How would the landscape of hard problems change if everyone had to spend at least 2 years of their lives working on them?
Think about that, while I tell you a story about a hero named Eff.
Eff isn’t an academic, in fact he didn’t finish high school. He left home at 16 to pursue a career as a chef. After doing that for 12 years, he opened a drug store. He sold that business and decided to get his pilot’s license while working in federal politics. Four years later he opened and sold a bar, and finally at age 48, settled into real estate where he would spend the rest of his working life.
Eff holds no degrees in mathematics or engineering but can build pretty much anything (he loves making furniture). He can also fix or repair pretty much anything, and other than a near miss he had a month ago with a tree in his backyard, he can think through complex problems and invent novel solutions. If you explain a problem and give him a set of contraints, he will come up with a solution. Sometimes it’s optimal, sometimes it has already been tried, sometimes it doesn’t work, but he will develop a solution that can be tested.
Really smart people think humans have some hard problems to solve. Hard problems that need to be solved in our lifetime. And in a time when some of our best and brightest are being pulled away from these hard problems.
What can we do? We need to get to Mars.
Eff isn’t going to help us get to Mars. SpaceX won’t hire him, but maybe they should. Granted I am biased, Eff is my Dad, and he’s one of the smartest people I know.
Every year, Eff and I share a chilly 6 hour drive up to our cottage. At some point we always end up talking about hard problems. Last year it was robots, this year, we talked about energy. Eff had an idea. What if the road had millions of little springs embedded into the pavement, such that when cars rolled over them, they pushed down and created a little bit of kenetic energy. Could you harness that energy into something useful or powerful? I have no idea, and neither does he, but I think it might be worth asking the question.
I am not saying that little springs are the answer to all our problems, but he is always coming up with ideas like this. Eff’s problem is that he doesn’t know what the really hard problems are. Or if he does, he doesn’t have the context or the constraints to try and solve them. What he needs is the scene from Apollo 13 (if you are an engineer you are nodding your head right now. You don’t even need to click the link because you know exactly what scene I am taking about). A team of people are tasked with fitting a square peg into a round hole, and guess what… they do it.
What if, at some point in his entrepreneurial career Eff had been forced into a similar situation. What if someone gave him a really hard problem, something completely over his head: Solar energy efficiency, the traveling salesman problem, getting to Mars, growing plants in the dessert, efficient hydroponics, harnessing the casimir effect, protein folding, supersymmetry, cold fusion… you get the idea. I think he could help solve it.
Let’s re-invent conscription in the name of science.
Every able minded human being would be legally bound to work on a hard problem that has the potential to dramatically aide human beings, alleviate suffering en masse, or ensure the survival of our species for two years of their life. One year right after coming of age: 18–25 and another closer to the average age of retirement, 55–65. This would make sure that we always had new minds and older, wiser minds working on hard problems.
Similar to parental leave, employers would cover a certain amount, and the government would cover the rest. If you don’t have a job or your employer cannot afford it, then you would have a longer, less focused contract but you would still have to work on / think about a very hard problem for a given amount of time.
One of the hardest problems would be defining / scoping the hard problems in such a way that everyone can contribute. Obviously Eff isn’t going to solve any loop-quantum gravity equations. But I believe there is something else he could help with. I don’t know what that is, but I know we can all be useful. That is why I chose the word conscription. During the Great Wars, some men and women were physically or mentally stronger. This made them more “useful” for certain tasks, but everyone contributed something.
Relying on volunteers or the current system isn’t enough because a terrible math teacher in the 4th grade can make or a break a scientist. There are many would be engineers who had their curiosity extinguished by people, or circumstance. If everyone was legally bound to lend their minds to science, more progress would be made. I do not have a good idea or system for how we would organize or manage this, but we could make it one of the first hard problems to solve.
Call it blind optimism, but I feel that everyone can add value in solving these hard problems. Eff won’t work at SpaceX, but he can help us get to Mars. He just need to know what the hard problems are, and be given time to try and solve them.
