Towards the latter years of her life, my great-grandmother lived with my grandmother in Cork City, Ireland. I remember as a young boy that she had a saying: “Dere’s nuttin’ like da first cuppa’ tay!” (Translation: “There’s nothing like the first cup of tea.”) And so, using her Irish logic, she chose a huge mug with which to enjoy that first tea in the morning… and so made it last longer.
I was reminded of my great-grandmother’s habit when I came across a study into what urges us to keep going. Apparently, researchers noticed that it is largely negative factors. In a paper in The Review of General Psychology, these researchers argue that bad inputs have a more powerful impact on us that good ones.
From this study, behavioural psychologist, Nir Eyal, in his book Indistractable, summarises four psychological factors that make our satisfaction temporary. These might answer the question: Why is there nothing like the first cup of tea in the morning?
Boredom. We repeat something often enough and it becomes more tedious with each repetition. It spurs us to experiment. (Hat tip to Taylor Swift and her song, “Shake it Up”!)
Negativity Bias, where our natural alertness to the down-sides help us seek safer, surer, easier alternatives. Fear can change what we do, but only temporarily
Rumination, where we dwell on past negative events and outcomes. We can replay them in our minds over and over again. So, we seek a better outcome this time, and
Hedonic Adaptation, the experience we all have that a pleasurable experience first time is less so as it is repeated. Like that first cup of tea, it wanes in pleasure with later cups. So, we return to the wisdom of Taylor Swift.
However, “Enough of the dark side,” I say.
I believe there are positive equivalents to these four that can maintain, even increase, our satisfaction and maybe even help motivate us to improve as well.
Instead of boredom, we can excite a sense of curiosity. For example, before reading any new book now, I write down three questions I want the author to answer. This helps me focus as I read, and it respects the way the human brain works, which seeks to close open loops (questions). Rather than starting a book with vague hopes, like “Impress me,” or “Entertain me,” I read hunting for clues. I give my mind permission to be curious.
Instead of giving in to a default negativity bias, I cultivate gratitude. In my daily journal, I hunt for three things for which I am grateful and explain to myself why I am thankful for them. As well as raising my level of emotional contentment—as it invariably does—this helps me in the present moment to contribute to tomorrow’s gratitude statements, such as while I am writing this article, for example. This too helps spur me on.
Instead of negative rumination, I practice what Cal Newport describes in Deep Work as savouring: allowing myself to remember and dwell upon a happy event or sensation. Such meditation spurs me to take actions such as put aside some cash for my family celebrations and holidays. I do this, because savouring helps me realise the bliss of those experiences with my loved ones.
And rather than giving in to hedonic adaptation, I take joy in the familiar, in the present moment. I encourage myself to laugh with family and friends. Joy rises in me when I am walking outdoors. And we all need to laugh more. Children get it. We adults have forgotten to laugh.
So, maybe our defaults are negative, but we can exercise agency, by choosing consciously positive practices. These may need us to be a little more intentional, but these routines can help us sustain, or even increase, our levels of satisfaction , our physical and mental health, and motivate us to live fuller, richer lives.
So, if you identify with a lifestyle of boredom, negativity and fear, dwelling on past hurts and failures, and finding the familiar now somewhat less than exciting, you don’t have to buy a huge mug; just be more Taylor Swift!
The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
This fourth edition of my ebook shares more on the Seven Keys to that I have discovered that lead to exceptional work and outcomes.
Totally agree. The pandemic period was the revelation point for my family, we completely stopped watching or reading the news. However when friends tell us about something of interest we do use media to seek more info. But reading about it afterwards, once all the “drama” wore off always gives us a clearer and fresher perspective I believe.
I warmly agree. There is much wisdom in Cécile’s observation. The word ‘drama’ is very revealing. There are times when drama is legitimate, such as when some friends in Northern California had minutes to vacate their home with an advancing forest fire.
Most of the time, however, the drama is false, exaggerating to grab our attention.
There may be important facts in the story. But we can come back to it and see the facts more clearly once the emotional drama has passed.
Maybe in this sense we need to be our own journalist. What do you think?
I’m writing my new book, Thinking It Out for knowledge workers. Yet the terms ‘knowledge worker’ and ‘Personal Knowledge Management’ (PKM) trouble me.
