Learn to become a better you
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself" - Eleanor Roosevelt
There are so many things to experience and learn, but our lives are too short to cover everything. In just a a few hours, learning allows us to gain lessons that others took a lifetime to accumulate. We can takeaway what difficulties were faced, how they were overcome, and what mistakes to avoid. We can learn how others answered the questions we have: "What is the purpose to life? How did other find their purpose?"
“Many people operate under the dysfunctional belief that they just need to find out what they are passionate about. Once they know their passion, everything else will somehow magically fall into place. We hate this idea for one very good reason: most people don’t know their passion." - Bill Burnett (Executive Director, Designing your Life program, Stanford University)
Learning exposes us to different areas of interests, and what work in these areas actually entails. You might learn physics in school, but what do physicists actually do,a and what problems are they solving? What do entrepreneurs spend their time on? What are the different stages of setting-up a non-profit? We can
““In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero. Those who keep learning, will keep rising in life.”
Beyond life lessons and inspiration, writing a better life-story will require us to continually pick up skills and knowledge. We should avoid an overall fixed mindset ("Mindset", by Carol Dweck), where we aim to prove how smart and talented. Instead, what will benefit us in the long run is an overall growth mindset - the belief that abilities are not fixed (read more about neuroplasticity here) and that you can improve, by learning how to learn and by constantly learning. Possessing knowledge in different fields increases the probability of truly finding your unique path in life. In the examples below, everyone who succeeded in writing a better life story had to develop more skills, deeper and wider knowledge. We are lucky because this is the best era to learn. We are not confined to the education we've been through or the people we physically meet. Today, we can find material and lessons from the absolue top experts in each field, on free platforms like podcasts and YouTube. We should take advantage of how easy it is to learn today.
8 lessons I've learnt
Adopt a longer lens in life. We are often in a rush to find answers and results to our purpose in life, but rushing leads to wrong answers or delays results. Most of us are guilty of overestimating what we are capable of in 1 year, and underestimating what we are capable of in 20 years.
Some people find their passion early in life. Most of us don't. We should keep searching.
Our search can be improved by being curious and learning about other fields of work, especially if we have some interest in them.
Our passion needs to be developed. We cannot determine after just 5 swimming lessons that swimming is our passion in life. We need to develop this interest. We can only tell if something is our passion after we have gained some mastery in it.
This is because, our passion/purpose is NOT something that we will always enjoy and find happiness doing. Instead, passion is something that that we have a convincing answer(to ourselves) for WHY we are doing it.
A passion/purpose is something we are willing to struggle for, because the struggle will come:
Personal sacrifices: great athletes and musicians spend much time honing their skills
Having to learn other skills: People dedicated to social causes would have to devote additional time to learn skills like finding resources and managing finances
Managing both the mundane and the risks: Successful entrepreneurs have to deal with mundane tasks such as administration, while
Dealing with negativity: Writing your own story means that there will always be negativity, even from people closest to you. Even if your desire is just to live a minimalist life and not affect anyone else, you'll still be judged; human brains are programmed to judge people based on our lenses, and this happens by default.
Self-doubt and failure: We've heard countless examples not to fear failure, because it happens to everyone. The goal is not be fearless, which is neurologically impossible. Your fears could at times be right, and also lend humility to your being. Instead, a better strategy is to define your fears (learn about fear-setting here), and to recognise the costs of not taking action. And.. brace yourself for the many failures that will be coming.
But, as Viktor Frankl shares, "those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” You'll be surprised how much you can accomplish once you're convinced it is what you should be doing.
While outcomes are very important, what we really crave as humans is growth - that we are getting better in the areas important to us.
What purpose has others found in life?
Viktor Frankl - "Man's Search for Meaning"
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself"
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
"Man's Search for Meaning" is written from the most harrowing experience. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was a prisoner at German concentration camps during world war 2. His parents, brother, and pregnant wife were held captive at other concentration camps, and unbeknown to Frankl, had all died before the war ended.
Frankl details the suffering, torture, and degradation of prisoners in camp. He realised that it was not the physically strong that survived the ordeal, but those that have developed a strong enough "why" to live on for.
I highly recommend taking the time to read this book. It's less than 200 pages but every page is terrific.
Ko Wen Jie - Taipei City Mayor
Before being elected as Taipei City Mayor (an amazing story in itself), Ko was a high-flying doctor, rising to be head of critical care in the National Taiwan University Hospital by age 35. With his medical experience and skill in using the latest medical technology, he was able to keep patients alive in catastrophic condition alive, even with multiple organ failures.
