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Rock-Paper-Scissors: Body, Heart, Mind?

heart-beats-bodyI’m hurt, no doubt about it. I’m not worried about the pain. I don’t care about the pain, don’t even feel it. I’m not even worried about hurting myself anymore than I already have—no, I’m worried about hurting the team.

—Ray Lewis, former NFL linebacker, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory

Rock-paper-scissors is a hand-gesture game played to settle childish disputes (or so I thought until three days ago). As it turns out, the millennia-old game helps explain a lot in the world. Rock-Paper-Scissors is surprisingly well represented in academic literature—alternative male-mating strategies in lizards, antibiotic-mediated antagonism, protecting public goods from the tragedy of the commons, and that’s just getting started. The New York Times even has an online version of the game to play a computer, which pulls from over 200,000 previous rounds (p.s. It will probably beat you). But why is this simple game so ubiquitous?

We often think of win-lose games in terms of two teams battling head to head; however, nature (including human nature) rarely works in such a direct way. An action in one area often has unintended consequences in another. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of checks and balances. And with only three variables, it is the simplest version. If the goal is, for example, to reduce the amount of Scissors in the world, then Rock should be thrown time and time again. Throw a lot of Rocks and we’ll get rid of the Scissors, but with less Scissors, more Papers survive—leading to trouble for all those Rocks we threw. This is the basic premise for what scholars call “circular dominance,” otherwise known as Rock-Paper-Scissor dynamics. And this concept helps explain much of the human experience.

While we all have different personal motivations, there’s a universal internal tug-o-war—a motivation triad—that can either get in the way of or optimize our goals. The balance between our physiologic needs (Body), our emotions/feelings (Heart), and our logical reasoning and processing (Mind) are what create the diverse range of behavior we see everyday. Being human may not be simple, but let’s take a closer look at a simple game to see if we can improve our performance:

  1. Body—like Rock, it’s solid, dependable, strong, and can be used like a weapon.
  2. Heart—like Paper, it can be written on, read, shared, crumpled, or torn.
  3. Mind—like Scissors, it’s sharp, precise, specialized, but can be dangerous.

Heart beats Body. What motivates a person to push through the pain, in order to run one more lap in practice? What about staying awake all night to finish a project with an impending deadline? What possesses a person to start a fight despite obvious physical danger? Or to charge into enemy territory, bayonets at the ready? Human emotions can push our bodies beyond comfort. They transcend our normal physiology, creating adrenaline rushes to push through the pain, get passed the tired, or forget the hunger. Depending on the circumstance, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Professional athletes, like Ray Lewis (quoted above), use their “pumped up” emotional state to achieve a high level of physical performance. But there are instances when emotions can put our bodies in jeopardy—like fighting for pride, love, or anger. And we can all relate to those sleepless nights, tossing and turning over emotional stresses at work, arguments with a significant other, or any number of other feelings.

Mind beats Heart. When we’re up at night, working ourselves up into a sleepless, emotional frenzy, only a calm mind can put our anxiety into perspective. Emotions can cloud our understanding of the big picture, making us feel like the emotion we are experiencing at that moment is the most important thing in the world. By adding context and perspective, our Minds can neutralize our irrational side. This concept of primitive and evolved brain is represented in different ways throughout the literature; the  Heart/Mind dichotomy goes by different names—Think vs. Blink, System 2 vs. System 1, Analytical vs. Intuitive—but essentially it’s this: We all have an immediate reaction brain (Heart) that is fueled by basic emotional needs (ex. love and respect), and when we feel those needs are in conflict or under attack, we tend to react. Only our level-headed Mind can defeat the negative side of emotions.

Body beats Mind. Obviously, the Mind does not always beat the Heart, but perhaps it’s because the Mind has already been defeated. Graduate education is rife with unhealthy study behavior—caffeine binges, all-nighters, a diet consisting of power bars and skittles. But the lie of this type of behavior is thinking that the Body doesn’t matter—that if a student can cram for one more hour at 3 A.M. then he will perform better on an exam. There is an eventual breaking point, a point where our minds starts to get cloudy, our work starts to slip, we begin to forget things, and have trouble sayings words. That point is when the body is forcing a shutdown. Being chronically fatigued, having insufficient nutrients in one’s diet, even physiologic sexual frustration can all play a role in how clearly our thinking is. Being deprived of physiological needs wears down our willpower and pushes us from a mind-deciding person to an emotion-deciding one. And taken to the extreme—extreme hunger, extreme thirst, extreme sickness—we become physiological-driven creatures.

