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The feedback loops in our lives

My son, Gray Khan, is now 9 months old.

I’ve heard from many parents that the days are long but the years are short – this adage certainly seems to be holding true for us. I’ve been trying to figure out why this seems to be the case, and my best thinking to date is that, when you’re raising a child, the feedback loops are much longer than in most other areas of your life. Said differently, we will only see the outcome from all of our hard work and sacrifice with Gray many years down the line, so there is an extremely long delay between input and feedback - i.e. the feedback loops are long.

In his seminal book, How will you measure your life, Clayton Christenson speaks about the extremely high divorce rate amongst high-end executives. He posits that the reason for this is largely due to the dissonance between the extremely fast feedback loops executives experience at work, as contrasted to the extremely long feedback loops in their home life.

At my work, our feedback loops are fast. As an example - we think of a new marketing strategy to email a homeschoolers database with a discount code if they sign up with Valenture. We have the idea, we contact the database owner, put together the email copy and landing page for the campaign, and they send it to their database. Within a very short amount of time, we can see the results of the homeschoolers campaign - it might work, and it might not, but the point is we can see the results of our actions very quickly, and this is immensely gratifying.

Now, let’s contrast that to the feedback loops at home, and I'll use my teenage years as an example. I was a pretty rebellious teenager, and thought that I knew way more than the adults in my life, most especially my parents. Regardless of my behaviour, my parents consistently showed me love and commitment, and kept on implementing the firm boundaries that I needed. It was no fun for them at the time, but they kept at it, and only years down the line would their efforts bear fruit - the feedback loop here for all of their effort was very long.

Coming back to Christenson’s book, his view is that the dissonance between the short feedback loops at work, and the very long feedback loops at home, are very challenging for executives to deal with. Many of them conclude that there must be something wrong with their home life, because they feel so energized and gratified by the close proximity between input and outcome at work (especially when it’s a good outcome) and by contrast, at home they feel like their walking up a massive mountain on a rainy day which only occasionally lifts to reveal the beautiful views. As a result, many executives end up getting divorced because they expect their home life to produce the same feedback loops as work.

So why does this matter?

The world is speeding up, and I would argue that one of the consistent features of new technologies is that they speed up the feedback loops in our lives. Real-time analytics at our fingertips, put out a post and have thousands of people see it and like or comment within minutes, send a whats app and get a response from a friend on the other side of the world in seconds. Again, these feedback loops are incredibly gratifying, and in and of themselves are not a problem.

The problem emerges when we expect all aspects of our life to adhere to these rapid feedback loops. In our individual health journeys, the delay between making healthy food choices on a daily basis and seeing the change in our waistline or energy levels is extremely long. As a result, it’s easy to get frustrated, and rather than eating that chicken salad, smash some fried chips because.... Oh damn, these chips taste good right now!

For all of our students who are studying with us, the feedback loop between their hard work and dedication to studying English, and experiencing the life and career benefits of developing a strong command of the English language, is extremely long.

For those of you who meditate, the delay between sitting down to meditate on a daily basis, and experiencing the mental benefits of calmness, awareness and increased concentration are extremely long.

Does this mean we shouldn’t do these things? Of course not. In many ways, I would argue that developing the mental discipline to persistently and deliberately engage in the facets of life with long feedback loops will be a key advantage for every one of us. As the world moves increasingly towards instant gratification (fast feedback loops), those of us with the grit and mental fortitude to consistently do what needs to be done for true long term benefit (long feedback loops) will find ourselves living happier and more fulfilled lives.

Don’t make the same mistake that Christensen refers to in his book. When analyzing the different facets of your life, make sure you’re accounting for the different length of feedback loops in your life. At least in part, wisdom is about seeing things clearly in our lives, and my invitation to you today is to carefully consider the various feedback loops in your life, and to think carefully about your expectations from each one.


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