Category Archives: Self Help

Personal Willpower, Communal Impact

Meditators

We seem to make decisions in more impulsive ways than before. Many of us don’t seem to practice any reasonable amount of self-control. I feel this may be because most of us today just don’t have strong willpower.

Last year I read a book called “Willpower”[1] by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In it the authors liken willpower to muscle. And just like a muscle willpower can wear out from fatigue. When willpower is worn out, we behave more impulsively. How quickly we drain our willpower depends on how strong it is.

In using our willpower to make decisions we’re using our conscious mind or “System 2” as Daniel Kahneman refers to it in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”[2]. Conscious decision making or thinking is hard! It requires effort and uses a lot of energy in the process.

The body, however, has a limited store of energy. When we are low on energy, this conscious decision making process shuts down and decision making is shunted to the brain’s default decision making process or “System 1.” It doesn’t require much energy; it’s automatic and occurs outside of our conscious awareness. Many of the decisions we make in the default mode are driven by habit.

Conscious decision making generally produces reliable outcomes. We make better decisions with it. Not so with automatic decision making, which has been shown to be error-prone, often in systematic ways. So it’s important that we exercise our willpower; build it up, and make it stronger.

No one can make you exercise your body or mind. That’s a choice you make for yourself. But the results of your choice affects your behavior which in turn affects society. We live in communities and we have an obligation to them: to be the best version of ourselves.

Links
[1] Baumeister, Roy F., John Tierney (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
[2] Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The Context for Concepts

In my last post I might have left the impression that conceptualizing the real place is bad or that we should avoid it. This is not a correct impression.

We cannot avoid conceptualizing the real place. It’s automatic; part of our biological structure and the structure of our language. Concepts are how we make sense of the real place. They provide insights into the real place. We need those insights to respond appropriately to the real place. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that concepts are the mind’s representations of the real place and not the real place itself! We can call them images, idols, models, data, or symbols.

D. T. Suzuki[1] shared, “To point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon…” Alfred Korzybski[2] wrote in Science and Sanity, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” George E. P. Box[3], in Statistics for Experimenters, put it pithily that “all models are wrong; some models are useful.” These reminders, to be consciously aware of the difference between the real place and our mind’s abstractions of it, is the thread that runs through science and religion.

Problems only arise when we hold onto a concept long after it has stopped representing the real place and a gap has developed between what is and what we conceptualize it to be. To know what is, we must first “go and see” the real place. Without that direct experience with the real place, we cannot hope to act in ways appropriate to it. This is my understanding of what Zen and lean teach.

Links
[1] D.T. Suzuki
[2] Alfred Korzybski
[3] George E.P. Box

The Real Place

My study of Buddhist thought, and especially Zen, have so far taught me that I am often unaware of the real place. Decades of schooling and acculturation to society have taught me to ignore the real place in favor of concepts manufactured by the human mind; to create and be hypnotized by images and models. Right, wrong, god, devil, me, you, husband, wife, mother, father, boss, servant, friend, enemy, success, failure, good, bad, us, and them are all concepts. These are all creations of the mind. It gives them meaning. They’re not real.

Concepts are static–unchanging and easy to grab a hold of and cling to, while the real place is dynamic–ever changing; sometimes in predictable ways, most times in unpredictable ways. The real place offers nothing to grab on to; nothing to cling to. It is inevitable then that the two will eventually diverge from one another. I believe that that gap between what I see and what I think I see is the source of much, if not all, my suffering–frustration, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, and such. To experience the real place, I must let go of concepts, or rather I should not cling to them. Only then will my actions be appropriate or right for the real place.

Zen has been useful in ferrying me back to the real place every time my mind drifts to concepts.

My most direct experience of this gap, or at least one that I am most aware of, has been in the workplace. Data, charts, procedures, policies, concepts abound. Again, most, if not all, are disconnected from the real processes and systems. How work actually happens. However, like me, organizations remain mostly unaware of the disconnect. They thus suffer in a mire of internal conflict and frustration, too.

Lean can be useful to get organizations back to the real place.

Dysfunction Junction

Initially, when they hired me, they thought I was deeply knowledgeable. They were impressed with my solid understanding of quality and the breadth of my experience. Now they were wondering if I fit in. There are doubts about whether I mesh with others well enough to be productive; whether I wasn’t gumming up projects instead. They tell me people are afraid to engage with me. I’m trying, I respond, laying out a dozen examples of efforts I’ve made. I want to help reduce the time it takes to complete a project. I care deeply about my coworkers. But not so far back in my mind I’m wondering the same things.

I do want to help complete projects faster, but I also want them to be done well. I truly care deeply about my coworkers, so I want them to develop. It’s a challenge for me to contain my frustration with sloppiness and laziness. Despite my best efforts, what I feel is plainly apparent on my face. As I grind through each workday I think about the choices I’ve made: living apart from my family, postponing relationships, and foregoing vacations. I think about how hard I’ve worked to build my expertise–countless nights, weekends and holidays spent studying textbooks and papers–and how demoralizing it is to not be able to put it to practice. For what?

My values and actions have remained consistent with one another. The struggle is to keep them aligned when doing so means not fitting in with a group. I have stood on my own a long time. It’s exhausting.

Ripples

rippleDrop a pebble into a pond. Its effects ripple out. But the ripples don’t radiate infinitely across the surface. Nor do they last forever. At sufficient distance from their center they are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding water. A point beyond the reach of the ripples wouldn’t know that a pebble was ever dropped into the pond.

Drop two pebbles into a pond. Each generates ripples that radiate out. If the pebbles were dropped far from each other, their ripples die out before reaching one another. Each unaware the other happened just as before. But if the pebbles were dropped close to each other, their ripples interfere with one another. Some reach through to the centers themselves. Thus making their presence known. “Here I am! I exist!”

We are sources of ripples in this expanse of existence. I cause ripples at every point and instant I am. So do you. But until our ripples interact with one another we cannot know of each other. In ancestral times we were separated far enough from one another for our ripples to ever interact. We were independent. Alone. That space has shrunk to almost nothing in our time. Our ripples constantly collide with one another. Sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively. We are painfully aware of each other without announcement.

We absorb some of the energy from the ripples that bombard us. Not enough to damp them completely. They reflect off of us. We react to counteract their impact on us. And so no ripple ever settles out. Each seems to get an invisible kick and be periodically rejuvenated. By what and from when seems shrouded in mystery. The water’s surface is forever unsettled. This is the chaos that is life. No peace. No quiet.

As we grow in number, as the space between us continues to shrink, the closer we get to one another, the more we are bombarded with original ripples and ripples from interacting ripples. They come at us from all directions. They come at us faster. There is no way to predict and prepare for the next collision with the here and now. There isn’t time to process what it means. There is no thing to thank or to blame. We only experience it. Rich. Momentary. Unique.

Perceptions Dictate Actions

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory on human motivation outlining an hierarchy of needs we all move through. Whether the hierarchical structure strictly applies may be questionable, but his categories of needs can be accepted as defined with an appeal to personal experience.

At various points in our lives we have felt a need for food, water and shelter, safety and security, stability, friendship, love, respect, and growth. Maslow grouped these needs into five categories: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. While he organized these categories in an hierarchy, I find it more meaningful to think of them as factors that combine and interact to give rise to various mental states.

Personal experience has led me to believe mental states affect perception. A given situation will be perceived differently under different mental states. And, how you perceive affects how you react. If your mental state is dominated by a sense of insecurity, you will perceive your situation as threatening and react accordingly. Futhermore, no other category of need will feel worthwhile until the one dominating your mental state has been attended to.

It has also been my experience that people with dissimilar mental states have difficulty relating to one another in a productive fashion. Because mental states affect perception, dissimilar states result in different perspectives of the same issue. Differing perspectives are not conducive to forming the common understanding necessary to cooperatively face a situation. People talk past one another. Messages are misunderstood. Communication doesn’t take place.

Given that it’s unlikely two people will share similar mental states at any given time, how does one move across this emotional minefield? Meditation and self-reflection have helped me to characterize my mental state. This awareness has opened up a choice for me unavailable before: how do I want react to things? At the very least I have an option to not make things worse. I can also attempt to ascertain the other person’s mental state and work towards common understanding.

Failure

Most of us have been taught to live our lives singularly focused on outcomes. We are a result oriented society. We worship winners and revile losers. With that as the context, is it any wonder that the majority of us are risk averse? Why do something if there is a chance we might not achieve our desired end? Who would want to be labeled a failure or a loser?

I remember an incident back in middle school. I had got a ‘D’ in one of my classes. It generated such anxiety that I doctored my report card. With a couple of well placed dots penciled in on the dot matrix printout I changed the grade from the ‘D’ to a ‘B’. I knew it was wrong, but the fear of failure was dominating. Even though my parents had never set any expectations for grades – they had always wanted me to just do my best – I had nevertheless internalized the stigma of failure from other social contexts.

The message we all, student or professional, get every waking moment is clear even if it is just implied: hit the target. It does not matter how. Anything less is not only worthless but it will bring negative consequences. What we fail to grasp is the fact that just as you cannot inspect quality into a product, you cannot test knowledge into a student. Trying to do it just fosters our present culture wherein we are all afraid to take chances and risk failure.

We must shift our focus upstream to the learning process. We must be taught how to learn beyond just what to learn. All of us have to understand how knowledge is built and then use that process to grow our own knowledge. That process, the learning cycle, is elegantly expressed by Dr. Shewhart and Dr. Deming: PDSA or Plan-Do-Study-Act. Its deceptive simplicity hides the profound impact it has had in growing human knowledge.

Make a guess at the solution to the problem you’re facing and plan a way to test your guess. Following the plan, actually do the test; carry it out. Study the result by comparing it against your guess. Do they match each other? How you act, depends on the answer. If the result matches your guess, you have confirmation of your guess. If not, you will need to modify your guess with the new found data and run through the cycle once more. Either way, you have increased your knowledge. There is no failure!

How many cycles it takes to understand the nature of the problem we face depends on how good our initial guess is. We must afford everyone the opportunity to run through as many cycles as they need without judging them as a success or a failure based on the outcome of any given iteration of the cycle. Doing so is a way to kill intrinsic curiosity and stop the learning process cold. If we want people to take risks, then we have to foster an environment of experimentation and cooperation.

Life is a journey, not a destination. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whirlpools…

We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life. In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river of life forms living things – a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants – then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow. The energy that was a particular whirlpool fades out and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.

Nothing Special : Living Zen – Charlotte Joko Beck with Steve Smith

Book Review: “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”

DriveAs I read “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” I found myself nodding my head in approval… a lot. Daniel Pink makes a compelling argument against the adequacy of commonly accepted ideas on what motivates us: ‘carrots and sticks’, and the effectiveness of management that continues to use those ideas today even after they have been debunked. He presents the findings of scientific studies conducted by thought leaders in the field of psychology, sociology, economics like Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Carol Dweck, Dan Ariely, and Teresa Amabile as he builds his own model to describe what drives us.

Pink’s model of motivation is elegant. Made up of three parts, it is simple yet captures key factors that drive motivation:

  1. People have a desire for autonomy with respect to task, time, team and technique,
  2. People want to gain mastery over what they do, and
  3. People crave to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

It holds an intuitive appeal for me. I suspect that might be a function of the type of work I do and my experience doing it. For as long as I have been working I have been dissatisfied with the management style used by each of my employers. Among other things, I found them lacking in the way they chose to motivate. The studies Pink discusses in the book helped me understand why some of my job functions went from ‘play’ to ‘work’. They also explain why, from time to time, they reverted back from ‘work’ to ‘play’. His model crystallized what I am looking for as a knowledge worker: An opportunity to choose what I do, when I do it, with whom I do it and how I do it. An opportunity to do it well and get better at it. And, an opportunity to do it in the cause of something greater than myself.

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” is a well written book. Pink doesn’t make the reader work at it. He weaves stories that hook a reader and pull him along without being wiser to it. It takes lots of skill and effort to pull that off. Pink builds his case for his model of motivation logically, never losing the reader in the process. He doesn’t just cite studies, he explains their findings. Then he takes the additional step to explain the implication of those findings as he works to incorporate them into his model. So, the net result is an extremely reader friendly book that informs and educates. I place this book in the same space as Jonah Leher‘s “How We Decide“, Dan Ariely‘s “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions“, Ori Brafman‘s “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior“.

Footnotes:

  • Check out a really wild animation of Dan Pink’s talk here.
  • Check out Dan Pink’s TED talk here.
  • Check out Dan Pink’s RSA talk here (related to the animation above).

Fork in the Road

Excepting in the presence of active research in a pure science, the applications of the science tend to drop into a deadly rut of unthinking routine, incapable of progress beyond a limited range predetermined by accomplishments of pure science, and are in constant danger of falling into the hands of people who do not really understand the tools that they are working with and who are out of touch with those that do…

Harold Hotelling, Memorandum to the Government of India, 24 February 1940

That is the predicament I found myself in.

I was hired to support the company’s efforts to validate their processes in preparation for registering their manufacturing facility with the FDA. The FDA defines process validation as:

…establishing by objective evidence that a process consistently produces a result or product meeting its predetermined specifications.

— 21CFR820.3(z)(1)

While the definition is succinct, process validation is not a trivial task. And, contrary to the belief of management that is not literate in the quality system regulations or the subject of quality assurance, it is certainly not something you can “whip out”. It requires an understanding of the process in question – its key inputs and the key attributes of its output – coupled with an understanding of statistical principles such as the design of experiments (DOE) and analysis of variance (ANOVA) necessary to generate the objective evidence that will establish for the company and the FDA that the “process consistently produces a result meeting its predetermined specifications”. And, it also helps to have a proper plan that allows management to identify and allocate the resources required to successfully meet its objectives. At a minimum, a basic project plan should include a detailed checklist of actions items with clearly defined owners and due dates.

But, when management does not understand or trivializes these requirements, it makes decisions that endanger the best interests of the company. Unnecessary risk is assumed. Resources are wasted. Workers are put in a chaotic situation that is the primary source of much of their frustration and fear. So it should not be a surprise when “new” action items “pop up” in crunch time; when there is confusion around the ownership of a task, or when deadlines are missed and missed again causing tensions to flare. And, while these gaffes in project management might be overcome through working harder (translated as management by proclamation – “because I said so” – and long hours), there is no hope to compensate for poorly designed experiments with insufficiently identified process parameters through brute force. Without the right data there is no way to show the process’s capability or even that it is in statistical control.

So there it is – a fork in the road. A choice that we are all confronted with more often than we would like: follow the whack-a-mole tactics of a management team without a strategy or as Dr. Hotelling put it “people who do not really understand the tools that they are working with and who are out of touch with those that do”, or make a swift exit to focus on developing your personal knowledge and skills while searching for a better opportunity. As scary as it seems, the latter choice will always lead to a better outcome. At least that has been my experience.