"We are social animals, after all. We need to live together, whether you like it or not. Let's spend some time contemplating 'quietly and alone' how that could work."
My very own writing last week inspired me to do exactly what it asked me to do: some contemplations. On the subject in the sentence right before the call to action; that we're social animals and want to live in groups.
As a result, both my initial (gut) reaction as well as my synthesis after some deep thinking ended up in the same area: deep in our hearts, we want to be ourselves and ourselves alone. We do however need social contacts; to learn, to have fun, to develop, to survive. Many people choose to become part of specific groups and remain loyal to that group. But my thoughts led me to believe that we do not necessarily want to be part of a specific group; rather, we want to be part of a group, suited for a specific purpose at that moment in time. And switch to another for a different purpose. Perhaps move in and out.
To be part of a group requires compromises on all kinds of fronts. Compromises that aren't always comfortable. Compromises, which sometimes so many other people have already made before you, that it becomes strange if you do not. So, you comply, you make the 'investment', you do what you're supposed to do ... or you don't. As our readers are well aware by now, we do not really like complying with the norm.
At first, I didn't like my own thoughts and conclusions. It was probably my social sense kicking in, noting I was reaching conclusions outside the norm, outside the normal social playing field. But I had to admit, my musings gave structure to the subject in such a way that it just felt right. For me. It was in fact quite a revelation. As if I finally saw something sharply that had been blurry and nagging me for some time.
Long live authenticity.
Looking for positive impulses in these dark times, I dived into my digital note-taking app and typed 'positive mindset'. In the spirit of 'repetition is the best teacher', I deliberately chose to look into my already existing insights. Plenty of articles, thoughts and books were returned as a response; among them, quite a few Q&A 'snippets', as we tend to call our pieces that we send out every week. The first lines of Beatles' "Let it be" came to mind (and replacing 'Mother Mary' with 'Q&A' 😊).
It seems I've been relaying my state of mind more often in the past three years, like in 'Leadership':
"What is my worry? Our world has always seen big challenges and today is no different. In my humble opinion, what is different is that I currently do not see any (global) organisation and/or leader embarked on a truly future-proof path."
As well as proposing a possible way forward:
"The change, in my opinion, has to come from a different direction than current leadership. I know we are all busy in our (relatively) comfortable daily lives. Still, I really believe it is necessary to spend all the time we can spend on creating a better world, together. We, the people, do not have political agenda's or escalated commitments. We do not need to be re-elected. We do not need to be in history books."
Connect this to what we discussed in 'Tone':
"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."
Leading to proposing a more balanced way forward and different tones of voices, together creating a beautiful symphony. I'd say most relevant these days:
"Having energy and a positive mindset is a much better breeding ground for new ideas. [...] 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. [...] Even though we may all like different types of music, we can each play our part in creating the right symphony."
However, we are human beings and not without flaws. It's useful to remind ourselves what the tips and tricks could be to avoid being overwhelmed by all this and drawn into following the crowd. Tranquility suggests:
"Impressions are unavoidable. Our sensors pick up what's happening around us, our hormones drive our feelings, our thoughts come floating in when they want. The key is: do you readily act upon them or do you take the time to debate them? As Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD said: "The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts."
Or as mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal framed it:
"All problems of humankind are a result of human inability to sit quietly and alone in a room."
I cannot help but think these are very wise words; politicians and business leaders seem very busy choosing sides and positioning oneself. In my opinion, this does not feel like a good strategy. Yes, you will belong to a group and feel comfortable or happy. For some time and it will come at a high price. You'll spend a lot of energy defending your positions, preparing for arguments and fights with 'that other side'. Much more energy compared to staying neutral, adjusting your course based on what's happening at thát moment. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there that actually want to belong to this team. We are social animals, after all. We need to live together, whether you like it or not. Let's spend some time contemplating 'quietly and alone' how that could work.
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.
In the past couple of days, I was lucky enough to take a step back and enjoy nature. A few hours into winding down, the first interesting reflections and observations started to emerge. One particularly stood out; many of my discussions with other people seem to center around what the best preconditions are to achieve more, grow faster or finish school with high grades. Looking at external factors rather than internal ones. I often felt uncomfortable in those discussions and it dawned on me why.
While society seems to fixate more and more on intelligence, creativity, and other cornerstones of achievement, we're overlooking an essential quality: resilience - our capacity to recover swiftly from adversity. Though pivotal to enduring life's challenges, it remains, in my humble opinion, an unsung hero in our education system, daily life, and workplaces. This is a tribute to that virtue, which I personally believe should have more attention.
In life, resilience is akin to an ever-reliable safety net, letting us bounce back from setbacks and withstand the rigours of daily challenges. From disputes with friends to unexpected expenses, life continuously tests our alertness. It's resilience that allows us to retain balance in the face of adversity and prevent these daily challenges from escalating into significant distress. Even better, it may turn the 'negative' energy in the opposite direction and let you reach higher than before.
Yet, our education system, primarily focused on academic prowess, seems not very interested in cultivating this critical skill. Students are ill-prepared to manage academic stress or failure, leading to anxiety and dampened motivation. In the professional sphere, resilience remains an under-appreciated commodity. In an era defined by change and uncertainty, resilient employees contribute to a more dynamic, yet stable organisation.
Admittedly, there will always be a group of people in society for which (Government) support is required to survive in our system. I'm all for providing such support to those that really need it. Yet, this safety net should perhaps not always be that visible or easily acccesible. Some form of (temporary) discomfort and (here it is again) uncertainty could just trigger the unfolding of your own safety net before it is supplied to you. It's about finding the right balance and targeting the right group of people in real need of external support.
It's time to bring resilience out from the shadows, giving it the prominence it deserves in our society's narrative. It starts in our homes, extends to our schools, and permeates our workplaces. Resilience can be learned through mindfulness, physical activity, social connections, and effective stress management. I especially believe you can train resilience by getting to know oneself much better. Practice self-reflection and once you have some observations, the journey really starts: be self-critical and honest.
Build up your discipline. It's like allowing yourself to be bored and see what happens next. Just like how I got to this subject in the first place. By reorienting our focus and investing in self-consciousness, we can craft a society that thrives, fortify our collective capacity to deal with setbacks, enhancing mental health and societal well-being, irrespective of the challenges that come our way.
