Saturday, 5 October 2019

Factors that contribute to career success: Why excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong

Studies have identified many factors that contribute to career success, but so far, nobody has been able to build a convincing model to predict an individual's future, or how much happiness a certain profession will bring him. In case of doubt, people opt for safe choices. This is why you will seldom hear career counsellors recommend professions that may lead to unemployment.

Routine advice aims at achieving social insertion. Risk is regarded as a problem, safety as the solution. Of course, career recommendations based on conformity are never going to inspire students to become daring adventurers, artists or innovators. The problem though is that fearful advice is going to prove wrong more often than not. In times when markets are demanding creativity at all levels, excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong. In fact, I suspect they are wrong in all circumstances. Let me tell you a story that drives my point home.

In the year 1820, the acclaimed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen travelled from Rome back to his native city, Copenhagen in Denmark. Thorvaldsen was then fifty years old and at the pinnacle of his fame. During his stay in Copenhagen, he talked to many aspiring artists, giving them generous advice and encouragement.

When Thorvaldsen returned to his hotel one night after a reception in his honour, he was told that a boy had been waiting for him all day. Intrigued, Thorvaldsen looked around the hotel hall, and found a poorly dressed kid asleep on a chair.

He walked up to the boy, shook his arm gently, and whispered to him: "It's late, kid, go home." Startled, the boy opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. "I was waiting for you, Herr Thorvaldsen. I have been waiting for you all day."

That must true, thought Thorvaldsen, since the boy looked so exhausted and hungry that it was pitiful to see him. "I wanted to ask you for advice on my career," the kid went on. "I cannot decide whether I should become a novelist or a poet."

Out of compassion, Thorvaldsen ordered a glass of warm milk for the boy and listened to his story. It was a heartbreaking tale. When the boy turned ten, he had lost the striking voice that had earned him praise and a small income as a singer in his home town. As of that day, he had joined the thousands of unemployed teenagers that roamed the streets of Copenhagen.

"This is why I have thought of becoming a writer," the boy explained shyly, taking three ruffled pages out of his pocket and handing them over to Thorvaldsen. Strangely enough, the idea of asking a sculptor for literary advice seemed to fit the boy's pathetic situation.

Thorvaldsen devoted a few minutes to reading the text, and was appalled to see that it contained dozens of grammar and spelling mistakes. It was obvious that the boy had no chance of becoming a writer. Even if it was cruel, it was better to tell him the truth right away, so that he could at least learn some trade.

"What is your name?" asked Thorvaldsen, giving him back the pages. "Hans-Christian," replied the boy full of hope. "Hans-Christian Andersen." A silence ensued, as Thorvaldsen searched for the least hurtful way to express his judgement.

Thorvaldsen stared at Hans-Christian Andersen for a long while as he remembered his own ambitions as a young man, many years ago, but of course, his situation had been completely different. Thorvaldsen took a deep breath and shook his head. "Look, Hans-Christian," he began, "I don't know how to tell you this."

At that moment, Andersen nodded and gave the sculptor a crazy smile. That was what he had been waiting for. He was about to hear the words of encouragement that he needed so badly. He was sure that an artist of the calibre of Thorvaldsen would be immediately able to recognize his talent, and point him in the right direction.

"What do you think, Herr Thorvaldsen, should I become a novelist or a poet?" he asked again, this time full of confidence. Fascinated, Thorvaldsen looked at the boy's bright eyes, and realized how foolish he had been. "I have no doubt, Hans-Christian," he answered softly, "that you will become both."


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

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Here are the links to two audio interviews just published:

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Everything faster, everything better: Three productivity techniques you can use in everyday life

Human beings have an innate tendency towards efficiency. The pursuit of maximum output with minimum effort is in our genes. Even children, as soon as they can verbalise their thoughts, begin to demand better results. They will progressively evolve from the passivity of babies to the search of short-term benefits typical of adolescents. Yet, their search will not stop there. As they become adults, they will start to think long-term, that is, if they really become adults.

Unfortunately, techniques that deliver good results in certain environments can lead to poor outcomes elsewhere. We steadily try to improve things, get more beneficial outcomes with less effort, but it's difficult to identify universal prescriptions enabling us to do everything faster, everything better.

Once we reach adulthood, most of our attempts to improve performance will take place in the realm of work. Industrial management researchers have been studying successful companies since the nineteen fifties, trying to identify the keys to outstanding performance. We can profit greatly from the conclusions have they drawn if we turn them into habits, if we grow alert to opportunities to work faster, consume fewer resources, and achieve our objectives with less effort.

