If you’re at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don’t have to look for waves; you are the wave. — Paul Graham
Operations is oftentimes the soil in which fruitful strategic insights grow. It is here that the business of business occurs. A seemingly never-ending stream of decisions are required to be made at a neck-breaking rate, a pace so accelerated that, in order to produce excellence, it necessitates something more reflexive than a deliberate, individual decision-making process for each issue demanding attention. This is a territory where broad-brushed strategy and lofty strategic objectives prove themselves too esoteric to add value to the task at hand. To be of real value, these frameworks must be translated into something more visceral and tacit. This territory is the domain of habit and culture.
The seed of strategic insights is watered by careful reflection. An ideal situation would allow for operational “crop rotation” of sorts: periods of intense operations buffered by downtime to allow for organic reflection so as to give learning the opportunity to grow. Admittedly, in some businesses such an arrangement is more plausible than in others. If, in fact, the environment is unrelenting in terms of its cadence, and unforgiving in terms of frequency of breaks, then it is indeed hard soil in which for insights to take root. Exhaustion of the “top soil” that fosters creative thinking will, more often than not, ensue as the end result of a myopic cycle that leads to disaster.
The pattern of behavior that produces this (enviro)mental disaster is myopic because it extracts disproportional short-term gains at the expense of long-term fertility and richness. The urgent is prioritized over the important. The insidious truth, however, is that the act of “prioritization” is almost never conscious. It is, instead, the de facto result of a decision making methodology that seeks (above all else) to eliminate conflict, reduce ambiguity, and postpone the difficult, no matter what the cost. This short-sighted, greedy psychology is a zero-sum game and coexistence with more tempered approaches is precluded by the fundamental premise of its existence–total aversion to the unpleasant.
Rather than being seen as promising opportunities to seed new creative ideas and foster fresh strategic insights, business challenges that require any intellectual husbandry are regarded as dangerous distractions–weeds that must be immediately uprooted–from the more urgent operational concerns of the business. Who has time to think about developing a sustainable revenue model when this month’s sales targets have still not been hit? This psychology survives thanks to a parasitical hope, an irrational belief in an illusive “bumper crop” on the horizon. This ever-fleeting panacea promises to restore equilibrium and sustainability to an ecosystem that is dangerously spinning out of control. “That multi-million dollar contract we have been working on closing for a year will make us whole and provide a break from this unrelenting flood of work.” The cash crop never ripens and the result is devastation.
This commonly manifests itself in the form of burnt-out managers, mentally and physically exhausted and creatively depleted. When problems present themselves there is not the energy to critically assess the problem and provide prudent solutions that prioritize long-term interests over short-term hacks. Instead, almost as soon as the wind starts blowing the dust begins to swirl. Rootless, the manager is completely powerless to control whether each new issue is a benign gust of wind that gently traverses his mental plane or the first rider in cavalcade of crisis that tramples with fury as it churns an unsupportable cloud of activity, a cloud that all-too-easily swells into storm triggering a far-reaching cascade of problems.
The once fertile plains of his imagination now lay fallow.
The result is almost always a mental dust bowl: total erosion of critical and creative thinking abilities. Stripped of his insulating topsoil, the manager now begins to react emotionally, defensively and the possibility of healthy, fruitful decisions is further relegated to the land of wishful thinking. At this point, the cycle is nearly unbreakable.
Like the Dust Bowl this enviro(mental) disaster is completely man-made. Fortunately, this also means it is entirely avoidable.
Take a break. Rotate your mind. Make this your number one priority. If you manage others, make it your number one priority to make this their number one priority. Balance periods off intensive operations with periods of reflection and forward-looking projects.
I have recently become somewhat engrossed with an often forgotten but remarkably relevant ancient school of thought–Stocism. Amidst the prevailing zeitgeist that runs rampant throughout today’s popular media, entertainment, culture and even some literature, an idea best embodied in a very simple expression–You Only Live Once (Y.O.L.O.)–Stoicism provides an alternative worldview. It’s a strong challenge to what some seem to think is YOLO’s uncontested claim on being the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
For me, Stoicism is a welcomed antidote to the shortsighted, unexamined philosophy many of our generation unknowingly embrace as the only possible reality. While Stoicism may not be the total, absolute truth in and of itself, it is a comforting reminder–a breathe of fresh air–that reality is inherently more complex, more delicate, and more beautiful than believing the zenith of human existence is to party like rock stars, achieve to an ever-increasing echelon of human success, or to consume as much pleasure as possible.
