Fundamentals Win Fights

In the previous post on ownership, one of the things we talked about was taking ownership of simple tasks.  These are the fundamental tasks of life. When we’re trying to solve a problem we have to know the fundamental parameters that govern the problem.  

I’m a fan of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X.  I like the way he thinks about solving problems. One of his claims is that we usually reason by analogue.  We see patterns and/or correlations in the world that relate to our own problems and we assume those patterns are the rule.  I wholeheartedly agree. A few easy examples:

  1. “I just turned forty and we all know your body goes down hill from here.”  – No, we don’t know this. We assume it because we see it in many others.
  2. “I’m going to have to put these new clothes on a credit card but everybody has debt now.  It’s just the way of the world!” – You don’t have to have new clothes. Lot’s of people having debt doesn’t make it the way of the world.  How can we even know the ‘way’ of 8 billion people?
  3. “You’ve got to have a college degree to be successful in this world.” – First off, what do we mean by success?  Second, the more people that have a degree the less valuable it is. If everyone has one, what makes you so special for having one?

Musk advocates solving problems from a ‘First Principles’ perspective.  This is an idea that comes from physics. Essentially, when solving a problem, you ask yourself, “What do I know to be fundamentally true?  What are the facts?” Once we have established the facts, based on the problem, we then reason up towards a solution (our goal) from there.

Now, the next question is, “What’s the problem?” Let’s look at those three examples again:

  1. “I just turned 40 and I see so many people let their bodies fall apart at this age…” – Let’s take exercise as one challenge in this example. From my time as a trainer I came to the conclusion that an exercise regimen needs to address 4 things at it’s core: Strength (Force Production), Motor Control (Movement as a Practice), Mobility (Range of Motion), and Injury Prevention/Recovery. These four elements represent the bases that an exercise regime should cover. Specific execution is contextual to the goals and conditions of an individual’s lifestyle.
  2. “I would like some new clothes. In order to have those clothes today, I would have to incur credit card debt…” – Debt today means future dollars are already spoken for. Does the expenditure justify leveraging the time and energy associated with generating that future money? This, again, is heavily dependent upon individual goals and context.
  3. “Everyone says that college is the key to success in America but is that true?…” – Depends, what do you mean by success? Again, goals and context have to be established. 

In each of these scenarios what we need to establish is context for decision making. At an individual level, I tend to break life down into three fundamental areas:

  • Physical Health
  • Money and Work
  • Relationships

To me this gives us a practical organization of our lives. When I called myself a ‘coach’ I would ask people to organize their lives in this way. The key here is to begin to put together some ideas of what you want these areas of life to look like in the future, what is the condition of these areas today, and what have you learned from your past experiences. I have referred to this at times as ‘The Map of Life’. When I was in the military, Cross Country Land Navigation was an essential skill in our training. The ability to navigate through the woods with a map and compass was a critical task to every phase of training I went through at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. One of the hardest challenges was walking through the woods in the middle of the night and realizing that I didn’t know where I was on the map. At that point, you can either sit still until someone finds you or you can keep moving until you hit a major land feature like a highway or a body of water (Something easily identifiable on the map). Stay in place, you lose time. Wander, and you potentially end up very far from where you had intended to travel. This makes regular map checks important. Also, the ability to read the terrain and pick routes that are reasonable.

The idea is to set some personal intentions about where we want life to go and how we want our experience of life to change. Then we begin planning and experimenting with routes that lead to that end. We also want to be totally transparent with ourselves about where life is and where it’s been. This is a way of giving ourselves self-guidance in everyday decisions. Over the last 5 years I’ve noticed that the future is one of the hardest things for people to talk about. “Travis I don’t know what I want!” I’ve heard this statement from soooooooo many people across many demographics. It’s analogous to having a map and not being able to locate yourself on the map. You have a life but you don’t know where you are in life. The beauty is, all I have to do is begin getting honest with myself and begin assessing the fundamental areas (from above) of my life relative to where I honestly want to go.

But, what if I chose to let the fear of acknowledging that I’m lost prevent me from creating my map of life. I then have to create illusions and distractions. Spending money I don’t have, substance abuse, social media consumption, people pleasing etc. The fall out is a bunch of decisions made out of emotion rather than decisions made in context to where I actually want to go. Having direction in life, having an aim… This is fundamental. We would like someone to give us an aim and we would like others to approve of our aim. This feels safe but it could be soul crushing over time. This was the reality of my experience as an engineer and what ultimately undid my participation in the Christian Church. The deep sense that I wasn’t allowed create my own map was incredibly oppressive in these scenarios. Of course, now I understand that we often hurt each other even under the best of intentions. It’s my responsibility to have the courage to create my own unique map.

Where am I? Where have I been? Where do I want to go?

What do I want in my health?

What type of work is meaningful to me and how much money do I need to live a satisfying material existence?

How do I want to experience my relationships with others?

Once I have some specific answers to these types of questions it’s time to begin taking action. This is where the real problem solving begins. Shifting my external world requires work on my internal world. Of course, we can’t predict the future. This exercise in fundamentals is more about coming up with what we know to be true and then reasoning out a plan of action from there. But in our plans we’ll make assumptions. Albeit reasonable assumptions, they are assumptions none the less. This takes us back to story. We’ve set some goals and created some intention based on who we know ourselves to be at this moment. As we work to solve the external problems we are confronted with the internal problems. This will reveal things about ourselves that we didn’t know before.

When I first left engineering I had to give up my car for repossession. It was embarrassing and it showed me how much my self-worth was tied to my material status. As I worked my way out of debt, the exercising of financial discipline was a sort of detoxing from my material cravings. I still like cars but I don’t base my self-worth on the car I own. The financial peace is much more satisfying. During the initial transition out of engineering I felt very much like a failure

And that’s what will talk about next week. Make sure to spend some time with the questions above. Start Mapping.


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