The zeitgeist of Silicon Valley can be sampled at any time by dipping into the phrases-du-jour and examining one like a novel specimen.
One such phrase is “forcing function.” A forcing function is simply an event that virtually guarantees another event to occur.
An example would be me declaring that I will write at least one blog post per week (which I am absolutely disavowing) to all of my coachees and friends. Another example would be me rendering my pantry devoid of all potato chips so as to “force” myself into eating healthy.
Forcing functions work.
For that reason, I highly recommend them! If you’re finding yourself low on willpower, set up a forcing function so that the absence of will is irrelevant to you achieving your goals.
Some of the most successful people in life are masters at setting up their environment, such that everything forces them into only the most optimal behaviors. Think Olympic athletes and world-class performers. Their lives are highly regimented, such that free will is sparely exercised in their day-to-day lives.
Hacking your environment this way removes weakness from the equation. At a moment of high motivation, set up a forcing function. Then when the moment comes, and you are drained of discipline, you will have no choice but to follow the righteous path you wisely pre-configured.
Making public declarations, sourcing accountability partners, and ridding our environment of temptation are all examples of forcing functions.
Use your better self to force yourself into the right moves, and you might unlock a whole new level of functioning.
As the credits to the movie “Parasite” rolled, I wondered, “How did the writer, Bong Joon-Ho, compose such a grand masterpiece?”
I conducted some quick research and learned that the movie was at least several years in the making. In 2013, while working on a similar-themed movie titled “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-Ho was encouraged by a theater friend to write a play version that also centered on class conflict.
Bong then proceeded to write a 15-page treatment that became the basis for Parasite. His production assistant then turned that treatment into three drafts of a screenplay. The final act of the movie (no spoilers here) revealed itself to Bong, as he stood at a crosswalk in Vancouver some time later.
Parasite was a natural and gradual build-up of Bong’s interest in the theme of class inequality, beginning with a small 15-pager, further developed by a collaborator, and capped with a good ending a long time later.
In other words, Parasite was not a 120-page screenplay that came to Bong Joon-Ho like a bolt of lightning. Rather, it accumulated like a tumbleweed of notes, thoughts and mini-efforts, ultimately manifesting in a project that could then be further honed.
That is the evolutionary sequence of most objets d’art.
A fertile context receives an organic seed that, with a few basic and logical steps, blossoms eventually into a spectacular flower that seems impossibly related to its ordinary roots.
Our difficulty in comprehending the banality of accomplishment likely stems from a cognitive shortcoming.
As humans, we simply cannot grasp the magnitude of exponential compounding.
If you could fold a piece of standard copy paper in half, how thick would it be? If you could theoretically fold it again on itself, how much thicker (and taller) would the resulting paper be? Clearly, the paper would still be miniscule in height. But how many times would you have to fold the piece of paper until it’s thick enough to span the distance from the Earth to the moon?
Hang on to you hats, here is the answer: only 42 times (hat tip to Douglas Adams). Don’t believe it? Check out this video.
It is my belief that our brains simply can’t crunch that math. We are missing a bit in our processing unit that makes this math intuitive. It just doesn’t jive with us that a paper folded on itself 42 times would be as thick as the distance between Earth and the moon. Yet that is mathematically correct.
Our inability to grasp exponential growth is also perhaps why we don’t intuitively grasp the idea of compound interest (something none other than Albert Einstein dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”).
This explains why we are similarly stumped by the power of compounding when evaluating skill. Imagine an amateur magician practicing sleight-of-hand card tricks. At first, the magician is clumsy, revealing their obvious techniques. But after decades of practice, the magician has mastered their craft. What was once a lame parlor trick suddenly looks like, well, magic!
This is true for skills across the board. When Roger Federer effortlessly lands a tennis ball within a 4-inch window past his opponent, when Alysa Liu lands a quadruple lutz as graciously as a swan gliding on a lake, we are awestruck by the magnitude of their skill. When Bong Joon-Ho types the last period of his screenplay, we wonder how he ever imagined such a fantastical universe of characters and plot twists.
But it is actually explained as a long sequence of skills that naturally compounded on themselves.
We think of greatness as binary — you are either great or you are not. But greatness is gradual — you work your way from unskilled to masterful over a serious of a million strokes. At some point, your skills tip over from “meh” to “woah.”
When we are in the presence of greatness, it feels like magic.
Flip between nearly identical cartoon drawings, and I can piece together an idea of motion. Cycle through millions of illustrated images at 30 frames per second, and I am watching Toy Story.
