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Life as an Engineering Exercise

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Consider your smartphone. Specifically, consider the various engineering decisions baked into its design.

The engineers can make the screen bigger. More screen real estate means better video viewing.
But then it won’t fit in your pocket as well. It will also be tougher to operate with one hand. Battery life will decline, too.

They can increase battery life by increasing battery size.
But that bigger battery will make it heavier.

They can use more plastic and less glass. That will make it lighter and possibly cheaper.
But that probably means reduced durability.

They can make it faster by including a stronger processor.
But that will reduce the battery life. It will also increase operating temperature.

Your phone’s design balances many trade-offs: weight, safety, size, usability, power consumption, privacy, cost, etc. Tuning any of these knobs affects the others. The important question facing phone (or automobile, or home, or aircraft, or any other) engineers is: “Which knobs should we optimize and which knobs should we satisfy?” That is, which dimensions should we tune as well as we can, knowing that we’ll have to settle for acceptable on all the others?

You and I can think about our lives in the same terms. Which dimensions should I satisfy? Which dimensions should I optimize?

Have you ever known somebody who spends every spare moment exercising? Or eating? Or chasing women?
Have you ever known somebody who thinks about nothing but acquiring money? Or spending money?
Have you ever known somebody who spends every moment working? Or resting?
They have optimized their life for one of these dimensions. And maybe they’ve acquired a great big pile of money; or enjoyed a lot of food, leisure, or romantic partners. Maybe they’ve amassed status at work or around town. But how did it affect the other knobs? What tradeoffs were required?

Many human life dimensions-food, health, romance, rest, work, money-share these characteristics:
They can satiate temporarily, but not permanently.
In moderation they are healthy. But too little or too much is harmful.
Finally, in the extreme (when maximized) they can be a form of idolatry.

All these dimensions, these knobs, are to be satisfied-not optimized.
Save enough money to feed and shelter yourself and those for whom you’re responsible. Build in a lot of slack, taking care of today and tomorrow.
Work hard at something important and valuable. Then rest and play hard with the people you love and enjoy most.
Eat enough tasty, nutritious food to maintain your strength. Then stop. Any more than that is making you weak and ill.
Exercise enough to keep your body strong enough for all this.

If these dimensions are to be satisfied, that still leaves the question of what to optimize?

Warren Buffett spent most of his life optimizing for net worth. He was very effective in that pursuit-more than once recognized as the wealthiest man on the planet. In the Buffett biography The Snowball by Alice Schroeder, Buffett has some comments on the life engineering question. Consider his advice:

“When you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you.

I know people who have a lot of money, and they get testimonial dinners and they get hospital wings named after them. But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them. If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.

That’s the ultimate test of how you have lived your life. The trouble with love is that you can’t buy it. You can buy sex. You can buy testimonial dinners. You can buy pamphlets that say how wonderful you are. But the only way to get love is to be lovable. It’s very irritating if you have a lot of money. You’d like to think you could write a check: I’ll buy a million dollars’ worth of love. But it doesn’t work that way. The more you give love away, the more you get.”

My experience, along with my study and observation of others’, convinces me that Mr. Buffett is correct.

A well-lived life is optimized for relationships. Your children, your spouse, your parents and sisters and brothers; your church, your business, your friends, and of course your Maker: the best thing on tap here on planet Earth is relationships.

Satisfy health. Satisfy money. Satisfy appetites. Optimize relationships.

Who is Worthy of Your Attention

Your attention is a precious resource. Many people want some of it. They want to persuade you to adopt an opinion; they want to sell you something; they want to entertain you (long enough to sell you something).

Many of the people vying for your attention are professional, highly trained, highly skilled persuaders. Some have full-time staff devoted to grabbing and keeping your attention. And they may not have your best interest in mind.

In a world where information and entertainment choices are growing exponentially, how do you decide what’s worthy of your attention? How do you distinguish the valuable from the nonsense? You don’t have time to research everyone’s credibility. You need some heuristics to save you some time.

Below are some things you might consider when evaluating how to spend your attention:

  • What is this person’s incentive? Does persuading me (or keeping my attention while an advertiser can attempt to persuade me) affect their bank account either directly or indirectly?
  • Is this person asking me to apply reason? Or do they want me to react emotionally?
  • Is this person emphasizing our differences and asking me to think in terms of us vs. them? Or is this person emphasizing our similarities and asking me to cooperate? One favorite tactic of infotainers is to divide people into groups, label them, and then pit them against one another. It sounds like this: “Group x believes ABC” or “group y wants to xyz”.
  • Is this person screaming? Or are they speaking calmly and rationally?
  • Is this person encouraging me to be a better, stronger, higher character person? Or is this person appealing to my base animal instinct?
  • Does this person claim to speak for some other person or organization? If so, are they self-appointed?
  • Does this person have any expertise on the subject in question?
  • Does this person want me to feel empowered – able to help myself and others? Or do they want me to feel like a helpless victim whose problems are somebody else’s fault?

