The Important Thing Three acts

The One About Small Things, Done Well

In our 44th episode, we walk through the first chapters of Lopp’s 3rd book. Learning to deal with endless meetings, understanding The Situation™, and learning that people often just want to be seen. Spend 45 minutes with Lyle and Lopp talking about important things.

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Rands Don't think. Don't analyze. Don't assess. Just be scared.

Fear is a Liar

He says things so sweetly. He knows all your failures. He remembers your emotional scars. He sounds like you. And he craves your attention.

The Thursday after the election, I woke up, grabbed my phone next to the bed, and scanned the latest news. We were still two days from announcing the winner of the election, but there was good news. Some media site had called the election, and the hourly trends on ballot counting in Pennsylvania looked very promising.

A sigh of relief. The briefest moment of early celebration in a year where celebration was scarce. I shared this relief with close dear friends, and the reaction was swift and crushing, “Don’t celebrate. Let me explain to you in great detail how this is going to go simply horribly.” And then they explained the terrifying opinionated detail.

Fear is a liar.

She knows what scares you. She was iteratively designed over billions of years to prevent you from being eaten by a cave bear. She’s still around. She has impressive controlling strength over you. She sounds helpful. She sounds smart. She moves so fast.

Early in the pandemic, I was part of a hastily thrown together Zoom interview. The host opened with a softball, “How are you?”

A guest, “Spent the morning doomscrolling.”

An internal mental giggle. Yeah, it was the first time I’d heard the word: doomscrolling. It perfectly described a regular act for me. Sitting down at my favorite device and just soaking in the doom, the fear. Pick a topic: elections, racism, democracy, civil unrest, or a pandemic. It’s trivial to find a steady flow of content to confirm and stoke my worst fears. I do this daily.

Fear is a liar.

The early builders of the Internet had a hit on their hands. They quickly realized they had two critical challenges. A lot of data was being generated by humans using the Internet, and there was an infinite gold mine buried inside that data. Billion-dollar data storage, management, and analysis businesses emerged to tackle these challenges.

Machine learning also flourished as businesses learned how to use machine learning to look at vast data sets and learn. What were they learning? Very simply, these ‘robots’ learned to predict things that you like with increasing precision.

Correction. It’s not like. It’s engagement. How likely are you going to engage with a piece of content? The content could be a link, advertisement, but – important point here – it’s not relevant whether you like the content or not; it’s whether you engage. The more you engage, the more signal you send, the more data you create, which means more data for the robots to learn from, which means they do an even better job find more engaging things to click on.

I’m delighted and a little in awe when Instagram presents me with pitch-perfect advertising. I spent the first fifteen years on the Internet, avoiding engaging in all advertising, but Instagram ads are good. Really good. Why yes, those navy blue leather boots are precisely what I want. Right now. It’s magical. It’s nice that Instagram made my shopping experience better. Still, it’s horrific that the same mechanisms have created a generation of humans who believe doomscrolling is anything but compulsive consumption of weaponized fear.

And fear is a liar.

You’re worried about something. Very normal. Very human. You have a moment, so you sit down with your favorite device and take a gander at your friend’s activity, whether that’s a social network, a messaging thread, or any number of means that keep us connected.

What are they up to? They’re worrying, too, because there is a lot to worry about these days. One friend found a particularly worrisome piece of content and has shared it. Oh dear, how worrisome. You click on the link (engagement), read the opinion (not facts) piece, and it echos your worry, so promptly share it with another group of friends (sharing) who need to read this critical content.

Every sentence, every action in the prior paragraph, involves creating useful data for the robots to figure out more what this group of humans cares about to push more engaging content targeted explicitly at these humans.

Those who peddle fear understand precisely how these robots work and have come to expect how you will react. They throw a thousand lies into a social network and let the robots do their work. Humans react, robots notice and adapt, and the peddlers of fear create a fear-based echo chamber where they’ve discovered the very best lies that will efficiently engage the broadest audience.

We’re talking about a planet full of humans mostly unknowingly generating data that robots are sorting, filing, analyzing, and search for that one piece of content that instantly engages you. These robots don’t care if that content is a new pair of boots or a lie.

Those who peddle fear are counting on the fact that your reaction is fear and that you’ll get mad and want to take action. Quickly. Urgently. Irrationally. They don’t want you to think; they want you to hate. They want to divide. They want you to believe the act of consuming, engaging, and echoing anger, fear, and hate is a productive act.

Don’t think. Don’t analyze. Don’t assess. Just be scared. Hate an amorphous someone. Fear.

The thing is – if you choose…

Fear is a teacher.

