Every now and then, I intuitively reach for a dose of musical feel-good. I fire up my years-old collection of 4+ stars from the iPod days (when I was still obsessively rating every song in my collection) and put in some earphones for a good few hours of emotional rollercoasting.
A musical rabbit hole sometimes forms while spending some time in the tub, increasingly prevalent because I acquired a simple iDevice clamp that I can attach to the faucet. Bumping into a song and its story on YouTube, my associations cascade from song to song, alternating between memories and new discoveries.
Yesterday, my musical travels led me from the birth of Paul McCartney's The Long and Winding Road, via its role in impressing Ed Sheeran in the movie Yesterday to 'Get Back' footage of George Harrison leaving the Beatles while his rejected demo of 'Isn't it a pity' is playing, beautifully illustrating the point he was trying to make in the song.
Just as I jumped to Jacob Collier playing his audience choir, my 9-year old son opened the door to the bathroom -way past his bedtime- to grab a up of water. He approached the tub, asking me what I was listening to. In a whispering voice, I explained what Jacob was doing, and why I thought this video and the moment was so hauntingly beautiful. Transfixed to the music, he leaned on the tub without saying a word.
Reaching the final notes, as on cue, my wife entered the house. Hearing the door slam shut made my son jump up, realising he should be in his bed. He tiptoed out, and commented in a conspiratorial voice on him closing the door. "I'll just close the door so mom does not notice". "Great idea", I whispered back.
It's moments like this when I realise the role we have as parents in offering up the beautiful things life has to offer. Our enthusiasm can act as a form of activation energy, sparking an interest. Some of it will start a chain reaction lasting a lifetime, some of it will fizzle out. I still remember my mom revealing her favourite parts of the Beatles' White Album and demonstrating dance moves to Karen Young's 'Hot Shot' as if it were yesterday.
A few millennia back, Plutarch famously observed how: "Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a fire". Grab your opportunities!
We spent some words on 'doing nothing' before, celebrating the virtues of marinating ideas, letting your subconscious do the work while walking, being in nature or just sitting down with a cup of coffee.
Another big benefit of doing nothing is tied to the way we process sensory inputs. As the number of inputs increases, we tend to numb our senses in order to prevent a form of overload. Using this mechanism, we are able to adapt to circumstances that would otherwise render us completely crazy.
This mechanism also works the other way around, as our susceptibility to stimuli increases again if the volume knob is turned down. I personally encounter this whenever I get back from a remote holiday and get into metropolitan traffic once again, being overwhelmed with the busyness around me.
My most beneficial downwards adaptation occurred when I embarked on a meditation retreat back in 2018. Not talking for a few days and being surrounded by simple surroundings had the effect of turning my filtering mechanisms way down, and my susceptibility way up. Once I returned to normal life, I was able to experience phenomena in a wholly different way. Most notably, the way I was able to enjoy conversations and observe my own emotions.
Tying this experience to common wisdom on the value of 'small signals' (that often hold a clue to finding the answer to life's big questions), I realised how much 'tuning out' every once in a while can be instrumental to moving ahead. When was the last time you felt like your 'filtering dials' were turned all the way down? If you have big questions to answer, doing nothing (extensively) might be a good next step!
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?
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.
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.
In 'streak' we explored the links between habit forming and momentum, overcoming the friction that comes with standing still. Whenever we feel stuck, the same formulas seem to apply. Professor Adam Alter of NYU's Stern School of Business discusses feeling stuck in a recent podcast. One strategy he suggests:
"One approach is to take small bursts of action, even if they don't directly produce usable results, as the act of acting itself can help overcome stuckness."
Simply doing something, no matter how small or imperfect, can help overcome stuckness and keep the momentum going.
"Atomic Habits" writer James Clear shared a speech by General William McRaven, in which he underscored the role of meticulously making your bed each morning, something all Navy Seals do:
"If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right."
The chainsmoking as Austin Kleon calls it, seems to work across disciplines. If you feel stuck in any area, start generating some momentum in another!
Writer Chris Guillebeau recently wrote a post called "If You're Not Getting Better, You're Getting worse". He explores skills and knowledge that atrophy when you're not actively using them, like public speaking or writing.
I find the term 'atrophy' especially interesting, as the comparison with muscle tissue is appealing. Use it or lose it, so the saying goes. This would imply that anything you're not actively using is broken down, possibly for the sake of energy optimisation. If you're not using certain skills, their usefulness is questionable, right?
Q and A recently recalled the type of mathematical equations we used to be able to solve when in university. Bumping into some study books recently, I was amazed by the level of complexity younger me was apparently able to solve.
This confrontation with evidently atrophied skills made me realise something else: I did not consider it a loss, for at least two reasons: the fact that I had been able to do it made me (questionably) confident of my ability to do it again when needed, and -more importantly- I know the intuitions I formed from practicing the skills are still present. And these intuitions are exactly the building blocks I use on a regular basis to try and make sense of the world around me.
In an earlier deliberation on learning processes in kids and adults, we also touched on this theme. Could constantly rolling up the hill, getting 'better' at any one thing, be like chasing fools' gold when done for too long? Could using it as a 'stepping stone' be a better strategy, enabling a staggered progression? Think about the things you are getting better at. Would you want to get better infinitely? And how would you handle stagnation or even a decline?
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.
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?
Procrastination remains an intriguing phenomenon. Most of the thoughts spent on it are aimed at beating it, using a broad array of techniques to overcome this dreaded enemy of an empty to-do list and feelings of accomplishment.
We touched on a possible mechanism behind it, explaining how fear of failure might be a driving force to put things off. To balance things out, we even contemplated the intrinsic value of delay, using your unconscious problem-solving mechanisms to get better outcomes.
Another angle struck me while in the shower the other day. I noticed how I tended to pile a large number of small action items over a number of days, with a growing anxiety over not progressing. At some point, the anxiety-dam burst and I started the Herculean effort of chopping down the list and making progress at breakneck speeds. At the end of the day, I felt euphoric, having cleared most of the list in record time.
This made me think; how much of this process is just self-inflicted drama? Building up tension for the sake of a momentous release? Like a symphony, building intricate melody lines that build tension, feeling a bit off, before gloriously closing with the sound chords that feel like coming home.
Can procrastination be a form of 'deadline addiction', seeing what you are able to pull off? Is it actually increasing the value of the work? Or could the bigger release be a distraction from tasks less urgent, but more important? What's your relationship to procrastination?
Last week, we spent some thoughts on AI technology that might augment your capabilities to read other people's feelings, and how this technology might make you feel. Once you conquer the stage of feeling threatened and accept the new tools, you may become dependent on it and ruin your own intuition. Use it or lose it, right?
In a lecture I attended a few weeks back, AI specialist Phanish Puranam shared an intriguing example of the pitfalls that might be lurking. In large law firms, multiple junior lawyers perform most of the prep work for the senior lawyers. They dig through stacks of documents to summarize facts, find clues and form suggestions for approaching the case. Large Language Models like GPT-4 promise case analysis at high speeds and low costs, potentially reducing the reliance on juniors. If you go down this road, however, you are destroying your talent pipeline. Building your senior lawyer experience and intuition -our own Machine Learning model- requires grinding away at case material for a number of years. As Einstein once said:
"Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience"
Since the junior work needed to be done in any case, the learning almost came as a by-product. Now, the learning must become intentional, and the process re-considered as an investment. New equations will come with new optimal solutions, all part of the impact we can't even envision yet.
An interesting part of the puzzles before us, is the level of dependence we are comfortable with. As investigated before, we are already dependent for much of our lives, which is apparently fine for most of us. On the other hand, if my car's navigation is sending me in a direction I feel uncomfortable with, I am glad I have a sense of direction and basic geographical knowledge.
It's up to us to define the fine line between using technology as a bicycle for the mind and leaning on it like a crutch. Interesting times.
"We tend to think of major personal transformations as big, loud and sudden. We imagine an explosion of fireworks or, conversely, an earthquake that brings everything crashing down. But personal transformations don’t always follow a ‘bang’. Sometimes they build from a whisper."
It's a thought that resonated with me, luring me deeper into the article that featured it. For me, it connects with the idea that we all have a unique set of capabilities and talents. We 'just' need to find them.
We're, however, not taught how. Being social animals that tend to prefer structure over chaos and mingling in the crowd over standing on the sideline, we experience a lot of pressure to conform. Conform to whatever our surroundings have defined as 'normal'. Furthermore, we remember well the big and profound life-changing events, tricking us into believing that thát is something to strive for.
I personally believe the big events are often just a catalyst or a culmination of many, smaller steps. We can create and cultivate a lifestyle and processes that make it easier to take those small steps. Almost like a habit.
The mentioned article provided some interesting signals to look for, teaching us where to find those 'whispers' and how to actively listen to them. It appears that our dreams and day-wanderings (which apparently are a form of dream) provide clues to who we really are, what we aspire to and how we can actively (and subtly) change course.
"When our minds wander, we step back from ongoing events, reassess what has just happened, and imagine alternative possibilities for what we might do next."
The trick is, more often than not, your dream is ... just a dream, a random concatenation of different experiences and made-up events. The article explains that you can however actively induce dreaming and by creating more of it, chances are you'll get more inspiration out of it. It boils down to what is called 'freedom from immediacy' and 'freedom from repetition'. In other words, try to reduce reacting to immediate needs and actively look for variation, different activities and experiences. It'll enrich your imagination and thereby your toolkit for transformation.
For an experiment, plan a 1-hour 'daydreaming' appointment in your schedule, or come up with a way to change a routine. Wether it's your workout, your walk or your meeting format, switch it up for the sake of variety.
The nightmare of some, the muse for others, deadlines bring up mixed reactions. The other day, I had a conversation with an entrepreneur who just finished a multi-week project on a strict deadline. She explained how accepting the project make her anxious at first, cursing her optimism and accepting the job. Once the friction of the first outlines were behind her, she returned to her familiar flow, doing a great job, speeding up last minute before delivering a product she was proud of. With 30 years of practice, this was a familiar pattern, so she was able to experience, but not suffer from the deadline.
I have come to appreciate the value of deadlines more and more over the past years. Since filling my days with work is never a problem, setting deadlines is a wonderful tool to prioritize. I just need one moment of clarity, followed by a small action. Promising a delivery, agreeing on a common result. As I want to keep my promises (also to myself), I then have all the leverage I need to deliver.
This newsletter has been the result of 100 deadlines. 100 times we needed to sit our butts down behind a keyboard to deliver on the promise we made each other and the perceived expectations from our audience. Sometimes this clashed with other commitments and desires, sacrificing an evening on the couch with a book, but I don't remember ever thinking about bailing on the deadline.
Yesterday evening, lacking inspiration & energy, I did bail somewhat. I decided to leave the writing to the very last minute, hours before our all-hands staff meeting where we send out the Q&A. It felt like a fitting experiment, an hommage to the power of the deadline. Would a 2-hour deadline help, or hinder? Would my amygdala kick in, paralysing any form of creativity?
Trusting the results of 99 earlier writing deadlines and knowing there's always a plan B helps. Like the 'comfort zone-stretch-stress' model for growth, creative confidence seems to grow with exercise, which makes me optimistic and hungry for more experiments.
The deadline also solves the 'when is something good enough' dilemma. You need to ship, so you do. I used to see this as greatness' biggest foe; quality matters most, right? Interviews with some great writers made me change my mind though. Most of them work on deadlines and consider their work as snapshots of their ideas and their thinking. They are already thinking about their next projects while finishing up the last. Many quotes on the subject can be summed up in simple terms: It's never finished, you just stop.
Certain topics and challenges remain top of mind. Sometimes intended as one of your favourite problems, sometimes subconsciously and automatically as you're intrinsically interested. My mind, for example, seems to be constantly interested in everything to do with equality, new economic models, taking care for our earth.
It is therefore that I present the Global GPI and GDP per capita graph again. In addition, some topics simply deserve to be repeated. Repetition is one of the best teachers, but in this case I'm sharing some further thoughts after revisiting the data presented.
Reviewing the graph once more, I could not resist thinking that the deviation between GDP and GPI development started more or less right after the moment President Nixon ratified the end of the Bretton-Woods system in 1973. This system was installed after the Second World War and ensured there was a fixed rate between the US dollar and gold. In addition, all international currencies were coupled to the US dollar. This feels as a rather artificial system, keeping each other's (financial) relationships firmly fixed. It does make sense that this could not hold until eternity, but the advantage of the system was that any money created by central banks had physical collateral.
Decoupling of the gold-standard meant the start of the era of money-creation out of thin air. Today, for every new dollar (or euro) a promisory note is issued by the government stating that it will be paid back in the future (i.e. by you, through taxation). Today's system almost entirely banks on next (and next-next) generation's income streams. In the past 50 years, we've pulled forward a lot of future earnings and used it to increase consumption (GDP...).
I'm not necessarily a proponent of going back to a gold-standard, but unrestrained lending on behalf of our (grand)children is also not a sustainable way forward. Some rules and regulations could be in order together with a normalisation of consumption patterns.
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!
The usual indicator to measure our wealth is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It's straightforward but also one-dimensional, in the sense that it's just a financial representation of wealth. Researchers have developed another benchmark called the 'Genuine Progress Indicator' or GPI that also includes qualitative components of well-being, such as social and environmental factors.
Comparing the development of global GDP and GPI per capita leads to interesting observations. While GDP per capita has shown a steady rise over the years, GPI peaked mid-1970s and has declined somewhat ever since:
The result resonates with my long-standing belief that our everlasting focus on GDP growth is not the way forward. I know, there is a risk of some confirmation bias here! Digging somewhat deeper, it becomes clear that the reason why GPI declines is mainly due to the depletion of earth's resources, pollution and climate change. Even though global poverty levels have been reduced and life expectancy has gone up, financial wealth has come at a far greater cost: the certainty of long-term survival.
All this came to my attention through Jeremy Lent, an author and speaker whose work "investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis and who explores pathways toward a life-affirming future". In his article 'Solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism' he sketches a pretty black-and-white picture that combatting climate change requires fundamental changes but that the big elephant in the room is often not addressed by policy makers:
"That elephant is called capitalism, and it is high time to face the fact that, as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of our globalized world, the climate crisis won’t be resolved."
Without choosing sides, I do believe that present-day challenges merit taking a critical look at our current capitalist system and its drivers, essentially its overriding objective to maximize profits. Capitalism has brought us many good things and most proponents argue that it's a system that promotes (technological) innovations, which are urgently needed to solve the problems we face. However, research has also shown that quite frequently these innovations end up increasing pollution and depletion of resources. While GDP grows, GPI declines.
"This dynamic, known as the Jevons paradox, was first recognized back in the nineteenth century by economist William Stanley Jevons, who demonstrated how James Watts’ steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of coal-powered engines, paradoxically caused a dramatic increase in coal consumption even while it decreased the amount of coal required for any particular application."
The discussion is often obscured by the proposition that any alternative to capitalism is worse than capitalism itself. You may even be called a communist. Therefore, they argue, capitalism and (GDP) growth is the only way out of our problems and we should not consider another system. Of note: in all UN environmental and global warming analyses, there is not one scenario that takes into account a stable or declining GDP. Not one. They considered such scenarios 'implausable'. That's in itself strange too. It seems implausable to me that highly-educated social beings would just ignore one of simplest answers to growing pollution and use of resources: reduce the demand.
As we've argued before, the preferable future is probably a balance, a best of multiple worlds. I'd agree that changing a well-entrenched system will take decades, but that doesn't mean we should not try to clearly define and implement the boundaries of a new system based on "life-affirming values". Many new and promising economic models have already been proposed, such as Kate Raworth’s 'Doughnut economics' that we covered in our second newsletter. It is possible to reduce resource and energy consumption while reducing inequality and improving well-being.
Everyone plays a role in this crisis and has a place on the board. The pieces aren't necessarily black and white, but some are on opposite sides, some in the middle. I feel there are spaces to be filled on this board. Will you join me in trying to fill the gaps and find foundational principles that could create the conditions for long-term flourishing on a regenerated earth?
Cathedrals have always impressed me, as most of its initiators have not been able to witness their completion. Generations of builders worked on something that they saw progress only marginally over their lifetime, which I think is inspiring for a lot of challenges we have before us.
This morning, I attended an inspiration and brainstorm session, organised by my kids' school, aimed at creating improvement plans. As a speaker to inspire all of us, they asked Daan Quakernaat to kick-off the meeting, which he did using the Cathedral as an example of organic building. Daan got interested in Cathedrals while visiting the one in Reims which inspired him to plan visiting all other French cathedrals and become an expert in what medieval Cathedral-building can teach us.
Building a cathedral often started with a generic plan (how many towers, global size) that changed as time progressed. Competition with adjacent cities and self-esteem generally inspired the level of ambition, while this often led to drastic changes down the line. As an example, the Reims cathedral started out with a sketch of 7 huge towers, ending up with 2 half towers making the facade and 5 structures that can barely be called towers. All the same, the resulting cathedral is considered a masterpiece of gothic architecture. Daan's big take-away is how happy the builders were with results that did not match the original plans, but led to something impressive and beautiful anyway. He asked us to look at our accomplishments and check if we were not overlooking or undervaluing the builds so far.
Switching gears, ignoring sunk cost fallacy and just moving on, can also be seen at the Laon cathedral at its north 'rose window', where new techniques for increasing window size were introduced as the gothic building skills progressed. They just switched plans, leaving the old and the new plan visibly exposed.
As a side-note, he shared how all of the big carved stones, making up the structure without any cement, were 'signed' by their sculptors in places that were not visible to the eye. While also being in line with medieval artistry, these signs did perform a valuable feedback mechanism, as they were the precursors of the 'quality check id' you can find in many products. When walls collapsed, as they often did during building, they could identify the weak parts of the structure and impose disciplinary 'quality measures' to the sculptor responsible.
Illustrating another lesson to be learned from cathedral building, Daan shared imagery of the Notre Dame fire ravaging the wooden roof of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. As much as this is qualified a 'disaster', it happened several times in the churches lifetime, as has happened to most cathedrals that have been in existence several hundreds of years. His moral here: 'cry, clean debris, collect money, rebuild'. A wonderful illustration of 'this too, shall pass'.
During the Christmas break, my family was hit with a nasty flu, keeping us inside for multiple days. Low physical energy, no commitments and ample time usually sends me down a rabbit hole of some sorts. The last time this occurred, I bumped into 279 episodes of 'The Big Bang Theory', a series I miraculously managed to miss out on since its inception. Not judging the usefulness of time spent, I managed to take a sizeable bite out of those episodes before I fully recovered.
This time, my rabbit hole probably qualified a bit more as being useful. Since my sons are into chess these days, I spent numerous hours on Reddit, YouTube and Twitch trying to get a feel for how to improve at the game.
I used to play chess when I was young, but I still remember a lot of the theory not sticking. I don't know what caused this back in the day, but I was set on finding out. The couple of days I spent in chessland taught me a few new things and confirmed some others from surprising angles.
First of all, I was reminded again of the magical powers of the internet. It is truly amazing how much faster you can learn when you have access to the best & the brightest teachers. These days, a lot of the world's top players have their own YouTube channel and/or stream their online games on Twitch, commenting on their moves, sharing their strategic thoughts. On top of that, you can select your teachers based on having a personal click with them as well, since this greatly affects your learning. I visited a ton of YouTube channels before settling on a particular one that just resonated best.
The importance of having a feel for your own way of learning was another big take-away for me. This is probably the biggest change from my chess learning as a kid. Having the confidence of knowing what you're looking for, keeping up the search until you find the resources that somehow click. Trusting your intuition on this front is something I wish we could teach in school.
This continuing search also felt like a good example of what life-long-learning means to me, contrary to my formal education. In school, the curriculum is mostly set out for you, while learning these days is about following my interests, gathering material while strolling around, not yet knowing how the dots will connect, which I find infinitely more fun while also having the best track record by far.
Next, a systems thinking approach helps greatly in learning new stuff. When I was young, I never understood how the phases of the game (opening, middle game, endgame) got their meaning, since the separation felt totally artificial for me. Now, seeing the game as a progression with increasing optionality at first and solvable puzzles near the end, I developed an appreciation for the way they are taught. Understanding a ton of scenarios for specific openings helps you steer the trajectory in the beginning, increasing your chances to get a lead. When possibility explodes in the middle game, you switch to tactics and strategies, as they help you make the most of situations you have not seen before. Finally, as complexity decreases near the end of the game, you need to know specific move orders again to be able to seal the deal and win.