The next time you find your TV tuned to the news (although it applies to radio, magazines, newspapers, and the interwebs, too), ask yourself these questions.

What’s your excuse?

Just can’t seem to find time to exercise?

Don’t take no for an answer

Les Brown on desire.

4 Things I’ve Learned as a Software Engineer

1) Begin with a clear goal.

Software developers often work from vague specifications. We’re used to it. It doesn’t surprise us. We’re also used to reworking the products of vague requirements.

In software development, ‘firming up the spec’ is one step that’s going to happen. The question is when. It can happen on purpose at the beginning of the project. This rarely happens. When it does, it usually leads to a smooth implementation with a good final product. Let’s call this scenario ‘focused execution.’

It can happen incidentally during the course of the project. This is more likely. This usually leads to some rework, some wasted effort, but an acceptable product. Often the product can be improved in the future. Let’s call this scenario ‘incremental improvement.’

It can also happen at the end of the project. This can go two ways. One is, “We should have done x. After all that effort, it’s finally clear what we should do. Great – let’s do it.” The result is lots of wasted effort, lots of rework, but often a good (but late) product. Let’s call this scenario ‘do-over.’ It’s fairly common in the software business.

The other way ‘firming up the spec’ can happen at the end of the project is, “We should have done x. Too late. Let’s just give up on the whole thing.” This is also common. It happens all the time in undisciplined software shops. After all that time and effort, it’s finally clear what everyone wants. And it’s too late. Let’s call this scenario ‘regret’.

The same is true in life. If you invest the effort to clarify your goals (focused execution), you can avoid the wasted effort of do-overs and the pain of regret. Note: this doesn’t mean you won’t make some adjustments as you learn more (i.e. incremental improvement). In life as in software development, things seldom work exactly as planned. But generally speaking, the clearer and earlier you make your goal, the better your result will be.

2) Setup your environment.

For a long time, when I began a project, my inclination was to just start with no planning or preparation. I didn’t like configuring my editor, arranging my files, setting my OS settings, etc. I would often use whatever tools were installed by default (think notepad editor).

I used to do the same thing on physical projects. Instead of taking the time to get out a ladder, I’d spend twice that time installing a light from a too-short chair. Instead of retrieving a real screwdriver, I’d labor away with my swiss army knife, jabbing my hands every few seconds. All that to avoid a few minutes to retrieve the right tools. That was foolish.

I no longer do that. Now, I’ll take the time to acquire and configure good tools and arrange my work space. The productivity gains far outweigh the time invested in setting up. Work is easier and more enjoyable that way, too.

3) Tighten your feedback loop.

Software development is heavy on experimentation. So is life. There is a lot of ‘test – observe – correct – repeat’. You need to know if what you’re doing is getting you closer to your goal. The sooner you can enter this loop, the sooner you can begin correcting course where necessary. The tighter you can get this loop, the faster your work will go.

I’ve worked on projects where (largely for security reasons, but also for bureaucracy reasons) this debug loop was painfully slow. There were many barriers that inhibited me from testing my work quickly. This created a big gap between the ‘correct’ and ‘test’ items in my loop. That gap makes it difficult to create momentum toward the goal.

That’s no way to work. Now, whenever possible I write a pushbutton script (basically a program that tests my work and tells me whether it’s correct) to test my work for me. This way, I know almost immediately whether my changes produced the desired effects. I might complete 20 debug loops per hour this way.

Life is like that also. If your goal is to improve your health, you might begin by switching your exercise from walking to swimming. Or maybe you replace your morning cereal with a protein shake. Or maybe you go to bed 1 hour earlier. Regardless, if you have to wait months between appointments for a doctor to tell you how it’s working, it’s going to be a long process of experimenting to find an optimal solution for you.

Instead of waiting for your doctor for feedback, what if you bought a fat caliper and measured your body fat percent periodically? Or maybe you could track your resting heart rate? Whatever metric you’re trying to optimize, the shorter your feedback loop, the sooner you can correct where necessary.

Note: this doesn’t mean that all feedback must be acted upon immediately. Some things take time to work. You may have to persist through a period of recalibration. That’s fine. The point is that by working in this tight loop you have the information to decide if a correction is in order.

4) Get started.

In software development, there are many distracting tasks that – while moderately productive – are not the best use of time. There’s always something else to do instead of actual work – something that gives the illusion of moving you closer to your goal. There’s another article to read about how to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. Or some email to process. Or some meeting to attend. There’s always that temptation to avoid starting.

The best engineers I know avoid this temptation. Every day they sit down and open their editors and get started.

Until you’ve begun, inertia is your enemy. If you want to achieve your goal, you must defeat that inertia every day by getting started. And every time you defeat it, it becomes easier to defeat it the next time. Soon, you’ve developed the habit of getting started. Also, after you get started inertia is working for you instead of against you. It’s easier to keep making progress than to stop. Inertia has become your ally.


Put all this together – clear goals, conducive working conditions, tight feedback loop, and positive inertia – and you will be a productivity machine.

Have To vs. Can

Want to excel at work? Want to delight your customers? Whenever you think, “How much do I have to do?” replace that with “How much can I do?”

How to make more money

There are so many angles for getting/keeping money. Legitimate investments and arrangements like stocks, bonds, options, futures, derivatives, commodities, arbitrage; real estate, commercial real estate, REITs; savings accounts, IRAs, Roth IRAs, HSAs, 401Ks, 403Bs, 529s; I could fill up this page with various financial instruments intended for wealth maximization. And that’s not a bad thing. I’ve spent considerable time and effort learning about these instruments and employing them for my own ends. They have their place.

There are also schemes, cheats, and tricks. These mostly involve fooling customers, cheating on taxes, skipping out on debt, etc. These are for losers. You can’t prosper long term by cheating.

Over the long term, your economic reward will likely be dominated by one component: the value that you deliver to others. (There are exceptions – Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc.) Don’t waste your energy looking for a shortcut. Stop trying to work the system. If you want more, earn more. Focus on maximizing the value you provide to others and the money will follow.


Take a moment and think of some great achievements. Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, athletic victories, wealth, business, service, philanthropy – any fields you like. What accomplishments do you admire most?

Now consider the characteristics of the people behind those achievements. What did they have in common? Superior intelligence? I doubt it. Access to capital? Try again. Good looks? Great education? Luck? Not likely.

Behind any great achievement you’ll find a person or people who didn’t quit. They may have been smart, or rich, or beautiful, or strong, or lucky. Or maybe they were none of those. But I bet they were persistent.

Anyone can set a goal. And anyone can have enthusiasm for that goal – for a while. But few choose to persist through setbacks, ridicule, failure, or overwhelming odds. Few can muster the mettle to carry on for years, or even decades, not knowing if they’ll ever prevail.

What about you? Do you have a fire burning within that fuels you toward your goal through all circumstances? Can you carry on when everyone expects you to fail, and you wonder if they’re right? Can you carry on like that for years? For the rest of your life?

Here’s an exercise.

  1. Complete this sentence: I will ____ or die trying.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.
  4. Pursue it until you get there or die.

Figure out what you will do or die trying. Articulate it. Keep it on your mind. Do this and I bet you’ll find energy and guts you didn’t know you had.

Whenever you feel like quitting, ask yourself, “Am I dead?” If the answer is “No”, don’t.

Dale Carnegie Course Review – Wrap Up

I first read How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1996.  I did all the stuff it said, made a lot of friends, got along better with people, etc. etc.  But after a while I began to get tired.  It was taking too much energy to be positive all the time.  I got tired of remembering names.  I couldn’t always think of sincere compliments.  I decided that maybe this Carnegie stuff wasn’t for me.

Later I learned that several people whom I admire recommend the Carnegie course.  (If you read the latest Warren Buffet bio, he actually performed an empirical evaluation of the techniques, complete with statistical analysis of his results.)  I decided to give it another chance.  But this time I’d keep in mind something I learned from Stephen Covey: the difference in techniques and principles.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey points out that much of the modern self help literature focuses on techniques.  Say this, write that, go there, watch those, dress this way, etc.  The problem is that techniques can only help so much.  Real permament change must be grounded in principles.

My problem before was that I was treating the Carnegie material as techniques instead of principles.  I was trying to do those things instead of being the kind of person for whom those things come naturally.  As my enthusiasm waned, I burned out.

The Carnegie course is like anything else – what you get out depends on what you put in.  If you attend and then forget about it, it won’t help you.  If you attend, study the material, commit to it, and work on it, who knows where you can go.  This time I’m determined to practice this until it sticks.  Not until I’m good at it, or it’s easy, or fun, or I’m tired of it.  I’m working at it until it becomes my nature.

Carnege Session 12

Dale Carnegie Course Review – Session 12

Session twelve of the Carnegie course was graduation.  Guests were invited (I brought Molly).  We each spoke about:

  1. What we originally expected from the course
  2. How we’ve applied the principles and how they’ve helped us
  3. Where we see ourselves in six months

Our instructor spoke some kind, encouraging words about each of us in turn.  Finally, we each got a certificate.

Carnegie Session 11

Carnegie Course Wrap Up