If you shuffle a deck of cards, it’s perfectly possible that they’ll end up in order: clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds, Ace to King.

But the probability of it happening is excruciatingly small.

52 factorial, in fact, which is

52! = 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 . . . x 2 x 1

or 1 in
80658175170943878571660636856403766975289505440883277824000000000000

Which means that your perfectly suited deck has one chance, against 8065817517094387857166063685640376697528950544088327782400000000099 other possibilities.

The number is beyond astronomical.

We reckon the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

And if you started shuffling decks once a second since the big bang, you’d only have got through 435000000000000000 permutations.

It’s unfathomable for our tiny brains.

This is entropy, which is responsible for 2 of the 3 laws of thermodynamics.

Entropy: A thermodynamic property that is the measure of a system’s thermal energy per unit of temperature that is unavailable for doing useful work.

But this applies all over the place, beyond maths and physics.

Like in the cards example, or when you lift weights, or build a business or launch a product.

The natural state for this very email is for it to not exist. For all the moments before now that have ever happened, it didn’t exist. There are other things you could be doing right now (sleeping, climbing a mountain, base jumping, eating bacon, shuffling cards). But you’re reading this sentence.

The probability of that happening are teeny tiny.

But it is happening because we have this little system going.

And that system depends on the work we put in to keep things organised. This system has basic rules (I think about cool and useful ideas and share them with you every week, and you read them and add them to your brain).

It takes work and maintenance to keep the system going.

Otherwise, entropy will take over.

Entropy dictates that at some point, this will all end. But I fight against entropy. I keep the engine going by showing up next week when I choose to write another email instead of doing a million other things.

And you choose to read it because it gives you superpowers.

The idea of entropy is more prevalent than you think. The default is for things to not happen, yet we’re making things happen all the time.

It’s our nature to be curious and explore things despite entropy dictating that we’ll default to doing nothing.

When you make something or tell a story, you’re creating an asymmetry. You’re disrupting the default state of entropy and stacking the deck in your favour.

But your system is fragile because once you stop working on it, entropy begins to take over and the system decays. This is why complex systems are difficult to build from scratch: because it’s impossible to know where entropy starts to creep in.

Put a tree in the dark and it’ll wither. It’ll die and it’s molecules will be subsumed into the soil. Stop eating and the same will happen to you. Entropy will win.

Stop doing chinups and your muscles will atrophy. Stop reading and your brain will be stuck in todays default view of the world.

I’m just riffing on the idea now, but I think this has something to do with activation energy too.

It’s tempting to think that we need to build large complex systems that get as far away from entropy as we can because that would make us more robust.

But maybe it’s easier (less work) and more stable to maintain a small margin that keep us closer to entropy, so that the asymmetry isn’t under stress.

Is there an optimal ‘zone’ to aim for?

Do we need to fight against entropy or can we use it in our favour?

I don’t know the answers but I think these are good questions.

‘Simple’ certainly has a lower activation energy, which makes it easier to start and easier to turn into a habit. When I hit send, I’m going to go for a short run, just 20 minutes.

That 3-mile run has a little activation energy compared to a marathon. It’s closer to my default state of being sedentary. It’s closer to entropy.

I suspect this chain of thought has a future and I’ll leave those loose ends dangling there so I can revisit another time.

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