I think of that bully in my 6th-grade class who randomly stood up during lunch, walked across the courtyard, and bullied me. First, I was scared, then I was embarrassed in front of friends, and then I was mad.

Today. Many years later, it’s the only thing I remember about the 6th grade. It’s a permanent mental scar, but I’ve chosen to learn from that scar. I’ve thought about what it means to be a bully, how they are motivated, and how they should be treated. I now treat them appropriately. Quickly and with directed informed purpose.

I act because I’ve considered, I reflected, and I’ve learned. This is the bizarre gift of fear: it teaches you. It ferociously highlights a situation where you must pay attention. It’s an unforgettable opportunity to learn when the danger passes because you absolutely do not want to be here again. That’s the lesson.

Fear is a teacher.

He says things so clearly. He understands you completely. He knows what motivates you. He speaks with confidence. And he wants you to be safe.

Fear is a teacher.

She knows how to get your attention because she knows what scares you. She was there when it happened. She remembers how you got that scar and she wants no further harm to come of you. Fear is a reminder that it’s time to learn and then act.

Management A simple concept for an impossible job

The Metronome

Tick tock.

Morning. Sit down at the desk. Hit the spacebar and wake up the displays. Calendar first. What is happening today, and how do I need to prepare? Any last-minute edits? Conflicts? New meeting additions to the day? Ok, which meetings are unfamiliar? Look at attendees—map names to the organizational chart. Assess political machinations. Look for traps. Three to five minutes to complete. Takes more time earlier in the week.

Slack now. Anything new and unread in the Fires section gets an immediate response. Give either a calming “I am looking at this” emoji or, in the moment, considered response. Direct messages next. Everyone gets a response because this communication is pointed directly at me. Finally, glance at any channel with anything new. Scanning really. Not reading. It’s not going anywhere—ten minutes to Slack Zero.

Mail next. Thanks to obsessively updated mail rules, my inbox is mostly high signal and usually actionable. Make a call on each mail: respond in mail or bounce the thread to Slack? The latter choice sends a strong, intentional signal that is hard to ignore, but I triage and act much faster in Slack. Inbox Zero before 9am is the goal. The goal takes ten to twenty minutes because email is often an annoyingly and unnecessarily long form.

Tick.

Grab my favorite pen and current notebook. Turn to the bookmarked page and flip back the last few pages to re-cache thoughts, tasks, and important doodles from the prior day.

Now back to calendar. First meeting now. Click on the video conference link and be in the room two minutes before the start time. Every time. Smile.

Tock.

A Collective Impression

Towards the end of last week, you learned that your boss is taking this week off. She announced her well-deserved vacation in her staff meeting. My question is: describe your first reaction to learning this news. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone. A weight lifted, right? A decrease in perceived future stress? You respect your manager, but her absence for five days is a brief opportunity to take a breath, take your foot off the gas, and take a moment to gaze at the sky and let your mind wander.

Not delight about her absence, just relief.

I’ll explain shortly why this hypothetical but probable scenario is mostly bad news. First, let us understand that your ability to foresee how the week-sans-manager is based on your manager’s impression. Who she is. How she acts. What she values and what she’ll ignore. Her popular turns of phrases in meetings. The professional lines she will not cross.

Every leader builds a collective impression with their team. It’s different for each human as each human sees slightly different versions of a leader and values different aspects of the leader. This collective impression is not just your opinion of your leader; it’s your internal working model for how they work. In Situation X, she usually does Y. Knowing this allows you to better prepare for her. She always asks about Y, so we shall prepare by digging deep on all Y questions. The best application of this collective impression is when you can use your leader’s prior experience and learnings to address a problem without their intervention. She capably solves it like this, so shall I.

I would argue that the collective perception of who you are as a leader is as important as your daily visible leadership acts. Better said: the more the team can get the work done without you there, the more effectively you are scaling as a leader. This takes us back to our hypothetical vacation scenario.

Not delight. Just relief. Because your manager is absent.

The absence of leadership is a relief? You can see why this common perception is problematic. The absence of the human accountable for leading the team’s productivity, morale, and efficiency is giving the team relief by not being there.

Tick.

Of course, you need a vacation. The last three months have been hell. You vastly underestimated the time required to plan the project. You had no idea how many different teams would need a charm offensive to get them aligned with the vision.

Tick

It’s no wonder they are relieved by your vacation. They are getting stressed just watching you work. They can see the stress in your face. They can hear it in your words. They are stressed because they are your team, and a team listens in every direction and every manner possible for signal on how they are doing and your frantic sprint to a temporary finish line tells them, “Something is fundamentally wrong.”

