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Battling Entropy: Making Order of the Chaos in Our Lives

“Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.”
― Alexander Pope, The Dunciad

***

The second law of thermodynamics states that “as one goes forward in time, the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).”[1] That is a long way of saying that all things tend towards disorder. This is one of the basic laws of the universe and is something we can observe in our lives. Entropy is simply a measure of disorder. You can think of it as nature’s tax[2].

Uncontrolled disorder increases over time. Energy disperses and systems dissolve into chaos. The more disordered something is, the more entropic we consider it. In short, we can define entropy as a measure of the disorder of the universe, on both a macro and a microscopic level. The Greek root of the word translates to “a turning towards transformation” — with that transformation being chaos.

As you read this article, entropy is all around you. Cells within your body are dying and degrading, an employee or coworker is making a mistake, the floor is getting dusty, and the heat from your coffee is spreading out. Zoom out a little, and businesses are failing, crimes and revolutions are occurring, and relationships are ending. Zoom out a lot further and we see the entire universe marching towards a collapse.

Let’s take a look at what entropy is, why it occurs, and whether or not we can prevent it.

The Discovery of Entropy

The identification of entropy is attributed to Rudolf Clausius (1822–1888), a German mathematician and physicist. I say attributed because it was a young French engineer, Sadi Carnot (1796–1832), who first hit on the idea of thermodynamic efficiency; however, the idea was so foreign to people at the time that it had little impact. Clausius was oblivious to Carnot’s work, but hit on the same ideas.

Clausius studied the conversion of heat into work. He recognized that heat from a body at a high temperature would flow to one at a lower temperature. This is how your coffee cools down the longer it’s left out — the heat from the coffee flows into the room. This happens naturally. But if you want to heat cold water to make the coffee, you need to do work — you need a power source to heat the water.

From this idea comes Clausius’s statement of the second law of thermodynamics: “heat does not pass from a body at low temperature to one at high temperature without an accompanying change elsewhere.”

Clausius also observed that heat-powered devices worked in an unexpected manner: Only a percentage of the energy was converted into actual work. Nature was exerting a tax. Perplexed, scientists asked, where did the rest of the heat go and why?

Clausius solved the riddle by observing a steam engine and calculating that energy spread out and left the system. In The Mechanical Theory of Heat, Clausius explains his findings:

… the quantities of heat which must be imparted to, or withdrawn from a changeable body are not the same, when these changes occur in a non-reversible manner, as they are when the same changes occur reversibly. In the second place, with each non-reversible change is associated an uncompensated transformation…

… I propose to call the magnitude S the entropy of the body… I have intentionally formed the word entropy so as to be as similar as possible to the word energy….

The second fundamental theorem [the second law of thermodynamics], in the form which I have given to it, asserts that all transformations occurring in nature may take place in a certain direction, which I have assumed as positive, by themselves, that is, without compensation… [T]he entire condition of the universe must always continue to change in that first direction, and the universe must consequently approach incessantly a limiting condition.

… For every body two magnitudes have thereby presented themselves—the transformation value of its thermal content [the amount of inputted energy that is converted to “work”], and its disgregation [separation or disintegration]; the sum of which constitutes its entropy.

Clausius summarized the concept of entropy in simple terms: “The energy of the universe is constant. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.”

“The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

— Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

Entropy and Time

Entropy is one of the few concepts that provides evidence for the existence of time. The “Arrow of Time” is a name given to the idea that time is asymmetrical and flows in only one direction: forward. It is the non-reversible process wherein entropy increases.

Astronomer Arthur Eddington pioneered the concept of the Arrow of Time in 1927, writing:

Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow[,] we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases[,] the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics.

In a segment of Wonders of the Universe, produced for BBC Two, physicist Brian Cox explains:

The Arrow of Time dictates that as each moment passes, things change, and once these changes have happened, they are never undone. Permanent change is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. We all age as the years pass by — people are born, they live, and they die. I suppose it’s part of the joy and tragedy of our lives, but out there in the universe, those grand and epic cycles appear eternal and unchanging. But that’s an illusion. See, in the life of the universe, just as in our lives, everything is irreversibly changing.

In his play Arcadia, Tom Stoppard uses a novel metaphor for the non-reversible nature of entropy:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?

(If you want to dig deeper on time, I recommend the excellent book by John Gribbin, The Time Illusion.)

“As a student of business administration, I know that there is a law of evolution for organizations as stringent and inevitable as anything in life. The longer one exists, the more it grinds out restrictions that slow its own functions. It reaches entropy in a state of total narcissism. Only the people sufficiently far out in the field get anything done, and every time they do they are breaking half a dozen rules in the process.”

— Roger Zelazny, Doorways in the Sand

Entropy in Business and Economics

Most businesses fail—as many as 80% in the first 18 months alone. One way to understand this is with an analogy to entropy.

Entropy is fundamentally a probabilistic idea: For every possible “usefully ordered” state of molecules, there are many, many more possible “disordered” states. Just as energy tends towards a less useful, more disordered state, so do businesses and organizations in general. Rearranging the molecules — or business systems and people — into an “ordered” state requires an injection of outside energy.

Let’s imagine that we start a company by sticking 20 people in an office with an ill-defined but ambitious goal and no further leadership. We tell them we’ll pay them as long as they’re there, working. We come back two months later to find that five of them have quit, five are sleeping with each other, and the other ten have no idea how to solve the litany of problems that have arisen. The employees are certainly not much closer to the goal laid out for them. The whole enterprise just sort of falls apart.

It reminds one distinctly of entropy: For every useful arrangement of affairs towards a common business goal, there are many orders of magnitude more arrangements that will get us nowhere. For progress to be made, everything needs to be arranged and managed in a certain way; we have to input a lot of energy to keep things in an ordered state.

Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy: We have to consider the phenomenon of self-organization that happens in many systems, up to and including human organizations. Given a strong enough goal, a good enough team, and the right incentives, perhaps that group wouldn’t need a lot “outside ordering” — they would manage themselves.

“The … ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”

— Steven Pinker

In practice, both models seem to be useful at different times. Any startup entrepreneur who has stayed long enough to see a company thrive in unexpected ways knows this. The amount of diligent management needed will vary. In physics, entropy is a law; in social systems, it’s a mere tendency — though a strong one, to be sure.

Entropy occurs in every aspect of a business. Employees may forget training, lose enthusiasm, cut corners, and ignore rules. Equipment may break down, become inefficient, or be subject to improper use. Products may become outdated or be in less demand. Even the best of intentions cannot prevent an entropic slide towards chaos.

Successful businesses invest time and money to minimize entropy. For example, they provide regular staff training, good reporting of any issues, inspections, detailed files, and monitoring reports of successes and failures. Anything less will mean almost inevitable problems and loss of potential revenue. Without the necessary effort, a business will reach the point of maximum entropy: bankruptcy.

Fortunately, unlike thermodynamic systems, a business can reverse the impact of entropy. A balance must be struck between creativity and control, though. Too little autonomy for employees results in disinterest, while too much leads to poor decisions.

Entropy in Sociology

Without constant maintenance from individuals and dominant institutions, societies tend towards chaos. Divergent behavior escalates — a concept known as the “broken windows” theory.

Sociologist Kenneth Bailey writes:

When I began studying the notion of entropy it became clear to me that thermodynamic entropy was merely one instance of a concept with much broader applications … I became convinced that entropy applied to social phenomena as well.

One example of what happens when entropy increases unchecked occurred in the Kowloon Walled City. For a substantial length of time, Kowloon was abandoned by the government after the British took control of Hong Kong. At one point, an estimated 33,000 residents were crammed into 300 buildings over 6.4 acres, making Kowloon the most densely populated place on earth. With no space for new construction, stories were added to the existing buildings. Because of minimal water supplies and a lack of ventilation (no sunlight or fresh air reached lower levels), the health of residents suffered. A community of unlicensed medical professionals flourished, alongside brothels and gambling dens.

With no one controlling the city, organized crime gangs took over. It became a haven for lawlessness. Though police were too scared to make any attempts to restore order, residents did make desperate attempts to reduce the entropy themselves. Groups formed to improve the quality of life, creating charities, places for religious practices, nurseries, and businesses to provide income.

In 1987, the Hong Kong government acknowledged the state of Kowloon. The government demolished and rebuilt the city, evicting residents and destroying all but a couple of historic buildings. Although reasonable compensation was provided for ex-residents, many were somewhat unhappy with the rebuilding project.

Looking at pictures and hearing stories from Kowloon, we have to wonder if all cities would be that way without consistent control. Was Kowloon an isolated instance of a few bad apples giving an otherwise peaceful place a terrible reputation? Or is chaos our natural state?

Needless to say, Kowloon was not an isolated incident. We saw chaos and brutality unleashed during the Vietnam War, when many young men with too much ammunition and too few orders set about murdering and torturing every living thing they encountered. We see it across the world right now, where places with no law enforcement (including Somalia and Western Sahara) face incessant civil wars, famine, and high crime rates.

Sociologists use an intuitive term for this phenomenon: social entropy. Societies must expend constant effort to stem the inevitable march towards dangerous chaos. The reduction of social entropy tends to require a stable government, active law enforcement, an organized economy, meaningful employment for a high percentage of people, infrastructure, and education.

However, the line between controlling entropy and suppressing people’s liberty is a thin one. Excessive control can lead to a situation akin to Foucault’s panopticon, wherein people are under constant surveillance, lack freedom of speech and movement, are denied other rights as well, and are subject to overzealous law enforcement. This approach is counterproductive and leads to eventual rebellion once a critical mass of dissenters forms.

“Everything that comes together falls apart. Everything. The chair I’m sitting on. It was built, and so it will fall apart. I’m going to fall apart, probably before this chair. And you’re going to fall apart. The cells and organs and systems that make you you—they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart. The Buddha knew one thing science didn’t prove for millennia after his death: Entropy increases. Things fall apart.”

— John Green, Looking for Alaska

Entropy in Our Everyday Lives

We have all observed entropy in our everyday lives. Everything tends towards disorder. Life always seems to get more complicated. Once-tidy rooms become cluttered and dusty. Strong relationships grow fractured and end. Formerly youthful faces wrinkle and hair turns grey. Complex skills are forgotten. Buildings degrade as brickwork cracks, paint chips, and tiles loosen.

Entropy is an important mental model because it applies to every part of our lives. It is inescapable, and even if we try to ignore it, the result is a collapse of some sort. Truly understanding entropy leads to a radical change in the way we see the world. Ignorance of it is responsible for many of our biggest mistakes and failures. We cannot expect anything to stay the way we leave it. To maintain our health, relationships, careers, skills, knowledge, societies, and possessions requires never-ending effort and vigilance. Disorder is not a mistake; it is our default. Order is always artificial and temporary.

Does that seem sad or pointless? It’s not. Imagine a world with no entropy — everything stays the way we leave it, no one ages or gets ill, nothing breaks or fails, everything remains pristine. Arguably, that would also be a world without innovation or creativity, a world without urgency or a need for progress.

Many people cite improving the world for future generations as their purpose in life. They hold protests, make new laws, create new forms of technology, work to alleviate poverty, and pursue other noble goals. Each of us makes our own efforts to reduce disorder. The existence of entropy is what keeps us on our toes.

Mental models are powerful because they enable us to make sense of the disorder that surrounds us. They provide us with a shortcut to understanding a chaotic world and exercising some control over it.

In The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick writes,

Organisms organize. … We sort the mail, build sand castles, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books, create symmetry, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order… We propagate structure (not just we humans but we who are alive). We disturb the tendency toward equilibrium. It would be absurd to attempt a thermodynamic accounting for such processes, but it is not absurd to say we are reducing entropy, piece by piece. Bit by bit … Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells, and carapaces, leaves, and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways—miracles of pattern and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe.

