The Problem of Never Settling

There’s still a little bit more of the year (I’d say we’re about 95 percent through). However we’re sufficiently far along that I think it’s time to take stock of what has happened so far, and evaluate what has happened.

Of course, this has been a year of shifting gears, at least in professional terms. At the turn of the year I was struggling with the Immerman-Szelepcsenyi theorem and how to write static analyzers; in the middle I tackled probably some of the most intellectually challenging work I have ever faced, dealt with leaving Imperial (in spite of the aforementioned challenges – there were other things), and set off around the globe. And now at the end I’m left thinking about how to best manage my time and energy across a seemingly unbounded spectrum of professional and personal responsibilities.

The continual pursuit of improvement, even if incremental, can be a great thing. It’s of course difficult to assign suitable metrics, but the mathematics of compounding makes a 0.5% daily improvement more than 5x if sustained over a year. Familiarity with, say, the Parable of the Talents (on being a good steward of what one has) drives the point home further – I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been given so far, but that inevitably comes with some sense of responsibility, that said opportunities are suitably managed and capitalised upon.

An issue with that, then, is distinguishing what constitutes responsibility and what constitutes going beyond (the technical term, especially in a moral or ethical context, would be supererogation). For me at least, the standards I set are somewhat dynamic, and they’ll tend to rise further on strong performances or fall back on weaker ones (most obviously academic targets, also a couple of personal ones). I seek to make these standards difficult but achievable, for I find this spurs growth; yet, it’s way too easy to forget about that and then perceive missing a challenging target as a complete failure (when, actually, pursuing said target probably had a positive effect on the overall outcome, just that it set an anchor at an even higher point).

I tend to push hard to meet what I’ve set for myself. I have a practice of doing weekly reviews, and I think this increases my awareness of how I’m performing; I thus tend to put in a bit (or a lot) of extra effort if something doesn’t look like it’s tracking its target. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, these standards can be and often are blunt instruments especially because they frequently are not entirely under my control.

There are two fairly well-known aphorisms that I find applicable to this – one that’s pretty general (perfect is the enemy of the good) and one more contemporary and specific to software engineering (launch and iterate). Indeed, these challenging targets can sometimes appear overwhelming, though generally I find myself able to focus on what I can do and proceed.

It’s important to keep a clear head through all of this, and taking a bit of time out over last weekend has helped. I think what I’m getting at here is that there can be a dark side to the pursuit of continual improvement, possibly because it leads to greater monitoring and self-accountability, and with some success that can lead to expectations being rapidly revised upwards (at least in my experience). In spite of that, I still believe it’s worth doing.

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