Why We Should Take Each Other Seriously

Do you want to be taken seriously? I would have a difficult time imagining that you don’t.

The desire to be taken seriously is the fuel that powers strange personality traits that you’ve likely observed in yourself and others, including:

  • Your Facebook friends who meticulously curate their online presence in an effort to appear as if they have their shit together. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, Dorothy.
  • People who are “busy”. They’ve just had a lot on, you know? Things are crazy with the kids and there’s this huge project at work that only they can do properly so there go their weekends! Last seen opening a second bottle of white wine at 7:00 on a Monday night because “cheat day!”.
  • “Fanboys” who surrender a not insignificant portion of their identity to interests they can not directly participate in or outcomes they can not meaningfully impact. Depending on the selected devotion, this can assume the shape of either hipster escapism or – more typically – living vicariously through the success of others (see: devout fans of sports teams, athletes, bands, artists, etc.).
    • This phenomenon can also be observed in:
      • Those who dedicate themselves fully to a job they don’t believe in.
      • Those dedicated to being a “present” parent to the point of having no individual identity outside of this pursuit. When asked how they are, these parents will tell you how their kids are doing.

It would be unfairly reductive to say that the desire to be taken seriously is the sole cause of these and other, similar behaviors. That’s not the point I wish to make. Rather, I would like us to turn the mirror back onto ourselves. How seriously would you (or do you) take people who fall into one of the categories listed above?

None of us is more important than anybody else. This isn’t a revolutionary idea. It’s safe to say that a large majority of the human race believe this to be true on at least a philosophical level. Not many people would claim to be superior to others; above the fray. To believe that you are better than anybody else – that there is anybody “not worth your time” – is a particularly off-putting brand of solipsism.

That said, observed human behavior (which may include your own) would seem to suggest that such espoused beliefs may be merely rhetoric. If none of us thinks that we’re better than anybody else, why are we routinely jerks to one another?

The problem is introduced when we must adhere to this philosophy in real life.

Talking about being fair is easy. Meanwhile, doing? Well, don’t we all have enough to do already?

What does this kind of behavior look like?

  • Any number of aggressive traffic maneuvers. Nobody needs to get to their destination as urgently as you!
  • Elbowing in front of kids on train station escalators. Kids aren’t really people, right? Where do they have to be that’s so important? They have their whole lives to get to the top of the escalator!
  • Spilling some coffee on the counter of the office canteen but leaving it for somebody else to clean up. That’s what interns are for, right? You? You’re late for a meeting!

You get the idea.

In all of these instances, the “bully” (let’s just call the behavior what it is, even if I’m stretching the definition past the inherent intentionality) considers nobody but themselves. Are they doing this to be a dick? Hopefully not. Most times, they’re probably perfectly nice people. So how does this happen? Where do nice people go wrong?

Inside their minds – unseen to all, including (usually) themselves – a complicated calculus is determining their actions. This calculus can be conceptualized as a flow chart of sorts; the reduction of complex social and natural scenarios to a ruthlessly efficient series of tripwires and routinized responses.

The result? They elbow in front of kids on the escalator not because they closely examined the children and considered their adolescent circumstances to be of only marginal importance when contrasted against those of the adults about, but because they didn’t think about the kids at all.

They thought only of themselves.

This type of behavior is indicative of a profound lack of regard for the needs of anybody but the self. We can look each other in the eye and claim to be selfless and socially responsible citizens who have time for everybody because that internal calculus – that ruthless flowchart – that controls our actions like a fanboy controls Lara Croft allows us to effortlessly maintain sufficient cognitive distance between effect and cause. We behave like jerks and let ourselves off the hook because, well, we didn’t mean to hurt anybody.

This is where the allegedly universal philosophy – believe it as we may – falls over entirely.

Being passively rude to strangers is bad enough but it is merely a symptom and not the disease (depending on the circumstances). The problem truly becomes a tragedy when we allow it to creep into our interpersonal relationships.

Over the last ten years I directly managed somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand staff, almost all of them younger than me and still pursuing undergraduate degrees or – more generally and with mixed results – “being twenty something”.

I had hundreds of encounters with these staff members while they were under my management, but one sticks out in my mind. This staff member found me after her shift one day and presented me with a gift. It was nothing fancy but it was very thoughtful (when selecting the gift, she had recalled a funny moment we had shared at work) and completely unexpected.

What had I done for her that she felt warranted this gift? I had seen that she was having a bad day and I asked her if she was okay.

No other staff member ever presented me with a gift, and I did my part to assist as many as I could. I had helped many with interpersonal problems they were facing, wrote letters of recommendations that helped some earn better jobs or places in their university, and just generally made myself available to them.

Sincere thanks was always offered for my assistance to those ends but the person who went beyond a mere “thank you” did so because I had done something she truly valued: I had taken her seriously. As repayment, she took me seriously.

Of those hundreds of staff interactions, this is the one that I still remember; that I still take seriously.

More recently I’ve begun tutoring at the University of Technology Sydney and in two years have directly worked with about 500 undergraduate and graduate students, the vast majority of whom are in their first year of study at their respective level.

