Optimizing Regret

Cover of the book The Power of Regret

Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.

The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.

Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.

In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.

I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.

How to Create Leaders

Turn the Ship Around! book cover

Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet is a leadership memoir that tells of the author’s experience as the commander of a submarine in the United States Navy. He tells of his process moving from a leader-follower model of leadership to one of leader-leader – a process which builds mindful leaders rather than thoughtless followers.

I learned of this book as I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. In that book Sinek tells of Marquet’s year-long preparation to command a well-run submarine. At the last minute he learned that he would instead be taking command of an underperforming submarine of an entirely different class. Lacking the time to study this new sub type and her crew, he racked his brain to figure out how he could successfully command this new vessel. He decided to give as few orders and possible,  to empower his knowledgeable and capable crew

The example that Sinek gave is what led me to read this book. Traditionally in the US Navy, one asks the commander for permission – “Request permission to submerge the ship!” Marquet changed this from a request to a statement of intent – “I intend to submerge the ship!” – thus giving agency to his crew. And the book details how he worked with the leaders on his ship to develop a process for turning a crew with one leader and 134 followers who mindlessly take direction into one with 135 leaders actively thinking about what they can proactively do to achieve the ship’s mission.

To dig further into the ideas of intent-based leadership, Marquet published another book in 2020 titled Leadership is Language. He also has a website with a video of him giving a talk on the ideas in Turn the Ship Around!

For anyone searching for how to move from simply managing what happens to being a leader and developing leaders, you can’t go wrong reading Turn the Ship Around!

Communicating with Numbers

Making Numbers Count Book Cover

I recently finished a new book about how to communicate with numbers–Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr. It is both a workbook and a reference tool. The author’s goal is to help overcome the fact that humans are not biologically built to easily manage numbers over five. Yet today we regularly need to communicate through numbers. What to do?

The authors provide excellent guidance and examples for how to effectively communicate what numbers have to say so that audiences will understand the message the numbers have to deliver. I highly recommend it to all managers and leaders.

Teaching the Skills of Science

kids around a table full of robotics looking at a tablet computer

Sometime in 2020, I decided to seek out news from both the left and right of the American political spectrum. I wasn’t interested in breaking news. I was looking for real journalism. I found one monthly magazine from the left and one from the right and have subscribed and read both of them since. As the pandemic raged on that year, I also started to look for a source of scientific news that was independent of politics and dedicated to the scientific method. I found The Skeptical Inquirer which describes itself as “the magazine for science and reason”. I subscribe to and read it as well.

In the January/February 2022 of The Skeptical Inquirer there is a fantastic article by a teacher who struggled with teaching science to non-science students. She was passionate about the scientific method as a tool for critical thinking. She saw her class as the best way to reach non-science majors with these tools. But she found that these students just weren’t interested in the “baby bio” class she taught. Rather than blame her students, she decided to examine her curriculum.

She came upon a study that showed the positive effects of teaching the skills of science rather than the discoveries and historical findings of science. So she changed how she taught. That made all the difference. Now not only do her students rave about her class, they leave it equipped to deal with fake news, pseudoscience, and conspiracies based on their own critical thinking and research skills.

Unintended Consequences

View of the US Capitol building from the South

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades back in the 1990’s, one of their big ideas was that congresspeople spent too much time in Washington. Instead of living in DC, they should live in their districts. This would connect them better with their constituents and their needs instead of isolate them with other politicians in the capital. Only one problem. The same problem that seems to happen with most ideas in politics – unintended consequences.

I was in my twenties when this was happening. I remember that it seemed like a good idea. Politicians should stay close to the people they represent, right? Professional class politicians who live in DC lose touch with those they represent. But as with most things in life, it is a bit more complicated as I learned while reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

The idea was that because they stayed home in their districts so much more of their time, they would be more connected to the people. They would spend more time with them, hear about their issues more directly. Except that isn’t what happened. Instead at the urging of their parties, both Democrat and Republican, congresspeople spent a much larger part of their time fund raising. And because they didn’t live in Washington, they had much less opportunity to connect with their fellow representatives.

When they lived in DC, their kids went to the same schools, they attended the same school activities, they got together more frequently for lunches and dinners. In short, they got to know their fellow congresspeople as people outside of work and across party lines. This had the affect of making compromise easier to come to. They saw their political rivals as people like them that had goodness in their hearts with whom they disagreed. This gave them the basis to work things out.

Living outside of the capital, they lost this connection. With the greater focus on fundraising from their party, party tribalism became the focus of the day. This led to further polarization of our politics and to much of the mess we currently find ourselves in. Not only have our representatives reduced their focus to their party first, seeing their rivals as existential enemies, the parties themselves have encouraged this same vision for their members. And now particularly partisan people hold this same vision and idea about those who disagree with them, tearing apart friends and families.

I don’t have simple solution to this. I am not sure there is one. In fact, I think this is an object lesson in the dangers of simple solutions. After all, it started the simple idea that living in your home district as a congressperson would be much better for the people you represent and the country as a whole. It didn’t turn out that way. So it may be better to consider the second and third order effects of “simple” solutions before we implement them. We won’t always see the dangers that lurk ahead, but we may be able to avoid some of them. And spare ourselves some pain and difficulty in the process.

History is Personal

Portrait of US President Andrew Jackson

I tend to read three books at a time – one fiction, one history/biography/memoir, one business/science/psychology. This week I started reading a biography of US President Andrew Jackson. He is a controversial president whom many think was a terrible man. He was very popular and his presidency signaled a shift in our country. It’s even called the Jacksonian era. I never really learned much about him in school and decided to remedy that by reading An American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

The first chapter starts with him having learned at his home in Tennessee that he has been elected president in the fall of 1828. It was a bitter ccontest with John Quincy Adams, both candidates going after the character of each other. Adams’ side even went so far as to say some pretty horrible things about both Jackson’s mother and wife.

Just before Christmas, his wife of forty plus years, Rachel, had a heart attack and died a few days later. Family and country were everything to Jackson. This loss was devastating despite his victory in the election. He had expected to go to Washington with his wife. Now he was going as a widower.

Whenever I read about history, I do my best to put myself in the shoes of figures such as Jackson. How would it affect me to lose the love of my life just before embarking on the most ambitious part of my career? I felt it as a gut punch. There is a lot to dislike about Andrew Jackson as a person, but I simply can’t get over the depth of despair he must have felt even after such a victory.

I am only just starting to read this book, so I am sure I will continue to learn a lot about Jackson that I didn’t know before. Some of it may hit me like this experience. Some of it may make me angry. But I am certain that as I continue to apply empathy to all that I learn, I will better understand the history of this man and this time in my country’s history. This is what I mean when I say that history is personal.

Playing at Life

Men playing Texas Hold 'Em

Like all primates, humans play. Play can be for the shear joy of it, a way to grow and learn, or even a way for the very talented to make a living. These games fall along a spectrum from games of perfect information like chess or go to games of pure chance like roulette. Life itself seems to fall somewhere in the middle. We certainly lack perfect information when we are trying to make decisions. But neither is our life completely based on fortune, good or bad. Life is somewhere in between. We have some information and our choices do make a difference, but there are also many things that we have no control over. The trick in life is to determine the difference in order to make better decisions. Maria Konnikova, a PhD in psychology, in her book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win shows how, to her, poker is the perfect game for learning this balance.

This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.

Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff

Konnikova is not the first academician to make this argument. In 2018 Annie Duke published Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. Duke was also a professor of psychology before going pro in poker. Her book is more of a business book, and she is a corporate speaker and trainer. Konnikova’s book is in the same vein but has broader appeal and is much more personal.

The book is the story of how she decided to become a professional poker player to write a book. She admits that this was a gimmick to start with, a way to motivate her and time box her writing process. But she began to become deeply enthralled with what she was learning and what it can teach us about life.

