0514 – don’t build taj mahals

I’m re-reading Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. [1] I’m at the bit where he’s talking about Zheng He’s naval expeditions and the Taj Mahal, and how large scale projects that are commissioned as such can succeed, but are often isolated successes. Everything can change in an instant if it isn’t a part of a broader system. One monarch changes his mind, one ruler dies, and everything falls apart. Because it wasn’t externalized into the reality around him. (UPDATE: See also Pixar post on McKinsey about Disney)

Which gets me to thinking– when we’re thinking about “systems vs goals”– even if we aren’t clear about which perspective is more effective at achieving a desired outcome, it’s quite clear that systems are better at achieving a series of desired outcomes. So if you’re interested in sustained success, however you define that, you’re going to want to prioritize systems over goals.

Do not depend on individual geniuses. Do not depend on strokes of luck or insight. Do not depend on moments of inspiration. They will benefit you if and when they come, but if you’re serious about something sustainable, you have to depend on something more robust. On a broader ecosystem. On a culture. On habits, routines, structures, interactions, flows.

I’ve already known this, but it’s nice to revisit it and reflect on it. Don’t build Taj Mahals. [2]

“The Harvard economic historian David Landes concludes that China failed to ‘generate a continous, self-sustaining process of scientific and technological advance.’ Its achievements ended up being episodic and ephemeral. This was the tragedy of Asia: even when there was knowledge, there was no learning.”

I don’t feel qualified to talk about civilizations and nation-states and grand entities, I can only speak for myself. And I’m thinking that I want to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of being “episodic and ephemeral”. I want to be someone who embodies learning, not just knowledge. I’ve been talking about that a lot over the years, one way or another. What does that really mean? What does it look like? How do I know if I’m actually doing it?

A thought I had was– I waste a lot of time second-guessing myself. That when I was younger, second-guessing and next-order-guessing was my core competency. I wasn’t doing very much. I wasn’t a person of action, I was a person of guesses and questions.

So over the past couple of years, I’ve become responsible for more things. I’ve been forced to take more action, so I can’t spend nearly as much time second-guessing. It’s becoming increasingly clear (if it wasn’t already) that a lot of my second-guessing exists as a sort of busyness, to keep me occupied and to avoid taking action. [3]

I guess so now I’m trying to experience my life with less second-guessing, day by day. [4] So how do we do that? How do we reduce the amount of time and energy wasted second-guessing everything?

It begins with a clear sense of fundamental values and principles. And it’s interesting to me that I’ve never been able to pin down a few things that I value most. I always pass it off saying that I value everything, that I can’t be reduced into a few lines. And of course that’s true for everybody too. And yet, how do I make my decisions? Based on how I’m feeling at a given moment? That’s a valid system of making decisions, and I suppose I have quite a bit of experience doing that. I want to experience what my life is like when I use a different system of making decisions, based on fundamental principles. [5]

So… I should define my priorities. Which I’d like to think that I’ve done before, but it’s never quite good enough and I got to do it better. Which I might not actually do in the context of word vomits, because that feels like… I don’t know, it feels like something that might be better done in absolute private until I’m absolutely sure it’s something worth sharing. Strange how that works. I suppose it’s because I might want to think some passing thoughts that may not be palatable or accurate or representative or anything like that.

Anyway, I’ve run out of steam for this one so this one is done.


[1] It might be a little over-simplistic, but it seems that one of the best ways to entrench yourself as a thought leader is to coin a term that other people go on to use. A great slogan, a great phrase. “Imagined communities”. “End of history”. “The world is flat”. “Outliers”. “Blink”. “Freakonomics”. Of course, you can’t just make up a term, you have to back it up with a coherent argument that people agree with. “Make America Great Again”.

[2] The next line that came to my mind was “Grow Sillicon Valleys”. So cheesy though. I’m reminded of a blogpost by a French startup accelerator about how tech ecosystems are (simplistically) a combination of 3 groups that are normally quite suspicious of each other– hustle, rebellion and know-how.

[3] I’m reminded of some interesting argument I read somewhere once about how procrastination is a way of avoiding doing things, because most things shouldn’t actually be done– the idea that most interventionism is bad, most attempts at doing things are probably bad ideas, and we generally get by better if we just avoid things. I think this is semi-true to a degree, and it’s probably true to the degree of which we are utterly ignorant of what’s going on. If you have no idea what you’re doing, and you’re playing with fire, it’s probably a better idea not to play at all. But the solution isn’t to avoid playing for the rest of your life– it’s to get informed. Of course, “getting informed” is itself a whole endless can of worms.

[4] I’m very aware of all the pitfalls of not reflecting, not thinking, not analyzing and so on… I spent many years stuffing my identity with all of those thoughts and ideas.

[5] Of course, again, if performed sloppily, this becomes an excuse to avoid thinking, to shirk responsibility, etc. Very aware.

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