Why Looking At What You Do Tells You Who You Are

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Sunday, 9.13pm

Sheffield, U.K

And Pharoah said, ‘You are lazy! You will be given no straw, but you must produce the same tally of bricks each day.’ – Exodus 5

Do you know how to find out what people will do in a given situation?

For example, if you’re marketing a new brand of healthy cereal, what questions would you ask to find out whether people will buy it?

Many people will assume the right thing to do is ask people what they will do.

“Would buy this type of cereal?”, might be one.

A simple direct question – would you do this.

Many people, when asked such a question, will probably say that they would buy that type of healthy cereal.

Should you now go and build your factories – start producing tons of the stuff?

Before you do that the question you should ask is “What types of cereal do you buy now?”

The point is that studying the past will tell often you more about what will happen in the future than any amount of prediction or forecasting.

Why is that?

Well, the future has an infinite set of alternatives – every possible thing that could happen from the next instant.

The past is defined – a single timeline of things that have happened.

The past is certain and the future uncertain.

But what is likely is that things that have happened in the past will happen again in the future.

If your preference has been for chocolate ice cream for most of your adult life you are unlikely to change to a pomegranate fusion.

This is the time of year for resolutions – for ideas and plans for how you will do things differently.

Imagine you were to tell a friend about how you have spent the last few days, the last few weeks, the last few months, the last year – what would you say?

If you could talk through what’s taken your time, what you’ve enjoyed doing, how things have gone – then you will have an insight into what you’ve done.

And in what you’ve done lies the information you need to understand what you’re going to do.

Let’s take writing as an example – something like keeping a blog like this one you’re reading.

If I look back at what I’ve done, the one constant that’s always been there is writing.

I have sheets of yellow paper with pencilled writing from 1998 in a file, letters, diary entries – not everything but enough to know that writing has been something I’ve done for a few decades.

I use writing as a way to examine what I think, as a way to understand other people’s ideas, as a way to work through unsettling situations.

In the first decade of this century I held a view that if something wasn’t in writing it practically didn’t exist.

In the second decade I revised that view to if something isn’t on the Internet it doesn’t exist.

Now, if someone starts a website or a blog or whatever else because they think it would be a useful thing to do – something utilitarian – perhaps something as part of a content marketing strategy – the test of whether they will keep at it is whether they have written much in the past.

Because if they haven’t this task will wear them down, doing something they don’t really like doing day after day.

And you can’t outsource it easily – because that person writing has the same problem.

Do they do it because they have to – in which case that angst will show – or do they do it because they like writing?

The thing you have to look for when trying to see whether something that you want to change is likely to do so is the voice of the process.

If you want to increase the number of customers you have, how much time did you spend last year having conversations with prospects, partners and introducers?

If you want to lose weight how many days a week did you exercise last year?

If you want to spend less how much time did you spend last year filling in your cashbook and updating your budget?

The fact is that we are all anchored in the past, rooted there – just like a giant tree.

If we want to change ourselves or our situation in a way that is very different from where we are now we need to pull up that anchor, uproot that tree – and that’s very hard work.

Not impossible – but very hard.

You should have started taking baby steps to change ten years ago.

But if you haven’t – today is good too.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When You Feel Less Good Than Everyone Else?

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Saturday, 9.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What fascinated me most was Churchill as a young child. He had a kind of Dickensian childhood. The neglect. And he was a terrible student. His whole life is a study in trying to overcome your feelings of inadequacy. – John Lithgow

I said I probably wouldn’t write about the fourth chapter of Alain de Botton’s book The consolations of philosophy but I’ve changed my mind.

The reason I thought I’d skip it is because it covers areas that are not nice to read about as part of an essay on inadequacy.

The problem is one of how people in history have treated other people because they were different – lesser than them.

And it’s happened all over the world, all across time – from South America to Africa to Europe and Asia and Australasia.

The scars of these histories are still visible today – just pick a country – it seems unfair to single out one and there will be something in their history people now wish was simply forgotten.

The good thing is that it now is unlikely that such things will be forgotten – the Internet has a long memory and gives people a voice when they did not have one.

Some of those stories are ones you may not wish to hear.

Right now, for example, with young children and knowing what we now know- I am unable to pick up a book in the library that has letters that Jewish children living in ghettos wrote during the war.

I know it’s there, and must be read – but later.

But my reason for writing about this chapter is that it introduces a French philosopher, Montaigne, who wrote about how important it was that we understand one another.

It is easy to see anything different as worse – and that is how people have seen things for most of history.

In some ways that is a natural, instinctive way to look at the world.

It’s natural and instinctive to see your country being filled up with foreigners and feeling like you’re being pushed out.

And that’s why it’s wrong.

If you want to be a “good” person they you have to fight against what is your natural and instinctive reaction to things – a reaction based on what you think is normal and abnormal based on what you have learned and been exposed to.

And Montaigne pointed out that they only way you can do that is by learning more about other people, other cultures and other ways of doing things.

In any situation you will have some people that are in charge, in control, this is their space.

And you will have others that try to fit in – but feel small, marginalised, without a voice, facing a glass ceiling or outright antagonism and violence.

Who feel inadequate.

And this happens to individuals as well – the inadequacy that affects us when we see people living perfect lives on social media – when we see others that seem to be doing much better than we are.

Montaigne points out that respect or value seems to come from people who are furthest away from you.

To your family you are an eccentric – while to someone on the other side of the world your words might be life changing.

Now one solution to the inequity in life and society is for the majority, the winners to make place for the minority, the marginalised.

Some places do this – and some places fight it and depending on where you live – you take the opportunity or you live with the injustice.

But if you are lucky you have something now that almost no one had in the past.

You have the ability to get a voice – a global one.

And one can hope that when we hear these voices we will be more open to change.

Let’s be real about this – you will have some people build walls and ignore the evidence – fight against any suggestion that they or their ancestors did anything wrong.

And you will have others that accept what happened and try to make a difference.

For example, this article analyses Japan’s history and suggests that what is needed in such situations is a permanent way of memorialising and apologising for national crimes – in law, in education, and in culture.

But while you’re waiting being able to tell your story is one way of dealing with what has happened.

What we should be doing is teaching people the right way to treat others.

You’ve all heard of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

What’s actually needed, but less well known, is the platinum rule.

“Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You React When Things Don’t Go The Way You Want?

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Friday, 9.23pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It took 10 months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces. That no one can take from you. I profoundly distrust the pedagogy of ease. – George Steiner

I’m on the third chapter of Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy and this is about frustration.

The basic problem with life is that every once a while what we wish for is blocked by reality.

You really wanted that promotion, but someone else got it.

Or you wanted to get those tickets but they were sold out.

When this kind of stuff happens some people get angry.

It’s a natural response to being frustrated, they argue. If you don’t respond like that then you’re emotionally shut down – not in touch with your feelings – a robot.

de Botton draws on the Roman philosopher Seneca whose advice pretty much comes down to shit happens – so expect it to happen and then you won’t be surprised when it does happen.

Bad things can happen – in fact every bad thing that could happen to you could happen pretty much in the next minute.

So, prepare yourself and be ready for whatever might happen.

And then you won’t feel so bad?

Hmmm. Not sure about that last bit.

Seneca went through his share of troubles – he was exiled, brought back and finally ordered to kill himself by his former student, the Emperor Nero – and he did so – without falling apart.

The thing is, when you look at Seneca’s approach to dealing with frustration it really only applies to things that frustrate you – things that affect only you.

If you’re passed over, if you’re swindled out of a commission, if people use you and then discard you – then yes you can choose to be stoic and calm about it all.

But then there are times when you can be calm and very angry at the same time.

And those times are when, I suppose, you are in a situation where other people have absolute power over you and your family and your people.

The next chapter of de Botton’s book, which I think I will skip writing about, talks about what happened to the Native American population in the 1500s.

They were seen as non-human by the invading Spanish – and butchered and treated worse than animals – 70 million died out of a population of 80 million.

This might seem like a long time ago – but you have to then remember the history of slavery a few hundred years later.

And the guillotine and the inquisition were still there in the East in the last century.

Should the Indians and the slaves have just taken this stoically – accepted that bad things happen to them and their families and got on with living – or more often, dying?

How would you react?

But then, coming back to something approaching normality – you have frustrations that can be overcome – like building a bridge or inventing new things.

Being too stoic and accepting of everything might also mean that you never grow or learn or push yourself.

So, perhaps here’s a conclusion from the essay.

Most things are small things – don’t sweat the small stuff.

Many things can be overcome – don’t give up too soon.

But what’s not in the essay is when frustration should be absorbed and used and redirected.

Sometimes you should work to make change happen – and anger can drive you to do that – especially when things are unfair.

And sometimes you should go with the flow – accept reality and live the best you can.

As always – the approach you take depends on the situation you’re in.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Think About Money And Happiness

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Thursday, 9.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

I’m on the second chapter of Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy in my attempt to start the year with a good book.

Although you could start every day anew there is something special about the start of a new year – some kind of extra energy you get only at this time.

de Botton’s second chapter is called Consolation for not having enough money and it introduces a philosopher called Epicurus who championed the importance of pleasure – especially when it came to food.

His name has been appropriated to now mean an excessive pursuit of pleasure – the difference between a good meal and gluttony – but de Botton explains that the real person found happiness in simpler, less expensive things.

There were three things in his list.

First was the importance of friendships – never eat alone, he said.

Next came freedom – the option not to work for people you don’t like and do things you don’t want to do.

Or the converse, I suppose – work with people you like, admire and trust – in the words of Warren Buffett.

And then lastly having the time to think, to reflect, to question – to go through issues and come to a view – the ability to analyse anxiety and, in doing so, resolve it.

Maybe even dissolve it.

The point, de Botton points out, is that these three have nothing to do with money.

If you have money but don’t have these things – well, you’re probably not happy.

And if you do have money as well – then it must be a good life.

de Botton goes on to argue that the reason we think we need stuff in order to be happy is because of marketing – we’ve been programmed that way.

And if look for exceptions to those marketing messages or rules then we might find that the rules are wrong or need amending – and we can do that.

That seems quite simple – almost simplistic – so maybe there are a couple of messages to also add to that.

I’m reminded of two points about this thing called money.

Most of us think that money was created so we had a medium of exchange that wasn’t a chicken or pig or potato.

In other words money helped us replace a system of bartering with one of trading.

But there is another view that money is actually a form of debt.

Suppose I came to your shop and wanted some bread – and you didn’t really want one of my chickens, but you did want a piece of gold.

I might have written you an IOU on whatever the equivalent was of paper at that time – and this IOU was a promissory note for something of a certain value – and money was invented.

So, to some extent, when you collect money you collect someone else’s debt – you are “owed”.

But then why do you collect the money in the first place – why do you work or do whatever it is you do?

Is it for the money – for that pile of debts?

Or is it because you want to do something with that money?

This brings us to the second thing about money.

In order to figure out if money will bring you happiness, you first need to figure out what you want out of money.

I come from a world where Dickens’ quote that starts this blog is still very relevant.

I remember my grandmother keeping a cash book and accounting for where everything went.

And she seemed pretty happy.

I did that for a long time as well, although in the last decade it became harder with children and a general lack of time.

But it’s something to get back to again now – because I think Epicurus’s list is missing something.

Yes you need friends, freedom and time to think to be happy.

But many of us don’t have the freedom he talks about – and we still manage to be happy.

The thing that’s missing is not money, I think, but what money represents.

It doesn’t represent the ability to buy things as much as it represents a lack of debt.

And not being in debt is a good place to be.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Reboot Your Thinking This New Year

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Wednesday, 8.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for. – Socrates

What book would you choose to help you start this new year?

I’ve stumbled across Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy and I think this is one to study over the next six days or so.

It’s a collection of essays that address six human concerns – ageless ones.

de Botton enlists the help of philosophers to explore the topics of unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties.

Socrates is his first philosopher and he helps us understand what is right – and that what is right is not necessarily the same as what is popular.

What is important is whether it makes sense – and that’s something that we, as individuals, need to think through for ourselves.

This is important because in our short lives we are going to be exposed to many ideas – some from powerful people.

And these ideas have an impact – they have consequences.

From the views of politicians on climate change or whether to be part of a federal system or not to whether you should eat carbs or meat – it’s increasingly hard to make sense of it all.

The problem has to do with logic – or more accurately the lack of it.

And thinking logically is not that hard – de Botton claims – and gives us a six step process to follow.

  1. Select a rule that is considered common sense
  2. Imagine it’s false – look for exceptions
  3. If an exception is found the rule must be wrong or imprecise
  4. Modify the rule – add nuance to address the exception
  5. Goto 2

The sixth statement is that the product of thought is superior to the product of intuition.

And now we have a problem.

Let’s take that sixth statement – is it common sense?

Except we know it’s wrong in the case of what to do when you see a hungry lion heading in your direction.

In that case your intuition – your animal brain takes over and you run for cover or climb a tree.

Standing there thinking logically about the situation is not going to help you.

So there we have an exception – and one that we don’t really need to explore – it’s pretty much set out in Thinking, fast and slow by Kahneman.

Last year I did a lot of reading – browsing through books looking for nuggets, insights – something interesting that I could use or adapt in my own life.

And when you’re doing this it makes sense to be expansive – to collect without discrimination because there are things everywhere.

But then you have to see which of these ideas make sense – which ones you might choose to incorporate into daily life.

That’s where another one of de Botton’s observations is useful.

There are things you know that are right – but you don’t know how to respond when other people raise objections about this thing you know.

Socrates called that a “true opinion”.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is when you know why something is true and why it’s alternatives are false.

But to do that you must know the alternatives – you need to have studied them as well.

And this is where we come to why people don’t do that.

de Botton points out that some things are hard and they look hard as well.

Become an expert painter or potter or sculptor is that kind of thing – it takes time to learn how to do such things.

Then there are things that are hard to do but look easy.

Deciding how to live your life is one of those things.

After all, you could just follow the teachings of your church.

Or you could follow the laws of your state.

Or you could listen to your mum and dad.

There is no shortage of people lining up to give you advice on the best way to do things – hacks and tips and shortcuts and goals and targets and strategies.

Listen to them all.

But also learn how to work out which of those ideas make sense.

For you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh