Communities vs. Transactions

My wife and I have different ways of looking at the world. It occurs to me today that the ambiguity of these two ways of looking at relationships is often exploited.

I think my wife’s understanding is typical. In her view, people do things for one another because they care about one another. Unless it is some extraordinary request, you don’t count the cost. If someone doesn’t care about you, or you them, then you are not obligated to do anything for them. In fact, it’s likely you won’t help them because you don’t have the feeling of reciprocity from them.

However, one problem with looking at the world in this way is that beyond a certain threshold, the community model moves into a transactional model. Someone asks for something beyond the normal level of reciprocity of the commons, and then you owe them something extraordinary in return. But, it’s tacit. This is never actually said because the transactional model is a different model of interaction, and it undermines the community model.

There are also some cases where there will never be anything in return. But, sometimes the obligation is created across generations, such as taking care of elderly parents with the hope that, one day, your children might take care of you in a similiar manner. These kinds of commitments gives community longevity, so they last beyond the current participants. But, again, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity, and in many cases, expectations won’t get met.

I start from a different place. I assume every interaction is transactional, and I try, to the degree possible, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. The last part is key.

In the transactional model, you’re in the world of commodities and commerce. While there are relationships built on commerce, they are not relationships of regard or community, they are relationships of convenience. The advantage of being autonomous and self-sufficent is you can live in a world of commerce and not have to count the cost, the same way that you live when you live in the community model, except it doesn’t matter whether people care about you or not.

Except, obviously, it does matter whether people care about you. The difference is that I don’t need that to be the basis for my day-to-day interactions with everyone. There is a small group of people that I interact with the expectations of community. But, outside of that small group, it’s the transactional model.

And, here’s why that’s important. When you go to a subreddit, like antiwork, and you see that a boss asks someone to come in on short notice and be a “team” player. That’s a community argument. But, does the boss care about you? Not at all. The relationship is transactional. Working this kind of ambiguity, given how many people subscribe to the community model, is a path for exploitation. It’s really that simple.

Four Hours of Work

“The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximise your time” or “optimise your day”, in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer…

…The other, arguably more important lesson isn’t so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work. That’s an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout. Yes, it’s true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours. But it’s also true that we’re increasingly the kind of people who don’t want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don’t feel we’re being productive. The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run. “

-Oliver Burkeman, “The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done.” OliverBurkeman.com. April 3, 2021.

Do The Easy Bits First

“As soon as you’ve done the easy bit, everything around it becomes easier. This is the way we solve the puzzle.

This is also the way we fix the world…

…If I run into a problem I can’t solve yet, or I encounter a subject that’s too hard for me, I go “Huh, interesting”, and save it for later, or leave it to someone better suited to it.

I don’t give up. This is important. I just move on to something else, often something nearby.

I find a problem I can solve, and then I solve it.

And everything else becomes easier.”

—David R. MacIver, “You have to do the easy bits first.” notebook.drmaciver.com, July 27, 2021.

Strikes me as in the same space as my recent commentary on incrementalism. This is the way, but most problems are not jigsaw or Sudoku puzzles. The temptation with problems without a clear endpoint is to do the minimum necessary.

The Power and Perils of Incrementalism

Start small. When starting something new, it makes sense to cut it down into easily manageable chunks, from anywhere to 5 minutes to an hour, that can be completed with relative ease. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to build up your exercise capacity, writing computer code, reading a textbook, learning some new skill, or whatever. Everything, in the beginning, benefits from making the task small and fun. Completing it gives you a sense of accomplishment, that you are capable of fulfilling the task that previously you did not think you could do.

And, once started, there’s momentum. In a piece of code, you may start off doing something badly, but it works. Then, you’ll see some small way to improve it. Then, another, and another. Eventually, you get to the point where it looks like you knew what you were doing all along, and the task helped you to learn your way there.

But, there is another side of this kind of incrementalism. Invariably, your learn enough that your initial ideas and effort weren’t the best place to start. Or, your goals change. Something tends to happen that makes you want to completely refactor what you have been doing into something new. You’ll want to rewrite the code or essay. You’ll decide, now that you can run, perhaps you should run a marathon, as a challenge.

Partly, incrementalism gets us to the point where we have a skill, and we want to challenge ourselves, to do something bigger than what we could have imagined before we started. This is great, when it happens.

But, another thing sometimes happens too. We get complacent. Rewriting the code is a lot of work, and incrementalism is all about work, but in small size chunks. But, getting yourself in a mental mindset to redo your incremental work is the same as when you start out trying to learn something you didn’t know before. Except, now you have a better understanding of how much work is required, and it will be harder to just want to do incremental changes. You’ll want to do more, because you have the capability to do more. However, this desire also has a tendency to cut into your enthusiasm.

Why refactor the code, when what we have is “good enough” for most of our purposes? The calculus of benefit tends to run this way. Further, the more people are involved, the more inertia will set-in. This is why revolutions always require vanguards because its at the vanguard that the enthusiasm for wholesale change is nurtured and acted upon.

Play Your Own Game

1. Judge less.

At least half the people doing things with money that you disagree with are playing a different game than you are. You probably look just as crazy in their eyes.

2. Figure out what game you’re playing, then play it (and only it).

So few investors do this. Maybe they have a vague idea of their game, but they haven’t clearly defined it. And when they don’t know what game they’re playing, they’re at risk of taking their cues and advice from people playing different games, which can lead to risks they didn’t intend and outcomes they didn’t imagine.

-Morgan Housel, “Play Your Own Game.” Collaborative Fund. May 13, 2021

Weekly Review

“Every Friday afternoon, I’d send my boss a short email with three categories:

* The work I had completed that week

* What I was working on, including any deadlines that may have shifted or obstacles I’d encountered

* What I was waiting on—that is, tasks that I’d completed, but require sign-off from my boss or contributions from someone else

Over the years, I refined the practice. I used a timer to ensure that the weekly update would not take longer than 15 minutes to write. I used a simple template where I could pop in information, so as to expedite the process.

-Khe Hy, “The 15-minute weekly habit that eased my work anxiety and made my boss trust me more.Quartz. April 20, 2017.

Not just a good idea for your boss either. I used to find using a template for a weekly review helpful to hold myself accountable as well.

Suggestions for Good Health

Blue Zones is a good place to start. However, if I were to give advice to my younger self, I’d focus on:

  • Sleep: Get a full night’s sleep and take a midday nap for a total of eight hours.
  • Food: Limit eating to four consecutive hours a day. Eat mostly plants. Drink powdered psyllium and water to stave off hunger feelings in the off hours.
  • Exercise: Walk/run for 16,000 steps a day or 8 miles, incorporating a full range of movement. Include some weight-bearing activity or physical training twice a week.
  • Social: Cultivate a social environment for flourishing among family, friends and your larger social circle. Be a positive, creative person and look for the same in others. Relentlessly prune relationships that are predominantly negative.
  • Being & Doing: Find something to do that leaves the world slightly better than you found it and promotes good sleeping, eating, exercise and social habits. The Buddhist idea of the Noble Eightfold Path is a useful model of how to be and what to do.