Saturday, 13 May 2017

The missing link in personal development

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The importance of having good systems becomes particularly clear in times of turmoil. When problems become acute, you need systems that get things done, systems that enable you to move forward, irrespective of the size of the obstacles. 

When we talk about having good systems, we should not forget about philosophical systems, since those are indispensable for making correct choices in the face of complexity and uncertainty. 

Personal development, if taken seriously, is driven by patterns, not by isolated events. You need effective habits, principles, and structures in order to keep growing as a person year after year. The fact that many people lack a solid philosophy explains why they collapse psychologically when they face a major challenge. Relatively few individuals manage to keep their mental balance when they are accosted by illness, financial hardship, and family quarrels.

A rational philosophy is essential for living effectively in good and bad times. Without such a philosophy, it is impossible to keep a cool head when thing get hot. Cost consciousness is an essential part of such philosophy, and sets apart practical, well-grounded individuals from hopeless, unrealistic dreamers.

Yet, cost consciousness is so rare in personal development that I have come to call it "the missing link." Encouraging people to take action “to develop themselves” without having regard for costs can easily lead to disaster. Let me give you five examples that show how to enhance your cost consciousness, and accelerate your personal development:


If you want to guide your life by a rational philosophy, you should take into account the opportunity costs every time you make a major decision. Already in the nineteenth century, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850 ) observed that, unless we make the effort to assess alternative scenarios, we can be easily fooled by our tendency to think short term. It takes effort "to see the invisible," explained Bastiat. It takes a rational philosophy to open our eyes, and see the hidden costs of our choices.

When you decide to go in one direction, you should also assess the hidden cost of your not going in other directions, or for that matter, the cost of staying put and doing nothing. For example, the direct cost of playing video-games five hours a week is negligible, but the long-term opportunity cost of wasting five hours a week is huge. Think of what you could do in the long term if you employ those five hours productively each week: You could learn a second language, start your own business, or become an accomplished public speaker. 


Another critical but often overlooked aspect of personal development is making fair comparisons between present and future costs. Individuals will often refrain from taking action because they grow discouraged by assuming (wrongly) that they cannot reduce their costs. People will regard obstacles as insurmountable because they assume (wrongly) that they cannot find an inexpensive way to circumvent those obstacles.

Entrepreneurship, understood in a wide sense, is essential to your personal development. The ability to understand and identify future cost variations can give you a large advantage when making major decisions. Already three centuries ago, Richard Cantillon (1697-1734) regarded this ability as a key element in economic success.

For instance, individuals will sometimes fail to pursue promising opportunities because they overestimate the costs (tangible and intangible) of moving to another city or country. In fact, those costs tend to rise only during the initial six months, which is the length of time it takes to find your way around in a new environment. Later on, those costs can be typically compressed.


The subjective elements in the perception of cost should also not be overlooked. Many outstanding initiatives have been abandoned when the originators made the mistake of asking other people for their opinion. "It is too expensive," they got to hear. "It is too risky. It will take too long, and you are already too old for that."

The problem is that, even if those remarks are made with good intentions, they are bound to remain subjective. Even when critics argue that their remarks are based on hard data, those remarks will still be tainted with subjectivism.

Already in the Middle-Ages, Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) realized that prices are naturally set by comparing the intensity of subjective desires. Exactly the same principle applies when it comes to assessing the cost of personal development projects.

A learning process that should "objectively" take years can often be compressed into months thanks to the extraordinary motivation of the individuals involved. Similarly, senior men and women who should "objectively" possess limited energies can display enormous levels of dedication when they are reinvigorated by a strong sense of purpose.


The apparent "certainty" of cost can also be misleading. The truth is that, when you are making major decisions such as getting married or changing the course of your career, you will never be able to forecast the cost with certainty. As Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) put it so wisely, cost optimisation is “a process of constant trial and error." 

If the cost of pursuing your dreams appears too high, this should be a call for caution, not a call for defeat. Personal development projects are challenging precisely because their long-term cost is bound to remain uncertain. Yet, such uncertainty should not prevent you from applying your creativity to reducing those costs as much as possible through “a process of constant trial and error."


When it comes to personal development, millions of men and women will routinely underestimate their capabilities and fail to seize their chances because they compare themselves with people in different circumstances, and wrongly assume that they cannot afford to compete.

Such conclusion can often be proven false. Already in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith (1723-1790) observed that products and services tend to gain value when they are complementary to others, a phenomenon that Smith called "competitive advantage."

If you want to develop yourself in a certain area, you should not be discouraged by the fact that other people are already firmly established in that area. In those cases, a good strategy is to use your particular circumstances to develop skills that are complementary to those already existing on the market.

For instance, if you want to establish yourself as a public speaker, you don't need to imitate the skills and cost structures of people who are already well-established in that profession. Chances are that you can attain success faster and at a lower cost if you identify and exploit your competitive advantages, whatever those may be. 


Cost consciousness (and the associated actions to manage costs effectively) are the missing links in personal development. A rational cost assessment is a crucial factor that you need to take into account every time you make a major decision in your professional or private life. 

For the attainment of long-term  happiness, I regard cost consciousness as no less important than knowing yourself, understanding your environment, and sustaining your long-term motivation.

Twenty-six centuries ago, Confucius was asked if human beings can gain knowledge about life after death. Confucius dismissed the question by saying that "before worrying about life after death, we should first try to gain knowledge about life before death." By becoming cost conscious here and now, you can deepen your knowledge, make sound decisions, and build a better life for yourself.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here are the links to four media interviews, just published:

Friday, 28 April 2017

Why reason and prudence are preferable to unbridled positive thinking

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"Just do it, go for it, do not hesitate." Those pieces of advice are omnipresent in our culture. Will you follow them, and place your life at risk? Will you act now without thinking of tomorrow's consequences? 

I very much hope you don't because, instead of solving your problems, you would only be placing your future at risk. Instead of improving your life, you would only be jeopardising your assets. 


Wisdom starts and ends with reality. Opportunities need to be rationally assessed, investments carefully researched, alternatives prudently weighed. If you make important decisions on the spur of the moment, you will commit grievous errors. Blind enthusiasm is not the way to go. 

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who lived twenty-six centuries ago, already warned us against exaggerated pursuits. “A wise man does not rush,” he wrote. Wise men are prudent and steady, not foolhardy and over-anxious.

Calmness, realism, and patience may not be popular these days, but they work a million times better than hot-headiness, rashness, and wishful thinking.

You will do much better if you assess the distance before you jump. You will advance much faster if you look ahead and circumvent obstacles, rather than crashing against them.

Japanese management techniques provide us detailed prescriptions about how to enhance our prudence and effectiveness. And those prescriptions do not require us to maintain a cheerful appearance at all times. 


Rationality, not enthusiasm, is the key to getting things done quickly, with high quality, and without errors. In particular, you want to avoid the three major negative consequences of unbridled positive thinking, three consequences that the Japanese have named "muri,” “mura,” and “muda." 

"Muri" means excessive physical or mental strain, which tend to have detrimental effects. We all know that over-stressed individuals often experience anxiety, insomnia, and a higher propensity to infections. Do not allow yourself to fall into the “muri” trap. If you avoid over-commitments, you will do much better in life. Keep a cool head. Protect your health, and be realistic about how many hours you can work.

"Mura" is a synonym of "unevenness" or "irregularity." It means that, on Monday, you perform a fair amount of work; on Tuesday, you do a bit less; and on Wednesday, you do three times as much as on Monday, with the result that you feel exhausted, irritable, and out of control. Although unevenness can make you look creative and enthusiastic, it will inevitably drain all your energies. Definitively, this is not a good way to live.

"Muda" means "waste" and includes all types of actions that consume our resources, but fail to advance our cause. Typically, those are errors we commit when we give more weight to your enthusiasm than to our logic. Examples of “muda” are performing unnecessary tasks, engaging in unnecessary travel, and establishing unnecessary requirements. A little less positive thinking and a little more cool-headed planning can go a long way.

Unfortunately, some individuals trust their positive thinking so thoroughly that they overlook the signs of "muri,” “mura,” and “muda" until it is too late to avert reality's harsh revenge. It is always sad to witness disasters that could have been prevented if people have kept their eyes open, but without a rational philosophy, who can resist the pressure of exaggerated emotions? 


The story of a man who was afraid of his shadow is attributed to Lao Tzu: The man tried to run away, but could not escape. He ran and ran, trying to get rid of his shadow, until he eventually dropped dead out of exhaustion.

Those who guide their lives by unbridled positive thinking are no better off than the man in the story. They run and run without caution, measurement, or planning. And in doing so, they render themselves highly vulnerable. 

There is a better way: the way of reason and prudence, the way that I present in my books. By learning and practising the principles of rational living, you can spare yourself plenty of trouble, increase your chances of success, and maintain an optimistic, but still realistic outlook.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2017.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here are the links to six media interviews, just published:

Friday, 14 April 2017

The most frequent obstacle to personal growth -- and how to surmount it


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Few people know that sharks change their teeth all the time. New teeth grow on the back of a shark's denture, and then the teeth move progressively to the front side, until they are eventually discarded. Sharks have evolved into constant tooth changers for a reason essential to their survival: They need to keep their teeth sharp for hunting purposes.

If sharks were to lose their razor-sharp teeth, they would be unable to hunt, and it would not take long before they disappear as a species. We human beings don't need such sharp teeth, but we do need to think accurately if we want to thrive. We need to stay alert and proactive if we want to improve our lives. We need to pay attention to what's going on, draw logical conclusions, and implement them consistently.

Unfortunately, we stifle our personal growth all too often because we let emotions distort our perceptions, weaken our alertness, and undermine our understanding.We grow too rapidly discouraged when we encounter failure. We view setbacks too readily as final. We regard obstacles too quickly as insurmountable.

The underlying cause

The underlying cause for this problem --in fact, the underlying cause for our excessive willingness to give up-- is our tendency to think inaccurately,  fragmentarily, and short-sightedly. While evolution has led the shark teeth to grow constantly and automatically, it has not granted us the power to think accurately without effort.

