2020 Focus: Quarter Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2020 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2020 Theme: Action Economy

This theme is all about accomplishing as much as possible with as few resources as possible. It is basic economics – scarcity & objectives. For me the limited resource, at this point in my life, tends to be time and so that is my focus for the year.

I’m using ‘action economy’ a concept from boardgames as a paradigm to think through this theme. With that in mind, I’ve been playing a lot of board games over the first three months of the year. I learned a new game called Twilight Imperium, which is one of the more complex & involved boardgames, and can take 5-10 hours to play. I attended a weekend board game convention, setup a biweekly board game night with friends, plus have a few groups at work I play with (in person previously and now online during the lockdown). This is appropriate for the theme of the year but also part of my winter coping strategy. This early part of the year is usually long, dark & wet so staying indoors and playing board games is something I can look forward to, which helps me deal wit the time of the year I don’t look forward to.

I intend to start taking this board game thinking and applying it more to life in the coming months.

2020 Challenge: Develop a Strategy Evaluation Model

I’ve done some light thinking on this, enough to start recording data about a few tasks, but not enough to evaluate them. The crux of this issue will come down to how much I value time. Often I find that achieving a goal is a simple tradeoff between time & money. Should I build the thing myself over two hours or pay someone $400 for a pre-built one? That depends on how I value my time.

From some light thinking on the value of time I know that it should somewhat correlate with my hourly rate & my earnings potential. It should also likely relate to what I will learn by doing the task myself and how much I enjoy doing the task. I need to formalize all of this a bit more and build in a model that allows me to tweak some assumptions. One of the trickiest parts of this is that the value of my time will be impacted by future things I have no control over or can’t yet foresee. For example if I were to get laid off, my time would become much less valuable very quickly as I’d have more of it available but if I were to suddenly adopt three more children, I would have a lot less time and thus my time would likely become even more valuable, certainly in the short term. I’m not sure that either of those will happen, but either is a possibility.

2020 Habit: Run 13 Projects & 52 Common Tasks Through the Model

As mentioned above, I haven’t done much thinking about the model yet, so I haven’t put this into practice much yet either. I’ve taken two very concrete and simple projects and recorded data about them though, to help me evaluate them once I do have a model.

The first related to my fitness watch breaking. One day in January it suddenly fell off my arm when the rubber strap tore. I use my watch for helping me actively maintain my health – tracking sleep, activity & runs – so replacing it was important to me. The question was, how best to do it? I could do any of; buying another of the same watch online, take time to research if a newer and better model had been released, try to fix the rubber strap, contact the company that made it and see if it was under warranty, etc. I actually did a few of those so I could measure the real time and money it took to do each. Now I have data, but it is still hard for me to answer which one was the better path without having a model to compare the value of time, money, energy, etc.

2020 Exemplar: Warren Buffett

What a fun year to pick Warren Buffett as an exemplar. 2020 has started out with the fastest (and one of the largest) stock market crash in history. Buffett is famous for beating the market in times of growth and contraction. Most of that is due to how he values companies and his involvement in them. I’m getting a real time load test of things I’m learning about him and getting to watch him in action.

Tangibly, I’m 1/4 of the way through the best regarded biography about him and I’ve chosen to take a financial stake in his company, Berkshire Hathaway. When I decided to invest with him, to give me some more stake in following along with him, I was surprised to learn that a single share of BRK-A sells for $300,000 – meaning that is the smallest amount you can invest. Thankfully at some point they released a series B of their stock (BRK-B) that trades for only $200, allowing me to buy in at a much lower point. I would love to one day own a share of BKR-A though, something to put on the bucket list.

2020 Bucket List Item: 100+ Mile PNW SUP & Trail Running Adventure

What an interesting time to plan an adventure.

It is unclear if I will be able to do this, as many parks are closed due to social distancing rules right now. The waterways aren’t closed though, so this might end up evolving into more SUP and less running.

That said, if things return to normal, I’ve picked the location for my adventure. A worm-shaped lake on the border of the US & Canada called Ross Lake. It is a glacial lake, cut out of a mountain by a river of ice. The turquoise surface, 1.5 miles wide, stretches 20 miles in length through the North Cascades, a remote wilderness area of rocky, glacier capped mountains. There are remote peaks that usually require days of hiking to get to on either side of it. I think I can string together a course that lets me cover a peak on each side (North, South, East & West) including two countries (US & Canada) by running 100+ miles and SUPing another 50+. I’m super excited about it.