Tock.

Your Hidden Job

It’s your job to show up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them how they can do their job when you are not there. This takes us back to the beginning of this article: my Monday morning ramp.

Two minutes early to a meeting. As much as possible. The last act of my morning opening productivity ramp. What lessons do I demonstrate to the meeting attendees by being there two minutes early? A couple: beginning on time is respectful to attendees, and meetings are expensive affairs, so let’s invest our time wisely. There’s a more fundamental lesson I am teaching: Leaders are capable of showing up to meetings on time.

Table stakes, right? How many managers have you worked with who are apparently incapable of showing up to a scheduled meeting on time?

The value built within your company is a function of the quality things the talented humans build. They build these wonderful things with their hands, and proper building requires time. Time is like air: essential and taken for granted until it is in short supply. After hiring and building a diverse set of humans, your primary job as a leader is to give them as much time as possible to do their creative work. My small act of meeting timeliness demonstrates that I value everyone’s time equally.

Tick tock.

You’re the metronome. A metronome’s essential but straightforward job marks time at a selected rate by giving a regular tick… or tock. A leader’s job is defined by the professional means by which a thing is done via visible, repeated, and consistent actions. A mandate never defines these standards, but by actively demonstrating you understand the business value of time – precious time – with your actions.

The metronome’s job is constant. Tick. How long does he take to respond to something? Tick. Do meetings always fill the time, or are they done when the work is done? Tick. When he says he will do something, what is your gut reaction to whether or not he will do said thing? Tick. Why is he always five minutes late to every meeting?

Tock.

A metronome is a simple tool. Your job is mind-bogglingly, complex, and ever-changing. It is perhaps overwhelming to consider the responsibility of showing up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them to do their job when you are not there. The more they can effectively handle complex situations themselves, the better.

A simple concept for perhaps an impossible job…

The less they need you to do effectively do their job, the better.

Rands More explode-y

Sea of Thieves: Advancing the Narrative

This is a keg.

In Rare’s Sea of Thieves, powder kegs sprinkle the lands and seas. You can find them on islands, in forts, or just floating in the ocean. Kegs explode. Satisfyingly so. You can use kegs in Sea of Thieves to kill other players, to sink their ships, to sink your own, or to detonate when it suits your mood.

Here are two kegs.

The narrative with two kegs is exactly the same as one keg except with additional bigger explosions.

Here’s your ship.

In Sea of Thieves, your ship, this beautiful beast, costs you exactly nothing to acquire. If you happen to sink your ship – say with a keg or two – a brand new total duplicate of your ship will be provided — free of cost.

That’s the start of the story of Sea of Thieves. It’s a game I’ve never seen before, and I’m obsessed with it not just because I’m enamored with explosive kegs.

Pirating 101

Developed by Rare and published by Microsoft, Sea of Thieves is a pirate game. You start by picking a pirate avatar with appropriate pirate accouterments and choosing a type of ship you want to captain. Choices are the ginormous four-player Galleon, the brittle three-player Brigantine, and the flexible two- or one-person Sloop. With these choices complete, you set sail…

Let’s start with what I consider the initial novel aspects of Sea of Thieves:

No Character or Weapon Leveling A player who starts Sea of Thieves has precisely the same unchangeable set of abilities as the player who has been on since day one. Similarly, the same collection of weapons (sword, pistol, blunderbuss, sword) is immediately available and unchangeable from an ability perspective. You can use gold to update the weapons, ship, and person’s skins, but there is no unlocking of new abilities in Sea of Thieves. Everyone starts and stays the same.

No levels? How do I know I’m progressing? What does winning mean? How will I grind? It takes a chunk of time to understand, but there is subtle leveling in Sea of Thieves. New, unexpected weapon unlocks will reveal themselves. And there is most certainly a sense of progression. More on this shortly.

Sailing is A Lot of Work Video games often drastically simplify work complicated in the real world because the real world is… work. In Sea of Thieves, the designers chose to make the process of operating your ship more laborious and complicated than you’d expect in a virtual world. Yes, you steer your ship with the wheel, but you also need to raise and lower your sails, and you also need to adjust the angle of sails (“tacking”) to capture the optimal amount of the ever-shifting wind.

Veteran sailors in the audience are giggling in their heads right now and thinking, “That’s super-simplified sailing, Rands.” I believe you, but what would you usually expect from a modern video game. Design it with me right now. Standing from a single spot and with as little clicking as possible, I would like to steer the ship, raise and lower the sails, tackle the sails, and fire the cannons.

