Trains and Ripples: How your decisions can mess up someone else’s day

On Monday, I missed the train. I wasn’t late, there was no train crash, nothing drastic happened. The train conductor simply decided to leave a few minutes early. Four and half minutes early, to be exact. I know this because I missed the train by no more than ten seconds and was on the platform, out of breath checking the time.

This one, seemingly small action on the conductor’s part had a major impact on my day. Instead of one train home, it now meant two taxis, a bus and traffic. Instead of air-conditioned comfort and relative safety where I could spend 20 valuable minutes working or reading, I got an uncomfortable muggy bus and was wary of using my phone. All because of a few minutes.

Lately, I’ve been reading “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims” by François duc de La Rochefoucauld. It’s filled with short, concise little epigrammatic sentences that boil concepts down to a short quip. Like one liners for philosophers.

While Googling around to find more examples epigrams, aphorisms and maxims, I found this one, in the field of Human Ecology.

We can never do merely one thing (i.e. everything is connected). – Garrett Hardin’s Three Laws of Human Ecology

The train driver could never just do one thing – leave a few minutes early. He changed my day, my mood, the way I felt when I interacted with others later that day. In a word: Ripples.

And this got me to thinking about all the seemingly small actions and decisions we take on a daily basis that influence other people in ways that are exponentially beyond our comprehension.

In my capacity as a manger/ leader of a team of people, I’ve made a concious effort to try and see the ripples of my actions. For the most part, I’m not smart enough to make the connections, but when I do manage a line between the dots, it’s scary to see how we can change the lives of others with actions that mean little or nothing to us.

I ‘m interested by this new perspective, and will definitely try to see the more far reaching consequences of my actions, no matter how small they may be.

Audibooks Are For Fiction

Over the past few years I’ve developed a great appreciation for audiobooks. The ever growing number of titles available (especially on Audible) and the increase in the quality of the recordings make them a joy to listen to.

It seems though, that audiobooks are not suited for non-fiction. At least not for me.

The first audiobook I listened to was Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink.” I had previously read the book and wanted a recap on it’s basic tenets and hypotheses. For this, the audiobook was the perfect format. I listened while I walked the dog, in traffic and pretty much anywhere I could find a few minutes. As I had already been through the material, this was a great way to recap. I was hooked.


Soon Daniel Silva, Neal Stephenson, George RR Martin and other non-fiction writers made their way to my iPod. This was a great way to experience books, especially when traveling (I was making loooooong trips every 3 months and the books really helped pass the time).

Then, I decided to try my hand (ear?) at listening to non-fiction titles – starting with David Rock’s “Your Brain At Work”. I was shocked to find that I had an exceedingly tough time getting to grips with the material. Since I had previously had a good experience with non-fiction (listening Gladwell) my attribution bias kicked in and I assumed my bad memory was to blame or maybe my inability to process this new, dense information.

Lately, I’ve been trying out the Amazon Whispersync feature – where I can listen to a book AND read it on my Kindle. If I leave off at a point on my Kindle, the Audio Book will scrub to that point in the recording, it works wonderfully. The problem is, I don’t.

I noticed an annoying trend: I would only be able to deeply understand the sections I had read on my Kindle, and would have only a fleeting recollection of the sections I listened to via Audiobook. This invalidated my earlier bias theory, since I was able to comprehend the same material just fine when reading it.

This happened to me during Charles Duhig’s “The Power of Habit” and again during Bill Bryson’s (phenomenal) “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

The information would not sink in if it was merely listened to.

Now, I’ve formed some theories as to why this is:

1) Unless I was traveling in a cab or a plane, I was never “just listening” to the book.

There was always something else diluting my focus. Since our brains are primed to a) always scan our environments for threats (e.g a jogger while driving) and also to minimize the resources allocated to non-essential tasks, this is now kind of obvious to see. As I’ve written before, there are different ways to pay attention, the most effective of these being Deep Attention and another less-effective being Hyper Attention. Being able to concentrate on one thing at a time allows for Deep Attention, which has better knowledge retention than the scattered, unfocussed Hyper Attention.

2) I would fall asleep

Most of the time when I tried to sit and consciously, actively listen to the material for more than 20 minutes, I would fall asleep. An overwhelming number of audiobook narrators have rich, soothing voices. Which would then richly soothe me off to sleep.

So; I could listen while walking or driving and not retain much, or focus on the material and only get 20 minutes worth of quality listening. Not a great trade-off.

This is why I enjoyed the fiction, but the heaver stuff became confusing and frustrating.

3) Pausing to think is harder, or rather, less easy with audiobooks.

