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.