Monday, September 1, 2014

Living Coherently

Philosophy is important because it’s unavoidable if you want to live a coherent life. -Rebecca Goldstein

Closing Doors that seem like Opportunities

A professor of behavioral economics asked hundreds of MIT students to play a computer game that paid cash for finding symbols of money behind three doors. Each time the students clicked on an open a door, they earned a little money.

But there was a catch: The amount was different behind each door--and the amount kept changing. The player could switch rooms and search for higher payoffs, but for each switch, he or she used an extra click just to open the new door. Each player only had a limited number of clicks. The best strategy was to stay in the room offering the highest rewards.

But did the students do that? No. The doors to the unclicked rooms would start shrinking and eventually disappear.  Instead of ignoring those disappearing doors and just paying attention to the doors that paid off, students kept switching back and forth, clicking on the doors that appeared to be disappearing, even though it wasn’t in their own best interest.

Irrational? Yes. Predictable? Yes. The students thought they were keeping their options open. Even when the game was set up so that players could make a door reappear whenever they wanted, they still kept frantically trying to prevent any door from vanishing. They wasted time, refusing to let go because of the pain of watching a door close and seeing an option disappear.

According to Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, we are willing to pay a price to avoid feeling a particular emotional. His advice? Find ways to avoid overbooking our lives by letting a few things fall off our plates. Cancel projects. Give away ideas to colleagues. Resign from committees. Rethink hobbies. Let a few doors close.

Stephen Goforth

Friday, August 29, 2014

A pessimist, a philosopher, and an optimist

A pessimist sees only the dark side of the clouds, and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides, and shrugs; an optimist doesn't see the clouds at all--he's walking on them.

Leonard Louis Levinson

Two Ways of Relating to the World

Most people who come to see a psychiatrist are suffering from what is called either neurosis or a character disorder. Put most simply, these two conditions are disorders of responsibility, and as such they are opposite styles of relating to the world and its problems. The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.

Even the speech patterns of neurotics and those with character disorders are different. The speech of the neurotic is notable for such expressions as “I ought to,” “I should,” and “I shouldn’t” indicating the individual’s self0image as an inferior man or woman always falling short of the mark, always making the wrong choices. The speech of a person with a character disorder, however, relies heavily on “I can’t,” “I couldn’t” “I have to,” and “I had to” demonstrating a self-image of a being who has no power of choice, whose behavior is completely directed by external forces total beyond his or her control.

As might be imagined, neurotics, compared with character disordered people are easy to work with in psychotherapy because the assume responsibility for their difficulties and there fore see themselves as having problems. Whose with character disorders are much more difficult , if not impossible, to work with because they don’t see themselves as the source of their problems; they see the world rather than themselves as being in need of change and there fore fail to recognize the necessity for self-examination.

M Scott Peck
The Road Less Traveled

Thursday, August 28, 2014


A poor self-image is not to be equated with humility or the mark of a servant.
Charles Swindoll

Actors in a Play

We play many roles in our lifetime. The hard part is knowing when to play which one. It’s difficult to grasp that the curtain is falling and another act is beginning. I don't want to become one of those sad actors, playing a role that has already ended, out of fashion by costume, reciting lines belonging in another act.

Besides the danger of becoming a washed out hack in life, there is the danger of playing our role on stage and then running out to take a seat in the audience, where we heckle ourselves and play critic.

Since it is God's play, we have to allow him (alone) to determine the value of our performance. We are only actors, not knowing when the final curtain falls or the outcome of the play or the resolution of its story lines. There are twists that only the author understands.

The thought that "we are all actors in a play" is an old idea that I've always favored because it's a vivid reminder that none of us have enough information to make heads or tails of too much. We are forced to ad lib and improvise our way through life.

As CS Lewis wrote, “We keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows.”

And then there's Garrison Keillor's quip: "God writes a lot of comedy... the trouble is, he's stuck with so many bad actors who don't know how to play funny."

Stephen Goforth

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pessimists and Optimists

A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties. - Harry Truman

What does it mean to be 'in love'?

To be in love is not necessarily to love. To be in love is a state; to love, an act. A state is suffered or undergone; but an act has to be decided upon. Now, the promise which marriage means cannot fairly be made to apply to the future of a state in which I am at the moment, but it can and should mortgage, the future of conscience acts which I take on – to love, to remain faithful, to bring up my children. That shows how different are the meanings of the word ‘to love’ in the world of Eros and the world of Agape.

Denis de Rougemont
Love in the Western World

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Loose, Messy and Chaotic

Centralised, hierarchical systems made sense in a world in which information and knowledge were relatively scarce commodities and could be tightly controlled, but the decentralisation of knowledge, brought about by the inexorable rise of the internet – combined with a collapse of trust in traditional sources of authority and expertise – legitimises the creation of flatter, decentralised operational models. Rapidly changing customer expectations powered by social media are forcing institutions to become more open, transparent and responsive and to operate in close to real time, as opposed to the painfully slow pace of institutional time.

Tight ways of thinking and working, while being superficially attractive and comforting, don't work. They have been built on the illusion of control. This illusion – propagated by legions of consultants, economists, market researchers and other purveyors of empirical snake oil – has actually made businesses less capable of embracing the complex realities of the modern world.

Agility, flexibility, a willingness to exercise judgement and an ability to improvise will become the defining characteristics of successful institutions in the next decades. This means fighting the instinct to solve every problem through rules and regulations and recognising the limitations of long-term planning and the painfully slow nature of most internal decision-making processes.

