Book Summary: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

  • Antifragile – a term used to mean the opposite of fragile, and denote things that gain from disorder, chaos, stressors. It is not the same thing as ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’. Fragile things are negatively impacted by uncertainty, stress. Robust things are unimpacted by them. Antifragile things actually grow and flourish in the face of uncertainty and stress. The analogy “wind puts out a candle, but encourages a fire” embodies this.
  • This is an interesting and important concept to think about as it is all around us in nature and evolution – only the antifragile setups could have lasted billions of years in an unpredictable universe. Yet, no known language has a word for the ‘exact opposite of fragile’, leading the author to coin antifragile.
  • Human emotions are a good example to understand ‘antifragile’ behavior – thoughts or emotions such as anger and bitterness grow the more they are suppressed. Countless stories tell the tale of someone whose love/attraction for their chosen ones grows in spite of emotional abuse or mistreatment from the person they desire.

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Book Summary: Give and Take by Adam Grant

  • Reciprocity Styles: People can be classified based on reciprocity styles as givers (do more for others), matchers (operate on quid-pro-quo basis) and takers (look for personal gain at the expense of others).
  • Success and Reciprocity Styles: There is a high correlation between patterns of success/productivity and reciprocity styles. On the success ladder, the people at the bottom are givers. Surprisingly, the people at the top are also givers. The takers and matchers occupy the middle. The book is about how giving enriches you in various ways, and what differentiates givers at the bottom and the top.

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Getting There: A Book of Mentors

This book is a collection of memoirs and life lessons from leaders in diverse fields, ranging from investing (Warren Buffett), art (Marina Abramovic), business (several) to academia (Nitin Nohria). The content is surprisingly fresh and different from what one may have read from these same people elsewhere. The candid, reflective and conversational tone makes the book a great bedtime read.

Below are some snippets from each of the subjects.

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Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control

Introduction

This blog post is an attempt to condense some learnings on self-efficacy. Some of us have been introduced to the concept by this illuminating book – A Defining Decade by Meg Jay.  The internet unfortunately does not provide good content on what self-efficacy is, how to build it up, the numerous aspects in which it affects your life, so the only way to dig these up is to go straight to the source – Albert Bandura’s psychology textbook that collates his pioneering research on the subject. The book, however, is 604 pages long and extremely dense with strictly academic language. A tl;dr version exists here; short, approachable, yet in heavily academic language as well. This blog post is a ‘notes to self’ version of the book, and an attempt to make learnings from the book accessible.

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is the set of beliefs and attitudes that you can get something done, influence things and events in your environments and cause certain outcomes.
Self-efficacy is not the same thing as confidence – you can be supremely confident that you will fail. Confidence is the degree of strength of a belief.
Self-efficacy is also not the same as knowing you will succeed – self-efficacy says you have a sense of agency, and that you have control, no matter what the outcome.

If you have heard any of the following references growing up and wondered if they were merely feel-good things to tell yourself, here is the good news – self-efficacy research that provides a solid backing to and understanding of these popular sayings

  • Whether you think you can or you cannot, you are right.
  • I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. 
  • Life’s battles do not go to the strongest or biggest man, sooner or later (they) go to the one who he thinks he can.

Why should I care about it?

Research shows that people with a self-efficacious outlook –

  • approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided.
  • foster an intrinsic interest in the activities they take up, and are deeply engrossed in them.
  • set themselves challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to them.
  • heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure.
  • quickly recover their sense of efficacy or belief in themselves after setbacks or failures.
  • attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable, rather than some innate deficiency with themselves.
  • approach threatening situations with an assurance that they can exercise control over them.
  • have reduced stress and lower vulnerability to depression.
  • have higher levels of accomplishment.

If such people sound awesome, self-efficacy is worth learning about.

 

This sounds like it is about work and accomplishments. I am not ambitious or I don’t like talking about these subjects. Why should I care about it?