There is something very limiting about this emphasis on knowledge. Knowledge worker usually refers to people who work from a desk—although not always!––who use their knowledge to make decisions. Some of the people I know personally could be described as knowledge workers, but it is not sufficient. These friends produce some great work from their knowledge, yes; but it is so much more than the accumulation of knowledge.
My friend Mike, for example, commands a lot of knowledge, but his impact and influence extend way beyond this. When he stands up to speak, he is doing far more than merely regurgitating his learning. As Mike speaks, there is insight, connection, craft, presence and wisdom that he brings to bear out of a deep understanding of his audience and of the context of their lives. He is riveting in his relevance; it is far more than merely imparting knowledge.
Likewise, the same is true with PKM (Personal Knowledge Management). I do not like this term because it seems to put all the emphasis on knowing stuff, whereas I have learned that a good personally curated system helps me develop insight and, as others tell me, uncommon wisdom.
My father once told me when he discovered he could no longer keep to rhythm in dancing with my mother, when he found himself stumbling a lot and became hopeless at playing darts in his local pub. He was referred by his doctor to a specialist medical consultant. This medic had deliberately arranged his desk in his consulting room so he could see his patients as they walked in.
When my father entered with a slight shuffle, this consultant could immediately diagnose the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease. You see, over years of experience, this doctor had taught himself to recognise the small giveaway signs, the characteristic gait of someone in the early stages of this disease. Since then, it has always made me wonder how many vital clues doctors miss in their clinics when most of them now seem so absorbed with medical records on their computer screens.
It seems that my father’s consultant was a lifelong learner who paid attention.
In this complex, challenging world, we need to show up with more than the mere knowledge we have acquired, otherwise we are all in danger of merely becoming at best irrelevant, at worst clever devils.
My book is written for the knowledge worker, yes; but in the hope that we all will become so much more than a mere wielders of our learning.
A few years ago, I began an entirely counterintuitive practice. Yet, it had a profoundly positive effect on my emotional wellbeing, allowing me to grow in hope. Allow me first to give you some context.
We are all aware that we live in an attention economy. Social media giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon seek to get our attention in all kinds of novel ways and go further in selling our private information and viewing habits as valuable resources. “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product,” as was said in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
Behavioural psychologist Nir Eyal compares the tycoons of social media as equivalent to drug lords, addicting us to their clickbait, getting us obsessed about the number of “likes” we get if we contribute to the debates. Eyal, Cal Newport and others encourage developing positive habits of putting boundaries around these by time-blocking our days so that we align what we attend to with our values. Indeed, some, such as Jordan Peterson, would argue that what we give our attention to is a moral act.
Most of us are now aware of the attention economy, but can we act upon this knowledge? Can we control our impulses to check out our social media feeds constantly? It is a form of the knowing-doing gap.
And whilst awareness of the attention economy in social media might be obvious now to most, from what I have observed, the dangerous drift to follow suit by newspapers, magazines and news channels is something we are less aware of generally.
During the pandemic, we all needed to inform ourselves of the risks of the virus to ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. When it came to the news media, I found it sometimes worse than useless, feeding a spirit of pandemonium during the pandemic without informing us in any meaningful way. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, it seems.
Where is journalism as we used to know it? Where was reporting of the facts? There seemed to be a belief system growing that we, the public, are not mature enough to draw our own conclusions. It is as if we need to be spoon-fed with the implications within whatever political paradigm or narrative that prevails within each particular news organ, whether right or left. It feels like I am living in Orwell’s 1984.
So, where were the facts to be found during the pandemic? In the early weeks and moths, they were hard to find. The website fullfact.org was some help, but I found its analysis a little slow to surface, despite their best efforts. Was this a reflection of my general bias in our culture to be unreasonably impatient? “Tell me now! I need to know NOW!” was my thinking. News, and fast, please!
Newspapers and TV news programmes now seem unable to restrain themselves from bringing their ideological interpretation. I suspect it has become their default atmosphere; they no longer notice it. Even editorial decisions on what to report upon seem to owe more to what will grab readers’/listeners’/viewers’ attention. It is veering towards a socially corrosive Jerry Springer-type culture.