At the end of each semester, these students are invited to complete anonymous student feedback surveys in order to help us improve the class for future students. One open-ended question on this survey asks what elements of our tutorials they particularly enjoyed or found useful. Many use this opportunity to explicitly acknowledge my acknowledgment of them. They go out of their way to thank me for taking them seriously.

The things I’ve done that they thank me for? Responding to emails, providing assistance ahead of assignment submissions, not playing favorites, and offering useful and constructive feedback on assignments. If you’re thinking that this list sounds like all the things that any teacher should be doing, I would agree with you.

Don’t mistake this anecdote for a low key explainabrag. The entire point is that I’ve merely taken my students seriously and they’ve responded in a way that suggests this type of behavior is not something they regularly encounter. Those of us who are willing to recall our undergraduate years honestly will probably sympathize with their situation, and it’s (sadly) telling that this feedback is only offered anonymously. Clearly there is some level of shame associated with feeling like we’re not consistently being taken seriously.

The way to undo this – to move toward a more respectful society that makes progress because of and not despite the presence of others – is to embrace self-awareness rather than self-absorption.

One of the most difficult obstacles to achieving this is – as I already mentioned – time. By and large we are busy people these days. To stop and give everybody our undivided attention and selfless devotion is not practical. Fortunately, it’s also not necessary.

To be merely aware as you move about the world would be to go a long way toward taking others seriously. To not elbow in on escalators. Not because you take the time to critically analyse the needs of the people whom you would be cutting off, but because you’re operating on the assumption that your needs are no more important than anybody else’s.

Herein lies the simple, overarching truth behind all of this: taking others seriously is not an active task that consumes time and energy. It’s actually as passive as not considering them at all. The difference is a fundamental shift in the baseline of your own awareness: to not rush, to not be aggressive, to not assume that your needs are more important; that you are more important.

If I took the time to actively integrate myself into the lives of my students, there would not be enough hours in the day. Further to that logistical obstacle, my introversion would cause me to collapse in a heap even as I explained how to construct a rigorous thesis for an academic essay.

To take others seriously is not to insert yourself – it’s to leave the door open. Of the 35-40 students I have in any one class, only two or three will ever take me up on my offers of extensive assistance. Maybe ten will email me at least once – usually about a question relating to attendance.

If I didn’t take them seriously? If I operated on the assumption that their undergraduate needs were inferior to my postgraduate needs and thus only relevant within the 80 minutes I’m paid to stand before them in a classroom? It would be no different to elbowing in front of them on an escalator. I wouldn’t have seen them in either scenario. I wouldn’t have taken them seriously.

Instead, I make the choice that you should also make: I take them seriously. I offer them the world and a few approach me to claim it. They respond to my taking them seriously and they take me seriously in kind. Once we find each other, there’s no need for curating our lives or surrendering pieces of our identity. We take each other as we are and we move forward.

As we all should.





Marginalia: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”

Marginalia is a regular series on Toward Vandalia in which I review the books I’m reading and unpack their most valuable lessons.

Today I’m looking at No One Understands You And What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson.


Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. She first slipped onto my radar in a recap of the 2015 99U Conference, where she was presenting the findings from this book. Her other articles on 99U – where she writes about leadership and communication – are a good sample of both her writing style and unique insight.

With No One Understands You And What To Do About It, Halvorson manages to turn the same trick that David McRaney executed exceptionally with You Are Not So Smart – she makes issues of psychology not only approachable and digestable but also funny.

Here she is talking about the fact that mature-faced people are statistically more likely to be found guilty (92%) than baby-faced people (45%) in incidents that appear to be intentional:

… If someone with a delightfully babyish face, like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Mark Hamill, ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think he or she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

The book is divided into four sections that first get to the root of all this misunderstanding between people then delve into the lenses that affect how we see the world and how personality alters those lenses. The last section brings it all together and offers a workable strategy for being better understood as well as better understanding others.

In Part One, Halvorson reminds us that we are essentially unknowable (since nobody can plug directly into our brains) – a problem for those of us who believe we can be analyzed objectively and that others see us the way we see ourselves (or want to be seen). Not only can nobody see us this way (by rule!) but no two people are likely to see us in the same (if objectively incorrect) way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the people you would like to get to know you probably aren’t bothering – their attention is limited and so they use shortcuts to assign attributes to you.

This is complicated by cognitive dissonance and the primacy effect, which cause people to put you in the box they expect you to fit into and to assume that you will never change from their first impression of you, respectively.

Oh, and everybody thinks they’re better than you.

Generally speaking, other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.

However, perception can be “hacked” if you understand how it works. The process is carried out in two phases.

Phase 1 mostly occurs automatically, which could be good or bad depending on the moment.

A person’s “typical” behavior will change as a function of where he or she is, whom the person is with, and what he or she is trying to do.

Unfortunately, most people will stop mentally bothering with you at Phase 1 meaning that if you didn’t make a good first impression, you now have your work cut out for you.

This is overcome by getting people to shift into Phase 2 perception. In this phase they will take more time to analyze your behavior in context and attempt to construct a more accurate perception of you and your being. Granted, this takes more time and energy so most people won’t bother – and if you stuffed up in Phase 1, they’ll be less inclined to see the investment of added mental energy as being worth it.

