Methodologies

Want personal growth? Drop your sense of entitlement

No one owes you anything.  Not your parents.  Not your government.  Not your job.  Not your spouse.  Not your kids.  This is one of the hardest lessons to learn in life.  Understanding this is one of the biggest steps you can take on the path to maturity and long term happiness.  When you walk around thinking that the world owes you something you have accepted the victim mindset.  You have decided that instead of creating, you will spend your time collecting.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  After all, everybody loves hanging out with the tax collector.

As small children, we need the protection and sustenance that our parents provide to survive.  As a small child, that care and sustenance becomes our universe and we locate ourselves smack dab in the middle of it.  At some point, around age nine or ten, we discover that we are NOT the center of the universe.  Other people populate this world with us.  Strangely enough, those people have needs and wants that aren’t necessarily the same needs and wants that we have.  Many times, their needs are different or even OPPOSITE to what we want.  Nauseating, I know.  My youngest daughter is in third grade right now and understanding this is her biggest challenge.  Why don’t all the kids do what I want to do?  How dare they have their own opinions and desires?

Once we start to figure this out, mother nature backhands us with the awkwardness of adolescence.  Then we spend the next several years trying to communicate with all these other humans through a haze of hormones.  This puts us in a super clear mindset where we make decisions that only a mescaline fueled Hunter S. Thompson would approve of.  We call this rite of passage high school.

On the other side of that gauntlet lies an invitation to autonomy.  Most of us accept it.  Too many of us accept it with strings attached.  The majority of us, in first world countries anyway, now believe that we are entitled to a college education.  Those of us who feel entitled typically don’t get a lot from it.  We approach it like a four year camp with a participation certificate attached.

jaded-rich-kids.jpgThroughout this experience, we have all met the jaded rich kid.  They typically spend Christmas break in Bali and they believe they have seen it all.  They have this malaise that is rooted in this fear that there are no more great experiences for them to have.  Everything has been provided for them.  Every problem resolved.  Every whim catered.  Every pleasure seen to.  I’ve known too many of these folks.  Most of them are incredibly unhappy.  Not all, but most.  How is this possible?

The primary reason for that unhappiness is that they have stopped growing.  They have stopped trying.  When you feel like the world exists to serve you, what reason do you have to improve?  These people end up as stunted man children that poison the air around them.  They never had to earn it.  They never had to enter another person’s world.  They never learned empathy.  They believe people owe them respect.  These are the people that treat wait staff like crap.  That same staff will smile to their face then go spit in their soup back in the kitchen.  Unearned respect can’t feel good.  A lot of times it’s not even their fault and honestly all I can feel for them is pity.

Sadly, this problem is not limited to the rich.  Too many of us find a level of comfort within our personal tribe.  We then have the mistaken impression that this comfort should be untouchable.  This group could be your neighborhood, this could be your political tribe, this could be your clique from high school or college, this could be your work crowd, this could be anywhere that you have some sense of status.  When change is introduced into that group especially if it impacts your identity OR, even worse, your status within that identity, we panic.  We point at that change and say, “We were here first!  This is our club!  Damn you women!  Damn you immigrants!  Damn you millennials!  The world owes us  advantages for getting here first!”

What a load of crap.  The world owes you nothing.  If you feel like the world is passing you by, that’s your fault, and nobody else’s.  The only way to avoid it is to drop your sense of entitlement and engage.  Put the time in.  Understand the change.  Understand the other point of view.  Allow your mind to be changed.

What happens when we allow our minds to be changed?  We learn.  We grow.  We improve.  We become better people.

Book Reviews

Designing your Life

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans designed a pretty amazing book with Designing your Life.  They are both professors at Stanford but each of them had pretty amazing careers pre-Academia.  The way they write and the way they use their own goals comes across as two guys who have figured out quite a few things about life.  At least their own lives.  Not only does their communication style come across as very comfortable, both authors have that tone of calm competence that you always get from people who have mastered their craft.  The book comes from concepts that were pioneered and tested in the classroom and the boardroom.  The class they offered had the same title and it quickly became one of the most popular classes at the school.

