How Losing Personal Attachments Can Help You Realize Ambition

April 20, 2011

My friend Susanne and I were recently playing a trivia game, a game in which she excels. However, at one point, she got a couple wrong answers in row. “Urgh,” she blurted out, “every time I have a gut answer and change it, it was actually correct.”

This made me curious. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Blink, said that we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. Was this true in Susanne’s case? Or was her mind playing tricks on her? To test this out, we did a little—admittedly unscientific—experiment.

We turned to a set of trivia questions where you had to guess the year that different events took place, like the year President Ford survived two assassination attempts (1975), or the year Pete Rose set a National League consecutive game hitting streak record of 44 (1978).

For our experiment, we took 10 questions. I would read aloud the name of an event (like the signing of the SALT II treaty) and Susanne would instantaneously give me her “gut” answer. I marked those down She would then take a bit more time to apply some analysis and come up with a final “logical” answer. In this case, the correct answer is 1979.

The results?

Out of 10 questions:

  • One of her “gut” answers was closer than her “logical” answer—but only by one year.
  • Four responses were unchanged after applying further reasoning. This means that 40% of the time, her “gut” answer and “logical” answer were the same.
  • Five times, when she changed her “gut” response, her “logical” answer proved to be closer to the real date, often significantly closer.

What does this mean? Well, given that our study was not statistically valid, not much. However, it does highlight an interesting point.

Humans get attached to things—in this particular case, it was Susanne’s gut responses.

Furthermore, when we change an answer that was originally correct to give a final answer that is wrong, we kick ourselves. The irony is that we are much less likely to remember the situations where our gut answer was wrong and our final answer was correct.

This correlates to a study done with college students who were given a multiple-choice exam. The test administrators developed it in such a way that they could track when a student changed an answer.

After the students received their results, the examiner asked if, when the student changed a particular answer, whether they believed that their first answer was correct more often or not. Nearly all of the students believed that their first answers, or “gut” answers, were in fact usually correct, and that when they changed their response they more often got it wrong. This was similar to Susanne’s initial belief.

However, the study showed that the students’ final answers were more often correct than their gut answers— and by a wide margin.

So why is it that these students believed that their initial reactions we more accurate?

One reason is attachment. In particular, we feel losses more powerfully than we notice gains. In fact, a recent study showed that a loss of a relationship activates the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain. Losses truly are painful.

The students and Susanne felt a “loss” when a correct gut answer was changed. But they barely noticed the “gain” associated with a wrong gut answer that was ultimately corrected. This is a small example of how attachment affects us, however if you really take an honest look, attachment permeates throughout our entire lives.

Human beings are like packrats. We collect everything: ideas, material possessions, and relationships. However, when packrats stumble across something new that they wish to acquire, they will drop what they are currently carrying and “trade” it for the new item. One might say that these tiny creates are free to explore the world unencumbered by the past. This is in complete contrast to what human’s do. It is rare for us to drop something once we have it. We find it difficult to let go.

What can we learn from this?

Take a look at what you have in your life. What are you attached to? Are you holding on to these things just because you already have them? Consider that these attachments may, in fact, be weighing you down and preventing you from being able to effectively operate or generate creative and fulfilling alternatives in your life. I suspect that people would love to reinvent their lives but haven’t done so because they are already invested in what they have.

How can you break free?

Take an inventory of your life: your belongings, your job, your friends, and your relationships. If you were to design your life from scratch, would you seek out these same things and people? Or, would you make different choices?

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

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How to Be Selfless by Being Self-Centered

April 14, 2011

I travel the world extensively. And during these jaunts I am always interested to hear of the differing points of view held by others about American culture. One commonly-held perception is that Americans are self-centered, believing that they are the center of the universe.

There is some truth to this perspective. On the whole, American culture is individualistic.

Studies have been conducted illustrating the differing impact of independent versus interdependent cultures; Americans being independent and Asians, for example, being interdependent.

An article in New Scientist Magazine titled “Self-Centered Cultures Narrow Your Viewpoint” reported that cultures emphasizing individualism fail at being able to infer another person’s perspective. Cultures that emphasize interdependence, on the other hand, are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of others and be more empathetic. A lack of empathy can certainly give the perspective that an individualistic society is self-centered.

To illustrate the difference between individualistic and interdependent culture, the study used the example of a U.S.-based company that attempted to improve productivity by telling its employees to “look in the mirror and say ‘I am beautiful’ 100 times before coming to work.” In contrast, a Japanese supermarket instructed its employees to “begin their day by telling each other ‘you are beautiful’.”

But is being self-centered really all that bad?

Perhaps I can offer up a slightly different definition for self-centered. It depicts a way of being self-centered that might actually be beneficial.

To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.” And while selfish and self-centered are found to be synonymous in the dictionary, being self-centered—in my opinion—is entirely different.

Centering is what you base your life on—what you focus your attention on.

My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their lives. They live vicariously through us, listening intently as we share our day’s events or track our whereabouts via Facebook.

I have friends who are spouse-centered in that they do everything to please their partner.

Many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement. [NOTE: Being work-centered is different than “marrying your work.”]

Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being for their cause of choice.

In fact, in an apparent attempt to shed the self-centered label, I have seen the pendulum swing so far over in some areas that there has become a complete disregard for one’s own self.

As a simple illustration, several years back, I had conducted a survey for a book that I was writing covering individual’s relationships to goals. The study uncovered that 53 percent of people agreed with the statement: “I sometimes get the feeling that I am living my life in a way that satisfies others (friends, family, co-workers) more than it satisfies me.”

Is this healthy?

This leads me to the benefits of self-centering…

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Kit Kat Video on Working Hard

April 12, 2011

I love this video. I was just in Mexico on vacation and I saw all of the vacationers working hard while the locals were enjoying the sea and sun. It made me think about this commercial for Kit Kat. Ah, so true…

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How To Create Luck In Business And In Life

April 11, 2011

I know St. Patrick’s Day has passed, but it got me thinking about the concept of luck.

Have you ever met people who are consistently lucky? It is as if they are always in the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, you feel as though the cards of fate have dealt you a bum hand and you have to work extraordinarily hard to make anything happen.

The truth is, you can create your own luck.

Allow me to illustrate my point mathematically.

Imagine a room full of people. What are the odds of two people in that room having the same birthday, both the month and day?

For those of you who enjoy probability, you know that 367 people are needed to guarantee that two people in a room have the same birthday. There are 366 days in a leap year, so you need one person for each day, plus one.

But it gets more interesting if you ask the question, “How many people do you need in a room to have a 50 percent chance that two people will have the same birthday?” Some people immediately assume it is half of 367, or roughly 184. While that is a logical guess, it is actually incorrect. In fact, you would only need 23 people. Shocking? Try it some time and see what happens. With just 40 people you will have a nearly 90 percent chance that two individuals will have the same birthday.

Now I’d like you to consider how many people you would need in a room to have a 50 percent chance that two people share a particular birthday? For example, I was born on April 25. How many people would I need to have in a room to have a 50 percent chance that there is another person with my exact birthday? Surprisingly, the number now increases to over 600.

My point? If you look at these simple, yet surprising mathematics, you will discover that the likelihood of ANY event happening is quite high. The likelihood of a PARTICULAR event happening is quite low. How does this relate to luck? Well, luck, in many respects, is a game of numbers and probability.

If you are wed to things in your business, working out in a particular way, it requires a large number of things coming together in a specific way—just like looking for a particular birthday. What particular outcomes are you seeking that may be probabilistically limiting? Do you have a particular view of how your business should look? Do you believe that a particular business partner is the key to your success? Are there specific clients that you feel you must land? Are there particular milestones you must hit? Are there technologies you must develop?

The more you are focused on these specific results, mathematically speaking, the less probable the achievement. But if you are willing to think more broadly and be open to other possible outcomes, your luck will seem to magically appear…

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

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15 Minute Speech in Spain

April 6, 2011

Last week I spoke at the launch of the Navarra Factori, an innovation center near Pamplona, Spain. This government backed initiative is designed to help stimulate creativity and innovation in the region.  I was the keynote for the opening. They asked me to speak about how creative ideas don’t necessarily come from within the four walls of an organization, but rather can come from anywhere. Most people there don’t speak English very well, so they listened to me via simultaneous translation.

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