One of the store clerks approached me as I scoured the racks of socks.
"Are you looking for something specifically?" she asked.
Explaining my -quite specific- search for thicker children's sports socks in a dark color, she immediately started shaking her head, while explaining the options that were available.
"Maybe you can try at the little sports clothing store down the road" she added.
Posing the same question down the road yielded the exact same answer. No thick sports socks for kids.
"Why are you looking for the thicker sort anyway?" asked the store's owner immediately.
Explaining my conundrum of being unable to find sneakers to perfectly fit my son's narrow feet, I told him how I thought some thicker socks might do the trick.
"Have you thought about inlays like these?" he asked, as he put down a pair in a sweeping motion from behind the counter.
Happy customer, closed sale. All because of a profound curiosity about the problem behind the question.
When talking to ChatGPT, I tend to greet it and thank it for its responses. I don't know why I started this, but when one of my clients asked me about this behaviour, I started reflecting on it.
Obviously, the machine has no feelings, so why bother? When instructing a computer in programming terms, anything resembling social etiquette is left out, as it apparently yields no results.
A quick detour made me revisit my relationship with stuffed animals in my youth. Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities) is a well-known human behaviour. Like myself, my kids make sure their fluffy friends are well looked after, tucking them in (or leaving them sitting in a chair with the Nintendo Switch in front of them...) when they leave the house. I even catch myself gently placing them in their beds if they linger around the house; throwing them on their beds feels strangely unnatural 😆
For now, I think the main effect of courtesy towards my Large Language Model (LLM) is in myself. If I talk to it as if it were a human being, it affects my mindset. I tend to phrase questions differently, mixing the functional with the emotional, aiding in my problem solving journey. My mind is also primed for optimism and feedback in this way, which makes me ask more follow-up questions and follow-through better. Lastly, I think this behaviour fits the habits I want to embody; being polite, optimistic and grateful in every interaction I have.
I can't testify to the quality improvements of the outcomes, but overall, I am a fan of the value these conversations bring. An unexpected real outcome emerged the other day, when I was in a conversation with ChatGPT to build the foundation for my new website messaging. I asked ChatGPT about psychological mechanisms behind daily pitfalls and challenges for entrepreneurs, based on my coaching experience. Afterwards, I thanked it for its responses, to which it answered:
"You're very welcome! I'm glad you found the insights and suggestions helpful. Best of luck as you refine your marketing approach and reach out to potential clients. If you bring the depth of understanding and caring that you've shown in asking these questions, I have no doubt you'll be highly successful in inspiring entrepreneurs to work with you."
If compliments feel good because of what they cause, of what they stir up in you, of reinforcing what you aspire you to be, then this machine was doing a good job.
Just when you think you've complete understanding of how something works, you get new information that shows that in actual fact... it's slightly more complicated. Recognisable? It can always get more complicated, which honestly speaking is exactly what yours truly thinks makes life so interesting and fun 😎.
A couple of weeks ago, we spoke about the different modes of thinking triggered by either listening to or reading information. If we focus on the latter, it turns out it actually matters how you're reading. Are you reading digitally or traditional analog style, i.e. a physical piece of paper?
Discussing the topic last week, my co-author pointed me towards an article in Dutch newspaper 'De Volkskrant'. It covers that schools in Sweden that were on the forefront of digitalising education, are now making a move back to physical books. Reason: average literacy and levels of understanding what you read have dropped since introducing laptops, notebooks and other digital tools to the classroom.
This trend is backed up by a Unesco research report referenced in the article that concluded that [translated from Dutch]:
"...digital methods can never replace human contact, teaching, explanation and help by teachers. Tablets, smartphones and laptops do not always contribute to the ‘wellbeing’ of students."
There is much more proof that reading from paper leads to better understanding of the text, especially longer pieces of text, compared to reading it from screen. Still, technology should be present in modern schools and is very useful. The trick (again): finding the right balance, and especially finding the right application for applying each technology, whether modern or old-fashioned. If you're able to teach students how to make those decisions, I will not be worried about their ability to further their understanding of our complex world.
One of my favourite problems is called 'race to the bottom'. Many entrepreneurs find themselves in a situation, unable to find the time & resources to get out of a long and winding downward spiral, caused by competition pressuring their offering prices, often combined with an inability to attract the right people. Like the proverbial frog being boiled slowly, this process can take many years and wreak havoc long before the diagnose is clear.
When I rode down a Dutch highway a few months back, I was confronted with an ultimate illustration of this phenomenon:
Being cheaper and faster is a race with very few winners. Listening to a Tim Ferriss interview with Seth Godin the other day, Seth explained the conundrum:
"...if you’re trying to out-Amazon Amazon, you’ve got trouble. Even Walmart can’t out-Amazon Amazon. That’s not a race you can or want to win."
He then switched gears to his view on an exciting and optimistic route forward:
"So what we see is if someone is going to build a bakery, or a wedding services business, or a physical therapy facility, they can win by racing to the top. By saying, there are people here who do work you cannot find anywhere else. But do not expect that you’re also going to get that work faster and cheaper than you can get at other places, because you can’t have everything."
Finding the 'human elements' in the problem you are solving for people, can hold the key to sustainable growth. Accidentally, this also solves the lack of meaning that a lot of people so dearly miss in their vocation.
Ask yourself: what problem am I solving in what I do? And what human elements might I be overlooking?
Having had a couple of odd (sometimes, simply bad) experiences with providing feedback to recent graduates, I set myself to the task of analysing how this could have happened. I'm pretty sure everyone wants to learn and feedback plays a key, yet often uncomfortable (on the receiving end) role. The way I've learned to provide positive and negative feedback (and have received it from the older generation) seems not very effective anymore.
Even with 'the gloves on', I noticed that any negative feedback became a great source of concern and insecurity for the persons I was talking to. They started doubting whether they were good enough for the job or whether they were in the right place at all. When you consistently receive negative feedback, I can understand that these thoughts may start to cross your mind. But after one session?
Discussing the issue with friends and family, some themes started to emerge. First of all, the content of the message was not the issue. The feedback itself had its merits. Secondly, the recipients seemed to be caught off-guard and not knowing what to do with the situation. As if this was the first time they encountered a somewhat difficult one-to-one. This triggered some further thinking.
Could the way we interact personally with each other be so different between the generations that it actually triggers all kinds of unintended side-effects? Current graduates use far more tools such as social media and direct-messaging apps that do not require real-life personal interactions; seeing a facial expression combined with the words makes the message completely different than just read from a computer screen (or listened to 😉). I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, I just observe that this may make life quite challenging. After all, older people tend to be the teachers of the younger ones.
Still, I feel there is room for some rebalance. The finesses of personal interaction play a vital role in our society and need to be practised. How often does a child actually go to somebody to ask a question, let alone make a simple phone call (still not the facial expression, but at least some tone to the words)? Practice makes perfect, but if you do not get to practice that often anymore, what happens?
I also believe this topic is connected to our earlier observation about the lack of focus on resilience - our capacity to recover swiftly from adversity (see the obvious link?).
Processing all this, I keep on coming back to the conclusion that more personal interaction is the solution. What would this interaction in today's world look like? Is it through social media after all and do I need to finally make that jump (I'm extremely reluctant to do that) or can we find alternatives? We need the intimacy, one way or the other. Or both.
Last week, during our "editorial meeting", we discussed the phenomenon of reflection. On a cognitive level, most people agree that the habit can do a lot of good. Taking a birds eye view, reviewing what went well, finding possible improvements. Both of us often use milestones such as birthdays, holidays or the start of the new year as an incentive to sit and reflect, often together with our partners. It can help put things in perspective, make big decisions, put into words what's been lurking under the surface, or just plainly feel good about accomplishments and decisions in the past.
The conversation took an interesting turn when we analysed how extensive reflection might not always have been part of our lives, and that it was not part of life for some people we know. This begged the question: "What makes us want to reflect anyway? And why would you shy away from it?"
Our working assumption here is linked to contentment and power. If taking inventory is bound to yield depressing observations, why do it in the first place, right? Being the pleasure seekers we are, our intuition will keep us far away from a mirror that might show us a confronting image. Secondly, our level of learned-helplessness might prevent us from seeking out a conclusion we feel powerless of changing.
Since we are not frequently visited by the ghosts of Christmas, showing us imagery against our will, having a tradition in reflection might be our best bet, preferably with an accountability-buddy. When you're skipping on a tradition, you are at least conscious of the decision.
The intriguing insight we highlighted before that our thinking is influenced by which mode of communication we use, triggered me to learn more. Last year we quoted:
"Consequently, we propose that people think more intuitively in the spoken modality and more analytically in the written modality."
But what happens if it is the other way around. In other words, does it matter to what you think when you're on the receiving end of different modes of information? Apparently it does and much in the same way as when you're the transmitter of information.
In the article 'Do you think more clearly when reading or when listening', evidence is presented that generally speaking different brain circuits are in action depending on whether you listen to or read information. Listening tends to invoke intuitive thinking, relying on gut feelings and instincts that come (and go) without much effort. Reading information tends to trigger analytic thinking, taking time to evaluate all arguments and evidence before reaching a conclusion.
One explanation for this behaviour lies in the process how we have learned to speak and read. Generally, we learn to speak a language by listening carefully and responding in a spontaneous, trial-and-error kind of way. A very intuitive way. Learning to read is much more organised, according to a set of rules and a lot of practice. Hence, different mental processes are in play when learning to speak compared to learning to read.
"Because of their experience with learning and practising reading while growing up, people may become conditioned to thinking relatively analytically when they read and get accustomed to putting in a bit more mental effort, compared with when they listen."
I believe these insights could have significant implications. You could for instance force yourself to both listen to and read information about a topic you need to take an important decision about. Partly, we naturally tend to do this already. Being social animals and facing big decisions, we often query our friends and family and listen to their experiences and advice. Internally, we try to combine those inputs (which you would have digested intuitively, mostly) with spending hours surfing the internet, reading magazines, books and other literature.
Is the combination of the analytical and intuitive thought processes the holy grail? Or, does this depend on the subject matter? What does this tell us about the advice to listen to our gut feeling?
The trick will be figuring out when to use which modality and in what balance. That might be the ultimate trait. I'd say, back again to your intuition and gauge what feels right, when 😉!
In the 'I have so much more to learn'-department, a tweet by Tim Urban (waitbutwhy) confronted me with something I am admittedly terrible at:
"Relationship tip: when your partner makes an awful but innocent mistake (leaves their phone in the cab, forgets their passport when heading to the airport for an international flight, drops and shatters a beloved item, gets in a fender bender, etc.), don't get mad at them. It makes no sense (it was accidental) and it accomplishes nothing except supplementing an already bad situation with an unnecessary fight."
As a self-labelled 'risk assessor', I'm usually the person to move glasses away from the table edge, warn kids about pointy thingies in their play-space and instruct them on how to best load a knife with jelly to minimize the chances of an early-morning-wardrobe-change.
This unfortunately means that the line between 'accidental' and 'preventable' is a bit blurry in my book. Accepting that my family's wiring might be different, does not come easy one me. Tim makes the case for swallowing your initial reaction:
"This turns those moments from relationship-damaging to relationship-building. And of course, what goes around comes around—you do dumb things too, and you'd much rather your partner be a laughing teammate than an angry parent in those situations."
The reframing Tim does, did shine a new light on my behaviour and its consequences. I'll try to be better.