You can see why this would be so popular.  So many kids get their first taste of freedom when they head off to college/university.  With this freedom comes some new accountabilities that can easily pile up to a massive oh shit question.  What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Up until this point, most kids have a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to do next.  There is a fairly unambiguous scorecard that comes in the form of grades or scoreboards or even social pecking order.  Once you get into college, your previous standing in all these things becomes irrelevant.  Not only do you have to recreate who you are, you typically have to do it by yourself.  Sure, you have advisors throughout the process, but the road ahead is no longer obvious and your parents aren’t there for the day to day stuff.  Burnett and Evans help kids figure this incredibly difficult transition out.  Now that all this knowledge is in a book, they can help you figure it out too.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just for kids.  No matter how old you are, if you are contemplating any type of change in career, relationship, health, etc. the knowledge in these pages will help.  We should all actively work to design our lives no matter where we start in the process because the alternative is to let the world do it for you.  That’s how the victim mindset begins.

Our authors start with sharing some facts.  First, only 27% of college grads end up working in something related to their majors.  Second, “two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs.  And 15% actually hate their work.”  With just those two statements it becomes obvious we are not doing a good job of designing our lives.

They then take us through their definition of design.  Design requires radical collaboration, talk with many people from many disciplines to design something amazing.  Designers are also great tinkerers.  “Designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward.”  To design your life effectively, you’re going to need “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.”  They also take on the passion mindset a bit and that you can’t just fall into it, “people actually need to take time to develop a passion.  And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before.  To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Step 1: Start where you are

They outline an amazing roadmap of how to start this design.  Step 1:  Start where you are.  This is figuring out how to place the ‘you are here’ pin.  They ask you to break down where you stand in four critical pillars of life: health, work, play and love.  They walk you through creating a dashboard of how you stack up in each of these pillars.

Step 2: Building a compass

In this stage, they ask you to define true north.  They ask you to build a Lifeview by asking some fundamental questions: “What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world?  What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?  How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?”  None of these questions have easy answers and each of them deserves serious introspection.  It’s worth it.  They ask you to do the same for your Workview which is a similar exercise but focuses on your craft.  The goal of both of these exercises is coherence.  You want to be able to articulate an internal compass to guide you through the many shades of gray that life tosses your way.

Step 3: Wayfinding

In this stage, the goal is to understand what makes work fun.  One of my favorite quotes from the book came from this chapter: “Flow is play for grown-ups.”  Wayfinding takes you through a set of exercises to understand what flow means for you.  In their words, “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.”  They provide you with a good time journal that asks you to track what you’re doing at work for a couple of weeks.  When you scribe the task, they ask your engagement level while the activity was happening.  They then ask you to record your energy level for the activity when it was complete.  This starts identifying those tasks that bring you to flow already or point the direction for the work that can take you there.  If this does not become obvious after a couple of weeks, you can dive deeper using the AEIOU method.  You can look at each task/experience then ask: what Activities were actually involved?  What was the Environment like?  What was the Interaction like – people or machines, new or old?  What Objects were you interacting with?  What other Users were involved?

Step 4: Getting Unstuck

This section was all about brainstorming where they walk you through effective ways to build out a mind map which is essentially a post-it note guided brainstorming session.

Steps 5 & 6: Designing your life and Prototyping

They then ask you to take some of your results from the brainstorming exercises and to build out three five year plans.  These are three completely different things that you could see yourself doing over the next five years.  “We call these Odyssey Plans.”  Once you build these plans, it’s time to start doing some prototyping.  A lot of prototyping involves just getting out there and talking to people that have done something similar to what you’re trying to do.  Figure out why these folks love or hate what they’re doing.  Get their story and try to superimpose some of it on yourself.  Is this something you could really see yourself doing?

These first steps are the ones that resonated for me.  Like a lot of these personal development books, it started very strong but faded a little as it went on.  The authors continue with really good advice on designing and landing a dream job, but most of this was not as fresh or new as the earlier parts of the book.

They close with some great thoughts on how designing your life will actually create an immunity to failure.  If you are constantly designing your life, if you are constantly self-improving, any failure you experience is just part of the process.  That’s what life is after all, a constant trial and error experiment.  The big difference is that if you choose to design your life, you’ve decided to own that experiment.  You’ve decided to call the shots and play an active role in it rather than passively let your external stimuli control it for you.

The choice seems obvious to me.

Methodologies

Why is generosity awkward?

Awkwardness of Giving

Valentine’s day is tomorrow.  We all know that guy that swears he will not be celebrating because it is a corporate holiday that was invented to sell more greeting cards.  That’s not actually true.  It was first a pagan fertility holiday called Lupercalia that was annexed by the church in much the same way that we have on Easter Bunny to celebrate the rebirth of Jesus.  You gotta give it up for those popes, they knew how to market an idea.  What is true is that there are a ton of holidays out there that were created by Hallmark like boss’s day, secretary’s day, grandparents day, etc.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Yes, it is self-serving for Hallmark but it does give us an excuse to be generous.

Awkward-face.jpgSomewhere along the way, being generous became awkward.  I’m not talking about giving to a charity or giving to the poor, these options carry none of the awkwardness.  I’m talking about giving a gift to a friend or picking up lunch when going out with a colleague.  The social contract has changed so much that offering to do these things has become almost taboo.  It’s still perfectly acceptable for a boss to take an employee out and buy them lunch (especially if they are expensing it) but there is no way that’s ok the other way around.  A corporate lunch involves the market contract, so much so, that many times the employee doesn’t even feel compelled to say thank you.  Yet buying coffee for a friend comes laden with all these weird feelings.  What happened?

We’ll unpack this in a second but first I’d like to share a personal anecdote that got me thinking about this.  I have been going through a lot of the Headspace meditation packs for the second time and I’ve found myself back on the generosity pack.  One of the meditations asks you to give a gift to somebody throughout the course of the day to heighten your awareness about generosity.  It’s not supposed to be something big and the receiver of the gift shouldn’t know that the gift is part of an exercise.

This got me to thinking back to the first time I had done this.  I ended up buying one of my colleagues a cup of coffee.  She graciously accepted and I felt pretty good about myself.  Several days later I found that she kept trying to return the favor.  It clearly bothered her and she felt somehow that I put her in my debt.  Obviously not my intent.  I did let her buy me that return cup and she felt good about it partly from the generosity but more I think because by doing so, the social checkbook had been balanced.

The Experiment

So, I decided to conduct a social experiment.  At the time I was leading several teams that each had anywhere from four to seven members on them.  I randomly approached one member of each team and gave them twenty bucks.  I then asked, “please spend this on somebody on your team.  You can spend it on yourself too but make sure that some of it goes to somebody on the team.  You also can’t tell them that it came from me.”  I read business books constantly, so I think I stole this idea from one of those books (may have been Adam Grant’s Give and Take) or maybe a Ted Talk.  I didn’t ask them how it went.  I acted like it never happened.  A couple of weeks later, I gave another person from each team a twenty with the same instruction.  I didn’t tell them that I did the same with anybody else.  I repeated this with new people a third time several weeks after that.

The results were interesting.  The communication levels in all the teams rose.  The productivity in most of the teams rose.  In the smallest team, it rose the most.  On that team, they actually started a habit of going out to lunch together where one person would often pick up the bill.  Generosity had become much less awkward and the team was better because of it.  However, in one of the teams, productivity had actually fallen.  That team had a member on it who was always happy to accept free stuff but he never did his part to provide it.  This pissed people off.  He worked in much the same way but this experiment exposed that in a social context as well.

The problem with a person like that is they bring everyone down to their level.  Nobody wants to be taken for a chump.  When someone is not doing their part everyone around them feels devalued and morale drops .  Needless to say, we let that person go not too long after and I berated myself for not picking up on it sooner.  The problem with this guy was he was very agreeable and he did a good job of calling out every accomplishment of his regardless of how minor.  In other words, he was good at managing up.  It was a valuable lesson learned, the increase in productivity was a great bonus and all it cost me was a couple hundred bucks.

