But What For Takeaways - No. 022

"The practice is not the means to the output. The practice is the output because the practice is all we can control."

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This Week from But What For?

I’ve recently felt like I am stuck in a rut - or a kind of negative feedback loop that is making it difficult to feel motivated/content with how I spend the majority of my time (day job is investing in the tech space).

Each morning, I wake up feeling unhappy with what I am going to have to do during the day and who I am going to have to spend my time with. It feels like the reason I go into the office is to leave the office as soon as I can. When something new comes along that needs to be done, it ruins my day - my brain just doesn’t seem to care about any of it.

These feelings are entirely my fault - and likely entirely unfounded. When you look at the entire picture, I am extremely fortunate to be able to do what I do every day.

It has taken some time to figure this out - introspection is always painful - but I have let negativity in one area of my life bleed over into most parts of it. Being negative about something makes you less likely to want to take action. Not taking action results in things falling behind and the feeling of being behind / making no progress. When you feel like you are not making progress and there is too much to do, effort feels futile. So you don’t make any effort. And then this loops - feeling like you are making no progress begets no desire to put in the effort required to make progress.

Excluding the post from Sunday on American folk songs, you will notice that this week’s links were probably influenced by me working through some of the above in my head.

It is important to not only notice when something is wrong - but you have to take steps to fix the problems as well (“What To Do If You're In A Rut“). But, you need to remember that progress doesn’t come quickly (“The case for opsimath“) and requires consistent effort over time (“Why You've Been Lied to About Where to Put Your Time, Energy, & Focus”).

So - if you are ever feeling the same - remember to look at the things you can control and make sure you take ownership of making them the best that they can possibly be. It’s not always easy - and I am a perfect example of what failing in this regard looks like currently - but we don’t have much of a better alternative, do we?

If you have any thoughts related to the above, please share them with me and the other subscribers by leaving a comment. It is always great to learn from others who might be going through similar things or those who have found ways to approach similar problems effectively.

Best of luck to everyone stuck in a rut currently,

— EJ

Latest from But What For?

As might be expected, it is hard to track down the whole truth of something that happened so long ago. But there are a few clues and hints – collected by numerous people more curious and more determined than me – that we might be able to piece together – so let’s start with what we do know is (almost) certainly true.

Omie (actually, Naomi) Wise and her song-stated murderer, John Lewis, were actual people that lived in the early 1800s in and around Randolph Country, North Carolina – which was settled in the 1740s as immigrants moving south from Pennsylvania and west from the coast found themselves in what is now the heart of North Carolina. It was said that the County was made up of “on the one hand, men who distinguished themselves for vice, rapine and the most villainous of crimes; on the other hand, men who displayed the noblest virtues and highest patriotism.”

John Lewis’ grandfather, David Lewis, was one of the earliest settlers in Randolph County, and served as the patriarch of a line of “tall, broad, muscular and very powerful men… [that] sought occasions of quarrel as a Yankee does gold dust in California.” Richard, one of David’s sons, fled to a nearby county after killing his own brother, Stephen, following a far too complicated story involving home invasions, a fleeing wife, and an odd court ruling stating that, despite the fact that Richard had snuck into Stephen’s home while he was in bed and shot him, Richard had acted in self-defense. It was in this nearby county that John Lewis was born.

John grew, much like the other men in his family, into an imposing figure and inherited his father’s character traits, which, while not being the noblest, might have been viewed as desirable if you were a woman living in the Carolina wilderness in the early 1800s.

At the time of this story, John was in his early 20s and working as a clerk at a store owned by a Benjamin Elliott, which happened to be 15 miles from his permanent home. Making this journey every weekend, John often stopped by the home of William Adams, in the northern portion of Randolph County. It is said it was at Mr. Adams’ house that Naomi first laid eyes on John.

And that is where the closest items to facts in this story end in order to make way for a folk tale to begin…


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, by David Hackworth & Julie Sherman [Book]

  • Takeaway: Discipline equals freedom

It was another page in the continuing, unfortunate saga of the KATUSAs. Through attrition, their numbers had dwindled as the war dragged on, and they'd become less and less effective as their untrained ranks continued to be integrated into American units (leading, naturally, to more and more resentment among their U.S. counterparts). It wasn't until a short time after this fight, when I put all the Koreans in one unit under a great little Korean liaison-sergeant-turned-line-NCO named Chung and got results, that I finally understood how much of the damn problem was the Yanks themselves.

