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Wednesday, May 02, 2020

Whose life is it anyway?

Giving in to dogma will cripple your identity


Thanks to Ririan Project, via Leon Ho at Lifehack.org, for pointing me to this quote from Steve Jobs of Apple:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
There are many subtle ways that we are trapped into following someone else’s opinion of how our life should be lived. It’s not just the obvious pressures, like the norms of society, the demands of employers, or even the laws where we live. It’s the softer and more insidious urgings like these:
If you want to live in a better world—and who wouldn’t, seeing the mess this one is in—there’s no alternative but to play your part in changing things. You cannot leave it to others. That’s neither honest nor practical. As another quote from Steve Jobs puts it;
We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?




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Monday, April 23, 2020

The problem of ambition

Is being strongly ambitious a benefit? Is searching for excellence always worth it? Whatever happened to “good enough?”

The Ancient Greeks had a word for the behavior shown by over-ambitious people who went too far in striving for excellence. The word was hubris. Not in our modern use of the word as meaning little more than being somewhat too big for your boots, but in its original sense of causing your own destruction by drawing down the wrath of the gods. The writers of Greek tragedies focused on showing the effects of hubris on previously successful people: men like Oediipus the king, who blinded himself, and King Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. In our modern world, we have forgotten that the pursuit of excellence can sometimes go too far: that crossing certain boundaries turns success into a nightmare of deceit, stress, and guilt. Maybe we ought to recover this idea, for the sake of our sanity.
This is something that it’s worth thinking about; a saying I came across somewhere (I can’t recall quite where), but which has stuck with me because it seems to express something profound about the way that most of us live our lives:
80 percent of the problems in your life come from wanting what you don’t have. The other 20 percent come from getting it.
Our consumer society cannot exist without a large majority of people constantly wanting what they don’t (yet) have. Advertisers and marketers spend their lives promoting craving in potential customers: not just a craving for particular products, but a generalized sense that you are never complete. There is always something new to long for—and seek to find some way of possessing. Always something more to pull you on into greater and greater hubris.

People in the past shared the belief that mankind began in an ideal state (the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden) and, since then, has descended in a more and more debased and troubled existence. Nearly everyone nowadays believes the exact opposite. Our superficial assumption of progress convinces us that each year will be better, more prosperous, more plentiful than the last. Success can never be too great. Like the profits in commercial endeavors, the only acceptable direction is upwards—and the faster the better. But is it true?

Our belief in unending progress is just as much a cultural myth as those ancient beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a subsequent fall from grace. Before we dismiss these stories as simple pessimism, consider this: they actually offer us a clear-sighted view that going too far typically extracts a terrible price in mental health; one that quickly destroys all the success that went before. With constant ambition and desire for more comes constant anxiety. What if your progress falters? What if others do better than you? What if you suffer some significant failure that thrusts you backwards? What if the only way to go on winning seems to be to lie, cheat, and use any means to destroy rivals? What if failure, however small, flips you into depression, or even a psychotic episode?

It’s no coincidence that the highest achievers are typically the most anxious and stressed. Those who have gained most have most to lose. Stress hits hardest at those who are most productive and successful. They live with a constant sense of fear. They worry whether their progress is good enough. Whatever they earn, whatever level in the hierarchy they reach, however many goods they buy, there is always more, just out of reach. They cannot relax because they never reach the point where they feel relaxation can be justified. They have lost the notion of “good enough;” of reaching a state where what they have is sufficient, so that they can now spend time enjoying it. They never recognize the point when productivity becomes less important than pleasure.

To find pleasure in your life, you first need to come to terms with the fact that constant economic striving and enjoying yourself are rarely fully compatible. Making time and space for pleasure usually demands stepping back from all that striving to be the leading rat in the race. “Good enough” can be better than excellence, if the price of achieving excellence is continual overwork with a thick topping of anxiety and guilt.

Even for businesses, the cost of being the market leader can become too high to tolerate. A good business that provides sufficient wealth for those whom it employs, some reasonable stability for the future, and a lifestyle that has a good balance of pleasure as well as productivity, used to be the ideal. Only in recent times has that image been replaced with that of an organization that is never satisfied with anything; and which automatically responds to meeting any goal by setting another, more demanding than before.

