Simple Insights

There's a set of profound truths hiding in plain sight. They're so simple that once heard, their truth is undisputed. Yet it's not until they're heard that we're made aware of their existence. They're powerful statements that can be applied to countless scenarios. Simple insights that can be wielded like a compass to navigate the complexity of the world. They describe the "why" of things and help you make the right decisions.

One such insight is that there are two types of people in life: alive players and dead players. Alive players can do new things, where "new" is defined as something they haven't done in the past. Dead players are incapable of doing new things and repeat the same actions over and over again. It follows from this simple insight that you can predict the actions of a dead player and you cannot predict the actions of an alive player. The implications of this truth are infinite. If you can identify that you're competing against a dead player incapable of learning, you know that their set of possible moves is limited to the moves they've performed in the past. The dead player on the basketball court drives right every time, allowing you to anticipate and block their drive, every time. The alive player on the other hand is unguardable, he might drive left, pull up from 3, or hit you with a floater. Each week he adds a new move to his repertoire.

Simple insights are domain agnostic. They contain universal truths whose application is boundless. The dead player in business ships the same product each year. The dead player in politics has the same platform every election cycle. And over a long enough time span, alive players beat dead players. In business the alive player reacts to the demands of the market. He's constantly adapting both his product and process in response to internal and external feedback. The alive politician (though rare), adapts his platform to the changing sentiment of his constituents. He refutes dogma that states political opinions must be binary and mutually exclusive.

Like a chain reaction, once one simple insight is discovered, other related insights appear around it. After thinking deeply about alive and dead players, one might deduce another insight: To live is to embrace change and to die is to deny it. This is true in both a physical and spiritual sense. The infant, full of life, is constantly changing. Each day she's exposed to a new experience, constantly learning new words, new tastes, and new feelings. She learns that the word "juice" prompts her parents to give her her favorite drink. She learns which behaviors to avoid, like chewing toys, from the yells of her father. She internalizes the feedback from her environment and adapts her behavior accordingly. She lives. On the other end of the spectrum, the old closed-minded widow, set in her ways, slowly awaits death. For the widow, each passing day is indistinguishable from the previous. New ideas and experiences suggested by her children and grandchildren are met with resentment. They go against what she knows, what's comfortable. Change is forbidden. And as a sad result, mental and physical deterioration accompany her refusal of change like red wine with steak. Slowly, she dies.

And from the implications and examples of this insight, yet another is found: Change is easier the earlier it's made. Having just begun her life, the infant is like a blank slate. Not yet molded by habits, she's receptive to change. To her, everything is new. No one path provides more familiarity and comfort than another. But as she grows older, as experiences are repeated and habits are formed, change becomes increasingly more difficult. God forbid that she too might one day grow old and herself become a close-minded widow. Repeating the same routine day in and day out. Engraving her stagnant beliefs into her mind, like text on a stone tablet. Constantly deferring change to "tomorrow". Not realizing that with each repetition her routine becomes easier and change becomes harder. And after a lifetime of this deferral, change becomes impossible. Any deviation from her familiar routine and beliefs causes pain, anxiety, and mental anguish.

But again it's not just the lifecycle of a human that this insight applies to. It's a universal truth that exists across domains. It's easy to change the location of a house before construction has begun. But once the foundation has been poured, things get much more difficult. The same is true of software. Changing the design of a software system during the design phase is frictionless, you simply edit the text and diagrams that make up the current design. Once the system is in the implementation phase, changes to the design become more tedious. They require communicating the change to the developers building the system, re-writing code, re-writing the tests for that code, and re-writing documentation. Changing the design of a system after it's in production (the final phase of the software development life-cycle) is the most difficult. In addition to all the challenges from the previous two stages, you must also ensure the system continues to serve the needs of its (potentially million+) users. You have to continue fixing bugs in the original design while simultaneously implementing the new one. You have to communicate to project stakeholders why the design change is necessary, why it wasn't done this way in the first place, and why it's taking so long. The list of challenges goes on. And as the list grows, the utility of the insight becomes more obvious. Change is easier the earlier it's made.

As I think about simple insights and their implications, more and more appear. Combining and feeding off each other in a symbiosis of ideas. "Do it right the first time" pops into my mind as I consider the tough implications of "Change is easier the earlier it's made." And I'm sure that after thinking through that insight another will follow. And I'll use that simple insight to explain the "why" of something. Like why children are often joyful and why elders are often miserable. Or I'll use it to help me make a decision. Like the decision to seek discomfort, or to embrace change, or to learn something new. And through making such decisions I might uncover yet another simple insight that was hiding right under my nose the entire time.

What simple insights are hiding in front of you?

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