this could be a starting point.

Pre-screen/pre-read lectures to set up purpose for each class. I used to think that when teachers and professors stated “Objectives” for each lesson was bureaucratic bullshit, but in fact it’s rooted in an idea fundamental to human existence – we are purpose driven creatures. When we do something imbued with purpose, the chatter in our minds falls away, excuses disappear, and obstacles are inconsequential. Pre-reading/pre-screening exposes us to things we don’t know which naturally brings up questions in our minds like “what is that?”, “why did that happen?”, or “what does that phrase mean?” It doesn’t have to take long either, we just need to know what to keep an eye out for when the lesson actually begins.

Just start. It’s much harder to get started than to keep going. Friction is one of the biggest contributors to procrastination and if you’re familiar with physics you know that static friction is usually higher than kinetic friction. Make it a goal to just get started and let momentum take us. It’s surprising how far we can go.

For essays, just write 50 words. In the same vein as the last tip, just getting the first 50 words down is a solid goal. Once we’ve gotten over the activation energy, other sources of motivation can take the reins. Usually when I’m having a hard time writing, I just tell myself to write for 10 minutes or just write 50 words and believe it or not, sometimes I actually forget that original goal and my new source of motivation becomes finish my thought or capturing an idea.

For math problems, just do the first 3 steps. Just like essays, just doing the first few steps can get us going, but the desire to finish what we started can take over fairly easily. When my students have a hard time with complex math problems (problems that take 5-10 steps), I usually just ask them to focus in on the step in front of them. Taking things piece by piece is a great way to get started and make serious progress. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of small incremental improvements. Which leads me into my next tip. –

Break it down and do the easiest thing – it’s surprising how far incremental progress and momentum can take us. When we’re up against complex tasks, it’s easy to put them off simply because we don’t know where to start or because it seems too big. Breaking them down makes them manageable and conquerable.

Extra Credit

Honestly, I stole this idea from Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, but the rationale is hard to argue with. Always look for extra credit, always do extra credit. Extra credit boosts your grade way more than normal assignments do. If you don’t believe me, review adding fractions – extra credit only adds to your numerator and not to the denominator.

For example, if I had a class where my grade was 70/100 (70% a C-) and I turned in an assignment for full credit that was worth 30/30 points my grade would be 100/130, which is roughly a 77% still a C. But let’s say that assignment was extra credit (just an additional 30 points) and not part of the graded course work, then our grade would be 100/100, an A+. Regular assignments add to the numerator and denominator, while extra credit just adds to the numerator, which means extra credit is inherently more valuable than regular assignments when it comes to our grades.

Doing extra credit is a better use of our time than doing regular assignments, unless the assignment is heavily weighted.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Creating Systems

“Systematize everything, and find peace”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Why create systems?

Having goals is a fantastic way to be productive and build a life by design, but the most productive results come from having systems. When we have a goal, there are a series of choices we have to make. Usually, goals are things we haven’t done before, so all the choices we’re going to have to make require a lot of attention and energy. Even if the goals have been accomplished before, having to deal with the challenges that arise time and time again can be exhausting.

Systematizing everything makes these processes a lot easier, especially if there are goals that need to be completed regularly. Creating systems gives us the opportunity to make fewer choices and the freedom to do other things. Despite what many people think, our energy is like our time, limited and nonrenewable. The return on saving energy is virtually infinite. Systems allow us to be more productive as well, in terms of quantity AND quality.

Systems also make processes easier when we have to do them. Having a reliable proven strategy for conquering whatever scenario in front of us cuts the effort down tremendously. It’s much easier to just “start the process” than to try really hard just to discover that it wasn’t going to work anyway.

Focusing on systems, not goals, is the key to long-lasting, reliable, and fruitful results.

In order to focus on systems, we first have to understand what they are and how they work. I wrote two posts on systems so far: Gall’s Law & System Components and Analyzing & Improving Systems. I highly recommended checking those out, I go over the fundamental information about systems and how they work. This post synthesizes some of the information discussed in those two posts and emphasizes the concepts that will make creating systems much easier.

When we understand how systems work and how to create our own, then we can engineer our own systems to fit our unique needs perfectly.

Marks of an Effective System

Human beings need purpose and intentionality in order to have fulfilled lives and content with existentialism. I talk a little bit about that in this post. We need something to aim at and a system is no different.

What is the purpose of a system & how we do know if it’s working well?

According to author of The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman, an effective system does the following:

  • Fulfills its functionality
  • Has great infrastructure
  • Ready connectivity with other systems
  • Versitile
  • Adaptable
  • Reliable
  • Produces benefits which far exceed the initial investment

Keep in a mind, all of these criteria don’t need to be met to have a functional system. A system can work without all of these, however, these are all qualities that a great system can build towards.

How to Create Systems

“If you want to build a system that works, the best approach is to build a simple system that meets the Environment’s current selection tests first, then improve it over time. Over time, you’ll build a complex system that works.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Keep Gall’s Law in mind when you first start – work on creating a simple system, then add complexity over time. Don’t try to make a system that does too much at once right off the bat.

Creating a complex system immediately will result in failure.

When it comes to building a system from scratch, just try to figure out how to get the task done in the first place. Once we’ve completed the task, we developed a neural pathway that knows exactly how to get that task done. Every single time we work on that task in the future it gets easier and easier. (Exactly like Active Recall.) Once we’ve gotten to this point, it will be much easier to create a system because we will know the steps intimately. Creating a system will speed that process up even more!

Once we know how to get the task done, we need to identify the key components of the system and improve each step of the process so it becomes more efficient and effective. Just make one change at a time. Creating a good system takes time and patience, like building habits.

Systems are almost never correct right off the bat. It takes a few tests to get all the details right and have a system that runs smoothly. All systems start off terribly, but all the best ones improve over time and the only way to objectively improve a system is through experimentation.

Fans of history can probably name a few times human beings have tried to create something but had to revamp the system because they found out it wasn’t working too well. I remember working with a student on history work and I was stunned to discover that this process is the exact process that the American government evolved from. Today, the American government is a massively complex system with multiple branches and precedence for almost every conceivable situation but it did not start off that way. It started off with just the Articles of Confederation, and that system didn’t even have an executive or judicial branch. Then it grew with the Virginia Plan, then the Constitution, then the Bill of Rights, and finally with the amendments we have today. The point is that this extremely complex system didn’t start off how it is today, it grew over centuries through experimentation.

Humans never get anything right the first try.