When reading a book, I often stop to contemplate and frame a passage of text, ask myself a question about this new information to test it out and THEN move on. This all happens in a few seconds, but it also happens very often. When listening to the book, I need to reach for the phone/mp3 player, unlock it and then hit play. It only takes 2 seconds, but it’s enough to throw me off, so I stopped doing it. I don’t take the time to completely interrogate and absorb the material. Since the brain learns by asking questions and my brain was no longer doing this, it’s obvious that I wouldn’t learn anything.

All of this means that by the end of the book, I have questioned little, thought less and retained almost nothing. The books become disposable.

Now, however, there is an up-side. I have a number of books that I need to re-read (really read) and not just listen to. Which means that there is a vast quantity of fascinating paradigms for me to try on, ideas to question and knowledge to glean. I think this is going to be fun.

Here are some of the books I will be re-reading

  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Paradox Of Choice – Barry Shwartz
  • The Power of Habit – Charles Duhig
  • Your Brain At Work – David Rock
  • Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain
  • What Every BODY Is Saying – Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins
  • A Short History Of Nearly Everything
  • Super Freakonomics – Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Winner Takes All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World – Dambisa Moyo
  • Getting Started in Consulting – Alan Weiss

I don’t know how to read. You probably don’t either.

Let me back up a little before I explain…

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by the field of behavioral economics. After being introduced to the concept by Malcom Gladwell in his (excellent) book Blink, it’s pretty much all I’ve been reading since (with the odd biography and pulp fiction novel thrown in).

Two areas in particular have captured my attention:

1. Decision Theory – how we making decisions every day; which factors influence us (e.g. Making decisions when tired vs well rested). This is especially useful to me professionally in the field of exploitation Marketing.

2. Thinking about thinking – specifically in relation to optimizing your body and environment for thinking e.g. Study before or after exercise, creating the optimal environment for study. Closely related to decision theory, but more about the overall cognitive process and not just the decision aspect.

Recently, I’ve had to add a third area to study:

3. Learning to read.

I, like you, learned to read as a child. Now though, I find that my instruction was only given in the most technical sense. I can turn the scribbles on a page or the stuff on a screen into words and understand their definition.

Gilly: You know all that from staring at marks on paper?
Samwell: Yes.
Gilly: You’re like, a wizard.

– Game of Thrones

The problem is, that I never formally learned the next part of the process – interrogating the argument presented by the words, extracting their salient points, finding their strengths and flaws and then understanding them fully and deeply.

This lack of inspectional or analytical reading skills has resulted in countless wasted hours. More and more I know know that I have merely skimmed the books in my collection, and not truly read them.

So, for the next few weeks, I’m going to make a conscious effort to learn to read “properly”. I don’t want to merely look at the words on the page until I’ve seen them all. My goal is to digest, inspect, analyze and then understand the material.

I feel that this is a worthy investment of effort and energy that will pay off many times over I discover new works, and truly grasp old favorites.

Here’s to the next chapter.


“Every article must do something” or How I Psyched Myself Out Of Writing.

I haven’t written anything in a long time. Let alone anything real or worth reading. For the most part it’s been music I enjoy or faux gadget reviews (I’m terrible at reviews).

And I think I’ve finally figured out why. After reading post after post about what makes ‘good’ online writing, I forgot the whole reason for writing in the first place. I also got it in my head that “Online Writing” was somehow vastly different to just regular “Writing.”

For the last few years, I’ve been stuck with an assumption that anything I write online should ‘do’ something. Instead of just being, there was now an additional pressure for the words to be active and do. Like they were in the circus.

Initially I tried to convince myself that this added ‘direction’ would give me a target to write at, and make it easier to focus. In practice it did the opposite. It rendered me paralysed and inert, because I couldn’t meet all of the goals I had set (to help me write). Simile slipped away. Metaphor melted into keyword density and wit gave way to article structure. Ok, to be fair there wasn’t much wit to start with.

All of which resulted in me not writing anything at all.

Here are some of the things I convinced myself that every piece had to do.

  • highlight me as an expert in the field of X
  • boost my social profile
  • showcase my knowledge on the topic of Y
  • be targeted to search engines
  • be built to get more page views
  • make people want to share it
  • encourage the reader to leave a comment.

Since I started reading Medium a few months back, and seeing writing for the sake of expression and merely for the sake of itself, I feel like I have some more perspective now.

This little blog is not the New York Times, nor Pitchfork nor Engadget. Yet for some reason I was trying to write as if it was. Or not write, as it were.

So here’s to the meaningless rambles, uninformed opinions and idiotic things I’m bound to say. And typos. Probably lots of typos.

Tread softly #quotes

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)
“He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven”
from the Collected Works of W.B. Yeats