"Try doing something at which you cannot fail as a first step", a dear friend asked of me as I tried to move forward on a challenging project. "What can be a tiny first step, a first little bit of progress, that you can immediately do? Right now?".
I felt a bit stunned, a bit caught in the headlights. I was pushed out of my comfort zone where I spent my time happily explaining the challenges ahead. I needed to do something on the spot, which made me feel I was pushed on the stage, being watched by my one-man audience. And yet, I immediately understood the value of the gesture.
Activation energy, what is needed to get the first kindlewood catching fire is a favourite subject of mine. From business coaching to parenting, getting people to engage in tiny experiences or experiments to get their feet wet, to see if things work as fast as possible and to get you going, have been a powerful tool for me. It's why raw enthusiasm is sometimes invaluable in coaching. Long live the cheerleader!
Yet, I never put people on the spot before, even though I valued the experience myself. It contributed to a small win, the first one in a longer streak that is still building. And I'm grateful for it.
Since we're not in the same room right now, discussing your next project, I can't practice with you. But you might, the next time you're with someone who is stuck or has an issue with starting up. When you feel trust is high, put them on the spot and send them home with a small win.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
We quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald when discussing 'The Wizard and the Prophet' on the paradoxes surrounding our ecological future, paving the way for paradigm shifts as a solution to puzzles. Like dissonance in music, being able to appreciate a lack of coherence, embracing the tension seems to provide us with the right mindset to transcend and move on. In "Song of Myself", poet Walt Whitman even celebrated the tensions in himself:
"Do I contradict myself?", he asks, "Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."
As a counterpoint to our tendency to simplify, cognitive dissonance helps us deal with seeming contradictions. A conviction that helped me deal with this tension in many circumstances, is my unwavering belief that things just add up in the end. We simply do not understand the complexities yet that explain the seeming contradictions. This conviction helps me in taking the edge off, and makes it easier to sustain the dissonance.
In 'Story' we examined how this affected our view of people. We tend to make up a story ourselves about the people surrounding us, filling in the blanks, causing tension when reality confronts our own narrative.
I revisited my thinking on the subject when Michael Simmons wrote a nice introspection the other day on a complaint he received from a reader. The reader was troubled that he still used Elon Musk as an example in leadership pieces, while he frequently exhibits horrible behaviour.
Simmons goes on to investigate the lessons that can be learned from controversial people, warning us for the consequences of blocking out the voices that we have any sort of problem with. The names he mentions in his article, Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, all of them test my cognitive dissonance on a regular basis.
Since the inspiring actions and questionable behaviour stem from the exact same person, we have a problem with making sense of the learnings or appreciating their craft. Our Dutch seafaring heroes of the past, which we proudly named a good deal of our streets after, turned out to profit from slavery. Can we still be inspired by their bravery and entrepreneurship? Can we still appreciate the music of Michael Jackson? It's why we once questioned if raising statues for people is even a good idea.
If there is one lesson I want to draw from all of this, it is to further develop my stamina for contradiction and withhold judgement. Don't try to make sense of someone's actions by taking a shortcut and labelling. I recently came across a French saying that I find particularly beautiful:
"Tout comprendre est tout pardonner"
Now, I wouldn't go as far as pardoning all kinds of behaviour. But the mere conviction that someone's behaviour actually has an explanation is often a first step towards reconciliation or forgiveness, a step away from conflict.
Motivation is often short-lived. This is why you need your moments of clarity to commit to an accountability-partner, commit to a deadline, or set the timer on your electronic cookie-jar.
These past months, I realised how much of the services we buy are about buying accountability.
Signing up for a course is a great example. Since great content on almost any subject can be found for free on the internet, what's left to justify a hefty fee is related to either the community you get hooked up to (for all kinds of purposes) or a form of accountability. You pay once for the ride, you hop on, and it's tough to skimp while on the rollercoaster.
Coaching is another useful case. You sign up for a series of talks or workshops, and your coach turns up, rain or shine. Getting out of this cycle takes more energy (cancelling, admitting something to yourself, ...) than moving along and doing the work.
I used to see the need for external accountability as a sign of weakness, but I now think this was a cop-out. If a commitment is our best willpower hack, it shows how much we really care.
What do you really care about, but do not make enough progress on? Maybe finding a form of commitment is worth an experiment!
Even though we've been reporting on AI since our very first newsletter (in September 2020⏱️✈️), writing about developments in AI these days is different. It feels like constantly walking a fine line between sharing enthusiasm for what's unfolding while staying away from the hyped headlines that dominate the news. We want to take a long view, but still stay close to the cutting edge; if only for an amusing look at what we thought was happening when we re-read in a few years time.
Two developments, happening as we speak, feel like the dawn of a new phase: multi-modality and the first research publications on impact on our working lives.
ChatGPT (and its undercover Microsoft sibling Bing Chat) is now able to take in images and voice. Think of showing the contents of your fridge, asking it instructions to cook a meal. Or showing a photo of your bike, asking it how to raise your seat. The other way around now also enters a new phase: image creation will integrate with the chatbot. You will also be able to interact with the model verbally, making a spoken conversation possible. All of these developments will lower friction and barriers to entry, making the tools useful for an even broader audience.
In the research department, the paper that struck me most is a first validation of the claim that AI would improve the speed and quality of knowledge work. You can read the full paper here or read a great overview by one of the authors, Ethan Mollick. Enlisting over 750 knowledge workers from BCG (a management consultancy) and having them complete realistic client engagement exercises with and without the use of GPT-4, both speed and quality increased significantly for the GPT-4 group.
An interesting first answer also formed to the question which worker segment would benefit most from the augmentation. Would AI be a 'kingmaker' (boosting the highest performers), an 'escalator' (boosting all) or a 'leveller' (boosting lower performers, closing the gap). The last option seems to be what the research shows:
"Where previously the gap between the average performances of top and bottom performers was 22%, it shrunk to a mere 4% once the consultants used GPT-4."
Seeing the landscape evolve rapidly before our very eyes, I am constantly surprised by new creative use cases. If AI can turn a conceptual drawing into working software, the proof is building that AI can supercharge our production power, becoming the next incarnation of our bicycle for the mind. Which leads me to the question I am most eager to see answered: if we have magical realisation powers at our fingertips, will we spend more time thinking about what we want to realise in the first place? Will AI lead to even more busywork, or will it lead to more purpose, more intent?
If I were to summarize the past 111 (!) editions of our Q&A newsletter in one word, it would undoubtedly be: balance
And, perhaps, allow me 😉, an emoticon: ⚖️
Going through the 'seedlings' (little gems of insight) collected in my digital library of thoughts and ponderings, I noted:
"Balance seems to be the answer to a lot of (if not all) challenges"
Reading the article 'Reason Is a Powerful Tool, but It Pays to Know Its Limits' basically put my mind firmly into the confirmation bias mode. The title alone basically did the trick.
Having a natural inclination to apply logic, deduction and analytical thinking to almost anything I encounter, the main tool used is 'reasoning'. This article just dropped my main wielding tool into the 'nice-to-have-but-not-the-solution-to-everything' basket and placed the value of 'balance' squarely in my face.
"What reason can do, incredibly well, is tell you what follows from certain premises, or certain beliefs you already have. Given the truth of something, or your belief in the truth of something, reason can tell you what else is true, or what else you should believe is true (assuming you accept that certain operations of logic are truth-preserving). [...] What it can’t do is tell you what’s true to begin with."
An excellent tool, thus, to deduce and provide (emotional) comfort and a sense of control; useless in determining what's really important to you. It was a great insight and once again made me think about how I have missed learning about these ways of looking at the world. The article itself blames this, at least in part, on how we organise our education:
"A curious feature of education is how often it narrows the mind. You become so good at using a particular tool, at employing a particular perspective and framework for seeing and understanding the world, that you eventually forget that it is just one tool, one perspective, one framework."
In trying to understand ourselves and the world around us, reasoning and deterministic thinking is just one tool. A very useful one. Equally useful are the tools that allow you to have genuine doubts about the goals, feelings and values you strive for. Do not be scared to be a sceptic. Do not be scared of dealing with uncertainty and keep the different balls in the air for some time.
When talking to ChatGPT, I tend to greet it and thank it for its responses. I don't know why I started this, but when one of my clients asked me about this behaviour, I started reflecting on it.
Obviously, the machine has no feelings, so why bother? When instructing a computer in programming terms, anything resembling social etiquette is left out, as it apparently yields no results.
A quick detour made me revisit my relationship with stuffed animals in my youth. Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities) is a well-known human behaviour. Like myself, my kids make sure their fluffy friends are well looked after, tucking them in (or leaving them sitting in a chair with the Nintendo Switch in front of them...) when they leave the house. I even catch myself gently placing them in their beds if they linger around the house; throwing them on their beds feels strangely unnatural 😆
For now, I think the main effect of courtesy towards my Large Language Model (LLM) is in myself. If I talk to it as if it were a human being, it affects my mindset. I tend to phrase questions differently, mixing the functional with the emotional, aiding in my problem solving journey. My mind is also primed for optimism and feedback in this way, which makes me ask more follow-up questions and follow-through better. Lastly, I think this behaviour fits the habits I want to embody; being polite, optimistic and grateful in every interaction I have.
I can't testify to the quality improvements of the outcomes, but overall, I am a fan of the value these conversations bring. An unexpected real outcome emerged the other day, when I was in a conversation with ChatGPT to build the foundation for my new website messaging. I asked ChatGPT about psychological mechanisms behind daily pitfalls and challenges for entrepreneurs, based on my coaching experience. Afterwards, I thanked it for its responses, to which it answered:
"You're very welcome! I'm glad you found the insights and suggestions helpful. Best of luck as you refine your marketing approach and reach out to potential clients. If you bring the depth of understanding and caring that you've shown in asking these questions, I have no doubt you'll be highly successful in inspiring entrepreneurs to work with you."
If compliments feel good because of what they cause, of what they stir up in you, of reinforcing what you aspire you to be, then this machine was doing a good job.
During a recent social event, I reconnected with someone from my time at University. Interesting to learn how your lives have developed in their own way. It turned out his career brought him in contact with bacteria, useful bacteria, like the ones present in probiotica products and used for producing medicines.
He told me that after spending some fruitful (and lucrative) years in this business, he noted that we as humans tend to carefully and diligently select only the useful bacterias and try to avoid all the other ones as much as possible. Present-day technology makes this possible, but -as he proclaimed- without that technology we've still made it this far. He therefore started focusing and educating himself on the usefulness of bacteria in general.
Energised by the conversation, my brain shifted into higher gear on my way back home. Many of us have the experience of our kids getting ill once they go back to school, or having dripping noses for the full four years while spending some of their time in child's daycare. They are exposed to all kinds of viruses and bacteria. Sometimes causing serious illness (for a day or two), sometimes just a cold. However, once they start getting together in Kindergarten or Primary School, they are in fact the ones who do not become ill in the first couple of weeks. They have built up a strong defense.
My conversation partner I talked to mentioned research that analysed how much dirt a baby would eat if it were crawling around in nature (back in the days), using their hands as they always do: touching everything they encounter and putting them in their mouth as often as possible. Guess. The research mentioned a number of 40-60g per day! This big scoop of dirt contains a very diverse set of bacteria and in high quantities (the research apparently mentions 10s of billions). Moreover, this 'Michelin-star' dish also contains funghi and minerals.
The most probable function of this baby behaviour: ensure your intestines grow a healthy, diverse population of bacteria to digest all the energy-containing food in the most efficient way. There is a strong connection between gut health and your general wellbeing and condition. Lots of skin diseases and imperfections have been linked to certain dietary habits (e.g. too much lactose) and thereby also -indirectly- to the types and diversity of bacteria in your gut.
Am I saying that we should eat a spoon of dirt every day? Not really, certainly not in crowded, city areas with all kinds of pollutants present. However, our current lifestyle seems to be focused on getting rid of all the 'filthy' stuff and protecting our body from getting into contact with bacteria. We've learned to do this the hard way as humankind paid a huge price when it was not paying attention to hygiene: pest pandemic is just one example, wiping out more than one-third of the European population in the 14th and frequently wrecked havoc until the 19th century.
I guess what I'm saying is that it feels as if the hygiene pendulum has moved too much to the cleanliness direction and a rebalance seems to be in order. I intend to spend some time on this topic in the coming period and find that research my friend was talking about. Curious to learn your thoughts about this.
Hygiene: too much of it can kill you, too little as well.
Spammy sounding article titles usually make me run for the delete or 'mark as spam' button, but every now and then I am rewarded for taking a second look. Point in case, the article written by Michael Simmons called "Tutorial: How to Package Other People's Video Clips So They Go Viral and People Pay for Them"
For me, the interesting part is what feeling this title evokes. The cheap, tricky sound of the headline is exactly what the myth surrounding creativity is all about. We are somehow raised with the notion that true creativity is about creating something out of thin air, creating a 1 from a 0, so to say. The reality is much more about combining 1's and 1's into something new. Michael quotes researcher Robert Weisberg:
"The basic assumption that it is possible for a truly creative person to produce something that completely breaks with the past is fiction."
What I find especially interesting is how having 'random' and unconnected 'base materials' is a beautiful advantage in creating something new. Intellectual diversity is an asset, as proven on a lot of fronts. People who have worked in multiple industries, for instance, are proven to be much more innovative than people who have been in the same industry their entire career.
We also wrote about 'strange combinations' earlier in a piece called Luck, defining a specific form of 'chance':
"creating a unique opportunity by having a rare combination of behavioural quirks, hobbies and interest"
Even in a more mundane form, skill combinations can be a great way to find your niche, as explained by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his 2007 career advice:
"If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths: Become the best at one specific thing or become very good (top 25%) at two or more things."
What skills do you consider yourself to be 'very good' at? And are you currently working at the intersection of them? Which combination would be interesting to consider?
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 our family we like to say that coincidences do not exist. Seconds after we asked our guide, who led us through his beautiful country on our holiday trip, whether we could stop for a short 'bio-break', he pulled into a parking lot where we were greeted by the biggest and most generous smile on earth. Whatever was worrying our minds (including the pressing need to visit a bathroom) vanished.
We were greeted by Mr. Welipenna Vithanage Sugathapala or the very person who was awarded the title 'World's happiest man' by several sources, including Mike Worsman of 'TheHappiest.com', who gave him his title, and the NY Times. This YouTube video gives you an impression. Mr. Sugathapala is a security guard at a local bakery in Beruwala on the South-West coast of Sri Lanka. He's not just standing near the front door. Instead, he's actively luring visitors to the bakery by smiling, whistling and making big welcoming gestures.
His energy is contagious and we felt its impact once we continued our journey. His story is, however, not full of happiness and laughter; he has troubles making ends meet on a daily basis and feed his family. Still, he entrenched himself in his happy, positive style. I had a nice chat with him and he shared a leaflet detailing his 'message to the world'.
In short, his main advice is simple and obvious; be happy with what you have, be patient, compassionate and honest. Do not spend energy on what troubles your mind and be an inspiration to others. We touched on the subject of happiness before and we noted:
"Intuitively, this ["Whatever makes you happy, do that."] makes absolute sense. When you're happy, you at least sense you have more energy. You spend 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."
However, studies and experiments suggest that our brain is not 'wired' to be happy.
"The theory is our brains evolved this way in order to protect us; early humans had a lot more to gain from focusing on what might harm them than from what was pleasant"
Still, a smile is contagious, as is happiness. And the best thing of all: we can control this ourselves. Why not actively try to smile in the vicinity of other people at least once a day and see what happens. For instance at the start of a meeting. I'm pretty sure we can change our 'wiring' over time. We live in a beautiful world 😊.
In the past couple of days, I was lucky enough to take a step back and enjoy nature. A few hours into winding down, the first interesting reflections and observations started to emerge. One particularly stood out; many of my discussions with other people seem to center around what the best preconditions are to achieve more, grow faster or finish school with high grades. Looking at external factors rather than internal ones. I often felt uncomfortable in those discussions and it dawned on me why.
While society seems to fixate more and more on intelligence, creativity, and other cornerstones of achievement, we're overlooking an essential quality: resilience - our capacity to recover swiftly from adversity. Though pivotal to enduring life's challenges, it remains, in my humble opinion, an unsung hero in our education system, daily life, and workplaces. This is a tribute to that virtue, which I personally believe should have more attention.
In life, resilience is akin to an ever-reliable safety net, letting us bounce back from setbacks and withstand the rigours of daily challenges. From disputes with friends to unexpected expenses, life continuously tests our alertness. It's resilience that allows us to retain balance in the face of adversity and prevent these daily challenges from escalating into significant distress. Even better, it may turn the 'negative' energy in the opposite direction and let you reach higher than before.
Yet, our education system, primarily focused on academic prowess, seems not very interested in cultivating this critical skill. Students are ill-prepared to manage academic stress or failure, leading to anxiety and dampened motivation. In the professional sphere, resilience remains an under-appreciated commodity. In an era defined by change and uncertainty, resilient employees contribute to a more dynamic, yet stable organisation.
Admittedly, there will always be a group of people in society for which (Government) support is required to survive in our system. I'm all for providing such support to those that really need it. Yet, this safety net should perhaps not always be that visible or easily acccesible. Some form of (temporary) discomfort and (here it is again) uncertainty could just trigger the unfolding of your own safety net before it is supplied to you. It's about finding the right balance and targeting the right group of people in real need of external support.
It's time to bring resilience out from the shadows, giving it the prominence it deserves in our society's narrative. It starts in our homes, extends to our schools, and permeates our workplaces. Resilience can be learned through mindfulness, physical activity, social connections, and effective stress management. I especially believe you can train resilience by getting to know oneself much better. Practice self-reflection and once you have some observations, the journey really starts: be self-critical and honest.
Build up your discipline. It's like allowing yourself to be bored and see what happens next. Just like how I got to this subject in the first place. By reorienting our focus and investing in self-consciousness, we can craft a society that thrives, fortify our collective capacity to deal with setbacks, enhancing mental health and societal well-being, irrespective of the challenges that come our way.
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.
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?
The great thing about gathering your thoughts, writing about it and sharing it with the outside world, is that you're forced to deeply think about it. Moreover, the thinking doesn't stop once published. The thinking is nestled in a warm place somewhere in your brain to pop up every so often, like a new-born asking for attention when needed. At least, that's how it works for me.
Something triggered me to rethink my earlier piece on opinions and trying to be opinion-less. Thinking through the issue once more, I came to a different conclusion. Could it be that it is simply impossible to be without opinions? Like a Buddhist monk trying to be without a thought for some time, you may be able to train yourself to become opinionless over many, many years, but at what cost?
You may try to keep opinions for yourself and oblige yourself to look at issues from multiple angles, creating multiple opinions; the one somewhat stronger than the other. There was a hint to this deliberation already in the earlier article:
"Rather, focus your energy on the (small) things you can influence or being a neutral judge. Every little wind of change has the potential to grow into a hurricane."
Keywords are 'neutral judge'. You'll notice you're judging already most of the time when observing, analysing and thinking. You seem to be hardwired to do so; from a biological perspective, this judgment allows you to react fast. When a predator is coming your way, there is no use in looking at it from different angles, you should just run or hide.
When you have the opportunity to take some time, my suggestion would be to use it. Use it to take a breath and ask clarifying questions. Try to avoid reaching conclusions. To have an opinion voiced to the outside world means you've reached a conclusion. Rather than becoming opinion-less, it's probably more about being 'conclusion-less'.
Even though you can wait for that baby to start crying, there are ways to actively revisit your convictions. After meetings or events, take some downtime and ask yourself questions. Like:
"Ok, during that conversation I really tried to make that point, but my counterpart just didn't buy it. I still believe that norm/value is important for me, but how do I actually implement it or deal with it? Is it still that important to me?"
Asking yourself such questions will trigger more nuanced, more colourful pictures of the world surrounding you. As is often the case with nuances, their impact may be big. It requires some energy and discipline to get this functioning consistently. My personal experience is that it's worth the effort as social interactions become much smoother whilst not taking away the discomfort that allows for growth and development.
Did I just reinvent Stoïcism?
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.
The slow-changing genetic make-up of our human race remains one of my favourite pondering subjects, as it explains a lot of the friction induced by the increasing pace of change around us. Organs and behaviour that have lost their original purpose (like the appendix, the tailbone and possibly the hiccups) are labelled human vestigiality. On the behavioural side, we have tons of biases (on which we shared some thoughts before) affecting our decision making in ways that do not necessarily serve us well in these modern times.
Tim Ferriss recently reminded me of a 2014 article by Tim Urban (waitbutwhy) that explored another remnant of our past:
"An irrational and unproductive obsession with what other people think of us."
Tim Urban digs into the role of social survival in 50.000 BC tribe life, where acceptance was literally a life-or-death issue. In a world were social survival is no longer a real concept, this remnant is often withholding us from finding our purpose and own voice.
In the article, Urban makes this trait come alive by likening it to a wooly mammoth that rules parts of our lives. He provides a structured approach to taming the mammoth by finding out where our mammoth is hiding, reframing common convictions and finding your authentic voice.
If the mammoth is bothering you in your daily life, the article provides tangible approaches to reducing its role. The flip-side hiding here is how other people's opinion can also effect social behaviour, as it will make us consider the consequences of our actions. The poison is in the dose.
This short article might save you energy. Energy you put into trying to figure out whether someone is telling you the truth. I, at least, find myself often wondering and therefore spending quite a bit of 'braintime' and focus on whether what I'm hearing is really true and how it is presented to me. This is, most of the time, due to the fact that I feel an intrinsic need to fit what I'm hearing into a certain logic (my logic 😉).
Everyone will be familiar with certain tricks and wisdoms to detect lies. Facial expressions, physical behaviour, nervousness, sweating, not looking your opponent in the eye, you named it. Many youtube tutorials and professional consultancies will teach you new tricks. The "truth", so it seems, is that none of these tips and tricks will make you a better lie-detector than anyone else.
"... despite the fact that cultures throughout history have had quite firm ideas about how an untruthful person behaves, the science suggests people are generally poor at detecting lies."
This is one of the conclusions of two professors from the University of Oslo in Norway, who went through more than a century of research on humans' ability to detect lies. Some more (good or bad, up to you) news from their paper:
"On average, people are not able to tell lies from truths based on how others talk or behave."
"Overall, liars don’t appear nervous, and they don’t avoid eye contact, any more than those telling the truth."
Also, the suggestion that we may pick up lies unconsciously, which influences our gut feeling, seems not to be supported by hard evidence. This all seems to suggest that I could save myself all the trouble I go through to figure out a/the/my truth. That doesn't feel right either.
Luckily, professors Tim Brennen and Svein Magnussen don't just leave us with this somewhat dire conclusions and the feeling that we human beings are nothing to show for when it comes to uncover the truth. They have some pretty practical advice:
"Well, there is one reliable procedure based on common sense, and that is to simply find out what the supposed liar says that does not fit with other stuff that you know."
Aha! "My logic" comes into good use after all! The procedure they suggest is already often applied by the police and investigators researching criminal incidents. Not communicating the already collected evidence, the police will ask the suspect to give as complete an account of the incident as they can together with how they were involved (or not). This way, you increase chances that the suspects reveal certain 'facts' for which you have evidence to the contrary.
Again, so much information is revealed by not communicating at all.
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!
Worldwide events and our own lives seem to be full of them: mistakes that we've made before. Most people react to such events in disbelief, "do we ever learn from the past?".
The reason someone or something made a mistake doesn't necessarily mean that the action they took or the course they followed was necessarily wrong. There are so many variables in play that it is hard to get all the causal relationships in the right order. It is therefore not always fair to speak about "mistakes that we've made before" even though the actions or results may look very similar.
Taking this one step further, it might even serve a purpose to try a -seemingly- similar approach to a -seemingly- similar problem again. Who says that this time around it doesn't work? The past can serve as a great inspiration but isn't necessarily leading. One realisation makes this very clear; why is it that we do remember actions and sayings from a certain individual that lived two-three thousand years ago (e.g. Aristoteles) but not from every (wise?!) person living in that time.
This all passed my mind when I read this passage from the book "A Gentleman in Moscow":
"I guess the point I'm trying to make is that as a species we're just no good at writing obituaries. We don't know how a man or his achievements will be perceived three generations from now, nay more than we know what his great-great-grandchildren will be having for breakfast on a Tuesday in March. Because when Fate hands something down to posterity, it does so behind his back."
Which brought me back to entropy and chaos and our deliberation:
"Chaos might therefore indeed be nature's deliberate setting to propel development and create diversity."
Nature itself might be the best at learning from the past. Its most important traits: trial and error, time, patience. Let's be more gentle on ourselves and embrace perhaps yet another reason to go back to our early lives as a child.
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'.
Because I switched from Pocket to Readwise Reader as a read-it-later tool recently, I bumped into tons of stuff I saved 10 years ago, which is a fun experience. It's a little time capsule showing the stuff that I was interested in or keeping me up at night.
One 2013 article from Peter Bregman drew my attention, as its subject -procrastination- is something I still feel I haven't mastered yet. The quintessence of the article is how our fear of feeling something unpleasant is often preventing us to take action.
The author came to insights on the matter as he saw early morning surfers at the beach, each of them ending their rides with falling down, but loving the experience every time. He then asks himself:
"So why don’t we live life that way? Why don’t we accept falling — even if it’s a failure — as part of the ride?"
I immediately thought of Andrew Huberman's dopamine masterclass and the ways to trick your system into loving the friction of doing hard things. I also remembered Nathan Furr's lessons on 'reframing' as a way to tackle anxiety under uncertainty. Peter Bregman advocates a similar strategy.
"Have that difficult conversation. Listen without defensiveness when your colleague criticizes you. Name the elephant in the room. Get rejected. And feel it all. Feel the anticipation of the risk. Feel the pre-risk cringe. Then, during the risk, and after, take a deep breath and feel that too."
Embracing the emotion without judging it - like in meditation - seems like the timeless recipe again. I'll see what I can cook up.
Being an introvert myself, the following introduction to a YouTube video caught my attention:
"In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in this passionate talk, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated." [hyperlink to video added by us]
Though this TED-Talk is a relatively one-sided reasoning why things should change in favour of introverts, I believe it is worth watching. Even though I dislike labelling, I cannot ignore the fact that it sometimes helps to use certain classifications to bring the conversation forwards. It's the balance that I'm interested in.
As between 35-50% of the population can be classified as introvert, it doesn't hurt to have a good look at what kind of environment they thrive in. Susan Cain, being herself a true introvert and noticeably uncomfortable on stage, gives some striking examples how our society, educational systems and work environments are mostly geared towards extraverts. Just think about open plan offices, the focus on working in teams and sitting in groups at school.
Susan ends her talk with a call to action that essentially boils down to creating a better balance culturally. Taking into account that for quite a number of people solitude matters. A lot. At the same time, she calls for the 'introverts' to speak up and be honest about your needs. As she puts it: "open your suitcase".
The talk made me wonder why we have organised a lot of things seemingly 'just for the extraverts'. It is known that human beings, when operating in groups, tend to easily and almost automatically copy the behaviour of others. This may explain why there is tendency towards group work. Could another explanation perhaps be our tendency to focus on goals, results, making everything measurable? Maybe that's why I've never liked S.M.A.R.T. goals!
Reflecting on the timeless exercise question "what have you changed your mind on?", one answer for me would have to be "optimism". Over two years back I already wrote optimism a heartfelt loveletter, but I seem to become more and more convinced of its value as time progresses.
If I reflect on my level of optimism 10 or even 20 years back, I can still vividly remember how I mistrusted especially corporate managers who were always optimistic. When business situations were not favourable, specific people were not performing well or C-level decisions were not the ones we hoped for, I absolutely hated the die-hard optimism some of them demonstrated, seeing the silver lining or expecting fruitful outcomes in the end. I convinced myself that some stuff is just bad, and you should call it that. Anything else qualified as sticking your head in the sand.
Looking back, I spent a ton of energy on labelling situations and mulling over stuff I had no influence on. If there is one thing that has changed since then, it's this labelling. Trusting the value of everything that happens, good or bad, while still allowing the emotions that come with those events, must be one of the more liberating shifts in mindset I have experienced.
Feeding this virtuous cycle even further, I experienced the value of this specific type of optimism even more as I shifted more towards coaching and teaching these past 2 years. Observing great coaches and teachers, I found them to be universally optimistic towards their coachees and students. They look beyond the obvious and find value, improvement, growth. This kind of energy keeps them going, helps them find new approaches, gets better results and is also felt by their audience. I will try to flick the 'optimism' switch more often.
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.
As we (meaning: Q&A) write our pieces for the newsletter independently before discussing and redacting it together, this often leads to lengthy discussions around the subjects we've chosen. I love this part of our weekly rhythm as it often leads to new insights an follow-up actions. So too, our piece on 'behaviour'.
In it, we wrote about how our behaviour has a huge influence on economic markets and personal finance.
"Behaviour has a tendency to have a long-lasting, sticky effect. Your own behaviour is also setting examples"
We also called for being critical about your own and others behaviour. Which led to me jotting down in my note-taking programme during the conversation, the words: "it's a philosophy".
What we meant is that, although quite a lot of your behaviour seems to be autopilot, you can actually have a conscious influence on what your 'auto-behaviour' will be. A philosophy of self-awareness and self-thinking. Which automatically (at least for me... part of the critical thinking behaviour😉) led to the question: how?
You could start by some soul-searching and asking what of your own behaviour is determined by others or the 'system'. The society and culture you live in obviously has quite a bit of influence as you, for example, conform to certain rules and regulations. But some others are self-controlled, as you'll discover when you analyse and are really honest to yourself. You still conform to the norm, to the group, but there's no particular other reason for certain behaviour than 'this is what is expected' or 'this is what I think is expected'.
Some questions that may help in this process; do I really want this? Is this in my favour? If I change my behaviour, what happens? Am I able to drive (positive) change by changing my behaviour? Can I inspire others? Does it fit my philosophy? Am I overthinking this...
Last week, I had my own live experience of 'affect labelling' while writing and discussing the piece on 'Leadership'. As I write in the piece itself, I was quite emotional about the subject. However, after putting it in the newsletter and having discussed it with my co-author, I already felt much better. The sharp edges were removed.
That same day, I started reflecting some more and noticed that I hadn't been taking care of my mental health as much lately. For example, I had not taken the time to meditate. Not that I was totally off the road, but part of the feeling of worry may certainly have been due to a lack of taking stock.
Going through some of our writings on reflection, I came across this quote of Daniel Ek:
"Be kind; everyone is on their own journey."
I had to be remembered of that, but also felt immediately relieved and somewhat re-energized. Next to a clear sense of purpose, there were some obvious, immediate actions I could undertake to move forwards (again).
In the small town I live in, it is (still) customary to greet each other in the street. Stranger or not, you simply say 'hello' or 'good day' to everyone you pass. It's a custom I was raised with as a child, but find it less common in city environments. Still, once we're in another country during the Summer, the habit seems to be international.
Greeting others and asking how they are doing is not only polite, there is an important social function as well. It's the start of a conversation. And that conversation can be very important. An article by Christian Waugh, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, explains:
"It starts with answering the question ‘How do you feel?’ [...] research shows that the mere act of answering this question actually changes the emotions you are currently feeling."
Psychology terms the act of putting your feelings into words as ‘affect labelling'. The interesting thing is that studies have shown that once you put a label on a negative emotion (angry, disappointed, etc.), it actually decreases that negativity. In other words, affect labelling acts as a pretty powerful medicine.
The reason seems to be that triggering people to put feelings into words -preferably speaking them out loud, though writing them down has an effect as well-, forces them to think and self-reflect on what they actually feel. This, in turn, leads to your brain to automatically start thinking about countermeasures and actions to address that emotion, which has a dampening effect on that emotion.
Positive emotions seem not to be dampened by expressing them but rather somewhat amplified and sticking around for longer. The more specific words you use to describe your state of mind, the more effective it is. Researchers conclude:
"The importance of using affective labelling in an authentic way is consistent with other research showing that people tend to enjoy higher wellbeing when they feel like they are being authentic to themselves and not faking parts of their life."
One of our readers pointed out wonderful research, published in Current Biology, that explores scientific backgrounds of why kids seem to be able to learn faster than adults.
A brain messenger called GABA has a stabilizing role in the learning process, which the researchers tested with visual training exercises:
"The findings suggest that children’s brains respond to training in a way that allows them to more quickly and efficiently stabilize new learning."
From an evolutionary viewpoint, I can see how kids' faster learning would have benefited our survival rate greatly. As the world is changing faster and faster these days, it warrants the question if adults would also benefit from child-like learning abilities. Is this another bit of evolutionary bagage that is dragging us down like most of our biases are?
Thinking of counter-evidence, I would love to see the value of the slower learning explored as well. Is the slower adult pace merely a use-it-or-lose it decay in learning abilities? Or does this slower learning come with advantages as well? I know this must also be a reflection of my struggle with declining mental power as we age 😀, but the case for diversity of approaches is a strong one. Younger and older people working on problems together might be our best strategy.
We have been heavy on the AI progress reporting in the past weeks, but it seems like the pace of mindblowing new tool releases is only increasing. For me, the effect of the news coming out in the past few weeks and months can only be compared to the feeling I had when the Internet took off in the 90's. A mix of possibility, uncertainty, re-imagination of the known and some anxiety mixed in for good measure.
OpenAI, the company behind GPT-3, Codex and Dall·E 2 just released 'ChatGPT', a chat-based interaction with the GPT-3.5 model. Any search on Twitter and YouTube will leave you with impressive demonstrations of what the model can do.
Upon release, I immediately became intrigued how the model could be used to support all kind of creativity exercises used in Design Thinking workshops. The first experiment immediately blew my mind.
One particular exercise in re-imagining products and services is called 'Creative Remix'. It's all about mixing up existing ideas to generate (often outlandish) new mixes, that can then inspire innovation.
As a test, I asked ChatGPT "What if going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash?". It responded:
If going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash, the experience of dining at a restaurant would be more automated and streamlined. Customers would likely be given a menu and a choice of meal options, but the food would be prepared and served by machines or automated systems. The restaurant would be set up like a car wash, with customers moving through different stations for different aspects of their meal, such as ordering, eating, and paying. The restaurant might also offer additional services, such as drink refills or dessert, through automated systems or machines. Overall, the experience of going out for a meal at a restaurant would be more efficient and hands-off, with a greater emphasis on automation and convenience.
As a tool for generating a lot of remixed options to get a brainstorm started, this level of creative makes for a great diverging tool. I'm looking forward to explore augmented creativity more in the near future!
Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant recently published an article on how the public can be taught to deal with misinformation, popularly termed 'fake news'. The article is only accessible by paid subscription unfortunately. The content is based on research by the University of Cambridge that was reported on in 2021 and 2017, in the context of misinformation about Covid-19 and climate change, respectively.
The process proposed to build up 'resistance' to misinformation is ingenious in its simplicity: start with a warning ("you're being manipulated"), follow up by explaining the techniques used and present an example. In addition, after some time, you may be served with a booster (e.g. another example). The result is that you're better prepared in discerning misinformation from real information. This process is based on how vaccination works; your body get acquainted with the potential invaders en hence builds up defensive mechanisms.
The different articles describe what the ideal cocktail could look like. Misinformation can usually be recognised by one (or more) of the following communication techniques:
Misinformation is potentially a big problem as it is very personal and difficult to judge objectively. Most information that speaks to your mind and confirms built-in beliefs (and prejudices) tends to be very sticky. It's the confirmation bias doing its job. When that kind of information is repeatedly being served, it's no wonder that that becomes your truth. Having said that, as there is probably is no one overall truth, at least philosophically speaking, there is also no fake news...
A good way to start is to be wary of anyone claiming something to be either fake news or the truth. Figure out why that person or institution has a need to make such claims. Combining this analysis with your own 'prepared' mindset, gives you a well-rounded, own opinion.
More research is required, but I personally see this way of preparing the public for misinformation not necessarily as a vaccination campaign. I'd rather speak of educating us to go back to basics and be really critical of what we see, read and consume. Being able and comfortable to think for yourself is a critical factor in making our world less black-and-white, more colourful and in balance.
“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.
In crisis we tend to look at one body, one leader to solve the issue at hand. Large groups tend to rally around the person that is able to address their most pressing concerns. Though we may then feel part of a group like-minded people, the solutions proposed are still mostly the idea of one individual.
However, we have seen that especially for complex problems, a group approach is much better; this is the way nature attacks problems, faces challenges; it is the various options tried by many, from which several good solutions evolve.
This 'evolutionary' group approach takes more time, which may exactly be the reason why this is not the go-to strategy for most people. We tend to be a bit impatient. Even though we know that taking time will result in more robust and longer lasting solutions.
At the same time, I observe that current societies seem to become less risk-taking and loss avoidant. Perhaps, exactly because our wealth has grown exponentially. The combination of impatience and risk-avoidance seems to me a potentially dangerous mix.
That said, I remain a solid believer in our ability to survive. There are plenty of self-correcting mechanisms in nature as well as our social cohesion that will ensure us figuring out what to do. Having confidence in such mechanisms and recognising them when they kick in seems to be the most important challenge we need to spend our time on.
Following up on the previous Patience issue, I must admit I am currently somewhat worried. Sometimes, I find it difficult to keep a positive mindset.
We promised you to bring only positive messages in this newsletter. At the same time, I feel a sense of urgency to share my worries and hence some negative vibrations. Sharing those will hopefully result in more people joining me in a more 'positive' movement of change.
What is my worry? Our world has always seen big challenges and today is no different. In my humble opinion, what is different is that I currently do not see any (global) organisation and/or leader embarked on a truly future-proof path. Certainly the big countries on which we could always rely to plot ‘a middle of the route course’ are either on an outright path to war (US, China, Russia) or pre-occupied with internal/local challenges (e.g. UK, France). Furthermore, I observe that the UN and other independent organisations seem to be in dormant state on the sidelines. The EU is squeezed in the middle with no independent foreign policy.
It seems time to change. Time for a new way of organising ourselves and living together. Building on the good things from the past, such as democracy and social welfare, and putting it into new clothes.
The change, in my opinion, has to come from a different direction than current leadership. I know we are all busy in our (relatively) comfortable daily lives. Still, I really believe it is necessary to spend all the time we can spend on creating a better world, together. We, the people, do not have political agenda's or escalated commitments. We do not need to be re-elected. We do not need to be in history books.
This probably requires actions on several fronts. I've already shared my concerns through my network into the current leadership. Perhaps, if more people speak up, things may start to change from the inside. My suspicion is that this might not be enough. Open to ideas and suggestions. Let's show some leadership!
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 😉.
Stress, burn-out, lack of energy. More and more people seem to suffer from it. This short video provides a very simple way to describe how stress can build up 'under the surface'. The situation causing stress might be small, but when you do not deal with it, it becomes bigger. The absolute weight of a problem doesn't matter, but the time you have to carry it does. It's a compounding factor causing exponentially increasing impact.
At the same time, not all problems or situations can be dealt with easily or swiftly, even if you want it. Often, you need others to cooperate, who may have other priorities. Or, you're so busy, time just passes by. Therefore, it will be a balance and you also have to accept some levels of stress at certain moments in your life.
This all means that you not only want to train methods to detect 'a situation' and determine actions to solve it. Focus the actions towards solving the root cause and not just alleviating symptoms. You also need to prepare yourself to deal with stress for some period of time and be resilient.
We have a tendency to capture and predict economic developments in models driven by formulas. However, the largest part of the equation is often influenced by human behaviour. Take, for example, our challenge in the energy transition. Production of renewable energy is just one part, but where most of our current efforts are put into. Business cases can be made, projects planned. However, changing the demand side of energy has at least a similar dramatic effect to become energy-neutral. Therefore, a change in our behaviour is required.
We were always taught and incentivised to use more electricity during the night. Traditionally, this was the low-demand part of the day, while supply (read: coal/gas-fired power stations) was still running. Renewable energy production is much more dominated by wind and especially sun. Most energy is naturally being generated during the day, which sometimes even leads to the cost of electricity to become negative during the day. It therefore would make sense to wash our clothes or dishes during the day, rather than saving it for the night. Our current day and night tariff structure is outdated and drives a different behaviour.
So, yes, we should invest heavily in changing our production and making our appliances more energy efficient. But, we should equally invest in changing our behaviour. Both to become more efficient and treat energy as a scarce (and expensive) resource as well as to balance demand and supply.
Behaviour has a tendency to have a long-lasting, sticky effect. Your own behaviour is also setting examples. For our children, for people that you inspire. Energy consumption is just one example. In numerous cases, we do not have to sit back and wait for our leaders to act. We can drive the change ourselves, as individuals, as a group. Our behaviour may even be the biggest driving force behind any change, for the better or the worse. Sometimes, this requires to look beyond the immediate impact on your bank balance, the 'smartest' (financially) or the socially most acceptable thing to do.
Have confidence in your actions and the fact that others will inspire you to correct them should you inadvertently take a wrong course. But, please, keep thinking for yourselves and do not just blindly follow what somebody tells you to do is the smartest thing (including what I write to you now!). Therefore, having the right kind of information and the occasional, inspirational steer is paramount to drive in the right direction.
A couple of months ago, we wrote a piece on expansion and contraction of the universe. I always love these kind of deliberations, as the sheer scale of these experiments make for a great backdrop for reframing our daily worries.
