"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.
Looking for positive impulses in these dark times, I dived into my digital note-taking app and typed 'positive mindset'. In the spirit of 'repetition is the best teacher', I deliberately chose to look into my already existing insights. Plenty of articles, thoughts and books were returned as a response; among them, quite a few Q&A 'snippets', as we tend to call our pieces that we send out every week. The first lines of Beatles' "Let it be" came to mind (and replacing 'Mother Mary' with 'Q&A' 😊).
It seems I've been relaying my state of mind more often in the past three years, like in 'Leadership':
"What is my worry? Our world has always seen big challenges and today is no different. In my humble opinion, what is different is that I currently do not see any (global) organisation and/or leader embarked on a truly future-proof path."
As well as proposing a possible way forward:
"The change, in my opinion, has to come from a different direction than current leadership. I know we are all busy in our (relatively) comfortable daily lives. Still, I really believe it is necessary to spend all the time we can spend on creating a better world, together. We, the people, do not have political agenda's or escalated commitments. We do not need to be re-elected. We do not need to be in history books."
Connect this to what we discussed in 'Tone':
"Especially, in these (dark) times, there is not a lot of value in spreading negative energy. It may just extinguish more lights. I do not believe that the vast majority of people are currently in need of a reminder that change is required."
Leading to proposing a more balanced way forward and different tones of voices, together creating a beautiful symphony. I'd say most relevant these days:
"Having energy and a positive mindset is a much better breeding ground for new ideas. [...] I'm most certainly not a proponent of an ostrich strategy and continuing on a path without taking notice of what's happening in the world. However, I believe it is important to bring balance between negative and positive energy and applying the right tone of voice. [...] Even though we may all like different types of music, we can each play our part in creating the right symphony."
However, we are human beings and not without flaws. It's useful to remind ourselves what the tips and tricks could be to avoid being overwhelmed by all this and drawn into following the crowd. Tranquility suggests:
"Impressions are unavoidable. Our sensors pick up what's happening around us, our hormones drive our feelings, our thoughts come floating in when they want. The key is: do you readily act upon them or do you take the time to debate them? As Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD said: "The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts."
Or as mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal framed it:
"All problems of humankind are a result of human inability to sit quietly and alone in a room."
I cannot help but think these are very wise words; politicians and business leaders seem very busy choosing sides and positioning oneself. In my opinion, this does not feel like a good strategy. Yes, you will belong to a group and feel comfortable or happy. For some time and it will come at a high price. You'll spend a lot of energy defending your positions, preparing for arguments and fights with 'that other side'. Much more energy compared to staying neutral, adjusting your course based on what's happening at thát moment. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there that actually want to belong to this team. We are social animals, after all. We need to live together, whether you like it or not. Let's spend some time contemplating 'quietly and alone' how that could work.
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!
You do not need to always agree with someone in order to have that person on your list of inspirational sources. First of all, the arguments presented just simply provide fertile ground for thoroughly thinking about an issue and forming your own opinion or insight. In this case, you could almost argue: the more you disagree, the better it is.
Secondly, not agreeing with someone on one issue, does not mean you cannot completely agree with this person on another topic. Being open-minded is a great virtue but also requires work; continuously challenging and questioning yourself. Questions like 'do I really still believe that?' 'what do I think of that?', or 'What would change my mind on this?' come to mind as helpful tricks.
One such person for me is Canadian Jordan Peterson. Most of the time, I very much enjoy his highly-intellectual and deep-philosophical podcasts (I often have to pause the podcasts because my brain needs time to digest all the information and frankly, sometimes also to look up words in the English dictionary). At the same time, his basic ideas of how society (should) function are too conservative to my liking.
Episode 381 of his podcast series triggered not only a renewed interest in listening to his podcast which I had stopped doing 18 months ago. It also made me think again about the importance of being open-minded and having a very practical approach to source your inspiration. Sometimes the title alone can lure you into listening, watching or reading without taking a second judgment call by looking who's presenting, who wrote it or who's acting it.
This particular episode is called 'Change Your Mindset, Your Health, Your Life' in which Mr Peterson sits down with Dr. Ellen Langer to talk about her views on and experiences with mindfulness and its impact on health. I thought it was fascinating what they discussed.
One example is a study that was conducted concerning the relationship between body and mind(set). A group of people living in an eldercare home were placed in an environment where everything was designed as if it was 20 years earlier. They were also assigned tasks to do as if they were 20 years younger. Within a week (!), vision, memory, hearing, and bodily strength had noticeably improved with all persons involved. Researchers also reported that they 'looked younger'.
Another experiment involved chambermaids, who were first asked how much exercise they thought they had. Most of them responded just about the exercise they did outside of work. Part of the group were made to realise that their work itself involved a lot of exercise as well. This very realisation, just changing the mindset, resulted in this group showing weight-loss, BMI reduction and lower blood pressure.
Mindset change seems to have physical impacts as well, reaching far beyond just feeling different. How to make this practical? How to find the motivation to pursue this? Dr. Ellen Langer mentions during the interview:
"There is a way to make everything exciting."
It requires mindset change, creativity, the will to make something exciting and being practical. This all starts with being open-minded.
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.
Upon reading 'Contagious' (my co-author finished writing before I even started), I immediately thought of a passage I read yesterday in 'A Gentleman in Moscow', not accidentally referred to me by my co-author as well 😁.
Receiving advice from a friend on how to spend time with a young child, our protagonist gets told:
"If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.”
In 'Why Buddhism is True', this adult wiring is even pinpointed as the cause of most of our suffering:
"Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting."
This very much resonates with a theme I've been pondering much this past year; circumstances bringing out the best and worst in people. History is littered with examples of decent people regressing to indecent behaviour, given the circumstances. As long as self-preservation and survival are a theme, the higher order functioning breaks down. My working hypothesis here is that we need to structurally 'raise the floor' so our primordial tendencies atrophy.
As creativity, diversity and cooperation are increasingly important in solving the challenges of the day, playfulness and psychological safety become ever critical. Since our physique immediately influences our emotions, a smile can go a long way.
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 😊.
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?
A few years back, author Yuval Noah Harari teased our worldview by stating that AI would bring us a world where our smart fridge would be better at reading our mood than our life partner. As the current developments have squashed any lurking normalcy bias, I can only assume that a lot of us consider this scenario feasible in the near future.
