Feedback is omnipresent. As a euphemism for criticism or a heartfelt compliment, more often than not as an outlet for the one providing the feedback. When used well, it can be a source for growth, as it provides outside perspective. Like running into a wall, a type of feedback in itself, the outside view can help you get your coordinates, a different perspective and momentum to correct course. The positive kind of feedback can help you keep momentum, and progress in the direction you are already moving in.
Early in my career, I was in a work environment where positive feedback was scarce. Negative performances were readily pointed out, but I think I did not receive a pat on my shoulder for a few years. I once pointed this out to my manager, but he explained how most people were already quite pleased with themselves, so positive feedback was not that useful according to him. Looking back, a Calvinistic mindset was clearly part of the company's culture.
The effects of this culture creeped up on me, like a frog in water being boiled. Only after switching jobs did I realise what happened. Becoming part of a team that complimented each other and celebrated successes felt like coming up for a breath of fresh air. My self-confidence and performance got boosted like it had not been in years. After observing this, I also noticed how I was able to keep this confidence for quite some weeks and months without additional reinforcement.
Knowing you're doing a good job, self confidence, can be a tricky system to master. You can sustain it for quite some time, but it needs outside energy as well. If you are in a position to give a compliment, go for it. You never know what it can mean for the receiver.
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?
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'.
Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with my co-author, discussing the balance between taking action and letting opportunities come to you. Both of us expressed a sense of unease with the latter; it feels passive, which collides with the getting-things-done mentality and Christian values we were brought up with.
On closer inspection, however, the main cause of unease was hiding behind a false dichotomy, as is often the case with hurdles like these. Waiting for opportunities to reveal themselves is hardly a passive endeavour.
Erik Smithuis, founder of corporate training powerhouse ICM, once revealed his strategy for success that has stayed with me ever since:
"You warm yourself best when close to the fire"
His message was mainly to move yourself close to where the action is, get your toes in the water and then take it from there.
This ties in to other wisdom we shared earlier on creating luck and not seeing the puzzle looking forward. Following your gut might be the most powerful trick in the book. It's about saying yes to what feels right, no to what does not feel right, and keep moving.
Like the old crocodile that only eats every few weeks, being in the right spot is what matters. Are you creating the surface area for serendipity?
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."
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.
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?
It's very easy to get bogged down in depressing conversations these days as there are plenty of reasons for worry. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, voiced in the most recent Sustainable Development Goals report:
"As the world faces cascading and interlinked global crises and conflicts, the aspirations set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are in jeopardy."
Not something to get terribly excited about. It's a stark contrast to the tone in for example the 2019 report:
"The report demonstrates that progress is being made in some critical areas, and that some favorable trends are evident. Extreme poverty has declined considerably, the under-5 mortality rate fell by 49 per cent between 2000 and 2017, immunizations have saved millions of lives, and the vast majority of the world’s population now has access to electricity."
Tone of voice and the way the challenge is formulated (essentially carrot vs. stick) are very important. Honestly, I'm surprised by the formulations used by Guterres. In my experience, the general public moves faster in a certain direction when there is a clear vision and light at the end of tunnel. As mentioned in our 'Words' piece above, certain words work, others do not.
I may also be surprised because I tend to be (and want to be) more optimistic. Especially, in these (dark) times, there is not a lot of value in spreading negative energy. It may just extinguish more lights. I do not believe that the vast majority of people are currently in need of a reminder that change is required.
What can you do? I tend to fall back to trusting my own logic and gathering groups of people around me that bring me energy. It is important to make sure you have a strong foundation to build on. Furthermore, be aware and acknowledge the impact of mainstream media on your state of mind. Hence, schedule "inputs" that provide positive feelings and energy such as watching comedy and spending time with family. Deliberately plan to focus on positive things. In this context, I'd like to recall the power of literally changing your perspective every so often.
Having energy and a positive mindset is a much better breeding ground for new ideas. It provides a stronger base to deal with challenging tasks and negative news. I'm most certainly not a proponent of an ostrich strategy and continuing on a path without taking notice of what's happening in the world. However, I believe it is important to bring balance between negative and positive energy and applying the right tone of voice. Let's be realistic and also celebrate our successes, take time to learn from them and apply those learnings to the daily flow of new challenges.
