Monday, March 12, 2012

The Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect

The other day, while playing one of many games of Hero Academy together (think Words With Friends with tiny little soldiers instead of letters), my friend Tyler remarked that the game "suffered from the Matthew effect." Initially I assumed it meant that all games he or anyone else played with me would eventually lead to an embarrassing, crushing defeat. But later I looked online and discovered that "The Matthew Effect" is an actual thing that has nothing to do with my particular prowess at games. Rather, it's a phenomenon that revolves around the idea of 'accumulated advantage' - like how the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the crazy cat lady just keeps gettin' crazier (along with more and more cats).

The term, at least on Wikipedia, carries something of a negative connotation. It implies that, like Ray Charles once sang"them that got are them that get and I ain't got nothing yet." As tragic as it is catchy, for sure. But I think there's a silver lining here, and it's something that I desperately wish I could go back in time and inform Mr. Charles about, and perhaps save him from an embarrassing life of obscurity and mediocrity.

Such a sad, sad man.
While 'accumulated advantage' means that those of us who start at zero with anything in life are going to be at a disadvantage early on, it can also mean that every day you continue to work on something is a day that, if nothing else, gives you momentum and brings you step closer to "get" from the "nothin' yet."

Apparently Jerry Seinfeld had a productivity secret he foolishly revealed recently, where he would try to keep a calendar chain going. Every day early in his career, he would set out to write a certain amount, and if he did, he would mark an "X" over the day on the calendar. He would do it for every day he did his writing, and the goal was to never break the chain. It was a clever trick that likely got him to work on days he would probably rather have been, I dunno, playing Pac-Man, or solving a Rubik's Cube or something (these are things I imagine people wasted a lot of time doing in the 1980's).

This has been written about extensively at great self-help sites like Zen Habits and Lifehacker, but I really do think the biggest problem with achieving some of our long term goals is getting over that initial inertia. The very idea of losing 20 pounds, starting a new career, or inventing/building a time machine to travel back in time to help a helpless, untalented black man find his way seems so daunting it's always just easier to put it off for another day, or stop and start after you've just drawn a few sketches of showing up to visit Ray Charles in the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

So I'm going to re-coin the Matthew Effect right now. Or actually, no, I'm going to go ahead and call this new definition the "Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect," so this time it's clear that it's actually named after me:

The Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect: Kicking ass at something just a little better than you kicked ass at it the day before.

A lot of the things we desperately want to change are things we've gone "too far in the wrong direction" with. I didn't start writing with any kind of regularity until I was 29. How terrible is that? To say I want to be a writer, when for the past ten years my free time resume implies that I'd actually rather be a marathon video game player. But I made a decision that started with putting down the controller, and I started writing with no pressure other than "do it regularly," and my writing has improved tremendously over the past 4 years. I still have plenty of days where I lose my momentum, and I don't write, or don't put in the effort that I should. Clearly, I still have a ways to go. But I'd like to think that I'm getting better, little by little, every day.

So go ahead - start something from nothing today. And know that tomorrow you'll have accumulated a small, yet extremely significant advantage over where you were the day before.

And on that note, it's time to stop messing around on this silly blog, and get back to business with my time machine.

I'm comin' for ya Ray!


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