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To be great, be good repeatably (stephsmith.io)
435 points by stephsmithio on June 12, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

On habit building- If you're like me and have tried time and time again on enforcing new habits and failed time and time again: try mindfulness. It's easy to not live in the moment, especially so when a tech centered world makes it so easy to live vicariously. It's okay to make lists of things you want to accomplish and do, but it's not okay to do that often and not do what you originally set out to do. It will become cyclic.

Be mindful in the morning and reflect on it before you go to bed. Be in the present and realize you are the one making the decision whenever the situation arises. Taking action or not, be present and mindful of your decision.

I've found simple google calendar reminders put me in the situation where I have to make the decision to take action or not. They don't require any interaction (apple reminders will stay until they're cleared) and they tap me on the wrist and present an option: Run? Write? Work on project?

> "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich"

That almost sounds like sarcasm to me. I currently live in South East Asia and you know who gets up early every morning grinding 12 hour shifts with little to no vacation? The million of poor people who don't earn much more than "survive" money.

Okay, probably it's about context so if you are in a first world country you just work hard and the wealth will come pouring in? Still sounds like sarcasm tbh.

Of the top of my head the five most well-off people I personally know didn't work harder than the average and I am sure wouldn't say so about themselves, either.

> if you are in a first world country you just work hard and the wealth will come pouring in? Still sounds like sarcasm tbh

No. Later in the writeup, the author talks about 'Habit of Progression' which adds more context:

> "There is one thing to clarify: this habit of progression must come with the right inputs. Being consistent with something leading you in the wrong direction will unsurprisingly lead you in the wrong direction. So if this is the way you are constantly moving (excluding short periods of local minima), pivot until you determine what the right inputs are."

So it's not just about working hard. It's about working hard in the right direction by analyzing the outcome of efforts and using it to refine the approach to move forward.

To quote J. Cole, "The good news is you came a long way. The bad news is you went the wrong way"

This is what I was thinking too.

Ed: And also, when you look back and see inevitable progression, it might just be hindsight bias.

I spent the last few days writing this piece as I was reflecting and frustrated with my short-term progress (or lack there of). This led me to consider what I think greatness even is, which was almost therapeutic to think through.

Curious to know what people think about this. Can "greatness" really be achieved quickly?

While I agree with much of your article, it's interesting to me that you cite this tweet:

Building products, writing, and painting are not mental excercises, they are physical ones.

Reading to improve is like watching someone else workout – it does almost nothing for you.

To run better, run. To paint better, paint. To write better, write. To build better, build.

I certainly agree that practice is the core of all increase in skill. However, I've found that the differentiation factor of my skills comes from being someone who reads, who looks for better ways to run. From being someone who constantly reflects on the practice that occurs. This is something that's well supported by research (the notion of deliberate practice).

Deliberate Practice: http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracti...

OP here. This is a good point. While I certainly think there is value in reading _how_ to do things better, IMO there is an upper limit on this. I more often see people reading about X, Y, or Z, never to actually take action, rather than the other way around. I also think you learn iteratively by doing.

However, I do agree that it is necessary to take a step back and learn from others along the way.

I write fiction in my spare time, and at least anecdotally, I think the obsessive readers, the most well-read folks in the workshops/classes I've done have consistently been the best writers. I know writers who have written millions of words, but don't read enough to pick up an intuitive sense of what good looks like.

I'm often astonished, when I read old interviews with great writers in The Paris Review's Writers at Work series, just how well-read the masters are. They've read everything. Soaked it all in. And writers borrow, copy, steal, adapt, all the time.

Of course, I agree with the heart of the matter, that just doing the thing is most important, but I do wonder if it is sufficient.

Are you suggesting that scientists shouldn't read about the latest developments in their field? They should just start from scratch and try to figure out everything without any prior knowledge or learning from others?

Clearly she is not suggesting that, as nobody reasonable would ever suggest that.

> Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith.

My take is there is reading as doing and reading as watching. Reading the research of other scientists is reading as doing. Reading about how other people become scientists is reading as watching.