Even though we may all like different types of music, we can each play our part in creating the right symphony.
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.
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.
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.
Our personal stories last week about how to control your state of mind with a world in turmoil induced multiple reactions. Bottom line is to embrace optimism. To bring this point home, let me share 7 reasons to be optimistic from an article in a Dutch magazine that one of our readers sent as response to last week's episode.
Let us all share our positive energy with this beautiful world and this will provide a perfect breeding ground for exciting things to happen.
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."
With stock markets breaking the upward trend of the last 10+ years in January, there has been a lot of chatter whether this marks the beginning of a market turnaround and perhaps a crash. When you take a moment to take stock (pun intended), you may come to more nuanced views.
A short article in the Economist summarizes the current situation nicely and how it is different from previous years, such as 2008 and 2001, in which company valuations were high and speculations abundant.
"Today banks are less central to the financial system, better capitalised and hold fewer highly risky assets. More risk-taking is done by funds backed by shareholders or long-term savers who, on paper, are better equipped to absorb losses."
Since the previous crises, new regulations moved a lot of the risk-taking out of the banks. Though the endless stream of money-printing and low interest rates (which go hand-in-hand) have pushed company valuations through the roof, associated risks of big losses are mostly held by private investors. The financial system will most likely survive such a shock. The economy may still suffer of course.
Though the tone in the Economist article could easily make you feel depressed about the current situation, I tend to be more optimistic. Yes, there is a lot of speculation and room for big losses. However, this time, chances are much reduced the public will pay the price and be called to bail out banks, increasing moral hazard. That's a net gain.
Meanwhile, as has often been the smartest thing to do, keep vigilant, do the analysis and follow your gut.
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.
Most of us have probably grown up with the idea that ‘practice makes perfect'. Any doubt about this premise was taken away in 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell showed in his book 'The Outliers: The Story of Success' that in almost any area, expertise can be achieved by 10,000 hours of practice.
It is, however, worth considering whether we should always be striving for getting better or succeeding at something. In a recent article, essayist Xenia Hanusuakis presents a case for revising the idea to 'practice makes happy'.
She explains how, once you revise the role of practice from getting better to finding and experiencing pleasure, notions of success and failure become less relevant. You will experience a heightened awareness of yourself, understand better your capabilities and boundaries, and find beauty in simplicity.
"Practising invites a kind of intimacy, a moment of mindfulness that we can cut and paste into our daily routines. Once we appreciate that practice is not an endgame, our ego falls away and we enter the experience with complete commitment."
It reminds me of finite and infinite games; striving for a certain success or accomplishment is a finite game. Happiness is the infinite game that we're playing continuously. Practicing sports and other hobby's without a necessary goal in mind -just enjoying doing it- seems to be just that. Or as journalist Ariel Gore is quoted:
"When we strike a balance between the challenge of an activity and our skill at performing it, when the rhythm of the work itself feels in sync with our pulse, when we know that what we’re doing matters, we can get totally absorbed in our task. That is happiness."
Whenever someone tells you, "you're such an amateur!", you now know you should take this as a compliment.
I sense a lot of fear and anxiety around us these days. For good reasons, but I feel the element of fear is getting too pronounced. There is an imbalance. I believe this could be one of the reasons why we experience irrational behaviour and anger, both by civilians as well as by leaders and politicians.
But how to take a break in the middle of a crisis? I came across an article by Maria Popova, explaining how to turn fear into love by using four simple mantras. Maria's website 'brainpickings' is frequently a source of inspiration.
Using mantras, often in combination with meditation, is a mindfulness practice that focuses you on a 'purposeful, devoted intent'.
The four mantras to turn fear into love are:
Whether you believe in it or not, it sure doesn't hurt to say these four simple sentences daily. It will at least change the focus of our mind for those few seconds. A few seconds without fear, being present in the moment, thinking about yourself and others.
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence.”
Reaching another milestone in our Q&A project and building on recently gained wisdom on success, the natural question is whether we're satisfied with our weekly newsletter. Big question is: how do you measure this? More importantly, do we measure it at all?