The interesting part of this shifting imagination for me, is how it affects us on an emotional level. Inspecting my own feelings, I discovered a small sense of fear, of inadequacy. Being a male hasn't put me in the highest scoring category for reading feelings anyway, but a household appliance potentially outdoing me on this front feels threatening. It might make me a lesser kind of husband, right?
A recent plug-in application for Zoom made the mood-reading tech even more clear and present. Automatic transcription is nothing new, summarization neither. But having 'mood scores', highlighting engagement and even links to the topic at hand is a whole new game. I haven't seen the technology in action yet, but its mere presence in the Zoom app store is an indication of how close we are getting.
Seeing this tech reframed my anxiety a bit as well, as it also provides a good examples of the 'augmentation' that AI can bring. The same kind of technology is being used in Customer Service centers, where voice analysis provides cues to the agents on possible routes in the script and warning signs, should they be missed by the agent itself.
If I'm ok with my EV gently nudging me when I accidentally leave my lane, why can't AI make me a better husband? I feel no less for writing down our Anniversary in my diary, right? So, forms of technology are supporting me already. I might be able to appreciate a small nudge when I'm overly focused on myself. Even from my fridge.
During a conversation on startup investing a few years back, one moderator highlighted the importance of contrarian thinking. Being able to hold a belief that your environment thinks is plain wrong, seemingly holds the key to finding the biggest investments opportunities, as they are often linked to paradigm shifts that our normalcy bias prevents us from considering. He went on to challenge us to share contrarian thoughts, and then defuse most of them by asking for a vote. All but one thought were shared by a large minority of the group, proving his point of the rarity of contrarian ideas.
I did not express this back then, but one of the thoughts I deemed contrarian was my disbelief in a free will.
My thinking on the subject was originally triggered by an Albert Einstein quote on the matter, who did not believe in free will, but thought is was practical in society. Think about crime and punishment if there were no free will, right?
Investigating the thoughts further, I bumped into many, many quotes and thoughts on the concept. Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer highlighted Kurt Vonnegut's playful
‘If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,’ said the Tralfamadorian, ‘I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by “free will.” I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I’ve studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.’
Appreciating how much our subconscious informs our actions and the sheer unfathomable complexity of humanity, I currently think 'free will' is like chaos, a term to capture something we cannot model. Mocking it, Tom Wolfe wrote:
"Let's say you pick up a rock and you throw it. And in midflight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it is taking."
There must be value to the concept itself though, otherwise it would not be. In my thinking, I tend to cycle between the 'Surrender experiment' of appreciating the natural flow of things and the power of making things happen, that seem to paradoxically co-exist. While my hypothesis is obviously not contrarian, it's not common as well, which might be indicative of its value. What do you think?
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.
To see introvert and extravert children in action in a classroom situation, have a look at this very interesting documentary by the Polish director Emi Buchwald. The first lines of the description nicely capture the main theme:
"Learning can be enriching and even thrilling, sure. But it can also be confusing, tedious, exhausting, and any combination thereof. And, [...] this is especially true when it’s foisted upon you against your will, as it tends to be for many schoolchildren."
The children get an assignment to study and memorise a rather philosophical poem in a couple of days. It is immediately obvious how this pretty hard task is handled in various different ways by the kids. The task also involves discussing and analysing the poem together with the parents or caretakers. This leads to a view on how the parents act in different ways and the influence that has on the atmosphere and the content of the discussions. Some remarks by both kids and parents are quite deep and insightful. It shows the huge capacity of learning to bring us together, learn and grow.
The documentary also shows what a great impact this assignment can have on the stress levels of some of them. Obviously, reciting a poem by head to a group is not for everyone.
It is a great case-in-point how we are all different and how difficult it is (possibly: impossible) to find common ways to learn, work and play. Understanding how somebody ticks and how to deal with that might be the most important trait to learn. It's a life-long-learning exercise.
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!
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.
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.
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?
Let me try to scratch the surface of a big topic; taking things (too) personally. It seems to be almost part of human nature to first look at yourself to the find the cause for something happening in a certain way. Whilst this is in principle not a bad starting position, a lot of people remain stuck at this point and therefore will tend to blame themselves or assume others to think ill of them. This has potential negative effects on your self-esteem and increases the likelihood to become distressed and dysfunctional.
When I came across an article by Joel Minden, I decided to finally write something about it. The article first lays out what biases lie at the basis of this behaviour. Subsequently, it deals with quite a number of practical steps to get a more balanced view.
There are essentially two biases involved with taking things too personally. Firstly, 'Personalisation', believing that you’re the cause of a negative event, though there is no or little evidence to support this. Then, there is 'Mind reading', where you are assuming that someone is making a critical judgment about you, without having that specific direct feedback.
These seemingly automatic thoughts are a kind of learned behaviours. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that the actions proposed in the article center around identifying and influencing those behaviours. One of the most important things to do, is to distinguish between thoughts and feelings. When you took something personally, how did you feel? Feelings can often be summarised in one word, thoughts take far more words to describe. Take time to write them down and analyse. Why do you feel that way at that moment?
The article describes several ways of doing this. After some practice, you become more selective about the self-critical thoughts. Again, being self-critical is not bad, too much of it, is. The article reminded me of a lot of good advices gathered over the years; practice meditation, journalling, but most of all: take time to reflect on what you feel and why you feel a certain way.
"Remember that feelings are not debatable – you just feel how you feel, even when you wish you didn’t. Your thoughts, on the other hand, can be challenged, revised or replaced with more realistic and useful ones."
I see a lot of things to improve and practices to rejuvenate (journalling!), but perhaps I'm taking things too personally...
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.
Our coverage of money being a dissatisfier, spurred quite a bit of debate, mostly in a positive and constructive way. Last week, I got a first-row seat watching this 'tension' unfold.
Supporting a pair of entrepreneurs selling their business, I found myself negotiating the so-called bad-leaver provisions. Important reason why a certain company is bought is often the quality of the management team. It is therefore customary for a purchaser to get some assurance that the management will continue to work for the company. Besides good salaries and incentive plans, the contract usually entails provisions that in case you leave the company by your own decision within the next 3-4 years -defined as 'bad leaver'-, you'll not be entitled to all of the upside in the incentive plans.
In this particular negotiation, the other side was of the opinion that being a bad leaver meant you'll not only be entitled to any upside, but you'd also have to pay a penalty. In other words, there would be a big financial stick. I disagreed. In my opinion, this would create quite the opposite of what the intention is: create as much shareholder value as possible and ensure this remains preserved for as long as possible. However, a financial stick creates the incentive to stay even if you are totally demotivated and hence value-destroying for the company (and yourself).
The solution lies in creating a mechanism that works as a financial carrot to stay as long as possible, but at the same time is not financially inhibitive to leaving should you be demotivated or not fit the new environment. Something as simple as a discount percentage to the value of shares that diminishes over time would already do the trick.
I strongly believe that when you cater for freedom, you'll receive loyalty in return.
In tons of day-to-day situations, convincing others is a key skill. Wether you're trying to sell, either a product or an idea or get people to change, influencing is needed. A classic work in this field is Influence by Robert Cialdini. Based on our human instincts and biases, he explains how to influence people.
Influence reads like a magic bag of tricks, revealing how much of our decision making is steered by subconscious processes we are fully unaware of. Academic research has shown that motor neurons are activated even before a signal reaches our pre-frontal cortex, proving that some decisions (to get up and start moving around, for example) are done and dusted before any logic comes in.
Researcher Ap Dijksterhuis from Radboud University illustrated the balance between conscious and unconscious processes in a most wonderful analogy. The unconscious, he explains, can be seen as 200.000 factory workers in a building with opaque windows. They don't know exactly what's going on in the world, but they still run the show. Our conscious part of the brain is like a reporter, standing in front of the factory, explaining what's going on inside, spinning the stories. He's gotten so good at spinning these stories in a logical sense, that he believes he's running the show.
In my opinion, this wonderfully illustrates the power of storytelling. With stories (and visuals), you directly target the factory workers. Logic be damned, you can influence behaviour best by making people feel a certain way.
What are you selling right now? And how would this logic influence your tactics?
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.
Tim Ferris' interview with Jane McGonical started with an entirely different subject: how to combat insomnia. Her answer was simple: play a videogame for 10 minutes.
This obviously goes against all the other advice that is out there to get a proper night sleep and therefore got my attention. We learned to reduce screen time and not engage in mind-occupying exercises before bed. It turns out that a certain subset of videogames seems to be very effective.
"Any visual pattern matching game where your brain is looking at colors, looking at shapes, looking at how things are arranged in space will be really good."
Researchers at Oxford University even found that playing Tetris can be used to mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Apparently, playing the game for a short time results in a kind of visually overwriting of what could become a sort of compulsive repetitive cycle of imagery caused by a trauma. In other words, preventing unwanted flashbacks from traumatic events.
All avid videogamers, please hold your horses before cheering too loudly; it also turns out that just 10 minutes is really the right dose. Will you be able to control the reinforcing self-rewarding neurocircuitry?
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.
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."
Human beings are built to detect fast changes and rely on patterns. This reliance on patterns and predictability has huge evolutionary benefits (it saves us from constantly seeing everything like a baby does, drinking from a firehose worth of information) but it can also fool us into destructive behaviour. Normalcy bias, as it is called, is our human tendency to think our environment will stay as it is.
When COVID hit two years ago, most of us suspected that life would continue as we know it. Even after seeing the first illegally broadcasted images from China of locked down apartment buildings, most people suspected that this would be a blip that would be forgotten soon. We are just hardwired to have a tough time with imagining drastic change. Combine this tendency with increased complexity (and therefore unpredictability) in the world around us, and you get an interesting mix.
A tool that might help in getting ready for possible scenarios is the 'disaster movie' (or 'near disaster movie'). Last week I watched "Don't Look Up" on Netflix, which I think does a wonderful job of making you empathise with humanity when faced with a potentially life-eradicating comet hurling at the earth, only 6 months away. The prospect of human life being terminated might not be everybody's cup of tea, but the stellar performance of Meryl Streep (playing the President of the United States) and Jonah Hill (playing her son, also the Chief of Staff) make the potential nightmare highly palatable and a nice stretch for your bias-inspired convictions.
Most of our economic models are based on the fact that humans make rational choices. Though our brains have impressive computing power, they still aren't able to process all the information rationally and weigh all scenarios involved in making a potential decision. Still, we're able to move ahead and make decisions. We tend to use intuition and cognitive biases to filter all incoming information and take the shortcut.
We should probably not change the way we make choices, as this could make life very dull. However, there are situations where a 'pure' rational decision could be preferable. For example, doing a performance review or judging in a court case.
From an article by neuroscientist Liro Rozenkrant, I learned that individuals that have a high degree of autism seem to be less susceptible to cognitive biases and therefore make decisions in a more 'rational' way. These individuals generally have the label 'autistic'; however, every human being has a degree of autism, so I rather try to avoid the label.
"[...] researchers have repeatedly found evidence that autistic individuals are, on average, more consistent, less biased, and more rational than non-autistic individuals in a variety of contexts."
They tend to be more focused and integrate information in a more objective and unbiased way. A great example of the benefits of diversity, in this case: neurodiversity. Making use of these traits, our overall perspective will become more balanced and, frankly, more colourful.
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.
Your own home is a sacred place. A place that breathes who you are, that you have shaped, where you have your privacy, where you feel safe.
Until a burglar smashes these windows of comfort and safety.
When we as a family, driving home from holiday, learned that someone had trespassed on our sacred place, it didn't take long for us to feel compassion with this person. He (or she) must not be living in a happy world when he's capable of such an act. It helped us accepting the event and feeling less affected. After a couple of days, however, something else hit hard. Though he had not stolen a lot from us in a material sense (and the most important assets were sitting together in a car), he did take a very important item: our sense of safety and trust in other persons.
This type of confrontation makes it abundantly clear how your happiness and general wellbeing is determined by emotions, not material things. It is hard to forgive someone for taking these grand feelings. Feeling unsafe inhibits you from acting in a normal way in society. The thoughts cross your mind that you're willing to do everything needed to get it back and that the person responsible should be punished by some sort of harsh measure.
Still, though difficult, I believe the answer lies in compassion combined with the passage of time. It made me think about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, probably also triggered by the fact that he recently died. As he said in The Book of Joy:
“Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness."
I'd like to add that compassion over time may keep your windows of comfort and safety, clean and intact.
Binary questions are questions posed in such a way that you have to choose one out of two potential answers. It is either '0' or '1', 'yes' or 'no', 'good' or 'bad'. I find the questions challenging as they're often quite impossible to answer. Just answering a question with a straight 'yes' or 'no' often just yields a probing look asking for more, an explanation or an emotion.
There could be something much deeper underneath the surface of this simple question, as psychoanalyst Darren Haber explores in his article "Either/or Questions Are Part of Psychotherapy’s Language Games".
In some instances, getting a clear black-and-white answer is useful. For example, when trying to establish what has exactly happened, so you can clearly define the needed cure or next step. When something is on fire, you really would like to know whether there is oil in it before deciding throwing water on it or a towel.
Still, even in those cases, there is something behind it, something deeper. The actual facts always have a story. Persons asking the question might actually be looking for some sort of emotional recognition or valuation. To get behind the reasons for asking a yes-no question, it can therefore, as a first step, be useful to acknowledge that the question is fair or logical to ask. By doing so, you engage into a conversation and essentially 'buy time', getting a better understanding of the situation, and discovering whether you really need to give a final verdict.
"A person’s inherent worthiness is empathically confirmed dialogically through a lived relational exchange. Empathy is an organic concept, uniquely codetermined, different in every case."
When still unsure what to do, your counterpart will undoubtedly tell you what to do.
Wether you want to work out, eat healthy, journal or sleep before 10, forming a habit is often the way to go. We're routine creatures, so making something into a habit helps us doing things consistently. It's the momentum that overcomes friction, the friction of having to start anew.
Like staying sober, counting the number of consecutive days or weeks that you maintained this behaviour can help. People have an inherent desire to be consistent, so if you managed to run twice a week for the last 40 weeks, this is extra motivation not to break your 'streak'. Tons of mobile apps are aimed at registering your streaks and motivating you not to break it.
I recently read a tweet saying that no habit is a real habit unless you failed at your streak and re-started it at least once.
This made me think of losing your focus during meditation. Letting your thoughts run away with you is something even experienced meditators have happen to them regularly. The trick is not to feel down, but just be glad that you noticed, and then re-focus your attention to your breath.
The analogy that I like best for this meditative exercise is that of a mother dog with a nest of puppies. Every time a puppy runs from the litter, she patiently wanders off, grabs the puppy and brings him back. No annoyance, no irritation.
Which might be a great exercise for your desired behaviour as well. If you have a clear motive for your behaviour, a clear 'why', picking up your puppy and bringing him back to the nest can be a loving experience.
In the Netherlands, we do not just celebrate Christmas, but we also have our own local variant, dating back 3 centuries: Sinterklaas (not to be confused with Santa Claus). My 2 kids are still at an age where they believe the whole story of the Saint coming to our country on a steamer from Spain, packed with gifts for every child in the country.
Now, I'm also on the Sinterklaas committee of our local elementary school, tasked with procuring all the gifts for the groups there. These past few weeks, several packages arrived on a daily basis, with sometimes even the kids opening the door for the delivery guy. With the excuse of the packages being for 'dad's work' or 'mom's school' we moved them into our storage as fast as possible.
The other day, one of the teachers at school asked me if the kids already started asking questions about the present-tsunami hitting our house. I was just about to explain how skillfully we managed our cover-up operation, but at that moment it hit me. 'I think they just don't want to see what's happening there', I told her. Like a magic trick, if you want to believe, you see reality as you want it to be.
Walking home, I realised how this perception-alternating mechanism worked for us grown-ups too. Wether it's climate change or a loved one misbehaving, if we don't like the consequences of seeing, we turn a blind eye.
Marketing has a profound influence on our buying behaviour. You may have heard of a particular soft-drink brand that inserted single, split-second frames with their logo in films that were shown in movie theaters. Sales of this particular brand increased significantly. Could marketing be used to do 'the right things' as well?
Dr. Dafna Goor, Assistant Professor of Marketing at London Business School recently published her study, analysing why people still prefer standard products over their greener alternatives. It is a fascinating read.
First, she discovered that generally, consumers are more likely to choose green products in the morning. Digging deeper, the research team discovered that it is not just about the time of day, but rather how much effort someone has exerted so far.
"I suspected that exerting effort made people feel generally more deserving and therefore less likely to make a pro-social or ‘greener’ choice.”
Her suspicion was proven in several experiments. Participants that were given a hard task generally preferred a non-green reward. Reasons for this behaviour are still to be examined; depletion of physical and mental resources seem to lead to more immediate focus on yourself, more egoïsm, and less energy or 'space' to be concerned with larger issues. This behaviour doesn't seem to be deliberate.
"I think results like ours show how marketing has the potential to help people make choices that are better for them and better for the planet. It’s not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, but about how we can harness people’s purchasing power for the greater good.”
Of course, you could consider closing shops in the evenings, but making the shopping experience more relaxing, stress-free seems a more reasonable way forward. That will be a win-win for everyone, including the planet.
Defining a common enemy is an effective way of rallying people behind a common cause. Apt leaders make use of this technique. They may use it in various ways, for better and for worse. To divert attention or to focus. Be aware when your head of state appears on television with an hour-long speech!
There are good reasons for an individual to be attracted to join a group. A study conducted in 2017 found that having enemies can give us comfort in the face of uncertainty. It seems to give us a purpose and a clear path forward. It gives a sense of control. It unites and it means you do not have to look behind your back so often.
We see instances of defining common enemies constantly. Getting rid of a threatening virus for instance (though the common enemy seems to be shifting to the non-vaccinated people). The US and China joining forces to combat climate change. Could climate change be the common enemy that will unite the world?
It is pleasant to have something in common and to be 'brothers-in-arms' against one enemy. After all, it is easier to follow a big crowd than being one of the few shouting in the desert. This is, however, exactly the reason why I'm on guard when the voice of a big crowd becomes loud and influencing everyone's daily business. People in the crowd may have stopped thinking for themselves. Leaders of the pack may in fact be the ones determining everything empowered by the group.
I suggest to keep testing your assumptions before joining any group in pursuing a common goal. More importantly, keep asking yourself: does this feel right?
"After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we've just met for a minute [...]? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Boticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration - and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour."
A beautifully written piece of wisdom from the book "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles that triggered some thinking. To withhold an opinion is easily said, but rather difficult in practice. It takes great effort. It means work, investing time, reaching out and holding back, applying subtleness ánd judgement, cook and simmer.
'Reconsideration' really seems to be the key word. A great balancing act. However, this could mean you'll never reach a conclusion. Would that be beneficial in any way? Would a final conclusion really be much different from a first impression?
My personal experience sometimes leads me to really trust my intuitive, first impressions. Conducting job interviews, for example, I have experienced that my impression after the first couple of minutes is a pretty good (>90%) predictor of my final conclusion. Or is my first impression guiding me to the conclusion and do I conduct the remainder of the interview in 'confirmation bias'?
When I was in high school, Genesis had a hit with the song "Jesus, he knows me", mocking tele-evangelism at the time. The lyrics were written by Phil Collins, and contained a line I think is quite profound:
"Just do as I say, don't do what I do"
Collins intended the line as cynicism, highlighting the discrepancy between television pastors' wise lessons and their own behaviour at the time. The line holds some wise thoughts, applicable universally. As a parent, I learned the hard way that kids are far better at copying my own behaviour than following my instructions. You can instruct them what's right, but most of the time they follow my lead. I've been confronted with this mirror of my own quirks and tendencies on several occasions and I am sure that I don't even recognise all of them. I might well be annoyed by behaviour I have not discovered yet as being my own.
Last week, we discussed a case of the flip-side of this. In the past year, multiple acquaintances had mentioned their pubescent kids being uninterested in studying because of what they saw their parents doing each day. Working long hours, spending time in 'meetings' and in front of their computer screens did not seem too appealing. Why then pursue the same route?
This made us think. What's the conversation you have at the dinner table about your day? What's the tone of what you share? What are the phone calls and teams meetings your kids are overhearing? What do you tell them how to live and how do you show them how to live?
One of the unique capabilities of the modern human being is its thinking abilities. Our brain does not only regulate our body's physical and metabolic needs, it is also able to plan, invent and create. In addition, it seems to continuously create thoughts. Thoughts of all kinds, sometimes pleasant, more often apparently aimed at keeping you in a state of readiness.
In an article, Rémy Furrer, PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Virginia, describes his research in whether we are able to direct our thoughts.
"Given the endless forms our thoughts can take, why wouldn’t we –when given the opportunity to withdraw from the external world– dive into our own minds and entertain ourselves with our thoughts?"
Findings from his and other research are fascinating. First of all, it turns out that a lot of people, especially men, will not consciously take the opportunity to spend some time alone with their thoughts. In the experiment done, they rather opt for the only other choice given to them: to shock themselves. Apparently, they do not enjoy spending time with their own thoughts.
Secondly, they found that "thinking pleasurable thoughts is not intuitive" and it may require practice and the right motivation to do so. Putting this knowledge into practice in another experiment, they found that just thinking pleasurable thoughts is not enough. The thoughts also need to be meaningful.
"The findings were consistent across cultures, which demonstrates the universality of people’s preference for activities that provide an external source of entertainment, rather than spending time thinking about pleasurable topics of their own making."
Still, like the author of the article, I believe spending time with your own thoughts is useful. The trick seems to be to really have the intention to have a pleasurable experience. That makes it meaningful.
Every time, I switch on the alarm in our house, I get nervous from the beeping sound indicating I have 30 seconds to be out of range of the detectors. When the alarm goes off accidentally, my reaction is completely different and resembles a form of panic, though I know exactly what will happen.
In a recent article, Michele DeMarco explains the difference between anxiety and panic. On the surface perhaps pretty obvious, but I've always noticed quite some similarities between how you feel and react, though the occassions in which they occur are widely different. Both 'modes of fear' may jeopardize running a normal life in quite different ways.
A panic attack is often unexpected, short and represents a burst of intense fear that may in turn lead to physical outings, such as intense heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness. On the other hand, anxiety occurs when you worry about a future event; "the stressful anticipation of a bad outcome or perceived threat". It usually builds up gradually and may persist for weeks, even months, whilst varying in intensity.
Both mechanisms serve as an alarm system, but are driven by different parts of the brain. The so-called autonomous nervous system is on constant alert and gives its input to the amygdala, a brain area that is the core driver of fear. Anxiety is mostly associated with the prefrontal cortex, which is known for its planning and anticipation.
Knowing this, the article continues with advice on how to deal with both types of fear. The advice centers around the principle of “Admit, Acknowledge, Accept” that what you’re feeling is real. To further train your resilience against potentially being caught off-guard, you can practice "titration" (not to confuse with your chemistry lessons):
"In somatic psychology, the word “titrate” is used to describe how much emotional “flow” we let into our system’s internal reservoir. To titrate our experience is to keep ourselves in an intentional place of choice and safety by opening and closing the tap on our emotions."
I continue to find nature and how it (offers tools to) deals with different situations fascinating. Understand the workings of phenomena is often a good starting point to deduce effective coping mechanisms. Perhaps, I should just disassemble the alarm.
Strangely enough, this was one of the most interesting phrases Marketing guru Seth Godin uttered while presenting a workshop on freelancing. He tried to explain why most people are having such a hard time understanding why other people think different, make other choices, can't see why your product is the absolute best idea in the world.
"But I'm also unreasonable, we all are."
He explained that it took him quite a while to understand how everyone hold his own sets of beliefs, and that everyone's behaviour is a fully logical consequence of his beliefs, state of mind and experiences. Everyone, absolutely everyone, acts completely in line with those. You're never acting against your own set of beliefs, and so is everybody else.
When you have a hard time understanding someone else's behaviour, that just means you don't see all the pieces of the puzzle.
This change of lens, to look at behaviour you do not understand, was a game-changer for me.
It's not a dogmatic 'you should try to be empathic'. It's an invitation.
Every time a puzzle presents itself, I have a choice. Thinking the puzzle is stupid, ranting the pieces don't fit and how it should be different. Or, alternatively, remembering that all the pieces in front of me (and some left in the box) are a full set, holding an image I don't see yet.
I still don't feel like making complex jigsaw puzzles all of the time; knowing the pieces always make a full set already makes for a comforting thought.
Did you know there is a relationship between kid's weight and their reading scores? Heavier kids score higher on reading tests! This makes for a great piece of clickbait, until you start looking into the data and quickly realise that older kids tend to weigh more than younger kids. Same for the correlation between ice cream sales and drowning. Or chocolate consumption and Nobel prize winners per country. Or stork nesting and baby deliveries.
What's behind all this, is a hidden variable. It's the summer temperatures that cause people to want to take a swim and have ice cream. Or the fact that more temperate climates have better education and a higher living standard. Chocolates melts in warmer climates, making people choose other treats.
When we are at the helm and a strange correlation shows up, we start investigating, knowing correlation does not mean causation. We start looking for an explanation, the hidden variable. When a computer is at the helm, nothing is done of the sort. Even the most sophisticated Artificial Intelligence is great at spotting correlation, but does not understand causation. Which is why blind use of AI is a terrible idea for selecting successful candidates in hiring and loan approvals. It does not understand, so it can only look back, at the data of the past.
