141 - The inefficiency is the point


personal development

Friction and intentionality

The pleasure and pain are in the process

Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of movies such as The Dark Knight, Dunkirk, and Oppenheimer and a filmmaker actors come out of retirement for, doesn’t allow chairs on sets.

He doesn’t allow cell phones either. And he is not shy to ask the leads in his movies to share trailers. For The Prestige, he called up Hugh Jackman’s lawyer and told him that Jackman, an A-lister at the time, would be sharing a trailer with Christian Bale, his co-star in the movie. But Nolan also made a promise. He said that Jackman will not ever spend more than an hour in the shared trailer and that he will wrap up work by seven in the evening. Over the next several months of shooting for The Prestige, Nolan kept his word.

As a class of projects, films, like building bridges or mountain tunnels, are known to go over schedule and over budget. Only Nolan’s seem to end within schedule and under budget. Given the cinematic scope of his projects, his achievement is ridiculous.

By limiting use of utilities Nolan makes life harder for his cast and crew. He chooses to add friction for his team. Why would he do that?

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Photo credit: charlieanders2 on flickr

Nolan understands that, sometimes, by adding friction you can step up intentionality. Sometimes, the inefficiency is the point.

That slippery slope for the super rich… makes you slip too

Rajan Singh who runs HabitStrong to help people break digital addictions writes in a recent post on LinkedIn:

No billionaire has ever gone broke by consuming too much -- after all, how many designer clothes or jewellery can you buy? Instead, the super-rich go broke by ‘investing’, and doing it poorly.

Convenience can be as seductive as it is dangerous. The absence of friction in investing makes it wicked. Singh says:

_‘...you can invest a billion dollars in one click. But try spending your fortune away on vacations and you will die of exhaustion before your money runs out.’ _

Why does this matter to us non-billionaires?

Much the same way that investing offers instant gratification to the super rich, the modern knowledge worker has a particular go-to for the same fix: meaningless work.

_Meaningless work is a hard concept to grasp _

I used to think that meaningless work is what most of us start our careers with, but since then a career has happened to me, and now I’m convinced that what we do when young and naive has the most telling effect on our growth and once grizzly too many of us seem to be too bothered by is protecting our turf and our reputation.

As you move up the skill and authority ladder, you find that there are a dozen competing ways you could spend your time where all options yield positive results. What do you do?

If you’re like most, you opt for the lowest hanging vine on your list, the one that brings the quickest grapes. Working on things that take less time to deliver results jacks up the return on investment (ROI) on your time. Product leader Shreyas Doshi calls it ROI thinking.

ROI = (Value created - Cost of your time) / Cost of your time

Doshi explains:

So, the cost of your time is in the denominator. And just for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call it time taken. So when the time taken to do something is in the denominator and whether it’s at an individual level or at a team level, what we end up doing to get high ROI on our work is we end up trying to decrease the denominator. So when it’s a ratio and you decrease the denominator, the value of the ratio grows. And so, how do you decrease the denominator in this case where time is the denominator is you start working on things that take less time.

It is an obvious good to chase the most efficient option, and therein is the problem. Look closely and you’ll see that though there are many competing options that make a positive difference, some are better than the rest. Far better. Where you invest your time makes all the difference to magnitude the results you help deliver. Your leverage varies.

The advice in such a situation is to stop asking what is a _good use _of your time and start asking what could be the _best use _of your time. Doshi calls it opportunity-cost thinking.

_Opportunity cost = (Value created by optimal option) - (Value created by chosen option) _

But surprisingly few practice it. Why?

The highest-value projects guarantee little at the start. They offer no clear path. The outcome is almost impossible to reverse-engineer. So, the more the options, the bigger the temptation to simply pick one that offers certainty rather than working in darkness.

_And so you don’t touch those two things [the highest value things]. Now, it could be that one of those things could meaningfully change the trajectory of your business, but doing that requires more work to figure that out, to flesh it out. But we convince ourselves that positive ROI is great. And so we make ourselves busy and this is what I have seen myself do, I’ve seen other teams do. _

Contrast this urge to look for the path of least resistance later on with what you do at the start of your career.

It may seem like you started your career with grunt work. You attend all meetings, answer all emails, throw yourself into hopeless projects, say yes to everything asked of you.

Only none of the work is meaningless. It is in the service of something bigger.

Later on, you understand that the real value of your efforts was not in the output. You probably produced shit anyway. It was in the process. That painful and inefficient process of working things out, a number of them for the first time, was your path out of shit town. Getting your hands dirty was the most meaningful work you could have ever done.

