Focus on making fewer, more important decisions

In an interview with Vanity Fair, former president Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”

He went on to explain that, as Commander in Chief, the act of making a decision, especially minor ones, erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of making bad decisions.  For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions later in the day than they do early in the day. Decision fatigue explains why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and may adversely affect our ability to make more important decisions. 

Here are some ideas to think about.

Make a few major decisions that will preempt having to make multiple minor decisions.

Obama made a major decision—wear only gray or blue suits—which eliminated the need to make wardrobe decisions every morning. Private schools often facilitate the same advantage by requiring students to wear uniforms. Steve Jobs limited his wardrobe to bluejeans and a black turtleneck shirt.

About eight years ago I made a major decision to limit my personal belongings to fewer than 100 items. (See my post titled Enough is Enough.) I currently have 85 objects. This self-imposed restriction has opened up a new space in my life. I seldom go shopping (saving time), I am immune to advertising and marketing ploys (saving mental energy), and I spend very little money on stuff. This one major life-decision eliminates the need to make many smaller decisions. (And it helps me avoid these extremes: The average woman makes 301 trips to the store annually, spending close to 400 hours a year shopping. This amounts to 8.5 years spent shopping during a typical lifespan (NY Daily News).  Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

Notice how these major decisions would simplify your life.  

    • My family and I are going to be active in a local church. 
    • I’m not going to eat processed food.
    • I’ll check my email only four times a day.
    • My expenses will not exceed my income. 

Focus on important decisions.

By limiting his wardrobe choices, Obama could concentrate on more important decisions—responding to the latest threat from Kim Jong-un, or helping craft the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sometimes I catch myself obsessing over minor decisions, particularly monetary ones (I am frugal; sometimes to a fault). Recently, I wasted 20 minutes of my life choosing between different styles and prices of ink pens. I should have devoted that time to writing another blog post.  

Some people expend more brain-resources selecting their lunch entrée than they do choosing and directing the topic of conversation around the table. 

Identify and focus on major decisions; make minor decisions quickly or delegate them to someone else.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Find joy in the journey

Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing. Shakespeare

I’ve always been an advocate of goal-setting, for two reasons. Setting and achieving goals leads to progress; it makes us effective. If you aim at nothing you will always hit it. People who don’t set goals often just meander through life. Their lives resemble the movement of a ball in a pinball machine—randomly ricocheting from one stop to another and then finally dropping out of sight.  

Another benefit of setting and working toward goals is that the process we go through to accomplish goals gives our lives meaning.

Psychologist Richard Davidson identifies “pre-goal attainment positive affect” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal, and “post-goal attainment positive affect” which comes once you have achieved your goal. The feeling of the latter is contentment, but it is fleeting and short-lived. The feeling of the former is progress and it can be consistent and longer lasting. 

In his must-read book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more trilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. We can call this ‘the progress principle’: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them” (page 84).

The pleasure and happiness derived from the journey can be enjoyed even if the goal is mundane and even insignificant. For instance, I’m finding great joy in planting a small vineyard in East Texas. It will never be financially rewarding and the wine will not be notable (it’s difficult to produce great wine in North Texas), but I have thoroughly enjoyed planning the project and making it happen. Three years from now, when I bottle my first vintage, I’m sure we’ll celebrate, but the consistent joy will have been in the journey. [I started the vineyard in March of 2018. See below for pictures taken July 2018.]

Interestingly, the journey can be rewarding even if you don’t achieve the goal. I’ve read about entrepreneurial startups that did not work but provided an enjoyable and beneficial experience for those who were involved in the process.

So, I ask my readers: What are you working on? What goals are you pursuing? Enjoy the journey.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The power of culture

Culture is the sum of the values, beliefs, and norms of behavior of a group of people. 

We all live in multiple cultures. For example, I live in a national culture (U.S.), a regional culture (Texas), the organization I work for has a culture, as does my church, family, and neighborhood.  

