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Seeking Clarity

My plan is to do a Masters Conversion degree in Psychology this September.
But the problem is – I’m not 100% sure about what to do after yet.
I know I’m fascinated by the subject, and I know I want to work with people, but there’s so many routes I could go down, that I’m pulling my hair out trying to pick one.
What if I choose the wrong thing?
And what if I spend years of my life, and thousands in education, only to realise at the end, that this isn’t actually what I want to do?
In the process of trying to figure this out, I’ve come across some ideas that have helped me get a bit clearer on my direction.
If you’re in the same boat, and trying to figure out what you want to do long term, they might be helpful for you, too.
This post covers two of the ideas I’ve found most useful.
Minimum Viable Work Experience
 

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.” – Eric Reis

​It’s not uncommon to meet someone who spends 3-5 years in education, only to realise that when they get there, it isn’t actually what they wanted.
 
While travelling in South America when I was 21, I noticed I was meeting a lot of people who were transitioning out of an old career and into a new one. (A disproportionate amount of them were accountants.)
 
Our education system sets us up for failure this way.
 
At 18, we’re forced to pick a career path and make a decision that will affect the rest of our lives. At 27, I’m just starting to get to know myself – at 18, I had no chance.
 
So is there a way to avoid this?

Is there a way to test out all of the different things we think we might like to do, without investing huge amounts of time and money in education – only to realise at the end, that it wasn’t what we actually wanted?

In the startup world, there’s something called a minimum viable product (MVP for short).

In a nutshell, an MVP is the most basic version of your product that you can release to the public. The goal is to get feedback from real customers early to see if it’s something people actually want, before you spend years in planning and thousands in product development.

If people buy it, then you know you’re on to something. If it’s a complete flop, then you know you need to make some changes – or drop the idea completely.

This gives entrepreneurs a great opportunity to test their ideas – without investing huge amounts of time and money in the process.

So, what if you applied the MVP model to figuring out what you want to do?

What if you tried to get ‘Minimum Viable Work Experience’?

What if, for a few months, you actually went and volunteered in the industry you were thinking of dedicating your life to?

Then you could see what a day in your future life would actually be like.

If you’re thinking about starting your own business, you could volunteer for an entrepreneur you know. If you’re thinking about becoming a solicitor, you could go volunteer at a local solicitor’s office. If you want to become an architect, you could shadow an architect for a few days – offer to bring them coffee, do their admin work, etc.

This is my goal in the next few months.

Basically, I’m going to try and find volunteer work in all of the different roles I think I might like to do, so that when the time comes, I have some actual experience to base my decision on.

However, there are some industries you can’t just go volunteer in.

Thankfully, you can’t just ‘try out’ being a surgeon, judge or a dentist for one day.

So what can you do then?

Career Conversations
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​”What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan

Between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted a survey to find out how people really felt about their work.

They surveyed millions of workers in 142 different countries, and found that:

  • 13% of people are ‘engaged’ – meaning they are enthusiastic about what they do for a living and feel they are making a positive contribution through their work
  • 63% of people are ‘not engaged’ – i.e. ‘sleepwalking through their workday, and putting time but not energy or passion into their work’
  • 24% of people are ‘actively disengaged’ – not only are they unhappy at work, they are actively undermining what their engaged coworkers accomplish, and basically out to damage their company.

In other words, 87% of people don’t like what they do for work every day.

Why would this be?

In his book; ‘Stumbling Upon Happiness‘, psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes it clear that as human beings, we’re terrible predictors of what will make us happy in the future.

When considering a career path, we dream up a picture of our future selves in the situation and imagine how it’ll make us feel.

The problem with this approach is that often our imagination is faulty, and we have no clue about what a typical day in the job actually involves.

If, like me, you’re terrified of ending up in the ‘87%’, Gilbert advocates a different approach.

Simply put, if you think you’d like to do something, the best way to figure out what it’s actually like, is to speak to someone who is currently already doing it.

Radical advice, I know – but it’s not common sense.

Since reading Gilbert’s book, I’ve been arranging phone conversations with people who work in all the different careers I think I might be interested in, and asking them questions like:

‘What does a typical working day look like for you?’

‘What about the job do you find most rewarding?’

‘What are the worst parts of it?’

‘If you were going back to before you started, is there anything you know now, that you wish you knew then?’

