Why We Do Better

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

In his essay on the wisdom of lifting barbells, Nassim Taleb applies the principle of tail risk to strength training. Our bodies get stronger not from the monotonous humdrum of routine activities (rising from bed, sitting in a car, sitting in the middle row at team meetings, walking to our car, etc.), but from exposure to infrequent extremes: lifting weight off the ground at the very edge of our muscular and skeletal capacity.

He uses the analogy of weight-testing a bridge:

“You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.”

Frequent, trivial insults chip away at a system (low back pain, carpel-tunnel, etc.). Rare, intense shocks may strengthen them.

For the past decade, Millennials have faced a glut of minor knocks but, outside of the 2008 U.S. recession, relatively few cultural hammers. Despite being the savviest participants in social media, the most connected and technologically capable, and having the broadest access to education and global impact, commentators describe the average Millennial as sheltered, anxious, and timid.

It makes sense that a generation insulated from failure and conflict would popularize the concept of microaggressions: frequent, trivial insults that chip away at self-esteem and dignity. And, like a overactive immune response, the battle against microaggressions has not strengthened Millennial political or social clout.

To the majority of voting Millennials, the election of Donald Trump was a tail event: an unthinkable catastrophe, an existential threat made concrete.

A macroaggression.

What if that was exactly what the generation needed? An extreme event that would organize, mobilize, and strengthen the entire system? What if the most connected, most educated generation was also the most politically engaged?

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

Why We Do Better

In the physical world, echoes muddle. An echoing voice (say, a friend calling out to you in the forest) gets softer, cloudier with each bounce. We hear the pitch, but the message is garbled.

In the informational domain, echoes do the opposite: they clarify. Take an idea and listen to how it echoes in the history of literature, or philosophy, or political action. With each echo, each occurrence, the theme distills, the message sharpens. When history echoes, we understand it more clearly.

This short movie visualizes a speech by Alan Watts. Watts reminds us of something we knew as toddlers:

“The physical universe is basically playful…the same way [as] dancing. You don’t aim for a particular spot in the room because that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

When we watch partners dance, we don’t observe the angle of their elbows, the sway of their hips and grasp for a greater purpose. The purpose is the dance.  We may understand our entire life in this way: the goal is not achievement or completion, but engagement, expression, presence.  In this way, we dance with every moment.

Seven-hundred years before Watts, the poet Rumi echoes:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
In this way, we dance with every moment.

There are many ways to dance. You might smash cake. I might make soup. (More echoes.)

You don’t have to change anything you’re doing. You don’t have to stop; you haven’t been going anywhere. You’ve been dancing the whole time.

In this way, we dance with every moment.

 

Why We Do Better

From earlier this summer, what I call the prognostic treadmill:

“The hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness (or curmudgeonliness) shortly after events we thought would bring us lasting joy: that new Tesla, that condo with the view, that promotion (long overdue, really).

We are less familiar with, yet no less afflicted by, the prognostic treadmill:

Our tendency to return to a level of confidence in our predictive ability, shortly after events that confirm our inability to make predictions: failure to reach last year’s growth targets, global economic recessions, populist upheavals.”

A shocking event scrambles the neat picture of the future that we held in our heads, like a child dashing a finished jigsaw puzzle to the floor.

For a fleeting instant, we see the unfolding of human history as it is: impervious to prediction. Anti-certain. Unfortunately, our brains crave closure.

Moments after the experts and pundits get it wrong, we gasp for more predictions, new predictions to settle our roiling bellies. Like salt water, bad predictions just make us thirstier for more predictions.

What would it look like to sit in uncertainty? To admit that in complex environments with interlocking dependencies, the odds are always 50-50? That it is better to have no map than a wrong map?

Might you be more cautious? Might you listen more closely? Might you work a little harder?

We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for possibilities.

Why We Do Better

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the meantime though, there is a lot of fuckery.

If you find yourself waking up with a tightness in your chest, the grim ache of a gutpunch, or the simple fear of progress undone, then do not slide into dread.

In the morning light: breathe, stretch, and shake.

Breathe: Find a quiet room that you can sit in for 15-30 minutes today. Download and listen to a guided meditation. This one from Tara Brach is one of my favorites. You can also download the Headspace app, which explains how and why meditation improves our health with brief, adorable animations, then guides you through a 10-minute meditation. The app also offers themed meditations for topics like stress, anxiety, and sleep. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Listen to the moment unfold.

Stretch: Write down three things for which you are grateful right now. Do this every day. For support, get the Five Minute Journal, which provides a short, daily gratitude practice. Dread narrows our vision, contracts our muscles. In time, persistent dread paralyzes, like micro-doses of poison dripped into a morning coffee. We must reach past nihilism, which doesn’t serve us, which has never served. Research suggests that gratitude journaling improves mood, focus, and progress toward personal goals. On some days, finding something you are grateful for will feel like a stretch. That is exactly what we want. Stretching makes us mobile.

Shake: Move. Get involved. Take a long walk. Ask questions. Find alternate perspectives. Listen more. Read more. Donate. Lend a hand. Misery loves inaction. If you feel sore, shake it out and get to work.

Breathe, stretch, shake. Each morning is an opportunity.

Why We Do Better

What happens when the narrative ends?

Since you were a kid, you told yourself stories: that your team was cursed, that you struggled with math, that you hated asparagus, that you needed to be polite, that you were the funny kid, that you were a romantic cynic.

And then, one day, the streak is broken. Your team wins. You ace the test. You try aspara bacon. You lose your cool. You stop telling jokes. You have hope – if only for a moment.

What happens then? It’s easiest to continue telling the same story as always. Yesterday was an aberration, an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule.

It’s harder to begin telling a new story: you aren’t the underdog, and from now on math and vegetables and cheesy love are all important to you.

What’s most difficult is to drop the narrative altogether. To stop character-building, to stop using the past to foreshadow the future, to listen to the moment rather than talk over it.

Why We Do Better

Who wins a debate?

Who had the better argument?

Who seemed more likable?

Who showed more strength?

Who was more informed?

Who blinked less?

Who was more memorable?

Who was funnier?

Who convinced more people of their position?

Who had more empathy?

Who showed more certainty?

Of course, it doesn’t matter. Because the person that wins is the person that does the work, investigates the problems, builds the coalition, earns trust, takes responsibility for the outcome. This is the person that wins, whether they show up to the debate or not.

Why We Do Better

If free food doesn’t excite you, nothing will.

That’s about the least you can care about something. If an event boasts of free pie, you know they are in a low-care business. The conference room might be packed, but 99% people are just there for the food. When the food runs out, or the organizers ask people commit to anything (anything), the attendees will flock to the exit.

And of course, you avoid opportunities like that because you’d rather spend your time on something that you care about, pie-or-no-pie.

So that’s one end of the Care Spectrum. What would sit at the other end? What is the opposite of free pie?

How about a punch in the face?

Very few people would show up to an event that boasts it will punch every attendee in the face. In fact, let’s assume this event is extremely expensive as well. You might pay several thousand dollars to attend this event, and you will be punched directly in the face an uncertain number of times.

Very few attendees, indeed. But you can bet that whatever this event is about, the attendees care a whole hell of a lot about it. Whoever these attendees are, they are the experts and nerds, the pioneers and changemakers.

We all want to make a difference, until we get punched in the face a few times.

You might know exactly what you want to do. You might even be great at doing it.

But the question is, what are you willing to take hits for? Because this isn’t the end of the Care Spectrum: it’s the new beginning. This is the least you can care and still make a difference.

Which conferences do you show up for, punch or pie?

 

Want to learn more about how to care (and more importantly, not care) about the right stuff? Check out Mark Manson’s  The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Why We Do Better

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

Why We Do Better

(They will say)

“All things in moderation.”

No. No!

Moderation is dull stress, joint pain, compromise, boredom, homogenization, mediocrity. Carpel tunnel. Weak opinions. Dad bods.

No. All things in extremity. In small amounts. At random intervals. Sprints, not jogs. One square of the darkest chocolate, not a bar of Nestle.

We ignore the lesson that taps us gently on the shoulder every day. It is the moment that smashes us, breaks us, and ejects us into the atmosphere that travels alongside us forever. Not the daily bumps, but the rare stabs – deep enough to leave scars.

No, no things in moderation. Feast, then famine.

Why We Do Better

“It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps the challenge you’re working on isn’t Literal Actual Rocket Science With Rockets.

But if it feels like rocket science, like success requires defying your own personal gravity, then remember this: it takes a team to build a rocket. To put a satellite in orbit or ten toes on the moon, you need a hell of a lot of brains.

So to you, lonely novice, daring changer, rocket scientist, you damn fool – understand this. It’s time to assemble your team.