You evolve – so do your goals

Goals – you have got to have goals – right!? Especially in this century of self-improvement. You can’t be drifting along figuring out what to do as you go along.

I do not think goals are the big solution to all your problems or that they are the universal solution to all your problems – but a few years ago I went from no real goals to set some rather clear goals and this will be about how they have sort of evolved.

Probably 4-5 years ago I started altering my way of life in a direction I had been absolutely sure I was not going in. I had told both myself and others that I was absolutely comfortable working a good paying job without to many obligations in order to earn money I could spend in my spare time. In other words work 8 hours a day 5 times a week to enable myself to do pretty much what I wanted in my spare time.

I worked as a computer programmer at a very large company, had done so for quite a few years and made enough money, to not really worry about normal living. My day job allowed me to do the things I wanted in my spare time – and I felt great about it. Or I did not love my job, I just saw it as a means to and end. I had no aspirations to end up becoming a leader or anything that would give me more responsibility. And further more I regularly said that I had absolutely no plan on doing anything that would take away my spare time, leave me with a lot of responsibility or long days at work. I held this belief until somewhere in my mid-twenties.

Trying to look back, I am not really sure what lead me in the opposite direction. It might be a quite hard break-up with a girl that led me down a trail of self-improvement or maybe its a natural part of what, if I remember correctly is named as the ”odyssey age”. Nevertheless I started a journey that led me just about a totally 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

I started thinking about goals for the future – not as goals for my training – but for what I wanted to do with my life. I got quite inspired by stoicism, read numerous self help books and finally had what I scribbled down on a piece of paper as my goals for the next 5 years. I had originally 3 goals written on that piece of paper I always carried around with me. Within a year or two is was down to 2 goals.

I removed ”Location Independent” from my goal card. It was probably somewhat spawned from reading The 4-Hour Workweek, and resonated well with me in the beginning. I always loved traveling and still do. But what came to my realization was that I may have a fun time living in Burma, but if all my best friends and family are in back in Denmark, then I will not be happy. I have a huge network of friends from almost all periods of my life and they just meant to much for me to have location independence as a definite goal. Money and freedom to travel – YES. Location independence – not really needed.

The last two goals are totally materialistic. One is an amount I have set as a goal for yearly income and the other is a ”specific object” that I really want to try and own. But come very lately these goals were somewhat moved to the side or at least pushed down.

For the last almost 3 years I have worked on a startup together with my dad. We have developed some software that can give a totally unique overview of the combined effects of any number of drugs. The last 2 years have been full time and so far we are bootstrapped and working hard.

As you can probably imagine this is like the total opposite of what I wanted earlier in life. It is just about exactly what I said I would never want – and now I love it. The prospects are rather promising and would totally enable the fulfillment of the two goals I had left on my goal card. So no need to change them.

But then recently I had to or at least chose to do an consulting assignment to secure a little more capital for our company. No apparent diverging away from my goal on that part – but what surprised me a little, was the hourly wage they were willing to pay for my time. If I totally focused on my two goals – I could obtain them by working as a consultant – and probably with more certainty than working on my startup.

This could be a sign that I needed to reconsider my involvement in the startup – because is it really the best way to reach my goals – OR – are have my goals really evolved so much that they need to be changed once again.

Luckily for me, it is quite easy to answer. I am so certain that I want to spend all my energy and money on trying to succeed with my startup. It needs to be on the top of my goal-card. The other two goals still apply, but they are of less importance than successfully building a company from the ground up – and a company that will have a huge impact on a lot of peoples lives once successful. I therefore had a quite obvious reason to change my goals.

But everyone changes, and the goals you had yesterday may not be the most important goals for you today. Changing your goals is not giving up – you need to be very true to yourself about what your top priorities are and then move towards them. As Neil Gaiman said in his amazing commencement speech(which if you have not seen – you should!) Keep moving towards your mountain – measure your decisions up against whether they move you closer to that mountain.

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Doing what you love, productivity, procrastination and social media

When you follow your dreams and work with what you love and feel really will do an impact, then you’re never hit by procrastination – right? I can’t recall how many times I have been met with that assumption. Hey it must be so awesome to work with what you love, then it probably never feels like work. You won’t ever do something that you don’t like doing or do boring tasks. Ehm – where to start…

I actually on a number of occasions, felt rather ashamed of the fact that; here I was working with what I love, going after a dream and still I found myself getting distracted by all sorts of unimportant rubbish – thereby failing to put in sufficient work on what really matters.

