estimation problems

I shot this photo of a rock face during a hike in southern New Mexico. One of the things that surprised me was how similar it was to another rock face I’ve seen and photographed often at Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. The other surprising characteristic was the scale of this particular rock face and my inability to estimate the size accurately.  “Estimation problems” abounded throughout this particular hike.  I continually attempted to assess how far I was from the peak or how far I had hiked, for example, and in each case failed miserably or abandoned the task because it felt like guess work instead of informed estimation.

At one point during the hike, I noticed a fellow hiker already on the peak. The presence of that hiker gave me something to compare my estimation of the distance. Similarly, I put my hand in a second photo of the rock face to give the viewer a sense of scale.  What appeared to be a giant rock face was actually just a zoomed in photo of a rock formation a few inches away.  I would have never guessed that.  Similarly, even with the hiker on the peak, I really had no idea how far away it was. What does a hiker look like when they are 1/2 mile away? What does a hiker look like when they are a mile away? I’ve had experiences like these before, but not enough to inform my ability to estimate.  The reader may immediately suggest that a simple geometry problem would allow me to estimate the range to the peak,  and it would.

If I change the estimation problem just a bit, it again becomes intractable: ever try to estimate the height of a cloud above the ground? No simple geometry problem there.  Ever try to estimate the distance to a mountain range? (Assume for a moment, this is the first time you’ve seen this mountain range.) In both of these cases, there is no simple geometry problem, and estimation becomes difficult or impossible.

Sometimes estimation is harder than it seems. Explicitly describing our reasoning may help us, or others, evaluate the validity of our estimates.

Life is a journey. And these are observations from ours.

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You’ve just read observations, a column that illustrates in my personal life and leadership the technical concepts found in ATOMs.

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