Why not both? Practice is useless without direction, direction is useless without practice.

Everything I've achieved has been because I read voraciously about it as I was learning.

A lot of practice that's not directed properly is useless, especially for complex mental skills. For example, I learned Java's stream syntax to the point where I wrote an article that thousands of people read. Do I remember a single thing? No, because I don't use Java every day. I just remember that it sucked compared to LINQ because every collection type had a different method to turn it into a stream. That's it. From weeks of study, practice, and an article. Mostly a complete waste - if it didn't build into my rep, it would be a complete waste.

I agree. I had significant better results in diverse areas as leading teams, cooking and body building after reading books in those areas.

I see a couple ways to become great quickly.

1. Put in an extreme amount of effort to maximize the goodness you create and minimize the amount of bad.

2. Have extreme events impact your life (by no fault of your own) in a short period of time.

3. Change how you measure greatness.

Ten years ago, I could not see myself in the life that I have now. Everyday I accomplish things which would have been impossible for my previous self to do. I quit smoking, drinking, and manage chronic illness. I exercise, garden, clean the house, and play with my dog. I earned the love of my wife and the respect of my friends. I now have a family who loves me and is proud of me and I feel like I actually have options. Every day I do great things, not in comparison to yesterday but certainly compared to my previous self.

It sounds like you've built yourself a wonderful life. I think people really underestimate the greatness of doing seemingly mundane things consistently. All the things you mentioned seem trivial to an outsider, but over the course of a life, they make your whole existence so much much more pleasant.

Investing time in a marriage, or parenting, or working out seems less important than just about anything at the moment you have the opportunity to do it, but lots of people get divorced and it makes them very unhappy. Lots of people are estranged from their children and it makes them very unhappy. Lots of people suffer from health problems directly related to diet and exercise.

Obviously there are lots of things we can't control and I certainly don't mean to suggest that anyone who gets divorced, etc. brought it on themselves, but for how mundane most people consider these things, becoming a fit, healthy 60 year old who is happily married to a wife of multiple decades with fulfilled adult children is really quite exceptional. I think that would fit most people's idea of a "great" outcome, but in my experience, people don't really strive toward that on a daily basis, because the daily building blocks don't seem important.

From what I've seen as an attorney and tax accountant, greatness in a profession is also more closely related to getting the little things right day after day than any sort of heroic undertaking. There's always a place for heroics, but I think most people would be surprised at how often the little things get messed up, and how easy it is to look quite competent by just doing the seemingly mundane things consistently.

>Investing time in a marriage, or parenting, or working out seems less important than just about anything at the moment you have the opportunity to do it.

I feel the complete opposite. The only reason I do the other things is so I can be good at those 3 things (and a few others in a similar category).

Can you expand a bit on your points? 2 and 3 are not so clear to me, but I'm quite interested in all 3 actually. Seems like you built a great life :) Congrats!

I re read DF Chambliss's The Mundanity of Excellence from time to time to reflect on greatness too.


The whole thing is great (har har) but one passage has always resonated with me ...

> When Mary T. Meagher was 13 years old and had qualified for the National Championships, she decided to try to break the world record in the 200-Meter Butterfly race. She made two immediate qualitative changes in her routine: first, she began coming on time to all practices. She recalls now, years later, being picked up at school by her mother and driving (rather quickly) through the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, trying desperately to make it to the pool on time. That habit, that discipline, she now says, gave her the sense that every minute of practice time counted. And second, she began doing all of her turns, during those practices, correctly, in strict accordance with the competitive rules. Most swimmers don’t do this; they turn rather casually, and tend to touch with one hand instead of two (in the butterfly, Meagher’s stroke). This, she says, accustomed her to doing things one step better than those around her—always. Those are the two major changes she made in her training, as she remembers it.

Dedicated, deliberate practice of qualitative improvements, frequent direct comparisons of oneself to one's peers and exemplars and a singular S.M.A.R.T. goal. That's all it takes to be excellent.

I did not read your blog post (I'm in HN comment reading mode) but I will give a couple of pieces that I found to the puzzle.

In The Tim Ferriss experiment the (in)famous (?) Tim Ferriss "learns a new language within 3 days" [1]. I put that in quotes because it is really up for debate. However, he had a very very clear goal: come off across as passable during an interview.

While this is only 3 days, Warren Buffet says something similar with focusing on your 5 biggest goals and leaving anything else aside [2].

The point is:

- Be consistent (I saw that word as well while skimming your blog post)

- Only try to attack the goal direclty, since it is very likely that attacking your goal directly is possible. Tim Ferriss could've gone to classes to learn Tagalog or watch movies to learn it. However, there are better methods than that in service to his goal.

- Focus relentlessly on your most important goals (a tip from Warren Buffet).

By doing these 3 things, I believe that greatness can be achieved quickly, provided that you set a sharp definition of it. Achieving greatness in the eyes of others, however, is a very different feat and a bit of a fickle / unhealthy one, in my opinion (e.g. just see the reactions to what Elon Musk is doing, I think he's great, but I'm pretty sure he has naysayers).

[1] https://www.fluentin3months.com/tim-ferriss/ (an interview about his experience)

[2] https://constantrenewal.com/buffett-5-25-rule/

Re Elon Musk, this statement in the article is something I always consider when I think of what he has achieved:

> Ask yourself whether you’d like to spend your days, weeks, months, and years in a constant uphill battle.

Opinions of what anyone may have of Elon personally aside, I think any rational person has to be in awe of all he's been able to achieve. Yet the hours he puts in 7 days a week, and what the constant stress-levels must be like... I'm not sure I'd want to swap places with him.

No way I would want to swap with any of the big CEOs. I don’t enjoy business enough to do it 24/7. Same for being leader of a country. No way I would want to do that.

No way I'd like to swap with most of the big CEOs, but I would like to swap with Elon Musk, for the simple reason - the former are businesses, mostly arbitrary to me (and, arguably, to them). In case of Musk, his businesses are all just vehicles to achieve goals (pushing humanity out into space, electrification of transport to combat climate change) - goals that strongly resonate with me. I think Musk can pull off the workload he does only because he cares for those goals, not for business.

I have not had time to go through it all in careful detail but what I have read so far has helped frame this exact topic I have been struggling with as well. So thank you very much for this!

I can imagine greatness achieved quickly through combining previously-accrued experiences into a new domain. Often people are steadily striving for "goodness" in multiple areas over many years - maybe one subject as a formal education and another as a hobby. Then you meet a problem that combines the two and you are on the fast(er) track to "greatness". Anecdotally, most people I consider great are generalists with highly diverse interests which seems to support this idea.

> Can "greatness" really be achieved quickly?

Yes, but rarely. Quick and great can't be expected. Only consistency can be expected to produce greatness, and even then, not always. But like you said, it always comes back to the definition of greatness and that can be defined in different ways, and it should be, depending on what we're talking about.

For example, it's not likely, but it is possible for a new film maker to make a film that wins a prestigious award their first try and in less than a few months. But, I don't think most filmmakers could or should expect the same result. It takes most filmmakers many years and many tries (that "being good repeatedly" that you talk about) to make an award winning film. Event then, there are people who think the most highly awarded films are not great.

On the other hand, something less subjective would be much more difficult to achieve "greatness" in quickly... such as physical fitness competitions. Somebody who takes up even the most normal activity, such as running, isn't going to quickly be able to beat athletes who have been training for years longer at a 100 meter sprint.

I don’t think it’s worth the effort trying to pin down what greatness is. I mean, what’s the point? Does being “great” make you a better person? Who is giving out gold stars for greatness? Why does it matter?

I think you need to be wary of focusing on outcomes, life has a habit of getting in the way.

Possibly. But the path to greatness is largely dependent upon how you try to get there. "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." - Vince Lombardi Jr.

