Thursday, October 02, 2008

Success Master Skills: Entropy in Human Achievement, Part 1

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”. Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous quote illustrates the topic of these next few posts: the study of entropy (or the removal of same) in human achievement. Johnson’s hapless criminal was able to improve his concentration so quickly because, unfortunately, most of his entropy was about to be removed. But, in the fortnight leading up to his rendezvous with the gallows, his metaphorical entropy, the degree of disorder in his life, tended to fade away, and , Johnson implies, the criminal’s mind was focused on, presumably, his highest priorities. And that is the key to entropy and human achievement.

Entropy is, strictly speaking, a scientific term which can be roughly translated as “the degree of disorder in a system”. Interestingly for our current metaphorical definition of entropy, high entropy is sometimes described by scientists as a state where there is such a smooth distribution of energy that there is no capacity for what physicists call “useful work”. Now, it’s been many years since high school physics classes for me, so I won’t presume to discuss the strict scientific definition. But think, for a moment about entropy: “A state of disorder that reduces the capacity for useful work “ Or, consider Entropy’s opposite, negentropy. Wikepedia declares: “negentropy is the force that seeks to achieve effective organizational behavior and lead to a steady predictable state” These definitions point us to a very useful conclusion about personal achievement:

Personal Achievement is facilitated and defined by the removal of entropy from our personal systems.

Another way to look at is to look at all those comic book superheroes: Spiderman, Batman, the Fly, the Human Torch, etc. Each one represented a concentration of a particular set of “powers” to the exclusion or diminution of other powers, activities, etc. These lucky (and unlucky) individuals were examples of trading a wide span of activities (perhaps akin to “normal life”) in return for high achievement in a very selected arena. As such, there was a lot they had to give up (a “normal” identity, “normal” relationships, a 9-to-5 schedule, etc). Presumably, these heroes thought it was worth it, at least most of the time.

Another example of reducing entropy, over centuries, would be the concept of “division of labor”. By concentrating on smaller and smaller sub specialties, individuals, companies, and even whole countries have been able to drastically improve their well-being, lifespan, food supply, educational base, etc. In other words, their over the eons, and , especially since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has, through removal of entropy via division of labor, drastically improved its “capacity for useful work”.

In our areas of personal achievement, we can become more effective, as we reduce the entropy in our lives. We have a higher probability of succeeding at any goal, the more we consciously strip away the entropy surrounding that goal. Every time you “burn a bridge”, use a recipe, turn off the phone, measure “good” and “bad” cholesterol, cancel a magazine subscription, fill out a “to do list” or go through the “pros and cons” of a process, you are removing entropy from your life. And that leads to more and more “capacity for useful work”. Useful? Useful to us. Useful to the creation of the lives we want to live, to the creation of the relationships we want to be involved in, the security we want to feel, the peace of mind we yearn for.

More in Part 2

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