It means accepting the need to operate in real time and making the organisational and cultural changes necessary to achieve it. And most importantly, it means building a strong, self-sustaining, trusting organisational culture rather than in investing in yet more process and bureaucracy.

The future is loose, messy and chaotic: now is the time to embrace it.

Martin Thomas
Loose: the Future of Business is Letting Go

Monday, August 25, 2014


The person who’s listening is usually the one worth listening to.

Why is it so impossible to get everything done?

Several research studies have shown that people never get more done by blindly working more hours on everything that comes up. Instead, they get more done when they follow careful plans that measure and track key priorities and milestones. So if you want to be more successful and less stressed, don’t ask how to make something more efficient until you’ve first asked, “Do I need to do this at all?”

Simply being able to do something well does not make it the right thing to do. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management advice; too often productivity gurus focus on how to do things quickly, but the vast majority of things people do quickly should not be done at all.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of ironic that we complain we have so little time, and then we prioritize like time is infinite. So do your best to focus on what’s truly important, and not much else.

Angel Chernoff

Friday, August 22, 2014


A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.
Dave Barry

Love and Death

In the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a reporter who, confronted with living the same day over and over again, matures from an arrogant, self-serving professional climber to someone capable of loving and appreciating others and his world. Murray convincingly portrays the transformation from someone whose self-importance is difficult to abide into a person imbued with kindness.

But there is another story line at work in the film, one we can see if we examine Murray’s character not in the early arrogant stage, nor in the post-epiphany stage, where the calendar is once again set in motion, but in the film’s middle, where he is knowingly stuck in the repetition of days. In this part of the narrative, Murray’s character has come to terms with his situation. He alone knows what is going to happen, over and over again. He has no expectations for anything different. In this period, his period of reconciliation, he becomes a model citizen of Punxsutawney. He radiates warmth and kindness, but also a certain distance.

The early and final moments of “Groundhog Day” offer something that is missing during this period of peace: passion. Granted, Phil Connors’s early ambitious passion for advancement is a far less attractive thing than the later passion of his love for Rita (played by Andie MacDowell). But there is passion in both cases. It seems that the eternal return of the same may bring peace and reconciliation, but at least in this case not intensity.

And here is where a lesson about love may lie. One would not want to deny that Connors comes to love Rita during the period of the eternal Groundhog Day. But his love lacks the passion, the abandon, of the love he feels when he is released into a real future with her. There is something different in those final moments of the film. A future has opened for their relationship, and with it new avenues for the intensity of his feelings for her. Without a future for growth and development, romantic love can extend only so far. Its distinction from, say, a friendship with benefits begins to become effaced.

There is, of course, in all romantic love the initial infatuation, which rarely lasts. But if the love is to remain romantic, that infatuation must evolve into a longer-term intensity, even if a quiet one, that nourishes and is nourished by the common engagements and projects undertaken over time.

The future is open. Unlike the future in “Groundhog Day,” it is not already decided. We do not have our next days framed for us by the day just passed. We can make something different of our relationships. There is always more to do and more to create of ourselves with the ones with whom we are in love.

This is not true, however, and romantic love itself shows us why. Love is between two particular people in their particularity. We cannot love just anyone, even others with much the same qualities. If we did, then when we met someone like the beloved but who possessed a little more of a quality to which we were drawn, we would, in the phrase philosophers of love use, “trade up.” But we don’t trade up, or at least most of us don’t. This is because we love that particular person in his or her specificity. And what we create together, our common projects and shared emotions, are grounded in those specificities. Romantic love is not capable of everything. It is capable only of what the unfolding of a future between two specific people can meaningfully allow.

Todd May writing in the New York Times

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Joy of Third Place

Is third better than second place? It seems so in the Olympics. Psychologists at Cornell University say their research shows bronze-medal winners are generally happier than silver medalists. When you come in second, you focus on what you might have done differently to win. Come in third and you’re happy just to get a medal.

The phenomenon of "what if" reasoning (knows as Counterfactual thinking) leads us to imagine how things could have been different rather than on what actually has happened. The bronze winners generally think “what if” I hadn’t won anything and realize how fortunate they are to be on the podium at all. But for the silver medalist, “what if” means pondering the little things that might have turned silver to gold.

It seems counterfactual thinking plays out, not just in games, but in every day life. If a student misses making an "A" by one point, having a "B" is no longer so good.

"Would I be happier today if only I had married someone else?" “What if I had attended a different school or majored in something else?” “Suppose I had selected a different profession?”

When you find yourself the silver medalist in life, do you puzzle over what you might have done until you “what if” yourself into dissatisfaction? Do you get stuck thinking about what almost happened?

Miss a flight by five minutes and you are frustrated. But not as much if there’s no way you could make the flight. It's like the football team losing in the final seconds of play. If the team had gotten blown out, then the team can more easily put it behind them and move on. But when victory was so close, you can always think of little things you might have done differently to affect the outcome. 

It's worth noting that keeping first place has its pitfalls as well. Research shows the first runner in a long-distance race puts in three times more effort maintaining that position than the runner-up. Their conclusion?  When you do find yourself in  you are in first place, it’s more productive to focus on the struggle with one’s self rather than the pace of the other runners.

Stephen Goforth

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Out or In

People who are not busy exploring the world are busy building their egos.
Arvinder Kang