This post is amazingly written. I have been thinking about things related to this topic and how to implement them in my life. It's been only a few months since I actually started thinking about this. I realised that I am an average person but slight burst of decent things in time. And to become great I have to work towards it.

I have learnt that building habits is a big part of this. You need to build good habits to actually reap the benefits of the compounding. My thinking of habits came from Anki. While reading up on Anki, I noted the benefits of compounding and consistent effort.

What I am still trying to achieve is the iterating process. To figure out the right inputs to get the desired output. Once I saw there are a lot things that I need to do parallelly, I created a schedule to work on them everyday, but that was very difficult to follow. Something or the other was left out. So i had to drop a few things from the routine. I am still trying to find a good way to experiment and find the right path. This blog post gave words to what I am trying to achieve, and how I can approach it.

Thank you for writing and sharing it.

OP: Thank you for sharing your perspective! I think we all struggle with this, which is one of the reasons I wrote the article. We are taught to believe others are born great, but really everyone struggles to get from A to B. Focusing on a few things that are more important (ie: cutting out noise) certainly helps. Another book which I didn't mention in the article is Essentialism, which may be a good book for the particular obstacles you're facing.

IMHO I've found greatness is also very much a result of environment as well. Not just in the "you are the five people you interact with most" kind of thing, but also in the kind of bounds you face when shipping greatness. It definitely impacts your scalability curve. Shipping a great product and having business impact is kind of an O(1) deal; people see the great product, git blame the source or look at release notes, and find out you're behind it, and then think you're good at programming. Shipping a bad product because of business or technical org constraints and then having to explain to people the design decisions and compromises you had to make is very much not an O(1) deal. I think the former definitely lets people stand on their own two feet and merits, while the latter concentrates power in those who control perception.

I wonder what Alexander the Great would think about this. Did he think he achieved greatness? Was he happy and satisfied? Or did he suffer from the impostor syndrome like many "greats" of today?

He had historians follow him around, so greatness in posterity was clearly important to him. Objectively he inherited the worlds best army and a next door neighbor with an empire hanging by a thread. All he had to do was push. The fact that he gets to own the word “great” owes more to his understanding of history than any inherent greatness.

Whether he was happy or satisfied or suffering imposter syndrome feels like attaching modern sentiment to classical times. Dude murdered people by hand a lot and drank himself to death. I don’t think he was happy or satisfied, and I think he would laugh at the concept of imposter syndrome.

> Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, "Is it not worthy of tears," he said, "that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?"


(But as far as we know he did think he was great. "Only sex and sleep make me remember I am mortal", "If I were not Alexander I would wish to be Diogenes", and so many other lines suggest he thought he was awesome, note those quotes are my paraphrasing.)

Bunch of punks - Caesar cried at Alexander's grave too.

Still, to me, Alexander's father was the man who made Alexander, so he was greater. (I don't mean by birth, the army and previous conquests)

Many people don't know that Alexander was tutored by Aristotle! So yeah, he had a great upbringing.

His father spent a lot of effort facilitating that as well, so he really was a pretty cool guy.

Yeah he even was proud when (as story goes) Alexander at a very young age managed to ride a horse.

In my personal experience, many people (including yours truly) give up because we have vague ideas of what exactly great is. What exactly does it mean by being a great programmer? Peer adulation? LOCs per day ? I believe that until anyone finds a decent enough definition of what great is for him/herself, it is rather hard psychologically to achieve anything resembling greatness. "If you can't measure it, you can't change it" Peter F Drucker.

>“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” - Outliers

Yeah, billions of hard working people would disagree. Tons of factory workers woke before dawn (and worked 10 hours or more) and never got anywhere...

He clarifies it later, saying that you must in the right direction. His whole article is written from 1st world perspective, imho.

She* :)

I would agree that the concepts are relevant to all. Certain parts may be more difficult for those in varying circumstances, but I think the core principles are still valid: 1) Iterating until you find a "good" path 2) Working towards that "good" consistently

This is why Shaq is the Big Aristotle

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