Efficacy doesn’t just affect how you perform, it affects your thought-processes, the attitude you carry to pretty much any situation and as a consequence, social and emotional aspects of your life. For example, take shyness. Research shows that shy people know perfectly well how to behave socially and how to pull off smalltalk. They are simply reticent because their perception (self-efficacy) of their social skills is poor.

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Book Summary: The Happiness Advantage

Seven principles from the book:

  1. The happiness advantage: Happiness does not follow success. The reason is that each time we are successful, we change the goals (the definition of success) just a little bit so happiness remains a moving target. Instead, research shows that success orbits around happiness. Behaviors that create happiness and positivity lead to success.
  2. The fulcrum and the lever analogy: Your belief of your talent and capability to get outcomes is analogous to the length of the lever you have. Your mindset about yourself and the task at hand is the fulcrum. Remember that by shifting the fulcrum you can lift a larger weight using the same length of lever.
  3. The tetris effect: People who play too Tetris have their brains wired to spot for Tetris-like patterns and shapes in the real world. They are constantly on the lookout for ‘gaps’ that can be filled to complete a Tetris line. The human brain works similarly in the real world – you will spot whatever you are primed to look out for, so prime yourself to look for the good, the positive.
  4. Falling up: There is a way to use your failure and suffering (‘downward momentum’) to propel yourself upward. Highly resilient people are able to cope with many falls and eventually succeed because they are falling up, learning and growing with each fall.
  5. The Zorro Circle: There are two categories of people – one with an internal locus of control (they believe they have the power to shape things), another with an external locus of control (believe they can be helpless and other people or luck play all the role). Build an internal locus of control, starting with a small circle. The small circle is a metaphor for one small task that you can build control over and do well. Then gradually expand outwards to take more challenges as you strengthen your belief.
  6. The 20-second rule: Humans end up not picking happiness-generating things or activities (e.g. actual hobbies, exercise, social bonds), because they require a non-trivial initial investment or overcoming inertia. Humans instead pick activities that are low-friction, easy to start (e.g. watching TV) but don’t generate happiness or satisfaction. To change this, change the direction of friction by just 20 seconds. The author placed a guitar on a stand in the center of his living room, to avoid the 20-second effort of picking it up, and got better at keeping his goals of playing everyday. Similarly, he took off the batteries of the remote and placed them 20 seconds away, and it got easier to shun TV.
  7. Social Investment: When adversity strikes, some people are the first to abandon their investment in the people around them, spending less time with their mate, kids or friends to work instead. This is counter-productive. Your social support network is the biggest investment you can make in times of adversity – it helps you pull through.

Notes:

