Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Take Hardest Problem First, Best Way To Improve"

Not everything we do in life yields to our first impulse. We charge down a path, thinking we are headed toward a desirable outcome, only to find we have been wrong in our initial impressions. Even more frequently we are tempted to "sit this one out," reluctant to make the attempt to begin until the "time is right," or we feel "inspired" to move forward. Often results are achieved only after a long struggle in patience and faith.

This can be true in many of our pursuits in life. I'm thinking of young people who wait and postpone opportunities for marriage, schooling, employment or other endeavors. Often, newlyweds postpone having children until school is finished, until a home is purchased, or whatever else some feel needs to be in place before moving forward. How many of us have sat at our desk at work day-dreaming or avoiding diving into a difficult task, and manufactured excuses for putting off something we know must be done in exchange for an easier task?

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, dated March 17th, 1878, and found in the 1905 volume The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain):

"Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer's soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

"A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write to-day will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation, if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way."

Last night, speaking with someone on an unrelated topic, I recounted an experience I had years ago with a Japanese engineer on the golf course. We were at a business retreat on the Monterrey Peninsula at a beautiful destination resort. Many will know that the Japanese people are disproportionately passionate about the game of golf. They join expensive country clubs just to get on the links and avoid long wait times at public courses. Of course, there isn't a lot of real estate in a small country like Japan that can be allocated to expansive patches of greenery like a golf course. The demand for golf in Japan far exceeds the supply.

On this particular day I was partnered with my engineer friend from Japan in what was to be a four-man "best-ball" scramble. It's a popular format for business gatherings because it speeds play and compensates for those who are hackers. There are several variations, but generally all four players tee off and then the ball that lands in the best position is the ball the rest of the foursome plays on the second shot, and so forth.

This day, however, I was surprised when my friend stopped at the worst ball of the four first. One of our foursome was an obvious rookie at golf, and had dribbled a poor tee shot barely fifty feet off the tee. At least it was in the fairway. I said, "No, you don't understand the format, we play the best ball (which happened to be my tee shot about 275 yards up the fairway)," to which he responded, "No, it's you who does not understand. Take hardest problem first, best way to improve game."

I relented, and learned a valuable lesson from my Japanese playing partner. We came in dead last, and it took us a long time to get around the course, consistently playing the worst ball of our weakest playing partner that day. At the end, my friend turned to me and asked, "Did game improve for you today?" I thought about all the tough shots I had been forced to hit in the round, and had to admit, "Yes, we hit some pretty difficult shots today, it was an exceptional practice round." He smiled and said, "Very good, now you thinking like Japanese." He wasn't the least bit interested in who had the low score that day. What he cared about most was eliminating the "muda" from his game.

What my friend taught me that day was what Tchaikovsky had mastered. Move ahead in life even when conditions are not optimal. that's how we progress and learn - by doing the things that are not easy first.

In America we often pursue what looks easiest to us first, just the opposite of the way my engineering friend attacked a problem. We avoid the hard things for as long as we can. Of course, these are generalities and may not apply to every case, but think and ponder for a moment about what is going on in the political realm in America. What is the political class doing? They are blaming each other, refusing to work together for the best interests of America, and by postponing the work on the hard problems of our fiscal crisis, we continue to languish and atrophy as a nation, stuck in the miry clay of our anemic economic recovery. Rather than tackling the hardest problems first, what do we get out of Congress and the White House? The bare minimum of effort, and very little evidence of leadership willing to take on the really tough problems of entitlement reform, debt reduction and deficit elimination. I read the poll results this morning that only 14% (an all-time low) believe their children will be better off than they are today.

On a personal note, I have a brother who suffered a massive stroke about a month ago, following a massive heart attack last year about this time. The physicians and nurses who attended him during that first week said they had never seen a more severe bleed from a stroke than this one (three areas of the brain were affected). In emergency surgery a fourth of his skull was removed to relieve the pressure on the brain. He was intubated with a ventilator, a feeding tube and a tracheotomy to save his life. He lost all functionality on his left side which was paralyzed permanently, according to his doctors. He could not swallow, he had trouble breathing on his own, he could not speak in addition to the paralysis. His lungs were filled with the dreaded hospital-acquired MRSA super virus. For four weeks he languished, hovering between life and death, his pacemaker was turned off and we were all saying our farewells and preparing ourselves for another funeral.

And then (there is no other word), he miraculously responded when all mechanical and medical interventions to save his life were withdrawn.

He has literally been snatched back from the brink. Who knows why? Maybe it's because there's some unfinished "muda" that needs to be attacked and removed first before he can move on. That's pure speculation on my part, but seldom does deferring the muda clean-up in our lives result in long-term happy outcomes. When we leave it until the end when the stakes are much higher, it's often harder to deal with than if we had tackled it in the beginning - when it was the hardest problem back then - and we weren't particularly feeling like taking it on that day.

As a general rule, like my friend the Japanese engineer suggested, it's better to tackle the hard things first.


  1. That is great news about Hal's updated condition, Dave! It sure sounds like a miracle to me. I just heard that he was in bad shape so I appreciate the update in your blog here. Is he able to have visitors? I'd love to see him. You have my number. Feel free to text or call me anytime with news.

  2. Earlier today he was transferred back to the U of U Hospital to begin physical therapy. A week ago he was a dead man, now he's fully awake, speaking, moving even his left side and fully cognitive. He's slowly putting together all the pieces to realize what has happened to him. Really quite amazing! Dr. Gregory House himself would be at a loss to explain this medical mystery ;-)