Archive for March, 2017

Conservation of Energy


In physics, the law of energy conservation states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant. It can’t be created or destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. Our understanding of the universe relies on this principle.

It often (not always) applies to people and relationships, too.

If you escalate (cut off in traffic, angry at the gate agent, frustrated at your boss), you’ve just added (negative) energy to a conversation.

If you escalate (enthusiasm, a hug, encouraging words), you’ve just added (positive) energy to a conversation.

Once the energy is added, it has to go somewhere. Often, the person you’re engaging with throws it right back, or even increases it. The problem with taking offense is that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it after you’re done using it. Better to just leave it on the table and walk away. Umbrage untaken quietly disappears. A talented, mature person might take your negative energy and de-escalate it, or even swallow it and permit the conversation to calm down or end. But don’t count on it.

You can ‘win’ a conversation by overwhelming your opponent with energy they can’t handle. But of course, they’re not your opponent and you don’t really win. Being aware of the energy you add or take from interactions is a sophisticated technique that radically changes the outcomes of the conversations that fill your day. Add the good stuff, absorb the bad stuff and focus on the outcomes, not the bravado. Winning isn’t the point.

Infinite Game


Short term thinking sometimes causes us to betray ourselves in the long run. It could be from making a bad, if convenient or safe decision. Often it’s from making no decision. How long is the long run? It’s hard to know, and seems to depend a lot on context. Some people tend to measure the world in flashes, and they’re happy to do something they call generous for a few seconds, as long as they get a payback before a few minutes up. More common and more celebrated are people who play a longer game. They build an asset, earn trust, give before getting, and then, after paying their dues, win.

There’s something else available, though, something called an infinite game.

In finite games (short and long) there are players, there are rules and there are winners. The game is based on an outcome and is designed to end. In the infinite game something completely different is going on. The point is to keep playing, not to win. In the infinite game, the journey is all there is. And so, players in an infinite game never stop giving so they can take. Players in this game throw a slower pitch so the batter can hit it, because a no-hitter shutout has no real upside.

A good mom, of course, always plays the infinite game. But it’s possible to build an organization or even a society that does this as well. Build hospitals and schools instead of forts and barricades…

You probably know people who play this game. You may well have been touched by them, inspired by them and taught by them. The wrong question to ask is, “but how do they win?” The right way to understand it is, “is it worth playing?”

Imagine a Future…

Imagine a future

We’re pretty good at playing out the future in our imaginations when things make sense, and there aren’t difficult, unanswered questions at stake.

A way of defining (non-clinical) anxiety is as, “experiencing failure in advance.” If you’re busy enacting a future that hasn’t happened yet, and amplifying the worst possible outcomes, it’s no wonder it’s difficult move forward.

Sadly our culture doesn’t have an easily found word for the opposite. For experiencing success in advance. For visualizing the best outcomes before they happen.

Writing yourself fan mail in advance and picturing the change you’ve announced you’re trying to make is an effective way to push yourself to build something that actually generates that action. One reason this is difficult is that we’ve got a false humility that pushes us to avoid it. The other is that when we’re confronted with this possible success, we have to confront the fact that we’re not there (yet).

Go ahead, write yourself some fan mail, in advance.

Imagining a future without your sacred cows is hard, but necessary if you want to be thorough, and  reasonably prepared. In business this means groping for what you’d do if the environmental conditions you rely on for success changed. Maybe energy prices fluctuate. Or people no longer read things on paper. Or phones have really good cameras in them. Or an app is developed for what you do? Or the means are invented for you to find your own audience, so you don’t have to be selected, etc. What if we cure diabetes?

On a personal level, imagining the future can be difficult because the future is messy and we’re not focused enough to make sense of it all. The past is neat. People who chronicle the past are connecting the dots, editing what we remember and presenting a neat, coherent arc. We can publish the history of Ottoman Empire in 150 pages, but we’d need ten times that to contain a narrative of the noise in your head over the last hour. Even viral videos are easy to describe after they happen. But if these experts are so smart, how come they can never predict the next one?

We’re not very rigorous in our understanding of what we want. Vague wishes and ideals are nice, but they don’t come with a roadmap. It’s not intuitive, and nobody really trains us to be specific about it. We have fantasies about happiness and contentment, families, social events, a loving and supportive companion, and a nice home. But we don’t do the hard work to sit down and map out exactly what all of that looks like and consists of.

Until we are older. By then we’ve been bounced around enough to have a much more grounded understanding of what we want. Here you are. Given that time travel has yet to be invented, your options are to give in to the inertia and play it out, or shake things up to get what you want.

Imagine a future that looks like you getting what you want out of life. Imagine it in detail. What are the principle parts? Can you devise a systematic way to you can start working to move forward on a couple of them? If one is a nice house, then take the time to learn what that costs, what payments are, what your credit worthiness needs to be, and how much of a downpayment you need. You can map it out. Not saying everything is a simple checklist like this, but you can at least figure out enough to increase your odds. Want that loving and supportive companion? Start by being awesome yourself. What does that look like? What steps can you take to be more awesome?

Or…wait around to be selected. But don’t hold your breath on that one.


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