Friday 21 June 2024

SERIES: Potentially Contrarian Ideas – 2. Some stress can benefit you, with the right mindset

We all know how bad stress is for us. It shortens our lives and makes an already short life less enjoyable. There are different kinds of stress, some better than others, but overall, reducing stress is best. For example, small bursts of acute stressors, like lifting weights during exercise, are beneficial to your muscles. On the other hand, continuous chronic stress on your muscles can lead to them becoming permanently weakened or even permanently damaged. The same is even more true for mental stress; while one might be able to handle bouts of acute stress, chronic mental stress leads to burnout and various other ailments.

Mo Gawdat and Alice Law have an interesting book about how to become “Unstressable”, in which they discuss the three L’s of managing and overcoming stress:

  • Limit exposure to stressors.
  • Listen to what our minds and bodies are saying and take corrective action.
  • Learn how to deal with it.

It is the third point, "Learn how to deal with it," that intrigues me, especially when reframed with David Yeager's work on the right stress mindset. Yeager’s research indicates that how we experience stress depends on our beliefs about its impact on our health. If we believe that stress can only have negative effects, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we can reframe our belief that the stress we are feeling might lead to better outcomes, we have a better chance of benefiting from it.

For example, when I feel nervous energy before an important meeting or presentation, I can do one of two things. I can let the nervousness affect my confidence, which might cause me to fumble during the meeting. Instead, if I reframe the nervousness by acknowledging that the physiological symptoms are my body sending more blood to my brain to keep me ready, I can make the stress work for me instead of against me. This approach is more likely to help us harness stress and use it to our advantage.

This contrarian reframe is termed a “synergistic mindset intervention,” which targets both the growth mindset (the idea that intelligence can be developed) and the stress-can-be-enhancing mindset (the idea that one's physiological stress response can fuel optimal performance).

I have been experimenting with this for some time now. As a big fan of checklists to support one's life by removing guesswork, I created a checklist that I can easily access before work meetings. When I notice stress or anxiety before a meeting, I quickly scan my checklist and follow the steps.




This has been my way of introducing a synergistic mindset intervention to soften the jitters. Emerging research indicates that it's time to reframe the narrative on stress. Yes, stress is bad, and we need to reduce it. But since it is impossible to escape it, we should actively start reframing it. We need to normalize the acceptance that stress can be enhancing. 

Stress with the right mindset about its ability to enhance our abilities, can make us more anti-fragile.

References

  1. Unstressable: A Practical guide to stress free living
  2. A Synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress
  3. How to tame stress - The Happiness Lab

Thursday 20 June 2024

How to assess signals in life?

What is a 'simple yet profound' idea? Something like "Eat healthy and exercise to stay healthy" sounds simple, but is it profound? On the other hand, there are profound quotes that are not simple, like "To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world."

But it does not end there. We need to think of other combinations. What would it look like if we created a 2x2 matrix of four quadrants? The axes would be Simple vs. Complex on one axis and Profound vs. Shallow on the other.


This leads us to a simple and profound realization - 

"When assessing signals in life, stick to the insights, enjoy the slogans, ponder the nuances, and reduce the noise."

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Agonizing about a decision is often worse than the outcome of that decision

If you find yourself second-guessing and constantly overthinking, consider that the time you spend agonizing is due to the impossibility of predicting the future. Since we cannot predict the future, the best way to progress is to act now, then reflect and adjust, rather than trying to pre-decide everything. Courage beats confidence.

Instead of waiting to make a perfect decision before acting, take a small step forward, learn, and course-correct as you go. This approach is an antidote to overthinking and becoming stuck worrying about possible future outcomes.

However, this should not be confused with imagination or visualization, which are powerful tools for channeling optimism, boosting motivation, and achieving flow states.

Secondly, if a decision takes too long to make, it might be easier to conclude that it’s not right for you. Adopt the mindset of “it’s a hell yes or a no.” However, be sure to make the criteria for saying YES broad enough. Beyond that boundary, automatically say NO. Make the decision simple and automatic. Make it clear so you don't have to spend precious energy deliberating.

For less critical decisions, I would even recommend you consider using a simple coin flip to decide which way to go. Of course, do not do this for life-or-death decisions.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Navigating the murky waters of work malaise

Many career professionals are experiencing a sense of gloom at work despite being hardworking, empowered, and eager to make progress. This issue appears to be bigger than any individual’s situation or circumstances. The following thoughts explore trends that might be contributing to this phenomenon. While solutions are unlikely to be one-size-fits-all, understanding the underlying causes can help in better preparing for and addressing these challenges.

