Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Wisdom of Jonathan Haidt

Jon Haidt has been an inspiration for a long time, and someone I’ve gotten to know a bit over the years. In a recent AMA on Product Hunt, he drops various wisdom, including answers to questions I pose, such as the following:

Ben: In the Happiness Hypothesis, you talk about how happiness comes from within and from without, and you are skeptical of elements of Buddhism that promote non-attachment. You write that the Western ideals of action and passionate striving play an important role in finding happiness in the modern world. Yet, so often our action and striving is never enough. We strive for something, we achieve it, and then we immediately want something more. It’s insatiable. How do we avoid the hedonic treadmill? How do we strive, but also feel content with what we achieve in our striving?

Jon: yes, we strive and it is never enough. But can you imagine a life without striving? it is not a human life. Maybe for an old person who looks back with satisfaction. But i would be very unhappy if my children took up the life of monks before the age of 60. “Joys soul lies in the doing” said shakespeare. The key is to get the right conditions of engagement with life. Then the striving is joyous. How many of you reading this feel that you are working toward something…. and it is pleasurable to work at it?

Ben: What my Buddhist friends tell me is that you can strive while also being non-attached (or “clingy”) to specific outcomes. This is hard to do, practically. I’d love to have a life where I am playing hard in the field — striving toward something — without checking the scoreboard every hour or even every year. When you’re enmeshed in social systems where everyone else is checking the scoreboard all the time and killing themselves if they’re not winning, it’s hard to behave differently…

Jon: well put; i think Buddhism is a constant reminder to loosen our group, don’t check the scoreboard so often, that makes us petty. and if our motives are extrinsic, that’s not good either. But when your work is a “calling”, and you really really want to achieve something, i think its appropriate to feel bad when there are setbacks, and to exult when you make progress.


His book The Happiness Hypothesis is an excellent summation of what ancient wisdom teaches about happiness, and his more recent book The Righteous Mind explains why religion and politics divide us so dramatically.

 

Situationally Competitive vs. Always Competitive

Line of Business
In Israel last year, our group of 50 — young leaders in tech — gathered on a beach and split into small groups. A few consultants led us on a team building exercise. They instructed us to build rafts using logs of wood and rope they had provided us. Once we constructed the rafts, we raced the other teams into the water, circled a buoy with the raft, and returned to shore as quickly as we could. The first team to return to shore was declared the winner. To the winner went…the pride of winning a team building exercise on the beach.

Some people took the competition very seriously. They strategized; played drill sergeant; pestered the facilitators to get clarification on the scoring methodology; and expressed joy or dismay at the results, depending.

I found myself not caring. At all. I marveled at how competitive others were getting about an exercise that had zero real consequences other than momentary pride. Yet, I think of myself as a generally competitive person. But the experience crystallized the fact that I am not always competitive all the time.

Some people always want to win. It can be in business, a board game, a sports match, or a team building exercise. Michael Jordan’s father famously said, in reference to Michael’s supposed gambling addiction, that Michael didn’t have a gambling problem. Rather, he had a “competition problem.” Put him in any scenario where there’s a clear winner or loser and Michael can’t stop trying to win.

In the group in Israel, there were many classically successful people, alpha males and females, leaders. For some of them, when the competition light goes on, their emotions soar. It’s not an uncommon trait in business leaders. Chris Sacca tells an anecdote of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick attaining the rank of second in the world in the global Wii tennis leaderboard. It’s not enough for Travis to be atop one of the world’s most valuable tech companies. He must win at everything — even video games.

Not me. I am situationally competitive. I’d like to think I get competitive when the stakes are high, my investment real, and the payoff meaningful to me. Although this is not as colorful a personality as someone who’s limitlessly ruthless — a Larry Ellison-esque archetype the business press loves to cover — I know many successful CEOs who cut a different, more restrained mold.

Of course, I don’t mean to come off too saintly (“I preserve my competitive energies for solving world hunger, thank you very much”). My reptilian, status-conscious brain gets triggered plenty. Indeed, I do care lightly about winning an informal game of pickup basketball, for example. It’s an activity as consequence-free as the raft exercise but I express more care perhaps because I am more skilled at it. I am not particularly good at helping build a raft: I can’t tie knots and generally don’t like to do manual labor. So maybe another lesson is I choose not to care about winning when I am not well positioned to win.

In general, though, one of the most important ways I’ve evolved over the past decade — as I wrote in a post seven years ago — is that I have shrunk the “stuff I care about” box. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win an inane argument. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win at some arbitrary competition I don’t care about. I just don’t care.

Except when I do.

Schedule Your Free Time

A quote from Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi of Flow fame:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

As found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Cal suggests we more rigorously schedule our weekends instead of leaving Saturday wide open and figuring it out once we wake up. This doesn’t mean working all weekend, but scheduling your leisure like you schedule your work.