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Weekly 3: Equality is a myth

Summary: Identify your high-value efforts. Solve for losses. Design for quality rather than relativis

Idea Journal Weekly 3

November 24 · Issue #114 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Identify your high-value efforts. Solve for losses. Design for quality rather than relativism. (~5 min read)

#1. “Identify where 20 percent of effort gives 80 percent of returns”
Author and management consultant Richard Koch writes in his book The 80/20 Principle that, “There is no fun in work unless you can achieve a lot with a little.”
If you have to work 60 or 70 hours each week in order to cope, if you’re struggling to keep up with work requirements and feel like you’re always behind, then you may be in the wrong job. If you like your job but you’re not “coasting to glory,” then you’re probably spending your time in the wrong way.
As Koch points out, in any sphere of activity 80 percent of the people are achieving only 20 percent of the results, and 20 percent of the people are achieving 80 percent of the results. 
There is a way to do things more efficiently and effectively in any industry or profession – not just slightly better, but “a step-function better.”
To find the 80/20 truths in your line of work, Koch suggests asking the following questions: 
  • What is the 20 percent of your time that leads to 80 percent of your results?
  • Which of your colleagues is high-achieving while seeming relaxed, with time to indulge themselves in their favorite hobbies?
  • Where do organizations in your industry make above-average profits?
Koch notes that the 80/20 truths in management consulting, for instance, are clear: if you have established and close client relationships with the top people in large corporations, with big budgets, and you employ a lot of relatively cheap junior consultants to do most of the work, then you will be “laughing all the way to the bank.”
#2. We’re more sensitive to losses than gains
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, author Rolf Dobelli writes: “The fear of losing something motivates people more than the prospect of gaining something of equal value.”
For example, losing $100 costs you a greater amount of happiness than the delight you would feel if you received $100.
As Dobelli notes, this “loss aversion” tendency has roots in our evolutionary past. Carelessness on a hunt, exclusion from the group, an inflamed tendon, and other factors could all lead to death. People who were reckless died before they could pass on their genes to the next generation.
Those who were cautious survived. We are their descendants.
With this history in mind, Dobelli suggests that if you want to convince someone about something, don’t focus on the advantages. Instead, highlight how it helps them avoid the disadvantages.
Imagine that you run a home insulation business. The most effective way to encourage customers to purchase your product is to tell them how much money they are losing without insulation. As opposed to how much money they would save with insulation, even though the amount is the same.
Try as we might, we can’t fight loss aversion: we more sensitive to negative things than positive things.
And we remember bad behavior longer than good behavior – except, as Dobelli points out, when it comes to ourselves.
#3. Good design argues against relativism
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham writes in an essay that when you mention the concept of “taste,” which he defines as an appreciation for something well-designed or beautiful, a lot of people will react by saying: “taste is subjective.”
Believing that taste is merely a matter of personal preference may be a good way to prevent disputes, but it’s not true. 
This realization becomes obvious once you start designing things yourself.
As with any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change, and you’ll notice the improvement. This suggests that your old tastes weren’t just different, but worse.
If you acknowledge that there is such a thing as good and bad design, then you can start to study good design in detail: How have your tastes changed? When you made mistakes, what caused you to make them?
For Graham, once you start to explore such questions, you’ll see the same principles of good design represented in different fields: from architecture and science, to music and writing.
Here are a few of those principles: 
Good design is simple 
You see this in a range of fields: from math to writing. In math, it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. In writing, it means say what you mean and say it briefly.
Graham notes that you would expect simplicity to be the default: “Ornate is more work.”
But something comes over people when they try to be creative. For example, beginning writers adopt a pompous that doesn’t sound anything like the way they speak.
As Graham points out, it’s all evasion: “When you’re forced to be simple, you’re forced to face the real problem. When you can’t deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.” 
Good design is redesign
It’s rare to get things right the first time. Experts expect some early work to fail: “They plan for plans to change.”
As Graham points out, it takes confidence to throw work away: “You have to be able to think, there’s more where that came from.” 
It helps to acknowledge that mistakes are natural, and to make them easy to acknowledge and fix. For example, open-source software has fewer bugs because it admits the possibility of bugs.
Quote of the Week
“Now of course you have the question of value: whether one mental state is better than another mental state. And I think that the obvious answer is yes … what we do throughout our lives is to pursue some mental states and run away from others. We think we are pursuing objectives in the outside world, like we want a lot of money, we want a good job, we want to find love. But all these things, at bottom, are particular mental states that we prefer to other mental states.”
- Historian Yuval Noah Harari in an interview on the Making Sense podcast
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