When I was a noob at creating systems, I thought that I needed to know each step of the process and it had to work perfectly before I even started, but that prevented me from even starting in the first place. There’s no way to know every single step and account for every single variable without testing a system.

All, if not most, problems can be handled with systems. If there isn’t a system for it, then we can create one. We just have to go into the process expecting the system to fail and be willing to make adjustments or we won’t have any systems at all.

Guiding Questions

If you’ve read some of my Importance of Questions post, then you know that I believe questions hold the key to everything we want in life. They can allow us access to other people’s minds as well as guide our thinking to solve problems that we haven’t seen before.

Here are some questions that could be useful when creating systems:

  • How do I make this process easier next time?
  • How can I make this process more reliable next time?
  • How can I prevent ____ from happening again?
  • In a perfect world, how would I want to deal with this situation?
  • How can I make _____ happen again?
  • What is the end result? What am I producing?
  • What are we starting with? What do I need to get this going?

Tips for a Great Checklist

Systems can take many different forms. One of the most simple forms, checklists, have also been proven to be one of the most effective. I talk a little about checklists in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems and in that post, I mention how checklists are fantastic for creating processes that haven’t been articulated yet. Checklists are my go-to method for ordering the chaos and are fantastic simple systems to build upon later.

In Dr. Atul Gawande’s fantastic book, The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande lays out the proof that checklists are more reliable than the instincts of even the highest trained professionals. Pilots, especially when confronted with an emergency, are more than willing to turn to their checklists.

The first tip for making a great checklist is to have normal and non-normal checklists. Normal checklists are for normal everyday situations, things that come up often. Pilots have normal checklists for things like take-off and landing. Non-normal checklists are less often used but are for emergencies or other scenarios that wouldn’t occur on a regular basis. Pilots have more non-normal checklists than normal checklists. They have checklists for all conceivable emergency situations.

There are two types of checklists: do-confirm and read-do. Do-confirm lists are when team members perform their jobs first, then pause and run the checklist to make sure that everything was done correctly. Read-do lists are when people do the tasks as they read them on the list. Do-confirm lists act more like a double-check while read-do lists are more like a recipe. Know which type of checklist you are creating and when to use it.

Great checklists are specific and precise. If a checklist is too vague and inaccurate is becomes hard to use and impractical.

They also need to be short and to the point, if a checklist is too long it becomes another hurdle. Try to keep the length of the list within the bounds of our working memory, 7+2 items (5-9). They can be longer, but keep in mind that if checklists take longer than 60-90 seconds then people start shortcutting and they become more hassle than they’re worth. Focus on the critical few.

They also have to be easy to use in the most difficult situations, keeping it short and sweet helps a lot with this.

Contrary to popular belief, a great checklist should not spell everything out. They just simply provide a reminder of the crucial steps. Operators of the checklist should be trained and know what they are doing. The checklist is just an aid, not an instruction manual.

Checklists must, above all, be practical.

Checklists cannot solve problems for us, they simply help us manage complex processes and clarify priorities. They are not comprehensive guides, just reminders of the critical steps. If we include every little step, then the checklist just adds friction to the system. Checklists are designed to remove friction and add ease and clarity to a scenario.

When creating a checklist, I highly recommend clearly defining a point WHEN the checklist will be used.

Like all systems, checklists have to be battle-tested in real life. Experiment with the checklist and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. The first drafts never stick and revising is always required.

A Few Systematic Principles

A few principles that I’ve noticed systems follow. It’s helpful to keep these in the back of our minds when planning and executing systems.

The Matthew Effect

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

I talk about this in my post The Myth of Motivation, when I talk about aiming for success spirals.

The Matthew Effect is pretty simple — success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The best part is that this relationship is not linearly, it’s exponential. If we do something like writing a book and some people like it, then we’re more likely to write another book which makes it more likely that more people are willing to like it.

We can see spirals like this is so many things. If we get an A on an exam, it’s easier for us to get an A on the next exam. We know the concepts and are more likely to sacrifice because our sacrifice led to a positive outcome last time. Likewise, if we fail an exam, it’s easier for us to fail the next one. We don’t know the concepts, so we’d have to learn those ones on top of the new stuff. The previous failure adds friction to the next challenge. Our actions compound on each other and it can stack up quickly. This is definitely one of the reasons for the massive wealth inequality in the modern world. It’s much easier to make money when you’re already making money.

When building a system, try to keep in mind that the actions of the system will affect the actions of the system later. The Matthew Effect also provides a fantastic foundation for another systemic phenomenon, the Pareto Principle.

Pareto Principle (The 80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle definitely needs it’s own post because it’s such a pervasive idea and we can dive into it for hours. Famous entrepreneur and investor, Richard Koch was able to write 4 books on the topic! 4 books!! While the principle itself isn’t complex nor long, Koch focused more on applying the principle to every aspect of our lives. I’ll go more into that later.

While there is a lot to say about the Pareto Principle and its accommodations, it can be summed up relatively quickly:

80% of the output of any system is from 20% of the input.

This principle can apply to all domains of human creation. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. For most of us who have worked on a group project, we know that most of the work ends up getting done by a small portion of the group. This also happens in companies too – 80% of the work is done by 20% of the employees.

There are many names given to this idea because it shows up in so many places. The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80/20 Rule or the Square Root Rule: being that 50% of the work is done by the square root of the number of employees. The numbers aren’t perfect, but the idea is the same:

The majority of the results come from a critical minority of effort.

This principle is game-changing when it comes to creating systems. Knowing that the majority of the results comes from a critical few, we can focus our energy on optimizing for those critical few inputs rather than wasting energy on processes or steps that yield a lower rate of return.

I talk a bit about how the Pareto Principle came to be in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems.

Vilfredo Pareto, the 19th-century economist and sociologist, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution. He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of peas.

We can see this in book sales and album sales too, pretty much any domain of creative production. 80% of the book sales are from 20% of the authors. 80% of music streams are from 20% of the artists.

Richard Koch also noticed a similar pattern when studying for his final exams at Oxford. At Oxford, the students are graded by their performance on a final exam which is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. Richard determined that in order to prepare for every possible question they could ask him he would have to memorize somewhere around 550 essays. Obviously, this wasn’t reasonable so Richard found another way around it. He analyzed all the past exams and discovered that every exam asked questions on similar topics. 20% of the topics accounted for 80% of the questions. Upon realizing this, Richard figured that all he had to do was prepare for 20% of the topics. This significantly cut down the work he needed to do to prepare for the exam.

Spoiler Alert: he did great on the test.