Thank you very much for all your reactions to our last newsletter. Paradoxes definitely did its job in resonating with our crowd and triggering responses. In searching for answers to 'Why would you position yourself as, well, basically not yourself?', we mostly focused on behaviourial aspects.
This subject clearly warrants additional words to be spent. We noted there could be many more reasons and you supplied us with your thoughts on this as well. One of the most mentioned reasons essentially entails:
"The more you know, the more you realise what you don't know."
It's a well-known statement made by scientists but it is true for having years of experience or "grey hairs" as well. You start to realise that the unknown world is bigger than you can comprehend; you learn to accept it and deal with it. This makes uncertainty part of your toolkit.
Looking at the flip-side, we observe that persons who have not (yet) gained extensive knowledge or experience tend to look for 'extreme' certainty in details to grasp the bigger picture. If you're not able to oversee or comprehend the total picture, the preferred strategy is to focus on a particular detail, understand it and hold on to it dearly (and thus defend it with strong words, spoken with certainty). It gives a 'false' sense of belief, but probably preferable above having nothing to hold on to.
Thus, education, experiences and experimentation play a crucial role in creating humble persons. Persons that understand that their surroundings are too complex to control and influence, but being in it and playing your own role ís your greatest contribution to it and will do its grand work.
Not just looking at the functional aspects of products and services, but looking at the emotional (how does it make me feel?) and social (how does it make me look?) factors as well, has got to be my favourite business tool to date. As more and more research proves how much of our decision-making is guided by our subconscious, looking beyond the functional aspects is a key skill to finding and growing your customer base. Beware, this goes way beyond the marketing and sales trickery of adding the right atmosphere and association, like for instance Coca Cola has been doing successfully for decades on end. No, this is all about baking these elements right into the entire customer experience.
A compelling example is the rise in vinyl record sales that has been going on for the past 10+ years. If you look at the functional aspects of playing music, vinyl records lose to streaming services by a mile. They scratch, are hard to take with you, hold typically only 22 minutes of music per side and never auto-play to a next song when done. Spotify holds almost all music you can imagine, mix-tapes (playlists) are created with one click, you can take them anywhere on your phone and sound quality is generally quite good. Easy choice, right?
The other day, friends explained how they got back into vinyl records, growing their collection, loving the intentionality of taking out a record and making the time to play it. Like a Japanese Tea ceremony, it's not about being thirsty. It's a ritual, a habit that you tie into taking time for yourself and appreciating art.
I once had a wonderful conversation with a dear friend on another role of book- and record collections. If you're old enough, you will remember how peeking at someones record collection or book shelves made you instantly aware of the owners interests and tastes. A joint interest for an artist, a specific record or a book, immediately sparked conversation, an easy gateway into getting to know one another.
To be honest, I largely ignored these non-functional aspects of owning, playing and exposing your music. I jumped on the digital and streaming bandwagon as soon as it gained real world usability. But now that I'm fully converted for almost two decades, I can appreciate the appeal. A mix of "you don't know what you got 'till it's gone" and basic economic theory (the law of diminishing returns, scarcity increasing the value of some non-functional aspects) is probably a driving force behind the re-discovery that is going on.
Spotting 'Spotify walls' on Pinterest is another clue of the gap that is clearly there. A quick search immediately finds tons of products that tie the digital realm to the physical. I love how a flurry of entrepreneural minds spotted the non-functional needs beyond the nostalgia and started building stuff. Every know and then, progress is taking a step back.
Feedback is omnipresent. As a euphemism for criticism or a heartfelt compliment, more often than not as an outlet for the one providing the feedback. When used well, it can be a source for growth, as it provides outside perspective. Like running into a wall, a type of feedback in itself, the outside view can help you get your coordinates, a different perspective and momentum to correct course. The positive kind of feedback can help you keep momentum, and progress in the direction you are already moving in.
Early in my career, I was in a work environment where positive feedback was scarce. Negative performances were readily pointed out, but I think I did not receive a pat on my shoulder for a few years. I once pointed this out to my manager, but he explained how most people were already quite pleased with themselves, so positive feedback was not that useful according to him. Looking back, a Calvinistic mindset was clearly part of the company's culture.
The effects of this culture creeped up on me, like a frog in water being boiled. Only after switching jobs did I realise what happened. Becoming part of a team that complimented each other and celebrated successes felt like coming up for a breath of fresh air. My self-confidence and performance got boosted like it had not been in years. After observing this, I also noticed how I was able to keep this confidence for quite some weeks and months without additional reinforcement.
Knowing you're doing a good job, self confidence, can be a tricky system to master. You can sustain it for quite some time, but it needs outside energy as well. If you are in a position to give a compliment, go for it. You never know what it can mean for the receiver.
While in a coaching session with a client, we discussed and observed behaviours of his team. After several attempts to deduct analytically what his ideal approach should be to each of them, we switched the engineering brain off. We observed the following paradox:
"People who are not certain about something, bring their knowledge with a great sense of certainty; people who know something for certain bring the message with uncertainty, i.e. caveats, perhaps..., maybe..."
Immediately switching the engineering brain back on, we applied this lemma to various people and our theory seemed to hold (observe the uncertainty in this sentence 😉). There may be an inverse proportional relationship between level of certainty with which persons present their case and how (un)certain that person is.
After the session, my brain could not let go of the issue. Why would you position yourself as, well, basically not yourself? Why make yourself bigger or smaller than you really are?
Could this be a defense mechanism? Is it a result of the competitive nature of our society? Are we compensating for characteristics that we do not possess? Might there be a difference between sexes? In other words, are there intrinsic biological elements in play? Or, are we just actively mean reverting in order to not fall out of the 'safety' of the crowd?
It's probably 'all of the above' (and a little more). We are social animals and prone to the pressures of socially accepted behaviour. We're trying to figure the norms and values of our counterparts and adjust our behaviour accordingly. Your behaviour thus often depends on the situation you're in. Only those persons who we tend to call 'authentic' seem to largely ignore the surroundings.
I find it interesting to observe how many of our internal processes are geared towards complying with the norm. At the same time, we also know that staying close to your own norms and values, being you, pursuing what you want and not what the group wants, seems to make you happier than if you comply to another's rule set. Moreover, as we noted before: "uncertainty often precedes stages of growth and development".
Paradoxes. Life seems to be full of them. Solving them, or rather, dealing with them seems to be the ultimate task in life. Which side of the coin do you choose? Or, will you deal with the uncertainty and choose in the moment, as you see fit?
The great thing about gathering your thoughts, writing about it and sharing it with the outside world, is that you're forced to deeply think about it. Moreover, the thinking doesn't stop once published. The thinking is nestled in a warm place somewhere in your brain to pop up every so often, like a new-born asking for attention when needed. At least, that's how it works for me.
Something triggered me to rethink my earlier piece on opinions and trying to be opinion-less. Thinking through the issue once more, I came to a different conclusion. Could it be that it is simply impossible to be without opinions? Like a Buddhist monk trying to be without a thought for some time, you may be able to train yourself to become opinionless over many, many years, but at what cost?
You may try to keep opinions for yourself and oblige yourself to look at issues from multiple angles, creating multiple opinions; the one somewhat stronger than the other. There was a hint to this deliberation already in the earlier article:
"Rather, focus your energy on the (small) things you can influence or being a neutral judge. Every little wind of change has the potential to grow into a hurricane."
Keywords are 'neutral judge'. You'll notice you're judging already most of the time when observing, analysing and thinking. You seem to be hardwired to do so; from a biological perspective, this judgment allows you to react fast. When a predator is coming your way, there is no use in looking at it from different angles, you should just run or hide.
When you have the opportunity to take some time, my suggestion would be to use it. Use it to take a breath and ask clarifying questions. Try to avoid reaching conclusions. To have an opinion voiced to the outside world means you've reached a conclusion. Rather than becoming opinion-less, it's probably more about being 'conclusion-less'.
Even though you can wait for that baby to start crying, there are ways to actively revisit your convictions. After meetings or events, take some downtime and ask yourself questions. Like:
"Ok, during that conversation I really tried to make that point, but my counterpart just didn't buy it. I still believe that norm/value is important for me, but how do I actually implement it or deal with it? Is it still that important to me?"
Asking yourself such questions will trigger more nuanced, more colourful pictures of the world surrounding you. As is often the case with nuances, their impact may be big. It requires some energy and discipline to get this functioning consistently. My personal experience is that it's worth the effort as social interactions become much smoother whilst not taking away the discomfort that allows for growth and development.
Did I just reinvent Stoïcism?
Asking the right question has always been the key to finding a solution:
"If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution." - NOT Albert Einstein
Even though this quote is actually not Einstein's, the fact that it got attributed so many times allures to the power of the method. Sharpening your problem statement, making sure you are raising the right question, increases the odds of finding a truly useful answer.
This knowledge resurfaced while I listened to a podcast on generative AI, featuring Harvard Business School professor Andy Wu. He spent some thoughts on the dawn of the 'Prompt Engineer' profession, apparently one of the fastest growing titles on LinkedIn. In a surprising turn of the conversation, he likened the Prompt Engineer to Middle Managers in business:
"...people who specialize in interacting with the AI, what are they doing? They’re asking good questions. They’re giving detailed instructions. What does a middle manager do? They’re a prompter of humans. And so in that sense, the skillset of a middle manager, I think, is actually more and more important."
This wonderfully aligns with one of my favourite views on AI, as a team member instead of a silicon overlord. If I wanted to take a shot at the human skills that will remain after the AI dust has settled, asking the right questions would definitely be one of them.
The beauty and value of -artificial- milestones! We create them on a daily basis and they act as a carrot to chase. They also present opportunities to reflect, evaluate and adjust.
We've reached our 100th newsletter. 2,5 years of (mostly) weekly essays, ponderings, discussions and wonderings. More than 100,000 words and hundreds of hours of work. Last couple of weeks, we've been debating whether and how to continue.
Yes, we get positive feedback and we know that a lot of our readers enjoy the weekly, fixed break on the Wednesday, reading our thoughts while enjoying a cup of tea or coffee. However, we do feel we've reached a certain, perhaps local, maximum. The topics we discuss, the learnings we get out of the research we do, the writing experience; we sometimes experience repetitiveness and diminishing returns.
This is not necessarily bad and could serve a purpose. It's a reason to reflect and perhaps adjust the course, while the overall goal may remain the same. At the outset of this endeavour, we formulated some clear goals as stated in our 50th newsletter:
"We wanted to be creative, practice our writing skills and get something 'out there'. Share whatever resonates with ourselves, because we think this may be useful for others as well."
The evaluation of our creation to that point is still true today:
"Still, while discussing and evaluating reaching our 50th newsletter, we concluded we are very happy with where we are. It is an unique feeling to share your creation with the outside world for anyone to see and admire. Thus far, it has brought us joy, wisdom and some sense of purpose. We have deepened our relationship in a -for ourselves- very meaningful way. We are successful according to our own standards."
In that sense, should we really change this seemingly successful formula? What'll be our next milestone?
Let's see what the other half has to say.
This short article might save you energy. Energy you put into trying to figure out whether someone is telling you the truth. I, at least, find myself often wondering and therefore spending quite a bit of 'braintime' and focus on whether what I'm hearing is really true and how it is presented to me. This is, most of the time, due to the fact that I feel an intrinsic need to fit what I'm hearing into a certain logic (my logic 😉).