The question is not whether we can prevent entropy (we can’t), but how we can curb, control, work with, and understand it. As we saw at the start of this post, entropy is all around us. Now it’s probably time to fix whatever mistake an employee or coworker just made, clear up your messy desk, and reheat your cold coffee.

How Can I Use Entropy to My Advantage?

This is where things get interesting.

Whether you’re starting a business or trying to bring about change in your organization, understanding the abstraction of entropy as a mental model will help you accomplish your goals in a more effective manner.

Because things naturally move to disorder over time, we can position ourselves to create stability. There are two types of stability: active and passive. Consider a ship, which, if designed well, should be able to sail through a storm without intervention. This is passive stability. A fighter jet, in contrast, requires active stability. The plane can’t fly for more than a few seconds without having to adjust its wings. This adjustment happens so fast that it’s controlled by software. There is no inherent stability here: if you cut the power, the plane crashes.[3]

People get in trouble when they confuse the two types of stability. Relationships, for example, require attention and care. If you assume that your relationship is passively stable, you’ll wake up one day to divorce papers. Your house is also not passively stable. If not cleaned on a regular basis, it will continue to get messier and messier.

Organizations require stability as well. If you’re a company that relies on debt, you’re not passively stable but actively stable. Factoring in a margin of safety, this means that the people giving you the credit should be passively stable. If you’re both actively stable, then when the power gets cut, you’re likely to be in a position of weakness, not strength.

With active stability, you’re applying energy to a system in order to bring about some advantage (keeping the plane from crashing, your relationship going, the house clean, etc.), If we move a little further down the rabbit hole, we can see how applying the same amount of energy can yield totally different results.

Let’s use the analogy of coughing.[4] Coughing is the transfer of energy as heat. If you cough in a quiet coffee shop, which you can think of as a system with low entropy, you cause a big change. Your cough is disruptive. On the other hand, if you cough in Times Square, a system with a lot of entropy, that same cough will have no impact. While you change the entropy in both cases, the impact you have with the same cough is proportional to the existing entropy.

Now think of this example in relation to your organization. You’re applying energy to get something done. The higher the entropy in the system, the less efficient the energy you apply will be. The same person applying 20 units of energy in a big bureaucracy is going to see less impact than someone applying the same 20 units in a small startup.

You can think about this idea in a competitive sense, too. If you’re starting a business and you’re competing against very effective and efficient people, a lot of effort will get absorbed. It’s not going to be very efficient. If, on the other hand, you compete against less efficient and effective people, the same amount of energy will be more efficient in its conversion.

In essence, for a change to occur, you must apply more energy to the system than is extracted by the system.

 

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Resources:

[1] http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/physics-of-time/the-arrow-of-time/

[2] Peter Atkins

[3] Based on the work of Tom Tombrello

[4] Derived from the work of Peter Atkins in The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction

 

There’s Seldom Any Traffic on the High Road

We’ve all been there: someone says something rude to us and our instinct is to strike back with a quick-witted comeback. That’s what many people do. It’s also a big reason that many people don’t get what they want. Consider this example from my recent travels:

“Are you dense?” the gate agent blurted to me, clearly frustrated as I asked a question she’d be asked a million times that day. Only moments before, I had been sitting on a plane to Seattle when the announcement came over the PA system that the flight was cancelled.

The instructions were clear: check with the gate agent for reassignment.  I was tenth in line. By the time I talked to her, this agent had already had to deal with nine angry customers. She wasn’t frustrated with me, but I knew that everyone else had verbally beat her up. I also travel enough to know how seldom that works. She had instructed the previous nine passengers to collect their bags, go through customs, and go to the Air Canada customer service desk for reassignment.

