2 min read

Limiting Reagents

Limiting Reagents
or why I don't do dishes when I run out of milk

An alien very far away is sitting in a high-school chemistry class and looking in on my life with a very fancy telescope, trying to understand the equations which govern the existence of things in my house. It measures things like how many words I write each day, the number of dirty dishes in my kitchen, how much caffeine is in my blood, how much milk I have in the fridge, and notices something peculiar. When the milk runs out, the dirty dishes build up. It would seem that the process whereby the dishes get done requires milk. Perhaps it is a cleaning product.

When I run out of milk and before I go to the store, I get my coffee by walking to the cafe down the road. When I have milk I instead make coffee at home, and I do the dishes while the water boils. So the reaction is something like:

milk + coffee → boiling water → George cleans dishes

Humans sure are weird, says the alien.

Sometimes it feels like the things I do well are the things I'm not doing enough. Perhaps it is that feeling of lack which has brought me into doing those things a lot, whereby I get good at them. But the feeling of not doing enough of that thing later becomes misguided.

Some ten years ago I started a game company with my friend Benjamin. We were great at making games. We dreamed and prototyped and programmed and played. But making a game and making a game company are different. Much of the time I felt like we needed to make more games. It turns out that this is not what a game company is solely about. We had limiting reagents: sales, marketing, distribution. No matter how many games we made, they wouldn't make the company profitable.

But I don't mean this as a lesson about business. I don't know much about business.

I do know that feeling that there is not enough of one thing (e.g. new games by our company) is often not in agreement with the larger equation. The equations which lead us to excel in what we can do well often produce an abundance of ingredients which are useful in other equations. Great. But those other equations require a shift in focus to considering the other ingredients.

So instead of thinking I don't do my dishes because I don't have enough time, or motivation, or whatever other ingredient which I might have plenty of, I need to recognize that it's the milk that's run out. (The alien begins to wonder what causes me to go to the store.)

Or alternatively, it's often the things that I think I should be doing which I've actually done plenty of. Looking at the things that I'm not doing, which I hadn't really considered, is what makes the bigger reaction take place. Only then do those abundant ingredients become useful and transform into something new.