Cross Optimization

Don't Chase Your Dreams

Some goals are best achieved indirectly. 

Bob, a smartly dressed accountant, wants to optimize his productivity at work. He could use sticky notes, hire an assistant, or arrive 30 minutes earlier each morning at the office. All of these things appear helpful, but they’re hacky. Most likely, each would cause a temporary boost in productivity, then lose efficacy. And in the worst case, you’re left with a new thing to maintain.

A better approach for Bob would be introducing protocols at an adjacent locus (point). Work is the point of interest, but many non-work loci affect productivity. Bob would increase his output if he optimized his sleep. Sleep, a well-studied and ubiquitous process, has a more accessible set of protocols to experiment with. In short, it is generally easier to improve sleep than productivity.

This idea of cross-optimization is familiar. An aspiring pro boxer shouldn’t punch people all day and expect to evolve into another Ali or Tyson. Tyson was famous for being able to take jaw punches. But he didn’t do this by eating knuckle sandwiches for breakfast. The trick was to build muscle mass around his neck through exercise – not combat.

Cross-optimizing can be paradoxical. I’ll betray my identity as a gym bro by using another sports analogy: one of the best training methods to increase top running speed is to run slower during practice. The reason is that low-intensity exercise improves the body’s ability to use fat as fuel, as opposed to relying primarily on carbohydrate stores. To view long-distance runners as elite fat-burners is a big reframe. Like if we decided to call Bob a professional sleeper, rather than a hard-working clerk.

To get better at thing A, you must do thing A. But the magnitude of your success can be highly entangled with adjacent things B, C, D, etc. 

There is an obvious trap here, which I’ve fallen into several times. You will not get better at thing A if you only do things B, C, D, etc. While your A ability is limited on its own, it is a necessary component. Copy-pasting the morning routines of Fortune 500 business executives will not make you rich. Sure, many such habits are beneficial. But you can starve on a diet of supplements.

If Bob were to quit his job, no amount of sleep, nutrition, meditation, or journaling would give him the productivity boost that he wanted. The danger of cross-optimizing is forgetting to do the f*^king work. But it is useful to keep in mind that you might want to spend less time chasing your dreams, and more time chasing their neighbors.

“If you want to help mankind, start a business.”

- Nassim Taleb

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