Everyone will be familiar with certain tricks and wisdoms to detect lies. Facial expressions, physical behaviour, nervousness, sweating, not looking your opponent in the eye, you named it. Many youtube tutorials and professional consultancies will teach you new tricks. The "truth", so it seems, is that none of these tips and tricks will make you a better lie-detector than anyone else.
"... despite the fact that cultures throughout history have had quite firm ideas about how an untruthful person behaves, the science suggests people are generally poor at detecting lies."
This is one of the conclusions of two professors from the University of Oslo in Norway, who went through more than a century of research on humans' ability to detect lies. Some more (good or bad, up to you) news from their paper:
"On average, people are not able to tell lies from truths based on how others talk or behave."
"Overall, liars don’t appear nervous, and they don’t avoid eye contact, any more than those telling the truth."
Also, the suggestion that we may pick up lies unconsciously, which influences our gut feeling, seems not to be supported by hard evidence. This all seems to suggest that I could save myself all the trouble I go through to figure out a/the/my truth. That doesn't feel right either.
Luckily, professors Tim Brennen and Svein Magnussen don't just leave us with this somewhat dire conclusions and the feeling that we human beings are nothing to show for when it comes to uncover the truth. They have some pretty practical advice:
"Well, there is one reliable procedure based on common sense, and that is to simply find out what the supposed liar says that does not fit with other stuff that you know."
Aha! "My logic" comes into good use after all! The procedure they suggest is already often applied by the police and investigators researching criminal incidents. Not communicating the already collected evidence, the police will ask the suspect to give as complete an account of the incident as they can together with how they were involved (or not). This way, you increase chances that the suspects reveal certain 'facts' for which you have evidence to the contrary.
Again, so much information is revealed by not communicating at all.
As the world of AI is evolving on a daily basis, an interesting landscape unfolds. On the one hand, we see people running with the tools in the most obvious direction, using it as a production facility for -often mediocre- prose, images and code. On the other hand, we can see people starting to discover the slightly more hidden value (as we explored here and here).
A wonderful use case was shared by Nat Eliason this week, who experimented with the use of ChatGPT as a writing coach. He draws a fascinating parallel to the way Benjamin Franklin used 'Spectator magazine' as a tool to improve his own writing:
"I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
Nat then takes us by the hand by showing exactly how he uses ChatGPT to enrich and grow in his own writing. Like having great examples (art often starts by emulating what you like!), a thesaurus or a list of synonyms by your side, ChatGPT can be a tool. The story of how we master this tool is just beginning.
During a recent discussion with friends, we came to an (obvious) insight about how people make decisions. There is a difference in how people approach them. You may think 'duh' and I'd agree with that response. The real value though, was in jointly arriving at that conclusion and subsequently analysing the why and how. It provided some more insights in what makes different people tick.
One of our observations was that whether someone is able to take decisions is closely connected to how they deal with commitments. Some take the route of "once a decision is taken, that is the route forwards"; others allow the route to be changed over time and therefore allow commitments to change. For instance, when you make an appointment to meet someone, do you really 'own' the appointment and therefore feel the need to make the effort to ensure the meeting takes place.
Cultural differences and language also play a role in how decisions are made. Most obvious example of the latter, is the use of the 'not-so-clear-yes', like "humhum" or "yesyes", actually meaning "no!" in various dialects of the Dutch language.
Being aware of the fact that people view decisions and commitments in different lights, makes it easier to deal with possible disappointments. You'll readily discover that there a billions of different scenarios and explanations why someone did not show up or chose to leave a seemingly perfect job.
Nobody said life is easy! But it's certainly fun (jointly) observing and researching it.
Last week, I had my own live experience of 'affect labelling' while writing and discussing the piece on 'Leadership'. As I write in the piece itself, I was quite emotional about the subject. However, after putting it in the newsletter and having discussed it with my co-author, I already felt much better. The sharp edges were removed.
That same day, I started reflecting some more and noticed that I hadn't been taking care of my mental health as much lately. For example, I had not taken the time to meditate. Not that I was totally off the road, but part of the feeling of worry may certainly have been due to a lack of taking stock.
Going through some of our writings on reflection, I came across this quote of Daniel Ek:
"Be kind; everyone is on their own journey."
I had to be remembered of that, but also felt immediately relieved and somewhat re-energized. Next to a clear sense of purpose, there were some obvious, immediate actions I could undertake to move forwards (again).
In the small town I live in, it is (still) customary to greet each other in the street. Stranger or not, you simply say 'hello' or 'good day' to everyone you pass. It's a custom I was raised with as a child, but find it less common in city environments. Still, once we're in another country during the Summer, the habit seems to be international.
Greeting others and asking how they are doing is not only polite, there is an important social function as well. It's the start of a conversation. And that conversation can be very important. An article by Christian Waugh, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, explains:
"It starts with answering the question ‘How do you feel?’ [...] research shows that the mere act of answering this question actually changes the emotions you are currently feeling."
Psychology terms the act of putting your feelings into words as ‘affect labelling'. The interesting thing is that studies have shown that once you put a label on a negative emotion (angry, disappointed, etc.), it actually decreases that negativity. In other words, affect labelling acts as a pretty powerful medicine.
The reason seems to be that triggering people to put feelings into words -preferably speaking them out loud, though writing them down has an effect as well-, forces them to think and self-reflect on what they actually feel. This, in turn, leads to your brain to automatically start thinking about countermeasures and actions to address that emotion, which has a dampening effect on that emotion.
Positive emotions seem not to be dampened by expressing them but rather somewhat amplified and sticking around for longer. The more specific words you use to describe your state of mind, the more effective it is. Researchers conclude:
"The importance of using affective labelling in an authentic way is consistent with other research showing that people tend to enjoy higher wellbeing when they feel like they are being authentic to themselves and not faking parts of their life."
We have been heavy on the AI progress reporting in the past weeks, but it seems like the pace of mindblowing new tool releases is only increasing. For me, the effect of the news coming out in the past few weeks and months can only be compared to the feeling I had when the Internet took off in the 90's. A mix of possibility, uncertainty, re-imagination of the known and some anxiety mixed in for good measure.
OpenAI, the company behind GPT-3, Codex and Dall·E 2 just released 'ChatGPT', a chat-based interaction with the GPT-3.5 model. Any search on Twitter and YouTube will leave you with impressive demonstrations of what the model can do.
Upon release, I immediately became intrigued how the model could be used to support all kind of creativity exercises used in Design Thinking workshops. The first experiment immediately blew my mind.
One particular exercise in re-imagining products and services is called 'Creative Remix'. It's all about mixing up existing ideas to generate (often outlandish) new mixes, that can then inspire innovation.
As a test, I asked ChatGPT "What if going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash?". It responded:
If going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash, the experience of dining at a restaurant would be more automated and streamlined. Customers would likely be given a menu and a choice of meal options, but the food would be prepared and served by machines or automated systems. The restaurant would be set up like a car wash, with customers moving through different stations for different aspects of their meal, such as ordering, eating, and paying. The restaurant might also offer additional services, such as drink refills or dessert, through automated systems or machines. Overall, the experience of going out for a meal at a restaurant would be more efficient and hands-off, with a greater emphasis on automation and convenience.
As a tool for generating a lot of remixed options to get a brainstorm started, this level of creative makes for a great diverging tool. I'm looking forward to explore augmented creativity more in the near future!
Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant recently published an article on how the public can be taught to deal with misinformation, popularly termed 'fake news'. The article is only accessible by paid subscription unfortunately. The content is based on research by the University of Cambridge that was reported on in 2021 and 2017, in the context of misinformation about Covid-19 and climate change, respectively.
The process proposed to build up 'resistance' to misinformation is ingenious in its simplicity: start with a warning ("you're being manipulated"), follow up by explaining the techniques used and present an example. In addition, after some time, you may be served with a booster (e.g. another example). The result is that you're better prepared in discerning misinformation from real information. This process is based on how vaccination works; your body get acquainted with the potential invaders en hence builds up defensive mechanisms.
The different articles describe what the ideal cocktail could look like. Misinformation can usually be recognised by one (or more) of the following communication techniques:
Misinformation is potentially a big problem as it is very personal and difficult to judge objectively. Most information that speaks to your mind and confirms built-in beliefs (and prejudices) tends to be very sticky. It's the confirmation bias doing its job. When that kind of information is repeatedly being served, it's no wonder that that becomes your truth. Having said that, as there is probably is no one overall truth, at least philosophically speaking, there is also no fake news...
A good way to start is to be wary of anyone claiming something to be either fake news or the truth. Figure out why that person or institution has a need to make such claims. Combining this analysis with your own 'prepared' mindset, gives you a well-rounded, own opinion.
More research is required, but I personally see this way of preparing the public for misinformation not necessarily as a vaccination campaign. I'd rather speak of educating us to go back to basics and be really critical of what we see, read and consume. Being able and comfortable to think for yourself is a critical factor in making our world less black-and-white, more colourful and in balance.
Last Monday marked the eve of the birthday of Sinterklaas, the Dutch ancestor of Santa Claus, who has its origins in modern day Turkey.
Part of the Dutch tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas is writing poems for each other, to accompany the gifts that are mixed in big jute bags to cover up its origins. The poems usually have some sort of feedback for the receiver, hidden amongst the humorous rhyming. In my family, when I was younger, we used to have great time using this form of poetic justice to make fun of our siblings' behaviour.
Reflecting on this cultural heritage, I realised how much I appreciate this phenomenon. It is a legitimate way to blow off some steam, and give feedback in a loving manner. Hiding behind the veil of Sinterklaas, while knowing the receiver will well know the origins of the poem, gives you exactly the kind of needed permission to strike the right note.
Think about the heritage you have in your organisation or family that allows for certain rituals to happen more easily. What catalysts are in place to make feedback, ideas and communication in general flow better. Cultural phenomena and traditions can be a critical part of its design.
When delivering a message of any kind, it pays to think of your medium. I usually refer to 'walk over if possible, call when possible, message or mail when needed' as a great working model. My main assumptions underlying this methodology are my understanding of the 'bandwidth of the medium' (adding non-verbal communication), (legal) clarity and the fact that psychological distance between sender and receiver can greatly impact the way the message is received.
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution highlighted research that might add even more considerations:
"It is widely assumed that thinking is independent of language modality because an argument is either logically valid or invalid regardless of whether we read or hear it. This is taken for granted in areas such as psychology, medicine, and the law."
The researchers demonstrate that thinking from spoken information leads to more intuitive performance compared with thinking from written information.
"Consequently, we propose that people think more intuitively in the spoken modality and more analytically in the written modality."
The effect was found to be robust across both the English and Chinese language and during five separate experiments (N=1,243). An interesting comment was made by one of Tyler's readers, who asked how Plato's written dialogues might be viewed in this light. Does a conversation formed in your head from reading have the same effect as listening to that conversation?
In the arena of humour something important is going on. US website 'The Onion' is a known platform for satirical postings on politics and things happening in the world. The usual format is a news article that, on the surface, looks very real but content-wise is a clear parody. It is exploiting the power of parody to the max. This becomes, however, sometimes a problem. Especially, when a part of the population doesn't understand your parody.
Recently, The Onion involved themselves in a legal case about an Ohio man who was arrested and later acquitted for creating a parody Facebook page that looked nearly identical to a local police department’s site. They filed a so-called amicus brief before the US Supreme Court, requesting the court to rule against this conviction as it is 'parody'. US law has something that is called the reasonable-person test that gauges whether a statement can reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. The Onion believes that a reasonable person would surely understand that this facebook page was not real.