Culture is powerful. Like the strong current of a wide and deep river, it is often unseen but it is forceful and hard to counter. 

Only by visiting “foreign” cultures are we aware of our own. As children, we’re unaware of our family’s culture until we spend time at a friend’s house. Only by traveling to other countries do we understand our own country’s culture. (Yet another reason to travel internationally.)  

There are positive and negative aspects of all cultures.

Mary and I recently visited Peru. (I highly recommend it.) I noticed these positive expressions of culture:

    • In Lima, our tour guide casually mentioned that Peruvians don’t smoke. Indeed, throughout our eight-day visit I seldom saw a cigarette. Smoking is not outlawed and there’s not been a campaign against it. Why do they abstain from smoking? It’s just not part of their culture.
    • The towns and cities in Peru are clean—there’s no trash or litter. Even small, poor, rural villages are neat. There’s no law against littering, they just don’t do it. 
    • The people are kind, gentle, and accommodating. I never heard a harsh word or sensed unkindness.   

I also observed some negative cultural tendencies.

    • Peruvians are trapped in unnecessary and tedious bureaucratic processes. For instance, there was a long line to get a ticket to a second-tier museum. When it was my turn to purchase a ticket (only $3 US), I realized why: I had to show my passport, the agent filled out a form in triplicate, ran it off on a dot-matrix printer, and then summarily stamped each copy with an official stamp. All that effort to let one person in a public, easily accessible area.  
    • Most Peruvians are Catholic, which is not surprising because when the Spanish invaded their land they gave them two choices: convert to Catholicism or be executed. But, some people still adhere to Inca beliefs, one of which is: the water-god is stronger than the sun-god because every evening the sun-god is defeated by the water-god as it is extinguished by the ocean (the sun setting in the west). 

Leaders: What are some positive and negative aspects of your organization’s culture?

The best time to establish culture in an organization is at its beginning.

Both my daughter and son-in-law are serial entrepreneurs. Recently, they each started a new business—one in the medical field, the other in environmental sustainability. Their businesses have no culture because they are new. The best time for them to establish positive cultural distinctives is now, while the “clay is soft.” Priorities like good customer service, innovation, and excellence can be easily imbedded into the DNA of an organization when it is new.  

It’s difficult to change the culture of a large and/or old organization.

One of the great challenges of leadership is to change the culture of an existing organization, particularly one that is large and old. If the culture is healthy and effective, there’s no need to change, just be sure to hire team members who are a good fit. But if you want to change the culture, be ready for a long, bumpy ride. You will want to hire team members who already embody the values, beliefs, and norms of behavior that you aspire to develop in the organization. Prepare to “swim against the current” for a long time and anticipate resistance. 

Leaders: your job is to establish and maintain a healthy culture in your organization. Be proactive in that responsibility. 

Parents: every family has a culture; make sure yours is healthy and beneficial. Here are some examples: we will acknowledge and affirm the uniqueness of each family member; we will prioritize travel; we will encourage open dialogue and intellectual pursuit; we will be a family of faith; we will maintain a positive atmosphere.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

What makes you cry?

I am a Stoic by nature and by choice. I choose to view life, primarily, through the lens of rationality instead of emotionality. When reflecting on any given moment in time I am comfortable with the phrase “it is what it is.” So I seldom weep. (Here’s a brief summary of stoicism.)

But several weeks ago I was driving down Highway 175 heading to my vineyard, listening to a podcast, and upon hearing a particular story, I felt a swelling in my chest and throat, and I started to weep.

That got me thinking. What makes me cry, and why?

  • When I see pictures of starving children in third world countries, I don’t weep, I get angry.
  • When I experience loss, I usually become quiet and withdrawn.
  • When I watch a romantic comedy (which is seldom) I want to gag on a spoon, not cry.

I have, however, identified two situations which stir me deeply.

