Temporal Landmarks

My general sense the last several years is that people are starting to sour on the idea of a new year’s resolution. People that I have talked the last few years seem to be getting away from the idea of making a big change for the upcoming year, or at least if they are planning on making a change, they are not admitting it. Generally, I have been supportive of killing off the new year’s resolution tradition, but Dan Pink’s book When challenged my thoughts on the usefulness of such resolutions.

 

I have had the mindset that people shouldn’t wait for a specific date to try to make a change in their life. I am also skeptical of trying to implement a resolution on January first, since it is immediately after the Christmas holiday in the United States and many people likely still have family hanging around, still have extra pie in the fridge, and its a cold and dark time of year. Trying to start a big change during this time, when the weather is demoralizing and you are not on track with a routine schedule, seems like a poor idea to me. As a result, at least as long back as I can really remember, I have never made any substantial new year’s resolution and I have not been one to encourage people to adopt a resolution.

 

The reality, however, is that people find it helpful to make a change when there is something that can delineate a new starting line for them. Pink describes it this way, “The first day of the year is what social scientists call a temporal landmark. Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space – to get to my house, turn left at the Shell station – we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.”

 

I had not thought of navigating the space of time the way we navigate the space of the world around us. But it is accurate to say that days and time can blend together, and since we can’t control time, it can feel as though it relentlessly races forward. I have heard people in the Bay Area in California talk about the disorientating nature of their climate. The Bay Area doesn’t have pronounced seasons the way other parts of the country do. Most days are ok, and the temperature and weather doesn’t vary dramatically across the year. The passage of time feels different when you don’t really have a spring, summer, fall, and winter.

 

Using temporal landmarks helps us make sense of the passage of time and gives us a place to plant ourselves for our upcoming life pivots. Just as we might use another wall or a step to brace ourselves if we are pushing a heavy piece of furniture, a specific date can be a brace for us to push for a new habit. It can provide a reference point for how far we have moved and how successful (or not) we have been with any changes that we want to make.

 

So rather than looking down on the idea of new year’s resolutions or being unhelpful in telling people to just make the changes they want to see in their lives today, I can help encourage people to use temporal landmarks in a smart way. I can encourage people to think about the obstacles they will face and how long after their temporal marker they think they might face those obstacles. I can encourage people to think in time chunks with more temporal landmarks to navigate the time landscape they traverse as they implement new lifestyle goals.  Time landmarks are not just random and arbitrary, they are social constructs that can help establish shared meaning and goals across time and space.

Defining New Leadership

Leaders today are not what we have always thought of. Both in public spheres and in private businesses, leaders are those who can pull lots of strings together, without being a commanding drill sergeant type of personality. When I think back on historical leaders that influenced and shaped the world, I think of dictators who took control of their land and directed society in their own way. I  think of pharaohs who ruled over their subjects and drove them to great accomplishments. However, today’s leaders are flexible, inspiring visionaries of what we can be as a collective, rather than generals who drive society toward their own aim.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about this new form of leadership and what it means in our new economies and new governance structures, “The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in an affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.”

 

In order to get things done in today’s complex world, multiple factors have to come together. Government has to align with private actors and pro-social groups need to join to help fill the gaps where for profit businesses and public agencies cannot play a role. Leaders must understand the challenges that each of these groups face and find ways to build bridges between them. Leaders develop a shared goal of what is possible, but allow actors to find the path forward, without micromanaging everyone’s actions. In this way, there is no single individual who is calling all the shots. There is no system that drives all actors toward the same end. There are multiple goals, multiple desires, and multiple streams to reach various ends. Leadership’s role is one of coordination, working to figure out what each actor wants, who has the ability to push for new directions, and finding ways to get actors to mesh together, make compromises, and align on plans for the future.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.

Sample Bias and Obliquity – Lessons from the Education Model

I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.

 

Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.

 

These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.

 

“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”

 

Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.

 

The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.

Being Content Without a Great Fortune

In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.

 

The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.

 

When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.

 

When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.

Balance and Dimensionality

In our society we like to talk about balance. Everyone seems to be on a quest to find the perfect balance between work, family life, and personal interests and hobbies. We talk about a work-life balance as if there is some absolutely perfect way for us to do all the things we want to do and to live a full life. This is an idea that I gave up long ago because it doesn’t really fit with the reality of the world we live in.

 

Instead of balance I like to think about packing a suitcase and leaning toward one item or another. We have a limited amount of time in a given day, and we must give priority to things we think are the most important. We must decide what we are for sure packing in our suitcase, and what things we are leaving out. Once we have identified those things that are the most important and valuable to us, we end up leaning heavily into one thing or another. We may lean heavily into our career, leaving little time or space for a significant other or for exercise. We may lean heavily into our family, making us less likely to put in extra hours on the job. Or we may live for a hobby and rearrange our lives to provide for more time and opportunity to focus on our personal interests.

 

A short section in Colin Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be brought these thoughts of balance back to my mind. He writes, “There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about working long hours, or working hard on something you care about or think will benefit you in the long term. It only becomes potentially harmful when, in doing so, you neglect other aspects of your life that require attention. When you start to lose density and become less three-dimensional.” What Wright is saying is that there is no correct way to pack your suitcase, as long as you do it intentionally.

 

In the same way that we would be very thoughtful about everything we pack for a week long trip to Hawaii, we should be very thoughtful about what we decide to include in our lives on a daily and weekly basis. If we are going to put in extra hours at work then we should be thoughtful about how we spend the rest of our time so that we don’t just operate as a zombie and ignore family, friends, or our own health. We should recognize that we won’t ever be perfectly balanced if we chose to focus heavily on one thing, but we can at least be intentional with how we use the rest of our time. If we don’t, then we will find that our suitcase has haphazardly filled itself with things we don’t really need, like Facebook, Game of Thrones, and late night trips to Wendy’s. If we think about what we want to pack into our suitcase of life, we can make sure our lives are still dimensional and interesting, even if we are spending a majority of our time and focus on a single thing. We can give up activities that simply distract us in favor of activities that help us be more thoughtful, healthy, or engaged with our loved ones. We don’t have to completely cut out Facebook or TV, but we should be intentional about how much time those activities receive. Going through life on autopilot or trying to find a perfect balance will ultimately end up with us in a frustrated spot as we can’t seem to do everything we want and can’t seem to make our lives fulfilling.

Undertaking Your Pursuit

I spend a lot of time thinking about what is important in my life, what I want to work toward, and why I want to work toward those things. Its not always an easy and enjoyable task, and I find that if I get away from it for a little while, unimportant things slip back in. In order to stay on top of things and focus on the important, I find that it is helpful to think about the deep why behind my actions, habits, and daily routines. The most important questions I ask myself focus on whether I am doing something because I am trying to make the world a better place, or whether I am doing something out of my own self-interest. I know I will never detach self-interest from what I do, but at least I can try to align my self-interest with things that help improve the world as opposed to things that simply show off how awesome I think I am.

 

“Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Colin Wright ends one of the chapters in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be with that quote. It is advice we hear a lot but that I don’t think we always actually follow. Part of the reason we don’t always follow that advice is because it is usually packaged as “follow your passion” or “if you do what you love you will never really work a day in your life.” This line of advice giving isn’t too helpful and puts pressure on us to have the perfect job we love or else we feel that we are doing it all wrong. Better advice for us is to look inside and try to understand our motivations, ask ourselves what it is that drives us toward our goals, ask if that is reasonable and in the best interest of society, and adjust so that we are operating in a way that is designed to make the world a better place instead of only operating in a way to maximize the pleasure we find in the world.

 

I truly believe that better understanding our motivations and being honest with ourselves about the forces that drive us will help us realign our lives in a more positive direction. When we truly examine ourselves we will not want to find that we are working hard, hitting the gym at 5 a.m., and doing everything we do just to show off to others or just to buy new things that will impress others. We will find that we are more fulfilled when we align our days around pursuits and goals focused on building communities, helping other people, creating meaningful relationships, and trying to solve problems for other people. This may not immediately change every aspect of our life, but it will allow us to slowly build habits and ways of thinking that help us make better choices that minimize our selfishness and propel us toward meaningful goals.

What Are We Trying To Accomplish?

Sometimes I find that we can’t really define what outcomes we actually want, what goals we are actually working toward, and what purpose is actually driving our behaviors. For much of my life I see this in what I do, and where it really worries me is in the policy world. I focused on public administration and public policy for my masters degree. I think a lot about the thing that is lying at the heart of our political arguments and debates, and I think frequently about what it is that any one group is trying to accomplish when they frame an issue a certain way, respond to a crisis, or try to get a specific item on the agenda. Looking at the purpose behind the messaging and behind the actions is incredibly revealing and helpful for understanding where we are, and I think it is crucial to understand to develop effective policy.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright hits on the importance of understanding the why behind our actions and work. He writes, “The question of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with our actions is important because it demands we question our existing habits, biases, and goals.” We can move through life without examining what we are doing and why we are doing it, but autopilot by itself is not actually that good of a pilot. Someone has to set the course, determine the direction, and make sure things are pointed down the right runway before autopilot can take over. In the world of policy, this is all done behind the scenes and out of the way of the public. Not because someone is trying to be shady (most of the time) but because it is really boring detail oriented work. At the heart of all of it, its never really one person but a collective ethos in society that says things like, “people should be working if they expect to get help from the government” or “people have been discriminated against and can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because the system is rigged.” We take these broad sentiments, develop boring policies that try to address problems, and the public responds. However, the underlying goals of these sentiments are often unclear and hard to decipher. Policy seems to branch forward unsure of what the real goal is and unsure of what should be accomplished. When we then enter into political discussions without offering real objectives and clear goals, policy meanders and doesn’t really solve anything.

 

Our lives are a lot more like the policy scenario I described above than what we likely realize. We have vague thoughts and intuitions about how our lives should be. We have a sense of what we need to do to impress others, make people proud of us, and to accomplish things we want. What we don’t always do, however, is sit down and truly think about what our goals should be and why we want those goals to be the things we work toward. Doing this and being more intentional about our objectives and motivations can help us build a life that doesn’t just branch forward and bumble along, but that creates measurable milestones that we can work toward. This allows us to align our life with things that are meaningful and allows us to build habits and routines that an be meaningful and developmental.

Thinking About Meaning

A challenge for me over the last few months is thinking about building a meaningful life and a career within that life. I am at a stage in life where it feels that a lot of doors are open for me in terms of a career trajectory, and choosing one direction is scary because I don’t want to close out better opportunities than where I decide to point myself, and I don’t know exactly which direction is indeed going to feel the most meaningful and fulfilling.

 

I have come to understand that in many ways what we choose as our ultimate goal is less important than the effort we put into achieving that goal. Colin Wright puts it this way in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.” I want to have a solid and inspirational goal to work toward, but I also recognize that the effort toward the goal will teach me unexpected lessons, will create new avenues for opportunity, and can be what helps my life be fulfilling.

 

As I move forward, I am trying hard to identify problems that I have a skill set that I can apply to those problems. My hope is that I will identify a goal where my abilities can help contribute something positive to mitigate a serious problem to at least a marginal extent. With a solid trajectory, I believe I can find satisfaction by continuously  engaging in habits and processes that help me work toward that goal. I am frustrated that I cannot see my path forward as clearly as I can see where I have come from, but I am confident that meaningful action will open the right doors for me.

 

I think that my thoughts on fulfillment are something that should be shared more broadly in society. We seem to find meaning in things that don’t really exist and we don’t really seem to know what we mean when we say we want to have meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in a spiritual sense is not something that resonates with me, and is not something we should expect to resonate with everyone on the planet. Finding meaning in material goods is problematic for a whole host of reasons, and ultimately seems to leave a void in our lives. Identifying goals that in one way or another make the world a better place and trying to work daily to improve the world by pursuing our goal appears to be a robust way of at the very least creating fulfillment in our lives. Finding absolute meaning in our goal may still be difficult or impossible, but hopefully the actions that take us toward that goal will make us feel valuable and useful, and hopefully that will create a sense of fulfillment.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.