In order to prepare for it, I’ve been updating my gear this winter. Since this push will likely take me multiple days, I started research a new sleep setup, that is lightweight but much more comfortable that sleeping in the dirt with nothing but my clothes, like I did last year on my Mt. Rainier adventure. As part of that I learned a lot about insulation, heat loss and equipment materials. My basement has been a combination REI & science lab of sorts – I’ve been conducting research on the gear, weighing it & testing it out by sleeping nights on various combinations with the basement windows open to see what provides the most comfort for the least size and weight. Would I rather have a warmer mattress pad that weight 4 oz more or 4oz more down in my jacket to keep me warm? Or both but have a heavier pack overall? These are the fun sorts of questions I’ve been answering this winter.

I’ve landed on a simple setup of an inflatable mattress pad + pillow, a heat-reflective bivy sack and a down jacket. The whole sleep setup only weights ~3 lbs, (just a little more than the fleece + rain jacket I brought last year), takes up even less space, but provides much more warmth and comfort. It is warm enough that I can get decent sleep for 3-4 nights but light enough that I will still be able to run with it on my back. I also found a few other ways to cut weight, by buying lighter gear (ex. a 1oz pocket knife instead of my 4oz one). Overall I think I should be able to keep my pack weight under 10lbs, especially if I design the trip in a way that I can restock food periodically – I’m thinking of doing that by alternating between running & SUPing and keeping my full supply of food with the paddle board, stashed on the shore while I run a loop/peak. That will give me a chance to restock with each paddle, meaning I only need to carry 2-3 lbs of food at a time.

Sabbath Year – A Year Later

A little over a year ago I finished our sabbath year and began the process of reentering normal life. After taking that sabbath year to rest and reflect, I had learned a few lessons which I documented in this blog post. Now, a year-ish later, I want to reflect on how those reflections have aged.

The following line up with the decisions & changes I discussed in the aforementioned review post.

1. We decided that the next few years aren’t a period for taking on big risks or flirting with overcommitment.

This has held true. It turns out the role I took at Google was a lot more involved than I had originally envisioned, but this is mostly in my control. I tend to dive into things head first and put myself in the center of the action, which I’ve done here. Despite that, our lives feel fairly maxed out, despite minimal risk exposure. Margins are thin and so maintaining a relatively predictable lifestyle has remained important and effective.

2. We decided on having Seattle be our long term home with plans to snowbird (or rainbird) in southern California in the winter eventually.

We have remained in Seattle and been pretty happy with that. The time of year of my writing this is the harder time of year, but it also the time of year I find myself most inclined to do indoor hobbies like writing.

We had explored ramping up our San Diego plans this year by spending a month or so down there in an AirBnB. In the end we decided not to, though I have made a few quick trips down. I think the jury is still out on if we will desire rainbirding enough to do it. Some of me suspects that with the right adjustments we might be able to handle Seattle, but then again, it is still February – we’ll see how I feel come May if we have an extended winter.

3. I changed my work mentality from that of trying to retire early to realizing it is good for me, personally, to work.

This has proved the biggest change from our sabbath year. I entered this new period with a nearly 180* rotation in my mentality on work. I had previously been striving to free myself from having to work as soon as possible. I now hope I can find jobs interesting enough to me that I can work until I’m unable.

Currently, I think of my job (on most days) as the most realistic boardgame I could possibly play. Instead of a stack of cardboard coins, I get to play with a $10B/year business. The competition is fierce, the rules and complex but the measurement is clear. Sure, parts of my job are difficult, but in the end I’m encouraged to learn to fix those aspects and get to the fun strategy parts. Most days I remember that given a billion dollars of my own, I would probably still be doing something similar.

I also mentioned that as a result of this change we were going to value our time more and become more willing to spend money when it would save time. That has remained constant. Funny enough, though our spending has increased dramatically as a result of some things like hiring a nanny and ordering food more, our income has similarly increased such that the savings ratio is similar. The way the math works out that means we’re actually saving a good bit more than before. That won’t be impactful if we keep up this current level of spending, but if we ever do want to retire to a less expensive locale, that extra money will go even further which is nice.