An AI expert explained 'Think of it as hiring AI instead of buying AI'. It needs constant monitoring and managing. It is not taking over humans any time soon.
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!
Vacations (yes, I also read 'Vaccinations' the first time...) are not the first things that come to mind when discussing 'goal setting'. Dutch anthropologist Jitske Kramer, however, encourages everyone to think about the goals you have with having a vacation. Being in touch with what you actually need when the time comes, helps in deciding wether you want to be inspired and energised by other cultures, or if you just need some well-deserved rest.
The same choices are really useful when deciding on downtime from work. Writer Art Markman identified three different goals.
The first thing you may want to accomplish is to just clear your mind. Changing perspective and getting distance from the problems at work have proven to provide you with the best solutions when you return. The second objective is a 'relaxation of executive control', being able to lose the mental models and decision making that is occupying your brain for a prolonged time. Finally, he mentions a 'restoration of calm', breaking the cycle of anxiety and stress causing bad decisions leading to even more stress.
Understanding these different types of needs will likely help you identifying what kind of restoration you actually need and when you need it.
So, what are your plans this summer?
With increasing attention for artificial intelligence, the question whether computers could act like human beings is raised more often. Recent research, however, shows that neurons in our brain are wired quite differently from how we commonly design computers with the so-called Von Neumann architecture. In computers, every part (transistor) is always fed with energy and pre-programmed to perform a certain task. Neurons in our brain seem to be part of an internal brain economy. They seem to compete with each other for attention and resources.
In the article 'Neurons gone wild', author Kevin Simler examines this view:
"Maybe the neurons in our brains are not just capable, but motivated, to be more adventurous, exploratory, or risky in the way they live their lives. They're struggling amongst themselves for influence and for staying alive. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation, to create alliances, coalitions, cabals, etc."
Researchers quoted in the article believe the fact there is a resource constraint causes the neurons to be selfish and incentivises them to 'hook up' with the right network of other neurons that provides them with life-sustaining energy and other raw materials.
The implications are far-reaching. If, for example, certain trauma damages part of your brain, neurons in the affected area will actively search for new connections and reorganise themselves. This process causes certain functions to restore or certain new functions to emerge.
"[...] if you blindfold yourself for eight weeks, as Alvaro Pascual-Leone does in his experiments, you find that your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille, for haptic perception, for touch."
Neuronal selfishness could be the perfect explanation for the brain's known plasticity, flexibility and adaptability. This is not where the analysis of the observations stops. Neurons seem to be guided by a purpose, or an internal, autonomous driving force. This opens the way to define neurons as agents, or:
"[...] an entity capable of autonomous, intelligent, goal-directed behaviour."
Intelligent does not mean, neurons will do whatever is best for you as a person. An example is when you take an addictive drug such as alcohol or nicotine. A new agent will start working around this 'source of pleasure' and slowly grow. The more you feed it, the bigger it grows, the more neurons will be attracted to that network and the more influence it will have in your brain economy. The behaviour then becomes 'sticky'.
All these agents together determine who you are as a person, what your motivations are and how you go about your daily life. You can readily see that your 'self' is hence heavily influenced by the environment you grew up in. It also shows that you can have influence on who you are and what you believe in. You can for example, actively take action to change your surrounding by moving jobs. You are however up against a powerful opponent: selfish, stubborn neurons acting in networks and fighting for their own existence.
Anxiety seems, somehow, to be part of our daily occupation and I found it therefore comforting to read that it in fact makes us human:
"Anxiety [...], rather than being a pathology, is an essential human disposition that leads us to enquire into the great, unsolvable mysteries that confront us; to philosophise is to acknowledge a crucial and animating anxiety that drives enquiry onward."
Anxiety lures us into fundamental questions and investigations about who we truly are or want to be. However, too much of it hampers development. The question is how to ensure the right level of anxiety and what is that right level?
You can look for external advice, but you'll often end up measuring yourself against what others are doing or rationalizing the challenge. It's for each and everyone for themselves to find that sweetspot of being curious and in motion, while feeling comfortable enough to have a good night rest. The comforting notion is that it is you yourself that determines what the right balance will be. It requires going back to your gut feel and relying on it. A most difficult exercise, but a rewarding one. It might even be our ultimate balancing act.
Looking at the development of information technology over the last few decades, I am struck by how much it has analogies in human professional development. Thinking back to when I landed my first job and was taught the ropes, I still vividly remember the rules that made the game. A few years in, I saw more senior operators break these rules while performing vastly better. They navigated more on intuition than rules, and the classic explanation was always "First, you must learn the rules, then know when to break them". The secret sauce was for later.
The first big wave of automation tackled a lot of rules-based if-then-else work. When handling a situation asked for simple rules, automation was the way to go. A lot of menial tasks have been automated in the past decades. Now AI is gaining more and more traction in the workplace, the intuition-based part is up for automation next. Albert Einstein once said that:
"Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience"
This makes the case for intuition being a complicated model, much like the Machine Learning we see more and more. This insight also brings us the best litmus test for AI opportunities in your company. If the difference in 'decision quality' between experts and novices is significant, that means complex algorithms (a.k.a. "Life experience") are in place and AI might be a way to go.
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.
Last week, Alphons and I discussed daily rhythms and how unexpected changes in them can throw you off a bit. I know exactly what you're thinking now; males have a tendency to have a higher score for mental rigidity. But based on our analysis of the moments that are most challenging, I think there are more interesting things happening here.
In their book 'It doesn't have to crazy at work', David Heinemeier Hanson and Jason Fried explain the ideal working conditions for their employees and the science behind it. A lot of their employees, who are in the coding business, mostly perform their best during longer (3-4 hour) stretches at a time. That's why they proclaimed 'Library Rules' (silence like in the library in their open offices) and 'Office hours' (no constant interrupting of technical staff).
Why coders have this preference might be explained by the process of loading the 'wetware', getting the full complexity of what you are working on 'top of mind' so you are able to make connections, solve problems and create meaningful next steps. This process can take quite some time, but when reached, the result is often described as a 'flow' state.
The more the work entails complexity and creativity, the more of an investment loading the 'wetware' is for an extended period of deep work. Which for me accurately predicts the types of work I have a hard time being distracted from. As a growing portion of our work tends to move away from repetition because of automation (and AI), I wonder what that will bring for our definition of ideal schedules and workplaces.
