Altoids and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

I can’t find my Altoids tins anywhere. I’ve looked for months. Although I’m good at finding lost things (blame debugging 6502 assembler on paper), I have not been able to find these wretched tins.

I don’t particularly like Altoids, but I bought a batch of them off eBay so that I could use the cute, small, metal tins for storing other useful things. I have one tin for pills, another for adapters, and that’s it. I would have had two dozen more had I not lost them.

This evening, it occurred to me that I needed an Altoids tin to store the bits and pieces that came with my e-cig RTA, so I thought “let’s have one more look in the shed”. Then I realised how much time I had spent already searching.

A decade ago, I would have stubbornly persisted in the fruitless search, throwing good time after bad, with the full expectation that one day, due to my doggedness, I’d find them.

Today I came to the realisation that I was ignoring the sunk cost fallacy and that time is not a renewable resource. So I bought a few more tins off eBay for the grand total of about five pounds. That’s how poorly I used to value my time, but my thinking of late has shifted dramatically.

I’m quite happy to pay for time. There is no better bargain.

I Smile

I jog past a colleague outside the office, pausing for a moment only to apologise for not being able to stop to chat, because I have a train to catch. I always played things by ear and even as recently as autumn, I would have stopped. There was always another bus.

I stand patiently in line at Oxford Circus to buy a ticket to the suburbs, just outside London. I don’t have a pass because my last weekly one expired as I continue to optimise my commuting expenditure. I note that I’m trading a non-renewable resource, my time, to save a bit of renewable resource, my cash.

Skipping down the escalator I keep repeating my mantra, “stay patient”. Arriving at the crowded platform, I read my book for a minute and when the tube arrives, I continue for another few minutes, standing, of course, being jostled, forcing myself to smile because the alternative would just be miserable.

At the inter city rail station, I scan the departure board for the train times. I missed my preferred train by one minute. I don’t curse as I used to. Jogging to the holding area, well, not quite jogging, more a fast shuffle, like the undead on uppers, I find the optimum position for scanning the TV monitor for the platform announcement. Like sprinters, poised, we hope to catch the ‘b’ of the bang as the frame with the platform number appears. It appears. I’m on the move.

Speed-shuffling to the train, I suppress the joy of the small victory of a double seat that will remain singly occupied for the duration of my journey.

I read my book. It was a gift from a man who I respect, admire and like an awful lot.

As I meditate on my status as a commuter, taking small pleasure in trivial trip optimisations and feeling the merest twinge of grief at the most minor inconveniences, I feel also a prick of cognitive dissonance when I look at the title of the book, which is “Punk Rock – An Oral History”

I was once that teenager into punk, who swore he’d never become a commuter.

I smile.

Do Next to Nothing for Maximum Growth

I rose, bleary-eyed at 5:20. Optimistically, I’d set my alarm for 4:30. I knew it was optimistic. I didn’t beat myself up for “sleeping in”. Beating yourself up gets you nowhere. So does riding a bicycle on a turbo-trainer indoors, but that’s a much better kind of nowhere. So I headed for the bicycle and set my tea-timer for a strong brew (4 minutes). I turned my trusted La Pavoni on and climbed onto my Cannondale and spun the wheels at a low resistance until the team timer went off.

That’s it? Four minutes? Call that exercise? Yes. For a sedentary man, this is enough, to begin with. Crazy is what I did decades ago; after a period of sloth, I’d throw myself into an intensive exercise session and then spend a week broken and forget about exercise for a while. If you want something to stick, reduce the resistance. Make it impossible to sensibly avoid.

My target for tomorrow morning is the same. 4 minutes. I don’t care how comfortable I feel at the end of the four minutes. This is not about ramping up. It’s about building a valuable habit. When the habit is fixed, I can increase the duration. The habit is all that counts. We are creatures of habit. We walk without thinking. We talk without thinking, hell, we often work without thinking. We use patterns of patter, muscle memories and ways of working. When I exercise as casually as I brush my teeth, I can up the duration. That will work.

There is almost nothing this idea can’t apply to. Want to save money? Commit to putting away one pound a day. Can’t afford that? No problem. Commit to putting away a penny a day. Make it a conscious routine to say you’re going to save some money when you’re putting that penny away. Save it. Every day. Same time. Set the alarm on your phone. Before you know it, it will be fun, and you will find ways of saving more. In the same way that for a smoker, a sneaky extra cigarette feels naughty, but nice, so will exercise, so will saving.

Want to be happy? Make a habit of smiling at people for no reason at all. Obviously don’t be a creep about it. That should go without saying. Don’t stand outside someone’s window smiling. That’s not happy, that’s erm, against the law I think. Just think about smiling with someone genuinely, warmly, the next time you speak with them, no matter who. When you are asked how you are, don’t search your feelings, announce your feelings to yourself and to your conversation partner. Respond with “I’m great!” or “Fantastic” or “Very well, thank you!”. Pretty soon, you will feel great. You will feel fantastic. You will feel very well, thank you! Before you know it, you will be a happy person. Works for me, and I was the most miserable bastard the world has ever known. Ask my friends. I was funny, but I was miserable. I was kind, but I was miserable. I was generous, but I was miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable. So I announced, on a daily basis, that I was happy. Now I am pleasantly surprised when people say they are inspired by how happy and positive I am. It’s true. I’m positive. I’m happy, but it started with just a smile a day, a response a day.

Valleys don’t form out of rock overnight. Drops of water do that over aeons of time. One drop doesn’t make the valley, but it is drops that do that. And the drops become a torrent become a river become carver of majestic, sweeping valleys.

You can’t climb Everest in a single bound, standing in the foothills of the Himalayas. But you bloody well can climb Everest if you really want to!. You learn to climb. One step at a time. And one day, like me, you are at the peak, every fibre of your being humming with gratitude for the journey you committed to taking, one tiny step at a time.

Give Up on Your Dreams

“Is your deal on the Emu XL–1 Turbo with all the add-on cards still on at the same price?”

Many of my conversations with the staff of what used to be Soho Soundhouse and subsequently Turnkey took a similar turn. I spent a small fortune on music technology as it evolved, and even went there for my guitars, culminating in the purchase of a Paul Smith Standard 24 with the bird inlays at a cool £2,000. The journey began so long ago, as far back as the mid 1980s that I genuinely don’t remember my first purchase there. Like other firsts, it was hurried, clumsy and forgettable. It might have been a Roland TR707 drum machine, then over £450, and like most music tech, now worth £4.50 no doubt.

Every day a part of my consciousness acknowledges the rack containing the Emu with its sister-wives, the Roland JV1080; the magnificent, warm and unparalleled Roland Super JX, AKA MKS–70; the Alesis Microverb; the Emu ESI–4000 and the e-magic Unitor MIDI interface. I acknowledge the remnants of my dreams every day, a reminder of how I didn’t “succeed” in music, knowing full well that had I persisted, I would have.

Ohh the opportunities were there. In the late 1980s, Ben Wardle, an A&R man at Warner, liked what my band (Life in the Bus Lane) was doing, but we stopped. We had a contact with the CEO of CBS at the time, but we stopped. Then later in the late 1990s, I tried again. I started singing. My voice was untrained, the demos were rough, but people liked it. I got a good demo sound, not production-quality by any stretch, but good enough. I wrote some good songs, and recorded a handful. Then I stopped.

Every day I pick up my Dean acoustic fretless and I practice, and every day there is a part of my subconscious that is trying to push the “you could have done this” message to my conscious mind, but my conscious mind left that behind and moved on.

I never admitted that I’d failed, because I used to think that failure was shame. It isn’t shame. Failure is the only time we learn. When a child learns to walk, it fails again and again. It never beats itself up. It never chides itself. It smiles, picks itself up, loves the process and learns to walk. There are probably fewer skills harder to master than walking, but most of us do that without fuss.

I didn’t fail at music. I just didn’t keep going. If I’d kept going, I would have succeeded. What I have learned is that I wasted a lot of time thinking I’d failed. Failure is not shameful. The only thing I’m ashamed of is wasting so much of my time thinking there was no way forward. There isn’t always a way forward, but there is often a way around, or over, or under. There is a way.

My dream was to be a writer of great songs and a recording artist. I never gave up on that dream. What I did was pursue something else. Video games. I kept going and I kept going. I never stopped. I paused, but I never stopped, even when I thought it was over.

I thought it was over for me in 1984 after Jet Set Willy. I didn’t take Richard Jones’ offer of £3000 for Baby Starts Walking on the C64. That was youthful pride. And so I tried to make another game and got nowhere with it and thought it was over. Then I saw Knight Lore and knew what I wanted.

Then in the late 1980s, I thought it was over after a successful stint making games that Telecomsoft published. I’d had a great time and I was on top of the world. After Pandora, I thought I’d blown my chance with the Stampers, and that it was over. Then I got into music and started making music for video games. That led me to my gig at BITS where I spent a few years, after which I went on to Virgin Interactive, Hasbro Interactive and finally START! games where I was on top of the world for a while. And then START! stopped, and I thought it was over. Not just career wise either. Divorce, homelessness, no job, no money, crushing debt, ill health, I thought it was definitely over. After enduring that period as gracefully as it’s possible for a broken man to endure and gettnig by with some contract work for a while, I joined Sony Computer Entertainment at the back end of 2005, 8 years ago this week in fact.

By the tail end of 2005, I thought it was over again, but this time, I knew how to pick myself up. I never gave up the fight. I committed myself fully to work. I threw myself into work with zeal and passion. I found a new remit and a new focus. I totally transformed my life with energy and passion that I might previously have said was impossible. I worked insanely hard, stayed incredibly positive, stayed profoundly happy and with my colleagues, delivered, delivered, delivered. The run continues and I intend to reach new highs.

You see, if you are willing to put three decades or more of effort into something, you are going to be really, really good at it, but only if you care. If you go through the motions, you are doing a job. If you put yourself into it, you are following a calling. There are few forces in the world as powerful as the softness of water on the apparent immovability of rock over the aeons of time. Don’t be the rock. Be the water. Be the drop and fall. Again and again and again.

If I want to be “successful” at videogames, and success can be defined in so many ways, then I have to focus on videogames. Today is a great day for me to give up on my dreams, the dreams that were not meant to be, and to continue to kindle the fire inside that has led me to success I could never have dreamt of. A success that is its own reward. Of pride in my work, in my colleagues, my company, my partners. To deliver work that has moved people, enriched their lives, made them happy, in a way that they admire and aspire to. That is success. Today I give up on my dreams and hold onto that which becomes more and more real every day.