Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:


From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (

Thoreau on Escaping Busyness through the Art of Walking

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Are you trapped by busyness?  Finding and protecting the time to do the work that is meaningful and important to you requires that you slow down, remember your goals, and develop focus.  I’ve found that my ability to complete meaningful work is inversely proportional to how “busy” I am.  Accomplishing deep and satisfying work is the product of rejecting perpetual distraction, unending demands, and our modern culture of 24-hour responsiveness.

Science tells us today that even short lunchtime walks can help you cope at work, improve your concentration, heal your brain by soothing your mental state, enhances your creativity, and can treat depression. Although he did not have access to brain-scanning technology, Henry David Thoreau nonetheless presciently anticipated this present conflict in his essay “Walking,” in which he discusses the art, requirements, and benefits of learning to detach from daily distraction and find new and clear perspective in the outdoor world.  An outgrowth of journal entries from 1851, the essay argues that man finds “absolute freedom and wildness” in the natural world.

Thoreau argues that the benefits of walking in nature are found in understanding the art of sauntering, which we have in large part lost today:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau’s requirements are large: “four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  To prepare one’s self, Thoreau announces a bold and demanding set of spiritual requirements needed  for a proper walk:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. […]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession.

Setting aside four hours a day for a daily trek is an impossible goal for most of us these days.  It probably was an impossible goal for most of Thoreau’s neighbors as well.  Nonetheless, Thoreau’s short essay is a beautiful exposition on the value and purpose of walking and exploring, regardless of physical distance.  In leaving the daily mundane chores and obligations behind, we have the opportunity to find a direct connection to an improvement in health, spirit, and mental focus.

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

While the physical benefits of walking are easily appreciated, the deeper benefits lie in the opportunity walking presents to develop mindfulness,  “a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”  Thoreau understands this point well, and turns his attention to the goal of mindfulness and the manner in which giving our full focus to the task at hand is essential:

Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works — for this may sometimes happen.

Thoreau describes here the instant of realization that we all have experienced, when we suddenly snap to attention after having been lost in thought, only to realize that we are occupied and engaged in some different task.  It is this mental drifting, this capture in the cacophony of our minds, for which Thoreau prescribes walking as the antidote.  For walking, in our great spaces, is the way to recapture Wildness.

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. […]

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.

And what do we find in Wildness?  New perspective.  New ideas.  Escape from the same paths of learning and thinking and doing that limit creativity and expansion and prosperity.  It is new ideas that and new thinking that excite us and attract us:

In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild-the mallard-thought, which, ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the west, or in the jungles of the east.

When the afternoon energy low hits you tomorrow, and you find yourself checking your watch every ten minutes, take a walk.  If you have a list of phone calls and voicemails to return, take your cell phone and return the calls while you walk.  If you plan on an afternoon coffee break, walk to a different coffee shop a few blocks away, rather than simply visit the break room down the hall.  While I don’t accomplish it every day, my goal on most days in the office is to do my deep thinking and creative work in the mornings, and make phone calls in the afternoon, preferably while walking.  It revives me, clears my head, and lets me refocus on the task at hand mindfully.

Who knows?  While you probably won’t find Thoreau’s Wildness every day on every walk, you just might have spark the crash of creativity and new perspective of brilliance that Thoreau felt was lurking in the Wild:

Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself-and not a taper lighted at the hearth-stone of the race which pales before the light of common day.

photo:  Patorjk via Wikimedia Commons

The Science of Craving and Free Will

Why do we crave things that we do not need, or even worse, things that harm us?

As Aristotle once wrote: “It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.” Buddhists, meanwhile, have endeavored for 2,500 years to overcome the suffering caused by our propensity for longing. Now, it seems, [neuroscientist Dr. Kent] Berridge has found the neuro-anatomical basis for this facet of the human condition – that we are hardwired to be insatiable wanting machines.

