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When I look back at the history of my projects, I notice a pattern. About 90% of everything worthwhile I’ve ever done happened during project phases where I simply turned off all my personal planning, guidance, navigation and control systems. Periods with zero metacognition and zero conscious discipline, when my GTD systems fell by the wayside. In Tempo I called such periods heavy lifts. These typically occur at a point in a project when some sort of disciplined and controlled schlepping breaks down, and you trigger a bout of explosive, all-consuming action. As someone very interested in decision-making and feedback control, this kind of behavioral phase was a blind spot for me for a long time (especially in myself), since it is basically a period when both are turned off. It is what we control engineers call an open-loop mode.

A better if narrower phrase is explode mode. Explode modes are a particular kind of open-loop mode that put the break in breaking smart. I use the term to refer both to the explosion that triggers the mode, and the ballistic trajectory that follows.

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Explore -- Explode -- Exploit
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As it happens, I’m in a mini-explode mood today, with no patience for the confining linear argument structure of the tweetstorm format. So just to mix it up a bit, let’s do a plain prose newsletter. An unmanaged word explosion of the sort I usually save for my blog.

The explode mode is a period that is overlooked by people who think too much about closed-loop control and decision-making, based on constant environmental feedback. For example control engineers often talk of exploration vs exploitation:  periods during which a system is optimizing for either maximal learning or maximal value extraction (it's a famous tradeoff because it's hard or impossible to do both at once in dynamic systems that can go unstable). Both are closed-loop control modes. But control engineering textbooks usually ignore explode mode (if they even acknowledge its existence): a regime that often exists in between exploration and exploitation in real-world problems, and during which exploitation systems take shape based on the learnings of exploration. The correct description of the phenomenology is explore — explode — exploit. Only in special closed-world conditions like choosing among slot machines in a casino does it reduce to the degenerate explore-vs-exploit tradeoff.

Similarly, people who operate in mature institutional environments, where things don’t every truly blow up, tend to like a controlled-gradual-conquest metaphor for building businesses or markets. For example, the pioneer — settler — town planner metaphor that Simon Wardley has written a lot about, which is great for enterprise IT. Here pioneer is an exploration archetype. Settler and town planner are exploitation archetypes. There are no explosion archetypes in between in the model. But as the real history of the settlement of frontiers shows, there are explosions, such as the wars between the US Army and Native American tribes, which followed pioneer European exploration, but preceded settlement. A good extension of the metaphor would be pioneer -- demolitionist -- settler -- town planner.

Explosions can be ignored in some situations like the B2B enterprise IT world, because things rarely blow up. There’s just too much enduring structure in that world for that.

A third example is people who have a lot of systemic safety in their lives, with bounded downsides and very strong external work-life balance mechanisms. Professors with tenure for example, or people with either inherited wealth or fuck-you money. Often, such people think in terms of unfocused mode vs deep-work mode. Unfocused mode is a mix of good exploration /tinkering and ADD/dissipation. Deep work is when you can get into a steady state of  sustainable focus by assembling, at low marginal cost, an environment that tunes out distractions, and do something big. Like proving a major math theorem over several years while somebody is paying you a salary, or writing a novel while sitting pretty on a trust fund. This is not explode mode. This is strong compartmentalization holding for a long time in a favorable environment: successful containment of explosive energies.

Explode mode cannot happen for everybody in all situations. The main necessary conditions are that the environment must be sufficiently wild as well as weirdly stable, in the sense that key assumptions underlying your behavior don’t change too fast. For instance, if you’re designing rockets, you can safely assume that the law of gravity won’t change for a few years. You don’t need to keep up with astrophysicists and cosmologists studying the fundamentals of gravity with a FOMO anxiety mindset.

The wildness is necessary because you can only turn off the metacognition and conscious disciplines within your control. If the environment is full of generations of other people’s metacognition externalized into systems and processes — such as a bureaucratic organization — turning off your private metacognition doesn’t mean you’re not subject to environmental metacognition. That’s practically the definition of civilization. Your superego can be turned off with some effort, but the institutional environment it represents inside your brain cannot be turned off. Similarly, abandoning disciplined habits within your control — for example, getting sloppy and disorganized with diet and exercise — does not mean environmental habits get turned off, like the mail delivery schedule.

The stability of the assumption ground is also important because a behavioral explosion is a period during which you’re not going to reorient with respect to any major assumption. In fact, you will physically detach yourself from the kind of groundedness in certain kinds of feedback to be even capable of re-examining big assumptions. I liken this aspect to ballistics. Once you trigger the howitzer, and the explosion propels the shell out of the barrel, you’ve lost several dimensions of control. It’s on a ballistic trajectory you can predict with physics, but not change. Unlike a missile, airplane, boat, or ground vehicle, an object in a ballistic trajectory does not have controllable couplings with its environment (such as wheels, ailerons, sails, or thrust vectoring engines) that allow it to steer with respect to it. You could, like a gymnast, contort and perform acrobatics in the air, redistributing internal momentum, but that won’t change the ballistic aspect of your trajectory. It’s all internal stuff. This is a natural definition of internal versus external. Head-in-the-game decision-making versus game-in-the-head decision-making. A ballistic phase is when you can make head-in-the-game decisions, but game-in-the-head (“external” and “objective”) decision-making and control have been turned off. It’s like between breaks in a sporting event, you cannot go to the sidelines to chat with your coach or take a swig of water. The only control is in-game control, with all its limitations. You have no access to higher (coaching consultations, arguments about changing the rules) or lower levels (practice/training behaviors) of control. 