  1. When I observe a common, ordinary person extending a simple act of kindness to someone and that action brings about a significant transformation in the person’s life. For instance, my favorite movie scene is in the 1978 version of Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean is caught stealing silver flatware from a priest, he is arrested. When the priest is asked to testify against him, the priest says, “Jean, I’m glad you remembered to take the silver pieces I gave you.” This act of grace changes his life. Another example is the incident that changed Desmond Tutu’s life (click here for the story).
  2. When a highly capable and productive person demonstrates true humility and is self-effacing. (See my post titled “Have more behind the counter than you put on the shelf”.) 

I recently asked my staff the question, “What makes you cry?”; everyone’s answer was unique. 

Discovering what stirs you deeply will give you keen insight into your identity and your values. It’s one of many ways in which you have been “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Question: This begs the question, “What makes you cry?”  You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Was this manipulation or motivation?

Plus: a great article on how to choose a good teacher

My granddaughter, Marin, recently graduated from high school. At her commencement I heard the following story. I’m not sure what to think of it. What do you think? 

During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack the enemy even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they could win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying to the gods, the general took out a coin and said, “I will now toss this coin. If it is heads, we will win. If tails, we will lose. Destiny will now reveal itself.”

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, “It is true; no one can change destiny.”

“Quite right,” the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

We can put a positive spin on this story:

  • It’s important to be optimistic and confident in life.
  • If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish great things. 
  • If you believe that a higher power is on your side, you can accomplish anything.
  • Leaders must engender faith and hope among followers.
  • Manipulating people for a good cause is acceptable.  

Or we can consider the downside:

  • This story is about a charismatic leader manipulating the emotions of his followers. That’s unacceptable. 
  • The general won the battle, but he lied to his men in the process. That’s unacceptable.  
  • If the soldiers discovered the general’s trick, would they ever trust him again?
  • How many leaders are just tricking us into doing what they want us to do?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For sure, if I’m ever asked to give a commencement speech, I won’t use this illustration.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Here’s a terrific article on how to choose a good teacher by Adam Grant, published in the New York Times.

Humans have more in common than we do differences

Recently, I sent some of my saliva to 23andme, a company that does DNA testing. 

For about $39 they send you a saliva collection kit, you spit into a test tube, send it to their laboratory, they analyze your DNA, and several weeks later they send you your ancestry percentages.

My results indicate that I’m 56.3% British and Irish, 18.3% French and German, 9.2% Scandinavian, .6% Ashkenazi Jewish, etc. My ancestry also includes families from North Africa. 

Millions of people, like me, have had their DNA studied through organizations like 23andme (AncestryDNA is another), but because the majority of these people were mostly urban Westerners and East Asians a wider pool needed to be analyzed. 

Some scientists intentionally expanded the research:

“Three research groups sequenced high-quality genomes of 787 people from over 270 populations. Their findings were published concurrently in Nature magazine in September. Two of the studies drew samples from isolated groups across the globe to maximize linguistic and cultural diversity. The third focused on indigenous people of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“Although each team collected and analyzed genomes independently, they came to the same general conclusion: Genetic similarities between peoples of Eurasia, Oceania and the Americas indicate that all non-Africans descend from a small population that left Africa” [Discover Magazine, Bridget Alex, December 22, 2016].

Regardless of whether you adhere to a creationist or evolutionist viewpoint of how we got to now (or a combination of the two), both approaches believe that all humans descended from a common ancestry. If you’re a creationist, you believe we all came from Adam and Eve; if you’re an evolutionist, you believe we all came from a small group or groups of evolved species. 

We all have a common ancestry. 

I wholeheartedly embrace the fact that every person is unique. I even wrote a workbook that helps people understand how they are nuanced (Signature Soulprint). To do well in life you need to know who you are, accept yourself, and live authentically.

But even after taking into account our differences, we humans have more in common than we are different. We are more similar than dissimilar. This should greatly influence how we view ourselves and others. 

