Data is always easier to see

I have a very strange way of typing. I use my left hand for the far left corner of the keyboard (using exclusively my index finger to type) and then use my right hand for everything else since it is big enough to cover the entire keyboard (my right thumb is exclusively reserved for the keyboard.) Anyway it was nice to see this graphic which indicated to me that I have optimized my typing over time, given the placement of the keys (and words of the English language). I found that interesting in itself, but there are two other points I wanted to raise.

Originally the keyboard was designed to slow down typing (because typewriters were not set up to handle such fast input) and so over time, the QWERTY keyboard became standard. Others attempted to get the industry to adopt the DVORAK keyboard (optimized so that the most common keys would literally be at our fingertips, but it never caught on.) I guess this is a lesson that even when great ideas present themselves, the cost of invested learning might be too great to outweigh them - a good reminder for iconoclastic, idealist types like me) 

The two photos below are also two excellent contrasts. The bottom is obviously a tired looking histogram that shows letter frequency. The second is a keyboard that shows letter usage by increasing the key height. It's a good reminder that creativity in delivery is as often just as important in the underlying data itself. 

This article on word preference is also interesting, but unrelated....

Ideas are social

In short, this talk has a simple message. We don't innovate quickly and we don't innovate individually. Ideas usually are born slowly and meticulously and are pulled into the world as we share our ideas (and obstacles) with people who see things differently.

Coffee houses do this to some degree. The salon is the classic example.

My approach to connecting with my closest friends has often been one on one though lunches and happy hours. This can be laborious and I often tend to do all the talking if my friends are even mildly introverted. The flow is one sided and we tend to exhaust our respective capacities for talking and listening. It's making me re-consider my approach.

One of the images he showed (below) was of a raucous dinner around a crowded table. In some ways it reminds me of my time at Governor's School. We would all pile into a single dorm room and spend the night debating, laughing and bouncing our pet theories on life off of each other. A while back I tried to start a small group in my house that was somewhat "spiritually" oriented. I think it was too structured. I did my best to curate a nice crowd of diverse opinions, but I think a free for all approach might have been better. We all come with our own problems and through the natural course of eating and drinking these would all come to light.

There are several organizations in town that do this sort of thing already (drinking liberally, free thought society). Really, any club that has an intellectual bent and shares meals will provide this opportunity. I think it's better for my style of learning/communication, though I will have to plow through the awkward "first dates" as I begin to meet the new faces. This would be a good start.

 I should also try to have at least one large dinner party at my house each month. Especially when when the weather is nice and we can sit around the fire pit and relax in comfort.

I opened the windows and doors for the first time in weeks replacing the stale, humid air with a fresh, and unseasonably warm winter breeze. The copper wind chimes rang like distant church bells in what lingered of a fast moving storm. The gentle raindrops outside splat like drops of pudding on the wet grass. I lay in my warm bed, sandwiched between my corduroy comforter and a soft fleece blanket. On opposite corners of the room two tall Chinese lanterns stand like like glowing monuments enveloping me in warm yellow light. I didn't have anywhere I needed to be nor did I have anywhere in particular I wanted to go. Homemade lasagna anchored me exactly where I was and reminded me I didn't need to leave. Just sit here and listen.    

Status Anxiety

Career or status anxiety?  Main cause – we are surrounded by snobs.  “What do you do?” It’s a four-word sentence designed to sum up the worth of an entire person as quickly as possible. It’s answer will in large part determine whether or not the conversation continues.

Botton argues the appearance of equality (and a society that tells us we can be anything we want) leads us to believe we should be able to obtain what others have – when we don’t, it leads to regret and envy.  This is why we don’t envy the Queen of England but might strongly envy less successful classmates at a 10 year high school reunion – we don’t have the expectation to rise to the level of aristocracy, but the common experience shared with those in our high school does lead us to believe we should meet similar fates.

As we increasingly believe that we live in a meritocracy, we also believe those who have fallen to the bottom rungs of society also earned their place there. Two hundred years ago, the poor were described as “less fortunate.” Today they may be described simply as a “loser.” Fate is no longer determined by the gods or circumstance, but ourselves.  This is difficult when applied to others, but can be fatal when we completely blame ourselves. He argues this is why developed countries have some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

What relief do we have? He argues that while meritocratic ideas should be advocated, we need to drop the pretense that we could ever create (or live in a society) that can factor in all of the accidents and chance of birth and life (for example, genetics or an unfortunate car wreck)

Next, he laments the demise of tragedy (as a form of literature/art). He talks about how these stories were designed to afford the characters a measure of humanity in their failure. He jokingly shares a story of when he shared plot lines with his journalist friends and asked them to come up with potential for headlines – for Othello they came up with, “Love crazed immigrant crazed kills senator’s daughter”.  The contrast between classic tragedy and modern headlines serves to highlight the divide between what has been lost and how quickly we ridicule those who may be deserving of sympathy.  

In short, we need a truer version of success. What does this word really mean? First is that we can’t succeed at everything. Any honest version of success must admit the loss of some other equally worth goal. We don’t define this for ourselves. Success has been externally defined – we let others define what it means to be a “man” or “father,” or what our life will look like and how we will spend our free time.

I can relate to this piece and hit on the main points before (On our own terms & Chance).

I echoed his exact sentiment here - “I should be using my time to become the type of person I really want to be, and not be tempted/influenced by money or prestige.”

Since I generally agree with the basic points he made, I want to think about obstacles to this idea – aspects of our society which make the transition to success on my own terms more problematic. My idea of success is flexibility. I want to wake up when I want. Take a road trip when I want. If this isn’t possible I would at least like to be able to do those things somewhat regularly. Most jobs expect you to be there 9-5, 52 weeks a year with a little vacation and a few holidays.  

Debt is high on that list. It has a way of keeping us bound to the system even we are ready to move beyond it.  By the time many are ready to simplify their lives, most are shackled by car payments, mortgages and student loans. In fact, debt has a way of forcing this lifestyle on many involuntarily. Barring default, many are forced to keep working at jobs that no longer interest them because they need the income to service their debts. I am partially in this camp though I could get out in a year or two with a small sacrifice and a few years more than that without much at al.

Second is the inability to be self-sufficient (if you wish to maintain regular human contact). Sure, if you are willing to buy a trailer and live in the country, life is still quite simple and inexpensive. You can have a small garden, get solar power well water, have a wood stove and wear what you want without worrying about socially isolating yourself. For the most part one is generally unshackled by local building codes and ordinances.  However, if one wishes to live (in a safe part) of a modern city (even a small one), the only option is some steady source of income. All of one’s needs (shelter, power, water, and sadly safety) are external. This is problematic without a rather radical transformation of the existing housing model. Energy costs and maintenance have the potential to usurp actual housing costs in coming years.  A “comfortable life” requires somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000-$30,000 (depending on location and what one defines as a base) which is an average salary a lot most people. Add in children and life simply isn’t comfortable without a “normal” paying job. I am fortunate in that I bought a modest, inexpensive home a cheap city, got a good rate on my mortgage, and have roommates to help pay my bills. I certainly advocate this course of action for most people, but it is not suitable for strong introverts, people who are married or single parents.

Along these lines, my pet project to redesign starter housing would go a long way towards making it easier to move towards self-sufficiency. There is a strong need for low-cost, nice looking, simple starter homes that are quite energy efficient. They perfected this after WWII (energy costs then didn’t matter very much) and the GI bill made loans easy to obtain. Many of those homes still exist (though the neighborhoods haven’t all fared as well).  Recently there was a boom market in shitty patio homes covered in vinyl siding. These structures will not outlive their mortgages and it breaks my heart to see people sitting on these underwater properties in deteriorating developments and no real sense of community. (Both of these plans highlight the importance of not just building homes, but building community, with common areas and places to walk to encourage neighbors to interact – community gardens, sidewalks, playgrounds, parks)

In short, I think a lot of people want to be free but either lack a path or have already made decisions which keep them (in the short term) from doing that.

I see two ways I could help. One would be to teach business education (to keep future generations from making poor decisions) the second would be to reduce one significant expense (housing). I am only a test away from being able to do the first and could experiment with the later as much as I want on my parent’s farm if I wished.

I was looking for a source of passion – this could certainly be one.

Gratitude log:
For generous parents to fall back on and a social safety net that others do not have. Seeing a friend recently fall victim to circumstances (and having them almost spiral out of control) which would have only been a minor obstacle for me really highlighted the importance of my parents.
That I am not subject to the vicissitudes of climate – storms, heat and humidity are just things that might make the walk to my car more difficult, but do not pose a real risk to my safety.
I am thankful for boredom, because it means that I have time to reflect and change. Many people have to work, work, work and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to thoughtfully plan my life in ways that the “busy” often do not. 

Golden rule....

Two simple quotes from Lincoln that summarize the essence of empathy....

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."

"Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

To work on

This is a good list for me to reflect on....

ENTP may show some or all of the following weaknesses in varying degrees:
  • The inability to maintain a comfortable situation or relationship once its possibilities have been realized or exhausted. 
    • In progress - current job - not sure how to deal with this or if it is even possible to come to terms with this one
  • A tendency to consider careful or meticulous thinkers as unworthy plodders or time wasters. 
    • This job has helped with this tremendously - people are different, not stupid
  • Blindness to the needs and feelings of others not directly involved in the ENTP's current area of interest. 
    • GUILTY
  • A lack of sensitivity to the feelings and ways of those who might need reassurance, security or commitment. 
    • Recently discovered the importance of this
  • The inability to deal carefully and calmly with the finer details of a situation or work in progress. 
    • Less guilty of this lately- Buddhism has also helped with impatience generally
  • Tendency to become overly annoyed by minor setbacks or small things that have to be set right before the goal can be realized. 
    • To some degree
  • A tendency to be arrogant or boastful, or to demean those who cannot see the same answers. 
    • Guilty but working on it
  • Can often find themselves in bad situations by too quickly taking a big step forward or by being "too smart for their own good". 
    • This has slowed considerably with age and experience. Still guilty though

Keeping Promises to ourselves

Today's talk is about "commitment devices" or tools used when we have a cool head to keep us from making stupid/rash decisions when we don't. He uses the example of Odysseus tying himself to the mast as they transit through the Sirens and their rocky coasts(1). He argued that it is not often that our biggest goals remain out of reach because they are physically unobtainable, but because of our own lack of willpower.

Some common examples: not bringing junk food into the house so you won't eat it, unplugging the internet so you won't be tempted to use it, locking a credit card away with a key (or more creatively in a block of ice).

Some obviously work better than others, and successful devices require good planning. The downside to these devices is that they are a constant reminder of our own pitiful lack of self-control. We can also rationalize them away and come up with very legitimate reasons why we can't do them on a particular occasions (thus diminishing their value).

His emphasis was on the disconnect between our present-selves and future-selves. He took the novel of idea of taking age-progression software and allowing decisions by the user directly effect the emotional state of the age-enhanced photo (by simply making it smile or frown). This gives the user the opportunity to begin to care for this person and makes the imagined at least a little more tangible. I know I am more likely to be charitable when I have a particular person in mind than simply thinking about how cool an idea or institution is.

The Wikipedia article on the topic states " "some game theorists have argued that human emotions and sense of honor are forms of commitment device." There seems to be a fine line here as other research has said that publicly sharing your goals tends to decrease their outcome (as the positive comments from others tend to reduce motivation). We also seem to get some personal pleasure from simply fantasizing about completion of the goals. This research however has not incorporated social networks. My intuition makes me think this is different than casually mentioning it in conversation to strangers or very close friends who will want to encourage us. Social networks have the nice feature of incorporating people who might also be happy to jovially ridicule us if we fail. What social networks do is require us to marry our goals and honor (and also provide negative feedback if we don't live up to them).

It seems like for minor goals, I might want to keep my mouth shut. For those where I really want to succeed (but doubt myself) I should include others. I should also logically only do this when the results would be visible to that network (so they can hold me accountable). It seems this another important aspect. Another study among Chilean entrepreneurs found "that self-help peer groups can be a highly effective alternative commitment device to encourage savings, with participation in a peer group program increasing the number of deposits in formal savings accounts 3.5-fold and almost doubling the average savings balance."

This will be a nice tool to use if I keep up my thirty day challenges. I also found an interesting story of a gentleman who ambitiously gave up all his vices at once. Here is a related story about commitment devices.

Like most things, it seems success depends on careful planning....

1 Another blog I read gave the example of Cortes burning his own ships to show there would be no going back after their arrival. 

Components of Happiness

I have watched a few documentaries, read articles and blogs, soaked up TED talks over the past few weeks and done my best to reflect on experiences which make be more satisfied/happy/content in life. However I tend to lack planning and structure in my efforts to execute on the insights that I might have picked up along the way. One aspect of this resolution to absorb quality content is a realization that I need to take my cognitive enthusiasm and apply it to real life - in the form of action. It is not merely enough to understand - I must do. I also tend to be a little non-linear (unorganized) in my thinking. There are few things as effective as a list of points to help me structure and refine my thinking. I found a website dedicated to the science of happiness and they provided seven clear activities that are common among those who report themselves to be happy. I want to elaborate on each of those as they are a good summary of what I have already learned.
  • meaningful relationships
  • caring for others
  • exercise (aerobic - 3x a week)
  • flow (engaging activities that demand our full attention)
  • spiritual engagement and meaning
  • positive thinking (optimism and gratitude)
  • strength and virtues (discover and apply)
With the exception of the last on the list my month-long experiment (or existing resolutions) has already made me address each of these items. I now want write about each one and think of clear ways I can add to these areas.

Meaningful relationships
    This is a cluttered area of my life. I am an extrovert with a wide circle of friends. I spread myself very thin socially, often giving equal attention to strangers and long-time friends. I often neglect relationships that offer the most growth in favor of what is new. One side effect of my thirty day withdrawal from the opposite sex is that I now have a lot more time for the relationships that matter. As part of this year, I wanted to explicitly focus time on these relationships and work on real, meaningful friendships. The kind that are deep and lasting which can withstand the pressures of time and distance - people I can confide in and grow with. I need to sit down and pick at most a dozen people and make regular plans to see them (lunch, dinner, roadtrips, ect). As part of this, I also need to work on listening more. 
    While I do get a lot from my friendships but I don't always give a lot back (outside of being entertaining and sharing my current passion/energy). I need to deliberately invest more in my friends and make it clear that I appreciate them and want to help them however possible. I need to be supporting of helping them achieve whatever dreams/projects they have. 

Action Items: define circle of close friends and invest in them,  make lunch/happy hour/dinner plans at least once per week, work on listening, incorporate them into my travels/adventure 

Caring for Others
    I just mentioned how I can do this with my friends though I can also do this in other areas. Two years ago, I found a great deal of satisfaction from working with the different city agencies to improve our neighborhood. I also found a similar pleasure in helping to bring our community garden to life. I enjoyed teaching the high school class at the UU last year. Since I started working I have almost exclusively devoted my free time to myself (Netflix, reading, gym ect) and hanging out with friends. Admittedly I struggle with what is a good use of my time (and how to really help people) but I should be helping out if for no other reason than to build more human bonds and to feel a little more gratitude. If that isn't enough motivation I could also use this opportunity to help deal with issues (maybe I have a fear of certain people, or practice listening - I could work with my fear or find activities that help me to deal with my own problems). Generally this is an area I need to work on. I am too self-absorbed. 

Action item: find at least one activity/organization to work with every other week. Also find a few neighbors and friends to help out. Make sure to listen when I am with friends.

    I have been pretty good about this the past month. My explicit goal is to simply indulge my vanity and get a nice looking body, but after recent reading it is unmistakably clear there are a host of other benefits including: better sleep, better control of ADHD, clearer thought, lower risk of depression and obviously a healthier body and longer life. The cognitive improvements were the most surprising (these only seem to arise from yoga and aerobic activities though, so I will need to focus a little less on lifting to receive the full benefits) and actually take effect over a very long period (benefits began to plateau after 4 months in the studies I saw). My plan is still to drop ~5-10 lb. of fat while increasing my overall weight from 168 to 180. I hoped to do this in 6 months. Going forward I think I will split my time between lifting, running, yoga and aerobic classes at my gym. This will keep it from getting boring, work different muscle groups. The downside is that it might end up taking a lot longer to achieve my desired weight.  
    Once it warms up I can start running outdoors and also begin cycling to work. I also need to start using my lunch break for aerobic activity (which I don't mind doing solo, unlike lifting which the social aspect of the gym seems to encourage). Lastly, I could try to work out with a few friends and tie it in to point #1.
      NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is also a very easy way to burn calories. It might be a good thing to do silly activities like resurrect my extinguised bouncy leg habit or chew gum. Over the course of years these small changes make a huge difference. Walking at lunch would also be nice. Biking to work, though often considered exercise would fall under this too.
    I think this section should more appropriately be entitled - take care of your body. Along these lines I will continue my "research" into better sleep, try to wake up earlier, meditate [to reduce stress], avoid alcohol/caffeine [at least with any regularity], and continue to make tweaks to my diet to find what works best (time of day, amount of calories/size of meal [snacks vs. meals], meal composition [protein/carbs/fat], ect)

Action Items: Keep going to gym (classes/lift - aerobic at least 2x/weel), increase weight and define body, workout with friends, bike to work, NEAT activities, get deep sleep, tweak diet [post on this]. 

    Sadly, I don't have an outlet that gives me this feeling on a regular basis. That is one reason I have been writing so much lately. It has given me a way to devote my full energy and attention to a task. Lately at work, I have been deprived of stimulating activities (though a pending role change will offer a chance for this). Outside of film, I don't have many engrossing hobbies.  I like photography, but have run out of inspiration lately on that front. That could be an issue though, as most of the things I enjoy tend to be warm weather pastimes (cycling, gardening, working on the yard, photography [I like outdoor stuff with natural night]). I haven't thrown pottery in a while. This might be a good seasonal hobby for me to help pass the time in the lonely winter months. It's also a good chance to interact with creative people. Maybe I should consider writing more as I have enjoyed the clarity it brings more and more. I also haven't painted in a while, but this is because I don't have a space that is very inviting or inspiring (I guess I could go to the library or just force myself to do it at the kitchen table and see how it goes). 
    Writing this made me Google "ideas for hobbies,"then "hobbies for ENTPs." Reading the possibilities let me realize I haven't played poker in some time, though I found it to be one of the most engrossing games when I played in college. Maybe I can find a few local pick up games. It was also a good activity for just hanging out with a group of guys which is unfortunately increasingly difficult to do. 
    It was also interesting to see sports listed so many times. It is interesting to compare this idea to the common experience of many athletes who report being "in the zone." Sports do seem like a very good opportunity for completely devoting yourself (both mind and body) to an activity. I know I experience that every time I play flag football. I have always wanted to learn tennis and soccer. There is nothing keeping me from joining a local league. It would also give me a chance to meet other people and having to avoid the monotony of the gym. 

Action Items: Find a poker game, take at least one interesting photo a day, meditate at least once per day (before bed is ideal as it is a good transition to sleep and when I am most often antsy about being alone), continue writing, take my new project/role at work seriously (try to learn rudimentary coding), 

Spiritual Engagement and Meaning
    The interfaith events I have been attending for the past few weeks have been very revealing. They have helped confirm my need to find another community to be a part of. I am growing tired of what I find at the UU (though the people are still wonderful). I also think there is a lot to be learned by simply visiting other religious communities.
  • It's an opportunity to feel like a minority. 
  • It's an opportunity to be a part of a new community
  • It's interesting to see how others go about finding peace (songs, meditation, ect)
  • It's interesting to see how people build community (over meals, coffee, sitting silently together
   I particularly liked the Quaker church. Even the building fit my tastes. It was stripped of all pretense. No pictures, no crosses, no fancy lights. Just plain wooden floors, white walls, lots of natural light and and pews all laid out to face each other in concentric squares. They sit silently and listen for "that still small voice within." It couldn't be farther from the indignant political rhetoric I find in the UU. The people are so calm and unagitated. They even sent the nicest, handwritten card after I visited the other day. Even if I don't find "God" I do think they can teach me a lot. It will be a good new home.

TED talks have also been a vital source of information over the pats few weeks

Action Items: Go to the Quaker church at least twice a month, continue to read Quaker materials, continue to write, continue to challenge my belief structure.

Positive Thinking
    Gratitude is an interesting thing. It has the power to turn problems into opportunity when I direct my full thought at what is really going on. I need to apply my powers of seeing the other side (or simply playing devil's advocate) to finding gratitude in emotional distress.

Just last night I was feeling kind of bored and disillusioned about work. I felt a deep lack of purpose. I remembered my challenge to direct gratitude at problems. Then I realized was that boredom meant that I was not facing any real problems in my life and that this is a perfect opportunity to find clarity, to write, to think, and reflect on what might be nagging at my soul if I paid closer attention.

I think writing is good because it forces you to pause and really be honest and deliberate in manner that doesn't always occur when I have a fleeting thought in an elevator or on the walk to my car. I think I should take the time to put these thoughts into words.

Action Items: Attach at least one good thing to every post. I should also try to think of one person in my life each day I am thankful for and send them a card or at a minimum a text.

  I am probably best at finding the minority (or at least under-appreciated) perspective in a given situation. Most people call this Devil's advocate. I call it seeing the complexity and nuance in a situation. This is a good thing when I face entrenched power structures as a newcomer with little support (I have learned to keep my head down and lips sealed until I earn respect) but it is a very good tool when I encounter people in states of hopelessness or those who find themselves in a moment of fatalistic thinking over a given situation. 
 Similarly, I am open to new people and new experiences. In fact, I actively seek them both out. This strength too is also a weakness (as it leads to an unhealthy form of restlessness and an inability to be happy once things are comfortable and settled in - read: jobs, relationships, living situation). However, I have come to realize this makes me a very good resource when I meet people who have recently moved to an area. I am generally able to quickly get them integrated into their new area. 
  More concrete things I am good at: finding really good deals, making the most logical purchase (especially when it involves many variables - think technology), helping people determine what values matter to them when they need to make a particular course of action, being a good salesman for ideas I believe in, bringing people together (though I do a poor job of facilitating exchanges between people once I do).
  Virtues, standing up for people if I think they have been treated unfairly. Making sure all points get heard during a discussion. Coming up with easy and simple (though often very inelegant) solutions that result in the desired outcome (I think this is often called quick and dirty).
  I am having trouble thinking of ways I can apply my strengths. This is not good. Hmmm....

Did some reading. Here is what the MBTI folks had to say my strengths are:

  • The ability to hold many points of view in mind and see their differing merits.
  • Seeing ways to do things others have not thought of.
  • Able to give quick and diverse answers to any question of interest.
  • Seeing the other side of a situation and making it known.
  • Being able to juggle many differing jobs or processes at the one time.
  • Easily capable of holding your own in any argument or discussion.
  • The ability to quickly find the best or most useful side of others.
  • Seeing the many connections between events and things which are not immediately obvious to others.

These all seem difficult to put into action in a practical way. 