Most American leaders had given up trying to communicate with the KATUSAs, except through sign language (more often than not obscene) and name-calling. The war had made all the U.N. troops cannon fodder, but the KATUSAs were treated like subhuman cannon fodder. The Americans came and went every nine months; it was the KATUSAs who stayed on these slopes for the duration. And as time passed, we, the Americans, were the ones who, through the continued introduction of green EM and in most cases even greener officers, were becoming increasingly less proficient in our trade.

It should have been little wonder that the South Korean soldiers were cool, cunning, and more adept at keeping their heads down than joining in the fray; no wonder, in a jam, that they'd save their own asses and not their U.S. "buddies."

It was a lie; in terms of the Officers' Code of Conduct a lie as bad as any other lie... But the fact was, I was slowly beginning to see myself developing my own Code of Conduct; rather a Code of Conscience, the rules of which were based on the needs and welfare of my men versus regulations, or the desires of my higher-ups. The switch was unconscious (it had probably come with the Raiders, if not before); the long-term ramifications were enormous (something I couldn't have known in 1952). But the little book of What Really Matters, what's really important, had begun to write itself in my head, and it was something I'd trust in the rest of my life.

  • Takeaway: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who others are today

You spot talent by looking at what people persist at, not what persistently happens to them.

Taking the ideas of cognitive peaks, fluid and concrete intelligence, the role of luck and persistence in scientific success, and other recent empirical findings, we should be able to start re-thinking how we write the lives of late bloomers. We might start by dropping the ‘late’ designator all together.

Rather than thinking of people as late bloomers, people who were in some way held back or prevented from success, we would be better off seeing them as opsimaths: smart people who carried on learning and achieved things when the timing and circumstances were right.

Biography’s contribution to this is to contextualize and show the ways in which talent can express itself seemingly out of nowhere. Tracing the factors that were in place before the biographical subject made their achievement, using the general factors detailed from recent empirical research, might offer a useful approach…

Oblique success and lifelong learning are essential parts of many of these stories. And the list could go on… Henry Rolls founded his famous company late in life. The writer Oliver Goldmsith is acknowledged as a late bloomer in The Life of Johnson. Charles Spearman spent many years in the army before starting a PhD aged 34. He later did seminal work on the theory of intelligence, creating the theory of general intelligence… Julia Child didn’t graduate from cookery school until she was in her forties. Mary Wesley published her first book aged seventy. She sold millions of copies and produced a best seller a year for the next decade. Isaiah Berlin considered himself to be a late developer, coming to the history of ideas in the middle of his career. Thomas Hobbes didn’t begin to study maths or science until he was middle-aged. Quentin Skinner has said, ‘This sudden awakening, coming as it did when Hobbes was in his forties, entitles him to be regarded as one of the latest of all the late developers in the history of philosophy.’  I would, of course, prefer to think of him as an opsimath: he didn’t start late, he just carried on

  • Takeaway: If you identify a problem, make sure you also fix the problem

“I am stuck in a prolonged period of things not going my way professionally or socially all that really is going on well is my time management still even after having owned up to my part in getting here I still seem stuck in a failure loop”…

Taking ownership of those failures, of those problems, that's very important but guess what - that alone doesn't solve them at all. Just saying I didn't get promoted - ok, it was my fault. Period. That doesn't solve the fact that you didn't get promoted. I'm not getting called back to do this other contracting job - it's my fault. Does that mean you get called back? No, it doesn't mean anything.

Taking ownership means that you actually have to identify the problem you know you're responsible for it and then you actually have to solve the problem… Just taking ownership of the problem doesn't make it go away. If you take ownership of the problem, you have to take ownership of finding a solution - and you have to take ownership of implementing that solution.

What I'm trying to reflect back on people is you can pick yourself - and you can show up and ship work that makes things better, that you are proud of, and you don't need anyone's permission…

This practice says I don't have to be in the mood. It's my work - and I don't have to be motivated and I don't have to have the muse talk to me. I simply do this work. I chop the wood. I carry the water - and then maybe it resonates with people. Or if it doesn't, I learned something and I do it again…

The practice is not the means to the output. The practice is the output because the practice is all we can control.

Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

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