Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.

 

Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.

 

I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.

 

When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Creatures of Logic

One of the things I am most fascinated by is the way in which our lives, our thoughts, and our decisions feel to us to be purely rational, but are clearly not as rational we think. Our minds are bounded by a limited amount of knowledge that we can ever have, a limited amount of information that we can hold in our head, and a host of biases, prejudices, and thinking vices that get in the way of rationality. We feel like we are in control of our minds, and our actions and decisions fit into a logically coherent, rational story that we tell ourselves, but much is missing from the picture of the world that we develop.

 

Usually I turn these considerations inward, but it can be helpful to turn this reality outward as well. Dale Carnegie does so in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the context of criticizing other people, Carnegie writes, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

 

The other day I wrote about criticism, and how it can often backfire when we want to criticize another person and change their behaviors. Carnegie notes the terrible consequences of criticizing people, ranging from quitting work that they might actually excel at all the way to committing suicide, and his quote above is a reminder that people are not logical automatons. Our motivations and sense of self matter to how we perform, what we do, and how we think. Adding mean-spirited criticism, even if well deserved, can be harmful. What is more, our criticism often serves to mostly prop ourselves up, and is more about how special we think we are, than about how poorly another person is performing or behaving.

 

Carnegie believes that we need to be more considerate of other people when dealing with them in any circumstance. His quote extends beyond moments of criticism to areas of motivation, quality relationships, social responsibilities, and individual health and well-being. We cannot simply look at others and heap and hold them purely responsible for the outcomes of their lives. People are not rational, and will not be able to perfectly sort out everything to identify the best possible decisions for their present and future lives. We must help them by remembering their bounded rationality and we must help develop structures that allows them to make the best decisions and perform at their best. People are going to make logical errors, but we can design society and the world they operate within so that they minimize the errors that they make and so that the negative externalities of their biases are also minimized.

Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Criticism Backfires

I have a hard time understanding where the balance between being critical of someone versus being supportive and encouraging of them lies. There are many things we all fall short with, and in many ways, what we need is not a kick in the rear, but some guidance and support to be better. However, sometimes the kick in the rear or some tough love is what people need to be spurred to action and to be pushed out of a mopey comfort zone. I generally don’t find myself to be a good judge of when we should use which approach.

 

Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, seems to be more supportive of the encouraging route versus the critical route. He writes, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”

 

Carnegie’s quote suggest to me that I might be looking at the contrast incorrectly. Perhaps, the right approach is neither coddling nor criticizing, but understanding how to challenge people with honest feedback that highlights what is working well and what could be improved. Carnegie’s book mostly focuses on the workplace and in people management. In that setting, criticizing an employee who you need to continue working for you, but who you also need to be more productive is likely counterproductive for your own ends. Criticizing them will lead to a shut down, they won’t listen to what you have to say honestly, and will defend the decisions they made, rationalizing potentially poor choices and behaviors. Instead, Carnegie would suggest an approach that is more collaborative with the employee to help encourage them to put forward a greater effort without the need for harsh criticism or babying.

 

I don’t see why these relationship and motivational strategies would be limited to a work environment. I don’t know exactly how they might look at home or with a child, but I can see a team-work like strategy being more effective than pretending that major problems really are not so bad, and more effective than direct criticism of another person.

Recognize Your Thinking When You Are Displeased

A great challenge for our society is finding ways to get people to think beyond themselves. We frequently look for ways to confirm what we already believe, we frequently think about what we want and, and we frequently only consider only ourselves and how things make us feel in the present moment. Shifting these mindsets in the United States is necessary if we are going to find a way to address major problems that impact the lives of every citizen, and in some cases impact the entire globe.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie provides advice for people who want to better connect with others and have a greater impact with their lives. We are social creatures, and understanding how to improve our social connections with others is important if we want to be successful, take part in meaningful activities, and enjoy living with other people. Early on in the book, he provides a warning about how we will often fall short of the advice he recommends in the following chapters.

 

“You will probably find it difficult to apply these suggestions all the time. … For example, when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticize and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint; it is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise; it is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants; and so on.”

 

Remembering these points where our minds go astray is important if we want to avoid them. Most people probably won’t systematically make an effort to be considerate and to change their behavior towards others, but for those who do want to improve their social interactions and create new companies, groups, and social events that bring people together, remembering the points that Carnegie highlights as potential failures for being more considerate are important.

 

First, when we are upset or displeased with something, we will simply condemn others. However, a more constructive approach to improve the situation and treat the other person with more respect is to think about and try to understand why they did what they did and how they understand the world. We might not agree with their decision in the end, but hopefully we can find a point of common humanity from which we can have a better discussion than simply telling the other person who has upset us that they are an awful monster.

 

Second, finding ways to provide others with praise, thinking about what other people want, and understanding their viewpoints helps us have better conversations and develop better relationships. If we are engaging with other people in social endeavors then we will need to cooperate with them and hopefully work with them in some capacity for the long term. This requires that we find ways to motivate, develop real connections, utilize the strengths of others. To do that, we have to think about what others want and what motivates them. Allowing ourselves to be self-centered prevents us from doing this, and will lead to us criticizing those who we think fail to measure up, and ultimately won’t help us build great things. Thinking about the ways that our minds default toward this negativity will help prepare us to be more considerate and help us drive toward better outcomes for ourselves and our society.

Forgetting

I am always amazed with just how much I fail to remember. I generally remember the large details, what I did yesterday, what big sporting events I went to last year, and the date of my anniversary, but the amount of small details I fail to remember that seem like they would be something I would remember is incredible. I forget things said in conversations within a day or two, I forget small things that I have done such as gestures or what I ate, and I forget who I was with at different places or events.

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “The rapidity with which we forget is astonishing.”

 

Recently I have been doing a lot of reading focused on cognitive psychology and the way we think. What I find surprising is just how often our thinking is not what we expect it to be. We make lots of assumptions, act on shortcuts and heuristics, and filter out a lot of data and information when making decisions and coming to conclusions. What I have learned from all this reading is that we cannot fully trust what our minds believe.

 

Carnegie’s quote fits in with the research I have recently been focused on and strengthens my argument. We forget a lot. We don’t remember specific details of conversations and we don’t perfectly remember the sequence of events from things that we have been a part of or a witness to. Our minds simply don’t operate in a way to help us perfectly understand and think about the world. There is too much information out there for our brains to try to do this, and instead, we take short cuts, focusing on the important information to start with, and quickly forgetting the unimportant details along the way.

 

The takeaway from Carnegie’s quote is simply that our minds are not perfect. Don’t expect yourself to remember every single detail, and instead set up systems to remember the big things. Being aware of how much we will forget will help us take steps to remember what we need to remember, whether that is using notes, mental heuristics for remembering key information, or outsourcing our memory to photos, videos, or our own personal scribe. Be prepared to forget a lot of information, and take steps to retain that which matters most.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

The Benefits of Joining a Choir?

I have never been much of a singer, and the last memory I have of singing in a group (besides a happy birthday here or there) is from elementary school, when I got in trouble and had a parent teacher conference with my mother and the music teacher because I was inserting inappropriate lyrics into the song You Are My Sunshine (I’ll let you guess what kind of lyrics a fourth grade boy came up with for that one on your own).

 

Public singing, however, might be something that is really good for human beings, especially when done in a group. Dan Pink highlights the benefits of choral singing in his book When, “The research on the benefits of singing in groups is stunning. Choral singing calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication. It even alleviates symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Group singing – not just performances but also practices – increases the production of immunoglobulin, making it easier to fight infections. In fact, cancer patients who sing in choirs show and improved immune response after just one rehearsal.”

 

That is a huge range of benefits from something as simple as just singing in tune and rhythm with other people. Pink presents the study in his book when talking about synchronicity with other people. He also highlights rowing competitions and the benefits that individuals receive when working in concert with other people. Being part of a group engaged in a singular activity and actively synchronizing your physical body in time with others seems to be something that brings humans a lot of benefits.

 

When specifically looks at choirs and row teams, but I would not be surprised if you saw similar benefits from people who run together in groups, play Hungry Hungry Hippos together, or engage in flash mob dances. I would expect that anything involving social interactions and coordination among people will begin to build the types of health benefits that researchers have found with choral singing. Physical activities probably boost our health more than board games, but I would not be surprised if studies of social board games would show reduced stress and improved physical health markers as well.

 

I think this is an under-explored area, especially in the United States. We really like our individual super heroes, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We subscribe to the Great Man of History view and if you look at this year’s presidential election you will see arguments from the Democrats about which candidate is the one who can deliver and unseat the current president, but you won’t hear arguments about who can bring together the best team of thinkers and policy makers. Our country, with a foundation of Protestant work-ethic and a capitalistic culture that tells you that you can purchase everything to make your life fulfilling, is stuck on individual interventions and choices to health and happiness.

 

Choral singing and rowing and Hungry Hungry Hippos (ok no research on that last one) shows us that we need groups and benefit from social interactions and synchronicity. Despite the way we think about ourselves and our role in society in the United States, we depend on others and when we coordinate with social groups, we feel better. My suspicion is that any research into the health benefits of activities done socially will yield positive health results. This is an area we should explore more broadly, and in our individual lives, I believe we all need to take more steps to join choirs, do our exercising with other people when we can, and set up our own Hungry Hungry Hippo board game groups. It is not just our individual selves who will benefit and who need these groups, but all of society.

In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

Slumps

“Slumps are normal,” writes Dan Pink in his book When, “but they’re also short-lived. Rising out of them is as natural as falling into them. Think of it as if it were a cold: It’s a nuisance, but eventually it’ll go away, and when it does, you’ll barely remember it.”

 

Pink’s quote about slumps ties back to stoic philosophy in many ways. Stoicism encourages us to focus on the present moment and avoid ruminating over the past or fearing for the future. When we are in a slump, we are in a sense doing both of those things. We are thinking of a future without creativity or the possibility of things being better, ultimately zapping our energy and ability to put forward a meaningful effort in the present. We are also thinking of a past that held more promise than the present moment, and wondering why and how the energy of the past disappeared. What we are not thinking of is how we can use our present moment to make improvements and take steps that meaningfully improve our current situation.

 

The slumps that Pink focuses on are the midpoint slumps in projects that we engage with in work type situations. His advice and reflections on slumps, however, can carry over into many areas of our lives. A slump in a school report or business project parallels slumps that we might feel in middle age or even just in the middle of a work-week (fitting for me to be writing this on a Wednesday morning).

 

“If you’re feeling stuck in the middle of a project, picture one person who’ll benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task.”

 

The problem with a slump is that we are focused inward and fixated on a past that was better and a future we fear will be even more bleak. Changing our perspective to think about how we can make a difference for someone else shifts our thoughts back to the present moment, as stoicism encourages, and gets us to think beyond our own problems and concerns. It forces us to ask what we are doing with our brain power and efforts now, and how we can use the resources available in a way that maximizes our impact for the world around us. Helping others can be inspiring, and it can serve as a spark to help us overcome slumps in business, school, and life. It changes our motivation and helps us imagine a future that can improve over our past. Thinking of how we can help others isn’t just wishful thinking, it is practical thinking about the ways we can be better in the present moment and helps get us through our own slumps.