The best part about the Pareto Principle is that it can apply to all systems, in business and our personal lives. We can a Pareto analysis of our own lives, as well as any systems that we’d like to optimize.

I love doing the 80/20 analysis of everything. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I really need to do. Trimming the fat automatically maximizes our time and effort. It’s much easier to just focus on what is important than trying to find ways to do everything better.

It can apply to happiness – What 20% of things give me 80% of my happiness?

It can also be applied in reverse – What 20% of things are giving me 80% of my unhappiness?

It can be applied to anxiety, relationship satisfaction, costs, food, anything our hearts desire.

This principle helps us optimize.

Whenever I’m creating a system I try to keep in mind that principles are more valuable than knowledge. If we can understand the principles behind something, then we have the ability to predict and manipulate the system across many different scenarios.

Richard Koch likes to ask people:

“What would happen if we spend all of our time on the critical aspects?”

Parkinson’s Law

I first talked about Parkinson’s Law in my post 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling because I first learned it as a scheduling principle but now I see how it can be applied in a broader sense.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

So if we have a week to get a project done, it will take us a week. If we have a day to get a project done, then it will take a day. Parkinson’s Law helps explain how people are able to finish massive projects the day before it’s due or how an unmotivated student finds the strength within them to get something turned in. It’s not that we aren’t capable of doing the work, it’s that we know we still have time and we’ll use all of it if we can.

What I do to try to account for this is give myself less time than I think I need to complete a task or I set finite deadlines to work on a project. Either way, they both prevent me from spending extra unnecessary time on something.

There’s something about having our backs up against the wall that makes us perform. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s definitely there and we can use it to our advantage if we want.

However, Parkinson’s Law is more than just a cool scheduling hack. It can also apply to budgets and other resources too.

Parkinson’s Law applied to budgets – spending expands to fit the budget allotted for it.

Now, the spending doesn’t have to expand to fit the budget but it usually will.

The resources we allocate for something determines the fundamental perspective of our approach.

If we are pressed for time or if we don’t have a lot of money, then we’ll be on the lookout for creative ways to solve problems that could otherwise we solved with time or money.

Parkinson’s Law really just highlights another quality of human nature which is that humans are creatures of necessity and we will always try to solve problems with the least amount of effort possible. Keeping this in mind when building systems is extremely valuable and perhaps we can go further with what we already have.

Categories
Lifestyle

What I Learned the Hard Way

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”

 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Writing about this idea was taken from Cheryl Strayed’s List of Writing Prompts. The original prompt was to write about a time when I learned the hard way, but I changed it to what I learned the hard way. While the story surrounding these lessons is wildly interesting and incredible, it’s long, and writing it in a blog post will not do it justice. Plus, I don’t have the writing skills necessary to properly tell that story.

However, the lessons I learned then are potentially some of the most influential I will ever learn in my entire life and I’m going to share some of them here.

This is the post I needed seven years ago. If I knew these lessons, or if I was able to learn them the easy way, then I probably would have saved myself a bunch of suffering.

I’m hoping someone can learn at least one of these lessons the easy way (reading this post) rather than the hard way (through immense suffering). Trust me, its much better to learn things the easy way but I also know that the human-animal can only learn some things the hard way.

Finding words sets us free.

A few years ago I got tangled up with some bad people. During that time I saw myself and others do hideous things. I was manipulated by a sociopath because I wasn’t paying enough attention to see what was right in front of me. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing what I was doing or what I witnessed because I didn’t have a language for it. On top of that, I was tortured which made everything much harder to articulate.

While that experience was one of the toughest in my life, I never felt more relief than when I was able to find the words, or phrases, to explain what happened to me. I felt like a shattered version of myself and over the following years, everything I explored had the undertones of finding the bits and pieces that could help me process the trauma. Every time I heard, read, or learned something that could help me understand what happened, I felt a little more whole.

Finding the language to capture the experience sets us free from reliving the trauma and starts the healing process. I didn’t know this for years, but I felt it in my body. I never felt more relief than when I was able to find the words, or phrases, to explain what happened to me. I supposed this was one of the ides that I had to learn the hard way.

Turning our experiences to language orders the chaos of our minds, which helps us understand where we are. Our minds occupy territory in space and time, so when we transform the experience to speech we turn a little bit of the unknown into the familiar.

When we experience trauma, the parts of our brain that process speech shut off and we are no longer able to turn our experiences into speech. I’ve written a blog post on The Significance of Speech, which talks about how speech is so powerful from a mythological perspective. But the loss of speech, in this case, comes with the inability to process experience into speech also prevents us from putting the experience in the past.

Practicing my ability to articulate my thoughts through writing via blogging and journaling has given me a greater body knowledge and language to draw from, which aids in the healing process. Honestly, in my experience, it’s been absolutely essential in my healing process.

Understanding, internalizing, and having a vocabulary for ideas like malevolence, betrayal, archetypes, willful blindness, responsibility, sacrifice, suffering, striving, struggle, logos, animus, anima, envy, narcissism, neuroticism, the shadow, circumambulation, atonement, and so many others has been life-changing.

My speculations that this idea was true were verified when I read about many PTSD patients recovering after finding the words to describe their trauma in the fantastic book The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessell van der Kolk, which I highly recommend. I’m also adding that book to my Must-Read Book List when I get the chance.

All relationships are limited and conditional.

The only way to learn this lesson is to believe that relationships are unlimited and unconditional and then push them to their unperceived limits.

A harsh, but enlightening lesson.

After internalizing this, I’ve taken more responsibility for the relationships in my life. I’ve noticed that some people can sense this and are grateful for it (which is nice), and others are oblivious. Either way, it sets me free from the burden of feeling controlled by other people’s thoughts and feelings and empowers me to focus on what I can control. Which is usually a hell of a lot more than I could imagine.

Malevolence is real.

“Man is the cruelest animal.”

 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Malevolence is real. There’s darkness in people. Real darkness. It sounds cheesy, but some people really do want to hurt others just for the hell of it, and it’s not a joke. Humans are the only creatures on the planet that can hurt something else just for the sake of harming it. This is because we’re aware of our own mortality and vulnerability, which gives us the ability to exploit it in others.

If we can understand what hurts us, then we know what hurts someone else.

Now I knew this intellectually, but it’s a completely different thing to know this viscerally. When we see the evil of the human heart in an undeniable fashion, it fundamentally changes how we understand the human-animal, how we understand ourselves. It was witnessing despicable actions that presenced me to the darkness.