  • US Navy’s research shows that the prizes for efficiency and preparedness go to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. Squadrons getting the lowest marks are frequently led by officers who are negative, controlling and of an aloof demeanour.
  • Mental construction has a direct impact on the physical aging process. In a study, a group of men of age ~75 were isolated and put into settings that faked the appearance of the year when they were 55. They spent one week in these circumstances, and objective markers of youth – agility, memory etc went up for them.
  • Mental construction and perception influences the impact of external circumstances: A group of youngsters rubbed with a placebo but told that they were being rubbed with poison ivy started showing actual signs of irritation. In another group that was actually rubbed with poison ivy but told that they were being rubbed with a harmless substance, only 2 out of the 14 allergic people developed rashes.
  • Mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality. This is why job crafting is a good exercise. It involves looking at the activities of your day-to-day job and trying to connect parts of it with your long-term purpose and larger calling.
  • Mindset: The most successful people are not the ones who have the longest hours. These are people with a mindset that helps them work more productively and amidst more pressure than their peers. They take the same units of time given to everyone and use their mindset to become efficient and productive.
  • Note the lever in the lever and fulcrum analogy is not ‘ability’ but ‘belief in your own ability’. Belief in your own ability is a stronger predictor of on-the-job performance than the actual level of skills or training that you have had.
  • Not pursuit, but creation or construction of happiness: The term the ‘pursuit’ of happiness is misleading. It is in your power to create happiness for yourself, so use the phrase ‘creation/construction of happiness’ instead.
  • How can your current tasks be connected to your larger personal goals in life? Jot down the work that you do, and then draw an arrow to the right, and jot down the outcome. Jot down what the outcome means after another arrow, and keep asking ‘what does this lead to’ and drawing more arrows till you get a consequence of your work that is meaningful and impactful to you.
  • “A few choice words can alter a person’s mindset, which in turn can change their accomplishments.” This is worth keeping in mind as you interact with your spouse, kids, friends and colleagues.
  • Words matter: Two groups of people were asked to play the same game. One group was told it was the ‘wall street game’, the other was told it was the ‘community game’. People’s behavior and level of cooperativeness in the game was very different in the two cases, despite it being the same game.
  • The Pygmalion Effect: Pygmalion was a sculptor who created a beautiful woman’s status out of a marble block and fell in love enough to ask a Goddess to make the statue come to life. The Pygmalion effect in real life is demonstrated when absolutely ordinary kids are presented to the teachers as having ‘gifted ability’ in a class, and a year later, their performance has actually shot up. The teachers’ beliefs spread into their non-verbal cues and behavior to the students’ morale and their efforts.
  • Expectations we have about our children, co-workers and spouses – whether or not they are ever voiced, can make that expectation a reality.
  • Deadline is a negative word: Use something like lifeline instead. Talking or thinking about deadlines make you focus on the ‘end’. When you reconnect yourself to the pleasure of the ‘means’ as opposed to only focusing on the ends, you adopt a mindset that is more conducive to not only enjoyment but also better objective results.
  • The Tetris Effect is a metaphor for how our brains dictate the way we see the world around us.
  • The gorilla experiment shows we can miss something obvious when we are not looking for it. When we are looking for something, we see it everywhere. Positive tetris effect is scanning the world for opportunities and ideas that allows our success rate to grow.
  •  Optimists are able to maintain high levels of well-being during times of hardships; they hone skills crucial to high performance in a demanding work environment.
  • The photo-counting experiment shows that luck is not entirely extrinsic, unlucky people have just primed themselves to not spot opportunities that are staring them in the face.
  • This is where the ‘writing what you are grateful for, daily’ exercise helps. It primes your brain to spot goodness, till it comes to you naturally. CEOs who attempted this experiment found two useful side-effects – enlisting their kids to do this with them at the dinner table, they found that the kids refused to have dinner till the exercise was completed, holding them accountable and forcing them to ‘see’ goodness when days at work were horrible. Secondly, they became better at seeing the things to be grateful for in their marriages as well.
  • Adversarial growth – there are several calamities from people are known to emerge stronger from, including breast cancer, natural disasters and refugee displacement. By having a positive reinterpretation of the situation, and developing resilience and hope, they ‘fall up’.
  • Learned helplessness – Dogs were placed in a box with two chambers, one with shocks and one without. They could easily jump from one chamber into the other. Researchers periodically rung a bell and started the shock. They expected the dogs to jump each time the bell rang after a few attempts, instead the dogs learned to be helpless and just bear the shock.
  • People are often quick to learn helplessness. If their efforts to do something to make things better don’t work in one attempt, the first pass of the experiment, they don’t even try when faced with the situation again. Furthermore, the learned helplessness is applied (often wrongly) to other situations as well.
  • ABCD paradigm: Adversity, Belief, Consequence and Disputation. Your beliefs after adversity will shape whether you think the consequences are good, bearable or bad. If they are bad, you should dispute that in your head.
  • Two parts of the brain – the jerk and the thinker: The pre-frontal cortex is for rational decision making, its motto is ‘think, then react’. The limbic region where amygdala dominates is more emotional and its motto is ‘fight or flight’. For more effective people, their pre-frontal cortex wins in a stressful situation. Brain scans show that it lights up more. For people who are easily worried or stressed, the limbic region dominates. Irrespective of the person, once the stress has reached a critical point, even the smallest setback can trigger an amygdala response, essentially hitting the brain’s panic button.
  • Developing effective stress response: Step 1 is to verbalize it, put your feelings down into words. Step 2 is to which aspects of the situation you have control over and which ones you don’t. Surprisingly, when people focus on aspects they can control, their work ends up influencing the other aspects, seemingly out of their control, as well and the overall result is positive.
  • Self-awareness is a swift antidote for emotional hijacking.
  • Habits are like financial capital – forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come. By forming positive habits, you are making your nervous system your ally instead of your enemy. The dividends paid off by habits come without continued concerted effort, or extensive usage of willpower reserves. A powerful example – the author slept in gym clothes, with sneakers by the bed and a mental plan of what to do for the workout at night, for a few months. As it became a habit, working out in the mornings came naturally to him.
  • Set rules in advance, and free yourself from the barrage of choices that deplete your willpower.
  • When we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go. Research shows that people who believe success is a lonely path, and divest themselves socially in hardship fare worse than those who capitalize on their social support networks.
  • “Love  – full stop”: A study at Harvard followed 268 Harvard graduates for 70 years. The researcher who supervised it for 40 years, summarizes it as ‘love – full stop’. Those who scored highest on ‘warm relationship’ aspects earned $141,000 a year more at their peak than others. Social capital provides stress relief and a significant competitive advantage.
  • “If somebody must jettison a part of their life, time with a mate should be last on the list. He needs that connection to live.”  Not following this when pressed for time, is like dumping food on a life-raft but keeping the life-raft furniture.
  • We each have our own versions of the offensive line (football metaphor) -with our spouses, families and friends, big challenges feel more manageable and small challenges don’t even register on the radar.
  • How a person responds when you share good news with them, is way better a predictor of your bond with them than anything else.
  • Experiments show that in work environments, just one positive team-member can change the objective accomplishments of the group. Power to spark and spread positive emotion multiplies if you are in a leadership position.