  • The shallow workplace:

Individuals are not to blame for this feeling, nor are they alone in experiencing it. The work landscape has become particularly shallow, especially for those in middle management roles. This generation briefly experienced work as a genuine second space in life, where there was a journey, progress, and a sense of merit. Now, they see it transforming into a transactional workplace filled with constant micro-stresses and a lack of psychological safety. This trend began after the Great Recession of 2008 and accelerated with COVID-19. There is a pervasive sense of 'What is it all for?' When other compelling reasons arise (e.g., not wanting to stay away from kids, family health issues), work today simply loses its appeal. This trend could be termed as a 'worth-life crisis.' Although this is anecdotal evidence, it seems more prevalent at a certain life stage and among those who have seen significant success in their careers. Unless faced with a do-or-die situation, work can feel like a drag. Even in such situations, there is often a reluctance to fully engage in work.

  • The burden of shoulds and coulds:

Another theme is the 'burden-of-shoulds' (what is expected of us and what we tell ourselves we must do) versus the 'burden-of-coulds' (what we can do and what seems possible, with trade-offs). The problem is not one or the other; both are burdens and impose a mental tax. We struggle to choose a path and maintain mental sanity by knowing which tax we are willing to pay. This constant switching leads to depression and weariness, which could be referred to as a 'burden switching tax.' Some people have chosen the burden they will bear, and it makes them better for it.

  • Modernity induced fatigue:

The third theme is the problem with modernity itself. The paradox of choices in our hyper-abundant world conditions us to expect solutions to our problems. We want everything to be solved and believe that the solution will be personalized to our unique quirks. Life, however, is often messy and doesn’t comply with easy solvability. We are constantly going around corners, seeking an elusive, perfect solution. This constant search leads to what could be called 'solution seeking fatigue.'

Combined, these trends, along with the erosion of meaningful engagement and the pervasive sense of disconnection, contribute to the pervasive personal gloom many professionals are experiencing.

Solutions are not straightforward, as different people have different circumstances and not all will resonate with the same ideas. Here are some experiments that might help with this:

  • Creation over consumption:

We are overstimulated in our modern lives and must cut back on constant dopamine dosing. Prioritize creating something, either at work or outside, to replace consumption, even if that consumption includes activities generally considered healthy, like endlessly scrolling through educational content or obsessively following fitness trends.

  • Slowing down:

Slow down and become unrushed in our actions, decisions, and needs. Prioritize being unrushed in every action, even if it means missing out on opportunities or experiences that seem within our reach, to foster a sense of calm and deliberate purpose.

Both strategies present challenges. One requires us to create more, while the other might reduce our activities by slowing down the pace and letting go. If we get this balance right, it might eventually permeate other parts of our lives.


Monday 17 June 2024

Futures is more about sparking imagination than being correct

When it comes to thinking about the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right. 

— Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1968

In 2005, as a bright-eyed ad-sales executive at The Times of India, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a Scenario Planning workshop about the future of media. Strategy consultants from The Henley Centre introduced us to the concept of preparing for multiple plausible futures. Although it was intended for senior staff, on the last day, there was a presentation of scenarios to the wider team. I remember feeling inspired by the structured approach to imagining the future.

After completing my MBA, I had the privilege of working with incredible futurists at Kantar, where we envisioned the futures of countries, categories, brands, and more.

Foresight allows me to indulge my interests in history, gaming, fiction, and reading, while leveraging my strength in collecting trivia in a way nothing else does. Recently, I felt the urge to rekindle my passion for futures, foresight, and storytelling about what lies ahead. Professor Jane McGonigal's IFTF course on Futures Thinking was a spark of joy that kept me intellectually stimulated and provided a way to channel some 'Urgent Optimism.'

Urgent Optimism is an impressive mission statement that captures the essence of Futures thinking. It brings together two great truths: an urgent bias for action, to start doing something. And a pervasive optimism that things will only get better with effort. Pessimism is nothing but a failure of imagination, after all.

For those interested in becoming a futurist, I encourage you to document your imagination. 

Beyond that here is a mind map of six essential intentions and processes that a futurist mindset entails: 



Sunday 16 June 2024

Travel opens up the future

The mind rejoices when the body is able to experience the new and travel adds magic

Saturday 15 June 2024

Keeping the inner critic's voice in check

To keep the inner critic's voice in check, it's essential to recognize when it's operating on high power. Here are five signs that your inner critic might be overactive:

  1. Encourages Catastrophic Thinking: The inner critic often makes you envision the worst possible outcomes.
  2. Induces Guilt: It points out past decisions where you failed, making you feel guilty.
  3. Uses Extreme Generalizations: It makes broad, sweeping statements that are rarely true.
  4. Draws a Hard Line Between Success and Failure: It sees everything in black and white, with no middle ground.
  5. Predicts the Future with Finality: It insists that the future is set in stone, often with a negative outlook.

To manage your inner critic, acknowledge these signs and counter them with more balanced and compassionate self-talk. When you feel that the inner critic is operating in high power, remember not to trust everything your mind says. Talk to yourself instead

Friday 14 June 2024

Inner joy helps elevate life's peaks

The happiness you experience when you reach the mountain top is the happiness you bring with you. 

This perspective highlights an important truth: if your mind is calm, the world around you will seem calm as well. Achievements and experiences can bring happiness, but this external joy is deeply dependent on the internal happiness we cultivate. What we feel during significant moments is a reflection of our inner state.

If you are unhappy internally, no achievement will bring you lasting happiness or even the high you were expecting in that moment.

Thursday 13 June 2024

SERIES: Potentially Contrarian Ideas – 1. Create Products and Create Markets

Most business students learn the timeless advice from Theodore Levitt about “Sell the hole, not the drill.” In his article in the Harvard Business Review in the 1960s, he urged businesses to move away from a narrow focus on their products and services and to broaden their understanding of market needs. Customers are not looking for a drill, but rather for the hole they want to create using the drill.

This concept was further elevated into an innovation management philosophy by Clayton Christensen in the famous 'Jobs-to-be-done' framework. The fundamental premise here is that customers hire products or services to help them accomplish a job. In the previous example, we hire a drill to fulfill the job of making a hole in the wall for a nail, where we want to display a picture.

This makes sense and is sound management advice. I would summarize this as "Creating Products for Markets."

But the wonderful world of ideas and technology we live in has also shown that products can create markets, generating a need that did not previously exist. This usually happens when significant technological advancements push us out of the status quo. For example, with advancements in smaller speakers and more efficient battery technology came the Sony Walkman, which created a market for portable music. There is debate over whether it met a latent demand for portable music, but we can all agree that, as recently as 50 years before the Walkman, the technology for recording and replaying audio, let alone for portable use, did not exist. So, it is fair to assume that there was very little latent demand.

Side note: I have a hypothesis, based on anecdotal evidence, that such technology-push market creation usually begins in entertainment fields where the needs are not clearly manifested.

In a recent conversation with Stanford Graduate School, Jensen Huang, the trailblazing CEO of Nvidia, made some fascinating observations that lead me to believe we are truly in an era of products creating markets. Jensen talked about how Nvidia’s early success depended on partnering with Electronic Arts, also a fledgling company at the time, to create a graphics computer that spurred demand for the computer games industry, which was very nascent. The key phrase that caught my attention is that Nvidia and Electronic Arts created a product and a market. That was their clear strategy.

Following that initial success, Nvidia’s strategy, Jensen says, has become one of creating products AND the markets for those products. I strongly believe that this slightly contrarian approach is one of the reasons for their recent wild success. While others have been following the norm of creating products for existing markets, Nvidia is creating markets AND products.

References

  1. Timeless Wisdom from Theodore Levitt: Selling Value Over Features
  2. What Does It Take to Create a Market?
  3. Jensen Huang on Creating Products and Markets
  4. Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done”

 

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Cultivate burstiness

One of the traits of people pleasers is to ask incessantly for advice and try to delegate decisions. They believe that asking and following advice will absolve them of some of the blame if the decision turns out to be wrong. It is a way to protect themselves. Why is this a people-pleasing behavior? Because those who do it believe that they can keep the peace with others by doing so. It is a survival mechanism, borne out of a lack of self-confidence and putting other people’s needs ahead of their own.

One way to start breaking out of this is to cultivate ‘burstiness’.

As children, most of us naturally have this characteristic. We are curious about what could happen, and we learn through experimenting. Children don’t seek permission; they act and then learn what works and what does not.

As we grow older, we are taught to become more circumspect, which is necessary for being a functioning adult. But the systematic curbing of our ‘burstiness’ can leave some of us always wanting validation.

To reconnect with our ‘burstiness,’ we must practice making decisions by ourselves and start getting comfortable with how that feels. This way, we start taking back ownership and stop micromanaging how others view or experience us.