Ever since I use digital systems for tracking my To Do's, I've been confronted with a necessity of sometimes deleting items that I didn't do (after being confronted with them for weeks on end). If I don't prune my lists, they grow out of hand at some point.
I pondered how I used to do this when I was still using paper lists, and found out that in the process of re-writing my list every few days or weeks, I did exactly the same, but with less guilt. Throwing your old list away while creating a new one feels much more like 'renewing your vows', a re-focusing of the things that really matter.
I also remembered an article I read in 'KIJK magazine' when I was young about a Russian man with perfect memory (the New Yorker wrote an article on him a few years back). Not being able to forget drove the man to alcoholism and premature death.
Being able to forget, our 'leaky bucket' is not a bug, it's a feature. It's a mechanism for renewal and refocus. Which makes cleaning guru Marie Kondo's ritual for 'letting go' an apt analogy; be grateful!
When I ask you for random associations with the word 'pyramid', Egypt or Pharaos are bound to turn up. But 'Maslow' also turns up surprisingly often, with his hierarchy of human growth.
Paul Millerd took a deep dive into the origins of the pyramid and describes the jump from Maslow's book 'A Theory of Human Motivation (1943)' to the realm of business. In the 1950s, management thinkers saw the potential of using Maslow's identified needs as a tool to go beyond salary and look at other incentives, creating the now iconic pyramid.
What is lesser known is that Maslow spent 30+ years after his initial writing to second-guess and evolve his ideas, leading him to define the terms 'Deficiency-needs' (most of the stages of his earlier pyramid) and 'Being-values' as the transcendence of the Deficiency-needs. Examples of the Being-values are 'Being without action', 'Communication as an end (not a means)', 'Meaning' and 'Transcending ego'. Firmly opposing the rather egocentric 'self-actualisation' of his earlier thinking, this makes him a true contemporary of Ram Dass and Alan Watts and firmly in line with Eastern philosophies.
The fact that Maslow did not contest the limitations of his earlier thinking publicly is explained as a classic example of a 'Deficiency'. Frustrated with his lack of progress and standing with his psychology peers, he enjoyed his massive popularity amongst business thinkers. Fascinating read.
The topic of most financial news today is whether the stock market is overvalued. One analysis after the other tells most of the times a balanced story in which the end-conclusion is: we don't know.
In its recent letter to investors, fund manager Saga Partners, stood out from the crowd by stating:
"However, the human mind—which is what the market reflects—is wired in a way that makes bubbles and crashes an inevitability from time-to-time."
It resonated with me as it points to different themes we've covered across several episodes of our newsletter: herd behaviour, echo chambers and the impact of stress and uncertainty on the ability to think independently. Might the answer be that simple?
Take for instance the graph below in which the investment bank Goldman Sachs tracks a basket of non-profitable US-listed technology companies. Their share performance have almost quadrupled in 2020.
This graph does not necessarily prove that (part of) the market is overvalued. We may speculate what's happening here, which is exactly what a lot of people do. Whilst doing so, many suffer from 'fear of missing out' or 'FOMO'. I leave the interpretation for everyone self to make. I'd only like to suggest to think independently.
Sometimes you're overwhelmed by them, other times there are none: choices. Source of a plethora of emotions, ranging from anxiety to abundant joy. Having a choice is nice, but the ability to actually make one is important. It creates ownership and a sense of empowerment. Mark Manson in his book 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck' describes:
"Often the only difference between a problem being painful or being powerful is a sense that we chose it, and that we are responsible for it [...]"
A special case is when a group of persons face all the same set of choices and, in addition, everyone is aware of this situation. In that case some real scenario thinking starts to enter your brain. In science this is known as game theory, most people just refer to it as: "I do not know what to do!". Take for example the question whether you should stay safe and work from home or go into the office and meet your colleagues. Staying at home reduces chances to get infected by Corona. But, if everyone thinks that way, this becomes less of a problem and the case for going into the office becomes stronger. This is an example of the so-called El Farol Bar problem. Assuming everyone behaves logically in this problem, individual outcomes will not be optimal or 'no fun'.
We deal with these difficult paradoxes of collective action daily. A practical solution is to make deliberate choices by carefully thinking through an issue, trust your gut, take action and don't look back. You'll feel empowered and have less anxiety.
In getting things done, one of my favourite quotes is "Willpower is highly overrated". Especially since research has pointed out that our willpower is a resource that is depleted during the day, I am convinced that any strategy based on just your motivation is not the best bet.
If it's going to the gym, keeping your hands off the cookie jar or writing more, creating an outside system for accountability is often the key to making progress and starting a habit. In a moment that you are truly motivated, you only need to make one conscious decision to put the system in place.
Most people experienced the value of a sports date with someone else, making the chances of staying on the couch dramatically lower. Not having a cookie jar is also a great strategy, since your willpower is not tested looking at it at all.
I love some candy or cookies every once in a while, but my problem often was with the word 'some'. Once the cookie was gone, I often returned to the cookie jar to get just one more, a process that repeated more often than I would like.
For me as a father, not having cookies or candy is no viable option, so a few months back I bought a KitchenSafe, which is essentially a container with a time lock. If I treat the kids to something, I set the timer to re-open after a day, so it is locked when I find it just before dinner time.
The container is also big enough to hold other things than just cookies. According to the manufacturer, the product also works great if you want to have quality time with friends or family who spend too much time on their phones.
Albert Einstein's quote in our fourth newsletter makes clear there is a distinction between future and past. For a physicist, this is not immediately obvious. For example, when observing a moving car, it obeys the same laws of physics when moving forwards or backwards in time.
Psychologically, past and future are very different. We take the past for granted but feel that we can do something to affect the future. Richard Feynman, again a physicist, observed:
“We have a different kind of awareness about what might happen than we have of what probably has happened.”
Almost everybody believes we are able to influence the course of the future. On the other hand, emotions such as remorse and grief are influenced by the simple lack of belief we can affect the past. These observations of physicists can help us to accept the world the way it is. Once that settles in, it provides a solid basis for creating a future.
This sounds a lot like the ancient wisdom of Stoïcism, which we wrote about earlier ('Tranquility'). While writing this, it occurred to me that wisdom seems to be omnipresent with no past or future. Time, rather than wisdom, is just an invention by mankind.