4. After two years away from being a product manager, the role that leads a software team in prioritizing what to build, I decided to return to that role.

I think product manager means a lot of different things depending on where you work. What I get to do at Google is exactly the type of stuff I love doing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the CEO of Alphabet came from a product management track. They design the role to build thoughtful leaders and I’m enjoying absorbing that culture.

On a daily basis I get to unify the interests of dozens of different stakeholders and design creative solutions to solve them in an efficient manner. I have a real impact on the ability of our $10B/year business to maintain (or increase) its 50% YoY growth rate. I could do similar things under different titles at different companies, and someday I will, but for now, this title and company are a great fit for me.

5. In my searching and exploration phase I exposed myself to a lot of ideas that helped me reject some false tradeoffs I’ve long held. One is a lie I’ve believed for a while that the highest paying corporate jobs at the biggest companies are stodgy, un-impactful and dehumanizing.

I now work for a trillion dollar company. On top of that, I’m having a lot more impact on the company than I would have expected when I joined – both in terms of within the company and on the industry as a whole. On top of that, I am part of work running group, I have people I regularly play boardgames with at lunch and I did a team bike ride around Mt. Rainier last year. I have so far found it to neither be stodgy, un-impactful or dehumanizing – so I’m glad I gave it a chance.

One thing I reflect on is whether I made the wrong move by not coming to a place like Google right out of college. My current thinking is that for me, it took a while to find my path and so small companies that let me fluidly change roles were a great place to slowly gel. If I were to advise a new grad today though, I would recommend giving big companies a try early in their career, especially if they know what role they want to spend the next few years in. It is hard to undervalue the benefits of a well known name, a network, structured management processes and well defined expectations. Start ups are a lot of fun but they aren’t for everyone. I saw plenty of people flail and fail while working at a startup that have since gone on to bigger companies and done great – sometimes explicit structure and expectations is valuable.

6. Along with rejecting some ideas I’ve held, I also became more comfortable explicitly accepting some beliefs I’ve loosely held. One is that that doing high quality work is in itself good, even when the task seems far from the objective.

I work on the billing systems for a cloud. This is a far cry from what I consider “good work” like developing cures for cancer, solving poverty ending human trafficking, etc. But, despite that, every step forward we take at making our cloud serve customers better will bring one more step of progress to the world. Either our cloud will serve customers needs better or it will force another company to find a way to do even better than that. Either way the world is going to see progress and I’m really excited about that. I might not be curing cancer, but people that are working to do so, like the Mayo Clinic, are using our cloud and benefitting from the projects my team works on.

7. I wrestled with the notion of identity and how hobbies played a role into that.

This has been an area I have been much more intentional about. Hobbies have remained a big part of my life but I’ve intentionally made some hobby decisions based on my life circumstances rather than letting my hobby dictate my life circumstances. I’ve generally found this to be effective. I’ve been able to transition to some new hobbies I find just as engrossing as my previous ones. I think that is part of why I’m less inclined to spend as much time as possible in San Diego. While I still love surfing, I’ve found I can replicate parts of it that I enjoyed in other activities if I take a bit of a reductionist approach. In the end, surfing is just some outside time, alone, moving fast, without full control, with variable rewards, some unpredictability and a lot of tactile stimulation. I can recreate that in other ways.

2020 Focus: Action Economy

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

More details about the process are in this blog post and you can review the results from past years (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, & 2019).

2020 Theme: Action Economy

My theme for 2020 is action economy.

This is a phrase I’ve borrowed from board gaming where it describes the ability of a player to utilize their limited turn actions to maximize their ability to score points.

The real life application of this is efficiently using my resources (time, skills, knowledge, network, money, etc.) to achieve the goals that I’ve selected for myself.

This is the second full year of my sabbath cycle focused on preparing for my calling. As I think about achieving goals over the long term, and I realize how thin I am stretched, effectively using my resources has become a top priority for me. I need to get better and doing more with less. This year I want to spend some time thinking about that and building heuristics I can lean on in the future.

This year will be centered around learning how to effectively measure the inputs needed to achieve outputs, how to more accurately predict them ahead of time and how to reduce them.

