In the day-to-day, you often find yourself tangled in a labyrinth of complexity. It's like trying to traverse a maze, where every twist and turn holds a new secret or challenge or a dead end. The amount of information you hold in your hand is at once too much and too little. You cannot see too much ahead. And you also have guidelines and rules and advice and books and how-to's and well, an overload of information.
That's why abstractions are powerful. They provide us with a valuable tool to simplify complex matters. In fact, it is not possible to absorb an event without abstraction. Even what you are seeing now, the eye (and optic nerve and the entire visual cortex) chooses to show you only a part of it. Because it'd be overwhelming and too much.
That's what abstraction entails. How can we compact a large, complicated picture into something simpler and understandable?
It is crucial to remember that the abstraction is and can never be the whole picture.
That's the advantage and the disadvantage.
Let me elaborate with a couple of examples, and then dive a bit more into it in my professional life.
Calories: More than Meets the Eye
Calories in. Calories out. Is weight loss that simple?
Yes. No. Hmm, maybe.
It is a perfect abstraction to begin with. And to use as a North Star. Whenever you see unwanted weight gain, before you overcomplicate stuff, you can start with "Maybe I am eating more calories than is needed."
But beneath the surface, it is complicated. Because the human body is complicated and one we have not fully understood.
There's a macronutrient split, based on what works for you. Some people do well on a low-fat diet, while others do better on a low-carb diet. Should you do moderate protein or high protein?
And then there's the micronutrients we need to get - vitamins and minerals.
This complex stuff gets abstracted into a "diet" - the paleo diet, the keto diet and so on.
But in the end, the magic lies in the balance – eating a tad less than what your body craves. And figuring out how to control your cravings without feeling like you are missing out.
Strength Training: The Enchantment of Overcompensation
Your body needs acute (short-term) stress, followed by a period of recovery. When you do that, it responds by overcompensating i.e. it gets ready to handle a wee bit more stress than what you put.
And that's how you get stronger. That's how all physical adaptations - whether it is power or endurance or flexibility or whatever work.
Lift a bit more load than what you did in the previous training session. Repeat. And you get stronger. A simple abstraction for strength training.
Or to generalise, do a bit more "work" than you did last time around. Run a bit more. Run a bit faster.
As you specialise, as you get better, you need to zoom in more. You dive into more complicated abstractions. For example, do a 400m repeat at a specific pace and rest for 2 minutes. Do 8 reps of this. And next week, do 9. Then, 10. Then, switch to 800m repeats.
Again, what's happening is an understanding of the complex machinery, processes, and adaptations into a protocol.
And it all comes down to the basic principle of "the right amount of stress" followed by recovery.
Do too much and/or too often, and you get injured.
Do too little and/or not often enough, and you don't see progress.
Data and using it to run an organisation
At The Quad, we collect and analyse a lot of our student data. How often do they come to class? How and when do they miss class? What results do they see? What weights and progress do they make?
And zooming out - what's the Lifetime Customer Value? What's the Length of Engagement? What's the retention rate?
All of this data (and then some) is one part of the picture. Where humans are involved, emotions and feelings are involved. One cannot encapsulate each individual's life and what's happening there (which causes them to miss a class) into attendance data. One cannot understand motivation and community in this data.
And yet, the data plays an important role.
One of the other parts is speaking with the student. The data provides an abstraction for the entire group or cohorts. Zooming into the individual, listening to them, understanding their stories and emotions and feelings helps us at The Quad break out of the abstraction and to fill in the gaps.
If we went by one (either one), we'd make big mistakes.
If a few of our vocal students felt the workouts were boring, a knee-jerk reaction would be to say "A lot of students find the sessions boring." But the data will tell us better.
Likewise, if attendance drops we assume something's wrong. But it is just the school term ending and a lot of folks are on vacation this week with their families.
The map is not the territory.
The Power of Abstraction
Abstractions are like the guiding stars in our journey through the forest of life. They offer us a simplified map, but the maze (nay, forest) remains vast and mysterious. Remember, it's like being a brave explorer, using the map but forging your own path.
In the world of data, acknowledge that it's one part of the puzzle. You must seek other clues, like conversing with your customers and watching for market trends.
And in the realm of fitness and nutrition, be a scientist in the forest, experimenting, observing, and iterating. Abstractions are your compass, but the adventure is uniquely yours. Life's labyrinth is full of wonders and challenges, and it's through the lens of abstraction that we can find our way, like a map leading us through a mystical forest.