Sam Winslow

Go Placidly Amid the Noise and Haste

Sep. 22, 2019

A set of guiding principles I work to uphold.

Embrace uncertainty

Accept that you will not know exactly what the final product looks like, and find beauty in this feeling. Treat the answer to your question as external to the decisions you have to make to get there. Act as if the great uncertainty that underlies life is irrelevant.

Ask for advice

Don’t assume something when you can ask someone about it. Don’t look for an answer through other channels unless you have reason to believe you’ll get higher quality information from those channels. In other words, stay focused.

Asking for help and getting feedback is an active process. How you ask is just as important as what you ask. People, systems, and your relationship to these people & systems change when you request information from them. Respect that.

Most people love giving advice, and especially love being thought of as an expert. You can flatter people by asking for help, and you should use this to your advantage. Without being arrogant, maintain an internal confidence even when you realize how much you don’t know. If your affect is insecure, timid, and uneasy when you ask for help, you signal that you doubt your own abilities, and after enough time your advice-giver will start to doubt you, too.

Don’t make excuses

What you don’t know won’t hurt you, unless you sort of know what you should know but you avoid looking into it because:

  • You think it’s too hard: It will point to more things you don’t know—more opportunities to learn & build mentor relationships)
  • You think you’re inadequate at a fundamental level: This can’t be solved purely within work or school, and has probably trickled into other parts of your life. Cultivate meaningful personal relationships and mindfulness in your actions; also try therapy (another form of asking for advice).
  • You think you don’t have enough time: Your time is an asset. If you think your time is fully invested in pursuits that offer maximum growth in all areas, e.g. material, intellectual, spiritual, and interpersonal wealth—then you’re fine. If you’re like the rest of us, you’ll need to work to get there. Reinvest your time accordingly. Cut off friends who don’t make you feel good about yourself over the long run. Fail classes with bad teachers, and go above and beyond with good teachers.

Metrics aren't everything

Your bank account, follower count, and GPA are secondary metrics that are linked to your underlying quality-of-life in an exceedingly complex way. They are not your quality-of-life. You must never forget that no system measures your worth fully and objectively.

Your past achievements are not static, and should be examined from a multitude of perspectives that reflect the complexity of the decisions you had to make in those situations. There are several parts to an achievement:

1st order2nd order
The action(s) you tookHow you talk about your action(s)
The result (the effect on other people)How other people talk about the result

Be reflexive—question your conclusions and how you arrive at conclusions. Language is essential.

Maintain an internal locus of control

“I had no choice” is something you might as well banish from your vocabulary. It undermines your credibility and deflects responsibility. If you have any responsibility, i.e. you are a decision-maker for a given situation, you always have some amount of choice. You might not have been the primary decision-maker, but focus on what you did have control over. “I had no choice” becomes “I faced a tough decision, and picked the lesser evil.” The choice is there and you always have the power to make it.

The title is borrowed from the opening line of Max Ehrmann's Desiderata, a beautiful poem and the single most impactful work of literature I have ever read. My embrace of uncertainty and rejection of minimally instructive quantitative metrics is loosely based on the ideas of Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile and The Black Swan, as well as cybernetic theory.