The Amicus brief is in itself a parody and extremely funny to read. Some examples:
"The Onion’s journalists have garnered a sterling reputation for accurately forecasting future events. One such coup was The Onion’s scoop revealing that a former president kept nuclear secrets strewn around his beach home’s basement three years before it even happened."
"The Onion files this brief to protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality. As the globe’s premier parodists, The Onion’s writers also have a self-serving interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists. This brief is submitted in the interest of at least mitigating their future punishment."
The latter statement is funny, but does contain a message. The Onion is serious about their own future. Parody is their business model.
"Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it—and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity."
This also makes clear that an article or text is not always understood as it is meant. It lays bare that communication is more than just a written message. Experiencing the emotion or the body language of someone telling the story is often a necessary component. It's easier to spot parody with a stand-up comedian than from a bunch of words on paper.
Still, I come away, well, simply laughing out loud and having respect for this organisation, making these steps. Please judge for yourself. I hope this world will have (more) room for all kinds of humor, including parodists, and that we enjoy the fun whilst living in it.
One thought that came to mind while reading all of this is that parody could perhaps serve as the ultimate test whether someone is worth to be a public figure:
"The point of all this is not that it is funny when deluded figures of authority mistake satire for the actual news—even though that can be extremely funny. Rather, it’s that the parody allows these figures to puncture their own sense of self-importance by falling for what any reasonable person would recognize as an absurd escalation of their own views."
When you're looking for advice on what to do in a certain situation, you often find that it matters from whom you get the advice. This is very likely stating the obvious for many of our readers. But what if we take this to a more analytical level?
Bankers from Nomura did exactly this by constructing two equity portfolios, whose strategy is determined by using natural-language processing (Artificial Intelligence) of inputs from different sources. One portfolio's strategy is determined by the remarks of company management, e.g. during earnings calls. The other portfolio's strategy is determined by the questions that are asked by the analysts, e.g. during those same earnings calls.
The results were pretty striking:
Isabelle Lee from Bloomberg reported on this interesting insight in a piece called 'Heed Not Their Advice (or Listen Carefully)' published in John Auther's daily newsletter. On why the 'Analyst Sentiment' portfolio performed better, she quoted strategist Joseph Mezrich:
"We find that the distribution of analyst sentiment is symmetrical around the neutral point, whereas management sentiment is heavily skewed toward positive sentiment, suggesting positive spin. Moreover, it’s striking that companies with the worst analyst sentiment in earnings calls underperform the market in the days leading up to the call, and even more dramatically underperform following the call, and vice versa. This suggests a connection between analyst sentiment and price momentum around the earnings call."
Sentiment might well influence your choice of words and your type of questions. This is turn influences the contents of the advice given. It is therefore not only important to think about who to ask for advice, but also when and in what circumstances. Spreading your request over multiple persons and over time might then be your best bet.
Great minds think alike. I write this sentence as the last addition to this piece as I receive my co-writer's piece on 'Mastery' for this newsletter edition. Much like the subject of this year's Nobel Prize winners for Physics (particle entanglements), the independent thoughts we have, seem to be influenced by similar inputs.
Perhaps, it is because we ended one of our pieces last week with_ "A great way to master a topic."_ In any case, it triggered the thought on 'how to?'.
Pondering this question, I quickly noted that it is not easy to find a simple algorithm or way to become a 'master' (if you're able at all to settle on a useful definition of 'mastery' itself).
First of all, mastering something doesn't necessarily mean to be in all the details of the subject. It seems to be more about conceptual understanding and seeing the connections with other subjects. I arrived at this insight after reading the article 'How to become an expert' in an effort to find answers. Becoming an expert is much more a methodological, long process aimed at basically knowing everything there is to know about a certain subject.
"Being expert means you can achieve excellent results almost every time and in any situation [...]"
That isn't the same as mastering it, which seems to 'hover' somewhat about the matter. An important aspect of mastery is to also understand the needs of your audience. Knowing for example when it is useful to skip a couple of pages of your presentation or when it is really useful to go through a page line-by-line. Being able to do this, on the spot, really requires to 'oversee' the entire subject without necessarily laying all individual pieces of the puzzle.
It also requires to let go of the idea that you can prepare for every possible way a conversation or presentation can evolve. It requires self-confidence and concentration; allowing digressions, actively engaging in the conversations, and triggering responses to your remarks. Not being afraid to make mistakes.
That's hard work, but rewarding. Part of the work shifts from preparation (which you'll still need, of course!) to the actual conversation itself. I'm pretty sure we can all be masters of certain subjects. It all starts with believing it.
Bringing your key message to an audience is not an easy task. At school and university, we got taught to structure our reports in an almost chronological way. Starting with defining the problem and the way to solve it, and ending it with the results of that approach. The only exception to this order was the executive summary, which was placed all the way upfront.
When I started working, this whole world was instantly turned upside down. We were taught to start with the conclusion followed by all the arguments supporting that conclusion. Our presentations were ruled by the 'Pyramid principle', written by Barbara Minto. It made a lasting impression on me, supported by the fact that I experienced its effectiveness in meetings with business leaders that were juggling their overflowing diaries and multiple tasks.
Over the years, I started juggling myself. Using different storytelling techniques and more importantly, understanding the composition and background of your audience. Finally, I reached the insight that anytime you tell a story, you try to transform your audience. You want them to see things in a different way, change behaviour or simply add another task to their schedule.
The story you tell resonates when it's in harmony with its audience, when any dissonants have been retuned. It's therefore important to be able to tune your story to your audience, along the way and even during the meetings. This means that the most important task in storytelling is to be an absolute master of the subject and be flexible.
This is where the pyramid principle re-enters. It provides an extremely useful framework to structure problems, define concrete analyses and (hypothetical) solutions. A great way to master a topic.
It's very easy to get bogged down in depressing conversations these days as there are plenty of reasons for worry. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, voiced in the most recent Sustainable Development Goals report:
"As the world faces cascading and interlinked global crises and conflicts, the aspirations set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are in jeopardy."
Not something to get terribly excited about. It's a stark contrast to the tone in for example the 2019 report:
"The report demonstrates that progress is being made in some critical areas, and that some favorable trends are evident. Extreme poverty has declined considerably, the under-5 mortality rate fell by 49 per cent between 2000 and 2017, immunizations have saved millions of lives, and the vast majority of the world’s population now has access to electricity."
Tone of voice and the way the challenge is formulated (essentially carrot vs. stick) are very important. Honestly, I'm surprised by the formulations used by Guterres. In my experience, the general public moves faster in a certain direction when there is a clear vision and light at the end of tunnel. As mentioned in our 'Words' piece above, certain words work, others do not.
I may also be surprised because I tend to be (and want to be) more optimistic. Especially, in these (dark) times, there is not a lot of value in spreading negative energy. It may just extinguish more lights. I do not believe that the vast majority of people are currently in need of a reminder that change is required.
What can you do? I tend to fall back to trusting my own logic and gathering groups of people around me that bring me energy. It is important to make sure you have a strong foundation to build on. Furthermore, be aware and acknowledge the impact of mainstream media on your state of mind. Hence, schedule "inputs" that provide positive feelings and energy such as watching comedy and spending time with family. Deliberately plan to focus on positive things. In this context, I'd like to recall the power of literally changing your perspective every so often.
Having energy and a positive mindset is a much better breeding ground for new ideas. It provides a stronger base to deal with challenging tasks and negative news. I'm most certainly not a proponent of an ostrich strategy and continuing on a path without taking notice of what's happening in the world. However, I believe it is important to bring balance between negative and positive energy and applying the right tone of voice. Let's be realistic and also celebrate our successes, take time to learn from them and apply those learnings to the daily flow of new challenges.
Even though we may all like different types of music, we can each play our part in creating the right symphony.
Instinctively, we try to avoid putting ourselves in a vulnerable position. Yet, showing your weakness(es) can be an extremely powerful move and an important trait to master.
The value of vulnerability really dawned on me, when I read the article 'Why should anyone be led by you' in business school. Professors Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones write about four qualities common to exceptional leaders. Most importantly, they stress for you to show your weakness (selectively), create empathy and be authentic.
"To be a true leader, be yourself more with skill.”
This does, however, not seem part of our daily lives and routines. It is hardly valued in sports, politics, or at school. I have yet to come across a course or way that it is being taught to my kids.
I've personally experienced the value of showing your vulnerability. In essence, you're laying bare your limits and boundaries while asking for help or support. You're showing your authenticity. It invites others to show their strengths, uniqueness and boundaries as well. In my opinion, it is a perfect start for social cohesion and inclusion, important factors for a society to function well.
We may not be perfect; we're all truly unique. That provides the colour. I invite you to start painting and show it all to the world!
Personal development is hardly ever a straight line pointing upwards. Lessons, sometimes learned the hard way, fade out of view, only to be relearned or rediscovered at a later stage. One of those I rediscovered over the Holiday period is "Everybody has a story".
The most prominent supporter of this wisdom I encountered is Bill Clinton, who learned it from his great-parents and attributes much of his successes in politics to this general attitude. Another fervent advocate is Celeste Headlee who thinks it is the foundation of having a better conversation.
Being interested is someone else's story is a great antidote to a lot of our human tendencies to create the story ourselves. Based on people's looks, first actions, speech and general demeanour, we tend to create a story that fits our worldview. One of the elements in that story seems to be 'in or out'; can we trust this person or not, is he or she one of the 'good guys' or not. From an evolutionary standpoint, this first impression has value, which has diminished fast in recent centuries as violence has gotten more uncommon.
A lot of our cognitive dissonance springs from this story as well, as actions don't always fit the simple narrative we've created. Reality is often much more complex.
I think the trick here is to catch yourself creating stories, which admittedly takes time and practice. The rewards, however, are bountiful. Being interested is a great way to deepening relationships and discovering how much of the people you encounter have fascinating life stories. This, in turn, helps me be more optimistic about our world in general. As Celeste puts it: "be prepared to be amazed"
Supporting friends and family in conflict situations, I often find communication to be the main culprit. Especially, unintended misinterpretation, which subsequently escalates to Himalaya proportions.
To state the obvious: it matters which medium you use to convey a message. Certainly, when it concerns personal or confidential information, the choice of medium should get at least as much attention as the message itself. All too often, the easiest available medium (e-mail, Whatsapp, Twitter) is chosen without much consideration of the fact that the written word can be interpreted quite differently than the spoken one.
I do not blame anyone. We live in an era in which a lot of people seem to be wanting to play the role of the global journalist, providing tidbits as fast as possible to a broad audience. Often, this happens at the expense of not thoroughly checking sources, authenticity and uniqueness. There almost seems to be a certain hidden competitiveness. Most probably, people in need of attention.
Considering the challenging times we're in, I'd say we are in need of more personal, direct interaction. And here's the good news: it has never been so easy to do this, even when you're physically apart. Technologies such as videocalling come to the rescue.
This may not be new information to everyone, but I felt the need to remind myself. It is way too easy to communicate 'behind a screen' and forget about the importance of personal interaction, receiving and giving information through multiple transmitters (mouth, hands, body) and sensors (ears, eyes, smell). We are, after all, a medium, the medium!
