Q&A 072

Published on:
June 8, 2022

Dear Q&A friends,

Actions and reactions. Consequences in time. This edition looks at the interactions stemming from our behaviour and our ability to affect them. Enjoy!

Delay

The consequences of our actions are not always directly visible. We have short-term and long-term results. Seth Godin condensed some learnings in a wonderful tiny bit of prose:

"If people got a hacking cough and a chronic disease an hour after smoking their first cigarette, it’s unlikely many people would smoke. If earthquakes happened a day after fracking for gas was tried, they would probably have stopped."

Even if we have a compelling narrative on long-term consequences of our actions, humans have a tendency to discount our future. We often choose short-term rewards over long-term rewards, even if the long-term ones are much more compelling. In a famous psychology experiment conducted in the 60's, kids were given a choice between eating a marshmallow that was in front of them, or waiting a while and getting a second marshmallow as a reward. The experiment then proved a correlation between kids' ability to delay gratification and better 'life outcomes'.

Even though the results of this experiment have been nuanced in later iterations, the lessons remain. Seeing a long-term picture where others don't, generally gives you an edge.

"Most of us are able to respond to a feedback loop in the short run. The real opportunity and challenge is to get much better at recognizing the long loops."

I feel there is a caveat though. If you don't enjoy the short-term actions, acting for the future might give you the 'life outcomes' deemed best in the 60's, but they might not hand you the happiest life. Sometimes just grabbing the marshmallow in front of you might be a great choice.

🪸 Coral

For quite some time, it is known that coral reefs are endangered by global warming. This is because the algae that reside within corals and provide them with food experience malfunction in their photosynthetic mechanisms at higher temperatures. Rather than producing molecular oxygen as waste of the photosynthesis, they start generating highly toxic oxygen-rich compounds, such as peroxides. You probably know the side-effects of peroxide: bleaching. For some, useful for their teeth, clothes or hair but for corals a deadly cocktail.

An article in the Economist shared some good news to combat the destruction that is happening at ever-increasing speed. There are several areas of research that are showing promising results. First of all, there are coral species that are already heat resistant. These can be found for example in the Red Sea. Research focuses on either transferring these species to endangered reefs or isolating the specific genes responsible for the heat-resistance.

Another focus area is the notion that some reefs seem to be more heat-resistant than others despite the fact that they are structurally and genetically similar. It seems that the environment they are in has a big influence. Organisms that are symbiotic to corals, for example particular types of their companion algae, seem to create more robust mechanisms of photosynthesis.

All these insights and potential solutions are promising, but large scale applicability is a challenge. Just imagine how you're going to populate the Great Barrier Reef, an area as big as Italy, with heat-resistant types coming from the Red Sea. As one of the researchers, Dr Cohen, notes:

“We have to let nature do its thing, because only nature can do it on the scale that’s necessary."

Nature will surely adapt to higher temperatures itself as well. Let this promising research not distract us from tackling the root cause.

Fail

In kids, tolerance for frustration is well-tested while doing crafts and drawings. Scissors not responding as intended, cutting a piece of paper the wrong way. A marker line ruining 20 minutes of intense drawing. At our home, we could have a landfill of failed projects, crumbled in frustration and tossed after a small mishap.

As the kids grow older, not just their skills, but also their tolerance and flexibility grows. Small errors are re-defined as features, turning a failed scribble into a tree or a bush, adding an extra spoiler to a race car. Re-attaching a cut-off piece of cardboard or even living with a sub-optimal end-result.

Being averse to failure, though, remains an issue. Which is why one of my sons loves drawing on the iPad using Procreate. Perfect colouring of areas with a simple drag-and-drop and -most importantly- the 'undo' feature. With a simple hand-gesture, your last strokes disappear like magic. Not happy? Undo!

Among the grown-ups, having the undo-button is a contested feature. Yes, it's a fail-safe mechanism, but it also takes away the value of doing things with just a forward and no reverse. If you paint in real life, there are limits to correcting your strokes. If you're into sculpting, removing a bit of material with your chisel is irreversible. It makes you consider every move, and mastery is shown in a good end-result.

But in getting to the mastery-phase, I think the 'undo' is wonderful. It makes you less afraid of painting a stroke, which makes you experiment more. I wonder what risks you and I were willing to take in the rest of our lives if we had an 'undo' button. What experiments would you try if you could undo?

👨‍✈️ Personally

Let me try to scratch the surface of a big topic; taking things (too) personally. It seems to be almost part of human nature to first look at yourself to the find the cause for something happening in a certain way. Whilst this is in principle not a bad starting position, a lot of people remain stuck at this point and therefore will tend to blame themselves or assume others to think ill of them. This has potential negative effects on your self-esteem and increases the likelihood to become distressed and dysfunctional.

When I came across an article by Joel Minden, I decided to finally write something about it. The article first lays out what biases lie at the basis of this behaviour. Subsequently, it deals with quite a number of practical steps to get a more balanced view.

There are essentially two biases involved with taking things too personally. Firstly, 'Personalisation', believing that you’re the cause of a negative event, though there is no or little evidence to support this. Then, there is 'Mind reading', where you are assuming that someone is making a critical judgment about you, without having that specific direct feedback.

These seemingly automatic thoughts are a kind of learned behaviours. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that the actions proposed in the article center around identifying and influencing those behaviours. One of the most important things to do, is to distinguish between thoughts and feelings. When you took something personally, how did you feel? Feelings can often be summarised in one word, thoughts take far more words to describe. Take time to write them down and analyse. Why do you feel that way at that moment?

The article describes several ways of doing this. After some practice, you become more selective about the self-critical thoughts. Again, being self-critical is not bad, too much of it, is. The article reminded me of a lot of good advices gathered over the years; practice meditation, journalling, but most of all: take time to reflect on what you feel and why you feel a certain way.

"Remember that feelings are not debatable – you just feel how you feel, even when you wish you didn’t. Your thoughts, on the other hand, can be challenged, revised or replaced with more realistic and useful ones."

I see a lot of things to improve and practices to rejuvenate (journalling!), but perhaps I'm taking things too personally...

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Have a great week!

Quinten & Alphons