He started wondering about the line between life and death when he paused to look at a photo of a patient he was keeping alive - he could not see the patient, who was hidden behind a mass of machines. What does it mean to be alive?
He saw that there it is not any specific outcome that gives purpose to life; after all, death is the inevitable final outcome for everyone, and no one seeks death. Instead, being alive is about the constant search for life's meaning. And Ko Wen Jie is certainly one who will die wondering. At 55, he made a major career switch as a politician, and won the hotly contested seat of Taipei Mayor against established candidates backed by giant political parties, despite being an independent candidate with insignificant funding and no prior supporter base. As he approached 60, he climbed Taiwan's highest mountain, biked around the entire island, cycled non-stop from the northern-most to southern-most lighthouse in one day, and is probably the country's hottest internet sensation.
What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness
Ray Dalio - Principles
"In my early years, I looked up to extraordinarily successful people, thinking that they were successful because they were extraordinary. After I got to know such people personally, I realised that all of them - like me, like everyone - make mistakes, struggle with their weaknesses, and don’t feel that they are particularly special or great. They are no happier than the rest of us, and they struggle just as much or more than average folks.
Even after they surpass their wildest dreams, they still experience more struggle than glory. This has certainly been true for me. While I surpassed my wildest dreams decades ago, I am still struggling today.
In time, I realised that the satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals, but from struggling well.
To understand what I mean, imagine your greatest goal, whatever it is - making a ton of money, winning an Academy Award, running a great organisation, being great at a sport. Now imagine instantaneously achieving it. You’d be happy at first but not for long. You would soon find yourself needing something else to struggle for. Just look at people who attain their dreams early - the child star, the lottery winner, the professional athlete who peaks early. They typically don’t end up happy unless they get excited about something else bigger and better to struggle for. Since life brings both ups and downs, struggling well doesn’t just make your ups better; it makes your downs less bad.
“I’m still struggling and I will until I die, because even if I tried to avoid the struggles, they will find me.”
“Nature gave us pain as a messaging device to tell us that we are approaching, or that we have exceeded, our limits in some way.”
“Pain + Reflection = Progress”
“I learned that if you work hard and creatively, you can have just about anything you want, but not everything you want. Maturity is the ability to reject good alternatives in order to pursue even better ones.”
“the happiest people discover their own nature and match their life to it.”
What is a life well led? For almost all of us, this question cannot be answered without hypothesizing - we are still very much in the middle of life's journey, and how can we be sure that what we think is a good life now will the same as what we would think at the end of our lives?
Enter the longest study of happiness - the Harvard study of Adult Development. It tracked - through interviews (with participants and family members), questionnaires, medical records, brain scans - the lives of 724 men since 1938. The men came from 2 distinct groups - the first: Harvard students from their second year of study onward; and 2) boys from some of the troubled and poorest families in the Boston area.
What has this incredibly long-running study produced? The good life is built with good relationships. Good relationships make us happier and healthier:
People who have forged strong relationships suffer from less medical conditions and do so later in life. The people who were the most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
Not about the number of relationships, but the quality of the relationships. Good relationships didn't need to be smooth and happy all the time, but is best defined by the confidence that they are able to depend on each other in times of need. Those who reflected that they felt they were in a safe relationship with people they can count on in times of need have memories that stay sharper, longer.
Those that remained happiest even in retirement were those who tended to their relationships, and even sought new ones through life.
"One of the greatest misconceptions of our time is that your passion/calling is hidden inside of you.
makes the assumption that your passion has been lost somewhere.
Your passion have not been lost. They have just not been developed. Passions are created, they're constructed.
It starts with interest. And then (as you pursue your interest) it's the process of gaining mastery, that you're going to find out whether your interest turns into a love, and then turns into a passion.
People who are passionate are willing to fight through the boredom and the suffering. They're thinking I want to play at the highest level (in this area) and I am willing break myself in half.
And the people that have the discipline to do that, the ones that are willing to build their life's meaning from the ground up, those are the ones with enough grit to really make it."
