Are You Doing Something Useful?


Friday, 8.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. – Margaret J. Wheatley

I sometimes wonder what the point of it all is – why do we do what we do, do we need to do anything at all and would it make a difference if we did anything else?

There’s a lot I don’t know about the world and it often feels like others know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t work. For example, what is it about economics and policy that means people can make big decisions that affect the lives of millions of others? How do they know that what they’re doing is right?

Well, it turns out that they don’t know. This paper points to literature arguing that all interventions based on policy are kind of experimental – the results aren’t known in advance so you have to try it out and see what happens. Now, this is interesting and can be generalised to argue that almost any intervention is an experiment if you don’t know how it’s going to turn out – and which pretty much makes every human thing we do a study into what might happen.

What this means practically is that your attempt at generating a business strategy is an experiment and, for that matter, your attempt to do something with your life is also an experiment. Maybe you’re doing what you’re doing because of a number of things that chanced to happen and if the dice had rolled a different number you might be somewhere else, and might be better off or worse off – you just can’t tell.

Now, you might argue, not everything is an experiment. If you work hard and stick to it you’ll get your just rewards. Then again, just reading that don’t you find yourself disbelieving it a little? Yes you can work hard – but that doesn’t mean you’ll get rewarded necessarily – that also comes down to luck. How lucky are you at choosing your sector, your role, your contribution? How lucky were you that someone saw what you did? Chance plays a bigger role in everything than we might like to admit.

Then again, while the future is uncertain the past is sort of known. One might think that you know the past precisely – but while you know what happened your interpretation of the past is what matters – how you see what’s happened to you and the way you feel it’s affected you. For example, I had a number of experiences that I was irritated by, didn’t like, was annoyed at. Then, when I studied the area a bit more and was introduced to models that helped explain what was going on I found myself looking at things very differently. If you understand why something happens then you seem to be able to deal with the feelings better because you know that it wasn’t your fault or their fault but that it was just the way things were.

So, what connection does this have to being useful. I suppose it’s this. Life is an experiment – one that you’re running all the time, every day. You’re making decisions and looking to see how they turn out. But it’s also not entirely about experiments and waiting. Once you’ve run at least a few experiments you should start to theorise – start to predict what’s going to happen.

For example, when I started this post I didn’t really feel like I had much to write. I wasn’t sure how useful what I wrote was to anyone – including myself. But I could predict that if I just started writing, started doing the routine that I’ve been doing for four years things would work out, the words would appear – almost by magic drawn out keyboard press by keyboard press. And there was a chance I’d find them useful.

When it comes down to it, you are where you are. And there are good reasons for why you are there. But you have to find them – and you do that by reflecting, by looking and seeing and feeling and thinking. And if you don’t know why you feel the way you do – it helps to find some theory, a few models that help get you started. If you’re not happy with your career, for example, I’d start with this one.


Karthik Suresh

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