Group Desires

It is a very natural trait of humans to admire people, and then desire what they desire, rather than desiring anything from internal first principles. We see this in the influence of our parents, our community leaders, our heroes. What they want, we want – and then we rationalize that desire as if we were its architect to begin with.

Fighting that impulse may be a lost cause, but there’s a nice hack around it. Pick people who desire good things as your icons. Admire people not for what they are or their cultural status, but for the things they desire – the things they truly desire, not just what they say they desire. (The two are often very, very different.)

Some people are not wildly successful, not pillars of their community, not celebrities or influential – but they desire good. Good in themselves, good in the world. And they work towards that desire, because it’s a true goal, and not a status-seeking declaration, devoid of weight.

Admire those people, and absorb their desire as your own.

All The Marbles

Step right up, let’s play a game!

In front of you are two opaque jars. The game is simple – reach into a jar and pull out a marble. If you pull out a green marble, you win a prize! If you pull out a red one, you don’t. There’s no cost to play other than your time.

If you pull a green marble out of Jar A, you win $50. If you pull a green marble out of Jar B, you win $100.

You want to know the ratio of marbles in each jar? Sure thing. Jar A has exactly one marble, and it’s green. That’s right, you’re guaranteed to win.

Jar B has ten marbles. Nine of them are green, and there’s one red one.

Now, if you can only choose one: Which jar do you choose?

From a coldly logical standpoint, Jar B is the better choice. A 90% to win $100 translates into the value of that choice being $90, whereas the value of the choice to pull a marble out of Jar A is $50. But some people are super, super risk-averse, and the idea of pulling the one red marble out of Jar B fills them with a sort of existential dread, so they might actually pull from Jar A.

But what if I changed the game up a bit – what if I said you could play the game 10 times in a row, with the one restriction being that you had to make the same choice each time?

Now “Choice A” is worth $500, but “Choice B” is worth $900, and the likelihood that you win nothing is extremely small. In fact, even if you pulled the one red marble 4/10 times, you’d still have won more with Choice B than with Choice A.

Okay, elementary stats discussion is done. Let’s make this a little more challenging, but also a little closer to reflecting reality.

I said in the beginning that there was no cost to play this game other than your time, so let’s keep that rule – but let’s say the game takes an hour to play. After all, it’s popular, so you’ve got to wait in line for an hour. Well, an hour isn’t nothing, and for some people it might not actually be worth it. If you don’t have any other way of turning that hour into at least $50, then it’s probably a good use of your time, but if you make $300/hour at your normal job, then it’s pretty pointless to do this.

But what if you make $70/hour?

Well, now we have an interesting discussion. If you normally can turn an hour into $70, then playing the game is still worth it – but only if you pick Jar B. Picking Jar A is a guaranteed “win,” but at the cost of twenty bucks! Picking Jar B is worth twenty extra bucks to you as a statistical measure, but also carries some risk; 90% of the time you’ll come out $30 ahead, and the other time you’ll lose the $70 opportunity cost you “paid” to play.

So the game is not worth it if you’re risk-averse, but it is worth it if you aren’t!

This is one of the biggest barriers to people becoming much more financially successful in their careers. There is a plateau in almost every career journey where in order to move up, you have to accept more risk. It might be because the best way “up” is entrepreneurship, it might just be that the competitive nature of higher tiers within your industry necessitates an increased willingness to “put yourself out there” and commit to projects or sample work without guaranteed up-front payment. No matter the source, however, there is more risk as you advance.

(Here’s a personal example: As part of my work, I do free consultations with people. Many, even most of these turn into paid work, but of course some of them don’t. If I was so risk-averse that I was never willing to do anything that wasn’t guaranteed to give me income, then I wouldn’t do those consultations, but clearly I’d be poorer overall as a result, given the value of the work they generate most of the time. In a very real sense, I play this marble game every week.)

