Updated: Dec 3, 2020

"If it ain't 'HELL YEAH', it's 'HELL NO'"

Positive Value Add

This is something that will come up time and again, your whole life. It will manifest in different ways at different points in your career, however successful or fledgling your career may be.

As you sail along in your life, day to day, you will be attracted to doing certain things. This may be joining a particular committee; taking on a particular learning course; starting a weekly training session for your team; writing a weekly internal update email for your managers; etc etc. You get the message - all the time, you come up with things that are beneficial for you to do, and, being the go-getter you are, set about doing them.

What attracts you to these actions is that they are positive value add. That is to say, if you do them, you will be better off than if you didn't, in absolute terms. You will get a bit more kudos from your managers and co-workers, learn something you didn't know, gain a skill you didn't have. In the game of great snakes and ladders that is life, you will have moved forward a square.

Net Value Add

But now, here's the thing - that analysis - which you implicitly do in your head - assumes that these actions are zero cost. That means that, whatever value the action adds to your life, you are better off by that amount. It implicitly assumes that it didn't cost you anything; that you are better off but that much, but not at the same time worse off by some other amount, the cost of the action. But of course, every action has a cost. The cost is time; the cost is money; the cost is resource; the cost is energy. But, possibly bigger than all of these - here is the real cost - is opportunity cost. Even if you are tireless, even if you think you have the time - what else could you have done in that time? That is, what other action, had you taken it, moved you ten squares forward on the board?

Viewed through this prism, the action which moved you forward one square on the board actually had a value of negative nine. It moved you forward one; but doing it crowded out an alternative that would have moved you forward ten.

The elephant in the room here is of course energy (I write about this in more detail here). If you spend all of your mental and active energy hitting singles, you will materially decrease your number of home runs. To stay with the baseball analogy, by going after every pitch, you waste the ability to go after the fat pitches. The ones that have a high chance of leaving the ballpark.


Why do you do this? Because you are, to your shame and eternal suffering, a MAXIMISER. I am a maximiser; the worst kind. My mind is a hive of activity, a whirring computer spitting out cards with positive value add tasks on an hourly basis. Write a guide for the cleaner. Get the inside of your tyres washed. Alphabetise your bookshelf. Every time I come up with something that might be useful, I resolve to do it. Like a dog, happily chasing a stick that just got thrown up in the air. And worse, I will force these activities through. Too busy? get up half an hour earlier. Go to bed half an hour later. Before you know it, you will end up with no sleep, no energy, and an incomplete to-do list. I exaggerate of course; but not by much.

Who is the winner in this game? It is the OPTIMISER. If you look around you, you will realise that you know him well. Start by looking up - he is likely to have reached seniority in your corporation. The tell-tale signs are somebody who never looks like they're up to much, yet appear to do very well and somehow have a lot of respect and kudos. These are the people who, naturally or by training, have learnt to focus on the important things. These are the people who have figured out what are the key two or three things to focus on - for whatever reason - and are happy to let everything else pass by. Your boss cares about sales numbers? Double down on those. He doesn't care about mentoring of juniors? FORGET IT! Yes you may be adding value to the team. Yes you may be making the world a better place. Yes this may be your instinct and your nature. But this year, sales numbers get you paid. So focus on those.

"Why", I hear you say, "not do both?". Now, this is the maximiser speaking. What the optimiser knows, is that this is when you must chill. You could do both; but better to save your energy. Save your strength, your mental resource, and your energy. Why? because, although you don't know it yet, another fat pitch is around the corner. Something else - more to do with your sales numbers; or that maybe serves a different goal, like your boss' boss; or to do with another area in your life - something else is about to present itself, that is a fat pitch. That is leverable, that is, something that will yield outsized results.

BUT, you can only capture this new something if you are ready to do so. If you had the wit and mental energy to see the opportunity, the time and energy to pursue it. You must leave fuel in the tank; and this is a discipline. Yes, make no mistake - this is not some vague concept for you to consider; this is a powerful habit, a practice to be learnt, practised and instilled as second nature. Worse, to us maximisers, it is a practice that never ends. For the siren song of that useful task never quietens; the cards never stop flying. It takes practice, wisdom and discipline to keep ignoring them, and to have the patience to let them pass by, waiting for a better opportunity, and stay rested and relaxed until it appears.

This is what the optimiser does well. The maximiser, he grabs at anything good. But the optimiser - he optimises, for maximum impact. He only picks the actions that are optimal, in terms of maximising bang for the buck. The buck in this case being time, mental energy, general resources, or indeed bucks. He picks and chooses those actions which yield the maximum possible impact, optimised such that doing them does not leave something better on the vine. And here is the essence of their differing philosophies - the maximiser just wants more; the optimiser wants best.

To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer - grant me the patience to ignore the things that are only small value add; the energy to pursue the home runs; and the wisdom to know the difference.

So next time you are acting like a maximiser, stop. Consider what the optimiser would do This is the way to go.

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