That’s not at all how it works. You can not raise or lower the sails from the wheel. You dash over to another set of ropes. The first rope adjusts the sail length, and the second rope adjusts the angle. Oh yeah, we haven’t even talked about the anchor yet. Raising the anchor is a laborious eight-second process on the Sloop (it’s somewhere close to a minute on the Galleon) where you grab the capstan and slowly walk around in a circle 1.5 times to raise the anchor.

Reads like a lot of work. Not half done. See, you need supplies, too. (And kegs). You start at an outpost populated with vendors that will sell you re-skinned versions of everything. There are also barrels filled with essentials supplies: cannonballs, magic cannonballs, firebombs, blunder bombs, and a whole slew of different types of food. These items need to be acquired and moved from the barrels on the outpost to your ship’s appropriate barrels—more bad news for productivity. You can’t carry many items, which means if you want to get a decent amount of supplies, you’ll need to run back and forth from your ship to supply barrels to your ship twenty to thirty times before your ship has sailed an inch.

If you’re under the impression this game is a lot of work, you’re right. It’s a lot of work. If you’d like to understand why it’s a delight to master, it’s time to tell you the essential design decision within Sea of Thieves.

You Are Never Safe

Story-time. Sea of Thieves has three basic types of quests: find buried treasure, kill skeletons, and deliver supplies. There are raid-like events and other seasonal quests that show up, but those are the basics: find, kill, and deliver.

Finding buried treasure quests involve traveling to one of the many islands in the sea and acquiring chests via an X marks the spot map or other clues. I was on a buried treasure quest early in my experience with the game. Look at a map with an unnamed island, figure out a direction, find the unnamed island with the treasure on my ship’s map, and then go through the pleasantly laborious process of getting the ship pointed in the right direction. Not only do the wheel, sails, and the anchor need attention, but the only way to know which direction you’re going is by looking at a compass—no heads-up direction display. You must constantly check your compass, pay attention to local landmarks, and triangulate.

Arriving at the small island, I begin the equally laborious process of now slowing the ship down, pointing it in the right direction so that I don’t run aground. Finally, I must land the anchor at just the right time so that my travel swims to/from the island are short.

Glancing at the map, I quickly triangulate where the treasure is buried. Again, the only map I have with this information is the one in my hand, and there is no real-time indication of where I am on this map. I must look at local landmarks like clumps of palm trees and interesting shaped rocks to figure out where the treasure is buried.

Three palm trees. A big pointy rock. On the south side of the island. I jump off the side of the ship and head in what I think is the right direction. The game I play with myself is do I find the chest when I dig my very first hole? So. Dig. THUNK Success! I… wait. Is someone talking?

Other voice: There’s someone here.

It is. Someone else is on the island—a younger gentleman.

Other voice: Maybe we should kill them?

Wait, kill me? I, just, wait…

The younger gentlemen lunges for me from behind a rock, cutlass swinging, and I’m totally unprepared. This was early in my Sea of Thieves experience, and I had no expectation regarding multiplayer. I’ve seen no one until this brute, and his cutlass shows up.

I have a sword. And a blunderbuss. And food to heal, but OW OW OW.

Other voice: We’re killing him.

They sure are. Running. Trying to remember the keyboard command to attack and OW OW OW.

Other voice: He’s running.

And I’m dead.

As my ghost slowly floats away from my corpse, heading to Davy Jones’ Locker, I notice the other’s player’s ship is sitting maybe 300 yards from my ship. How’d they get there so quickly? Why didn’t I notice until I heard their voice? 1Sea of Thieves is a cross-platform game. It runs on the Xbox and PC. On the Xbox, the default microphone setting is set to hot or on. This means a slew of Xbox players are sailing the seas with their mics unknowingly on. You can only hear other players when you’re close, but hot mics make for hilarious combat.

Formative lessons we can learn from this story:

  1. Sea of Thieves is an open world. There are only six other pirate ships on a server at a given time. There are pirates on these pirate ships. And often kegs. The latter explodes.
  2. Unlike other open-world games, there is no obvious place for new players to hide. You can be a griefer anywhere in Sea of Thieves, but the word doesn’t carry the same weight as other games because… it’s a pirate game. You are supposed to pillage, plunder, and kill. It says it right there in the name: T H I E V E S.
  3. Because the game is open world and because there are no safe havens, you must remain entirely situational aware at all times. This means continuously searching your surroundings for clues. I see a sloop on the horizon. Is it heading my direction? Ok. How far away is it? What’s the wind like? How long do I have before I have to act? My choices will be to fight or run. How capable am I at each?