You’ve experienced this yourself if you ever met somebody when they were having a bad day and wrote them off as being a grumpy / stern / serious / unpleasant person. Maybe you didn’t bother with them for a while after that until an unavoidable situation (perhaps a long car ride where there was no escape!) forced you to consider them again. Whether or not they really were a grumpy person, your perception was most likely refined for accuracy as a result of the extra consideration on your part.

Part Two gets into the three lenses that shape the way we all make the above perceptions.

The Trust Lens

This one is rather straightforward: people will assess whether or not they can trust you. They do this by looking for the answer to two questions about you:

  1. Are you a friend or an enemy?
  2. Are you capable of acting on your good or bad intentions?

Halvorson points out that both are important to consider:

The second question is just as important as the first, because if the answer to the second one is no, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.

The answers to these questions are sussed out from the warmth and competence we display. Halvorson provides strategies for conveying both, including classics like maintaining eye contact and exercising will power. As she says:

Don’t advertise your personal demons.

The Power Lens

Halvorson offers some uplifting encouragement for dealing with powerful people:

It’s not so much that [powerful people] think they are better than you as it is they simply do not think about you at all.

Well.

Powerful people don’t have a lot of time and are less willing to spend that time on you unless you can prove your value. This is rather straightforward and recalls age-old advice for establishing job security: make yourself indispensable.

The Ego Lens

This final lens is perhaps the trickiest of all, as it’s all about self-preservation for the perceiver.

… The ego lens… has a single mission. In this case, it’s to see things in such a way that the perceiver comes out on top.

The perceiver pulls this off in one of four fascinating ways that seem ripped from the script of Mean Girls:

  1. They will convince themselves that they and their people are better than you and your people.
  2. They will decide that you are both similar and can thus share in any victories.
  3. They will determine that you aren’t actually competing for anything they want, so: no harm, no foul.
  4. If none of the above are possible, they will avoid you or attempt to destroy you.

Halvorson uses examples from job interviews with candidates of different sexes, races, and qualifications as compared to the interviewers to demonstrate how this plays out in real life (with or without the interviewer even being aware of it). Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be better looking (or smarter) than your interviewer – especially if they have low self esteem.

Halvorson recommends modesty and affirmation to overcome the trouble inherent to the ego lens.

Part Three shows how perception can be a function of personality. Halvorson examines promotion-focused (risk takers) and prevention-focused (risk averse) personalities and encourages readers to adapt their communication according a person’s dominant personality.

For a promotion-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of potential gains or wins… For a prevention-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of avoiding losses or mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Halvorson’s examination of the secure, anxious and avoidant lenses. I have a tendency to be avoidant, so it was encouraging to see these often-misunderstood traits of mine presented as being very normal.

Herein lies the beauty of books such as this: you go in expecting to learn more about others but you end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Halvorson’s techniques for dealing with avoidant-attached people is, of course, useful for me in my dealings with other avoidant-attached people but it’s most beneficial as a means of understanding how I must be coming across to other people.

In short: be patient with avoidant-attached people and don’t take our stand-offishness personally.

The last section brings all of the above together and presents techniques for forcing the issue of perception when needed, as well as a rather intricate guide to crafting the perfect apology. The book concludes with tips on how to reverse-engineer Halvorson’s guide to being better understood into ways of better understanding others.

No One Understands You And What To Do About It is an easy read but is far from a superficial one. Halvorson has deconstructed a problem central to communication in our hyper-communicative world and offers strategies that can be employed in any aspects of our lives and within any context: home, work, school, the gym – anywhere!

She writes with an assured style and peppers in subtle, wink-wink humor to make sure you’re paying attention. Far from your average management or self-help book (which she notes in the intro she specifically tried to avoid writing), No One Understands You And What To Do About It entertains as much as it informs.





Lessons I Learned From My 2015 Reading

Lessons learned from books I read in 2015

Those of you keeping score at home know I love trying to find life lessons everywhere (even in movies). Books, of course, are not an unusual source of lessons but reading critically and identifying the thoughts and lessons that truly resonate with you is an enjoyable exercise that adds value to fiction and non-fiction alike. The books that I read in 2015 represent a nice blend of both categories and though the lessons are certainly easier to glean from non-fiction, there were also lessons to be learned from the fictional stories.

Here are some of my favorites.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest will really remind readers of the film The Village as the setting is almost identical. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Harvest features prose that borders on poetry in terms of both beauty and lyricism. The story is simple but rich – a group of outsiders arrives on the edges of a rural settlement on the same night a large fire consumes the manor house. Accusations are immediately leveled against the unknown visitors and the pursuit of the truth pushes each villager to the edge.

The lane is telling me I should not fear the futures that it holds.

The villagers in Harvest value their uncomplicated lives and go to extremes in their attempts to maintain it. However, as I have often said across many posts, there are no reasons to fear the unknown future. There are good reasons to fix what “ain’t broke”.

I can’t believe he would be parted from his smile, even in death.

This quote is presented out of context but who wouldn’t want to be remembered this way?

It’s certain that you cannot tell from how a person works or how a person strolls behind her hens what kind of life they live in secrecy.

Another common theme explored elsewhere on ToVa: your own concept of another person is not even a shred of the whole truth of their being. This can mean things good or evil are unseen and/or unknown by you but the real takeaway is to remember that though other people appear as extras in the movie of our daily life, their existence could be every bit as rich as yours (if not more rich).