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.
Last week's piece on measuring wealth by means of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) hit me once more as I bumped into multiple pieces on the effect of applying measurement to anything. In any management education, a famous Peter Drucker quote is the basis for measuring important parts of performance.
"What gets measured, gets managed"
It's the basis for looking at performance in an objective fashion. Turnaround times, profitability, sales, customer satisfaction, you name it. Creating KPI's, creating dashboards for these have been the basis of shifting management from a gut feel profession to a science.
Now, you don't have to be a physicist to appreciate the flip side to this dogma. Quantum theory explains how measuring a phenomenon interferes with the phenomenon itself, which seems to be translating to all forms of measurement.
In 'Coders', Clive Thompson reminds us of learnings that go back decades:
"Back in the ’70s, the social psychologist Donald Campbell pointed out that if you use a single measurement to reward people, they’ll do everything they can to goose that number higher. (It’s now known as “Campbell’s Law.”)"
For those same reasons, Basecamp's Jason Fried abandoned sales targets as a whole. He found that the quality and profitability of year-end sales dropped dramatically as people were just focused on meeting their targets, ignoring everything else the company stood for.
For all its downsides, measuring does give us a sense of control. Like any model, we yearn for simplification and reaffirmation that we are on the right track. The amount of books we read, the number of 'billable hours' we make, the time we spend at work (butt-in-seat-time), the daily steps our fitbits record.
Another flipside of measurement is a variant of 'affecting the phenomenon itself': comparison. Comparing your performance versus your past self is a way to measure a type of progress, but we can't help ourselves to measure against others too. As Theodore Roosevelt once observed "Comparison is the thief of joy", measurement can distract us from enjoying the intrinsic joy of any activity.
Last week, Nat Eliason wrote about measurements in relation to the death clock, a tool to predict your time of death. He makes the case for tons of 'soft factors' that might affect your lifespan as much as the hard factors (like friends, sense of purpose, ...) but cannot be measured objectively.
Which leads me to some questions; do we need to measure less? Do we need to measure differently?
My recent foray into teaching kids about chess brought me a wonderful analogy. When starting out, kids learn how to assess their performance on the board by counting piece value. A queen is worth 9 points, a rook 5, a bishop 3, a pawn 1. Do the math and see who's doing well. Once they progress, additional measures are added. How safe is your king? Who controls space? How is piece activity? In the end, the rational models are replaced by complex, intuitive assessments.
In line with George Box' "All models are wrong, but some are useful", I think any form of measurement has its value in the right context. The big question in any endeavour is therefore: does the measurement help me at this moment?
Harvard professor Clay Christensen tried to teach his graduate students about choosing the right types of measurement which he summarized in a small book called "How to measure your life". A quote that resonated with me:
"I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring out lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage — a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life."
Even the 'death clock' reveals a prevailing belief about life; living longer is better. Challenging that wisdom, Edward J. Stieglitz phrased:
"And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years."
Whatever you choose to measure, choose wisely!
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.
As we (meaning: Q&A) write our pieces for the newsletter independently before discussing and redacting it together, this often leads to lengthy discussions around the subjects we've chosen. I love this part of our weekly rhythm as it often leads to new insights an follow-up actions. So too, our piece on 'behaviour'.
In it, we wrote about how our behaviour has a huge influence on economic markets and personal finance.
"Behaviour has a tendency to have a long-lasting, sticky effect. Your own behaviour is also setting examples"
We also called for being critical about your own and others behaviour. Which led to me jotting down in my note-taking programme during the conversation, the words: "it's a philosophy".
What we meant is that, although quite a lot of your behaviour seems to be autopilot, you can actually have a conscious influence on what your 'auto-behaviour' will be. A philosophy of self-awareness and self-thinking. Which automatically (at least for me... part of the critical thinking behaviour😉) led to the question: how?
You could start by some soul-searching and asking what of your own behaviour is determined by others or the 'system'. The society and culture you live in obviously has quite a bit of influence as you, for example, conform to certain rules and regulations. But some others are self-controlled, as you'll discover when you analyse and are really honest to yourself. You still conform to the norm, to the group, but there's no particular other reason for certain behaviour than 'this is what is expected' or 'this is what I think is expected'.
Some questions that may help in this process; do I really want this? Is this in my favour? If I change my behaviour, what happens? Am I able to drive (positive) change by changing my behaviour? Can I inspire others? Does it fit my philosophy? Am I overthinking this...
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.
“What have you changed your mind on recently?”
This has been one of my favourite interview questions for a long time. These days, I tend to notice stuff I changed my mind on more and more. I think part of this is a (by)product of meditation, which made me more aware of my own thoughts, being able to notice them and therefore also being able to notice changes.
Growing up in a city that is part of the Dutch Bible Belt, we had families around us that strictly followed the rules of reformed Christianity. They went to church on Sundays, spending the rest of the day with just their own core families. No playing outside allowed. Owning a TV was completely out of the question. People who ignorantly bought one at some point were instructed to get them out of their house.
Now I vividly remember thinking how backwards and old-fashioned I thought these rules were. My parents explanation that this was all part of their belief system did not help here, I just thought that any God that would deprive you of any worldly pleasures was surely not mine!
The other day I reflected on our families schedule with my wife, stating how much we liked having planned downtime in between our activities. We also touched on how we enjoyed our kids -relatively strict- 'screentime' rules, which we think enables their enjoyment of other activities more.
In a glimpse, I remembered the reformed Christian rules I encountered in my youth with a renewed appreciation. Winding down for one day a week, limiting your inputs, not such bad ideas after all. I couldn't help a smile thinking of how we're constantly discovering, forgetting and rediscovering.
Events happening do not just affect your opinion, influence also goes the other way around. Your opinion fuels what you tend to see just as much. I am very much aware of this effect in my desire to be optimistic about human progress. Even though democracy has increased in the past century, we are seeing cracks in the veneer and setbacks in countries around the world.
When the trend of increasing democracy in the world is suddenly interrupted, we tend to question what has felt as certainty; would this trend reverse? Isn't the only way up?
One thing to hold on to in times of doubt is Obama's illustration that history does not progress in a straight line. We should look with a blurry, averaging eye at history and see the trend that is definitely there.