Understanding the evil in others helps me conceptualize my capacity for destruction and gives me proper fear of and respect for myself. Before I believed that malevolence was real, I never saw the weight of my own actions or the potential damage it could cause. Hell, it frightens me to think of the destruction that I have caused because of my ignorance of this fact.

Our choices seriously matter.

Our choices matter and we never get away with anything. We can act as if there is no such thing as good and evil, but that will destroy our lives. The choices we make ripple out in ways that we can hardly imagine.

This means our bad actions infinitely propagate throughout the world, but it also means that our good actions do too.

Everything we do starts to take on a different vibe when we think about how it will ripple off into society. What we choose to do in the present affects us in ten minutes, in ten months, in ten years, and the actions of all of those versions of us will affect other people in ways that we can’t even imagine.

When I see my actions as trivial and inconsequential, it’s easy to do the things that benefit me at the moment, but rarely do those actions benefit me in the medium to long term. When I see how much my choices matter, there’s a real pressure to get my act together.

Ignorance does not protect us from the consequences.

Ignorance does not protect us from unfavorable situations. Again, this is something that I knew intellectually, but haven’t internalized. I would have tried harder to learn more from my experiences that I did. We aren’t spared from consequences just because we didn’t know that our actions weren’t sufficient.

Children often use this excuse of ignorance to get out of anything. In my experience, teenagers often use this as their go-to excuse for not getting something done or acting appropriately. It’s always something like “I didn’t know, therefore I should be spared,” but this type of thinking isn’t cooperative with how the world works.

Just because I didn’t understand the importance of integrating the shadow, doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for the destruction it was causing.

Not knowing doesn’t protect us from the consequences, it only blinds us to them.

This is why I place such a heavy emphasis on learning efficiently. Learning as much as we can is a matter of survival. We need it to understand the consequences and act in our favor.

People will unintentionally drag you down.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”

 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

When drifting gets seriously out of control, people can drag others into their entropic vortex. The problem with this is that the original drifter, the person who started the vortex, may not know that they’re leading others atray.

People may not know if they’re leading you down a terrible path.

I discovered this to be true under the assumption that one should always trust family. I didn’t realize that sometimes, they don’t know when they’re wrong. Sometimes malevolence isn’t part of the picture and the destruction is simply a result of foolishness and aversion of responsibility.

People may believe what they are doing is right, but it is up to us to know what is best for ourselves.


I spent years trying to piece these ideas together and even more time letting my ignorance run rampant. To some people, these ideas may seem obvious and if they are, then I challenge you to know them viscerally. To others, these lessons aren’t true and to those people, I say enjoy the life you have and prepare yourself because the flood is coming. Nonetheless, I learned them all the hard way. I suggest that you don’t.

I hope this post helps someone learn something without having to endure extreme circumstances, but perhaps the people who need to learn these lessons the most will only do so through our mother tongue, suffering.

Categories
Education Productivity

Analyzing & Improving Systems

“If you are unhappy, your system is broken.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

In my last post, I talked about Gall’s Law and the different components of systems. In this post, I’m going to discuss ideas surrounding analyzing and improving systems. There are going to be some terms I reference from my last post, so I highly recommend checking that out first.

Josh Kaufman beautifully and simply explains how to do this in his book, The Personal MBA, and I also highly recommend checking that out too. The ideas in this post are mostly from that book as well as my own personal insights.

How to Analyze Systems

When analyzing a system is difficult to know what to look for, especially when dealing with complex systems. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that we all have a bias which could get in the way of analyzing systems. Whenever possible, we need to take steps to mitigate our bias.

Here are some other things to look out for when analyzing systems:

Deconstruction

This is an excellent first move when it comes to analyzing systems. As discussed in Gall’s Law, all complex systems arise from simpler systems, therefore every complex system is capable of being deconstructed into simpler systems. Deconstruction is simply breaking up complex systems into their interdependent parts and understanding how each of those parts works. It’s also helpful to try to identify triggers (what kicks off another system) and endpoints (what makes a system stop). Diagrams and flowcharts are also lifesavers when it comes to deconstructing systems. Recognizing if-then and when-then relationships are also invaluable.

After breaking the complex system up into it’s smaller parts, we can then break down those simple systems even further into their components. Identify inflows and outflows, stocks, interdependencies, and so on. I talk about what those components are in my last post.

Deconstruction makes understanding systems possible. Without deconstruction, we are sure to experience confusion.

Measurement

How does the system collect data? What kind of data is it collecting? Measurement describes the process of data collection in a system. If we can understand the information related to the system, then we get an insight into the system itself.

Paying attention to the measurement is fantastic for dealing with absence blindness — the idea that we have a hard time seeing things that aren’t there.

Let me give an example, measuring someone’s blood glucose levels tells us if someone has too little or too much blood sugar. This number gives us tremendous insight into what is going on inside the body even though we wouldn’t be able to visibly see changes in someone’s blood sugar.

Measuring something is the first step in improvement. I wrote a post, Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, that talks about the importance of measuring ourselves and our progress.

Don’t sleep on measurements. Trust me.

KPI (Key Performance Indicator)

I know I just emphasized how important it is to measure things, but there is such a thing as too much data. If we measure too many things, we end up having a bunch of junk data that weighs us down and doesn’t show us anything. In order to prevent this, we try to keep our measurements to only KPIs or Key Performance Indicators.

KPIs are measurements of the essential parts of a system.

Identifying KPIs can be tricky, but try to limit them to only 3-5 KPIs per system otherwise, we risk measuring too many things.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

This is one of the more straightforward ideas – what we put in is what we get out. The quality of the output is only as good as the quality of the input. You get what you give. There are so many cliche phrases that express this idea.

I found this to be especially true when I started cooking. I used to watch Gordon Ramsey cooking videos to try to learn how to cook (I even watched his Masterclasses), but I could never make my food taste good until I spent the extra money on fantastic ingredients. Now, I try to only cook with fantastic ingredients. It really makes all the difference.

One of the best ways to improve the quality of a system is to pay attention to what we start with.

Tolerance

This can be thought of as the range in which the system is working normally. If the system is performing within that range, then it’s within tolerance.

Tolerance can either be loose or tight. A loose tolerance is when there is a considerable amount of leeway and small mistakes don’t make a huge difference while a tight tolerance is when there’s little room for error or change, this is usually the case for essential components of a system.

Analytical Honesty

In order to properly analyze a system, we must acknowledge our propensity to make things look better than they are. We have to be able to apply objective judgment to our data which means that the best analysis of a system will come from someone who isn’t personally invested in it.