Quiet by Susan Cain

As an introvert, I found Quiet quite fascinating. Cain digs deep into society’s concept of introversion and what she refers to as the “extrovert ideal” that leaves most introverts feeling misunderstood and/or undervalued. Introverts will find it especially interesting but extroverts will also take a lot away from the research and case studies that Cain presents.

That said, the quote that I found the most inspiring applies to introverts and extroverts alike:

Those who live the most fully realized lives – giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves – tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

We would all do well to remember this very true notion in times of struggle.

How to be Alone by Sara Maitland

Doesn’t it seem natural that I would sit down a book about introversion and pick up what is ostensibly a guide to being a loner? Of course, How to be Alone is far from a step-by-step guide to hermitude – rather, it is an exploration of the many benefits of carving out some solitude in a world that increasingly demands either our physical or digital presence at all times.

Hence:

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

We all want to be “luxuriously immersed in doings of [our] own choice” but this often requires being alone or, at the very least, ‘disconnected’. This, then, is a valuable reminder that to be alone is more about being present with ourselves than it is about removing ourselves from the company of others.

All of us want to be treated as complex and unique human beings, but simultaneously want everybody to be just like ourselves.

I present this quote without context just because it always make me chuckle.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book, by the co-founder of The School of Life, uses the philosophy of a great thinker to guide the reader through dealing with existential crises (for example: the philosophy of Socrates is relayed as a consolation for being unpopular). It is a highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable way to expose oneself to the works of great philosophers such as Nietzsche and Epicurus if you’re hesitant to jump right into their respective primary texts.

It was hard to limit the number of quotes I wanted to share and even still I’m left with quite a long list.

If we attend properly to our experiences and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for an intellectual life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.

Montaigne was all about the ability of the common man to achieve intellectual heights and this quote underscores the point. We could all afford to take ourselves a little more (but not too) seriously.

Critics are not inclined to bow before the grander pronouncements of those with whom they attended university.

Oh, so true – but we are truly limiting ourselves through such jealousy.

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself.

Courtesy of the stoics, this quote highlights that we must be careful about where (and with whom) we deposit pieces of ourselves. It is possible to toe the line between looking out for your own development and being selfish.

He allowed him to be himself; through his psychological acuity, he enabled him to be so. He offered scope for valuable and yet until then neglected dimensions of Montaigne’s character – which suggests that we pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are.

There are many dimensions to friendship and our most valuable relationships with others will be both affectionate and actualizing, pushing us ever toward achieving our ideal self. Friends who see us as everything we wish to be are special indeed.

Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured toward new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.

A warning against the dangers of consumerism, ostensibly, but also a reminder that we must tend to the garden of our minds. How to be Alone can help in this cause.

Errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.

This really should be common sense but sadly is not altogether common knowledge. The motivations of those who might oppose us are hard to know (see the earlier quote from Harvest about secret lives) and physical objects that get in the way could be present for no greater reason than coincidence. You might be wrong but the mere presence of resistance does not in itself prove this fact.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Most of you have probably seen the movie and I hope many have also read the book. More than just a gripping science-fiction tale of survival, The Martian is hilarious from cover to cover. Thankfully, this humor mostly survived the translation to film but if you haven’t read the book, do!

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Remember what we just said about obstacles not being an indicator of correctness?

Since Sol 6 all I’ve wanted to do is get the hell out of here. Now the prospect of leaving the Hab behind scares the shit out of me. I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”

He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my rover. Man those guys were cool.

Included because we all want to a whiskey drinkin’, moon landin’ Apollo astronaut. Those guys were cool.

Log Entry Sol 11
I wonder how the Cubs are doing.

Mark Watney’s log in the early days of his being stranded on Mars. A little levity never hurt nobody (but Cubs fandom has).

The Fall by Albert Camus

Camus is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. I’ve featured his ideas on ToVa before. His novels do a fantastic job of weaving his philosophy through a compelling but fictional narrative and The Fall is no exception. The book is entirely dialogue but reveals only one side of a conversation between the speaker, Clamence, and a fellow Frenchman he befriends and subsequently shows around Amsterdam. Slowly Clamence reveals elements of his personal history and philosophy toward many subjects – primarily judgement – to the increasing horror of his compatriot and the reader.

One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day.

Anybody making a real go of things has been here before: you’re on top of the world one minute and then you blink and can’t get motivated to get out of bed. Pacing and moderation are critical in all aspects of our lives; actualization is a process, not a task.

What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.

Hindsight, eh? Still, these lessons must be learned.

… We rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.

Here is a different, more cynical, take on the earlier quote about choosing friends who see us as we want to be seen. This is a trap in which we can easily be ensnared. Those with low expectations are easier to please and less likely to judge but they will also never help you move forward. They are quicksand from which it is difficult to escape. Fear not the judgement of the less-enlightened.

But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others.

I feel like I just said this!

Doubtless they suspected me of living fully, given up completely to happiness; and that cannot be forgiven. The look of success, when it is worn in a certain way, would infuriate a jackass.

Jealousy! People unwilling to pursue their own happiness will never give you credit for achieving happiness of your own. This is not worth your time to consider.

Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.

Again we strike upon a common theme across these books: that others know not what we are going through and can never be made to understand. As the stoics remind us, we must choose to live for and invest in ourselves.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.

Charisma and charm are facets of human interaction that fascinate me and this quote illustrates their magical powers. It’s a topic I’ll be exploring in future blog posts.

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen

Until I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City I had not read one word written by Franzen which meant, with the release of Purity toward the end of the year, I had five novels to work my way through. Since I love doing these things in order, I started with his first novel, a sprawling narrative concerning a political and sociological conspiracy in St. Louis that effects all levels of the city’s society. The treat of Franzen’s writing is in the observation and his first effort is no exception, showing flashes of the insight that he refines with each subsequent novel.

Everything seems like it might be important. The side of the bed I sleep on. Working too hard. Not working enough. Do I need to get angry? Or do I need to stay calm? Weekend versus week night. Red wine versus white. You know? Because there’s got to be a reason for this, and any part of my life, anything I do every day — There are so many variables, so many combinations. I can’t pinpoint the important ones by any process of elimination. What if the reasons I can’t sleep are eating sugar, going to bed too early, and watching sports on the weekend? I could never isolate that. But I lie there for hours turning over the variables. I can’t remember when I ever slept well. As if my whole life had been this way.

Case in point: who among us has not had thoughts in this same pattern? There is comfort in knowing we are not alone. The power of fiction is its ability to breed empathy.

Probst doesn’t have the loser’s ethic it takes to believe in conspiracy.

While the notion of a ‘loser’s ethic’ seems harsh, this touches again upon our common thread of feeling like any resistance means we are wrong or that people are out to get us. The winners, meanwhile, are getting on with it.

And he could see how the year had happened , how a man in his prime, the envy of a state, could lose everything without even putting up a fight along the way: he hadn’t believed in what he had.

Here is a very real danger we all face as we strive for actualization. It is possible to reach – sometimes several times – a point when we don’t feel as though the good around us and the things we have accomplished are real or worthwhile or (more cynically still) a product of our efforts. If we don’t value what we have it may slip away while we’re not looking.

Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen

Strong Motion again weaves a tale of conspiracy but in a tighter manner than Franzen’s first novel. Reneé Seitchek is a seismologist working at Harvard when unprecedented earthquakes rock the Boston area. She meets and begins a romance with Louis Holland, whose grandmother was the sole fatal victim of the first of these minor tremors. Through this romance and her exposure to the Holland family she slowly begins to theorize that the cause of the earthquakes is not natural but her accusations – if true – would have far-reaching implications.

I have no quotes to share from this book as most of my marginalia in this case highlighted bits of prose I particularly liked for stylistic reasons (you can click here to read those passages if you’re interested) but the story itself stands as a good example of determination in the face of opposition. When Reneé completes her theory (which she defends in an academic article) there are ample stakeholders who wish to dismiss her theory for various and shallow reasons as well as those who stand to lose if she is proven right and are a threat to her safety as she proceeds with her research.

She sticks to her guns and (in several ways) looks out for her own interests despite all of the resistance and, in some cases, departures of those who encouraged her to pursue her research in the first place.

What are you reading?

My first novel of 2016 is The Corrections, Franzen’s third and most highly-regarded novel. I’m 150 pages in and can already see why this is the case.

What are you reading? Please share below along with any lessons you’d like to highlight.


All of my writing – including ToVa posts, fiction, and personal essays – is now being gathered at jgregjoachim.com





YouCo. Part 2: Strategy And Scenario Planning

Rupert employs aggressive marketing.

This is the second in a series of posts I have lamely dubbed YouCo. I’m drawing on lessons from my graduate business studies to show how best practices from the business world can be applied at the most micro of levels: yourself. The first post considered how a mission and vision statement might be useful to individuals and I encourage you to start there before continuing with this post. That said: I’m not your real dad so you’re free to do whatever you want.

Today’s post examines how businesses construct a strategy to help them attain their stated vision within the context of their mission. I also introduce scenario planning, an idea that is sure to tingle your creativity-senses. The series concludes next week with a look at some generic strategies that might just bring you closer to actualization. I’ll put it this way: once you’ve looked at mentorship as a merger, there’s no turning back.


 Part Two: Strategy And Scenario Planning

If your mission and vision are what you are and what you want to be, respectively, then strategy is the means by which you’re going to attempt to bridge the gap between the two.

Constructing a strategy (which may go by any number of names depending on which particular annual report you happen to be reading) for a business is complex. Internal forces are complicated enough to navigate, but there is also the added consideration of a number of external factors ranging from consumer attitudes to the behavior of your competitors. An effective business strategy must maximize results for stakeholders while minimizing risk and loss – and all within a turbulent external environment over which the company has little control.

Businesses compete with each other because the nature of the marketplace presents only one pie from which they can carve out a slice. If 40 people in your neighborhood drink coffee and you decide to open a cafe, you’re competing for a percentage of those 40 people. You’re not creating a customer base, you’re competing for a piece of one that’s already there… and you always will be. A business strategy, then, must focus on maximizing the business’ slice of this pie. Rarely is a dollar of profit created; it’s usually “captured” from a competitor.