Recap. On top of a tremendous amount of supply prep work and the laborious maintenance required to keep my ship pointed in the right direction, I need to read maps that look like they were drawn by my five-year-old to search Kraken and Megalodon-infested seas for buried treasure while continually scanning the environment for the smallest clues of impending random doom from any direction. 2Bonus ending of this story. Once dead, I was sent to the netherworld briefly, but quickly respawned on my nearby ship, which was a convenient position for a cannon attack on my attacker. They were just as unprepared as I.

I love this game.

I mean it.

You never know what might happen when you fire up a Sea of Thieves session. For each blissfully quiet session where you calmly sail the seas and dutifully complete your pirate duties, there is another session where five minutes into your sail, a clearly armed-to-the-teeth brig is suddenly chasing you across the ocean.

Sea of Thieves is a choose your own adventure book where you randomly open the book to a page and start pirating. I’ll explain.

Discover How to Survive

As I mentioned earlier, kegs are littered across the Sea of Thieves. You can find them randomly floating in the sea, or you can go to one of the many forts and find them all over the place. I like to keep one or two kegs on my solo sloop.

There are streamers I respect quite a bit who correctly advise that keeping a keg on your ship is a bad idea. The crow’s nest is the first place streamers target with snipers when attacking because so many players (like me) stash kegs in the crow’s nest because they think it’s a safe place to store an explosive that instantly detonates when shot.

I remain pro-keg for now because, for a solo relatively inexperienced player, kegs are my great equalizer. If I’m sailing around the seas looking for a fight and I see another ship, the chances are their ship is bigger, they have more crew-mates and experience. I will lose most battles purely on a number of competently-fired-cannonball basis.

But…. But! If they are busy doing a quest on an island and they don’t see me coming, I can park my Sloop behind a rock, jump in the water with my keg, and swim the remaining distance to their ship – killing sharks as I go. I board their ship, light the fuse on the keg, drop it at the base of their mast, and jump back into the sea.

KA-BOOM Mast down. Can’t move. Ship on fire.

Griefer? No. Pirate. The most elegant way to fight? No. Pirate. Does it consistently work? No. There are other pirates on the sea who know this approach and immediately start scanning the ocean’s surface when any ship is nearby. Some smarter pirates always leave someone on their ship to deal with me and my keg proclivities.

Fun trying? Hell yes. Every time. Those last 50 yards under the ocean after swimming for twenty minutes slowly pushing an explosive in front of you with sharks nipping at your pirate boots? My heart starts beating hard every time.

The joy of Sea of Thieves is first finding the narrative you’re currently in and then shoving the narrative in whatever direction suits you.

Finding and Advancing the Narrative

I’ve played Sea of Thieves a lot since I started writing this piece. I play a lot with my pirate pal @lingnik. We play a couple of nights a week, first coordinating start times in the Destiny Slack. This particular evening, I was late to jump into the Discord, where we voice chat.

Me: Hey, too late to jump in?

Lingnik: <pause> No, I could <longer pause> use your help.

Me: What’s up?

Lingnik: I’m not sure where I am.

The narrative. He’d been playing solo. He’d found another sloop, they’d tussled, his ship was sunk, but he survived. He covertly boarded the other ship and was tossing their hard-earned loot off the ship as they sailed. He was eventually discovered and killed, which was around when I arrived.

He invited me, and I appeared not on the ship, but in the middle of the open sea. No ship. Floating. Probably where his ship had just sunk. Dense fog, and there’s a dingy sitting right here.

Lingnik: Ok, head northwest. There’s a trail of loot.

I start paddling the dingy. I can’t see more than 20 feet in any direction because of the fog, but I eventually come upon the loot. I jump off the dinghy to grab the loot when I see… the other ship… heading straight for me slowly because they are picking up their stolen tossed loot. Quickly boarding, I am ready to fight, but there is no one here because they were in the water, grabbing the loot and the dinghy. I start throwing firebombs. They figure out I’m on their ship, and I quickly sword them. Lingnik quickly arrives in his new ship, cannons are deployed, and the ship is sunk.

Did we plan this? No. Has this narrative ever happened before? Not to us. Is this one of great many random Sea of Thieves stories I could tell you? You bet.

The Next Part of the Story

This is a mega-keg.

Mega-kegs are very rare in the Sea of Thieves. They are a guaranteed drop when doing the raid-like Fort events, and every so often, you’ll find one randomly in the seas. Mega-kegs explode. Like really explode. Like insta-sink ship explode.

Here are two mega-kegs.

I don’t know what the narrative is for two mega-kegs, but I am looking forward to discovering the narrative with even bigger explosions.