Manuevering Through Chaos

Chaos has always been something that interested me, The thing with chaos is that everyone experiences it to different degrees, and everyone responds to it in different ways. My concept of chaos is, of course, relative. I used to think that organization was the remedy of chaos. That if you put things in order, you would free up enough focus for more pertinent things. I believed that being less chaotic meant being more laser focused.

That may not be so true. While being more organized does allow for efficiency, there seems to be another dimension that organization cannot solve. Imagine a large circle, compose of an inner solid circle and an outer circle. The inner circle is the first stage of chaos. Combatting it involves having a schedule, understanding what to prioritize and when, and implementing a system that ensures consistency. And don’t get me wrong, that will get you very far. But the outer layer is peripheral chaos.

Peripheral chaos relates to direction. This is the more serious, yet subtle kind of chaos. You are unlikely to suffer from it in the short run as projects will be completed and stakeholders satisfied. However, the general direction you are taking yourself is unclear. Knowing what to aim for is the logical next step. Of course, what you aim for evolves with time. What you aim for today is not the same as what you are going to aim for tomorrow.

You can then, easily make the argument that it is futile to take your aims very seriously. If you were certain they were going to change, then it would be a waste of time to orient your life in a way that seeks to accommodate an ever-changing destination. For one thing, I do not think this is a powerful argument, and I will explain why I think that is the case. However, I do think it is an objection that ought to be taken very seriously and examined further.

The reason why it’s a bad argument is that the alternative is definite chaos. Going back to the inner circle, if you chose to stop planning because plans generally had the proclivity to change, then you’d never accomplish anything. It’s a minimum pre-requisite to achieving what you seek out to achieve. But consider that the most effective plans are those that are able to accommodate change. In other words, flexible daily plans that allow for a little bit of chaos but still end up accomplishing most of what you had planned to do is superior to both having unflexible plans or no plans at all.

The outer circle then should be tackled in the same way. I disagree with having a definite, definable long-term goal. If you can be that granular with what you want, you wouldn’t know what to do once you’ve achieved it. Your long-term goal, as a matter of fact, should be anything but concrete. Instead, it should be as concrete as possible, but no more. It should be more about lifestyles rather than material things, it should be about your physical health rather than that of numbers on a screen, it should be about a state of mind, rather than a state of power.

You do not have full control of your psychological health or even your physical health. And most people have very little control over the way they live day to day. Those are real challenges, and clearly, the most worthwhile, because absent any of them,  the importance of any other superficial accomplishment would pale in comparison. And yet, most of the focus we have are geared towards achieving things that are farther out of our control, and that, even if we achieve them, will not satisfy our deepest urges.

This, of course, runs counter to the “success” literature that advises people to set fixed goals. I believe this is akin to having fixed daily schedules. It is routinely violated, and incompatible with everyday life.

Similarly, to find the right balance in maneuvering through chaos, I think we should consult ourselves over an extended period of time. If you were asked to articulate your long-term vision today, it would be different from what you wanted 6 months ago, and certainly different from what you will want 6 months from now.

There are obvious reasons of course why that is the case. Your location will drastically have an effect, so will the people you interact with on a daily basis, what you expose yourself to, and how you live. Any change to any of these would expectedly change your general outlook on life.

To constantly beg the question across time, and attempt to coherently articulate it, is critical. You will recognize with time, what the constants are. You will recognize what the variables are. The outer layer of the circle of chaos will become a little more transparent. Beneath it, truths will begin to emerge. Not all truths, of course, because there is a lot more chaos than there are truths. And there is definitely more chaos than there is your personal energy to combat the chaos itself.

But some kind of truth, even if low in resolution, will contribute to learning about higher resolution truths. The only danger to this project emerges when you start to question the notion of truth itself.

