Time Traveling For The Hedonic Reset

Back To The Present

First there was a stupid grin, then an increasingly maniacal laughter, then some tears, then back to grinning like an idiot — and this was just my first chair of the season. I hadn’t even gotten to the skiing part yet.

Actually there was another standard and silly prelude — some part of my brain spends all its time imagining every way a “project” can go wrong, in this case wondering if I will remember how to ski, if my gear will cooperate, if my pass card will work, if my musculoskeletal system will hold up, etc…

Everything was fine. Magical even. In fact I have heretofore never had a first-of-season day out West where everything totally clicked. How joyful to have a system of systems work right out of the gate — the product of all manner of preparation of the kind this former East coast city slicker could neither manage nor even imagine.

Back To The Future (Eleven Days Ago)

I edged to the side of the bed, swung my knees to the floor, got on the balls of my feet, placed my palms on the mattress, and launched vertically with an explosive push-up, contracting my core and gritting my teeth in anticipation of what was to come. HUHHHHHHHT! Oof… Upright! *wobble* And now the real battle begins…

Several struggles later I arrived at the litter box challenge. I used the staircase plus upper body strength to iteratively approach the floor, then I crawled on hands and knees over to the box, next propped myself against a wall with one hand while working the shovel with the other, and finally reversed the process until I was again upright, cursing the random stray litter granules biting into my bare knees along the way.

Things had started feeling funny on the Tuesday, I perhaps foolishly powered through the pain on Wednesday so as not to cancel a dinner party I was hosting, and by Thursday I was a complete wreck, basically useless for everything. There was no obvious physical trauma to foment this — the previous week had included multiple days of focused practice sliding on my 25m paraglider and the Monday had included a mountain bike ride but at no point in any of this had I thought I had hurt myself.

My back, however, begged to differ, as it so inclines roughly every 6-24 months, in particular my L5-S1 disc, which mostly offers me no serious issue as long as I scrupulously take care of it, but from time to time, owing to a panoply of sports injuries, has developed a certain unpredictable irascibility. A squats-induced blowout about 12 years ago really brought things to a head. A violently bouncy skiing mishap seventeen years ago doubtless helped set the stage (“Get up a lot of speed — this is going to be a long traverse!” (full of parked snow grooming equipment, it turned out, and a very messy adjacent bail-out field)). A regrettable predilection for playing goalie on mediocre indoor soccer teams certainly did me no favors. Keeping it under control involves aggressively avoiding extended sitting, maintaining a strong core through a mix of activities, doing what I can to avoid violent impacts, and staying comprehensively flexible.

What a brutal occasional reminder of what many people must suffer on a daily basis… What an object lesson on the criticality of regular maintenance and continual caution… What a blessed relief and source of gratitude when the mercurial and sadistic demon removes its needle-like claws from my spine and suddenly I am back to my usual self, briefly high as a kite on an endorphin level whose attenuation lags the agony-inducing nerve-impinging swelling…

It feels like time traveling to a ninety year old version of myself.

Forever Moar Unto The Breach

Over the last five years my professional reality has episodically followed a similar track in accelerating fashion.

I left a government project in 2016 that I had spent over seven years wrangling, a duration that renders one prone to losing sight of how far you have come and taking for granted the infrastructure, processes, and culture you and your compatriots have created.

I remember, shortly before leaving, having this really sink in via one simple exercise — running a “git log” command against the master branch of the version control system for the product that I had bootstrapped and run for all these years, noting that it took several minutes of holding down the spacebar for the thousands upon thousands of commit messages to stream past in the console. The ultimate simplicity of the product belied its tortuous path, a phenomenon best captured by the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery — “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

And this was just the software product with which I was most hands-on. Increasingly my labors involved shepherding the system of systems that comprised the larger ecosystem into greater harmony, an epic that entailed not just shaping technology but also recasting culture. If you are going to rewrite the code of an organization, then that effort must span both its software and wetware, and rewriting the latter is faaaaaaaar harder than the former.

And so I left my self-built SIGINT paradise to experience in turn a mid-sized hedge fund, a teeny tech start-up, and finally some solopreneurship where I have parachuted into multiple early-to-mid stage start-ups, each of which badly needed my help in some way or another. And in each case it felt like time-travel to an earlier version of systems I built and a subsequent struggle to drag them forward, sometimes exponentially accelerating a release cadence, other times shining a bright telemetry-powered light into dark corners, and in others still helping them find a way to better scalability, availability, security, and unit economics.

In this last modality, that of multi-client consultant, I have enjoyed profound value as distinct from every previous one:

  1. The ability to take more of a “problem focus” versus a “product focus”…
  2. Which has allowed me to iterate faster on my approach to certain problems…
  3. Which yields more adept avoidance of “over-fitting the model” risks…
  4. And a deeper appreciation of the the rarity and power of well-oiled machines…
  5. Because creating and sustaining them takes skill, discipline, and commitment…
  6. While entropy is ever plotting to destroy them

Gratitude And Perspective

You have to lose something, struggle to regain it, and then revel in its re-emergence to really appreciate its power, beauty, and rarity, whether that something is a limber and battle-ready human body or a flexible and powerful technology system. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then certainly complacency. The occasional reset will do you a world of good.

Leave a Reply