David Goggins - "The Hardest Man Alive"
In the picture above, Joseph McGinty Nichol, known as “McG". McG successfully directed Charlie’s Angels and was contracted by Warner Brothers to direct a new Superman picture. McG spent a year preparing for the movie, and US$20 million had already been invested in the project. On the day McG was to fly from California to Sydney to start filming, one thousand film workers had been employed waiting for McG to arrive. But he never did. McG was so paralysed by fear he was unable to get on the Yet on the day McG was supposed to take a private jet to Sydney from California, he found himself paralyzed by fear. He was unable to get on the plane!
His team pointed out to him how safe flying is statistically. The odds of dying in an aeroplane crash was 1 in 11 million. compared to 1 in 5,000 in a car crash. McG was well aware that he was more likely to be killed driving home then getting on the plane! But logic was not sufficient to calm McG's nerves.
We might assume that the fear of flying originates from the fear of crashing. This is exacerbated by media coverage of every plane crash. But as McG explains, this fear of flying really originates from another place:
“In reality, it was a control issue: Whenever I got outside my comfort zone, I just felt like I was going to die,” McG said when trying to explain his refusal to board that dreaded flight to Australia. When you get on a plane, you transfer your destiny, at least for the next few hours, to the pilot and crew. You cannot control the plane’s path or its speed. You cannot leave the aircraft at will if you get tired of the crying children or your seatmate’s elbow shoving. In fact, the only choice available to you is pretzels or peanuts. Moreover, you have very limited information. You don’t know if those bumps you’re experiencing are from routine turbulence or something to be concerned about. You don’t know if the pilot is tired or alert, or if you’re going to arrive on time. The loss of control is a disturbing sensation.
Most people become stressed and anxious when their ability to control their environment is removed. This is why many people prefer sitting in the driver’s seat rather than in the passenger’s seat, and also why we feel anxious when we are stuck in traffic, unable to move. Limited control is why physical restraint is psychologically disturbing for humans and animals. Even infants prefer to exercise their limited ability to control their surroundings; once they learn to hold their own bottle, they will express distress when this privilege is taken away. When we grow from infants to toddlers, we throw tantrums when we don't get to do what we want to do, from what we want to eat to when we go to sleep. their shoes Even when we reach adulthood - untamed animals (even if they are tiny), small spaces, and high places cause more anxiety than situations that we perceive as being under our control, such as cycling, owning a firearm, or medicating ourselves, though these latter activities are, in fact, more dangerous. The attempt to regain control can also contribute to psychological problems, including eating disorders (in which people strictly control what enters their bodies), addiction (which can be an attempt at regulating one’s inner state and mood), and even suicide (the decision to end one’s life may be viewed as an attempt to control what is typically outside our control).
Buttons in elevator.
Empower for Influence
Control is tightly related to influence. When you alter someone’s beliefs or actions you are, to some extent, exerting control over that individual. When you are influenced by another, you are giving that individual control over you. This is why understanding the delicate relationship humans have with control is fundamental for understanding influence. It will enable us to better predict when people will resist influence and when they will welcome it.
What we are about to see is that in order to affect another person, we need to overcome our own instinct for control and consider the other’s need for agency. This is because when people perceive their own agency as being removed, they resist. Yet if they perceive their agency as being expanded, they embrace the experience and find it rewarding.
A wonderful illustration of this principle involves . . . taxes. Paying taxes makes people unhappy—pure and simple. Even if you agree wholeheartedly that paying taxes is the right thing to do, I am pretty sure you don’t feel any pleasure handing over 30 or 20 or even 10 percent of your earnings to the government. In fact, some people decide to avoid the ordeal altogether; the amount of tax evasion in the United States comes to about $458 billion annually.7 That figure does not even include the amount lost because of people who exploit loopholes. So imagine you are a government official and your task is to reduce that number significantly. Conventional tools for influencing people to pay their taxes already include increasing fines, enhancing audit rates, and highlighting the importance of taxes for the country. Those are useful, but the rate of noncompliance is still high. What else could you do?
Could you, perhaps, make paying taxes more pleasant? This may seem like a radical idea. Let’s consider why taxes are so painful in the first place. Yes, by paying taxes we are losing a big chunk of our income, but that is not the sole reason that people find taxes unpleasant. You would probably not feel as much pain if you donated 30 percent of your income to a charity of your choice. The reason paying taxes is more aversive than other expenses is that we have no choice in the matter. In contrast to charity giving or grocery shopping, in which you decide what to pay for and when, spending money on taxes is out of your control. No one asked you if you were willing to pay, and you are not quite certain where your money is going.