She takes on a teacher and mentor from the start, who teaches her about the game and how to play it. She was such a newbie she wasn’t even sure how many cards are in a deck (52). She tells the story of going from crossing the Hudson River to play online poker legally in New Jersey to playing to winning at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, she entertainingly educates the reader on the science behind what she is learning and how to apply it in our everyday lives.

One of the core takeaways for me is the idea that we cannot properly judge our decisions based on the outcome. We can make the optimum decision based on all the available evidence on hand and still end up on the losing side, of life or a poker hand. Luck, good or bad, is an inevitable part of our lives in every aspect. We need to better understand when we are making good decisions based on what we know. Too often we get lucky and, naturally, attribute it to our wonderful decision-making. Conversely, we often berate ourselves for poor decisions when the outcome is undesirable while the real culprit is something beyond our control or ability to predict. The key is learning how to separate good decision-making from luck, and Konnikova, through her experience at the poker table, shows how to do this in this excellent read.

An Abundance of Stats

When I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, I was excited. It was named the best business book of 2020 by McKinsey & Company. As I read the introduction, I became even more interested to learn what I wasn’t seeing about how women are being discriminated against in the name of neutral gender policies. And the book does not disappoint on the facts and illustrations. Unfortunately for me, the book bogs down a bit with the statistics, so it is taking me longer to read than I anticipated. I’ve read three chapters so far, and it has felt like a long sheet of statistics with prose holding them together. That makes it sound like I don’t like the book. I do. However, it could be written in a more engaging manner. Regardless, the knowledge it shares and the awakening it is stirring within me is worth the time invested so far.

Chapter 1 is entitled Can Snow-Clearing Be Sexist? It shows how prioritizing the largest roads is implicitly male biased. Most women drive less than men, take more public transportation, and walk much more. In one country (I don’t recall which), when they prioritized the smaller roads and sidewalks, municipal costs actually went down. Many more accidents happen on the smaller roads and sidewalks when they are not cleared. This illustrates how a more holistic view of resources not only is more women-friendly — it also saves money.

Chapter 2 is called Gender Neutral with Urinals. This centers around the idea of how simply making all restrooms in a building “gender neutral” works against women. Men end up using all the bathrooms while women tend to use exclusively the previously ladies-only restrooms. This is because the men’s rooms lack the female friendly features they need, such as a place to dispose of feminine hygiene products. Also, bathrooms are traditionally allocated the same square footage to men’s and women’s rooms. However, due to the smaller footprint of urinals, more men can be served by the same sized bathroom than women. In order to serve men and women equally, women’s rooms need to be allocated more space. I never knew or even considered this. Very informative and enlightening!

Chapter 3 is The Long Friday and highlights the differences in men’s and women’s responsibilities in caring for others and how this affects women’s careers negatively. This one came as no surprise, but the detailed statistics from around the world are eye-opening. There are some places making progress but many more that aren’t. There is a much room for the world to get better at this.

While I might like the book to be a bit more narrative, the content is fascinating and informative. I can see already how it is changing my view of the world and the problems in it. I expect I will learn even more as I continue to read and bring this knowledge to my personal and work lives.

Learning From Others

Nelson Mandela

Today I finished reading Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel. It’s sort of a biography formatted into lessons. I really appreciated this format. It allowed the author to focus on ideas throughout Mandela’s life rather than focusing on a time-based approach.

I bought this book many years ago and only just read it. I expected it to be a sort of leadership or business book applying the lessons of a great leader to those worlds. I was surprised to find that it was much more approachable than that. It is really a series of life lessons that apply to all aspects of life.

I sometimes read a book and struggle to make myself come back to it and finish. At first that happened to me with this book. I think that was because I was looking at it through a business lens. Once I shifted my perspective and saw it as a biography of life lessons to learn, I found myself eager to continue reading.

While I did not find any of the lessons earth shattering or new, there is great value in seeing how common life principles were lived by someone so much a part of history as Mandela was. And the author does not shy from Mandela’s flaws; this is no hagiography. In my opinion, that only make is more valuable. Life is messy. Learning how others applied life principles, successfully or not, is a great way to spend my time reading.