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. -Einstein
Siddhartha went quietly to see his newborn son for the first time. His wife was sleeping with the baby beside her, her hand resting on the baby’s head. The prince said to himself, “If I try to move her hand so I can take the child for one last cuddle I fear I will wake her and she will prevent me from going. No! I must go, but when I have found what I am looking for, I shall come back and see him and his mother again.
Is it right to leave your children for your own selfish ambitions? I wouldn’t.
I always wanted to be a father, and knew I would be in my life. Even with this desire and a feeling of readiness when my wife got pregnant, I am ashamed to admit that I struggled in the first few months after he was born. Resentment and depression consumed much of my thoughts.
What about me and my life? All the things I wanted to do, businesses I wanted to start, languages I wanted to learn, books I wanted to read, knowledge I wanted to consume… when would I find the time? What have I done?
Having just finished watching Slingshot, where Dean Kamen openly speaks about how he would be a terrible father, full of resentment for taking him away from his life’s purpose I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Those were some of the feelings that I had in those early days. I work a lot, and love it. I don’t compare my contribution to Dean’s but I try my best. My son’s birth was a flame that ignited the embers of my ego that I thought I had put out. The fire ragged and was consuming. Luckily, with friends and family to help I was able to starve the fire of thought, and it died as quickly as it started but it did burn us.
Buddha gave me a framework for dealing with those thoughts and feelings. The joy and love I feel today are beyond anything I could have imagined then. As a father every moment becomes a chance to play. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is a profound perspective altering experience. It makes life pretty clear and simple. You are either living in illusion or living in love, ego or truth, where and when or here and now. Ambition hasn’t become less important, just less serious. I know more than ever that life is a game I am lucky to be playing with my wife and son. Even though I know they are illusions and ultimately impermanent, they are the most beautiful parts of life I have seen and I will enjoy them to the fullest while I can. What better way to spend your time then playing the game of life with the people you love the most.
Buddha didn’t feel these gifts, he chose to pursue ambition and a calling much like Dean. I am not judging his decision as it was his to make, but I can’t help but see the irony and wonder what would have happened if he had seen those desires to escape and self-actualize for what they were. Would Siddhārtha have still found what he was looking for? Would he still have discovered the sword that helped me cut through the illusion? I don’t know.
I do know that in less than 6 hours my son will wake us up in one of three ways: a kick, a laugh, or a fart. Fingers crossed for a laugh but I will take whatever he choses to give.
Start with the Why is a marketing cargo cult, and you don’t have to worship it if you don’t want to. In fact, focusing on it too early might be a really bad thing to do.
If you sell the why, and people don’t like it, or weren’t expecting it, and don’t know who you are and leave before reading the how and what you are screwed. You only have a few chances to win someone over, and unless you go Black Swan and become of the top 50 products in the world, you might miss your opportunity to reach that person again.
Starting with the why is a useful tool to have at your disposal but it is not the be all and end all, and you really need to decide if your company is ready to use it.
When you should start with the why
When most people know what the heck you do
Your product’s word of mouth, or organic growth is so high that you can afford to start experimenting with your messaging.
Apple didn’t start with the why.
Harley didn’t either.
Patagonia didn’t either.
They are three examples of companies that reach escape velocity and created a sustainable business that gained name recognition.
“Harley Davidson… they make headphones right?” — Said no one ever!
Once there was a substantial amount of word of mouth, then leading with the why becomes a non-obvious and powerful choice. That’s the secret and power of Starting with the Why but the sequencing presented is all wrong.
If you are a startup and no one knows who you are or what you do and you aim for a lofty why headline or home page, then there is a good chance you will confuse the hell out of most people and miss good growth opportunities.
Starting with the why is fantastic branding strategy once you have established strong word of mouth and organic growth. Until then, you better make sure people know what the hell your product does and why it’s better than Sally’s.
