Personal Growth Psychology

Adam Grant – Think Again

With all due respect to the lessons of experience, I prefer the rigor of evidence. When a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of thirty-three studies, they found that in every one, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. This phenomenon is known as the first-instinct fallacy.

Part of the problem is cognitive laziness. Some psychologists point out that we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance to rethinking. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.

When it comes to our knowledge and opinions, though, we tend to stick to our guns. Psychologists call this seizing and freezing. We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995. We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.

Mike Lazaridis dreamed up the idea for the BlackBerry as a wireless communication device for sending and receiving emails. As of the summer of 2009, it accounted for nearly half of the U.S. smartphone market. By 2014, its market share had plummeted to less than 1 percent.

When a company takes a nosedive like that, we can never pinpoint a single cause of its downfall, so we tend to anthropomorphize it: BlackBerry failed to adapt. Yet adapting to a changing environment isn’t something a company does—it’s something people do in the multitude of decisions they make every day.

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise, and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having conviction in our ideas. The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.

With advances in access to information and technology, knowledge isn’t just increasing. It’s increasing at an increasing rate. In 2011, you consumed about five times as much information per day as you would have just a quarter century earlier. As of 1950, it took about fifty years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every seven years, and by 2010, it was doubling in half that time.

Researchers have recently discovered that we need to rethink widely accepted assumptions about such subjects as Cleopatra’s roots (her father was Greek, not Egyptian, and her mother’s identity is unknown); the appearance of dinosaurs (paleontologists now think some tyrannosaurs had colorful feathers on their backs); and what’s required for sight (blind people have actually trained themselves to “see”—sound waves can activate the visual cortex and create representations in the mind’s eye, much like how echolocation helps bats navigate in the dark). Vintage records, classic cars, and antique clocks might be valuable collectibles, but outdated facts are mental fossils that are best abandoned.

Two decades ago my colleague Phil Tetlock discovered something peculiar. As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions:preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In each of these modes, we take on a particular identity and use a distinct set of tools. We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.

The entrepreneurs arrived in Milan for a training program in entrepreneurship. Over the course of four months, they learned to create a business strategy, interview customers, build a minimum viable product, and then refine a prototype. What they didn’t know was that they’d been randomly assigned to either a “scientific thinking” group or a control group. The training for both groups was identical, except that one was encouraged to view startups through a scientist’s goggles.

From that perspective, their strategy is a theory, customer interviews help to develop hypotheses, and their minimum viable product and prototype are experiments to test those hypotheses. Their task is to rigorously measure the results and make decisions based on whether their hypotheses are supported or refuted.

Over the following year, the startups in the control group averaged under $300 in revenue. The startups in the scientific thinking group averaged over $12,000 in revenue. They brought in revenue more than twice as fast—and attracted customers sooner, too.

Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.

My favorite bias is the “I’m not biased” bias, in which people believe they’re more objective than others. It turns out that smart people are more likely to fall into this trap. The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations.

In the case of the BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis was trapped in an overconfidence cycle. Taking pride in his successful invention gave him too much conviction. Nowhere was that clearer than in his preference for the keyboard over a touchscreen. It was a BlackBerry virtue he loved to preach—and an Apple vice he was quick to prosecute.

The legend of Apple’s renaissance revolves around the lone genius of Steve Jobs. It was his conviction and clarity of vision, the story goes, that gave birth to the iPhone. The reality is that he was dead-set against the mobile phone category. His employees had the vision for it, and it was their ability to change his mind that really revived Apple. Although Jobs knew how to “think different,” it was his team that did much of the rethinking.

Research shows that when people are resistant to change, it helps to reinforce what will stay the same. Visions for change are more compelling when they include visions of continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure.

You’ve probably met some football fans who are convinced they know more than the coaches on the sidelines. That’s the armchair quarterback syndrome, where confidence exceeds competence.

The opposite of armchair quarterback syndrome is impostor syndrome, where competence exceeds confidence.

We’re all novices at many things, but we’re not always blind to that fact. We tend to overestimate ourselves on desirable skills, like the ability to carry on a riveting conversation. We’re also prone to overconfidence in situations where it’s easy to confuse experience for expertise, like driving, typing, trivia, and managing emotions. Yet we underestimate ourselves when we can easily recognize that we lack experience—like painting, driving a race car, and rapidly reciting the alphabet backward. Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap.

It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

“Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” blogger Tim Urban explains. “While humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of.”

Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means “from the earth.” It’s about being grounded—recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible.

You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.

Uncertainty primes us to ask questions and absorb new ideas. It protects us against the Dunning-Kruger effect. “Impostor syndrome always keeps me on my toes and growing because I never think I know it all,” Halla reflects, sounding more like a scientist than a politician.

Arrogance leaves us blind to our weaknesses. Humility is a reflective lens: it helps us see them clearly. Confident humility is a corrective lens: it enables us to overcome those weaknesses.

I found a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and two of the world’s top election forecasters. They aren’t just comfortable being wrong; they actually seem to be thrilled by it. I think they can teach us something about how to be more graceful and accepting in moments when we discover that our beliefs might not be true. The goal is not to be wrong more often. It’s to recognize that we’re all wrong more often than we’d like to admit, and the more we deny it, the deeper the hole we dig for ourselves.

In a classic paper, sociologist Murray Davis argued that when ideas survive, it’s not because they’re true—it’s because they’re interesting. What makes an idea interesting is that it challenges our weakly held opinions.

When a core belief is questioned, though, we tend to shut down rather than open up. It’s as if there’s a miniature dictator living inside our heads, controlling the flow of facts to our minds, much like Kim Jong-un controls the press in North Korea. The technical term for this in psychology is the totalitarian ego, and its job is to keep out threatening information.

It’s easy to see how an inner dictator comes in handy when someone attacks our character or intelligence. Those kinds of personal affronts threaten to shatter aspects of our identities that are important to us and might be difficult to change. The totalitarian ego steps in like a bodyguard for our minds, protecting our self-image by feeding us comforting lies.

As physicist Richard Feynman quipped, “You must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Neuroscientists find that when our core beliefs are challenged, it can trigger the amygdala, the primitive “lizard brain” that breezes right past cool rationality and activates a hot fight-or-flight response. The anger and fear are visceral: it feels as if we’ve been punched in the mind. The totalitarian ego comes to the rescue with mental armor.

Discovering I was wrong felt joyful because it meant I’d learned something. As Daniel Kahnemann told me, “Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

The students who found it stressful didn’t know how to detach. Their opinions were their identities. An assault on their worldviews was a threat to their very sense of self.

A few years ago I surveyed hundreds of new teams in Silicon Valley on conflict several times during their first six months working together. Even if they argued constantly and agreed on nothing else, they agreed on what kind of conflict they were having. When their projects were finished, I asked their managers to evaluate each team’s effectiveness. The teams that performed poorly started with more relationship conflict than task conflict. They entered into personal feuds early on and were so busy disliking one another that they didn’t feel comfortable challenging one another. It took months for many of the teams to make real headway on their relationship issues, and by the time they did manage to debate key decisions, it was often too late to rethink their directions.

“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy.”

Although productive disagreement is a critical life skill, it’s one that many of us never fully develop. The problem starts early: parents disagree behind closed doors, fearing that conflict will make children anxious or somehow damage their character. Yet research shows that how often parents argue has no bearing on their children’s academic, social, or emotional development. What matters is how respectfully parents argue, not how frequently. Kids whose parents clash constructively feel more emotionally safe in elementary school, and over the next few years they actually demonstrate more helpfulness and compassion toward their classmates.

In a classic study, highly creative architects were more likely than their technically competent but less original peers to come from homes with plenty of friction. They often grew up in households that were “tense but secure,” as psychologist Robert Albert notes: “The creative person-to-be comes from a family that is anything but harmonious, one with a ‘wobble.’”

Disagreeable people tend to be more critical, skeptical, and challenging—and they’re more likely than their peers to become engineers and lawyers. They’re not just comfortable with conflict; it energizes them. If you’re highly disagreeable, you might be happier in an argument than in a friendly conversation.

One experiment, when people were criticized rather than praised by a partner, they were over four times more likely to request a new partner. Across a range of workplaces, when employees received tough feedback from colleagues, their default response was to avoid those coworkers or drop them from their networks altogether—and their performance suffered over the following year.

Agreeableness is about seeking social harmony, not cognitive consensus. It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Although I’m terrified of hurting other people’s feelings, when it comes to challenging their thoughts, I have no fear. In fact, when I argue with someone, it’s not a display of disrespect—it’s a sign of respect.

My favorite demonstration is an experiment by my colleagues Jennifer Chatman and Sigal Barsade. Agreeable people were significantly more accommodating than disagreeable ones—as long as they were in a cooperative team. When they were assigned to a competitive team, they acted just as disagreeably as their disagreeable teammates.

When they argued about the propeller, the Wright brothers were making a common mistake. Each was preaching about why he was right and why the other was wrong. When we argue about why, we run the risk of becoming emotionally attached to our positions and dismissive of the other side’s. We’re more likely to have a good fight if we argue about how.

One difference was visible before anyone even arrived at the bargaining table. Prior to the negotiations, the researchers interviewed both groups about their plans. The average negotiators went in armed for battle, hardly taking note of any anticipated areas of agreement. The experts, in contrast, mapped out a series of dance steps they might be able to take with the other side, devoting more than a third of their planning comments to finding common ground.

The more reasons we put on the table, the easier it is for people to discard the shakiest one. Once they reject one of our justifications, they can easily dismiss our entire case.

Harish started by emphasizing common ground. When he took the stage for his rebuttal, he immediately drew attention to his and Debra’s areas of agreement. “So,” he began, “I think we disagree on far less than it may seem.” He called out their alignment on the problem of poverty—and on the validity of some of the studies—before objecting to subsidies as a solution.

Most people immediately start with a straw man, poking holes in the weakest version of the other side’s case. He does the reverse: he considers the strongest version of their case, which is known as the steel man.

“If you have too many arguments, you’ll dilute the power of each and every one,” he told me. “They are going to be less well explained, and I don’t know if any of them will land enough—I don’t think the audience will believe them to be important enough. Most top debaters aren’t citing a lot of information.”

If they’re not invested in the issue or they’re receptive to our perspective, more reasons can help: people tend to see quantity as a sign of quality. The more the topic matters to them, the more the quality of reasons matters. It’s when audiences are skeptical of our view, have a stake in the issue, and tend to be stubborn that piling on justifications is most likely to backfire. If they’re resistant to rethinking, more reasons simply give them more ammunition to shoot our views down.

Psychologists have long found that the person most likely to persuade you to change your mind is you. You get to pick the reasons you find most compelling, and you come away with a real sense of ownership over them.

In a heated argument, you can always stop and ask, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer is “nothing,” then there’s no point in continuing the debate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think.

A few years ago, I argued in my book Originals that if we want to fight groupthink, it helps to have “strong opinions, weakly held.” Since then I’ve changed my mind—I now believe that’s a mistake. If we hold an opinion weakly, expressing it strongly can backfire. Communicating it with some uncertainty signals confident humility, invites curiosity, and leads to a more nuanced discussion.

Research shows that in courtrooms, expert witnesses and deliberating jurors are more credible and more persuasive when they express moderate confidence, rather than high or low confidence.

In every human society, people are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes at the same time: we become part of a tribe, and we take pride when our tribe wins. In classic studies on college campuses, psychologists found that after their team won a football game, students were more likely to walk around wearing school swag.

Socially, there’s another reason stereotypes are so sticky. We tend to interact with people who share them, which makes them even more extreme. This phenomenon is called group polarization, and it’s been demonstrated in hundreds of experiments.

Citizens who start out with a clear belief on affirmative action and gay marriage develop more extreme views on these issues after talking with a few others who share their stance. Their preaching and prosecuting move in the direction of their politics. Polarization is reinforced by conformity: peripheral members fit in and gain status by following the lead of the most prototypical member of the group, who often holds the most intense views.

Upon returning from space, astronauts are less focused on individual achievements and personal happiness, and more concerned about the collective good. “You develop an instant global consciousness . . . an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell reflected. “From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a b*tch.’”

In one experiment, psychologists randomly assigned Manchester United soccer fans a short writing task. They then staged an emergency in which a passing runner slipped and fell, screaming in pain as he held his ankle. He was wearing the T-shirt of their biggest rival, and the question was whether they would stop to help him. If the soccer fans had just written about why they loved their team, only 30 percent helped. If they had written about what they had in common with other soccer fans, 70 percent helped.

In an ideal world, learning about individual group members will humanize the group, but often getting to know a person better just establishes her as different from the rest of her group. When we meet group members who defy a stereotype, our first instinct isn’t to see them as exemplars and rethink the stereotype. It’s to see them as exceptions and cling to our existing beliefs.

We found that it was thinking about the arbitrariness of their animosity—not the positive qualities of their rival—that mattered. Regardless of whether they generated reasons to like their rivals, fans showed less hostility when they reflected on how silly the rivalry was.

Research suggests that there are more similarities between groups than we recognize. And there’s typically more variety within groups than between them.

Since people held unfounded fears about vaccines, it was time to educate them with a dose of the truth. The results were often disappointing. In a pair of experiments in Germany, introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired: they ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when Americans read accounts of the dangers of measles, saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all. And when they were informed that there was no evidence that the measles vaccine causes autism, those who already had concerns actually became less interested in vaccinating.

Together, they developed the core principles of a practice called motivational interviewing. The central premise is that we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them find their own motivation to change.

Motivational interviewing starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity. We don’t know what might motivate someone else to change, but we’re genuinely eager to find out.

Before Marie-Hélène left the hospital, she had Tobie vaccinated. A key turning point, she recalls, was when Arnaud “told me that whether I chose to vaccinate or not, he respected my decision as someone who wanted the best for my kids. Just that sentence—to me, it was worth all the gold in the world.”

Overall, motivational interviewing has a statistically and clinically meaningful effect on behavior change in roughly three out of four studies, and psychologists and physicians using it have a success rate of four in five. There aren’t many practical theories in the behavioral sciences with a body of evidence this robust.

Motivational interviewing isn’t limited to professional settings—it’s relevant to everyday decisions and interactions. One day a friend called me for advice on whether she should get back together with her ex. I was a fan of the idea, but I didn’t think it was my place to tell her what to do. Instead of offering my opinion, I asked her to walk through the pros and cons and tell me how they stacked up against what she wanted in a partner. She ended up talking herself into rekindling the relationship. The conversation felt like magic, because I hadn’t tried to persuade her or even given any advice.

To protect their freedom, instead of giving commands or offering recommendations, a motivational interviewer might say something along the lines of “Here are a few things that have helped me—do you think any of them might work for you?”

Motivational interviewing pioneers Miller and Rollnick have long warned that the technique shouldn’t be used manipulatively. Psychologists have found that when people detect an attempt at influence, they have sophisticated defense mechanisms. The moment people feel that we’re trying to persuade them, our behavior takes on a different meaning. A straightforward question is seen as a political tactic, a reflective listening statement comes across as a prosecutor’s maneuvering, an affirmation of their ability to change sounds like a preacher’s proselytizing.

We can all get better at asking “truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting,” journalist Kate Murphy writes, and helping to “facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts.”