I find it more than sad that the media and political discourse seem less about reporting the facts and even less about engaging in deep, mutually respectful discourse. It seems more about lobbying for a particular narrative, winning arguments, diminishing individuals and all the confirmation bias that goes with that. It is clickbait, where provoking people to fear is seen as the ultimate attention-grabber.
Much of what is broadcast as news is fear-based and concerns matters that offer us, as individuals, no immediate means to resolve them with any practical steps offered. I see what this is doing to my friends and adult children, who are caught up in all this emotional noise. So, I am trying to model them a different way of living.
During World War II, the BBC, for example, was highly regarded for its factual news integrity through its continuing radio broadcasts. I cannot corroborate this as I write, but I believe that the British Government asked the BBC to lie in its broadcasts on only three or four occasions during the war. This was so rare that each time the enemy believed it. I cannot imagine such trust in the BBC today –other any other news source, for that matter. Such are the heights of integrity from which journalism has fallen.
So, how do we manage all this, apart from religiously following some paper or channel that aligns with our own personal politics and prejudices? Well, back to my personal practice. My solution is simple. It is simple but profoundly radical. And I have been practising it for several years now.
Nearly 20 years ago, I attended a leadership conference in Chicago, and one of the speakers was the late Stephen Sample, the then President of the University of Southern California. He spoke about how he abstained from reading, listening to, or watching the news for six months. This was at a time before social media had become so rampant. He found attention to the news media was an unproductive distraction and an anxious one at that. He realised that he could discover almost all of what he needed to know through friends who would add their opinions. Since he knew his friends, he could filter their commentary and work out the facts for himself. He found not only did it free up more of his time, but perhaps more importantly, he was less assaulted emotionally by negative world events whilst still keeping informed.
When I heard this and later read his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, where he referenced this practice, this did not come over to me as living in denial, but more about our need to create our own emotional and cognitive boundaries. Something resonated in me as I pondered his experience.
So, I have follow this example ever since. I don’t watch or listen to the news. I don’t read newspapers or news magazines.
Here is what an American friend commented recently when I shared some of this with him regarding his distress about the current state of American politics:
I was intrigued by your comments on the news fast and have taken it to heart. I’ve been fasting since your response last month, and I certainly do not feel any worst for the wear as a result. This is an extraordinary revelation, especially as we roll into the election cycle here in the States.
After my son informed me that the new PM had resigned, I found it interesting that it was not difficult at all to stifle the impulse to jump on the internet and dive into every nuance regarding this event. That it was so easy to let it go was very refreshing, indeed.
I commend my friend for this. Awareness and action are two different things. He has bridged the knowing-doing gap. And when he fasted from the news, he was surprised by the positive emotional outcome.
Yet, what is happening worldwide is probably very different and probably much more positive than is being portrayed in the media. For example, during my work as a consultant and facilitator I have had the privilege of connecting with scientist and engineers who work on projects in Antarctica. Individuals I talked with confirmed for me, for example, that the hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole continues to heal over since the 1990s and that large schools of whales now flourish in the Southern Ocean, consuming vast amounts of CO2. And do we hear about this good news in the media? Since I’m not plugged into the media, maybe I have missed this, but when I ask friends, they are surprised. I suspect such good news is not deemed “newsworthy.” It is not clickbait.
The background anxiety among some friends about living in a world that is presented them as doomed is very concerning. The negativity bias of the news media reinforces a mythical view of reality that feeds much mental dis-ease. Surely that is wrong?
A friend in France, for example, tells me that a TV news channel there spends 15 minutes each programme at the end dwelling on the beauty and delights of some part in that wonderful country.
Also, my news fast has made me reflect on some deeper questions about how we as individuals can and should respond to all this. I ask myself, “How much of the world’s problems can one human being reasonably bear? Is it reasonable or even responsible to carry a problem when one cannot act upon it?”
I remember a dialogue in the movie Crocodile Dundee, where Dundee was asked his opinion on some public issue, and his reply was, “It’s none of my business.” When I saw the movie years ago, this response struck me then and continues to amplify for me down through the years. You might object: taking advice from a mythical comic hero! Really? Well, offer me practical solutions that I can act upon. Otherwise, please don’t be offended if I ignore you while I try to work out a positive life to my own agenda.