The toxic ideology called tribalism is based on an amplification of perceived differences among people and the supposed superiority of one group over another. Roger Olson describes tribalism as, “It is a group attitude of undeserved pride and superiority based solely on identification with a group. It is the tendency to look down on other people for no other reason than they don’t belong to the group.”

Tribalism is expressed in various pernicious ways:

  • Misogyny is fueled by the idiotic thought that men are superior to women. 
  • Racism creates antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. 
  • Religious sectarianism creates unnecessary division and animosity. 
  • Xenophobia is an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.
  • Genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust are extreme but actual results of tribalism.

Humans are social creatures so we do need to gather into groups, but a healthy sense of community will meet those needs; we can be committed to a few without being hostile toward others.   

Peace and conciliation between people groups must start with an acknowledgment of our similitude and extend to embracing the inherent value and dignity of all people.

Here’s an insightful article called The Sin of Tribalism by Roger Olson. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I’m worried about Artificial Intelligence

Twenty years ago we had Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Steve Jobs. Now we have no Cash, no Hope and no Jobs. Please don’t let Kevin Bacon die!

Here’s something to really be worried about:

In June, 2018, the U.S. retook the lead in the race to build the world’s speediest supercomputer. A $200 million machine called Summit, built for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, reclaimed the No. 1 spot from China. It can make mathematical calculations at the rate of 200 quadrillion per second.

For comparison’s sake: If a person performed one calculation a second, he or she would have to live for more than 6.3 billion years to match what the machine can do in a second [New York Times, June 8, 2018].

Human intelligence increases slowly. 

John von Neumann (born in 1903) is often cited as the most intelligent person of the modern era. Some pundits believe Sir Isaac Newton (born in 1643) was the smartest human ever. Others think Leonardo di Vinci (born in 1452) was. Solomon, King of Israel, who died around 931 B.C. was also super smart.

But notice that in thousands of years, homo sapiens have not advanced much in intelligence (Solomon was probably as intelligent as Neumann). Granted, we are more informed—we now understand germ theory, we’ve developed the table of elements, advances in math and science increase exponentially—but our brain’s hard drive and operating system upgrades very slowly.

Human emotionality progresses even more slowly.

“In the beginning” Cain got mad at Abel and became violent. That still happens today. Often. We’ve also been unable to overcome other unhelpful feelings from the human experience, such as jealousy and insecurity. Emotionally we’re similar to our primitive ancestors. 

The power of computers is increasing exponentially. 

In 1965, Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel) predicted that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every year while the costs would be halved. This exponential increase held for decades; it has now slowed to about 18 months, but still…

Intel’s new 22nm transistor can switch on and off well over 100 billion times in one second. It would take you around 2,000 years to flick a light switch on and off that many times.

Of course, it’s one thing to design a tri-gate transistor but quite another to produce them in high-volume manufacturing. But, no problem. Intel’s factories produce over 5 billion transistors every second. That’s 150,000,000,000,000,000 transistors per year, the equivalent of over 20 million transistors for every man, woman and child on earth.

That explains how Summit (the name of IBM’s new supercomputer described at the beginning of this post) could have been created. But Summit will soon lose the  bragging rights to being the world’s fastest computer. Chinese engineers are currently working on a computer capable of performing more than 1 million trillion calculations a second (about four times faster than Summit).

Where am I going with this? 

For the past 50 years computers have been “dumb”; they only do what we ask them to do. But with Artificial Intelligence, computer codes can write computer codes, in which case they can take on a life of their own.

Artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible for machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs, and perform human-like tasks. AI may be the greatest threat to humankind. More than nuclear proliferation, satellite warfare, or a disease pandemic.

In the coming years (months?) computers will take over most human functions and systems. Robots will build our products, and computers will drive our cars, fly our planes, diagnose our medical issues, and produce personalized pharmaceuticals. 

