Drawing Lines, Not Dots

A dot on a graph with no context is often fairly useless unless you have already established a sense of context. A good example from my last job: if I tell someone that they used 200 kWhs last month, for the large percentage of the population, that doesn’t mean anything unless they also know how much others are using, or how much they used in the past. Another situation where this has come up for me is when living in countries that use Celsius for temperature. Is 30 degrees hot? cold? shorts? pants? shirt? no shirt? — after living there for a while, you get a sense for it (30 is pretty warm by the way), but without having spent one’s life getting familiar with it in the same way as Fahrenheit, it’s a complicated proposition.

To give credit where it is due, the concept for this post was inspired by a post from Mark Suster on entrepreneur/VC relationships (which is also worth a read).

dot with linesIt can be helpful to remember this when presenting yourself to others or evaluating your own performance. Without comparisons to others or your past performance, a single piece of information leaves a lot to be desired. As Mark points out, when evaluating a company for investment, meeting an entrepreneur a single time tells you very little about the company. Are they high revenue, but trending down or flat? or are they low revenue, but doubling every month for the past 6 months? With a single point, you can make up whatever trajectory you want from your data.

This same concept can be applied to job hunting, dating, and any other interpersonal situation where you are looking at a long-term outcome involving people. Mark covers this thinking pretty well in his post, so I won’t re-iterate here.

This same type of thinking can also be applied usefully to self-evaluation to provide better perspective, and for driven, hard charging people, it can help provide some checks to negative self-evaluation or frustrations with progress. For example: say I’m an athlete looking to perform my first body-weight pull up, and I’ve been trying to reach this goal for 6 months. I’m still not there. Looking at my current state (can’t do a pullup unassisted) and comparing it to where I want to be (can do a pullup unassisted), I could very well look at that as a failure. That’s a point on a graph. Now, let’s back up six months to where I didn’t have the strength to deadhang on the bar for more than 5 seconds. Now I can not only hang on the bar for more than 40 seconds, I can can perform assisted pullups using a stretch band. Suddenly my hopeless situation becomes a trend line which is strongly going in the right direction. That’s a much different story.

Again, the same concept can apply to skill building, working out, relationships, etc.


I’ve noticed a few situations where this model can break down if not observed.

Moving Cohort

cohort movementComparing one’s self to a group can be a great way to get a sense of where you fall in within the group’s skill set, but can be terrible when measuring improvement in your own skills. For example, I’ve always worked in startups with smart, ambitious young people and thus find myself comparing my skills and abilities to the highly skilled and intelligent people I work with. As a result, I often feel that I’m not progressing. What is in fact occuring is that our entire cohort is progressing and improving together. So when I look to my local cohort, I find that it often looks the same month over month. What I’m failing to realize in this case is that the cohort itself is moving in relation to the outside world.

Looking to Extremes

local trendsWith limited, discrete data points, evaluation can be flawed by sampling error. An example of this in life would be: evaluating sport proficiency after having lost of game or relationship success after having broken up recently. These are both likely going to be relative minimums, and not representative of the overall trends. Make sure your sampling isn’t being biased by current state of mind and that your time horizon isn’t  distorting your trend line.

Looking Out

I’m sure I haven’t covered all the possible ways this could go wrong, I’d love to hear if any of you have other thoughts on avoiding false interpretations and ways to better use lines and not dots in keeping yourself happy, healthy, and wise.

Black Boxes and Filling in the Blanks — Early Dating and Compatibility

Dating has long been a subject I’ve avoided on my blog. First, because I tend to want to write things about dating when I’m feeling frustrated with it and I don’t want all that logged in the public record. Second, it’s usually a lot of personal things. I try to write when I feel that I have something useful to contribute to a discussion. I’m allowing myself this post as an exception because I feel like it satisfies the requirement on contributing to discourse and thus I would appreciate your comments and thoughts.

Anyone who’s spent some time with me likely knows that I go on a decent number of dates. Typically a lot of first and second dates and every so often I actually date someone for a bit to see if things work out. I’m single at the moment, so things have not worked out, but I manage to wake up most mornings feeling optimistic that they will some day.


I recently went on a few dates with an attractive young lady with whom I felt some chemistry. Fast forward a bit and I find myself on a hike with her where she’s telling me that she just doesn’t feel that we click and she doesn’t want to date me any more.  I wonder:  What happened?  I need some better information here.

The beginning of the end was this (as she told it): I had been fighting off a cold for a few days before our last date. At the beginning of the date, I gave her a quick kiss and we went on with our date as planned. About 20 minutes into the date, I mention that I had been fighting off a cold. She was subsequently pretty unhappy about my kissing her while sick.