Looking a bit deeper at the underlying mechanics, I feel like there are also fundamentals that favour democracies over autocracies. Einstein nicely summed it up:
'Everything truly great and inspiring has been created by an individual that was able to work in freedom.'
On an intuitive level, this makes total sense to me. Following orders is one thing, but being inspired to create something great takes a different environment. As we explored before, creativity is rapidly becoming the dominant characteristic in having an edge in business. Being open to diversity is another important element in this equation.
To sum things up, being a free, open, tolerant and diverse society seems not just to be a choice that a majority of people prefer. It also gives these societies an edge in economical terms. Not a bad choice.
We have a tendency to capture and predict economic developments in models driven by formulas. However, the largest part of the equation is often influenced by human behaviour. Take, for example, our challenge in the energy transition. Production of renewable energy is just one part, but where most of our current efforts are put into. Business cases can be made, projects planned. However, changing the demand side of energy has at least a similar dramatic effect to become energy-neutral. Therefore, a change in our behaviour is required.
We were always taught and incentivised to use more electricity during the night. Traditionally, this was the low-demand part of the day, while supply (read: coal/gas-fired power stations) was still running. Renewable energy production is much more dominated by wind and especially sun. Most energy is naturally being generated during the day, which sometimes even leads to the cost of electricity to become negative during the day. It therefore would make sense to wash our clothes or dishes during the day, rather than saving it for the night. Our current day and night tariff structure is outdated and drives a different behaviour.
So, yes, we should invest heavily in changing our production and making our appliances more energy efficient. But, we should equally invest in changing our behaviour. Both to become more efficient and treat energy as a scarce (and expensive) resource as well as to balance demand and supply.
Behaviour has a tendency to have a long-lasting, sticky effect. Your own behaviour is also setting examples. For our children, for people that you inspire. Energy consumption is just one example. In numerous cases, we do not have to sit back and wait for our leaders to act. We can drive the change ourselves, as individuals, as a group. Our behaviour may even be the biggest driving force behind any change, for the better or the worse. Sometimes, this requires to look beyond the immediate impact on your bank balance, the 'smartest' (financially) or the socially most acceptable thing to do.
Have confidence in your actions and the fact that others will inspire you to correct them should you inadvertently take a wrong course. But, please, keep thinking for yourselves and do not just blindly follow what somebody tells you to do is the smartest thing (including what I write to you now!). Therefore, having the right kind of information and the occasional, inspirational steer is paramount to drive in the right direction.
The snippet on decisions above above immediately made me realise the type of decisions I often postpone to make: quitting. Quitting a job, quitting a project, a commitment, I generally drag my feet way too long.
Digging deeper on this tendency, I can see where it's coming from. Nobody likes a quitter. We reward people who endure, follow through and keep their streak. Stopping something can be considered failing. On top of that, delivering bad news is not everybody's favourite conversation.
Many people attribute their success and happiness to their ability to say "no". Greg McKeown wrote a book on Essentialism which is essentially saying 'no' to a lot of stuff to make room for the important. Tim Ferriss even made it a default interview question (What have you become better at saying 'no' to?) and shared his tactics to say 'no' gracefully. He forces himself to say either 'Hell Yes!' or 'No!' to create the right decision mindset.
If saying no to new opportunities is one way to stop the faucet from spilling all over the floor, quitting is the mopping up. If you would get a choice to commit or pass on the engagements you're currently in, what would you have not said 'yes' to?
Balancing your ego with a sense for the unity of our universe is often a matter of seeing the right illustration of the facts. A story that resonated highly with me was told by a monk who once confronted a person that thought a little bit too much of himself and needed no one. The monk pointed at a nearby tree and explained how the man's lungs could not function without trees and plants doing the reverse, turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. The mirror images of leaves and lungs could only co-exist because of each other.
Steve Jobs often sent e-mails to himself to capture what was on his mind. In a recent release of some documents from his family, one of these e-mails reminded me of the lungs & leaves story.
Accepting our dependencies might be a great step. Loving them might even be more joyous.
Sometimes, societal trends make me wonder where they are headed. I have absolutely no clue where my estimations of them end and my hopes start taking over. One such big trend is the change in social behaviour.
Social behaviour used to be a life-or-death skill we had to adopt. Humans are vulnerable when alone, but in groups we're top of the food chain. Later on, sticking to a group made us less vulnerable towards other groups and staving off natural disasters. Having a tribe and social norms are just the better strategy.
Social behaviour was codified in our upbringing and cultural norms, ensuring its survival in the long term. But since the necessity of social behaviour is less obvious these days, I think we're losing some (use it or lose it, right?). In short: in a lot of circumstances, you can be an asshole and get by just fine.
This focus on individuality and freedom to do whatever you deem fit, seems to grow in some Western countries and societal structures are already showing cracks there. On the other end of the spectrum, individual freedoms are sparse in some other countries. The collective is deemed much more important, which also causes friction as people grow affluent and start craving more individuality.
Moving towards extremes is usually a prelude to a breakdown and a change, as gradual corrections are less likely than full-blown crises. What's your take on this trend? And how do your individual choices reflect your hopes or fears?
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!
Are we, human beings, continuously reinventing the wheel? The thought crossed my mind several times this Holiday as I was inspired by several books, musea and archeological sites.
I don't know exactly why, but current generations tend to think they know more and are more advanced than whatever culture lived in history. I'm convinced those people are myopic. We can learn basic, useful techniques and wisdom from previous generations. On top of that, they had inspiring cultural and social structures.
A couple of examples. Visiting the Orkney Islands, I was amazed by the rich culture that inhabited these island more than 6,000 years ago. They were seafaring folk, able to dig 'henges' (ditches) in rock 3,5 meters deep and erecting not one but multiple stonehenge-like structures more than 2,000 years before the famous stone circle itself was built. They built complete, partly underground, villages including a drainage and sewage system. If only the Romans would have known. Several tribes seemed to be living peacefully together organising the occassional community gathering.
Bill Bryson's hilarious book Down Under about Australia provided some very interesting facts about the Aboriginals. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously maintained culture in the world. They were cooperating, communicating and worshipping long before agriculture was invented in the Middle East - generally believed to be the start of modern-day civilization. They were (and still are) known to be guardians of nature, perceiving the world in a completely other way than we do. They have for instance no chiefs, permanent residences or words for ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’.