Finally, learning new things while knowing a lot already is much easier. Lateral examples from business, philosophy and psychology just help a lot in acquiring learnings. This rabbit hole again proved to me how much fun it is to learn new things, and life-long learning is a long game with compounding interest.
If chess interests you, take a look at some of the videos on Levi Rosenthal's (Gothamchess) channel or challenge me to a game the next time we meet. In any case, next time you're stuck in bed with the flu, think rabbit holes.
How fascinating when you arrive at an insight and realising you have arrived at this insight before, only through a different route. Somehow, that particular insight feels more... insightful. Having more weight. Connecting the dots. Discussing our notion that behaviour is a philosophy, we investigated how your environment influences your behaviour in different ways.
We concluded that it is wise to embrace diversity as a key element to make groups better and more efficient. We shared this insight earlier, in that instance based on academic socio-economic research:
"He [Professor Anil Gaba] 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."
Due to lack of time to do some further research, I'm leaving you with a thought that occurred to us last week while discussing this topic:
"Why is it, when we know diversity has such advantages, that we favour like-minded people when we get to choose our team mates?"
Surely, we do not always choose the path of least-resistance? Or, is that wishful thinking? Perhaps it gets a place on your list of contemplations for the coming Christmas period too.
Ever since Clayton Christensen launched his theories on disruptive innovation back in 1995, the term 'disruption' has come up increasingly in corporate lingo. The Ubers and Airbnbs of this world only added to the allure of the term. If building new businesses isn't sexy enough, rocking the world of existing players is. Finding an opportunity to disrupt a market is the holy grail of innovation, being disrupted by a young up-and-comer is the ultimate nightmare for any CEO.
Any time 'I-win-you-lose' constructs become the norm, I am compelled to look at the alternatives. Testosteron-laden fights in the business sphere might yield 'move fast and break things' kind of progress and make for great stories and headlines, but often at the expense of large groups of people.
This is why I think the ugly duckling in innovation -incremental innovation- deserves a re-evaluation in the hierarchy of corporate goal-setting. Just as 'Lean' or the 'Toyota Production System' have enchanted managers on the production side of things for decades, incremental innovation can do the same on the renewal side of the company.
On the personal development front, the value of tiny changes over large ones has already gone mainstream. Think of tiny changes as interest, compounding over time. If you're up for innovation at your company, project or personal life, consider doubling down on small increments. Not as sexy, just as valuable.
"I couldn't help a smile thinking of how we're constantly discovering, forgetting and rediscovering."
Our thoughts on rediscovering and changing your mind made me think some more. It's not just about rediscovering and time doing its thing. Time also allows you to 'consume' new experiences and facts. These in themselves could potentially 'reorientate' your beliefs much like magnets orientating other magnetic materials.
Taking this analogy a step further, it then becomes the question whether your beliefs are 'isotropic' (orientation possible in any direction in similar -often homogeneous- ways) or anisotropic (orientation not homogeneous and preference for a certain direction). Here is the explanation of these properties for magnets.
I've personally experienced that some concepts simply need more 'marinating' time to truly understand them. Often, you understand the basics well enough to use the concepts, but it requires experimenting, using them in different situations and, simply, time to be able to build on them.
One method that really stands out for me to speed up the marination process, is to explain the concepts to others, made popular by Prof Richard Feynman. The very fact you need to think about how to educate something to another person, forces you to really spell out the details, concoct analogies, find examples, answering questions you never thought about yourself. The raw food has evolved in a tender, flavoured delicatesse.
Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with my co-author, discussing the balance between taking action and letting opportunities come to you. Both of us expressed a sense of unease with the latter; it feels passive, which collides with the getting-things-done mentality and Christian values we were brought up with.
On closer inspection, however, the main cause of unease was hiding behind a false dichotomy, as is often the case with hurdles like these. Waiting for opportunities to reveal themselves is hardly a passive endeavour.
Erik Smithuis, founder of corporate training powerhouse ICM, once revealed his strategy for success that has stayed with me ever since:
"You warm yourself best when close to the fire"
His message was mainly to move yourself close to where the action is, get your toes in the water and then take it from there.
This ties in to other wisdom we shared earlier on creating luck and not seeing the puzzle looking forward. Following your gut might be the most powerful trick in the book. It's about saying yes to what feels right, no to what does not feel right, and keep moving.
Like the old crocodile that only eats every few weeks, being in the right spot is what matters. Are you creating the surface area for serendipity?
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).
“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.
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?
My attention is usually drawn when someone posts a contrarian view and has the guts to go against mainstream thinking. A recent article by Philip Naudus published on Medium claims that most of the productivity improvement advices and books written on the subject, are wrong.
Observing various studies conducted by different researchers, he essentially concludes that various kinds of tricks, tips and tools not only give a false feeling of being able to influence your productivity. They also seem to have a marginal effect on productivity. Even the weather (as unpredictable as it is) is apparently a better productivity predictor; days with heavy fog and rain are sure to negatively influence your productivity.
He does distill one simple advice out of the different studies that he analyzed:
"Whatever makes you happy, do that."
Intuitively, this makes absolute sense. When you're happy, you at least sense you have more energy. You spent your time more effectively and most probably you have far more meaningful conversations. The smile on your face induces the people you interact with to be more positive and willing to cooperate as well.
"But for some twisted reason, our society glorifies creators who work their fingers to the bone, refusing to slow down or take a break."
This is probably the main problem. We feel the need to conform to fulfill our need to be socially accepted and part of a group. We need to build resilience against what our surroundings want us to do or what we believe they want us to do.
Therefore: recharge often, take time off and make sure you spend enough time on things that you love doing. Never waste a good holiday 😉.
The tools we need to navigate our current world are changing, and this trend has been going on for some time. More than a decade ago, IBM researched required skillsets for leaders. According to the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study, which surveyed 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, CEOs believe that:
“More than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision — successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.”
In this newsletter, we have often highlighted aspects of creativity, but one of its defining aspects was illustrated beautifully last week when YouTuber and Music Teacher Jeff Schneider published a lesson on jazz chord progressions and reharmonization for one of his favourite Jazz standards.
Even if you're not into music theory or only marginally acquainted (like I am), his explanation of what makes adaptations sound great, immediately hit home for me:
"...why does that chord sound so good? Well, it's because it's unexpected. In music, unexpected is interesting but there's a caveat. If you go too far out into left field, it'll cross over from Super hip to just weird."
Being novel, creative, interesting, requires moving beyond the obvious, beyond the first things that pop into your head. Creativity and Design Thinking professor Manuel Sosa teaches his students a technique to go beyond the obvious by asking them to brainstorm 10 ideas and then classify those as the 'verboten list'. They should then move beyond into the territory of the non-obvious and divergent thinking. Going too far out, he warns, gets you in dangerous territory as it will become unrecognizable.
Another music example was used by Seth Godin in an interview with Tim Ferriss. Seth explained how the successful musical 'Hamilton' crossed borders, while still building on the familiar:
"The things that happen in Hamilton rhyme with the things that came before. If you’re a fan of Broadway, you notice things that fit in, even though you’re surprised that they do. If you’re a fan of rapper hip-hop, you notice things that fit in, even though you might be surprised that they do. He makes references in every single line to some giant who came before. That texture grabs people who have cultural awareness, and then he takes you every few minutes to a place where you’re not sure it’s going to work, and then he relieves the tension and starts the process over again."
This makes enjoyment of cultural phenomena highly personal as well. From music to dining in a fancy restaurant, having the vocabulary to build on defines if you 'get the joke'. It's why musical wizardry from the likes of Jacob Collier can sound weird for some, but heavenly for others.
I think this is why creativity is such a fundamental human endeavour, like it is intertwined with life in general. No coincidence that 'creation' can point to the entirety of our cosmos as well. As wonderfully considered in 'Where good ideas come from', life itself is a cascade of 'Adjacent Possibilities'; possibilities that appear because of what came before, requiring just a little activation energy to emerge.
Playing the game and changing the game have always been battling thoughts for me. In general, I feel quite ok with having a propensity to being anti-authoritarian, but at some points I do feel like an annoying asshole, challenging conventional wisdom or 'the way we've always done it'. Bumping into statements that support this friction-inducing behaviour, therefore, always makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy. Like Naval Ravikant tweeting:
His tweet echoes the statement Steve Jobs gave in 1994 in an interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association:
"Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it."
I love the relativity worded in these statements. If we want to progress, we should ask ourselves if we're playing the right game, if the ladder is against the right wall. Or if we should shake things up.
If that resonates with you, speak up. And if it doesn't, smile at the person ruffling some feathers. It's just another dimension in the diversity we need to move ahead.
Learning and mastering new skills can be frustrating. The 'learning valley' my kids get explained in school doesn't end when you graduate. Every time you find yourself in a new situation, a new role, a new responsibility, you likely experience the helplessness that comes with it.
While taking up scuba diving again after a very long time, this realisation smacked me right in the face. The first time you're under water, you are so caught up with your own gear and well-being, that you miss out on 99% of what's happening around you. Like a horse with blinkers on, your field of vision collapses to the scope you're able to manage. It also reminded me of the first time I drove a car (with a stick), wondering if there would ever come a time I would be able to handle all these tasks effortlessly. Of course, once you master it, you hardly ever think of it. Changing gears and keeping a good overview comes naturally, the same way eating with a knife and fork requires hardly any effort.
Until now, the fun part for me has always been about the realisation of mastery. Like Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time, you start getting a longer horizon, start seeing trends and patterns, and start feeling confident you can handle what's thrown at you. Your unconscious machine learning model starts taking over a lot of the mundane, so you can move on to seeing the bigger picture. This is your realisation of growth happening before your eyes!
Like the reframing used to re-train your dopamine system, I try to enjoy being a beginner more and more often. Not just because I enjoy the mastery (hopefully) coming later, but just to savour that part of the journey as well. Even the realisation of friction while learning new things can be a great start.
"When you reflect on the last few years of your life, how much has been determined by a few great decisions? To commit to, or separate from, that one person? To start, or quit, that job or business? To focus on, or deprioritize, that area of your life? Four decisions per year might even be too many. I can capture the major inflection points in my life in one or two choices each year."
Like in business, high-leverage decisions can create the most value. Investor Naval Ravikant's dream is even to just be paid for his judgement, as this provides the most rewards:
"I would love to be paid purely for my judgment, not for any work. I want a robot, capital, or computer to do the work, but I want to be paid for my judgment." (link to article)
Unlike the smaller course-corrections, though, bigger decisions don't require a block in your schedule to sit down and reflect in a systematic way. Nat identified two drivers for big decisions; something not working, needing change and opportunities presenting themselves suddenly. Or even better, a combination of the two. At certain points, momentum and opportunity collides:
"None of the major decisions that have shaped my life were lengthy deliberations. They were each slowly building momentum for months or years, and then the decision was suddenly obvious. A certain amount of energy had built up behind it in my subconscious until one day, the dam burst, and the choice was clear."
Giving your subconscious space for processing might be the best strategy here. Keep your mind busy with mundane tasks (walking, gardening,...) and see what happens!
Building on the piece 'Alive' above, we discussed habits and tools to convert it into a navigation strategy. Our approach was that correcting a course calls for a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down approach. If only to complement or balance our tendency to think in terms of goals and destinations.
Annie Dillard once wrote: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."
This resonated with me, since we have a tendency to spend much attention to our past and the future while ignoring what's right in front of us, the present. Zooming in on the quote, how we spend our days is how we spend our time right now. Which begs the question we set out to answer; what to spend my time on? Identifying the activities that make you come alive is not a trivial task.
In many coaching exercises, the question comes up of recalling your favourite activities when you were a child. Unbothered by grandiose life goals and self programming, children are much better at listening to their inner voice, the sparks of joy that certain activities bring them. I remember having a hard time coming up with these memories on the spot, but writing them down as they came up during several conversations over the past years, I can now paint quite a vivid picture.
Another set of clues are to be found in observing our daily activities. The titles of manager, developer or parent don't summarize the activities that we truly enjoy. Solving a business problem in front of a whiteboard with a group, having a conversation to further another persons' insights, playing a game of chess or football with your kids, cooking a meal for friends or taking a walk with your significant other; those are the building blocks that eventually build into an energetic life.
Having stunningly beautiful nature around me this past week, I remembered how plants and trees grow. Without any blueprint of what they aspire to be, they just grow to where the light is. Adding mass where energy is abundant, they turn into grandiose organisms.
Building on this, a compass might be a better tool than a map. Frameworks like Design your Life and Nat Eliason's review we discussed recently can help seeing your current activities with new perspective, as we tend to clutter our own views. These views will shed new light on your compass.
Both frameworks are intended to get a clear view of your activities across a few dimensions, and decide what to increase and what to decrease. Nat expanded on that by also thinking of increase in terms of 'adding to the mix'; having your kids join you in the kitchen to cook a meal can increase joy (or decrease, depending on your cooking habits...).
The element missing from this approach, we found, is the addition of totally new ingredients. Thankfully, we noticed from our own and others experience, that opportunities to engage in new activities automatically arise from doing what makes you come alive. The people, environment and mindset that come with it, have a way of opening up new possibility. Only when walking down the road will you come to a juncture and see a new left and right. The trick then is to say yes.
For someone who is used to doing an occasional review, this exercise provided me two big insights. One big takeaway was the importance of action bias, of being on the move. Only when you move, do you stumble on new material to build with. The second one was the importance of noticing. Noticing activities that make you come alive and then keeping a record. Like the stones you gather along the way, that eventually get turned into a building. Collect the evidence while travelling, before you sit down to evaluate your course.
Apart from enjoying beautiful scenery ánd weather in Sweden, Q&A got together to revisit their joint and personal plans. During several brainstorming sessions and discussions, we laid bare our current status. Are we happy with what we're doing? What things do we want to change? Which sliders do we want to move and to what position? What activities do we really enjoy doing?
Our education and professional lives have been such that we tend to use these kinds of sessions to define future goals and ambitions. Ambitions that are driven by a sense to do some good, both for ourselves and loved ones as the broader world. Goals that give sense to our being, a purpose.
During one of our sessions, our eyes were drawn to a quote hanging on the wall:
Philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman had (re-)enlightened us. Rather than trying to define goals and a point to reach in the future, we shifted our brainstorming towards activities we really enjoy and are talented in (or want to be talented in). Immediately, the outcomes of our sessions became very practical and more importantly, our energy levels were elevated. Let's start!
What makes you come alive?
Any intervention distorts the 'normal course'. The results of such actions are what is useful to observe and to learn from. We wrote earlier about the usefulness of economic sanctions in the context of the conflict in Ukraine.
"Sanctions seem most effective to take the 'energy' (pun intended) out of a conflict."
They seem to have only partially sorted that effect. Freezing bank accounts and Russian international reserves did not create the intended banking and financial crisis in Russia. Continued sales of energy products (mostly oil and gas) created a stabilizing counterbalance. Therefore, the sanctions did not have a short term effect. Today, we notice that the sanctions seem to be relatively successful in its intended medium to long term effects: ensuring Russia has trouble maintaining its military capacities.
On the other end of the spectrum are subsidies. The Dutch financial times recently featured an interesting article about subsidies on energy, also in the context of the Ukraine conflict. The common denominator in Europe seems to be to compensate for its mistake to become too dependent on Russian energy by subsidizing current energy bills. However, this will undermine the efforts to search for and implement alternatives. Alternatives that are both useful to become more independent as well as to decrease our carbon footprint.
On the effectiveness of subsidies, the article essentially comes to similar conclusions as the effectiveness of sanctions: they could work, but compromises should be minimized and implementation fast.
"Subsidies are only acceptable when they avoid great suffering of vulnerable families and support sectors where otherwise large amounts of jobs would be lost."
Sometimes, interventions are necessary. When doing so, we could take into account the power of the mass and the creativity of human beings to solve and self-correct.
Most of us have heard about the substance 'dopamine' in relationship to social media. The hit you get when your post is liked, when an 'unread message' banner appears. Contrary to popular belief, however, dopamine does not control happiness.
As an experimental episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, Tim invited guests to share great sections of their own podcasts. Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford, shared a bit of a podcast episode that can best be described as a dopamine masterclass. It opened my eyes to the workings behind the substance and the way to use it to your advantage.
Dopamine can be best summed up as the molecule of more. It motivates us to continue the behaviour we're engaged in, spurring us into action. You can easily see how this is a useful evolutionary mechanism, as going out to hunt and forage was risky behaviour for our ancestors.
Now, the tricky part about dopamine is that we all have a baseline level, on top of which we get a little peak when we act in certain ways (finish a puzzle, win a race, hand in an RFP, ...) which then drops below the baseline level. This drop makes us feel miserable, spurring us into action to get another dopamine hit. More!
Huberman then goes on to explain how external rewards cause us to associate less pleasure with an activity itself, as demonstrated in the classic 1973 experiment at a Harvard nursery school. Kids being rewarded a 'gold star' for drawing lost interest in that activity after the reward was abandoned, because the dopamine hit shifted from the activity itself to receiving the reward.
If you want to reap rewards from our dopaminergic circuitry, according to Huberman, you can trick your mind into dopamine release during a hard activity by telling yourself "I'm doing this by choice and I love it!" at the moment of maximum friction. Spiking your dopamine after an activity by rewarding yourself makes the activity itself even harder.
If we have a certainty these days, it is the fact that we live in an uncertain world. Change being an inevitable part of life anyway, its heft has increased with a lot of our modern society being man-made and highly interdependent. As the castle gets higher, the impact of a shake increases.
Meanwhile, our propensity to change has not changed significantly. We're basically the same humans as when we still roamed the steppes. This likely explains the large amount of anxiety doing its rounds these days. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified three basic zones for development, that easily translate to the amount of change and uncertainty we have in our lives: comfort, learning and panic. As the amount of uncertainty and change increases beyond a certain point, we stop seeing it as healthy and needed, we break down.
In a personal situation, getting out of the panic zone requires creating stability on some fronts. Job, friends, family, health, house, hobbies; stability in some dimensions can offset change and uncertainty in another. But the world situation at large hardly lets itself be managed like this.
In those cases, a reframe might be our best bet. If we look at our history, uncertainty has always preceded growth. Think of the highlights in your personal growth, which were likely the follow up of something risky or scary. Like we stated last week; growth is never linear. Sometimes, non-functioning elements break down before we can re-build them anew. If we can see the change around us as part of something good, even in the long run, our anxiety is bound to go down, for sure.
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!
Call me a pensioner, but I love jigsaw puzzles. The bigger, the better. For me, they are the perfect way of spending my downtime. And while enjoying them, I get to practice a set of useful tools.
First of all, busying yourself with a seemingly dull, repetitive task (though I'd contest that 😉) creates downtime to structure your thoughts and process what has happened. It is a form of daytime dreaming and meditation. Next, I often find myself setting goals and breaking the big challenge of a 12,000 pieces puzzle into chewable pieces. It allows me to train concocting new strategies, thinking steps ahead and recognizing patterns.
If anything, every time anew, I learn to appreciate the value of preparation and perseverance. There is trial and error involved, but as long as you're on the move, there will be progress and adjustments to your strategy.
Many things are puzzles, sometimes small, sometimes infinitely large. Does the level of difficulty increase with size of the puzzle? I personally do not think so. Often, the fact that they may look like daunting tasks to solve, scares people to start solving. One thing is certain: there is always a solution. It reminds me a lot of real life.
Every situation is an opportunity. We do not have to wait for a crisis or an Elon Musk to redefine our goals or change our course.
In a recent blog post, Nat Eliason talks about how we tend to walk a path of steady progress. A nice, steady and linear path towards a reachable goal. Human beings seems to thrive well on such a path, but we also trick ourselves in thinking we're on such a path.
"But progress is often only linear looking backwards. We smooth out the outliers, the peaks and troughs, and fit a nice line to it, tricking ourselves into thinking it was months or years of slow and steady growth."
Sometimes, we're just simply stuck in a local minimum or maximum. Imagine a hilly terrain with many tops and valleys, in which you lack a bird's eye view. It's worth to check in with yourself regularly and see whether you really are happy with where you are. Walking a different path is naturally more challenging and perhaps terrifying. That doesn't make it a bad or wrong path.
Actively giving up the current path you're on requires courage. Courage that will bring you to the next terrain full of beautiful hills, valleys and woods.