Over the past 10 years I have experimented with super caffeination, polyphasic sleep, the DaVinci method (slightly different than PS), meditation, affirmations, and visualization as ways to prolong wakeful productive time.
I am an idiot.
Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.
In my hubris, I, the mighty Kent Fenwick from Toronto, Canada decided that I would be the one to reach a new level of consciousness and kill this disease called sleep. I would use my super mental powers to will myself awake, to drug myself, to fight nature and evolution itself! A God among men and women…
I was an idiot.
Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.
If you are a positive optimist as I am, then you will read this and get a renewed sense of energy.
“No bro, there are these pills you can buy from Amazon that…”
“You clearly never snorted adderall.”
“You gave up! You should have kept experimenting! Did you try…”
All that jazz ^^
So why wait 10 years for the rant? Because I am starting to see explorers that look a lot like I did. The lack of sleep is being worn as a badge of honor. Let me set the record straight, consistent lack of sleep is a failure of prioritization and focus, not a badge of honour.
We might discover a way to wash our brain (yes our brain is a dishwasher) artificially, and could reduce our dependance on sleep but that day is not today. So go to sleep.
Let’s not celebrate things are scientifically known to be toxic and bad. I will never brag about how little sleep I get anymore and frankly, I should hope for a swift kick to the nuts if I do.
The only way to know you are on, is by turning off.
EDIT** — Disclaimer, I do not work for Amazon, or Audible I just love their products. If you want to get these books from the library or other sources power to you. I just find it easier going to Audible. I am flattered that you all think this would be a sponsored post 😉
Being a father, having a spouse that works full time, working full time myself on a startup, helping friends with their startups on weekends, being the best father, husband, son, son-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, and friend I can be, doesn’t leave a lot of time to read.
So I stopped reading (mostly) and chose to listen to my books instead.
In a given week I don’t have a lot of free time, but I do have a lot of found time.
Daily walk to and from train, 4 hours / week.
Waiting for my son to fall asleep, 3 hours / week.
Cleaning the house, 4 hours / week.
Driving, 1 hour / week.
Grocery store, 1 hour / week.
Random solo errands, 1 hour / week.
This gives me 14 hours each week or about 700 hours every year to listen to books.
The length of books ranges a lot, especially when you are reading non-fiction. I love The Teaching Company’s offerings but they can run 30+ hours. I also just finished A Song of Ice and Fire, which was a heavy 200+ hours.
One of the biggest problems with audiobooks is that sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for them, especially dense non-fiction. So the system that I use is to always have at least 1 non-fiction and at most 1 fiction on the go at once. Audible makes it easy to switch back and forth while saving your position so that’s not a problem, and this gives your brain a break and makes listening that much easier.
Listen to the preview first. If you don’t like the reader’s voice it’s going to be a struggle. This doesn’t happen often, most voice actors are incredible.
Don’t listen to more than 3 non-fiction books at a time. You will likely gloss over details and you won’t retain nearly as much as you want.
Buy paper books of the audiobooks you love. Audiobooks are hard to reference later, so having a physical copy that you can skim through is key, especially for non-fiction.
Re-listen to books you love. Your brain will wander when listening and you will miss things. Re-listenting lets you get the details you missed.
Download all books, don’t stream them.
Buy a subscription.
The last one is key. Audiobooks normally cost around $25–35, so this year could have cost me $1,700. Instead, I buy a subscription which gives me 24 books for $9 a book. 100% worth it.
I do still read physical books, in fact, I read about 10 physical books this year using the traditional reading times: before bed, while Jack was napping, on the train, early in the morning etc.
10 books vs 50+ books, simple math. If you love to read, and miss reading because life is busy, leverage that found time and stop reading, and start listening.
One of the reasons I love my Apple Watch is the ability to check notifications with a simple glance rather than pulling out my phone. I told myself that the glance is less offensive in social, and business settings because its smaller and doesn’t break the flow of conversation. Having been in San Francisco with my team last week (I work remotely), I got called out by one of the nicest people on my team. She pulled me aside privately and said,
“By the way, you checking that [my watch] all the time? It’s got to stop lol”.
