I’m A Sloppy Chip. Are You?

“Don’t you take any pride in your work?” Rob Sansom said to me on his way to being a billionaire or at least a 100-millionaire. He called me into his office. I had to write a manual and I did a bad job at it because I was busy writing a novel in my spare time instead. He was CEO of Fore Systems, which went public a year or two later. I was employee number 10 or 11 but long gone when everyone was splashing around in money.

I didn’t know what to say. The real answer was “no, I don’t. It’s a technical manual about a computer chip.” And I was 22 years old and stupid. The wrong answer was “yes”, because if I took pride in my work then there would not have been so many spelling and grammar mistakes. (I guess I still don’t take pride in my work).

A few months later I quit. I then worked on a virtual reality project. I didn’t have much pride in my work there either. I had to help create an emotional model for the artificial characters in the virtual reality. But I didn’t have any pride in that work either and it only lasted a few months and maybe cost me some friendships. I thought I would like it but the only thing I enjoyed doing was writing novels that never got published.

At the time I was working for a guy named Joe Bates. He was almost 20 years older than me but we were good friends. He had gotten his PhD at something like age 15 from Cornell. He was a genius but there was a childlike side to him. He wanted to create a simple virtual reality that he would have fun playing in. With creatures that bounced around and that would respond via radar to whatever he was doing and express real emotions.

“I want to evoke the same feelings that I had when I first watched Bambi,” he would say.

I looked up recently what he was doing. Apparently he had given up on virtual reality. He’s now at MIT working on something he’s inventing called “sloppy chips”. A sloppy chip, unlike every other computer chip, makes mistakes. But that’s ok. If you’re doing a billion calculations to do some facial recognition, it doesn’t matter if a few times 1+1=3. You give up 100% accuracy to improve the speed. And if you get 99% accuracy as a result then that’s pretty good for many things.

Humans are sloppy chips. But we try so hard to be perfect computers.

We try to do everything right. We try to never let anyone catch us doing anything wrong. I sort of blame the blogosphere right now. Everything's about how to be more productive, smarter, have a better memory, how to be perfect. I look at all these posts and I might as well be living in Lord of the Rings world. They seem like for people from another dimension or reality.

Here’s 10 ways its ok if we’re a little sloppier.

A)     It’s ok to fail at a business or at a job. A lot of times in an job interview people will be asked, “why did you leave this job?” and they’ll say, “my partners went crazy” or “my boss was on nuclear steroids.” The blame will be someplace else. But it’s ok to say, “I just wasn’t that good at that job.” Or, “the business failed and it was my fault but here’s five things I learned.”

My last business that failed I learned these things:

-                Don’ t chase after a fad (twitter-based businesses. Twitter is certainly not a fad but businesses that rely on twitter (or Facebook) often are. Well, at the very least I chased after it in the wrong way).

-                Don’t use the same crappy developers you used the first time around.

-                Don’t continue with a bad business just because everyone around you is relying on you to continue with it.

-                Online dating businesses or a dime a dozen and much harder than they look.

-                Someone who has 100,000 Twitter followers does not equal “distribution”.

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B)      It’s ok to fail at a marriage or a relationship. It doesn’t mean someone did something wrong or evil. People are human. They outgrow each other. To force it might mean you could go awry on being the best possible human you can be. The sloppy chip approach (being flexible in your relationships, despite the standards of society and Time Magazine (the annual cover that says “Divorce is bad for kids”) might not be right. Or maybe it’s ok for you to be imperfect for awhile in order for you to find your optimal solution. By the way, it’s hard to realize this in the moment but when you are looking for the relationship answer to “1 + 1 =” there are a LOT of answers other than just “2”. Sometimes “2.1” or even “3.14” is just as good.

(in many case, you don't need to get hung up on being exact)

C)      It’s ok to be unproductive today. Today is a hard day. The markets might be volatile. Your kids  might be sick. You might be feeling tired. You might not feel inspired. The writer Raymond Chandler had a great discipline. Even if he had writer’s block he’d sit in front of a blank piece of paper for three hours. Just to build the physical discipline of just SITTING there even if he couldn’t write a single world. Half of the writing process is simply being able to sit down for a long period of time and trying to focus your mind. It’s ok if today didn’t work out. But if you make a little progress (the sloppy chip approach), if you get a little closer to your answer (even subconsciously) then that’s great. You’re closer to your ultimate revelation, even if it’s years away. By the way, hat tip to Haruki Murakami in “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” for the Raymond Chandler example.

So, in other words, some days you might be productive. But on other days, slip into the “sloppy chip” approach. Get something done. At least plug in the equation, even if the wrong answer comes out. But don’t beat yourself over the head if it’s not the ideal productive day/week/month/year.

A lot of blogs are in the “self help” genre. They want to tell you how to be productive. How to maximize your time. “No Facebook!” They say. Or “pick one hour a day to answer all emails and stick to that hour only!” Or, “Cut a half hour a day from watching TV!”

