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IF stuck THEN zoom in OR out
"Life is a fractal," I tell my brother. He's the world traveler who has observed Emperor Penguins waddling in Antarctica and been inside musty old tombs in the Pyramids of Egypt.
When my brother visits me, I bring him to our local museum that has a nostalgic array of early pinball machines, or we hike on the Earthquake trail since we live right on a fault line.If it happens to be winter, we seek out the Monarch butterfly on its migratory path down south.
Being of lesser means and wanderlust, I coped by expounding my theory: I can find wonders and fascination everywhere. "You only need to have the right mindset and curiosity," I assert.
A snowflake is a fractal because no matter what level you zoom in or out, you see a similar shape. I was reminding my brother that no matter if you travel a mile or 10,000 miles, you can find wonder, beauty and captivating experiences.
But while I believe this is true in travel, I increasingly believe that there is a lot of value in being able to zoom in and out at different fractal levels. Although you may have similar experiences at different zoom levels, being able to choose the right level is also critical.
I started down this path when I asked myself: when am I in a flow state? I'm a computer programmer by trade, so it's usually when I'm buried deep, coding a specific intricate workflow where I am holding tens of possibilities and variables in my head. In other words, I'm totally zoomed in. These lines of code are all that matter for the moment and nothing else can distract me.
And that's when it hit me: when I'm in my flow state, I am at just the right zoom level
Conversely, when do I feel stuck? Sometimes, I procrastinate because I'm feeling lazy or don't have the energy for the task at hand. But more often than not, there are also alarm bells going in my head, shout whispering that maybe spending more time on this task just isn't the best use of my time.
It could be the same kind of task, maybe I'm debugging a payment workflow, and yet what led me to be in a flow state previously, is now leading me to feel stuck. When that happens, I find it helpful to listen to my intuition and zoom out and ask: is this task really worth doing? Are there other ways to reach my greater goal?
So, when I’m stuck debugging, it could be because it's a bug that doesn't actually affect my users. Or instead of fixing the bug, what if I implemented a simpler workflow? That would make my customers happier and as a by-product negate the existence of the bug too.
The more I think about zoom levels, the more I see it applicable in my life. I belong to an entrepreneurial community, Small Bets where we are encouraged to grow a portfolio of income producing small bets. This advice felt contradictory to my previous thinking that one should focus on one activity or "bet" at a time and not try to do many things all at the same time.
But when I applied the idea of zoom levels, I realized there was a place for both: when none of my small bets have achieved Product Market Fit, I should zoom out and try many different things at the same time. But when I see one of my small bets show signs of market traction, that's the time to zoom in and double down on that small bet, perhaps even to the point of dropping the other failing bets.
Certainly in America, and maybe increasingly the world, we live in polarized times. There are many complicated reasons for this, but perhaps one simple lens is to see that we are at the wrong zoom level.
It is easy to just label or categorize Blue vs Red states, black, white, "asian" races, christians, muslims, atheists, etc. Instead of getting caught up in labels and stereotypes, we can zoom in to savor the intricate flavors of a Tikka Masala, the smoky tenderness of a BBQ brisket, or the delicate artistry of a sushi platter.
I recall fondly a recent trip with my brother. We’d met only once since Covid. He treated me to an ultra-lux beach resort with our own private villa and pool. We never left the resort for 4 days. We had long walks and he dazzled me with his proficiency in Vietnamese acquired a mere 4 months ago. He shared how, as Singaporeans, we are ethnic Chinese, but linguistically and culturally we may have so much in common with the Vietnamese, possibly even more than with Northern Chinese. For the 2 of us, in that time, space and zoom level, it was perfect. My brother reminded me, “life is a fractal”.
And now zooming out, let’s marvel at the universality of human nature: we want to feel safe and secure, we love our families, we want to reach out and help. From this light, don't our differences feel smaller and petty?
As Alan Kay said, "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points." So, when you feel stuck, experiment with zoom levels. You may be surprised at the insights you uncover!
With thanks to, and a little assist from ChatGPT