Fortunately, things are far simpler for an individual. Actualization (the assumed endpoint of our efforts) is not one big pie from which every person on the planet must carve their slice – it’s billions of individual pies just waiting to be snatched once we climb high enough to reach the shelf. I’m not claiming that there is an absence of competition for individuals. We’re all going to end up competing for jobs, promotions, etc. However, these competitions are isolated rather than ongoing and the philosophies that I’m about to introduce don’t just apply to the bigger picture, they will also help you come out on top in these intermediate battles.

Constructing And Stating Your Strategy

Your strategy statement is every bit as important as your mission and vision statements and should be concise, specific and realizable in the same manner. Such a statement is made up of three components:

  1. The Objective
  2. The Scope
  3. The Advantage

The objective, of course, is the end state that you would like to accomplish and (where possible to gauge) a time-frame in which you would like to achieve that state. The scope is, simply put, the context within which you hope to reach the objective. The advantage, meanwhile, is the unique set of characteristics and traits that you bring to the front of this particular war that will enable you to lead yourself and other stakeholders to the objective.

In part one we looked at the mission and vision of my alma mater, West Virginia University. WVU are seeking to achieve their mission with their 2020 Strategic Plan For The Future, a set of five goals that conceptualize the components of the university’s vision statement into (caution: buzzword ahead) action items.

Enjoy a nice cup of Goal 5 for an example:

Goal 5:

Enhance the well-being and the quality of life of the people of West Virginia.

OBJECTIVE 1
Create an academic health system and health professions programs that enhance the well-being of West Virginians.

OBJECTIVE 2
Increase opportunities for the citizens of the state through workforce education, lifelong learning, and outreach to every county.

OBJECTIVE 3
Promote sustainable economic development and a cultural environment that improve the quality of life throughout the state.

ACTIONS

1. Promote sustainable economic development and a cultural environment that improve the quality of life throughout the state.

2. Expand outreach efforts to connect the campuses to citizens and communities throughout the state. Provide resources and information to equip West Virginia University Extension agents, and other personnel engaged in outreach and care, for a broader role as ambassadors for the institution.

3. Meet regularly with state and industry leaders to articulate University successes and initiatives, to learn of the needs of the state, and to promote the commercialization of research, economic development, and global commerce.

4. Create a nimble academic health system that is responsive to patient access needs, ensures high quality, cost-effective, and safe care, and delivers patient satisfaction and value.

5. Strengthen relationships with alumni, stakeholders, and the communities that neighbor West Virginia University campuses.

This goal clearly addresses the final part of WVU’s vision statement: “By 2020, West Virginia University will attain national research prominence, thereby enhancing…  the vitality and well-being of the people of West Virginia.”

This desired end state is presented in the strategic plan as a list of objectives and actions required to get there (the first component of a strategy statement), clearly states the scope as being the people of West Virginia (the second component) and makes reference to the advantages that WVU will employ to get there (the third component), namely: their aspirational position as a leading research institution, the ability to work alongside the government as a land-grant university, and the existing network of campuses across the state.

Your own strategy statement can be engineered in just this way. A component of my own vision statement is to become an academic. This follows from education and knowledge being important values to me and the pursuit of both being central to my personal mission. My own strategy, then, must bridge the gap between that mission and my desired end state of being an academic. What objectives, then, will lead me to that promised land? There are two major possibilities:

  1. Pursue further formal education in the form of a PhD.
  2. Continue on my path of independent research.

It’s possible for either of these roads to take me to my destination. However, considering the scope (again, component two) helps me to turn the wheel in a certain direction: I wish to be a university-based academic. Now the picture begins to crystallize and come into focus. Sure, I could be an independent researcher and have one foot in the door at a university, but pursuing my research through university channels aligns more closely with what I’m hoping to achieve.

Considering my advantages allows me to pull the trigger and make a strategic decision. Conceptualizing this third component for an individual is slightly different to doing so for a business. A business must differentiate itself from competitors in order to “capture” more of the pie. My coffee might be the same but my take-away cups are way rad. It might seem insignificant, but these small details effect consumer behavior in subtle (but often detectable) ways.

However, advantages for an individual don’t have to create or demonstrate differentiation between yourself and others (although, again, isolated instances will require this but we’re talking big picture stuff here). For this reason, it’s best to consider your strengths as your advantage. You don’t necessarily have to be better, but you do have be good. I have worked hard to become a solid academic writer. I wasn’t born that way – I developed the skill over years of constructive feedback. Now it is a strength of mine – an advantage – and it is a strength that would serve me well in pursuit of a PhD. Clearly the first objective is the way to go.

Or is it? In developing my strategy statement I have considered objective, scope and advantage, but all of these considerations are based on my current state of affairs and balance on the dangerous assumption that my life – in all related aspects – will continue as it has proceeded to date. In taking the cornerstones of my existence for granted I have ignored the fact that an earthquake could – at any point in the future – shake that foundation and bring it to the ground. How, then, do we consider what life will look like at that point in the future when we actually achieve our objective?

By engaging in a fantastic exercise known as scenario planning.