But the goal is to not be productive but to be happy. Lack of productivity might be a clue your body is trying to tell you that you need to sniff around in another direction to find your right answer. When ultimately I shut down the business described in “A” it was because the day money from investors was supposed to be wired in I physically couldn’t get out of bed. My body was shaking, telling me not to take money from everyone or ultimately I would end up being the one not happy. Or sometimes I’m writing a post and I can’t stop taking breaks to play online chess or go on twitter. Those are clues the writing might be heading in the wrong direction. I’m a big ‘ol sloppy chip while I’m writing.

D)     Goals are achieved over decades. Not days. I wrote in January about a guy who started his career in his 40s and still took another ten years before he could call himself a success. Many artists that started out in the post WW II 40s didn’t achieve financial success until two decades later. And they weren’t painting every single day. A lot of the time they were just getting smashed every day. But keeping their eyes and ears open. Waiting for the opportunity while slowly honing their craft. Decades. Sometimes I start something and I give up if it’s not a success immediately. That’s the perfect chip approach. I’m a sloppy chip from now on. Two decades ago I wanted to publish a novel. I’m going to publish one. Maybe in a few months. But it took two decades. Lots of things happened between then and now. My sloppiness gave me experiences a lot of people don’t have in their quest for instant perfection.

E) It's ok if you aren't the perfect father. This weekend I screwed up. I kept telling my daughter I would look up what time her friend's party was. But I delayed until after we shopped for back-to-school supplies. Guess what? We missed the party. But, played games instead and went to the river. I got her to laugh. I screwed up but we still had fun. I got lucky although I'm sure this particular event will be a hot topic for her in therapy 20 years from now.

F) It's ok to miss a day. On tdp.me, we've set up a system to keep track of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual goals every day. Sometimes I miss a day. I might be traveling. Or tired. Or whatever. Who knows? And I have "yoga" as a goal. It turns out that most of the time when I should be doing yoga I end up writing instead. I try to do every day. But I can't. One time when I had a bad year financially one of my employees at the time told me, "as long as the moving average over several years continues to go up you're ok." I'm not even sure that's right but you don't have to beat yourself up if you miss doing something important. It's bad enough you missed something (the first arrow you shoot yourself with), but then to shoot yourself with a second arrow (beating yourself up over the missed day) is what can kill you. Too many second arrows and you will bleed to death.  In terms of The Daily Practice, missing too many days can show you what goals need to be simpler or how you might need to change priorities in order to make overall health a priority. Even missing days is good data.

G) It's ok to not return an email. Sometimes people get offended. But once you get back in touch with them, all is quickly well. It's hard to keep in touch with everyone. Even good friends. But they are good friends because once you get back in touch again then all is well. One time I didn't get back in touch with someone. I felt really bad about it. And the worse I felt about it, the harder it was for me to return phone calls and emails. I lost touch then for five years. But then I got back in touch with him and we got together. Now he is, once again, one of my closest friends. That's how friendship often works. Those people are your real family as you climb through this life.

H) It's ok if people don't like you. Unfortunately, I'm an expert at this. Sometimes I write a post that people don't like and I get a lot of comments or emails really hating on me. Vicious. Malicious. I start to respond and I get sucked into the vortex. This might start on a Saturday morning. The next thing I know it's Sunday night and Claudia is standing next to me saying, "It's Sunday night." If you have an idea that's unique then there's a guarantee that people won't like you. You might even get death threats. Remember, Moses didn't say "Save everyone's life". He said, "Don't kill anyone." Sometimes you have to just make sure you are not harming anyone and then you have to focus on your own happiness.

I) It's ok if you only have nine things when you said you were going to do 10. In 100 years it's most likely none of us will have a building named after us. And all of these castles of illusion will be crumbled around our grave. And the graves of everyone who attended our funerals. If you can get from here to there and avoid suffering as much as possible then you can consider it a job well done. Congratulations.

My friend's chip is going to revolutionize the planet I have a feeling. But for me, it's enough that I'm feeling a bit more relaxed about the things I can't do perfectly. If a chip that calculates trillions of times a second can make mistakes and get the job done then maybe there's small hope for someone as inferior as me.


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  • Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
    (Samuel Beckett)

  • Hi James, I like this post a lot! I love to be sloppy every now and then. Somehow I did expect you to write less than 10 reasons for being sloppy. We live in a society where failure, mistakes, sloppiness is punished quite often (if not, we will punish ourselves…). About your goal.. is it really happiness? Isn’t it living life to the fullest? I mean, happiness is nice to experience, but well, sadness is part of life as well, sometimes. Living a full life is also accepting those sad, bad and sometimes sloppy days. I recently followed a mindfullness training, which really reminded me of some of the things you mention in your posts. Ever heard of it? It’s all about acceptance and living in the ‘now’ in stead of living in the past or future. Very interesting stuff, you’d like it, I think.

    Keep it up!

  • Zardoz123

    Hi James….Just wanted to thank you. As a result of reading your blog…my life is changing for the better.

  • Jill

    Idea, nutshell, want to buy out 23 owners of small condo assoc. in FL near a University on a prime piece of land. Most owners are absentee and don’t care. I will run the complex as a person with only one agenda, to make it great. Because I am not a rich, rapacious, drooling developer it will be a student friendly, reasonable rental community. In this economy rent is way overinflated to the detriment of the people. Problem, no capital, just a poor struggling owner of a sinking ship condo. I fantasize about contacting Donald Trump but that is why I am posting here because I want to get real about making this a reality.

    • reedlee

      don’t do it…you need to pencil it out, and get a grip on basic economics

    • Jill

      reedlee you mean get comfortable with the principal of the thing.

  • Love it. Sometimes we need someone to tell us that we don’t have to be perfect to be successful in life. I think that is often very hard for people to grasp. There is this weird assumption that to be successful or happy you have to be “a perfect computer”. We don’t all need to build an empire, heck we shouldn’t all strive to build an empire. Like you’ve said a million times, focus on creating value for other people and learn from your failures. If you can do those two things in the long run then you will be just fine.

  • Chimera

    Thanks for the post. I kept refreshing my browser for the last two days just to see a new post :)
    I think the trick lies somewhere between being sloppy a little bit while getting a few things done. I say this because I know I have immense potential but I have drifted aimlessly 35 years. I have suddenly woken up and started writing my novel as well as working on business ideas. My goal is to get published before 40!

  • sarfarosh

    very true
    advantage of allowing yourself to be sloppy……you will do things with ease and would accomplish a task in less energy; interestingly, you will end up with same results as you would have while trying to be perfectionist.

  • I thought I was going to have to cut out of my stock trade early today and I had this thought: “What will I do with the rest of the day, then?” This really sickened me that I had to ask myself that. I am grateful for a forced day off tomorrow. The power was out last weekend and we were forced to do non-electronic things; it was great. Today I am going to forget about the stock market, and tomorrow, too.

  • Paul

    I don’t know why, but I felt a sense of relief when I read this. Especially the part about taking decades to succeed. I’m always afraid that if I don’t succeed “soon”, maybe I’ll never get there, maybe I’m not doing it right, maybe I’m going to run out of time…It could just be that maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself (and/or my life) to be perfect…thanks for the different perspective.

    • dwdial

      Isn’t the journey of getting to the goal supposed to be the fun part? Reaching a goal often turns out to be anticlimactic. “Now that I’m here, what do I do next?” Relax and enjoy the trip, with the emphasis on “enjoy”. If you’re enjoying yourself, the money won’t matter quite so much. You might even feel a bit guilty for taking the money since you’re having so much fun, you’d do for free what other people see as “work”. Many of the things I do for my wife are things I would do for her anyway without seeking credit or glory.

  • NeverGiveUp

    Excellent post. I can’t wait to say it only took me 20 years to become an overnight success.

  • I’m a perfectionist. But it seems like the older I get the less my mistakes bother me. Curiously enough I still have difficulty accepting some of the mistakes I made years ago. I find that disconnect a little strange. I’m wondering if it’s because I’m caring less.

  • I’ve been outsourcing perfection…to someone only marginally better, but good enough!

  • My mind just drifted on to consider how some version of this post would be valuable in those Perfect Wedding or Perfect Vacation magazines…I’ve seen folks completely fall to pieces trying to plan and live to those expectations. I’m typically thrilled when my luggage gets lost…

    • AvidConfidentialReader

      …or perfect family expectations….

  • So true James. Perfectionism can ruin your life.
    Another great post.

  • James Hamlett

    We are sometimes led to believe that our actions are supposed to move with flawless execution. It is definitely a relief to realize that we are human beings and always have to strive to operate at 100% all of the time. We don’t need the stress. Opportunities pop up sometimes when we just let go and stop trying to be perfect. Many of the successful Type A personalities have a complete staff that helps them appear to have flawless execution in terms of concepts, ideas and projects. We might have to pace our selves a bit in order to live a little.

  • Perfectionism is very dangerous, good column James. On the other hand…..things like returning an email that take 1 minute of mild concentration, you have to question where your mind is when you can’t get them done, and they are sometimes important.

    • Pseeker

      That reminds me. I have to return an e-mail to my cousin about a magazine article we are working on .

  • Yuh, fuck it, mostly, just succeed *once*, and you’re done!

  • Yvonne Hertzberger

    It’s all about balance – moderation in all things, including success. As a writer I face my failures every day, but if I am to see myself as a success I need to keep the end goal in mind and forgive the slip-ups along the way.

  • I love this article. When are we going to stop treating people as deficient because they are not machines? This article nails it.

  • Laura G.

    Something I really struggle with– all or nothing. I’ve got to learn how to moderate myself. The quest for perfection is exhausting and futile, but it’s in my nature, I guess, to feel compelled to strive for it. The irony is that my life is far from perfect.