March 7 2018

Letter 0002 – Statistical Empathy

Letter 2 – Statistical Empathy

Topics: Calm, Road Rage, Empathy

Ashley,

Several times a year I have a bad day.  The days I speak of are ones where I am distracted by a significant life event, and struggle to regain focus.  Perhaps a loved one is sick or in in distress, or, numerous deadlines are stacking up at work and crunch time is here.  Sometimes there is a plumbing problem in the house that will be waiting for me when I get home from a long day, or I’m extremely busy and sick at the same time.  The reasons can be numerous, and there’s no cosmic rule that sets a limit to 1 stressful event at a time.  I feel I can safely say that I have 1 bad day a month, and one terribly bad day a year, on average.  Can you say the same?  I imagine you can, and the following is built on the assumption that, even if the numbers are different, you share this experience.  For me, its something like 10-12 days a year that I am so distracted that I can’t focus on my daily work because of some stress source, and probably 1-2 days where I definitely shouldn’t be at work if I go in.

From my observations as a leader, I’d say that this average holds up for the different crews I’ve been in charge of in my past.  During the times I was in charge of over 30 people, every day was somebody’s bad day.  Part of being a leader is identifying those that are struggling or distracted and helping them either solve their problems or motivate them to regain focus on the here-and-now.  Sure, you might have a day or two where everyone is focused, but you also have several days where 2-3 people are really dragging ass and aren’t contributing.  Of course, some people inherently are more/less stable than the mean, but with enough numbers it worked out to that.  It also meant that every couple weeks I had one person that was having their perfect-storm terrible day where they were really off (think of days where someone was served divorce papers, found out a close friend or loved one died, notified they didn’t get a promotion, etc.).  Interacting with large numbers of people continuously like this gives you an appreciation for emotional statistics.  I never got out pen and paper to solve for the mean/median/mode, or ran a Monte Carlo simulation… I just observed, made a few notes (mental and written).

From my experience there seems to be at least 1 day per year where someone goes to work when they really shouldn’t.  The distractions keep them from focusing on even simple tasks… like driving.  Even without the added distractions of phones, music, or passengers, a distressed person is far more likely to do something dangerous in traffic.  How often do you change lanes without signalling, or completely space out approaching a light and suddenly realize its yellow?  What about slamming on brakes because you didn’t notice the car in front of you slowing down, or miss the speed limit sign?  I know I make some of those mistakes even when I’m having a normal day, but, when I’m having a bad day and I’m emotionally distracted, I’m far more a danger to others on the road.

Now, just working with the 1-day-per-year where things are just terrible, let’s do some quick estimations:

How many cars do you drive past each commute leg?  If you live in a city like I do and commute 20+ miles each way, that number gets very large very fast.  I see thousands of other drivers on the road.  Of course most of them are going the opposite direction, but even in my direction of travel I will encounter several hundred unique vehicles.  In my childhood I lived in a rural area and typical commutes were much more like 5-10 miles, with single lane roads most places, and still you would easily encounter several hundred vehicles going the other way, and several dozen in your direction.  What is my point?

When I drive to work or back home each day, I observe at least one person do something dangerous on the road.  Instead of being angry and making the assumption that someone deliberately cut me off or was trying to hit me, I generally will make the assumption that today was their bad day this year.  When I have a bad day I never have the deliberate intention of hurting anyone, and I appreciate the leniency shown to me by others on the road and in the workplace.  I encourage you to consider this the next time you see something negligent on the road.  On a typical commute I will probably pass 10-20 people going the opposite direction and at least 1 person in my direction of travel that is just having the worst day of their year.

 

Are there terrible drivers that are doing dangerous and negligent things because their priorities are fucked up and they think mass texting or Instagram-ing #Selfie@88mph is the thing to do today?  Absolutely.  Are there BMW drivers that think they are the only cars on the road? Of course.

Fuck them.

 

For the most part though, I encourage you to be observant and be considerate.  Many are just having their terrible day and their driving will improve when their life improves.  When you ride their ass, flip them off, flash high beams at them, etc. you are just adding to the top of the pile and things aren’t likely to improve.  Let them be on their way, be on your way, and empathize with them.  When you have your bad day, you’ll hope for some leniency too.

 

Your Friend,

Jeff

 

 

February 12 2017

Letter 0001 – Everybody Knows…

Letter 1 – Everybody Knows…

Topics: Fear, Groupthink

Tim,

Fear of the unknown drives men to act in the most absurd ways.  Conveniently, we are often able to judge their actions as absurd once we have obtained the knowledge they lacked, and can see that these actions were driven by ignorance.  In the moment, however, fear of the unknown takes on many forms, and even masquerades itself as positive enthusiasm.  Be careful, my friend, that you understand the chain of facts before being swept away in the repetitive groupthink that drives the masses.

You’ve heard the refrains before, and they are generally effective enough that you don’t recognize their nature.  They’re intoxicating and require no thought but your passing affirmation before you parrot it to someone else.  Some are commonplace on a society-wide basis like: “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” generally said after breaking something new, “That food is soo processed and disgusting” implying that it is bad for you or “Everyone knows that Macs are better” when a college freshman purchased their bubbly, plastic iMac.

So, what is wrong with these quick examples?  What harm can there be in just making friendly conversation, and nodding your head?  Maybe, being 30 years old, you never had that old Ford Truck that ran for 25 years… yet you still nod your head or say “yeah” in agreement.  I certainly never found the appeal of the Apple/Macintosh cult-following, though I’ve often shaken my head in agreement back in the early 2000’s when iMacs were semi-popular.  And food?  Everyone likes to at least pretend they know what healthy is, so why not jump on the dogpile when someone points out the “obviously” unhealthy, plastic-wrapped snack that fat guy is munching on?

The answer is simple, my friend, and it is that you condition yourself to blindly accepting new information as fact without any filter, effort, or critique.  When another person, be they stranger or friend, makes an idle assertion like this and you offer even token agreement, they feel validation in their evangelizing act, and you dodge confrontation with one of many fears in doing so:  Fear that disagreement will negatively affect your relationship with that person, fear that you are admitting yourself to be less knowledgeable than your counterpart (and hence, less powerful in a knowledge=power standpoint), and often it can simply be fear that some other awkward social situation may develop if you don’t maintain the current tone and flow of conversation.

My advice, friend, is not to stop and challenge every occurrence like an insufferable, infallible, and annoying counterpuncher.  From a utilitarian standpoint, it can be far more beneficial to take a mental note and look into the subject at hand when time permits.  What DOES “processed” even mean?  Is that always bad?  Why are cars made differently now?  What performance tradeoffs were made when reliability was sacrificed?  Further, WAS reliability sacrificed?  In what ways are Macs superior to PCs?

It can be valuable to spend your time examining these things that are brought up in passing, and to prevent yourself from adding your voice to the droning masses.  Hearing these phrases absently tossed about can be a flag that people are hanging hope on this “fact” to shield themselves from some fear.  Simultaneously, these statements establish that the speaker is knowledgeable and shifts the focus from the validity of their statement to something else in a “Given ‘x’, let’s discuss ‘y’” format.

When time permits, do not accept givens.  This is especially true if action is urged shortly thereafter.  Dare to validate the proof of the assertions you hear, and save yourself from later embarrassment, or worse, moral bankruptcy.  There are no shortages of terrible acts that have been perpetuated throughout human history because, “everyone was doing it” or “everyone thought…”

 

Don’t be everyone.  Be you.

 

Your Friend,

Jeff