As Betty muses, “Even the devil appreciates being listened to.”

Inverse charisma. What a wonderful turn of phrase to capture the magnetic quality of a great listener.

Hearing an opposing opinion doesn’t necessarily motivate you to rethink your own stance; it makes it easier for you to stick to your guns (or your gun bans). Presenting two extremes isn’t the solution; it’s part of the polarization problem. Psychologists have a name for this: binary bias. It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories. To paraphrase the humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

An antidote to this proclivity is complexifying: showcasing the range of perspectives on a given topic. We might believe we’re making progress by discussing hot-button issues as two sides of a coin, but people are actually more inclined to think again if we present these topics through the many lenses of a prism. To borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman, it takes a multitude of views to help people realize that they too contain multitudes.

If people read the binary version of the article, they defended their own perspective more often than they showed an interest in their opponent’s. If they read the complexified version, they made about twice as many comments about common ground as about their own views. They asserted fewer opinions and asked more questions. At the end of the conversation, they generated more sophisticated, higher-quality position statements—and both parties came away more satisfied.

Yet by 2018, only 59 percent of Americans saw climate change as a major threat—and 16 percent believed it wasn’t a threat at all.

To overcome binary bias, a good starting point is to become aware of the range of perspectives across a given spectrum. Polls suggest that on climate change, there are at least six camps of thought. Believers represent more than half of Americans, but some are concerned while others are alarmed. The so-called nonbelievers actually range from cautious to disengaged to doubtful to dismissive.

Although no more than 10 percent of Americans are dismissive of climate change, it’s these rare deniers who get the most press. In an analysis of some hundred thousand media articles on climate change between 2000 and 2016, prominent climate contrarians received disproportionate coverage: they were featured 49 percent more often than expert scientists. As a result, people end up overestimating how common denial is—which in turn makes them more hesitant to advocate for policies that protect the environment.

And multiple experiments have shown that when experts express doubt, they become more persuasive. When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people, and they end up paying more attention to the substance of the argument.

In a series of experiments, psychologists demonstrated that when news reports about science included caveats, they succeeded in capturing readers’ interest and keeping their minds open.

If Peterson had bothered to read the comprehensive meta-analyses of studies spanning nearly two hundred jobs, he’d have discovered that—contrary to his claims—emotional intelligence is real and it does matter. Emotional intelligence tests predict performance even after controlling for IQ and personality. If Goleman hadn’t ignored those same data, he’d have learned that if you want to predict performance across jobs, IQ is more than twice as important as emotional intelligence (which accounts for only 3 to 8 percent of performance).

In a pair of experiments, randomly assigning people to reflect on the intentions and interests of their political opposites made them less receptive to rethinking their own attitudes on health care and universal basic income. Across twenty-five experiments, imagining other people’s perspectives failed to elicit more accurate insights—and occasionally made participants more confident in their own inaccurate judgments. Perspective-taking consistently fails because we’re terrible mind readers. We’re just guessing.

What works is not perspective-taking but perspective-seeking: actually talking to people to gain insight into the nuances of their views. That’s what good scientists do: instead of drawing conclusions about people based on minimal clues, they test their hypotheses by striking up conversations.

My favorite assignment of Erin’s is her final one. As a passionate champion of inquiry-based learning, she sends her eighth graders off to do self-directed research in which they inspect, investigate, interrogate, and interpret. Their active learning culminates in a group project: they pick a chapter from their textbook, choosing a time period that interests them and a theme in history that they see as underrepresented. Then they go off to rewrite it.

Evidence shows that if false scientific beliefs aren’t addressed in elementary school, they become harder to change later. “Learning counter-intuitive scientific ideas [is] akin to becoming a fluent speaker of a second language,” psychologist Deborah Kelemen writes. It’s “a task that becomes increasingly difficult the longer it is delayed, and one that is almost never achieved with only piecemeal instruction and infrequent practice.”

In a curriculum developed at Stanford, high school students are encouraged to critically examine what really caused the Spanish-American War, whether the New Deal was a success, and why the Montgomery bus boycott was a watershed moment. Some teachers even send students out to interview people with whom they disagree. The focus is less on being right, and more on building the skills to consider different views and argue productively about them.

Rethinking needs to become a regular habit. Unfortunately, traditional methods of education don’t always allow students to form that habit.

In this experiment the topic doesn’t matter: the teaching method is what shapes your experience. I expected active learning to win the day, but the data suggest that you and your roommate will both enjoy the subject more when it’s delivered by lecture.10 You’ll also rate the instructor who lectures as more effective—and you’ll be more likely to say you wish all your physics courses were taught that way.

In the physics experiment, the students took tests to gauge how much they had learned about statics and fluids. Despite enjoying the lectures more, they actually gained more knowledge and skill from the active-learning session. It required more mental effort, which made it less fun but led to deeper understanding.

A meta-analysis compared the effects of lecturing and active learning on students’ mastery of the material, cumulating 225 studies with over 46,000 undergraduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Active-learning methods included group problem solving, worksheets, and tutorials. On average, students scored half a letter grade worse under traditional lecturing than through active learning—and students were 1.55 times more likely to fail in classes with traditional lecturing.

In North American universities, more than half of STEM professors spend at least 80 percent of their time lecturing, just over a quarter incorporate bits of interactivity, and fewer than a fifth use truly student-centered methods that involve active learning.

It turns out that although perfectionists are more likely than their peers to ace school, they don’t perform any better than their colleagues at work. This tracks with evidence that, across a wide range of industries, grades are not a strong predictor of job performance.

Achieving excellence in school often requires mastering old ways of thinking. Building an influential career demands new ways of thinking. In a classic study of highly accomplished architects, the most creative ones graduated with a B average. Their straight-A counterparts were so determined to be right that they often failed to take the risk of rethinking the orthodoxy. A similar pattern emerged in a study of students who graduated at the top of their class. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” education researcher Karen Arnold explains. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

The following year, the class’s favorite idea took that rethinking a step further: the students hosted a day of “passion talks” on which anyone could teach the class about something he or she loved. We learned how to beatbox and design buildings that mesh with nature and make the world more allergy safe. From that point on, sharing passions has been part of class participation. All the students give a passion talk as a way of introducing themselves to their peers. Year after year, they tell me that it injects a heightened level of curiosity into the room, leaving them eager to soak up insights from each of their classmates.

When I was involved in a study at Google to identify the factors that distinguish teams with high performance and well-being, the most important differentiator wasn’t who was on the team or even how meaningful their work was. What mattered most was psychological safety.

I knew that changing the culture of an entire organization is daunting, while changing the culture of a team is more feasible. It starts with modeling the values we want to promote, identifying and praising others who exemplify them, and building a coalition of colleagues who are committed to making the change.

Some of the power distance evaporated—they were more likely to reach out to Melinda and other senior leaders with both criticism and compliments. One employee commented: In that video Melinda did something that I’ve not yet seen happen at the foundation: she broke through the veneer. It happened for me when she said, “I go into so many meetings where there are things I don’t know.” I had to write that down because I was shocked and grateful at her honesty. Later, when she laughed, like really belly-laughed, and then answered the hard comments, the veneer came off again and I saw that she was no less of Melinda Gates, but actually, a whole lot more of Melinda Gates.

Organizational learning should be an ongoing activity, but best practices imply it has reached an endpoint. We might be better off looking for better practices.

Focusing on results might be good for short-term performance, but it can be an obstacle to long-term learning. Sure enough, social scientists find that when people are held accountable only for whether the outcome was a success or failure, they are more likely to continue with ill-fated courses of action. Exclusively praising and rewarding results is dangerous because it breeds overconfidence in poor strategies, incentivizing people to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

Process accountability might sound like the opposite of psychological safety, but they’re actually independent. Amy Edmondson finds that when psychological safety exists without accountability, people tend to stay within their comfort zone, and when there’s accountability but not safety, people tend to stay silent in an anxiety zone. When we combine the two, we create a learning zone.