As I mentioned in my post, Our Unconscious Filters, human beings view the world through their bias and it’s hard to shake them, even if we’re aware of them. Having an outsider provide analysis is the only way to completely prevent our bias from contaminating our observations.

Context

Most measurements are meaningless without context. Context is all of the information we use to understand if measurements are favorable or not. Setting goals for arbitrary numbers like a 20% increase or 3 new deals are meaningless if we don’t know the performance of the system in the past and it’s projected performance in the future.

Trying to oversimplify how a system operates by judging it off one measurement will blind us to other important changes as well. Context is crucial for an accurate understanding.

Sampling

Sampling is what we do when we try things. We’re simply taking a small part of the output and using it as an example for the entire system. Sampling is great for catching errors without needing to check the entire system.

Just like all other methods of analysis, we have to consider our bias, and sampling is prone to bias. A way to control for it is to make sure the sample is random.

Margin of Error

Of course, not all samples will be perfect representations of the entire system. The margin of error is how much the sample deviates from the whole. The higher the margin, the more inaccurate the sample. The more samples we have, the smaller our margin of error.

Ratio

Ratios are fractions. Somethings divided by something else. It’s a simple way of measuring multiple variables at once. Ratios are also great for letting us know how a particular measurement changes.

For example, ROI is a percentage ((Returns/Investment)*100%) or comparing MPG (miles/gallons) or unit price of groceries. You know a ratio is involved in you hear the words per.

Typicality

In order to analyze a system properly, we need to know how it would operate normally. Kaufman suggests that we can measure typicality through calculating mean, median, mode, and midrange or various measurements.

Correlation & Causation

Causation comes from the idea of cause and effect. One part of a system is causing another part of a system to act. Correlation, on the other hand, is not always causation. Sometimes variables may seem the act like one causes the other, but that won’t necessarily be the case. For example, 100% of people who drink water die. Does the water cause the death in this case? Probably not. Water and death are simply correlational.

So how can we determine is something is correlational or causational?

By adjusting for known variables. If we control for as many variables as possible, we can see the relationship between each more clearly. As systems grow more complex, this becomes more and more difficult. The more we can isolate a variable, the more confidence we have that the changes are causational.

Proxy

Proxies are measurements of something by measuring another thing. A proxy is useful when we cannot measure something directly. The closer the proxy is to the original, the more accurate the measurement. We have to be mindful about correlation and causation when measuring a proxy.

Segmentation

Segmentation is grouping data into separate subgroups to get a more comprehensive context. I do this with all of my blog posts! That’s why I have titles and headings and subheadings. It gives all the (seemingly) random information I’m spewing a more detailed context.

Segmentation plays a huge part in how we understand complex and large amounts of information.

Humanization

When looking at data is easy to see it as an inanimate object, but when analyzing systems we have to keep in mind that the data tell us information about human beings. They are insights into real people — their behaviors, experiences, and thoughts. It’s easy to disconnect from data about a system because it seems so abstract and inanimate, but it’s quite the opposite. If we pay enough attention, the data lets us understand people on a deeper level.

When I worked at Kohls, they always emphasized selling to “her.” Her being a personified collection of the average data on their customers. They used average household income, gender, family size, and other variables to create their typical customer and found ways to satisfy that person.

Our data tells us what’s up with other people if we look hard enough.

Other Things to Look Out For

“If something in your business is causing you stress, most likely, you either don’t have a system for that issue, or you are not following your system.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Pay attention to environmental changes and selection tests. I talk a little bit about these in my last post. These changes give smaller players a chance to outperform larger players. Identifying selection tests gives us a competitive edge.

Some questions to ask while looking out for these things could be: How is the environment changing? Who is unable to adapt to these changes? What can I do differently from those who cannot adapt? Who is taking advantage of these changes? What can I do similar to those who are doing well?

Always keep an eye out for the “black swan.” I first heard about this idea from Chris Voss, an ex-FBI terrorist negotiator. The “black swan” is any information that if discovered would change everything. Back in the day, people would say swans are white and if anyone said otherwise they would be crazy because swans are white. Eventually, someone discovered a black swan and everyone had to change how they saw the situation. Systems are the same way, try to keep an eye out for the information that would change everything. There’s always a piece of information that, if known, would change everything This is excellent for accurately identifying and balancing risk and uncertainty.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat. Expect to encounter threats, but instead of responding to it, we can respond with curiosity to learn more.

The last thing I want to mention about analyzing systems is to analyze close-calls when they happen to minimize accidents. Sometimes shit happens, but most of the time we can prevent it from happening. If we can notice when things almost go wrong, then we can take the steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again or prevent the conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place without having to deal with the fallout of the accident.

How to Improve Systems

“Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence. For example, let’s build the world’s greatest car by assembling the world’s greatest car parts. We connect the engine of a Ferrari, the brakes of a Porsche, the suspension of a BMW, the body of a Volvo. What we get, of course, is nothing close to a great car; we get a pile of very expensive junk.”

Donald Berwick (1946 – )

Now that we’ve discussed analyzing systems and have a base framework for understanding systems, let’s talk about some of the ideas useful for improving systems. Most of these ideas are also included in Kaufman’s The Personal MBA.

Intervention Bias

This is the idea that human beings tend to add changes to a system just to feel like we have more control. So when we set out to improve a system, we have to entertain the thought that we might be implementing a new change just to feel in control. If we don’t, we risk adding unnecessary complexity to the system.

The best way to account for intervention bias is to analyze through a null hypothesiswhat would happen if we did nothing? What if the situation was simply an error?

If the null hypothesis experiment determines that we’re better off doing something than nothing, then we will have minimized our chances for intervention bias to take hold. Examining the null hypothesis isn’t our natural reaction, especially since human beings have a proclivity to doing something rather than nothing, but it’s crucial for actually improving systems.

When improving systems, first think about what would happen if we did nothing.

Optimization

Optimization is what people usually think of when it comes to improving systems. This typically involves maximizing output or minimizing an input. Optimization is usually focused around the KPIs.

Kaufman suggests when optimizing a system to focus on one variable at a time. Optimizing a system across multiple variables will almost always lead to disaster. System interdependencies and second-order effects make it challenging to change more than one thing at any given time.

Refactoring

This refers to changing a system’s process so that it can perform the exact same result but in a more efficient way. This is most obvious in coding. Some programmers will pride themselves on performing the same actions in fewer lines of code.

To the average person, refactoring may seem insignificant, but more efficient systems run faster and require fewer resources which could be redirected elsewhere.

Some questions to ask when refactoring a system could be: What are the essential processes to achieve the desired objective? Do these processes have to be completed in a certain order? What are the constraints of the system?

Critical Few

If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 Rule), then you understand the concept of the critical few. Essentially, 19th-century economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution.

He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

Today, we can see his 80/20 split in almost everything. In systems is useful to know that 80% of the output is from 20% of the input. In businesses, typically 80% of revenue usually comes from 20% of customers. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. 80% of our time communicating is with 20% of people we know.

Focus on the 20%. That is where the biggest changes will happen. Identify which parts are critical and give it attention or starve it of attention, whichever is required. The idea is to not try to focus on the whole thing, but the smaller parts that matter.

I do this with my students. 80% of my income comes from 20% of my clients and my attention and efforts are split accordingly. I give the clients who matter more attention and I starve the ones who don’t. After practicing these methods, I’ve eliminated a lot of headache clients and I’ve strengthened my relationships with the ones I do like. 80% of the problems came from 20% of the clients.

Focus on the critical few.

Diminishing Returns

This is the idea that after a certain point, adding more starts to cause more harm than good. This is common when optimizing high performing systems, people tend to try to push the system even more to the point where the system breaks.

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (Aerospace Executive & Former U.S. Under Secretary of the Army)

A way to control for diminishing returns is to apply Ramit Sethi’s infamous “85% Solution” from his fantastic book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Simply get 85% of the problem right and move on. Yeah, we can really hone in on getting that extra 15%, but then we risk diminishing returns.

Is it worth doubling the effort just to squeeze out that extra 10-15%?

It might be, but not every time. It’s better to spend our energy getting the big wins, than trying to squeeze out every little bit.

Friction

Friction is something I pay a lot of attention to. I spend a lot of time dedicated to removing friction from my life because it stops me from doing so much. Friction is any force or process that removes energy from a system. Remove the friction, increase efficiency.

Amazon Prime is a perfect example of a company removing friction to make a system more efficient. If you have amazon prime, then you know how easy it is to purchase things. That’s intentional. The ease of use creates more cash flow for the business.

If a system has a lot of friction, it can still perform but it will require much more energy. If we don’t add more energy, then the system will eventually slow and stop.

For me personally, when I encounter friction while doing an activity that I don’t enjoy, then I won’t do it at all. So if I can help it, I try to remove as much friction as possible whenever I’m doing something difficult or something I don’t want to do.

Sometimes introducing friction is what’s needed to improve a system. When I want to prevent myself from performing certain actions, I introduce friction because I know it will stop me. Some business makes it cumbersome for a customer to return their product so they are less likely to return it.

Automation

The gold standard of no friction. Automated systems operate without human intervention. Automation is best for repetitive tasks.

Be mindful that automating a system tends to magnify the efficiencies and inefficiencies. If the system is already efficient, then automation will make it faster. If the system is not efficient, then automation will slow it down.

When it comes to understanding automation, we want to be familiar with the Paradox of Automation: the more efficient an automated system is, the more critical the human inputs are. While automate reduces the need for human intervention, the small amount of human intervention that occurs becomes increasingly significant.

Automation makes our actions count more, not less.

On that note, I also want to mention the Irony of Automation: the more reliable a system is, the less attention humans pay to it. Reliable systems train absentminded operators. This is dangerous because if something goes wrong, we aren’t likely to notice and the automation will propagate that error.

The best way to avoid automation errors is to perform consistent sampling and testing.

Standard Operating Procedure

SOPs are predetermined processes for completing certain tasks or solving common problems. We save cognitive load and cut down the number of decisions we have to make in a day if we have a preselected method that’s known to work.

Using SOP helps us spend our energy on improving a system, rather than solving repetitive problems over and over.

Kaufman recommends reviewing the SOPs every two to three months to keep it running effectively.

SOPs can look many different ways. For example, I have a set price for certain students, and certain times I will tutor. But it can go further than that, I have predetermined phrases that I say when talking to clients to make communication easier when it comes to scheduling or other common tasks. I also have predetermined methods for dealing with certain kinds of students so we have a simple system for us to start with and build upon.

Focus on creating go-to methods for things you encounter often. You’ll find that it can seem like a lot of work upfront, but it will streamline the process in the long run and it’s so worth it.

Checklists

I can’t talk about checklists without referencing Dr. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. That book beautifully describes the power of checklists. Checklists have been a vital part of pilots take off routines and are the reason for their high success rate. Checklists have also played their role in minimizing infection rates in hospitals all over the world. The secret to repeatedly completing complex tasks perfectly is writing it down as a checklist.

Checklists are simplified SOPs for specific tasks. They’re fantastic because they create systems for processes that haven’t been articulated and minimize our chances of skipping critical steps.

I always make a checklist for my students who are struggling to “manage the chaos.” Transforming the glob of craziness that is school work into a list that can help us narrow our focus works for every single student I have ever worked with. Seriously, I haven’t come across any academic situation that a checklist could not solve.

Checklists are so critical for entropy management that I use them whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed. Whenever I’m feeling stressed and swamped with work, I ask myself “What’s the 80/20 I need to tackle here?” then I made a checklist to conquer the critical few.

I’ll probably write another post on checklists because they’re so damn powerful, important, and useful.

Checklists are also great because once we have a good one, we can delegate or automate it — which frees us up from doing the work! Checklists tend to be the first step to freedom.

Cessation

This refers to the idea of stopping something intentionally. Sometimes a system may be going haywire and the best thing to do is to stop a process. As I mentioned earlier, humans have a proclivity to do something to improve a system, but sometimes the best choice may be to not do anything or stop altogether.

Cessation is not our natural reaction when we want to improve systems and it’s usually an unpopular choice when dealing with a group, but keep in mind that it’s a valid option.

When analyzing and improving systems, I entertain the idea of cessation after I’ve tried the null hypothesis. If both of those options are determined to be ineffective, then I’ll start doing something to improve the system.

Resilience

The resilience of a system is determined by how much change it can withstand. The ability to weather change and adjust plans means the difference between disaster and survival.

Resilience usually comes at the price of optimal performance. A system can increase its resilience through leverage. For example, if a business needed some money to weather the storm it will be more resilient, but that money can’t be used more efficiently. Resilience comes at a cost.