In this newsletter, we often spotlight the downsides of economic growth. Environmental impact, inequality and human health are often at the other end of the scale where high economic growth is present. Nudged by one of my favourite economy writers, Tyler Cowen, I decided to explore the upsides and causes of economic growth by picking up a copy of 'How the World Became Rich' by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin. Their opening statement:
"Our focus on economic growth does not mean that we don’t value other aspects of human development. Leisure time, long life, good health, literacy, education, female empowerment, and rights and protections for the vulnerable are all central to having a happy and fair society. That said, we hope to convince you by the end of this book that all of these features are made possible by economic growth."
The writers try to combine the leading research into the factors behind economic growth as a sort of meta-study, exploring the main factors one chapter at a time. Since I'm saving this book for my summer holiday, I only read the first chapter as an appetizer, and I find it fascinating.
Exploring geographical features of the world's countries like temperature, coastline and ruggedness of terrain, they explain how connectivity impacts overall market size for producers, increasing the scope for specialization and division of labor, and therefore being a source of economic growth. They dive into Roman history, and the way its 80.000 km road network affected growth in Europe deep into the middle ages. Only when transport over water (being 20 times cheaper than transport over roads in those days) became the biggest driver for trade, did countries where superior waterways were present, prevail. Countries that invested heavily in water-infrastructure gained an advantage that lasted for centuries.
As the economy of the last few decades encounters new limitations in fragility of supply chains and we shift more towards a service-based economy, I wonder what type of geography we will look back on as the winner. Internet connectivity might be a good candidate.
It is a source of discomfort for me: people having (strong) opinions and trying to make you choose a side. I guess it makes people feel comfortable, because based on your opinion, one can classify and label you better. That makes things neat and organized. However, we have covered the drawbacks of labelling. Amongst others, it is rather asocial and a simplification of reality.
It takes courage to admit it, but it is not always necessary nor possible to have an opinion. Why, for instance, would you get involved in a discussion on a topic you're not familiar with? Once you pay attention, you'll notice how often this happens. In fact, I find it shocking.
The media plays an important role. Being opinionated attracts an audience, which is their source of income. At the same time, the opinions conveyed will start leading their own lives with the audience. When individuals forget to think for themselves, they can be easily influenced and become supporters of a certain media's view. Combined with media's often relatively short-term focus, there's the danger of losing ourselves in matters that have little value. To use the words of young philosopher Ferre Clabau:
"Let's live in reality, not in actuality."
Let's practice to be 'opinion-less' every so often. Certainly, when it is about a topic you're not familiar with or when it is outside your realm of influence. Rather, focus your energy on the (small) things you can influence or being a neutral judge. Every little wind of change has the potential to grow into a hurricane.
"Are you talking to yourself again?" A question that is often asked to people that seem to be staring at no one in particular but still moving their mouth. Actually, having debates with yourself is a very powerful tool that is worth training and nurturing.
In a recent article, Peter West, a teaching fellow in Early Modern Philosophy at Durham University (UK) shows how reasoning with ourselves can be beneficial to developing a relationship with oneself. Having an honest and mature relationship with oneself forms a solid foundation for any adventure in the world surrounding you.
Mr. West shows how many famous works of philosophy take the form of dialogues. It is as if the philosopher takes you into the conversations he (or she) is having with himself. Thinking through an issue often takes the form of a back-and-forth. 17th century's Margeret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, made these philosophic dialogues explicit as she was not allowed in her time -being a woman- to produce philosophical deliberations or critiques.
The key to start debating with yourself is the famous 'why'-question. Posing it at every possible argument, the resulting emotion or conclusion forces you to dig deeper and search your brain and soul for what you really think. You're essentially creating (endless) feedback loops, crucial to the development of ideas, creativity and innovation. Being able to make that development the goal, getting closer to the 'truth' and not necessarily proving yourself right, seems to be the ultimate aim, as the Duchess was quoted to say:
"I am as willing to have my opinions contradicted, as I do contradict others, for I love Reason so well, that whosoever can bring most rational and probable arguments, shall have my vote"
Besides developing the relationship with yourself, it is therefore important to keep interacting with others.
The current world events make me rethink and connect a lot of my convictions. So far, my view of the world around us has gotten more and more complex, as is often the case when you start diving into a subject.
Take propaganda. As the Russian government sanctions every dissenting view of their 'special military operation', journalists have left the country and alternative news sources have been shut off. These past weeks, unfiltered anti-Ukrainian messaging has increased on Russian state media, further cementing the support for the war.
In the West, we look at the information-bubble the Russian people live in with disbelief. Ukrainians sharing stories and photos with their Russian family, only to be dismissed by them with arguments like 'it must be Ukrainian Nazis that dressed up as Russians'. How can they ignore truth that is right in front of them?
Still, I can't help but see the similarities with our Western society. Just look at information and opinion being spread by news outlets like Fox News. Look at conspiracy theories like Qanon, that causes friends and families to split. Last year, a stunning 20% of Americans believed COVID vaccination was likely used to plant microchips in the population. All of these believers are living in a free country, and have unfettered access to every news source they choose to consume. Why are people then choosing to support a theory that is demonstrably false?
Researching the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, I bumped into an article by Sociologist Laurent Cordonier, who argues that these theories stem from a desire to find simple explanations in a complex world. Humans have tons of biases, one of them being our desire to have a reason or causality behind every event. We love simple models. Reality though, is infinitely more complex.
Cordonier also points out that not everyone is equally susceptible to conspiracy theories:
"Political conspiracy discourse is particularly susceptible to attracting individuals who feel socially cast out or threatened."
The underlying mental mechanisms at play don't just apply to conspiracy theories. We reach for simplicity and lose nuance when we feel we are not in control. Just watch the "rally 'round the flag" effect that not just Putin uses to gain support. Macron's recent victory also benefited from it.
All heads of state seem to use these mechanisms, but populist leaders remain the undefeated champions here. Their stories are often ostensibly false and lack nuance, but that's exactly the point. They don't talk to our prefrontal cortex or our 'better self', they resonate with ancient elements in us that long for simple solutions and a sense of control. Should you think that Trump supporters are crazy or dumb, consider applying these insights.
Everyone has likely been in situations where these mechanisms took over your behaviour, if even for a short time. Finding out about restructuring plans at your company, getting harsh feedback, you name it. Being able to accept them as part of our slowly evolving brain is likely the key to handling them and empathising with people responding to them.
The war in Ukraine reminds me of something often diminished; the importance of stories. Mr. Zelensky, having been an unlikely candidate for the presidency, is easily best equipped for a role as storyteller with his background in comedy and acting (although his legal education probably doesn't hurt either on this front).
Civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou once said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
With his vlogs he rallies the Ukrainian people, boosts morale, and makes people from around the world sympathize with his country. His speeches made several professional translators tear up.
This is what great stories are all about. They don't talk to the prefrontal cortex, but have a direct, almost visceral reaction. They affect the subconscious, the intuition, our gut. It's a deeper layer to the famous saying "Who controls the narrative, controls the truth". If we're emotionally on board with something, we rationalise the rest to fit in. Our most recent addition to the grey matter occupying our skull does not regulate, it merely spins the story.
This knowledge can help us bring about change, but it can also leave us puzzled or even frustrated. Ever wonder why some populist leaders go unpunished for ignoring facts? Why overwhelming scientific evidence does not drastically change our behaviour in light of climate change? If you want better results, tell better stories.
In last week's snippet 'Lotus' on the life of spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, we quoted him saying "When we are indifferent, nothing is enjoyable, interesting, or worth striving for." This sentence caused a discussion amongst ourselves.
I interpreted 'indifference' as 'not having an opinion about something'. While we both value highly to not have an opinion, this interpretation immediately led to confusion as 'indifference' is not the same as 'non-judgmental'. After some discussion, we found the culprit.
A simple example of how your own history and experience with words and connotations determine your communication. Irrespective of what the dictionary says, you have assigned a certain value and emotion to words. This influences your interactions with others. I've found that being aware of this is an important part of mastering a language, native or foreign, and, more importantly, the dialogue.
It is not an easy task, as it requires to be mindful that it is you yourself, who is assigning value to the words that you read or hear. It requires a great deal of energy weighing options, which explains why situations of miscommunication often happen when you're tired.
Perhaps naïvely, in communications I always start with the viewpoint that the other person has positive intentions. The effect of word choice does not always correlate with the other person's intention.
While in university in the 1990's, one of my professors showed me a chart that fascinated me. It emboldened my conviction of the beautiful potential of telecommunication, youthfully blinded from the side effects of any new technology that would follow later.
The chart showed the penetration of telephony on one hand, and the democratic freedom index on the other. Wether correlation really meant causation in that example is up for debate, but the chart showed a clear line leading the professor to explain how centralized power is harder to sustain in linked societies.
I immediately thought of this graph as I saw the situation in Ukraine unfold. Proof of war crimes are recorded by millions of smartphones, heroic deeds are filmed and spread like wildfire on social media, alternate views are shared directly to friends and family in Russia. Attacks on internet links are patched with drop-shipments from Elon Musk's Starlink service, adding resilience to connectivity. Only tomorrow will tell us what the decisive role of this hyper-connectivity in times of war will be, but serving propaganda via tightly controlled channels has become infinitely harder in just a couple of decades.
Easy communication can also serve another peace-inducing mechanism, as "unknown makes unloved". For me, being part of a few worldwide online communities that meet on Zoom, coaching people from around the world and (especially since Covid) seeing their living room and their kids saying hi, has made me feel more like a world citizen.
This might be nuclear threat talking, but I can't help dreaming a bit. What if we could foster this network building for everyone? One generation ago, having a 'pen pal' used to be in fashion. What if our kids could have modern-day pen-pals, so we weave our web of mutual understanding?
The Ukraine-saga continues. When we would just go by Western media, the first rockets could have been fired by Russia, while we send out this newsletter. Still, I feel very comfortable writing this snippet and preparing for a regular Wednesday.
When forming opinions and following others, it is important to understand the context. That requires work on your side. With so much information readily available to us, we may have gotten a bit lazy. Somebody else could already have figured it out. Add a little bit of confirmation bias to the mix and large groups of people will think alike.
Where to start understanding the context? International media covering all sides is usually a good start. Not always easy and reliable but at least it gives a sense of how people are 'educated' in the different parts of the world. Another source is finding out what the historical context is. Especially, in cases of territorial conflicts.
Regarding the Ukraine, I particularly liked Dan Snow's interview with A. D. Miller, a former Moscow correspondent for the Economist. Your view will become much more nuanced. While you're on it, please also check out his podcast on 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland (spoiler alert: the conflict is not about religion).
When are you done understanding the context? The easy answer is: probably never. Practicing what I call 'amphi-context', getting perspectives from different angles and multiple sources, may be a good start but can be time-consuming. To make it more practical, I believe it is a balance between analysing different sources and feeling comfortable with how 'grey' the situation is. Big issues hardly have a black-and-white pattern.
In an earlier piece I wrote about the results of projects. We tend to look at the tangible project results, be it a launched service or product. Ex-Apple Designer Jony Ive explains how 'what you have learned' is at least as tangible, while being much more valuable. The learnings are what defines your future. I concluded the piece with adding 'relationships' to the project results, as they are just as tangible for future endeavours.
I'm currently reading 'The Uncertainty Mindset', looking at 'innovation at the frontiers of food'. Vaugh Tan visited several high-end restaurants that are highly innovative in their cuisine and observed and interviewed staff on multiple occasions. Tan found one key innovative trait in the fact that the teams involved had fluid job descriptions:
"They simply ignored the conventional management wisdom of making job descriptions stable and clearly defined in advance. In fact, they went against this conventional wisdom by setting clear expectations that members’ roles would be continually tested and possibly changed."