At the outset of this endeavour, we had some well-defined goals. Not set in stone or written on the wall, but at least in our heads and shared in zoom calls. We wanted to be creative, practice our writing skills and get something 'out there'. Share whatever resonated with ourselves, because we think this may be useful for others as well. As you might have noticed, we did not set an ambition for number of readers or ability to create income with the newsletter. In fact, we did not quantify any of our goals, breaking one of the 'golden' rules in classic, 'smart' goal setting.
Still, while discussing and evaluating reaching our 50th newsletter, we concluded we are very happy with where we are. It is an unique feeling to share your creation with the outside world for anyone to see and admire. Thus far, it has brought us joy, wisdom and some sense of purpose. We have deepened our relationship in a -for ourselves- very meaningful way. We are successful according to our own standards.
All this doesn't mean we're not interested in feedback to our newsletter. Rather the opposite. Feedback allows us to improve our skills, experience how our thinking and writing triggers responses. It enables progress and creativity. Our website, for example, would not have been designed the way it is without getting multiple requests for a searchable archive.
We do however seem to always go back to our original ideas: to create, have fun, send positive messages.
If anything, we have shown (to ourselves) that we're able to pull something off while having fun. Perhaps this may also serve as inspiration to others who (secretly) have an ambition to create something new. Just start and be easy on yourself defining what success of the project needs to be. You can always raise the bar.
Whenever we touch upon the subject of the state of the world, I tend to find myself at the optimistic side of the spectrum. It is not that I don't see the war, the tribalism and egoism in this world. I just believe we're headed in a good direction if you look past all of those. I once heard Barack Obama voice my sentiments in a wonderful way:
"History really doesn't follow a straight line. It zigs and zags. But the trendlines ultimately will be in the direction of a less violent, more empathetic, more generous world."
If you have a hard time seeing the good around you in the small things, looking at trends will help you realising this. If you were given a choice, not where you were born or under what circumstances, but just your time of birth, your best bet would be now.
Our World in Data shared an amazing chart a few months ago, that not only blew my mind but also confirmed this belief.
Nick Maggiuli commented on this chart by saying: "For most of history, whether your kid made it past age 15 was the same as a coin flip". As a parent in this day and age, I can't even fathom what that would mean.
Figurative expressions like "you're beaming with energy" or "you're glowing with joy" have somehow always felt very real to me. As if they were not figuratively but literally describing what was happening. My feeling may not have been far besides what actually is happening.
One of our readers pointed me towards a LinkedIn post that quotes the intriguing results of research done by the University of Kassel (Germany). It showed that under certain conditions, the number of (visible) photons emitted by your chest area can increase significantly. Using the right meditation technique and having the intention to indeed send light (warmth, healing, positivity) to a person that needs healing, the number of photons transmitted increased 5000-fold from an average 20-50/second to around 100,000/second, clearly in the visible range.
The research is not recent and I'd be very interested to see additional examples and confirmation of the experiment. At the same time, I wonder whether this could be more generalized. Thinking about someone for whom you feel gratefulness, love, joy or compassion seems to be a no-risk, beneficial activity. It takes little effort, just a few minutes of your time and can be practiced on a daily basis.
Whether or not you use the right meditation technique to actually radiate light, seems to me of secondary concern. Even when you do not see the photons when trying to send love to someone else, you'll at least feel more positive. You will unconsciously radiate positivism and people around you will notice. The entire place will lighten up.
At tech festival TNW, held last week, futurist Bronwyn Williams shared a short synopsis of her book 'The Future Starts Now' in which she and he co-authors try to balance the prevailing views of the future.
She got tired of both the camp prophesizing unlimited growth and the one painting a dystopian picture of a world dominated by scarcity, because neither of those pictures appealed to her. She asked the question 'What is the future we want, look forward to?'. This question resonated greatly with me, fully in line and building on my earlier musings about the subject. In line with this desire, she mentioned how all of our choices affect the route we are going to take. One of her slides hit me especially:
Since our social behaviour and agency were originally born out of real world urgency, I asked myself if we need a real crisis to re-instate the norms we used to have as society. Have we evolved enough to understand the system and consequences of abdicating responsibility?
The book is a call to action for those that want to shape the future. To start thinking about the characteristics of that future, and what we can start doing now, however small.
I really intended to write something on 'time'. How your memory condenses all routine activity. If nothing meaningful happens, our brain has nothing new to record, so time subjectively shrinks. A familiar commute feels like 10 minutes. A relaxed weekend at home flies by.