If the latest theories hold up, the expansion of our universe will stop at some point and turn into contraction. Long before this moment occurs, though, something else will have happened. Nuclear fusion happening in our stars will have come to a halt, making for a dark universe. I recently read an apt analogy for these events: fireworks. Just picture a giant array of fireworks being launched and exploding, lighting up the sky. After this giant explosion, the remaining glowing bits of debris gradually fade out before the sky returns to its usual dark self.
That's it. All that we call life is because of the moment we're in during this galactic firework show. Our sun and its brothers and sisters are the exploding bits of fireworks, lighting up our sky for a couple of billion years before they fade out and implode. Since our dominant life forms are all dependent on sunlight in one way or another, this calls for an adequate dose of relativity and humility, I think.
Worshipping the sun, as many civilisations have done for millennia, might not be such a primitive idea after all.
When you're looking for advice on what to do in a certain situation, you often find that it matters from whom you get the advice. This is very likely stating the obvious for many of our readers. But what if we take this to a more analytical level?
Bankers from Nomura did exactly this by constructing two equity portfolios, whose strategy is determined by using natural-language processing (Artificial Intelligence) of inputs from different sources. One portfolio's strategy is determined by the remarks of company management, e.g. during earnings calls. The other portfolio's strategy is determined by the questions that are asked by the analysts, e.g. during those same earnings calls.
The results were pretty striking:
Isabelle Lee from Bloomberg reported on this interesting insight in a piece called 'Heed Not Their Advice (or Listen Carefully)' published in John Auther's daily newsletter. On why the 'Analyst Sentiment' portfolio performed better, she quoted strategist Joseph Mezrich:
"We find that the distribution of analyst sentiment is symmetrical around the neutral point, whereas management sentiment is heavily skewed toward positive sentiment, suggesting positive spin. Moreover, it’s striking that companies with the worst analyst sentiment in earnings calls underperform the market in the days leading up to the call, and even more dramatically underperform following the call, and vice versa. This suggests a connection between analyst sentiment and price momentum around the earnings call."
Sentiment might well influence your choice of words and your type of questions. This is turn influences the contents of the advice given. It is therefore not only important to think about who to ask for advice, but also when and in what circumstances. Spreading your request over multiple persons and over time might then be your best bet.
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.
Great minds think alike. I write this sentence as the last addition to this piece as I receive my co-writer's piece on 'Mastery' for this newsletter edition. Much like the subject of this year's Nobel Prize winners for Physics (particle entanglements), the independent thoughts we have, seem to be influenced by similar inputs.
Perhaps, it is because we ended one of our pieces last week with_ "A great way to master a topic."_ In any case, it triggered the thought on 'how to?'.
Pondering this question, I quickly noted that it is not easy to find a simple algorithm or way to become a 'master' (if you're able at all to settle on a useful definition of 'mastery' itself).
First of all, mastering something doesn't necessarily mean to be in all the details of the subject. It seems to be more about conceptual understanding and seeing the connections with other subjects. I arrived at this insight after reading the article 'How to become an expert' in an effort to find answers. Becoming an expert is much more a methodological, long process aimed at basically knowing everything there is to know about a certain subject.
"Being expert means you can achieve excellent results almost every time and in any situation [...]"
That isn't the same as mastering it, which seems to 'hover' somewhat about the matter. An important aspect of mastery is to also understand the needs of your audience. Knowing for example when it is useful to skip a couple of pages of your presentation or when it is really useful to go through a page line-by-line. Being able to do this, on the spot, really requires to 'oversee' the entire subject without necessarily laying all individual pieces of the puzzle.
It also requires to let go of the idea that you can prepare for every possible way a conversation or presentation can evolve. It requires self-confidence and concentration; allowing digressions, actively engaging in the conversations, and triggering responses to your remarks. Not being afraid to make mistakes.
That's hard work, but rewarding. Part of the work shifts from preparation (which you'll still need, of course!) to the actual conversation itself. I'm pretty sure we can all be masters of certain subjects. It all starts with believing it.
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!
The snippet on decisions above above immediately made me realise the type of decisions I often postpone to make: quitting. Quitting a job, quitting a project, a commitment, I generally drag my feet way too long.
Digging deeper on this tendency, I can see where it's coming from. Nobody likes a quitter. We reward people who endure, follow through and keep their streak. Stopping something can be considered failing. On top of that, delivering bad news is not everybody's favourite conversation.
Many people attribute their success and happiness to their ability to say "no". Greg McKeown wrote a book on Essentialism which is essentially saying 'no' to a lot of stuff to make room for the important. Tim Ferriss even made it a default interview question (What have you become better at saying 'no' to?) and shared his tactics to say 'no' gracefully. He forces himself to say either 'Hell Yes!' or 'No!' to create the right decision mindset.
If saying no to new opportunities is one way to stop the faucet from spilling all over the floor, quitting is the mopping up. If you would get a choice to commit or pass on the engagements you're currently in, what would you have not said 'yes' to?
Since about a year, I'm learning a new language. I'm really enjoying it. The process brings together many different activities that provide me energy.
First of all, I'm learning a new skill. A new skill that opens new possibilities and situations that are fun. I can now have conversations with people that I could not reach before. I'm able to understand more of the country itself and perhaps organise some activities. Admitted, my proficiency is such that these are still basic conversations, but they do certainly provide for many funny, inadvertent situations.
Secondly, learning a new language provides more than just learning words and grammar. Being a curious person, I start to detect similarities and differences between the new language and others. Trying to understand why some things are similar and others aren't, automatically drives me into the space of history, old trading routes, traditions and culture. All topics that I find very interesting.
Practically, I'm able to set my own pace in learning this new skill. An ideal feature given all the other things going on.
Lastly, I'm doing this together with my wife, which gives it an additional dimension of fun. We can practice with each other and, while doing so, we've tackled another important item; accountability partner: ✅!
Even when I do not intend to use the acquired skill in my daily life, the learning process itself is worth it. I'm growing my confidence and in the least, training my learning muscles. I love finding an activity that brings together so many different aspects of what brings me alive. Can you find one?
Balancing your ego with a sense for the unity of our universe is often a matter of seeing the right illustration of the facts. A story that resonated highly with me was told by a monk who once confronted a person that thought a little bit too much of himself and needed no one. The monk pointed at a nearby tree and explained how the man's lungs could not function without trees and plants doing the reverse, turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. The mirror images of leaves and lungs could only co-exist because of each other.
Steve Jobs often sent e-mails to himself to capture what was on his mind. In a recent release of some documents from his family, one of these e-mails reminded me of the lungs & leaves story.
Accepting our dependencies might be a great step. Loving them might even be more joyous.
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.
While reading 'Het slimme onbewuste' ('The Smart Unconsciousness') it struck me how much of the advances in psychological research have connections to spiritual wisdom. Writer Ap Dijkstra's biggest mission with the book is to kick the prefrontal cortex off its pedestal and propose the unconscious as the unsung hero of our time.
Getting out of your 'thinking mind' and trusting your gut (which is apparently infinitely more capable) has been part of spiritual practice for millennia, but is become more and more backed up by scientific facts (which, funnily enough, are supposed to appeal to our pre-frontal cortex and logical though processes...).
Reflecting on these insights, I wondered what this would mean for our appreciation of people with lower-than-average rational thinking skills. Being raised by a mother who worked in psychological care institutions, I was taught to appreciate diversity on that front. These insights, however, shifted this outlook from an ethical (we're supposed to) or even religious one (we're all equal) towards a deeper understanding.
Thumbing through a magazine this morning, I bumped into an article about a Dutch student called Teun Toebes who is fighting for a different view on people suffering from dementia. As a 20-years-old, he decided to swap a student dormitory for a closed care institution and lived there for more than a year. He explains how much someone is still a full 'person' while his cognitive functions are in decline.
How we tend to see people with this condition is an illustration of our Descartes 'Cogito, ergo sum' (I think, therefore I am) way of looking at the world. Maybe it's time to reconsider.
The way of describing a situation has a big impact on its outcome. Nat Eliason describes how political consultant Frank Luntz coined the term 'climate change' to replace 'global warming' during the Bush administration, re-framing a lot of the public discourse on the subject. Words are -as we know- mightier than the sword; they move minds and therefore direct action.
We earlier dipped into the false dichotomy between 'money' and 'meaning' in our work life. Describing the situation as an 'either/or' limits our options, as we fail to see the combinations that are not mutually exclusive.
In his piece, Nat applies this same thinking to the term 'work-life balance', which also implies a sort of equilibrium, a balance between two opposing sides. Like the solution Evans and Burnett came up with, Nat is in favour of seeing a mix of elements that do not contradict, but complement each other. He likes the elements Anthony Gustin uses for his yearly reviews:
"Physical Health, Mental Health, Spirituality, Creativity, Relationships, Family, Travel, Fun, Finances & Work"
Nat started thinking about all of his activities to include more of each of these buckets:
"I also find that the long-term enjoyment of activities depends on how many of the various areas they can integrate in a meaningful way. Fun activities that support your physical and mental health, creativity, and relationships, tend to be more enjoyable over long periods than fun activities that cost you physical and mental health. Time with your family is much more enjoyable if you incorporate fun, work, creativity, and fitness, instead of seeing it as taking away from those things."
Think about it: where do you feel you need to make choices? And what possibilities would open up if you did not have to choose?
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!
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.
Are we, human beings, continuously reinventing the wheel? The thought crossed my mind several times this Holiday as I was inspired by several books, musea and archeological sites.
I don't know exactly why, but current generations tend to think they know more and are more advanced than whatever culture lived in history. I'm convinced those people are myopic. We can learn basic, useful techniques and wisdom from previous generations. On top of that, they had inspiring cultural and social structures.
A couple of examples. Visiting the Orkney Islands, I was amazed by the rich culture that inhabited these island more than 6,000 years ago. They were seafaring folk, able to dig 'henges' (ditches) in rock 3,5 meters deep and erecting not one but multiple stonehenge-like structures more than 2,000 years before the famous stone circle itself was built. They built complete, partly underground, villages including a drainage and sewage system. If only the Romans would have known. Several tribes seemed to be living peacefully together organising the occassional community gathering.
Bill Bryson's hilarious book Down Under about Australia provided some very interesting facts about the Aboriginals. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously maintained culture in the world. They were cooperating, communicating and worshipping long before agriculture was invented in the Middle East - generally believed to be the start of modern-day civilization. They were (and still are) known to be guardians of nature, perceiving the world in a completely other way than we do. They have for instance no chiefs, permanent residences or words for ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’.
Let us be open-minded and try to avoid comparisons. Just read how Captain James Cook described Aboriginals in his Endeavour Journal (quote taken from Down Under) and consider the trailing thought:
‘They may appear to some to be the most wretched people on earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: the earth and the sea of their own accord furnish them with all things necessary for life … they seemed to set no value upon anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with anything of their own.’ Elsewhere, he added with a touch of poignancy: ‘All they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.’
Elon Musk (as you will know by know my favourite subject for testing my stamina for cognitive dissonance) is fond of bold vision statements for his companies. For SpaceX, it's to make humanity a multi-planetary species. He thinks the future of mankind is beyond this planet.
Now, this does not jibe well with me on all kinds of fronts. Firstly, there's the current environmental problems we have gotten ourselves into. Even the thought of having multiple opportunities for a do-over will likely take our eyes off the ball. Let's fix our presence here first, and not hedge our bets.
Secondly, humans are uniquely built for the environment we originated in. From our general molecular structure to the nourishment and environment we require to thrive, earth is our sweetspot. Everything from our vision & hearing systems to our organs are uniquely tuned to the world around us. Living on a planet like Mars will require tricks up the wazoo, and I have a hard time seeing how we would thrive there.
Still, Musk's statement is also a test of my propensity to change and seeing beyond the present. Linking to the earlier piece on Aboriginals, our 21st century daily environment might not be called natural at all. The chain of adjacent possibilities led us to where we are right now, digital environments and all.
What would be our definition of 'natural', and what's the right balance between 'keeping things as they are' and just creating what's possible? Our answer to this question might reveal a lot about who we are, naturally.
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?
A recent London Business School article by Rosie Parry brought several of our favourite topics together: nurturing creativity, mean-reversion tendency, preferring the known above the unknown, optimizing energy.
In its first paragraphs, the article highlighted an experiment done by in 1968, by a scientist called George Land, testing creativity in children. It essentially proved what we have discussed before: children are enormously creative ("98% of them scored at the ‘creative genius’ level"), but that ability is greatly reduced by the time they are adolescents ("only 12% were scoring anywhere near the level they had done").
Where we blamed solely our education system for these results, the article highlights other factors that are in play. One that stands out, is that our bodies seem to be always optimizing for energy. This results, amongst others, in our brains and patterns of thinking to prefer automation and 'the known'. Go where you have gone before. Fall into the groove.
“The brain uses about 20% of our energy, more than any other single organ in the body. So of course, subconsciously we’re always looking for ways to use our brains less, in case we need that energy for something else – like running from a predator.”
The good news is that we can actually try to consciously pursue to be creative and being curious about ambiguity. This concerns a separate part of the brain and can be activated by learning new things, celebrating successes and our unique strengths, as well as experiencing the personal impact we have on the world. As Professor Cable puts it:
“Ultimately, learning programming or coding or digital marketing is not the important thing – the important thing is being able to forget your assumptions in order to stay relevant.”
It is a source of discomfort for me: people having (strong) opinions and trying to make you choose a side. I guess it makes people feel comfortable, because based on your opinion, one can classify and label you better. That makes things neat and organized. However, we have covered the drawbacks of labelling. Amongst others, it is rather asocial and a simplification of reality.
It takes courage to admit it, but it is not always necessary nor possible to have an opinion. Why, for instance, would you get involved in a discussion on a topic you're not familiar with? Once you pay attention, you'll notice how often this happens. In fact, I find it shocking.
The media plays an important role. Being opinionated attracts an audience, which is their source of income. At the same time, the opinions conveyed will start leading their own lives with the audience. When individuals forget to think for themselves, they can be easily influenced and become supporters of a certain media's view. Combined with media's often relatively short-term focus, there's the danger of losing ourselves in matters that have little value. To use the words of young philosopher Ferre Clabau:
"Let's live in reality, not in actuality."
Let's practice to be 'opinion-less' every so often. Certainly, when it is about a topic you're not familiar with or when it is outside your realm of influence. Rather, focus your energy on the (small) things you can influence or being a neutral judge. Every little wind of change has the potential to grow into a hurricane.
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.
When Tim Ferriss started his podcast back in 2014, I became one of its most faithful listeners (and promotors, as those who know me probably can remember...). I often spent commutes listening to one of his (often 2+ hours) episodes. I religiously devoured even the episodes with guests that did not immediately attract me, since even those touched on interesting subjects I knew nothing about. Somewhere around the 220 episode mark, I lost my streak. Episodes started 'piling up' and I felt I was falling short of 'keeping up'. Fast forward 7 years and Tim is now at episode 536. I listen to an episode every once in a while, but feel perfectly comfortable with missing out on tons of possibly wonderful material.
Letting go of the notion that all my selected sources needed to be consumed in full did feel awkward at first, and I still struggle sometimes. A growing pile of old Economist magazines near my tea table is living proof. These days, I feel my consumption of sources comes and goes in waves. I tend to feel ok with that notion, knowing that the ebb and flow of my curiosity is a steadfast phenomenon. I want to bite off what I can really chew on. Only when I've noticed I did not consume anything for longer periods of time, some introspection is warranted. Often this means there is not enough space and downtime.
The same goes for this newsletter. Most of the articles we write are meant to be consumed for introspection purposes. They're not the daily news, it's an invitation to take its value. If you feel like you're not able to chew, it's fine to let go and not feel bad about it. Hit unsubscribe and make room for other joyful activity. We won't be disappointed. Promised!
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.
Back in edition 64, my co-author wrote about the people we put on a pedestal, only to remove them later on:
"Perspectives, norms and values change. We are all children of our time, which makes history so intriguing. I'd love to know which statues our great grandchildren will tear down."
Pondering this beautiful thought, I bumped into links with one of my favourite subjects: cognitive dissonance. A quick refresher:
"In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that."
In short, we like consistency, and do all in our power to make things consistent. Something or someone is generally 'all good' or 'all bad', since holding contradictory beliefs is exhausting. If we don't like someone, even their biggest achievements are mediocre, their nice gestures are 'calculated', we colour all of our judgements to make the puzzle fit.
Since all of us have good and bad traits, this makes raising a statue for a complete person a tricky endeavour. Should we raise statues for actions instead of people? Or do we accept that some of our past heroes might have a dark side? Or should we stop raising statues at all?
In kids, tolerance for frustration is well-tested while doing crafts and drawings. Scissors not responding as intended, cutting a piece of paper the wrong way. A marker line ruining 20 minutes of intense drawing. At our home, we could have a landfill of failed projects, crumbled in frustration and tossed after a small mishap.
As the kids grow older, not just their skills, but also their tolerance and flexibility grows. Small errors are re-defined as features, turning a failed scribble into a tree or a bush, adding an extra spoiler to a race car. Re-attaching a cut-off piece of cardboard or even living with a sub-optimal end-result.
Being averse to failure, though, remains an issue. Which is why one of my sons loves drawing on the iPad using Procreate. Perfect colouring of areas with a simple drag-and-drop and -most importantly- the 'undo' feature. With a simple hand-gesture, your last strokes disappear like magic. Not happy? Undo!
Among the grown-ups, having the undo-button is a contested feature. Yes, it's a fail-safe mechanism, but it also takes away the value of doing things with just a forward and no reverse. If you paint in real life, there are limits to correcting your strokes. If you're into sculpting, removing a bit of material with your chisel is irreversible. It makes you consider every move, and mastery is shown in a good end-result.
But in getting to the mastery-phase, I think the 'undo' is wonderful. It makes you less afraid of painting a stroke, which makes you experiment more. I wonder what risks you and I were willing to take in the rest of our lives if we had an 'undo' button. What experiments would you try if you could undo?
The consequences of our actions are not always directly visible. We have short-term and long-term results. Seth Godin condensed some learnings in a wonderful tiny bit of prose:
"If people got a hacking cough and a chronic disease an hour after smoking their first cigarette, it’s unlikely many people would smoke. If earthquakes happened a day after fracking for gas was tried, they would probably have stopped."
Even if we have a compelling narrative on long-term consequences of our actions, humans have a tendency to discount our future. We often choose short-term rewards over long-term rewards, even if the long-term ones are much more compelling. In a famous psychology experiment conducted in the 60's, kids were given a choice between eating a marshmallow that was in front of them, or waiting a while and getting a second marshmallow as a reward. The experiment then proved a correlation between kids' ability to delay gratification and better 'life outcomes'.
Even though the results of this experiment have been nuanced in later iterations, the lessons remain. Seeing a long-term picture where others don't, generally gives you an edge.
"Most of us are able to respond to a feedback loop in the short run. The real opportunity and challenge is to get much better at recognizing the long loops."
I feel there is a caveat though. If you don't enjoy the short-term actions, acting for the future might give you the 'life outcomes' deemed best in the 60's, but they might not hand you the happiest life. Sometimes just grabbing the marshmallow in front of you might be a great choice.
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?
During COVID, the term 'Great Resignation' was launched, describing the high levels of resignations faced by a lot of companies. The push to 'remote' and the reduced contact between colleagues caused an increase in people leaving their positions to work elsewhere. A recent report from Gartner predicts this trend will remain even after COVID, leaving turnover approximately 20% higher than before.
The effect, according to Business Insider:
"With positions going unfilled, critical projects have been delayed. Recruiting costs and salaries have shot through the roof. And with job seekers holding the upper hand, employers have been forced to shower them with a wide array of costly perks and benefits to beat out the competition."
Last year, a whopping 33% of Americans left their job, and Gartner predicts this level of fluidity in the job market is here to stay. If that is the case, outcompeting each other with higher salaries and remote working possibilities is essentially a race to the bottom.
The analysis echoes the learnings put forward in Daniel Pink's Drive; money and perks are just the dissatisfiers. Remote working capabilities are just another perk that needs to be met. Growth, autonomy and purpose are what makes people stay.
Looking at it from a systems perspective, with jobs becoming ever less 'sticky', those 3 dimensions will likely only become more important. Which might put 'meaningful' companies at an ever increasing advantage.
While growing up, I was taught theories of how the universe was expanding up to a certain point, when gravity was supposed to bring the expansion to a stop before starting a contraction again. A Big Bang, expansion, crimp and a Big Crunch. I kind of love the cyclical nature of it. Watching The Beginning and End of the Universe on Netflix last year, I learned that prevailing theories explain how gravity would not be able to conquer expansion, judging from the visible acceleration of the expansion.
Last week, however, a paper was published that proposes a different theory:
"Although the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate today, this paper presents a simple mechanism by which a dynamical form of dark energy (known as quintessence) could cause the acceleration to come to end and smoothly transition from expansion to a phase of slow contraction."
While the contents of the paper are way above my pay grade, the gist of it all is abundantly clear. What we see on the surface can be an indicator of what's going on beneath, but it does not have to be. There can be a more complex reality, explaining the present observations just as well. Like Newton's theories on gravity, that were replaced by Einstein's more complex modelling once we got into territory where simple laws of physics broke down.
George Box' dictum of "All models are wrong, but some are useful" echoes the fractal nature of modelling I think. Sometimes, a model can explain what happened. But don't bet your money on an accurate prediction of the future.
It's funny to experience how framing and anchoring the mind works. The fact that you're more focused on and more inclined to notice persons, objects and subjects that are top of mind. Sleep is one of these subjects lately. Well, actually, it's been on our menu for quite a while.
In a podcast I recently listened to, the remark was made that our sleeping patterns used to be totally different from what they are today. Since I experience insomnia lately, this got my attention. They claimed we used to go to sleep early, then be awake for a couple of hours and spent time socializing (and other things), after which we'd back to sleep.
This revelation remained in my head and triggered doing some research on my own. Especially, because 'sleep' and more importantly 'quality of sleep' are popping up in -seemingly- almost every article I read or podcast I listen to.
Sleeping patterns have definitely evolved over the ages, but to claim that they originated from a so-called bi-phasic rest seems not true. Influenced by evolving daily occupations -from hunting to hard labor to sitting behind a desk- and associated certain levels of physical and mental fatigue, our sleeping habits have adapted. Research shows that in our hunting-gathering times, we used to go to bed relatively late in the evening and sleep through the night in one go. Come the Middle Ages, we've changed our habits to the described bi-phasic (two-parts) pattern. Today, we seem to be back to square one, 'sleep 1.0'. This website gives a fairly concise historical overview.
However, average sleeping times seem to be decreasing, negatively influencing our abilities to think creatively and perform our duties efficiently. We may be in need of some new sleeping patterns that fit our modern lifestyle.
Solutions may be right in front of us. Modern technology and increasing acceptance of working remotely, allows for a lot of flexibility in our daily schedules. Just use the 'do not disturb' mode on your phone or computer and take a nap whenever you need it. Most importantly: create a pattern that fits your needs best. This may take a bit of experimentation, but that, frankly, is the entire point. Make your own choices and find your own rhythm.
One of our favourite hobby horses is the notion of balance. Building on the exploration of conspiracy theories last week and working from the idea that acceptance of our fellow humans lies in the understanding of our internal mechanisms, I started thinking about dynamic balances more and more these days.
I like to think of dynamic balances as marbles in a curved trench, moving from side to side while travelling down the road. Moving, but also a bit stuck in a groove. Linking the dynamic balances to behaviour and habits, the grooves are like the 'Elephant Trails' that get deeper as they're trodden more often. They can be good grooves, they can be bad grooves, depending on the situation. Activation energy is then what's needed to hop from one groove to the next. It helps me visualize how habits are formed, jumping from one big groove to a smaller one next to it, deepening the groove as it's traveled in more and more, making the habit easier to sustain.
Knowing that our lives consist of bunches of these habits and accepting that both good and evil are part of everyone of us, I felt a growing discomfort with my image of humanity as I see atrocities unfold in Ukraine. Fighting, fierce military resistance feels like the only viable option right now. But what's next? How do you get people to take the High Road again? How do you get them from one groove to the next?
The current world events make me rethink and connect a lot of my convictions. So far, my view of the world around us has gotten more and more complex, as is often the case when you start diving into a subject.
Take propaganda. As the Russian government sanctions every dissenting view of their 'special military operation', journalists have left the country and alternative news sources have been shut off. These past weeks, unfiltered anti-Ukrainian messaging has increased on Russian state media, further cementing the support for the war.
In the West, we look at the information-bubble the Russian people live in with disbelief. Ukrainians sharing stories and photos with their Russian family, only to be dismissed by them with arguments like 'it must be Ukrainian Nazis that dressed up as Russians'. How can they ignore truth that is right in front of them?
Still, I can't help but see the similarities with our Western society. Just look at information and opinion being spread by news outlets like Fox News. Look at conspiracy theories like Qanon, that causes friends and families to split. Last year, a stunning 20% of Americans believed COVID vaccination was likely used to plant microchips in the population. All of these believers are living in a free country, and have unfettered access to every news source they choose to consume. Why are people then choosing to support a theory that is demonstrably false?
Researching the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, I bumped into an article by Sociologist Laurent Cordonier, who argues that these theories stem from a desire to find simple explanations in a complex world. Humans have tons of biases, one of them being our desire to have a reason or causality behind every event. We love simple models. Reality though, is infinitely more complex.
Cordonier also points out that not everyone is equally susceptible to conspiracy theories:
"Political conspiracy discourse is particularly susceptible to attracting individuals who feel socially cast out or threatened."
The underlying mental mechanisms at play don't just apply to conspiracy theories. We reach for simplicity and lose nuance when we feel we are not in control. Just watch the "rally 'round the flag" effect that not just Putin uses to gain support. Macron's recent victory also benefited from it.
All heads of state seem to use these mechanisms, but populist leaders remain the undefeated champions here. Their stories are often ostensibly false and lack nuance, but that's exactly the point. They don't talk to our prefrontal cortex or our 'better self', they resonate with ancient elements in us that long for simple solutions and a sense of control. Should you think that Trump supporters are crazy or dumb, consider applying these insights.
Everyone has likely been in situations where these mechanisms took over your behaviour, if even for a short time. Finding out about restructuring plans at your company, getting harsh feedback, you name it. Being able to accept them as part of our slowly evolving brain is likely the key to handling them and empathising with people responding to them.
We often believe that spending time on predicting the future is not worth the effort. Outcomes are not accurate and therefore its utility is debatable. However, Jane McGonical, Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, argues that it does make a lot of sense to do forecasting exercises as it cultivates optimism.
In an interview with Tim Ferris, she explains that going through simulations of possible futures trains your mental flexibility and hence your ability to deal with unexpected events. You automatically feel more prepared and your confidence and self-esteem get a boost.
Interestingly -and this explains her job title-, people who often play videogames tend to show a similar mental flexibility.
"[...] there’s a certain neurocircuitry pattern that gets really strengthened [...] that involves the reward system and the learning centers that make us feel like, “I got this.” It’s like the neuroscience of, “I can do this,” and we feel more physical energy, more mental focus, [...] more expectation that we can make something good happen through our own efforts and actions and abilities."
As a result, she and her team developed games and so-called social simulations, involving thousands of people spending several days or weeks in fictional social networks. They are then fed different scenarios. The outcomes of these experiments are stunning. In simulations performed in 2010 for the World Bank, the Covid pandemic was predicted including responses by different countries.
I'm especially intrigued by the optimism part of it. It strikes me that using these methods people can be trained to have a more balanced view, a theme that keeps on returning to us.
Polly Higgins delivered a truly inspiring talk in 2014 called 'I dare you to be Great' (or her shorter TED-talk) as part of a programme of Schumacher College. The college is located in England and offers ecology-centred masters programmes, short courses and horticultural programmes.
Polly is one of the driving forces behind implementing global ecological legislations and making damaging the environment a crime. She is the creator of term Ecocide. Apart from the fact that it is an interesting story how she came to be the frontrunner in this area ("Life becomes complicated when you become ethical"), her talk covers many different subjects covering multiple philosophies and life principles.
Her basic life principles are driven by three core values:
This is why she doesn't see herself as a 'protester' when fighting for new legislation and criminalizing harm to the environment, but as being a 'protector', giving earth a voice. It is the sense that there is something greater than yourself present around you and you have a duty of care. Imposing legislation is just a tool to move people on the scale from deep disconnect to deep care.
Daring to be great is also about being a carrier and/or messenger of something far greater than what you can achieve by yourself. Your own contribution can be small, but often requires a bit of courage and stepping outside your comfort zone. You'll be surprised to find a lot of like-minded people occupying that zone.
Pointing out responsibility is generally experienced like harsh feedback. Our amygdala takes over, and a ferocious counterattack is a more likely result than any form of introspection. We just hate, hate, hate to be held responsible for anything. Still, if we can learn some lessons from a couple of millennia of written human experience, taking responsibility for our actions lies at the core of personal growth, and even liberation.
Take a look at climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels that cause geopolitical issues like the conundrum we experience these days. For the Netherlands, just setting our thermostats a degree lower would help us reduce our need for Russian gas in excess of 10%. Easy, right? Then, why are no governments professing this cure like crazy these days? The answer may lie in the fact that these past two years, a lot has been asked from the population in terms of acting responsibly. Politicians may be wary of losing touch with their base by being over-demanding.
Indulge me and take part in a small thought experiment. Imagine setting your thermostat a full degree (or even two) lower, and feeling a bit chilly when you're sitting on the couch watching TV. Now, see what kind of emotions you register.
If you're like most Western citizens, you start feeling like a sucker. Your freedom feels at stake, you're being limited. Your tiny contribution to the whole will be unnoticed, right?
But once you raise the thermostat again, the cold truth is that the one who will be noticing is yourself. Deep down you know the sum of our individual actions defines our results. That it's not the government or the industry that should take action, because everything they do, they do because of you. You vote with your feet, with your wallet. And running from that responsibility causes tension.
Release from that tension can manifest itself in two forms, collective and individual. Collective release usually takes the form of a crisis forcing us to change our behaviour in a radical way. The individual release, though, is what interests me most. Inspired by the notion that T-shirt temperatures in our homes and 9 minute showers (Dutch average) are a thing of just the past few decades, I started taking 2 minute showers, wearing a sweater and having a comfy little blanket at the couch.
Re-framing responsibility into an act of liberation might be one of the most energizing little life experiments I have done. If not for the collective, do it for yourself.
Innovation writer Aiden McCullen shares his thoughts on Maslov's Hammer, also known as the 'Einstellung Effect'. It can be summarized like this: when confronted with problems, we tend to look for solutions we are already comfortable with. Using a math problem you can try for yourself, he illustrates how our mind tends to apply the successful first solution 1-on-1 to new problems, limiting us in finding an even better solution.
While this tendency helped us in an evolutionary sense when the world was changing ever so slowly, it can prevent us with coming up with new solutions, limiting our progress in these fast moving times. Our mental record staying 'in the groove' is efficient, but not often effective in the long run.