Would people be more likely to pay taxes if their sense of agency was recovered? To test this, three researchers conducted an experiment.8 They invited students to a lab at Harvard University and asked them to rate pictures of various home interiors. In exchange for their time, they were given $10, but told that they were required to pay a “lab tax” of $3. The instruction was to put $3 in an envelope and hand it to the experimenter before they left. The students were not thrilled by this plan. Only half complied; the other half either left the envelope empty or gave less than the required amount.
Another group of participants, however, was told that they could advise the lab manager on how to allocate their tax money. They could suggest, for example, that their taxes would be spent on beverages and snacks for future participants. Astonishingly, merely giving participants a voice increased compliance from about 50 percent to almost 70 percent! That is dramatic. Imagine what such an increase in compliance would mean for your country, if it were translated to federal taxes.
To make sure the finding was not specific to elite Harvard students, the researchers tested a larger, more diverse sample of citizens online. This time some participants were given an opportunity to read about the current allocation of U.S. federal tax dollars. Some were also given an opportunity to express their preferences about how they wanted their tax to be allocated—what percentage they wanted to devote to education, security, health care, and so on. Finally, all of them were asked to imagine that they could use a questionable tax loophole to lower their tax bill by 10 percent—would they take it?
Of those who were not given an opportunity to express their preference on how their taxes should be spent, 2 out of 3 (about 66 percent) said that yes, they would take the questionable loophole. In comparison, among those who were given a voice, less than half (44 percent) decided to take the loophole. The study also revealed that providing people with information about how their money would be spent was not enough. It was giving people a sense of agency that made the difference.
The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control. Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance. Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation and compliance. In the experiments I described, people were not even given actual control—they were only asked to suggest how they would like their taxes to be allocated. Yet that was enough to change their actions. Giving people a choice, even if it is just a hypothetical one, is enough to enhance their sense of control, and control motivates people.
Choosing to Choose
Why do we enjoy control? Well, often outcomes that you select yourself suit your preferences and needs better than those that have been forced upon you. So we have learned that environments in which we can exercise control are more rewarding. One way to express control is to make a choice.9 For example, if you choose which movie to watch, you are more likely (on average) to select a movie you will enjoy than if I make the choice for you. Because we often experience better outcomes following choice, the association between choice and reward has become so strong in our minds that choice itself has become rewarding—something we seek and enjoy. In a study conducted at Rutgers University, neuroscientist Mauricio Delgado and his team found that telling people they were about to be given an opportunity to make a choice made them feel good and activated part of their brain’s reward system, the ventral striatum.10 We perceive choice as a reward in and of itself, and so when given a choice, we choose to choose.11
It is not only humans who like to choose; animals prefer to have a choice as well. In fact, they choose to choose even if having a choice does not change the outcome. If rats need to select between two paths that lead to food—one path is a straight line and the other subsequently requires them to select whether to go right or left—they choose the latter path.12 Pigeons do the same thing.13 Give a pigeon two options: the first is a button to peck that results in grain being dispensed, and the second is two buttons from which it needs to select one to peck in order to receive the same grain, and the bird will pick the option with two buttons. The pigeons quickly learn that the seeds are no different; yet they prefer the seeds that were obtained by making a choice.
As with pigeons and rats, the human desire for agency, control, and choice spills over to situations in which making a choice does not necessarily improve the end result. Take Delgado’s experiment, for example. The choice he gave his volunteers was not between banana nut ice cream and mint pistachio, in which a person might have a strong preference, but between two shapes on a computer screen, such as a purple ellipse or a pink star. Each shape had a 50 percent chance of gaining the participant money. As there was no way of knowing which shape was the better shape, it did not matter in the slightest whether the participants made the choice or a computer program made the choice for them. Nevertheless, Delgado’s results showed that even when making a choice does not appear to have any advantage, we would often rather take control and decide on our own. This preference is deeply rooted in our biology.
If you think about it, a system that internally “rewards” you for things you obtained yourself, rather than those that were simply given to you, makes adaptive sense. If you learn that an action results in food, money, or prestige, you might choose to repeat that action in the future to gain more of the same. However, if someone simply gives you food, money, or prestige without your having done anything for it, you cannot assume that they will be kind enough to offer you those goods in the future. So when you get $1,000 without doing anything at all, you are left with $1,000 but without any knowledge of how to acquire more money in the future. However, if you gain $1,000 by, for example, selling a piece of furniture, you not only become $1,000 richer, you now have a blueprint of how to earn more money. Things you work for should be coded by your brain as preferred; their value comes both from their intrinsic utility and from the information they contain for future gains. It is adaptive for humans to be biologically driven to prefer things they had a hand in obtaining—things they have control over.