Back To The Future: Scenario Planning And You

Scenario planning is an exercise in which strategists imagine plausible futures in which their organization will eventually operate. Not to be mistaken for forecasting, scenario planning is less about the bottom line and more about ensuring the organization can withstand changes in circumstances that may or may not be beyond their control. The scenarios that are drawn up are not predictions, they are plausible narratives.

The practice was popularized by Royal Dutch Shell, who began scenario planning in 1965. Attempting to imagine alternate futures that ignored the generally-accepted assumption that present trends will continue unabated allowed the company to survive the 1973 energy crisis and is a practice they still employ to this day.

Fortunately, like developing a strategy statement, engaging in scenario planning is far less complex for an individual than it is for a business. You are simply attempting to picture what the world around you might look like when you ultimately achieve your objective. It might seem a bit silly, but you will often find that what the future holds for you may not be conducive to an objective you’re thinking about undertaking.

Using my own example, I know that the timeline of completing my PhD is about four years. What will my world look like in four years? I know I will be married and after this there are two futures: one in which I am a dad and one in which I’m not. Obviously the possibility of having a child is an important (and very realistic) consideration. My sleep will be impacted. I will have less free time to focus on my study. My partner’s needs will change and I will need to meet her at those junctions. Perhaps my partner will get a job in a different city, which will put a strain on me as I will be tied rather immovably to the university here in Sydney.

Such scenarios underscore another important consideration: other stakeholders. Where I have a number of possible scenarios, so does my partner. Our lives are linked, but only to an extent. My pursuit of a PhD would affect her own scenarios. She might be forced to turn down that job in another city, even if it would have been better for us as a family.

It’s easy to imagine an infinite number of scenarios because, stopping short of going FULL PHILOSOPHICAL, there truly is an infinite number of possibilities. Scenario planning calls for identifying those that are plausible without inducing an analysis paralysis that will prevent you from moving forward. Choose one or two (Shell used to work up three until they noticed management tended to choose the middle of the road as a way of hedging risk) but Angela Wilkinson and Roland Kupers (authors of the HBR article about Shell) warn against identifying a best and worst case scenario:

The trap of having a “good” versus a “bad” future is that there is nothing to learn in heaven, and no one wants to visit hell.

Instead, they recommend looking for links between your strengths (advantages) and those plausible futures. Such thinking forces you to look outside of your comfort zone, actually enabling you to grow even while you’re planning for growth. When the future eventually arrives (as it usually does) it may not look exactly like the scenarios you had imagined, but the flexible thinking and consideration that scenario planning has helped you develop will leave you agile and adaptable in a way that will make you feel like you were born ready for anything.


This is the second in a series of three posts I’ve lamely dubbed YouCo. The series examines how best practices from the business world can be applied to your pursuit of self-actualization.

Part One: Define The Mission And Vision Of YouCo.

Next week I will wrap things up with a look at some generic business strategies that might not seem applicable to your personal pursuits but may just yield surprising results for YouCo.





Define The Mission And Vision Of YouCo.

Rupert employs aggressive marketing.

I recently completed my MBA at the University of Technology, Sydney. My own shift toward personal development coincided with the commencement of my graduate studies and the two simultaneous pursuits really played well off of one another for the duration of my course. Since putting the finishing touches on my coursework I’ve begun to synthesize many of the larger ideas that were common threads across different subjects including efficiency, responsibility, strategy, and communication.

More than once throughout my course I was struck with the notion that many of the theories and best practices that we were being taught to apply to business could also be implemented at the most micro of levels: ourselves.

This is the working thesis behind a series of posts I’ve lamely dubbed “YouCo.” that will appear over the next several weeks. Think of it like a crash-course MBA that’s all about you. No tests. No accounting requirement. Just the best practices of the business world turned inside out in the name of self-actualization. Let’s begin.

Part One: Mission and Vision

No concept has induced more yawning or eye-rolls in “team building” meetings than that of a mission and vision statement. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that so many mission and vision statements are poorly constructed or don’t reflect reality. Do you know the mission and vision of the company you work for?

Does your boss?

Yes?

Because he wrote it?

Yeah, I thought so.

When appropriately stated and grounded in the reality shared by all members of the organization, mission and vision statements can be powerful rather than groan-inducing. Mission and vision are two different notions, though they are often clumped together. Generally speaking, a company’s mission is a summary of what’s happening now while their vision considers what they’d like to be doing in the future and how they aim to make that ideal future into the present reality.

Examples are fun, so consider this one from my alma mater, West Virginia University:

Mission

As a land-grant institution in the 21st century, WVU will deliver high-quality education, excel in discovery and innovation, model a culture of diversity and inclusion, promote health and vitality, and build pathways for the exchange of knowledge and opportunity between the state, the nation, and the world.

Vision

By 2020, WVU will attain national research prominence, thereby enhancing educational achievement, global engagement, diversity, and the vitality and well-being of the people of West Virginia.

The mission explicitly states what the university is, what they aim to deliver, who they aim to deliver it to, and establishes an ideal framework in which they operate.

The vision, meanwhile, looks ahead and sets a goal of even higher achievement with a specific focus on the people of West Virginia. This vision is in line with their 2020 Strategic Plan, but we’ll save that for next week’s YouCo. entry on strategy.

Is it shocking that a university emphasizes learning and wants to be better at it in the future? Well, no – but that’s not really the point. More than stating the obvious, a mission and vision statement is a checkpoint against which operational decisions can be measured. It is, in essence, the compass that keeps the ship headed in the right direction.

It has to be based in reality and it has to be realizable.

If you were to measure any current student or faculty member against the mission statement you would find either a whole or a broken link in the chain – there is really no middle ground. If the mission is based in reality, you’ll find only one strong chain with no broken links. If it doesn’t reflect reality there will be weak links indicating the mission statement is actually the vision statement and you need to take a step back to reassess.

Your Own Mission And Vision

Though not every group will formally state their purpose and aspirations, most will have at least an informal idea of who they are and where they’re going. It’s easy to see that mission and vision statements are a virtual necessity for even small organizations; all members have to be aligned in order to achieve the best results. But considering the fact that we’re talking about dealing with yourself and yourself alone, why bother with a formal mission and vision statement? Aren’t you always going to know what you want and where you’re going without the need to reference an articulation of those ideas?

Well, sure. It’s not impossible to achieve great results without formalizing the state of your being and your aspirations. Many have done it throughout history and many will do it into the future. However, I happen to believe that stating and continually updating your mission and vision will keep you moving toward actualization at a faster clip while helping you monitor your own progress along the way.

If you look at a photo of yourself now compared to when you were ten years younger I imagine you can immediately notice some differences in your physical appearance. Maybe your hair is darker, maybe your jaw line is better defined. Whatever the differences, they’re obvious and easy to point out in this ‘then and now’ comparison.

But can you point to a day in that ten year span that you noticed your hair color had changed from the day prior? A morning when your jaw could cut glass whereas the night before it was hard to distinguish? Of course not. The change was gradual and not detectable on an ongoing basis, even to yourself.

What about your worldview over a four year span like high school or college? Between being a freshman to becoming a senior you probably engineered a different take on things societal, political, romantic – but was it an overnight epiphany that made senior-you unrecognizable to freshman-you? Probably not, and you would find it difficult to point to the individual and isolated moments that came to inform your new perspectives.

If such physical and mental change is happening to you without your knowledge, would you not like to have some manner of control over it? Some ability to reel it in and steer it in the direction of your passions rather than let it be carried away by a current of indifference moving toward the status quo?

Your personal mission and vision statement can be that tool.

Defining your mission and your vision will allow you to do what you could not do while comparing ‘then and now’ photos: track your progress while it’s ongoing. How does this work? Your aspirational vision will be incorporated into your mission once it’s been accomplished. Say, for example, that your vision is to become a politician that serves the people of your precinct. You work toward this goal until one day you are elected. Now your mission becomes the present form of what was once your vision for the future. Now you are a politician that serves the people and your vision must be revised (within the frame of your mission).

If you revisit your mission and vision at regular intervals, you will be able to see how you have accomplished your visions and enhanced your mission over time. More than ticking boxes on a to-do list, this is a visualization of your road to actualization. It’s the same concept that those who keep journals and diaries are always talking about: the ability to track the subtle but often tectonic shifts in your personality, character and priorities.

The most important component here is the integration of your achieved visions into your current mission. By doing this you can track your progress toward larger, more ethereal goals (vision) while further fortifying your foundation (mission). Your mission serves as your rock, allowing you to remember who you are and what you stand for. It’s an inventory of the artillery you have at hand to defend against crises of character and attacks from would-be corrupters; the ever-expanding fortress from which you venture out daily in search of actualization.

A good way to get started with your first mission statement is to take stock of where you are and what factors in your life actually define you. If you don’t want to be defined by your job, leave it out. If you do want to be defined by your love of animals, make it explicit. Your mission statement might look something like this:

As an educated and professional accountant, I will deliver the very best service to my clients by making their priorities my own and ensuring my job is done correctly the first time. As a husband and father of two, I will prioritize the happiness of my wife and children by separating my work and home life and celebrating their successes as if they were my own. As a citizen of West Virginia, I will take an active part in local politics by being an informed citizen and encouraging healthy debate on my political blog.

Your vision, though, can best be thought of as “how would I like history to remember me?” A vision statement for our hypothetical accountant might look like this:

By the age of 40 I will have achieved a junior partnership at my firm. By the time my children graduate, I will have saved the tuition costs for them to attend a state school. Using my knowledge of business and local policy, I will provide ongoing support for my wife as she aims to open her own business. By 2016 I will have expanded membership on my blog to 10,000 and readership to 50,000 unique hits a week and by 2018 I will use the blog as a platform to campaign for a seat in the West Virginia state senate.

When you’ve crafted your personal mission and vision, write it down somewhere. No need to laminate it and hang it on the wall. Put it on a card in your wallet. Make it a reminder on your phone that becomes the first thing you see each morning. Commit to it and strive to live by the mission and achieve the vision. After a year, revisit it. How far have you come? Can any of your vision be integrated into your mission? Have you deviated from your mission in whole or in part?

If so, rework your mission and vision accordingly. Over time you’ll have documented verification that you’re making real progress toward becoming your ideal self and that the status quo does not apply to you.


Next week I will take a look at how businesses develop and execute various strategies and how a little strategic thinking might pay dividends for YouCo.