A Few Counterintuitive Ideas

UPDATE: 4th January, The way out of burnout

The beginning of 2021 marked the point when some of us were bracing with hope for the year that lied ahead. The year that we hoped to be “better” than the one that we were leaving behind. Little did we know we should have braced for impact instead.

For me personally, if 2020 was bad enough then 2021 wiped the last shreds of whatever mental resilience or energy I had left in me. I’m entering 2022 pretty much on some kinda pandemic cruise control. Time as measured by calendar days no longer matters, the majority of the human contact happens over bits and bytes and, yet, “things” can still get worse. They call it the “new normal”. Whatever. At least I’ve survived so I got that goin’ for me which is nice.

Nevertheless, over the Christmas period, I somehow managed to assume quite an intense thinking mode — intense for pandemic standards, anyway. I made a list of things I’ve learnt and relearnt in the past year. As I was reading through its 3rd or the 4th iteration I realised that some of the lessons I wrote down seemed a bit counterintuitive.

Letting it mull over for a few days that followed I got quite interested in what counterintuitive lessons my friends have learnt. This became particularly interesting to me as human contact has become a more precious commodity than NFT apes and the predominantly digital conversation reached the new record levels of shallowness.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve managed to compile a list of ideas, including some of my own, that I found the most interesting in one way or another. I figured it might be worth sharing it with the internet nation. Many of these ideas may not seem as insightful to you as you probably anticipated when you read the title of this post. Nonetheless, bear with me as on the following lines I assume the role of a librarian of thoughts many of which I don’t own.

I suspect that the human species — the only species — teeters at the edge of extinction yet the library…infinite, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret — will endure

Reading more doesn’t make you smarter

I’m sure there is a ton of research that covers this topic much better than I could ever do. Over the pandemic, I’ve read a couple of books about the brain by David Eagleman. The brain is arguably the biggest miracle evolution has created. I used to think of the brain as an almost infinite storage device that can retrieve the stored data on-demand in a “timely” fashion. Something akin to a database with superpowers.

There is probably some truth in that, but I know that’s a very simplistic view. The “data” the brain stores are not so much retrieved as they are reconstructed, which is why I suspect recollection is also not an indicator of knowledge — memory ≠ knowledge — though I suppose training your memory might help with learning. In fact, I’d probably argue healthy memory is almost a prerequisite of learning as it lets you store the data. The trick is to avoid overloading it.

I myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began….my dreams are like other people’s waking hours…my memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.

Learning requires creating and strengthening neural connections and that’s a process that needs a bit of time to kick in. Would storing more data of different kinds in a short sequence lead to more knowledge? Maybe [1]. I suspect it’s possible to train your brain for it at the expense of something else. I’m sticking to consuming less by filtering better and pondering more.

Fiction books are more insightful than non-fiction

I guess we could attribute this to the fact that the fictional stories let us draw our own conclusions from the actions of the protagonists, whilst most of the non-fiction book authors tend to make those conclusions for us leaving less room for our imagination and creativity.

…of the many kinds of pleasure literature can minister, the highest is the pleasure of the imagination. Since not everyone is capable of experiencing that pleasure many will have to content themselves with simulacra.

That being said, I’ve read a bunch of very insightful non-fiction books over the years, so YMMV.

Pandemics are good for tech

The evidence speaks for itself — many tech companies have experienced tremendous growth over the pandemic, though a lot of it should be attributed to the acceleration of the trends that had been set in place before the pandemic started. Nonetheless, every crisis creates opportunities and tech has become particularly good at exploiting them for better or worse — chance favours the prepared!

The more often I switch off, the more effective I am

There is plenty of research showing why this might be true [2], so there wasn’t much surprise for me here. Nonetheless, it’s always good to remind yourself of this every once in a while. Especially nowadays when we are still living through this weird pandemic Groundhog day where work dominates the daily lives of many people no matter how much they try to fight it.

Learning to switch off and step back is something I would like to get better at this year, not just for the sake of being more effective in my job.

The value has nothing to do with complexity

A product might be very simple but still provide a lot of value to its users; This one rings true to the engineer in me. Engineers often tend to focus on complexity analysis way too much. I’m a big fan of making things simple — complex things break in mysterious ways turning investigation of failures into murder mystery games.

I imagined a labyrinth of labyrinths, a maze of mazes, a twisting, ever widening labyrinth of labyrinths that contained both past and future and somehow implied the stars.

On the other hand, it’s also demonstrably true that complex products can sometimes outweigh the cost of their complexity (hello Kubernetes!). My main takeaway from this is that complexity (or the lack of it) shouldn’t be the measure of success, though if your product (or project) avoids it kudos! We should treat complexity more like something that needs to be managed as it’s almost inevitable for a product that lives long enough. Always focus on unlocking the value you are trying to create.

Lots of why you do things get dominated by how you clean up trash

This is how the original author framed it:

“Most tools have geometries that optimise chip “breaking” too large and it tangles and doesn’t clean up; too small, it becomes dust and gets everywhere and can’t be cleaned, and doesn’t suck up enough heat off the tool so it overheats it”

This is a very contextual point related to what the author of this idea has been doing in the past year (building robotic limbs). I find it interesting because the idea applies to many aspects of our lives: always clean up your trash because it will come back and bite you when you expect it the least.

Commitment is liberating

Commitment generally implies ties that leave less room for freedom, but the actual reality is rather the opposite of this. Commitment creates a stake, an anchor if you will. One of the many side effects of this is it denoises your life, leaving you freer and more fulfilled as a result.