“What? Like looking at my watch?”
“Yeah, maybe I just need to get used to this as more people get them, but it sends a bad impression that I know you aren’t trying to make.”
“I didn’t even think about that! Is that worse then taking out my phone?”
“Totally! At least for me.”
This got me thinking about the glance.
The universal body language for “GET ME THE F&@* OUT OF HERE” is the watch glance.
This subconscious bias poses a problem for me, especially when traveling. I have a young boy, who happened to be sick last week while I was in SF. I was hypersensitive and likely glanced a lot more as I worried every buzz was news of another episode of projectile vomit. My colleague noticed these frequent glances throughout the week, and then it crescendoed during our full day offsite.
She is right. It is offensive. Perhaps even more so than the full phone because that gesture requires a lot more movement. You will likely ignore the noise, and only go full phone if you really feel you need to. The watch makes the glance too easy. Every time you glance you get new information, which reinforces the gesture and builds a habit.
The glance is a new, high signal gesture. Be mindful of your surroundings and use it sparingly when others are around.
Why do they make you ask this question? I thought to myself.
“Most people prefer being naked, but if that grosses you out, feel free to put a bathing suit on.”
“But, most people go naked, and don’t worry, the salt kills everything”.
Ever since reading The Lost Symbol, I have been intrigued by sensory deprivation tanks. I would tell people that it was the intense relaxation that I found so alluring, but truthfully it was the possibility of hallucinations without drugs that I craved. It is hard to get your hands on the caliber of tank that Professor Langdon ‘died’ in, but in cities like Toronto, float clinics are becoming quite popular. So I had booked one. In fact, I booked three (50% off) and this was my first time.
In front of me lay a large car shaped object that would be my home for the next hour. It was white, curvy, and full of a thousand pounds of salt. The salt modifies the dynamics of the water and even the heaviest of humans are able to float in a small amount of water. This effect, combined with the darkness, and sound proofing leads to a deprivation of sensory input. Your brain processes billions of inputs a second and heuristically collapses them into an experience we call conciseness. Removing these inputs reduces the load on your mind, and focusing inwardly becomes easier, so they say.
I opened the hood and instantly my eyes started to water from the salt saturated air. Dipping a toe in felt strange, the water was porridge, heavy and thick. Sitting down, I extended my legs in front of me as I leaned back and lay my arms to the side. The water was no more than a foot deep, and I was floating. “Experience 0-G weightlessness”, that’s what the ads had said. I could still feel the weight of body but I did feel lighter. Maybe not 0-G but close to it.
Craving darkness, I pushed lightly on the hard plastic button to kill the lights. This small outward force propelled me back and to the side. Now, in complete darkness, I countered with a quick push to my left and found myself against the right wall. “Smaller movements”, I thought. Using my fingers and toes as range finders, I mapped the area. Photons are the stewards of space, without them I was lost. Settling into what felt like the center, I lay motionless.
Meditation is more boring than difficult. I am no Buddha but I know from experience that meditation’s simplicity is what makes it so difficult. Like arithmetic, the basics can be taught to child, but it’s depths can take lifetimes to explore. Floating in the dark shallow water, I closed my eyes and dove deep in search of light.
If I could only stay awake. Five minutes into my dive and it was clear that sleep would be the only threat lurking in these waters. I can’t remember the last time I got the doctor recommended dose, and I had abstained from caffeine all morning to keep the session pure. Sleep is so easy. Sleep is surrender. Sleeping is giving in… this wouldn’t do. I needed a garrison. I turned my awareness towards the base of my spine, took a deep breath, and created light. The light started off as a single point, but quickly grew in diameter. As it stabilized I watched it slither its way up my spinal column to my crown. I felt an electric feeling diffuse through my body, like a battery recharging. I was buzzing, and could feel the weight of sleep being slowly lifted.
