Sunday, 28 February 2016

May you be blessed with interesting problems to solve

Annoyance and irritation are part of daily life. When we encounter unexpected difficulties, we often become emotional and raise our voice. When people oppose our plans, we question their intentions and express our discontent. However, the fact that those reactions are natural does not make them effective.

Learning to love adversity

Successful living is a process of dealing with adversity and overcoming obstacles. If we stay alert and adopt an entrepreneurial attitude, trouble can reveal opportunities to improve our environment. Everybody is able to complain, but too few individuals are motivated to analyse problems, study their causes, and figure out solutions.

Anger and discontent may mark the steps to a better life more effectively than conformity. Those who accept disruption without resistance seldom come up with ideas to prevent further perturbation. In contrast, those who hate interruptions tend to be the ones who suggest protective measures.

Problems must be perceived as such before they can be dissected and solved. It is not a coincidence that most inventors and entrepreneurs are independent characters. Individuals who trust their own perception do not fear calling things by their names. Exacerbated diplomacy can undermine sincerity and inhibit personal initiative.

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), to whom History credits with the invention of the printing press, was the quintessential self-reliant entrepreneur. He was trained as a goldsmith, plied his trade for decades in several German towns, and it was only in his forties that he identified the business opportunity that would transform his life.

Big problems, big opportunities

At the turn of the 15th century, reading material was expensive and the choice of titles severely limited. The price of a volume of three hundred pages would exceed one hundred times what it costs today. Less than one per cent of the population was able to read; as a result, only the clergy and aristocracy had access to written information.

Since ancient times, the cost of producing books had been proportional to the effort it took to copy them by hand. A monk labouring at a monastery would need two years to copy and illustrate a Bible by hand. In addition, pages of medieval books were made of parchment, that is, prepared animal skins, which also increased the overall cost of production.

Despite the high price of books, it was obvious that there was a growing market for them. The interesting question is why none of the thousands of people in Europe involved in the production of hand-written volumes had perceived the slowness of the process as a problem. Apparently, before Johannes Gutenberg, the established mode of operation was taken for granted.

For thousands of years, goldsmiths had been using gold to make delicate jewellery, as well as religious and ornamental figures. Gutenberg did not conceive the idea of casting figures with molten metal, but he was the first to realize the massive economies that could be made by casting movable types and using them for book production.

Do not get discouraged

His initial experiments quickly revealed the difficulties of the enterprise. What alloy should he use to produce the types? How was he going to melt the thousands of individual letters that are needed to produce each page of a book? How could he increase ink density in order to produce clean prints?

It took Gutenberg many years to master the process. By the time he had overcome one obstacle, another one would appear. His venture led him to incur massive debts, which he could hardly reimburse. Finally, his attempts proved successful and a first run of books came out of his atelier.

In 1455, Gutenberg undertook to print the Bible. By then, he was already 57 years old and fully conscious of the immensity of the task that he had set up for himself. Unabated, he hired help to compose text with movable types, purchased materials, and began to print pages. Several dozen Gutenberg Bibles have survived the passage of time and can be admired today in museums around the world.

Gutenberg's ability to acknowledge individual problems enabled him to create a book production system that changed the course of History. He combined existing technologies into a creative solution to a problem that few people had perceived as acute. The printing press drove down book prices and spread literacy to a larger segment of the population.

Are you also able to transform problems into opportunities? When a product or service seems overpriced, do you try to identify the reason? Do you make the effort to analyse disruptions? When you experience irritation, can you name the critical elements involved?

Johannes Gutenberg's career offers us a vivid example of an essential entrepreneurial trait: the ability to isolate difficulties and reduce them to manageable size. Once Gutenberg named a problem, he devised a solution, achieved stability in that area, and moved to the next challenge.

Clear priorities

Individuals who try to accomplish too much at the same time frequently feel overwhelmed. Unless you achieve success in some area, you will grow dispirited and might even decide to quit your endeavours altogether. Instead, acquire the good habit of making a list of pressing difficulties.

Name your problems, assess their relative importance, and establish priorities. Deal only with the most critical issues until you have achieved a tolerable level of stability. Once you have improved a specific aspect, move to the next and build it from there.


Image by anna carol under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

Monday, 22 February 2016

Ten minutes of reflection can turn your mood around

Despite his many innovations in the field of psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) rarely spelled out the social consequences of his theories. His baseline approach was to listen to patients and analyse their mental shadows. Interpreting dreams constitutes an interesting intellectual exercise, but in terms of effectiveness, it cannot compare to vigorous rational discourse.

Swimming upstream

By the time Freud dared to present his social views in writing, he was already 74 years old. His essay Civilization and its Discontents (1930) was radically different from his previous publications. In this ground-breaking book, Freud outlines his views on human psychology from the point of view, not only of individual history, but also of interpersonal behaviour.

Although the overall tone of the essay is cautious and conservative, readers noticed Freud's underlying criticism. Reviewers of the book had no problem with Freud's listening to patients and interpreting their dreams, but his latest opinions were out of the question. The essay generated such opposition that Freud never addressed similar subjects again.

Many decades have passed, but tradition has not lost any of its force. Its tentacles feed on the weak in order to starve the independent; it silences doubts and paralyses initiative; it renders questions inaudible and self-reliance unthinkable.

On the other hand, preaching change for the sake of swimming upstream makes little sense. Being like everybody else has substantial private and professional advantages. It would be foolishly for anyone to discard a secure position simply because it offers few challenges. 

Destructive passivity

Boredom is one of the most destructive effects of passivity. Lack of variety is annoying; extreme repetitiveness drives people to despair. Passivity generates drudgery because it sucks ambition out of the environment. Little by little, routine turns to hopelessness. Life enjoyment wanes as individuals are emptied of their last drops of entrepreneurship.

Few people are completely innovative or passive. The majority of us oscillate between the two poles, gaining ground one day and retreating on the next. Although we are clever enough to see the long-term disadvantages of passivity, we move away from it only slowly, in careful steps.

Human beings require time to change essential thinking patterns. Even if a man exerts massive efforts, he will not transform his personality in a week. Emotional changes are the outcome of philosophical transformation.

A quick fix will not overhaul your personality, but for all practical purposes, you don't need it either. To improve your effectiveness, you just have to correct your thinking when passivity makes its appearance.

It only takes ten minutes

We can start the transition from routine to entrepreneurship with a mental exercise that takes only ten minutes, but if you perform it daily for several months, your attitude will change permanently. Here is how the process works:

Devote the initial two minutes to verbalizing the habit that you wish to be discard. Ask yourself why you have been acting and thinking in that particular way. What were you trying to achieve with such behaviour? Was it something that you learned in infancy or that you have picked up along the way?

If you perform the exercise while you are driving alone, take the opportunity to speak out your thoughts. In these days of ubiquitous mobile phones, nobody will be surprised to see a driver speaking aloud in his car. Who knows if he is dictating notes into a recorder or giving instructions by phone to his stock broker?

Take a deep breath a spend the next three minutes exploring your feelings. How strong is your motivation to change? What penalties would you incur if you drop tasks you dislike? Can you afford to quit what you detest? Are you afraid of changing? How justified are your concerns?

During the remaining five minutes of the process, paint a mental picture of the desired transformation. Name the benefits of the alternatives that you want to pursue. Think of the doors that your new behaviour will open. Speak out the advantages and let them turn around your emotions.

If your disputation is sufficiently strong, a feeling of elation should ensue. Make your defence of change passionate. Your speech should win over your heart, not justify the past. Let optimism burn down the remnants of boredom; let ambition bury passivity under the debris of broken routines.

Enthusiastic words

Ten minutes of reflection can turn your mood around. A vigorous disputation can shift your views from passivity to entrepreneurship. Make this exercise a fun performance. Win yourself over with sound arguments and enthusiastic words.

If you do this once a day during several months, your thought patterns will change. Your alertness to opportunities will increase. Your willingness to seek alternatives will grow until you won't need those ten minutes any more. At that point, your ship will have successfully sailed away from the shore.


Image by PhillipC under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

The 10 Principles of Rational Living

Monday, 15 February 2016

We human beings have entrepreneurship in our genes

Research published ten years ago confirmed the existence of close similarities between the human genetic structure and that of Bonobo monkeys. Many differences exist between the two species, but a pure statistical comparison reveals a 98% commonality in DNA sequences.

Repetition is not enough

Ongoing experiments in the United States of America have shown the Bonobos' capacity to memorize words and use primitive tools. Tests show that, with sustained training, these animals can equal the linguistic abilities of a two-year-old human child.

Interesting as this research may be, the question is whether we can learn something from Bonobo monkeys. Ape enthusiasts have pointed out how peaceful these animals are, but facts contradict this conclusion: Bonobos are known to behave violently on some occasions. Their society cannot be portrayed as free of aggression.

Those who promote vegetarianism amongst humans by pointing at the Bonobos' diet also lack scientific evidence. Observation in their natural habitat has shown these apes eating not only fruit, but also smaller animals such as flying squirrels.

Are there any characteristics of Bonobo monkeys worth reflecting upon? Human beings possess infinitely more intelligence than apes, but are we necessarily happier? If our thinking impairs our primitive instincts, does this always happen to our advantage?

Naturalists are making great efforts to save Bonobos from extinction. At the time of this writing, only a few thousand of these apes continue to live in their natural habitat in Central Africa. Hunting by man and deforestation, which diminishes their food supply, represent the greatest threats to their survival.

Resource allocation

From what we know about Bonobo monkeys, four elements catch our attention: they possess modest skills to allocate resources, some marks of individuality, a tendency to avoid unnecessary effort, and a limited ability to adopt self-protection measures. Let us review these four ideas in detail.
  1. Efficient use of resources: Bonobo monkeys, like all animals, do not move always at the same speed. What makes these apes remarkable is that they are able to walk upright on two feet for extended distances. Scientists estimate that Bonobo monkeys walk approximately one fourth of the time in upright posture. We do not know yet what makes them walk sometimes upright and otherwise on all fours. The logical conclusion might be that, to a certain extent, Bonobos are able to allocate their physical resources to match the situation. Similarly, observers in Central Africa have noted how Bonobo monkeys split in groups to look for food more efficiently. The drive to optimize resource allocation, which is intense in human beings, seems to be a characteristic that we share with Bonobos. 
  2. Marks of individuality: The facial features of each Bonobo are highly differentiated, as it is the case in humans. Each monkey is unique and can be distinguished from other members of the species. On the other hand, research fails to show evidence of personality in apes to an extent that could be compared with complex human traits. The individuality of Bonobos is linked to their particular family and group. Incestuous relationships do not take place and intruders from other groups are rejected. For humans, our uniqueness encompasses psychological aspects, convictions, and personal interests. In both cases, human and ape, attempts to ignore individual traits generate distress.
  3. Abhorrence of waste: Bonobos eat mostly plants and fruits available in the area they inhabit in Central Africa. Hunting, which demands much more effort than foraging, plays an exceptional role. When these apes go after smaller animals, they focus on preys that can be easily caught and quickly eaten up. Bonobo monkeys hunt above all flying squirrels and small forest antelopes. Preys are eaten up immediately after caught. Such violent behaviour is relatively uncommon for these apes, since they can obtain proteins more easily by eating haumania, a plant that grows in Central Africa. In humans, the tendency to spare unnecessary effort seems to be linked to individual motivation. Long-term productivity gains demand levels of thoughtfulness, patience, and personal involvement that not every person is willing to contribute. However, the general inclination to avoid waste is present in all men. 
  4. Protection against threats: Bonobo monkeys build nests in trees where they retire to sleep at night. In their natural environment in Central Africa, this protective measure proves highly effective against predators. In addition, Bonobos protect their territory against intruders from other groups. 

Constant improvement

These apes tend to react to problems by acquiring stable habits that consolidate improvements. Experiments in the United States aimed at teaching Bonobos to recognize words show that their learning takes place in stages. After they memorize a series of sounds or signs, the knowledge is consolidated before further symbols can be taught. Human beings learn in a similar way, for instance foreign languages, although at an incalculably higher speed.

Bonobo monkeys share the above four characteristics with humans, but their performance is lower in all areas. Improvements in Bonobos' cognitive skills take place only in controlled experiments. Left on their own, these apes show little ability to develop or acquire new knowledge.

What we can learn from Bonobo monkeys is that their desire to profit from the environment with minimum effort seems to be innate. Bonobos possess marks of individuality, try to avoid unnecessary labour and are able, to a modest extent, to adopt self-protection measures.

Like humans, these apes react to problems by searching solutions that provide increasingly higher levels of stability. The inclination towards increasing efficiency is present in Bonobos only to the extent of their limited intellect. In man, who is endowed with endless capabilities for improvement, this tendency is irrepressible.


Image by Shadowgate under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

Thursday, 11 February 2016

A risk you can limit is definitely a risk you can take

Does the future look as black as they paint it? This is a question that you should ask yourself when you read troublesome economic predictions. On most days, the prevalent opinion in newspapers is a mixture of distrust and hesitation. Is there a way to make solid decisions about where to place your savings and minimize financial risk?

The right methodology

In investments, like in most things in life, it all boils down to using the right methodology. How can we determine what is true? What facts are relevant? Which predictions make sense? Can we figure out the future by applying principles extracted from experience?

"If you want to climb a high mountain, choose the smoothest path," wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu in the year 520 BC. In times of a declining stock market, investing becomes the equivalent of climbing the Swiss Alps bare-handed in the middle of the winter.

After suffering the negative results of wrong financial decisions, many individuals are reluctant to place any money in the stock market. Are those fears justified? Making mistakes is inevitable in any human endeavour. A wise man must be willing to accept occasional errors and use them as stepping-stones for building a better future for himself. Why should we not view the stock market in the same way? 

Five important lessons

The main lesson to be drawn from past financial mistakes is that, when it comes to investing, methodology is everything. More careful research can help us make better decisions in the future. A more disciplined approach can minimize losses. Taking appropriate measures to reduce risk should prevent us from making the same faults twice.

The following principles of risk reduction have endured the best and worst of times. Use them to your advantage to build a prosperous financial future. From time to time, your decisions will not be correct, but if you adopt a prudent strategy, you can keep your losses under control at the same time that you let your profits grow.

  • Choose shares of solid companies, preferably those that pay regular dividends: Unless you are a professional investor, it is advisable to avoid speculative stocks of small enterprises whose future is dependant on one single product or customer. During periods of economic adversity, well-established companies whose products fulfil fundamental human needs tend to fare better than small undertakings.
  • Never place more than 5% of your savings on a single investment: Even if you make a correct decision today, circumstances continuously change. The easiest way to minimize risk is to spread your savings into many different assets. The rule of 5% implies that, over time, you should aim at having at least 20 different types of investments. Risk reduction is worth the effort of researching 20 different investments. Some of them will turn out to be outstanding places for your money, while others may deliver negative results. Since you cannot know in advance, you will be better off by spreading your money.
  • Diversify your assets amongst different sectors and countries: You have no control over what problems will affect specific industries or countries in the future. Those negative events are, to a great extent, unpredictable. Follow the example of professional investors and spread your savings amongst different types of assets. If you diversify internationally by placing a good part of your savings in stable countries around the world, your financial future will be less affected by problems in any particular territory. By the way, this principle was already known to medieval merchants ten centuries ago.
  • Understand that nobody can predict with certainty when markets hit bottom or are about to crash: You should never act blindly on someone else's advice, no matter how brilliant their track record is. Everybody makes mistakes and, as a general rule, it is better to trust facts than opinions. Listen to wise individuals, but always check things for yourself.
  • Save regularly, monthly if possible, in order to ensure that you will also invest during periods of pessimism. Psychologically, it is easier to place your money in the stock market when prices are rising than when the world seems to be falling apart. Nevertheless, periods of economic misfortune tend to be the best to purchase assets at a low price.
Do not overreact

This last principle is the most difficult to apply, since it requires enormous self-discipline. If we overreact to painful past experiences, we will overlook great investment opportunities. When the stock markets of the world go through a difficult period, the low prices can offer excellent possibilities for the future. If you adopt the habit of investing regularly, you will be able to make profitable decisions when few are willing to take any risk.

The essential principles of risk reduction will not provide you absolute protection, but they can help you keep your losses to a minimum. Whatever your strategy, check facts for yourself and never trust anybody blindly.

Periods of a declining stock market are often the best to rebuild an investment portfolio. As Lao-Tzu observed twenty-six centuries ago: "Truth is often paradoxical. Do not make the mistake of believing that you know what you don't." Making risk reduction a part of your financial plan can help preserve your peace of mind as much as your savings.


Image: Photograph of a medieval painting taken by John Vespasian, 2015
For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Never draw fearful conclusions from inconclusive facts

From time to time, it can be beneficial to sit down and make a list of all factors that are keeping you down. Make sure that you have plenty of paper available since the outcome might be long. If this is your first attempt at compiling such list, don't overdo it. A dozen pages will do.

Afraid of nothing

Depending on your age and circumstances, you may wish to write down that you are too young or too old. If you live in the countryside, you should mention that opportunities are scarce. If you inhabit the city, that competition is fierce.

Should you be looking for a job, write a remark that the market is hard. For half of the open positions, your experience will be insufficient; for the other half, you will be overqualified. The situation will be worse if you are going out on dates. Those who might love you won't recognize you and those who approach you might not fit your needs.

After you have finished your list, read it aloud. In view of the obstacles that are blocking your way, the conclusion seems inescapable. The arguments have been heard and judgement cannot be deferred. Would you agree that no improvement is possible?

You aimed at a target and missed, so stop running and quit. You tried your best and it didn't work, so go away and never return. Your attempts did not lead to success, so it's time to abandon your quest. You have wasted your resources and exhausted your forces.

Your best ideas are spent, your best years filled with discontent. Since your performance did not earn a decoration, you can choose between abdication and resignation. Your ambitions are impossible to achieve, how could you ever be so naive?

Refusing to quit

Nonetheless, even if your difficulties seem insurmountable, the above conclusions are wrong. Thousands of individuals overcome much worse problems than the ones you have. Those who search for better ways tend to multiply their chances of success.

As long as you refuse to quit, possibilities continue to exist. The tide will turn today, washing away yesterday's waste and bringing new opportunities. Turn around, face the water, and look for the best moment to sail away from the coast.

Irrespective of your background and constraints, your situation can change for the better. Male or female, young or old, you should relentless pursue your goals. Most problems can be solved if they are faced with courage and creativity. Obstacles can be circumvented and solutions invented. Do not let your age and circumstances write off your future.

If you don't live in the United States of America, you may have never heard of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She was popularly known as Grandma Moses and died in 1961, when she was 101 years old. Her days were spent working, initially for other people and later for herself.

During her life, Ms. Moses did farm work, cooked, washed clothes, raised her children, and made butter and embroideries. Her earnings remained modest for many decades, but she wasted no time complaining. She simply had too much to do, especially when she became a widow at 57.

Finding a new passion

Making embroideries kept her busy. It was the sort of work that she liked, a combination of creativity and routine, a challenge to her energies and imagination. Unfortunately, when she turned 76, arthritis prevented her from doing further needlework and she had to stop making embroideries.

Many people who reach that age give up whatever illusions they have left. They tell themselves that they can go no farther and fall prey to psychological immobility. Once they relinquish their will to live, their physical condition soon catches up with their attitude.

In contrast, when arthritis prevented Grandma Moses from doing embroidery work, she simply acknowledged the fact and searched for an alternative occupation. She chose to take up painting and began to produce her first works, which she would give away to family and friends.

Before long, her new activity turned into a passion. Grandma Moses would devote about six hours every day to painting, which she did mainly in her kitchen, often producing a finished work in one session. At that speed, her hand quickly gained confidence and mastery. In her paintings, the motives came from her memory and the bright colours from her philosophy.

After a while, she started to put up her work for sale. Since no art gallery would stage an exhibition for a 78 year old neophyte, Grandma Moses convinced a nearby drug-store to showcase her work. Her asking price was just a few dollars per painting.

Persistence carries the day

As chance would have it, an art collector passed by the drug-store, saw her paintings, and purchased a few of them. Those sales proved that, if she persisted, she could become a professional artist. The collector's reaction predicted what millions of people would later come to experience when confronted with Grandma Moses' art: freshness, authenticity, and hope.

Little by little, her work found its way into exhibitions and galleries, initially with other artists and later alone. When Grandma Moses became famous, she was well into her eighties. Day after day, she continued to produce new paintings with an energy that few other artists could match.

Her compositions portray the joy of purposeful human activity. Her canvasses frequently ignore the classical rules of perspective, but are filled with colour and charm. Each of Grandma Moses' paintings is an affirmation of the pleasures of simplicity. Unaffected by her success, she continued to produce new works well beyond her 101st birthday.

If you are convinced that prejudice, age, or any other factor are denying you opportunities, you might be right, but that's beside the point. The question has to be formulated in a different manner: What are you going to do to circumvent obstacles and improve your situation? More often than not, a path to success can be found.

A source of inspiration

Should you consider your circumstances too distressing, the work of Grandma Moses might provide you the inspiration you need. See if you can get some colour posters of her paintings. Place the posters on your kitchen wall and let their optimism change your mood.

Life is less complicated than it seems: you wake up in the morning, you stay alert, and seize opportunities as they come. The message from Grandma Moses is reflected in her compositions: a world full of light that has little need of shadows.

Discouragement and complaints are dead-end projects that you shouldn't pursue. Those who are busy moving forward have no time for lamentations. Immobility keeps you down, but action generates opportunities. The tide will turn today. Don't miss it.


Image by faul under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

The 10 Principles of Rational Living