We need to see this for what it is: not some profound and inescapable truth, but just another cultural norm that will, one day in the future, seem just as strange as the wearing of powdered wigs and knee-breeches seems to us today. For most of us, “good enough” is in truth very good indeed. Pushing too far beyond it often produces more stress than is compatible with a good life. The problem of ambition has always been the same: knowing when to stop.



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Thursday, April 19, 2020

Getting it wrong to get it right

Organizations (and people) who are afraid to make mistakes can neither live nor learn effectively.

Yesterday, I wrote about Professor Russell Ackoff’s interview with Peter Day, reported here on the BBC web site. In the second part of that interview, the topic shifts away from business schools towards another key question: how can you be successful if you ignore, or hide, or deny your mistakes? Aren’t mistakes the basis of virtually all learning? If you don’t learn from them, who or what will be able to teach you anything?
It sometimes seems that our society is obsessed with prying into the mistakes of others, but that isn’t really true. The media have a prurient fascination with the mistakes of the rich and famous—especially any that involve sex—and there are many who take an equally perverse joy in proving to themselves that those whom they secretly envy are, in reality, no better then they are. Yet the greatest effort goes into hiding mistakes, or denying their very existence, as if making a mistake were the most shameful of social diseases. Politicians, business leaders, the rich and famous, all spend lavishly on covering up their mistakes.

Our society's petty and mean-minded ways of dealing with mistakes, focused as they are on pointing to others’ misdemeanors, while carefully concealing or ignoring your own, are so common that we scarcely notice any more. Sadly, this is also the way that mistakes are treated in most organizations: as something to be ashamed of, to punish, and to conceal or deny whenever possible. Listen to Professor Ackoff:
You never learn by doing something right, because you already know how to do it. The only opportunity for learning is to identify mistakes and correct them. If you are in an organization which says that mistakes are a bad thing, learning is suppressed. So you either try to avoid mistakes, or if you make them, you shift blame to someone else.
The simplest way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing; or at least to do nothing new or different from the conventional. If you resolutely stick to whatever is the most obvious, the most orthodox, and the most common, you at least have the chance of deflecting criticism by the time-worn practice of pointing to everyone else and saying that they did the same. As Ackoff points out, organizations have elaborate measurement and recording systems to note even the slightest sins of commission—doing what you ought not to have done—and none at all to deal with the worst kind of mistakes in business: not doing what you should have.
The worst kind of mistake is not being wrong, but something you did not do that you should have done. Errors of omission are responsible for failures and bankruptcy.
I think that he is right about that. Following the herd and sticking to the conventional and orthodox makes you mediocre and pedestrian, but it takes a long time to bring your business to its knees. Missing opportunities, ignoring mistakes, staying complacent in the face of change, and suppressing new ideas will all ruin you faster and much more effectively.

Yet that is what so many organizations are doing. They’re so hell-bent on imitating others and avoiding risks that they take the biggest risk of all: ignoring reality.

Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other.

Deciding not to do something is just as much a decision as its opposite. Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other. In reality, both represent an equally significant response to events. If one is punishable, so should the other be. Of course, honest mistakes—those made despite every effort to get it right—are no more worthy of being punished than getting wet when it rains. Life is unpredictable and often cruel. Only the dead are free from further errors.

To learn fully from your own mistakes, you should make as careful a note of when you decided not to act as when you did. Refusing to act is still your choice, and you should trace its consequences carefully. If you don't, at least half the lessons life can teach you will never be recognized. Sometimes the greatest gamble of all is to refuse to throw the dice.

In my own experience, as you get older, you spend far more time aware of all the opportunities that you didn’t take, and the things that you didn’t do—and now wish that you had—than regretting the mistaken actions or choices that you did go through with. Though you know that many of those missed opportunities would not have worked out—that you would have suffered hurts you avoided and much pain and embarrassment—you become aware of what you have missed that was far more valuable: experiences that would have taught you lessons that now you can never learn.

Getting it right, in work or life, nearly always involves a great deal of getting it wrong as well. Success depends critically on how you face up to failure, take the lesson it offers, and start again. Opportunities missed are usually gone for ever. The road not taken never shows up on the map again.

That’s why rushing through life, obsessed with conventional success and fixated purely on material gain, may produce riches and fame, but very often misses out on happiness and contentment. The New Testament of Christians asks: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?” You only have one trip around the sun. Use it well, or lose the chance of living and learning forever.



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Tuesday, March 20, 2020

Myths of management

Is competition always so beneficial?

Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.

Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass—and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball back again?

The assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise), but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you? If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose…well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.

