CategoryThinking/Analysis

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.

Checklists Improve Results, Reduce Errors and Save Lives

Four years ago, in September 2017, spacesuit technician Joseph Schmitt passed away at 101. The Economist magazine reported how, at NASA, Schmitt helped design and fit spacesuits during the years when Alan Shepard made America’s first manned space flight (1961), John Glenn circled the Earth (1962) and Apollo 11 landed a module on the moon (1969). Before retiring in 1983, Schmitt also supported Space Shuttle launches and the first Skylab flight.

Astronauts trusted their lives to the work of people like Mr. Schmitt, and he relied heavily on the use of checklists to focus resources, manage quality and minimize risk. As with any pilot working a pre-flight list and surgeons such as Atul Gawande (who wrote the bestseller The Checklist Manifesto), checklists saved lives. In the case of Schmitt, his list included items such as air-leaks, communication lines and the security of over-gloves, helmets and boots. 

Checklists also support high performance for less life-dependent activities. Consider real estate closings, malt loaf recipes, investing decisions, and the analysis of timber markets. In the end, simple tools such as checklists help us avoid “boiling the ocean” and fuzzy thinking in order to prioritize effort on the task at hand.

How to Improve the Communication of Research: Lessons from Forestry and Wood Bioenergy

In 2012, the Forest History Society published Wood for Bioenergy: Forests as a Resource for Biomass and Biofuels,” a book I co-authored with Amanda Lang. It serves as a primer on the markets, policies and technologies associated with wood pellets, liquid fuels and wood-based electricity and power. In 2021, the Lynn W. Day Endowment sponsored my lecture that revisited our assumptions on wood bioenergy ten years ago – and other forestry-related topics – and how they played out over time (click here to view a replay of the lecture).

Over time, we learned lessons from (1) our own research and (2) the way reporters and the media covered research. We observed how researchers and reporters, while typically operating in good faith to do the best job they can, end up failing to communicate core finding or insights accessibly or accurately. For example, when the Forest History Society commissioned us to author Wood for Bioenergy, the copyeditors recommended, on multiple occasions, that we simplify concepts for the target audience. Generally speaking, we tended to be too “technical” and needed to boil down key findings with context.

Common Errors

Articles in newspapers, on the other hand, tended to suffer from different issues. In 2014, I published an article on this topic in BioResources (“Learning from mistakes in the media to improve the communication of wood bioenergy research”). The article focused on three common errors in reporting on wood bioenergy and forestry that offer guidance for the coverage of research and technical analysis:

  1. Failure to provide context, which rarely requires exhaustive research or supplementary analysis. Help readers and policymakers get a relative sense for the magnitude of a problem. 
  2. Improperly assigning “causal” relationships. For example, does it only rain when the Red Sox win, or are other factors involved?
  3. Errors of fact. Double check the basic facts. One faulty assertion casts doubt on the broader work and body of research, which can undermine the careers and efforts of entire research teams.

Conclusion

Being effective in our fields requires skills beyond the technical. Technical skills divorced from the ability to communicate that we have these skills, and the insights we generate from applying these skills, limit our influence. Success and relevance to decisionmakers depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.

How to Read the News and Articles

When reading anything, we want to prepare our mind. Mindless reading is like mindless eating. Be intentional and discerning in reading and application. Consider this simple approach for assessing the quality, credibility and relevance of what we read: ScanRead and Relate.

  • Before reading, scan the article or white paper to check its title, source, date, author name and bio (if there), figures and picture. This gives a sense of the rigor and shape of the article. It also answers, “is this current?”
    • I scan books, journals and magazines, too, and check the table of contents. This gives me a better feel for the material and its potential relevance.
  • While reading, focus on the theme and main ideas. Where does the supporting evidence come from (e.g. data, research, interviews, opinion)? 
  • After reading, relate the “value” in the article to your interests or objectives. Ask, “how is this relevant to me or my firm?” 

We don’t need perfection in our reading. However, we do benefit from intention and discernment. If we’re chilling on the porch with Beaverball or Family Circle, that’s one thing. If we’re reading a national newspaper, a proposal or a white paper, we gain time and advantage with a systematic approach.

Multitasking is a Myth

This post introduces a recent essay on the dangers of multitasking and the importance of deliberately choosing priorities and focusing attention

The world seems determined to manipulate our attention and encourage us to click, buy, like, forward or watch. These actions do more to spark emotions than to create value, meaning or a sense of accomplishment. How can we better flex our mental muscles?

Attempts to multitask degrade our mental performance and reduce personal productivity. Previous research describes the impacts as equal to a 10-point decline in IQ or about the same as pulling an all-nighter. In short, multitasking reduces our intelligence, energy and ability to get things done well.

Click here to read the essay.