‘If you were starting from scratch, how would you approach your education?’

This might be slightly uncomfortable to do – but if you think about what it could save you in time, effort and money, it’s potentially one of the most worthwhile investments you could make.

It’s enabled me to construct a better picture of what a typical working day looks like in each of the careers I’m interested in, and helped me get a bit clearer on the route I want to go down.

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“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

As Gallup’s study demonstrated, the vast majority of us (around 87%) will end up doing work every day we don’t enjoy.

If we’re lucky, we’ve each only got about eighty laps of the sun, and chances are, we’ll spend a sizeable chunk of those laps working.

Therefore, one of the most important things you could ever do, is to figure out a working situation that you find interesting and enjoyable – one that you wake up in the morning and look forward to.

‘Minimum viable work experience’, and ‘career conversations’ are two simple (and low cost) ways to do that.

The Evolution of Human Cooperation

Ever wonder how we went from this:

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To this?

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In other words, how did we go from small insignificant primates on the savannas of Africa, to building large cooperative societies with hundreds of millions of members?

It’s tempting to think technological innovations were the driving forces. The invention of tools, fire, the printing press, fossil fuels, the industrial revolution, etc.

However, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an alternative explanation. In his book: ‘The Righteous Mind’, and various lectures available online, he argues that it was psychological innovations, rather than technological, that ultimately got us to where we are.

So what were these innovations, and how they might help explain this mystery?

1. Shared Intentions – The Initial Spark

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‘It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ Michael Tomasello

6 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees.

We were the same species, with the same DNA, the same brains, the same opportunities, and the same threats.

Yet now, human beings are living in cities, conducting scientific experiments and exploring outer space, while chimps are… well, still chimps.

What could possibly explain this? And what was the initial spark that set us off on such different directions?

​Chimps are actually really smart. They can learn words, deceive people, make tools, solve problems, and can even seem to be able to mourn the death of their friends

So what can’t they do, that we can?

In an experiment comparing intelligence between chimpanzees, orangutans and human children (aged 2.5 years old), scientists administered a series of problem solving tasks – simple problems that didn’t require language.

Fifty percent of the tasks were physical with no social element involved. E.g. Using a stick as a tool to get some food through a cage.

The other fifty percent of tasks were social problems.These involved reading social signals, gestures and eye movements provided by the experimenter to solve the problem.

For example, in one of these tasks, there would be two cups placed on a table and one of the cups had a reward underneath. The experimenter would point at the cup containing the reward and it was the child or chimpanzee’s job to read the signal and choose the correct cup.

In the physical problems, chimps and humans scored almost evenly.
But as soon as a social element was added (looking at where the experimenter was pointing), the human children dominated, and the chimps’ scores were no better than chance.

In other words, the human kids could use the social signal (pointing) to read the intentions of the experimenter, and use the information to guide their behaviour.

The chimps could not.

Jonathan Haidt argues that our ability to share and read each other’s intentions was the initial spark that allowed everything else to fall into place.

If we could share intentions, it meant we could cooperate in groups for the first time towards shared goals. We could hunt bigger animals, build better shelters and we were less likely to be picked off by predators.

This one psychological innovation paved the way for language, cooperative hunting, foraging, rearing, and a division of labour.

Without the ability to share our intentions with each other, none of the above would have been possible.

2. The Evolution of Morals

‘Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’  – Clifford Geertz

Now that we were cooperating in groups for the first time, it was critical to ensure people did their fair share of the work and were effective ‘team players’.

​For cooperation to work, we needed a way to motivate and reward selfless behaviour that would benefit the group, and punish selfish behaviour that would harm the group’s survival chances.

We needed to make it dangerous to be a ‘slacker’.

Evolutionary theorists argue that this helps to explain the evolution of human morality.

In some sense, it can help to think of morals as invisible rules that bind a group together, motivating behaviours that increase the group’s survival chances, and making it unappealing and socially unacceptable to do things that did the opposite.

Think of an early human tribe that had to go out in search of new food every day.

Men would go out on a hunting expedition and bring back some meat, and the women would go foraging for fruits, seeds and nuts. But suppose there’s one member, who stays at the shelter all day, never does any work, and still expects to enjoy the food that everyone else brings back. How do you think the group members would treat this person? Is it likely that he would pass his genes on to the next generation?

Or might they just get rid of him?