Turning Into the Skid
So much about what Brené Brown calls Wholehearted Living is counterintuitive. For example, in my book Practical People Engagement, I began with the story of how I turned into a skid to correct the rear-wheel drive vehicle I was steering in fresh snow. I used it to illustrate how managers facing the clamour of senior people about the urgency and costs projects they were managing and take the counterintuitive time-consuming practice of talking with the people affected, and how it often would pay off.
Much of growing to maturity is when we notice how we are inclined to respond and react, so we pause to choose to do the opposite. When the social or news media clamour for my attention, I turn away. Irresponsible? In what way? Could those of us who do this be more responsible in navigating these times?
Allow me to close this with a more trivial example to illustrate: popular celebrity culture. What would happen, say, if noxious celebrities were starved of our attention? (I won’t mention any names to reinforce my point! And frankly, I’m finding it harder to recognise the so-called “celebrities.”) Would these people not just wither away? So, by allowing our attention to fixate on whatever the media are offering as newsworthy, are we not part of the problem, reinforcing this negative culture of news broadcast? Instead, maybe each of us can become part of the solution. Just switch it off. Don’t buy newspapers. What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best that might happen if enough of us went on a news fast?
Let us be more counterintuitive about what we focus upon. Maybe it is a moral act.
After avoiding COVID for the last two years, my wife and I tested positive this week. Whilst we are ill, we are doing fine. We are being kind to ourselves.
We are thankful for our immune systems, which seem to be fighting off this infection and will make us more resilient as we go on.
However, my work has had to take a back seat. This includes a presentation I was supposed to be giving today to a major UK government department. It has had to. I am about as clear as a muffled goat right now, so my vocal clarity is just not there.
As I have stood back from my work, it has made me reflect once again on productivity and how it can all too easily become a driver, where we choose quantity in the short term over value in the longer term.
Gentle persistence—seeing a project through to completion—is more important at these times than mere productivity.
This is not universally true at all times to all people. Some of us have roles that must deliver to deadlines. That is not me right now. I’m in for the long game. Are you?
In fact, I now have a growing aversion to goals, that is, outcomes or dreams with a deadline. Quite apart from COVID, the world around us is chaotic enough to mock our plans. Just ask the UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss. What an astonishingly disruptive couple of weeks she has had at the start of her prime ministerial office.
I am working on an advanced draft for my fourth solo book. I had hoped to get this to reviewers this month, but it will likely be October now. Is that such a big deal? Sure, I may now be missing a Christmas launch date for the book, but I learned to play the long game. My first solo book was published nine years ago and is now selling more copies than it ever has. In our instant economy, 9 years is an eternity. Yet, I’m so glad that I saw that particular project to its completion.
So, I am learning gentle persistence. I will not fret about matters outside of my control. It does not trouble me as much if I am delayed. I will press on—when my stamina returns and my body is healthy.
My new book has a working title of Thinking It Out and is about the power of externalising our thoughts, ordering them, linking them and observing emergent themes. I argue for a non-mechanistic approach to this and share examples both from the digital world as well as the paper-based one. Also, I make the case that having such a private set of organically linked notes is an investment in oneself, a cumulative compound interest effect, in fact.
It was Peter Drucker, I believe, who coined the phrase “knowledge worker”, and we now talk about the knowledge economy. I would rather aim higher and participate in what Drucker really was an advocate for, the wisdom economy.
If the subject of my work seems relevant to you, let me know if you would be interested in being part of my final review round.
The theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, was once visited in his office by a historian, who wanted to interview him. Casting his eyes around the room, the historian saw Feynman’s notebooks, and expressed his delight at seeing such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.”
“No, no!” Feynman objected. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”
“Well,” the historian replied, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”
Feynman would not let this matter rest, so important it was to him. “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.”
Chances are you are not a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, like Feynman. Neither am I. Yet I believe your brain and mine function
in exactly the same way that Feynman’s brain did.
Thinking It Out
One of the major take-aways that we can glean from Richard Feynman is to write, draw or sketch our thinking out on paper or on screen.
All too few professionals appreciate this simple truth: we work things out by writing them out.
There is something that happens, a sort of feedback loop, that, as we write or notate, the writing actually clarifies what we are thinking about. Whatever our thinking profession is, we will find solutions as we write, draw or sketch them out.
Learning how to learn, how to get better at my work, has always been a passion of mine.