Our convergent thinking (converging to a solution as fast as possible, often acting on the first one that comes to mind) is even promoted. In our daily jobs, we are rewarded for coming up with a fix and execute as fast as possible, making this a cultural problem. The opposite, divergent thinking, takes crafting a well defined problem and lots of time. Einstein summed it up nicely: "creativity is the residue of wasted time".
Balancing our addiction to the tools we know well, we're also fond of 'bright and shiny new tools'. How often are digitization, blockchains, platforms or AI presented as the cure to every business disease?
While not easy or sexy, the best ingredients for progress seem extensive reflection on the problem, and time. Go slow to go fast.
The newspaper headline "What can Europe do to stop the war in Ukraine?" triggered me into thinking about the concept of responsibility. The headline was in a way a call to action. We, Europeans, should stand up now to stop this useless bloodshed. At least, that's how I initially felt it.
Then, I started thinking and more importantly, feeling. Something was odd about this headline. Don't get me wrong. I'm against any type of violence as a means to solve a conflict. However, I sincerely could not feel responsible for ending the war.
Nor, should anyone else.
In our daily communications, we tend to call on someone's responsibility to get that person to do something. It is often framed in such a way that it becomes a moral obligation. The strong sense of having to do something - a must-do - for the benefit of some greater good is a strong, yet superficial motivator.
However, I do not particularly feel a lot of energy to perform a task, when it is a must-do. Unless it was triggered by some deep inner belief.
What would happen if we release everyone from their moral obligations? At least, it will free up energy that could be used to find creative, meaningful contributions. Alternatively, you can consciously decide to spend this energy on other topics that better suit your unique capability set. Everyone is unique. That also means that not everyone can contribute to every cause in a meaningful way. The power of being a community is not to gather the masses and let everyone run in the same direction. It is, to my mind, rather that we're able to generate multiple options to approach challenges by combining all unique capabilities in many different ways. You and your capabilities will naturally fit in and it does not require something like 'responsibility' to be put on your shoulder.
On a Sunday afternoon, I usually spend some time going over my schedule for the week ahead and prepare. Somehow, I have internal trigger points that recognize when something becomes a habit and may therefore be in need of change. Habits aren't necessarily bad, but some of them tend to make you blind for other opportunities and ways of working.
This Sunday, the internal alarm went off. The Sunday afternoon habit had evolved in such a way that I was planning the workweek with a focus to get a lot of work done. Not a bad process, though the planning of my leisure and hobby activities somehow got lost along the way.
It triggered another thought. As I get a lot of energy out of my hobbies actually creating something, why don't I plan those first? Having creating activities as a basis, providing a burst of energy, could fuel the stream on which you flow through the remainder of your day and week.
"It is an unique feeling to share your creation with the outside world for anyone to see and admire."
The idea of placing creative activities as a priority may require a complete reset or overhaul of your daily schedule. That may be a bridge too far right now, but at the minimum, try a simple evaluation. What does my current day and week look like? Do I feel I spend enough time filling my energy reservoirs? What fills and depletes them?
Most importantly: what is your signature?
In last week's snippet 'Lotus' on the life of spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, we quoted him saying "When we are indifferent, nothing is enjoyable, interesting, or worth striving for." This sentence caused a discussion amongst ourselves.
I interpreted 'indifference' as 'not having an opinion about something'. While we both value highly to not have an opinion, this interpretation immediately led to confusion as 'indifference' is not the same as 'non-judgmental'. After some discussion, we found the culprit.
A simple example of how your own history and experience with words and connotations determine your communication. Irrespective of what the dictionary says, you have assigned a certain value and emotion to words. This influences your interactions with others. I've found that being aware of this is an important part of mastering a language, native or foreign, and, more importantly, the dialogue.
It is not an easy task, as it requires to be mindful that it is you yourself, who is assigning value to the words that you read or hear. It requires a great deal of energy weighing options, which explains why situations of miscommunication often happen when you're tired.
Perhaps naïvely, in communications I always start with the viewpoint that the other person has positive intentions. The effect of word choice does not always correlate with the other person's intention.
Maria Popova is the writer of essays covering ideas of 'timeless nourishment' as she describes it herself. She is a frequent source of inspiration to us and collects her essays and thoughts on her website 'the Marginalian' (formerly known as Brainpickings).
Every year, she makes a distillation of the most important learnings of the past year, a habit that more people tend to do when the old year starts and a new one begins. In 2020, she embarked on a somewhat larger mission by trying to distill that one thing that had most influence on conducting her life.
The essay is a little gem. Being prone to depressions, she distills that, despite all the support you receive, it is you yourself who is responsible for taking action:
"In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it."
It is the instinct of survival that will provide the energy. Energy to take actions and make choices in what you do in life. As her most central learning over the past 14 years, she proposes to choose 'Joy':
"Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature."
Some moments warrant a personal written record. Something to be recalled later, when circumstances have changed and our fallible memory serves us a wrangled version of actual events. The current situation on our world stage feels like such a moment to me.
Now, I'm getting more and more experienced with not letting events get to me that I'm not able to change. 'This too shall pass' is a phrase I get better at recalling at moments when I feel ambushed by events big and small.
But when the President of Russia made unveiled threats of using nuclear options, should he not get his way, this mental resiliency was heavily challenged. Knowing what can be at stake here, made this a whole different league of mental exercise for me.
Being a strong believer in what Dr. Martin Luther King called 'the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice', the option of nuclear war is definitely a big deviation. Maybe the survivors will make leaps forwards based on the lessons learned, but I'd love for us to pass on that opportunity.
On a bad day, I check the news every hour and a cloud of surrealism follows me around. On a good day, I realise how much I'm inspired by the bravery of the Ukrainian people, willing to defend their country and freedom. Not fighting out of fear and anger, but out of fierce resolve and determination to save what they love and believe in.
These watershed moments are often bringers of change, initially good or bad. Let's follow the advice of wartime PM Sir Winston Churchill who once said "I've decided to be an optimist, since there isn't much use for anything else."
The Ukraine-saga continues. When we would just go by Western media, the first rockets could have been fired by Russia, while we send out this newsletter. Still, I feel very comfortable writing this snippet and preparing for a regular Wednesday.
When forming opinions and following others, it is important to understand the context. That requires work on your side. With so much information readily available to us, we may have gotten a bit lazy. Somebody else could already have figured it out. Add a little bit of confirmation bias to the mix and large groups of people will think alike.
Where to start understanding the context? International media covering all sides is usually a good start. Not always easy and reliable but at least it gives a sense of how people are 'educated' in the different parts of the world. Another source is finding out what the historical context is. Especially, in cases of territorial conflicts.
Regarding the Ukraine, I particularly liked Dan Snow's interview with A. D. Miller, a former Moscow correspondent for the Economist. Your view will become much more nuanced. While you're on it, please also check out his podcast on 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland (spoiler alert: the conflict is not about religion).
When are you done understanding the context? The easy answer is: probably never. Practicing what I call 'amphi-context', getting perspectives from different angles and multiple sources, may be a good start but can be time-consuming. To make it more practical, I believe it is a balance between analysing different sources and feeling comfortable with how 'grey' the situation is. Big issues hardly have a black-and-white pattern.
As the COVID pandemic seems to take a turn for the good, my household grabbed the tail-end and got infected a few days back after 2 years of staying out of the weeds. While my 8 year old son recovered within 24 hours, I seem to have a longer struggle fighting the virus, considering the frequent chills and notifications from my Apple Watch alarming me of high heart rate while being sedentary these past days.
What always strikes me when catching a virus of some sorts, is how it affects your view of the world around you. My world just shrinks, creating a tunnel-like vision of everything around me. It's your body's way of informing you to stop focusing on the outside world for a while. In 'No Mud, No Lotus', Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
"When you cut your finger, you just wash it and your body knows how to heal. When a nonhuman animal living in the forest is injured, she knows what to do. She stops searching for something to eat or looking for a mate. She knows, through generations of ancestral knowledge, that it’s not good for her to do so. She finds a quiet place and just lies down, doing nothing. Nonhuman animals instinctively know that stopping is the best way to get healed."
While I fully understand this might not be a possibility in all situations, you might consider it a 'gold standard' to strive for, as I do. I know in the past I have struggled often with relinquishing responsibilities while ill, keeping a laptop next to me in bed, trying to keep the world turning. The 'badge of honor' we culturally assign to this behaviour might actually not be in all of our best interests. So, with that said, for now, I'll just stop.
When you're observant of things we take for granted, but at the same time don't feel logical, you can come up with valuable insights. Conquering human biases often leads to competitive advantage. This observation is well illustrated by the movie 'The Big Short' on the housing crisis in the US. While the majority of Americans thought the housing-party would continue forever, some people dug deeper. The movie's lead characters, inspired by seeing out-of-the-ordinary mortgage data, decide to visit several home-owners and lenders to see firsthand what happened 'on the ground'. Seeing foreclosed homes and hearing the insider story from the lending community, they betted heavily on the unavoidable and won.
This story echoed in my mind upon ordering something from the UK last month. A small deck of cards, ordered on December 17th of last year, ended up on my doorstep on the 14th of January after spending weeks in customs and me paying a heavy import fee. The same thing happened when ordering supplies for my son's school for the Christmas festivities. As I unpacked them at the very last minute, I vowed never to order from the UK again.
I immediately realised how these small personal events connected to the bigger Brexit story. The story of how Brexit would hurt the British economy got headlines, but I now realised how the blow was really a million small cuts.
If you're responsible for big, you might benefit from sweating the details of small.
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.
As we continue to increase the written part of our daily communications (e-mail galore...), the amount of misunderstandings grows accordingly. When I was just starting out in corporate land, my mentor taught me to 'walk over or call when possible, write when necessary' which has been a motto I still try to live by. Stressful situations and busy days, however, got me caught up in nasty e-mail chains or misinterpreted text messages more than I would care to admit.
Evaluating your way of communicating every once in a while, creating a sort of metacognitive loop, seems like a good idea this day and age. If you're interested, Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan might provide you with tons of examples and solutions to add to your repertoire. She likes to say "we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space" and shares familiar flaws and ways to improve our communication.
A quick tip you might immediately add to the toolbox comes from cultural anthropologist Jitske Kramer. She is on a crusade to undo the childish reputation of emoji, professing the use up to boardroom level. Even CEO's should use them in their mail communication in her opinion. Adding emojis to your written lines can add texture, intention and prevent misunderstanding, leading to better communication. So why are we afraid to come across as frivolous when using them? What if the CEO promoted 'emoji use' as a tool for good?
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.