At the individual level, we can see how people with good morals were more likely to survive than those without, and from the group’s point of view, tribes containing individuals with high levels of morality would be more cooperative and therefore more likely to survive than those who didn’t.

If this theory’s right, and if you’re reading this today, it’s highly likely that you come from a long line of ancestors with high levels of morality.

Our fascination with soap operas and our universal love of gossip are just two examples of how this evolutionary tendency manifests itself in the modern world.

So now we had shared intentionality which enabled us to work together, and morals which motivated individuals to be effective team players, what was the final step? How did we go from small groups of hunters and foragers, to civilisations containing hundreds of millions of people?

3. The Psychology of Sacredness

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‘If you think, as I do, that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries is how people ever came together to form large cooperative societies, then you might take a special interest in the psychology of sacredness.’  – Jonathan Haidt

Universally, humans have a tendency to elevate certain objects, people and places to the status of sacred.

​For the religious, it might be a holy book or a place or worship. For humanists, it could be The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or a cultural icon such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and if you’re patriotic, it could be your nation’s flag or national anthem.

When we consider something sacred, we are usually willing to sacrifice our own self interest for it. Throughout history, people have gone to war and sacrificed their lives in service of the sacred; whether it be for an ideal such as freedom or democracy, a country, or a religious belief.

Sacred things have a powerful influence on human psychology.

Why is this? And how can it help explain how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to mega-civilizations?

Sacredness is powerful because it can create shared belief systems and common identities.

At some point in our past, we gained the ability to think of, believe in, and tell stories about things outside of the physical world. We could imagine fictional realities and communicate them with others.

Before this psychological innovation, our group sizes were limited by the number of people we could know and trust personally.

But after, they could grow exponentially.

For example, if I became convinced that an old oak tree in the forest was magical and had supernatural powers, and could convince the thirty people in my tribe to believe it too, then that’s thirty people who now believe the same thing.

But what happens if I can convince a neighbouring tribe, which also contains thirty people about the supernatural powers of this tree? Suddenly, the two groups have something in common – they believe the same thing.

And because we trust and like to cooperate with people who believe the same things we do, the two groups of thirty now had the potential to cooperate as one group of sixty.

Now, for the first time, human beings could start combining groups under shared belief systems, and this paved the way for large scale human cooperation like never before.

Organised religions, countries, and armies would not have been possible without it.

‘Humans are ninety percent chimp and ten percent bee.’ – Jonathan Haidt

As a culture, we are living in an era of heightened individualism.

Success is measured by what we’re able to achieve personally, whether it be likes on Facebook, followers on Instagram, or how quickly we’re ascending the corporate ladder.

But researching Jonathan Haidt’s work has made me realise that cooperation is at the very core of being human. 

It’s what separates us from other primates. It’s why we’re at the top of the food chain, and it offers the best explanation for how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to where we are today. 

So if we’re looking for a way to improve ourselves, both individually and collectively, maybe the thing to focus is on improving our cooperation skills.

It’s worked for us in the past; why not now, too?

The Paradox of Risk

Having just booked a one-way flight to Barcelona with no idea on how it’s going to end up, I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately.

In the short term, not taking risks means stability and comfort.
 
In the long term however, avoiding risks and exposing yourself to the occasional bit of volatility and discomfort can make you soft.

You can become a prisoner of your own comfort.

Compare an eighteen year old who leaves school to start his own business, and another who goes to university and gets a job in a large corporation.

The process of starting a business is almost a daily shock to the system. Each day brings with it a new problem. In overcoming each problem the entrepreneur becomes more resilient, and learns skills that he can use for the rest of his life.

Although in the short term, it appears risky – he is in a process of developing a skillset that he can take anywhere in the world and can apply at any time.

Now take the 18 year old who has went to university and took the safe position in the corporation. He has the security of a weekly pay cheque and seems to be in a safe position.

However, if we take a longer view of the situation, it’s a different story.

If for example, an economic crisis hits, the corporation will have to lay off a large percentage of its employees.

His economic security is dependent on the corporation and forces outside of his control.

If a big shock takes down the system he is dependent on, he is in trouble. All he knows is the banking job. Our entrepreneur on the other hand, is self reliant and used to absorbing shocks on a regular basis.

He is used to finding solutions to problems and adapting to new situations. He will make something happen- it’s in his nature.