Another way to boost resilience is to prepare for the unexpected. Having plans for different/unexpected scenarios or extra supplies on hand are great ways to make a system more resilient. Fail-safes and backups are great for that also. A fail-safe is a backup system designed to prevent or recover from the original system failure.

Stress Test

This is the process of identifying the boundaries of a system by changing the environment. Testing different extremes on a system can help determine which variables affect which processes.

When I stress test my systems, I try to break them. This is the part when we want to try and test out our “what-if” scenarios. Scenario planning is at the heart of any effective strategy. Rather than trying to predict the future, we can prepare for a handful of imagined scenarios and be ready for what comes next. A proper stress test can really help with a system’s resilience.

Sustainable Growth Cycle

This cycle is a pattern that systems follow when undergoing consistent growth without any major issues and it’s split up into three phases:

The Expansion Phase – this is when the system is focused on growing. This is a creation phase. New components and strategies are implemented and dedicated to growing the system and collecting data.

The Maintenance Phase – this is when the system focuses on executing the strategies and maintaining the functionality of the system. Pressing play on the system, so to speak.

The Consolidation Phase – this is when the system is focused on analysis. All the data that was collected is now put into context. Things that work are given more resources and attention while things that don’t are cut back or reworked.

The Middle Path

This idea comes from the fact that the balance between too much and too little are constantly changing. Balancing what systems need requires constant reevaluation. The best approach usually lies somewhere between too much and too little.

Experimentation

No one has everything figured out and determining the best choice when it comes to improving a system is a difficult task. This is when experimenting comes in handy. Frequent experimentation is the only way to accurately determine what improves and system and what doesn’t.

I like to treat experimenting is play. I love trying to new things, changing stuff up, and seeing what happens. The more we experiment, the more we learn about our systems.

More Methods of Improvement

“A man with a surplus can control circumstances, but a man without a surplus is controlled by them, and often has no opportunity to exercise judgment.”

Harvey S. Firestone (Founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company)

A personal note for improving systems – I like to have stock built up for projects with continuous deadlines like blog posts and beats. Having more stock makes me less anxious about meeting a deadline and I can focus on making good music or writing a good post. To increase stock, simply increase inflows and decrease the outflows. In this case, I increased how many beats I made in a week, but released only 1 (I usually release 2). After a while, I started to build a stock and the beats I made later were of higher quality. My end goal is to make high-quality music while enjoying the process, so I modified my system to make that happen.

In every system, there’s always a limiting reagent. Finding that constraint and removing it will improve a system’s efficiency. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests using the “Five Focusing Steps” to identify and eliminate constraints:

  • Identification – examining the system to find the limiting factor
  • Exploitation – ensuring that the resources related to the constraint aren’t wasted
  • Subordination – redesigning the entire system to support the constraint
  • Elevation – permanently increasing the capacity of the constraint
  • Reevaluation -after making a change reevaluating the system to see where the constraint is located

When dealing with systems that involved other parties, we introduce counterparty risk. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party doesn’t deliver on their end of the deal.


These ideas are foundational for analyzing and improving systems but the methods are endless and I recommend that you go out and find concepts and methods to build upon your knowledge of systems. Remember Gall’s Law, all complex systems evolve from simple systems, and these ideas are the components of creating a simple system to analyze and improve other systems. How meta.

However, the most important concept for analyzing and improving systems is understanding that we can always learn more and education never stops. Systems can be complex and there is always something more to learn about a system or systems in general

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Education Productivity

Gall’s Law & System Components

“One essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems—on assemblages of people or technologies or both—and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.”

Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto)

Systems are everything.

Our body is a system of organs, chemical reactions, and energy. There are a bunch of little integrated things happening within us all the time. Every cell inside our body is a system, every organelle is a system, ever molecule is a system, all the way down to the subatomic level there are systems.

But it doesn’t stop there, we can see systems on the macro level too. Our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the entire planet are all systems. Systems can even be as big as galaxies, or the universe!

Systems also exist on a conversational level. In some of my other posts, I talk a little bit about how people live in the physical world, but also in the world of conversation. Some of these conversations share our reality. An example of these types of conversations are businesses. “Where is a business?” is a tricky question. The business doesn’t necessarily lie in the people, or the physical headquarters, but in an agreement and understanding between two people. Similar to our bodies and communities –

“Businesses are complex systems that exist within even more complex systems—markets, industries, and societies. A complex system is a self-perpetuating arrangement of interconnected parts that form a unified whole.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Understanding systems, as an abstract idea, gives us the ability to apply our analysis and understanding to all other systems.

I learned a lot about systems when I was studying chemical engineering and used that knowledge to dive deeper into other fields.

I used my knowledge of systems to help me understand music, mathematics, medicine, social dynamics, education, economics, investing, writing, gaming, and so much more.

Understanding systems help us understand everything. Most systems have the same parts, can be analyzed and improved in similar ways, and follow the same set of rules.

Gall’s Law

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.

John Gall (Systems Theorist)

Most of the systems we’ll encounter are complex. Way more complicated than we know, but according to systems theorist John Gall, all complex systems started from simple systems. This idea became known as Gall’s Law and is extremely useful when it comes to understanding systems.

Every system starts off simple and adds complexity over time.

I’ve watched this happen with the development of smartphones over the years. First, we started with just phones that just did good ol’ phone calls. Then we developed phones that could text, then play music, then browse the internet, then take pictures, then take videos, and now…they can do everything. My smartphone is my camera, periodic table, phone, tv remote, thermostat controller, and an infinite amount of other things.

The bottom line is that my devices are extremely complicated systems that can do a lot of amazing things, but they didn’t start off that way. In the beginning, they were just simple systems that did one thing, and over time we just added one thing here and one thing there and now we have miraculous systems.

I find keeping Gall’s Law in mind helpful when creating new systems. When I’m first starting something I just want to keep it short and simple, then add a little more over time.

How Understanding Systems Can Make Us Rich

I used Gall’s Law to create a money management system that allows me to accumulate wealth over time automatically, rather than constantly worrying about “trying to become rich” or “not having enough.”

The key is to start simple, then make it complex over time. I’m not going to go into too much detail here about how I manage my money (partly because my system has grown to be pretty complicated), but I will share the simple system I started to build my complex system upon. I put a percentage of my money in an investment account, and I don’t touch it. I don’t even have access to it unless I want to wait 3 days. I don’t want to touch the money, because I will need it later to build a more complex system later.

Now I know this doesn’t seem exciting or sexy, but this is how complex systems are built. One thing at a time, over a long period of time.

The key is to start with a simple system.