Let us be open-minded and try to avoid comparisons. Just read how Captain James Cook described Aboriginals in his Endeavour Journal (quote taken from Down Under) and consider the trailing thought:
‘They may appear to some to be the most wretched people on earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: the earth and the sea of their own accord furnish them with all things necessary for life … they seemed to set no value upon anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with anything of their own.’ Elsewhere, he added with a touch of poignancy: ‘All they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.’
Units of reference matter in our thinking. Explain a timeframe in minutes to kids, and they are more likely to think it's a long time than when you chose hours or days as a frame of reference. Absolute numbers just seem to matter. The same logic holds for adults by the way. Our history is usually measured in years, which turns most things from a few generations back into a distant memory. As you get older, the value of 'years' seems to shrink, however. This might be plain self-image-preservation, as your younger self would for sure call you 'old' at your current age.
Shifting the frame of reference will do interesting things to your outlook. This is exactly what Tim Urban tweeted a couple of months back. He visualized civilization in generations (assuming 25 years per generation) instead of years, leading to an enlightening look at it.
As aging brings remarkable insight into how much of your behaviour is dominated by your genes and your upbringing, the picture made me appreciate how slowly we are capable of evolving as humankind. The pre-industrial world is just a few 'cycles' in our past. As Tim concludes:
"Everything we call civilization was invented in the last 500 generations—way too short a time for our bodies and brains to re-optimize. We're a bunch of primates in a totally unnatural environment, trying our best. Good thing to keep in mind!"
Back in edition 64, my co-author wrote about the people we put on a pedestal, only to remove them later on:
"Perspectives, norms and values change. We are all children of our time, which makes history so intriguing. I'd love to know which statues our great grandchildren will tear down."
Pondering this beautiful thought, I bumped into links with one of my favourite subjects: cognitive dissonance. A quick refresher:
"In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that."
In short, we like consistency, and do all in our power to make things consistent. Something or someone is generally 'all good' or 'all bad', since holding contradictory beliefs is exhausting. If we don't like someone, even their biggest achievements are mediocre, their nice gestures are 'calculated', we colour all of our judgements to make the puzzle fit.
Since all of us have good and bad traits, this makes raising a statue for a complete person a tricky endeavour. Should we raise statues for actions instead of people? Or do we accept that some of our past heroes might have a dark side? Or should we stop raising statues at all?
Our education system is discussed regularly during our weekly Q&A sessions. We often conclude that we gained a lot, but also lost something during our childhood years. Having kids ourselves now, we try to optimize their experience. More than once, this leads to friction and frustration, losing small battles as we (reluctantly) conform to the system we're in.
We do however not give up. One of our most profound observations is that our education system does not promote nor teach creativity. Don't we all marvel at the inventiveness of our kids? How come, then, that we judge them based on whether they answered a series of questions according to a pre-set model of possible responses?
Looking for ways to innovate the educational system, I came across a 2006 TED Talk called 'Do schools kill creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson. In this presentation, he makes the case for creating an education system in which creativity is as important as literacy and math. He also explains succinctly and rather entertaining why the current system 'kills' creativity. He's quite explicit about it:
"All kids have tremendous talent and we squander it."
Most public education systems came into existence by the end of the 19th century in the era of industrialisation. As a result, language and math got far more attention than arts. That is still the case today. In fact, whenever arts is teached, music and drawing skills get more attention than dancing and drama. The latter two being important part of our storytelling and expression abilities, the main way in which we bring knowledge to a next generation.
Furthermore, mistakes are 'stigmatised' and Sir Robinson gives a couple of examples. Education seems to be focused "from the waist up, to the head, and then to a particular side [left] of it". Children all have extraordinary capacities and each their own specific talent. Additionally, kids have a unique capacity: they will take a chance. When they don't know, they will try, not afraid of being wrong.
Writing the word 'unique' in the previous sentence is exemplary for the message I'm trying to convey. We, as adults view it as unique. However, every child has that capacity, it's not unique at all! By the time you've become an adult, it has become that way. Sir Robinson notes:
"Creativity does not equal to be wrong, but if you're not prepared to be wrong you'll not come up with something original."
We should not punish being wrong. Apart from the fact that you could debate what the truth and therefore the 'right' answer is, there is always a reason why someone gives a particular answer. Trying to understand those reasons is likely to provide far more development and insights to everyone. That will improve our collective intelligence. Our intelligence is diverse, interactive, and distinct. That is what makes humankind unique. These three themes could be an excellent starting point for designing a new education system.
It is time to rethink our systems. Even though you may not agree with us or Sir Ken Robinson, I recommend watching this 20-minutes talk. I guarantee you'll have a laugh and come out full of energy to continue your day. Energy that may ignite your own, specific talents and create new things.
Last year we shared our thoughts on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's ideas on adjustable algorithms as part of an ongoing interest in Social Media. In spite of a certain billionaire's acquisition of almost 10% of the company, then getting and not getting a board seat, the mechanisms behind the success and nasty side-effects remain my main fascination, as the design of them holds tons of lessons about design of modern society at large.
In The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt wrote a great article on the design of the US constitution, the wonders and curses of social media, tribalism and trust. He wonderfully lays out how social media originated, and how the same mechanisms that put it in overdrive exploited human biases and tendencies causing the current landscape.
Haidt also explains how institutions, law and journalism were originally designed to counter human biases by adding forced reflection and friction:
"The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to 'the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions'."
What I love about the article is not just the informed thinking Haidt shows, he finishes up with a plethora of possible solutions. Knowing what we know about our human nature and the current technological landscape, we are in desperate need of an upgrade for some of our most basic societal algorithms.
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 term 'diversity' is often used in a moral context. Based on our conviction that everybody is created equal, we aim for equal opportunity and staffing of organisations and government accordingly. But research shows time and again that diversity has tangible benefits for organisations.
The gateway drug to this research for me, was earlier reading I did on diversity in AI algorithms, where the measurable effects of combining diverse algorithms produced superior results. AI competitions like the Netflix Prize are a great way to demonstrate how diverse teams combining their efforts make for clear winners.