 

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

By doing what you are supposed to – going to university, getting a degree and then getting a job, you are making yourself dependent on a system. If that system sinks, then you will go down with it.

I don’t like the idea of my basic needs- food, water and shelter being dependent on factors outside of my control. As I’ve got older, I’ve felt a growing instinct to become increasingly less dependent on things outside of my control. Almost everything in life can be taken from you, but the more you can depend on yourself, the more freedom you naturally have.

And besides, life is a lot more fun when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Giving it all Away

There are three types of people:
Givers, takers and matchers.
Takers like to get more than they give.
Matchers aim to preserve an equal balance between giving and getting.

Givers prefer to give more than they get, and often give without expecting anything in return.

Adam Grant spent 10 years researching the three styles to find which approach was most effective.

Of the three groups, givers were the happiest, most productive and enjoyed the most successful working lives.

The paradox of giving is this:

The people who are most focused on helping others succeed, are the most successful themselves.

But like everything in life, it’s not that simple.

Grant also found that givers were failing most miserably too.

If you placed the three groups on a spectrum from ‘failing and miserable’ to ‘successful and happy’, you would find givers at both ends, with takers and matchers somewhere in between.

So why do some givers win, and others struggle?


2 Types of Givers

‘There are two great forces of human nature: self interest, and caring for others.’ – Bill Gates

There are two types of giving styles- selfless and otherish.

Selfless givers have a high interest in helping others, but have very low self- interest.

They sacrifice their own needs, desires and happiness to serve others. They are extremely generous with everybody – except themselves.

Otherish givers have high self interest and high other interest.

We assume that self interest and other interest are opposite- you can’t have both at the same time.

But over the ten year period, Grant found that most successful people were those who found a way to combine the two.

They focus on helping others, but also have ambitious goals for themselves.

They find win-win situations, where they benefit and help others at the same time.


How Otherish Givers Thrive

They scratch their own itch first

My approach to blogging is simple: share what excites me most.’ – Tim Ferriss

Successful givers focus their giving in the areas they are most interested in and passionate about.

This allows them to pour their enthusiasm fully into the work.

By scratching your own itch first, you can find win-win situations where you follow your own interests, while also helping others at the same time.

They ‘chunk’ their giving

There is a growing body of research linking random acts of kindness with improved heart health, reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, and big releases of the feel good hormone – oxytocin.

A study by the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, showed that random acts of kindness were maximally beneficial for the giver when ‘chunked’ into one day, compared with ‘sprinkling’ them throughout different days of the week.

They don’t over-extend

Several studies have shown that volunteering 100 hours per year (2 hours per week) is the sweet spot range where giving is maximally energising and minimally draining.

This allows you enough time to make a meaningful difference without being overwhelmed or sacrificing other priorities in the process.

It’s also the range in which volunteering is most likely to offer benefits to the volunteer as well as the recipients involved.

They use the 5 minute rule

Adam Rifkin – one of the stars of the book, and ‘the best networker in the United States’ according to Fortune Magazine, uses a simple rule called the ‘five minute favour’ to decide when to give.

‘You should be willing to do something that will take you 5 minutes or less for anybody.’

They focus on helping gritty givers

Naturally, we want to invest our giving where it will have the biggest impact.

We don’t want our efforts to be wasted.

For this reason, successful givers focus on giving to ‘gritty givers’- people who work hard, and show a commitment to helping others.

They view people as bloomers

‘When we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In a famous study by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, students were given cognitive ability tests in 18 different classes.

In each class, the teachers were given information that certain students in their class had scored highly on the test. These students were labelled as ‘bloomers’ with high potential.

(The students were not given this information.)

Interestingly, students who were labelled ‘bloomers’ had not actually done better in the test.

They had been selected at random, and in many cases, had actually performed worse than classmates.

The following year, researchers returned to the school and administered another test.

In this test, students who had been labelled as the ‘bloomers’ outperformed their classmates – by a landslide.

The only difference between ‘bloomer’ students and their peers, was in the mind of the teacher.

Givers naturally see the potential in others, and given enough time, they will eventually bring it out of them.


‘It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.’ – John Holmes

Science is now confirming what philosophers, religions and myths have been teaching for centuries.

In the long run, giving is one of the best tools we have available for a fulfilling life.

But it only works, if you are generous with yourself first.