Wash your hands

COVID-19 is the headline right now, and justifiably so. The full range of predictions is on offer, so your confirmation bias will find what it needs on the internet. But Howard Marks said it already:

Nobody knows.

Exceeding hospital capacity is a key tipping point if things do go south:

Credit: Trent McConaghy

Pascal’s wager would suggest that caution is a pretty good option here, whatever you believe.

This feels like a very collective moment – as around the globalised hyper-connected world, we contemplate this new threat together, in real-time. I am certainly aware of my humanity.

Wash your hands.

Surprising Detail

I read an excellent article off the back of an open question from Paul Graham on Twitter: Reality has a surprising amount of detail, by John Salvatier. It uses building stairs and boiling water to demonstrate that things are almost always more complicated than they seem:

Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with realityBefore you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for… This means it’s really easy to get stuck.

This was a good aperitif to Can Anyone Reshape the State? by Nicolas Colin, which looks at Dominic Cummings’ prospects for reshaping the British state, an undertaking full of hidden complexity if there ever was one. I appreciated his invocation of Gall’s Law, which I hadn’t heard of before:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Nicolas agrees that the state could do with a make-over, but expects that Cummings’ efforts will fail. If so, I am sure that surprising detail will have played a part.

Working backwards

It’s the start of a new year and a new decade, which means that the internet is awash with hopes, plans and resolutions. I don’t have anything specific to share here, but I have taken the opportunity to think about goals and achieving them. I was interested to come across two different approaches of the same name – Working Backwards.

The first is the more intuitive way to Work Backwards, which is to simply think about a large goal, and the time by which you would like to achieve it, then work backwards to identify interim goals and checkpoints along the way. To take a potentially lofty goal and translate it into more short-term actions.

The second way to Work Backwards is also known as Inversion, which I came across by way of Farnam Street (a generally excellent resource). A favourite of Charlie Munger, this involves thinking about the things that might stop you achieving your goal, or of achieving the opposite:

“Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want” — Charle Munger

Pithily described as “avoiding stupidity” (which is “easier than seeking brilliance”), this simple change in perspective can make a problem seem more addressable, and less effortful.

Neither way of Working Backwards is a silver bullet, of course. But as I start 2020, I am glad to have both.


In February this year I read an article about Elephants. Not about the large mammals, but about a system of the same name, concocted by four friends ten years ago or so, and articulated by one of them in a blog post in 2013. It’s a collective system for planning, reviewing and improving one’s life. It piqued my interest, I shared it with a couple of friends, and we actually got round to giving it a try.

After struggling initially to find time to do the required kick-off (The Start), we are now three months in, and so I have had a bit of room for reflection.

The Start, where you spend quite a concentrated period of time with your fellow Elephants talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future, is worth doing regardless of whether you are interested in the long haul process. We spent a couple of days together, during which we were much more candid, vulnerable and open than we had been in the ten or more years we have known one another. And it has been a one-way door – we have been more open and honest ever since. It is funny that it took some random blog post on the internet to let us make that step. But whatever works.

The Start also includes a process of goal-setting, over quite hard to imagine timeframes (up to ten years!) Planning on that timescale isn’t something that I do naturally, so I found it quite difficult. But it was useful to see what I eventually came up with, and to highlight things I should maybe think a little more about.

With our (iterative) goals in hand, we are now in business-as-usual Elephants.

The Weekly Reporting was something which we didn’t necessarily commit to, but which I have managed to keep up. It is now part of my weekly ritual, and I am happy for it. It gives me an opportunity to check in with myself, to reflect back on the week that was, and how I felt about it. I am not sure it always makes interesting reading for my fellow Elephants, but it is always interesting writing for me.

And we have also had our first Quarterly Review, which first and foremost was a great excuse to see my friends after a busy summer. It also highlighted how long ago The Start felt, how much can happen in three months of time. Which is helpful as we look ahead to the next three months or so, as we continue with our Elephants into 2020. We’re not necessarily following the system to the letter, but we have made it work for us so far, and I am glad we are doing it.


Two things that made me think today.

The quoted tweet is from 2015. What was a hilarious punchline four years ago looks like it may become our reality by the end of the year (give or take a ball pool). Certainly disquieting, in terms of where we are. But it is also kind of amazing – anything is possible, in the words of Kevin Garnett.

The second is this article by Tanner Green (hat tip to Matt Clifford), which sketches out a potential table of contents for an imagined history of our time, from 2004 until 2020, which Tanner anticipates will be a type of turning point. It is the coming of age story of my generation. Speculative for sure, and US-centric – I think the primary challenge is knowing which proposed chapters will stand the test of time, and which will simply be quirks of history. And the latter sections have quite a few question marks (“The Trials of Donald Trump, 2018-202? (? pages)”). But always sobering to try and see today through tomorrow’s eyes.

Time is money

Time is money. Kind of.

Spending time is like spending money. You should think carefully about what you spend it on, particularly if you don’t have much.

Saving time is like saving money. It gives you a little more to spend in the future (please do remember to spend it).

Investing time is like investing money. You do it in the hope of future benefits (it doesn’t always pay off, and that is OK).

You can’t borrow time like you can borrow money, though. So do make the most of what you have right now.

Don’t go passing time, you wouldn’t do that with money. Don’t waste it. Spend it.

Modes of transport

I think quite a bit about modes of transport.

Sometimes you are walking someplace. If you know where you are going, and the route, you can work out approximately how long it will take to get there. Perhaps you can walk faster, to get there a little sooner. Maybe you will get lost. But if you know how to get from A to B, you just have to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, until you get there.

If you are travelling by train, things are a bit different. With a train, you just have to make it to the station on time, which might require a less-than-dignified jog. The key is knowing which train to catch, and then when to get off, when to catch another train and when to do something else altogether.

You might have gathered that this is a somewhat disorganised metaphor. People often talk about life as a journey, but I don’t think enough consideration is given to the mode of transport, which should really be framing the way you think about your trip. What makes things difficult is that not everyone is on the same route, and that the appropriate vehicle can change over time (I know, I’m getting a bit lost at this point too, but I guess what I’m saying is that there is no Google Maps and that is hard).

Regardless, I think it is all too easy to get lost in logistics, rather than enjoying the ride*. So I’m trying to get better at that.

*Sorry, this got a bit trite. What I am saying is that I run for trains a lot.