“I guess you’re right, I can be slow sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Her words finally caught up with her, and she apologized. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I didn’t mean—”

“You’ve had a long day. People are frustrated and taking it out on you when it’s not your fault. I know how hard that can be.”

She cracked a smile, the first I had seen from her since I joined the line. And she happily found me a seat on the next flight.

She was being rude. Yes. But that wasn’t the best version of her.

When people are rude, our subconscious interprets it as an assault on hierarchy instincts. Our evolutionary programming responds with thoughts like, “Who are you to tell me something so rude? I’ll show you….”

Our instincts are to escalate when really, we should be focused on de-escalating the situation. One way to do that is to take the high road.

Say something along the lines of “I can see that.” You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. But I promise the results are magic. It’s hard to be angry with someone who agrees with you. And when there is no one to argue with and they’re the only person worked up about the situation, they will quickly feel uncomfortable and try to correct course.

Making enemies is expensive. Sometimes you don’t even realize how expensive. I saw one of those other nine passengers two and a half hours later, running to the gate to board the flight I was on. They had only just gotten through the hassle that resulted from their dealings with the gate agent—while I had grabbed a glass of wine and read a book. They had no idea how much their rudeness cost them in time and energy. It wasn’t visible to them. It was, however, visible to me.

The high road not only holds your frictional costs to the minimum, but it makes you happier. You’ll go farther and faster than others in the same situation. Sure, it involves putting your ego aside for a second—but if you think about it, this approach can often be the quickest to getting what you want.

Defensive Decision Making: What IS Best v. What LOOKS Best

“It wasn’t the best decision we could make,” said one of my old bosses, “but it was the most defensible.”

What she meant was that she wanted to choose option A but ended up choosing option B because it was the defensible default. She realized that if she chose option A and something went wrong, it would be hard to explain because it was outside of normal. On the other hand, if she chose option A and everything went right, she’d get virtually no upside. A good outcome was merely expected, but a bad outcome would have significant consequences for her. The decision she landed on wasn’t the one she would have made if she owned the entire company. Since she didn’t, she wanted to protect her downside. In asymmetrical organizations, defensive decisions like this one protect the person making the decision.

My friend and advertising legend Rory Sutherland calls defensive decisions the Heathrow Option. Americans might think of it as the IBM Option. There’s a story behind this:

A while ago, British Airways noticed a reluctance for personal assistants to book their bosses on flights from London City Airport to JFK. They almost always picked Heathrow, which was further away, and harder to get to. Rory believed this was because “flying from London City might be better on average,” but “because it was a non-standard option, if anything were to go wrong, you were much more likely to get it in the neck.”

Of course, if you book your boss to fly out of Heathrow—the default—and the flight is delayed, they’ll blame the airline and not you. But if you opted for the London City airport, they’d blame you.

At first glance, it might seem like defensive decision making is irrational. It’s actually perfectly rational when you consider the asymmetry involved. This asymmetry also offers insight into why cultures rarely change.

Some decisions place the decisionmakers in situations where outcomes offer little upside and massive downside. In these cases, it can seem like great outcomes carry a 1% upside, good outcomes are neutral, and poor outcomes carry at least 20% downside—if they don’t get you fired.

It’s easy to see why people opt for the default choice in these cases. If you do something that’s different—and thus hard to defend—and it works out, you’ve risked a lot for very little gain. If you do something that’s different and it doesn’t work out, and you might find yourself unemployed.

This asymmetry explains why your boss, who has nice rhetoric about challenging norms and thinking outside the box, is likely to continue with the status quo rather than change things. After all, why would they risk looking like a fool by doing something different? It’s much easier to protect themselves. Defaults give people a possible out, a way to avoid being held accountable for their decisions if things go wrong. You can distance yourself from your decision and perhaps be safe from the consequences of a poor outcome.