Some of the Reasons

Back to generosity.  As kids we loved giving presents.  It gives us a shot of oxytocin and makes us feel like saints.  My youngest daughter will still go into her room and wrap up random stuff and give it to us on any given week night.  Where does that go?  Why does it become weird?

There’s a lot of reasons.  The first is that we sometimes receive gifts we don’t like.  Like if you ever get a piece of clothing and you just know it’s something you’re never going to wear.  The giver always says, “there’s a gift receipt in there, feel free to take it back.”  Jim Gaffigan had the best response ever for this – “oh thank you, you gave me a chore for Christmas.”  We know that we don’t want to give something that someone doesn’t like so sometimes we obsess over getting the best gift for that person and often we just say, ‘screw it, I’ll just give em a gift card.’

Another reason is that we don’t want that person to feel indebted to us.  Even though we know it feels good for us to give we don’t want it to feel bad for someone else to receive.  That may sound cowardly but that doesn’t make it any less true or any less awkward.

Though I’m sure there are a host of other reasons it got awkward, the final reason I’m going to talk about is that we don’t give because we have a hidden fear that someone is going to take advantage of us.  This fear makes it awkward to even contemplate generosity.  We’ve all had the experience that my teams had with that self-serving jackwad that took and took but never gave.

Give and Take

Adam Grant articulates this incredibly well in his book Give and Take.  He says that all of us fall into one of three classes.  Most of us are matchers.  A matcher believes that if I give you something I expect that you will match it at some point down the road.  This has become the normal social contract.  Then you have the takers.  The takers are those that receive but never give.  Finally, you have the givers.  These are the folks that give and give often without expecting anything in return.

altruismHe then looks at success of each type over a broad sample size.  He found that those that were the least successful were the givers.  These are the folks that gave and gave until they burned themselves out.  They had nothing more to give, even to themselves.  Surprisingly, the most successful people were also the givers.  Takers would often do pretty well until people found them out.  Givers that understood the perils of giving were far and away the most successful.  Helping other people, especially the right people (not takers), paves the road to success.

Remember, there are many ways to be generous.  It doesn’t have to be gifts.  You can be more generous with your time.  You can give heartfelt counsel when asked.  You can be there for your friends or family when they need you.  You can celebrate each and every one of the Hallmark holidays if you need an excuse to be generous.

Whatever you do, just give.  It’s good for you.

Book Reviews

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try hits you like a firehose of knowledge.  Dr. Srini Pillay looks into the depths of the brain and asks the central question – what are our brains doing when they are not focused?  Why is unfocused time important?  The zeitgeist, at least in Western culture, is that focus is king.  If you haven’t started down the path of focused world domination by the time you’ve finished that first cup of coffee, you’re doing it wrong.  And if you are not still focused on that goal of complete self-improvement by the time you’ve finished you’re second power scotch of the evening then you are an utter failure.  How we acquired this attitude is the subject of countless other books.  This book talks about why focusing all the time is a bad idea.

Fair warning: this book is not light reading.  Dr. Pillay does his best to sprinkle antidotes and lightness throughout the book, even adding little sidebars that have the smell of a ‘for dummies’ book.  For Dummies it is not as any green Jedi master might tell you.  When reading the book it feels as if the author has too much to say and was told by a publisher somewhere that he had to fit all of these cool ideas into a book that’s under 200 pages long.   This makes the transitions from chapter to chapter a little stilted.  The flow from idea to idea disjointed.  Please don’t let this discourage you from the read though because Dr. Pillay has a lot to teach.  I took more notes in this book than I have in a long time.

Pillay opens the book by taking on the ‘cult of focus’.  One of the examples he brings up is the famous gorilla suit experiment.  This is the one where participants are asked to focus on a team passing a basketball back and forth and is asked to count the number of passes.  Almost all participants miss the dude in the gorilla suit that walks right through the basketball game because they are so focused on counting passes.  Dr. Pillay posits the right questions here: “If focus makes you miss seeing a gorilla, what else are you missing in life?”