 

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Decision Points – That Extra Push

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Decision points are smartly engineered scenarios that force you to stop and think about what you’re doing. I learned the term from Behavioral Economics and really think it’s fascinating, and extremely helpful. The idea, put simply, is that your mind basically has two systems. The first is responsible for your intuition and instinct. It’s automatic and fast, and operates by using heuristics. Your behavior is molded and improved upon through practice. When you play sports, dance, or drive a car well enough, it takes over and is responsible for the extraordinary calculations that you’re able to make in a very short amount of time.

The second system, as described by the brilliant Psychologist Kahneman in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is the deliberate system. It’s what’s responsible for conscious thought, and is characterized as being slow and careful. It would be responsible for doing things like studying for an exam, or making a to-do list.

Decision points then interrupt your system 1, and force your system 2 into action. Why would you want that happen? Consider this example. You’re sitting at home one day, watching your favorite TV series, and munching on your favorite snack, let’s say it’s a giant bag of Doritos. While watching the show, the process of eating becomes automatic as in you aren’t consciously aware of every chip that you’re eating. Because your System 1 is in charge, you don’t have to worry about the chips and can focus your attention instead on whether or not Walter White is finally going to get what’s coming for him.

What usually happens in this scenario, and many other similar scenarios, is you would tend to overeat according to your own standards. What I mean by that, is if I asked you beforehand whether or not you think you should eat a whole bag of Doritos, you’d probably say no. These are you own standards, and automatic processes do a good job of disrupting it.

You would surpass the point of eating until you are full because your thoughts aren’t focused on how hungry you are, or aren’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of dietary advice out there would suggest you eat without watching television. It keeps you more aware of how much you’re eating, and that’s good. But I think there’s a better solution, and I also think you’ll agree with me.

Eating while watching TV is a pleasure in life, and it should never be substituted for anything. This is where decision points come in. The first thing you would need to do is instead of grabbing the entire bag of chips, pour a bit of it into a bowl. Alternatively, eat a smaller bag. The reason this helps is that studies have shown that we are less likely to eat 5 bags of something, than eat 1, even if the 1 bag has the exact same quantity as the 5 bags combined.

This, I think, is truly amazing. What’s happening here is that every time you finish from 1 bag, you’re forcing yourself to make a decision point, “Should I open the next bag or have I had enough?” The reason I think this is so insightful is because it can be applied to so many different areas of life that have to do with discipline and control. Here are some from the top of my mind.

Say you’re trying to cut down on drinking, you can apply the same principle. To force yourself into a decision point, think about making your cups smaller. Maybe you’re a heavy smoker, and you want to cut down on smoking? Use more boxes with less cigarettes in each box, or smoke smaller cigarettes. Say you were watching too much TV and needed to force yourself to focus more? Set an alarm that would go off at the end of each episode. What all of these situations do is that they force your System 2 into an action. And as it turns out, that brief moment of intervention can go a long way to helping you stay disciplined.

Telling ourselves we need to something is easy, but forcing ourselves to do it is usually not. Oftentimes, we find ourselves really motivated at the start but see that motivation wane off as time progresses and routines kick in. It’s easy to stay focused and disciplined in the short run, but the challenge is to to maintain it, otherwise, there’s no point in trying in the first place.

I think decision points are a very powerful tool, if used correctly, and cleverly to be that extra push that you need to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined.

Writing Things Down

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For a lot of people, this won’t come as news to them, but for many others, it will be life-changing. I remember a time not too long ago when I was the least organized person I knew. I was constantly missing deadlines, forgetting to do activities I promised I’d do, and unable to stick to any plans I made. My life was pretty chaotic. Strangely enough, I wasn’t really miserable. I still managed to somehow get by. My lack of organization didn’t kill me, but it severely crippled me.

The worst thing was I never really thought there was a problem to begin with. Sure, people closest to me would sometimes hint that I should be a little more organized every now and then but my laid back attitude was the perfect weapon to resist those criticisms. I listened idly as their words glided by, and despite the fact that there were many areas of my life were taking a hit, they still weren’t enough to wake me up.