"And perhaps the magic doesn’t work if you go looking for it. Maybe you truly need to give up and set off in some new direction for the muse to pull you back in."
Go for it.
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"
Time flies when you’re having fun. This Summer holiday I experienced quite the opposite. To be sure, I had a lot of fun, but time seemed to go slower. Better put, we all had the feeling we had been away for much longer than we actually did.
We had a more intense experience of our time. We certainly lived 'in the moment' for many days and it left many impressions. That seemed to have created the feeling of being away from the daily routine for so long. The daily routine which doesn't require as much attention from our senses as new things do.
I usually do not thrive on routines, though I know the value of it. Engaging in new activities and changing the routine is almost like a time compression machine. It gave me a lot of energy.
This doesn't make the popular phrase with which I started this snippet wrong or obsolete. Often, people use it in a way to express that they want the current situation to continue for longer. You're engaged in an interesting discussion, you're enjoying a nice dinner, you're the queen of the dance floor.
Time flies when you're having fun and I want it to continue. Apologies for being a week late with this Q&A.
Ever since leaving a corporate environment, I can remember having trouble starting up after the summer Holidays. It's not that I cannot fill my days with work that's seemingly useful, it's starting the truly valuable endeavours that I have a hard time with.
Seth Godin recently worded this sentiment in his post 'When you feel like it':
"...a long vacation can leave us in a torpor. Left to our own devices, we skid to a halt."
Seth is a great proponent of creating forward movement and keeping it, as he explains in his book 'The Practice'. Sticking to a regimen, keeping your streak, building muscle by daily practice. Using external commitment to get yourself moving, starting a positive feedback cycle and keeping the fire burning.
It's at moments like this that I think back of having a back-to-back meeting schedule and overflowing inbox waiting for me at the first working day after the Holidays. Like it or not, you got kickstarted right away.
Contemplating this struggle, however, did teach me there is value in it (value in struggle seems to be a kind of ground rule, which I'm only recently starting to appreciate...). If there was any value in your activities beyond just keeping your streak, they're worth re-starting. That's why I think the best time for New Year's resolutions is not January 1st, it's right after you've really wound down.
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.
Tiago Forte is not a household name for most of us. In the world of PKM (Personal Knowledge Management), though, he is a driving force. In order to make effective use of all the information that we receive (and hoard), he based an entire online course (and now also a book) around his method of Building a Second Brain.
I've been into PKM for most of my life without knowing the proper terminology. While cleaning up a box with childhood stuff last year, I bumped into a birthday wish-list containing a little 'filing box and index cards'. People knowing me will smile in recognition.
While my recent use of PKM (using Roam Research) tends to move away from using it as a hardcore productivity tool (I'm more of a 'gardener' these days), I can vividly remember wielding it as the ultimate weapon in my day to day job. Tracing the history of decisions, finding sources I could not remember, mastering an impressive to-do list, you name it. Augmentation of my human brain impacted my productivity in the best way possible.
Seeing Tiago firmly in the 'PKM & productivity' camp, he surprised me with an article last year called 'Productivity is a phase' where he highlights the temporal nature of our focus on productivity before moving on, linking it to stages of spiritual growth. As you move from the phase of 'By me' (driving change, being in control) to 'Thru me' (being part of a whole, giving up control), productivity tools lose some of their value.
Trying to sell someone on the pleasures of a great PKM system last year, I got a response that baffled me back then. The guy did not write down anything. He trusted himself in remembering the stuff that really mattered. Which might just be what's ahead of us.
The 'central bank of central banks', the BIS (Bank of International Settlements) urges all national central banks to do their utmost to control inflation. That means: increase interest rates, as that is the only tool they have. They believe it is important to raise interest rates to decrease demand and economic activity. You might ask yourself whether high demand is the root cause for the current inflation level. Moreover, central banks are not the only ones influencing financial and economic metrics.
Systems and markets have their tendencies to return to a certain path of equilibria at their own chosen times. Our economies are complex systems, involving many different inputs of which interest is just one. Very likely, there is no one root cause for the current situation, even though we human beings like things to be simple and clear cut.
Low interest rates, for a prolonged time, have certainly had their influence on current inflation levels, but the immediate reason why the rise in inflation is occurring now, seems to be caused by other factors. The most important factors currently seem to be the Ukraine war and the Covid-pandemic aftermath. The first leads to uncertainty and high energy prices; the second has led to supply chain disruptions and demand imbalances, leading to delays and higher prices.
Both problems could be solved. In a way, inflation will help solve the supply chain problems, as higher prices will lower demand (the system correcting itself). The Ukraine war is an entirely different animal and influenced by (geo-)politics. The longer it drags, the longer we will suffer high energy prices.
In my humble opinion, we should call our leaders to action: find a road to peace in Ukraine as soon as possible. Apart from a good chance that this will push inflation down, it will definitely be a solution for avoiding human disaster and lives lost. What would be your priority?
Sometimes, you feel stuck in a situation and though there is a way out, you feel hesitation. The way out often deals with you quitting your efforts to improve the situation. Surrendering to 'reality' is perhaps the most difficult thing to do.
I was pondering why it is so hard. 'Surrender' often has a negative connotation; you're on the losing end of things. Or at least, that's how it is portrayed. Most of the time, you have had little to no influence on this 'reality' which makes it even harder. It feels unfair. It feels as if you're failing.
During these deliberations, my co-writer -unaware of my mental workouts- sent me a quote from Shawne Duperon:
"Forgiveness is accepting the apology you will never receive"
I immediately felt the connection. 'Surrendering is accepting the consequences you will never influence', I murmured to myself. It was one of those unique moments where insight and resolution come together. I gained wisdom (at least, in my belief...) and knew what to do next.
Accepting the consequences of a certain situation is tough. At the same time, it is the start of something new. It cleans things up. It puts the pieces back on a new chessboard. A clean sheet and new opportunity to show the world your talents. Go for it.
One of the notable effects of routine meditation is a growing awareness of your own thoughts. Instead of being part of a continuous stream of thoughts and emotions, you can sometimes (just sometimes) catch yourself and start looking at it as it flows by. It's often compared to looking at the river instead of being in the river.
Being confronted with this view, it's not all roses and sunshine. With clarity also comes the harsh reality of seeing your emotional responses to your environment. One thing that hit me most in this respect, was the incessant judgement of the actions of those around you. I found it amazing how much thought I spent on labelling and judging behaviour and events. The fact that most of these judgements are not that favourable, apparently has its roots in our Ego which thrives on comparison.
The other day, a passage from 'Autobiography of a Yogi' (Steve Jobs' favourite book) showed up on my phone's homescreen that summed it up quite nicely: "Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others!"
Apparently, this is happening on a small scale in much of our thinking. The good news is that seeing these thoughts and letting them go, feels awfully great. Letting go of judgement, even in small quantities, makes you feel so much lighter.
In his weekly newsletter, entrepreneur Nat Eliason recently discussed the concept of working in 'seasons'. He basically noticed how he had developed an undeliberate, natural tendency to work with ups and downs in terms of output and efficiency.
"I rather like this ebb and flow. Six to nine months of focused output, a period of rest, a period of reflection and planning, then another push forward."
The article resonated with me. Though this rhythm does not necessarily have to coincide with the nature's seasons nor an annual cycle, the whole idea that you have periods in which you thrive and others in which you contemplate and re-energize, seems very logical to me. It could be part of man's overall journey in search for purpose. Switching gears and careers, at least occasionally, may not only be logical, but even a necessity, consciously creating some form of imbalance to enable progress.
"It's partially because many people's work is not making progress towards a meaningful goal. And in those cases, it is a shame to spend an unnecessary amount of time on your job at the expense of other more meaningful things."
This type of 'work seasonality' may create irregular income events. Knowing this, it could be useful to work with detailed budgets and define the boundaries within which you can financially operate. Perhaps in itself and eye-opening exercise. You are a business! One that is in search of its infinite game, one worth continuing its play.
To forgive is a powerful tool. It enables 'cleaning the house', is a big source of relief and can free you up. It helps to move on. Both mentally and physically. People that have actively reached for the forgiveness tool, very often report that some of their physical nuisances disappeared as well.
At the same time, many describe it as being a very difficult process. I guess this is because it is so personal, so deep. It conflicts with your personal norms, values and foundational structures. The key here is that to forgive somebody is not the same as saying it was ok what that person did. To forgive is to accept that what happened, happened. There is no blame. The one who did it had a reason for doing so. The reason may be faulty, but that's not the point. As Dutch spiritualist Willem Glaudemans puts it:
"When you're angry at someone for more than 15 seconds, it is basically about yourself"
It is a healing process that you need to do on your own, but that can be practiced. For our Dutch readers, I suggest "The book of forgiveness" that contains a solid set of practical tips. Please also revisit our coverage of "The book of Joy" by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.
Once you're well underway forgiving others, you'll probably start noticing a new challenge looming at the horizon: to forgive yourself. By that time, you're well practiced and know that it is worth the effort.
Adjusted views on inflation, the possibility of large layoffs, new economic forecasts. They have been clogging my mailbox in the past weeks. Every bank, advisor and blogger is trying to make sense of what is happening. With so many pieces moving on the various chessboards, it is extremely difficult to make up your mind.
A logical first inclination would be to sit tight and wait. Almost always a relatively sane and safe strategy. In my opinion, you could use that time wisely. I believe it is more important than ever to secure access to a broad array of knowledge sources and allow yourself to get acquainted with different viewpoints. As ancient Greek writer Aischylos said (I'm paraphrasing): In times of war, truth is the first victim.
In addition to getting different viewpoints, try to train and trust your own thinking. Moreover, what does your gut tell you? As we covered two weeks ago, the crowd may be smarter in recollecting facts, it is certainly not smarter in finding solutions for various potential futures.
By gathering a small group of trusted people (not necessarily like-minded, remember: diversity means creativity), you can make these exercises fun and useful. I have a hunch that learning to deal with (longer periods of) uncertainty is the skill for our immediate future.
Should nothing out of the ordinary happen in the next 6-12 months, these suggestions will not be in vain. It prepares you for 'normal' life as well!
I enjoy challenges and often raise the bar (too high) for myself. If you're up to a serious challenge, I found one for you: try listening to Professor Don Hoffman being interviewed by Tim Ferriss. On purpose, I just wrote 'listening' and not 'understanding'...
The subject of the interview is essentially new insights and theorems about consciousness. Words and concepts like 'panpsychism', 'cosmological polytopes', or whether 'spacetime is fundamental' are not only difficult to hear correctly -certainly for non-native speakers-, they represent by themselves complex ideas that require serious study to comprehend. If you then start using them to explain why reality is not what we think or see what it is, you may get a bit lost.
Still, an interview like this can be highly fascinating. I picked up a couple of gems, like:
"Of course, any proposal that I make is almost surely wrong. It would be a miracle if I was right. In fact, I’ll go even further than that. I’ll say that science can never have a theory of everything."
Challenges are great. Besides providing a goal and energy to a lot of people, they serve another purpose. They can make you feel humble and admire the ingenuity of human curiousness. Above all, the beauty and power of diversity.
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!"
Planting a tree holds tons of symbolism. It's about aspiration, confidence in the future, a small seed turning into something vast and timeless. Wonderfully interesting guy Kevin Kelly tweeted a photo last week of the tree he planted 55 years ago:
"Long-term thinking: When I was 17, I planted an acorn in my backyard hoping that 50 years later I might return to see a huge oak tree. Here it is 55 years later (center). The best time to plant a tree is yesterday."
I'd like to add some wisdom to this from the Chinese, who say:
"The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now."
I love the optimism and pragmatism in this addition. The main point is to invest in stuff with large returns over time, be it in the past or in the present. Long term investments defy our short-term actions and reveal what makes us human. Even if you don't believe in a far-out future, the action itself is a statement. As Martin Luther said:
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
What seed are you planting today?
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.
I tend to focus on subjects for a period of time monomaniacally before moving on and letting the subject fade out a little. If I really want to learn, there is no multitasking for me. While I used to think this behaviour was at odds with my convictions about life in general (being consistent over time), I tend to find more and more proof of the utility of this behaviour.
The first part lies in the myth of multitasking. With complex problems and concepts, it can take a while to get the 'wetware' loaded in your brain. Getting knowledge and connections top of mind just takes time. In that sense, it makes sense not to do too much things in parallel, but use all the focus you can on just one subject to get meaningful progress.
Another bit of the puzzle was handed to me in a Tim Ferriss e-mail about a 2010 article by Paul Graham of Y-Combinator. His article, called "The Top Idea in Your Mind" wonderfully links 'top of mind' with finding solutions.
I already knew what the value is of having your 'favourite problems' top of mind, because solutions tend to come spontaneously. Professor Richard Feynman's modus operandi was continuously checking new information against the problems he would like to solve. If problems are top of mind, you're feeding your unconscious with the riddles you would like to get solved.
Paul Graham concurs. While in the shower, you should be thinking about the most important issues you would like to solve. Which is why he found entrepreneurs having 'raising money' or 'solving legal issues' as their priorities, lacking in real progress. What are your thoughts in the shower, and are they the ones you want them to be?
The word 'inflation' has regained a lot of attention in the past few months. The geopolitical and environmental changes happening at breakneck speed have caused our virtual 'shopping cart' to increase in price like it hasn't in a very, very long time.
While listening to a podcast with Tim Ferriss and Tony Fadell ('father' of the iPod and the Nest thermostat), I was confronted with an alternate view of the problem, that I found extremely interesting:
"When we look at inflation, I really look at it the opposite. De-inflation is stopping. We’ve been de-inflated. We’ve been moving everything offshore. We’ve been going the lowest common workforce, your lowest common monies for paying a workforce, getting rid of healthcare and all this other stuff. We’ve been just pushing the externalities on everyone else, what we’re doing to the climate. Now it’s all coming back to roost."
This action - reaction felt like a totally logical way of looking at it. What if low-income countries were just like us? What would our iPhone cost? What if the actual costs of environmental damage were included in our production? Instead of governments doing the corrections, our new day to day reality is showing us the pain points now. Inflation may not be a problem, but just another corrective mechanism.
"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.
My family and I enjoyed watching the movie 'The Theory of Everything'. The movie covers the life of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) disease and the impact on his family. The movie is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen, written by his ex-wife Jane.
Though you may expect this movie to cover a lot of physics and Stephen's quest for the theory of everything, it is rather more focused on everything else besides physics. It may be a bit dramatised and covered mostly from Jane's perspective, it is a truly personal story full of sacrifices and choices. The movie makes it abundantly clear to the audience that you really can direct your own life despite setbacks and turns of fate outside of your control.
With perseverance and open-mindedness towards new possibilities, life will be in a continuous development. At the same time, this also means that the path you're on may bend and diverge as Jane and Stephen will discover after 25 years of marriage. It's an emotional moment in the movie that does feel surprisingly natural and logical.
Accepting who and what you realistically are, forms a solid foundation on which to embark on new (pathless) paths.
Our personal stories last week about how to control your state of mind with a world in turmoil induced multiple reactions. Bottom line is to embrace optimism. To bring this point home, let me share 7 reasons to be optimistic from an article in a Dutch magazine that one of our readers sent as response to last week's episode.
Let us all share our positive energy with this beautiful world and this will provide a perfect breeding ground for exciting things to happen.
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.
This weekend, I really enjoyed watching the romantic fantasy movie 'The Age of Adaline'. Though it is not my go-to genre, this movie triggered some deep thinking.
The story covers a young woman who stops aging after being brought back to life from death following a severe car accident. The main character settles into a live that she changes every decade to avoid being 'discovered' and potentially being used in experiments. She protects her secret by being on the run and becomes very lonely, just having a dog (getting exactly the same one every decade or so).
The movie really does make you think about some big questions. What would you do when you do not age? What lures so many people into chasing that goal? What makes it so difficult to let go?
Like a lot of big things in life, there seems to be a moment for everything. You grow towards those moments. Once enjoyed, you ready yourself for the next. I always experienced this most profoundly with my kids growing up. You enjoy the time they're just lying on their back laughing at you, but at a certain moment you feel it would be nice if they could express their feelings better. Within days, they start mumbling or producing other sounds and communication shifts to another dimension.
The path of life is full of different directions and dimensions, ready to be discovered. I personally rather enjoy walking that path together with my loved ones, developing and gaining experience (and some grey hairs). Go see the movie for yourself and observe how your thoughts bounce around.
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.
Keeping your streak in creative endeavours is a subject that keeps alluring me. Last year I noticed that a lot of my regular activities before the summer break (like making regular YouTube videos or writing blogs) stranded after having a long and relaxing summer Holiday. I still have not revived them.
We earlier wrote about activation energy, and the tricks (chainsmoking!) to start up. Last week I read a great piece of writing from my former piano teacher Jeff Schneider on creating solos, that surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) seemed to hold exactly the same secret.
"You know how writers always complain about staring at the blank page? Well, improvisers deal with the same kind of thing. Sometimes it feels impossible to come up with something meaningful to kick off your solo. But I’ve got good news for you. The first thing you play doesn’t matter. Like, at all. It’s the second phrase that makes all the difference."
Remember the YT Video of the single guy starting a dance party at a festival? In Jeff's eyes, the second guy is the real legend. He validates the first, giving permission to everybody to join in.
"The same principle applies to soloing. Your second phrase is what really matters... Your first phrase could be totally random. Your second phrase has the power to make it anything but."
He advises us to just start with something, anything. And then just repeat.. until inspiration hits you and you move on. Try it!
I try to be non-judgmental as much as possible, but I often fail miserably. Often meaning: in most cases. Still, even this minority of cases where I catch my judgement before kindly observing it and move on, has brought me so much that I am highly motivated to proceed.
One form of judgement sneaking up on you in the form of emotion is annoyance. Annoyance with other people's behaviour, negligence, actions or lack of action. It's the type of emotion that can fester, causing you to spend time retelling the story in your head or spending time sharing it with others.
A Zen teacher once explained that annoyance is actually a great seed for development. In order to explain, he told us the parable of the monk and the rowing boat.
A Buddhist monk had a hard time concentrating because several sounds and events disturbed his meditation. Trying quieter and quieter spots on the territory, he ended up meditating in a small rowing boat in the middle of the lake facing the monastery. As another boat hit his, he tried to keep his eyes closed and wait for the ordeal to pass. Even so, he started to become annoyed, and prepared to stop meditating and discipline the other boat's captain for disturbing his peace. As he opened his eyes in anger, he found the other boat to be completely empty.
The morale here is of course that annoyance is in you. I remember feeling annoyed, hearing that wisdom the first time.
Most of us have probably grown up with the idea that ‘practice makes perfect'. Any doubt about this premise was taken away in 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell showed in his book 'The Outliers: The Story of Success' that in almost any area, expertise can be achieved by 10,000 hours of practice.
It is, however, worth considering whether we should always be striving for getting better or succeeding at something. In a recent article, essayist Xenia Hanusuakis presents a case for revising the idea to 'practice makes happy'.
She explains how, once you revise the role of practice from getting better to finding and experiencing pleasure, notions of success and failure become less relevant. You will experience a heightened awareness of yourself, understand better your capabilities and boundaries, and find beauty in simplicity.
"Practising invites a kind of intimacy, a moment of mindfulness that we can cut and paste into our daily routines. Once we appreciate that practice is not an endgame, our ego falls away and we enter the experience with complete commitment."
It reminds me of finite and infinite games; striving for a certain success or accomplishment is a finite game. Happiness is the infinite game that we're playing continuously. Practicing sports and other hobby's without a necessary goal in mind -just enjoying doing it- seems to be just that. Or as journalist Ariel Gore is quoted:
"When we strike a balance between the challenge of an activity and our skill at performing it, when the rhythm of the work itself feels in sync with our pulse, when we know that what we’re doing matters, we can get totally absorbed in our task. That is happiness."
Whenever someone tells you, "you're such an amateur!", you now know you should take this as a compliment.
Companies, especially those listed on a stock exchange, generally complain that the market forces them to be more short-term focused. Quarterly reports, pressure felt to announce something new regularly and public scrutiny all add up to the negative emotions. To encourage more focus on the long-term, the Canadian Public Pension Investment Board, BlackRock Inc. and the consultancy group McKinsey & Co., launched a non-profit group called Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), five years ago. It "develops actionable research and tools to drive long-term value creation for savers and communities".
An article by John Authers analysed the initial results of their research called 'FCLT Compass'. It attempts to measure how 'long-term' companies and investors really are, how it changes over time and between geographies.