We really need to push ourselves if we want to exercise this capacity, and surprisingly enough, we even have difficulties to remember in daily life the lessons taught by 4500 million years of Planet Earth history, and from the animal evolution in the latest 500 million years:
  •  Even nature can make mistakes in the sort term and have animals evolve into suboptimal shapes and functions, but in the long-term, it will correct those mistakes in an endless pursuit of perfection. Nature has no qualms about acknowledging errors, and reverting to previous shapes (e.g. fish developed legs and become reptiles, and then some reptiles discarded their legs and became snakes). Why on earth would you be reluctant to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes?
  •  Nature has no problems to apply in a new context solutions that have already proven successful in a completely different  context, even if those solutions seem unorthodox and weird (e.g. some species of turtles have developed beaks, similar to those of birds. The beaks make those turtles look weird, but they also make the turtles highly effective in their environment). Is your demand for orthodoxy preventing you from solving your problems, and accelerating your personal growth?
  • Nature tends to operate multi-dimensionally, allowing animals to accentuate useful shapes and functions, even if those are totally unrelated (e.g. while reptiles were learning to fly 300 million years ago, they were also evolving into warm-blood creatures). Is your tendency to think uni-dimensionally preventing you from achieving your goals in unrelated areas? 
Best chances of  success

I recently read the diary of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and I must tell you that I was not impressed by the depth of Beethoven's philosophical insights. Sure, the man was a musical genius, but an accomplished thinker was he not. I had assumed that excellent skills in one area mean excellent skills in other areas, at least in those that appear closely related, but I was wrong, totally wrong.

Indeed, I was making the quintessential mistake that frequently prevents our personal growth. I was thinking too linearly.  I was interpreting facts incorrectly. I was making unrealistic assumptions. Exercising our capacity to think accurately is a daily and never-ending challenge, but it is our best chance to maximise our creativity, innovations, and achievements.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient mosaic; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter


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 Here are the links to four media interviews, just published:

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The puzzle of intellectual integration

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Have you ever wondered why so many people engage in patently counterproductive behaviour, the sort of behaviour that nobody can fail to view as foolish and irresponsible?

Consider these three examples: Individuals who routinely drive their car too fast, too dangerously, too aggressively. People who spend their earnings on frivolities, and fail to set any money aside for a rainy day. Persons who eat unhealthy food day after day, until they eventually fall sick.

Many of these people are bright, talented, and highly educated. They cannot fail to know that their behaviour is counterproductive: that they should not drive their car in ways that endanger other people's lives; that they should set some money aside for contingencies; that they should adopt a wholesome diet, and avoid unhealthy food.

And yet, these patterns repeat themselves on a large scale day in and day out: road accidents that should not  have happened, financial straights that could have been avoided, illness that could have been prevented.  

The key to solving the puzzle is a message that few people want to hear: intelligence is not enough, talent is not enough, education is not enough. All those factors remain inoperative whenever the human mind refuses to draw logical conclusions.

It is not enough to know arithmetic if you consciously or unconsciously refuse to put two and two together whenever the outcome becomes inconvenient. 

Life offers too many temptations to ignore the facts, too many occasions to deny uncomfortable truths. And yet, we all know that we will be better off in the long run if we push ourselves to do the right thing today.

The best way to protect yourself against those temptations is to adopt the habit of intellectual integration. If you adopt day after day the practice of accepting facts as they are, and drawing logical conclusions, you will spare yourself plenty of heartaches down the road. 

Intellectual integration is not a luxury, but the key to human survival, success, and happiness. Sadly, too many efforts are being devoted to look for excuses for counterproductive behaviour. Let us rather devote those efforts to doing the right thing from the start.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter


***********
Here are the links to three interviews, just published:
  

Monday, 13 March 2017

Do not let the 80/20 principle mislead you

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Personal development, as it is understood today, consists of a constant search for shortcuts: How to be more effective. How to be happier. How to earn more money. How to improve your relationships. How to learn faster. How to get ahead.

As a result, a new shortcut becomes fashionable each year: Psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapy. Positive thinking. The law of attraction. The placebo effect. New age. Spirituality. The power of pyramids. Mediation. Tibetan yoga.

If you have tried out any those shortcuts, you must have already figured out their limitations. Fragmentary philosophies lead to fragmentary results. Confusion engenders more confusion. You don't get the right answers by silencing the questions.

The 80/20 principle constitutes the ultimate shortcut. According to this principle, you can render your life more efficient if you focus on your 20% most critical activities. You can multiply your earnings if you concentrate on your 20% most productive tasks. You can be happier if you spend most of your time with your very best friends.

However, none of those shortcuts, not even the 80/20 principle, is going to tell you how to determine your lifetime goals, choose meaningful activities, and select your friends wisely. What would be the point of becoming more efficient at doing the wrong thing? Why would you want to advance faster if you don't know where you are going?

Do not let the 80/20 principle mislead you. Do not make your future success and happiness depend on the shortcut that happens to be fashionable this week. The only way to determine wisely your long-term goals is to adopt a rational philosophy. And the best way to reach those goals is to think for yourself.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter