Reess Kennedy

Ideas, sharings, projections

The Over-Engineering of Bagels and Life

Recently I decided to do something really crazy: Order a plain bagel with plain cream cheese. The result: one of the great bagel experiences of my life and a major EUREKA moment.

Why was this so crazy for me? For many years I’d ordered everything bagels. Occasionally I’d experiment with flavored cream cheeses too.

After biting this plain-on-plain after so long out at sea with different add-ons I thought, “Why have I been straying form the basic thing for so long?” It’s hard to beat just a perfectly fresh bagel with the right amount of plain cream cheese on it.

I think there’s a lesson of general value in life form this. Humans have a propensity to want to add more to everything. We’re tinkerers and experimenters and, in many ways, this curiosity has resulted in the incredible innovations that continue to improve our world.

It also, however, can lead us down dead end roads, always seeking more when what we had in the beginning didn’t need anything more. What we had in the beginning worked great!

I think this applies to food, relationships and business.

How do we find that really simple, basic thing that just works great? How do we find that perfect plain bagel with plain cream cheese that everyone lines up for in our business? And then how do we prevent ourselves from feeling the need to monkey with it too much once it works!

Software engineers talk about “the plague of over-engineering” sometimes.

When you’re dealing with bits and bites that can be moved around in an infinite combination, dissatisfaction and a desire to add on more can become an even bigger valueless time drain.

I saw this quote about it recently I liked:

This guys basically communicates what I’m trying to say in this article in 140 characters. Maybe this whole post is over-engineered.

The efficient technique I use to become more knowledgeable

Writing out all the things you know you don’t know about a topic and then finding answers is possibly the most efficient, effective learning practice I employ.

One cool thing about my mind is that I think it mostly knows what it doesn’t know. Meanwhile, all the authors of all the content in the world DON’T know exactly where the particular gaps in my understanding about something are so why should I just pick up a book on a topic and passively go from page 1 to finish? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just write out what I know I am ignorant of but think I need to know to start understanding and then quickly seek out those answers. These answers then beget new questions and pretty soon you have a pretty comprehensive roadmap for what you to be conversant in a topic.

Google makes finding the highest quality responses or answers easier than ever. Using a personal Q and A style of learning, I find, makes the process both fast and fun. It’s like a scavenger hunt. The active process of scavenging and writing out answers also makes me a more active participant in the learning and, I suspect, helps me retain the information. Writing is a highly effective retention tool.

I’ll expand on this technique in the future as I figure out others using this, or similar , techniques. I’m a major supporter of the 80/20 rule as it applies to learning about something as well–the idea that 80 percent of the utility of something can come from deeply understanding the most important 20% of the material on a topic. Tim Ferriss talks about this as it applies to language when he recalls creating a simple rosetta stone of the most common Japanese characters when he was overwhelmed by the task of learning the VERY foreign language while studying in Japan in high school.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper and list of questions you think are important and you know has proven to me to be both an accelerator of my understanding and has also provided me with a good roadmap for continued study.

Step-by-step instructions for everything

The world is complicated; lots of moving parts.

If you’ve ever written a computer program to solve a problem or worked on any complicated real-world system you realize that it takes real time to download the way a process or system works to your brain’s short term memory. It takes even more time if you don’t have a method of expediting this mental downloading process.

I don’t know how many times I’ve approach something again and thought, “how does this work again?” Probably too many. Then I have to kind of go through the discovery process again which I’ve likely already gone through to remember the steps. Hopefully you’ll remember some of the lessons from the first time but the truth is: We should never have to go through another sort of trial-and-error mind recalibration for something we’ve already solved.

It’s kind of sad that we waste a lot of our time trying to figure stuff out for a second or third or fourth time. Not everything is like riding a bike.

This is why one must have a step-by-step process written out for anything you’re likely to forget.

I often work on technical workflow systems involving many different people but this same mindset should be applied to how to use your home theater system if you’re likely to forget how to change inputs. (This paragraph was written for my mother and father.)

I write out step-by-step instructions in Google Docs for almost everything. I have a step-by-step process for how I backup and sort my digital photos. I have another step-by-step process for how I monitor my finances. If I think it will help, I’ll also make a video screencast with voice narration and link to it in the written step-by-step instructions.

Then, of course, as a manager I have written a step-by-step process for my coworkers to follow when performing tasks that I can reference and even a step-by-step process for how I check on all my coworkers, the health of the system and even a step-by-step process on how to both write a process and how to solicit and integrate feedback on the strength of a process.

Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham talks about this as it relates to software developers in his essays.

I had been writing documentation for many years but my thinking on this was heightened by reading Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Mastery. I like referring to it always as “step-by-step.” In the past, I’d written documentation that was insufficiently detailed. This is why calling it “step-by-step” is so important. We can’t leave anything nebulous! You don’t want your brain to have to piece things together. This is wasted time and energy that a younger you has already invested in solving this thing!

Having a totally step-by-step process written down helps your brain download what it needs as quickly as possible. It’s like how we used to attach a Game Genie to our old Nintendo to help us get to the next faster. It’s like any external tool we can develop to help overcome the weakness of our mind.

Here are my types:

  • Make sure it’s actually step-by-step.
    • Don’t assume you’ll remember certain things about a process.
  • Keep it modular
    • If you have some really complex stuff going down, you’ll often need to refer to another step-by-step process inside of a new process. This is fine. Just keep your process in separate docs and then you can cross reference. Never rewrite a process again when you can just reference it / link to it. If you have a bunch of related step-by-step instruction you can put them in one document and if you need to reference
  • Keep it standardized
    • You should write a process for how to write a process! One of the parameters should be to keep the style and formatting of each of your step-by-step process docs the same so the only thing that varies between all the processes you reference are the actual steps.
  • Write it in collaborative doc
    • It’s 2017! No need to keep this hidden away on a parchment scroll. Being able to share your step-by-step process with someone quickly and access on any of your devices is important. Google Docs is great. There are some new entrants from Dropbox and Microsoft Word is now cloud-based.
  • Write a general process for how to improve the process
    • Is your process working reliably? You’ll need to write a process to measure the success of your process. Over time, you’ll also want to look at new technology or solutions that could improve your process and experiment with them and have a process for this experimentation and the evaluation you’ll use to decide whether this “new thing” will actually improve your current process and the measures you’ll use to objectively make this determination.

I’m amazed at the ways humans are able to get all these moving parts to work together to do new things or perform operations quickly and reliably over and over.

But our brain is still bad at storing lots of complicated step-by-step info in its short term memory so we need to give more life and free time to our future selves by created detailed step-by-step instructions to help us quickly and reliably solve recurring problems.

Being the “Picture Painter-in-Chief”

Picture Painter-in-Chief is basically Elon Musk’s job title.

Yes, technically I am sure he is brilliant and just as capable as the senior engineers he employes. But the guy is doing so much, he can’t be in the weeds doing the research and math and all the nitty-gritty.

He’s really more like the storyteller or picture painter. This is his main role. The latest video for his latest endeavor, The Boring Company, is the best example of this. (Embedded at the end of this post.)

Normally, you’d watch something like this and think, “This is science fiction, never going to happen.” But Elon has the defied the odds so much and in is such an influential place of power and has gained so much good will he has absolutely reignited the 60s era space race imagination of the country.

Because of this, he now releases a video like this and instead of being dismissive about it we think, “Yeah, I can see that. Why not? He could probably do it.”

And maybe even more importantly we think: “If he can do it, what else can I do?”

It’s an awesome world to live in when we have these storytellers able to dream a dream and have enough of a track record of success and goodwill behind them that the world believes that dream!

And it’s awesome to live in a world where we have brave men doing hard things and inspiring everyone else to imagine and paint beautiful pictures of an improved tomorrow.

The freedom of constraints

It’s a paradox but it’s true. Constraints help boost productivity.

Setting time constraints is clearly a way to focus the mind. I wrote a quick post on this. There are, however, also constraints on the form of your creative product that can help as well.

Somewhat related is the common quote that “discipline will set your free.”

The older I get and the more experience I have the more I realize it.


  • Twitter: Having only 140 characters eliminates creative hesitation. People who might never create a blog post are prolific tweeters. And there’s real value, in the aggregate, of the creative output this 140 character limitation has caused.
  • Haiku: These are poems with a small constraint just like on twitter. It’s really fun to debate and wrestle with only 17 syllables. If you’re trying to write a book and you want to make sure every word is perfect, you’ll be working on it for eternity and still not finish. With 17 syllables you feel like with a little bit of thought you can get close to the perfect words to say something in a short time.
  • Bootstrap or any frontend, grid-based design framework: You can still basically do anything within a design grid but having a grid system to design within boosts confidence in the reliability of the final product and that makes creating more fun.

The hardest thing I do might be to write a post on this blog because there is no set format.

I like M.G. Seigler’s idea of trying to restrict his blog posts to 500 words with his blog I should have thought of that.

Numbers to remember each day

  • 14 billion
  • 4 billion
  • 70,000
  • 17,000
  • 2,000
  • 1492
  • 1776
  • 7.5 billion

These are numbers that rattle around in my head.

I think about some daily.

Meditating on these numbers helps me keep things in perspective and motivate me to be more bold.

In order, the numbers above represent the following:

  • Age of the universe
  • Age of earth
  • # of years ago all Homo Sapiens were known to live as smallish tribe in East Africa before spreading and taking over the planet
  • Earliest signs of art created by Homo Sapiens in France at Lascaux
  • Approx distance from death of Christ
  • Columbus new land voyage and America
  • America freed; rethinks what a country should be from scratch given lessons from history
  • Approximate number of humans alive today

2009 was, apparently, the year I invented Uber and Pinterest

2009 was, apparently, the year I invented Uber and Uber Pool and Pinterest.

Except, I didn’t.

Cleaning my GDrive today & find this stray note in doc called “2009 – Notes.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 1.56.14 PM

Then I find this:


This was many something like what Pinterest now is.

Common, oft-repeated takeaway is: Ideas are freeeeee, free, free and abundant and thousands of people have the same or similar idea at the same time. There were dozens of people working on the invention of flight around the same time but only the Wright Bros get credit. Same thing with the telephone. Similar thing with this Facebook thing I use right now to distribute this message.

The great book The Master Switch talks about this a bit too.

Eternal execution for the creative mind

If you’re creative, you have a billion ideas. You have ideas that sprout from ideas. It can become this wild tree of ideas that becomes so heavy it starts to jeopardize the strength of the root structure!

You’ll begin executing on a task and find a new idea emerges about how to create some new system or product or spreadsheet or article idea that will help with X.

Not allowing new idea branches to distract you from your primary, current objectives requires focus.

For me, I have to constantly ask myself, “What are the three things I can do today, right now, to move me closer towards my specific daily and weekly goals?”

And then to avoid my creative mind from distracting me from the execution of these tasks I have to set specific time goals to complete them.

That’s it.

Execution for creative people is all about asking the following two questions constantly:

1. What are the are the three things I can do today that will help strengthen the existence of my idea in the world?

2. What is my specific time goal for how long getting this task done will take?

I literally “gameify” all tasks this way. I set a timer on my computer write the task out on my to do like like, “Get the email introduction to John written by 1p.”

And then I race to hit that.

It’s tiring but effective. And can be fun too. Because getting way more done is fun.

Goalie training: Blocking bad inputs

When you get older you realize how important it is to be careful about all your inputs.

If you care about maximizing your output, you need the best input of food and information and people.

“Garbage in, garbage out” is a familiar refrain from Computer Science and database management.

It’s true.

Inputs need to be thought of as everything:

People and the relationships in our lives we let in.

Media and the books and music and film and advertising we choose to let in.

Chemicals or the food we let in.

The more I think of my body as a machine the more I am able to program it to get more of what I want out of it.

But this starts with understanding crumby inputs and blocking them know they will just bring you down and stop you from seeing the good stuff coming.

Blocking requires persistent discipline. It’s like being a soccer goalie and a lot people are punting these rockets at you and you have to protect the goal. At first, you fail and let some in the net. Over time, making amazing saves becomes easier for you and requires less effort.

Your motivation to keep blocking increases as you see the reward that comes from the increase you feel from only allowing the best things in.

Relaxation at tension

Forcing the body to relax under pressure is really powerful. But it takes practice. And focus.

The five mile road race I ran this morning had me thinking about this. At mile three my muscles start to tighten and I began, as people often say, “grinding.” But today I focused on using my mind to fight against this muscular tension as I carried my pace over the final miles.

it seems like impulse pushes us to meet pressure with pressure but experience tells me to, at times, resist this.

In today’s race I maintained and accelerated my pace over the last few miles while working hard to override this impulse to tighten– and to relax my muscles instead. It was a transfer of pressure from my muscles to my mind. My mind now had to work harder to improve the performance of my body by calming it down.

In this way, tense running becomes mindless, lazy running. Coaches tell you not to “fall asleep” during a race and this essentially means turning off your mind’s power as force to keep your body relaxed as you push forward towards the finish.

Martial arts disciplines try to teach these principles of relaxation under pressure as well and Yogis likely become accustomed to forcing relaxation under the tension of a stretch.

But I also think this relaxation under pressure can be generalized to produce benefit outside of running and athletics–and that’s the purpose of this post.

Business dealings and relationships can benefit as well. I remember listening to a tense Senate inquiry of Apple CEO Tim Cook a few years ago that highlights this. The senators were, at the beginning, grilling Cook and, amazingly,  it seemed that the more pressure they put on him the softer and more calmly he spoke. It was masterful. After a few minutes his relaxed but professional demeanor diffused their tension completely. He knew he could not meet fire with fire. He had to meet all levels of increased pressure with increased focus on relaxation.

I’m sure it was hard for Cook to do this. Just like my legs started to tighten today at mile three, I’m sure Cook’s temper started boil a bit when Senator’s really started to dig into him. He figured out a way to override his default and created a better personal outcome as a result.

Cook was such a master of this it seemed he’d had a lot of practice with being “calm in the storm.” This ends up being the mark of a great leader and it’s something you can learn with practice and study. Engagement in challenging physical activities can be instructive and merely the general awareness and acceptance that relaxation under pressure can help one achieve better performance goes a long way towards moving one closer to a Tim Cook-like mastery of this art.








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