"Just as time knew to move on since the beginning"
This is one of my favourite lines from Stevie Wonder's "As" and I was just one Wikipedia search away (looking up it's year of conception) from tying the lyrics to my small elaboration on the subjective speed of time and finishing my article. Glancing over his biography to look for the date, one thing hit me.
In 1975, Stevie Wonder almost quit making music.
He seriously considered emigrating to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Plans for a farewell concert were in the making.
I always considered Stevie to be a music man to the bone, his destiny set in stone from an early age. A straight line from his music-filled youth and being signed at Motown at 11 to his monumental albums created in the 70's and early 80's.
Reading biographies, these kinds of watershed moments keep messing up my convictions about successful people. Knowing someone superficially, I always tend to see the straight line, the well planned career. Digging a bit deeper, you discover the pivotal moments, the 'follow your gut' instinctual twists and turns, the serendipitous opportunities followed.
'Working with the garage door open', sharing the messy truth, conflicts with our egoic tendency to project an image of composure, of having a plan and following through. Reality is messy, and I think we are better off navigating life acknowledging that, celebrating the things we can't control, so we can all get better at responding to them.
Stevie didn't pivot in 1975. Contemplating his future with all options open, he eventually decided to sign another record deal, but on terms never seen before. He spent more than a year crafting his next album. "Songs in the Key of Life" is considered a masterpiece by a large group of music lovers (including me), and I think his pivotal moment provided just the right circumstances for something as beautiful as that album to be conceived.
Writer and thinker Visa (check him out on Twitter or YouTube) pointed me to a 2007 blogpost by Marc Andreesen, summarizing his favourite book on luck: 'Chase, Chance and Creativity', written in 1978 by Neurologist / Philosopher James Austin. It provides a wonderful analysis of luck, rooted in his neurology background.
Chance type I is all about pure blind luck, like finding a winning lottery ticket on the street or being born into a wealthy family.
For chance type II, motion is introduced. Movement and motion 'stir up the pot', increasing the chances of experiences colliding and providing a breakthrough discovery or idea. It's about the luck Charles Kettering described when saying "I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down."
Chance type III introduces what Louis Pasteur called "The prepared mind". Chance presents only a faint clue, the potential opportunity exists, but it will be overlooked except by that one person uniquely equipped to observe it, visualize it conceptually, and fully grasp its significance. An example is how Alexander Flemming discovered Pennicilin.
Finally, chance IV is about creating a unique opportunity by having a rare combination of behavioural quirks, hobbies and interest. This allows you to have an unusual approach to problems and challenges, leading to this specific type of luck. Benjamin Disraeli summed this up by noting "We make our fortunes and we call them fate."
Andreesen then translates these into lessons on energy, curiosity, synthesis and personality for entrepreneurs. If you need a roadmap for getting luck on your side, here it is!
You just know it when you hear or see it: it resonates so well, you instantly love this song, picture or performance.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure to be present at a performance of the Dutch-Belgian Jazz collective Gare du Nord. Their 'We still grow' instantly resonated. Perhaps because of its heartbeat-like rhythm, but the lyrics spoke to my heart as well:
"In moments stolen from the ocean of time
Beyond the everlasting balance of mind
In the flow and field of music and rhyme
As a side effect of passion defying
We grow, oooh we still grow"
Whether something resonates is often time-, place- and situation-specific. Some performances of art, be it music, paintings, ballet or another form, just stick and seem to resonate with your core frequencies. I love it.
In my mind (pun intended), one of the most beneficial effects of learning how to meditate has been the raised awareness of your own thoughts. Being able to better look at your own stream of thinking, if only for a few extra minutes each day, has proven to be a life-altering superpower. Like standing on the banks of a river instead of being in the river, it enables you to observe and learn.
One of the most confronting views I got from the shore, is how much time I used to spend on negative thoughts. What's dumb, stupid, ugly or foolish. Stuff you watch on TV, other people's behaviour and choices, the way the world works, you name it. Once I started catching myself doing this, I also started making it a habit to skip this line of thinking and forced myself having some empathic thoughts, as a way of immediate penitence. Having a generally positive attitude worked like a virtuous cycle for me and made me a happier person.
Fred Wilson just wrote a nice piece on being positive and how this has affected him.
"Doing this not only can change how others feel about you, it can change how you feel about yourself. I highly recommend it. I hope it becomes a trend. We would all be happier and nicer. Social media would be tolerable. Life would be better."
Ultimately, it's a choice up to all of us.
I've been enjoying the latest guests to Tim Ferriss' podcast a lot these past weeks, and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek was no exception. They talk extensively on the mental models Daniel uses to run his company. One thing I found particularly interesting is Daniel's view on the qualities he looks for and encourages in his hires. It reflects his belief of an ever changing world:
"I value agility and learning way more than I value the fact that you’re really good at your job and really good at doing a few things."
On Tim's famous question "If you could have a billboard anywhere, saying anything, what would it say and where would you put it?", Daniel responded:
"Be kind; everyone is on their own journey."
He goes on to explain why talking about his own growth and mistakes helps in demonstrating that to be true of himself as well.
"I’ve encountered so many faiths and life situations, certainly over the last nine months ago where I’ve learned so much. I learned about issues I didn’t even know existed. I learned about situations and the hardships, but also successes and happiness as well, so all of those different things. But what it kind of reminded me of is that we’re all on our own journey."
I think that is a lens for viewing the world around you that's worthy of some extra use this holiday season.
Since the start of the pandemic, everyone and his dog has a sourdough starter in the fridge. So have I. Having a living yeast culture in your fridge, to be awakened in the morning for next day's bread feels like magic to me. The 15-20 minutes I spend on fresh bread each day have become a sacrosanct activity.
Being of a generation that was brought up with "bacteria = bad", I did have some initial anxiety, but after 8 months, this seems like a distant past. I intend to dip my toes further into this world by experimenting with fermentation of vegetables. Next to the health benefits and wonderful taste profiles of fermented foods, I like expanding my intimate connection to the food that I eat.
Emergence Magazine interviewed fermentation expert Sandor Katz on his newly published book Fermentation as Metaphor in which he goes far beyond the well-known benefits of the food itself and looks at fermentation as a lens to view the world around us.
He views fermentation cultures as metaphors for our own culture, explaining how 'contamination' is both inevitable and nothing to be afraid of when fermenting. Translating this knowledge to 'preservation of society and culture' makes for an optimistic and fascinating long view on humanity.
With a country that is divided more than ever, an outgoing administration dragging their feet and a likely scenario of divided government limiting meaningful progress, the US is a long way from finding the way up. Still, as always, there is ample room for optimism.
The ever eloquent Seth Godin wrote a short blog in September, reminding us that optimism is not about having evidence things will turn out to be ok. That makes your state of mind more of a 'realistic assessment'. Instead, optimism is a choice and an attitude.
"We’re not deluding ourselves with the reassurance that everything is going to be okay (because that’s not productive). Instead, we’re committed to finding things we can contribute to, work on and improve. We’re devoted to seeking out useful lessons and to discovering where the benefit of the doubt might be helpful."
Which echoes my favourite Winston Churchill quote:
"I have decided to be an optimist, because there isn't much use for anything else."
Or as Seth concludes:
"Positive thinking doesn’t solve every problem. But it’s a much better tool than negative thinking."
The next time you hear someone complain about 'unfounded optimism', remind yourself! (and your conversation partner...)
Claudia Schneider of the University of Cambridge writes in Aeon's Psyche on the research done into drivers for behavioural change. This has many useful applications, since most of our current societal challenges require collective action. When deciding wether to tap into people's feeling of guilt or encourage them to do better, one fact proved key:
"Having a positive self-image about who we are and what we do is a fundamental human need."
The team experimented with self-affirmation exercises and concluded a more positive effect on prosocial behaviour than using guilt as a driver.
"...instead of focusing on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging that zooms in on people’s shortcomings and risks alienating them, policymakers and strategists might find that positive messaging, speaking to people’s positive sense of self, might be a more powerful lever of behavioural change."
In case of urgency, positive affirmation and a good old slap in the face might prove for an even better combination. If anyone can show us how to wield this tool, it's the wonderful Sir David Attenborough, who joined the Instagram ranks to increase the audience for his warning on climate change with a heartfelt opening video.