People ask me about my process. In the next few articles on this blog, I want to share some of that process with you. I call it my personal thinking process.
When I took steps to get my thoughts outside of my head, when I externalised them onto the page or screen, they became clearer. Once I did that, a process emerged.
Over the next few blog articles, the process I will share with you can become personal to you too. You might care to follow my process, to begin with, then feel free to adapt it.
This process is also something that will help you improve your thinking, specifically your ability to get clarity, to better connect your thoughts and ideas, as well as create new ones.
Finally, it is a process, because its parts work together in an intentional sequence, producing something that is greater than the sum of the parts; much greater. Like organs in your body, each needs to interact with the other organs in order to function properly. In the same way, if you follow this process as a whole you are likely to experience prolific productivity.
Preserving Valuable Ideas
You need a process to preserve and reference your valuable ideas and insights over time. Without a doubt, some of these ideas will be original to you. This process will help you collect your thoughts in one place. The process also provides you with a means to revise and improve these ideas.
More than that, if you master this process, you will find that your productivity will increase significantly.
I will write more about my personal thinking process in the next few articles.
Out of a chance pattern of coincidences from different sources, I stumbled upon related views on friendship. This was serendipity. Could serendipity be a key to creativity?
I sometimes think that we need to value serendipity. Here is a definition of ‘serendipity’:
Because experiencing serendipity is accidental, it makes us curious. And curiosity leads to curiosity, and maybe to more serendipity. This can become like a virtuous cycle.
For example, I listened to two different podcasts last week. Both of these podcasts explored friendship from different angles. This made me reflect on an online meeting I had the night before. I had argued with the host, a good friend, about which of us benefited more from our friendship. It was clearly me, but my host argued otherwise. This was an honouring disagreement.
Jim Collins & Bill Lazier
Then, the next day of these podcasts featured an interview with Jim Collins. He commented on his old mentor and friend Bill Lazier, from Collins’ Stanford University days. Lazier was an older and wiser man and a mentor to Collins at the time. Lazier believed that great friendships are where both parties believe they benefit more from the relationship than the other person.
“Could this possibly be true?” Collins had asked. Lazier assured Collins that he, Lazier, believed he benefitted more from their relationship. Whilst Collins, of course, believed the opposite. It seems that this solution to a good relationship is illogical, but it was evidently true in this case.
Is Serendipity Training to Tell Us Something?
So, in 24 hours, one online meeting and two podcasts had gripped my attention, each reinforcing the other. These events grabbed my attention, making me think more deeply about what it means to be a friend.
Now this is just one example of serendipity. How many ovether do we have in our lives that we ignore? Perhaps we just shrug our shoulders and move on. Is someone trying to tell us something?
The Serendipity Engine
This serendipity experience is helpful for the current book I’m writing. Its subject is the writer’s process, and a central part of it is what I have come to call the Serendipity Engine. This ‘engine’ is a system of notes I make that link together and begin to generate emergent ideas. (If you want to know more and maybe have an early peek at a manuscript, just email me at email@example.com. If you do email, please also let me know why this interests you.)
I felt I was receiving a lecture.. and I was not convinced.
I had come in for a BP reading and a blood test. The clinician told me that I was overweight––which I was––and at risk of heart disease or diabetes––which I was probably was. She told me to cut out various foods, and to change my diet and exercise. All this is grounded in good medical research. But it did not motivate me to change.
God bless her, this person was doing her best to help me. But my real barrier to being persuaded was that she gave me cognitive dissonance. This clinician did not model what she said. Quite apart from the crude Change or Die strategy, the problem was… well…she was clearly clinically obese and depressed.
What I am NOT saying…
Now, this is not a criticism of who she was as a person, but the person in the room did not match the message.
Nor am I saying a normal BMI should be mandatory of healthcare professionals. God knows, we need each and every one of them right now, and I’m thankful for them.
And I am not making a case about something as superficial as our physical appearance or weight. And I would not want to leave you thinking that I am that prejudiced against fat people! I myself was clinically obese for a number of years, as I was at that particular appointment…hence the lecture.
The Internal Journey
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My point here is that when any of us seeks to influence others to action, then the job needs to start with ourselves.
We can have the right information, good methodology, superior research, but we are unlikely to influence those around us if we do not walk the talk.
Every leader needs to be authentic in leading themselves into that better future first.