More advice:

ENTPs who have developed their Introverted Thinking to the extent that they regularly and carefully interpret the information their Extraverted Intuition brings to them will enjoy these special gifts:

  • The ability to solve puzzles and problems that have no obvious way to resolution.
  • The ability to define schematically a new structure or design and know it will work.
  • Knowing and giving to others the very thing they need when they are not sure themselves.
  • A talent for innovative creation in writing, music or the visual arts.
  • The gift of knowing which new ideas or changes will enhance rather than detract from their relationships with others

Rhetorical gymnastics

Words shape perception. We all seek "happiness" in one form or another. Many philosophers have said it is the highest end of man. What this word actually means in many ways defines what we seek. I'm regularly asked "are you happy?" As with most important questions, what this actually means is often rarely defined while prescriptions of how to obtain it abound.

Happiness is usually contrasted with sadness and other negative emotions with contentment being some reasonable, attainable middle ground. However, today I saw someone contrast it with pleasure which really reshaped how I see the word. When the continuum is pleasure >happiness>contentment, happiness slowly comes into focus. I think we all expect pleasure to be fleeting, but there seems to be some feeling of selling ourselves short if our goal is "contentment." Realizing that there are much more engrossing, exuberant states of being than happy reminds me that happiness is just a notch above and is also a generally sustainable goal.

Choice as distraction

Today's talk is on the paradox of choice. I wrote about the debilitating aspects in my own life some time ago and how it really cramped my decision-making process. He explores this idea explicitly and talks about the negative aspects of choice.

Here is the traditional dogma of choice:

maximize welfare = maximize freedom
more freedom = more choice
more choice = more welfare

The four problems of excessive choice (though 1 and 2 are inextricably linked):
  • regret and anticipated regret  
  • opportunity costs increase
  • escalation of expectations
  • self-blame
He does not mean to say that choice is bad, but there is a point of diminishing return, and eventually negative returns....

We have dozens of salad dressings, toothpastes and soap in even the most basic grocery store. He suggests that rather than offering better decisions and more options, we tend to weigh these against any potential purchase we make (thus creating the possibility of future regret). This hypothetical anguish ends up outweighing the potential benefit from any purchase and thus we avoid making it in the first place. Even when we make a good decision, the attractive features (opportunity cost) of other options will always nag at us and detract from the enjoyment of what we chose. 

I know I personally felt the same difficulty when selecting a new cell phone. There is near limitless variety -  OS, camera quality (and front or rear)/flash, storage space, battery life, network carrier and speed, screen type, size and weight. Then factor in price as well as what releases are pending, and what might come in the next six months. It is an incredibly complex optimization of ultility and price - how does one value each aspect? I think companies like Apple have realized this. They have one product (and a few legacy products for sale) at any give time for each product line. This simplifies the decision making process for consumers. It is a good strategy if you don't mind "paying for quality" because you want things that "just work." Even though Apple products often cost twice as much as competing products there is little regret with the purchase as new models are only released (approximately) annually. The lesson: make a good product and don't worry about customizing it too much. K.S.S. (keep it simple stupid)

He also talks about how adding options tends to lead to increased expectations (which lead to eventual disappointment). He relays a story about buying new jeans. There used to be one type of jeans, but now there was a seemingly endless variety - bootcut, straight leg, low rise, different colors, button down, zip up, ect. Even though he left with the best fitting jeans he ever had, he was still disappointed. He attributes this to the fact that because of these options, he expected it to be perfect and if it wasn't, he was the one to blame. When there was only one option, it was the world's fault. However, now that we make the decision, then we feel personally responsibly for the outcome.

He then moves this analysis to the modern world. He talks about how people look wistfully at the past. The reason they do this is because the were offered the possibility of a pleasant surprise. People didn't expect as much. Today, the best we can hope for is to have our expectations me. The cure? He only half jokingly says "low expectations." This clearly has implications for the big decisions we make: marriage, jobs, when we decide to get married, the faith (or lack of) we chose.

Online dating is a good example of the detriment of excessive choice. I think it is a good case study for how product design could potentially make people happier. It makes me think that sites might be better if they went ahead and limited their scope and culled out poor choices (or choices that were out of reach - they could have user rated images so that 10's aren't available to 5's. This could also be done on body types. They could do similar tests to generally asses IQ/verbal reasoning/general education level). People also use the sites for competing purposes (sex, companionship, marriage, curiosity, boredom). If you were required to select a specific purpose, it would preemptively eliminate users who might dangle like candy in front of your face- better yet, the site might eliminate these options altogether. This would increase the signal to noise ratio. It would allow users to focus on what they truly want. I know if I often found myself distracted by girls who excelled in one particular aspect (intelligence, income, attractiveness, warmth, common hobbies/lifestyle) but were in no way a good potential mate. Unfortunately this only made the problem of finding someone I was happy with more difficult. I found myself comparing whoever I was with to the individual who excelled in one area I valued. I ended up trying to seek a made-to-order girlfriend from all of the pieces. Obviously, things don't work like that.

Most interesting (and troublesome) about this talk was his quixotic solution. He attributes choice to excessive wealth (which is true) and his solution is redistribution to poorer nations (who suffer from the opposite problem of too little choice). While I do agree with charity and I  think it would improve their lives, I doubt this was his intention and I doubt it would make ours any better.

What we need (at least in commerce) are better filters, more information and firmer expectations about what we won't accept. Price is a good example. When I search on eBay I do not distract myself (and in some ways do not expose myself) to choices that exceed the amount of money I have allocated for a given purchase. When I shop on Amazon, I immediately filter by 4-star items (this does all three - I can read reviews (information), it is a good proxy for quality, and limits my prospective choices my a large margin). I have rarely regretted any 4-star purchase that was within my price threshold on Amazon (even if I ended up not using it that much).

In everyday life this might extend to where I look for jobs. I am constantly bombarded with emails from a staffing company that places investment professionals all across the country. I see these wonderful job descriptions in places I would never live. These jobs will likely never be available in SC. I want to do the same thing with employment that I do with online dating - piece together a job description, income level and geography into my ideal). I need to limit my exposure to these options that are not a good "potential mates." I am also not qualified for some of these positions (even if I think I would enjoy them). I should not be teasing myself with unrealistic opportunity.

There is also a bit of paradox within this solution. I see two approaches. One is to become rigid and exclusive. Cut this out. Ignore this option. Focus on this or that. The other is the completely opposite approach and not worry about choice at all (so long as my needs are met). To be more accepting. Less critical. Expect less. Default to minimalism. Be grateful. While I think the first is more logical and manageable, my gut tells me it won't make me happy (I will still regret) and the second is where happiness is to be found.

Wherever you go, there you are....

Trust, Friendship and Listening

Today is not based off of any single video as I did a ton of reading. But one particular topic (Trust) did seem like it would hold some insight into what helps relationships become successful. The speaker in the talk below proposed the "Four Horsemen" which spell the end of any relationship. He has some clinical research to backup what he says, but a short list of these common traits are below:

  • criticism
  • contempt - 
  • defensiveness - rather than seeing what the other person is saying
  • stonewalling (withdrawing) - not participating in conversation 

In the talk below he talks about the importance of trust.Trust is more than doing what you say, that is simply reliability. It is an emotional state that arises from the perception (or belief) of shared values. It isn't even necessarily deterred by betrayal. We can still trust people who hurt us (while we might not trust someone who has always done what they said, because of something as simple as the way they dress). Trust fades when we start telling ourselves "I can do better. I don't need this." This leads to resentment instead of gratitude and withdrawal rather than investment.I think this lesson is true for conversations and jobs as it is for marriages. In a separate talk he lists three ideas

Obviously, the opposite of pulling away is being available, or attuned to what the other person is saying. Here is an acrostic which highlights the salient aspects of this process:

A - Awareness (pay attention)
T - Turning towards
T - Tolerance (of other viewpoints)
U - Understanding -
N - Nondefensive responses
E - Empathy

He also highlights that the key to good relationships is the ability to repair, the inevitable poor interactions. Interestingly, the ability to repair depends more on the recipient than the delivery or the person. He discovered that this had a lot to do with the quality of the friendship and the understanding of the psychological makeup of the other participant. Next we need to praise the other person rather than highlighting what they do wrong.

This leads me to believe that the best way to speak to people is to build bonds and develop friendship - in short first establish common ground. It lets me know that my oft-practiced habit of diving straight to the heart of a friend of strangers or difference's is not he best approach. I want to measure wits, but this is a useless endeavor without first sharing what I believe.

In general, I think marriage talks (which often a little light on science) might offer some of the best insights into how to improve my relationships with others. There is a much bigger market for salvaging and improving marriage than their is for those interested in "non-violent" communication. I can focus on the higher quality (and more research based talks) and hopefully learn something about human nature along the way.


New faiths

I haven't posted much lately, but I have still been learning. This past weekend I participated in a series of interfaith events which brought me my first experiences with Baha'i and Sikism. I also incidentally read about Manicheaism after someone name dropped it in an article. 

Sikhism emerged at the borders of Islam and Hinduism and did a good job of synthesizing the better qualities of each and sought (similar to what MLK Jr. and Ghandi would later do) to reform the broken societies in which they existed. I wrote a while ago about how I saw Jesus as a reformer of a broken system of Judaism more than anything else. The purpose was not the elaborate system of food, prayers or scripture, but simply a desire to love your neighbor as yourself. Martin Luther did the same thing 1500 years later as he broke away from the Catholic church. 

It appears throughout history, that new religions have risen out of a desire to transform local culture and promote the "better angels of our nature." After centuries miracles and other supernatural tales are often added - often added and in a desire to compete with the equally lofty claims of other faiths. Repeatedly, subsequent leaders often add rigid rules about food, clothing and other rituals also seem to emerge - even when the original leaders disavowed the need for these rules. These additional practices seem more like perversions (and misplaced faith and purpose) and are generally unrelated to the central messages of most faiths. I guess that isn't a new revelation, but I was surprised to see the similar patterns elsewhere around the world.

I failed. I had a wonderful chance to listen tonight and all I did was blab and blab. I offered lots of nice ideas but I didn't give the other person a chance to talk freely.

Stop offering advice. Just listen.

Still listening

“There is a place out beyond the fields of rightdoing and wrongdoing. I will meet you there”

This talk goes along with with my reading of the Righteous Mind, and 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life as well the recent talk on listening. It encourages listeners to take the time to listen to (more specifically share a meal with) "the other" - those who we see as stark moral opposites. We live in sharply divided times and we have allowed our society to be split into different political/ideological teams. We have created walls, and demonized each other when this isn't really necessary or productive. It lends itself to arguing and division. This process of understand others is an exercising in withholding that judgment and seeking common ground. Below are some guideline she lays out.

  • Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt
  • Be curious
  • Be conversational
  • Be real
  • Listen
  • Share some of your life experiences
  • What issues deeply concern you
  • What have you always wanted to ask someone from the “other side”

It's also generally good advice for understanding other people. One of my favorite things about the UU Compassion class was that we were required to have lunch with one other person each month. I learned so much from those meetings. We avoided politics and talked about our fears as friends.

Thinking about this makes me want to quit watching the news, to quit reading Facebook. I am just arming myself with talking points for "my team" and find myself getting irritated when people post inflammatory comments. It's not a good platform for building friendships.
In any case, I tend to be too antagonistic and her ground rules are a good start to "domesticate" my speech.

Try something new

A thirty day challenge:

The speaker of this talks about a period where he was feeling in a rut (I can relate) and this seemed like the perfect way to spice his life up. It's also a good way to add things to our lives as 30 days seems to be about the right amount of time to build a new habit (or subtract one for that matter). Two I liked that he mentioned are writing a novel in thirty days or riding to bike every day.  He shares three main benefits:

  • Life is more memorable. These challenges mark time very well.
  • Increased self-confidence. You begin to believe in your own abilities
  • More open to new experiences/challenges. 
It's a very short video (only three minutes), but it does offer a few insights. The first being that small changes can add up to big differences. While some habits can actually become permanent, very difficult ones tend to be simple tests of will. This might mean that smaller challenges might have a larger impact as they are much more likely to alter behavior for years instead of days. It's also a good way to convince myself to do something. I think I often feel the pressure to either give up things forever or not bother. This "test drive" tends to be much easier to accomplish. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend last week about fasting. He said he actually went 10 days without food and probably could have gone longer had he promised himself beforehand. HOWEVER had he promised to go much longer, he likely would not have been able to convince himself to start. Now he knows what he is capable of (and is much more likely to try shorter fasts in the future). 

Action Items
  • First Challenge: No sex for thirty days. This will start today and appropriately end on Valentines day. I guess this means more time for TED talks! 
  • Second Challenge: No alcohol for thirty days. I will start on Valentine's day and end, very appropriately on Saint Patrick's day.
  • I will share thoughts on this challenge as time passes. Right now, it seems like a very easy thing to promise, but I know that will change after a couple of weeks. It will be funny to watch myself squirm (and want to rationalize it away) as my own biology reminds me of the importance of this activity. 
  • Also think about what areas I would like to change/improve in the coming weeks. There is no reason I can't run concurrent challenges as the two I listed above will actually provide MORE time to do other things. 
Gratitude Log:
  • Free time at work (so I can do things like this). I was labeling this as boredom but since I have started using the time effectively, I am pretty happy I have it. 
  • A boss that won't let my flaws go unnoticed which has the effect of keeping me in the good graces of others. If I were given to my own devices I would probably come in quite late and not do nearly as much work, but her disapproving glances and watchful eye over my shoulder keep me in line. I need to recognize the benefits of this and thank her for it, rather than being resentful and feeling like I am being micro-managed.
  • Not having credit. I recently closed all of my cards to get better rates so I can pay off and eliminate all of the bills. This means I can't lean on them like I would have in the past when bills/expenses periodically exceed income. It has forced me to not run up unnecessary debt without making any significant changes to my lifestyle. It has shown me that I don't really need credit and I should not give myself access to it in the future as it tends to be an unnecessary crutch. It was also nice to have, for the first time in my life, the perspective of not being able to get whatever I wanted. I honestly can't recall a period of my life where money has limited my ability to buy what I want (within reason).