 

Action Items from the book (do the following everyday):

  1. List 3 things that happened during the day, that you are grateful for. A persistent habit of looking for 3 good things each night will prime your brain to spot positivity and increase gratitude.
  2. Maintain a journal. The people who recover the best from setbacks and distress are those who can understand what they are feeling and put those feelings into words. Journaling helps increase self-awareness, which is the first step to gaining control.
  3. Adopt a positive tone and facial expression. It benefits the objective performance and results of people around you.

Book Recommendation: Principles of Psychology by William James

Book Summary: ‘Creativity, Inc’

Ideas from the book

  • Make sure your environment facilitates, and not hinders, the culture that you want to foster. If you want open communication oblivious to ranks and pecking order, a rectangular meeting table is a bad idea. So are name or place cards. The author changed the meeting room at Pixar to have a square table and had positions (name cards) mixed up so that executives were sitting next to front-line employees.

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Book Summary: ‘The Defining Decade’

The Defining Decade‘ is a book by clinical psychologist Meg Jay who has spent her career studying adult development and spent multiple years doing therapy for twenty-something clients helping them sort out their lives. Notes below are not exhaustive, those can be found at getAbstract which has a concise yet thorough summary of the book here.

On individual development, career and networking

  • Focus on Identity Capital not Identity Crisis: Time spent brooding over who you really are or what you should be doing should really be spent on developing identity capital. Identity capital is how you come across to the world – from how you look or speak to what you choose to focus your efforts/work on.
  • The only way to figure out what to do is to do something. As a therapist, the author met a bunch of twenty-somethings who wasted a lot of time trying to find the ideal thing to do rather than jumping into something they liked, experimenting and iterating.
  • Are you capitalizing on your weak ties?  The strength of weak ties is a seminal paper by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter – the research behind it shows that most major life-defining changes happen due to weak ties, not due to one’s inner circle.  Most people stick to their comfort zone of a small number of people they know – this is detrimental, perhaps dangerous, for personal development.
  • Weak ties promote (and sometimes force) thoughtful growth and change. Weak ties force us to communicate from a place of difference. The similarities and shared context that we have with our inner circle makes us comfortable, but also complacent.
  • Once you start getting comfortable making use of and growing/developing your weak ties, “the world seems suddenly smaller and easier to navigate”.
  • Ben Franklin effect:  If weak ties do favors for us, they start to like us. Ben Franklin’s story/anecdote is worth understanding and analyzing.
  • How Ben Franklin positioned himself for success (and what we should emulate):
    • He found out the person’s area of expertise.
    • He presented himself as a serious person with a need that matched.
    • He made himself interesting and relevant.
    • He asked for a clearly defined favor.

On marriage and picking a partner

  • The author worked on a study that followed ~100 women from their twenties into their seventies. The women were asked to write one page about their most difficult life experience so far. The saddest, most protracted stories  were about bad marriages.
  • It is a misconception that getting married later can set one up for marital success, it is however true until age 25. Research shows that after 25, one’s age at marriage does not predict divorce.
  • Cohabitating before a social commitment such as engagement or marriage usually leads to bad outcomes, contrary to assumptions that living together will prepare the couple for marriage.
  • Travelling together in a third world country is the closest thing there is to being married and raising kids.
  • Bring personality to the forefront sooner rather than later – eHarmony claims better success of the couples it matched due to ‘personality fit’.  While this is hard to prove, research does show that the Big Five personality traits are key predictors of marital success. The more similar a couple is in their extremes of the big five, the more likely to stay together.
  • Neuroticism is the only trait where an individual’s own (and not the couple’s match) trait matters – high neuroticism leads to lower relationship success.
  • People often think that relationships end or marriages break because something changed – habits, betrayal etc. In reality, more often, people split up because things don’t change. Couples reluctantly admit that the differences were there all along.

On thought patterns

  • The slower you go, the faster you get there” – the best way to help people is to slow them down enough to examine their thinking and see the gaps in their own reasoning. Shine a light on those mental ellipses and you’ll find assumptions that drive behavior without our ever being aware of them.

On brain development

  • The frontal lobe of the brain is where we learn to move beyond our search for black-and-white solutions and learn to tolerate and act on shades of grey. This portion develops/matures through your twenties.
  • This explains, why as a therapist, the author often encountered school valedictorians and high-achievers who couldn’t figure out who to date or who got nerves at the workplace. Objective problem-solving skills are located in a different part of the brain, which develops before the frontal lobe.
  •  Calm Yourself – “It may be a match made in hell, but that’s the way it is.” Twenty-somethings who get to the workplace  are still in the frontal-lobe development phase. To make things worse, they are usually paired with new, inexperienced managers. The key is to stay calm and be emotionally resilient as a twenty-something.
  •  Realize that what you are going through is normal. Twenty-somethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually over-confident or underemployed.

Getting along and getting ahead

  • Making strong commitments to our social roles is good for twenty-somethings. Being a cooperative colleague or successful partner is what drives personality change.

Present-bias

  • Human nature is to emphasize the present and discount the future. Most twenty-somethings can think of the here-and-now, perhaps the next five years and have a faint vision of when they are very old – close to the end of life. Not enough people have a realistic sense of what it might be to be 30 or 40, or how their current decisions influence their future life.
  • This leads to things such as (a) not enough thinking about starting a family or the challenges of fertility over 30 (its not just the women, older sperm is an issue as well). (b) not thinking enough about retirement planning (c) not thinking about what you might cherish or value at age 30 or 40 (time with your kids) and spending time in your twenties doing things you will regret later.
  • Great experiment that shows present bias: Twenty-five people entered an augmented reality environment and saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. A control group of the same size just saw themselves in the mirror. Both groups were then asked to allocate money to a hypothetical retirement savings account. The mirror group set aside ~$75, the group that saw an aged AR version of themselves set aside ~$180 (almost 2.5x).

Good stories and happy endings are way more intentional than that.. 

  • Be intentional about your life. Good authors don’t just stumble into a well-forming story with a great ending as they are writing it. More often, they start with the end in mind, working their way backwards through the plot, to figure out where the story should begin.
  • Treat your life the same way, be intentional.

Recommended reading:

  1. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control by Albert Bandura.
  2. Similarity, convergence and relationship satisfaction in dating and married couples.