Doing the safe thing is not the same as doing the right thing. Often, the problem with the safe thing is that there is no growth, no innovation. It’s churning out more of the same. So in the short term, while you may think that the default is a better choice for your job security, in the long game there’s a negative. When you are unwilling to take risks, you stop recognizing opportunities. If you aren’t willing to put yourself out there for 1% gain, how do you grow? After all, the 1% upsides are more common than the 50% upsides. But in either case, if you become afraid of downside, then what level of risk would be acceptable? It’s not that choosing the default makes you a bad person. But a lifetime of opting for the default limits your opportunities and your potential.

And for anyone who owns a company, a staff full of default decision makers is a death knell. You get amazing results when people have the space to take risks and not be penalized for every downside.

Footnotes
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    Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/3474143529

What’s Staying the Same

I want to know the future. So do you. However, our desire to know the future leads us to seek answers to unanswerable questions.

The question, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” is a popular one in nearly all industries. The siren song of avoiding uncertainty and knowing the future is hard to resist. Having the answer is the equivalent of signaling to the world that you’re an oracle.

The best thing? No one will remember how wrong you were.

To capitalize on what’s going to change in the future, a lot of things have to go right. Not only do you have to speculate the changing variables correctly, but you have to guess how they will interact. And you have to go all in on that version of the future. On top of that, you have to hope that your competitors thought you were crazy and didn’t invest resources in that version of the future. This is why it rarely works, and when it does it’s mostly luck.

While predicting the future is important, it’s often not knowable. We’re speculating, but our brains convince themselves otherwise. Plausible answers about the future tend to cement as reality in our minds. We convince ourselves that we know something that is not knowable.

The range of possible futures is always changing, a lot like electrons. Electrons baffle physicists because they are hard to pin down.  Any attempts to locate them require the use of energy.  Electrons are so light that the energy we use to locate them changes their location. In the same way that shining a light on an electron will change its position ever so slightly, investing in a particular version of the future will change the probability of that particular future ever so slightly. Complicating things further, it’s not a single-player game—it’s a multi-person game and the odds are always changing.

Beyond that, once you shine the light on what’s going to change and how this time is different, you may forget to look at a simpler and more important question: “What’s not going to change in the next ten years?”

Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett agree on this question being the more important of the two. Think about that for a second. The leader of one of the most innovative high-tech companies in the world and the leader of one of the most boring conglomerates in history both agree that a question about what’s not going to change is more important than one about what will change.

Bezos realizes that energy and effort put into predicting what’s going to change is a speculative bet. It might work, and it might not. The hope is that if it works it pays off spectacularly, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t cost you much.

While investing in what’s changing is risky, investing in what stays the same is not. Bezos realizes investments in what doesn’t change will still be paying off in ten years. “When you have something you know is true, even over the long term,” he said, “you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Predicting what’s going to change is hard. Predicting what’s going to stay the same is relatively easy. Think about the dotcoms. Everyone was running around and saying this time would be different—everyone but Warren Buffett. He was sitting in his office in Omaha asking himself what would stay the same.

Alice Schroeder, Buffett’s authorized biographer, explains it this way:

There is less emphasis on trying to reason out things on the basis that they are special because they are unique, which in a financial context is perhaps the definition of a speculation. But pattern recognition is his default way of thinking. It creates an impulse always to connect new knowledge to old and to primarily be interested in new knowledge that genuinely builds on the old.

While you can’t know what’s going to change in the future you can intelligently speculate on it, which is the best path. The safe play is to invest resources into all probable futures. This conveniently keeps options open, allows you to tell the board of directors with a straight face that you’re working on it, and makes you better off than had you not explored the future. The problem, again, is that the game has many players. While most companies took the same safe strategy as yours, someone—somewhere—went all in on this particular version of the future. That company is now being expensively acquired, by you or someone else.

The important point is that while you’re doing that, you should be inverting the problem. Answers to what’s going to stay the same in the next ten years, while boring, offer the best investment opportunities.

The Surprising Power of The Long Game

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of luck on success and underestimate the importance of investing in success every single day. Too often, we convince ourselves that success was just luck. We tell ourselves, the school teacher that left millions was just lucky. No. She wasn’t. She was just playing a different game than you were. She was playing the long game.

