Sunday, October 1, 2017

Life at 60: Less is More, More or Less

For the last three Sundays, I have co-led an adult education class at church in a discussion of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal.  Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and writes for "The New Yorker."  I was introduced to Being Mortal in our book club a few years ago and found Gawande's work so compelling that I asked if we might add it to the church's fall educational programming.

One particular story in Being Mortal sticks with me.  It's about Jack Block, a professor at UC Berkeley, who was admitted to a San Francisco hospital with symptoms from what proved to be a mass growing in the spinal cord of his neck.  Block's prospects were grim.  The neurosurgeon said that surgery to remove the mass carried a 20 percent chance of leaving the professor quadriplegic, but without the surgery he was certain to be paralyzed.

Block's daughter was his health care proxy, but as the operation approached, she realized she didn't really know what her father desired in terms of care.  "I need to understand how much you're willing to go through to have a shot at being alive," she asked her father, "and what level of being alive is tolerable to you."

Block's response totally shocked his daughter.  "Well," he said, "if I'm able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I'm willing to stay alive.  I'm willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that."

The professor's answer was brilliant in its simplicity.  Eating ice cream and watching TV would mean Block was conscious, could see and hear, could move his arms, would not have tubes running down his throat, and was not in so much pain he couldn't enjoy life's simple pleasures.

Simple Rules

When we launched Atlantic Ventures in
1989, we wrote a simple set of rules
to govern how we wanted to conduct our
There's a business tool we sometimes teach to managers called "simple rules" that describes a counter-intuitive way of behaving in complex environments, much like Professor Block did.  Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt wrote a book about simple rules in 2015 highlighting several examples.

When Harry Selfridge opened a department store in London in 1909, he realized he could not possibly oversee every contact between clerk and customer.  Instead of creating a massive book of procedures, he gave his employees one simple rule: "The customer is always right."  Selfridge knew that customers could sometimes be wrong, but the goodwill engendered in this simple rule would more than offset losing occasionally on a transaction.

Food writer Michael Pollan has reduced thousands of complicated diet instructions to three simple rules: Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  The Roomba vacuum cleaner might be filled with complicated algorithms to make sure it cleans your entire kitchen; instead, it copies how ants forage for food with just two simple rules: Turn when you hit an object.  Spiral when caught in a corner.

I turn 60 in a couple of days.  I hope not to have to make Jack Block's difficult decision any time soon, but just for planning purposes, I did a little arithmetic.  If I live to be as old as my father, I'll die on January 31, 2028.  My mother: July 4, 2029.  I have to admit, I don't care much for either of those dates.  My paternal grandfather got to 97, which gets me to December 22, 2054, and--since Ray Kurzweil promises the Singularity by 2045--I can, so to speak, probably live with that.

I thought, then, for my 60th birthday, I'd come up with a few simple rules that would hold me in good stead over the next few, probably complicated decades, sort of like Satchel Paige's advice to "jangle around gently to keep the juices flowing."

I started with "Eat healthy stuff and get enough sleep," but then wondered, how is that a rule for 60?  It seems like a pretty good rule for every stage of life, one I should have adopted around 1975.  How about, I thought, "Talk less, smile more." That seems to be a really good rule for 60 (and it's eminently singable).  And maybe "Help frequently, lead infrequently."  And maybe "Declutter. Everything."  Or "Better to be kind than right."  Or "Don't do anything that makes your teeth hurt." And there were more, until I began to wonder if I wasn't just falling into the trap that simple rules were designed to remedy--complicating a complicated situation with more rules.

So, I arrived at one simple rule for 60, one that I hope to follow: "Less is More."  That feels just about right to me and would seem, like Jack Block's rules, to capture a whole lot of complexity in a very simple way.

I could write much more about this rule, of course, but only if I choose to violate it seconds after setting it.

Instead, I plan to get a big bowl of chocolate ice cream and head over to the TV.  I'm pretty sure if I sit on the couch long enough the Patriots will begin playing.  And that's not a bad, less-is-more way, to celebrate 60.