Sunday, June 26, 2016

Health is not a virtue

I was a healthy child. I had a healthy immediate family, too. We all got sick occasionally, and my sisters and I have all broken a bone at some point, but we just weren't the sort of people to have chronic ailments or other serious health concerns. At least, that's the best I could muster to explain my surprise each time when, over the years, we've had cases of autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression, and cancer. So I'd like to correct my impression that health, like other positive qualities, is a virtue.

Health is not a virtue.

Health can be a consequence of conscientious behavior, but is not a reward for it. Taking meticulous care of oneself might not be enough to ensure good health, so even those who work hard for their health cannot take 100% credit for it. As far as my thinking goes, I'm going to try to detach the fortuity of good health from the virtuous behavior of creating a healthy environment for myself and the people around me.

Beauty is not a virtue.

I feel pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes of beauty, but what's the point? To give people something nicer to look at? What I really want is the value people ascribe to those who are beautiful. What if instead we valued people who make others feel good about themselves, free to admit their insecurities without fear of judgement?

Youth is not a virtue.

Somehow, as a child, I had the never-fully-expressed, even to myself, idea that old people were that way because they deserved to be. That I, of course, would never be old, because I am young and therefore deserve to be. I remember the first time I saw a photograph of my grandfather when he was my dad's age—that was the first time I really understood that (if all goes well) I would sometimes be my parents' age, and they my grandparents' age, and I too would grow wrinkly and white-haired. I would like to think of the elderly not as a different species, but as a wise group of people whom I would like to join and from whom I can already be learning.

Intelligence is not a virtue.

My intelligence has been a central part of my identity for as long as I can remember. I like a mental challenge much more than a physical one (although that's no longer as true as it once was), and I'd much rather read and think than speak and do. But when wanting to appear intelligent keeps me from speaking up when I don't understand, or trying something hard that I might fail at, not only do I lose out, but so does everyone else who might benefit from my input. Instead of valuing intelligence as a virtue initself, I propose that the truly virtuous are those who put effort into solving real problems, and who make it easier for others to do so as well.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The three stages of correcting failure

James Clear recently wrote a blog post on what he calls the three stages of failure, which I found quite insightful. I'd like to respond here, so I'll briefly review his definitions and advice, and at the end I'll give some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders.

The three stages of failure:

  1. Failure of tactics. These are failures of plans falling through, and the advice for combating them is a process of measurement and review so that you can make better plans in the future.
  2. Failure of strategy. This is when you carry out your plans but they don't give the results you want. Here, the advice revolves around the idea that you may have to try several strategies before one works, so implement them one after another as quickly and cheaply as you can.
  3. Failure of vision. This kind of failure is when your plans succeed, but the success doesn't match your goal. The advice here is to reflect on what you truly want from life, and then stick to your guns when other people criticize you for working toward it.
What I'd like to add to the article is a discussion of identifying to what stage a particular failure belongs. The article includes an example where a failure of tactics could have been mistaken for a failure of vision—if work isn't going well, how can you tell whether you need a new plan or a new career? The line between tactics and strategy is also notoriously fuzzy: the New Oxford American Dictionary defines them respectively as
tactic: an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.
strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
To me, the main difference is that tactics comprise specific decisions while strategies are broader decision-making rules. A failure of tactics, then, is when you don't achieve the specific sequence of actions you plan out, while a failure of strategy is one where your rule for making plans isn't resulting in the outcome you want.

So here's my suggested framework for identifying and correcting failures of all three types:

  1. If you're not following through on your own plans, it's a failure of tactics. Change your methods.
  2. If you're completing your plans but they're not giving the results you want, it's a failure of strategy. Change your plans.
  3. If your plans are succeeding but the results aren't aligning with your values, then it's a failure of vision. Change your goal.

Note: these must be checked in this order. You can't know whether your plans are succeeding until you can carry them out fully, and you can't know for sure whether your vision is the right one until you get close enough to see it clearly. I think this may be why Clear calls them the "stages" of failure and not just three "types."

The need to correct failures in order also explains a comment I hear regularly from self-help gurus like Ramit Sethi, who complains that people only want finance tips and tricks when he's trying to get them thinking about what it means to live a rich life. But if people are finding that they aren't following through on their plans now, it makes sense for them to want to fix that before trying to make a career change. I suspect that follow-through is such a transferable skill that it's regarded as a character trait, and that once you have it, it's easy to regard it as a neutral background on which the "real" struggles of strategy and vision play out. This reminds me of Scott H. Young's thoughts on the role of free will in success:
[That free will counts for more, the less unlikely success is,] may help explain why so many obviously advantaged people primarily credit effort for their successes. From their perspective, it was effort that mattered. Since they actually had reasonable chances to succeed, strength of conviction of the choice made to pursue it became a dominant variable, even if for most people it isn’t.
If you're at the level where fixing failures of tactics is second nature to you, then whether or not you can fix failures of strategy or vision is what matters. But if you're not at the level where you can follow through on your basic plans, then no amount of visionary introspection will help.

I'd like to end with some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders. Here's how 7 Wonders works if you don't know it: Every round, each player chooses a card from their hand to add to their civilization, then passes the remaining cards to their neighbor. Early in the game, these cards are mostly materials like wood, stone, or cloth, and later many of the cards require you to have access to several of these materials in order to "build" them. (If you don't have the resources you need, you can also use the ones your neighbors have—for a small fee.) These more expensive cards give you points, and the winner at the end of the game is the one with the most points.

Failure A: Perhaps you know that the green "science" cards are worth a lot of points if you can collect several of them, so you decide that every time you get a science card you can play, you'll do so. At the end of the game, you have accrued a respectable array of science cards, but most of your points are in this one area and it wasn't enough to win you the game. What kind of failure was this? It's a failure of strategy: you successfully followed your decision-making rule, but you didn't achieve your goal of winning. So try changing your plan. Perhaps in a small way—at the end of the game, an additional science card may not increase your points by as much as some of the other cards, so you decide that in Age III you'll relax your buy-science rule and just get whatever card is worth the most points at that moment—or perhaps you'll try another strategy entirely and focus on having access to enough resources to buy whatever cards you want at any time.

Failure B: Now let's say that your plan is to get points by completing "phases of your wonder," which have a fixed cost like other buildings you might want. The final phase is often very expensive, perhaps requiring four copies of a single resource, like stone. You go to build it, and discover to your chagrin that there isn't enough stone between you and your neighbors to accomplish it. What kind of failure was this? You didn't follow through on a plan you made, so this is a failure of tactics. So try implementing a new habit: at the beginning of the game, when collecting the resources you will need later, keep an eye on what your neighbors have, both to make sure a couple of each resource will be available to you later, and also enough of the single resource you will need if you want to complete all the phases of your wonder.

Failure C: You've tried various strategies, and are starting to win the game more frequently. But some of those strategies, like playing cards solely to keep other players from benefiting from them, bring you closer to your goal of winning but are making the game less fun. (If this doesn't sound like you, just imagine you're me.) What kind of failure is this? Your plans are succeeding, but the outcome isn't what you thought it would be. This is a failure of vision. So change your goal: perhaps play to maximize the number of points you have at the end, instead of your probability of winning. This means that you devote less effort to screwing over the other players, and lends itself more to playing against your past and future performance. Not comparing myself to others, only to my past and future selves, is a habit I try to cultivate anyway, so this way of playing fits better with my personal values.