The long game isn’t particularly notable and sometimes it’s not even noticeable. It’s boring. But when someone chooses to play the long game from an early age, the results can be extraordinary. The long game changes how you conduct your personal and business affairs.

There is an old saying that I think of often, but I’m not sure where it comes from: If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.

Ignoring the effect of luck on outcomes — the proverbial lottery ticket —doing what everyone else is doing pretty much ensures that you’re going to be average. Not average in the world, but average to people in similar circumstances. There are a lot of ways not to be average, but one of them is the tradeoff between the long game and the short game.

What starts small compounds into something more. The longer you play the long game, the easier it is to play and the greater the rewards. The longer you play the short game the harder it becomes to change and the bigger the bill facing you when you do want to change.

The Short Game

The short game is putting off anything that seems hard for doing something that seems easy or fun. The short game offers visible and immediate benefits. The short game is seductive.

  • Why do your homework when you can go out and play?
  • Why wait to pay for a phone in cash, when you can put it on your credit card?
  • Why go to the gym when you can go drinking with your friends?
  • Why invest in your relationship with your partner today when you can work a little bit extra in the office?
  • Why learn something boring that doesn’t change when you can learn something sexy that impresses people?
  • Why bust your butt at work to do the work before the meeting when you can read the executive summary and pretend like everyone else?

The effects of the short game multiply the longer you play. On any given day the impact is small but as days turn into months and years the result is enormous. People who play the short game don’t realize the costs until they become too large to ignore.

The problem with the short game is that the costs are small and never seem to matter much on any given day. Doing your homework today won’t give you straight A’s. Saving $5 today won’t make you a millionaire. Going to the gym and eating healthy today won’t make you fit. Reading a book won’t make you smart. Going to sleep on time tonight won’t make you healthier tomorrow. Sure we might try these things when we’re motivated but since the results are not immediate we revert back to the short game.

As the weeks turn into months and the months into years, the short game compounds into disastrous results. It’s not the one day trade off that matters but it’s accumulation.

Playing the long game means suffering a little today. And why would we want to suffer today when we can suffer tomorrow. But if our intention is to always change tomorrow, then tomorrow never comes. All we have is today.

The Long Game

The long game is the opposite of the short game, it means paying a small price today to make tomorrow’s tomorrow easier. If we can do this long enough to see the results, it feeds on itself.

From the outside, the long game looks pretty boring:

  • Saving money and investing it for tomorrow
  • Leaving the party early to go get some sleep
  • Investing time in your relationship today so you have a foundation when something happens
  • Doing your homework before you go out to play
  • Going to the gym rather than watching Netflix

… and countless other examples.

In its simplest form, the long game isn’t really debatable. Everyone agrees, for example, we should spend less than we make and invest the difference. Playing the long game is a slight change, one that seems insignificant at the moment, but one that becomes the difference between financial freedom and struggling to make next month’s rent.

The first step to the long game is the hardest. The first step is visibly negative. You have to be willing to suffer today in order to not suffer tomorrow. This is why the long game is hard to play. People rarely see the small steps when they’re looking for enormous outcomes, but deserving enormous outcomes is mostly the result of a series of small steps that culminate into something visible.

Conclusion

In everything you do, you’re either playing a short term or long term game. You can’t opt out and you can’t play a long-term game in everything, you need to pick what matters to you. But in everything you do time amplifies the difference between long and short-term games. The question you need to think about is when and where to play a long-term game. A good place to start is with things that compound: knowledge, relationships, and finances.

 

This article is an expansion of something I originally touched on here

Hemingway, a Lost Suitcase, and the Recipe for Stupidity

The best intentions are no match for the havoc caused by stress, tiredness, and unusual circumstances. Even though we know these things can negatively impact our decision-making abilities, we override the caution needed to combat them with faith in our rationality. This failure to recognize our natural vulnerabilities affects everyone. In December 1922, it resulted in a lost suitcase that changed Ernest Hemingway’s life.