Interestingly, the day I did wake up didn’t come as a result of a dramatic event that happened in my life that forced me to rethink how I was living. It was actually out of pure boredom and curiosity that I decided to Google search ways to become more organized.

It was then that I was exposed to a great book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done Fast”. I read some reviews and really liked what I was hearing, so to speak. I decided to go pick up a copy the very same day. The amazing thing about the book was that what was being preached was so simple yet so profound. I took away a lot from the book, but the main thing that really stuck with me and is a major part of how I live my life today was simply to write things down.

I found my medium which was my smartphone. And I tried really hard to make it a habit to write things down. Any idea I had, anything I needed to do or buy, any person I needed to see, and any events I needed to attend, I wrote it all down. Yes, to those of you who have been doing this their whole lives, I finally learned that keeping a diary was actually very useful.

The general idea was simple. Your working memory can only process so much information, and every day, you are bombarded by tons of different things to remember and retain. And each of those things had different levels of importance, and deadlines. You simply could not keep track of everything efficiently, and if you tried, you’d end up feeling mentally exhausted and supremely inefficient. This was such a revelation to me, and I remember being really excited when writing things down actually started yielding results. I felt I had so much more energy and time.

The reason why I never picked up the habit sooner was because as a young teen, I thought that wasn’t a cool way to live. That being so organized was something you just do when you’re a grown up, and never think about when you’re younger. And that conviction was so strong that it stayed with me, for years, well into my adult life. Old habits truly do die hard, and this was one of the hardest habits I’ve had to kick.

After I got into the habit of writing things down, I found myself becoming much more organized. In fact, I became somewhat obsessed with the idea. I tried to find to research what the best apps out there were, and I still do till this day. I learned to prioritize more, to understand what things really are important, and what things just aren’t. It was a moment in my life when I learned to grow up and I’m thankful that it came at a time when I was in a safe learning environment, and not out in the real world.

So if you don’t already, write things down. It works.

How to Live with Regret

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I’ll never forget the advice I was once given about regret. A friend of mine told me after we had been talking about the countless hours just wasting time and energy on things that weren’t important, “Never regret anything, because everything that’s good in your life is a result of your past actions, good and bad.” I agreed at the moment, because it made me feel better about myself. But when I thought about it a little more carefully,I realized there was a bit more to it than that.

For me, regret is the ultimate learning experience. If you regret something you’ve done, you’re likely to try to avoid doing it again in the future. Even if you regret the fact that you didn’t do something, missed a great opportunity, you’re also likely to actually try do those things the next time around. In contrast, if you live with no regret, if you believe that everything you’ve done, good and bad, are all contributors to your happiness now, then there’s no room for improvement. You’ve created a limit for your personal growth that is molded by the effects of the actions of your past.

I think there are two different types of regret that most of us experience. Call them ‘good regret’ and ‘bad regret’. Good regret is what I’ve described above. If you’ve made a wrong decision that in a situation where you should have made the right decision given the knowledge that you had at that point, then that’s good regret. It’s good because you can learn from it; it can teach you to make a better decision the next time you face a similar problem. It will make you aware of the fact that you do possess what’s required to make the right decision.

There is, however, bad regret. This is when you make a bad decision in a situation where you couldn’t have made a better decision given your knowledge at the time. In other words, you couldn’t have known better. For example, say you were playing a physical sport two years earlier that you loved. In one of the games, you end up hurting yourself really badly, and now, you can’t play sports anymore, and end up regretting that you played that game, or trying harder than you should have. In this case, it’s bad because if you could theoretically go back in time, you would have still done the same thing given the amount of knowledge you had.

An example of good regret, conversely, is if you spent months binge drinking and having fun without any consideration towards your studies or fulfilling whatever goals you’ve set forth for yourself. The idea is that you did have the knowledge at the time to be more aware of what you were doing, but chose not to do it anyway. I think it’s good if you regret those conscious choices because you’re now feeling a sense of responsibility towards towards making up for lost time, and avoiding making those same mistakes again in the future.