The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.

Procrastination. Oh yes – even though you work with what you love, the long term goal is totally in line with what you are working on, you can still be hit by procrastination. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just need to take steps in the right direction to try and minimize it. I don’t think you can totally avoid it, since it is so deeply rooted in human nature. But if you become aware of signs as to when you’re really procrastinating instead of getting stuff done, then you can take action to move yourself in the right direction.

There are probably very few endeavors or long term goals which you can accomplish without a lot of time spent on things you really would have preferred to be without. Especially when you are starting from scratch. There will be times when the task ahead of you will have you checking e-mail compulsively, getting coffee 4 times in an hour, updating your twitter, facebook and instagram feed all just to look for some distraction that can pull you away from the task at hand. But this is where you can separate yourself from the crowd.

Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.

I recently had a rather bad streak of not really getting anything important accomplished. Just running around trying to look busy. The only thing I could really get my mind to concentrate on was reading. Having realized this, which is kind of the first step, I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a book that before has helped me regain my productivity: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series)

This is a little short book, filled with tips and productivity hacks by 99U. If you have followed them on their website or youtube you will recognize a lot of the people and advice given in the book. It is basically just a lot of short chapters on productivity by some of the most knowing people on the topic. I dare you to read this book without going away with something really useful. Given the short chapters it is a very good go-to book if you just need a short reminder to keep your shit together or you can sit down and read the entire book in a day, without having to be an avid speed-reader.

I have made a lot of notes and will implement them the coming weeks to get me back on track productivity wise. Short term it sure has helped. My guess is that I have got more accomplished in the last two days, that the entire last week…

But I would like to end by sharing a few notes from the book on social media. It is a chapter focusing on all the distractions fighting for our attention. All the social media platforms that makes us feel good short term, but do not bring us any closer to our long term goals. The overall advice is that we set certain times for accessing social media and ask ourselves key questions once we feel drawn towards them outside these slots:

  • Is it necessary to share this? Will it add value to my life and for other people?
  • Can I share this experience later so I can focus on living right now?
  • Am I looking for validation? Is there something I could do to validate myself?
  • Am I avoiding something I need to do instead of adressing why I don’t want to do it?
  • Am I feeling bored? Is there something else I could do to feel more purposeful and engaged in my day?
  • Am I feeling lonely? Have I created opportunities for meaningful connection in my day?
  • Am I afraid of missing out? Is the gratification of giving in to that fear worth missing out on what’s in front of me?
  • Am I overwhelming myself, trying to catch up? Can I let go of yesterdays conversation and join today’s instead?
  • Can I use this time to simply be instead of looking for something to do to fill it?
  • Do I just want to have mindless fun for a while?

All are valid question, and all can be answered with a valid yes – but the mere awareness might keep you grinding at what you’re trying to avoid, instead of giving in to a quick fix.

As said earlier, this book is filled with good little productivity hacks, focusing on anything from energy to your surroundings. It is a very good book both for reading in entirety as well as browsing a few chapters every once in a while.

Experience vs. Memory – duration neglect and peak-end rule

Just finished Thinking, Fast and Slow – and what an awesome book! I have already written a bit about the book in old posts and my previous post compares it to a couple of other popular behavioral science books. But if you find behavioral science and psychology the least bit exciting, you’ll probably love this book. As written before, it is not a book you just sprint through as one quote on the back of it states: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think!”

But just wanted to share a last anecdote from the book before moving on. Towards the end of the book there are chapters outlining the two selves; the experiencing and the remembering. Rather self explanatory, meaning the difference between what you actually experienced in the moment versus what you remember the experience as.

There have been some rather interesting studies in this area. For example people who have undergone different types of surgery has been equipped with devices that lets them rate the pain of the experience in small intervals during the surgery on a scale from 1-10. This is the experiencing self. Then afterwards they are asked to rate the pain of the experience as a whole again on a scale from 1-10. That is the remembering self.