Usually, when I have been presenting to a room of leaders, they are all invested on knowing how to lead their teams, their organisation, or their community better.
First, though, there needs to be an internal journey. Every leader needs to be authentic in leading themselves into that better future first.
The issue is often the person we bring into the room.
As adults, we have a highly-developed sense of discernment when engaging with other humans. What some call micro-tells, small pieces of evidence in the person before us, reveal whether they are a threat, or lying, or distressed. These micro-tells can be small eye movements, gestures, posture, as well as the pitch and tone of the voice.
When someone is trying to persuade us to change, to buy, to allow them to draw closer, they are communicating with us at a far deeper level than the content of what they say.
My worst moments
All my worst leadership moments were when I was over-stressed, hurried, depressed or angry. My most effective moments were when the future was the person I brought into the room in myself.
My most effective leadership moments were when the future was the person I brought into the room.
The uncomfortable truth for us is this: before we can lead others, we need to lead ourselves. Before we can expect our team to change, we must already be changing and show them in our own lives. Before the call, comes the example, the model in us.
Who is showing up?
It becomes vital, then, that we are self-aware enough to know whom we are bringing into the room. We need to become aware of the non-verbal messages we might be communicating. What is the best self we can bring to this engagement? And if we are too busy, stressed, driven or distressed, then maybe we need to postpone until we are ready.
Last year I reviewed Anthony Ray Hinton’s powerful book, The Sun Does Shine. It is the autobiography of a man who spent most of his life––28 years––on death row, wrongly accused of robbery and murder. Throughout that time, he was confined in a small cell until the trial was fundamentally questioned and he was released.
What I found remarkable above all else was that this man found the resources within himself not to give up. In fact, he seemed to grow in hope. It was not a linear growth; Hinton did have his setbacks, very low moments, such as when the person dearest to him, his beloved mother, died before he could get out, hug and care for her.
However, resilience does not do justice to what the man evidenced over those years. It was something more.
Relevance to now
Our temporary loss of freedoms at this time of pandemic seem trivial in comparison with Hinton’s story. Yet there are valuable lessons to learn from his story as well as those of others in more extreme situations.
In our shared humanity, it is imperative that we each need to learn how to live and grow in hope during this pandemic, amidst all our present circumstances, its threats, the personal losses and confinements.
A Fragile Hope
Most of us seem to live from our external circumstances, and the media has an attention-seeking agenda to make it appear that these circumstances are dire. One day we hear positive news of medical breakthroughs or falling rates of COVID-19 infections; the next day, there is some more bad news.
Living from our circumstances like this, focusing on the negatives, is a fragile way to live emotionally. We become like Homer Simpson, who one moment yells, Yippee!, and the next, emotionally turns on a sixpence with a Doh!. He then repeats the cycle. This is not living with any kind of emotional intelligence. I fear that the long-term effect this has is that the negative wins and we are led into deeper depression and despair. The Yippee! becomes rarer and rated andthe Doh! becomes habitual.
Resilience rather is something different. In engineering, machines are made to withstand stress within certain parameters… and beyond these limits, they suddenly break. In this sense, they are designed to be resilient.
Taleb argues that there is a certain class of phenomena that are neither and that the true opposite of fragile is not resilient, rather something he calls Antifragile. It is a phenomenon we see in the natural world of something growing through the right kind of stress. He uses a number of illustrations from the medical world, such as our bones, which actually gain strength from moderately acute stress.
If we aim merely for resilient hope, it could break us emotionally.
And maybe this is what we have seen happening among many of us when it came, for example, to the New Year. Some of us caught ourselves hoping that a New Year would me a different, liberating year. 2020 had become synonymous with COVID-19 and lockdowns. We indulged ourselves with thoughts such as, Surely this New Year will be better?
And maybe this is what we have seen happening among many of us when it came, for example, to the New Year.
And, for many of us, it just isn’t. In fact, for many of us, it is worse. Doh! doesn’t do justice to the disappointment and emotional tailspin that we might experience. For some, this has become a spiral of depression and despair to something worse.
After seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture, Stockdale was finally released and returned to his home country.
He endured because he kept a twin perspective on his life in the camp:
he faced the brutal reality of where he was and what he was going through; and
he kept his focus on a future beyond the camp.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, interviewed Admiral Stockdale about his coping strategy whilst in prison. At one point Collins asked the Admiral which prisoners didn’t make it:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, We’re going to be out by Christmas. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, We’re going to be out by Easter. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Stockdale was vehement in his denial of blind optimism. Collins stresses the common denominator of all companies making the break to greatness as being able and willing to face the brutal reality.
I believe this holds true for us as individuals, families and communities as well.
This seems to be important in developing a strong hope. It is not a hope that flies in the face of the evidence. But is does hope, and remains dogged. I’m wondering if antifragile hope builds on doggedness, but that what Stockdale has explained is not the complete picture?
Resilience is Brittle
I believe Taleb offers us something beyond the binary thinking of fragility and resilience.
I did have an email series called Resilient Hope, in fact, but Taleb has given me pause to review this work again.
Is there a kind of hope that gains under stress?
I believe there is. Hinton and Stockdale model this for us, as do others.
We find echoes of it in myths and legends, those stories we are drawn towards. For example, in Die Hard, John McClain grew in stature during the story. Whilst the police chief and the FBI were at best resilient, and McLain’s vest was fragile, our hero was revealed as antifragile. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf seems reduced to nothing in grappling with the Balrog, but emerged later even more powerful than ever. And, of course, there are the confrontations of Christ with the religious legalists, his deceptive capture, rigged trial, execution and resurrection. The hero who appears defeated in battle, rises from the ground, having learned from the stress how to endure in the fight in a different way, and goes on to become even more powerful.
And why do these stories inspire? Do they connect with some profound truth about ourselves and a better way to live through adversity?
In my earlier post, Building Something Bigger than Us, I referenced those world-changers who looked beyond even their own lifetimes towards something they started that leaves future generations with a powerful legacy.
My point is this:
Antifragile hope is functional now.
Rather than thinking like survivalists in some sort of zombie apocalypse fantasy, we can think beyond mere survival and build. Generative, antifragile hope leads us to dream bigger, connect with a purpose higher than ourselves, a transcendent purpose. Survivalism is the chronic stressful worldview of every man and woman for themselves; it is a fragile hope. Antifragile hope does not abandon our history or our future but builds. Taleb calls such people the antifragilistas. Their eyes are fixed above or beyond their immediate circumstances
He who knows the why for his existence can bear almost any how.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Searcn for Meaning.
Leaders deal in the currency of meaning. They ask and attempt to offer answers to the Why question. To deny people a clear reason for the change they are going through is an abdication of leadership. How much more true is this when it comes to the matter of self-leadership?
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, vividly demonstrates from his own experiences in a concentration camp during World War Two, how emotionally healthy it can be to connect with a greater purpose. People can deal with almost anything if they have a sufficiently good reason for doing so.
Thinking and acting beyond our lives is humanity at its best.
Frankl survived the horrors of the camp, in part because his hope was fixed on a hope beyond the camp, beyond his immediate circumstances. It was transcendant.
Focus on Legacy
Thinking and acting beyond our lives is humanity at its best.
During the dark days of early 1944, the British Parliament debated building a future UK, homes for heroes and its health service. This infuriated Hitler, who had hoped (resilient?) that the British would be too absorbed in their current battle to dream beyond. He was wrong.
Apart from incarceration and enduring the extremes of oppression by other human beings, what do Hinton, Stockdale and Frankl have in common? And what do they show us in our own restrictions right now?
Young Walter was born into this world as part of the elite. He was drilled in his family lineage and was taught how to steward the family fortune. He would go into another career, though, but his world view and life skills would travel with him.
Walter found favour with the king, and after paying the king a small fortune, he became Lord Chancellor. He was Chancellor for nine years before making another career change. He became a bishop.
Not unusual in those times, bishops were often political appointments from the aristocracy. He was appointed Bishop of Worcester for a couple of years, before taking the second-most-senior ecclesiastical title at that time, Archbishop of York. Walter had an even larger dream, though, larger than his own career. In 1220, work began. He began to build, in the Gothic style of the day, a cathedral. It would be such an edifice that he wouldn’t see it completed.
Sure enough, thirty years later, Walter died…
… and four centuries later York Minster was completed!
Forgive me, if you are a historian and indulge me in my historical fiction of Walter de Gray’s early years. But let me ask you this question …
What kind of person would embark on this kind of enterprise?
