Nassim Taleb – Black Swan

My Opinion

Highly recommend reading this book. While it took me some time to finish it, it was totally worth it. Taleb shares some highly interesting mental models in regard to probabilities, system theory, knowledge creation, life choices and many more domains.

Reading Recommendation: 9/10

Our world is steered by unknown, improbably events that can’t be forecasted. You can call them unknown unknowns or Black Swans, an expression shaped by Nassim Taleb.

  • These events are outliers. There is no regularity in their occurrence and no past data that gives a hint and prepares us to what happens. They carry an extreme impact. And, funny enough, in hindsight they can be easily explained. (Hindsight Bias)
  • These unknown unknowns happen because they are not supposed to happen. This might sound weird but think about it. When you get to know something, you can prevent it. If you don’t, you can’t. Plus, if you counterparts knows you know, they will react differently. Think about 9/11.

The problem of inductive reasoning is that the same data could confirm a theory and also its exact opposite.

  • There are systematic problems that arise when building knowledge based on empirical observations. In a nutshell, it’s fair to say that we know when we are wrong with a much higher confidence then knowing when we are right.
  • As an example, consider a turkey that is fed every day. With every single feeding he builds up his confidence that he will be fed every single day. One afternoon before Thanksgiving, this believe will be proven wrong.
  • What this example shows is that the turkey observations were in fact harmful. With every day that his confidence rose, so did the actual risk. The turkey’s feeling of safety peaked as the risk was the highest.
  • The same set of data can confirm a theory and also its exact opposite. If you survive another day, it could mean that you are getting closer to being immortal or that you are closer to death.

What often matters when learning about properties is how they behave in extreme situations under severe stress.

  • If you want to get know if you can really count on a friend, you need to look at him under the tests of severe circumstances, not under the regular rosy glow of daily life. Only then you will truly understand his personal ethics and his degree of integrity.
  • This is equally true when it comes to understanding health. Would it be possible to understand health without considering wild diseases and epidemics? At the very least it would significantly harder.
  • Indeed the normal is often irrelevant. Therefore, it sometimes helps to deliberately cause a system to fail to learn how and why it reacts that way.

At the first glance, the interconnectedness of globalisation reduces volatility and creates the impression of stability. At the second glance, it shows the increased fragility: There will be less Black Swans at much severe consequences.

  • Financial institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are now interrelated.
  • Instead of several loosely connected financial systems, we now have one gigantic, highly dependant system. When only one part fails the whole system crashes.
  • The increased concentration among banks seems to reduce the likelihood of a financial crisis. If one occurs, however, it will be at global scale with devastating consequences.
  • There is another problem. The rarer the event, the less we know about its odds. It means that we know less and less about the possibility of a crisis.

Living mostly in non-linear, black-swan driven environments where forecasts are difficult, we face a serious expert problem.

  • The researcher Philip Tetlock studied the forecasts of political and economic “experts.” He asked various specialists in these domains about the likelihood of a bunch of political, economic and military events occurring about five years ahead. In sum, he collected 27,000 predictions from almost 300 specialists. When looking at the results it turned out that an “expert” status didn’t matter. There was no difference between a PhD or an undergraduate degree. Interestingly enough, Tetlock noticed that the bigger the reputation of a subject, the worse predictors they were.
  • Part of the problem might be the illusion of familiarity. Just because we spent much time studying something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are particularly good at understanding where it’s heading.

Almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning – they were just Black Swans.

  • It turns out that top-down planning is often much less relevant than we might expect. History is full of examples of serendipitous discoveries. In fact, it seems like randomness and sheer luck played a surprisingly large role in most of our great discoveries.
  • Penicillin is one example of a serendipitous discovery with massive impact. When Alexander Fleming was cleaning up his laboratory, he noticed that penicillium mold had contaminated one of his old experiments. He thus recognized the antibacterial properties of penicillin, the reason many of us are alive today.
  • Viagra, which effects on our society could be considered significant as well, was meant to be a hypertension drug.
  • The laser with various fields of application nowadays is another prime example of a “solution looking for a problem” type of discovery. When the inventor Charles Townes was asked about his discovery he replied that he was satisfying his desire to split light beams. Consider the effects of laser today: compact disks, eyesight corrections, microsurgery, data storage and retrieval. All totally unforeseen and based on some playful tinkering.
  • But this is not only true for complex or entirely new discoveries. It took 6000 years after the invention of wheels (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) until somebody came up with the idea of adding wheels to suitcases. Isn’t that astonishing? We had been putting our suitcases on top of a cart with wheels, but nobody thought of putting tiny wheels directly under the suitcase. Technology is only trivial retrospectively–not prospectively.

Our epistemic arrogance lets us overestimate what we know and underestimate uncertainty.

  • The following experiment has been conducted many times with different subject matters and populations. The researchers present a question to each person in the room which answer is a number. They then ask the subjects to estimate a range of values for that number so that they have a 98 percent chance of being right. Although the subjects can literally pick any range that they feel confident with, the intended 2 percent error rate usually turns out to be between 15 percent and 30 percent (depending on the population and the subject matter).

Being a victim to the Survivorship bias, we systematically neglect the importance of silent evidence and the role of luck.

  • When researchers study successful people they often look at their similarities like courage, risk taking, optimism and so on. They assume these traits are what make successful people. If you take, however, silent evidence into consideration and look at the cemetery, you will notice that the graveyard is full of failed persons who shared these traits.
  • One question therefore will always be hard to answer: Were theses people successful because or despite these traits?
  • Between the population of successful millionaires and the failed people on the graveyard, there may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates them is one factor: luck.
  • There is a vicious attribute to the survivorship bias: it is the hardest to notice, when its impact is the largest. The more deadly the risks turn out to be the harder it is to find the silent evidence that is so crucial to take into consideration.
  • To avoid the survivorship bias, choosing the right reference point is crucial. Take the example of a gambler. When looking at the population of beginning gamblers, it’s almost certain that one of them will make a small fortune. If your reference point therefore is the entire population, there is no problem. But from the reference point of a winner (so without taking the losers into account, which happens all too often) there seems to be something greater going on than sheer luck.
  • Beyond silent evidence there is another factor to take into consideration. It’s the nature of evolution that it only works in the long-term and that its short-time outcomes often misleading and deceptive. It’s therefore often not obvious which traits are really good for you, especially because second order effects are not apparent.

“Cumulative advantage” is a theory that describes how winning now increases your odds of winning again in the future and vice versa.

  • Failure too is cumulative; losers are likely to also lose in the future, even if we don’t consider demoralization as a consequences of failing.
  • The English language provides a good example for this. Zipf’s law is a mechanism that describes how the more you use a word, the less effortful you will find it to use that word again, so you borrow words from your private dictionary in proportion to their past use. This demonstrates why out of the sixty thousand main words in English, only a few hundred a regularly used in writings, and even fewer commonly appear in conversation.
  • There are many more examples:
    • The more people live in a particular city, the more likely a stranger will be to pick that city as his destination.
    • The more people are using a certain platform, the more value it provides for every new user join.
    • The more successful you are in your job, the more opportunities will be provided to you. (see: Dominance hierarchy)
  • The underlying principle is as simple as this: The big get bigger and the small stay small, or get relatively smaller.

If knowing the underlying equation, predicting the outcome is often easy. However, reverse engineering the process, meaning deriving the equation based on the outcome, is often almost impossible.

  • For example, knowing the mathematical rule for a series of number, deriving the subsequent numbers is extremely easy. The reverse, however, is often extremely difficult.
  • The researcher P. C. Wason presented subjects with the three-number sequence 2, 4, 6 and asked them to try to guess the rule generating it. The subject had to present other three-number sequences based on the rule they had in their mind and wanted to test. The experimenter would answer with “yes” or “no” in regard to the consistency with the actual rule. Once the subjects were confident with their rule, they would formulate it. It turns out that the actual rule was simply “numbers in ascending order”. Very few subjects got this right since everybody tried to confirm their rule as opposed to falsifying it. Having their theory in mind, all the subjects were trying to find confirming evidence.
  • Note the similarities of this research with how we make sense of history. We tend to assume that history follows a certain logic and that, in theory, we should be able to forecast it. However, all we see are the events, never the rules, while still trying to derive overarching theories based on this.

We systematically overestimate the effects of both positive and negative future events on our lives. This tendency is called “anticipated utility” by Daniel Kahneman and “affective forecasting” by Dan Gilbert.

  • The problems seems to be that we don’t pay attention to our past experiences and are unable to learn from them.
  • Examples can be found everywhere. We assume the next promotion will change our life. We are afraid that things will never get back to normal after loosing a close relative. We believe if we get to build our dream house, we will be happy forever. And so on.
  • Unfortunately, this is not how we human beings work. Being the survival-driven social animals that we are, we are trained to quickly adapt to new circumstances and constantly developing new goals and desires to strive towards.
  • In scientific terms this characteristic is referred to as hedonic adaptation and describes the process of humans to constantly adapt to the status quo and to not judge our current state in absolute terms but instead to only perceive relative changes.
  • One of the most cited pieces of research in this domain is a study from 1978 where researchers interviewed two very different groups about their happiness – recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. The participants were asked how much pleasure they derived from everyday activities such as chatting with a friend or laughing at a joke.
  • When the researchers analysed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. And even though the lottery winners reported more present happiness than the accident victims (4 out of 5 as compared to 2.96) the authors concluded that “the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected.”

Round-trip fallacy describes the confusion of absence of evidence for evidence of absence.

  • When examining a patient for cancer, the doctor can share the negative results but saying we couldn’t find any evidence of cancer. The acronym used in the medical literature is NED, which stands for No Evidence of Disease. What the doctor can’t say is we found evidence for no cancer. There is no such thing as END, Evidence of No Disease.
  • One example of the round-trip fallacy can be found when looking at the case of mothers’ milk in the 1960s. Doctors looked down at mothers’ milk as something that could be equally well replicated by their laboratories. Unfortunately, they missed the many useful components of mothers’ milk that are crucial for the development of an infant. A simple confusion of absence of evidence of the benefits of mothers’ milk with evidence of absence of the benefits.
  • Those infants who were not breast-fed had an increased risk of a number of health problems, including a higher likelihood of developing certain types of cancer. Furthermore, benefits to mothers who breast-feed were also not taken into consideration, such as a reduction in the risk of breast cancer.
  • What this teaches us once again is that we know with a lot more confidence when we are wrong (i.e. falsification) then when we are right (confirmation).

Mental Health Personal Growth Philosophy Psychology

Our Fight For Validation

After 35,000 interviews in 37 years on TV,  Oprah Winfrey states the following in her speech at Harvard graduates : 

“The common denominator that I’ve found in every single interview is that we want to be validated. We want to be understood. […][A]s soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and, inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives.” 

This, I believe, is one of the most fundamental insights there is into our nature as human beings. Our striving for validation doesn’t only occur during and after an interview on TV but also in our everyday working environment, when building relationships, or even when meeting complete strangers. We all want to feel heard and understood. For itself, this isn’t a problem. At least not more than any other evolutionary entailed tendency such as our striving for pleasing endless desires. It does however become a major obstacle to our happiness if seeking validation arises from an uncontrolled need to fulfill other people’s expectations. Sadly enough, this is ever more the case with social media being omnipresent. Let us call this kind of validation default validation. It is contradictory to what Oprah describes as the reason we are here:

“Your real work is to figure out where your power base is and to work on that alignment of your personality, your gifts you have to give, with the real reason why you are here. Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”

What she describes in essence is authenticity and our journey of becoming our true selves without caring much about what other people want us to be. And although this might sound like just another most likely true but sort of naive and hardly applicable life advice, it is worth taking this to heart. Life’s most profound realizations, stripped away from our own experience and personal reflection, remain often not much more than empty shells, whose importance is yet to be recognized. 

The process of understanding and accepting, the courage to fight against our approval-seeking nature, the daily practice, and regular reflection certainly are a long journey to undertake and require hard work. The reward, however, will be freedom and validation from carefully chosen peers. Let’s call this type of validation courageous validation. To make this very clear: Even while striving towards authenticity and overcoming our approval-seeking behaviour, we as human beings still need to be validated just as a fish needs water. What changes, however, is that this validation no longer stems from our attempt to fulfilling external expectations. Instead, it comes from being recognized for the person you are by people you care about. The journey, therefore, is not so much about overcoming your need for validation (which is impossible) but changing its source. 

The goal of this essay is to lay out a case for our validation-seeking nature, to discuss specific and applicable methods that make others feel recognized and understood as well as elaborating on the steps of our journey towards our authentic selves. 

A Universal Desire For Validation
In order to survive in their harsh natural environment, collaboration with their in-group members was essential for our prehistoric ancestors. Anything that facilitated this collaboration was therefore favoured by evolution. Being complex social animals that operate in social hierarchies, our ancestors for example used gossip to exchange information and determine which of their group members were reliable and trustworthy. Our approval-seeking nature ties in with this behaviour since attempting to please other group members was a reasonably safe way to become and remain an accepted part of the group while ensuring cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. 

Nowadays, however, our need for validation comes at a cost: our freedom and happiness. Because how can we be any less free than when constantly trying to please everybody else? Since this seems obvious, we should simply stop caring about what others think. Yet it takes courage to accept this (accepting is not the same as mere understanding) and even more courage to free yourself from this. In his book “The Courage To Be Disliked”, Ichiro Kishimi emphasizes exactly this point as part of the Adlerian psychology, writing:

“Unless one is unconcerned by other people’s judgments, has no fear of being disliked by other people, and pays the cost that one might never be recognized, one will never be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. That is to say, one will not be able to be free.”

Throughout our different stages of life, we can find examples to illustrate our often very unhealthy desire for validation. Assume a child that not long ago got a younger brother. From being the only child and the center of his parent’s attention it suddenly becomes what feels like an unrecognized side note to its parents. The child now develops all kinds of provocative, attention-seeking behaviour to foster the feeling of being recognized. Of course, attention might cause the feeling of being seen, but it doesn’t please its parents (on the contrary). It’s therefore just a weak, unsatisfying form of validation, but better than the feeling of being unnoticed.

For the sake of another example, let’s look at unhealthy perfectionism whose implications become apparent in the working environment. It refers to a tendency to set up excessively high standards for yourself while being preoccupied with past mistakes, afraid of any future mistakes, and concerned about the expectations of others, such as parents or employers. Being highly focused on tasks and others’ expectations, you use accomplishment as a way to feel validated. Yet, as the last accomplishment fades, new pressure assumes itself, and any success is discounted. 

What might help when evaluating your own attitude towards this is a differentiation between a goal-oriented focus and a process-oriented one. The former is only about collecting one’s achievement and is thereby symptomatic of unhealthy perfectionism driven by the urge to please. The latter considers the work as a means in itself, is open to learning from mistakes and failure, and is therefore a healthier, more sustainable way of approaching things. I hope that you can bear another generic yet true cliché, but in the grander scheme of things, the purpose of life is a process-oriented focus. You don’t live to accomplish certain goals but to savour every moment of your journey towards them. Like a dance, where we don’t dance to get anywhere but simply for the sake of dancing. 

With regards to romantic relationships, the psychologist and author Dr. Sue Johnson breaks it down to three universal questions that every partner consciously or unconsciously keeps asking: “Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?”. According to her, all problems in distressed couples arise because one partner feels neglected, unrecognized, and misunderstood. Assuming this is true, the question then is what kind of methods can we use to make others feel validated? 

The Secret of Empathy-Driven Communication
Probably, none of the following concepts are entirely new to you. Nevertheless, they are of astonishing potency and can be applied in almost any situation. And frankly, knowing them almost doesn’t matter at all. Instead, conscious application is what counts and this requires just one thing: practice.

Creating validation, no matter if it’s a parent with her child, a boss with an employee, or you with your partner, starts with Active Listening. This is much more difficult than it might sound but there are a few things that can help. Lean back and take a relaxed body position. When your counterpart is talking, don’t make any assumptions and listen until he is finished. Since we all have the tendency to start pre-configuring our answer while the other person is still talking, we need to work on actively suppressing this. Also, if the context is right, take notes (you probably wouldn’t want to do this when in a loaded conversation with your partner about whose turn it is to wash the dishes). This forces you to pay closer attention and makes the other person feel listened to. 

When reacting to your counterpart, use Paraphrasing to repeat what she said in your own words focusing on the essence of what she feels (emotions) and what is important to her (content). While this too is difficult to do since it requires extremely careful listening, few tools are as suitable as this one to make the other person feel truly recognized. It’s also one of the most effective ways for debates since it forces you to actually understand your counterpart’s argument. 

Further, use Labeling, that is verbalizing your counterpart’s emotions, to create a feeling of connection and understanding. Several studies underline the effectiveness of this tool on a neurological basis. In a brain imaging study, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California found that people react with fear to photos of faces expressing strong emotions. If this emotion is, however, labeled, the brain activity moves from the amygdala (the part that generates fear) to other areas that govern rational thinking. In other words, labeling emotions decreases their intensity. These labels usually start with expressions such as It seems, It sounds like or It looks like. Try to avoid the word “I” because it creates the impression that you are more interested in yourself than in the other person.

Finally, asking the right questions matters a lot as well. Instead of formulating close-ended, verb-led questions (such as Can you do XYZ?), use open-ended questions that don’t allow for a static, yes or no answer (such as How can we solve this?). Asking these kinds of questions lets the other person talk and creates the feeling of being safe and in control which is a primary need we all have. 

Striving for Authenticity 
Until now, we discussed several examples concerning our validation-seeking behaviour and looked at tools and methods to make our counterpart feel understood. In the beginning, we differentiated between default validation as part of our attempt to please everybody’s expectations and courageous validation which we defined as bringing up the courage to let go of other people’s expectations, striving to become the person you really are, and being validated for exactly this. According to Adlerian psychology, we argued that only by being disliked (i.e. ignoring other people’s expectations) we can be truly free. And only once we are free will we be able to, as Oprah puts it, “align our personality with our purpose” and gain lasting happiness. 

Even if that was something that we would all agree on, the question remains how to get there. Of course “getting there” is incredibly difficult. We are social animals and wired to care about other people’s opinions. Our journey, therefore, becomes a fight against our own nature and most likely one where we never fully succeed (who really is completely free of other people’s expectations?). 

It starts with understanding the journey’s profundity and becoming conscious of our uncontrolled need to please others as a means of validation. This is not to say, however, that we should be judgemental of this behaviour. The key is accepting it and, more importantly, accepting that we are good enough just the way we are. 

Wisdom therefore consists in accepting what we are rather than in struggling fruitlessly to be something else, as if it were possible to run away from one’s own feet.” (Alan Watts)

Much of our default validation-seeking behaviour stems from our own feeling of inadequacy and our fear that the real us won’t be liked. Our approval-seeking behaviour is the easy way out, one without many risks. Therefore, beyond consciousness and acceptance, it takes courage and hard work to arrive at a state of courageous validation. What might help the most on a daily basis is building up habits of contemplation where you question your acting and reflect on it. Write down your thoughts, commit to goals, and recognize and celebrate successes. In the process of authenticity, things will change. Friends will leave, new ones will come, old jobs will be quit and new ones will be found, and couples will change to make room for something new. Eventually, you will end up with peers that appreciate you for the person you really are. 

Philosophy Psychology Relationships

A World Of Stories


Imagine a loving husband that is being cheated on. One evening for no specific reason he looks at his wife’s phone and his world collapses. I can’t believe this is happening might be one of the thoughts that cross his mind. He means it literally.  Picture a high-performer who continued climbing the career ladder until he slipped and fell all the way to the bottom. Being fired and without a goal he now wavers somewhere between overwhelming self-doubt and complete bewilderment. How could that be me he might wonder while indeed not being able to grasp it. These are examples of events that contradict our narrative of who we are so fundamentally that we question the core of our identity. Even though you may not experience these specific scenarios, you’re unlikely to go through your life without something that will shake the sense of your identity. These instances of incompatibility between experience and personal narrative point to the essential idea of this essay. Our identity as human beings is packed in one grand narrative that we tell ourselves. It frames every experience we make, every memory we form, and every relationship we engage in. Our narrative, however, is not static. On the very contrary, it is subject to constant change as the two examples drastically point out. No matter how these two people process their traumas, they won’t be the same after that.  

So why does this matter? Understanding and actively reflecting on our own stories puts us in the driver’s seat instead of just being steered by external influences. Since others follow the same principle, comprehending their personal narrative builds empathy and mutual understanding. It allows us to engage with each other on a much deeper level. The goals of this essay are to a) share a new framework, b) encourage active reflection and deliberate authoring of one’s own narratives, and c) emphasize the importance of recognizing other people’s narratives. In order to accomplish this, we will observe the power of narratives in regards to ideas, memories, and relationships that ultimately add up to our identity as a whole. 

Our Ideas

We are currently living through a Cambrian explosion of information. Ideas are everywhere. But why do they spread? While the reasons for this are diverse, there is one thing for sure. It’s never the best, most thought-through idea that is the most convincing or memorable one. It’s the best story that is. 

Take some of the most successful startup pitches. They present to you a heroic story with a yet unsolved customer problem that needs to be overcome. And after outlining the changes in the world that now make it necessary to react, they name the painful complications that arise from it. These sales decks paint the customer’s pain as tangible as possible and show that there are winners and losers. They lay out the vision by teasing the promised land and show the features that allow the customer to get there. In sum, they make a good story.

Zuora serves as a vivid example, a sales deck often cited as a best practice. It proclaims the global shift towards the subscription economy, pointing out the inevitability of this change. The company names the winners of this change such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other incumbents like IBM, as well as the losers: the “52% of Fortune 500 companies that have disappeared” in the last 15 years. They tease the advantages of the subscription economy, the promised land, and introduce their solution as a way to get there. Now, is the story they tell always true? Certainly not, it’s just a story after all. Sometimes the rise of a startup is just purely serendipitous. A good idea, at the right time by smart people. These people then start looking at the global trends and what other external factors exist and stitch all these together into one coherent story. Confirmation Bias at its best. Granted, startup pitches, especially those that follow an ambitious growth path, are often a bit dramatic, almost by necessity. But it’s even true for the simplest business presentation. It’s not going to be convincing unless there is a clear story that is being told including the basic situation, the complication, and the solution of it. 

But the mechanic of the spread of ideas can be applied to other domains as well. How do we teach children basic ideas on what is good or bad? What to do and what not to do? We share these concepts in the form of stories that otherwise couldn’t be understood. Tales such as Snowhite teach them to be cautious with strangers. Legends such as Santa Claus encourage them to behave well and to fulfill their duties in order to be rewarded. And parables such as the Good Samaritan stress the importance of compassion, empathy, and generosity. 

There is one more crucial element to it. We need to make sure that the stories we share are told in the recipients’ world, so it fits into their own narrative. It doesn’t help if the intended solution addresses some pain point that they are not aware of. Zuora’s sales deck needs to paint the problem and describe the promised land in such a way that the customers can apply it to their own businesses. And the tales, legends, and parables need to be transferable to the children’s world in such a way that after the child finishes the story of Snowhite, it will indeed be more careful with strangers. 

In his book “Start with No” the negotiation expert Jim Camp emphasizes this as one of the most crucial factors of success, writing that “you want to inhabit the adversary’s world, because that is the world about which you need information, and that is the perspective from which the adversary makes decisions”. Therefore, if you want to pass an idea on to another person, tell a story. Turn it into a parable, a saying, a metaphor, a fable, or a legend that fits into the other person’s narrative and make them the hero of the story. Recall that this is how humans remember ideas – the better the story and the more closely the fit to the recipients’ narratives, the better it will be remembered. But what exactly is the relationship between stories and memories?

Our Memories

Just as ideas are communicated in stories, memories are stored and remembered as such. Whenever we recall a past event, it’s in the form of a narrative. In an experiment, psychologists asked women to select from among twelve pairs of nylon stockings the ones they preferred. The researchers then asked the women their reasons for their choices. All the pairs of stockings were, in fact, identical. Nonetheless, the women came up with backfit, post hoc explanations. One theory is that this helps us to make sense of a world that bombards us with information that we can’t possibly all memorize. Attributing a cause-and-effect chain to our knowledge of the past is called Narrative Fallacy. As the author Nassim Taleb describes in his book Black Swan: 

“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”

To view the power of narratives, consider the following statement: “The king died and then the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Even though the latter expression incorporates more information rather than less, it seems to make more sense and can be easier remembered. Our brains are designed to detect patterns and assume that outcomes are based on preceding events. This ability evolved for good reasons. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted very long if they had assumed that a rustling bush was caused by the wind rather than a lion. In modern times, however, this survival adaptation leaves us wide open to misattributing effects to causes. 

But it’s not only that. A cause-and-effect chain could allow information to be stored at less cost. As Taleb states: 

“The more orderly, less random, patterned and narratized a series of words or symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one’s mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.”

This is the reason why stories, myths, parables, and tales are so powerful as pointed out in the beginning – they reduce complexity and create the impression of order and structure in an otherwise chaotic and random world.

What further adds to the idea of energy-efficient storage of information in the form of narratives is the process of memory formation itself. We take the peaks of our experience as well as the end, stitch them together, and derive a coherent narrative that in reality is only a rough approximation of the actual past. This process, first discovered by Behavioural Economics pioneers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is known as the Peak-End-Rule. That way, even seemingly unpleasant experiences that made us suffer steadily along the way but were occasionally interrupted by an outburst of pride for what we accomplished, can make a great story in hindsight. Therefore, distortions of our reality not only arise by misattributing cause-and-effect relationships to non-existent patterns but further by being wrong about the experience itself. Not only could the suffering in an unpleasant experience appear much less severe in hindsight than it actually has been (Peak-End-Rule). But also, we might attach a meaning to it that is not justified (Narrative Fallacy)

Our Relationships

Our relationship narratives are formed by both, our and the other person’s narratives. Comparing ourselves to others and figuring out the domains in which we are better or worse off than others adds to our narrative and impacts every relationship that we are in. Maybe I am not as smart as she is, but I am much more athletic. We never focus on the absolute, but notice only the relative differences. However, it’s not only our opinion about how we compare to others that matters. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. Did they say they admire our working attitude? In that case, we are even more inclined to live up to this impression. 

Take romantic relationships as an example. What’s your story as a couple and why are you special? In one way or another, we are all striving for uniqueness and individuality. That might be one of the reasons why Tinder encounters sometimes feel uncomfortable when sharing the story of how they met. Simply, because it might not compare well to others and doesn’t fit into their narrative of a romantic relationship, which often is the result of unconscious socio-cultural influences. In simpler terms: It doesn’t keep up with Hollywood. When sharing her thoughts on the roots of desire in romantic relationships, the psychotherapist and author Esther Perel lists observing your partner engaging confidently in a new social context as one of the drivers of desire. Why? Because seeing your partner through the eyes of another person is new and exciting. It’s a different part of a story that you didn’t yet know about which adds to the existing and so well-known narrative of your partner. 