In anticipation of the accusation that I’m grossly oversimplifying in order to setup a straw-man argument of sorts, I can only reply that my intention here is not to forward any systematic (or particularly persuasive) denunciation of any school of thought. Fortunately (or maybe “unfortunately”), I’m not convinced that I’m the right person or that this is even the right forum in which to launch a full, frontal assault on any worldview. My intention in this post, and what will likely be in a few subsequent posts, is to merely share some passages and excerpts from Stoic writings that I found to be rather insightful, relevant to life in today’s world, and exciting. Take them for what they’re worth. What I am trying to do is start a dialogue and hear from you whether you find the ideas the Stoics favored as truth to be germane and/or helpful to your daily life.
I should note that Stoicism is greatly misunderstood and in modern culture commonly connotes emotionlessness or a sterility of personality. It’s really neither of these and at it’s center is about a precise understanding of what you can and what you cannot control in the world, knowing to which category a particular circumstance or situation belongs, and acting accordingly to lay a foundation for a virtuous and happy life. Here’s a great example from one of the thought leaders of Stoicism (who, by the way, had been a Greek slave):
Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them. — Epictetus
Here’s another from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:
We get disappointed because sometimes we what we desires is beyond our control. So be in the habit of always distinguishing between what we can and what we cannot control, and only desire that which we can control. We should feel neutral towards what we cannot control.
In case you cannot bear the suspense and are asking yourself what are things we can control versus things we cannot control, don’t worry. Epictetus is refreshingly pragmatic and rarely leaves a reader hanging:
This [things we cannot control] includes aging and death and the many other unpleasant facts of life that cannot be avoided. Accept the reality of these things and refuse to worry about them. Instead, put all your efforts into improving those things that you can control.
The list of things we cannot control goes on and on to include things like outward success, our financial standing, our worldly accomplishments, whether or not you become rich, your body, your family. In fact, there is a pretty slim, yet powerful, set of things we actually can control. Former US Marine, Joel Mendez gives a somewhat humorous but clear example of idea in action in his article entitled The Modern Wimp’s Introduction to Stoicism:
Epictetus, another great Stoic who happened to be a slave, counseled “Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.” This is another tenet of Stoicism that sort of escapes modern interpretations. What you take from this one is this: you’re not going to be the action hero that bends the world to his will, instead, you’re going to be the action hero who grins and bears it when his stupid boss gives his cousin what would have been your job. Trust me, the latter is infinitely preferable to the former.
More thoughts to come in periodic posts, some of which will drill down into tenants and concepts I briefly touched upon in this introductory post. Please let me know what you think!!
Welcome to my blog! Here you will enter the world of my mind. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s fantastically wild or just passé and boring. Whatever the case may be, thank you for visiting.
I should mention a few basic constraints at the outset of this adventure:
- There is no unifying concept. It’s true, there’s not. This blog is a hodgepodge of my thoughts, ideas and observations. The majority of posts serve the purpose of reactive catharsis rather than premeditated discourse. Having said that, I do hereby promise to genuinely endeavor to make posts as widely applicable as possible. After all, dear You are my reader.
- This is a giant work in progress. I think this statement is true for most blogs but it’s worth mentioning just to reiterate it’s application here. People change and that’s largely driven by their ideas, ways of thinking and decisions changing. These changes are almost never instantaneous or spontaneous. I hope this blog will set you in motion to change your mind on a variety of topics as much as it changes mine. At the very least, let’s mutually agree to pause and reconsider our most entrenched viewpoints.
- I am negligent with grammar. As the son of a linguist, I’m all too painfully aware how horrible my grammar is. My sincere apologies if this becomes a hinderance to reading. In general, I try to only sacrifice grammatical correctness when it feels more natural and easier to read.