And what kind of people would continue with the dream until it was realised, so many generations later?
I’m fascinated by the minds behinds historic monuments, edifices that sometimes take generations to complete.
There is even an example happening right now. The beautiful Sagrada Familia in Barcelona will not be complete until 2026 or later, and its original architect, Gaudi, died in 1926 when it was only a quarter completed!
Why would Gaudi and his contemporaries commit to such a project?
And there are other examples. The Great Wall of China, the pyramids, Petra, and most of the ancient wonders of the world.
The poor, the middle class & the wealthy
I have been studying the work of Dr Ruby K Payne, a remarkable Texan educationalist, who began to unravel the mystery of why poor kids do so badly in school systems designed from in a Middle-Class mindset. In her, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she sets out the differences in three mindsets:
Middle Class Mindset
The Wealthy Mindset
The attitude to money and financial horizons of each mindset is a particularly interesting one to me. This is part of a table Ruby Payne shares in her book, abridged by me:
Spending & Payday
Saving & End of Life
Investing and Generational Legacy
The Poverty Mindset sees money as something to be spent for almost immediate gratification or pain-relief, so the horizon tends to be when the next payday comes. The horizon of focus is now.
Moreover, living in a community of need, having money sometimes means it must be given to those in the community who have greater immediate needs. The needs of friends and family, who are vital relationships among the poor, regularly work against putting money away for later.
The Middle Class
The Middle-Class Mindset in a different way is much more selfish, although it has the appearance of prudence. Money is saved, is put by for retirement into a pension pot or a 401K. The focus is on providing for ourselves until we die. Many of the decisions made from this mindset are also made from an awareness of scarcity.
The Wealthy Mindset, or as I prefer to call it, the Noble Mind, invests for others. (Note: I have avoided the term Wealth Mindset because of its unhelpful associations with being or becoming financially rich. Whereas, the Noble Mind alludes to an ancient way of thinking from inheritance and the responsibility to leave a legacy.)
The Noble Mind thinks generationally, both from an inheritance from past generations and for future generations. It has a sense of noblesse oblige from its inheritance and sees itself having a purpose greater than itself.
So, it is a Noble Mind that decides to build a cathedral. It is a Noble Mind that continues to build even after the original entrepreneur or architect is no longer with us. Walter de Gray had a Noble Mind. Gaudi may have had a Noble Mind. Those who continued after them had, to some degree, a Noble Mind.
How do these mindsets play out in the present pandemic?
The pandemic and countermeasures such as lockdown, as well as the emotional reactions we all have to this threat, tempt us to become emotional survivalists: people who think only of ourselves and the horizon of when this will be all over.
This is situational, short-term, selfish thinking. It is either a poverty or a middle-class mindset. Fear tends to drive us towards a Poverty Mindset. Many of the us-and-them narratives feed a Middle Class world view, and these stories we plug into keep us in scarcity thinking.
And yet.. in the neighbourhood where I live, I have seen the rise of a kind of care and generosity that I hadn’t experienced before. Neighbours have offered to go shopping for us, plus a multitude of other kindnesses.
I find it exciting that, for some of us, this time is an opportunity to do this; to remember where we have come from, to recognise what we have, and rethink our futures, our horizons and our dreams for this world.
When it comes to the big issues of global sustainability, for example, we do not need initiatives driven by scarcity thinking: “Time is running out!” “It may already be too late!” Rather we need a realistic hope, a Stockdale hope. We need to train our young people to innovate with a Noble Mind, drawing upon what we leave them, rather than focusing on what we lack or have consumed.
In Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game, he argues that organisations rallying to a Just Cause, to a purpose that is greater than any of us, are likely to prevail far longer than competitive, me too responses so common in business and politics.
When it comes to building businesses, we need leaders who are aware of their need to create missions bigger than themselves, their products, or their services; longer, even, than their lifetimes that make a real difference for future generations.
When it comes to crafting government policy, we need leaders who will lift our eyes to a better future, not driven by the mass media optics of the moment or the short-termism of considering the next electoral cycle. And as we think with a Noble Mind, we might recognise and find such leaders and perhaps vote for them.
What is your just cause? What’s your dream? Is it bigger than you and your lifetime? If it is, bless you.