Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Certainty, Part 1... Just when you think you're right, you're wrong

Have you ever been just so certain of something only to find out you were completely wrong? Research shows that 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are spot on right, but that also means 50 to 60 percent of the time our assumptions are dead wrong. What's interesting about this to me is we're typically so CERTAIN about our thinking and perspective that even in the face of proven, contrary evidence, we STILL tend to hang on to our original belief.  

Over the years, I've had tons of conversations with people and done a lot of thinking and research about the subjects of certainty and decision-making. I thought I'd share my perspective and get yours through publishing a series of posts that explores the needs, influences, impact, and result of certainty on decision-making. 

The following bullet statements are what I plan to consider, but as your public and private comments roll in, I'll likely change this up a bit to reflect your input. As always I'll fold it into stories I hope you'll enjoy, and I'll step up my publishing schedule so I don't leave you hanging. ;-)
  • Part 1: Our mind's need for certainty
  • Part 2: What influences certainty in decisions
  • Part 3: Quick decisions: weighing the impact
  • Part 4: Gut checking certainty then moving on

Part 1: Our mind's need for certainty 

Stone Mountain in NC
Best laid plans... 
Last week the kids and I hiked Stone Mountain in Roaring Gap, NC. We can see the big bald spot of the mountain from our cabin in Sparta so we wanted to make an effort to experience it first hand. Setting out for what we thought would be a brief one hour hike ended up being a four hour adventure with only an early breakfast on our bellies and no food or water. As you can imagine, dear reader, by the end of it there were some tired, grumpy ones among us.

There are always warning signs.
How it happened: Certainty strikes!
It was a beautiful day. Mild temperature, dry mountain air, and enthusiasm for enjoying nature complete with lush forest, towering waterfall, and busy creatures getting ready for autumn. We parked at the upper lot and made our way down the 200 feet of stairs to enjoy the waterfall and pool at the base of it. 

After our brief moment of Zen, my daughter looked back at the stairs, and said, "Uh-uh, I don't want to do it." It was then we noticed another option, a nice, flat winding path that followed a creek flowing from the waterfall. When I wondered aloud if we should go that way, she jumped on it with a very committed, "Yes!" 

Hutchinson Homestead
Following the path of uncertain certainty... 
We made our down the path with a questionable map but a lot of determination. The hike was lovely. We took pictures, chatted about the wildlife, toyed with a children's story about the mountains that we've been adding to off and on for the past year, and frequently consulted the map. 

My daughter was our self-appointed trail boss and navigator. Ever logical, she considered the signage along the way and synched it up with where she thought we were on the map. Her gut was telling her we were on the right path back to the upper parking lot. My gut wasn't so sure, but her rationale for our whereabouts seemed to make sense so we kept walking. After a while, the path led us to the Hutchinson Homestead and the base of Stone Mountain. Although it was a nice walk back in time under the shadow of that very present mountain, the correctness of our course was becoming questionable.  

Long climb up
My gut continued to rumble with doubt as we moved through the homestead. At one point I asked my daughter if she was sure we were on the right path, and she said, "I'm 100 percent certain this is the right way to go." I studied the map, looked at her, and concluded again that it seemed logical so again we kept walking. 

The need to stick with our "certainty"
Why did we hang with that decision even when intuition and evidence along the way said we shouldn't be so invested in our certainty? Apparently holding tight to that investment is pretty important to many of us. One study found, for example, that 34 percent of people keep fighting even when they know they're wrong. Sounds kinda stubborn, but there's a bit of science behind it. 

Simply put, reaching a conclusion of certainty makes us feel better. Feeling uncertain can cause anxiety and stress so our first order of business is to ditch those feelings ASAP because they don't feel good. We search for rationale, logic, evidence, history, anything to quell the butterflies that flit ever faster in the pit of one's stomach the longer we face the situation. Under extreme amounts of stress and pressure, we tend to default to dichotomous thinking where we opt for an all or nothing approach just so we can step up the process and get it over with. This usually results in hasty decisions that at times can work to our benefit and at other times not so much particularly when it comes to relations with others.

Next time we'll look at what influences our certainty. What do you draw on to make your decisions and what things move you to change course? This could be personal or professional. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What you would DO with 10 minutes SAYS about you

Swing those legs up & get comfy
Armchair journey
Assessing values is tricky business and certainly not something in which I would claim to be an expert. Rather, I have an armchair interest in values because I am passionate about emotional and behavioral experiences with ourselves and with others which, of course, are driven by values, principles, and beliefs.

Stumbling towards a pattern 
Always on the look out for new material to feed my passion, I recently stumbled on a book which is quickly becoming a favorite. Harvard professor and psychologist Daniel Gilbert has had a fascination with illusion and making mistakes since he was a young boy, and fortunately for us he's taken a lifetime of research and published it in a book called Stumbling on Happiness. While I do want to talk more about what the book offers with examining the imperfections of imagination and illusion that cause us to have misconceptions about the future and misunderstand what satisfies us, this blog post I'll focus on the first sentence of the Forward section because of what it can reveal about us when answered. It says:

Stumbling on Happiness
"What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes?"

I kicked the Q around with friends and family and each of us came up with very distinct responses which got me thinking. I wondered what shape our respective answers would take if we extended the timeline a couple of times and then looked at the response relative to how each person lives their daily lives. So I threw out:

"What would you do if you had 24 hours..." and then I said: "What would you do if you had six months?"

Curiously, while the amount of time changed, the fundamentals of our answers did not. We realized that buried in our responses was a common theme for each of us that represented a set of values.

Value surfing
A theme that emerged for one person was prayer, meditation, and one-on-one time with specific people. Another theme was time with immediate family. One person wanted to be alone. Finally, another person wanted to write emails/letters to specific people sharing their love, admiration, and belief in them.

As the amount of time was expanded, we added to our vision, but the principles remained the same. 
  • The meditative person wanted to pray & meditate while traveling with certain people. 
  • The family people wanted to travel with family. 
  • The loner wanted time with friends but wanted to keep their imminent departure a secret which none of the others wanted to do. 
  • The writer wanted to travel, journal, and make perspective and advice videos for the people being left behind.
This then led us to consider how and if aspects of these answers play out in our lives. The upside of this was the family people feel whole when they are with their family but feel a bit lost and lonely when they are not. When we looked at it relative to their day-to-day interests, activity, and behavior clearly family, tradition, and commitment are prime values for them. 

The loner is social in life but tends to be intensely private and withholds and even avoids sharing raw, personal things with others. Based on their day-to-day interests, activity, and behavior this person seems to value self-reliance, autonomy, and strength. 

The meditative is highly imaginative and creative and tends to value knowledge and peaceful co-existence so faith, joy, and knowledge were thought to be their core values. 

The writer, well, writes, and feels more confident communicating through writing about all sorts of things than talking so the values of communication, learning, and creativity seemed central to this person.

Situational windows
I looked at various sites out there that attempt to guide people with understanding their core values.  Honestly, I didn't love any of them so as is typical with me, I cherry picked ideas. One article I found suggested you spend time writing about your goals as a child, dreams, etc, but who has time? What could be more interesting and useful is an exercise like we did with posing a Q and building off that. 

Revealing Qs
I've used something called Table Topics. It contains provocative Qs that have proven to be great convo starters that then, when explored more deeply, can reveal underlying values, beliefs, and principles. Two Christmases ago I gave the original game to my Tokii colleagues which still gets used from time-to-time so it's helpful even in business.

Watching ourselves
I've mentioned a few times in blog posts about the concept of observing ego. Situational questions offer us another vehicle for observing ego with the added bonus of perspective from others when done as a shared experience. I find this to be much easier and enjoyable than the one-sided reflection exercises mentioned above. I'm not suggesting those kinds of activities don't have value, but I don't think they should be the only source of info.

Try it on
So how do you do it? Give it a try:
  • Pick a question like "How are you different from others?"
  • Take your answer; e.g., you might say, "I'm different because of xyz."
  • Then take "xyz" and ask how you do it. Explore the times you do it. Question how you feel when you do it. Think about the impact it has on others.
  • Finally, lift keywords out of your descriptions. It's there that the pattern emerges that will lead you to your values, beliefs, and principles.
  • You can use a values list like the one here to determine your keywords.
Here's a personal example following the process above:

Of course, you can't do an exercise like this in a vacuum. The keywords you lift should make sense relative to other things you do in your life. So go on, give it a try yourself. You might just learn something. ;-)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Minding the Decade of the Mind

Family house in Atlanta, GA
Skipped run, new opportunity
A couple of days ago I made the mistake of not taking time to go for a long run, which, as is typical for me, resulted in me not being tired when most sensible people would be. The side effect was a restless mind that wandered, roamed, and wondered about the twists, turns, and curves of various memories and thoughts at too late an hour.

To fill the time, I wrote emails, caught up on some news, and did some planning, but none of those things seemed to settle what had turned into a rather persistent bit of chatter in my head. I tried to ignore it, but when my mind gets busy like that, it has to be fed. And fed it I did.

Stiff by Mary Roach
I had been staying at my parent's house for a few days where exploring in and outside always proves an adventure. After a while of moving about the house, I found myself in one of the small libraries where I discovered a book I'd wanted to read for a while called Stiff by Mary Roach. Some years back I read her book Bonk and really liked her style of writing so this was quite a find. Where Bonk is about the "curious" science of sex and coupling, Stiff is about how cadavers are used in science.

The first line of the book absolutely put my restlessness into perspective: "The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken." 

There it is.

Types of relationships
It's funny how day-to-day we work hard. We manage multiple complicated relationships. We wrestle with dilemmas. We strive to do the right thing. We try to be the best we can be. We work through a bevy of emotions. But at the end of the day we can be reduced to carbon based matter on par with other organic material that make up our world. What makes us different?

Our minds, of course.

Following a passion
The mind is the most interesting, curious thing to me. How it forms. How it grows. How it changes and adapts. How it  resist things it doesn't want to do. How it stumbles and even falls when under pressure from stress, lack of sleep, and exhaustion. How it drums up a gazillion excuses. How it ceases to exist when the body no longer functions. How it drives behavior and emotion. How it responds to LOVE and to LOSS.

Meandering Mind
It's my deep fascination and passion for the mind that has driven me to learn, study, and try to achieve personally and professionally. So when I heard in the 1990's that President George H.W. Bush dubbed that period the Decade of the Brain and gave it loads of cash, I was thrilled. A ton of headway (sorry, kinda hokey pun) was made in neuroscience and other areas, and more is still coming out of that investment and research.

Then 2007 rolled around and a new project was launched called the Decade of the Mind. The seed for this project was $4B, and it's slated to last through 2022. 

The discoveries that resulted from the Decade of the Brain were groundbreaking so I was over-the-moon elated to learn a similar project had been funded for the mind. I felt inspired when I heard the Decade of the Mind project kicked off, and vowed that I would find a way to support it. 

Panel discussion
It was my personal goal to help fund it, but unfortunately that hasn't panned out  (yet) so in the meantime I thought I could report on it. Info on it seems sparse so check out this blog from time-to-time if you want to catch up on what's happening in that space. I'll write about it and other mind-related topics.

Living a dream
Having a dream larger than yourself is a powerful motivator. Some people want fame, fortune, opportunity to help others or they may want something closer to home like children, home ownership, or education.

What's the goal or passion that drives you and keeps you focused and energized? What's the one or two things that get you up in the morning and excited about your day? 

Are doing it? If not, what can you do to get the ball rolling. Life is short. 
Live fast with purpose...