Pi of Life : Chasing Maxima And Losing It

Life, we have been taught and retaught a million times in a billion different ways, must be lived optimally, our time used efficiently and resources used so they justify the return on investment. And the faster the treadmill moves, the more you try and optimize about more in your work, life, relationships – everything.

Like for so many other things, this gets seriously amplified for entrepreneurs!

Most startup folks I know get more done by breakfast time (whenever that is in an individual thing but you know what I mean!) than most – or at least I used – to achieve in my corporate job in half a week – and sometimes a whole one! Of course, I’m saying this is terms of potential business outcomes, not effort.

So when you add the constant pressures of achieving the most out of everything – time, commutes, money, meetings, people, lunch, phone calls – entrepreneurs can come across as  very focused, stressed and maybe a little heartless individuals.

In any case, here’s some thoughts on why chasing the most efficient all the time may not be the right thing to do.

The Problem of Local Maxima

This is the classical problem one faces oftentimes in engineering, and economics. We get blinded by the current problem and work really hard and solving it well, often times losing sight of whether it is something that will help us in our eventual goal, or serve true needs that we are actually trying to serve.

It happens in life very often. Remember the story about the fisherman in an idyllic little coastal village who wondered why the b-school grad was trying to convince to optimize fishing, make money, have lots of time, so he could buy a little home in an idyllic little seaside village and spend the rest of his time fishing, couldn’t see what he was seeing?

Getting totally taken in by the next promotion cycle after cycle, or every product release and every marketing event being treated as the most critical thing, or getting hooked to hitting a 30% over your annual sales target each time – these addictions make you miss the woods for the trees very easily. You’ll have achieved every little target, won every battle, but in a decade or two wonder which war you were fighting and why.

The same goes for anything you do at any granularity. An eye for detail is great, but equally or more important is an awareness of the context in which you’re doing it. Don’t make yours and others’ lives miserable for something that may be less than needed at all in the first place!

Sure, work better, but remember to not overdo it while forgetting to see why you’re doing it in the first place. Think of the smaller targets you might get fixated on, and consciously step back to revisit the bigger goals that those started out to achieve – measurable or not. The big picture may seem less efficient in parts and tougher to grasp and measure, but unless you get the whole, it is hardly optimal anyhow!

The Power of the Unknown, Unexplored and Undiscovered

Every once in a while, you stumble upon a ‘Eureka!’ moment while on a vacation, a walk, or perhaps in the shower! That’s the thing – the unconscious mind is much better than the rest of us at most things.

If you’re a task automaton focused on extracting the most out of everything, where’s the opportunity for serendipity?

Meeting people without a very specific agenda is inefficient. So is reading up something purely because it’s good, or fun to read, or makes you curious. It might feel like a waste of a good resource to let people explore random stuff 20% of the time.

Truly – the best ideas, thoughts, connections, products – they all come from the unplanned, uncharted, unimagined paths people and lives take.

So at least sometimes, let it flow!

The Fun in Doing Things

This goes back a little to the “Why” bit but is a question worth asking by itself; Why are you doing something if it isn’t fun doing it?

Fun is not the absence of challenges – quite the contrary in fact. But it does include that little extra time you take out to code in an easter egg, or decorate a dish you make – doing a few things that please you even if they don’t really matter to anyone else.

It also means including everyone who is involved directly or indirectly. It means sitting around recounting stories, celebrating wins and cheering yourselves on for the next one. It means getting comfortable with what value you and your offering bring to the table so much that you don’t have to keep proving to everyone that you make no mistakes, waste no time and tolerate no slip.

It means chasing a whim once in a while even when there’s no obvious datapoint, and breaking a rule or two because it helps someone you’re trying to help. I heard about a CEO who used to take customer service calls once in a while. And another I worked with once was the guy to beat at table tennis in office. Efficient? Nope. Useful? Sure. Fun? Hell, yeah!

That’s the thing about efficiency – it’s a good thought that go really astray if it becomes an end and not a means to achieve something. Rather than try and be the optimization-nazi in your life, try and be the goal-oriented but fun, empathetic one. Its nicer. You’ll probably retire saner and more satisfied. And it just plain works better.

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