How did I keep doing the impossible

Posted: December 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Perspective | 1 Comment »

On the verge of new year, looking back at the larger-than-life moments of 2014, I thought perhaps sharing one of the lesser-known rules that I live by would be a good way to close off the year. I’m not young, neither am I old-old, and clearly I can’t claim I already have everything figured out in life. What I am about to theorise is definitely not textbook-wisdom. But if you have enjoyed my previous post on handling stressful time, then I’m pretty sure you will love this one.

There’s one aspect that contributed much to my career and personal achievements: having discovered precisely where my strengths and weaknesses lie; and one of those strengths is having a special knack for doing the seemingly impossible again and again. At first, it seemed kind of random to me. I credited those early accomplishments partly to luck, partly to the fact that I took advantage of the opportunities. Then there are times when I was so sure that I was going to over-deliver again but I didn’t, it kept me up at night. Fortunately or unfortunately, those self-doubt periods rarely happened. And that’s why only recently, I was able to formulate a thought process that governs the actions I took.

Let me share how that powerful process worked for me by walking you through a simple task most of you could easily relate to: decorating lights for the house. I break this down to 4 steps:

1. Establish the baseline

I start with what I want: I need to buy the right type of light bulbs. I don’t really know what is the “impossible”, I often don’t even know enough to define the possible. So I set my mind to draw a baseline. I do this by reading a lot, not from books but from Wiki and online articles. In this case, I read about lighting technologies, about different bulb type, calculation of brightness, pricing of different types, even went into a bit of interior design techniques related to lighting.

It is no doubt overwhelming for any new field of study. It helped me a lot observing what the ‘norm’ is and more importantly get to an understanding why people are following the norm. The approach I take usually involves identifying only a few realistic variables of the problem, keeping all others constant. When I discovered that the typical light bulb used for indoor night lighting is CFL bulb of 600lm, I knew that is my baseline.

Another great source of information is from domain experts. I did ask the electrician to make a recommendation and he gave similar observations. While I don’t have much time to read books cover-to-cover, I enjoy reading great deal of bite-size scientific articles daily. Over the years, I also found that experts of the highest calibre are often the ones with the simplest explanations; and strangely, they are also the friendliest.

By constantly broadening my knowledge horizon, things connect in the weirdest possible ways without me trying too hard. I often immediate know what is the baseline or the ‘norm’ when it comes to most subjects and matters. In this modern world, where vast knowledge is just one search keyword away, the question is how much of that could you really digest everyday?

2. Raise the bar

Now that you know where the line is, simply take what you found, tune that up by a lot, doesn’t have to be realistic … yet.

You might wonder how one even know what to expect when I said that. The way going about this is rather simple and systematic, this is where I have spent a lot of time putting my thought process into words: don’t think too much, take the variables you found, kick one of them up higher by a notch, validate if such combination exists, and repeat.

Here’s the example: with the baseline of 2 parameters (CFL & 600lm), I then set out to raise the bar: can I replace CFL with something else newer, more energy saving. Previously, I’ve read that LED is the new ever-lasting type of light and it is also more energy-efficient. That’s one. Next, can I find a brighter light that is of perhaps 1000lm. Here I guess I started to form the seemingly “impossible”.

I divided the processes into discrete steps but in reality, what you have found as the ideal solution might have been a shortcut of both step 1 and 2 as I described here. It is a natural tendency to find the alternative approaches right from the start, but in my opinion, if you could clearly separate what you have from what you want, you would be better aware of the effort needed to get there.

3. Get down to earth

At this stage, I usually tone down and consider the feasibility of what I have formalised in the previous step. It usually involves adding another variable that I considered secondary in step 1. For most of us, we can’t simply throw a pile of money at the problem and expect it to work. Cost and time are usually the critical limiting factors to a perfect solution.

In my example, while LED bulb with brightness rating of 1000lm is not new in the market, it wasn’t available where I needed it, or at least not available cheaply and readily. I didn’t want to pay double and just only getting half of the quantity I wanted. So I looked for oversea shipping options. After a few cost calculations, connecting the transport routes and asking around, it turned out that the fastest and cheapest option was to get it air-flown, piggybacking on a friend’s travel plan. And I did just that, bringing the light bulbs home from overseas.

When bounded by the reality, things certainly become more difficult and this is the chance where I practice my out-of-the-box thinking. With limited resources, I got creative and sometimes went to extreme measures to get things done and surprised even myself. The way I keep myself down-to-earth is again by reading extensively. Previously, when establishing baseline, I read about the Whats; to stay grounded, I look out for the Hows, Wheres and Whens: If I come across a newer, cheaper, faster way of doing something relevant to my work, I do a bit of brain exercise and imagine the what-if plan of actually making use of the approach. And when the time comes, I already have the solution in memory, ready to impress.

4. Execution and follow-through

The plan is ready, let’s carry it out! If only it’s that straightforward…
At the beginning of this article, I acknowledged that it took me quite a while to get the thought process proper, this is where I struggled the longest. The plans I made usually involved a critical window of opportunity and naturally that means a very tight sequence of events need to happen in the right order. For example, it could be a colleague asking for help getting work done before X number of days, or it could be a client asking for insane deadline. Whatever it was, when I failed to deliver, it struck hard and it’s not the easiest thing to admit oneself’s mistakes, blame human nature.

So the missing key I found was: inability to follow through. I might have came up with a perfect 10-stage idea, each of the pieces in the execution plan was absolutely do-able, but I failed to see it through from start to finish. Just a missing piece or a tiny screwup along the chain was enough to put everything down. This was where I failed to admit to myself.

In my personal example, there were so many things that could go wrong. What if the purchase of the bulbs didn’t happen, or what if the delivery to my friend’s place was not on-time, or my guy missed the flight, or even the amateur packing damaged the bulb on arrival, etc…

Of course I learnt, and that’s how I am able to write this article: To do the impossible, I need to stay alert, assume nothing and make sure there is no weak link in the plan. Even when certain something seems out of your control, do whatever it takes to gain control or have a backup. Objectively, people might consider that aggressive / control freak / PITA, to me, I see it as focus, laser focus. As long as you are doing no evil, you’re good to go.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean things won’t go wrong, they will, according to Murphy’s law. You can only do so much to minimise the uncertainties, the rest is somehow relying on luck. Here’s another interesting observation that I made from my personal experiences: you can factor in the luck as a plan A and make it sound like you know exactly what you are doing, once it happens you got yourself a big win. If it didn’t happen, you still got your less-than-impressive plan B. Just don’t tell everyone it’s luck ;)