When we dedicate ourselves to a plan and it isn’t going as we hoped, our first instinct isn’t usually to rethink it. Instead, we tend to double down and sink more resources in the plan. This pattern is called escalation of commitment. Evidence shows that entrepreneurs persist with failing strategies when they should pivot, NBA general managers and coaches keep investing in new contracts and more playing time for draft busts, and politicians continue sending soldiers to wars that didn’t need to be fought in the first place. Sunk costs are a factor, but the most important causes appear to be psychological rather than economic. Escalation of commitment happens because we’re rationalizing creatures, constantly searching for self-justifications for our prior beliefs as a way to soothe our egos, shield our images, and validate our past decisions.

In some ways, identity foreclosure is the opposite of an identity crisis: instead of accepting uncertainty about who we want to become, we develop compensatory conviction and plunge head over heels into a career path. I’ve noticed that the students who are the most certain about their career plans at twenty are often the ones with the deepest regrets by thirty. They haven’t done enough rethinking along the way.

A first step is to entertain possible selves:identify some people you admire within or outside your field, and observe what they actually do at work day by day. A second step is to develop hypotheses about how these paths might align with your own interests, skills, and values. A third step is to test out the different identities by running experiments: do informational interviews, job shadowing, and sample projects to get a taste of the work. The goal is not to confirm a particular plan but to expand your repertoire of possible selves—which keeps you open to rethinking.

A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity.

A third potential factor is that when we hunt for happiness, we overemphasize pleasure at the expense of purpose. This theory is consistent with data suggesting that meaning is healthier than happiness.

Psychologists find that passions are often developed, not discovered. In a study of entrepreneurs, the more effort they put into their startups, the more their enthusiasm about their businesses climbed each week. Their passion grew as they gained momentum and mastery. Interest doesn’t always lead to effort and skill; sometimes it follows them.

“Those only are happy,” philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

It takes humility to reconsider our past commitments, doubt to question our present decisions, and curiosity to reimagine our future plans. What we discover along the way can free us from the shackles of our familiar surroundings and our former selves. Rethinking liberates us to do more than update our knowledge and opinions—it’s a tool for leading a more fulfilling life.

Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions. It’s easier to avoid getting stuck to your past beliefs if you don’t become attached to them as part of your present self-concept. See yourself as someone who values curiosity, learning, mental flexibility, and searching for knowledge. As you form opinions, keep a list of factors that would change your mind.

Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. Disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable. Although relationship conflict is usually counterproductive, task conflict can help you think again. Try framing disagreement as a debate: people are more likely to approach it intellectually and less likely to take it personally.

Ask “What evidence would change your mind?” You can’t bully someone into agreeing with you. It’s often more effective to inquire about what would open their minds, and then see if you can convince them on their own terms.

Ask how people originally formed an opinion. Many of our opinions, like our stereotypes, are arbitrary; we’ve developed them without rigorous data or deep reflection. To help people reevaluate, prompt them to consider how they’d believe different things if they’d been born at a different time or in a different place.

Acknowledge common ground. A debate is like a dance, not a war. Admitting points of convergence doesn’t make you weaker—it shows that you’re willing to negotiate about what’s true, and it motivates the other side to consider your point of view.

Personal Growth Psychology

Matthew Dicks – Storyworthy

How could you develop an ego or agenda to become internet- or podcast-famous (actual things, swear to god)? It’s a little like wanting to have the biggest house on the tiny-home scene.

Elysha has this consistent, annoying confidence in my abilities. She assumes that I’m capable of almost anything, which both undermines her appreciation for my abject terror and sets expectations far too high for my liking.

Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen. Even the worst movies in the world reflect some change in a character over time. So

Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. But feel free to tell your side of other people’s stories, as long as you are the protagonist in these tales.

A story is like a diamond with many facets. Everyone has a different relationship to it. If you can find a way of making your particular facet of the story compelling, you can tell that story as your own. Otherwise, leave the telling to someone else.

Lastly, the story must pass the Dinner Test. The Dinner Test is simply this: Is the story that you craft for the stage, the boardroom, the sales conference, or the Sunday sermon similar to the story you would tell a friend at dinner? This should be the goal.

This is why tiny moments like the one at my dining-room table with my wife and children often make the best stories. These are the moments that connect with people. These are the stories that touch people’s hearts.

I decided that at the end of every day, I’d reflect upon my day and ask myself one simple question: If I had to tell a story from today — a five-minute story onstage about something that took place over the course of this day — what would it be? As benign and boring and inconsequential as it might seem, what was the most storyworthy moment from my day?

I discovered that there is beauty and import in my life that I never would have imagined before doing my homework, and that these small, unexpected moments of beauty are oftentimes some of my most compelling stories.

All of this happens because I sit down every evening and ask myself: What is my story from today? What is the thing about today that has made it different from any previous day? Then I write my answer down.

As you start to see importance and meaning in each day, you suddenly understand your importance to this world. You start to see how the meaningful moments that we experience every day contribute to the lives of others and to the world. You start to sense the critical nature of your very existence. There are no more throwaway days. Every day can change the world in some small way. In fact, every day has been changing the world for as long as you’ve been alive. You just haven’t noticed yet.

It may take you a month, six months, or even a year to refine and focus your storytelling lens. You might give up five minutes of your day for an entire year and receive nothing in return. This process requires you to believe that eventually you will begin seeing these moments in your life, just as I and so many others have.

The reason is simple: We are the sum of our experiences, the culmination of everything that has come before. The more we know about our past, the better we know ourselves. The greater our storehouse of memory, the more complete our personal narrative becomes. Our life begins to feel full and complete and important.

There are many secrets to storytelling, but there is one fundamental truth above all others that must be understood before a storyteller can ever be successful: All great stories — regardless of length or depth or tone — tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life.

These five-second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person. Your opinion on a subject dramatically changes. You find forgiveness. You reach acceptance. You sink into despair. You grudgingly resign. You’re drowned in regret. You make a life-altering decision. Choose a new path. Accomplish something great. Fail spectacularly.

Many times storytellers fail to understand the importance of these five-second moments. They see the big when they should be looking for the small. They come to me and say, “I went to Tanzania last summer. I want to tell that story onstage.” My answer is always the same: No. Visiting Tanzania is not a story. Your ability to travel the world does not mean that you can tell a good story or even have a good story to tell. But if something happened in Tanzania that altered you in some deep and fundamental way, then you might have a story. If you experienced a five-second moment in Tanzania, you might have something. Think of it this way: If we remove Tanzania from the story, do you still have a story worth telling?

Like Jurassic Park, the real story isn’t about the big thing. In fact, when people talk to me about the story, they rarely mention the car accident or my near-death experience. Instead, they speak about my five-second moment, when I find myself alone in the emergency room two hours after the accident, waiting for surgeons to operate on my ruined legs. Upon hearing that I was in stable condition, my parents decide to check on the car before checking on me, leaving me alone, frightened, and in terrible pain in the corner of a cold, sterile emergency room. Except it turns out that I’m not alone, because my friends from McDonald’s find out about the accident and quickly fill the waiting room, making the kind of noise that only a gang of teenagers can make.

This was my five-second moment. It was the moment when I realized that I had family after all. My friends were my family, and they remained the only family I had and the only family I needed until I met my wife fifteen years later. It might be the greatest five-second moment of my life.

So how do you choose the right place to start a story? Simple. Ask yourself where your story ends. What is the meaning of your five-second moment? Say it aloud. In “Charity Thief,” I might say it like this: “I thought I was alone in this world, facing a lifetime of loneliness. Then I met a man who taught me that I knew very little about loneliness and never wanted to know loneliness the way that man knew it on that day and probably many, many days thereafter.”

Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time. I was once this, but now I am this. I once thought this, but now I think this. I once felt this, but now I feel this. Stories must reflect change of some kind.

Regardless of whether your change is infinitesimal or profound, positive or negative, your story must reflect change. You must begin and end your story in entirely different states of being. Change is key. The story of how you’re an amazing person who did an amazing thing and ended up in an amazing place is not a story. It’s a recipe for a douchebag. The story of how you’re a pathetic person who did a pathetic thing and remained pathetic is also not a story. It’s a recipe for a sad sack.

Listen to people in the world tell you stories. Often they start with a sentence like, “This is hilarious,” or “You need to hear this,” or “You’re not going to believe this.” This is always a mistake, for three reasons. First, it establishes potentially unrealistic expectations.

Second, starting your story with a thesis statement reduces your chances of surprising your audience. When you tell me that the story is hilarious, I’m already primed for humor.

Pay attention to the opening scenes of movies. So many of them use this strategy as well. We open on the protagonist or someone similarly important to the story. That person will be moving. Walking. Running. Driving. Flying. Climbing. Fleeing. Falling. Swimming. Crawling. Diving. Filmmakers want to immerse you into their world as quickly as possible. They want you to forget the theater and the popcorn and the jackass who is texting beside you. They want you to be absorbed by the story. They want you to forget that you even exist for the duration of the film.

Every story must have an Elephant. The Elephant is the thing that everyone in the room can see. It is large and obvious. It is a clear statement of the need, the want, the problem, the peril, or the mystery. It signifies where the story is headed, and it makes it clear to your audience that this is in fact a story and not a simple musing on a subject.

The audience doesn’t know why they are listening to the story or what is to come, so it’s easy to stop listening. If you don’t present a reason to listen very early on, you risk losing their attention altogether.

Eventually the Elephant in my story changes color. The story isn’t really about escaping New Hampshire at all. It’s really a story about understanding the nature of loneliness. I change the color of the Elephant halfway through this story. I present the audience with one Elephant, but then I paint it another color. I trick them. This is an excellent storytelling strategy: make your audience think they are on one path, and then when they least expect it, show them that they have been on a different path all along.

A Backpack is a strategy that increases the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event. It’s when a storyteller loads up the audience with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment before moving the story forward. It’s an attempt to do two things: 1. Make the audience wonder what will happen next. 2. Make your audience experience the same emotion, or something like the same emotion, that the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be described.

This is why heist movies like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise explain almost every part of the robbers’ plan before they ever make a move. If you understand their plan to rob the casino, you can experience the same level of frustration, worry, fear, and suspense that the characters feel when their plans go awry. The filmmakers put the audience on Danny Ocean’s team. They know the plan, so they feel as if they are a part of the heist themselves.

Storytellers use Breadcrumbs when we hint at a future event but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing.

In “Charity Thief,” I drop a Breadcrumb when I say: But as I climb back into the car, I see my crumpled McDonald’s uniform on the backseat, and I suddenly have an idea.

This is the moment to use an Hourglass. It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible. When you know the audience is hanging on your every word, let them hang. Drag out the wait as long as possible.

It’s the perfect time to use an Hourglass. Stakes. The desire of an audience to hear the next sentence, made greater by the deliberate slowing down of action and pace. Find the moment in your story that everyone has been waiting for, then flip that Hourglass and let the sand run.

The Crystal Ball is the easiest of the strategies to deploy, because you already use Crystal Balls in everyday life. A Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by a storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction will prove to be true.

Memory is a slippery thing, and as storytellers, we must remember this. Research suggests that every time you tell a story, it becomes less true.

A lie of progression is when a storyteller changes the order of events in a story to make it more emotionally satisfying or comprehensible to the listener. In my experience, this is the least common lie told, and I have never done it myself, but I’ve recommended that other storytellers use it from time to time.

Storytellers use conflation to push all the emotion of an event into a single time frame, because stories are more entertaining this way. Rather than describing change over a long period, we compress all the intellectual and emotional transformation into a smaller bit of time, because this is what audiences expect from stories.

Stories are not supposed to start with thesis statements or overwrought aphorisms. Let me say it again, because it’s that important: A great storyteller creates a movie in the mind of the audience. Listeners should be able to see the story in their mind’s eye at all times. At no point should the story become visually obscured or impossible to see.

Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story. That’s it. If the audience knows where you are at all times within your story, the movie is running in their minds.

The ideal connective tissue in any story are the words but and therefore, along with all their glorious synonyms. These buts and therefores can be either explicit or implied.

Just listen to someone tell you about their vacation to Europe or their weekend at the beach. It’s almost never a good story. It’s almost never something you want to hear. Why? “First we went here, and it was amazing, and then we went here, and it was also amazing, and then we saw this, which was so amazing.”

One other aspect to the but-and-therefore principle: the power of the negative. Oddly, the negative is almost always better than the positive when it comes to storytelling. Saying what something or someone is not is almost always better than saying what something or someone is. For example: I am dumb, ugly, and unpopular. I’m not smart, I’m not at all good-looking, and no one likes me.

The second sentence is better, isn’t it? Here’s why: it contains a hidden but. It presents both possibilities. Unlike the first sentence, which only offers single descriptors, the second sentence offers a binary.

This is the trick to telling a big story: it cannot be about anything big. Instead we must find the small, relatable, comprehensible moments in our larger stories. We must find the piece of the story that people can connect to, relate to, and understand.

Your big stories could be about a vacation to exotic locales or the birth of a child or your wedding day or the untimely death of a loved one. Any of these could be told well if you find a way to make the story smaller than it seems. This is hard to do. Rarely are stories of birth or death or weddings or vacations good. They are more often ordinary, expected, and boring. Cliché. But this need not be the case.

As Blaise Pascal first said, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Brevity takes time, because brevity is always better.

The same thing happens later in that story, when I say, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m collecting money for Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.” It’s the most surprising moment of the story. People either gasp or laugh when they hear me say those words. If you’ll remember, I accentuate this surprise with a Breadcrumb and an Hourglass. I give a hint about what is to come (a crumpled McDonald’s uniform), and I make the audience wait forever to hear it by slowing my speech and adding enormous amounts of unnecessary description and repetition. Can you imagine how less surprising the moment would be if I had climbed into my car, spotted the crumpled McDonald’s uniform, and said, “I know. I’m going to go door-to-door pretending to be a charity worker.” Still surprising, perhaps, but not nearly so. Yet

Avoid thesis statements in storytelling.

You must end your story on heart. Far too often I hear storytellers attempt to end their story on a laugh. A pun. A joke. A play on words. This is not why we listen to stories. We like to laugh; we want to laugh. But we listen to stories to be moved.

Humor is a combination of wit, speed, tonality, confidence, daring, nonconformity, flexibility with the language, understanding of your audience, and more. In a lot of ways, it’s all about the way you say something. Delivery is critical.

Like all other emotional responses (see the previous chapter), humor is based entirely on surprise. A combination of specific words spoken in a specific way at a specific moment initiates a surprise that sparks a smile, a giggle, or actual laughter.

Babies and Blenders is the idea that when two things that rarely or never go together are pushed together, humor often results.

In the story about the way that my grandmother pulled my loose teeth, I refer to her as a sadist. Grandmother and sadist are rarely seen together, so it’s funny.

My favorite storyteller in the world — Steve Zimmer — does this in a story entitled “Neighborhood Watch.” After Steve’s family is not invited to the neighborhood Hawaiian luau, they decide to host the Zimmer family barbecue, which features “Zimmers, pineapple-flavored ham, and despair.”

