Avoiding The Golden Mean
Straight into it this week.
Where am I along the spectrum?
These last three months, for me, can be defined by one word:
For reasons both outside of and within my control, I took on far too much, tried to do too many different things, got pulled in too many different directions…
And ended up going nowhere at all.
I feel prey to that most alluring of mistakes – the planning fallacy.
One of my favorite summations of the planning fallacy comes from Nick Winter:
“When humans estimate things like how long a task will take, their average-case and best-case predictions are almost identical, and their worst-case prediction is still more optimistic than what actually happens.”
Guilty as charged.
I ran into what could only be described as an “existential crisis” inside my business this past quarter. Forces outside my control conspired to not only impact short-term revenue but to threaten our very ability to do business.
As the quote above indicates, we tend to plan for an ideal future…but that future rarely materializes. I am no exception here; I had grand plans for the quarter, most of which were already headed straight off a cliff before my work life caught fire.
The question now is, “what did we learn from that experience?”
I spent all of 2020 experimenting.
I experimented with starting this email list.
I experimented with blogging.
I experimented with a Book Club.
I experimented with a subscription service.
I experimented with creating three (!!!) different online courses.
I experimented with 1 on 1 coaching.
I experimented with weightlifting.
I experimented with a new nutrition plan.
I experimented with creating a new role for customer service in my business, and taking on that role myself.
I brought that same experimental mindset to Q1 of this year. The problem was that I wasn’t really in the “experimental stage” anymore.
Why not? Because I already knew what to focus on.
Some of those experiments succeeded, a bunch failed. The ones that worked had become ongoing commitments. My calendar was now filled with things I’d already agreed to or that had proven to produce results.
Adding more experiments on top of all that was a surefire way to become overwhelmed even if everything went smoothly. As soon as a little chaos got introduced to that system, everything fell apart.
I made a common mistake:
Seeking the golden mean.
Aristotle developed the “golden mean” as a way of living a moral life. Imagine a spectrum: on one end, you have zealous pursuers of one type of lifestyle (like strict asceticism). On the other end, you have the zealous pursuers of an opposite strategy (hedonism without any moral constraints).
Aristotle believed that either extreme would lead you astray. A better idea would be to pursue the “middle path,” neither completely abstaining nor falling into degeneracy. As long as you were careful to stick the middle, you knew you were living right.
Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean” was extremely influential on Western Culture. You can still hear it today whenever someone talks about how “both sides” need to come together, that the truth is “somewhere in the middle.” We have an intuitive sense that if there are two highly polarized sides to a debate, they’re probably both wrong in equal measure.
Trouble is, for many problems a “middle road” strategy doesn’t get us very far. In fact, we risk getting the worst of both worlds without the advantages of sticking to one or the other.
For example, there are many situations where we can’t be sure exactly “where” the “middle of the road is.” Let’s say we want to pursue a “golden mean” in terms of our driving risk – we want to drive like a 50/50 mix of Evil Knievel and Old Fuddy-Duddy.
While the extremes in this situation may be obvious (driving a car blindfolded is pretty obviously risky), small decreases or increases in risk can be hard to detect (Exactly how risky is driving after having had a single beer?). Exactly where does the “mean” begin and end?
There is an alternative to the “golden mean,” however: the bi-modal strategy.
Bi-modal strategies, rather the trying to find a balance between competing ends of a spectrum, instead seek to invest all available resources into the ends of the spectrum, with nothing in the middle.
To use our driving example, you could stay extremely safe in some areas, while taking multiple small risks in others – with no area of your life where you take “moderate” risks. We’d drive like Evil Knievel some of the time (say, at the monster truck rally)…and like an old fuddy-duddy the rest of the time.
With this mental model in mind, let’s re-examine what happened to me this quarter.
I started off 2020 all the way in “experimentation mode.” My main business was puttering along, and I used my excess capacity to pursue some new projects. This is a good example of a bi-modal strategy.
But as time went on, I neglected to re-allocate my time and resources. Many of my “experiments” became established projects with their own demands. My existing business started to require more of my time and energy. As such, I was neither fully exploring new ideas nor fully exploiting the ideas that worked. I was stuck in the middle, trying to find a balance between two competing priorities.
Stress…and not a whole lot else.
All of this is nicely summed up by the wonderful Juhani’s Law, which states:
“The compromise will always be more expensive than either of the suggestions it is compromising.”
Lesson learned. Just as we need to routinely re-allocate our investments so that our portfolio matches our acceptable risk tolerance, so we need to routinely ask ourselves where we are, exactly, along any given spectrum…and what strategy we need to follow.
For me, this next quarter is going to be focused far more on exploiting what’s working than it will be on experimentation.
How do we do that, exactly?
We’ll talk about that next week. 🙂
Cool Stuff To Read:
Has there ever been a sicker fit in a movie?
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