Our Technological Adolescence

butterfly emerges from its cocoon

Note: I am writing as a citizen and resident of the United States of America but I believe that the ideas in this post apply equally to all of us as human beings as fellow citizens of the world.

We hear it every day. Us vs. them. Right vs. left. Republican vs. Democrat. Red vs. blue. Globalization vs. protectionism. Urban vs. rural. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. How did we get here? Why do we seem to be more divided than ever?

A lot has changed in the world over the last twenty to thirty years. Technology has become a bigger and more dominant part of our everyday lives, changing the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. How are we handling that change? I would answer, “Not well.”

As human beings, we have a tendency to hold on to what we know best and resist change when that change is scary or particularly unknown. As we do this as individuals we start to seek out others who think like us, for comfort. Our journalists have been taught to distill stories down to “just the facts”, largely erasing the broad spectrum of struggles that are going on by individuals that don’t fit their story. (See this wonderful article for the beginning of a solution to this problem in journalism.) While this is understandable, it only serves to divide us further.

Collectively, no matter what “side” we are on, we all seem to be deeply dissatisfied with where we are politically and culturally. We are asking ourselves and each other (or we should be), “How did we get here and what do we do?” Perhaps an analogy will give some perspective and provide some direction. By way of illustration, I will share something a little personal.

Growing up, I was the “good kid” in my family. I got good grades and did what I was told (mostly). I graduated second in my high school class and attended Georgetown University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian. By all outward definitions, I was a success. But inwardly, I was still an adolescent. I had made no decisions about who I was at a fundamental level. Worse, I didn’t even realize it. I had goals and ideals, but these were ones that I had received from my community. I wanted to help the world not blow itself up. That’s why I studied Russian at (what we didn’t know then was) the end of the Cold War. I wanted to have a wife and family, so I got married and had children. But I wasn’t connected to what it really meant to be a husband and father. I simply expected things to happen and just fall into place like they had throughout my life in school prior to my growing into adulthood. So while I had become an adult, I had never really grown up. Ultimately, this led to a decades long breakdown in my relationship with my wife, finally ending in divorce.

This completely exploded my view of myself and my place in the world and forced me back to deal with my incomplete adolescence in a way that I never had in my teen years and early twenties. I am convinced that if I had used my teen years to wrestle with the questions of adolescence, then much of the pain I experienced and caused others over the past three decades could have largely been avoided. And I fear that my country is in the midst of avoiding its own adolescence brought on by the drastic changes in technology that are affecting every aspect of our daily lives and that this is expressing itself in the division and separateness we feel from others. We are so afraid that our way of seeing and interacting in the world is going away that we are clinging to it and trying to beat the other side into accepting it. This will never work, because our way (whichever way that is) will no longer work due to these profound technological changes affecting our politics and economics. We are in the “teen” years of our global technological adolescence. We need to figure out what this great change means for our coming adult lives in this new world of technology, globalization, and relative abundance. Our current solutions aren’t designed with the new realities we are dealing with, so none of them is likely to work. We need new models and views of our world based on these new realities. But where will these new models come from. I suggest that the answers lies in returning first to the universal lessons of our childhood.

From 1968 to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children about their world and how it works. The host, Fred Rogers, also spoke directly to his young viewers about difficult subjects like death and anger. And he ended each show by telling each viewer that he or she was special “just by being you…. And people can like you just for being you.”

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here is an excerpt that succinctly describes the lesson expanded on throughout the book:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

These are not partisan ideals; they are human ideals and principles. All our politics and economies have grown out of these. And since the changes we are in the midst of experiencing seem to have blown up the models we have built since the industrial revolution, now is the time to think up new models and identities that will work in this new environment, together. Is it scary? It sure is. But we cannot avoid this “growing up”; we can only put it off. And putting it off will only make the transition more scary and difficult. We have to “embrace the suck” in the short term to get to the freedom and joy of adulthood on the other side. If we don’t, we will only extend the discomfort and pain of this transition period. What exactly lies on that other side? None of us really knows, but let’s explore it together with the same sense of wonder and joy that accompany the fear of growing up into the unknown.