The ending of the story — your five-second moment — will tell you what the beginning of your story should be. The beginning will be the opposite of the end. If my story is about my realization that the world (and especially people) are fundamentally unsafe and willing to hurt you for the pettiest of reasons, the beginning of my story needs to present my previous belief that people are basically good and the world is generally safe.

This is the magic of the present tense. It creates a sense of immediacy.

Rather than attempting to be grandiose about yourself or your success, you must undermine both you and it. This is because of two realities: First, human beings love underdog stories. The love for the underdog is universal. Underdogs are supposed to lose, so when they manage to pull out an unexpected or unbelievable victory, our sense of joy is more intense than if that same underdog suffers a crushing defeat.

I also suggested this: Can Tim’s story be about something other than Mount Everest? Can the climb to the summit be about something more personal? More interior? Perhaps a bit of individual growth that resulted from the climb? I know it sounds crazy to turn the summiting of Mount Everest into something other than the summiting of Mount Everest, but if I can turn a story about putting my head through a windshield and dying on the side of the road into a story about my friends taking the place of my family, why not?

Avoid phrases like “You guys!” for the same reason you shouldn’t ask rhetorical questions. When a storyteller says something like “You guys, you’re not going to believe this!” the bubble is instantly broken. Time travel has abruptly ended. The audience is keenly aware that someone is standing in front of them, speaking directly to them and the people sitting around them.

Phrases like, “But that’s a story for another day,” or “Long story short” serve to remind our audience that we are telling a story. If your audience knows that you’re telling a story, then they’re not time traveling.

The lesson here: Nervousness can be your friend. Too much of it is never good, but not being nervous at all isn’t good either. I bristle at the saying, “If you’re not nervous, you don’t care enough,” because I couldn’t care more about performing well, but there is some truth in this statement. It ain’t always bad to be nervous.

It’s hard to be authentic and vulnerable when you’re reciting lines. It’s also obvious to an audience when a storyteller is simply reciting a story instead of telling a story. Instead of memorizing your story word-for-word, memorize three parts to a story: 1. The first few sentences. Always start strong. 2. The last few sentences. Always end strong. 3. The scenes of your story.

Some people remember their scenes in a list, but I actually remember these scenes as circles in my mind. The size of the circle reflects the size of the scene. The color of the circle reflects the tone and tenor of the scene.

But when you can see your audience — in a classroom, a conference room, your aunt’s kitchen, a reception hall, or a faculty meeting — eye contact is important. You can’t speak to the middle distance and expect your audience to connect.

This is what I call the Spider-Man Principle of Meetings and Presentations (though Voltaire admittedly said it first): “With great power comes great responsibility.”

A first date is an interview of sorts. If you can make the person laugh, share a little vulnerability, and tell a good story in the process, your chances for second and third dates increase exponentially.

I believe that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a reason to learn. A meaningful, entertaining, engaging, thrilling, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants reason to keep their eyes and ears and minds open. This is why every lesson requires a hook. A hook is not a statement like “This material will be on Friday’s test” or “This is something you’ll use for the rest of your life.” A hook is an attempt to be entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking, surprising, challenging, daring, and even shocking. This can be done in dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of ways.

Four times I have stepped off the stage at a storytelling show and been approached by a woman who wanted to share the story of her miscarriage with me.I was speechless the first time this happened. I called Elysha immediately after the show to tell her. Elysha’s response was surprising. “Of course she wanted to tell you,” she said. “You stood on that stage and talked about one of your most difficult moments in your life with complete honesty. Your story made you safe to talk to. And she never needs to see you again. She could unburden herself of this secret to someone she knew she could trust, and she doesn’t have to see you at work or home the next day.” It made sense.

Personal Growth Psychology

James Clear – Atomic Habits

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs. The system of a democracy is founded on beliefs like freedom, majority rule, and social equality. The system of a dictatorship has a very different set of beliefs like absolute authority and strict obedience.

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.

True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity.

Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief.

Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity. “I’m terrible with directions.” “I’m not a morning person.” “I’m bad at remembering people’s names.” “I’m always late.” “I’m not good with technology.” “I’m horrible at math.” … and a thousand other variations. When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact.

The biggest barrier to positive change at any level—individual, team, society—is identity conflict.

Your habits are how you embody your identity.

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”

Each habit is like a suggestion: “Hey, maybe this is who I am.” If you finish a book, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes exercise. If you practice playing the guitar, perhaps you are the type of person who likes music.

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.

Putting this all together, you can see that habits are the path to changing your identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do. Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete. Each time you encourage your employees, you are a leader.

Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. In a sense, a habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past.

The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.

The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

The Japanese railway system is regarded as one of the best in the world. If you ever find yourself riding a train in Tokyo, you’ll notice that the conductors have a peculiar habit. As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.fn1 This process, known as Pointing-and-Calling, is a safety system designed to reduce mistakes. It seems silly, but it works incredibly well. Pointing-and-Calling reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts accidents by 30 percent. The MTA subway system in New York City adopted a modified version that is “point-only,” and “within two years of implementation, incidents of incorrectly berthed subways fell 57 percent.” Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong.

The sentence they filled out is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.

The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms—the feel of your phone buzzing in your pocket, the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the sound of ambulance sirens—but the two most common cues are time and location.

The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases. You can spot this pattern everywhere.

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviors tend to arise again and again under certain environmental conditions. In church, people tend to talk in whispers. On a dark street, people act wary and guarded. In this way, the most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.

In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation that makes a powerful statement: Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment, or B = f (P,E).

The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment. It helps to escape the subtle triggers and cues that nudge you toward your current habits. Go to a new place—a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use—and create a new routine there. It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues.

A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.

In 1971, as the Vietnam War was heading into its sixteenth year, congressmen Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy from Illinois made a discovery that stunned the American public. While visiting the troops, they had learned that over 15 percent of U.S. soldiers stationed there were heroin addicts. Follow-up research revealed that 35 percent of service members in Vietnam had tried heroin and as many as 20 percent were addicted—the problem was even worse than they had initially thought.In a finding that completely upended the accepted beliefs about addiction, Robins found that when soldiers who had been heroin users returned home, only 5 percent of them became re-addicted within a year, and just 12 percent relapsed within three years. In other words, approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight.

This finding contradicted the prevailing view at the time, which considered heroin addiction to be a permanent and irreversible condition. Instead, Robins revealed that addictions could spontaneously dissolve if there was a radical change in the environment.

When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.

The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.

Bad habits are autocatalytic: the process feeds itself. They foster the feelings they try to numb. You feel bad, so you eat junk food. Because you eat junk food, you feel bad. Watching television makes you feel sluggish, so you watch more television because you don’t have the energy to do anything else.

Here’s the punch line: You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely—even if they go unused for quite a while.

Scientists can track the precise moment a craving occurs by measuring a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days, the animals died of thirst.

Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Every behavior that is highly habit-forming—taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media—is associated with higher levels of dopamine.

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.

Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them. The wanting centers in the brain are large: the brain stem, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, the dorsal striatum, the amygdala, and portions of the prefrontal cortex. By comparison, the liking centers of the brain are much smaller. They are often referred to as “hedonic hot spots” and are distributed like tiny islands throughout the brain.

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. In Byrne’s case, he bundled watching Netflix (the thing he wanted to do) with riding his stationary bike (the thing he needed to do).

Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.”

We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.

Similarly, one study found that the higher your best friend’s IQ at age eleven or twelve, the higher your IQ would be at age fifteen, even after controlling for natural levels of intelligence. We soak up the qualities and practices of those around us.

Whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behavior. We are constantly scanning our environment and wondering, “What is everyone else doing?” We check reviews on Amazon or Yelp or TripAdvisor because we want to imitate the “best” buying, eating, and travel habits. It’s usually a smart strategy. There is evidence in numbers.

You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience. Sometimes, all you need is a slight mind-set shift. For instance, we often talk about everything we have to do in a given day. You have to wake up early for work. You have to make another sales call for your business. You have to cook dinner for your family. Now, imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to. You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event.

I once heard a story about a man who uses a wheelchair. When asked if it was difficult being confined, he responded, “I’m not confined to my wheelchair—I am liberated by it. If it wasn’t for my wheelchair, I would be bed-bound and never able to leave my house.” This shift in perspective completely transformed how he lived each day.

As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Repeating a habit leads to clear physical changes in the brain. In musicians, the cerebellum—critical for physical movements like plucking a guitar string or pulling a violin bow—is larger than it is in nonmusicians. Mathematicians, meanwhile, have increased gray matter in the inferior parietal lobule, which plays a key role in computation and calculation. Its size is directly correlated with the amount of time spent in the field; the older and more experienced the mathematician, the greater the increase in gray matter. When scientists analyzed the brains of taxi drivers in London, they found that the hippocampus—a region of the brain involved in spatial memory—was significantly larger in their subjects than in non–taxi drivers. Even more fascinating, the hippocampus decreased in size when a driver retired. Like the muscles of the body responding to regular weight training, particular regions of the brain adapt as they are used and atrophy as they are abandoned.

One of the most common questions I hear is, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” But what people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic?

The purpose of resetting each room is not simply to clean up after the last action, but to prepare for the next action. “When I walk into a room everything is in its right place,” Nuckols wrote. “Because I do this every day in every room, stuff always stays in good shape …. People think I work hard but I’m actually really lazy. I’m just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back.”

There are many ways to prime your environment so it’s ready for immediate use. If you want to cook a healthy breakfast, place the skillet on the stove, set the cooking spray on the counter, and lay out any plates and utensils you’ll need the night before. When you wake up, making breakfast will be easy.  Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of

Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. The most effective way I know to counteract this tendency is to use the Two-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize.

IN THE LATE 1990s, a public health worker named Stephen Luby left his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and bought a one-way ticket to Karachi, Pakistan.

Luby and his team realized that in an environment with poor sanitation, the simple habit of washing your hands could make a real difference in the health of the residents. But they soon discovered that many people were already aware that handwashing was important.

Everyone said handwashing was important, but few people made a habit out of it. The problem wasn’t knowledge. The problem was consistency. That was when Luby and his team partnered with Procter & Gamble to supply the neighborhood with Safeguard soap.

“In Pakistan, Safeguard was a premium soap,” Luby told me. “The study participants commonly mentioned how much they liked it.”

Within months, the researchers saw a rapid shift in the health of children in the neighborhood. The rate of diarrhea fell by 52 percent; pneumonia by 48 percent; and impetigo, a bacterial skin infection, by 35 percent. The long-term effects were even better.

Behavioral economists refer to this tendency as time inconsistency. That is, the way your brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent across time. You value the present more than the future. Usually, this tendency serves us well. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future. But occasionally, our bias toward instant gratification causes problems.

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat explained the problem clearly when he wrote, “It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa …. Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.”

Dyrsmid began each morning with two jars on his desk. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. As soon as he settled in each day, he would make a sales call. Immediately after, he would move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar and the process would begin again.

I like to refer to this technique as the Paper Clip Strategy and, over the years, I’ve heard from readers who have employed it in a variety of ways. One woman shifted a hairpin from one container to another whenever she wrote a page of her book. Another man moved a marble from one bin to the next after each set of push-ups.

In summary, habit tracking (1) creates a visual cue that can remind you to act, (2) is inherently motivating because you see the progress you are making and don’t want to lose it, and (3) feels satisfying whenever you record another successful instance of your habit. Furthermore, habit tracking provides visual proof that you are casting votes for the type of person you wish to become, which is a delightful form of immediate and intrinsic gratification.

You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days.

This is sometimes referred to as Goodhart’s Law. Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, the principle states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

All five characteristics in the Big Five model have biological underpinnings. Extroversion, for instance, can be tracked from birth. If scientists play a loud noise in the nursing ward, some babies turn toward it while others turn away. When the researchers tracked these children through life, they found that the babies who turned toward the noise were more likely to grow up to be extroverts. Those who turned away were more likely to become introverts.

As you explore different options, there are a series of questions you can ask yourself to continually narrow in on the habits and areas that will be most satisfying to you: What feels like fun to me, but work to others? The mark of whether you are made for a task is not whether you love it but whether you can handle the pain of the task easier than most people.

What makes me lose track of time? Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away. This blend of happiness and peak performance is what athletes and performers experience when they are “in the zone.”

What comes naturally to me? For just a moment, ignore what you have been taught. Ignore what society has told you. Ignore what others expect of you. Look inside yourself and ask, “What feels natural to me? When have I felt alive? When have I felt like the real me?”

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”

In psychology, this is known as a variable reward. Slot machines are the most common real-world example. A gambler hits the jackpot every now and then but not at any predictable interval. The pace of rewards varies. This variance leads to the greatest spike of dopamine, enhances memory recall, and accelerates habit formation.

I know of executives and investors who keep a “decision journal” in which they record the major decisions they make each week, why they made them, and what they expect the outcome to be. They review their choices at the end of each month or year to see where they were correct and where they went wrong.

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. 

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.

Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Michael Pollan – How To Change Your Mind

My Opinion

Great introduction into the field of psychedelics covering their history, the underlying neuroscience as well as Michael Pollan’s own experience with psychedelics while writing this book. 

I absolutely loved the author’s style of writing, so it really was a pleasure reading this book.

Reading Recommendation: 9/10

My Notes


Mushrooms, called Flesh of the Gods by the Aztecs for a reason. 

Diverse applications: Medicine (treat addictions, depressions, disorders, anxiety, …), research (understand the brain & consciousness better) and self-improvement (improve relationships, increase gratitude, overcome obstacles, …).

The recent research is impressive. Roland Griffith’s paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” (2006) as a milestone for further research.

  • “Individuals transcend their primary identifications with their bodies and experience ego-free states.” They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance”
  • 30 Volunteers, never tried Psilocybin before. 2/3 ranked the experience Top 5 of “most spiritually significant experiences” along with the birth of their first child, their marriages, … 14 months later, ranking only slightly slipped. Volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change”, changes confirmed by family members and friends.
  • Crunched survey data of 52 volunteers confirms results. Long-lasting effects in well-being and a long-term increase in the personality trait Openness to New Experiences (about one standard deviation).
  • Roland Griffiths: “As a scientific phenomenon, if you can create a condition in which 70 percent of people will say they have had one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives… well, as a scientist that’s just incredible.”

Several use cases for therapeutic application: 

  • Help people quit smoking. A pilot study in smoking cessation achieved an 80% success rate, which is unprecedented (especially considering that smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break, some say ever harder than heroin). 6 months after psychedelic therapy, 80% of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent, a figure that only had fallen to 67% at the one-year-mark.
  • Support with further addictions (e.g. alcoholism). 
  • Lower the fear of people who are dying. In both trails with terminal cancer patients from John Hopkins and NYU “80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression” – “Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.” (3+ times the initial treatment effect of SSRI antidepressants).
  • Treat Depressions. Currently, larger trials are conducted in both the U.S. and Europe after initial promising results. Conflict between biologically based treatments and psychodynamic treatments (i.e. is mental illness a chemical disorder or a loss of meaning in life?). Psychedelic therapy is the wedding of these two approaches.
    Rosalind Watts (Clinical Psychologist at John Hopkins): “I believe this could revolutionize mental health care.” Her conviction is shared by every psychedelic researches that was interviewed by Michael Pollan.

Curiosity as an intellectual driver. Some of the most skeptical, critical and rigorous people (scientists) fall into amazement with psychedelics. It’s like being shown a door in your own mind to explore the unconsciousness. How couldn’t one be curious?

How adults perceive the world. Useful heuristics shape our sense of reality. All experiences are categorized and put into pre-defined buckets. Few surprises, energy efficient from an evolutionary perspective. As opposed to the mind of children. Psychedelics erase existing connections (“shaking the snow globe”), decreasing the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) that works as mediator connecting different parts of the brain and is associated with our sense of self (leading to what the scientist call “ego dissolution”).

Our consciousness is just one of many forms. There lie types of consciousness entirely different to what we know. This “forbids a premature closing of our accounts of reality.” (James William)

The nature of consciousness. The Dalai Lama said, the idea that brains create consciousness – an idea accepted without questions by most scientist – “is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

The potential for deeper understanding. Stanislav Graf, psychiatrist and LSD therapy pioneer, once predicted that psychedelics “would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study processes that wouldn’t be visible under normal circumstances.”

Not a typical drug: Psychedelics are non-addictive (taken in a short period of time multiple times, their effect decreases). There are no reported cases of death through overdose. Animals, given the choice, will not self-administer the drug more than once. Psychedelics don’t fit in the classical profile of drugs.

Guidelines as part of the preparation. Sitters of psychedelic sessions work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards. TLO – Trust, Let Go, Be Open. Volunteers are quizzed – if you see a door, what do you do? Open it and enter, is of course the correct answer. Face the fear. If you feel like dying, exploding – go ahead. “Think of yourself as an astronaut being blasted into outer space.”

Mystical experiences. William James: Mystical experiences are characterized by a) their ineffability – it defies expression b) they seem to be states of knowledge i.e. bring revelations full of significance and carry a sense of authority


The first wave of psychedelics  (1950s and ‘60s)

  • LSD discovery in 1943 by Albert Hoffman (by accident). Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company he worked at, offered free supply of LSD to any researcher as part of their crowd-sourced research strategy until 1966 when they withdrew LSD from circulation due to the nation-wide controversy.
  • Scientific challenges arise – a) irrational exuberance of researchers that might influence the results and b) fitting psychedelic research into the existing structures of science (How to do a controlled study? How do you effectively blind patients and clinicians? How to control for the powerful expectancy effect? How to treat the fact that the majority of the treatment effect is based on the experience the patients had and not the drug per se?) 
  • Increasing popularity among the (intellectual) elite. From understanding insanity to treating alcohol addiction in the context of research. Wider application and increasing popularity in therapeutic sessions, mainly in LA across many celebrities (many claimed to have transformative experiences). Stanford and other universities start teaching classes about psychedelics. Personal use in research and in business, especially in Silicon Valley (Pollan mentions one Bay Area company that even today uses psychedelics in their management training and apparently some even institutionalised a “microdosing Friday”. 
  • Scientific results look more than promising. In half a dozen papers published in the 60s, researchers report that 78% of the clients stated, the experiences increased their ability to love, 71% recognised an increase in self-esteem and 83% said that they glimpsed a higher or ultimate reality.
    James Fadiman et al. conduct an experiment to increase creativity and overcome frustrating intellectual problems among artist, engineers, scientists and architects and find promising results.
  • The importance of Set and Setting. “Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers.” Researchers pair with brilliant amateurs that provide funding, amongst them Aldous Huxley. The internal mindset and the external setting significantly impact the journey.
  • Psychedelics are being distributed among the youth (which marks the beginning of its decline).  Harvard professor Timothy Leary transforms from being a professor to becoming a “guru” and promotes the population-wide usage of psychedelics. Psychedelics turn out to be “disruptive” in reference to the existing social order.

Timothy Leary (1963): “ Make no mistake: the effect of [psychedelics] will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull.” 

  • The (politically caused) decline: “In 1971, Nixon declared the Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.“ 
  • Further controversies. Additionally, LSD trials by the CIA lead to a national scandal. Pressure increases, reports of bad trips and potential side effects are published, funding is prohibited or at least severely slowed down. Research freezes. 
  • A concluding quote. The fact is whether by their very nature or the way the first generation of researches happened to construct the experience, psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse. LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconsciousness) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilizations, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.”
The Neuroscience 

Psilocybin is a tryptamine. It resembles the most famous tryptamine Serotonin and has a strong affinity with the serotonin receptor 5-HT(2A). Curiously, psychedelics are even “stickier” than Serotonin itself, which led some scientist to assume that our body most produce some endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances.

Psychedelics as a tool to understand the contents of consciousness. Due to their effects (dissolution of ego, expansion of consciousness, sense of unity) a number of scientists believe that psychedelics can be the key to understanding the nature of our consciousness. 

Psychedelics allow access to the unconscious. Robert Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London): “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Psychedelics could turn out to be the super highway.”

Psychedelics decrease the brain activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN).

  • The DMN links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotions. The DMN stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attention networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention. It is most active when we engage in “metacognitive” brain functions such as self-reflection, mental time travel, moral reasoning and “theory of mind” – the ability to attribute mental states to others. 
  • The DMN isn’t operational until late in a child’s development. 
  • As a whole, it operates as a top-down “brain orchestrator conductor”. It’s activity is associated with our sense of self (or the ego) which is why some scientists call it the “me network”. When you are given a list of adjectives and asked to refer these to yourself, the activity in the DMN lights up. 
  •  In studies with long-time meditators, one can recognise a significant decrease in the DMN activity, especially when meditating. 
  • “Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness.” In an often cited paper called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” researchers identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the DMN.
  • The decrease of activity in the DMN (and its subsequent effects) can be achieved in a number of ways, meditations and psychedelics being two of them. Further possibilities include fasting, sensory deprivation, extreme sports, near-death-experience, overwhelming feelings of awe and so on.

The DMN not only works as a top-down control system, but additionally regulates what is let into consciousness. Most neuroscientists work under the paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. Our brain takes as little as possible sensory data to make an educated guess (categorized buckets of experience relying on previous experiences. 

The philosophical implications are deep and difficult to grasp. Our perception of reality is much less reflecting reality than it is a product of our imagination based on prior experiences and our models of memory. How is normal consciousness then much different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination such as dreams? 

Theory: The brain is an entropy-reducing machine. 

  • The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs” (2014). Robin Carhart-harris et al.
  • Suppressing entropy (i.e. uncertainty) serves to increase “realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies” but at the same time “constraints cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.” 
  • Entropy spectrum to explain psychological “disorders” such as depression, addiction, obsession and eating disorders at the low-end entropy spectrum.
    Carhart-Harris suggests that in the case of depression, the ego “turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality.” He cites research that indicates that this state of mind (sometimes called depressive realism or heavy self-consciousness) may be the result of a hyperactive DMN “which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops”. 
  • For people that suffer from excessively rigid patterns of thought stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotypical patterns of thought and behaviour by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest
  • Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity and increasing the level of entropy to allow for a more open mode of cognition.

We all have the experience of an entropic brain – as a young child. 

  • Alison Gopnik (Development psychologist at Berkeley) draws the distinction between a spotlight consciousness (adult) and a lantern consciousness (young child). 
  • Comparison to AI research: Low temperature searches (local optimum – nearest or most probable solution) vs. high temperature searches (global optimum). Adult minds most often conduct low temperature searches due to energy efficiency. 
  • “[Children’s] thinking is less constrained by experience so they will try even the most unlikely possibilities.” They “are better learners than adults in many cases where the solution is nonobvious.”