Category: Uncategorized

Never Heard of It

I’ve been thinking about this ever since someone sent me Lyza’s beautiful article Never Heard of It.

Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.

When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.

I recognized this in myself, this fear of looking like I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t love it. At the same time, there was so much to keep on top of … that to be entirely informed about all of these things wasn’t feasible either, no matter the level of effort.

I decided that I wanted to come to terms with not knowing everything, to be able to say never heard of it and not feel panicky.

Her fear, probably one we all share at some level, wasn’t that she didn’t want to look like she didn’t know what she was doing, but maybe that she actually didn’t know what she was doing.

And no one wants to draw attention to themselves by asking a ‘stupid’ question. Or pointing out they don’t know.

In group settings, this has lead to what psychologists call ‘pluralistic ignorance,’ a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. This causes huge problems in organizations.

Consider an example. You’re in a large meeting with the senior management of your organization to discuss an initiative that spans across the organization and involves everyone in the room. You hear words come out, someone may even ask you, do you follow? And yes, of course, you follow — you don’t want to be the only person in the room without a clue.

“To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence,” writes Tim Kreider, “is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.” No wonder we have such a hard time owning up when we don’t know something.

So you walk out of the room, wondering what you just agreed to do. You have no idea. Your stress goes up, you run around asking others, and quickly discover they are just as confused as you are.

This project isn’t doomed, it’s just a lot more work now than it needs to be. You either guess at what was intended and take a leap of faith, or you spend an endless amount of time and organizational energy chasing this down after the meeting.

Information is coming to us with greater velocity and magnitude. “I don’t know” might be the most powerful admission you can make in the internet era.

The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are

“Friendships are the least institutionalized and most voluntary social relationship we have.”

In Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, Carlin Flora explores “the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives.”

What is Friendship?

Friendships are the least institutionalized and most voluntary social relationship we have. Our friends can cycle in and out of our hearts and calendars; they can be our “everything” or just a refreshing anomaly, a small pop of color in a busy social landscape. Amorphous in nature, friendship fills in the cracks left open by our personalities, or backgrounds, or temporary circumstances. Friends adapt to our needs and styles, and we to theirs. Perhaps we’ll never arrive at a precise definition, but descriptions of true friends can bring a jolt of recognition.

De Amicitia
Cicero, in somewhere around 44 BC, wrote De Amicitia, a beautiful piece on friendship. In it, he writes:

[H]ow can life be what Ennius calls “the life worth living,” if it does not repose on the mutual goodwill of a friend? What is sweeter than to have someone with whom you may dare discuss anything as if you were communing with yourself? How could your enjoyment in times of prosperity be so great if you did not have someone whose joy in them would be equal to your own?

Cicero defines friendship as “complete sympathy in all matters of importance, plus goodwill and affection.”

Montaigne was no stranger to friendship either. He penned a work on the subject “Of Friendship,” in 1580. Portraying his usually strong bond with Étienne de La Boétie.

Friendship as Love

The closest of friendships contain the mysterious spark of attraction and connection as well as drama, tension, envy, sacrifice, and love. For some, it’s the highest form of love there is.

Predicting Friendship Duration

The longer you are friends with someone, the more likely you’ll continue to be friends. Time spent as friends is the best predictor of friendship longevity.

Parenting and Creating a Sense of Entitlement
While The Secrets of Happy Families primarily concerns the present happiness of your family, long term implications need to be considered. Maximizing the short term at the cost of the long term needs to be considered. Often what’s great in the short term creates horrible outcomes. For instance, you could go shoot meth right now. You’d wreck your life, but it’d be a great few hours to start.

Some researchers believe that parents who were concerned more with being “liked” as a friend than with being respected as a leader caused the uptick in feelings of entitlement and narcissistic traits among today’s young people, compared to the youth of 1979.

What Does Friendship Mean to You?

If I ask you, “What does friendship mean to you?” you might say loyalty or compatibility, in the abstract. However, if I ask you why eight different people are your friends, I’ll bet you would describe their individual qualities, the circumstances in which you met, and the traits they tend to bring out in you— this one invites you to fun parties and that one challenges you to be a better person. In other words, asking people to define friendship in the first place is a bit like asking people to define flowers. Friends have baseline characteristics just as flowers are basically the blossoms of a plant, but beyond that they are unique and thrive under very different conditions.

As hard to grasp as it is, friendship brings with it a host of benefits to mood and health.

Solid friendships can help you shed pounds, sleep better, stop smoking, and even survive a major illness. They can also improve memory and problem-solving abilities, break down prejudices and ethnic rivalries, motivate people to achieve career dreams, and even repair a broken heart.

We are generally unaware that our friends influence everything “from our basic linguistic habits to our highest aspirations.” The converse is also true. Without friends it’s easier to spiral downward.

[H]aving few social ties is an equivalent mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even riskier than being obese or not exercising!

Evolution and Friends

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that friendship has roots in our early dependence on others for survival. Having a friend help you hunt, for instance, made it more likely that you and your family—and your hunting buddy and his family—would have food cooking over the fire.

Just because we don’t build fires and hunt in packs doesn’t mean we don’t need friends today.

Anthropologists have found compelling evidence of friendship throughout history and across cultures. Universally, we’re built to care deeply about select people outside of our kin group. It’s hard to construct a personal life history that doesn’t include important parts for one’s friends.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg points out that “more people live alone now than at any time in history.” So the argument goes that if more people are living outside of traditional family structures friends become even more important.

More than for single people, friendships often help marriages.

Friends are also important for parents and those who are married or living with a romantic partner. Time with friends is actually our most pleasant time: We are most likely to experience positive feelings and least likely to experience negative ones when we are with friends compared to when we are with a spouse, child, coworker, relative, or anyone else. We’re not surprised when we hear people grumbling about how they have to attend a family holiday party, yet it would puzzle us to hear the same people complain about having to go to a celebration full of their friends.

Friends or Families?
Why do we prefer spending time with our friends over our families?

Some say it is because we pick our friends (God’s consolation prize) while we don’t pick our families. Insofar as we choose our spouses and decide to have children, we do have some say over our families. More likely, our time with our pals is more enjoyable because of our expectations. When we’re with friends, we bring sympathy and understanding and leave out some of the grievances we carry into interactions with family members. We tend to demand less from friends than we do from relatives or our romantic partners, and each friend provides us distinct benefits.

Busy Parents Should Stop Considering Friendships a Nonessential Luxury.

When working parents devote every scrap of free time to their children, their friendships are the first thing to slide. We know from research (and our own intuition quickly confirms this) that expecting one’s spouse to be everything is a recipe for disaster. Leaning on friends for intellectual stimulation, emotional support, and even just fun activities relieves the pressure of the overheated nuclear family. Busy moms and dads would do well to stop considering friends to be a nonessential luxury.

Time With Friends

The more friends want and enjoy our company, the more we tend to enjoy theirs, whereas lovers sometimes become more desirable the more they pull away from us.

Friends Make Work Better

If you can count at least three dear friends at the office, you are 96 percent more likely to be extremely satisfied with life in general.

As the role of friendship seems to expand in our culture, Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, offers a look at the often under-appreciated influence it has on “our personalities, habits, physical health, and even our chances of success in life.”

Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society.”

Centuries ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Pain and pleasure … govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” There is little doubt that we are drawn to physical pleasure and work hard to avoid physical pain. But do they “govern us in all we do”? Is this all that we are? I think they govern us far less than we typically assume. The institutions and incentive structures of society operate largely in accordance with Bentham’s claim and thus are missing out on some of the most profound motivators of human behavior.

What Bentham and the rest of us typically overlook is that humans are wired with another set of interests that are just as basic as physical pain and pleasure. We are wired to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family.We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.

The Neural Overlap Between Social and Physical Pain

We believe that social and physical pain are radically different. Yet, Lieberman argues, the way our brains respond to them suggests they are “more similar than we imagine.”

Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response.

The Brain has Developed to Mindread Others
We’ve developed in a way to work with and adapt to others. We’re wired to develop social relationships.

While we tend to think it is our capacity for abstract reasoning that is responsible for Homo sapiens’ dominating the planet, there is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species may be attributable to our ability to think socially. The greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition; social reasoning is what allows us to build and maintain the social relationships and infrastructure needed for teams to thrive.

There is a conflict between social and nonsocial thinking.

In many situations, the more you turn on the brain network for nonsocial reasoning, the more you turn off the brain network for social reasoning. This antagonism between social and nonsocial thinking is really important because the more someone is focused on a problem, the more that person might be likely to alienate others around him or her who could help solve the problem. Effective nonsocial problem solving may interfere with the neural circuitry that promotes effective thinking about the group’s needs.

We are Socially Malleable.
As always we adapt:

In Eastern cultures, it is generally accepted that only by being sensitive to what others are thinking and doing can we successfully harmonize with one another so that we may achieve more together than we can as individuals. We might think that our beliefs and values are core parts of our identity, part of what makes us us. But, as I’ll show, these beliefs and values are often smuggled into our minds without our realizing it.

“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

Social Networks for Social Networks

Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.

These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

Lieberman explores three primary social adaptations:

evolutionary history
Source: Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.

Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.

Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

But so what? Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect goes on to explain how we can use these adaptations as principles for how to teach and learn, enhance well-being, and make the workplace more responsive to our social wiring.

Humans are adapted to be highly social, but the organizations through which we live our lives are not adapted to us. We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes. Institutions often focus on IQ and income and miss out on the social factors that drive us.

The Joy of Finding Things Out

Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower created the Feynman Series, a trilogy of physicist Richard Feynman’s penetrating insight into domains outside of physics. Consider the first, Richard Feynman on Beauty.

Honours, the second part, shows Feynman’s healthy disrespect for authority.

I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. Honors is epilets, honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don’t understand myself.

Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: ‘we physicists have to stick together because there’s a very good chemist that they’re trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room…’. What’s the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten . Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.

Marcus Aurelius on How to Act and Four Habits of Thought to Eliminate

Some advice from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a
Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and
patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight-not straightened.

Later he adds this bit of timeless wisdom:

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.

Four habits of thought to eliminate.

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them. Tell yourself:

* This thought is unnecessary.
* This one is destructive to the people around you.
* This wouldn’t be what you really think (to say what you don’t think—the definition of absurdity.)

And the fourth reason for self-reproach: that the more divine part of you has been beaten and subdued by the degraded mortal part—the body and its stupid self-indulgence.

The best way to read Meditations is not necessarily from start to finish. Another idea, is pair it with Montaigne’s How to Live and read random pages from one every few days.

Napoleon’s Fatal Mistake

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo

France of the 1790s provided an ideal place for Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to the top. Paul Johnson explains in Napoleon: A Life:

It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for “a Man on horseback” to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.

Napoleon epitomized opportunism.

Bonaparte believed not in revolution but in change; perhaps accelerated evolution is the exact term. He wanted things to work better, or more fairly, and also faster. In England he would have been a utilitarian; in the United States, a federalist and a follower of Alexander Hamilton …

For better or worse, he was a product of the revolution.

The program could not have been successfully carried out without Bonaparte—that is certain. But equally certain is that Bonaparte would not have possessed the ruthless disregard of human life, of natural and man-made law, of custom and good faith needed to carry it through without the positive example and teaching of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil.

In this awesome transformation, Bonaparte was the Demogorgon, the infernal executive, superbly molded by nature and trained by his own ambitions and experiences to take the fullest advantage of the power the Revolution had created and bequeathed to him.

In his first invasion of Italy in 1796, an “imaginative and symbolic” success he set the tone for his relationship with his troops:

Soldiers, you are naked, ill-fed. … But rich provinces and great towns will soon be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and wealth. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be wanting in courage and steadfastness [to obtain these things.]

His implicit contract with his troops: win the war and take the loot. One small and powerful gesture that might be looked over is that Bonaparte made it easy for their spoils to be transferred back to their families.

This made military sense, for it enabled soldiers to save instead of squandering their trophies on drunken debauchery.

Part of Napoleon’s success resulted from the difference between him and his enemies. The Duke of Wellington, who would ultimately be victorious at Waterloo, pinpointed Bonaparte’s advantage.

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one prodigious advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought one my knees to the bard of the House of Commons.

Before Bonaparte, Wellington had only seen delegated power in the field. Now he was facing direct power. For example, he appointed his own subordinates, whereas Wellington often had generals foisted upon him.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, in terms of how the weak win wars. Often they don’t appear to play by what we consider the established rules. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, Arreguín-Toft concludes in his book How the Weak Win Wars, they win, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Napoleon enjoyed the freedom to take risks that his adversaries wouldn’t or couldn’t for political or other reasons. These risks fit perfectly with “his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking.”

The soldiers liked this high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk.

Ultimately Bonaparte’s most useful weapon was fear.

It was this one he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start-it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defenses before a French shot was fired.

When fighting campaigns, Bonaparte, with few exceptions, was usually vastly outnumbered. Often the other side was a coalition of nations.

His strategy therefore was not only to strike quickly but to strike between his opponents’ forces, before they could join together. He went for each in turn, hoping he would have numerical superiority and defeat them separately. The Allied armies thus rarely had the confidence of numbers, and even when they had, Bonaparte’s notorious ability to bring up reinforcements quickly and surprisingly tended to undermine it.

Napoleon also showed a great understanding by aligning his instructions with his strategy.

No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence, the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan as: attack!

Generals, for their part, preferred simple plans. Often these instructions had to be carried by hand to the front line, and innumerable things could go wrong.

Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory, at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, can be summed up for three reasons:

First, he had complete unity of command. The senior Allied commander, M.I. Kutuzov, had in practice no chance to adopt and carry out a unified tactical plan, and authority was hopelessly divided between sovereigns and individual commanders, some of whom acted on their own initiative. Second, in the poor conditions, orders were frequently miscarried or were misunderstood or disobeyed. … Third, French united operated more efficiently. Their cavalry, and the artillery were persistently resourceful: informed that the Russians were trying to escape over frozen ponds, they quickly prepared red-hot shots and fired them into the ice, breaking it, and causing 2,000 Russians to be drowned.”

I found this bit particularly enlightening. Organizations, large and small, would do well to listen to the lesson embedded within this passage.

What few possessed—and therein lay their weakness—was independence of mind. They were, almost without exception, subordinates. Under the command of a decisive military genius like Bonaparte, they could perform prodigies. They rushed to obey his orders, to please him, to earn his praise and rewards. Sometimes, given an independent command, they acted well, especially if his orders were explicit and the task reasonably simple. But on their own, they tended to be nervous, looking over their shoulders, unresourceful in facing new problems he had not taught them how to solve. This exasperated the emperor, especially in Spain, where they all failed.”

But it was his own fault.

He did not like to delegate, and therefore the men he promoted under his command tended to be those who carried out his orders with precision, rather than men with their own minds. The weakness was central to the failure of the empire, for Bonaparte used his marshals and generals not only to command distant armies, which he could not supervise in detail, but to govern provinces and kingdoms, run embassies, put down rebellions, and deal with all of the crises that, from time to time, swept across territories of nearly eighty million souls.

If you’re hiring men and women who, while they can carry out instructions lack a general ability to think, what makes you think your results will be different?

In Napoleon: A Life is “the magisterial historian Paul Johnson offers a vivid look at the life of the strategist, general, and dictator who conquered much of Europe.”