What seemed to emerge from those studies was that it was not the total amount of pain – meaning the surgery with most pain during the experience that was rated as the most painful by the remembering self. Neither was it the total time under pain that emerged as the most painful, but instead it seemed to be the surgery where the pain towards the end was highest. If the pain tapered off towards the end of the surgery – people generally remembered it as less painful than they actually experienced it to be. This is to be known as the peak-end rule. The duration of the pain did not matter for the remembering self – known as duration neglect – the only real determining factor seemed to be how the surgery felt towards the end.

To test this Daniel Kahneman made a study where they subjected the participants hands to a very cold ice bath. As the surgery-studies, the subjects were equipped with devices to rate their experience during the trial and then afterwards asked to rate their experience. The first trial was 4 minutes in ice-cold water, then the next trial was the same 4 minutes in ice-cold water but then another 3-4 minutes where a little warmer water was released into the bowl without the subject knowing, so the temperature rose just slightly making the end less uncomfortable. Then finally they were asked for the third trial to choose whether to repeat trial 1 or 2 – and as you have probably figured, the vast majority chose to go with trial number 2 even though any rational observer would have chosen number 1.

This is peak-end rule and duration neglect at work. I find it so fascinating and amusing how these completely irrational factors plays into our lives. It also raises some interesting questions, for instance; should you prolong some surgeries artificially to taper off the pain towards the end thereby giving the patient a more pleasant memory of the surgery? Or in the less serious department; was your entire experience of a concert really ruined because it started raining at the end?

Trying to be aware of peak-end rule and duration neglect can make you less likely to get fooled by them. But as Daniel Kahneman writes somewhere; even though he has studied all these factors for decades, he still gets fooled by them from time to time – we just have to acknowledge and live with our irrational selves to the best of our abilities.

Books on psychology, our irrational mind, thinking and decisions

DSC_0008There are several books on the topic of decision-making, a lot more than I will ever read, but here are a couple of recommendations if the topic is of interest to you.

If you aren’t interested – maybe you should be. “Surprisingly” we are not as rational as we might think. Our feelings, perceptions and mood along with other factors plays a far greater role than we would like them to. In a “perfect” world we would not have two opposing stands on the same topic just because of different wording. Or be “tricked” into making a different choice just because of a simple marketing trick.

Check this example from Predictably Irrational.

The Economist runs a campaign with the following options:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59
  2. Print-only subscription $125
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125

Dan Ariely(the author) runs an experiment on 100 students at MIT and this is what they opted for:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59 – 16 students
  2. Print-only subscription $125 – 0 students
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125 – 84 students

You would most likely also have chosen the 3. option and with good reason. That seems the best deal. But were you somehow influenced by the mere presence of the Print-only option, which of course no one with a sane mind would choose? If that option did not influence the selection, the removal of it would of course yield somewhat the same spread of selections. He then ran the same experiment, but without the Print-only option and this is how people opted:

  1. Internet-only $59 – 68 students
  2. Print-and-Internet $125 – 32 students

If people chose rationally this would of course not be the case, but as the example clearly shows a presence of an option that no one would consider, totally alters the decisions and trust me marketers knows this!

But why do we do this? The “decoy” acts as something to compare option 3 with. We are not sure whether we want internet or print, but with the Print-only option we have a comparison that makes Print-and-Internet a good deal.

This can be deployed by real estate agents trying to sell you a house showing you 3 houses; first one a bit out of town, second one in the city and third another one in the city but who needs some repair done and is in poorer condition than the other house – this would as our example shows, make you more likely to opt in for the good condition city-house. And the applications are numerous; vacations, cars, computers etc.

So if you want to be a bit more aware of how your decisions are shaped and make more rational decisions, you should definitely give one of these books a read. But which one?

How We Decideis by far the one of them who made the least impression on me. Not that it is a bad book, there are some good examples in it, but not just as many “aha” moments or “I could have done that” as in the others. It just did not engage me quite as much as the others. I read it first and found it interesting but with the other options available I would go for one of those.

Predictably Irrational(PI) is by far the most entertaining and engaging. It is so easy to relate to most examples and it is very well written. It is a hard-to-put-down type of book. It is not as thorough as Thinking fast and slow. But if you are not really sure how entertaining it is to read about psychology and your own mind, I would highly recommend to start with Predictably Irrational.