It’s also good to regret living your life a particular way you shouldn’t be living, according to other people’s expectations. it’s good to regret not being more assertive, more brave, more proactive. It’s good to regret not being more organized, more empathetic, more determined. It’s great to regret those things because you give yourself the opportunity to become those things now.

Achievement

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“For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Van Goethe

There are a very small number of people throughout history who have truly achieved great things from a global and historical perspective. What I mean by that is that there are very small number of people who have gone down in history as reformers and difference makers,  A testament to that fact is that by the end of this post, you will have probably recognized the authors of the quotes that you will see. This means that the same names have reappeared and will continue to reappear throughout your life.

This kind of timeless achievement, in my opinion, is very context based. The people who’s names are inscribed in history books, and who’s teachings and legacies are religiously celebrated and tirelessly echoed by school teachers, professors, parents, and students are remarkable and exceptional people. But the significance of the things they have done depends heavily on the historical and cultural context that they found themselves in.

What they all seem to have in common, however, was self belief. You don’t become a president of a great nation without really believing in your capacity to undertake immense responsibilities with a minimal amount of fear and doubt. In a sense, it seems rather conceited or even delusional to believe in yourself unflinchingly, and genuinely feel that you are entitled and fit to reach posts of such high rankings. It’s a little insane. I say this because it is really impossible to reasonably reach a conclusion that you are qualified to rule a country of hundreds of millions of people, and be able to make decisions that would, for better or worse, have lasting effects on their lives and on the state of the country that you are in.

This, of course, only applies to politicians, but surely, a certain level of conceit must have existed within the greatest entrepreneurs of our time like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They must have believed that they were capable of reaching heights that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even dream of reaching. I think on some level, if you do want to achieve this level of fame and status, you need to allow your ego to inflate infinitely.

On the other hand, there are figures who are rarely talked about in mainstream media, but who have truly accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and have dramatically changed the lives of people around them. Social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, nurses, and doctors. It’s unfortunate that history does not remember those people with the same reverence that they do world leaders, generals, dictators, and psychopaths. But perhaps those who work towards the benefit of mankind without caring about gaining fame, money, and post mortem statues would have wanted nothing more than silent acknowledgement, and perhaps a selfless philosophy that can opposes and contradicts the wicked nature of man, and one that that can be emulated and repeated.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry Truman

Philanthropy, while the worthiest of all causes, will never be able to capture the ambitions of the majority of people. Self interested fame, wealth, and power will always be the prime motivators for human action. They always have been.

However, maybe achievement can be characterized more internally and personally. Maybe we can all become achievers, and even overachievers in our own small domains, by being dedicated, perseverant, and diligent. Or maybe, we can learn to become more delusional, and achieve greatness. Whatever we choose to do, we better do it the best way we can.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Napoleon Hill

Comfort Zone

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Comfort zones are a state of mind we’re in where our stress levels are at a minimum; we’re in a situation we’ve probably experienced before and therefore feelings of anxiety don’t usually creep up on us. We are constantly advised to step out of our comfort zones, and expose ourselves to new situations. The reason why this advice is preached so much is probably because you really have nothing to lose.

If you step out of your comfort zone, and try something new, you will either encounter something that you’ve never experienced before and would like to experience again, thus creating an added value in your life. The flip side is that you experience something that doesn’t ignite any interest in you, and might in fact cause you to regret having the new experience altogether. But ultimately, the argument goes, you gave it a shot. You can always go back to your comfort zone if things don’t work out. That option won’t be lost. If you choose to venture into something new and unpredictable, and you have the safety of knowing that you can always go back to where you started, it should decrease your anxiety to a large extent.