Many people, at one point or another, find themselves in this position. They’ve reached a point where their “guaranteed” income level has largely maxed out. Their total income level could be much higher overall, but only by accepting some day-to-day statistical risk. And many people, because they don’t have the proper tools for evaluating the choice, make the wrong one. Hopefully this has given you a new tool – so that when it’s time for you to make that choice, you go for all the marbles – the red and green ones alike.

Stream of Consciousness

What you’re passively but consistently exposed to will have a far greater impact on your life than intense yet sporadic bursts of information you seek out.

Imagine two topics: celebrity gossip and ornithology.

Imagine someone who really likes celebrity gossip, so they follow a dozen tabloid-style social media accounts, watch shows like TMZ, and have friends who share the same interest. Imagine this person also has to pass a class on ornithology to graduate, so when they have a paper due they research the relevant facts and put them into reports.

Which subject does this person know more about?

If you really want to learn about anything, you have to make that thing part of the natural flow of information that surrounds you. That flow exists no matter what – but you have a great deal of control over its content.

When-Never

“Whenever” becomes just “never” really, really easily.

Goals require timing. In order to achieve a goal, you need at least one of either a firm deadline or a firm cadence. If you have both, so much the better!

It’s fine to say, “I want to lose twenty pounds by December 1st.” It’s also fine to say “I want to do 50 sit-ups per day, and fast for 12 hours, 3 times per week.” It’s even better to do both! But if you say “I want to do more sit-ups and lose some weight,” you never will.

Some goals are naturally open-ended, and so you use a cadence: a set, regular schedule for the activity. No deadline, but that’s okay – if you stick to the cadence.

It’s hardest to do this when the thing you want isn’t fixing a problem, but improving an okay situation.

If you have a hole in your roof, you’re naturally more motivated to fix it than if you just think your house would look better with a different kind of roof. Problems come with their own motivations – improvements rely on us.

Otherwise, you’ll have the most mediocre version of every aspect of your life, until you improve it. And if you improve it “whenever,” it’ll happen never.

How to Explain

There is so, so much value in how to explain what you do to other people. Because guess what – no one has any idea.

Pick a topic you know anything about. Now pick the most elementary fact within that field; the thing you think “everybody knows.” Nobody knows it! A random sampling of a thousand people would produce may one or two other people who know that fact.

All knowledge is highly specialized, which means that in general nobody has any idea what you’re talking about most of the time.

They nod along, make assumptions to fill in the gaps, or politely ignore most of what you say. If you’re trying to make a conversation into a substantial platform for real action, that won’t do. You can’t rely on anyone else to bridge that gap on their end – you have to bridge it from yours, in how you communicate.

Use analogies. People understand the things they understand, so link the thing you want to explain to something they already know about. There’s a reason sports analogies are so popular for… well, tons of stuff. Sports are popular, and lots of people understand the basic mechanics of the major sports in their culture.

Use examples. People are way better at understanding stories than they are at understanding theory. That’s why anecdotal evidence holds so much sway over people, even though it shouldn’t. But that quirk is to your advantage – tell a story about a time you did your thing. For the parts people don’t get, use analogies.

Connect it to a goal. The other reason sports analogies are popular is because sports are goal-oriented and have clear “achieved goal” versus “failed to achieve goal” conditions. If you’re trying to get something done, but people don’t even understand how to tell if you’ve succeeded, it can be very difficult for them to help you, or even to root for you. They can’t measure success. But if you say “the real home run here is if we get a meeting with Mr. Smith,” then people understand that’s a goal and it’s important.

Specifically, connect it to one of their goals. If you want other people’s understanding of your thing to lead to action on their part that benefits you, then you need to make sure they’re motivated. To do that, make sure they get how your thing will help them; that’s way more important than them understanding the thing itself. If I’m selling cars, you don’t need to know how a car engine works to be interested in buying one, you just need to know what a car will do for you.

You can do all of those things without talking down to someone, insulting their intelligence, or trying to over-inflate yourself. And if you do, well… that’s a home run.

Clusters

Pick three things to do. Not the whole list – just three. Three isn’t a lot! And you can get a little synergy going, without getting overwhelmed. Take the laundry downstairs, that’s one. Downstairs is also where the cat food is, so bring that back up and feed the cats, that’s two. And while you’re feeding the cats, empty the litter box, that’s three.

Boom, you just got a lot done! But it didn’t feel like a lot when you started it.

Okay, now answer an email, that’s one. The email asked about that project, so update those slides, that’s two. And the slides reminded you that you needed to send that email to Nancy to ask her for last quarter’s data. That’s three, now break.

Cluster, break. Cluster, break.

Popularity Contest

I like things that are popular. Why wouldn’t I? If they’re popular, they’re good!

Wait, that doesn’t sound right. But it doesn’t sound wrong, either. Hrmm…

Okay, let me think this one through. For a lot of folks, something has to cross a certain minimum popularity threshold before they’ll consider approving of it themselves. And for other people anything that crosses that threshold immediately gets dismissed. I could dwell on the psychological nature of “conformists” versus “elitists” all day, but that basically just boils down to tribal status-seeking and not much else, so I don’t find it particularly interesting. What I do find interesting is the set of conditions under which it’s reasonable to assume that “popular = good.”

On the one hand, we talk about “the wisdom of crowds” with some regularity. There’s the Efficient Market Hypothesis (and the corollary that betting markets are the best predictors), and these things take as an axiom that “the masses” are better than any one person at knowing if something is good. But then there’s also the reverse – in some cases, it’s clearly true that elite experts are more knowledgeable than the masses on certain topics. We shouldn’t “poll the audience” when someone is having a heart attack – we should get out of the way of the cardiac specialist.

So how do we know?

Okay, here’s the easy one. I think “the crowds are right” is almost always true in matters of taste, as long as it’s a crowd of your people. For instance, if you like classic rock, then the most popular classic rock songs are also probably going to be ones you really enjoy, with some variation on the rankings, perhaps. If you like comedy movies, then the most popular comedy movies are probably the ones that make you in particular laugh the hardest, too. That’s because there’s no second step – music or movies or whatever aren’t good because they lead to something else we want, they’re just good because they are the thing we want.

That’s different from, for example, policy. Lots of very bad public or company policies are very bad, because they’re a means to an end. The means part may be popular because we like it in and of itself, or because we think that it will lead to a desirable end – but we don’t know. That extra layer of uncertainty is what starts to create static in the “popular = good” formula.

Ultimately though, in any of these cases, the formula really rests on one variable – how close are you, personally, to the median member of the crowd in question?

If you’re in the exact center of a particular crowd’s tastes, then the chances are high! But if you’re not, then the popularity bell curve will fall farther and farther from your personal position. So even when listening to the “wisdom of the crowds,” make sure you ask yourself – which crowd?

Captive Audience

For a most people, their first experience with the concept of interpersonal hierarchy outside of their own families is with their teachers. I’ve written before about how our experience in the traditional American school system gives us all sorts of incorrect ideas about how the world works, and notably about how overcoming obstacles happens. But the school hierarchy doesn’t just teach us bad lessons about how to impress other people – it also teaches us bad lessons about how to be impressed.

In the normal model of school in the US that the majority of kids go through, a few things are true. First, it’s mandatory. Sure, your parents can do extraordinary things to get you out of it, but most don’t, and it tends to be all-or-nothing. In other words, even if your parents crafted for you a different model of schooling, within that model all the parts are still mandatory for you as a student, more or less.

So if a particular teacher wants to get a reputation as being extremely difficult, it’s easy for them to do without repercussions. In fact, they can usually increase their own status by being “harder” – after all, if the class is harder to pass, then you must be learning more, right? (Ha, but that’s the flawed logic, anyway.)

If you grew up in this system (as so many do), it can give you the really flawed idea that this method will work anywhere else, when of course it won’t.

See, if you’re a teacher, you have a captive audience. Your students can’t do anything at all about your methods: they can’t object, they can’t quit, they can’t swap teachers, etc. (Well, they can – and sometimes do – try to do all of those things, but usually their only reward is failure or discipline.) But outside of that very narrow context, virtually no one else in society has that kind of power.