Sometimes, things go wrong and couples drift apart. In such cases, it might not be enough to learn new parts of your partner’s story. It takes a more deliberate effort to get things right. The approach of Narrative Therapy assists people to re-author the narratives of themselves and their relationships in a constructive and collaborative manner. In a podcast, sex therapist Dr. Suzanne Iasenza shares her approach to rewriting relationship narratives. At the very beginning of a session, she asks the couple to individually define the underlying problem. She normalizes and encourages different perspectives, saying that, by necessity, there will always be two different perspectives on the same problem. How couldn’t there be, if every partner has a different narrative to tell and thus, a different frame of experience? The next time you find yourself in a conflict with someone, remember that every disagreement has two stories to tell. Acknowledging this and working towards mutual understanding and eventually a joint story is core for achieving more meaningful relationships.  

Our identities

Our identity then is one overarching narrative that consists of all our stories around individual ideas, memories, and relationships. This narrative stands in an interdependency with all of our layers of experience. Every idea we come across, every decision we make, every situation we experience, and every new relationship we engage in, contributes to our narrative as an individual. Even more importantly, however, every experience will always be framed by our narrative. It fundamentally determines how we see the world. If your narrative is that of a playful optimist, all experiences will be framed accordingly. Even if things go sideways, you are much more likely to look at them as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Vice versa, a person that considers herself a cynical pessimist focuses on the problems instead of the chances. In this narrative, it’s easier to be stuck in negativity loops. Once you assume that bad things happen to you for a reason and that whatever did happen will get even worse, you enter a dangerously destructive loop. 

As the two examples of the betrayed husband and the fired high-performer, in the beginning, have pointed out, it is possible that events occur that fundamentally contradict our personal narrative of who we are. In her Ted Talk, Esther Perel further elaborates on the example of being cheated on by your partner. This experience is not only so incredibly painful due to the mere act of being cheated on, but especially because it violates the core of our narrative. Perel states that “Infidelity hurts because it threatens our sense of self.” We just didn’t see it coming. In our narrative, we had this beautiful relationship. And all of a sudden, this seems like one overwhelming lie. So if all of this turns out to be wrong, what’s left? The process of recovery is one where we fit these so strongly contradicting situations and events in our narrative, as painful as this might be. 

So what?

This essay has been much more informative than it has been action-oriented. The attempt of describing the “What” goes at the expense of answering the question of “How”. How to tell better stories, how to handle inaccurate memories, how to understand other people’s narratives, and, most importantly, how to change one’s own. These questions remain open to be answered and I hopefully circle back to them at some point. For now, I still want to conclude with some action-oriented key takeaways from this essay. 

  • Become aware of the underlying pattern of narratives in all our domains of life. 
  • When sharing ideas, put them into stories and use metaphors, analogies, fables, legends, and parables to be convincing.
  • When recalling memories, take the Peak-End-Rule and Narrative Fallacy into consideration and consider that your memories don’t recall the actual experience but serve as mere heuristics. 
  • When researching questions and making decisions, consider the implications of the Narrative Fallacy on all dimensions – ideas, memories, relationships, and your own narrative as a person – and be careful not to assume causal relationships by default. Focus on data instead of anecdotal evidence and on clinical knowledge in favor of overarching theories. 
  • In all kinds of relationships, try to understand other people’s narratives and how they frame their experiences to achieve better understanding, stronger empathy, and more meaningful connections. 
  • Actively reflect on your own narrative. Understand, that you are not stuck with the person that you are and that changing your narrative means also changing your experience of reality. 

The Startup We Are Working On: Fount


We are living through a Cambrian explosion. An explosion of content on the world wide web that is probably only overshadowed in significance by Gutenberg’s printing machine and the following explosion of printed content. In just the last ten years, worldwide data jumped from 2 to 59 zettabytes, Twitter amassed 500m daily tweets, blogs went from niche to mainstream, and the e-book market in the U.S. alone grew from $1B to $6B.

The way we consume content is more diverse than ever. There are blogs and newsletters, Medium and Substack, Twitter threads and tweetstorms, podcasts and Youtube, and much more. By the time you read this who knows what the next big thing will be? While this Cambrian explosion of digital content is beautiful, it’s also overwhelming, unstructured and noisy. But still, when digging through your feed, there are true gems, bits and pieces of insights & information that you just wouldn’t stumble across otherwise. These can change the way you see the world or simply offer an amusing perspective. You can learn from some of the smartest people in the world and go down incredible rabbit holes just by following your curiosity online. Simultaneously, we see more and more people gaining access to this seemingly limitless world by getting online. And they don’t just consume – they create!

The problem is no longer how to access information, it’s what you do once you have it. How many incredible insights are never saved or end up on the bottom of siloed bookmarks, lists or note-taking tools? How many are never truly digested, connected with related bits and pieces and shared with others to spark ideas or inspire them? And how amazing is it, when this does happen? It’s those “happy accidents”, serendipity, driven by curiosity and tinkering, that are special and drive ideas and technology forward.

“Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces in an infinite variety if combinations” – Richard Feynman

Our mission at Fount is to make these “happy accidents” happen more often. Think a 100 times more often. It’s quite selfish, to be honest. We love to read and learn online and don’t have something that scratches this itch. We believe that doing so would be a net positive and could unlock ideas and thoughts across disciplines that change our world.

The Status Quo

The Problem of Silos and Noise

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone after reading the introduction, that we are not quite satisfied with the existing approaches – namely note-taking tools – to manage and expand your knowledge. We believe there is a lot of untapped potential.

First, there are the traditional note-taking tools that allow you to save notes in a linear and static manner. As we speak, one of the largest ones, one that innovated the space ten years ago, is on a feature moratorium for 18 months to fix their backend – not quite the source of innovation today.

Then, we have a new generation of note-takers that bring exciting twists to an old game. Leveraging backlinks or knowledge graphs as well innovation in embedding blocks in pages, they allow for more networked structures and flexibility. Content from the web can usually be saved into these page structures and then the tools differ greatly in what you can do with a page. Yet the common thread between these is that it’s very hard to operate on the insight-level when the tool is built for the note, or page level.

Besides, and this is true for old and new note-taking tools alike, it takes a lot of effort to create and maintain such a system. It’s work, really, and this is one of the largest problems we see. This is not to say that knowledge management can exist without having some discipline in structuring connecting your information properly – but there is a huge potential for making this experience as simple, seamless and playful as possible.

We don’t think that note-taking tools are the sole answer to knowledge management. They do have their purpose. This is, as the name already indicates, allowing the user to put in the effort into deliberately saving and writing down ideas and thoughts and structuring them – depending on the tool – in file-cabinets or as knowledge graphs. But they are not so much about seamlessly saving and structuring insights from all across the web, much less about connecting and digesting them in new and serendipitous-optimised ways. This once again points to the potential we currently see – to make knowledge management about play instead of work.

A New Way of Structuring & Connecting Your Insights Is Needed

The most difficult challenge is probably connecting the dots. How do you structure and connect your insights using existing solutions? Because isn’t that fundamentally how we learn? There really are no stand-alone ideas. Our brains work as associative networks where one idea stands in multiple, interdependent relationships with others.

Even building our internal mental models to make sense of the world around us comes down to making and breaking connections between insights and domains. This is what John Boyd callsa dialectic process of destruction and creation: Using analysis (breaking down a comprehensive whole into its constituents) and synthesis (starting with parts and building towards a comprehensive whole) to approach match-up with observed reality. Arriving at pieces of information or insights is the analysis, the deconstruction of domains. But what tools do we have to create and structure our own concepts of meaning?

Currently, we see two approaches to structuring and connecting knowledge. Firstly, the hierarchical file-cabinet approach and secondly, the knowledge graph approach. While file-cabinets are frequently used, they have some obvious disadvantages. The most crucial one being their lack of interconnectivity. Using a file-cabinet makes it rather difficult to re-use and re-mix distinct insights. If they are duplicated and re-used, one often faces the problem of multiple versions that can cause a lot of confusion.

Knowledge graphs address this problem by enabling a high degree of connectivity. Information can be connected in back-linking, overlapping hierarchies while always being up to date. This approach resembles more the way our human brain works where each piece of knowledge represents a node in a larger network

While we see the potential in knowledge graphs, they are much more difficult to navigate in the world of bits than in the world of neurons. When containing a lot of information, they require complex visualisation and are high maintenance – which can be the right tool for some projects but creates problems when trying to structure insights in a serendipitous, playful way. A best of both worlds solution is currently lacking.

Go With the Flow: The Power of Simplicity & Serendipity

It’s about play

Following your curiosity isn’t work, its play. Genius ideas are rarely stumbled upon during office hours or according to a schedule. Our brains just don’t work that way. Instead, you take a shower or go for a run and suddenly the puzzle pieces fall together, it all starts to make sense.

This state of wandering, free-form contemplation & discovery (or rediscovery) is what we are striving for. The best parts of the internet feel like this and we believe that Nassim Taleb captured it when describing and embodying the lifestyle of a flaneur, somebody who enjoys to wander and to stroll with no other purpose than to be an observer of life in all of its nuances.

Whatever solution you use, it should reflect this basic tendency of how we learn and discover by being seamless and allowing for serendipity. Copying and pasting insights into static pages that require many hours of maintenance is not an adequate solution. Capturing, structuring and connecting your insights, as Feynman puts it, in “an infinite variety of combinations” to create new knowledge should be a fun process.

Insights As Building Blocks

At the centre of our approach is the “insight”. We want to break non-fiction content down to its most fundamental level. An insight could be a tweet you liked, a book passage you highlighted or a quote from an essay that inspired you. But it could also be the podcast clip you listen to on repeat or visual graphics that you don’t want to lose.

Insights form the basic building blocks, the atomic unit, of our product. Their simplicity allows for seamless digesting as well as mixing and remixing of insights. With this fundamental block, you can start building.

Playlists For Simple Value-Adding Structure

What is then needed is an intuitive and seamless possibility to structure and connect your insights. Whenever you read, see or hear something that strikes out, it needs to be easy to add these insights to your library, grouped in theme-based containers that we call ‘playlists’. Imagine you stumble upon a new insight – don’t you usually already have a rough idea on where to store this element?

For the sake of simplicity, we limited the possible number of insights per playlist. Instead of continuing to throw insights into your playlists, you need to consciously select and structure your insights accordingly. The concept here is similar to Twitter, since we believe that limitation will add to the idea of focusing on highly aggregated knowledge and force the user to create value via negativa. If needed, multiple playlists can be grouped to meta-playlists.

Beyond Linearity: Strings For Representing Relationships

Moving beyond the rather simple idea of storing insights in playlists, users can string several insights together, both within and across playlists. The idea here is to move away from file-cabinet and the limitations of hierarchical structures while keeping it as simple as possible to connect insights.

It might be just three or four insights within a playlist, that build upon each other and therefore are stringed together to visualise their relationship. However, it might also be a certain meta-theme across multiple playlists that forms a string. Users can start building strings from just an intuitive, serendipitous feeling, that two or more insights might stand in a causal relationship. If they continue adding to this string, they can at any point choose to convert these strings into an independent playlist.

Bringing It All Together – This Is How You Play…

Whatever insights the user sees or reads that he finds worth saving, he can do so easily via various integrations, both on mobile and desktop.

When structuring and connecting these insights, the concepts of playlists and strings really allow to focus on the state of flow that the user experiences when satisfying their curiosity. It enables the user to take on the conundrum of both the file-cabinet system and the knowledge graph approach to structured information. He can move up and down knowledge structures hierarchically by collecting insights in playlists and sorting playlists into meta-playlists. Or literally “pull on the strings” of good ideas and explore related insights laterally by loosely connecting insights from different contexts with flexible strings.

Automatically created digests-formats as well as manually created playlists allow the user to digest and revisit his knowledge. The automatic digest can be thought of as temporary playlists that contain insights based on time horizon, category or interests (how about getting a time-capsule of your favourite insights from last year?). You can revisit as well as deliberately relearn and connect your insights whenever you want, however you want.

… And This Is How We Do It Together

You can play Fount in single-player mode, solely focused on your own insights. And that is totally fine. But instead of you being the sole curator of your own knowledge, why not utilise the distilled key takeaways, highlights & insights of brilliant minds from around the globe?

Play multi-player by sharing insights and collections of insights with your circle of friends and go through what they are saving, learning & connecting. But we think that there is more to it than that. In our information saturated world, curation is desperately needed. We are looking at Fount as an Insight Curation Platform – a community of curators that share aggregated knowledge and a platform that offers signals rather than noise.

Discover the curations of other users, of friends or knowledge influencers that you follow. Build upon their playlists, import individual insights that you find fascinating or strings of insights that add to your own playlist. Use these insights to create new and exciting connections and trace back the sources to discover even more.

The goal of this Insight Curation Platform has to be to keep it as simple, serendipitous-optimised and seamless as it can get, while allowing for playful curation, structure and connection. Using Fount should feel like one of those conversations where you lose track of space and time, a place for curators and digital flaneurs to create unique knowledge that can be shared with others. Becoming a curator, even making a living from it, then becomes a side effect of increasing the level of serendipity and structured knowledge on the internet.

What’s Next: Tapping Into the Curator Economy

As pointed out by now, good taste is valuable, especially with increasing optionality. If you are curating insights from all across the web – saving, structuring and connecting them – you are adding value. A lot, actually. Why not share this with everybody? And why not use the possibility to tap into the already curated, highly aggregated knowledge from so many other people? Why make it a single-player game when the value of a multi-player game is tenfold?

This is at the core of what we are seeing as the emerging Curator Economy. Li Jin (ex a16z) prominently described the advent of what she framed as the Passion Economy, of more and more people being able to monetise their interests and become creators, not just consumers of content & information.

The Curator Economy can be seen as a subset of this trend, by making it easier to follow one’s curiosity and enabling curators to earn by doing what they love. But it also addresses one of the challenges of the Passion Economy: with more content from more and more decentralised sources, how do you know what to read? Whom to follow? How do you pick out the gems?

Imagine being able to read the distilled key takeaways, highlights & insights of brilliant minds from all across the globe. And as one of those brilliant minds, imagine to curate & share your learnings and insights with thousands of people online. To build a community of people that follow their curiosity and create a bottom-up, curated knowledge base. And if you want to monetise the work that you are putting in, you can do so on your own terms – without any ads that create adverse incentives and interrupt the experience.

We believe that the Curator Economy is a growing space that will be critical to how we engage with information and learning in the future. Interesting work is being done on multiple fronts, for example with community-curated networks of knowledge. So far efforts in this direction seem to focus on large, networked information structures. While these are clearly important, with Fount, we see the highest point of leverage at the top of the curation funnel: as a meta-layer filtering signal out of noise.

The Secret Masterplan

This is what we are planning to do – build something users love. This includes:

  • Build a way for users to fill the app with insights they love.
  • Enable users to connect insights in exciting ways.
  • Help users rediscover & explore their own and everybody else’s insights.
  • Turn users into curators.
  • Repeat.


Knowledge management almost always requires a lot of effort. Instead of playing with our knowledge driven by our curiosity, we built excessively complex systems that often feel like work to be maintained. We become stuck in silos and loose insights in the noise of social feeds. And instead of tapping into the existing curations of other users, our systems are just our own, private collections.

Our vision at Fount isbuilding a platform that allows you to benefit from the aggregated knowledge from curious people – experts, amateurs, autodidacts, polymaths and many more – from all around the world. A platform to save your insights from across the web in a simple and seamless manner, to (re-)discover your own insights and those of others, and, most importantly, to connect them and thereby create new and unique knowledge that then can be shared and built upon with others. It’s a place of serendipity, for you to follow your curiosity wherever it might lead you.

So let’s play.


Rob Fitzpatrick – The Mom Test

My Opinion

I’ve been positively surprised how well written and thought through this book is. In a very structured and precise approach Fitzpatrick describes how to have successful customer conversation.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

The danger of the wrong conversation. Bad customer conversations aren’t just useless. Worse, they convince you that you’re on the right path.

Only facts matter. The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views. These facts, in turn, help us improve our business.

Don’t mention your business. If you just avoid mentioning your idea, you automatically start asking better questions. Doing this is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.

Rules of thumb: 

  • Opinions are worthless. Only facts matter. Only the market knows if something will work out.
  • Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
  • People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear.
  • The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.

Mitigation: To avoid these biases, use the Mom Test: 

  • Talk about their life instead of your idea. 
  • Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future. 
  • Talk less and listen more.

Dig deep on focus on the past and present. Ask how they currently solve X and how much it costs them to do so. And how much time it takes. Ask them to talk you through what happened the last time X came up. If they haven’t solved the problem, ask why not. Have they tried searching for solutions and found them wanting? Or do they not even care enough to have Googled for it?

Rule of thumb: People know what their problems are, but they don’t know how to solve those problems. That’s your job. 
The questions to ask are about your customers’ lives: their problems, cares, constraints, and goals. You humbly and honestly gather as much information about them as you can and then take your own visionary leap to a solution. Once you’ve taken the leap, you confirm that it’s correct (and refine it). It boils down to this: you aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution. 

Rule of thumb: You’re shooting blind until you understand their goals.
Mitigation: “Why do you bother?” It’s great for getting from the perceived problem to the real one.
Example: Some founders I knew were talking to finance guys spending hours each day sending emails about their spreadsheets. The finance guys were asking for better messaging tools so they could save time. The “why do you bother” question led to “so we can be certain that we’re all working off the latest version.” Aha. The solution ended up being less like the requested messaging tool and more like Dropbox. A question like “why do you bother” points toward their motivations. It gives you the why.

Rule of thumb: Some problems don’t actually matter .
Mitigation: “What are the implications of that?” Good question. This distinguishes between “I-will-pay-to-solve-that problems” and that’s-kind-of-annoying-but-I-can-deal-with-it“ problems. Some problems have big, costly implications. Others exist but don’t actually matter. 

Rule of thumb: Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are , not where the customer thinks they are .
Mitigation: “Talk me through the last time that happened.” Whenever possible, you want to be shown, not told, by your customers. Learn through their actions instead of their opinions. Being walked through their full workflow answers many questions in one fell swoop: 

  • How do they spend their days, 
  • What tools do they use, and who do they talk to? 
  • What are the constraints of their day and life? 
  • How does your product fit into that day? 
  • Which other tools, products , software, and tasks does your product need to integrate with?

Rule of thumb: If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.

Mitigation: “What else have you tried?” It’s easy to get someone emotional about a problem if you lead them there. 

Example: “Don’t you hate when your shoelaces come untied while you’re carrying groceries?” “Yeah, that’s the worst!” And then I go off and design my special never – come – untied laces without realising that if you actually cared, you would already be using a double – knot.

Rule of thumb: While it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them.

Mitigation: “How are you dealing with it now?” Good question. Beyond workflow information, this gives you a price anchor.

Two questions to end every conversation with: 

  • “Who else should I talk to?” 
  • “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

There are three types of bad data: 

  • Compliments 
  • Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future) 
  • Ideas

Don’t listen to opinions. With the exception of industry experts who have built very similar businesses, opinions are worthless. You want facts and commitments, not compliments.

Ignoring compliments should be easy, but it’s not. We crave validation and ,as such, are often tricked into registering compliments as reliable data instead of vacuous fibs. 

Rule of thumb: Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.

Fluff comes in 3 cuddly shapes: 

  • Generic claims (“I usually”, “I always”, “I never”) 
  • Future – tense promises (“I would”, “I will”) 
  • Hypothetical maybes (“I might”, “I could”)

The worst type of fluff – inducing questions are:

  • “Would you ever?” (of course they might. Someday.) 
  • “Do you ever …”
  • “Would you ever …” 
  • “What do you usually …” 
  • “Do you think you …” 
  • “Might you …” 
  • “Could you see yourself …”

Be specific. While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.
Example: Let’s say you’re building a mobile loyalty app to help stores give deals and discounts to their most loyal customers and you hear the guy in line in front of you complaining: A bad conversation (pitching and accepting fluff): 
Them: “Which idiot decided it was a good idea to make me carry around a thousand cafe loyalty cards?” 
You: “Ohmygosh hi! I just so happen to be building a mobile app to help stores give out discounts to their most loyal customers so you’d never need to carry paper cards again. Do you think you would use something like that?” This is pretty much as bad of a question as you can find. You’ve revealed your ego and asked a “would you ever ” question. You’re begging for a false positive.

Startups are about focusing and executing on a single , scalable idea rather than jumping on every good one which crosses your desk .

Rule of thumb: Ideas and feature requests should be understood, but not obeyed.
Mitigation: When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. You do that by digging around the question to find the root cause. Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig.
“Why do you want that?” 
“What would that let you do?” 
“How are you coping without it?”
“Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is it something we could add later?” 
“How would that fit into your day?”
Questions to dig into emotional signals: 
“Tell me more about that.” 
“That seems to really bug you — I bet there’s a story here.” 
“ What makes it so awful?” 
“Why haven’t you been able to fix this already?” 
“You seem pretty excited about that — it’s a big deal?” 
“Why so happy?” 

The main source of compliment – creation is seeking approval, either intentionally or inadvertently. Doing it intentionally is fishing for compliments. In other words, you aren’t really looking for contradictory information. You’ve already made up your mind, but need someone’s blessing to take the leap. Symptoms of Fishing For Compliments: “I’m thinking of starting a business … so, do you think it will work?”

Rules of thumb: 

  • If you’ve mentioned your idea, people will try to protect your feelings.
  •  Anyone will say your idea is great if you’re annoying enough about it.

Mitigation: In short, remember that compliments are worthless and people’s approval doesn’t make your business better. Keep your idea and your ego out of the conversation until you’re ready to ask for commitments.

Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation .

Rule of thumb: Start broad and don’t zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.

Two types of risks: 

  • Product risk – Can I build it? Can I grow it? 
  • Customer / market risk – Do they want it? Will they pay me? Are there lots of them?

Example: Video games are pure product risk. What sort of question could you ask to validate your game idea? “Do you like having fun? Would you like to have even more fun?” Practically 100 % of the risk is in the product and almost none is in the customer. You know people buy games. If yours is good and you can find a way to make them notice it, they’ll buy it. You don’t need to rediscover people’s desire to play video games.
Implications: What all this does mean is that if you’ve got heavy product risk (as opposed to pure market risk), then you’re not going to be able to prove as much of your business through conversations alone. The conversations give you a starting point, but you’ll have to start building the product earlier and with less certainty than if you had pure market risk.

Rule of thumb: You always need a list of your 3 big questions .

Separate your meetings. In Steve Blank’s original book on Customer Development he solves this by recommending 3 separate meetings: the first about the customer and their problem; the second about your solution; and the third to sell a product. In practice, however, this might be difficult. To even find a suitable number of users to talk to, Steve recommends starting with friendly first contacts. 

The power of casual conversations. Instead of scheduled meetings, casual conversations on meetups or conferences (or even some kind of private gathering for that matter) work just equally well. The conversations become so fast and lightweight that you can go to an industry meetup and leave with a dozen customer conversations under your belt, each of which provided as much value as a lengthy formal meeting .

Rule of thumb: Learning about a customer and their problems works better as a quick and casual chat than a long, formal meeting.

Rule of thumb: Give as little information as possible about your idea while still nudging the discussion in a useful direction.

Two concepts to differentiate between:
Commitment – They are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as time, reputation, or money.
Advancement – They are moving to the next step of your real – world funnel and getting closer to purchasing.

First customers are crazy. Crazy in a good way. They really, really want what you’re making. They want it so badly that they’re willing to be the crazy person who tries it first. Keep an eye out for the people who get emotional about what you’re doing. There is a significant difference between: “Yeah, that’s a problem” and “THAT IS THE WORST PART OF MY LIFE AND I WILL PAY YOU RIGHT NOW TO FIX IT.”

Steve Blank calls them earlyvangelists (early evangelists). In the consumer space, this is the fan who wants your product to succeed so badly that they’ll front you the money as a pre-order when all you’ve got is a duct – tape prototype. They’re the one who will tell all their friends to chip in as well. They’re the person reading your blog and searching for workarounds.

Keep your early customers close. Firstly, when someone isn’t too emotional about what you’re doing, they are unlikely to end up being one of your crazy first customers. Keep them on the list and try to make them happy, of course, but don’t count on them to write the first check. Secondly, whenever you see the deep emotion, do your utmost to keep that person close. They are the rare, precious fan who will get you through the hard times and give you your first sale.

Rules of thumb: 

  • If it’s not a formal meeting, you don’t need to make excuses about why you’re there or even mention that you’re starting a business. Just ask about their life.
  • If it’s a topic you both care about, find an excuse to talk about it. Your idea never needs to enter the equation and you’ll both enjoy the chat.

Testing your value proposition via landing pages. The value of these quantitative metrics might be doubtful. But they are certainly a great way to collect emails of qualified leads for you to reach out to and strike up a conversation with.

Generic launch. Paul Graham suggests that generic launch can be a solid start for the same reason. Get your product out there, see who seems to like it most, and then reach out to those types of users for deeper learning.

Organise meetups. For marginally more effort than attending an event, you can organise your own and benefit from being the centre of attention. Nobody ever follows this recommendation, but it’s the first thing I would do if I moved to a new industry or geography. It’s the fastest and most unfair trick I’ve seen for rapid customer learning. As a bonus, it also bootstraps your industry credibility.

When asking for user interviews: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask

  • You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, usher in wonderful vision Y, or fix stagnant industry Z. Don’t mention your idea. 
  • Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you’re at and, if it’s true, that you don’t have anything to sell. 
  • Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning the specific problem that you’re looking for answers on. This will also clarify that you’re not a time waster.
  • Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they, in particular, can help. 
  • Explicitly ask for help. 

Example Hey Pete, I’m trying to make desk & office rental less of a pain for new businesses (vision). We’re just starting out and don’t have anything to sell, but want to make sure we’re building something that actually helps (framing). I’ve only ever come at it from the tenant’s side and I’m having a hard time understanding how it all works from the landlord’s perspective (weakness). You’ve been renting out desks for a while and could really help me cut through the fog (pedestal). Do you have time in the next couple weeks to meet up for a chat? (ask)

Pay attention to your types of customers. If you’ve run more than 10 conversations and are still getting results that are all over the map, then it’s possible that your customer segment is too vague, which means you’re mashing together feedback from multiple different types of customers.

Rule of thumb: Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff .

Focus! They say that startups don’t starve, they drown. You never have too few options, too few leads, or too few ideas; you have too many. You get overwhelmed. You do a little bit of everything. When it comes to getting above water and making faster progress, good customer segmentation is your best friend.

The danger of being too broad. If you start too generic, everything is watered down. Your marketing message is generic. You suffer feature creep. In their early days, Google helped PhD students find obscure bits of code. Paypal helped collectors buy and sell Pez dispensers and Beanie Babies more efficiently. Evernote helped moms save and share recipes.

Rule of thumb: If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t have a specific enough customer segment .

Mitigation: Before we can serve everyone, we have to serve someone. Otherwise, every debate over a new feature could be won by claiming , “Well , those guys would love it.” The reverse argument could be made to prevent any feature’s removal. Progress cannot be made. 

Example: Imagine that we’re building something for “students”. I’ve got a picture of an American undergraduate in my head, and maybe you picture a British grad student, but we manage to agree on features and start building.
We conduct 20 conversations with our customers. The feedback is inconsistent. Problem: We had conversations with 20 different types of customers. 

Start with a broad segment and ask: 

  • Within this group, which type of person would want it most? 
  • Would everyone within this group buy / use it, or only some? 
  • Why does that sub – set want it? (e.g . what is their specific problem) 
  • Does everyone in the group have that motivation or only some? 
  • What additional motivations are there? 
  • Which other types of people have these motivations?

Rule of thumb: Good customer segments are a who – where pair. If you don’t know where to go to find your customers, keep slicing your segment into smaller pieces until you do. If there isn’t a clear physical or digital location at which you can find your customer segment, then it’s probably still too broad.

Three criterias for your target customers. You’ll broaden your segment back out later. But your learning will go faster (and be more useful) for now by choosing someone who is specific and who also and meets the three big criteria of being reachable, profitable, and personally rewarding .

Don’t do it alone. A common anti – pattern is for the business guy to go to all the meetings and subsequently tell the rest of the team what they should do. Bad idea. Telling the rest of the team “What I learned” is functionally equivalent to telling them “What you’ll do.” Therefore, owning the customer conversations creates a de-facto dictator with “The customer said so” as the ultimate trump card.

When preparing, ensure you know your current list of 3 big questions. Figure them out with your team and make a point to face the scary questions.

Create a skeleton in advance. It’s easier to guide the conversation and stay on track if you have an existing set of beliefs that you’re updating. Spend up to an hour writing down your best guesses about what the person you’re about to talk to cares about and wants. You’ll probably be wrong, but it’s easier to keep the discussion on track and hit important points if you’ve created a skeleton. If you have an appropriately focused segment, then you’ll only rarely need to do this.

Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn , you shouldn’t bother having the conversation. All you’re really trying to figure out is: What do we want to learn from these guys?

How to share the results? On a logistical level, some teams have a quick chat about the results of each meeting as soon as they get back to the office. Others have longer weekly meetings to go through all the week’s notes and learnings.

How many participants for a user interview? Meetings go best when you’ve got two people at them. One person can focus on taking notes and the other can focus on talking.

How to take notes? 

  • When possible, write down exact quotes. Wrap them in quotation marks so you know it’s verbatim.
  • Use symbols for emotions 🙂 Excited 🙁 Angry 😐 Embarrassed
  • Use symbols for other key elements: ☇ Pain or problem (symbol is a lightning bolt ); ⨅ Goal or job-to-be-done (symbol is a soccer / football goal); ☐ Obstacle;  ⤴ Workaround; ^ Background or context (symbol is a distant mountain)
  • Use symbols for further important information: ⇪Feature request or purchasing criteria;$Money or budgets or purchasing process; ♀  Mentioned a specific person or company; ☆ Follow – up task

The process before a batch of conversations: 

  • If you haven’t yet, choose a focused, findable segment with your team 
  • Decide your big 3 learning goals 
  • If relevant, decide on ideal next steps and commitments 
  • Create a series of best guesses about what the person cares about 
  • If a question could be answered via desk research, do that first 

During the conversation: 

  • Frame the conversation 
  • Keep it casual 
  • Ask good questions which pass The Mom Test 
  • Deflect compliments, anchor fluff, and dig beneath signals 
  • Take good notes 
  • If relevant, press for commitment and next steps 

After a batch of conversations: 

  • With your team, review your notes and key customer quotes 
  • If relevant, transfer notes into permanent storage 
  • Update your beliefs and plans 
  • Decide on the next 3 big questions

Getting back on track (avoiding bad data): 

  • Deflect compliments 
  • Anchor fluff 
  • Dig beneath opinions, ideas, requests, and emotions
Negotiations Psychology

Jim Camp – Start With No

My Opinion

Very useful book on the strategies and tools needed for successful negotiations. Jim Camp presents his system in a well-structured way with many example that make a practical application possible.

Reading Recommendation: 6/10

A negotiation is an agreement between two or more parties, with all parties having the right to veto.

The negotiation really does start with “no”. In any negotiation, this is the key word. Everything that precedes it is mere window dressing. “No” gets you past emotional issues and trivial issues to essential issues. 

“No” is a decision. An early “ yes” is probably a trick and “maybe” doesn’t lead anywhere. “No ” is a decision that gives everyone something to talk about, that helps you maintain control.

In a negotiation, decisions are 100 percent emotional.

Get your counterparts to say “No”. This might be difficult. We all want to be liked, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and we don’t want to come across as too blunt or surly or arrogant or demanding. Therefore, we often say “maybe” or even “yes”. We haven’t had to say the nasty word and our adversary hasn’t had to hear it. This is inefficient. We’re stuck in our emotions and don’t get to the core of the negotiation.

Control your neediness. You do NOT need this deal, because to be needy is to lose control and make bad decisions. Always ask “no-oriented questions”:

  • It’s not always the startup that is needy, investors can be too.  When talking to startups as an investor: “Bill, my name is Bob Jones. I’m not quite sure that we as a venture fund fit where you’re going. I just don’t know. What I’d like to do is meet with you so we can see where you’re going and you can look at where we’re going at our fund and see if there’s a fit. When’s the best time on your calendar?”
  • When asking for a sales appointment: “Well , Mary, I have no idea whether what we do has any relevance for your business. I just don’t know, maybe it doesn’t. If not, just tell me and I’ll be on my way, but if whoever handles your market research…”
  • When cold calling: “Pete, I’m not sure that anything I do fits with you. I don’t know. So if this doesn’t make any sense, just tell me and I’ll get off the phone. Is that fair?”

We use the word “need” much too casually. The only things we truly need are the basics of physical survival – air, water, food, clothing and shelter.

Talking can be an overt showing of need. Talking and showing need go hand in hand.

When emotions run hot and heavy in negotiations, the high – pitched voice is a sure sign of need. The rushed delivery is another sure sign. While needy negotiators raise their voices, negotiators under control lower their voices. So lower your voice in times of inner turmoil. Slow down.

Fear of rejection is a sign of neediness – specifically, the need to be liked.

Urgent closing betrays neediness on your own part. “No Closing” since you don’t need to close.

We compare ourselves to others in order to see how we stack up. When we are with people we think we are ahead of, we feel comfortable. Conversation comes easily and questions seem to have no risk. We feel okay. But in the presence of people to whom we feel inferior, whether culturally, socially, or intellectually, we feel unokay and can become defensive, aggressive or resentful or a lot of other emotions.

Therefore, only one person in a negotiation can feel okay and that person is the adversary. By letting your adversary be a little more okay, you start to bring down barriers.

Effective keynote and afterdinner speaker often tell a self-deprecating story in the first few minutes of his performance. His first implicit message to the audience: “You may be paying me ten grand to stand up here and my suit may be more expensive than yours, but I’m no better than you, I’m just folks.”

Example of a renegotiated contract (before it was due): “You have done such a great job negotiating and we are so incompetent and so weak in negotiating, that we have been a poor supplier. We have put you in a terrible position and we apologize for that. We take responsibility for our ineptness in negotiation.” This was the truth, but it also helped to disarm the adversary.

Every negotiation always needs a mission and purpose. This is true for the whole negotiation and often breaks down into the individual sessions and even single emails or telephone calls. The mission and purpose must always be written. Example: To help [ the other company’s ] management at the very highest level see our company as a new and revitalized organization that is going to change its effectiveness to the benefit not only of their company but also to that of the whole industry by becoming a more effective and competent supplier to that industry.”

Stop trying to control the outcome. Control what you can control, forget the rest. What you can control is behavior and activity, what you cannot control is the result of this behavior and activity .

Goals you can control, objectives you cannot. By following your behavioral goals, you get to your objectives.

The single most important fuel that you have, the most important behavioral goal and habit you can develop, is your ability to ask questions.

The doctor is trying to understand her patient’s case, the lawyer is trying to find out as much as she can about the testifier’s knowledge of the case, and the negotiator must try to see and understand her adversary’s world.

Starting with M&P and going from there, you want to inhabit the adversary’s world, because that is the world about which you need information and that is the perspective from which the adversary makes decisions.

Make sure you explain where you are heading. What’s the vision? Obviously, this needs to be communicated in the world of the adversary. No vision, no real decision: this is a rule of human nature.

Questions not only serve the purpose of helping us control our own neediness and to be unokay. They also have the vital purpose to allow us to move around in the adversary’s world and see what they see and then lead them to a clear vision and decision as well.

Use open-ended questions as opposed to verb-lead questions to obtain further information:

  • “Is this the biggest issue we face?” versus “What is the biggest issue we face?”
  • “Is this proposal tight enough for you?” versus “How can I tighten this proposal?”
  • “Can we work on delivery dates tomorrow?” versus “When can we work on delivery dates?”

Asking good questions is key. Use the four fuels when formulating questions: nurturing, reversing, connecting, and 3+. 

Nurturing should be part of your body language. When you’re seated, refrain from a sudden forward movement, lean back, relax your neck, face and hands. 

The reverse is the behavioral tactic that answers a question with a question, the answer to which will do you some good. 

  • Question: “That was certainly well thought out. By the way, what are your cost constraints?”
    Answer: “We definitely have to talk about that, but before we go there …” 
  • Question: “Interesting. Really interesting. How soon will you be up against a deadline here?” 
  • Answer: “That’s something I hadn’t thought of. When could you deliver?” 

We have a tendency to want to save our adversary, to be liked. This instinct can impel us into these three common negotiating errors 

  • Never answer an unasked question
  • Don’t interpret a statement as a question
  • Never reply to random statements 
  • Example: “I don’t like what I see, Jim.” Many of us will feel an urge to reply in some way, to try to set things right. “Well, Damon, this isn’t written in concrete.” No! Instead ask further open-ended questions or use connectors like “Aaaaaand?” or simply remain silent (also an effective connectors, people don’t like silence)

The fuel “3+” is the ability to remain with a question until it is answered at least three times, or to repeat a statement at least three times 

  • Based on the saying “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”
  • Important: You are not rushing to close three times but asking for “no” three times (e.g. “Are you really sure, you want to do this?”)

Don’t discuss the price in the early phase of a negotiation.  Example of a Novice negotiator: “It looks good. What’s going to be your discounted price?” The novice provides some number and there he is, locked in for the rest of the negotiation 

Note taking reinforces listening skills. As we take our notes, our concentration is automatically focused on what is being said. Also, as we take notes, we are also allowing the adversary to be more okay by making her feel more important because we are taking notes on what she has to say.

For preparation: Before a negotiation, see that negotiation unfolding in your mind. Picture yourself asking the questions, taking the notes and negotiating with perfect behavior. See yourself relaxed with no expectations, no need and no fear — a perfectly blank slate.

Often there is no more effective way to paint the adversary’s pain than by asking them to tell you “no.” When your adversary carefully considers exactly what this entails, their pain becomes very clear.

Budget breaks down into three budgets that help us account for and control this real price in a) time & energy, b) money and c) emotional investment. 

Be aware of sunk costs when making decisions and don’t be seduced into egregiously violating your mission and purpose.

Time intensifies pain. Build their energy budget. Increase the preparation required by the adversary to complete the deal (“This just doesn’t make sense to us . Can you redo it?”). 

A consumer may not be able to see value if the price of a given product is too low in his frame of reference. On the other hand, he will search for value if the price is deemed high.

Decision-making processes in an organization are driven by people’s need to feel okay. When we walk into a reception area, what is the receptionist fighting for? The feeling of being okay. 

A valid agenda or mini-agenda has five basic categories: 

  1. Problems 
  2. Our baggage 
  3. Their baggage 
  4. What we want 
  5. What happens next 

Any given agenda can include issues in some or all of the categories, but every issue you need to negotiate will fit into one of these five categories. 

Example for 1)

  • “George, I’m new in this business. If my inexperience is going to be a problem in this deal, let’s talk about it now.” 
  • “Yes, now’s a good time. John, the only problem I have with your being new is that if we come up against something you can’t handle with confidence, I want your assurance that you’ll call in someone to help. Someone who really knows how to handle that problem. If that’s okay with you, I’m comfortable.” 
  • “That’s fine with me. Are you sure it’s okay with you?” 
  • “Yes, John. It’s okay with me.” 
  • “All right, that will be our deal. If I can’t handle something with complete confidence, I’ll call my boss to help. That’s our deal. Agreed?”

Try to avoid presentations. By definition, it puts the adversary into the intellectual mode. This only serves to create objections, so you end up answering questions rather than asking them. Example:

  • “We need a presentation on your business.” 
  • “Well, I don’t have any idea how to do that. I really don’t. If I had an idea where you stand, what you need, what you’re interested in, then I’d be happy to address your concerns. That’s what I’m here for. What’s driving you to ask me for a presentation? I mean, why do you want my widget? You’ve been dealing with USA Widgets for seven years. You must have the best price in the world from them by now. How could we ever compete with USA Widgets? Why are you now interested in Widgets International?”
  • “But you called us.” 
  • “Yes, and I’m glad I did. I was interested in how it’s going with USA Widgets. There must be some reason why you invited me to this meeting. You must have some interest in something about Widgets International. I just need an idea what it is.”

Putting it all together:

  • First, you make certain you have a good, strong mission and purpose that’s set in the world of your adversary
  • Second, you make sure that you know the adversary’s real pain. You ask questions, you create vision 
  • Third, you assess all the budgets involved – time and energy, money, and emotional investment – for both you and your adversary. You never forget about these budgets, you monitor them at all times, and you see how they seem to be influencing the decisions on both sides 
  • Fourth, you make certain you’re dealing with the real decision makers 
  • Fifth, you don’t make a phone call, you don’t write an email, without writing down an agenda for that phone call or email 
Buddhism Philosophy

Rinpoche Yongey Mingyur – Joyful Wisdom

My Opinion

A well written and lighthearted introduction into the nature of Buddhism covering its theoretical foundation, meaningful examples and an overview of practical tools to get started.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

Part 1: Theory


“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” (Albert Einstein). This is one of the core ideas of buddhism. Instead of avoiding suffering, Buddhism claims that it can be used as part of the practice.

Anxiety has been part of human nature for centuries. Usually, we try to escape from our anxiety or we surrender to it. Buddhism offers a third option. If we accept disturbing emotions and other problems we encounter as unavoidable and befriend instead of trying to escape them, we can reach a state of inherent clarity and wisdom. 

“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” (Carl Jung)

In our culture, the cultivation of “outer wealth ” often goes at the expense of “inner wealth” – qualities such as compassion, patience, generosity and equanimity. This imbalance leaves people particularly vulnerable when facing serious issues like divorce , severe illness , and chronic physical or emotional pain.

We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are.

What we notice is just a friction of what we experience. Less than one percent of the information our brains receive through the senses actually reaches our awareness. The brain competes for limited resources of attention and therefore only focuses on what appears to be important. The problem of this is that we end up mistaking a very small fraction of our experience for the whole. This is especially problematic in the case of unpleasant experiences. 

When unpleasant experiences come, neither block them nor give in to them. Instead, welcome them as friends: “ Hello, fear ! Hello, itch ! How are you? Why don’t you stick around awhile so we can get to know each other?” This practice of gently welcoming thoughts , emotions , and sensations is commonly referred to as mindfulness.

“That’s one way to describe enlightenment: turning on the light in a room we’ve spent most of our lives navigating in the dark.”

At some point the Buddha realised that true freedom lay not in withdrawal from life , but in a deeper and more conscious engagement in all its processes.

The Four Noble Truths form the core of all Buddhist paths and traditions. They can be seen as a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to healing what we might nowadays call a “dysfunctional” perspective that binds us to a reality shaped by expectations and preconceptions and blinds us to the inherently unlimited power of the mind. 

The First Noble Truth: Truth of Suffering

The first of the Four Noble Truths is known as the Truth of Suffering. Life has a way of interrupting, presenting even the most content among us with momentous surprises . Such surprises — including things such  as the frustration of waiting in line at the grocery store or simply running late for an appointment — can all be understood as manifestations of suffering. Acknowledging this basic condition of life is the first step to becoming free from discomfort or uneasiness .

Natural suffering includes all the things we can’t avoid in life. In classical Buddhist texts, these unavoidable experiences are often referred to as “The Four Great Rivers of Suffering” categorized as Birth, Aging, Illness and Death. 

Birth is considered an aspect of suffering because the transition from the protected environment of the womb into the wider world of sensory experience is considered as a traumatic shift in experience. The experience of expulsion from an enclosed, protective environment leaves a dramatic impression on the brain and body of a newborn.

Another category of pain (also called dukkha) is the “self-created pain”. This includes experiences that evolve from our interpretation of situations and events, such as impulsive anger or lingering resentment aroused by others who behave in ways we don’t like, jealousy toward people who have more than we do and paralyzing anxiety that occurs when there’s no reason to be afraid. 

Self-created suffering can take place in the stories we tell ourselves, often deeply embedded in our unconsciousness, about not being good enough, rich enough, attractive enough or secure in other ways .

Many buddhist teachings divide suffering into three categories. The first is known as “The Suffering of Suffering ” which can be described as the immediate and direct experience of any sort of pain or discomfort .

The second category of suffering is called “The Suffering of Change” and is often described in terms of deriving satisfaction, comfort, security or pleasure from objects or situations that are bound to change. More precisely, it stems from the attachment to the pleasure derived from getting what we want: be it a relationship, a job, a good grade on an exam or a shiny new car.

The Suffering of Change could be understood as a type of addiction, a never-ending search for a lasting “high” that is just out of reach. The high we feel simply from the anticipation of getting what we want is linked to the production of dopamine. Over time, our brains and our bodies are motivated to repeat the activities that stimulate the production of dopamine. 

Seeking satisfaction in others or in external objects or events reinforces a deep and often unacknowledged belief that we, as we are, are not entirely complete; that we need something beyond ourselves in order to experience a sense of wholeness or security or stability.

Everything in our experience is always changing. In Buddhist terms, this constant change is known as impermanence. In many of his teachings the Buddha compared this movement to the tiny changes that occur in the flow of a river .

The Second Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering

The Second Noble Truth is often translated as the “origin” or “cause” of suffering. Our normal tendency is to assign the cause of suffering to circumstances or conditions. According to the Second Noble Truth the cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

Left makes sense only in relation to right, night makes sense only in comparison to day , and warm makes sense only in comparison to cold. That’s a short course in what is often referred to in Buddhist teachings as relative reality: a level of experience defined by distinctions.

Dukkha (suffering) arises from a basic mental condition referred to in Pali as tanha, that is “craving.”

The most basic of these yearnings is the tendency, often described in Buddhist texts as ignorance, to mistake “self” and “other”; “subject” and “object”; “good” and “bad” and other relative distinctions as independently, inherently existing.

Collectively, ignorance, desire and aversion are referred to in Buddhist writings as “The Three Poisons,” habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or “poison” the mind.

The Three Poisons and all the other mental and emotional habits that arise from them are not in themselves the causes of suffering. Rather, suffering arises from attachment to them.

The essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth is acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change, we can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it.

In order to get rid of attachment we need to stop trying. When we try to get rid of something, we’re really just reinforcing hope and fear. The middle way proposed by the Buddha begins by simply looking at whatever it is we’re thinking or feeling: I’m angry. I’m jealous. I’m tired. I’m afraid.

The Third Noble Truth: The Truth of Cessation

The third noble truth, often translated as “The Truth of Cessation”, tells us that suffering can be brought to an end. We accomplish this not by suppressing our desires, our aversions, our fixations or by trying to “ think differently. Rather, we need to turn our awareness inward, examining the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that trouble us and to begin to notice and even appreciate them as expressions of awareness itself.

The cause of the various diseases we experience is the cure. The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Truth of the Path

The Fourth Noble Truth , the Truth of the Path, states that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place – not by fighting or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them.

We need to look out for three obstacles in particular: permanence, singularity, and independence.

One of the most important and difficult concepts of Buddhism is the concept of ‘emptiness’. It could be described as an open potential for any and all sorts of experience to appear or disappear.

The inherent qualities of humans (also called ‘buddha nature’) such as wisdom, capability, loving-kindness and compassion have been described by the Buddha as “boundless,” “limitless,” and “infinite.”

Our thoughts, emotions and sensations are like waves rising and falling in an endless ocean of infinite possibility. The problem is that we’ve become used to seeing only the waves and mistaking them for the ocean.

Part 2: Experience & Application

Forms of Meditation

There are two parts on the road to enlightenment. One part is an understanding of the principles of suffering, buddha nature, emptiness, etc. The second one is the application of these concepts in one’s own life . 

Meditation asks us to begin by simply observing our physical, intellectual and emotional experiences without judgment (i.e. to use the mind to look at the mind).

To recognize emptiness you have to look at the roots of “I” — ignorance, desire and so on.

The 7-point position for meditation. 

  1. Establish a firm base or anchor that connects you to the environment in which you’re practicing while providing a reference to the rest of your body . Cross your legs so that each foot rests on the opposite leg.
  2. Rest your hands in your lap 
  3. Allow some space between the arms and the upper body by lifting and spreading the shoulders a little bit.
  4. Keep your spine as straight as possible, the ultimate physical expression of alertness
  5. Lengthen the neck by tilting your chin slightly more toward your throat while allowing yourself some freedom of movement. The sensation could be described as simply resting your head on your neck 
  6. Allow the mouth to rest naturally as it does when we’re at the point of falling asleep – not forced in either way 
  7. Leave your eyes open 

Form Meditation has two aspects: shape and color. The idea is simply to rest your attention on either its color or its shape, engaging awareness only to the point of barely recognizing shape or color. How? Start with objectless attention. Then look at the form or the colour. After a few moments of looking at someone or something, let your mind simply relax again in objectless attention . Return your focus to the object for a few moments; then allow your mind to relax once more.

Thoughts come and go, as an old Buddhist saying holds, like “snowflakes falling on a hot rock.” The best way to work with thoughts is to step back and rest your mind in objectless attention for a minute and then bring your attention to each thought and the ideas that revolve around it.

Insight practice offers a way of relating to experience that involves turning the mind inward to look at the mind that is experiencing

Start loving-kindness meditation by focusing on ourselves: Allow your mind simply to relax in a state of objectless attention. Recognize that you have a body as well as a mind that’s capable of scanning it. Recognize how wonderful these very basic facts of your existence really are and how precious it is to have a body and a mind capable of being aware of the body. Appreciating these gifts plants the seeds for happiness and relief from suffering. There is such relief in simply knowing you’re alive and aware.

Another approach to loving-kindness: Ask “How much do I want to be happy? How much do I want to avoid pain or suffering? Then gradually turn your attention to the object you’ve chosen and imagine how he or she would feel in the same situation. 

The three practices of attention, insight and empathy in terms of step-by-step processes that can be applied to any mental or emotional state. 

Attention practice consists of two stages:

  • The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what in Buddhist terms is known as ordinary awareness – bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling
  • The second stage involves meditative awareness – approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness
  • The third stage is taking a step back: If an emotion or a disturbing state of mind is too painful to look at directly, seek the underlying condition that holds it in place

The point of insight practice: the recognition that all phenomena are interdependent, impermanent and made up of many different parts.

  • Stage one: Look at a thought or emotion with ordinary awareness – simply identifying thoughts or feelings without any specific purpose or intention.
  • Stage two: Recognize the nature of the emotion, which is that awareness is inseparable from emptiness. How do we do this? Begin by considering the impermanent aspect of emotion 
  • Stage three and four: Step Back and take a break

Empathy practice:

  • The first stage is similar to that of attention and insight practice — that is, to simply draw awareness to whatever you’re feeling 
  • The second stage involves recognizing that other people suffer from overwhelming emotions or emotional conflicts, a realization that “I’m not the only one who suffers.”
  • The third stage of the main practice involves the practice of tonglen. You begin by drawing attention to your own suffering, recognize that others suffer, and then use your imagination to draw into yourself all the suffering and painful emotions and situations experienced by countless sentient beings

As you begin to see your emotion as a representation of all sentient beings’ emotions, you are deepening your commitment to connect and to help other sentient beings become free from disturbing or destructive emotions.

The Buddha Nature Blocker

The Buddha’s goal was to awaken our capacity to approach every experience — grief, shame, jealousy, frustration, illness and even death — with the innocent perspective we experience when looking at things for the first time. 

The first Buddha Nature Blocker is known as “faintheartedness” or “timidity.” The term points to a deeply ingrained tendency to judge or to criticize ourselves, exaggerating what we may perceive as defects in thought, feeling, character or behavior. 

Our judgmental attitude toward others is the essence of the second Blocker. Often translated as “contempt for inferior beings,” this second impediment represents the opposite extreme of what we might call the dimension of judgment: a critical view of others .

The third could be as “seeing the unreal as real.” Basically , it’s the belief that the qualities we see in ourselves, others or conditions are truly, permanently or inherently existing. In Buddhist terms , this tendency would be known as eternalism — a tendency to hold certain aspects of experience as absolute and enduring rather than as a combination of temporary combinations of causes and conditions.

The fourth, “seeing the true as untrue” represents the reverse perspective: a denial, or perhaps more strongly, a rejection of buddha nature altogether.

The fifth and final Buddha Nature Blocker, which might be considered the foundation of the others, is traditionally interpreted as self – obsession or the “myth of me.”

At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts , emotions , and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited — or you can remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned  and incapable of being harmed.

Negotiations Psychology

Chris Voss – Never Split the Difference

My Opinion

Highly useful tips on the art of negotiation. Ex-FBI Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss describes a range of tools and strategies that can be applied in almost any kind of negotiation. He pairs each tool with a real-life story from his own experience.

Reading Recommendation: 7/10

My Notes

The history of negotiations is closely related to the history of science. From a purely rational based approach (homo oeconomicus) to an empathy-driven one that incorporated the conception of humans as emotionally-driven creatures. 

Voss states: “Negotiation […] is nothing more than communication with results.” As Kahneman and Tversky published their research in the field of Behavioural Economics questioning the fundamental tenets of science back then, the field of negotiation had to evolve centered around “Tactical Empathy”. 

  • For Voss, empathy is “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart and the vocalization of that recognition”.
  • Tactical is one step further aiming at understanding what is behind the feelings of a counterpart to increase leverage in negotiations 
  • If we look very closely at a person and observe their face, gestures and tone of voice a process called neural resonance is triggered. Our brain starts to align with our counterpart helping us to understand better their current feelings.

Fundamentally, this incorporates listening well, recognizing the counterpart’s perspective, gaining their trust and making them feel understood. 

Don’t assume anything. Hold multiple hypotheses and listen carefully. Approach the negotiations with a “mindset of discovery”. 

Don’t be too fast. Voss argues that one of the biggest mistakes we make is rushing the negotiation, making people feel not sufficiently heard. 

Use your voice. Use your light and playful voice to relax your counterpart as a default voice. Use your “Late-Night DJ Voice” in selective circumstances – deep, soft, slow and reassuring. 

Smile. People are much more likely to close a deal if they like their counterparts. Radiate warmth and be friendly. This is part of one of the most fundamental characteristics of humans – their reciprocity. People who are in a positive frame of mind think more quickly and are more likely to collaborate. 

Mirror to connect. Use the last three words of what the counterpart just said. As Voss puts it: “Mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick.” As a reaction, people will elaborate on what they just said and further connection is created. 

  • In a study with two groups of waiters, one group used positively connotated words such as “great”, “no problem” and “sure” to confirm the order. The other group repeated the order back mirroring what was just said. The latter one received 70% more tips on average. 
  • Implementation tip: Start your mirror with “I’m sorry…”. Wait at least four seconds for the mirror to work. Repeat. 

Label to create validation. Labeling is verbalizing your counterpart’s feelings creating validation. Show them that you understand how they feel. 

  • In one brain imaging study the psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California found that people react with fear to photos of faces expressing strong emotions. If this emotion is however labeled, the brain activity moves from the amygdala (the part that generates fear) to other areas that govern rational thinking. Labeling emotions decreases their intensity. 
  • Labels always start with 
    It seems
    It sounds like
    It looks like
  • Avoid the word “I” because it creates the impression that you are more interested in yourself than your counterpart. 

Accusation Audits for labeling fears. Preface the conversation by labeling your counterpart’s greatest fears. We all do this intuitively. “I don’t want this to sound meant …” or “I don’t want to seem like an asshole…”. Doing this systematically however requires you to collect all negative things your counterpart could say about you. When labeling these negative things your counterpart’s reaction will be to add nuance and details to these aspects that provide further connection and a sense of understanding. (e.g. “You must think we are this big, bad prime contractor trying to push out the small businesses.”)

Start with ‘No’. Give your counterpart the opportunity to disagree. This is where the negotiations start. Saying ‘No’ creates a sense of control that is crucial for your counterpart to feel secure. 

No can mean different things. 

  • “I am not yet ready to agree.”
  • “You are making me feel uncomfortable.”
  • “I do not understand what you mean.”
  • “I don’t think I can afford it.”
  • “I want something else.”
  • “I need more information.”
  • “I want to talk it over with somebody else.”

If your counterpart says ‘No’, ask “What about this doesn’t work for you”, “What would you need to make it work”, “It seems there’s something here that bothers you” to learn about the real meaning of their ‘No’. 

In negotiations, everybody is driven by two primary needs: “The need to feel safe and secure and the need to feel in control”. ‘No’ gives your counterpart the opportunity to fulfill these needs and functions as a pause to slow things down.

Sometimes you need to antagonize your counterpart into ‘No’. If your counterpart isn’t listening, deliberately mislabeling their emotion is an effective method to listen and correct your statement. 

Paraphrase to show that you understood your counterpart’s argument. The goal of paraphrasing is to create “That’s right” as a response. 

Combining the tools to achieve your goals. 

  • Effective Pauses
  • Minimal Encouragers (‘Yes’, ‘Ok’, ‘I see’)
  • Mirroring
  • Labeling
  • Paraphrases
  • Summary

Use deadlines to create a sense of urgency. It’s the fear of a potential loss that makes deadlines so effective. But be aware if you are under a deadline and don’t overestimate its importance. As Voss writes: “Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible, and hardly ever trigger the consequences we think – or are told – they will. 

Understand that the need for fairness is hardwired into humans.  A decade of brain-imaging studies shows that “the human neural activity, especially in the emotion-regulating insular cortex, reflects the degree of unfairness in social interactions.” This is equally true for nonhuman primates. In a study, two primates were unequally rewarded for performing the same task. The one that was less rewarded “literally went bananas.”

In a negotiation, follow these guidelines to gain leverage:

  • Bend your counterpart’s emotions and manage expectations by performing an accusation audit before making an offer
  • Unless you have an information advantage, let your counterpart go first with his offer.  
  • If you anchor a price, use ranges. “At Corp. XYZ people in this job get 110,000€.”
  • Pivot to non-monetary terms. Find out what is cheap to them and valuable for you. 
  • When talking numbers, use odd ones. This shows that you have put a lot of thought into it.

Create the illusion of control but asking open-ended, calibrated questions. “We learned that negotiation was coaxing, not overcoming; co-opting, not defeating. Most importantly, we learned that successful negotiation involved getting your counterpart to do the work for you and suggest your solution himself.” Instead of saying “You can’t go.” say “What do you hope to achieve by going?” 

As an old Washington Post editor named Robert Estabrook once said: “He who has learned to disagree without being disagreeable has discovered the most valuable secret of negotiation.”

Using calibrated questions takes the aggression out of a confrontational statement. Furthermore, your counterpart will be encouraged to speak. 

Some evergreen calibrated questions: 

  • “What is the biggest challenge you face?”
  • “What about this is important to you?”
  • “How can I help to make this better for us?”
  • “How would you like me to proceed?”
  • “What is it that brought us into this situation?”
  • “How can we solve this problem?”
  • “What’s the objective? / What are we trying to accomplish here?”
  • “How am I supposed to do that?”

Don’t use “why”. It will always trigger a defensive reaction. 

We can use the word ‘No’ four times before actually saying the word.

  • “How am I supposed to do that?” (request for help)
  • “Your offer is very generous, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.” (soft and build empathy)
  • “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I just can’t do that.” (inability to perform can trigger further empathy)
  • “‘I’m sorry, no.” (a softened version of just ‘No’)

Active listening goes beyond just the words. The 7-38-55 rule states that only 7 percent of a message is communicated verbally. 38 percent is based on the voice and 55 percent on the body language of your counterpart. Look for incongruence between the three components to spot lies or unresolved problems. 

There are three types of negotiators. The analyst, the accommodator and the assertive.

  • Analysts are methodical and diligent. They love details and will perform extensive research before every negotiation. 
  • When dealing with analysts, come prepared. Use data to back up your arguments.
  • Accommodators are sociable, peace-seeking, optimistic and easily distracted. 
  • When dealing with accommodators, listen well and be friendly. They will value it. Also, be careful since they might leave out potential problem areas to avoid conflict. 
  • Assertives believe time is money. All they care about is winning. They have an aggressive and direct communication style. 
  • When dealing with an assertive person, make sure to first understand their point. Only then they will listen to you. 

When it comes to bargaining, use the Ackerman model:

  1. Set your target price (your goal)
  2. Set your first offer at 65% of your target price
  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100%)
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, non-round numbers. It gives the number credibility and weight
  6. On your final number, throw in a non-monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show that you’re at your limit. 

“In every negotiation, there are at least three Black Swans, three pieces of information that, were they to be discovered by the other side, would change everything.”

There are three kinds of leverage. Positive, negative and normative leverage. 

  • Positive leverage: You can give (or withhold) what your counterpart wants
  • Negative leverage: The ability to make your counterpart suffer. You can threaten him to take something away he currently owns (strong due to loss aversion)
  • Normative leverage: Using your counterpart’s norms and standards to your advantage. 

Stichting it all together: your preparation before a negotiation.

  1. Write down your goal (best-case scenario).
  2. Prepare a summary. Write down in just a couple of sentences the facts that have led to this negotiation. Why are you here? What do you want? Why are they here? What do they want?
  3. Prepare three to five labels to perform an accusation audit. 
  4. Prepare three to five calibrated questions. 
  5. Prepare a list of non-cash offers possessed by your counterpart that would be valuable. 

A Practical Framework On Happiness In Modern Life

What if evolution doesn’t want us to be happy? If our journey to a good and satisfied life is a fight against our own nature? Can this fight be won? When trying to answer this question, it sometimes seems like all useful fighting instructions have already been given in antiquity and that nowadays much of this wisdom has been forgotten and replaced by triviality. In the attempt of following the antique understanding of philosophy, this essay argues that we need to actively choose tools and strategies to guide our way of thinking across all four components of our happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning. Doing this deliberately and in a holistic manner is a Philosophy of Life – a set of fighting instructions that allow us to cope with the challenges of life to ultimately achieve lasting happiness.

So what is there to learn from antique philosophy? The antique idea of a happy life was about a life lived in harmony with oneself including suffering and discomfort. Plato described happiness as a moral life lived according to his four cardinal virtues, Temperance (moderation of one’s desires), Fortitude (inner strength in the face of adversity), Prudence (being reasonable and of good judgement), and Justice (the middle road between being selfless and selfish). For Aristoteles happiness was a skill that required practice just as anything else and was achieved by living virtuously. The school of Stoicism understood happiness as the cultivation of an excellent mental state that was achieved by living a life of reason and virtue. The great Stoic and emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” And even Epicureanism, a philosophy we nowadays often mistake for hedonism, believed that the pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve inner tranquility (ataraxia) by being content with simple things.

Our modern notion of happiness is different. As Capitalism grew, our understanding of a happy life shifted more and more towards some kind of Enlightened Hedonism. Enlightened Hedonism doesn’t neglect the potential benefits of sacrifices in the present to achieve greater pleasure in the future. Its ultimate goal however remains pleasure maximisation. Phrases such as “work hard, play hard” became part of our modern narratives, justifying our consumption while often not adding any value beyond these fleeting moments of excitement. The problem with this philosophy is that it is rather narrow in scope. It doesn’t give us more than the drive to maximise our own short-term pleasure. In a world that is ever more complex and fast-moving with a sheer overload of possible choices, it doesn’t give any more guidance on what is worth obtaining and what is not than asking “Where do I derive the most pleasure from?”.

What many of us lack in these times is a coherent Philosophy of Life, that is a philosophy that guides our choices on how to live a good and satisfied life in the long run. Take Stoicism for example. This philosophy clearly outlines what is worth striving for and what is not. It will tell us how to get there and equip us with strategies and tools that help along the way. It will help us to bear unavoidable suffering and to overcome intimidating obstacles to ultimately achieve a good and fulfilling life.

Since we are interested in long-term happiness, we shall not define a happy life as a sequence of fleeting moments of pleasure. Instead, happiness is understood as total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life. Before diving deeper into this, let’s first have a look at why living a happy life, in general, is so hard to accomplish and what human tendencies need to be overcome.

The Problem

First, we need to understand that we were not made to be happy. From an evolutionary perspective, there really has been no advantage to being happy. On the very contrary, if we were constantly happy with what we already had and not constantly striving for more, this would have decreased our chances of survival.

One could therefore say that the desire for more is a natural human tendency. This isn’t all bad and it’s certainly a tendency that – with the proper work put in – can and needs to be channeled in useful ways to achieve our full potential. It is however also true, that in our modern world, this is often simply not happening very well and therefore causing a lot of suffering. As the American entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant states: “Desire is a contract with yourself, to be unhappy until you get what you want.” So if one desire follows another, there really is not much time left for happiness. Or to put it differently: If we focus only on what we don’t have and still want, how can we ever have enough?

Beyond our insatiable desires, we are victims of constant comparisons. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. We also can’t help but compare us to others, constantly being afraid of being worse off than our neighbour. The problem with this is equally obvious as it is with our desire, yet it is equally hard to overcome. How can we become our true selves and live a happy life if we can’t stop looking left and right trying to live up to other people’s expectations?

The list of human tendencies that, often at the very first glance, oppose our understanding of a happy life is a long one. We therefore need tools and strategies to cope with these tendencies. Each holistic Philosophy of Life will find answers to what these tools and strategies are. Certainly, some will be better and some worse. But all of them will find some.

The Limitation

At this point, let’s be clear. I do want to make the case that much about our own happiness is up to us. Our perception of the world, the way we think, and the choices we make influence our state of happiness. A lot. But our happiness is not entirely up to us. We simply know that there are people for whom from a purely biological standpoint it is easier to be satisfied and happy than for others.

There are many recent studies trying to uncover the neural underpinning of happiness. In order to do so, one of the most interesting things happiness researchers can do is look at twins. This allows them to compare the influence of genetics as opposed to other internal and external factors. Twin studies and other adoption studies found that approximately 50% of life satisfaction is due to genetics. Even if we aren’t entirely sure if that number is correct, we can be fairly sure that biology plays a significant role in our own happiness. And despite the fact that 50% might sound high, it does leave another 50% up to us.

This graphic below is an attempt to visualise our scope of influence.

We certainly are restricted by our biological limitations. Within these limits, there are two things we can differentiate between. One is what I call situational volatility. These are fleeting moments of pleasure. Fleeting because they are nothing more than a biochemical rush of neurotransmitters. I would argue that this kind of “happiness” is pretty much a zero-sum game as there are only so many neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin available. As mentioned above, this part of our happiness is nothing that we should be as concerned about as we are.

The other component in this graphic is our baseline. This is our sustained level of life satisfaction and can indeed be influenced. Depending on our perspective of the world, our thoughts, and actions, this baseline moves and with it our long-term happiness. So what are the individual components that influence our baseline?

The Components

So let me propose a rather simple structure to understand our scope of influence on happiness a little better and to determine its individual components. The structure itself is “Philosophy of Life – neutral”. This means it works across different world views yet it filters those out that shouldn’t be understood as a Philosophy of Life in the first place since they are either not holistic (i.e. not covering all components) or simply contradictory to our basic needs (e.g. suggesting that we shouldn’t engage in any relationship whatsoever because we are better off alone). 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships are crucial to our happiness. Neither should anybody be surprised that it’s not the quantity but the quality of our relationships that truly matter. There are so many studies pointing out the importance of relationships that I won’t even bother starting to name them all.

There is however one that I believe deserves to be highlighted. The Harvard Study of Adult Development published by Roland Waldinger in 2015 may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For more than 75 years the researchers tracked 724 men, year after year, asking them about their work, their home lives, and their health. The one major takeaway from this 75 years of research is the following: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. Waldinger states that “people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer.”

Just as relationships, Health should be another hardly controversial component of our happiness. This includes mental and physical health to equal parts. Health is what you eat, how much you sleep, how active you are, and most certainly how you think.

Take for example the importance of being active. Our brains work most efficiently when BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is created during exercise. This allows for the easier transmission of neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotions. Further, physical activity releases endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which play an important role in mood regulation.

When it comes to the way we think, studies on the impact of gratitude practices found lasting effects on the brain causing the participants to be happier and less depressive. This shows once again the importance of our way of thinking and confirms what Marcus Aurelius said 2,000 years ago: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

But one of the most important points to be made about the importance of health is that it is relative. This characteristic, in scientific terms referred to as hedonic adaptation, describes the process of humans constantly adapting to the status quo and not judging our current state in absolute terms but instead only perceiving relative changes.

One of the most cited pieces of research in this domain is a study from 1978 where researchers interviewed two very different groups about their happiness – recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. The participants were asked how much pleasure they derived from everyday activities such as chatting with a friend or laughing at a joke.

When the researchers analysed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. And even though the lottery winners reported more present happiness than the accident victims (4 out of 5 as compared to 2.96) the authors concluded that “the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected.”

Financial Security
Beyond high-quality relationships and health, we need sufficient resources to cover our basic needs and move up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While money per se doesn’t make us happy, it can be regarded as the enabler for many things that do and often grants the necessary freedom and security to strive towards self-actualisation and deep fulfillment.

The question then becomes how much money is sufficient. Certainly, the amount of money we need depends on our situation in life, the city we live in, and our desired lifestyle. However, the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income and wealth applies to everybody alike. It suggests that individuals gain correspondingly smaller increases in satisfaction and happiness as their income increases.

If you live in Germany on a below-average income of 15,000 €, you benefit from a large increase in happiness if your income doubles. If it doubles again to 60,000 € the happiness increase is significantly smaller than before. At some point, the correlation is completely lost and there is no measurable increase in happiness any longer as our income increases.

This is the result of the above-mentioned hedonic adaptation. Once we cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our way of living. What used to be exciting and new becomes ordinary and less enjoyable.

Meaning is an extensive topic and it’s difficult to find a great philosopher who didn’t have something to say about it. Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” It seems almost intuitive to us that meaning is an inherent part of our happiness. But how do we get there?

The American psychologist and author Jordan Peterson has a rather simple but well-thought-through answer on how to obtain it. He argues that meaning comes to the degree to which one takes on responsibility.

The beauty of this way of looking at meaning is that it doesn’t limit it to just the work you do. It argues that meaning can be derived from your family, from volunteering, and from parenting. Obviously, for those of us fortunate enough to pursue meaning in our work this will and should be a crucial part. But it’s not the only way.

There is an interesting interdependency in Peterson’s definition of meaning. The more responsibility we take, the more meaning we obtain. As part of this equation, it’s also true to say that the more responsibility we take, the more difficulties we face. The more difficulties we face, the more we suffer. And the more suffering we overcome, the more we grow. Growth then gives us further meaning.

If we accept that suffering is unavoidable for everybody alike (while its degree partly depends on the responsibility we take), it becomes clear why meaning is so important. Even if we are healthy, enjoy many high-quality relationships, and are fortunate enough to be sufficiently wealthy, bad things will happen to us. And if there is no answer to why it is worth bearing the suffering how can it be overcome?

As argued in the beginning, I believe that a Philosophy of Life helps by offering guidance on what is worth pursuing and what is not in regard to a good, meaningful life. That is not to say that one cannot find meaning without actively reflecting on your own Philosophy of Life. It simply means it is significantly harder.

There is one thing that all four components – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – have in common. They are all steered by our expectations.

Take for example our relationships. In her TED Talk, Esther Perel argues that the reason so many romantic relationships break is not because they are genuinely worse than a few decades ago. It’s because our expectations for our partner are at an all-time high. We expect our partner to give us what an entire village used to provide us with. We want the person to be our soulmate living in accordance with our values, our passionate lover, and our best friend while also being the person to provide economic security and a sense of belonging in this uncertain world.

What about health? We discussed that health is fundamentally based on relative comparisons. We don’t wake up every day grateful for not having a headache. Because we get used to the status quo of not having one and expect the world to continue this way. Only if we feel significantly better or worse than our usual status quo do we realise the change and react to it.

The same applies to financial security. The reason that income and wealth show a diminishing marginal utility is because once we have enough to cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our new lifestyle. The pleasure we derive from a new car quickly diminishes until it is no longer different from our old one. The new and exciting becomes ordinary.

And finally, meaning. Even though meaning should be something fundamentally intrinsic, it often is influenced by outside expectations. If we don’t get the promotion we hoped for, the source of our disappointment is often not the sheer fact that we didn’t get it. The disappointment stems from our expectation to deserve the promotion. Because we feel like we did a good job and we saw other people being promoted in similar situations. As a consequence of not getting the promotion, the meaning we used to derive from our old job decreases since we now expect something different.

Looking at our expectations like this, it seems that their impact on our happiness is hard to overestimate. The good news is that we can actively influence our expectations by choosing and integrating certain tools and strategies in our lives. Doing this deliberately and holistically across all components of happiness is a Philosophy of Life.

Stoics for example practice the art of negative visualisation asking “What’s the worst that can happen?”. Reflecting on the impermanence of life increases their appreciation and gratitude for all things. They also believe in internalising our goals. Instead of aiming at winning a tennis match, we would be better off aiming at playing the best we can. While winning the game depends on many other external factors, playing the best we can is entirely up to us. Stoics engage in self-denial and periodically practice poverty. As the stoic philosophers Seneca writes, by doing so they learn to content themselves “with the scantiest and cheapest fare” thereby resetting their expectations. They also have a lot to say about the people we should surround ourselves with and how to deal with annoying people by managing our own expectations. Besides these few examples, there are many more Stoic tools and strategies. They all can be assigned to one of the components of happiness we discussed and they all actively influence our expectations.

Choosing Your Philosophy of Life

In the beginning, I pointed out that the journey to happiness is in part the fight against our own nature. In the attempt of defining a framework to craft our own set of fighting instructions that allow us to overrule our nature, we covered the definition of happiness as the total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life, an understanding much closer to the ancient one. We looked closely at the evolutionary challenges that need to be overcome and biological limitations that even though playing a large role, still leave a lot of our happiness up to us.

The discussed components of happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – are universally applicable with our expectations being the greatest leverage we have to influence them. While some parts of our happiness are outside of our control, it is up to us to actively steer our expectations instead of being steered by them.

Choosing tools and strategies to do so deliberately and in a holistic manner is forming one’s Philosophy of Life. As argued above, I believe the impact of doing this is hard to overestimate. 

So what is your Philosophy of Life?

Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Will & Ariel Durant – The Lessons of History

My Opinion

Lessons of history is a beautifully written book, originally published in 1968. I once heard somebody say it might be the “highest wisdom-per-word-book” and I certainly understand why. On just hundred pages the authors try to extract what history has to teach us.

It feels like every word in this book has been extremely carefully thought through. Therefore, instead of doing a lot of editing on the notes like I usually do, I decided to leave many quotes as they were.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

What is the benefit of history? Does history have something to teach? Is it possible that it has no sense and that “the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?” Is it more than just a “fable not quite agreed upon”?

The selection and confirmation bias in history: “The historian always oversimplifies and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.”

The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.

  • “Animals eat one another without qualm; civilised men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and form of competition; we co-operate in our group – our family, community, club, church, party, “race”, or nation – in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.”
  • Our states being ourselves multiplied; are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and greedy […]. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. […] Until our states become members of a large and effective protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

The second biological lesson is that life is selection. We compete for power, food and mates. We are all born unfree, limited by our physical and psychological heredity and our culture, and differentiate in health, strength, mental capacity and character.

  • “Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilisation. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.”
  • “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and ever lasting enemies and when one prevails the other dies.” The more freedom the higher the inequality.
  • “Utopias of equality are biologically doomed […]. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups.” Equality of chances is good, equality of outcome is not.

The third biological lessons is that life must breed. “If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence and war.”

Evolution during recorded time has been social rather than biological based on economical and political factors. New situations require experimentation and innovation – the “social correlates of variation and mutation.

The wisdom of traditions. As Nassim Taleb describes with the Lindey effect (the longer some non-perishable thing like a technology or idea exists, the longer it will continue to exists i.e. the lower its mortality rate), the Durant’s argue that “out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior the the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

Virtues change. “Pugnacity, brutality, greed and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence. Probably every vice was once a virtue – i.e. a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. “

Three stages of economic history: hunting, agriculture and industry. Transitioning from one stage (hunting) to another (agriculture) changed some virtues into vices (and vice versa).

  • “Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral.”
  • Farming life was simple. Each son followed his father. “At fifteen he understood the physical tasks of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a plow, and a willing arm. So he married early, almost as soon as nature wished.”
  • “Monogamy was demanded. For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of contingency, early marriage, divorceless monogamy and multiple maternity maintained itself.”

The Industrial Revolution changed the economic and moral structure of European and American life.

  • “Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines.”
  • “Children no longer were economic assets; marriage was delayed; premarital continence became more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex.”
  • “The rebellious youth was no longer constrained by the surveillance of the village; he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd.”

As Nassim Taleb states, it’s the outliers – the unseen black swans – that form history. This is also true when it comes to the way history is recorded. The Durant’s write that “we must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting – because it is exceptional.”

The importance of religion. “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. […] It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich.”

Religion at first has nothing to do with morals but stems from fear (“It was fear that first made the gods”) – fear of unknown, seemingly random forces in the earth, water and sky.

“History do not agree with our conception of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under.”

“One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn!” For example the India of the young Buddha, who then founded a religion without a god. After his death, Buddhism developed a complex theology including gods, saints, and hell. Many other examples in ancient Greek and through the European history.

Is religion necessary to morality? Is “a natural ethic too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes and wars?”

“As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”

According to Marx, history is “economics in action” – Individuals, groups, classes and states compete for food, fuel, materials and economic power.

Industrial Revolution as fundamental change to human life. “The Industrial Revolution brought with it democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion, the loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from dependence upon aristocratic patronage, the replacement of romanticism by realism in fiction and the economic interpretation of history. “

The interpretation of history based on economic decision-making explains many events. For examples “the Crusades, like the wars of Rome with Persia, were attempts of the West to capture trade routes to the East; the discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades.” The French Revolution was not caused by some idealistic movements but by the middle class that required legislative freedom to fully utilise their economic leadership.

It seems clear, that every economic system needs to incorporate a profit incentive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. “Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.”

“The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws.”

When inequality reaches a critical point, wealth redistribution or revolution follows. “In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.”

History shows that wealth concentration is unavoidable. “We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentration wealth and compulsive recirculation.”

The story of socialism and capitalism is part of concentration and dispersion of wealth. Socialism is much older than one would expect. In Sumeria, about 2100 B.C. that economy was organised by the state. In Babylonia (1750 B.C.) the law code of Hammurabi fixed wages for certain professions. Many more examples: Rome (A.D. 301), several attempts China (145 B.C.) and – the longest-lasting regime yet known to history – by the Incas in what we now call Peru at some time in the 13th century.

Socialism rose again when “the Industrial Revolution revealed the greed and brutality of early capitalism – child labor, woman labor, long hours, low wages, and disease-breeding factories and slums.” Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1847) and Das Kapital (1867 – 95).

“The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.”

No freedom without limitations. “Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.”

Most governments have been oligarchies. They have been “ruled by a minority, chose either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organisation, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.”

Aristocracy is based on the belief that it requires specific training and preparation to rule. “The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition and trains them from birth […] for the tasks of government.”

Does history justify revolutions? Sometimes a violent overthrow might be necessary as in Russia in 1917. “But in most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments.”

Since revolutions violate trust, cause uncertainty and destabilize the economy, revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as they destroy it. “There may be a redistribution of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.

“Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.”

The power of democracy. “Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.”

“If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as able as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all.”

In the 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. “We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form competition and natural selection in the human species. […] Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only be achieved by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.” This statement (as Harari describes in Homo Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century”) might no longer be true in the 21st century due to a globally interconnected economy where each participant has more to loose than to win.

How are civilizations (defined as “social order promoting cultural creation”) formed? The Durant’s dismiss the Hobbesian notion of a “social contract” among individuals and a ruler and argue it much more likely happens through the conquest of one group by another and the subsequent development.

How do civilizations progress? By overcoming challenges, that is, by “presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence)”

Civilizations don’t exactly die. “Life has no inherent claim to eternity, wether in individuals or in states. Death is natural and if it comes in due time it is forgivable and useful, and the mature mind will take no offense from its coming. But do civilizations die? Not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives.”

We didn’t change. “Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends – the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”

“Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.”

The price we pay for a global world. “We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.”

It’s all just a narrative. “History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”

Lessons learned instead of an infusion of facts. “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understand, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The final role of history. “If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises and man rises in proportion as he receives it. History is above all else the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission and use.