Research has shown that under stress, people tend to fall back to habits and routines they are most familiar with. I certainly recognise this. Interestingly, this phenomenon can be traced to the way the brain functions. The brain tends to go into an energy saving mode when it gets too 'busy' and therefore prioritises the path of least resistance. This defaulting to habits is often a lifesaver. It is also the main reason for organising such things as fire drills and continuous training of elite soldiers.
The problem arises when your habits are in fact stress-inducing, thereby creating a multiplier effect. Example of such habits include reading email, social media and watching the news. These activities lead to new actions and a sense of 'need-to-do'. This in fact leads to a reduction of cognitive flexibility and mental health.
The good news is that you determine your routines. Cognitive flexibility starts with a clean and quiet environment. It is therefore no surprise that cleaning guru's like Marie Kondo have gained considerable traction. Besides physical cleanliness, it is important to keep the brain clean as well, for instance through meditation. Try it, you'll notice how busy your brain is. With itself.
I learned a new word this week: gelotologist. One may think about ice-cream (gelato is Italian for ice-cream), but it is in fact someone who studies laughter. That in itself made me at least produce a grin, which is in fact very healthy.
The new word appeared in an article that explains why laughing is good for you. It explains how producing a smile benefits our physical health, psychological wellbeing and overall quality of life. That in itself was not news to me. The item that caught my attention was the so-called self-induced laughter, which appears to be just as beneficial for your health.
Laughing is something you often do together with and in response to others, but that doesn't mean that is a necessary condition.
"We are 30 times more likely to laugh with others than when we’re alone. But you can laugh when you’re on your own, and experience its benefits this way – you just need to get used to the idea."
To laugh more on your own, you can look for those things that you find humorous and purposefully place them in view. Schedule some time to watch or listen to humorous items. There is even laughter yoga you can practice. Most importantly, have an open and playful mindset.
This takes practice. One particular tip stuck with me: the 'Laughie': record yourself laughing for one minute. Then listen to your Laughie and laugh along with it, it becomes contagious (and very funny for someone accidentally observing you).
Bumping into a 2017 video of Elon Musk, I heard him predicting we would be sleeping in self-driving cars in two years time. I know we have made quite some progress, but so far my car still 'ghost brakes' every few rides while approaching an overpass, mistaking it for an obstacle. Not the kind of progress I would feel comfortable sleeping in. At the same time, my willingness to possibly spend money on self driving tech has declined by everything currently happening in the world. Advances in remote working have drastically changed my outlook on the amount of hours I see myself spending in a car in the future.
These paradigm shifts make me think of the 1963 series 'The Jetsons'. Watching some of its footage always makes me smile, since the future they predicted is a wonderful reflection of America in the 1950's. They just replaced walking/driving by flying, and automated every task imaginable.
Predicting the future is as much about predicting technology as about predicting our needs. And that last part might be the hardest.
I'm fascinated by the way cognitive biases dominate our thinking and doing. They are the 'mental models' that kept (and sometimes still keep) us sane and able to cope with our environments. Last year I wrote a short article that highlighted the role of 'Normalcy Bias' in innovation, which is one of the numerous examples of biases that help us cope with the complexity of the real world. Sticking to what we know, thinking things will stay the same, keeps us from spending an inordinate amount of energy on scenarios that are out of the ordinary.
Right after a brief contemplation of the fact that my musical preferences have not really altered for a long time, I ran into an explanation of the 'Mere Exposure Effect', one more cognitive bias that might explain why I'm still a sucker for the music I grew up with, even though experts will rank the stuff produced in the 1990's not the greatest musical material mankind has ever produced. The Mere Exposure Effect explains that people have a tendency to prefer the things that they have seen or heard before. The more you have seen or heard something, the more likely it is that you like it. Advertising makes use of this by bombarding you with commercials and logo's as much as possible, causing you to (unconsciously) like their products. Funny fact is also that adults are more prone to this effect than kids, who have a natural preference for novelty.
For my musical endeavours, I vowed to turn on the radio more. Even though it's other people deciding what I will hear, It's bound to get me 'over the hump' for new input.
In the realm of productivity tools, improving motivation is probably near the top of the list. Motivation essentially comes in two different tastes: intrinsic or driven from within yourself and extrinsic, such as money or other forms of rewards. On medium, a popular platform to publish your thinking, one of the most read articles on this topic suggests you can forget about motivation and you can purely rely on systems and procedures to get things done:
"To recap: establish your systems and habits. Stay focused on what matters. Delegate and tune out the noise. Your motivation will grow."
It is a (very) different perspective. I have been thinking about it and re-reading the article several times. I tend to like and nourish contra-thinking if only to sharpen my own thoughts. Still, after each pass, I became more certain the author was in my opinion missing a key point. Intrinsic motivation provides the energy to do whatever you want to do, be it useful for the goal you're after or something very mundane as doing the dishes.
I have experienced it myself in the past weeks and months, having embarked on several, highly challenging journeys at the same time. Each of the projects could be a fulltime job, but I manage to fit it all into the schedule. A great example is creating this weekly newsletter and the investigative and philosophical discussions we have whilst preparing it.
Intrinsic motivation generates a basket of energy and could be the closest thing to a Perpetuum Mobile.
The financial markets and in particular the stock markets may be complex and puzzling. It leads many people to conclude that it is an area they do not understand and is to be left to the quantitative whizzkids. However, even experienced and studied financials are puzzled by certain phenomena taking place in the financial world.
“We don’t know why it exists, and it shouldn’t exist.”
This was the response of emeritus Professor Paul Marsh to a question about so-called 'momentum' in the equity markets. More specifically, he was asked why momentum was more profound in developed financial markets or sectors, which are considered to be more efficient.
Momentum in equity markets is the tendency of winning stocks to keep winning, and losing stocks to keep losing. Smart investors have created dynamic strategies to make use of this effect, even adding to this positive feedback loop. It turns out this momentum strategy generally outperforms the market over the long term. It does so more reliably than 'value strategies', which consistently invests in companies that are undervalued.
Paul Marsh, together with his former London Business School colleagues Elroy Dimson and Mike Staunton have published the 'Global Investment Returns Yearbook' annually since 2000. They have observed and explained many effects over the years, but this one remains a mystery. They may have to turn to their social and psychology colleagues (or one could argue: the real world). Dynamics like crowd herding, groupthink and peer pressure could be in play here. In developed markets, there are more large institutions driven by their own incentives rather than what the market determines.
A fascinating example how 'developed' is not always synonymous with 'better' or 'more advanced'. I'm sure professors Marsh, Dimson and Staunton have places available for social whizzkids to solve this puzzle.