There’s the problem. For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience? Or do many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t it also cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and violence?

Before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience?

Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. But if winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with little or no effort. But who would go to watch? And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why the organizers try so hard to produce matches which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.

Business isn’t—yet—a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seems to be trying to make it one), so ease of winning ought not to be a problem. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you. And that’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way—because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.

There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing.

Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top. Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .

Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to cheat. So who rises to the top? The able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell—until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?

Myths are not lies. They contain an element of truth, somewhere. They only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident. Competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.



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Friday, March 16, 2020

The stories we tell ourselves

Stories about events are often more powerful than the reality they replace


Recently, I was in our local Barnes & Noble bookstore and idly picked up a book of Victorian photographs of Tombstone. In this part of Arizona, Tombstone’s the nearest thing we have to Disneyland. They reenact “The Gunfight at the OK Corral” every day, sometimes more than once. The book had contemporary photographs of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Both looked like local preachers or small-town bank managers. Neat suits, white shirts, carefully knotted ties. The Clanton gang they gunned down looked much the same. You could change the captions to read “Respectable Inhabitants of 1880s Tombstone.”

That’s why stories are often more powerful than the reality they’re based on (or replace); and why many of our firmest beliefs come from such stories. Reality is so darned dull.

Good stories—the right words put together in the right way—have the power to inspire us, terrify us, or shape our view of the world for years ahead. Do you enjoy a good story? Of course. Have you ever embellished the way you recounted events to make a better story? You’d be an unusual person if you said you had not.

I had a friend who worked in air accident investigation. He told me the only truly reliable witnesses to air accidents were small children. They told what they saw. Adults told stories based on what they thought they ought to see, then embellished them to make the stories more vivid and interesting.

Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.


People constantly tell one another stories, at a bar, in the office, at home around the dining table. Marketers tell stories about products. Newscasters add human interest stories to enhance dull, factual news. Hollywood and television entertainment are nothing but stories. Of course, we tell ourselves stories too—about what things mean, what other people must be thinking, about why we did, or said, things that worked out or failed us. Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.

Our heads are full of creative fiction, loosely based on real events.

Most of these stories aren’t true. Some never were; some have embellished and changed real events out of all recognition. The human mind is excellent at creating its own version of how things must have been. That’s especially true when it comes to the parts that other people played in our lives. We assume that we understand their feelings, their motives, and their hidden agendas. In our stories, all their plots and secret endeavors are plain to see.

Much of the stress that we feel is caused by the power of our imaginations to turn dull events into powerful, stomach-churning tales of people’s ambition, jealousy, spite, and perfidy. Much of it—probably nearly all of it—is little more than fiction. But that doesn’t alter the effect it has on our own feelings. Imaginary hurts are just as cutting as real ones. An act of treachery by a friend, or a piece of gratuitous cruelty by a boss, that we have produced mostly in our own imagination is no less painful than the real thing. Do we know this is what happened? Almost certainly no. But we assume it is true, and feel and act accordingly. And that’s without the added pain caused by other people who tell us tales about people and events that they have embellished with their own fears, worries, and biases.

Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten.


Are others plotting to harm you? Possibly, but probably not with any real energy. Was this or that statement or event aimed at you? Maybe, but probably it was simply chance that you got in the way. The dull reality is that most of us are far too wrapped up in our own concerns, hopes, fears, and desires, to spend more than a tiny fraction of our attention on anyone else. We are opportunists, seizing any chance to advance our own agenda, and mostly ignoring the effect this has on anyone else. We aren’t even positively nasty. Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten. We did what we did because it suited us at the time, and had no more thought of anyone else than a cat has for the feelings of the mouse it happens upon and thinks would make a nice snack.

This is good and bad. Bad, of course, because we are typically so careless of the feelings and concerns of others. Good, because, once you recognize it as the truth, it frees you from the majority of worries about what other people are thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you at all. They’re engrossed in the marvelous story that’s running through their head; the one where they have the starring role, and everyone else is looking at them.

What about the stories you tell yourself? What are they like? Are they inspiring or depressing? Do they make you feel ready to create a better future, or ready to give up now?

Be careful of such stories, because you’ll believe them. Repeat them often enough and they’ll become reality. Maybe the phrase about the power of positive thinking ought to be rewritten as “the likely results of telling yourself more positive stories.”

But then,”the power of positive thinking” sounds like the start of a better story.



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