You likely have heard an abridged “cocktail party” version of some description of the mind’s reward system.  That version probably goes something like this: exposure to certain stimuli (candy, sex, exercise, cocaine) caused a release of dopamine in the mind, which the brain experienced as pleasure.  The brain then “learned” to seek out repeated exposure to that same stimulus so as to obtain the same dopamine release that it craved.  As time went on, each exposure to the stimulus caused the release of less and less dopamine, requiring greater and greater exposure to that stimulus to obtain pleasure.  So went the road to addiction, it was taught.

But Dr. Berridge has a different theory, based on his research beginning in the mid-1980s.

Berridge, a dedicated young scientist who was more David than Goliath, stumbled upon evidence in 1986 that dopamine did not produce pleasure, but in fact desire. […]

The reward system, he then asserted, has two distinct elements: wanting and liking (or desire and pleasure). While dopamine makes us want, the liking part comes from opioids and also endocannabinoids (a version of marijuana produced in the brain), which paint a “gloss of pleasure”, as Berridge puts it, on good experiences. […]

His most telling discovery was that, whereas the dopamine/wanting system is vast and powerful, the pleasure circuit is anatomically tiny, has a far more fragile structure and is harder to trigger.

Berridge’s insight was to distinguish the brain’s wanting from its actual experience of pleasure:

“It’s easy to turn on intense wanting,” he says.[…] “Massive, robust systems do it. They can come on with the pleasure, they can come on without the pleasure, they don’t care. It’s tricky to turn on the pleasure.” […]

“This may explain…why life’s intense pleasures are less frequent and less sustained than intense desires.”

Pleasure, Berridge explains, cannot be pursued relentlessly, as the mind’s own circuits are designed to produce satiety:

Wanting and liking wax and wane like candle flames. The hungry, wanting state before a meal could be studded with moments of pleasure from a social encounter, or anticipation of good food.  Then, as we eat, pleasure dominates, but wanting still crops up – more salt, a drink of water, a second helping. Before long, the satiety system steps in to render each mouthful less delicious until we stop. If we switch to another food – dessert, cheese, petits fours – we can prolong the pleasure until we’re stuffed, although we may regret it.

The applications of Berridge’s research that are most interesting to me are its implications on the current philosophical debates about free will.  This arises from Berridge’s conclusion that “it is possible to want something without liking it.”  Crazy impulse purchases, eating too much cake, continuing to drink or do drugs past the point of pleasure are all examples.  One must ask the question, who or what is making these choices for us?

Discussions of free will have arisen out of Berridge’s work because wanting and liking can happen both consciously and unconsciously. This is why urgent desires can be irrational and inconsistent, and fly in the face of what we know is best for us in the long run. Unconscious wanting can defy our best-laid plans to end an unhealthy relationship or not polish off that box of chocolates.

Berridge and his colleagues point to meditation as one cognitive tool to distance our conscious minds from the unconscious machinery of wants and needs:

[Berridge] was particularly struck by the effectiveness of meditation in taming our dopamine desires – not only among Buddhists.

Sarah Bowen, an addiction therapist in Seattle who was also invited on the Dalai Lama trip, has had significant success in helping recovering addicts by using mindfulness meditation. Over 12 months, this treatment reduced substance use more effectively than cognitive-behavioural therapy or the 12-step programme. It’s not a cure, and won’t work for everyone, because it requires commitment to get the benefits. But mindfulness’s tentacles are rapidly spreading throughout the Western world, perhaps because it’s one of the few palpable antidotes to the dopamine frenzy of modern life.

via Intelligent Life Magazine.

photo: cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark, via Wikimedia Commons


The Monty Hall Problem: Improve Your Predictions with Bayes’ Rule

We predict outcomes and infer conclusions based on information that comes to us many times each day.  Doctors call this diagnosis; financial planners call this investment advice; attorneys call this counsel; executives call this strategic planning.  Good decision-making requires that we use as accurate a baseline as the available data will allow.  If we operate in dynamic and shifting environments, however, probabilities and outcomes are in flux and will change as new events occur and new data becomes available.  Is there a responsible way for us to update our predictions with the availability of new data?