Another interesting fact shared is that when we are hyper-focused we lose the ability to care.  “Hyperfocus depletes the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which helps us make moral decisions.”  I can’t imagine a scenario where that is a good thing.  Pillay goes on to talk about the importance both focus and unfocus have on the brain with a great analogy.  “Focus and unfocus are two different settings.  Focus is the close and narrow beam that illuminates the path directly ahead.  Unfocus is the beam that reaches far and wide, enabling peripheral vision.”  Both are important to living a valuable life, so why don’t we give ourselves the chance to let go more often?

One of the things I liked about the book is that Pillay had zero hesitation about diving into the science.  The part of the brain that manages unfocus is called DMN or the default mode network.  At first we did not understand much about this circuit and before the value of unfocus was discovered it used to be referred to as the ‘do mostly nothing’ circuit.  After quite a bit more study, we discovered that this DMN circuit is actually one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain.  Pillay shares a laundry list of things that it is used for:

  • It acts as a distraction filter
  • It builds mental flexibility
  • It connects you more deeply with yourself and others
  • It integrates the past, present and future
  • It helps you express your creativity
  • It helps you dredge up intangible memories

These are all traits we would be lost without.  Pillay’s advice is take the focus with the unfocus.  His personal experiments have led him to “strive for fifteen minutes of unfocus for every forty-five minutes of focus.”

He next dives into creativity and our first of the title topics, dabbling.  He starts by talking about two of the great polymaths in recent history, Einstein and Picasso.  Both men were great dabblers.  “Einstein was strongly influenced by aesthetic theory and was fascinated by Freud’s work.  Picasso was strongly influenced by photography and X-ray technology.  Neither man felt he had to become expert in these side interests.  Both indulged their curiosity, mulled over their responses, and discussed the resulting ideas with their respective think tanks.  The results changed the world.  Deciding to dabble can be a profound choice.  It means being willing to try something out and be a student again.”  Who doesn’t want to go back to beginner’s mind?  Anytime you try a new sport or hobby, you typically gain huge strides early in the process.  More importantly, trying something new opens the brain to new experience and lets a tsunami of new thoughts in.  This is where breakthroughs are made.  If you’re not trying new stuff, you’re not learning, you’re not expanding.  Being static in this day and age is a recipe for disaster.

He dives more deeply into learning, specifically dynamic learning.  Dynamic learning is “to own up to, talk about, learn from, and correct errors rather than following a hypothetical ‘right’ way.”  If anyone thinks that there is only one right way to learn these days, they are eons behind the times.  We have even started acknowledging failure as a big part of that learning – “As long as you ‘fail forward’, ‘fail fast’, and recognize that ‘done is better than perfect.’  When you do, you ostensibly avoid intellectual stagnation and overcome fear of failure.  Put more simply. Talk is cheap, so keep on doing what you’re doing until you get it right.”  This is more of his tinkering mindset shining through.

He dives into doodling through the side door of multitasking.  Multitasking is not something I believe is ever effective but he makes an interesting argument about doodling.  “One way to activate your unconscious brain and release yourself from the clutches of focus is to doodle.  As we have previously seen, it activates the DMN and gets your focused, conscious brain out of the way.”  He segues this nicely into play by talking about how play actually helps your brain become less distracted.  Play is where we figure stuff out without the risks of commitment.  Play is basically just another form of doodling.

He also draws some interesting parallels between authenticity and possibility.  This naturally contrasts intrinsic rewards with external rewards.  When we are naturally curious and solve things using that curiosity, the rewards we gain are often deeper than an external pat on the back.  Yet we cannot find what will bring these intrinsic rewards without tinkering and finding what is meaningful to us.  That’s where authenticity comes in.  You’ve got to tinker your way down enough paths to find those that are authentic to you.  This is also a great way to find purpose.  He quotes Lao Tzu – “Lao Tzu once said, ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’  Possibility is about being and letting go; tinkering is the process of becoming.”  Powerful stuff.