My loops are all messed up.
Today I felt like the block of the cheddar cheese in my fridge. Cheddar cheese is by far my favourite type of cheese, but this particular block of cheese just didn’t do it for me. I love the funky flavour of a nicely aged chunk of cheddar, but this block lacked the complexity of the cheddar I am used to eating. It’s not that I am much of a cheese connoisseur either, I usually buy relatively inexpensive cheddar from Milky Mist 1, which isn’t known to be a high brow brand. The worst part about this was that I had paid almost double my usual rate for this particular block of cheddar since this was from a more premium brand, and was organic. It tasted flavourless, almost like a mildly funky gouda. As a result, the cheese did not get consumed at the usual pace it does. What this also meant that it was mostly lying stationary in a corner of the fridge. And, what this also meant was, there was fungus on my cheese. It’s rare that I relate to food, but today, I really related to that block of fungal organic cheddar cheese.
Tightening the loops
If there is anything I have learnt from programming computers, it is that the tighter the feedback loop, the easier it is to make progress. In programming, there is the concept of having a
REPL driven development.
REPL stands for
loop. In this approach, the programmer makes changes to the code, runs the code, sees the output, and based on the output makes further changes to the code - all until we have the desired result. This form of development is popular for allowing developers to make complex applications quickly due to a very tight feedback loop. It also encourages developers to experiment and try out edge cases since they can immediately get feedback for their changes due to tight loops.
This is not the only place where I have realised the importance of feedback loops. In the agile method of delivering software, this is emphasised too. Here is an excerpt from their manifesto:
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.
This is essentially baking in a feedback loop in the delivery process. It’s funny how much thought I put in programming or project management, and stress on feedback loops but then forget about their existence in my day to day.
What I have realised after the cheddar cheese incident is that I don’t have any feedback loop, and my future doesn’t look much brighter than that block of cheese if I don’t put some into place.
The more I think about these loops, the more I see them. I feel like I always knew about these loops, but never really sat and thought about them, never appreciated them. Oscillators, flip-flops, the weather, all our body processes, even the weather 2 - all just cycles going through the various feedback loops. Of course, these feedback loops are not limited to natural phenomena, but also our decision making processes. This in itself wasn’t much of an epiphany for me, but their sheer omnipresence and importance in shaping me was.
Recently, I read a wonderful essay by Tim Urban on Wait But Why on what, according to Tim, makes Elon Musk successful, or as he puts it, finding Musk’s “Secret Sauce”. While the essay itself is chock full of interesting perspectives and great advice, the part about feedback loops especially grabbed my attention as it visualised beautifully what I had been thinking in bits and pieces. Here, with all credits to Wait But Why, I have linked the diagram that affirmed my recent reverence for feedback loops
High level feedback loop of life
Taking a 10,000 feet view of life goals, this diagram is the most succinct representation of reaching your goal. You have a “WANT” pool and a “REALITY” pool. Your “GOAL” pool stands at the intersection of the two, this is what your goals should be. And finally, your “STRATEGY” pool is devised from these pools. But there is a catch - all the pools keep changing their contents.
Reflecting on your ambitions and priorities causes you to modify your “WANT” pool. Learning new things about the world makes you modify your “REALITY” pool. Experimenting and testing out your strategy teaches you what works and what fails, forcing you to revise your “STRATEGY” pool.
The beauty of this is the sheer simplicity of this model, this is quite literally life 3. The scale of this model is macro, but the idea of such loops sticks with us every day - at a micro-level. I am not a product of my habits, I am a product of my feedback loops (and I as I have recently discovered, the lack thereof).
I have decided to make some changes in the way I conduct myself. If there is one way to prevent me from becoming that rotting block of cheddar cheese, it introducing more feedback loops in my life. There are days when I feel like the living representation of the clocks in “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali and my hope is breaking this with feedback loops would make me feel less like those clocks.
I particularly relate to the clock on the emaciated tree
The plan is to start small and create feedback loops for things that truly satisfy me - cooking, reading, writing, learning and art 4. These micro feedback loops are important, but they would all fail without having the monitor feedback loop. My monitor feedback loop would decide which loops are worth keeping and which are not.
Every Saturday morning, the monitor loop would assess the fitness and relevance of my other micro-loops. The other loops would be tasked at making me happier and more satisfied. The feedback mechanism would vary from loop to loop but can be range from being as simple as a question or as complex as some test of ability or competence. The micro-loops can also be for things as simple as how happy I am with my sleep, to as complex as how happy I am. It’s worth noting that the most important part of the feedback loop is the feedback, something that changes the behaviour of the system.
This loop oriented thinking can, I believe, take me far. If it doesn’t work, I will change my approach 5
Being a human.
Of course, being a human means I will mess up some loops - but that does not mean I will give up on loop oriented thinking. Feedback loops, in my opinion, are perfectly suited to being human - they assume you will never get it right the first time around.
The system is so stupidly simple, and that’s where its beauty lies.
Feedback loops took us from slimy fish to this.
If a simple feedback loop could take us from being critters in the ocean to thinking humans, there can’t be anything it can’t do.
Footnotes and References
Milky Mist is such a stupid brand name. I wonder what their marketing team were thinking - did they visualise spraying a mist of milk? ↩
Quite literally because our body processes are all governed by feedback loops. ↩
I dropped art there because I would like to think I am a sophisticate. ↩
Feedback loop humour. ↩