I should start with a very necessary caveat: I am not a mathematician.  I have never taken a statistics or probability course.  I often do work in the legal field, though, where making a probabilistic (even if imperfect) assessment of many potential outcomes in my cases is necessary to my advising clients.  Recently, I have begun to investigate whether there are lessons contained in the concrete world of mathematics and statistics that I might apply even to non-scientific questions.

Bayes’ Rule is one such lesson.  Bayes’ Rule is named after Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) and demonstrates how to update beliefs or predictions based on the occurrence of a new event or the availability of new data.  Here is the theorem in its mathematical form:


Defining terms, p(A) is the probability of event A occurring, and p(B) is the probability of event B occurring.  p(B|A) is the probability of event B occurring assuming that event A has occurred, while p(A|B) represents the probability that event A will occur assuming that event B has occurred.  What does this mean?  Bayes’ idea was to represent mathematical changes in the probability of an event based on conditions related to that event.  In other words, if a doctor is interested in determining whether a patient has cancer, and cancer is known to have some relationship to the age of a patient, Bayes’ rule sets out to predict the change in the probability that the patient has cancer if she is of a certain age.

Let’s look at another classic example, known as the Monty Hall Problem.  On the classic game show Let’s Make a Deal, host Monty Hall often gave contestants a chance to win a car by picking from one of three doors.  One door hid a car, the other two doors had no cars.  At this point, the contestant has a one in three chance to win.  Once the contestant picked a door, Hall opened one of the other two doors, but never a door with a car.  Hall then gave the contestant a final choice: stick with his original door or switch to the remaining door.  What is the right move for the contestant?  Bayes’ rule provides an answer that is not immediately obvious: the contestant actually doubles his chances to win by switching doors, from 33% to 66%.

How can this be?  The answer lies in updating our prediction based on new information.  Assume the contestant first picks Door 1.  He has a 33% chance that he has picked correctly.  There is a corresponding 67% chance that the car is behind Door 2 or Door 3.  Hall will then open Door 2 or 3, but will not open a door with a car behind it.  If Hall opens Door 2, the 66% chance lies entirely with Door 3.  The probability that the car is behind Door 1 is still 33%, but the probability that it lies behind Door 3 is doubled.  Switching is the smart move here.

Notice here how the increase in probability from the new information of Hall opening Door 2 comes only after the contestant has already picked Door 1.  Suppose instead, that the contestant was kept off stage, unaware of what Hall was doing onstage.  In this alternate scenario, before the contestant was invited to join the game, Hall opens Door 2 and shows the audience that no car lay behind it.  Hall then brings out the contestant and tells him he can win a car if he correctly guesses whether the car lies behind Door 1 or 3.  What are his odds?  In this scenario, he has a 50% chance of winning – his choice makes no difference.  His probability does not change because he has only one one data point – that the car is behind one of two doors, instead of the two data points in the other scenario – that the car is behind one of three doors, but not the door that Hall then opens.  It is in the cumulative collection of data over time that the wise contestant can observe a change in probability and leverage that to his advantage in the game.

This theorem has application beyond game shows, of course.  Consider a doctor who is called to see a sick child in a rural area without sophisticated diagnostic equipment. The doctor knows based on word of mouth that 90% of sick children in that neighborhood have the flu, while the other 10% are sick with measles.  Based on this, one would assume that there is a 90% chance that the child has the flu, and 10% chance that she has the measles.

Assume that the child also has a rash, which the doctor knows shows up in 95 percent of measles patients, but only 8% of flu patients.  Does this change the doctor’s assessment.  Is the chance that the girl has measles now 95%?

No.  The probabilities of these events influence one another and must be considered together.

Let F stand for an event of a child being sick with flu and M stand for an event of a child being sick with measles. Assume for simplicity that there no other maladies in that neighborhood.


Using the formula above, the probability of the girl having measles, given her rash, is equal to p(R|M)p(M) / (p(R|M)P(M) + p(R|F)p(F)), or .95 x .10 / (.95 x .10 + .08 x .90), or 0.57.  So the girl has a 57% chance of having measles, a far cry from the 95% likelihood that her rash might first suggest, but substantially more than the 10% chance predicted by the doctor’s initial data.

Stripped of the equations and technical analysis, the point here is a simple and elegant one: adjust your predictions based on new information.  Do not fall into the trap of an anchoring bias, the all-t00-human tendency to focus on one piece of information in making a decision.

Broadly viewed, Bayes’ rule will affect how you view and relate to new information in your life, and can change your decision-making process.  Our beliefs grow out of our experiences and the information we process day-to-day.  We should continue to test, update, and, if necessary, adjust our personal views?  Julia Galef makes a great case for this type of growth in this Big Think video that I’ll leave you with.

What Kind of Thinker Are You?

I love this piece from the Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchak and Elisa Steele on different modes of thinking within an organization.  Separating individuals on continuums of both focus and orientation, Bonchak and Steele propose that to be most effective, individuals should have thinking roles that complement or coordinate with their doing roles.

Depending on whether individuals orient themselves to “big picture” or “details,” and whether they focus on “ideas,” “process,” “action,” or “relationships,” the authors identify eight thinking personality archetypes.

When you know your thinking style, you know what naturally energizes you, why certain types of problems are challenging or boring, and what you can do to improve in areas that are important to reaching your goals.

Trying this exercise will provide some insight into your own methods of thinking.  Trying it with your team will hopefully allow you to gain a better understanding of each member’s role within your organization, and to refine those roles to enhance satisfaction and productivity.

A Zen Buddhist Teacher Explains Death to a Child and Explains That Names Are Not the Same as Things

I am currently working my way through Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, ed. Stephen Mitchell.  Originally published in 1976, the book is a collection of correspondence, lectures, Zen interviews, between the Zen Master and his students in the West.  I do not recommend it as an introductory book on Zen Buddhism (look to Alan Watts for survey materials written for Western audiences for that), but for those with even a small bit of background understanding of Buddhism and the quirky nature of Zen teachings, Dropping Ashes is a treasure of insight and perspective, drawn from the Soen-Sa’s direct words, often hilariously shared.

Reading today, one particular anecdote caught my attention, both for its sweetness and for the broader lesson it contains.  Zen teaching often demonstrates an ability to reduce questions of overwhelming complexity to simple language and demonstrations.  Soen-sa gives an example of that propensity in recounting his talk with a seven-year old girl named Gita at the Cambridge Zen Center after the Center’s resident cat died after a long illness.  The girl was troubled by the cat’s death, even after watching the cat’s traditional Buddhist burial rituals.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes.  What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-Sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa then explains, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing.”  He draws an analogy for Gita between a cookie factory and the universal nature of life force, explaining that all of the different cookies “have different shapes and different names, but they are all made form the same dough and they all taste the same. ”

“So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names.  But in themselves, they have no names.  When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes.  But when you are not thinking, all things are the same.  There are no words for them.  People make the words.  A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’  People say, ‘This is a cat.’  The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’  People say, ‘This is the sun.’

We often have a tendency to confuse our names and labels for the things we encounter with the nature of the observed object itself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as we’ve all been taught.  Soen-sa applies this insight to show the little girl the difference between the way we label the world and the world’s true nature:

“So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’ how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words.  So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’ what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-Sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God.”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of.  You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard.  Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question.  That is the truth.”

Soen-sa ends the episode with a humorous observation by Gita that the wonderful Maria Popova described as “a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:”

“Gita bowed and left.  As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school.  I’m going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

Couple this with “A Child’s Advice on Life and Fear.