The problem with the main three recommendations in the field of productivity is that they are not easy to integrate. At first sight, the may even seem contradictory. It takes substantial effort to implement them consistently in your work and private life, but if you do so, you can draw immense benefits.

Few individuals possess the self-discipline to perform a little bit better each day, not only in their profession, but in all areas. I am talking about cleaning your home faster, cooking healthier food more efficiently, getting in shape with less effort, and so on. Let's take a look the three main lessons from productivity studies, and see how to implement them in everyday life.

No more bottlenecks

First recommendation, the removal of bottlenecks. This is the most basic recommendation to enhance your productivity. When something is not going well, you need to identify the obstacle and remove it. When a process is operating slowly, you need to figure out which step is critically slowing down the whole chain.

It is rarely self-evident or easy to find the key issue. In fact, most people will not even bother to look for it. They will complain about difficulties and delays without really understanding the problem. If you find the bottleneck and remove it, you will achieve immediate improvements, but then of course, another bottleneck will arise elsewhere. Improvement never ends. Productivity can always be increased. You can keep making your results better in all areas, day after day, year after year.

Fewer mistakes

Second recommendation, doing similar tasks together, in batch form, so that you can perform them faster and commit fewer errors. Manufacturers have adopted this approach a long time ago. As long as the demand is roughly stable, they can keep producing similar items in batch form, using the same materials and manufacturing processes. In your everyday life, you can adopt this technique for instance for answering emails. Instead of checking your email in-box randomly during the day, it's more efficient to do it once or twice a day, at a fixed hour, and handle all incoming messages together.

Jumping from task to task is usually a bad idea. If you check your email in-box twenty times a day at irregular intervals, you will inevitably spend extra time reading and filing messages, typing answers and wondering what to do next. It is much more efficient to perform similar tasks together. The same goes for cleaning the house, cooking, ironing, washing your car, doing exercise, or whatever other tasks men and women do regularly. Do not spread your attention and energies too thin. Concentrate your efforts on similar tasks, and get them done quickly and flawlessly.

Less stress

Third recommendation, carry out activities in a continuous flow, that is, with a minimum of interruptions. Try to reduce dead time between tasks, wasted efforts caused by disruptions. Truth be told, it is difficult to achieve continuous flow in any kind of process, industrial or professional, let alone in activities of private nature. However, continuous flow can deliver massive gains in quality, increased serenity, and cost reduction. It obviously requires a lot of planning, a lot of forward thinking, but the payoff can be gigantic.

The opposite of continuous flow is "chasing" items, that is, breaking your tasks abruptly or putting them on hold because you have to chase some missing item, some missing input or missing instruction. People who fail to think ahead will spend huge efforts chasing missing items. That's a complete waste of time, but one that cannot be removed through improvisation.

The more you chase, the more stressed you'll get, but are you willing to make the effort of organising your activities today, so that you will achieve continuous flow in the future? Imagine if you could perform your work each day without having to chase missing items. Imagine if you could cook your meals easily because you have all ingredients at hand. Or if you could always rely on your car because you have performed preventive maintenance at regular intervals.

I always tell people to start by removing the bottlenecks on their way because the improvements will be immediately noticeable. It will seem like magic. You just remove one bottleneck, and you'll enjoy the benefits right away. Working in batch form requires more time investment, and the improvements won't be visible so quickly, even if they prove large. However, if you do want to become highly productive in all areas, you should pursue a lifestyle of continuous flow. It will not only bring you better results, but also increased happiness.


Image: Photograph of ancient Egyptian painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

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Here is the link to an audio interview just published:

Friday, 9 August 2019

In praise of making mistakes: how fast and cheap mistakes can accelerate your success

It takes a while before a man realises that he is going to die some day. Some people never become conscious of their mortality, and continue to waste their days until the very last moment. Drug consumption, including alcohol, is a failed attempt to appease the anxiety created by the fundamental truth that time moves in only one direction. Accepting that your days are limited is a precondition for making the best use of your time.

With happiness as a long-term goal, personal growth becomes a short-term objective. With longevity as a desirable aim, good nutrition becomes a crucial element of a good lifestyle. The general goals are given by nature, but each individual must define his own strategy.

Gaining understanding of the fact that each passing day is irrecoverable exerts enormous pressure on insecure persons. They wonder incessantly if they are doing the right thing, or enough of it. They speculate about a myriad of projects they could be carrying out instead of what they are doing right now. They spend hours on end reading news pieces about who is doing what, how fast, and how well.

Should you let anxiety drive your life? In the pursuit of your goals, how can you strike the optimal balance between peace of mind and personal growth? An hour always has sixty minutes, and every new day is offering you another twenty-four hours. However, exaggerated time-consciousness and focus on achievement may lead you to psychological misery that is hardly any better than the confusion of idle people. Personal growth requires balance as much as it requires passion.

Drawn with charcoal

The path to happiness should be first drawn with charcoal, and then brought to life with oil colours. You will gain additional knowledge as you move forward. A fair share of mistakes is inescapable, since you will sometimes take the wrong turn of the road. Nobody possesses the ability to make the right decision every time.

No one can at the same time concentrate his resources on the future, and fully enjoy the present. Each individual is born and raised in different circumstances. Genetics, talent and other personal qualities will vary from one person to the next, even within the same family. A philosophical approach to happiness should not deviate from the hard rules of biology.

Imagine a young man who, growing in a favourable environment, has identified his lifetime ambitions when he is fifteen years old. He may well spend the rest of his life pursuing his goals, but there is no guarantee that he will achieve them. Anyone entering a profession has to learn the trade, and assimilate its written and unwritten rules.

Sooner or later, insufficient knowledge, misunderstandings or bad luck may slow down his progress or bring it to a standstill. Any biography you read will provide evidence of this principle. Just as trains stop from time to time, careers will sometimes stall and fortunes lost.

Occasionally, evil forces may play a role in destroying great ambition, but those cases are rarer than popular accounts tend to portray. Discouragement is the natural response to failure, but human beings can develop extreme resiliency and surmount all disappointments. The winter rarely kills trees weakened by autumn storms. Soon enough, spring rains will nourished new seeds, which will take root during the summer warmth.

Along the way

You just need to adapt the speed of your personal growth to your constraints. In order to move forward, you should employ the success formula that applies to all individuals, countries, and historical periods: Experience has taught me that the best strategy is to identify your goal, start moving immediately towards it, and then correct your mistakes along the way.

Relentless action will help you advance on the road of your choice, but the crucial aspect in happiness is not motivation but effectiveness. Anyone can raise his motivation level by attending rallies and listening to enthusiastic speeches, but the effects will be short-lived.. You can sign and dance, dream and speak loudly, but very little will be achieved just by doing that.

Whether other people support or oppose your initiatives will play only a minor role in the long-term. Nasty criticism is like the noise of trains running on their tracks. Indeed, the noise will accompany the train, but what moves the waggons is the engine, not the noise.

Instead of focusing on motivation, you should concentrate on taking action. Let your daily work take you to better places. What you do counts more than what you dream about. Increased effectiveness is the typical consequence of focused, consistent action. If you wish, do spend some time cultivating your motivation, but do not turn it into a game of its own. Talking is not tantamount to doing.

Fast and cheap mistakes are the cardinal accelerators of success. Inexpensive errors mark the smoothest way to happiness, in particular when you rapidly acknowledge and correct them. Learn a lesson from each mistake, so that you don't repeat its cause and effect. This factor alone will have compound positive effects on your achievement, enabling you to attain goals you had thought beyond your reach.

The experience acquired in a few years of continuous action will teach you more than decades of enthusiastic motivational talks. Reality is too complex to be reduced to motivational theory. True personal growth can only be achieved only through constant action, trial and error, and intelligent realignment.

Just like minerals are diluted in sea water, knowledge is condensed from action. If you wish to become a great surfer, you'll have to taste sea water hundreds of times. As you learn to face the wind, your reflexes will become faster. In your search of happiness, let practise take precedence over speculation. Do no waste your limited time on empty talks. Let your mistakes lead you to new insights and a sharper vision.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here is the link to an audio interview just published:

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Free up time for doing what really counts

There is a cure for stress. It is not a drug and it is not a fantasy. It won't cost you money, but it is not for free. Many people who try it out feel born again, others rejuvenated. The remedy is known under many different names. You may call it simplification or streamlining, reduction or selection, focus or elimination, logic or rationality.

An efficient approach to living is easier to name than to implement. Minimising stress requires you to concentrate your energies on the essential areas of life. This is a goal that you can achieve only by establishing priorities, but are you willing to do that?

Stress elimination is the outcome of clear choices, simplification and consistency. Is that easy to do? Not at all. Clarity, simplification and consistency require lots of efforts. Few people are willing to spend the time necessary to organise their ideas, discard unworkable plans, and develop a strong sense of direction. Even fewer are willing to abandon enjoyable activities that undermine their long-term goals.

It is hard to look ahead, think in terms of decades, and let go of today's little projects in order to pursue tomorrow's great ventures. It is hard to be consistent, day after day, month after month, year after year. Mentally, it requires enormous self-reliance and confidence. In terms of action, it demands courage, independence, the willingness to face social disapproval.

Running in circles

No wonder that so millions of people are reluctant to set priorities in their lives. Running in circles and going nowhere is much easier than pursuing difficult, long-term objectives. Indeed, getting rid of stress does not cost money, but requires determination, self-discipline and steadiness.

If you look around, you will easily see the pattern: Individuals who are severely affected by stress are precisely those who lack clear and consistent criteria to make decisions. Their lives are drifting. Their present and future are taking place randomly. Men and women who are living in anxiety are precisely those who fear standing still for a minute and questioning their own contradictions.

Beware that random activity is not a cure for stress. Overloading your days with senseless tasks is a defence mechanism against the fear of taking responsibility, a mechanism that does not work. If you lack a strong sense of direction, you will not acquire it magically by filling your hours with chores, hobbies and meaningless conversations.

Small talk with one hundred acquaintances cannot replace a deep conversation with one close friend. Excessive activity is a waste of time. You can only work and play so many hours a day. Make sure that you are not wasting the available time on worthless undertakings. Do not employ "having too much to do" as an excuse for not taking decisions.

Where happiness begins

Stress is to the human soul what indebtedness is for a business. Both are problems that will grow increasingly larger over time until they eventually wipe out the concerned person or enterprise. You cannot overcome stress and indebtedness by taking random actions. You need to develop a strong sense of direction, and adopt a workable strategy.

Your resources, in particular time, are limited. You cannot pursue endless goals. You cannot chase innumerable rabbits. Efficiency begins with clarity. Happiness begins with intelligent choices. Those will automatically lead to better results in your professional and private life.

You will minimise stress if you apply to your life the principles of selection, concentration and simplification. Make the best of what you have available, and you will see your resources and energies increase. Selection, concentration and simplification constitute the rational approach to eliminating anxiety, the proven method for a well-balanced life.

Why do you need to simplify? Because you will be able to think better and perform better in everything you do. Fruit growers will prune their trees once per year in order to reinforce the vigour of healthy branches. Lean trees are going to produce more fruit than those loaded with moribund branches. In the same way, you can minimise your stress by making rational choices, and discarding activities that consume lots of time but deliver little satisfaction.

Similarly, shepherds will cull herds regularly in order to prevent contagious sickness from spreading. By nurturing healthy sheep, they are ensuring optimal results. The benefits of concentration also apply to human activities. Minimising stress involves abandoning wasteful activities and focusing your time on prime areas, those that help you pursue your life's mission, those that reinforce your sense of direction.

Increased effectiveness

Selection is going to free up your time for doing what really counts. Your should aim at a future that is better than your present. Define your priorities, and reaffirm them at every opportunity. Follow the example of clever retailers and discard marginally profitable items, so that you can employ your resources optimally. In order to minimise stress, you need to make clear decisions, abandon unworthy goals, and pursue long-term ambitions.

You will succeed in reducing your stress once you embrace a rational approach to living. Anxiety will disappear from your life as soon as you start following logical, consistent principles. Thinking long-term is going to enable you to identify goals and priorities. Thoughtfulness is going to help you gain visibility and increase your effectiveness.

Productivity experts will advise workers to clear up their working area, so that they can see their own mistakes, and prevent them from reoccurring. It is only after removing misplaced tools and obsolete inventory that workers realise what they are doing wrong, and begin improve their ways. Without visibility, there can be no transformation. Without clear choices, there can be no progress.

Setting priorities by making rational decisions constitutes the best way to reduce stress. A cluttered but meaningless agenda is a cage full of paradise birds waiting to be released. Those birds are your best ideas, the ones that you have not yet formulated because you are trying to do too much. Simplify your life and sharpen your ambitions. The birds are ready to fly. It's high time to open the cage door and set them free.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to two audio interviews recently published:

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

How to stop struggling and gain a strong sense of direction

Subjectivism, despite its cultural dominance, is the ultimate folly. People will tell you to do something because everyone else is doing it, but that's not a reason to take action. Why should you blindly imitate everybody else? Conversely, it also makes little sense to be contrarian just for the sake of it. Be yourself, you'll hear all the time. Go your own way. Choose the path least trodden. The stream of advice goes on forever, either telling you to fall in or out of line.

In both cases, you are hearing subjective advice, recommendations not based on facts, not based on objective reality, but on what someone else is doing or refraining from doing. One way or the other, the value of such indications is close to nil. In fact, it is mostly irrelevant what anyone else is doing, believing, discarding, or falling in love with. What you should really care about is reality, facts, objectivity. Your prosperity and happiness rest on your ability to make accurate judgements, on your determination to cut off the noise, and start looking at things as they are.

Culture and fashion are calls for conformity, manifestations of gregariousness, which is another name for subjectivism measured by numbers. Relinquishing your individual thinking and embracing majority opinions, fashions and lifestyles can bring you some advantages. I will not contest that point. Imitating what most people are doing will save you time when it comes to making decisions, even if those decisions are wrong. It will equally spare you the embarrassment of having everybody point fingers at you, laugh at you, or criticise you because you are deviating from the norm.

Snakes, mosquitoes and giant spiders

The opposite side of the spectrum is called "non-conformity," which is a general category for discontent people to join. Individuals who don't want to resemble everybody else will automatically do the opposite, so that they can feel special, remarkable or at least different. I am talking about men and women who will look down at those who spend their holidays on the beach (too commonplace, too easy, too predictable), and will instead opt for practising dangerous sports. Instead of owing a summer house, contrarian persons want to live in the tropical forest, surrounded by snakes, mosquitoes and giant spiders. You will recognise these "adventurers" by their ill-fitting, torn, dirty clothes, which are supposed to be heroic.

Neither conformity nor its opposite are recipes for happiness. They can make you look average or confused, congenial or abrupt, but in both cases, your choices will revolve around subjective impressions. Join the majority or swim against the current. Wear fashionable clothes or draw attention because of your shabbiness. Imitating someone else's paintings or drawing objects upside down are not valid methods for creating great art. Adopting generally accepted values or attacking them for the sake of it will not necessarily move you forward. Neither downtrodden paths nor solitary caves are associated to personal balance, sanity or effectiveness. For sure, those are not choices you want to make blindly.

There is an alternative

There is an alternative, one that has always worked. You will not need to spend your days wondering which fashion leads to the least dismay, or whether you should be wearing colours diametrically opposed to everybody else's. Wisdom does not relate to accepting or rejecting other people's views, but it does require comparing yours with reality, selecting those that work, and discarding the rest.

Individuality requires a good measure of quiet reflection. Sound choices demand a logical evaluation of events. Before you start composing your own songs, you will need to filter out the world's noise. These are my three suggestions for escaping the predominant, mindless subjectivism, and moving towards a consistent, effective lifestyle:

First, you should stop believing in ready-made answers. You cannot orient yourself by looking at what other people are doing or avoiding. Neither specific fashions, occupations or locations can guarantee happiness. Majority opinions can bestow credibility on arbitrary standards, but those standards will remain arbitrary nonetheless. You are not obliged to buy in. You also not obliged to contradict those answers because they are ready-made. Instead, you should shun subjective inputs, and start assessing the facts yourself.

Second, abandon contradictory goals. Subjectivism is synonymous with inconsistency. False ideas will conflict with reality and with each other, even if they are endorsed by millions of people, or opposed rabidly by a minority. Neither being average nor opinionated are signs of truthfulness. In both cases, people will engage in a thousand contradictions because they have not thought things through. Anxiety is the mark of individuals who orient their actions by looking at other people. Inevitably, those persons will end up moving at random, without destination. Animals do not need perspective, but human beings do. Drop ideas that do not make sense, and rebuild your thinking in a realistic, consistent manner.

A strong sense of direction

Third, gain a strong sense of direction. You will only be able to distill universal principles from rational observations. Logic and evidence will demand more efforts than blind imitation and wild opposition, but in exchange, they can deliver permanent advantages. While other people are worrying about conformity, you will be guiding your steps by the law of cause and effect. While other persons are debating and driving each other crazy, you will be benefiting from your unique skills and opportunities. No one can tell you how to lead your life best. You have to think for yourself, stay realistic, and gain a strong sense of identity. You have to establish your ambitions and priorities on the basis of facts, not by imitating or rejecting other people's views.

Happiness requires a strong sense of purpose, which can only be drawn from objective thinking. Subjectivism is unsustainable, irrespective of its majority or minority status. The short-term contentment you can draw from imitating or opposing other people will add little worth to your experience, and heavy burdens to your spirit. Shrug your shoulders the next time you hear someone urge you to conform or protest. Ignore invitations to grow emotionally attached to ready-made opinions. Happiness calls for reason, purpose and focused action. You will only obtain those from logical, serene thinking. Steer away from subjectivism. Choose the way of reason.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to seven audio interviews recently published: