By Steve Fisher
Anyone made any New Year’s resolutions? I confess that I’m not a big fan of these. To start, I find them too negative in focus (stop smoking, lose weight, cut back on sweets etc.). Nothing wrong with eliminating bad habits, of course, and I have more than my share of these. (Potato chip addiction, to start, which I address by buying only one tiny bag at a time). But I don’t think it’s enough for us to simply stop doing things we probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place. We need to cultivate positive attributes as well.
Also, with New Year’s resolutions, why the focus on January? We can (and probably should) grow and develop continuously. To me at least the subtext of this custom is that the post-binge period of early January is the small window in which to improve ourselves, and that during the rest of the year we can continue in the same way, without self-reflection or growth.
Imagine if the companies who provide our most important products acted in this way (fixing defects, but only in January, and not adding any improvements). What if you were shopping for a new smartphone and all the salesman could offer was fewer defects than the last one he sold you. “We fixed the battery. It doesn’t catch fire anymore. Upgrade now! Only $800!”
Of course, you wouldn’t be impressed. For the kind of money the best phones cost they need to offer something significantly better than the last one you bought. The companies that make our cars, smartphones and other important products need to relentlessly improve what they offer in order to continue to earn our business.
If you think about it though, the most important product in your life is you.
In a sense, our friends, family, coworkers and society are our consumers. And, if we don’t have something attractive to offer, they won’t be interested. Yes, this perspective is a bit clinical, and I’m not suggesting we always think of others this way. If we’re really honest with ourselves though, how well our life goes has a lot to do with what others think of us, and very little to do with what we think of ourselves.
Our phones and other products are upgraded regularly. Perhaps we should upgrade ourselves as well?
A great thing about this is that we don’t need to completely remake ourselves every year. Incremental change, implemented continuously, is actually quite profound.
Take the iPhone, for example. Every year they come out with “Our Best Phone Ever!”. (Well, duh! If it weren’t better than the previous one we wouldn’t pay $800 for it.) I’m a fan but if you strip away the marketing hype and look at what they did, there are typically just two or three significant changes every year. Now it has HD video. Now you can use your fingerprint to login. Now you can use it to pay for stuff.
Every year the technorati complain about how underwhelming the upgrades are but in fact these incremental changes, added every single year, have been enough to make it the overwhelming leader in one of the world’s most profitable and competitive markets.
Two or three improvements, compounded annually, is actually really significant. It’s hard to put an exact number on this sort of thing, but let’s say that the iPhone has improved 10% every year. That’s on the conservative side, I think. It’s probably a bit more than that. But even 10% improvement, compounded annually, doubles the functionality, power etc. in only seven years (1.1 to the 7th power is 1.95).
Incidentally, this same logic is why stocks are a great investment but only if you 1) invest long term (say, at least 10 years) and 2) are well diversified (index funds, not individual stocks).
If you think about it, all of us do change. When we were born, we were helpless little blobs who did little but cry, eat and sleep. Now we’re the adults who we are, which is certainly a long way from our humble neonatal state.
But do we change in the ways we want to? Or are we simply swept along passively into the future, pushed around by the currents of peer, family, work and societal pressures?
In modern global society change is constant. We need to learn, develop and grow in helpful, adaptive ways. And, if we don’t, the world will change us in ways that are dislocating and sometimes painful. If we don’t actively update our professional skills, for example, we’re likely to become irrelevant and pushed into a lower paying, less satisfying way of making a living. This is change but it’s not change we wanted. And it’s not change we chose.
The key here is honest self-reflection. From time to time it’s a good idea to take stock and ask ourselves how things are going, not just generally, but in each important area of our lives. Once every season, say. Even just once or twice a year may be enough and that’s vastly better than never.
How are things going socially? In my important relationships? What about my personal development? Professionally and financially?
In the last post, I geekily referred to our lives at any given time as a vector in n-dimensional space. By complete coincidence, the same week I wrote that I started reading a fabulous book by two Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans called Designing Your Life, which offers a much more accessible framework for self evaluation. The authors teach a class which has students treat their lives as a design problem and it’s the most popular course on campus. Like the iPhone and other consumer products, our lives can be actively designed and the Stanford course and book offer an insightful framework and tools.
One quibble I have is that the book is a bit heavy on career and light on the other important areas of our lives. (In general, I find a lot of professional Americans a bit workaholic in the overwhelming focus of work in their lives. What if we focused on having a good, well balanced life, and saw making a living as just one of several equally important parts of our life, not its primary focus?).
Overall though the book is excellent and highly recommended. While Burnett and Evans focus most of their discussion and examples on career, the life design framework and tools they provide are insightful and can be applied equally well to other areas of our lives.
The authors ask readers to think of four important areas of our lives (health, work, love and play) as dials on a dashboard, which we should self-assess on a scale between empty and fully charged (I’m going with electric cars). For example, Burnett rates himself “full” in work (he’s a popular Stanford professor, best selling author and consultant). But rates himself almost empty in “play” (no time, see his work!).
For areas of our lives where the dashboard readings are low, the book offers innovative tools to brainstorm and rapidly “prototype” (ie test out) new ideas. Our lives as something to actively design, the way hardware and software engineers, product designers and others at Apple actively design the new iPhone each year.
For example, if professionally successful but recreation-poor Burnett brainstorms what types of “play” he finds fulfilling, and discovers that he enjoys social sports, he could carve out an afternoon every week in his busy schedule to play squash with a colleague.
On a personal level, I suppose I can give myself acceptable marks in terms of physical health and in the professional/financial area but my social skills are originally quite awful and have only become (barely) passable with great effort. I do have a lot of friends and an active social life but I’m really bad at dealing with people I don’t like (people who cut the queue, aggressive street hawkers, Donald Trump supporters etc.).
I just feel strongly that we should approach other people with an attitude of polite respect and tolerance, and people who don’t do this immediately offend me. When someone cuts in front of me in line at my local Family Mart here in Saigon, all too often I respond with a blunt, “I was waiting, get in line!”. In a similar vein, I’ll typically delete anyone in my Facebook whose political views I find offensive.
Doing the type of self-reflection I suggest above, it’s obvious to me that my approach in these situations is unhelpful and potentially even harmful. The fact is I’m never going to be friends with these people, but if I’m really honest with myself, my extreme intolerance of intolerance is in the end another type of intolerance. And being rude to rude people is just another type of rudeness.
So for the last three years, one of my big “self improvement projects” has been to treat Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as a bible and make annual improvements of at least 10% in this area. I’m never in a million years going to be a poster boy for this stuff but as I noted above a 10% improvement every year, compounded annually, is actually really significant.
Also, while I can give myself solid marks in health and fitness, my primary sports (running, cycling etc.) aren’t good for the upper body and I’ve always been a bit of a weakling above the waist. Last year, I taught myself to swim from a couple YouTube videos and regularly swim 25 laps at my local pool here in Saigon. Another project this year is to add 1-2 new strokes beyond freestyle. (By the way, you can get really good instruction in how to do almost anything just by searching “How to X” in YouTube.)
And for the last two years or so deepening my meditation practice has been another personal project. As I wrote in another post, meditation is exercise for the mind and, like regular physical activity, provides huge benefits (lower stress, greater relaxation, better concentration etc.). This year I’m working on applying it to more areas of everyday live.
Less of a social klutz, slightly better pecs, a bit calmer. This is not earth shattering stuff. No prizes will be offered. But as with the iPhone, 2-3 significant improvements (10% better every year), when the changes are made with self-reflection and purpose, is potentially really significant. Before the world changes us, in ways we may not like, it’s best if we keep changing ourselves.
What area of your life would you like to upgrade? What’s a new “prototype” you could try?
Burnett, Bill and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Knopf. 2016.