The initial conclusions are that, although the investors have become more short-termist especially during the Covid pandemic, the companies themselves did not listen to the market and turned more long-term. While investors were hoarding cash to the sidelines, companies used more of their cash to invest in R&D and capital projects.
The data yields some other insights. Globally, inequality was decreasing up until the pandemic hit. Monetary policies, large layoffs and other measures led inequality to grow worse. Equity investors became 'jumpy', changing their portfolio more frequently. On top of the list of the most 'short-term' investors are, according to FCLT research, the sovereign wealth funds. A big surprise. This is mostly due to the fact that these funds tend to be heavily invested in private equity funds, which in turn have an average holding period of only two years and four months.
All in all, companies apparently turn to a longer-term horizon when crises are nearby, whereas investors tend to cash in and wait for things to settle. In principle this is not really irrational behaviour, but it also signals that it is not necessarily 'the market' that determines the term of investments. That in itself is probably good news and means that -despite a lot of pressure and scrutiny- a lot of companies do care about their long-term future.
Wether you want to work out, eat healthy, journal or sleep before 10, forming a habit is often the way to go. We're routine creatures, so making something into a habit helps us doing things consistently. It's the momentum that overcomes friction, the friction of having to start anew.
Like staying sober, counting the number of consecutive days or weeks that you maintained this behaviour can help. People have an inherent desire to be consistent, so if you managed to run twice a week for the last 40 weeks, this is extra motivation not to break your 'streak'. Tons of mobile apps are aimed at registering your streaks and motivating you not to break it.
I recently read a tweet saying that no habit is a real habit unless you failed at your streak and re-started it at least once.
This made me think of losing your focus during meditation. Letting your thoughts run away with you is something even experienced meditators have happen to them regularly. The trick is not to feel down, but just be glad that you noticed, and then re-focus your attention to your breath.
The analogy that I like best for this meditative exercise is that of a mother dog with a nest of puppies. Every time a puppy runs from the litter, she patiently wanders off, grabs the puppy and brings him back. No annoyance, no irritation.
Which might be a great exercise for your desired behaviour as well. If you have a clear motive for your behaviour, a clear 'why', picking up your puppy and bringing him back to the nest can be a loving experience.
If there is ever one video that I often reference, it's Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Harvard University. At the time, Steve had it's first run-in with pancreatic cancer, and was convinced he was out of the woods. In the speech, he looks back on his life and tries to explain what he had learned, hoping to inspire the graduates.
I think the video is jam-packed with wonderful insights. On going with the flow, trusting your gut feelings, doing what you love, death and finding your purpose. I keep a downloaded transcript from YouTube, with highlighted sections I loved.
One other lesson from the video that stood out for me is about connecting the dots. Steve mentioned how the 'random' interests he pursued in his life, seemed to come together at various points, paving the way for wonderful events and successes. He highlighted the importance of following your gut, trusting that the dots will connect down the road.
I found several other stories proving this point in the book 'The Surrender Experiment' that I promoted two weeks ago (and have now actually read). Being open to what's in front of you and just feels interesting, even if you don't have a real plan, seemed to work out for some people who's life I find truly inspiring.
The bible mentions God never showing his face, but only his back. I don't remember who, but someone commented that the connecting dots are what is meant in that psalm. The grand scheme is not a map we see beforehand.
During our weekly Q&A philosophical deliberations, it dawned upon me how we try to describe nature and its processes in various laws and relationships where the basis is some sort of equilibrium. At the face of it, this feels quite accurate, but at the same time there are other processes that are intended to distort those equilibria to fuel development, growth, evolution. Concepts such as entropy and chaos try to capture this. We wrote in an earlier edition of this newsletter:
"Chaos might therefore indeed be nature's deliberate setting to propel development and create diversity. An endless and undescribable generator of new possibilities".
Nature, therefore, seems to be one big paradox with diverse individual systems trying to optimize the equilibrium for itself, but while doing so influencing other systems that are doing the same thing in such a way that their optimum gets distorted. I therefore tentatively think that there is no one overall system governing all of nature's laws.
As a segue, this made me wonder whether this is the reason I've never liked setting goals and budgets. By the time I finished those exercises, the business had progressed (developed) and new insights were gained, making multiple assumptions wrong or obsolete.
The goal is not an optimum, the goal is everlasting development. This may result in local optima that will be temporary in nature. I propose a new fundamental law in physics: equilibria will not last; development will, or
When I submerge myself in a subject I’d like to know more of, this interest often does not last. With most infatuations I tend to move on after a few weeks or months. While this prevents me from being a true specialist and master in any of them, I like to think I am honoring mr. Pareto in a sense that I always have a grasp of 80% of the dynamics and structure of the subject.
Even if I leave the active participation, I found that this 80% enables me to enjoy the subject even more as a spectator. Richard Feynman once observed that knowing the intricate biology of a flower made him enjoy it even more, not less.
A remainder of my short dive in music theory is a fondness for YouTube videos where musicians explain why they love specific songs or performances. As a little tasting menu, I would like to offer you:
These tidbits show me that I really love seeing people enjoying something (there's an example of mirror neurons working for ya!). But most of all, I realise that a little background knowledge can boost appreciation, so nothing is lost in dipping your toes in several pools.
The word 'success' intrigues me. Apart from the letters being somewhat strangely, yet not perfectly, in balance (in Dutch even more so, as it misses the last 's'), it is used in multiple ways at various occassions. We wish it to each other, we measure our achievements against it, we celebrate it.
The definition of 'success' is according to Merriam-Webster:
This definition in an official dictionary does not feel right to me (apart from the third one being circular). It is focused on achieving certain outcomes that every individual values in a different way. What does 'wealth' mean for instance to you? Being able to buy whatever you want? Or do you define it in a non-material way?
This brings me to a simple conclusion; it is subjective. We determine the definition of success ourselves. To me success is closely connected to failure. Making mistakes, being able to reflect upon them, learn and adapt may in fact be the greatest success you'll achieve.
Our challenge is to really feel what we think success is, rather than projecting other's interpretation onto our own. That is not an easy task, certainly in this widely-connected, demanding world in which we're often confronted with other people's achievements.
Whatever your definition of success, I leave you with a very inspiring one from the book 'The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse' by Charlie Mackesy:
Walking through the woods last week, I realised I really enjoy Autumn. The colours, the smell, the wet grass, the low sun. Also time of the year to practice a favourite hobby: searching and harvesting fungi. The combination of being outside and amazed by the beauty of nature gives me a lot of energy.
Harvesting from nature is not without risk and it pays to do proper research and follow some courses to avoid stomach problems or worse. Some fungi are lethal and still look very attractive. For our Dutch readers, I personally enjoyed a day of fungi harvesting together with Edwin Florès. He supplies various Michelin-starred restaurants with fungi, herbs, grasses and flowers.
Autumn is essentially nature resetting and preparing for a new year. A new cycle. Nature makes it look so simple and logical. Plants growing out of the soil, will return to the soil and have, during their lifetime, planted seeds for a new generation to grow up. It's fascinating how nature decomposes and recycles. The dying and rotting process is in fact key. This takes time and we humans do not always appreciate the necessity of this process.
Giuliana Furci has an insightful short video to 'let things rot'. It is essentially a call to action to let (material) things die and rot. Let's make our lives easy and let nature do the recycling work. Is there a parallel to other aspects in our life such as routines, thoughts, norms and traditions? Could it be that leaving behind the old does not require an immediate follow-up with the new?
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.
There is a fairly fixed number of avenues I take to get my inspiration, either for writing or general leisure and pleasure. Lately, I've been trying to find new routes but have not been very successful. While this issue moved to the background, I came across a passage in a book I was reading about... inspiration. Love it how framing the mind works!
The passage references Julia Cameron and her book "The Artist's Way".
"Many blocked people are actually very powerful and creative personalities who have been made to feel guilty about their own strengths and gifts."
On a high level, the method described in her book lists 5 guiding principles to find your inspiration:
Note that none of these advices actually contain an active search for something new nor creating pathways to new people or environments. The hardest part is actually making the time and perseverance to keep these habits going.
Much of the inspiration, if not all, is already inside you. You could unlock these yourself by creating the right circumstances to be receptive to inspiration and acknowledge it as such.
A couple of weeks ago, when I found myself low on energy, off the normal schedule and generally not having the feeling to be in control, I decided I needed to dive back into my early-morning meditation habit. To 'properly' prepare, I searched for inspiration and came across an interview with Deepak Chopra by Jay Shetty called 'how to be more present and not be overwhelmed with life'.
Please do not be alarmed, I was not attracted to this podcast by the last part of the sentence. During the interview, Mr. Chopra shows how meditation can support your quests by applying some simple techniques. One of them is by asking four questions during meditation:
Once you raise one question, your mind may start to look for answers. However, the target of this exercise is not to find the right answers. It is essentially about framing the right mindset to be receptive to inputs that may give the answers during the days and weeks that will follow.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that asking questions is really about preparing yourself mentally, like we prepare ourselves physically by exercising for some enduring task that lays ahead. The trick seems to be to have the right exercises or questions for the task at hand.
Let's start exercising and asking ourselves questions. Please do remember that a wise person once said: "you can only ask the right question when you're not afraid of the answer". Be prepared!
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man", illustrating how everything is changing constantly. Our surroundings change, we change.
This equation with endless variables also makes it hard to see the change in yourself. That's why I love revisiting things from the past. Re-reading a great book, re-watching an old movie. Comparing your memories (or... notes...) to your more recent impressions can reveal some great insights on your journey.
One of the books I revisited recently is Eckhart Tolle's 'The Power of Now'. I read this book almost 10 years ago, and remember being inspired, impressed, but also a bit confused by some of the writing. It took me quite some 'reading between the lines' to follow some of his lessons. Re-reading it 10 years later made me realise how much a person can change in a decade.
Another piece of writing I return to quite often is a bit more condensed. It's called the 'Holstee Manifesto' and was created by 3 young entrepreneurs starting a new business. They wanted to have some sort of compass, an anchor to hold on to in stormy times. I shared it during a workshop I had more than 10 years ago and remember parts of it resonating like crazy, but also some parts feeling uncomfortable or fuzzy. I did find it inspiring enough to print and frame it. It has adorned our restroom for the past 10 years.