Since all teams worked in highly iterative fashion, sharing their ideas and methods, offering their experiments for feedback on a daily basis, everybody knows what everybody else is good at and likes. This makes it extremely easy to cooperate on all the innovation challenges they constantly face. The relationships therefore don't just make for the glue that holds the team, it also makes the team highly efficient. How would this apply to the teams you're leading or part of?
As we continue to increase the written part of our daily communications (e-mail galore...), the amount of misunderstandings grows accordingly. When I was just starting out in corporate land, my mentor taught me to 'walk over or call when possible, write when necessary' which has been a motto I still try to live by. Stressful situations and busy days, however, got me caught up in nasty e-mail chains or misinterpreted text messages more than I would care to admit.
Evaluating your way of communicating every once in a while, creating a sort of metacognitive loop, seems like a good idea this day and age. If you're interested, Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan might provide you with tons of examples and solutions to add to your repertoire. She likes to say "we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space" and shares familiar flaws and ways to improve our communication.
A quick tip you might immediately add to the toolbox comes from cultural anthropologist Jitske Kramer. She is on a crusade to undo the childish reputation of emoji, professing the use up to boardroom level. Even CEO's should use them in their mail communication in her opinion. Adding emojis to your written lines can add texture, intention and prevent misunderstanding, leading to better communication. So why are we afraid to come across as frivolous when using them? What if the CEO promoted 'emoji use' as a tool for good?
The game of 'Go' holds the record of the board game being played the longest in human history. With more possible board layouts than atoms in the universe, it is also one of the most complex games in existence. For researchers into Artificial Intelligence, Go has been sort of a holy grail. Being able to make AI play Go on a competitive level seemed like a distant feat.
A few years back, a team from DeepMind (a Google company) was able to make significant progress in this field, stunning the world of Go players. A camera-team followed the effort, leading to the award-winning documentary 'AlphaGo - The Movie'. If you're interested in human intelligence or AI, I can wholeheartedly recommend the documentary; it makes you understand the developments and dilemmas like nothing I've ever seen before.
Playing the AI, a Go master described how it felt like seeing yourself in a mirror, learning much about himself and the game. The strategies the AI used made him aware and question his own playing, revealing human tendencies that are not necessarily beneficial for winning.
The documentary made me even more convinced AI will make a great tool and team member, as long as we keep the shadowy aspects in check, like any technology we've ever created as humans.
At some point, Lee Sedol (the Go master) glances at his opponent, only to look at the operator of the AI. Quickly realising this, he looks back at the board. This felt like the most revealing moment of the whole documentary to me, since something essential felt missing. Competition is great for growth and, above all, connection.
In our bathroom, there is a small note on the wall that reads:
"Think before you speak:
Is it ... True?
Is it ... Helpful?
Is it ... Inspiring?
Is it ... Necessary?
Is it ... Kind?"
There won't be a lot of people that will disagree with this. Still, I observe a lot of conversations and discussions could benefit from applying this simple technique more frequently.
However, the trick is how to actually apply it. In the heat of the moment, being confronted with a new situation, a surprise or something exciting, will often make you forget about these guidelines and instill a spontaneous reaction. Moreover, how does this reconcile with trusting and following your gut?
Taking a couple of seconds to actually think before you speak is a great starter. Next practice is to not think too long to leave ample room for your gut, intuition and creativity to keep its influence on your response. Think before you speak and if it takes too long, just keep quiet and capture another moment with your brilliant insight. Spontaneity is admirable as well. Let's not lose it.
Inspired by a glowing review Seth Godin wrote last week, I picked up a digital copy of 'The Wizard and the Prophet' by Charles C. Mann. The book is about two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, and their opposing views on our ecological future.
Since both views are compelling, Seth wrote he "switches camps every few minutes". Mann himself also explains how diving deep into their stories made him appreciate both of their diametrically opposed views:
"Thus I oscillate between the two stances. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don’t know."
The paradoxical nature of the viewpoints made me recall a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Exactly this is what I appreciate so much about the book already, just having read the first few chapters. A truly balanced view on this subject is rare, but it also feels like a path to a solution. When things seem paradoxical, there is generally a shift in perspective needed to solve the puzzle. Like a Zen Koan, an analytical approach doesn't cut it when the right lens is missing.
Binary questions are questions posed in such a way that you have to choose one out of two potential answers. It is either '0' or '1', 'yes' or 'no', 'good' or 'bad'. I find the questions challenging as they're often quite impossible to answer. Just answering a question with a straight 'yes' or 'no' often just yields a probing look asking for more, an explanation or an emotion.
There could be something much deeper underneath the surface of this simple question, as psychoanalyst Darren Haber explores in his article "Either/or Questions Are Part of Psychotherapy’s Language Games".
In some instances, getting a clear black-and-white answer is useful. For example, when trying to establish what has exactly happened, so you can clearly define the needed cure or next step. When something is on fire, you really would like to know whether there is oil in it before deciding throwing water on it or a towel.
Still, even in those cases, there is something behind it, something deeper. The actual facts always have a story. Persons asking the question might actually be looking for some sort of emotional recognition or valuation. To get behind the reasons for asking a yes-no question, it can therefore, as a first step, be useful to acknowledge that the question is fair or logical to ask. By doing so, you engage into a conversation and essentially 'buy time', getting a better understanding of the situation, and discovering whether you really need to give a final verdict.
"A person’s inherent worthiness is empathically confirmed dialogically through a lived relational exchange. Empathy is an organic concept, uniquely codetermined, different in every case."
When still unsure what to do, your counterpart will undoubtedly tell you what to do.
When I was part of a corporate project team a few years back, everybody used to bring their laptop to every meeting. People walked in the room, placed their laptop on the table and engaged in smalltalk while opening their screens. During these meetings, a lot of people were busy answering e-mails or preparing for the next meeting.
As a meeting owner, you needed to develop a skill to be able to grab people's attention in a kind way, at the right moments. Participants developed their own skills; being able to get work done, while also being able to answer questions in the meeting when needed, or having a 'backup tactic' ready to stall.
This all sounds silly, because it is. We now know multitasking is a myth and a great recipe for doing multiple things rather badly. Meetings take too long, no real progress is made, misalignment still exists.
Whenever I saw someone look at their phone or computer screen while in a meeting, my default presumption used to be that he or she was doing something else. In contrast, when we have our weekly 'newsletter call', both of us take copious notes for later use. Every once in a while, one of us will look away, type, and look at the camera again. A few weeks back we discussed how this behaviour had been there from the start, and never seemed to bother us, in spite of our 'priming'.
Our answer was: trust. Trust paints your vision of what's happening. Trust acts as a lubricant for all social interaction, and a lack of trust can act as sand in the machinery. If your machinery is not functioning properly, making an inventory of trust might be a great tactic.
Reaching another milestone in our Q&A project and building on recently gained wisdom on success, the natural question is whether we're satisfied with our weekly newsletter. Big question is: how do you measure this? More importantly, do we measure it at all?
At the outset of this endeavour, we had some well-defined goals. Not set in stone or written on the wall, but at least in our heads and shared in zoom calls. We wanted to be creative, practice our writing skills and get something 'out there'. Share whatever resonated with ourselves, because we think this may be useful for others as well. As you might have noticed, we did not set an ambition for number of readers or ability to create income with the newsletter. In fact, we did not quantify any of our goals, breaking one of the 'golden' rules in classic, 'smart' goal setting.
Still, while discussing and evaluating reaching our 50th newsletter, we concluded we are very happy with where we are. It is an unique feeling to share your creation with the outside world for anyone to see and admire. Thus far, it has brought us joy, wisdom and some sense of purpose. We have deepened our relationship in a -for ourselves- very meaningful way. We are successful according to our own standards.
All this doesn't mean we're not interested in feedback to our newsletter. Rather the opposite. Feedback allows us to improve our skills, experience how our thinking and writing triggers responses. It enables progress and creativity. Our website, for example, would not have been designed the way it is without getting multiple requests for a searchable archive.
We do however seem to always go back to our original ideas: to create, have fun, send positive messages.
If anything, we have shown (to ourselves) that we're able to pull something off while having fun. Perhaps this may also serve as inspiration to others who (secretly) have an ambition to create something new. Just start and be easy on yourself defining what success of the project needs to be. You can always raise the bar.
"After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we've just met for a minute [...]? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Boticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration - and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour."
A beautifully written piece of wisdom from the book "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles that triggered some thinking. To withhold an opinion is easily said, but rather difficult in practice. It takes great effort. It means work, investing time, reaching out and holding back, applying subtleness ánd judgement, cook and simmer.
'Reconsideration' really seems to be the key word. A great balancing act. However, this could mean you'll never reach a conclusion. Would that be beneficial in any way? Would a final conclusion really be much different from a first impression?
My personal experience sometimes leads me to really trust my intuitive, first impressions. Conducting job interviews, for example, I have experienced that my impression after the first couple of minutes is a pretty good (>90%) predictor of my final conclusion. Or is my first impression guiding me to the conclusion and do I conduct the remainder of the interview in 'confirmation bias'?
As I re-watched The Lion King with my kids last week, I couldn't help noticing what a timeless story it is. A classical case of the 'Hero's Journey' it holds all the elements that make for a cathargic ride. As we touched upon before, re-watching opens all kinds of new insights and enables you to appreciate structural gems you have not been able to see before.
This re-discovery was especially enjoyable for me, since it was the first time watching the movie since watching Jordan Peterson explain Carl Jung's archetypes using The Lion King as an example. While not a fan of all his thinking, I think this is a lecture that's well worth spending 54 minutes of your life on. He masterfully links the characters to Jung's theories in a way that sticks. I can imagine how his way of teaching earned him a status of being one of Canada's most beloved psychology professors.
The power of a great story always fascinates me; there is something about great stories that feels essential to our humanity. To this day, it's still the best way to convey a good idea (or to sell stuff, as good marketeers know). And a little understanding goes a long way in appreciation.
Some philosophical pondering was triggered by a business executive explaining one of his hard-learned lessons to me last week:
"Bad news needs to travel fast."
This seems quite obvious, as you generally want to intervene as fast as possible in a situation that goes astray. However, his parody to 'news travels fast', which generally has a positive connotation, was eluding to creating a culture in which honest evaluation and acting upon it is the norm. Being open to feedback and feeling comfortable adjusting your actions accordingly seems to be a successful combination.
It is therefore as much about an open culture as it is about how confidently you feel to place yourself in a potentially vulnerable position. His sentence was another way of saying "if you fail, fail fast". However, I wondered whether the element of time is really of the essence.
It took me six weeks to realise my hair experiment was not going anywhere, despite pretty honest feedback from my direct surroundings, consistently being fed to me right from the beginning. Sometimes, time is needed as a coping mechanism.
Which procedures and habits do you have to fail fast, adapt and move on? Perhaps, more philosophically: can we influence the speed of adaptation and evolution or is this a constant of nature?
Strangely enough, this was one of the most interesting phrases Marketing guru Seth Godin uttered while presenting a workshop on freelancing. He tried to explain why most people are having such a hard time understanding why other people think different, make other choices, can't see why your product is the absolute best idea in the world.
"But I'm also unreasonable, we all are."
He explained that it took him quite a while to understand how everyone hold his own sets of beliefs, and that everyone's behaviour is a fully logical consequence of his beliefs, state of mind and experiences. Everyone, absolutely everyone, acts completely in line with those. You're never acting against your own set of beliefs, and so is everybody else.
When you have a hard time understanding someone else's behaviour, that just means you don't see all the pieces of the puzzle.
This change of lens, to look at behaviour you do not understand, was a game-changer for me.
It's not a dogmatic 'you should try to be empathic'. It's an invitation.
Every time a puzzle presents itself, I have a choice. Thinking the puzzle is stupid, ranting the pieces don't fit and how it should be different. Or, alternatively, remembering that all the pieces in front of me (and some left in the box) are a full set, holding an image I don't see yet.
I still don't feel like making complex jigsaw puzzles all of the time; knowing the pieces always make a full set already makes for a comforting thought.
In a 20-minute Ted-talk, Chris Anderson uncovers amazing research on building (parts of) organisms. There is more to it than just DNA or some form of programme that is being executed. It appears there are checks and balances, corrective actions. For that to happen, communication is required. We would normally attribute this intelligence, but the reality is much simpler. Researcher Michael Levin explains:
"[...] cells certainly do communicate biochemically and via physical forces, but there's something else going on that's extremely interesting and it's basically called non-neural bioelectricity. So, it turns out that all cells --not just nerves, but all cells in your body-- communicate with each other using electrical signals."
Once you're able to pick up these signals and understand them, you can learn how cells communicate. This also allows for interfering with that communication and hence influence what cells will be doing. The video shows how this could work in practice using flatworms -known for their ability to quickly grow back missing parts. Using a form of electrical intervention, the pity subjects undergo a transformation to two-headed creatures. What is even more interesting, is that if you subsequently cut these two-headed flatworms in two, each one will grow into another two-headed flatworm. The new instructions are sticky.
Fascinating research but potentially dangerous as well. They already produced the first living 'robots' using these techniques, called Xenobots. The research has many great applications though, such as in treating traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases and fighting cancer. Basically, all instances where cells do not build what you want them to build.
Last week, special adviser to the Dutch Government, Mark Frequin, criticized journalists for focusing too much on 'how did this happen?' and 'who did this?' rather than exploring 'what happened'. Preparing for the first kind of questions means most people will often keep information back until absolutely certain its release will do no harm and generally take a defensive position. This does not present an ideal environment for a constructive and open-minded discussion.
It made me (again) realise how much the quality and enjoyment of our interactions are determined by how you start it. Framing the discussion and asking the right questions is key. When you're able to create an atmosphere in which you're jointly trying to solve a problem or explore new areas of interest, most participants will probably tell you this was time well spent.
Exploring the 'what happened' helps to create an open mindset and promotes creativity. It is about the intention with which you ask the questions. It also invokes a listening mode and shows interest in another opinion. It is the curious child inside you.
Further diminishing the lines between corporate leaders and public figures, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hosted comedy show Saturday Night Live last weekend. In typical Musk style he assisted in multiple sketches, celebrated being the first person with Asperger's to host the show (or, as he added, at least the first diagnosed...) and sold his mission for a transition to sustainable energy and becoming a multi-planetary species.
Musk is part of a growing group of CEOs being vocal about all kinds of (societal) issues. The Economist recently looked at the demands for 2020's CEOs and pointed out how hard it is to weigh in on public issues as a CEO without a trace of hypocrisy. Multiple leaders have been confronted with behaviour not matching their public statements.
In 2009 Seth Godin pitched the concept of island marketing, where -as if you're just operating on a single island- every customer interaction is valuable and reputation is key. One of the benefits of the current surge in transparency is it's forcing CEOs to realise that having a reputation does not just apply to their company, but also to themselves. It's then up to us customers to show what kind of behaviour we approve and disprove, as we hold the mightiest sword in our pockets; a wallet. We just have to wield it more.
"How often do we hold back and think small when we know deep down what we really want? What's the downside of being clear about it and saying what we want out loud?"
Great questions that Mark Dyck raises in one of his blogs. Mark is a fascinating character, whose blogs I encourage you to check out. In this particular one, he talks about a situation in which he and his wife encounter a homeless man. Rather than giving him money, they ask whether he's hungry. Without hesitation, the homeless man responds that he'd really like some ribs and a coke.
At first, they were taken aback, but after giving in and seeing how much he appreciated it, they could truly value what happened.
"He clearly didn't get much to eat, but when offered an opportunity, wasn't afraid to speak up. [...] If we say it, we might actually get it."
That does not mean, we can just ask everything we want and expect others to fulfill our wishes. It's about true intentions (do you really want/need it?) and the right dosing. On some occasions, there might be some trading involved as well; human beings (and animals alike) tend to like balancing acts between asking and giving. It all starts with speaking up.
The topic of inflation receives a lot of attention lately. Whilst I do not intend to solve this issue in a 5-minute-read newsletter, I do like to focus on one popular belief that does not seem to hold.
Especially, in Western societies that deal with an ageing population, the common belief is that a declining share of working people will lead to inflation as they supposedly have an improved bargaining position. In addition, elderly people spend more than they save, which is supportive of inflation. An often-cited book on this topic is 'The Great Demographic Reversal: Ageing Societies, Waning Inequality, and an Inflation Revival' by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan.
However, data from Japan may undermine this theory. Declines in the Japanese workforce have been matched by declines in pay:
Data from the US shows net investments relative to GDP keeps pace with labour force growth and has therefore been declining over the past 40 years. The basic point is that up till now ageing has been associated with lower inflation, contrary to popular belief:
Does this mean we're safe from inflation despite Central Banks creating money out of thin air like never before? To my mind, in a globalized world, it is paramount to take a much wider perspective. Just have a look at the young, fast-growing and spending populations like those from India and South-East Asia. The definition of inflation is a topic to research as well. Cliffhanger: the core CPI that is shown on the vertical axis in the graph may not be the inflation you and I are experiencing every day.
With the risk of being influenced by confirmation bias, I suggest listening to episode 25 of Simon Sinek's 'A bit of optimism' podcast. The title of this episode is 'a tension deficit' and it deals with the news, media, search engines and how to uncover the truth (about the truth).
It's a theme we've written about before and concluded that besides the fact that truth itself might only exist between interacting people, it is very hard to single out the truth and important to keep a critical mind. This podcast sheds an interesting new light.
Together with James Harding, former Director of BBC News and the founder of Tortoise, a new news service, Simon Sinek analyses the development of the news service in the past century. From being a source that you would (and perhaps: could) trust to something that provides you with an opinion, which you subsequently check against your own beliefs. Consumers of news have become more critical and demand more background and insight.
An interesting observation:
"... what makes a democracy work is that we have multi parties. We don't have oligarchy. We don't have one party who runs the show. It's the tension that's supposed to keep the society in balance."
The lack of balance, meaning sufficient opposing views, means it becomes harder to discern something akin to the truth. Tension is what people need, but with respect to information, it is fading and in deficit. We're full circle to keeping a critical mind and speaking out.
The Amazon Alexa we have in our kitchen is used intensively, albeit not for the most intelligent tasks. We mainly use it to turn our lights on and setting timers for cooking. Around Christmas time the repertoire broadens with our kids asking 'Alexa, can you sing Jingle Bells?' for a party trick that is repeated ad nauseam.
When I rushed downstairs some weeks ago to find burnt bread in the oven I immediately asked Alexa to check what went wrong.
"Alexa, what's on the timer?"
"There are no timers set" ...
Looking at a loaf of sourdough that I lovingly created in a 30-hour process, reduced to an inedible darkish brown football, I almost yanked the tiny Amazon device from its outlet to throw it out; it was the third time this a month a timer was not set.
Observing her responsiveness in the weeks after, I found that she did not have a 100% score on hearing my instructions, but if she confirmed my instructions ('40 minute timer set!') the timer was always set correctly. I just did not always wait for the feedback when I was in a hurry.
I couldn't help a slight smile, realising how often we ask for things and then skip waiting for signals the other person understands.
Home-schooling edition 2.0 is in it's second week here in the Netherlands. Even though I know how important basic reading, writing and math is for the development of my kids, I was struck how close to 100% of the material is aimed at practicing and testing basic skills. I was reminded immediately of the short blog Seth Godin wrote on future skills that are barely taught and also of the podcast Tim Ferriss did with Leo Babauta discussing (amongst a wealth of other topics) the phenomenon of 'unschooling'. Why is learning in school so vastly different from the way we learn as adults?
One critical skill I would like to instill in my kids is asking questions. Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, attributed part of his success as a scientist to his mother teaching him:
"My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, 'What did you learn today?' But my mother used to say, 'Izzy, did you ask a good question today?' That made the difference."
Since my kids still have the natural habit of asking questions, I decided to make it a fixed part of the daily routine. They get to decide on a question, for which I do a quick search on explanatory material online while they are doing another exercise. Next up: are there more people dead or still living today?
During the lockdown, I have made it a habit to go on daily walks to keep moving, get fresh air and perspective. Sometimes listening to music, merely letting my thoughts wander or listening to a nice podcast.
I've re-started listening to the Podcasts Tim Ferriss puts out there, bar the occasional deep-dive in weight-lifting or extreme sports. Based on a friend's recommendation, a nice recent addition to my podcast staple is the podcast Simon Sinek (author of 'Start with Why') has created, called 'A bit of Optimism'. It's shorter in form and I love his theme and guests.
In one of the recent episodes, Simon interviewed Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy on 'Finding your tribe'. Getting to the second half of the interview, they touch on a term that I really like, called 'micro-love'.
Micro-love is about the small interactions we have every day and the opportunity they hold. The chat with your neighbour on the way out, the smalltalk with the person delivering your groceries, a chat with someone enjoying the early January sun sitting on a bench, you name it.
It reminded me of a leadership book I love by Douglas Conant and Mette Norgaard called 'Touchpoints' on how to transform all your interaction into opportunities for impact. The essence of both concepts is how every interaction is an opportunity for connection. You can choose to get by as fast as possible, or to engage in something meaningful, however small. With the pandemic reducing our human contact, this might be as good a time as ever to get into this habit if you like it.
Whenever I explain to people that I do not pick up my phone when it shows an unknown number, I often get faces that say: really? I therefore always thought I was somehow the odd-one-out. Until I saw this little graph, from Pew Research Center:
I'm not that special after all! To me, it makes complete sense to ignore unknown numbers. The category 'unknown numbers' is for me not just confined to the hidden numbers that literally will make your phone screen show 'unknown'. I've defined it as any number that does not match an entry in my address book. My reasoning is that when the one who's calling you really wants to talk to you, he or she will leave a voicemail or send a text message.
(Malicious) telephone marketing is picking up, despite all the efforts to make it more transparent and introducing the ability to have your number deleted from call-lists. Further, it creates less distraction and you run less risk to be caught off-guard in a conversation that you've not been able to prepare for. Even just the slightest moment of seeing a known name in your screen can make you realise what the upcoming conversation might be about, which makes you more prepared (or still not picking up the phone).
We've written before about the potential use speech and text analysis. Here's a recent application. Analysis of English-language contributions on social-media platform Twitter, so-called 'tweets', shows that 2020 was for most people more miserable than other years. Not a surprising outcome, but still evidence that what we communicate reveals something about how we feel.
The graph below shows the analysis (courtesy of Marine Wagner who collects on a quarterly basis the -according to her- most interesting graphs and quotes). There is, of course, the benefit of hindsight and whether the dips are really associated with the explanations given cannot be proven. Still, the overall trend is clearly visible and English-speaking (writing) people used less happy words than before. The influence of Brexiteers might have lost out to people writing about the impact of the pandemic. 😀
On a positive note, I do see an upward trend in the dark-blue line. I wonder: if analysis of tweets can show the mood of people, would we also be able to find out what birds have to say and what the impact is of less air traffic on their happiness?
In the debate about the usefulness of playing video games, there is positive news for the proponents. The Economist recently reported on research conducted that 'playing video games in a lockdown can be good for mental health'. Timing is interesting as across the world, various governments and institutions are contemplating introducing regulations to protect children from “excessive screen time”.
According to Professor Andrew Przybylski of the University of Oxford who led the study, there is a lack of robust evidence for many of the supposed harmful effects of video games. In the project, the gaming habits and mental health of 2,537 players with an average age of 31-35 years in Britain and North America were analysed.
The article concludes about the study:
"The researchers found that people who played the games for longer reported feeling better, on average, than those who barely played at all (see chart)."
I spent quite a bit of time staring at these graphs. Even though the blue dashed line suggests the mentioned correlation due to its (very) slight inclination, one could easily conclude that the cloud of dots suggests video gaming does not influence well-being at all. Other factors may be in play.
For instance, the mere act of playing (video) games or simply the thought of being able to do so could release endorphins and other pleasure hormones. This short-term relaxation may thus in itself explain the results. In addition, many of these video games involve social interaction, which might explain the perceived benefits in itself.
Please let me know how you interpret the graphs. One thing is certain: as long as my kids are gaming, they're not reading the Economist and they won't use these graphs as evidence in discussions with me!
Last week, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died unexpectedly at age 46. Zappos is an online shoe retailer that was sold to Amazon for over 1 billion US$ in 2009.
Tony was a true master of the experimental aspects of innovation which led to both many successes and many failures. His 2010 book 'Delivering Happiness' introduced me to him and his thinking. It documents his wild journey in creating his company.
The key to success for Zappos was not the functional job of efficient delivery of a pair of shoes. Tony realised that focusing on just the functional part of the job would lead to a downward spiral. Everyone can optimize a delivery process. Trying to win customers by lowering your prices or outspending on advertising is a race to the bottom. Instead, he focused on the emotional job of 'making me feel valued as a customer'. He was obsessed with customer service, making it the core of his offering. Imagine getting an e-mail response from a company within 10 minutes! Imagine a customer service employee discussing the pro's and con's of different sneakers with you for an hour. That's how he was able to build a winning brand in a market with otherwise little differentiation.
Automation and cost-cutting have been the norm in customer service for decades. I love how Tony managed to prove that a human connection can be a winning business strategy.
British Orthodox rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away in early November 2020, held an eloquent TED-talk in 2017 on how to face the future without fear. Though I do not necessarily share his general views or beliefs, the message of his death caused me to revisit this talk. At the time he had impressed me with his outgoing way of trying to connect all people irrespective of their religion, social background, sex or age. In addition, it is still a relevant subject. Fear and anxiety are strong emotions and often inhibit people to take action, develop themselves, innovate or change.
In his 12-minute presentation, he objectively analyses our current way of living and social behaviours to be mostly focused on 'worshipping ourselves'. He observes that a lack of (cultural) identity leads to anxiety, unrest and the inability to accept other opinions or cultures. This is a major driver for the recent divisive elections, divided societies and the growth of extremism.
Whilst rewatching, I noticed he brings together a lot of the themes we have been covering in past episodes of this newsletter, such as the dangers of groupthink and the importance of critical thinking. Rabbi Sacks observes:
"People not like us makes us grow."
To combat fear, his main advice is to do a search-and-replace on your mind; every time you notice the word "self" you should replace it by "other". The idea is to become much more focused on the world around you. As long as you know you're not alone you can confront the world and future with confidence.
I do agree that an important 'tool' to handle fear and anxiety is having a valuable social life and taking comfort in the fact that you're not alone. However, I also think it is a balance. Caring for yourself to ensure you're self-confident and self-aware is to my mind as important as nurturing your interaction with others. Better still, it will most probably improve your interactions with others.
Some philosophical ponderings: when two people interact, a truth exists between them. From physics, we know that the relationship between 'observer' and 'observed' essentially determines what kind of 'laws' exist in their instantaneously created mutual universe. An outside observer might see something completely different.
Take for instance, on a somewhat greater scale, being inside or outside the US at this moment. It takes great effort for a US citizen to accept the critiques on their political system coming from Europe, China and Africa. "You simply do not understand" or "you don't know what you're talking about" are commonly heard phrases. As the critiques originate from inside another frame of reference, the argumentation used often does not resonate well.
Interaction with each other creates a truth that exists between the persons interacting. Parties will accept that truth when there is trust among them. Trust, therefore, says something about the quality of the interaction between people. With millions of people interacting each day, a multitude of truths with various degrees of trust will exist.
To make this melting pot of opinions and interactions function properly, we have law and principles. These influence cultural norms and create structure and momentum in society. These 'rules of the game' differ by country and region. Does this seal the fate of being able to comment on other people or systems? Not necessarily, but it does mean, we need to be mindful of and analyse the differences between the systems and culture of the observer and the observed.
Our coverage of the phenomenon that your use of language tells a lot about your personality, enticed me to dig a little deeper into this research area. I find it a fascinating topic. A part of the domain focuses on text analysis. That research has revealed there are clear narrative structures in our stories, both fictional and non-fictional.
Most stories appear to be structured along the lines of stage-setting, plot progression and ending with cognitive tension. Researchers believe these structures have been determined by our evolutionary process; human first learned to apply names to objects (setting the stage) and only later to assign actions to these objects (plot progression). Only when this ability was in place could a human start to understand and appreciate the consequence of those actions (cognitive tension).
"In other words, the ways in which a story’s information is processed may follow particular parameters to which narratives have evolved to adhere, in general."
This is not necessarily unidirectional; the way we understand stories can influence the process by which we create stories, imposing a particular order on language during storytelling. Further, stories seem to follow certain emotional trajectories. For instance, a consistent rise in positive words during a story is indicative to a positive ending; a decline indicative of a tragic ending. Interestingly, analyses found no evidence that quality or popularity of a narrative were related to the structure.
Curious to learn where evolution will bring us! At least we know what to do to leave a positive impression or a smile on someone's face when writing an email or essay.
Once in a while, it is useful to revisit and refresh certain skills. Ideally, this should be fun and not take much time. Celeste Headlee does just that with her 10-minute TED-talk "10 ways to have a better conversation".
While some advice like being open, honest and interested may sound somewhat obvious at first glance, her take on having a good conversation is worth spending your coffee break on it. She has for example clear advice to make the most out of it:
"Enter a conversation with the mindset that you've something to learn."
As we increasingly live in a world of polarization, it becomes more important to talk to each other. In addition, discussions are often taking place using video- and telephone conference. We notice many people turn off their videos, making an interesting conversation rather difficult as you can no longer look someone in the eye and judge whether you should adjust your content, tone or speed.
Celeste notes, like we observed when discussing speed reading, your brain can process words quicker than the other can speak. Hence, your brain will start to wander even when the subject is interesting. Therefore, it is useful to practice your skills, as the most important advice for a better conversation is: to listen, which means practice your self-control and be humble.
Conventional wisdom teaches us not to discuss politics or religion if you want a civilised conversation. Sticking to the weather used to be the safe way to go, until climate change became a thing. Lately, I have found that discussing Working from Home (WFH) can be at least as polarising. You either love it or hate it. With people willing to sacrifice up to 8% of their salary to avoid the commute and a potential expansion of hiring territory, many companies are awakening to the notion that "remote" might be here to stay.
Fellow newsletter-writer Paul Millerd shares a roundup on some recent WFH developments. Notable highlights:
More and more individual stories pop up of people testing location independence, occupying their summer homes while working remotely. If you have examples around you, we'd love to hear them!
Food for thought: if a criterium for truth is that things are only true when they can be proved logically, then logic itself can only be true when its truth can be proved logically. It's a classic circular reasoning and one of the major critiques to modernist thinking. In a nutshell, modernist strongly believe in the foundational power of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge and technology.
You can start a debate about which philosophical and cultural movement is better, but more interesting is to investigate what this observation tells you.
Realising truth itself may not be logically and therefore objectively provable, it becomes easier to have empathy towards an opinion you do not initially agree with. It also reduces the need to put energy into trying to convince others.
This does not mean you should not have or share your opinion. Differing opinions, if well-founded, create insightful discussions that broaden your views.
Contemplating the increasingly important role emoji have in our daily communication, I realised it has taken western society a couple of thousand years to end up where the Chinese have been all along.
Every year the unicode consortium decides on the introduction of new emoji based on input from the public, whether the new emoji adds to our 'vocabulary' and the likelihood of it actually being used (full selection criteria here). Updates for this year include different skin tones and gender-neutral emoji to reflect societal changes, but will also allow us to express ourselves with emoji for 'cheese fondue' and 'Italian hand gesture' (pinched fingers).
Emoji look different on an iPhone than on an Android phone. Since only the binary unicode is sent in digital communication, the look and feel of every emoji on your screen is decided by the platform builders. That also allows for some adaptations if needed. Because of COVID-19, Apple decided on a redesign for their masked emoji 😷, changing its (hidden) facial expression to a smile instead of a sad face.
I recently came across the explanation of the Mandarin writing of 'penguin' (shown above in the title), for which the Chinese use a combination of 'business' and 'goose' (showing ancient Chinese had a wonderful sense of humour). I wonder if the evolution of emoji use on our phones will bring common combinations as well, allowing us to better express ourselves briefly.
At my kids' school, several tools are used to indicate whether you can or cannot be disturbed. Teachers use bright traffic lights, students use dices holding traffic-light colors.
Working in open office plans pre-pandemic, I wish grown-ups would have adhered to a same set of rules. Your focus and attention are fair game, from colleagues having animated discussions while sitting on your desk to the common practice of having your outlook schedule wide open for everyone to fill as they see fit. Nurturing the narrative that 'real work has to be done in the evenings', there was not much incentive for change. (If you're up for a more extensive rant on the idiocy of common office culture, may we suggest It doesn't have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson).
While the amount of colleagues interrupting your flow has probably drastically reduced since working from home, your kids might have easily taken over that responsibility. Funny hats to the rescue! In an interview with Nir Eyal he explains the life-saving invention of the Concentration Crown. The concept is simple: find the silliest piece of head-gear you can find around your house and inform your kids what it means if you're wearing it. Having a clear sign you're doing concentration work is much easier to understand for your little ones. Can't wait to see them pop up at offices worldwide.
The fact that Mr Horton was witness to and could publish the honest, controversial confession was, at least in part, due to the fact that the symposium observed Chatham house rules. The rule reads as follows:
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
Used properly, the rule promotes discussing and publishing the content, rather than focusing on who's behind the opinion, idea or solution. It is very useful for issues of a sensitive nature or to bring together (strongly) opposing parties.
I have personally sat in multiple meetings using this rule and was surprised with the positive effect. We seemed to be able to cover topics and generate solutions that were not even on the table in the months leading up to these meetings. This may point to why not everything can be discussed in public. Our natural inclination is to ask full transparency from our (business) leaders, but this could in fact hamper their creativity and willingness to reach an agreement. Sometimes, we only need to ask: did you observe the rule? If you ever run in to a similar situation, give it a try!