Staying curious through the narrow neck in the hourglass of life

A few moons ago, I visited a college buddy in Boulder Colorado. We stumbled into a fellow backcountry skier that was a similar age though started the parenting journey much younger and had a very Forest Gump-ey theory that life is like an hourglass. You start off with few responsibilities representing a wide range of possibilities, those obligations increase narrowing life options like the neck in the middle of an hourglass and then later on things expand again as kids grow up and the choose your own adventure of retirement. As a soon to be new dad, that phrase stuck with me.[1]

I was reminded of that metaphor last Thursday while participating in a Coro Climate Leadership workshop discussing how can one stay curious as one progresses through life, both career-wise and beyond?[2]

Today's hyper-competitive global economy can resemble Adam Smith's pin factory on steroids. Specialization in not just a field like civil engineering but building pipelines pays dividends. Regardless if one chooses to embark on the parenting journey, life has a way of narrowing in the middle. Parents age. Climbing the ladder at work often means more scheduling and a higher velocity information firehouse. That means lower bandwidth with which to explore and the need for greater intentionality in nurturing curiosity.

During grad school, studying at the intersection of data science and city operations, I found the statistical artifact of the "bias-variance" tradeoff to be an incredibly useful tool for navigating the (potential) tension between curiosity and action. From Wikipedia:

While widely discussed in the context of machine learning, the bias–variance dilemma has been examined in the context of human cognition, most notably by Gerd Gigerenzer and co-workers in the context of learned heuristics. They have argued (see references below) that the human brain resolves the dilemma in the case of the typically sparse, poorly-characterised training-sets provided by experience by adopting high-bias/low variance heuristics. This reflects the fact that a zero-bias approach has poor generalisability to new situations, and also unreasonably presumes precise knowledge of the true state of the world. The resulting heuristics are relatively simple, but produce better inferences in a wider variety of situations

Back in the plague years, I wrote a short series of posts taking that type of statistical, information theory perspective to navigating the avalanche of digital information which we have access to today. See below.

Since then I've worked to operationalize practices to stay focused, avoid context switching, enable serendipity and indulge my sometimes what feels like infinite curiousity without letting that consume me. I journal regularly and use notion to help with sensemaking and nudge along ongoing learning projects like learning water quality or the fundamentals of engineering. Below is a screenshot of my daily routine which has several fun options.

As a parent, I've also really loved living my mom's invocation to see the world through your child's eyes. With a kid, everything old is new again. Toddlers in particular have this amazing ability to make everything Big and Exciting, which is both a blessing and a curse. That joy of discovery also mirrors recent shifts in my career.

Over the last six months, I've worked at a water utility, a fun and challenging experience for someone who's spent most of his career working on innovation adjacent to that type of municipality. It's been a humbling exercise to manage and support activities ranging from stormwater to state reporting to water rights to groundwater to remote sensing to water quality. I am reminded of a quote by physicist John Wheeler that I came across in the book Ego is the Enemy, recommended by two colleagues.

"We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."

There can often be an implicit assumption that the higher up you go on the management and leadership track, the more emails you have to digest and more your day gets divvied into 15 minute chunks. Frenetic isn't a sustainable or often a effective management strategy, however.

So I have set up a bunch of email rules and snoozed notifications so that I can stay sane in the deluge of ~150 emails that I get in a typical day. I've also worked out with my team so that key information like a water quality alert has redundancy built in and is flagged in important channels. I've also helped develop shared workspaces so that important information like say a critical water rate or water quality nextdoor post doesn't just get buried in an email thread but has the appropriate follow up.

A lot of that isn't really that fancy and I'm still trying to calibrate and learn and adapt and grow with our team. It's an ongoing journey. I would say though that I have explicitly tried to avoid and pull back when I notice myself trending into an avalanche of information. Much of that is inspired by the example of friends and colleagues.

My cousin used to work at a big VC firm and she shared a story about how the older partners stumbled on a calendar from a few decades back. The scheduled activities for the day consisted of a meeting in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon. So often we confuse the amount of activity for actual achievement - a distinction that has gotten blurrier and blurrier with the breadth of knowledge work across the economy. It's not as easy to measure the results of a typical knowledge worker as say construction.

Another example: my college pod mate Sam Corcos' hyper-focused approach to management involved literally cutting out "focus glasses" to block out distractions. See more at the link below.

I don't personally prefer that type of extremism but do find that type of decluttering helpful and a clarifying perspective. The internet enables seemingly infinite access to information. Every view has an opposite and many others in between -- a veritable Valhalla for variance. It's easily exhausting, however. Reflecting on the Coro question at the start of this post, I've been updating my daily journaling practice with some options for news on the state of the world.

That includes a couple orthogonal vectors as well like this nice East Africa twitter list. I also put the option to check key industry data on water supply and energy conditions.

Infinite curiosity is exhausting and it's useful to have a set of prior biases about where to profitably look for new information. As any good Bayesian knows, however, that new information provides the foundation for updating one's priors. Got any good tips or strategies? I'd love to learn. Share in the comments below and/or tag me @patwater on twitter, farcaster or where ever our internets intersect.

[1] I highly recommend Transformed by Birth for a somewhat spiritual exploration of the experience of birth.

[2] The post below provides a little bit more context on Coro and my experience with the program:

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Pioneering Spirit logo
Subscribe to Pioneering Spirit and never miss a post.