People like to choose, so they choose to choose.14 However, sometimes the decision is so complex and taxing that we prefer not to make a decision. For example, if you give people too many options, they become overwhelmed and don’t choose anything. This was shown in Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper’s famous jam study.15 Iyengar and Lepper found that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams when they have only six options to choose from versus when they have more than twenty options. Options are great, but give people too many and they become flabbergasted and leave the store empty-handed.
What, then, do you do when you have many options you want people to choose from? One solution may be to create a tree of choice. Let’s take the jam problem as an example. Instead of just displaying twenty jams, all together, the store could divide the jams according to flavor: strawberry, apricot, blueberry, marmalade, raspberry. Now the jam buyer only needs to select one flavor out of five. Once they select the flavor—let’s say apricot—they can then make a second choice between four different brands. That way people get to make a choice, but the process is simplified.
A Price for Choice
The problem emerges when our desire for control results in otherwise worse outcomes. Take Theo, for example.* Theo is a middleaged bartender who works at a downtown restaurant in the city of Los Angeles. Every night at the end of his shift, Theo gathers the loose change and bills he earned from tips and stashes the loot under his mattress for safekeeping. Over the years, a significant amount has accumulated under his bedding, such that the clacking of the coins keeps him awake at night. Theo is aware that by hiding the money in his bedroom, rather than depositing it in a savings or investment account, he is losing interest on his earnings. Yet from Theo’s perspective, this loss is worth the peace of mind he experiences from feeling he has full control over his funds.
It is for similar reasons that many people hold too much money in cash accounts than is otherwise optimal. When surveyed by a large financial institution, two out of every five respondents said having money in “cash” (such as a checking account) made them feel safe. A similar percentage of respondents said they preferred a cash account because they were risk averse and/or wanted to keep their options open. Investing can make people feel anxious, but the root cause for this is not just risk. The fact that the fate of the investment is not in the individuals’ hands, but in the hands of the companies and sectors they are investing in, makes people uncomfortable. When people do invest, they prefer to invest “under their mattress,” so to speak—84 percent of respondents said they favored investing domestically, even though the survey was conducted in a part of the world where investing domestically was not necessarily the optimal decision.
To be sure, domestic preference can be driven by patriotic considerations, or by the fact that people may have more information about their own economy than that of others, but the preference is also driven by an illusionary sense that our domestic economy is more under our control than a foreign economy. The closer the money, the safer people feel. If you want someone to invest in your company, it may be wise to give them a sense that their investment will remain close—either physically (i.e., in the physical location of your company) or mentally (perhaps your company is within the sector they are most familiar with).
Financial choices are much more emotional than most of us realize. Often the complex reasons for these decisions are hidden from sight. Think back to Theo, the bartender who saved his tips under his mattress. Theo was keeping his money close to his chest, literally, not only because he disliked the idea of transferring it to the hands of others but also because he was trying to guard his earnings from . . . himself. When surveyed about his financial habits, Theo admitted that he kept his money in coins under his old mattress in order to curb his spending impulses. He did not carry the heavy coins around with him in his small wallet, nor did he have a debit card, so if he happened to see a new pair of boots or sunglasses he fancied, he was unable to buy them on the spot. Theo had to go all the way back home, count the coins, and return to the shop to make the purchase. This system gave him ample time to consider his purchase, protecting him from impulse buys. In essence, “present-day Theo” was trying to control “future-day Theo.” When it came to money, Theo trusted himself more than he trusted other people, but he also trusted himself today, under a relatively controlled environment, more than tomorrow, when anything might happen.
These days, most people do not keep bills and coins under their mattresses, or diamonds in their bras—a custom that was apparently popular after World War II. Yet the need to personally control our finances remains strong. One of the ways people try to maintain control is with “stock picking.” Consider Manshu, who writes the financial blog OneMint.16 Manshu is a self-proclaimed stock picker. This means that instead of hiring a financial adviser to invest for him or putting his money in an index fund, he does his own research and selects the companies whose stocks he wants to buy.
“I like to pick stocks,” he explains, “because I prefer to be able to manage my own stocks and know exactly where my money is invested. I don’t feel comfortable about buying mutual funds or ETFs [exchange-traded funds] because I don’t have any control over what the fund manager may do and which companies he or she will buy at any given time. It’s like being one level away from my investments. . . . I worry about what the fund manager would do.”17
Given that Manshu writes a financial blog, I suspect that he is familiar with the vast research indicating that, on average, investors lose when they pick stocks and trade frequently. In fact, people who choose their own stocks are the worst performers in the market. But even if you let a professional do the job for you, your portfolio will likely underperform index funds and ETFs.18 Armed with this knowledge, why does Manshu prefer to pick stocks?
You may think Manshu is overconfident. True, overconfidence is a common explanation for why people prefer to make their own choices. They may know the facts and figures but believe they can do better than the average guy. Overconfidence does play an important role.19 Notice, however, that Manshu does not defend his actions by stating that he believes he will make more money by choosing stocks himself. Rather, he justifies his preference in emotional terms: picking his own investments makes him feel in control, while letting someone else choose for him causes him to worry. He prefers “stock picking” to reduce his anxiety and enhance his feeling of mastery, regardless of whether the strategy inflates his bank account. He wants to feel that he is influencing his finances, not anyone else.
If there was a psychological cost to giving up control, would people consciously forgo money in order to maintain it? My colleague Cass Sunstein (whom we met earlier), my student Sebastian Bobadilla-Suarez, and I conducted an experiment to find out.20 We asked volunteers to play a “shape-picking game.” In this game, participants were asked to choose between two shapes on a computer screen, only one of which would earn them money. On every trial, two new shapes appeared. We let participants practice the game for a while so that they could get a sense of how good they were at picking the best shapes. Unbeknownst to the participants, we set up the game so that their likelihood of selecting the “winning” shape was exactly 50 percent; they succeeded on half the trials and failed on the other half. After some practice, we asked them to estimate how well they were doing. On the whole, our participants slightly overestimated their ability, stating they believed they were performing above chance. There were large individual differences, however: some people were highly overconfident, believing they could pick the correct shape with 80 percent accuracy, and others were underconfident, believing they could do so only with 20 percent accuracy.
Now that each person had a sense of how good they thought they were at “shape picking,” we gave them an opportunity to employ an expert to help them pick the best shapes. Each expert had a different likelihood of picking the better shape and charged a small fee if they were successful in helping the participant make the right choice. For example, some experts picked the best shape 90 percent of the time and charged 10 pence, others did so 75 percent of the time and charged 5 pence, and so on. The success rates and charges were fully visible to the participants, so in essence, with the help of some math, each person could calculate whether it was worthwhile for them to “hire” the expert or not. They had all the information they needed to make the best choices. Would they?
Change the words “shape picking” into “stock picking” and you can see how this game (loosely) resembles real-world financial decisions. Pick on your own, and on average you will do no better than chance. Choose EFTs or index funds, and you can do slightly better than chance, at a low cost. Although our participants sometimes decided to hire an expert “shape picker,” they did so less than they should have. We designed the game so that to win the most amounts of money, people should have delegated the decision to an expert on half the trials. Yet our participants delegated the decision to experts only about one-third of the time. They chose to choose, which made them lose. Even if you take into account the participants’ overconfidence, people decided to pick for themselves more often than they should have.
The interesting thing was that the participants were aware of what they were doing. When we asked them how good they were at delegating—in other words, did they think they hired experts when they should have—they gave us surprisingly accurate answers. Those who delegated less than they should have knew it; those who delegated optimally also knew it. It seemed that people knew they were losing money by retaining control but did it anyway for psychological gains. Their cost-benefit analysis was not a cold calculation of pennies and dimes but, rather, one that took into account emotional profit.
Of course, in some situations, weighing the costs and benefits of choosing versus delegating may direct us the other way. For instance, even though choosing can give us a small burst of pleasure, we may realize that in certain situations, the benefit of having an expert select for us outweighs the emotional benefit of agency, because the outcome may be that much better. There are other reasons to delegate as well; perhaps you do not have enough time to make the decision, the effort would be too onerous, or you don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome. For instance, you might prefer to have your spouse make an important decision concerning your family’s future, or for a coworker to make a professional decision for your group so that you can avoid regret if the outcome turns out to be suboptimal. Nevertheless, in all these cases, people still want the power to choose to delegate rather than have that decision forced upon them. It is best, then, to give people that option. For example, I will often ask my three-year-old daughter, “Do you want me to choose your outfit or do you want to choose it yourself?” Sometimes she wants to choose herself, and sometimes she would rather have me choose. Exercising the power of delegation maintains agency.
Control, Health, and Well-Being
People who feel in control of their life are happier and healthier.21 With that in mind, we can see that the participants in our study, as well as Manshu and Theo, may have been acting “rationally”—by retaining control, they were enhancing their well-being. For example, all else being equal, cancer patients who have a greater perception of control survive longer. Lower risk of cardiovascular disease has also been associated with a greater perception of control.22 This is not surprising; the sense of control reduces fear, anxiety, and stress—all things that have a detrimental effect on our bodies.
Can we then enhance people’s sense of control in order to increase their well-being? In a classic study conducted back in the 1970s, Judith Rodin, from Yale University, and Ellen Langer, from Harvard University, intended to find out.23 Rodin and Langer were concerned with a specific group of people who had experienced a severe reduction in control. It was an interesting group, because if we are lucky enough, we will eventually become a part of it—the elderly. As we age, we experience a steady decline in our ability to control our lives and our surroundings. For some, this decline begins with retirement and the loss of agency we normally gain from our professional life. It then continues with a deterioration of physical health. The reduction in agency is most pronounced when people move into nursing homes. Suddenly, the decisions you had made for the entirety of your adult life are made for you: your daily schedule, what you eat and when, how you spend your leisure time. Tasks you may have performed yourself—driving, shopping, cooking—are all done for you. It’s like being on a plane for the rest of your life. The pilot is full of good intentions, but she is not you.
That is where Rodin and Langer came in. Their idea was to put the elderly back in the pilot’s seat. What if the residents of a nursing home were given more choices, more responsibility, and a greater sense of agency? Would they become healthier and happier? In other words, could Rodin and Langer positively influence the life of the elderly by enhancing their sense of control? The two researchers contacted a nursing home in Connecticut and asked the directors whether they would consent to participate in an experiment to find out. They agreed.
The home had residents on four floors, and Rodin and Langer randomly picked one floor to be the “agency” floor and another to be the “no agency” floor. The residents living on the “agency” floor were gathered together and addressed by the staff. They were told that they were expected to take full responsibility for themselves; they should make sure they had everything they needed and should make plans for how they would spend their time. In addition, each resident was given a gift—a potted green plant for their room, which was to be their sole responsibility. The residents on the “no agency” floor were also gathered together. However, in contrast to the “agency” group, they were told that the staff would take wonderful care of them. They did not need to lift a finger. Each resident in this group, too, was given a green plant for their room, but they were told that the staff would water it. There was no real difference in the residents’ reality on the two floors; a person living on the “no agency” floor could, if they wanted, water their plant at any time and make as many decisions for themselves as their friend on the “agency” floor could. However, their perception of their own agency was different—and as a result, their actions were different; they were less likely to take control.
Three weeks later, when Rodin and Langer assessed the nursing home residents, they discovered that those individuals who’d been encouraged to take more control over their environment were the happiest and participated in the greatest number of activities. Their mental alertness improved, and eighteen months later they were healthier than the residents on the “no agency” floor.
To me, what is striking about this study, and others like it, is how simple the intervention was. Just giving people a little responsibility, and reminding them that they had a choice, enhanced their well-being. This lesson is extremely valuable for our home life and work life. If you are a parent, you might give your children more responsibilities. At work, employees can be made to have increased involvement in decision-making processes to enhance their motivation and satisfaction. If you are in a relationship, it might help to make sure you are giving your partner a decent say in how you lead your lives as a couple. What is interesting is that the sense of control need only be that—a perception. It is better to guide people toward ultimate solutions while at the same time maintaining their sense of agency, rather than to give orders.
Figure 4.1. Agency. Increase people’s sense of control. Our instinct when trying to influence others’ actions is to give orders. This approach often fails, because when people feel their independence has been limited, they get anxious and demotivated and are likely to retaliate. In contrast, expanding people’s sense of agency makes them happier, healthier, more productive, and more compliant. For example, giving people an opportunity to advise how their taxes should be allocated increased the likelihood that they would pay them in full. To produce impact, we often need to overcome our instinct to control and instead offer a choice.
Think back to the story at the beginning of chapter 3—the intervention in the hospital on the East Coast aimed at getting staff members to wash their hands. One of the reasons the intervention was so successful is that instead of using the common approach—a command: “Employees must wash their hands”—the hospital introduced an electronic board that
At age 64, Diana Nyad made her 5th attempt at a unprecedented record - one which experts and scientists thought was impossible. Even for someone of a different gender. Even for someone much younger.
She had started training at age 60, to become the first person to swim the 110 miles (180km) from Cuba to Florida non-stop, in open waters, without a shark cage. She wanted to do so, "Because I'd like to prove to the other 60 year-olds that it is never too late to start your dreams." The unpredictable currents, jellyfish stings, tropical storms, and asthma derailed her previous attempts.
53 hours later, after hallucinations, vomiting, hypothermia, and a swollen throat from the saltwater and a swollen face from a jellyfish mask, she set foot onto a beach on Florida.
When I first started training for this, it wasn't just about the ego and about achieving this. But more importantly, it is "how much life is there left? Let's face it we're all on a one-way street aren't we? What are we going to do as we go forward, to have no regrets looking back? (I recall the) Teddy Roosevelt quote: 'you go ahead and sit back in the comfortable chair, and you be the critic and the observer, while the brave one goes into the ring and engages and gets bloody and dirty and fails over and over and over again. But yet isn't afraid and lives life in a bold way.' What a tremendous build-up in character and spirit, as you reach for those horizons
"Find a way. You have a dream, and you have obstacles in front of you, as we all do. None of us ever get through life without heartache and turmoil. But if you believe, and you have the faith, and you can get knocked down and get back up again, and you believe in perseverance as a great human quality, you find a way. Never, ever give up. You can chase your dreams at any age, you're never too old.
"Every day in our lives is epic. I'm 64, and I'm in the prime of my life."
"When you achieve your dreams, it's not so much what you get as who you've become to achieve them. I stand proud because I am that bold, fearless person, and I will be, every day, until it's time for these days to be done."
Seth Godin - Best-selling author
"Life isn't about waiting for the right answer, because there is no rigt answer. There are challenges we can sign up for and emotions we can experience. When we wait for the "right thing", we miss out on opportunities to find out."
I enjoyed this interview. Seth is very precise with his thoughts, and he's articulate in expressing them. Some of us might feel trapped, because of the notion that there is that one perfect thing that we should do. Instead it's about engaging in experiences, and asking yourself:
Does this interaction leave behind a trail that I am proud of? Does going through the interaction make me glad and want to do it again?
Seth Godin is one of the great Marketers (inducted into the Marketing and Directing Marketing Halls of Fame). His strategies do not from fixed formulas, but originates from a deep appreciation of people and what makes us tick, and knowledge of different professional fields from physics to accounting.
He has written 18 best-selling books (of which I really recommend Purple Cow, Tribes, and Linchpin - his books are easy reading). He also runs AltMBA (alternate MBA), which has incredibly good reviews - read one here: https://andrewskotzko.com/altmba-recap/
Because he's such a prolific writer, I've listened to some of his speeches on writing. His thoughts here are very consistent with his thoughts on life: good writing doesn't just happen from the start; instead it comes through slowing mastering the skill. If you think this is hot air, he probably has the most popular blog online, with more than 7,000 entries - or one post every day for the past 20 years!
Is the journey more important than the destination? By conventional lenses, Christopher McCandless had a bright future ahead of him. He graduated with double majors from Emory University and was cross-country captain.
But Christopher McCandless had a different future in mind. McCandless saw wealth, possessions and his upbringing as road blocks in his search for the truth in life. He donated all his money (a significant amount for a fresh grad) to charity, cut off all ties with his family, and pursued his wish to make a trip to the Alaskan wilderness . In his diary, he wrote: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
McCandless' path to Alaska was a series of adventures in itself, hitchhiking and canoeing across different terrains. He eventually arrived at the Alaskan wilderness with little supplies and no map - probably a deliberate act. After 3 months of living in the wild, McCandless found that the melting snow flooded the rivers, trapping him and preventing his return. His body was found a month later in an emaciated state. He was poisoned consuming a seed of a plant, which prevented him from absorbing the nutrients of the food he consumed, eventually leading to his death. However,
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
“It is important in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once. If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.”
“You think that I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me. You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life. But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover.
The debate rages on: had McCandless wasted his life on romanticised intepretation of freedom, or had he lived a fuller life in his 24 years than most of us do in a lifetime. This is a final photo of him, in an emaciated state Perhaps the expression on his face, and the message he carried in his final photo gives us some hints.