I have committed the worst sin that can be committed. I have not been happy.

Of course, denoising is one of many aspects that come with the commitment — when you commit, you care, and when you care everything else becomes pretty much irrelevant, something that can be safely ignored. Committing also implies focus, and focus bears fruits in the long run. The trick is to know what/who to commit to; it’s a skill worth investing your time to master.

Stress can make your more productive

I think this only applies to a healthy amount of stress rather than some shitstorm you might face left, right and center. I also think it’s a bit more nuanced – some people manage stress well so it works in their favour, others translate it to avoidance mechanisms and anxiety.

A while ago I read a book by Adam Grant [4] that touches on similar topic from a slightly different angle. Using a real-life example Grant argues that procrastinating can lead to more creativity when the action finally lets loose close to the deadline — when your deadlines are approaching your stress levels are rising and your focus sharpens.

From my personal experience, a healthy amount of stress has always been a great propeller of my productivity in both the professional (e.g. the company/client you work for) as well as personal (e.g. personal goals or side projects you are determined to accomplish) setting; obviously, don’t leave building a cathedral for a one-nighter — I learnt this at university and it still holds true. The trick, I think, is channelling your emotions in the way that works for you.

Airlines are worthless. Literally.

The market cap of airlines is lower than their revenue most of the time. Loyalty programs are what make them money (and they’re separate subsidiaries).

I must admit I know little to none about the airline businessr. Many moons ago I was considering buying some airlines stock based on advice I got from a friend of mine, but I swear I fell asleep like 5 times in 20 minutes doing my research and ended up not buying any shares – I guess napping does pay off sometimes!

A minute influencing the company you work for on improving the environment is worth days of your time recycling personally

Individual actions generally fail in the grand scheme of things probably because they fail to turn into big concerted action, but there is a paradox hiding in this which I’m not able to articulate better than [3]. I used to believe government incentives can change the game, but nowadays I’m more skeptical (or cynical?) about that. That being said I still think we should all care about doing our bit but the significant change in the fight for climate change can only come from companies.

Having tree-lined streets worsens air pollution

This is one of my favourite. Trees make our urban environments more liveable and arguably less sterile. Streets that are just piles of concrete and brick and mortar can have negative effects on our mental welfare. But as it turns out, planting the trees might have a negative effect on street pollution — the reason being the particulates get stuck under the leaves! Maybe we should plant more pine trees or cactuses. Either way, I would not want to see the trees to disappear from our streets!

Happy teams are less productive

On some level, I have always suspected this. I’ve worked in teams that were too complacent, moving at a very slow pace, but also in the teams whose life depended on delivering and it was generally these teams that produced more.

I feel the opposite is true, too; inherently unhappy teams can’t be productive, and even if they do produce something the quality of their work is probably questionable. I don’t think the point here is to artificially induce unhappiness in your team, but without some healthy tension, things don’t tend to work as well as they should. It’s also a bit tricky because success breeds bond and camaraderie, and you would not want to ruin that.

Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Can we disagree and commit?

Different teams tend to have different dynamics that play into their overall happiness. There are often conflicts that abound which often shake things up in unpredictable ways. In fact, I’d argue conflicts are inevitable. Over the years I learnt that the trick is not to avoid conflict, but rather learn how to manage it i.e. learn how to disagree but commit to the goal as famously coined by Jeff Bezos in the quote above.

The way out of burnout is action

As someone who has experienced burnout in past, this one really caught me by surprise. Every time I hear the dreaded word I immediately remember my blank stares into oblivion and endless sleep. I could not get myself to do anything for some reason. Then I started thinking about how I recovered from it. There was never a point when I realized I recovered. It somehow “happened” and come to think of it, the recover happened by my making these little steps of some activity.

Here is what the author framed it:

The way out of burnout and an ability to ‘do’ anything must at some point involve ‘doing’. It’s how you manage the pain around that that will get you back to productivity

The key is to limit the initial scope of activity to a bare minimum of getting anything done, however small. Avoid “big” things and let the small thing build momentum that might lead to recovery. I’m not trying to give anyone professional advice here, but this aligns with my personal experience.

Not quite the conclusion

And that, my friends, is all for now. I’m intending to make this blog post a bit of a “living” document at least for the next couple of weeks and keep updating it as I get more answers from the folks I’ve asked this question. I’m aiming to revisit this further down line this year and see if any of these ideas (re)occur somewhere in my life.

If you learnt something that you think might be a good fit for this list, put it into comments or message me on Twitter.

Many thanks goes to all of my wonderful friends who found some time to think about these questions were willing to reason through them when I nagged them even though some of the points they made didn’t make it to this list. Namely: Luke Marsden and his wife Kate, Marcus Maxwell, Matt Barker, Justin Cormack, Christian Simon, Kush Pisavadia, Andy Martin, Petros Rizos, Luke Bond and George Spencer.


[1] https://digest.bps.org.uk/2021/12/21/watching-a-lecture-twice-at-double-speed-can-benefit-learning-better-than-watching-it-once-at-normal-speed/

[2] https://medium.com/mind-cafe/the-science-of-taking-breaks-at-work-to-help-boost-your-productivity-ec3e1f47c818

[3] https://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/12475.html

[4] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Originals-How-Non-Conformists-Move-World/dp/0525429565

[5] Most of the quotes in the article are by Jorge Luis Borges, except for the last one whose author is Jeff Bezos

See also