Hemingway, then 23, wrote fiction at night while covering the Lausanne peace conference on assignment for the Toronto Daily Star. Married the year before, Hemingway missed his wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, back in Paris. He asked her to join him in Lausanne. This invite resulted in all of Hemingway’s work ending up in a suitcase.

“I have long held that stupidity is very largely the result of fear leading to mental inhibitions.”

— Bertie Russell

It’s unclear whether Hemingway asked Hadley to bring his work so he could show it to an editor who had taken an interest in him, or she brought it for another reason. Perhaps she thought he’d want to work on something over the Christmas break and wanted to give him all the options. Whatever the reason, the intentions were good. Hadley believed in Hemingway’s talent as a writer, and she was financially supporting them so he could pursue his artistic goals.

Sick at the time, Hadley managed to pack everything she could find, including the originals, the carbon copies, and all handwritten notes for a novel in progress, into a single suitcase. When she arrived at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, a porter offered to take her bags to her compartment. Right before the train was to depart, Hadley realized the journey would be long and rushed off the train to purchase a bottle of Evian, leaving the bags momentarily unattended. The suitcase was gone when she came back. Devastated, she cried for the entire eight-hour train ride.

Unaware of the loss, Hemingway waited for his wife at Lausanne station. When she arrived in tears, he said nothing warranted such sadness. Whatever was bothering her could be worked out together, he assured her. Hadley finally told him what had happened.

Laughing, Hemingway told her not to worry because he had carbon copies of all of his writings. Hadley could barely bring herself to tell him that those too were lost. In disbelief, he rushed back to Paris. In his memoir of those years, A Moveable Feast, he recounted: “It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.” All his work was lost.

At this point, Hemingway wasn’t the Hemingway we know today. None of his fiction had been published. Only two very short stories remained in Paris, “Up in Michigan”—which Gertrude Stein had called unpublishable—and “My Old Man,” which was out with an editor at the time.

In a way that would make Marcus Aurelius proud, rather than give up, Hemingway found an interesting way to adapt to the reality of the situation. With the pressure of time, Hemingway shifted his writing style to shorter sentences, cleaner paragraphs and more readable prose. He could write faster this way. Four years later, The Sun Also Rises would be published and become a bestseller.

The lessons we can draw from Hemingway are obvious. It’s a classic story of a struggling artist who has a setback but overcomes it to achieve huge success. Disney created a multibillion-dollar company on the back of stories like this one. But almost everyone misses the lessons—hiding in plain sight—offered by Hadley. And when it comes to avoiding catastrophic errors, we should pay close attention.

Most of us are not chronically stupid. We make many good decisions and accomplish some amazing things. But we commit acts of stupidity once in a while, usually when we fail to recognize how certain variables are making us vulnerable.

Stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. My friend Adam Robinson has perhaps the best definition of stupidity I’ve come across, defining it as the overlooking or dismissing of conspicuously crucial information.

Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing crucial information.

There are some things you should know about stupidity. Stupidity is easier to see in others than ourselves. Stupidity is easier to recognize the farther we are from the act. And stupidity is stubbornly difficult to see in the moment, often only becoming apparent when the outcome is known. This is why it is so important to recognize what the variables are that increase the chances of us doing something stupid. Stress, being tired, being in an unusual situation, these are all things that make us vulnerable to stupidity.

Back to our story: Hemingway shares some blame here, for not separating his originals and carbons. But more interesting are the details that affected Hadley’s decisionmaking at the train station. She was outside of her normal environment. She was rushing. She was ill. Each of these things on their own can increase the odds of committing an act of stupidity. Combined, they meant she was significantly vulnerable to errors in judgment.

Although Hemingway recovered, and arguably became a better writer because of it, the loss of his work was devastating to both him and his wife at the time. Only the benefit of hindsight gives this episode a decent ending, something that is no guarantee for most stupid decisions.

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