2020 Challenge: Develop a Strategy Evaluation Model

For my challenge this year I am going to develop a model that I can use to evaluate various potential strategies for achieving a goal. I want to be able to use this to quickly (and hopefully accurately) predict the costs of each strategy, so that I can select the best one.

Some things I want to think through as part of this are; what is the value of my time?, how should I factor in risk potential?, how can I account for other externalities?, what other outputs do different strategies have? and how should I value them?

The end result, I hope, will be a model that lets me answer questions like; is it better to mow my lawn myself or pay a neighbor kid to do it?, should I take on a high paying project that uses my current skills or invest time learning a new skill?, or should I go on another training run before trying to run 93 miles around this volcano? (hint: yes)

2020 Habit: Run 13 Projects & 52 Common Tasks Through the Model

My habit will directly pour out of the challenge. I want to apply the model I develop to 13 of my 2020 projects and 52 of my common tasks. My hope is that by doing so, I’ll find out that some of the ways I spend my time or money are best handled in another fashion.

For the former, I will look at projects I take on during the year and use this to estimate the cost and effectiveness of the strategy, which I will then compare to the reality after the fact. I use GTD to organize my life and usually have ~6-10 projects that are active at any point – things like planning a vacation, getting a new job, buying a house, learning to stand up paddle, etc. These projects range in complexity and duration but what they all share is that they are things I want to have accomplished and if I can accurately define what it is that I want to accomplish, I can better optimize how I get that done.

For the latter, common tasks are something I track via recurring ToDos. I have ~100 that I undertake with various frequencies; 40 yearly (like this blog post!), 10 semi-annually, 17 quarterly, 9 monthly, 6 biweekly, 5 weekly and a few at various other increments in between. Those will be potential place for big impact, especially the tasks that take a significant amount of time due to the compounded impact of saving effort on a task that I repeat many times.

2020 Exemplar: Warren Buffett

I still struggle to find good Exemplars. I need someone that demonstrates the quality, that has documented their thoughts about it and/or that has had a lot written about them. That tends to limit me to famous and successful people. That doesn’t seem altogether wrong – successful people often get there due to the same good choices and behaviors I want to emulate. But they also get there by making certain tradeoffs and I’m worried I’m overexposing myself to those tradeoffs. I am also concerned that this pool of people is disproportionately white men – something that will limit the experiences I have a chance to learn from and relate to.

That said, I’ve chosen a successful, famous, white man this year because I had a hard time thinking of anyone that has had more success prioritizing and think about the value of things. I know essentially three things about Warren Buffett

  1. He has made a good bit of money investing in companies he thinks are valuable, when others don’t see the value
  2. He is an advocate of ruthless prioritization
  3. He has simple tastes and plans to give all of his money away

These things all seem like they fit with this year’s theme of action economy quite well. Buffett’s success and contemporariness also means there is a ton written about him.

Interestingly Buffett is the first exemplar I’ve selected who is still living and I’m actually only two degrees away from him socially – people I know have met him. I don’t think that means I’ll have a chance to spend 1:1 time with Buffett this year to learn from him directly, but I have thought about selecting exemplars I’m closer to in the future as a way to learn more directly from them. This feels like a step in that direction.

2020 Bucket List Item: 100+ Mile PNW SUP & Trail Running Adventure

This year for my bucket list item I’ve decided on the general flavor of what I want to do, but I haven’t yet figured out the specifics. I am going to combine two new loves of mine into something new (to me at least), awesome and thoroughly PNW.

The area I currently live is made up of mostly two things, bodies of water and wilderness areas with trails. I’ve been enjoying both over the past few years – running on the trails and SUPing in the water.

I decided to combine those into a single adventure by undertaking a 100+ mile SUP (stand up paddling) and trail running adventure.

By combining these two modes of transportation, I will be able to get to anywhere within ~100 miles of my house, including many remote spots that there is no easy way to go to via a single mode of transport. By land or by water, I will cut a path and get there. There is something really cool about that idea and it might open up some new camping options for the future.

It is also nice that these two activities utilize different parts of the body, so preparing for both of them should offer me some well rounded fitness this year.

I’m excited to figure out where I can go and then get there. The last time I went SUPing in the sound I had an encounter with a pod of jumping orcas and the last time I went for a trail run I bumped into a mountain lion, so combining the two sports feels ripe for adventure.