Singh understands this too well, as perhaps the only person to have been a Mckinsey consultant and a city police commissioner (Trivandrum). So, when he says ‘I have seen people waste years and years on meaningless projects -- there is no automatic brake,’ I suspect he’s not talking about the donkey work at the start of a career. He’s talking about the busy work we pick after we’ve tasted some success.

Busy work is meaningless work.

Sacrificing efficiency for meaning, trust, and a whole lot more

Matthew Dicks, in his book Storyworthy, underlines his relationship with his father by telling the story of how he once received and left unopened a letter, an actual letter, from his father for three weeks. When he finally summons the courage to open it, he is inside a movie theater, not by accident but by design. His logic is that if the contents of the letter turn out to be unpleasant, he has a full-length feature film ahead of him to shield him from the aftermath.

The letter from his father turns out to be something innocuous, conveying the kind of goings-on any aging father would share with his middle-aged son.

But the act of receiving and reading a letter from his estranged father starts a chain of inefficient correspondence between father and son. Much like in Nolan’s case, the absence of digital conveniences raises the stakes in the to and fro. I imagine Dicks probably could have sent a text, a voice note, or an email but by choosing to write and post letters to his father, he makes the communication more inconvenient and therefore meaningful.

The correlation between friction and intentionality isn’t limited to corporate careers or father-son relationships. A few examples (across species) come to mind here.

👉London black cabs claim to be the best in the world. Anyone driving one has had to give up four years of their lives to be behind the wheel. The London cabbie guild sets a high bar for membership: ‘There are thousands of streets and landmarks within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Anyone who wants to drive an iconic London cab must memorize them all: the Knowledge of London.’

👉Minimally invasive heart surgery has brought down the percentage of patients who commit to long-term lifestyle changes. Not having their chests cracked open seems to make patients take a much less serious view of the dangers of a misbehaving heart. If it isn’t a pain in the heart, how serious can it be?

👉Some Indian weddings are known to be endorsements for wasteful ornamentation. But are they wasteful? The point of the indulgence, if you think about it, is to deliver a message: we went to the trouble of throwing this ridonculous party to tell you how much this means to us.

👉Even though the bare minimum for a member of our species to signal interest in another has dropped to a blithe swipe across the screen, peacocks continue to engage in costly and inefficient signaling—a top-of-the-line metabolic extravaganza with that heavy tail is still deemed worth it.

The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

In Lawrence of Arabia, the titular Lawrence is chatting with a couple of fellow soldiers. One of them puts a cigarette to his mouth. Lawrence offers a light. He then slowly places his fingers around the match and puts out the flame without wincing.

Potter, one of the soldiers watching, decides to try the trick. As soon as his fingers touch the flame, he goes, ‘Ooooh! It damn well hurts!’ Lawrence replies, ‘Certainly, it hurts’ and starts to walk away. Potter pulls out the thumb he’s been sucking on from his mouth and asks, ‘So, what’s the trick then?’ Lawrence stops in his tracks, turns, and says, ‘The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.’

Our lives are easier than those of our parents and grandparents in a thousand ways. As we have been fortunate to experience privilege minus the hardships, our capacity to endure pain and struggle has been slowly but surely eroded. We mind it when life pinches. We are desperate to get rid of the feeling.

Yet, friction has always been intrinsic to human choice-making. When it is taken out of the equation, a full appraisal of the trade-offs becomes necessary.

Such an exercise, I imagine, will reveal that minus friction, we will have near infinite selection. Spoilt for choice, utilitarian math will overshadow our experience. It may throw us into infinite browsing mode, where we’re left to constantly re-calculate the value of each possible experience and therefore unable to derive meaning from any. That’s us on Netflix by the way.

That is also how we find ourselves feeling guilty after a stroll in the park. Or panicking about unread work messages after an evening spent with the kids. Or wondering why on earth we chose to make a trip across town to meet a friend for lunch.

The harder we work to organize our lives around utility and convenience, the less meaning it seems to hold. Perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship with friction and with intention.

For those curious, here are a few rabbit holes.

Christopher Nolan’s weirdness

Rajan Singh’s post

Shreyas Doshi on opportunity-cost thinking

Matthew Dicks’ wonderful book Storyworthy

Why London cabs are the best in the world

The wonders of minimally invasive heart surgery

Lawrence of Arabia

Infinite browsing mode

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