Explosions are not accidents, though the decision to explode may involve serendipitous factors. You explode deliberately in order to let go higher and lower levels of control and go ballistic. You give up almost all control over your trajectory. You also give up control over tempo and all but the most basic kinds of balancing capability. The only things that punctuate human behavioral explosion phases and ballistic trajectories are eating and sleeping. Because our bodily hardware has deeply wired capabilities to interfere even in explosions on those 2 fronts.

This has a HUGE consequence: you cannot compartmentalize or hedge an explosion. It’s an all-or-nothing phenomenon. When you explode, the exploding activity takes over your whole life, spilling across all the boundaries you've carefully drawn with your cunning metacognitive scheming, GTD systems, and hard-won stoic disciplines. An explosion is either taking over your life, or you’re not exploding at all. All in. Bet the farm. Go for broke. All or nothing. Mars or bust. 

This means, unlike explore and exploit activities, you cannot manage personal risk by creating a diversified “life” portfolio during an explode phase. When I am in explore+exploit mode, I often have multiple activities going on with different risk profiles, some explore, some exploit. When I am in explode mode, I’m doing only one thing. Because the boundaries within my life (and the safety systems I rely on externally -- which aren't billionaire-grade) are too weak to contain the energy of an explode phase within one compartment. Subjectively, even the boundaries of the universe seem too weak. That’s why, it feels like the universe is exploding for your pleasure, as it does every evening in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series. You lose your sense of boundaries. The unfolding explosion is the universe. All consuming, all-encompassing, with no "outside" to it that you can be aware of.

This does not mean that explode phases are phases of chaotic madness. In modern ordnance, explosions are highly designed phenomena. They are just not under closed-loop feedback control at an external locus because there is no meaningful external locus. The inside of an explosion is a kind of escaped reality within which the suspended parts of "true" reality effectively have no presence.

But you can design the nature of the escaped reality before the escape event. There are things you can do before pulling any trigger or launch button. You can shape charges to direct the energy of an explosion in a particular pattern. With artillery, you can obviously point the gun very precisely, and compute with high accuracy the shape of the trajectory, taking momentum and drag into account. You can design the innards of the thing being launched and put some internal, isolated intelligence in there, air-gapped from full-blown reality, but capable of acting within the escaped reality, the way a gymnast can do in-air acrobatics or spacecraft systems can operate in free fall.

The human equivalent, the design element in human behavioral explosions, is the sum of all your habits that are not under conscious regulation and training regimens, but deeply ingrained in your unconscious (unconscious expertise). This includes practiced problem-solving skills that are honed enough that they require no meta-cognition or behavioral discipline: all the “like riding a bike” skills.

Just because you are in an explode phase does not mean you’ll get 4+5=9 wrong. It's an escaped reality but not a complete mess with no rules. The relevant metacognition there is thinking about things like the foundations of mathematics, the axioms of Peano arithmetic and so forth. The relevant disciplined behavior is any special tricks you might be in the process of learning for adding large numbers, but aren't ingrained enough to be of use during the explosion.

But abandoning philosophizing about Peano axioms or practicing big-number mental tricks does not mean you’ll suddenly start making mistakes with 4+5=9 (that sort of mistake is usually due to fatigue, a phenomenon related to exploding behaviors, but distinct).

Or to take a more complex example, just because your startup is in explode phase doesn’t mean you aren’t earning money. While stable cash flows coming from mature lines of business are nice, exploding doesn’t mean you are necessarily burning down savings or use up runway. You could be exploding and making money in all sorts of unsystematic ways and improvising like crazy financially, using some random mix of opportunistic money making, one-off deals, unsustainable gigs, and clever use of debt and credit, to power yourself financially. During explosions, it is not just okay to do unsustainable things that don’t scale, it is practically required. The put-systems-and-processes-in-place part of scaling can only operate in the aftermath of an explosive phase.

There is a certain macho kind of person — not always male — who doesn’t get this element of high design intelligence in explosions. Their favorite metaphors for explosions (brute force, “beast mode”, going beserk) emphasize the superficial uncontrolled chaos and miss the deeper structure of explosions that is the result of open-loop planning and design before the trigger moment. 

Why would you do something like this? Why give up any capability to reorient, hedge, manage risk, maneuver, do cunning OODA-loop hacking, and steering? There are two reasons. Reason one is growth efficiency. Unlike operational efficiency, which is producing things using finely tuned machines that are humming along, growth efficiency refers to when you have to do grow something big and complicated for the first time, with no playbook, no libraries of relevant management and organization science, and no big team of coaches choreographing your moves for you. Hence phrases like growing pains, unmanaged growth, etc. Growth and explosions go together. The faster you want to build size and complexity, the more metacognition and misguided discipline are liabilities. Because growth phases are also vulnerable phases, you want to get through them as fast as possible. It is better to accumulate those as deficits to be paid off during the get-organized phase that comes after explosions. 

In other words, the safest way to grow is often to grow explosively. It doesn't matter that things break when you move fast, because during growth, if you don't move fast, you die.

But the second reason is even more important: explosions generate a lot of power: energy divided by time. This is the 0-to-1 aspect of explosions. They have to produce a certain minimum amount of power to do their job. Ideas like escape velocity in a rocket launch, or criticality thresholds in certain reactions, are all about power in disguise. Energy by time.

Under conditions requiring fast growth and lower limits on power required, almost all metacognition is wasted energy/drag, and almost all behavioral discipline that is not unconscious breaks too often to be worth sticking to. If you’re in an explosive phase of sales meetings where you have to go meet important clients whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, sticking to a rigid gym schedule is a liability.

Why explode at all? Why not always stay under closed-loop control? What’s the reward for explosions? The answer is you can get a huge amount done in a surprisingly short time. The metaphor I like here is ballistic trajectories. Ballistic projectiles have one big advantage over expensive missiles and complex fighter planes: they can cover big distances, with a big payload of ordnance, at very low cost. Even long-range guided missiles take advantage of ballistic phases in their trajectory (that’s why they’re called ballistic missiles). They might use a fair amount of control during launch and re-entry phases, but for the middle phase, when they are in the rarefied upper atmosphere or in space, they are mostly in ballistic mode.

The other big reward of explode phases is qualitative: due to the power thresholds of certain desirable outcomes, sometimes the only way to get somewhere is to explode your way there, blasting past thresholds. There is no way to solve for a fully closed-loop controlled A-to-B trajectory. Building big and complex new things is often this kind of desirable outcome. There's no controlled-at-all-times plan for it.

Individual human explosions vary in range from hours to years. I think the longest I’ve “exploded” is a few weeks. The longest I am able to routinely explode these days is 4-6 hours. People who achieve big things are typically people who are capable of much bigger explosions than I am, which is one reason I tend to look for opportunities to surf the shock waves of others' explosions (okay I am stretching the metaphor to its limit here, but oh well).

People who can explode for months or years on end are natural cognitive athletes. I don’t know how true this is, but I am told bursting power — how high/far you can get in a standing jump — is something that you can’t really train to improve at the gym very much. It’s in your genes. I think there is a genetic basis to natural cognitive athleticism too, when it comes to explosions. People who can generate enough explosive power to launch themselves on really long ballistic trajectories (and have some explosive power left to explode at the other end too) are born, not made. Just like people who can jump high.

Let me conclude with a subtlety. Just because there is no outside-the-game feedback control doesn’t mean there are no decisions being made in explode/ballistic phase. Like a gymnast twisting and turning in the air, within the constraints of the situational physics, there are certain kinds of in-explosion decisions available to you.

The most important kind of in-explosion decision available to you, in my experience, is the decision to care. During explode mode, there is no such thing as a back burner or track 2 or fractional-effort project. If you care about something, you will act on it, in whatever improvised way you can. You won’t try to manage attention or be wary of bunny trails. Caring is an unbounded attitude towards something: you let it draw as much energy and attention from you as it needs until you see it through. The only limit is physically draining you — death.

If you decide you don’t care about something on the other hand, it will fall through the cracks, get left behind, or otherwise reduced to a state of uncontrolled, unmonitored abandonment and neglect, with no safety systems limiting how far it falls or how much it gets damaged by the explosion. You may try to do a minimum amount to keep something alive, or try to extend the life of certain options, but fundamentally, during explosions you’re either caring about something or abandoning it. The litmus test is this: is acting on a front draining energy/momentum or building it up via positive feedback? Things that drain energy lower explosive power. Things that build it add to the explosive power.  If you systematically abandon the former and decide to care about the latter, your life turns into an explosion, with exponential positive-loop dynamics. You give up steering authority for acceleration and momentum.

Caring as an explode-mode decision also applies to people, not just decisions/actions. You will find, in explode mode, that you’re making black and white decisions about people. They’re either in the explosion with you, in a hell-and-back-together relationship — an unbounded covenant of unlimited caring rather than a bounded contract — or they’re out of it. If they’re in, there are no artificial limits on the relationship. This is the reason the explode phase of a project can often create a memetically blood-bound tribe, turn a friend into an enemy, or cause a divorce. The you’re either along for the whole ride or you’re out dynamic in relationships persists pasts the explode phase and applies to existing relationships.

Which suggests a good alternative metaphor for the explode phase: they are survival-of-the-fittest darwinian contests inside your own head. During an explosion, multiple versions of you are fighting for survival. Only one version of you will be left standing at the other end: the version of yourself that you care about the most. The other versions of you will die, taking their commitments and relationships with them.

There's a reason it's called an explosion. Not everything is a mere "journey."

Feel free to forward this newsletter on email and share it via the social media buttons below. You can check out the archives here. First-timers can subscribe to the newsletter here. You can set up a phone call with me via my Clarity.fm profile page

Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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