The Model

I won’t go into the rest of the details about why we won’t be dating any more, but this particular story made me realize something:  There are two  kinds of changes people can make in relationships — one based on denying one’s self and one based on new knowledge. (There are probably others too, but for the sake of this idea, let’s discuss these two that are on my mind now.) Denying one’s feelings is the type of change that people talk about when they say things like: “don’t try to change your partner.”  I agree with this sentiment. It’s not possible to change someone, one has to do it for one’s self.  The interesting type is change based on knowledge, which I believe can be very healthy.

Back to my example of kissing this woman. Before she got upset, I had not thought twice of kissing her — I was borderline sick, I didn’t make out with her, and in the past I’ve had a lot of women I’ve dated tell me that they didn’t care if I was sick and would kiss me anyways. (Now I don’t want to say that she was in any way wrong by being upset by this, that is entirely up to her and I feel bad for having upset her by kissing her.)  The question I have to ask is this:  Did this represent a fundamental deal-breaking difference in how we live our lives, or is it bad information?

Speaking for myself, I believe it was bad assumptions and information.  Suppose I have a black-box machine that accepts apples all day and turns out apple pies.  If you watched it take a handful of apples in and  saw an apple pie produced, it would be reasonable to assume that it can make apple pie.  Assuming that the machine would need fundamental changes to behave otherwise is a mistake, however.   Without understanding the fundamental building blocks of the machine, one can’t make that assumption.  Perhaps if you put in bananas and rum, you’d get bananas foster.

The analog for this as part of my previous story is this:  my fundamental building blocks dictate that I’m fundamentally a compassionate person (I think so, at least).  Given those blocks and different input knowledge (“I really don’t like getting sick and don’t want you to kiss me when you are”), the output would be different.   I would avoid kissing a woman who expressed a desire not to be.   Not because I had to deny my true nature to do so, but because my knowledge of the situation changed.   Given new information, my actions changed.

Going Forward

How is this useful?  It helps to ask oneself when considering compatibility if an upsetting event one is revealing the building blocks of the person’s being or if it’s merely unlikely or unreliable input data.  One of the hardest things about early dates is navigating through communication mismatches. We all have our backgrounds and assumptions about the world that we bring with us into any new relationship:  she may say something she meant as endearing that he hears as an attack, or he might invite her to a restaurant where unbeknownst to him she got food poisoning at once.  These can either be lack of information, which is easily remedied, or they could be signs of fundamental incompatibility — these types being oceans away from one another in meaning and importance.

Avoid the latter by sharing what comes up and giving the person information they may be missing:  what you perceive, what you feel about it, and what you want/don’t want.  It may change the output, it may not, but don’t see an apple pie come out and assume that’s all they’re capable of if what you really wanted was some ice cream.  You are always communicating — it is literally impossible not to send out information about yourself every moment.  Try to fill in as many blanks for the other about who you are and what you feel and want, or they will fill it in with their own historical data — which, if they are anxious, will be anxious thoughts and beliefs and feelings (not ideal!).

Premature Optimization and the 95/40 Rule

95/40 RuleI drew this diagram on my whiteboard several months ago to explain to a friend why eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) and trying to fix it with supplements is foolish. The SAD is the column on the right, achieving, for argument’s sake, 40% of an optimal 100%. The column on the left is something closer to an ideal diet for this individual (the Paleo Diet in my case). The effects of supplementation are the small 1% bars on top of each column. Sure, they both get you 1% closer to ideal, but who gives a damn about going from 40% to 41%? The difference is negligible.

After drawing this chart, something interesting occurred: my roommate and I started to draw connections in dating, work, and life in general. For example, suppose I go on a date with a girl who doesn’t like science fiction. That’s a 1% issue in my case. Maybe I can convert her to love Firefly and Asimov (or get over it), but focusing on this 1% improvement prior to looking at the starting point is flawed. If she loves reality TV and despises exercise, these fundamental issues create a poor foundation on which to worry about moderate improvements.

There’s a saying from computer scientist Donald Knuth, “premature optimization is the root of all evil.” If you hate your boss, your commute, and your daily tasks, who cares if the coffee machine is being replaced with a better one? Focusing on minutiae when fundamentals are missing is folly.

The same conclusions can be attributed to learning new skills just as easily as one’s job or diet. With tango, if my fundamental approach to the embrace and leading is broken, who cares if I know how to do ganchos? If one’s diet is 70% grains and sugar, taking a multivitamin isn’t going to fix it.

All this is related to priority of learning and energy expenditure. Find a reasonable foundation, then find the biggest wins with the least required investment and complete them. Then find the next, and repeat. Don’t build a job or a relationship on a flawed foundation, it’s not going to get dramatically better by making incremental improvements. Keep looking until you find a solid foundation, then improve.