Yesterday I attended a lecture of INSEAD professor Anil Gaba, specialising in decision making under risk and uncertainty. All participants shared an exercise of estimating the amounts of M&M's in a jar, first individually, then as a group. He then shared the analysis of the exercise, showing the group estimates to be vastly superior to the individual estimates.
Professor Gaba executed this experiment throughout multiple businesses, and is able to predict group performance quite easily. Walk into a room filled with all 50+ white males, and the group results are terrible. If the room is filled with people from different backgrounds, culture and age groups, you see group performance increase.
He shared two important messages for leaders. First, select your team to be a diverse one. This goes beyond nationality and age; you want people that look at the world 'from different windows'. Secondly, reaping the diversity rewards requires process. Foster inclusivity, so people dare to speak up and share their view. Once a decision is made, leaders must highlight the vital role of dissenters in the process, and then get everybody on board for the execution of the decision made.
As a telling real-life case, he shared the USA's National Security Agency advisory board meeting process, where everybody speaks up before the president does. Now look at the decision making process that went into Russia's current military actions, using this lens. Watch and learn!
As the COVID pandemic seems to take a turn for the good, my household grabbed the tail-end and got infected a few days back after 2 years of staying out of the weeds. While my 8 year old son recovered within 24 hours, I seem to have a longer struggle fighting the virus, considering the frequent chills and notifications from my Apple Watch alarming me of high heart rate while being sedentary these past days.
What always strikes me when catching a virus of some sorts, is how it affects your view of the world around you. My world just shrinks, creating a tunnel-like vision of everything around me. It's your body's way of informing you to stop focusing on the outside world for a while. In 'No Mud, No Lotus', Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
"When you cut your finger, you just wash it and your body knows how to heal. When a nonhuman animal living in the forest is injured, she knows what to do. She stops searching for something to eat or looking for a mate. She knows, through generations of ancestral knowledge, that it’s not good for her to do so. She finds a quiet place and just lies down, doing nothing. Nonhuman animals instinctively know that stopping is the best way to get healed."
While I fully understand this might not be a possibility in all situations, you might consider it a 'gold standard' to strive for, as I do. I know in the past I have struggled often with relinquishing responsibilities while ill, keeping a laptop next to me in bed, trying to keep the world turning. The 'badge of honor' we culturally assign to this behaviour might actually not be in all of our best interests. So, with that said, for now, I'll just stop.
It is probably no coincidence. I first read an article about being useful and whether this is a worthwhile goal in life. Immediately afterwards, my eye caught the weekly newsletter by Nat Eliason that dealt with our focus on productivity.
I am currently deliberating what to focus on in my life and considering several options. In addition, the entire idea of 'always doing something useful' has somehow never been sitting well with my inner gut.
The first article, enticingly called "how to wander free and easy through life by being useless", introduced me for the first time to philosopher Zhuangzhi, who grew up more than 2,000 years ago amidst the height of Daoïsm. According to him, we don’t really need to strike a balance between usefulness and uselessness. We need to reject the idea of 'useful' altogether. Rather, try to become more in harmony with nature in its broadest sense, which includes yourself. Or, as he's quoted to say:
"...drifting, easy wandering, not caring about praise or condemnation – this is true freedom."
In his newsletter, Nat Eliason makes a strong case for considering optimizing productivity only when it optimizes your own energy levels and enjoyment. This seems rather congruent with Zhuangzi's philosophy. These are not new ideas, they are as old as humanity.
There is often the anxiety of wanting to serve a purpose, to be useful to others, to fulfill other one's desires, to have some benefit. Evaluating your performance and setting new goals for the future are excellent trigger points and wake-up calls to go one abstraction level higher; am I still enjoying this and do I really want to fill (more of) my time with it? Letting go of that anxiety might serve you the happiest moments in life.
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?
Being the odd-one out is still a hard place to be in our modern-day society. In an analytical yet emotional article, Alice Laciny explains how she was diagnosed with ASD -a form of autism- when she was 30 years old, finally giving her a label allowing the rest of society to 'deal' with her. Up until then, she used to be "the bug girl" as she spent most her time analysing insects. Quite fittingly, she currently is an entomologist with a PhD from the University of Vienna.
I find it rather sad that we tend to classify everything and everyone around us. It seems to me it just creates a false sense of belonging or hierarchy in societies and nature. It is a simplification of reality and apparently the way of least resistance. Alice comments:
"Does it really take brave madness to love us? With all our quirks and peculiarities, we can be challenging to live and work with, especially if we don’t even know the underlying cause and seemingly can do nothing to change, to make ourselves right. Yes, we have tried yoga and sunlight, going gluten-free and ‘just getting over it’, but it did not work, and it did not make us neurotypical. And for all that, we have probably felt less than lovable at some point."
Finding no acceptance or love in the 'human' world, she explains how she (and many like her) sought to extend their own compassion towards other creatures that were also labelled unwanted or non-fitting, such as spiders, reptiles, rats. They opened their hearts to these creatures and accepted them for who and what they are.
"With all our prickly, gooey, many-jointed parts, we are deserving of that very same acceptance. Like every critter on the planet, like every ant in a colony, we should be allowed to occupy and construct our own niche in the system."
A great thought just before Christmas and entering a new year full of possibilities.
Reading Michael Pollan's 'This is your mind on plants' (book link and interview with Tim Ferriss), investigating mind-changing substances at humankind's disposal, I bumped into a logical, but at the same time confronting conclusion:
"societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it. That’s why in a society’s choice of psychoactive substances we can read a great deal about both its fears and its desires."
Pollan's most poignant point-in-case is coffee. Reading his historical account of the success of this drug makes you understand how much of our industrial revolution and enlightenment are tightly intertwined with the rise of coffee in Western culture.
Up to the 1600's, several forms of alcohol, being a safer alternative to water, were consumed all day long, in all age groups. Workers enjoyed alcohol breaks throughout each day. Foggy brains were no obstacle to working the land, but as we moved to operating delicate machinery and doing book-keeping, alternatives were needed.
Coffee originated in the Arab world, and not being mentioned in the Koran it formed a suitable alternative to alcohol. Loosely translated, 'kahve' means 'Wine of Araby'. After spreading like wildfire in western countries, it has fueled our ability to focus and stay productive for longer periods of time.
Part of Pollan's writing exercise involved abstention from coffee for a few months, which almost prevented him from finishing the book. He was amazed how much absence of the drug inhibited his daily work, which leads to the question: if an addiction has a net benefit, how bad can it be?
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.
Defining a common enemy is an effective way of rallying people behind a common cause. Apt leaders make use of this technique. They may use it in various ways, for better and for worse. To divert attention or to focus. Be aware when your head of state appears on television with an hour-long speech!
There are good reasons for an individual to be attracted to join a group. A study conducted in 2017 found that having enemies can give us comfort in the face of uncertainty. It seems to give us a purpose and a clear path forward. It gives a sense of control. It unites and it means you do not have to look behind your back so often.
We see instances of defining common enemies constantly. Getting rid of a threatening virus for instance (though the common enemy seems to be shifting to the non-vaccinated people). The US and China joining forces to combat climate change. Could climate change be the common enemy that will unite the world?
It is pleasant to have something in common and to be 'brothers-in-arms' against one enemy. After all, it is easier to follow a big crowd than being one of the few shouting in the desert. This is, however, exactly the reason why I'm on guard when the voice of a big crowd becomes loud and influencing everyone's daily business. People in the crowd may have stopped thinking for themselves. Leaders of the pack may in fact be the ones determining everything empowered by the group.
I suggest to keep testing your assumptions before joining any group in pursuing a common goal. More importantly, keep asking yourself: does this feel right?
In public, almost everyone will tell you they despise it. At the same time, everyone will probably have to admit they have done it. Gossiping. Assistant professor of history Christopher Elias wrote an interesting article about the phenomenon. Not surprisingly, gossiping can be damaging, but it also seems to serve an important social function.
"Gossiping has historically served an essential social function by fostering interpersonal connections. At its core, gossiping is an intimate act, requiring the discussion of sensitive topics in enclosed spaces."
Interestingly, the word ‘gossip’ stems from 'godsibb', a term for the attendants at a child’s baptism, in the 11th century. By the 16th century, 'godsibb' had become 'gossip', a noun used to refer to the ‘close female friends whom a woman invited to attend her at childbirth’. Men, who were not allowed to attend, apparently came to fear what was being said in their absence. Mr. Elias refers to the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that gossip evolved over time to allow individuals to exchange important information, keep track of their allies and competitors, and most importantly, to intensify social ties in the growing, complex societies.
Research does however seem to indicate that physical presence is important while gossiping. The real-life, interpersonal connection is somehow important to be able to really judge what is being said and form an opinion. Current social media platforms allow for a certain disconnectedness to that important set of filters and enables increased superficiality and voyeurism.
"By granting me distance from those people, social media allowed me to embrace the worst elements of gossip; I enjoyed the illusion of access to this woman’s thoughts and intentions, but no real connection to her."
Let's not judge too soon. Good gossip does exist and I (want to) believe that we'll be able to find ways to do this in an online environment as well. Understanding and integrating social media into our daily lives is a challenge. Curious to learn more and how others are dealing with this.
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?
One of our readers pointed me towards Danielle Braun, discussing the topic of change. She observes that change is not a 2-point 'ist-soll' type of thing, but rather a transitional period that "is done when it's done". Just look at how tribes deal for example with youth coming of age. They are often sent on a ritual journey ending with an aptitude test, which only happens when a tribal leader thinks they are ready for it.
You learn and change in this 'in-between' period. It's often called the liminal phase; a transitional phase in which hurdles are taken, feels uncomfortable and you try to shorten as much as possible.
In the lecture, she refers to a talk by Rabbi Twerksi in which he uses the lobster as a model for how to deal with change. When a lobsters grows, its shell becomes too small and uncomfortable. She'll go under a rock, shed her shell, expose her soft body and grow a new shell while being very vulnerable.
"The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow, is that it feels uncomfortable [...] if lobsters would have doctors [to provide a pill], they would never grow."
Clearly, we need doctors to fix things that are broken. However, feeling uncomfortable or experiencing a bit of stress may not be bad and indicate a time for growth or change. To understand and feel what is needed when you are in this phase, Danielle Braun argues you need 'liminal leaders'. One -the Chief- that ensures you complete your daily routines and one -the Shaman- that facilitates this in-between period and let it last as long as necessary.
These two roles could well be inside you already. You can also organise them around yourself. Who or what is your 'Chief' and 'Shaman'?
Australian writer Peter Salmon wrote an article covering a method called 'deconstruction' that was initially developed by philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1967. The idea is to become truly aware of the fact that anything -objects but also concepts, words, beliefs- does not have a fixed, single meaning. They are 'culturally' constructed by us and hence can be deconstructed to lay bare the preconceived idea and beliefs; in other words, the core assumptions that you're making when you accept an object or concept to be true and meaningful.
"To think deconstructively is to not only call into question accepted truths, but to ask in whose interests it is that they be accepted."
Derrida noted that deconstruction does not mean destruction. I interpret that as: you should try to untangle the knot without damaging the rope. It is not easy but the article does give some useful guidance such as looking for contradictions and prevailing wisdoms. Most importantly: have faith in your own analysis.
This tool seems very relevant in these times. I personally notice that many people seem to take a lot for granted; information conveyed by the media, friends or government; scientific research; opinions of thought leaders. What seems to be missing is the critical mind. In the end, there might be no truth at all. There is work to be done by yourselves to form your own judgments.
As vaccinations progress, it feels like any time soon we'll be moving forward to another new normal. On the work front, hybrid solutions are the talk of the day. While most of us have missed real human contact, a lot of benefits from remote working have become clear, so this means this is the perfect time to think about the mix we intend to experiment with initially.
The Harvard Business Review took inventory and concludes that less travel, hiring from broader talent pools, less real-estate and more employee flexibility are too beneficial to ignore. The big question is how to get to a mix that provides the best of both worlds.
My main concern with navigating this hybrid-work-world is the intentionality that will be required from those participating. Like knowing when to update your peers asynchronously versus calling a meeting. Or spending time at the office with a true focus on networking, meaning you might even leave your laptop at home. In a world where advice like 'decide your primary focus of the day before your start working' and 'don't open up your e-mail before lunch' is still not a habit for all, the added complexity of navigating the challenges from remote will be quite demanding for some.