Looking at the manifesto these days, my appreciation for the simplicity of the document, crafted by three young people, has only grown. The parts that once annoyed me have now become my favourites. And I'm curious what my 10-year older self will think.
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'?
I really intended to write something on 'time'. How your memory condenses all routine activity. If nothing meaningful happens, our brain has nothing new to record, so time subjectively shrinks. A familiar commute feels like 10 minutes. A relaxed weekend at home flies by.
"Just as time knew to move on since the beginning"
This is one of my favourite lines from Stevie Wonder's "As" and I was just one Wikipedia search away (looking up it's year of conception) from tying the lyrics to my small elaboration on the subjective speed of time and finishing my article. Glancing over his biography to look for the date, one thing hit me.
In 1975, Stevie Wonder almost quit making music.
He seriously considered emigrating to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Plans for a farewell concert were in the making.
I always considered Stevie to be a music man to the bone, his destiny set in stone from an early age. A straight line from his music-filled youth and being signed at Motown at 11 to his monumental albums created in the 70's and early 80's.
Reading biographies, these kinds of watershed moments keep messing up my convictions about successful people. Knowing someone superficially, I always tend to see the straight line, the well planned career. Digging a bit deeper, you discover the pivotal moments, the 'follow your gut' instinctual twists and turns, the serendipitous opportunities followed.
'Working with the garage door open', sharing the messy truth, conflicts with our egoic tendency to project an image of composure, of having a plan and following through. Reality is messy, and I think we are better off navigating life acknowledging that, celebrating the things we can't control, so we can all get better at responding to them.
Stevie didn't pivot in 1975. Contemplating his future with all options open, he eventually decided to sign another record deal, but on terms never seen before. He spent more than a year crafting his next album. "Songs in the Key of Life" is considered a masterpiece by a large group of music lovers (including me), and I think his pivotal moment provided just the right circumstances for something as beautiful as that album to be conceived.
The podcast market is experiencing enormous growth. According to 'the podcasthost', the number of different podcasts has grown at least 4x over the past 3 years. A podcast is attractive as it offers the ability to listen to your topic of choice when and where you want. It's basically fully customized to your own needs and a seriously good alternative to the repeating sequence of news items you normally encounter on a radio station.
I personally find myself using podcasts not only as relaxation time but also as time to learn and grow. I even discovered that programme duration is not an issue. I recently finished listening to a 6-leg series on the 2nd world war in the Pacific. Each episode lasted for at least 4-5 hours. The episodes were released over time while they were created; from the first episode to the last took more than 2.5 years. This did not bother me at all.
Anyone can create and post podcasts. With currently more than 3mln different podcasts, finding those that will entertain you is a challenge. Your interests and hobby's are a good starting point to find something suitable. On my personal list for instance are backgrounds to daily news (New York Times 'the Daily'), history (Dan Carlin's 'Hardcore history'), inspiration and optimism (Simon Sinek's 'a bit of optimism').
With the world opening up, there'll be plenty of time to listen to podcasts while commuting or on your way to friends and family. At home there are opportunities to listen as well. The lockdown period has learned me various new moments when you can put on your headphones; podcasts make great amusement whilst cooking, doing the dishes or the laundry. You may even start to look forward to doing those tasks!
A few years back I enjoyed reading a book by Kieran Setiya on the joys and pitfalls of 'mid-life'. Not calling it a crisis, it performed a philosophical analysis on one of the most defining aspects of mid-life; the realisation of all the life-paths that are now closed to you. Opportunity fades, choices made in the past define your life. There is grief over the paths that we missed out on.
Setiya provides advice on how to cope with this realisation. "Missing out" is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life:
"To wish for a life without loss is to wish for a profound impoverishment in the world or in your capacity to engage with it, a drastic limiting of horizons."
Last week, Tim Urban, great explainer and writer of 'Wait but why' re-posted an earlier post with one of his signature visualisations.
He re-posted with the comment "Monthly reminder about that big green tree", a nudge that we should look forward and not rule out opportunity.
I think both views provide an adequate coping mechanism in case of severe FOMO. The third one, however, is hiding in the center of Tim's drawing. The summary of a few millennia of spiritual advice boils down to the little green dot in the center. Focus on the present.
As I took my bike into town on Monday to get my first COVID-19 vaccination, I noticed how much I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city as the first days of summer were unfolding. Not that the views were especially breathtaking, but they were just... different. It struck me how much I had missed that. For the past year, my daily decor has been dominated by my little village, my kids' schoolyard and our spare bedroom.
I immediately thought of the balance between certainty and uncertainty, comfort and variety, that is so ingrained in all of us. Leaning on just one leg is never the answer, it's the dynamic balancing that provides us most joy. Too much variety makes us yearn for stability and comfort, too much familiarity causes us to long for something surprising.
The person who articulated this balance so well that it clicked for me the first time, is Tony Robbins. You may know him from the 1990's 'Personal Power' motivational tapes and his use of 'fire walking' in his mass seminars, but I only really started valuing his analyses once a friend shared a DVD showing him masterfully counseling couples that had gotten in a rut.
His 2014 article '6 basic needs that make us tick' (also containing the two needs above) still feels relevant and a great lens for evaluating and charting your life. If that tickles your interest, the Netflix documentary 'I am not your Guru' paints a fascinating picture of him, not shying away from some of the complexities and controversies as well.
Anxiety seems, somehow, to be part of our daily occupation and I found it therefore comforting to read that it in fact makes us human:
"Anxiety [...], rather than being a pathology, is an essential human disposition that leads us to enquire into the great, unsolvable mysteries that confront us; to philosophise is to acknowledge a crucial and animating anxiety that drives enquiry onward."
Anxiety lures us into fundamental questions and investigations about who we truly are or want to be. However, too much of it hampers development. The question is how to ensure the right level of anxiety and what is that right level?
You can look for external advice, but you'll often end up measuring yourself against what others are doing or rationalizing the challenge. It's for each and everyone for themselves to find that sweetspot of being curious and in motion, while feeling comfortable enough to have a good night rest. The comforting notion is that it is you yourself that determines what the right balance will be. It requires going back to your gut feel and relying on it. A most difficult exercise, but a rewarding one. It might even be our ultimate balancing act.
When I was young, I was fascinated by space. Unaware that any uninvited recital of trivial knowledge could earn you a well-deserved title of 'obnoxious little know-it-all', I was able to name planets and their characteristics, different phases of stars and a vivid reading of how our universe originated.
This interest subsided at some point. I kind of outgrew the fun and the amazement of reading more and more facts about our universe.
Last week I stumbled upon The Beginning and End of the Universe on Netflix, and for some reason I was drawn to it. With renewed amazement I listened to the story of how we came to know what we know today. The people involved, their drive, the experiments they did, the errors we made, the vast progress we made in the past 100 years.
It is not that the facts presented in the series were that different than the ones I read in my youth. It's more that I was able to see the systems and connections now, the fabric that made the facts.
Somewhere around 500 BC, Greek philosopher Heraclites said:
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
This is probably the best argument for re-reading books and trying to learn things at all ages. Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers once stated that our school system is flawed, because he thought the best age to learn a language is 3 and the best age to read literature is 30. Some religions allow certain spiritual texts only to be read if you're past 40. Life-long learning is not a new thing, we just temporarily forgot its importance.
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.
The concept of a tipping point was first introduced to me during a Marketing class at business school. When the adoption of a product or service reaches a certain threshold, its use will skyrocket and grow exponentially. The term is in use in other domains as well, and wikipedia describes it as:
"An event when a previously rare phenomenon becomes rapidly and dramatically more common".
It turns out there is a mathematical theory being developed to predict when such an effect could happen. It is called Percolation theory and I read about it for the first time in the online edition of Scientific American. With our world being built on ever more (network of) networks, the attention for this theory has increased significantly. Next to marketing and economics to explain when tipping points occur, it is being applied to all kinds of "contagion" phenomena such as memes on social media going viral, voting behaviour in communities and virus outbreaks.
The challenge for mathematicians doing research in this field is to let go of the traditional approach of modeling using infinite and neatly ordered networks. To deal with the finite and messy structure of the networks we daily operate in, researchers continuously update their theoretic models based on computer simulations and vice-versa.
One very interesting observation is that a threshold or tipping point is reached sooner when there is a big difference between the potential states of each node in the network. In other words: a virus will spread more easily in a network where you have some highly connected people and some isolated persons than in a network where everyone has more or less the same number of contacts.
Curious to hear more about this percolation theory, if only to learn the formula for a perfect cup of coffee.
A few days off are often a great time to do some reflection. I regularly forget, but having a metacognitive loop is a great way to steer your life more towards the things you want. As both the circumstances and our desires change constantly, it's useful to incorporate a system to reflect and steer.
One useful model emerged from the school of Design Thinking. As this thinking is aimed at innovation, it comes as no surprise that the theory can also be applied to your life. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans started a course on 'designing your life' at Stanford University to help their students figure out what to do with their lives after graduating.
Their main idea is to lose the idea that we have to choose between 'money' and 'meaning'. Framing our life choices this way is causing a 'false dichotomy', limiting our options. One tool that Evans and Burnett use in their workshops consists of three sliders. Like the equalizer on a stereo system, they represent 'money' (market economy), 'impact' (social economy) and 'expression' (creative economy).
They invite you (yes, you!) to set the sliders at the level that represents your current work-life, and also draw a set of sliders representing how you would like your life to be. For the instances where you set your desired sliders above your current level, they invite you to come up with a small experiment to 'move the needle' just a bit. Small enough to execute in the next few days, big enough to feel the impact. What would your experiment be?
According to research done by Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam Novib, the world's wealthiest 10% accounted for 49% of the world's CO2 emissions in 2015. This is more or less unchanged from the situation in 1990. The 'Bigfoot' among them is the top 1%; they account for 15% of the emissions.
Though one might use this research as another whip to bully the rich, I like to see this as good news. This relatively small group is easily identifiable. We can make a targeted effort to convince this group to significantly reduce their footprint.
Economic activity does not necessarily have to be reduced. Rather than introducing another form of wealth tax, changing behaviours and investing in new technologies can be made attractive. Next to immediate emission reductions, this could cause a snowball-effect as many wealthy individuals are an mimicked by others.
This could turn out to be a triple-edged sword: reduced emissions, rise in investments, increased well-being. China, which always seems to be growth-minded, recently announced it aims to cut CO2 emissions to zero (net) by 2060!