Tag Archives: advice

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the correspondence bias (here) reminded me of possibly the best commencement speech that I’ve not yet written about (and I’ve written about quite a few): David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wallace’s only public talk concerning his worldview, was adapted following his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life and is essential reading for anyone interested in personal choice: the choice of thinking and acting in a way contrary to our self-centered “default” worldview.

Actually, scrap that, it’s just essential reading for everyone.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

To read the speech I recommend the version from More Intelligent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was given. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journal‘s copy and The Guardian‘s copy may be more to your taste.

Life Advice Through Management Theory and Business Strategy

When Harvard Business School’s class of 2010 invited professor Clayton Christensen (expert on disruptive technology and innovation, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) to address them, they requested he talk on how to apply management theory principles to one’s personal life. Christensen responded by answering three questions:

How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?

One of the theories that gives great insight […] is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. […] My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

I want students to leave my classroom knowing that.

How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?

If a company’s resource allocation process is not managed masterfully, what emerges from it can be very different from what management intended. Because companies’ decision-making systems are designed to steer investments to initiatives that offer the most tangible and immediate returns, companies shortchange investments in initiatives that are crucial to their long-term strategies. […]

When people who have a high need for achievement […] have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. […] In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. […]

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most. […]

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.

How can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

We’re taught in finance and economics that in evaluating alternative investments, we should ignore sunk and fixed costs, and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues that each alternative entails. We learn in our course that this doctrine biases companies to leverage what they have put in place to succeed in the past, instead of guiding them to create the capabilities they’ll need in the future. If we knew the future would be exactly the same as the past, that approach would be fine. But if the future’s different—and it almost always is—then it’s the wrong thing to do. […]

Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.” The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. […] Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “just this once.” […]

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis […] you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

The entire article is well worth a thorough read; it’s full of interesting insights and great advice.

Information, Not Recommendation, the Best Advice

Attempting to discover the most effective way to offer advice, researchers identified four separate types of advice:

  • Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.
  • Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.
  • Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.
  • Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation.

Their study showed that information advice was the most valuable to those making decisions, for a number of reasons:

For one thing, when someone makes a recommendation for or against a particular option, a decision maker may feel like they have lost a bit of their independence in making a choice. Recommendations about how to go about making the choice may also make a decision maker feel a loss of independence. When the advice comes in the form of information, though, the decision maker still feels like they have some autonomy.

Second, information helps people to make future decisions in the same domain. New pieces of information often make people aware of dimensions of a decision that they had never considered before. A recommendation for or against a particular option is useful for the specific decision that you are making at a given time, but that advice may not be as helpful in the future.

Finally, getting information makes people feel more confident in the decision they ultimately make. The information provides reasons for or against a particular option. There is a lot of evidence that people feel better about decisions when they are able to give a reason for making the choice. Information provides a good justification for a choice.

via Lifehacker

Fiction-Writing Rules, from Fiction Writers

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s lauded book of the same name, Ten Rules of Writing, The Guardian asks a selection of 28 authors (from Margaret Atwood to Will Self) for their ten rules of writing for the aspiring fiction author (part two).

Elmore Leonard’s ten are included, and he summarises them with the following:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

The article’s been mentioned in a few places, being discussed at length by Intelligent Life and Salon (the latter adding five of their own rules).

Evidence-Based Methods to Become Lucky

In an attempt to discover whether there were genuine personality traits that separate the lucky from the unlucky, Richard Wiseman studied 400 people over a number of years and discovered that there are indeed behavioural differences between the lucky and luckless—and that we can ‘learn’ these traits to improve our luck.

Wiseman states that the lucky “generate good fortune via four basic principles”:

  • Creating and noticing chance opportunities.
  • Making lucky decisions by listening to their intuition.
  • Creating self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations.
  • Adopting a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

And by realising this and following three simple techniques, you can improve your luck:

  1. Follow your intuition and respect hunches in decision making.
  2. Introduce variety into your life.
  3. See the positive side of misfortune: imagine how things could be worse.

Of the people that followed this advice, 80% identified improvements to their luck and overall happiness.