In pretty much every other context, if you want to “put people through their paces” in exchange for some reward, you have to actually balance everyone’s interests. Just because someone wants something from you doesn’t mean that you have ultimate authority. Employees can quit. Adult learners can seek other options. Job candidates can opt out of your arcane process and find another game. No matter what you have and how much people want it, you’re probably not the only person who has it. And people aren’t forced to seek it, either – even if it’s desirable, there will be an effort threshold at which it’s not desirable enough.

In the real world, “take my ball and go home” trumps “my way or the highway” just about every time.

Fail With Dignity

“I would go 0-30┬ábefore I would go 0-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game.” – Kobe Bryant

You are, absolutely inevitably, going to lose, fail, crash, screw up, or drop the ball. Probably more than once; probably, with some significance, a hundred times. There’s lots of good advice out there about how to move forward past it, how to learn lessons and improve for the future. Heck, that’s a topic I’ve written about in this blog more than a few times.

But it’s also important to do the failing itself with a little grace and a little style. It’s important to keep a sense of self that isn’t defined by the failure, and that’s easier to do if you can fail with dignity.

There’s a sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein called Space Cadet, and in one chapter two of the main characters have crash-landed on an alien planet. They’ve survived, but their ship is completely wrecked. However, their course was well-known and they belong to a major organization; rescue will happen quickly and they’re in no immediate danger from their peaceful surroundings. Despite this, one of the cadets gets to work on the utterly impossible task of attempting to repair his spacecraft with basically rocks and sticks. The other cadet asks why he’s bothering – even if what he was attempting was possible, it would take decades and rescue would reach them in days. The more ambitious cadet answers that he’s well aware that they’ll be rescued, and when they are, he does not intend for his rescuers to find him sitting around on his ass waiting to be rescued.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. It’s going 0 for 30 instead of 0 for 9, because you didn’t give up. It’s crossing the finish line in a race, even in last place. It’s keeping your head up, even when that’s all you’ve got left.

Goats

When people are scared, hurt, or confused it can be natural for them to lash out. Do you know where the term “scapegoat” comes from? It’s a religious tradition; people would “put their sins into” a goat, and then release that goat, chasing it away from their village. The idea was that the goat took with it the sins – and the blame.

That can seem absurd by modern standards, until you realize that people do that all the time. If someone is scared or hurt or confused, all you have to do is get close enough and the scared/hurt/confused person can lash out and heap a bunch of blame on you while simultaneously chasing you away. This doesn’t do much to solve their problems, but it does satisfy some inner desire to be free of a sense of ill will. If that’s all it did, it would actually be okay! There’s nothing wrong with a ritual to make us feel better – except if it happens to you, it can make you feel… scared, hurt or confused!

You see, when people did this to a goat, it didn’t matter. From the goat’s perspective, a bunch of humans said a bunch of words and then let it go. Cool! No sweat off the goat’s back, right? If anything, great for the lucky goat. It certainly didn’t create any cycles of harmful behavior. But when a human becomes a scapegoat, that human is now experiencing the very conditions that create the need for a new one.

Another unfortunate aspect of this is that “proximity” to a person experiencing the negative emotions is more likely if it’s someone you care about, someone you interact with frequently. So it’s not uncommon for colleagues, friends, family members, or other close people to lash out in exactly this way.

And you don’t want to blame them! After all, you care about them. And you understand everything they’re experiencing is natural. Fear and pain and confusion are unpleasant stimuli. Lashing out in this way is so natural that we have a whole word for it, going back to parables in the Bible. This isn’t healthy, but it’s perfectly understandable.

So you don’t want to continue the cycle by passing it on to another, and you don’t want to be mad at the people who passed it onto you. So what do you do?

Let people be hurt, scared or confused. Let them come to you. Be understanding; they’re only human, just like you. Help them find a solution if they really want one, let them vent if they don’t. If it becomes necessary, walk away – some people may not give you any other option. But above all else, love your neighbor. Because no one else can carry your pain but you – not even goats. But lots of people can carry your love with you, if you share it.