Category: Thinking

Tradeoffs: The Currency of Decision Making

Every decision we make carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t budget wisely, we end up wasting time and energy on things that don’t matter. Here’s how to do it right.

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Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. — Russ Roberts

The disregard of tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same pattern again and again in our lives. We try to do everything and end up accomplishing nothing.

If you’re young, you think you can go all out in your career, have fulfilling relationships, travel on a regular basis, keep up with reading and social media, go without sleep, take out unnecessary credit card debt, and start a family at the same time. The end result is always a total meltdown.

Even if you are twenty or thirty years past this point, you are not immune. Every day we are faced with choices on how to invest our time, and we all can be guilty of the same thing: Taking on too much without properly understanding the costs. The problem is a misunderstanding of the importance of tradeoffs.

The dismal science

It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less. — Nathan W. Morris

Economics is all about tradeoffs. A tradeoff is loosely defined as any situation where making one choice means losing something else, usually forgoing a benefit or opportunity. We experience tradeoffs in zero-sum situations, when a plus in one area must be a negative in another. A core component of economic theory is the study of how we allocate scarce resources and negotiate opportunity costs.

Economics offers tools that we can use as guides for getting what we want out of life if we take economic lessons and apply them to resources other than money. We all know our money isn’t infinite, yet we end up treating our time and energy and attention as if they are.  Many of us act as if there are no tradeoffs—we can just do everything if we try hard enough. The irony is that those who know how to make tradeoffs can get so much more out of life than those who try to get everything.

That’s not to say we can’t get more out of our time investments, while staying within the limitations imposed by mental and physical health. We can get more efficient in certain areas. We can combine activities. We can decide to focus on one area for a while, then switch to another. We can find plenty of smart ways to achieve more.

But blindly trying to overstuff our days and stretch our minds to their limits is foolish, whatever the self-help gurus and hustle porn promoters claim. We’re sold the false belief that we can be and have everything. As Julian Baggini writes in What’s It All About?: Philosophy & the Meaning of Life, a person in a content, long-term relationship might feel the pressure to get everything right:

They may well be an excellent life partner. But perhaps they are not a sexual athlete, the world’s best communicator, the possessor of a great body, a domestic god or goddess. In their local bookshop, however, they will be told by a book that they can and perhaps should be all of these things. This can foster feelings of inadequacy.

The truth is, when you’re trying to get everything right, you’re getting nothing right.

No one has everything

When we look at other people, we end up getting the impression that they are managing to do everything. They are fantastic parents, their relationships are novel-worthy, they look amazing, their careers are epic, they get enough sleep, and they feel good all the time. This, however, is far from true. We’re just not seeing the hidden tradeoffs they’re making.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become apparent. They sometimes only show up in the long term. We see this in complex adaptive systems. Try to optimize one area and there’s likely to be a price elsewhere. Sometimes it’s an obvious negative equation, like when steroid abuse leads to organ damage, or when fancy houses mask crippling debt.

But often the tradeoffs are genuinely hard to evaluate—people with world-class math abilities are often socially clueless, and many parents sacrifice career advancement to raise their kids. We all have to make sacrifices to be able to invest in what is important to us. Tradeoffs imply that to get really great at a few things, you have to accept being mediocre at a lot more.

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

— Thomas Sowell

Most of us can divide up our lives into a few important areas: work, health, family, relationships, friends, hobbies and so on. It’s an unfortunate truism that we can never quite keep everything in balance. We’re constantly going off-kilter in one area or another and having to make course corrections. When one area goes well, another is usually sliding. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Focus on one area and it’s often to the detriment of another.

If you feel like you’re always behind on some area of your life, it’s probably a sign to reconsider tradeoffs. If you feel like you’re always running in place without making any serious progress on anything you care about, you’re probably making the wrong tradeoffs. We often end up allocating our time, and other scarce resources like money, by default, not in the way that gets us what we want.

How to take tradeoffs into account

The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.

― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

One of the most important areas where we need to pay attention to tradeoffs is when we make decisions. It’s not always enough to consider what we stand to gain from going for option B over option A. We also need to take into account what we lose.

Most big decisions involve major tradeoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s neutral. It’s just the price we pay. Simply being aware of the notion of tradeoffs is enough to change the way we make decisions.

Time is our most fundamental constraint. If you use an hour for one thing, you can’t use it for anything else. Time passes, whatever we do with it. It seems beneficial then to figure out the means of using it with the lowest possible opportunity costs. One of the simplest ways to do this is to establish how you’d like to be using your time, then track how you’re using it for a week. Many people find a significant discrepancy. Once we see the gulf between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be making, it’s easier to work on changing that.

For instance, understanding tradeoffs in time usage is a good way to cut out unwanted, unhelpful behaviors and wastage. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’re not going to spend half an hour reading the news every morning before starting work. It’s another matter to plan how you’re going to spend that time instead. Will you finish work earlier and cook a fancier dinner, or Skype with a friend who lives abroad, or read a chapter of a book?

The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the greater the opportunity cost. We’d all agree that we’d rather devote our time to activities we value, yet we can end up not acting that way out of habit or obligation or simply because we haven’t considered what we’re forgoing. We will never manage to get rid of everything that has low value to us, but we can keep cutting it back.

Multitasking as a way of getting more out of our time without making tradeoffs doesn’t work. The tradeoff in that case is often not doing anything particularly well. If you answer emails when you’re with your kids or friends, you’re not really focusing on either. Your emails are banal and the people you are with feel unimportant. Even if we try to find ways around fundamental constraints, the tradeoffs show up somewhere.

The final requirement in order to take tradeoffs into account is that you really need to be able to let go of not being great at something. If you’ve chosen to prioritize your relationship with your kids over a clean house, then you need to be okay with letting other people see the mess. If you’ve prioritized physical activity over entertainment, you need to accept that other people are going to tease you for being ignorant of what’s going on in the world. If you’ve chosen to focus on your career versus maintaining every friendship you’ve ever had, you need to get over the pang of hurt when people stop inviting you out.

Tradeoffs aren’t always easy, which is probably why we try to avoid them.

Conclusion

If we think we can have it all, we’re more likely to end up with nothing. We can get much farther if we decide where to focus our energy and which areas to ignore. When we actively choose which tradeoffs we want to make, we can feel much better about it than when we’re forced to let things slide. We need to actively decide what we value the most.

Each of the myriad decisions we make on a daily basis carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t consider them, we easily end up stuck in situations where we’re forgoing things we’d rather prioritize. We end up lamenting what we’re missing out on against our will, unsure how this happened. But if we first consider the tradeoffs associated with the decisions we make, we can end up with far more satisfying choices.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World

The less rigid we are in our thinking, the more open minded, creative and innovative we become. Here’s how to develop the power of an elastic mind.

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Society is changing fast. Do we need to change how we think in order to survive?

In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that tends to be emphasized in our society. He also offers good news: we already have the diverse cognitive capabilities necessary to effectively respond to new and novel challenges. He calls this “elastic thinking.”

Mlodinow explains elastic thinking as:

“the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”

In simpler terms, elastic thinking is about letting your brain make connections without direction.

Let’s explore why elastic thinking is useful and how we can get better at it.

***

First of all, let’s throw out the metaphor that our brain is exactly like a computer. Sure, it can perform similar analytic functions. But our brains are capable of insight that is neither analytical nor programmable. Before we can embrace the other types of thinking our brains have innate capacity for, we need to accept that analytic thinking—generally described as the application of systematic, logical analysis—has limitations.

As Mlodinow explains,

“Analytical thought is the form of reflection that has been most prized in modern society. Best suited to analyzing life’s more straightforward issues, it is the kind of thinking we focus on in our schools. We quantify our ability in it through IQ tests and college entrance examinations, and we seek it in our employees. But although analytical thinking is powerful, like scripted processing, it proceeds in a linear fashion…and often fails to meet the challenges of novelty and change.”

Although incredibly useful in a variety of daily situations, analytical thinking may not be best for solving problems whose answers require new ways of doing things.

For those types of problems, elastic thinking is most useful. This is the kind of thinking that enjoys wandering outside the box and generating ideas that fly in and out of left field. “Ours is a far more complex process than occurs in a computer, an insect brain, or even the brains of other mammals,” Mlodinow elaborates. “It allows us to face the world armed with a capability for an astonishing breadth of conceptual analysis.”

Think of it this way: when you come to a river and need to cross it, your analytic thinking comes in handy. It scans the environment to evaluate your options. Where might the water be lowest? Where is it moving the fastest, and thus where is the most dangerous crossing point? What kind of materials are on hand to assist in your crossing? How might others have solved this problem?

This particular river might be new for you, but the concept of crossing one likely isn’t, so you can easily rely on the logical steps of an analytical thinking process.

Elastic thinking is about generating new or novel ideas. When contemplating how best to cross a river, it was this kind of thinking that took us from log bridges to suspension bridges and from rowboats to steamboats. Elastic thinking involves us putting together many disparate ideas to form a new way of doing things.

We don’t need to abandon analytical thinking altogether. We just need to recognize that it has its limitations. If the way we are doing things doesn’t seem to be getting us the results we want, that might be a sign that more elastic thinking is called for.

Why Elasticity?

Mlodinow writes that “humans tend to be attracted to both novelty and change.”

Throughout our history we have willingly lined up and paid to be shocked and amazed. From magic shows and roller coasters to the circus and movies, our entertainment industries never seem to run out of audiences. Our propensity to engage with the new isn’t just confined to entertainment. Think back to the large technological expositions around the turn of the twentieth century that displayed the cutting edge of invention and visions for the future and attracted millions of visitors. Or, going further back, think of the pilgrimages that people made to see new architectural wonders often captured in churches and cathedrals in a time when travel was difficult.

Mlodinow contends these types of actions display a quality “that makes us human…our ability and desire to adapt, to explore, and to generate new ideas.” Part of the reason that novelty attracts us is that we get a hit of feel-good dopamine when we are confronted with something new (and non-threatening). Thus, in terms of our evolutionary history, our tendency to explore and learn was rewarded with a boost of pleasure, which then led to more exploration.

He is careful to explain that exploring doesn’t necessarily mean signing up to go to Mars. We explore when we try something new. “When you socialize with strangers, you are exploring the possibility of new relationships.…When you go on a job interview even though you are employed, you are exploring a new career move.”

The relation of exploration to elasticity is that exploration requires elastic thinking. Exploration, by definition, is venturing into parts unknown where we might be confronted with any manner of new and novel experiences. It’s hard to logically analyze something for which you have no knowledge or experience. It is this attraction to novelty that contributed to our ability to think elastically.

The Value of Emotions in Decision-Making

You can’t make a decision without tapping into your emotions.

Mlodinow suggests that “we tend to praise analytical thought as being objective, untinged by the distortions of human feelings, and therefore tending towards accuracy. But though many praise analytical thought for its detachment from emotion, one could also criticize it as not being inspired by emotion, as elastic thinking is.”

He tells the story of EVR, a man who had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. After the surgery, EVR couldn’t make decisions. He passed IQ tests and tests about current affairs and ethics. But his life slowly fell apart because he couldn’t make a decision.

“In hindsight, the problem in diagnosing EVR was that all the exams were focused on his capability for analytical thinking. They revealed nothing wrong because his knowledge and logical reasoning skills were intact. His deficit would have been more apparent had they given him a test of elastic thinking—or watched him eat a brownie, or kicked him in the shin, or probed his emotions in some other manner.”

EVR had his orbitofrontal cortex removed—a big part of the brain’s reward system. According to Mlodinow, “Without it, EVR could not experience conscious pleasure. That left him with no motivation to make choices or to formulate and attempt to achieve goals. And that explains why decisions such as where to eat caused him problems: We make such decisions based on our goals, such as enjoying the food or the atmosphere, and he had no goals.”

Our ability to feel emotions is therefore a large and valuable component of our biological decision-making process. As Mlodinow explains, “Evolution endowed us with emotions like pleasure and fear in order that we may evaluate the positive or negative implications of circumstances and events.” Without emotion, we have no motivation to make decisions. What is new would have the same effect as what is old. This state of affairs would not be terribly useful for responding to change. Although we are attracted to novelty, not everything new is good. It is our emotional capabilities that can help us navigate whether the change is positive and determine how we can best deal with it.

Mlodinow contends that “emotions are an integral ingredient in our ability to face the challenges of our environment.” Our inclination to novelty can be exploited, however, and today we have to face and address the multiple drains on our emotions and thus our cognitive abilities. Chronic distractions that manipulate our emotional responses require energy to address, leaving us emotionally spent. This leaves us with less emotional energy to process new experiences and information, leaving us with an unclear picture of what might benefit us and what we should run away from.

Frozen Thoughts

Mlodinow explains that “frozen thinking” occurs when you have a fixed orientation that determines the way you frame or approach a problem.

Frozen thinking most likely occurs when you are an expert in your field. Mlodinow argues that “it is ironic that frozen thinking is a particular risk if you are an expert at something. When you are an expert, your deep knowledge is obviously of great value in facing the usual challenges of your profession, but your immersion in that body of conventional wisdom can impede you from creating or accepting new ideas, and hamper you when confronted with novelty and change.”

When you cling to the idea that the way things are is the way they always are going to be, you close off your brain from noticing new opportunities. In most jobs, this might translate into missed opportunities or an inability to find solutions under changing parameters. But there are some professions where the consequences can be significantly more dire. For instance, as Mlodinow discusses, if you’re a doctor, frozen thinking can lead to major errors in diagnosis.

Frozen thinking is incompatible with elastic thinking. So if you want to make sure you aren’t just regurgitating more of the same while the world evolves around you, augment your elastic thinking.

The ‘How’ of Elastic Thinking

Our brains are amazing. In order to tap into our innate elastic thinking abilities, we really just have to get out of our own way and stop trying to force a particular thinking process.

“The default network governs our interior mental life—the dialogue we have with ourselves, both consciously and subconsciously. Kicking into gear when we turn away from the barrage of sensory input produced by the outside world, it looks toward our inner selves. When that happens, the neural networks of our elastic thought can rummage around the huge database of knowledge and memories and feelings that is stored in the brain, combining concepts that we normally would not recognize. That’s why resting, daydreaming, and other quiet activities such as taking a walk can be powerful ways to generate ideas.”

Mlodinow emphasizes that elastic thinking will happen when we give ourselves quiet space to let the brain do its thing.

“The associative processes of elastic thinking do not thrive when the conscious mind is in a focused state. A relaxed mind explores novel ideas; an occupied mind searches for the most familiar ideas, which are usually the least interesting. Unfortunately, as our default networks are sidelined more and more, we have less unfocused time for our extended internal dialogue to proceed. As a result, we have diminished opportunity to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realizations.”

Here are some suggestions for how to develop elastic thinking:

  • Cultivate a “beginner’s mind” by questioning situations as if you have no experience in them.
  • Introduce discord by pursuing relationships and ideas that challenge your beliefs.
  • Recognize the value of diversity.
  • Generate lots of ideas and don’t be bothered that most of them will be bad.
  • Develop a positive mood.
  • Relax when you see yourself becoming overly analytical.

The main lesson is that fruitful elastic thinking doesn’t need be directed. Like children and unstructured play, sometimes we have to give our brains the opportunity to just be. We also have to be willing to stop distracting ourselves all the time. Often it seems that we are afraid of our own thoughts, or we assume that to be quiet is to be bored, so we search for distractions that keep our brain occupied. To encourage elastic thinking in our society, we have to wean ourselves away from the constant stimuli provided by screens.

Mlodinow explains that you can prime your brain for insights by cultivating the kind of mindset that generates them. Don’t force your thinking or apply an analytical approach to the situation. “The challenge of insight is the analogous issue of freeing yourself from narrow, conventional thinking.”

When it comes to developing and exploring the possibilities of elastic thinking, it is perhaps best to remember that, as Mlodinow writes, “the thought processes we use to create what are hailed as great masterpieces of art and science are not fundamentally different from those we use to create our failures.”

Illusion of Transparency: Your Poker Face is Better Than You Think

We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency bias can improve relationships, job performance, and more.

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“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When we experience strong emotions, we tend to think it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, we may assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.

That’s not true. Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up on is known as the illusion of transparency. It’s a fallacy that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.

For example, you arrive at the office exhausted after a night with too little sleep. You drift around all day, chugging espressos, feeling sluggish and unfocused. Everything you do seems to go wrong. At the end of the day, you sheepishly apologize to a coworker for being “useless all day.”

They look at you, slightly confused. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘You seemed fine to me.’ Clearly, they’re just being polite. There’s no way your many minor mistakes during the day could have escaped their notice. It must be extra apparent considering your coworkers all show up looking fresh as a daisy every single day.

Or imagine that you have to give a talk in front of a big crowd and you’re terrified. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Afterward, you chat to someone from the audience and remark: ‘So that’s what a slow-motion panic attack looks like.’

‘Well, you seemed like a confident speaker,’ they say. ‘You didn’t look nervous at all. I wish I could be as good at public speaking.’ Evidently, they were sitting at the back or they have bad eyesight. Your shaking hands and nervous pauses were far too apparent. Especially compared to the two wonderful speakers who came after you.

No one cares

“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to pick up on subtle cues related to the feelings of others. If you’re annoyed at your partner, they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your coworkers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about the next time they have to do any public speaking or when they can get a coffee.

In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make even the slightest effort to conceal your inner state, you’re quite able to hide it altogether from everyone.

Our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This egocentric bias leads to the spotlight effect—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.

Take the case of lying. Even if we try to err on the side of honesty, we all face situations where we feel we have no option except to tell a lie. Setting aside the ethics of the matter, most of us probably don’t feel good about lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. In one study, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught about half the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about a quarter of the time—a rate low enough for random chance to account for it.

Tactics

“Even if one is neither vain nor self-obsessed, it is so extraordinary to be oneself—exactly oneself and no one else—and so unique, that it seems natural that one should also be unique for someone else.” ― Simone de Beauvoir

Understanding how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.

Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views.

Likewise, if you think you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.

As Dylan Evans writes in Risk Intelligence: How To Live With Uncertainty,

The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice it can be done.

The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Set yourself free

Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Guess what? No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.

Back to public speaking: We get it all wrong when we think people can tell we’re nervous about giving a talk. In a study entitled “The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety,” Kenneth Savitskya and Thomas Gilovich tested how knowing about the effect could help people feel less scared about public speaking.1 When participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected.

But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.

The sun revolves around me, doesn’t it?

In psychology, anchoring refers to our tendency to make an estimated guess by selecting whatever information is easily available as our “anchor,” then adjusting from that point. Often, the adjustments are insufficient. This is exactly what happens when you try to guess the mental state of others. If we try to estimate how a friend feels, we take how we feel as our starting point, then adjust our guess from there.

According to the authors of a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,”

People are typically quite aware of their own internal states and tend to focus on them rather intently when they are strong. To be sure, people recognize that others are not privy to the same information as they are, and they attempt to adjust for this fact when trying to anticipate another’s perspective. Nevertheless, it can be hard to get beyond one’s own perspective even when one knows that.

This is similar to hindsight bias, where things seem obvious in retrospect, even if they weren’t beforehand. When you look back on an event, it’s hard to disentangle what you knew then from what you know now. You can only use your current position as an anchor, a perspective which is inevitably skewed.

If you’re trying to hide your mental state, you’re probably doing better than you think. Unless you’re talking to, say, a trained police interrogator or professional poker player, other people are easy to fool. They’re not looking that hard, so a mild effort to hide your emotions is likely to work well. People can’t read your mind, whether you’re trying to pretend you don’t hate the taste of a trendy new beer, or trying to conceal your true standing in a negotiation to gain more leverage.

The illusion of transparency explains why, even once you’re no longer a teenager, it still seems like few people understand you. It’s not that other people are ambivalent or confused. Your feelings just aren’t as clear as you think. Often you can’t see beyond the confines of your own head and neither can anyone else. It’s best to make allowances for that.

Footnotes
  • 1

    https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u47/sdarticle.pdf

Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking

Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.

***

As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.

When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.

Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”

Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.

In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.

History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.

Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?

One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.

Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.

The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness

Along the same vein as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness is the business philosophy handbook from the marketing, advertising, and PR firm Ogilvy & Mather.

The book is a roadmap for the desired organizational culture at Ogilvy & Mather and clearly articulates the unique culture they espouse: one focused heavily on creativity.

The book outlines eight simple virtues of an organization where creativity is pervasive:

  1. Courage
  2. Idealism
  3. Curiosity
  4. Playfulness
  5. Candour
  6. Intuition
  7. Free-Spiritedness
  8. Persistence

These eight virtues are common to creative people down through the ages. They are our path to recognizing our own inner greatness. Together, they should represent the distillation of what is best in this company. We must live by them and for them.

1. Courage

If fear is our principal adversary, then, courage is our chief ally. It is the first of the eight creative habits for good reason: it is the habit that guarantees all the others.

In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.

2. Idealism

Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist, was asked by a journalist what she thought would be worse than being born blind. She replied without missing a beat, ‘to have sight and no vision.’

3. Curiosity

‘He who no longer pauses to wonder and stand rapt in awe,’ Einstein pronounced, ‘is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

It is only in the open state of curiosity that we can explore, dream and make babies in our heads.

For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.

Once again, Einstein has something to say on the matter (as well as proving that he would have made a very short-lived cat): ‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted,’ the physicist said. ‘I am only very, very curious.’

4. Playfulness

David (Ogilvy) never entirely grew up.

He would heckle in meetings, throw chocolate cakes at dinner parties and roll down grassy slopes in Brooks Brothers suits.

He told us to develop our eccentricities while we’re young so people would not think we’re going gaga as we got older.

Like all creative people, David knew that necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is horseplay that’s most certainly the father.

5. Candour

We are a company of problem solvers.

Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.

For unless we know the truth, in all its unlovely details, how are we going to go about the business of problem solving.

The tendency to be nice and avoid telling the truth is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

6. Intuition

We waste our beautiful mind by leaning lopsidedly on logic.

We are in the business of creativity and discovery. What clients value most about us is our ability to find one-of-a-kind solutions for their business problems through intuitive leaps.

7. Free-Spiritedness

Ironically, most agencies fail to grasp the fragility of the idea-generation process.

The notion that bureaucratic sausage factories pumping out fodder for meetings will solve the problem is ludicrous, as are the box-ticking, paint-by-numbers follow-up sessions.

The work is, not infrequently, as dull as the meetings that precede it.

Bureaucracy has no place in an ideas company.

8. Persistence

If the client kills your day, do him a better one.

If he kills the better one, do him an even better one.

If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

Dogged determination is often the only trait that separates a moderately creative person from a highly creative one.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you’ll have a very hard time finding it on the open market (as the Amazon link above attests). To learn more this video does a great job of summarizing the eight virtues. You could also listen to The Knowledge Project Podcast Episode #19 with Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.

The Lies We Tell

We make up stories in our minds and then against all evidence, defend them tooth and nail. Understanding why we do this is the key to discovering truth and making wiser decisions.

***

Our brains are quirky.

When I put my hand on a hot stove, I have instantly created awareness of a cause and effect relationship—“If I put my hand on a hot stove, it will hurt.” I’ve learned something fundamental about the world. Our brains are right to draw that conclusion. It’s a linear relationship, cause and effects are tightly coupled, feedback is near immediate, and there aren’t many other variables at play.

The world isn’t always this easy to understand. When cause and effect aren’t obvious, we still draw conclusions. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers an example of how our brains look for, and assume, causality:

“After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.”

That’s all you get. No background on Jane, or any particulars about where she went. Kahneman presented this miniature story to his test subjects hidden among several other statements. When Kahneman later offered a surprise recall test, “the word pickpocket was more strongly associated with the story than the word sights, even though the latter was actually in the sentence while the former was not.” 1

What happened here?

There’s a bug in the evolutionary code that makes up our brains. We have a hard time distinguishing between when cause and effect is clear,  as with the hot stove or chess, and when it’s not, as in the case of Jane and her wallet. We don’t like not knowing. We also love a story.

Our minds create plausible stories. In the case of Jane, many test subjects thought a pickpocket had taken her wallet, but there are other possible scenarios. More people lose wallets than have them stolen. But our patterns of beliefs take over, such as how we feel about New York or crowds, and we construct cause and effect relationships. We tell ourselves stories that are convincing, cheap, and often wrong. We don’t think about how these stories are created, whether they’re right, or how they persist. And we’re often uncomfortable when someone asks us to explain our reasoning.

Imagine a meeting where we are discussing Jane and her wallet, not unlike any meeting you have this week to figure out what happened and what decisions your organization needs to make next.

You start the meeting by saying “Jane’s wallet was stolen. Here’s what we’re going to do in response.”

But one person in the meeting, Micky, Jane’s second cousin, asks you to explain the situation.

You volunteer what you know. “After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.” And you quickly launch into improved security measures.

Micky, however, tells herself a different story, because just last week a friend of hers left his wallet at a store. And she knows Jane can sometimes be absentminded. The story she tells herself is that Jane probably lost her wallet in New York. So she asks you, “What makes you think the wallet was stolen?”

The answer is obvious to you. You feel your heart rate start to rise. Frustration sets in.

You tell yourself that Micky is an idiot. This is so obvious. Jane was out. In New York. In a crowd. And we need to put in place something to address this wallet issue so that it doesn’t happen again. You think to yourself that she’s slowing the group down and we need to act now.

What else is happening? It’s likely you looked at the evidence again and couldn’t really explain how you drew your conclusion. Rather than have an honest conversation about the story you told yourself and the story Micky is telling herself, the meeting gets tense and goes nowhere.

The next time you catch someone asking you about your story and you can’t explain it in a falsifiable way, pause, and hit reset. Take your ego out of it. What you really care about is finding the truth, even if that means the story you told yourself is wrong.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011