Consider that you may be wrong

FAIL1-300x252In Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Death of Ivan Ilych, the protagonist, Ivan Ilych, is a smart, competent attorney dying from an unknown cause. Tolstoy describes a scene in which Ivan has a sobering realization while gazing at his sleeping daughter, Gerasim.

“Ivan Ilych’s physical sufferings were terrible, but worse than the physical sufferings were his mental sufferings which were his chief torture.

His mental sufferings were due to the fact that at night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?’

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.”

What a solemn question. 

LIFE – Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. Emile Chartier

LEADERSHIP – Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead

The Economic Naturalist – In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas (Basic Books, 2007)

  • Why do men’s shirts have buttons on the right side and women’s shirts have buttons on the left side?
  • Why do the keypads on drive-up cash machines have Braille dots?
  • Why are round-trip fares from Orlando to Kansas City higher than those from Kansas City to Orlando?

For decades, Robert Frank has been asking his economics students to pose and answer questions like these as a way of learning how economic principles operate in the real world–which they do everywhere, all the time. This book takes a fresh and practical approach to topics like supply and demand, opportunity cost, cost-benefit and marginal cost.

This book is entertaining and instructive.

Develop keystone habits

keystoneIn his helpful book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg introduces the concept of keystone habits.

“Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others. Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.” (Random House, 2012, pgs. 100-101)

A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone piece at the apex of a masonry vault or arch which is the final piece placed during construction. It locks all the stones into position, allowing the arch to bear weight. Although a masonry arch or vault cannot be self-supporting until the keystone is placed, the keystone experiences the least stress of any of the stones due to its position at the apex.

According to Duhigg, strategic keystone habits can serve the same important function in our personal lives and in organizations – they hold together other critical elements. They may be simple but they are important and influential. One or a few keystone habits can make the difference between success and failure in our lives and organizations. 

LIFE – Failure is hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever. Po Bronson

LEADERSHIP – Coming up with new ideas is relatively easy. It’s figuring out which of those new ideas we should pursue that’s tough. Denny Marie Post

Don’t be superstitious

Superstitious behavior comes from the mistaken belief that a specific activity that is followed by positive or negative reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive or negative reinforcement. It is the confusion of correlation and causality. —Marshall Goldsmith

Some people believe the silliest things.

  • Samuel Johnson always exited his house right foot first and avoided stepping on cracks in the pavement. He thought that to do otherwise would be bad luck.
  • While leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships during his legendary career, Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform in every game, thinking it would affect his playing.
  • In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese the words for “death” and “four” are pronounced the same, so in these cultures the number 4 is seen as unlucky.
  • In Western civilization, the number 13 is deemed unlucky because there were 13 people at Christ’s last supper. Many hotels don’t label the 13th floor because some people won’t stay there; the floor numbers simply skip from 12 to 14.

I think we all can agree that this deep-seated irrationality is nonsense. Most of it just sounds nutty. Carrying a rabbit’s foot will bring good luck? There’s a relationship between astronomical phenomena and human events? Blow out all the candles on your birthday cake in one breath and you’ll get whatever you wish for?

Scientific tests of superstitions have consistently obtain findings that debunk them. Yet superstitious thinking and behavior still pervades society.

Are you superstitious? Do you engage in superstitious behavior?

I doubt if any of my readers embrace the ridiculous examples cited above, but many of us may yield to more subtle forms of superstition that exist whenever correlation is confused with causation. Correlation is when two or more things or events tend to occur at about the same time and might be associated with each other, but aren’t necessarily connected by a cause/effect relationship. For instance, consider the following hypothetical situation.

A small town in East Texas hires a new sheriff, and a year later the robbery rate is down 50%. The city council assumes that the drop in crime is because the new sheriff is doing a terrific job so they extend his contract and give him a raise.

The problem is, while there is a valid correlation between hiring the new sheriff and the drop in crime, it is wrong to infer causation from this sequence of events. The crime rate may be down because the criminals, having already robbed most of the town’s wealth, have moved to another town that holds more opportunities. Or perhaps an aggressive home-security company has installed security systems in most of the homes and stores. So the new sheriff may or may not be the primary reason for the drop in burglaries.

The only way to prove causation is by a controlled experiment.

I doubt if any of us, in this age of science and reason, naively embrace obvious superstitions. But we may succumb to subtle forms of superstition when we inadvertently confuse correlation and causation.

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

Summary

What? – We often confuse correlation with causation. When we do, we succumb to a subtle form of superstition.
So what? – This can lead to faulty and unproductive decisions and behaviors.
Now what? – Analyze your life and eliminate superstitious behavior.

Accept responsibility for your life

choicesYears ago, a man came to me for counseling. To begin the first session I asked him why he had come. He told a sad story of how his employer had taken advantage of him and then fired him. As he told the details of the struggle, he became very emotional – flushed face, moist eyes, quivering lips. About ten minutes into the session I asked, “When did this happen?” Recently, I assumed. He answered, “seventeen years ago.”

Oh my…

While I was willing to acknowledge and empathize with the alleged employer abuse, I was shocked that he had allowed this one incident to deeply influence his life. He was blaming others for his derailed life.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey develops this terrific thought: “In between stimulus and response is a space, and in that space we make a choice; while we can’t control the stimulus we can control our response by the choice we make.” The “space” Covey talks about is time. When we are impacted by a stimulus, we have time (space) to think about it, and then we choose how we will react.

Though my client had been mistreated and unfairly terminated (stimulus) he had a choice regarding his response; he chose unwisely.

Some people blame their grandparents for their problems; psychologists call this the “nature issue” – DNA stuff. Some people blame their parents for their problems; psychologists call this the “nurture issue” – family of origin stuff. I understand these influences count, but it is our choices that primarily shape our lives. 

LIFE – Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will provide ample time for silence.

LEADERSHIP – A decision, by itself, changes nothing.