When I started my blog, I just tried to write 20 minutes every day and release 1 post per week. This is still the fundamental system of my blog today, but I write for 48 minutes per day 5 days a week instead.

When I started my YouTube channel, I just tried to make music for 20 minutes every day and release 2 beats per week. Over time, I started adding beat making videos, links to my beat store, and playlists of other videos. Now, my channel is much more complex than it was when I first started and I would not have been able to create that level of complexity right at the start. Trust me, I tried to and it ended in fire.

Components of a System

So what actually makes up a system?

Josh Kaufman does a beautiful job laying out how to understand, analyze, and improve systems in his book, The Personal MBA, and I highly recommend checking it out. Most of the stuff from this post are from his book. I’ll definitely be adding it to my Must-Read Book List once I get a chance.

If we want to build a simple system, then we have to know what the components of a system are. These 14 components can be found in every system, regardless of what the system does. We can find examples of each component in all industries.

Flow

Flow is easily thought of as the movement of resources through the system. Inflows move into the system. Outflows move out of the system.

Money is a common resource that flows in and out of business systems and water is a common resource that flows in and out of biological systems.

Stock

Stock, in the sense of systems, is a reserve of resources. Stock can be different for each system. For a business, stock can be money waiting to be used. For a restaurant, stock can be extra food in the back.

Slack

Slack refers to the amounts of resources available in the stock. On a personal note, I love slack. Slack isn’t inherently good, or bad. It depends on the system. For me, I’ve noticed that I make better creative work when I have more slack in my stock. I make better music and write better blog posts when I’m not up against the clock.

Constraints

Constraints are what prevents systems from achieving their goal. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests that all systems always have at least 1 constraint limiting their ability to reach their goal. Eliminate the constraints and performance increases, simple as that.

Feedback Loops

I remember taking a biology class in my 2nd year of college and my professor explaining feedback loops to me for the first time. He said that if we can wrap our heads around feedback loops, then we’ll understanding 80% of biology. He was so right, understanding the feedback loop made learning biology a lot easier, but it also provided a framework for understanding so many other things too.

A feedback loop occurs when the output of a system is also an input. An excellent example of this is with the heart and blood pressure. Blood pressure is an output of the heart, but it’s also one of the inputs as well. The human body needs to maintain a certain blood pressure to survive. If it gets too low, then the heart will pump harder to get it back up. The blood pressure is determined by the heart, but the blood pressure also provides feedback to the heart.

A positive feedback loop is when a system receives feedback and produces more of its output as a result. We can see this in the example with the heart and low blood pressure. The heart is pumping more as a result of the feedback.

A negative feedback loop is when a system receives feedback and produces less of its output as a result. Our bodies also have negative feedback loops (because they’re systems!). Typically when our bodies become hot we start to sweat to cool us down, but if we were to become severely dehydrated then our bodies would stop sweating in order to keep as much water inside as possible. Our bodies will also shut down our ability to pee, just to keep in that water too! The body stops releasing water as a result of the feedback.

Autocatalysis

This describes a system where the outputs are the raw ingredients of the input.

Advertising is a great example of this. We spend $1000 dollars to make $2000 dollars. Now we can use $1000 again to buy more advertisements and make another $2000. Rise and repeat.

After reading a bunch of business books, I realize that a lot of entrepreneurs use autocatalysis type of systems to build wealth.

Environment

This is everything else that that system isn’t. Usually, the system lies within the environment. There is typically some sort of flow between the environment and the system. No system exists in the vacuum…unless you consider the entire universe as a system.

Selection Test

This refers to the environmental constraints that determine which systems perpetuate or end.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is what people usually think of when they think of selection tests, but “death of the unfit” is probably a more accurate phrasing.

Selection Tests are absolute. If a system cannot adapt to the test, then it fails. If the system can adapt, then it thrives. Simple as that.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is inherent to all systems. No one knows for sure what will happen in the future. But there is a distinction to be made from risk. The risk lies in the known unknowns, the things we know that we don’t know. Uncertainties are the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat.

I know it’s hard, but try not to be completely afraid of the unknown.

Change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

All systems have some dynamic quality to them — they are always changing. Knowing this, training ourselves to handle different kinds of circumstances is our best bet. If things are always changing, then we need to be resilient to match.

Interdependence

Some systems are linked to other systems. The more connected the systems are the more failures and delays will affect other systems. When we are dealing with systems, it’s crucial to keep in mind their effect on other systems and the systems that affect it. These connections are also known as dependencies.

The fewer dependencies the systems have, the lower the magnitude of effect on the other systems.

Some systems may not affect each other at all, but are both required to run a larger system. These systems are known as parallel processing.

Here’s a fun thought experiment that gets crazier the longer we think about it — the next time you get on a bus, think about all of the things that must have had to happen in order for the bus to get there on time. I promise, there is always more.

Counterparty Risk

Counterpart Risk describes the risk associated with the other party not following through on their end of the deal. Most systems require multiple parties and there are consequences when one party can’t or won’t deliver on what they promise.

If we outsource a task to a contractor and they don’t deliver their end, our entire project will get held up. Spotting counterparty risk is crucial in preparing for potential undesirable events as well as identifying good deals. Finding ways to mitigate this risk helps us keep our plans on track and lowers the chances for our systems to get derailed.

However, counterparty risk tends to increase when people try to plan for them. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party does not deliver on their end of the deal.

Second-Order Effects

These describe the consequences of the consequences of our actions, hence second-order. Every action has a consequence, and those consequences also have an affect on other things. Second-order effects are typically difficult to predict, stop, or reverse, but they always exist.

With this in mind, it’s wise to proceed with caution when we make changes to systems, especially complex ones. We may even get the opposite of what we expect.

Normal Accidents

We all know shit happens, and it’s no different in systems. Some days things don’t go the way we want. Especially in systems with high interdependence and complexity. The more interdependent and complex a system is, the more likely an accident is to occur.

Normal accidents can give us enormous insights into system interdependence and possible second-order effects.


Systems are everything and understanding their parts is crucial for building our own.

Gall’s Law shows us that we can create complex systems from starting small and gradually growing over time.

Each of the components I’ve gone over can be found in all (if not, most) systems, and I urge everyone who reads this to find other components of systems if possible. I’m not a systems theorist and it’s more than likely that there are other components I left out. These were the system components that Josh Kaufman went over his book, The Personal MBA, and they are a great foundation for building any kind of system you desire.

Identify these components in other systems. Use these as building blocks to create your own. What we can do with these tools is truly unlimited.