For mere mortals who wish to achieve greatness, it is critical that we remind ourselves to just keep rowing in the same direction.
When digging an underground tunnel out of jail, it probably matters more that you keep digging in one direction than that you even dig in the right direction! Staying the course, you will eventually break out of the perimeter that ensnares you.
The necessity of perseverance in compounding skill also explains why it’s so helpful to discover and pursue your innate passions. How can we sustain our interest in building a skill unless we care almost irrationally about it?
If 9 out of 10 wannabes drop out of ever wanting to become a great diver/balloon artist/ screenwriter, the key is to be that 10th person who says with a dumb grin, “This is fun, isn’t it?”
The only way to sustain yourself through the boring parts of getting good at any skill is to have an unreasonable drive to continue to get good at it. When skill-building, switching costs are extremely high.
The writing of this blog post is a product of the same path. My post here is a culmination of so many years of thinking about what makes greatness, and I’m still trying to figure it out. What makes people great — is it skill, luck or something else?
So far as I can tell, greatness is mostly little more than the by-product of that most unremarkable of forces: compounding effort.
In all likelihood, you are a mental laborer.
Like a manual laborer — say, a mason mortaring and laying bricks — you are tasked every day with laying mental brick upon mental brick, applying adhesive, and building something of substance.
Frankly, if I were a mental bricklayer, I’m not sure I’d hire myself to build a 2-foot wall.
My daily “job site” probably looks like 3 or 4 bricks half-heartedly tossed about, with the mental laborer almost always out on a really long snack break.
Now, ask me to build a physical wall, and I’m champing at the bit.
I find that I pour myself into physical tasks — rearranging storage cabinets in my garage, fixing door hinges in my house — with total verve. Mental tasks? Can’t find the nerve.
I look on with some amount of envy when I see others handling mental tasks with the stamina of a true workhorse.
I first noticed these types in law school. My class was so chock-full of them, I began to wonder if I was the only “stallion” who yearned to roam the plains free, unencumbered by work demands.
I saw more of this type when I worked at a law firm. That’s probably when I realized legal practice was not for me.
What’s the fun in producing mounds of corporate documents, torturing English grammar to an unspeakable degree? (Apologies to those who practice corporate law for a living. Honestly, if I had any choice in the matter, I’d rather have the capacity to grind that you do).
It is a frightful thing to be a mental dilettante in a world where mental labor is your bread-and-butter.
The solution, it seems to me, is to find that set of variables — the why, what and how of your work —
that, of course, makes it seem least like work.
I’d equate one’s daily productivity to an electrical circuit with numerous potential resistors. I try to set up my day so that I deal with the least amount of resistance possible. I apparently only have so many amps I can pump through the circuit at a time.
So what do I do? To get into the flow of my work, I hack my workflow.
For one, I “journal-as-I-work.”
This means I keep an iPad for journaling, right next to the laptop where I do my actual work. I begin my day by opening up a new journal entry on my iPad. If I don’t feel like working, I journal about that. I let the journal handle my extraneous thoughts, like a mental clearinghouse that keeps my work circuit clear of as much resistance as possible.
Finding the right tooling — as for any craftsman — is key. Find the writing/journaling app that works for you. I like the apps where the entire screen can be rid of toolbars, and where one sentence is highlighted at a time as I write. I also like writing apps with password protection, so that I don’t have to be self-conscious as I write.
I also focus on completing only 4 important things each day. In my journal, I will write something like, “I should really email Sam today.” I will then stop journaling and hopefully attack that one email on my laptop, then report back in my journal: “Done!”
Part of what I’m doing here is delegating executive function. Entrepreneurs do not really have bosses, so you, in effect, have to create your own boss by depersonalizing your executive function.
Your journal is now your boss.
You are still working for yourself, but you’re not trusting your dilettante side to be on the same playing field as your mental laborer side.
Whether it’s working off-site, working with music, working with accountability partners, or journaling-while-you-work (my own term of art), your first task as a mental laborer is to affirmatively design your workflow.
This blog post itself is a manifestation of my workflow today. I knew I wanted to capitalize on the recency and impact of my latest blog post about Kobe Bryant, so I recused myself from home early on a Saturday morning, typed on my iPad in the comfort of my favorite coffeehouse (aka my country club), and journaled as I wrote this.
Taking a step back to review my handiwork today, I think I can safely say to myself that — thanks to my workflow — my work today is less bric-a-brac and more real tangible substance.