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My theory of happiness

22 Oct

Happiness is one of the most discussed things in the world but there seems to be very little consensus on what it is that actually makes a person happy. I have travelled around the world and spoke to many people from very diverse backgrounds and I have realised that things such as how rich or healthy or fat or colourful or intelligent or how much people we have around us do not seem to be very good determinants of how happy we are. Instead, I realised that happiness is about being in balance about what we think we could be and what we are. I decided to call it living in an ‘ignorance bubble’. In this blog post, I will firstly define what an ignorance bubble is, secondly elaborate on my conceptualisation of happiness and finally explore how people move between the states of being happy or not.

It is worth mentioning at the beginning that the word ignorance is not as negative as its connotations would normally suggest. It comes from Latin ignorantia which means ‘not knowing’. It is thus perfectly human to be ignorant because nobody can know everything. I would like to distinguish two relevant types of ignorance for the purpose of this blog post. It is firstly ignorance about how capable we are, a ‘capability’ ignorance, and secondly ignorance about what we can be doing/what we can have, a ‘can do/have’ ignorance.

An example of the first type of ignorance, the capability ignorance, is a guy who is a sailor because that’s how good he thinks he is. In reality he is capable enough to be a captain but he is perfectly happy about being a sailor because it never crossed his mind that he could be a captain. He lives in ignorance about his capabilities, in an ignorance bubble, and is happy in this bubble. Another example is a woman watching TV in a slum dwelling and seeing people living in beautiful houses in the movies. Despite the fact she might be as intelligent as people living in those houses, her circumstances made her think that she will never be able to afford such a house and therefore it does not really worry her she does not have one.

An example of the second type of ignorance, the can do/have ignorance, is a man eating plain food his whole life. He has never tasted for example a well prepared piece of meat and therefore he is not sad he cannot eat it every week. Another example would be an Indian girl living her whole life in a dusty, crowded city. She has never lived in countryside nearby a forest and has never breathed clean air. She lives in ignorance, an ignorance bubble, about what her environment can look like and therefore she is not sad about what it is.

We can now define an ignorance bubble as the sum of our knowledge and beliefs about what is possible at any given time. We can also distinguish five different states where we can be relative to our ignorance bubble (see Figure 1). It is where we are that defines if we are happy or not. In state 1, our ignorance bubble, the black oval, is identical with what our life actually is, the red oval, and we are happy (more detailed examples of what happens in each state follow). In state 2, our bubble bursts or put another way, it expands – we now believe our life can be better than what it is and we are unhappy. From state 2, we can move either to state 3, which is to do nothing about it and stay unhappy, or to state 4, which is to actively attempt to improve our situation to match it to what we now believe is possible; this effort makes us initially happy. We can again move in two directions from state 4. We either succeed in our efforts and our situation improves to a point it matches our new, expanded ignorance bubble which moves us to the happy state 1 where all is in balance. Or we do not succeed and despite our efforts our situation does not match what we believe is possible. At that point we have to make a decision; we either move to stage 3 where our ignorance bubble is permanently bigger (better) that what our situation actually is and we are unhappy or we realise that the idea that burst our initial ignorance bubble is actually not possible at the moment (we give up on that ambition), we readjust our ignorance bubble back to its original form, move to the balanced state 1 and are happy again.

Figure 1: 5 states of happiness relative to our ignorance bubble

State 1 –living happily in an ignorance bubble

One way I believe people can be happy is by living within their ignorance bubble having achieved what their capability and can do/have ignorance tells them they can achieve. I know many such people and I respect them very much because they have worked very hard to make things be as good as they believe they can be and consequently they are happy now. I, for example, stayed once for a weekend with a poor Colombian farmer living high in the mountains. He told me that his biggest dream is to see an ocean. This was quite doable since he would have to take a chiva, the local bus, for two hours to the nearest town and from there it would take him about ten hours on another bus to get to the ocean. He would be able to afford the trip if he saved for some time. But he did not believe it is possible for him to go there – nobody like him he knows in his village has ever seen the ocean either. The fact he has not seen the ocean yet and probably never will does not however make him unhappy in the slightest; he lives happily in his ignorance bubble.

State 2 – painful puncturing of our ignorance bubble

Every now and then somebody or something comes with an idea and punctures our ignorance bubble. If our can do/have ignorance is punctured as we for example taste a good steak and we like it (we have realised how plain our food is in comparison to the steak) our capability ignorance can still save us. If we will still think that we are simply not able to earn enough money to keep buying that steak we will happily get back to our plain dishes. A problem arises when we also start believing that we are capable enough to secure that steak meat yet we do not have it at the moment (see note 1). We become unhappy at that moment because our ignorance bubble got punctured – it expanded and no longer matches the reality of our current lives. At this moment, we have two options. Those are firstly to do nothing and secondly to actively try to make things as good for us as we believe they can be.

State 3 – doing nothing and being unhappy

The easiest option (in the short term) is always to do nothing. I often see people who somehow got their ignorance bubbles punctured and believe their lives can (they would say should) be better but do not attempt to improve them in any way. Instead, they resort to complaining and relying on others to help them. This inaction combined with belief that their lives should be better than they are now makes them unhappy.

State 4 – happily trying to improve our situation

A much better alternative is to act upon the capabilities we have realised we have and to improve our lives to the point where we now think we should be given our newly expanded ignorance bubble. I believe that once people embark on this ‘equilibrating’ journey their happiness level suddenly increases. They feel good because they are doing something about their situation. They might not be eating the steak yet, but they feel they are at least working on getting there which is initially almost as good as having it. If all works out well and we get to where we want to be, that reality becomes our new ignorance bubble, we are now in balance with it and therefore move to the happy state 1. If things however do not work out as envisioned despite our best efforts, we get to unhappy state 5 where our improvement efforts keep ending in vain.

State 5 – being unhappy from not getting the results

We all have sometimes tried hard to achieve something but we just could not get there. In this state we still believe our situation should be better and we are actively trying to do something about it; to little effect however. This makes us unhappy. We can always try to get there in a different way but should that not work out as well, two things can happen. We can either cease our efforts to improve our situation but still keep believing that it should be better. This would move us to the unhappy state 3. Alternatively, we can accept that we are realistically not capable at this moment to get there or that it is not worth the effort and readjust our expectations accordingly. This means to contract our ignorance bubble to our initial size and live happily as we did before in our original state 1.

I believe it is very important to try hard to improve our situation whenever our ignorance bubble gets punctured. It is only through exerting our own effort that failing to get where we want to get, we are genuinely able to readjust our expectations, our ignorance bubble, back to its original balanced state. Only then we can stop being worried about not having something (see my previous blog post on never regretting ). Equally importantly, if often happens that once we get where we thought we wanted to get, we realise it is by far not as good as we imagined it to be. We can then give up on that need and get happily back to our original ignorance bubble. At the same time, I believe the only way out of state 3 is to try, to get to state 4, for the same reasons I have just mentioned.

What I have tried to demonstrate here is firstly that how happy we are is not contingent on how much we have in absolute terms but rather on how much we have relative to what we believe we are capable of having and relative to how much we believe we should have. This relates equally to physical objects, money, people around us or feelings. Secondly, I wanted to show that how happy we are is dependent on the actions we choose – which state we decide to be in. The only state we cannot fully control is state 2 – when our ignorance bubble is punctured. It often just happens. Someone tells us a new thing, we read something impactful or we experience something new. Alternatively, we can also consciously decide to puncture and expand our own ignorance bubble and set ourselves new goals. But I believe we are in full control of moving between all the other states as shown in Figure 1 and described above.

This means that while we cannot directly control how happy we are by simply telling ourselves now I will be happy, we can influence it by consciously deciding which actions we take. Next time your ignorance bubble is punctured therefore, think carefully how you are going to react so that you move through state 4 back to balanced state 1 and do not get stuck in the unhappy passive state 3. In a similar fashion, if somebody around you is not happy, you can use this diagram to figure out in which state the person is, why they are there and help them by guiding them to a more happy state accordingly.

Note 1: Using steak meat as a proxy for happiness might seem rather superficial but it is not for two reasons. Firstly, it is only a metaphor; you can substitute the steak for a loving, intelligent, funny and attractive girlfriend, a different nationality, being healthy or whatever you desire. Secondly, meat is one of the first things people spend their money on upon escaping absolute poverty and its consumption is an important indicator of ones poverty level.

Asking the right questions as a key to effective communication

26 Sep

There are many more things we do not know than we do know. More often than not, this ignorance stems from a simple fact that we have not been asked or have not asked ourselves the relevant questions. Questions can be very impactful in that they make us think about a certain issue we would not have considered otherwise. They allow us to put two and two together and come up with completely new insights. This post elaborates on the topic of asking the right questions, they role in effective communication and rounds up the topic of helping explored in the previous two blog posts.

In the previous two posts I wrote about three possible types of helping relationship (see here) and about the importance of building a balanced relationship with the person we are communicating with (see here). Questions play a crucial role in any helping relationship and in communication as such. As mentioned before, they firstly allow us to learn new things. Secondly, by asking somebody a question we demonstrate our interest in the other person and in the issues they are facing thus showing them our respect and building mutual trust. Finally, a well phrased question asked at a right time can very effectively influence someone’s thinking and make them realise new things. There are many types of questions and many ways of describing those types; it is however always important to keep in mind that the form greatly shapes thinking process of the person we are communicating with and we should therefore choose it carefully.

One of the simplest, but nevertheless very important, ways to classify questions is into open-ended and close-ended ones. Open-ended questions usually start with How, Why, What etc. and they prompt the other person to answer freely depending on what they feel is the most relevant thing to say. Close-ended questions give us very specific, usually yes-no answers. While close-ended questions are great to confirm or otherwise a hypothesis we might have, they are quite restrictive in their nature. Open ended questions are usually a more effective and useful communication tool.

Edgar Schein in his books on helping (mentioned in my earlier blog posts) puts a great emphasis on active inquiry, asking the right questions at the right time, as an effective way to communicate with and help others. He distinguishes three main types of inquiry – pure inquiry, exploratory inquiry and confrontive inquiry. They are all open ended questions. Each type is useful for different purpose and at a different point during an interaction.

Pure inquiry

The objective of pure inquiry is to learn more about the issue at hand as the other person sees it without influencing thinking of the person in any way. Being silent is often the most effective way to start as it lets the person bring up whatever she feels to be most important. Then we can ask questions such as:

What is the situation?
Can you tell me what is going on?
What is happening?
Can you give me some examples?
Tell me more…

Notice that these questions do not suggest any direction the person should explore. They are therefore very useful at the very beginning of a conversation as they allow us to better understand what is happening and to dispel any false assumptions we might have had before (we naturally recall what we know about an issue at hand when we hear about it and make certain assumptions about what is for example causing it not paying attention to the fact that this situation might be different and therefore that our assumptions might not be applicable). In terms of building an balanced relationship with the other person as mentioned in the earlier blog post, pure inquiry is a great way of doing so for it shows interest and clearly demonstrates an unbiased intention to understand what is happening.

Exploratory inquiry

When in exploratory inquiry mode, we start to steer the conversation in certain directions but still refrain from presenting our own ideas about what the other person should do. We can focus on (1) feelings and reactions, (2) hypotheses and causes or (3) actions taken or contemplated. We can ask questions such as:

(1) How did you feel about that?
What was your reaction?
How did others react?
(2) Why do you think it happened?
Why did you (or somebody else) do that?
(3) What did you do about it?
What are you going to do?
What options do you have?
What do you think you should do?

Notice that compared to pure inquiry, the questions here suggests a direction of further conversation but do not contribute any specific content. They can be used after we have learned more about the situation using pure inquiry questions and only once we have developed some level of mutual trust with the other person. If asked too early, the other person might become uncomfortable or get defensive if asked these questions.

Confrontive inquiry

During this last type of inquiry we can share our ideas about what we think the other person should do and ask them what they think about it. We can ask questions such as:

Did you …do something..?
Did you consider… ?
Have you thought about …?
Could/can you do…?

Here we are suggesting the direction as well as the content of further discussion. In doing so we directly confront the other person about something specific and as such run the risk of the person starting to feel even more uncomfortable and get even more defensive than during exploratory inquiry. We should use these types of questions only once we have developed a balanced and trusting relationship with the other person to avoid these pitfalls. Once we have done so however, confrontive inquiry is a great way of steering somebody in a certain direction and doing so in a much gentler way than simply saying do X, Y, Z.

Unless we are talking to a person we already know well and that trusts us, it is very important to start with pure inquiry then move onto exploratory and only then to confrontive inquiry. The differences might appear to be very subtle but from my own experience, our minds subconsciously react to them very strongly. It varies with situations as to when is the best time to switch from one to another but we should always think about how well developed our relationship with the other person is and phrase our questions accordingly. Try it next time somebody asks you for help or just wants to talk to you about something. Alternatively, try following similar steps if you want somebody to do something and you want them do have a real ownership of what you want them to do.

Note: Apart from being able to ask the right questions, being able to listen effectively is an equally important skill. See my older post of effective listening here. Additionally, Schein recommends visualising what the other person is saying as a very effective way to listen. I often do it myself and it really helps me to focus on and understand what the person is saying.

One-upmanship and the economics of social interaction

18 Sep

Sometimes we come across people whom we attentively listen to and appreciate whatever they say while at other times we feel like dismissing everything somebody else says. Why is it so? This has been one of my biggest questions over the past few years. How come some people can put their thoughts across in a way such that others mostly agree with what they are saying while other people present themselves in a way such that others try to refute anything they say? This blog post offers some answers and also serves as a continuation to my previous post on helping.

A possible answer to this question is that we simply like listening to people who say what we agree with and dislike listening to people who say what we do not agree with. This, however, does not necessarily have to be true for two main reasons. Firstly, we can enjoy listening to a person who offers a different perspective, and do so attentively, for that is how our knowledge expands and we arrive to better solutions. Secondly, by claiming that we agree or disagree with what a person is saying we make an assumption that we actually understand what the person is saying in the first place. The problem here is that we often do not even attempt to fully understand what the other person is trying to tell us.

Regardless on our intentions, we all find ourselves at times dismissing what somebody is saying before we fully grasp what they are trying to tell us. This implies that the actual content of a message is often secondary to the form in which it is presented in determining whether others accept it or not. In other words, how the other person makes us feel during the communication process is more important than what the person actually says. This is where the concepts of one-upmanship and the economics of social interaction became relevant and these will be explored next.

Edgar Schein in his recent book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help notes that while there are few cultural universals, anthropologists agree that all societies are stratified and that all social behaviour is reciprocal. This has several important consequences.

In terms of stratification it implies that people inherently do not have equal positions relative to each other. This is certainly true on the societal level where people can be stratified e.g. by acquired positions of power, merit, economic status or in some societies by caste. But it is also true in day to day human interaction where people behave in various ways and adopt various roles. In doing so they claim certain amount of value and at the same time are ready to give some value back to the person they are interacting with depending on the roles they are in. It is the balance (or its absence) between these two social ‘transactions’ that determines how we perceive a relationship. If a relationship is not balanced, feeling of tension and unease arises which hinders the communication process.

The perils of being one-up

There can be a lack of balance for two main reasons. Firstly, it is the difference in relative standing of the two people in a society or secondly, and often more importantly, the difference between how much value one receives and offers relative to what he expects to receive and is expected to offer. By value we mean here the amount of respect we show or receive from the other person or as the Chinese call it, the face we give or receive. One-upmanship then refers to occasions when we claim more value that we should (we put ourselves one-up and the other person one-down) or to situations which implicitly put us one-up and other person one-down whether it was our intention or not. One such situation always occurs for example at the beginning of any helping relationship when the helper is put one-up (by being asked to help) and the person requesting help one-down (by needing help) relative to each other. This puts a strain on the relationship and makes the person who is one-down focus all his attention on regaining his status relative to the other person at the expense of trying to understand the message being communicated.

To answer our initial question therefore, whether we attentively listen to what the other person is saying or not is dependent on how equitable our relationship with that person is. If the person puts himself one-up and makes us feel one-down, we focus most of our attention on putting ourselves one-up or the person one-down to restore the balance. This can translate into us dismissing whatever the person says regardless of how sound his arguments are. On the other hand, if we feel respected and we perceive the relationship to be equitable, we are willing to appreciate even ideas that go contrary to ours and are not afraid of a potential loss of face if we change our initial position.

In terms of reciprocity, anything we do or do not do, consciously or subconsciously, is interpreted by and has an effect on the person we are interacting with and prompts him to react somehow. It is therefore important to think about how our actions contribute to building an equitable relationship and plan them accordingly. One way of doing so is showing respect and building mutual trust. There are multiple ways of doing so and one of them, pure inquiry, as Schein calls it, will be explored in the next blog post.

To summarize so far, it is how the other person makes us feel that determines if we are going to listen to him or not. If we feel valued and being treated with respect we are more likely to fully appreciate what the other person is saying. A crucial factor determining if we feel this way or not is whether we perceive the person to be trying to put himself one-up and makes us feel one-down. People often adopt certain communication style subconsciously not realising that however good their intentions might be, if they are making the other person feel one-down, their effort is not nearly as impactful as it could have been had they adopted a different style. Next time you are communicating with others, try therefore to think how you are making the other people feel and focus on building an equitable relationship.

When is help really helpful?

20 Aug

There is a proverb saying Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This is a very powerful principle which can be extended to almost any interaction between a person who needs help and a person who is willing to help. Yet for a number of reasons a helping relationship does not (and should not) always work this way. Also, not all attempts to help are actually helpful as you have surely experienced yourself many times before. This blog post elaborates on the topic further and outlines two other ways of helping using Edgar Schein’s philosophy of content versus process facilitation.

Schein identified three basic types of helping relationships which essentially differ in who diagnoses what the actual problem is and who comes up with the solution. Especially the first point is very important as people have often troubles expressing what they need help with. They might not know how to formulate the problem, might be afraid to do so or might not know what the problem is in the first place and might suggest they have some other, secondary, problem instead.

Schein refers to the person needing help as client and to the person offering help as consultant. This language evokes corporate setting however the principles outlined bellow can be applied in our personal as well as professional lives.

Expert mode

In this mode the client identifies her problem herself and approaches a consultant to solve the problem for her. She says I am hungry. This mode works only if the client is able to correctly identify the real problem and explain it to a consultant who has the knowledge how to solve it. It also assumes she is willing to and able to implement the solution the consultant gives her.

While at times all these assumptions hold and at such instances it is the most suitable mode of help, the client is often unable to identify her real problem as we mentioned before, is unable to explain it to the consultant or the solution the consultant comes up with might not be suitable for implementation. For example if a client who does not eat red meat says I am hungry and the consultants takes it at face value and brings her a burger, such help would not really be helpful.

Doctor-patient mode

In this mode the client only knows something is wrong in a certain area but leaves it up to the consultant to identify what the problem is and to solve it just like an ill patient comes to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. She says I do not feel well. This mode assumes that the client has correctly identified what area needs help and that she is willing and able to reveal relevant information to a suitably identified consultant to make a correct diagnosis. It also assumes that client will understand the advice, will be willing to accept the advice and will be able implement it correctly, just like in the expert mode.

Help in this mode can work for example in the medical setting where the patient is able to say which part of body hurts her and where the doctor is well trained to identify and solve the problem. In other settings however, more often than not, the consultant might identify a wrong problem or come up with a solution unsuitable to the client. Using our fishing example, if the client says I do not feel well (because she is hungry), the consultant might think that she is just thirsty and offer her a cup of water instead. Such help would not really be very helpful either.

Process consultation mode

In the final mode the client engages a consultant not to identify or solve a problem but to take her through a process at the end of which she will have done so herself. The consultant therefore does not provide her with diagnosis or solution but merely with a process. Most crucially, the client retains ownership of her problem.

The fact that she owns the problem has several far reaching implications. Firstly, she is able to with the help of the consultant to correctly identify what her real problem is. She still says I do not feel well but because the consultant asks he a series of questions, she figures out she is hungry – identifies the correct problem. Secondly, she comes up with solution to her problem herself which means she has buy-in into this solution and consequently willingness to execute it. The consultant asks the client what she wants to eat and she realises that she would like a fish.

Thirdly, she learns two key things. By this point, through careful observation of the consultant, she has already learned how to identify her real problem and a suitable solution to it – she has learned the process of doing so. Finally she also learns from the consultant how to fish. This means that next time she does not feel well, instead of needing to ask for help, she can go herself through the now learned process of identifying her problem and coming up with a solution (unlike in the doctor-patient mode) and can solve the problem herself as well (unlike in the expert mode).

Which mode is the best one?

Since most situations are unique, each mode is suitable for a different context. It can also be useful to switch between the modes within one helping intervention as the process consultation one might be more suitable at the beginning when we need to correctly identify the problem and once we have done so, we might realise that the expert mode is the best one to continue in.

The real benefit lies in knowing that these three modes exist, being aware of their differences as well as benefits and limitations and think consciously which one to apply given our situation. This should help us be more helpful when we want to do so.

Edgar Schein discusses these modes and nature of interventions in general at length in his book Process Consultation Revisited published 1999. He also has a recent book on helping called Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help which I am yet to read.


Managing expectations

13 Jul

How we perceive things, people or our experiences is often not determined by how good or bad they are in absolute terms but good or bad they are relative to what we were expecting them to be.  If they tell you in a restaurant that the food will be ready in five minutes and you end up waiting for 15 minutes, you will be disappointed with the service. Had they told you however that it will take half an hour because they are very busy at the moment but manage to get it to your table in 15 minutes, you would be very happy. The time is the same, but your perception of the restaurant is vastly different.

I believe that expectations management is one of the most important things to keep in mind when communicating with others. I have seen wrong expectations setting or lack of it lead to dissatisfaction many times in the past. Which is a shame because all that was missing was an awareness of the issue and two minutes to communicate it to others.

Dissatisfaction is result of a negative expectations gap – the difference between what we were expecting something to be like and what it actually was. If we the reality is better than our expectations, we talk of positive expectations gap and if the reality is worse we talk of negative expectations gap. We can therefore ensure satisfaction in two main ways. Firstly by setting lower expectations and secondly by achieving better results – both lead to increase in positive expectations gap.

People often focus on achieving better results but neglect the expectations setting part. Now do not get me wrong here, I am not saying that you should tell your boss tomorrow that you are going to do only very little work over the next year. You would probably get fired if you did that. But you can get fired just as easily if you tell your boss you are going to do loads or make him or her think so and then deliver only to your normal standards.


Expectations should be set for realistic targets for two main reasons. Firstly, as your might have guessed already, to give yourself some space to work extra hard and overachieve those expectations thus generating a positive expectations gap and satisfaction of others with your performance. But equally importantly to allow others to plan accordingly and be able to rely on you delivering what you promised to do. Things can go less smoothly than anticipated sometimes and if you fail to do what you promised, others who were relying on receiving your output would get into trouble. And if you get people repeatedly into trouble, they will stop trusting you and working with you (that’s quite obvious, huh?).

I am now doing my final project at LSE, my university, and I have been very careful to set the right expectations with my client (in this case one pharma consultancy) and my academic supervisor as to what the project will cover and what the project will not cover. I set myself a realistic plan at the beginning which I am following on time to everybody’s satisfaction and people are generally happy with how things are progressing.

One my friend is in charge of a not-for-profit organisation and had an annual review meeting with her team earlier this week. One of her team members did not think the meeting is going to be anything serious, just a group of friends meeting, and when she got questioned why she did not achieve her plan she was very defensive and felt somewhat hurt afterwards. She had wrong expectation from the meetings.

The concept of expectation setting can be applied to all areas of life where we are dealing with others and even when we are dealing just with ourselves. We all get surprised sometimes how well things worked out when we were not expecting it at all. Perhaps our satisfaction then stems at least partially from the positive expectations gap we had.

So next time you are doing something, ask yourself what expectation are you setting for others and if you feel they are not very realistic, go to every length you can to rectify it. It might seem like a difficult discussion to have occasionally, but it would still be probably hundred times easier to what the discussion might end up being like if you do not do any expectations setting at all.

Exploring the future

18 Jun

Some people tell me I plan too much and others that I plan too little. I think this is either because people have differing attitudes towards planning or because they understand meaning of the word differently. The fact is however, we all think about the future sometimes. This blog post is about how I like to think about it.

Why we do not like to plan

A lot of people do not like to plan. Some are afraid that they will make great plans which the reality might not live up to and that they will be disappointed afterwards. So in order to avoid this disappointment, a negative gap between their expectations and the reality, they choose not to make any plans in the first place. Others are afraid that once they make a plan, they will be restricted by it and will feel obliged to execute it at all costs. So in order to not lose this perceived flexibility, they do not make any plans as well. There are also some people who simply do not care about their future even though I would like to believe this is just a minority.

The first two reasons why people do not like to plan make sense and are very close to human nature. None of us want to regret, be disappointed or feel restricted. And all these feelings are indeed bound to occur if we understand planning as a prescriptive activity and plans as a clear statement of what has to happen in the future. Plans then became a form of commitment we have either internally with ourselves or, if we share our plans publicly, with others. There are certainly benefits to making commitments in this way – our increased motivation to work hard or extra predictability for others. But there are also two crucial limitations which make prescriptive planning a lot less attractive proposition at least when it comes to our personal lives.

The first limitation is that for the reasons mentioned above, people often end up not making any plans at all. They then get trapped in their status quo even though they could have improved their situation had they acted with a bit of foresight. The second limitation is that most of the issues we are faced with are complex and unpredictable ones. It is therefore not the best idea to make a fixed plan of what has to happen over the next year or so using only our past knowledge. The circumstances are likely to change, we are likely to learn new things and figure out better ways of getting to where we want to be or realize that we actually want to do something else all together. I therefore like to think about planning only as of a guide to action and a platform to explore what can happen in the future.

Planning as a road trip

A good metaphor would be a road trip. Let’s say we want to explore the Europe by car over the next three weeks. One can approach planning such trip in three ways. A prescriptive planner would do a precise itinerary of where we should go each day, how long we can stay there for and what we should do there. If we get to like some place a lot and would like to stay there couple extra days, it is not possible because it would mess up the whole plan. If one road would be closed down and we would have to take a long detour, we might not get to see our final destination because we will simply run out of time.

People who do not plan at all would just start driving, see places along the way and decide every morning where they want to go. While this sounds attractive, they might miss out on most of the sites they wanted to see because they will not know how to get there. Once their holiday is over and they have to fly back home, they might realise they spent the whole time driving around one country as opposed to seeing Europe as they originally wanted to do. They might not even go for the trip at all as they might be afraid they would get lost and will therefore stay at home. I have seen both of these approaches to planning before and they unfortunately leave people disappointed at the end of the day usually.

This is why I propose a third approach. Sticking with the road trip example, we explore what all there is to do in Europe and compile a basic list of things we would like to see and do. We accept the fact that this list is incomplete because we can learn about Europe only so much before we actually get there. We know we will come across some extra place as we go along. We also look at driving distances between the places and for how long we would like to stay at each place so we get an idea of how much we can realistically manage to see.

The objectives of planning are not to make a fixed plan. They are rather to give us comfort that we know what we can do, should we decide to do it and to inform our future decision making. If we get to like one place and want to stay there longer, we will know that we can do so but that we will not be able to see another place in that case – it allows us to make educated trade-offs.

The very fact that we make a plan, gives us a level of comfort and self confidence that we can manage the trip and allows to set into action (e.g. book the plane tickets). This is very important as a lot of people never get to make the first step towards achieving something. Once we land, we can start executing the plan but we also know we can change it any time should we find a shorter way of getting to where we want to go or should decide to go somewhere else.

Planning in this sense is therefore not a prescriptive exercise but rather an exploration of what all can happen in the future. Since the future is uncertain, we can also make various scenarios (e.g. what to do on a sunny day or on a rainy day). At Shell, where scenario planning was pioneered nearly half a decade ago, they view scenarios as ‘tools which help leaders prepare for futures that might happen, rather than the future they would like to create’ (Living in the Futures, HBR, May 2013).

Once we start thinking this way, we often realise that in order to achieve something in the future, we need to do something today or within the next couple of weeks (e.g. to apply for visa on time before our departure date so that we can board the plane). A lot of people have to compromise on their dreams because they realise only too late that they missed out on something. By setting ourselves into action today, we also get better prepared to capitalise on opportunities we might come across in the future. Our plan is often unlikely to work out as intended but because we had a goal and we were working towards it before, that work might pay off now to achieve something even better that what was our original goal.

The point of this blog post was to change people’s perceptions towards planning and to understand it not as a restrictive but a liberating activity. Planning as an exploration gives us the confidence to get moving, makes us appreciate what needs to be done to get where we want to go and allows us to change our plans for the better as we go along because we are able to evaluate consequences of our decisions and therefore make good trade-offs.

Complex or just complicated?

31 May

Our thoughts can be either complex or complicated or both. One can speak in a really clear way or in a very complicated way. In either mode, one can be saying very simple things or very complex things. It is therefore important to distinguish between  these two adjectives. This blog post is on speaking about complex things in simple terms and how we often get it wrong.

If we know only a little about some topic, we speak about it in simple terms if at all, using our everyday language. This is because we do not know what we do not know, so we by default have to keep it simple. It is worth noting however, that simplicity does not always equal to brevity for some people can take a really long time to convey a simple thought they do not even know much about.

When we dig deeper into a topic and we learn more about it, we start understanding parts of it. But we also realize that there is so much more to learn about it – we know what we do not know. This is the most tricky phase. Because we are eager to use all our new knowledge, we are no longer able to speak in simple terms only. Additionally, by trying to acknowledge and compensate for the known unknowns, we start speaking in a really complicated way. Our message becomes a lot less comprehensible.

It is only when we become really familiar with the topic that we are able to speak about it with clarity again. We know what we do know. We are able to pick only aspects most relevant to our audience and convey a complex thought in simple terms. This is the ideal phase. I always enjoy coming up to somebody with deep knowledge of an unusual field and asking that person to tell me in couple sentences about what they do. If they really understand their stuff, they are usually able to do so.

It is important to be aware which phase we are in. If we are in the first one, we should be careful not to be making any big claims about our knowledge of the topic. We should acknowledge we do not know much about it, speak briefly about it, and ask questions or learn more about it. If we are in the second phase, imagine how lost the poor guy on the other side of the table must be. We are now in a position to synthesise and to ask better, more targeted questions about the topic so we should do that rather than start rambling for ages. Finally in the third phase, we can share with others our gift of understanding complex topics in beautiful simple terms. I think this makes much better impression than using complicated terms just to show off we know them.

And always remember what Albert Einstein said:

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Shaping your fate

8 May

Randomness is one of the key concepts the nature rests on. The very fact you exist, the fact you are reading this blog post or the fact you (might) know me is random in essence. Some people call it fate however. I have been hearing this word a lot lately. It happened because it was meant to happen. Or, if it is meant to happen, it will happen. While I sometimes very much enjoy this romanticised perspective on the world as well, I have always been struggling to fully buy into it. Things do not just happen because they are meant to happen; there must be something more to it. This blog tries to uncover this topic using concepts of randomness, exposure and ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities.

Imagine a hypothetical example of you meeting an old friend you have not seen for ages at a party you were not intending to attend and he ends up getting you a job in his friend’s company. You take it, you really like it, your new boss loves you and in fifteen years you assume his/her job. At that point, your grandmother might say something like ‘you were always meant to become the boss of this pharmaceutical company, it was your fate and I am so happy you are doing it now!’ Was it really? Let’s look at this example more closely.

Firstly we have to accept that lot of things in the world happen on a random basis. The fact that your friend you have not met for years was at that party was random as was the fact he knew a person who was looking to hire somebody like you at a time when you were job hunting. So try getting comfortable with the fact that life throws a lot of stuff in your direction and that it does so on a very random basis. This is the bit we cannot control.

Where fate originates

The other two elements – exposure and ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities we however can control. Since things happen on a random basis, some bad and some good, the amount of good opportunities you came across becomes a game of numbers. The bigger exposure you have, the more opportunities come your way, a portion of them being good. By eventually coming to the party as opposed to staying at home, you increased your exposure.

Finally you can control also the third element which I call ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities. Because even if you had a massive exposure and were therefore getting lot of opportunities but you were not able to distinguish good ones from the bad ones and to pro-actively pursue the good ones, you would still not get anywhere. Once your old friend mentioned to you he knows somebody who is hiring, you called him up the next day, took a number on that guy, got in touch with him and persuaded him to hire you.

This is what truly makes a difference and is at the root of why you are where you are. Calling your life fate is suffering from a retrospective illusion of predetermination even though what actually happened was just a combination of random events and (lack of) your conscious effort.

The main takeaway therefore is that while we cannot completely control what random opportunities come our way, we can actively control how much randomness we expose ourselves to and where we do so. Then it is up to us to recognize the good opportunities passing by and to grab them. This is where I believe fate originates.


Note: If you have a mathematical mind, you can imagine fate as a product of a function with a random element in it and two variables. You can control the result you get by increasing/decreasing those two variables.

Brain vs. heart and guts

29 Apr

The word ‘rationality’ often conveys sense of maturity, responsibility and diligence. Gut feeling, heart or instinct are on the other hand associated with being daring, unreasonable or outright foolish. I would like to argue in this blog post that rationality is a very elusive concept which has many limitations and should not be applied to all problems. Relying on rationality in decision making can at times lead only to formalization of our instinctive errors and an illusion of control which is more dangerous than accepting from the start that the decision we are making is based on our gut feeling and treating it therefore as such; that is with extra alertness.

Limitations of rationality

Rational decision making is basically designing a mental model of what can happen in the future on the basis of which we subsequently make a decision. There are however in my opinion three main flaws of rationality. Firstly it is bounded by our own experiences, secondly we can never fully de-bias ourselves when estimating probabilities of future states of the world and possible consequences (most decision problems are unique and we therefore lack any objective reference point) and thirdly we are limited by our own cognitive abilities to process complex problems.

As for the first limitation, rationality is making the best decision under a certain set of assumptions. And here lies the problem – our assumptions are inherently imperfect because we can never know everything. We are basing them only on what we know yet there is so much more what we do not know and what we are not including in our model. Since everybody is unique, rationality is also individual and thus not universal. All the claim rational decision can therefore really mean is the most sensible thing to do given my very limited conscious knowledge of the problem.

The second problem is that rationality, despite its name, is hardly ever objective. Most decisions we face in life are one-off decisions (either because the decision itself is new or the context has changed). Since we have no objective reference points any probabilities we assign to the possible future scenarios in our model are therefore purely subjective. This means they are likely to be biased in just the same way as our instinctive decision making. Even though the fact we assess every probability individually can make us assess them better by devoting it more time, it is not sure this actually leads to better estimations. What it does lead to however is formalisation of our biases which can lead to wrong decisions looking as the rational ones.

Finally there are limitations given by the ability of our brain to consciously process large amounts of information. When facing messy problems we are likely to omit some important factors in our model which can again lead to a wrong outcome posing as a rational one.

So what should we do?

You might be asking at this point so what is the alternative. I believe that when facing complicated non linear and hard to define problems our brain works better in the sub-conscious mode than in the rational one. This is how animals think and how humans have been thinking for a long time as well.

It is only recently that we have started to formalise our thinking and while this has lead to great developments in our society, most of these developments happened either by chance or in an expert mode. That is by people who were experts in their fields and therefore had an in depth specific knowledge which they could utilise for rational decision making – they had a good set of assumptions. Most decisions are however not restricted only to one or two fields in which we posses expertise and so there is no point in pretending we consciously understand the problem.

We should therefore accept that our assumptions are imperfect, that we are biased when building the model and that we are unable to fully consider even the limited set of assumptions we have and not take the outcome of our rational decision making as the only possible solution. Letting our brain process all the information itself and trusting our gut feeling might be just as effective. I would like to conclude with an excerpt from Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005:

‘And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’


Note: There are many problem structuring techniques to help overcome some of these disadvantages, in fact it is what I am doing my masters at LSE in right now, but they are often impractical to use in real life becuase of their complexity hence this post!

Where are we at? Divergent and convergent processes

31 Mar

One of the key skills of a facilitator or a manager working with a group is to make the people understand what they are doing and why they are doing it – in other words – to make them feel comfortable about the process even though it might not immediately appear like the group is moving towards the intended outcome. One can apply this to his/her life as well to better understand where he/she is right now. While we can group these processes along many dimensions, the one I have found most useful divides processes into divergent and convergent ones.

The whole idea is that first we go wide, we diverge into many options, and then we go narrow again, we converge towards a solution. To illustrate this on a simple example, we can look at a process of trying to achieve a certain aim. Such process usually goes through several stages. A very basic divide would be:

1. We have a rough idea of what we want to achieve
2. We come up with many options of how we can achieve it
3. We select the best ones by applying various filters to all the options we came up with before
4. We execute those options

If we were to draw what is happening, it would look something like this:

Divergent processes

Firstly we diverge – we are creative, we brainstorm and generate as many alternatives as possible. This is very important because even if we would have very good criteria for choosing the best alternatives afterwards, we can end up with a bad outcome if we did not have any good alternatives to start with.

The problem is however that some people do not feel comfortable with this part of the process. After some time, they can either feel like they are losing time because they think sufficient number of alternatives has already been generated and they want to move towards choosing the best one or they feel uneasy and stressed about the sheer number of options, thinking that it might be impossible to ever come up with a simple solution. This is where the facilitator needs to step in and make sure that everybody understands that we are exactly where we should be at, in the divergent phase, and that we will converge in order to come up with a solution a bit later on. This makes people more comfortable with the process and allows them to focus on the problem more and to ultimately come up with a better outcome. Which is where the convergent phase comes in.

Convergent processes

The task is to narrow down the number of option to only a few best ones  in the convergent phase. There are multiple ways of doing so such as applying certain filters (having cut-off points) or if they are mutually exclusive comparing trade-offs between the options .

It is worth keeping in mind that these processes can often be found within each other as well. For example when starting with only a basic idea of what we want to achieve, we might diverge in terms of our objectives only to converge to the most important ones later on and to subsequently start the whole process again with diverging into possible ways of achieving those.

I have used this concept many times during discussions with teams I lead to make sure we consider all relevant options and choose the best one. I have also been thinking about my life over the last couple years in this way. I have been travelling to many countries, trying various things and meeting lot of people in order to experience what all is out there in the world and to see what I really want to care about in the future.

So next time you feel a bit lost or feel like your chosen alternatives are not really that good, think about what part of the process you are in and decide if you should stay there a bit longer or if you should go one step forward or backward.