“I wonder how Mary and Bill are? Was is Hal Put-off or Hal Poughtof? I wonder who will play the villain in Lost Symbol? Have they started filming? There is no way that Ned Stark had affair, Jon is dragon born. I have to remember to email Old Row, did I set a reminder? Maybe if he’s a warg, he can control the dragons and unleash them on the Others. I wonder what Jack and Christina are doing…
I would deal with them in a minute. Meanwhile, my inner eye turned away from the beam of light and inspected my heart. The rhythmic firing started to slow and for a second I worried it would grind to halt. My heart would serve as timekeeper for today’s expedition so I listened intently for several minutes and found my pace, trying my best to match my breathing. Comfortable that it would continue for at least another moment, I seated my awareness in my feet. Starting at my toes, I began the scan. Traveling up my body, through my chest and ending between my eyes I sent fresh blood and oxygen to any areas that encountered resistance. Feeling clear, I took a deep breath.
“Now… about those thoughts”, I thought to myself.
“How would I rig a cron job to run in multiple timezones for different users? I this what the Dead Sea would be like? The Dead Sea is dead because it only takes and does not give. I should re-listen to Zig’s stuff. I wonder if Seth Godin has a new book? Should I learn Elixir or Go next …”
I opened my eyes and saw a blue sky. Healthy green grass surrounded me and the air smelled crisp and fresh. I had been here before. Shuffling my hands under my head and digging my shoulders into the ground I got comfy and tilted my head to the sky. The sky was so clear. It felt nice to look at nothing but empty sky. In the distance, columns of air were condensing into familiar shapes. I could see them moving towards me and couldn’t help but feel connected to them. “Where did they come from?” The coral blue sky seemed to birth them so naturally. From apparently nothing, came something. The longer I watched, the less familiar they became. A cloud that had looked like a wing transformed into a shapeless lump by the time it passed overhead and I suddenly felt cold as the sun tucked behind a large cloud.
Focusing, I tried to remove the clouds but nothing happened. The more I tried to stop them, the more I could see them coming, taking familiar forms, faster than ever now. Letting go, I decided to play a new game. Rather than stopping the clouds, I watched them, attention without attachment. The clouds would always come, it’s just the nature of the meadow. I watched for what felt like hours, watching shapeless lump after lump pass. Day turned to night and darkness filled the sky. Fresh, salty water brushed past my face as the jets turned back on. I opened my eyes. The sky was black, and I was floating inside a tank full of salt.
My body was buzzing, from toe to crown, I felt electric. The jets of water were a subtle signal that my time had ended. Did I fall asleep? I was not sure. I couldn’t tell you how long I was in the meadow but I felt relaxed. My skin was soft and chunks of salt had crystalized in my hair. I rinsed off and dressed, clothes felt strange as my body was still buzzing. I threw on my backpack, waved goodbye to the receptionist and hit the streets of Liberty Village for my walk to work.
Work that day was different. While the buzzing on my skin had subsided I felt lighter. I ate healthier and opted to stand for much of the day. I was very productive too. Heading home to my family was sweeter than ever. I took my son to the park with my wife, gave him bath and fell asleep on the couch watching Coronation Street.
When I finally went to bed, the buzzing returned. Would I go back to the meadow? I couldn’t say, but I would be going back for two more sessions in that tank, where I would surely find myself in that sweet and salty place again.
If I didn’t love my job, life would be a lot easier. I would have more time for my family, friends, and myself. But in 2003, my life was forever changed when I became addicted to writing software. Over the years I have worked at great companies and not so great companies. I am happy to say Tilt is a great company.
This is not a shameless plug for the fact that we have a ton of job openings (but we do), it’s a message to the rest of the startup world that great companies exist. Led by people that believe in and live the Golden Rule. Forget about money, snack bars, and beer kegs (although we have those too), it’s emails like this that make me feel so lucky to work in tech and specifically at Tilt.