There is, of course, always the third option where your seeking a new adventure might result in extreme pain and death, but that shouldn’t really hold much ground since it’s very unlikely. On the surface, what I’ve said might seem true, but is it really? If you do step out of your comfort zone, and try new things, can you really ever go back to where you started? Will things really go back to how they were before you decided to go on your adventure? I wouldn’t be too confident in affirming any of these statements. The argument is simple. If you are experiencing something that you’re very used to, and that can be considered your comfort zone, going out of it implies something quite important. You will need to open your mind to new possibilities. This would mean that you would also start to have new expectations, new desires and ambitions, and it isn’t always true that it’s for the better.

Take John, a middle aged factory worker who’s had the same job, the same friends, and has been living in the same city ever since he dropped out of school decades ago. He’s told about this workshop where he be taught how do something else that pays better but obviously carries more risk. If John goes out of his comfort zone, and only gives this workshop a try, will his life ever really be the same? It’s quite clear to see how no matter what the end result of the workshop experience is, the only certainty is that he would have, at some point during the workshop, been exposed to new possibilities that render his current job far less attractive. The tragedy here is that he might fail, and this new adventure could potentially ruin his life.

This might be a cynical way of looking at things, and of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people, even most people, might likely benefit from new experience, and it could significantly enrich their lives in ways that they couldn’t have ever imagined, but whether or not anyone should do it remains a question. Raising a person’s expectations to an extent that outweighs their current ability, or potential ability is not a good thing. If you sell a sample of 1000 people the idea that they could be anything, you’re doing two things.

You’re creating a belief that might otherwise not have existed if you hadn’t instilled this idea in them, and as a result, new artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, and productive members of society would emerge, and this would create a tremendous added value. But if these people constituted 50 percent of the sample, or 500 people, then there is going to be another half of people who will probably be worse off than they were before they were exposed to this new idea. Comfort zones to some people are roadblocks to their success. They serve nothing more than hindrances to their potential, but for others they are a safe haven that shouldn’t be disrupted.

If you’ve ever seen one of the hundreds of talent shows around the world, you will notice something quite disturbing that you might have overlooked. For every success story, for every person who followed his dream and overachieved because he got out of his comfort zone, because he ventured into the unknown by taking risks and refusing to give up, there are many who became utterly miserable because they were unable to make it. The ethical dilemma then is pretty clear. Should everyone be advised to reach for the stars? Should everyone be told that they can be anything they want to be, even if it meant that it was very likely that they would ultimately be devastated and unhappy if they tried to?

The media enables a way of thinking that is very inconsistent with reality. Perhaps it’s warranted though, perhaps without naive belief, you would strip the world from so much imagination and potential. It could be that despite the fact that unhappiness is a natural consequence of promoting unrealistic ideals, many of the greatest works that we have seen were a result of it, and to so many of us, it is in those accomplishments where life’s meaning and beauty can be found.

Don’t Judge a Fish

dont judge a fishThere’s a famous saying that says, “Don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.” Whenever I heard this saying in the past, I would smile or nod in agreement but never really thought of it in much depth.

In our society, monkeys, fish, and birds live together and those who are considered successful and accomplished are the ones who can climb a tree.

I can think of little things more depressing than the idea of people feeling incompetent because they simply haven’t been allowed to follow their passion.

In many conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve noticed a very common and alarming theme. It seems to go something like this. After struggling in school they finally find a passion, something they’re really good at. But it doesn’t pay. You have to be very lucky to be successful.

Their parents know and understand this, and do whatever is necessary to prevent them from doing what they like. This is not applicable to every country but it does to Lebanon where clichés and singular ways of living are cherished and endlessly preached.

The youth of this country will go through this process. And they will ditch their dreams for reality, but at some point, we need to question the structure that is underlying our convictions about life and what’s important.

A lot of potential will be lost, and many lives will be made miserable by this truly dangerous kind of thinking. My hope is that one day, this mentality will be a thing of the past, the way it is in many prosperous countries in the world.