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It is helpful to recognize the interrelationship between the three parts of ourselves—Body, Heart, Mind. Knowing how they interact, we can buffer known problems. For example, after starting a business, launching a product, or quitting a job, there are a lot of unknowns; the task at hand has just begun. That reality can be an emotional time, but it’s a known emotional time. To get through challenges like the stress of not yet finding a new job, we require clear thinking about the big picture, and doing so requires our bodies to be well fed, well rested, and somewhat active. And that’s just one example.

Body-Heart-Mind dynamics are as important for interpersonal relationships as they are for self-improvement. Often, we are not able to see our crazy while we’re in the crazy. That’s why it’s important to recognize it in others—friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc. Reacting emotionally when faced with someone that’s emotional is rarely the right course of action—”Don’t fight fire with fire.” Instead, helping an emotional friend see the rationale side of a situation, a different perspective, and adding some context to an emotional and confusing time is what will help. Knowing ourselves and others—having an awareness of what’s going on—that’s the first step. What we do with that information is up to us.

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Semmann, Dirk, Hans-JĂźrgen Krambeck, and Manfred Milinski. “Volunteering leads to rock–paper–scissors dynamics in a public goods game.” Nature425.6956 (2003): 390-393. (Source)

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

The Benefits of Doubt

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This is a story of two brainiacs—both pioneers in their chosen fields, both knowingly intelligent, and both recipients of the Nobel Prize. Despite their similarities, the stories of William Shockley—and his eventual demise—and Daniel Kahneman’s ultimate redemption differ in each genius’s relationship with self-doubt. While doubt is often cast as the villain of our lives, this is a different tale, one where doubt is the protagonist, the saving grace. This is a story of two men whose success and failure hinged on the benefits of doubt.

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William Shockley grew up in California during the 1920s, receiving a B.S. from California Institute of Technology in 1932. Quantum physics was still a fresh discovery, and Shockley reportedly, “absorbed most of it with astonishing ease.” In 1936, he earned his Ph.D. from M.I.T. and began his innovative career at Bell Laboratories, one of the most prolific R&D enterprises in the world. As a research director at Bell, Shockley helped invent the transistor (as in “transistor radio”), for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956—an achievement that would lead to his eventual undoing.

That same year, Shockley moved back to Mountain View, California to start Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first technology company in what would become Silicon Valley. As a researcher and a manager, William Shockley was brilliant, innovative, but domineering. His arrogance at Shockley Labs was a point of contention among the employees and a problem that would only be exacerbated after the Nobel Prize. Winning the prize seemed to eradicate any residual self-doubt left from his youth. Shockley became deaf to outside opinion, blind to reason, and unforgivingly egotistical. In 1957, less than a year after becoming a Nobel Laureate, eight of Shockley’s best and brightest left the company to form Fairchild Semiconductor.

The Shockley schism was in large part due to William Shockley’s unwillingness to continue research into silicon-based semiconductors despite his employees’ belief that silicon would be the future. His hubris would be his end, as Shockley Labs never recovered from missing the silicon boom. The cohort who left would later create numerous technology firms in Silicon Valley (including the tech giant, Intel), giving birth to what has become one of the most innovative regions in the world.

William Shockley, himself, faded into obscurity, estranged from his children, his reputation tarnished after years of public touting of eugenics. Along with Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi, Time Magazine would name William Shockley as one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.” Yet he died bitter and disgraced in 1989, still headstrong, self-doubt still absent from his life. For Shockley, arrogance and intellect seemed to be inextricably linked; however, such a fate is not inevitable.

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Daniel Kahneman’s story is different. It’s one where self-aware intellect meets a healthy dose of self-doubt. Born in 1936, Kahneman grew up a Jew in France during the Nazi occupation. His family was displaced several times and his experiences with Nazis would show him firsthand the complexities and peculiarities of the human mind—a foreshadowing of his illustrious career in psychology.

As an adolescent after World War II, Kahneman moved to Palestine where in eighth-grade he finally found like-minded friends. Acknowledging both his intellect and its dangers, he writes, “It was good for me not be exceptional anymore.” While Kahneman knew he was smart, he always saw his deficits (and sometimes to a fault). As Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Undoing Project, puts it, “Everything [Daniel Kahneman] thinks is interesting. He just doesn’t believe it.” And this self-doubt would lead directly to his success.

After getting degrees from Hebrew University and U.C. Berkley, Kahneman’s work in psychology would take off after his first collaboration with Amos Tversky. Between 1971 and 1981, Tversky and Kahneman would publish five journal articles that would be cited over 1,000 times. Their work in cognitive biases—largely fueled by the ability to doubt their own minds—has been instrumental in upending the long-standing belief that humans are purely rational creatures.

In 2002, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that even the brightest among us make mental mistakes everyday—prospect theory, cognitive biases and heuristics. Like William Shockley, winning the Nobel Prize would be a turning point in Kahneman’s life; unlike Shockley, the prize made Kahneman better not worse. Michael Lewis again comments, “[T]he person who we know post-Nobel Prize is entirely different from the person who got the Nobel Prize […] he is much less gloomy, much less consumed with doubts.” In a stroke of irony, it would take what is arguably the most prestigious award in the world to finally provide Kahneman with the validation that his thoughts on doubt are worthwhile.

Kahneman’s career has been largely focused on the benefits of doubt—the idea that humans may be mistaken in our confidence and intuition, and need to question our assuredness. While his legacy is still to be seen, Kahneman’s work may prove to change how humans think about thinking forever. His impact may even put him on Time’s list of “100 Most Important People of the 21st Century.”

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The stories of Shockley and Kahneman serve as both a warning and a call to action. Doubt should not be seen as a curse, but rather a necessity—a blessing, even. It is when we are not in doubt that we should take notice. Arrogance at any level can blind us. We don’t have to be a savant to be egotistical or have a “big head” (yet the smartest among us are often guilty of this). Only through our doubts can we expect to learn from others, question our assumptions, and, ultimately, be successful long-term. As soon as we stop doubting, stop questioning, we stop growing.

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This is the fourth installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

Ignorance Is Bliss-ish

ignorance-is-blissLife is like pouring concrete. (Bear with me here.) The world provides an endless supply of mystery—raw concrete mix—and over time this concrete pours out into our lives, moving from the unknown (concrete mixer) to the known (exposed, wet concrete). We learn new things, have new experiences, and make new discoveries. In this process, we shape our new knowledge into a unique worldview—a concrete foundation. And just like concrete, our worldviews harden over time.

Children are exposed to so much newness that the concrete flows out like a hole in a dam. They mold the onslaught of new information as well as they can, trying to make room for the next layers. As we get older, however, the concrete that once flowed freely begins to slow. For adults, finding new knowledge comes with a cost—our time and energy. Building upon our worldview foundation requires actively seeking the unknown—journeying to the land of new information at the risk (or benefit) of altering our concrete structure.

There are only two ways to change a concrete worldview: Addition or subtraction; either we (a.) add more concrete—more knowledge—that can be molded around the existing structure, or (b.) we take a jack-hammer to our concrete edifice in an attempt to reconfigure its appearance. The former option is more delicate, incremental, and self-directed. The latter is less controlled, more dramatic, and often occurs by outside influence. Experiences that fly in the face of our worldview are processed in different ways by different people. And while the truth has a way of eroding our most egregious misconceptions, some people’s structures are more protected than others.

The world is essentially made up of three types of people: 1. Never Quitters, 2. Bitter Quitters, and 3. Happy Quitters. This is to say that there are people who persist, people who give up in discouragement, and people who are content watching rather than participating. Let’s examine each of these three groups using a totally nonscientific nor rigorous methodology—the clichĂŠs that they most represent.

Never Quitters are the persistent, “lifelong learners” who continually pour and shape concrete onto their worldview foundation. They are so named for the motivational clichĂŠ, “Never give up.” Bitter Quitters are ex-Never Quitters who, in their search of the unknown, stumbled upon an undesirable reality and decided to go no further. This group is summarized by the phrase, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” And the final group—the Happy Quitters—may know of a world beyond their bubble, but choose not to explore it, because… well… why would they? They’re content with their lives. Theirs is a comfortable bubble, like being tucked under warm, cozy blankets in a frigid bedroom. And for this group, “Ignorance is bliss.

In a world where, as YaleGlobal Online reports, “the gap between job requirements and available skills is widening,” and technological advancement is outpacing society’s ability to keep up, it seems “obvious” to the Never Quitters that continual learning is imperative. To a Never Quitter, bowing out of the world of learning seems like an admission of defeat. “Now, more than ever, is a time for continual learning, up-skilling, and growing to stay relevant in an ever-changing landscape,” the Never Quitter may say. But they are missing a crucial point.

There is value in the known, the familiar, and the comfortable (especially if such a worldview has a solid foundation). The known allows for a state of low-anxiety and contentment. Also, we all become either a Bitter or Happy Quitter eventually. The 97-year-old lifelong learner may decide that he’s perfectly content not understanding how Twitter works. It’s a common mistake of the “Too Smart for Your Own Good” cohort to think that everyone would benefit from journeying down the Path of the Mental Unknown. They fail to acknowledge the personal benefits of a comfortable, insulated worldview, which Quitters regularly enjoy. In order to coexist, people are not required to agree on how best to live life, but we do need to understand one another’s perspective. How each of us shapes the concrete that life provides is completely up to us.concrete-life

This is the third installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”


For more information on lifelong learners in America, consider reading the following report: Pew Research Center, March, 2016, “Lifelong Learning and Technology.” (Source)

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

Being Right at the Wrong Time

one-way

Being right can be embarrassing. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point we realize that saying that thing or correcting that person was not a good idea. We realize that we were wrong in our rightness. There is a right time and a right place for correctness, but knowing when not to speak is the key. And where does this principle seem to cause the most confusion? A place where we’re told that accuracy and timeliness are top priorities—the workplace.

Office environments are the perfect setting to discuss the potential woes of being right. In 2014 Lauris Beinerts’ parody video “The Expert” made waves across the Internet with its cheeky look at the stereotypical office idiot. The short film takes place in a nondescript conference room where Anderson, “the expert,” attempts to explain to his four colleagues why the task at hand—drawing seven red lines, all perpendicular to one another and some with green ink—is fundamentally impossible. As the meeting unfolds, it becomes clear that only Anderson sees the logical discrepancies of the absurd request. Everyone else? Idiots.

The popularity of Beinert’s video is due to its ubiquity. We can all relate to the frustration of Anderson-The-Expert. We have all thought during a meeting, “Why are we still talking about this? Isn’t it obvious?” But maybe there are other times, times that, without realizing it, we are the office dunces. Rather than lambasting the bumbling co-worker, we should consider the flaws of being right. Perhaps Anderson is actually the office idiot.

Once his co-worker says something obviously wrong, Anderson has a decision to make—say something or stay quiet. If the point of the meeting is to correct misconceptions, then correct away! That’s being right at the right place and time. However, meetings are often called upon for one reason when, in fact, they have a different, unspoken purpose. This is where the confusion comes in.

It’s important to align the purpose for being right with the overall purpose of the situation. Anderson might think he’s being helpful in his explanation that red ink is not, in fact, green ink; however, if there are more pressing matters to attend, then perhaps Anderson’s comments are wasting productive time. Or maybe Anderson’s boss knows full well that the details of the project are irrelevant for the final product, hoping Anderson will simply agree and let the matter rest. Whatever the case may be, just having correct information does not necessitate sharing it.

Of course, for jobs dealing with life or death (ex. structural engineering, law enforcement, surgery, etc.), being right is crucial. There’s no time to waste wondering whether the truth should or shouldn’t be said. For most jobs, however, we don’t have those kinds of restrictions. And for those jobs, timing is everything.

Whether it’s launching a product, delivering a joke, meeting a soulmate, or buying a house, timing can make or break a situation. Being right is no different. There’s an internet meme with Jeff Bridges sitting back as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which reads, “You’re not wrong / You’re just an asshole.” This strikes at the heart the timing issue. We must know when to say something and when to shut up.

For my wedding, my father gave me a newspaper clipping with some marital advice. It read, “Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’” Being right is only the first part. Knowing when to be silent is much more powerful, more wise, than anything we may have to say.

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This is the first installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”

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America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

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Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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