Venturing Into the Unknown and Getting Things Done There

I’m a big fan of checking off boxes. There’s something satisfying about marching my way through a series of checkboxes and knowing I’m accomplishing some larger task. If you don’t already, I highly recommend using to-do lists as part of your daily routine of getting things done. (As a side note, the book Getting Things Done is great for how to organize these and generally how to be someone who gets shit done. If you’re already pretty good at this, I recommend just reading this summary of GTD.)

However, I noticed recently that I’ve been running into problems that I couldn’t seem to fit into a to-do list. Not that they were abstract things that couldn’t be broken down into tasks, but rather they were things I didn’t know how to do. For example, how to develop a product to sell in an online store or learn how to build a desk from scratch. I would sit down and start writing out my list and maybe get as far as, “Buy wood” then suddenly I’d be staring into the abyss of questions… what kind of wood? how much do I need? where do I buy it? do I really want to build a desk? what if I buy the wrong supplies and have to start over again? where can I find the space to build this? etc.?

What I realized though is that I’m trying to go from 0-60 without passing through 0-20 first. So what I did was took a step back, threw out my list, and started again with a simple entry: “Research building a desk.” The internet is an amazing place and a simple search turns up more information than I could ever possibly digest on this subject. In starting at a more logical beginning point, I can drastically reduce the number of show stopping questions I run into. This, in and of itself, presents a set of problems.

Many people, when faced with an near-infinite amount of information can become paralyzed by it, spending hours upon hours researching and never actually reach the task they’re researching. To quote Steve Jobs (and for those of you who know me well: yes it does hurt me a bit inside to do so.): “Real artists ship.” So let’s not let fear of imperfection stop us from completing the task we were previously driven to do. Let’s modify that original to-do list item to, “Spend 1 hour researching building a desk.”

This doesn’t mean you have to spend only one hour researching then go galavanting off to buy wood and screws and never ask any more questions. This means you have given yourself 1 hour to read up on generalities and use this knowledge to inform the next points. Maybe you’ll come up with the following:

  1. Find a space I can use to build a desk.
  2. Spend 30 minutes deciding what kind of woods to use.
  3. Draw up general plans and measure the space I plan on using it.
  4. Make a list of various pieces I need: screws, hinges, rails, handles, tools, etc.
  5. Decide on dark or light stain or paint.
  6. Head to the store and see what woods and materials are available.
  7. Revise plans based on new information — go back to researching if needed.

From here I can start working my way forward. It’s natural that the list will expand and contract as I proceed forward and ask and answer more questions. As I run into the unknown, I can add more notes to research, using time limits, and trying to be as specific as possible (but remembering that it’s ok if I don’t know exactly what it is I don’t know — I’m just learning).

Ok, I’m off to research building things… as a last note, remember to embrace the investment in loss that comes with learning a new skill and adventuring off into the unknown. It’s a journey, enjoy it.

The Cost of Continuation

I have often wondered why I don’t feel the same pull towards activities that I’ve noticed in others. Have you ever met someone that you were convinced couldn’t survive without partaking in a hobby of theirs? (be it music, dancing, biking, running, etc.) I have, and I always envied those people. It felt as if they were being pointed by their heart in the direction of happiness. I want that, and I would guess many of you share that same thought. Yet we come up with subtle ways of blocking our impulses and feelings which guide these realizations.

I recently came to a realization about some maladaptive habits I’ve been carrying around with me which do exactly that. The summary version is: I pursue things which I’m attracted to, yet ignore possible downsides and sacrifice my own ideals in order to avoid the loss of stopping an activity or loss of connection with a person or group. Now that I’ve realized this, I can see that I do it in business, romance, and my hobbies. So why is this important?

Let’s take singing opera as an example. I’ve been having twinges of realization that maybe I’m not connecting with opera or the people I’m singing with. The above mentioned habit’s response to that was to bury those feelings and continue trying to make things work. Keep singing, keep studying, keep performing. Now, it’s not that I hate singing opera. If that were the case I would have quit years ago. However, because I really enjoy large parts of the process, I chose to ignore reality and continue on as if it were really what I was passionately driven to do. The problem is though, I’m only getting maybe 60% out of the activity. I look at it as if that 60% is better than the 0% I would have if I stopped, but this takes time, money, and energy that I could be using to pursue something that makes me jump out of be in the morning. The cost of continuation of an activity or behavior is not zero.

I’ve since stopped pursuing opera for the time being and I started piano lessons and will probably do guitar as well. I want to be a singer/songwriter. I can feel it. I had my first lesson yesterday and got home and practiced for an hour. I couldn’t break myself away despite needing to get to sleep. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I can’t argue with that kind of impulse. Maybe it will last, maybe it won’t, but it’s here right now. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve realized this, but I’ve noticed that it’s a lot easier to find happiness when you listen to your feelings and let them guide you towards it.