Thinking, Fast and Slowis, as mentioned above, the most thorough. It is not as easy readable as PI in the way that it makes you think so much harder and sometimes presents rather complex theories and ideas. It digs a lot deeper than PI, and has way more material. PI even quotes some of Daniel Kahneman’s discoveries. My recommendation would be to start with PI and if you are hungry for the hardcore stuff go buy Thinking fast and slow. You could read it as your first psychology book on decisions, but then you should be very very curious otherwise it might seem a little to theoretical. PI is an engaging read for almost everyone – Thinking fast and slow is an engaging read if you find the topic engaging I would say.

I am always open to new book recommendations, so please let me know if you have any or if you have comments about the books mentioned.

Happy reading!

Ryan Holiday’s book on stoicism

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Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle is the Way

To start with – it’s actually not really about stoicism – but about overcoming obstacles. But along with other preconceptions that I held it was one of those that originally kept my away from the book.

Yes to start with I thought the book was about stoicism. Since I had read quite a lot of the original stoics, I was not that compelled to read someones thoughts about them or their works. I was quite capable of forming my own opinion.

It was not that I did not like Ryan Holiday, I actually read quite a large amount of his posts and articles and really liked what I read. They resonated with me and actually also lead me to look at the book on amazon around the time when it was released. But boy was I disappointed! Only about 200 pages long – I knew the guy was a master of marketing, this to me made it seem like quite an easy attempt to make money. Write a bit about stoicism(which I thought it was about), – a topic that is gaining in popularity and then sell a lot of books based on a huge following. In other words I thought it was quite a cheap shot.

I was certainly not going to buy that book.

Fast forward to Ryan appearance on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. What an amazing episode! If you haven’t listened to it and have the slightest interest in philosophy, productivity or life in general – please treat yourself to that episode. You can find it here: The Tim Ferriss Podcast Ep. 4

But for me, apart from being an extremely interesting podcast, it sparked my interest in actually reading Ryan’s book. It seemed to be so much more than what I had originally thought. So I went against my original thoughts and ordered it from Amazon.

When I got it I was actually already in the midst of two books. I usually read two different types of books depending on what time of day I am reading, but more on that another time. But as soon as I got the book out of the box it came in, I was so positively surprised. I had expected some small slim booklet, given my knowledge of the page-count. This was an absolutely beautiful example of a hardcover book! I know this is partially unimportant, but I cannot overemphasize how positively surprised I was. This almost pulled a Apple/iPhone trick on me – even the packaging was ace.

I started reading right away and was amazed from chapter one. This book is filled with good sound advice – clearly taking a lot from stoic thinkers, especially their way of presenting actionable advice. The amount of research that has gone into writing this book is crazy, it is just filled with examples of world leaders, game changers in all aspects and fun anecdotes. It is so concentrated, clear and thought-provoking that you find yourself stopping after each short chapter to make sure you really understand what you just read.

I can only think of one sentence to capture the essence, which is actually from the back of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think.

It really proved my original preconceptions false. And how irrational it is to look at a books page-count and say “it can’t be that good if it is only 200 pages”. Quantity is such a bad measure if not combined with quality.

I am really glad that I finally gave in and bought the book. It is a certainly one of the best books I read this year and I cannot recommend it enough.

How to be creative and get new ideas

If only I had the right idea.

Where do people get all those ideas from!?

A few of the statements that gets thrown around a lot by people who can’t seem to get their creative mind flowing. They would love to start a new business, find a new way of doing something they love or perhaps find a creative way of re-decorating their house.

They just don’t have any ideas.

The easiest way to keep getting the results you have always got is keep doing what you have always done. Meaning that if you’ve never feel like getting any new ideas, then the easiest way to keep it this way, is keep doing whatever you are doing.

Okay, that is what you are NOT supposed to do. But then the $100 question is – what ARE you supposed to do?

First of, make changes. If you have always driven the same road home from work – try taking another every once in a while. Start reading articles on topics you perhaps otherwise would have avoided. Take up a new hobby, meet new people. Do just about anything differently.

Of course the obvious answer is; that if you are looking to start a new business – start following news about start-ups – see what others are doing. And try not to think of only completely new inventions as possible business ventures. Most innovations are actually spin-offs of something already in existence or knowledge transferred from one domain to another.

But ideas can flourish from just about anything. I have read a great number of business books, but perhaps half of the great business related ideas I have had, came to me while reading fiction or something completely unrelated to business. But if your mind is used to transferring knowledge from one domain to another then your ideas can spawn from just about anything.

Then get into the habit of writing ideas down – whether physical in a book, dictating and recording onto your phone or whatever you’re comfortable with. At first perhaps your ideas are not that great – no matter – you have to start somewhere. What matters is that you get into the habit of recording them.

This has two effects. One obvious of course is that once you get a good idea, you won’t end up forgetting it. But the other perhaps even more important is that ideas form on basis of things you perceive. The more different inputs the more data for your brain to connect and form new ideas upon. When looking through your recorded ideas, what might 2 weeks ago, seem like a totally silly idea, will now with new eyes and knowledge, seem like the best idea if only applied to another domain. So record your ideas – even the shitty ones.

Then finally. Give yourself time to think. Give your mind room to process all the data and connect the dots. If you always keep your mind distracted by watching TV, reading, playing with your phone and never just go for a walk, leaving your phone behind or just sit and let your mind do whatever it wants, then your mind will only react to incoming information and never really have the time to process what’s already there.

Following these steps won’t guarantee that you get your million dollar idea. But as stated previously. If you keep doing what you have always done – you will keep getting what you have always got. Therefore use this as a kick in the butt to start doing things differently, whether this means a new hobby, new travel route or anything in between. Creativity is about connecting impressions, information and experiences – so get out there in the world and experience!

Law of small numbers in statistics

I’m in the midst of reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. An extremely interesting book, if you have any interest in how you and others form their decisions. I will not discuss the entire book here, as obviously I haven’t finished it yet, but I would like to write a thing or two about a recent chapter I read, since it really resonated with me as something I, first of all; should have known – but certainly should remember moving forward. And one of the best ways of remembering, for me, seems to be trying to explain it to others.

As the title suggests, this has to do with something called the “law of small numbers”. Most people seem to acknowledge that statistics based on large samples produce more accurate results, but fail to recognise that statistics based on smaller samples not only are more inaccurate, but also produce more extreme outcomes.

Why is this important? I thought I was fully aware of the pitfalls, at least the inaccuracy part  – but having read this chapter I realized I wasn’t.

My reasoning, and probably a lot of other people’s, recognise that if you take a small sample of a larger whole, then the small sample of course won’t be as accurate – but it will show a tendency. This CAN be absolutely false. Danish media even slipped big time, failing to recognise this, during a recent election, when their early exit poll claimed the wrong victor.

But why is this? How can statistics on small numbers show the complete opposite as statistics performed on the full sample? It has to do with the fact that small samples produce more extreme outcomes. I will use Daniel Kahneman’s example as it made it really clear for me to understand.

From the same urn, two very patient marble counters take turns. Jack draws 4 marbles on each trial, Jill draws 7. They both record each time they observe a homogeneous sample – all white or all red. If they go on long enough, Jack will observe such extreme outcomes more often than Jill – by a factor of 8 (the expected percentages are 12.5% and 1.56%) Again no hammer, no causation, but a mathematical fact: samples of 4 marbles yield extreme results more often than samples of 7 marbles do.

This really made it “click” for me. Of course they do. Small samples are not only more inaccurate but – and this is the very important part – they yield more extreme outcomes.

But as the book so beautifully describes, almost everyone can miss this fact. The Gates foundation made a huge $1.7 billion investment, based on findings that had tried to pinpoint which schools produced the best grades. One of the findings was that the small schools seemed to outperform the larger by a factor of 4. This lead to splitting of larger schools into smaller units. The only problem was that the size of the school had nothing to do with the grades. If they had asked which schools produced the lowest grades – once again it would have been the small schools. But the size of the school had nothing to do with the grades. The larger schools produced more “average” results, simply by the fact that they had more students – thereby larger sample sizes. Small schools on the other hand had fewer students – thereby smaller sample, which as we have learned can produce more extreme outcomes.

Correlation does not equal causation.

This knowledge has given me a whole new perspective on statistics. I am amazed at how often media, marketing or even politicians use statistics based on very small samples as “proof” for their claims. And for the most part they totally get away with it. But moving forward I hope to be more observant and aware of this fallacy, to keep me from making bad decisions, on what I, in the past, might have considered good valid information.