In the wrong human hands, artificial intelligence can cause catastrophic problems: shutting off infrastructure systems, hacking into banking systems, etc. Once developed, it will become a primary target for terrorist.   

But the greatest risk may be that computers will become so smart that they take control of human activity. Humans have an innate desire to survive, to live. But machines don’t. If and when they sense that the key to eliminating human suffering is to terminate mankind and then turn themselves off, they might. 

Does this look like a viable threat to you?

Yuval Harari, history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shares unique thoughts about AI in this YouTube video.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Savor special moments

Gloria Gaither wrote a meaningful song titled, We Have This Moment. The chorus says,

We have this moment to hold in our hands,                                                                                                                                 And to touch, as it slips through our fingers like sand.                                                                                                         Yesterday’s gone and tomorrow may never come.                                                                                                                     But we have this moment today. 

The song encourages us to savor the present, to delight in the moment. Reflect on past experiences and anticipate future ones, but let’s also maximize the present.   

Not all moments are equal in character or significance. Most are mundane and monochromatic; but others have the capacity to engender joy, peace, solidarity, and a sense of the numinous. I call the latter—special moments. 

Special moments add value to our lives and they can give us the strength to carry on.

I suggest that…

Some special moments can be anticipated

In October, I’m hosting a trip to Europe for 36 friends. We’ll visit London, Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona, Florence, and Rome. I have identified at least 20 special moments we will experience together, including: 

    • In London we’ll visit Westminster Abbey and reflect on the lives of some exceptional individuals who are buried there (Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Chaucer, David Livingston, Samuel Johnson, and others).  
    • In Rome we’ll walk into St. Peter’s Basilica (I think it’s the greatest building on earth; finished in 1616, it occupies 5.7 acres under roof and holds 60,000 people), and we’ll tour the Roman Coliseum.
    • In Florence we’ll gaze at Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Before we experience these momentous moments, I’m going to ask the group to pause and sing Gaither’s chorus. Hopefully it will alert us to the potential of what we’ll soon experience.

Special moments also happen serendipitously 

I’m planting a small vineyard in east Texas. Several weeks ago my daughter and I spent the night in the vineyard. Not at the vineyard, but in the vineyard. We laid down a blanket between rows six and seven and slept under the stars. I had not anticipated what a remarkable moment it would be, but it was memorable.

Special moments can be created

My immediate family all live in Dallas so we’re able to have family dinners on a regular basis. They are special moments. At one such dinner, each person brought three random ingredients (an onion, pineapple, spinach, mussels, etc.), we divided up into teams of two, each team chose, one at a time, an ingredient until they were all gone, and then each team had to cook a dish using all their ingredients—without recipes.  

I have fond memories of that evening.  

We need to recognize special moments

In a banal setting and at an inconvenient time, would people pause to observe transcendent beauty?

That was the question the Washington Post sought to answer when it commissioned Joshua Bell, one of the foremost violin players of our generation, to play in a Washington subway station during morning rush hour.

Dressed in a nondescript manner—jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap—Bell opened up his case, took out his violin—called the Gibson ex Huberman, handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari—and began to play magnificent music. He started with “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Some have called it the greatest piece of music ever written; others consider it one of the greatest achievements of any human, ever.

For 45 minutes, one of the greatest musicians alive, playing one of the greatest instruments ever made, played some of the greatest music ever written.

Did anyone stop to listen?

It was all recorded on camera. Eleven hundred people walked by; seven stopped to listen; twenty-seven threw money into the open case for a total of $32.

The night before, Bell had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall where the cheapest seat goes for $100. He regularly earns $1,000 per minute for concerts.

I think memorable moments happen around us all the time; we just don’t recognize them or take the time to appreciate and bask in them.  

Special moments should be savored

In her book, Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about being a child and taking half an hour, sometimes 45 minutes, to finish a cookie that his mother bought him. “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky. Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers.”

When was the last time you took time to savor a special moment? Well that’s too long.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.