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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.

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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

Categories
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.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

The Hero of Heroes: Marduk vs. Tiamat & The Significance of Speech

“A problem well put is half-solved.”

John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

An Invisible World

In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.

What a mouthful.

I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.

Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.

But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?

Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.

Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.

From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.

Let me explain using businesses as an example.

Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.

In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.

If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.

This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.

I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.

People live in conversations.

Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.

Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.

The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.

We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.

I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.

Speech

Tiamat and Marduk

This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.

It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.

Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.

Chaos & Order. The Anima & Animus. Tiamat & Apsu

Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.

There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.

As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.

Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of. Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.

Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.

So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?

Chaos reigns.

Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.

Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.

The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.

Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.

I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.

Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.

So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.

Marduk vs. Tiamat

From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.

The Fall of Tiamat

So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).

When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.

Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.

I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.

Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.

It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.


Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:

What does it mean to harness speech?

I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.

Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.

How we phrase things is how we understand them.

Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.

Harnessing speech involves practicing specificity.

From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.

But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?

Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.

I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.

Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?

I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.

So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?

Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.

This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.

Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.

I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.

I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.

This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.

Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.

This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.

I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.

When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.

What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.

Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )