thinking

Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.

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thinking

On Success as a Burden

I had a crazy first day at work this year. After a few weeks of Christmas holidays, I came back to work energized and happy to see the awesome bunch of people I get to work with.

About two hours in, we had reached two thirds of the entire months’ sales quota. It was really weird. While money is not by far primary to what we do, if you want to run a successful company, it does, of course, need to make some money. Now we had in a few hours brought in the majority of the sales we had projected for the entire month.

But then things went crazy. I received a couple of emails that confirmed that a few really long shots we had taken had come through. And as I was going home after the day’s work, mulling over these successes, the biggest breakthrough of the day (and the last half a year or so) landed in my email. I was completely dumbstruck. When it rains, it pours, I guess.

When I was walking towards my front door I realized we had had four independent big successes, big ones to celebrate on a montly or even a quarterly basis – on the first day of work, no less!

But I wasn’t happy.

We had had financial success, marketing success, a big deal come in and a few new doors open that I hadn’t dreamed could happen. All in the scope of one single day.

And while I do know from a truck load of studies money or fame don’t really contribute to happiness, I had in fact done all this while working with what I love, with people who I really admire and cherish. So everything should have been amazing.

But it wasn’t.

After some head scratching I got an inkling of what was going on.

A ton of studies show that lasting happiness arises from pursuing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – ie. fun in themselves; and spending time with people whom you love, with whom you are respected and with whom can be your authentic self.

I would emphatically argue that we have all this at work.

But happiness requires one more thing. Your attention needs to be where happiness is generated. In other words, in your work, or in your people.

And this is how success can go sour.

If you focus on your work itself, or the authentic interactions with the people you work and live with, you will flourish. But if instead, your attention is on financial success, the praise for your product, or in that huge marketing breakthrough, it will be shifted away from your real sources of happiness.

Now you do need those successes to keep going. A company that does not have financial or marketing successes is not going to be a company very long. But paradoxically, if you focus on those successes once you have them, you will not be happy.

Your attention will zoom in on the results that you’ve achieved.

And results are scary because they are static. Life is not.

What with life being a living, flowing thing, it is almost a given that many of your successes will eventually be gone. And that is scary.

We need successes to keep going, to have a direction for our work. But we need to zoom out from those successes once we have reached them, and carry on with our work, towards the next big thing.

The key is to keep moving.

To do what you love, with people you love.

And to cherish the doing and the people.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

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thinking

Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.

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5 Ways School Damages Us – And 5 Ways to Fix It

Some years ago Sir Ken Robinson gave a massively popular TED talk, entitled “How Schools Kill Creativity”. The modern school has taken a hit or two since, being criticized for having students listen to mindnumbingly boring lectures, or directing their motivation to wrong things like grades and SAT scores instead of learning.

Having looked in depth at how learning takes place, I must admit much of such criticism is in place. That being said, the modern school does do a tremendously good job in many ways. After all, ubiquitous Western literacy is not something to be trifled with, if you take a look at countries where it does not exist. Being armed with just the scope of the critic, it is easy to miss on all the good things we have achieved.

Be that as it may, while we have come a long way, there’s still work to be done. And while leveling criticisms can be fruitful, I believe it is better to also offer alternatives to the objects of critique. Hence, here are five ways in which I think school does really damage us – and five ways to fix them.

1. Fixed Mindset

The Damage: Schools teach what the Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls the ‘fixed mindset’. It is a way of regarding oneself as consisting of a fixed set of properties and skills. In other words, you are either talented at something, or you are not, period. The standard testing of schools is very inclined to maintain this point of view, since grades are not regarded so much as indicators of future work, but of current competence.

The Fix: instead of locking our kids into fixed mindsets, we should help them embrace Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. This means that skills and talents are not fixed, but grow with practice. Modern science seems to point towards this being in fact the more realistic view of the two. To establish a growth mindset, students should be allowed to progress at their own pace, with grading used to find the focus where further work is needed. In the growth mindset there are no grade C students. There are just “not quite yet A” students.

2. Focus on Weaknesses

The Damage: Here is another artifact of the modern school grading system. It tends to guide focus to the weaknesses of a student. Whereas weakness-based grading may be of use to point out where work is needed (as per above), the fact is that nobody can be great at everything. (Yes, even straight-A students have their weaknesses.)

The Fix: Instead of finding systematically what weaknesses students have, we should rather focus on emphasizing and clarifying strengths. Studies show that focusing on strenghts not only makes learning more fun but also adds up to general well-being. There are also existing pedagogical models that can be tapped into, such as the Montessori model that constantly seeks to single out the most enthusiastic interests of the students and focus on those.

3. Extrinsic Motivation

The Damage: In motivating children by having them aspire towards greater grades, and scaring them with sanctions if they do not succeed, school creates a strongly extrinsically motivating environment. Too bad, studies show that extrinsic motivation not only kills creativity but also seriously hampers even basic learning.

The Fix: Schools should tap into intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation consists of trying to fulfill the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy means that students should have more freedom in how to study. Competence means what was said above: personal growth and focus on strengths. And relatedness means working with people you really feel accepted with. By tapping into these three areas, I am sure teachers will see a soaring in learning experiences.

4. Lack of Collaboration

The Damage: It is utterly idiotic that at the most critical moments in school life, children are stripped of their most powerful tool: collaboration. It does not really help that much to have kids participate in tedious group work, if when push comes to shove, working together is interpreted as cheating.

The Fix: There are practically no situations in real life like test taking, where you simply cannot ask or go look for an answer to a problem. Why then do we drill our kids up to 12 years with this idiotic exercise? The brain is social to begin with. Let it work the way it is meant to. Kids will flourish and thrive if they get a tough problem to solve – and they can dive into it with all their social and networked might.

5. Killing Creativity

The Damage: Kids aged seven were asked who was creative. Everybody said yes. Then kids aged twelve were asked the same question. Only about half of them said yes. And once high schoolers were asked the question, only a fraction considered themselves creative. Why? If you have lived over ten years in an environment where it’s been signalled that there are right and only right answers, it’s rather hard to be creative.

The Fix: Questions are wonderful things that should not be killed with right answers. Also, coming up with solutions (note, not answers) to questions, there are a million avenues of inquiry one could pursue. Consider for a moment, what kind of a wonderland of creativity the school could be if only this one little thing was changed: when a question is asked, there are no wrong answers. And when a solution is generated, there are no wrong methods.

The problem is, it does put a lot of pressure in coming up with interesting enough questions.

But that, I guess, is what teaching is all about.

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Always Do

I watched a great video some time ago by a fellow who gave a fabulous flipboard presentation on why we should act on global warming, whether its true or not. The argument in a nutshell was that while not acting may have terrible consequences, acting, at worst, will tie up some resources, and at best will save us from a massive catastrophe. So no matter what the facts, we should just act as if global warning was true, because the consequences of not acting are too dire.

This made me think of how to act in an information-constrained environment in general. If, (and when as is practically always the case), we do not have complete visibility on an ecosystem, if we come up with a strategy that has a viable future outcome, we should act on that strategy rather quickly. The thing is, we spend so much time analyzing and pondering, but the value of such activity is substantial only if we have enough information – which we seldom do.

This is emphasized even more these days – and in the near future – as future visibility becomes even more opaque, thanks to the accelerating evolution of various technologies. So instead of paralyzing with analysis, we should act, gather data and act again. Because if we don’t the answer, – as Shervin Pishevar succinctly put it at the Dublin Web Summit –, is already ‘no’.

But if we should act first, won’t this lead to a world of aimlessly fumbling headless chickens? Of course not. Acting first does not mean acting without absolutely no information whatsoever.

Let’s look at global warming again. The case is not that we have absolutely no projections on global warning. The case is that the probabilities of the positive and the negative outcomes are competitive enough not to warrant an immediate commitment of resources. (Altough one could argue this depends a lot on whose projections we talk about, what with the scientific community being pretty much aligned on this one.)

And in this case it is the active strategy that enables us to quickly update and iterate on knowledge, whereas the passive strategy will lead us nowhere, basically just left astray at the mercy of whatever the actual facts are. Facts may be what they are, but the only way to change them to match our needs better is to act.

Therefore, whenever you are presented with a choice with at least more than negligible possibility of a positive future outcome, you should always do.

Then follow up on results, reiterate where necessary and do again.

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Scarcity, Excess and Abundance

Professor Andrew Abbott gave last year an awesome lecture at the London School of Economics. Abbott argued that while many of today’s problems seem to arise from scarcity – the lack of resources, such as food or money –, in fact many of our problems are quite the opposite: problems of excess.

Scarcity means that we do not have enough to get by. Excess means that we have too much, and that somehow distracts us. There is a third quantity, abundance, which means we have enough of a resource not to be troubled by it.

I suppose nobody can argue against abundance. In fact, this should probably be the goal of the human race: how to distribute resources so that they are abundant for every person on the planet. But in aiming for abundance, we have at several places erred on the side of excess.

Western countries already have a huge excess of food. This creates the weird global paradox: half of the world is starving to death, the other half eating themselves to death.

We also have an excess of unwanted byproducts of our culture, such as pollution. Chinese factories, or Fukushima, have produced an excess of such material that we are troubled by.

But what is the most pressing problem with the advance and constantly accelerating development of technology is the excess of information. We are bombarded to death with information, while our conscious minds can only process about three or four things at a time.

Yet a few decades ago, areas of life such as research and product development suffered from a scarcity of information. Sometimes you had to go to the other side of the world to get the information you wanted. I remember contacting the British Library to photocopy and fax me a research paper I could not find anywhere else in the world.

Now it’s all online, and the problem is the opposite. We have now an excess of information, and discovering the information that you need right now is sometimes even harder than before.

The solution to the problem of excess is focus. Focus on the essential; on what really counts at each given moment.

We need to focus on what we eat – that we get the nutrients that we really need, and not let our lizard brain guide us to chomping up on calories that serve no purpose in our daily lives.

We need to focus on what to produce – that we get hardware that we really need and not let our need to placate our stressed selves send us into a spending spree, cramming our houses full of useless clutter.

And we need to focus on what we really need to know. To zone in on those pieces of information that really count – and ignore the rest.

The problem is, all this is easier said than done. Everybody knows we should eat less than we consume. Yet almost nobody does this.

This is why we need tools.

For balancing diets, the wearable tech revolution that we are witnessing right now may for the first time give us a universal toolkit for managing dietary inputs and outputs. Check out, for example, the amazing lineup from Fitbit to see where we’re at right now.

For consuming, algorithms employed by e.g. Amazon help us zoom in better on what really makes us feel great and consume more of that stuff, as compared to picking up whatever’s stocked on the store shelves.

As for cognition, services such as Simplenote or Any.do help us really focus better on what’s going on in our everyday lives, not to speak of Google, whose search algorithms are getting more amazing by the day.

There is a really cool passage in the Sherlock Holmes short story “Five Orange Pips”, where Sherlock tells Watson: “a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

So should we. In suffering with the daily excess of information, we should eliminate those sources of information and interruptions that do not serve a real function, and focus on the ones that do.

Turn off email notifications.

Unfollow newsletters.

Sort out your Facebook newsfeed.

And get your hands on the best tools out there.

While excess may be as bad a source of illbeing as scarcity, it has one upside going for it.

If we cut down from excess, we will eventually end up with abundance.

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It Ain’t All in the Head

by Lauri Calonius

There is a growing interest in the idea that cognitive processes are not solely confined in the head and explained simply in terms of brain processes. The type of body we possess and the natural and cultural environment we are surrounded by are taken more into account in the explanations of cognitive phenomena such as memory and problem solving tasks.

In my thesis It Ain’t All in the Head: Situating Cognition to the Body and the Surrounding World, four different approaches to cognition that conceive it in this bodily and/or worldly situated way are looked into. More specifically “embodied-embedded cogntion”, “enactive cognition”, “extended cognition” and “distributed cognition” are compared and contrasted with each other and the more orthodox “brain-bound” conception.

In addition, critique towards the more unorthodox positions is examined, but which ultimately ends up leveling the ground between the unorthodox and orthodox positions. Thus highlighting the viability of the positions that credit more role for the body and the world in explaining cognitive phenomena.

Finally, the issue of cognitive agency (i.e. what elements of the body and the world may be said to be responsible for a given cogitive property or process) is also examined in the light of these different approaches.

The main goal of the thesis then is to elucidate different positions that depart from the traditional brain centered conception of cognition and draw out the similarities as well as the differences between the approaches.

Moreover, even if these approaches still remain distinct without a clear unified conception of cogntion there could be said to be a kindling of an emerging paradigm that could be applied to other interesting philosophical questions such as the issue of cognitive agency.

The take-home message from the thesis is that even if the liberation of cognition from the confines of the head is a complex issue, being open to this kind of possibility will nevertheless bring forth new and interesting ways of understanding cognitive phenomena.

You can read the entire thesis here.

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