This intentionality and self-propelling behaviour is something I see a younger generation handle much more proficiently than older generations, like many changes we've seen before. The real hybrid might therefore be in finding a model that is in service to our entire workforce. I'm looking forward to a new phase of experimentation.
We often sing the praises of diversity for team performance, but pluralism has its benefits also on a much larger scale. In an article in Aeon, Stanford professor Walter Scheidel sheds some light on the role of the collapse of the Roman empire in the development of Europe. He describes the unravelling of the empire, and the dispersion of power that followed, leading to a patchwork of states, duchies, counties, bischoprics and cities, all tangled up in a complex game of power and influence.
Scheidel explains how this pluralism formed the basis for innovation in all kinds of fields. Competition and war drove progress and parties jostling for position might favour those whom others persecuted. Thinkers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Galileo, Descartes, John Locke and Voltaire (to name a few notable examples) all found refuge elsewhere when needed. This formed a stark contrast to the Chinese imperial court which sponsored the arts and sciences, but only as it saw fit.
This innovation and the learnings from countless wars provided a fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment, modern science and representative democracy. Scheidel also paints the darker consequences. Colonialism, stark racism and environmental degradation to name a few. Progress for Europe did come with severe downsides.
For me, understanding a bit more of European history helps paint a picture of where we could be headed. Other, more artistic sketches, like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffers 'Grand Hotel Europa' light different angles and emotions. As I feel we're in a sort of identity crisis on this front, long views can help. We just need to strike a renewed balance between the entities and the union. Where's our therapist?
If the term 'providing value' makes you cringe a little, I can relate. I think it's over-used and clearly in vogue, considering its omnipresence in corporate mission statements worldwide. Indian thinker and writer reddy2Go recently helped me come to terms with my unease by writing this article on the value of value.
"value, like power is never given. only seized. grabbed. derived. distilled. wrenched. from experience. from interaction. by extraction."
In highlighting the importance of the interaction, the sender and the receiver in any endeavour, the two it takes to tango, he lays bare the limits of trying to make anything a one-sided effort.
"by providing value, i’m diminishing your experience. if anything i’m going to make it harder for you to get what i got. like hell i’m gonna make it easier. the easier i make it, the lesser the value of what you eventually get from me."
I think this is true in any relationship, and in business transactions more than we think. Overselling the value you can bring can be a way to land a deal, but it's also the best recipe for it to fail in the long run. Like any dance, value is in between.
If you want to see a good demonstration of how culture is not just an explicit expression of norms and beliefs, reserve a block of about 2 hours for the Netflix documentary American Factory. It shows how culture also drives your intrinsic behaviour and assumptions.
The documentary follows Chinese company Fuyao that bought part of a closed General Motors assembly plant in Ohio in 2014. It subsequently creates thousands of jobs and gives an important impulse to the local industry. It is however not an easy ride and the documentary carefully examines how complex it is when two different economic and social systems converge at one location and each strive for their own success. Kudos to the documentary makers for displaying different angles and avoiding any judgment.
Even though each 'side' tries very hard and key incentives become aligned, the formula does not prove to be a success. It is clear there are deeper issues at play and one might even wonder whether this is a challenge that mankind can master at all. Perhaps a different angle is required by minimizing (or even better: removing) any upfront expectations from such cultural combinatory endeavours. Having the combined teams determining their own targets and way of working together may yield results no one expects.
You just know it when you hear or see it: it resonates so well, you instantly love this song, picture or performance.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure to be present at a performance of the Dutch-Belgian Jazz collective Gare du Nord. Their 'We still grow' instantly resonated. Perhaps because of its heartbeat-like rhythm, but the lyrics spoke to my heart as well:
"In moments stolen from the ocean of time
Beyond the everlasting balance of mind
In the flow and field of music and rhyme
As a side effect of passion defying
We grow, oooh we still grow"
Whether something resonates is often time-, place- and situation-specific. Some performances of art, be it music, paintings, ballet or another form, just stick and seem to resonate with your core frequencies. I love it.
One of the few upsides to Brexit might be the fact that the United Kingdom will be able to define their own agricultural policies. The Economist writes about its future as the UK wil be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) this January 1st, after 47 years.
They explain how the policy has been subsidizing intensive farming methods, at considerable cost to the taxpayers, causing a lot of ecological damage. The originally intended goals behind the CAP, boosting food production, has not been making sense for decades.
Switching existing subsidies to behaviour that is beneficial for ecology and the beauty of the countryside (Britain is quite unique in considering the beauty of its farmed land as evidenced in tons of British poetry) can now be designed without EU interference. Smaller subsidies on these types of desired behaviour have shown to work beautifully with the farming community so far.
The same issue of the Economist reports on the rapid deforestation in Brazil, which makes the discussion on subsidizing Brazil for conserving rain forest all the more interesting. I must admit that originally, I felt some reluctance towards this idea ("They should do the right thing because it's the right thing" and "Why should they get free money just for having the rainforest"). An analogy with oil helped me see things more gently. The Middle East has been paid handsomely for supplying us with energy for decades. Now that cleaning Carbon Dioxide is key to our survival, why shouldn't we pay Brazil handsomely to do part of it for us?
Not making the 'essential workers' list in 2020 proved to be a moment of insight for a lot of people. Marie Solis wrote an article about losing her job while regarding work as an essential part of her self-worth (the open discussion below the article is a rare example of good conversation that is also worth reading!).
Her analysis of some articles and books points to an interesting divide in the effect of the pandemic on work. While some people have found a way to unplug from meeting culture and noticed their job could be done at least as well in a lot less hours, the majority of people have put in more hours than ever, mostly stuck in Zoom or Teams. Apparently, the same tools that have brought us a great increase in productivity over the last decades, have not led to less working hours. Our long working hours are 'sticky' in a lot of working cultures.
The routes to escape this stickiness (for those who are interested) are varied. The discussion on Universal Basic Income has gotten some new traction from the experiments with stimulus checks during the pandemic. Some are exploring freelancing, not as a way to earn more, but to work less. Marie concludes:
"Individual epiphanies about work -that one would rather do much less of it, or that one should at least be able to do it on one’s own terms- can become the foundation of collective movements."
If we look at large-scale cooperation as one of humanity's most distinguishing feats, the principle of trust is a big factor. Trust sets the filter I apply listening to your stories, influences my willingness to cooperate, and my appetite for taking a risk with you. Steven M.R. Covey (son of the Steven Covey that wrote 'the 7 habits of highly effective people') even compares 'high trust' to 'oil', 'low trust' to 'sand' in your machinery. His book 'The speed of trust' on how to measure and improve trust in your organisation is easily my most recommended book ever on leadership.
Last week, Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner re-posted a 2016 podcast on the effect of societal trust on health and wealth. In the podcast, David Halpern, the head of the U.K.’s Behavioral Insights Team states:
"This [trust] is a more powerful predictor of future national growth rates than, for example, levels of human capital or skills in the population."
Even though we've argued against economic growth as the best indicator of human success, the gains caused by this dynamic are undeniable.
Hearing how racial diversity negatively impacts basic trust (a historic impulse we unfortunately still have in our DNA), an interesting balance arises. Countries that are less racially diverse generally score higher on societal trust, but lower on creativity (which is highly influenced by diversity) and vice versa.
Recalling how the arrival of Dutch and German immigrants initially caused tensions in the US, the solution also emerges. Those same biases cause us to over-estimate bad behaviour in 'others' (meaning, the people we do not know), making 'getting to know each other' the best way to solve this issue. That's why sports teams, the military and universities have proven to increase societal trust. Organising social gatherings and bonding opportunities may therefore be your best-performing investment on a grand scale.
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.
Working From Home continues. I recently discussed this trend with a friend, who kindly made me realise that the industry I'm in is not necessarily representative of the general population...🤦♂️. Even so, I still feel that the impact of what we are learning right now will have a lasting effect. Some industries will shift the majority of their work remote (examples roll in weekly) and for other industries, a hybrid model will work better than the old.
Culture shock is what's happening when we visit a foreign country for a longer period, but part of the whole process is also happening upon coming home. Even if you return to the same country and the same house, you have changed yourself.
The current phase we're in is really a 'phase'. The rules that we had before the crisis have become 'fluid' which allows for more experimentation. After the most acute part of this crisis is over, we will 'solidify' some of the behaviours and lose some. One of the pieces of advice she gives in her book is about preparing for the post-corona period. Now is the time to start thinking about the behaviours you want to keep, and have some people work on the incorporation of those.
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!
Science is a magic word. Whenever something is 'scientifically proven' or 'studied by science', many people feel comfortable and even think that whatever is stated should be true. Trying to objectively challenge the outcomes of scientific research in conversation with friends and family often means the end of a pleasant get-together.
I must admit, I have been a strong believer in everything scientific for a long time. Whenever there was a choice between an 'opinion' and a scientifically backed proposal, I'd be inclined to choose sides with the latter. During the years, however, having digested multiple news items on professors faking their research results, my faith in science fainted somewhat. Then, in 2015, Mr Richard Horton published a short article in The Lancet called "Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma?" and honestly, it was quite a shock to me. The article starts with a quote:
“A lot of what is published is incorrect.”
With 'a lot' was meant around half of the scientific literature. The statement was made during a symposium on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research. Various reasons were given for why the scientific world had lost track of its mission (or what we believe its mission should be). In essence, it came down to "flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance".
In the article, Mr Horton offers various possible solutions, all with the aim to align the incentives of scientists with getting reliable results and useful criticism.
"The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system."
After reading this article, my belief in science was shattered for a while. However, being of an inquisitive nature myself, I realised we cannot do without solid research. I have enough confidence in science and its community that it will find an innovative way to reinvent itself. This may require an outsider to swing the pendulum first.
A close friend pointed me to the podcast 'Renegades - born in the USA', which is only available on Spotify. It's a series of episodes capturing the conversations between former President Barrack Obama and musician Bruce Springsteen. Spotify promotes the podcast:
“It is a personal, in-depth discussion between two friends exploring their pasts, their beliefs, and the country that they love — as it was, as it is, and as it ought to be going forward.”
Perhaps an unlikely friendship, its origin is explained in the first episode when President Obama asks “how did we get here?”. It turns out their lives and especially childhoods have developed in a similar way and as result, they share a lot of values. They both felt emotionally displaced and have been able to turn that emotion into a driving force for shaping their lives and creating new things.
Although the episodes thus far have a somewhat slow pace, interesting insights do present themselves underneath the politically correct surface. First of all, it provides a description of the current state of the United States as a country. On topics like racism and equal opportunity, the picture they paint is worse than I thought. Little has changed since the black community uprisings in the 1960s. President Obama even admits he did not feel comfortable and hence was not able to change anything about it during his presidency.
"We never went through a real reckoning."
It's a bleak picture of a country with great ideals and promises but immense problems. Pretty sad actually. I sincerely hope the conversations between the two men will inspire groups of different races to come together and initiate the healing process. It'll be a long journey.
When there are two sides to a story, I have mostly unconsciously picked a side before looking at all aspects. It's usually a second-order reaction that makes me think of the parties involved and their motives, but I almost never truly research myself.
When being confronted with the ever-continuing saga of Timnit Gebru, the AI ethics researcher that (involuntary) left Google after one of her research papers was blocked for publication, I decided to read some stories highlighting both sides of the case. Like my co-author, I have a tendency to be suspicious of everything Google says, which triggered my initial response (Google: bad...) but also my secondary.
Google's story is that the publication did not meet the bar for publication and Gebru threatened to resign unless Google met a number of conditions that it was unwilling to meet. I found the stories making the case for her unreasonable behaviour convincing because of their detailed examples of her overall attitude and communication style.
Finally, I read the article that analysed the draft publication itself. The publication highlights the lack of transparency in 'training data'; large language models use vast parts of the written content of the internet, sexist and racial language included. It also points to the research opportunity costs, as Big Tech focuses solely on the AI aspects that might benefit them financially. Finally, she and her co-authors merely point out how convincing recent AI is able to generate misinformation and how we should be warned against malicious use.
I now think there's no one-dimensional right or wrong here. On Gebru's style, her critics might have a valid point. But judging the contents of the paper, I can fully see how Google might have wanted to keep it unpublished. And that says a lot.