Autotelic Aspirations

Growing up, I always understood the difference between what we might call hedonism and joy, or fun and gratification. These nuances on a theme define how we each engage in the pursuit of happiness. Genetics plays a likely role in one’s preferences for selecting a hedonistically pleasurable experience over one absent any obvious elements of indulgence, and research in the field of positive psychology suggests that individuals who find it easy to “get into the zone” demonstrate a preference for the latter.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist, coined the term flow to describe the sort of single-minded zoned-in immersion that leads to gratification, joy, and even states of ecstasy in the immersed. He hypothesizes that people with specific personality traits may be in a sense “flow-ready.” These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a preference for taking on activities for intrinsic reasons alone. Called autotelic personalities, a disposition toward high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations leads to growth, learning, and even transformation in these individuals, all through the mechanism of flow.

As the neuroscience literature increasingly reports, personality is malleable, and thus adaptations of habitual thought and behavior can occur through intervention and help people shift toward a preference for flow experiences.

I would argue that the goal of modern free society is to build institutions and organizations that promote targeted exploration and conscious learning such that the end result is the collective realization among people of their unique means for achieving flow. Whether this be through mathematics, engineering, and computer science, or literature, music, and art, civilization benefits when more people discover their path to realizing their potential, and apply their energies in the service of others. I believe that the best and most successful organizations understand this, whether consciously or unconsciously, and seek to optimize physical and virtual environments in order to cultivate states of flow in those engaged in the organization’s work.

The Intelligence of Companies

Do companies demonstrate self-awareness? I contend that they do.

Companies exist as a consciousness shared among individual agents. The feelings associated with employment, and the thoughts and images that accompany those feelings, make “going to work” a very real thing, even if it means only a glance at a mobile phone.

Companies operate as political entities ordered by legal documentation. Such order creates habits of thought and action that seed and sustain a culture. That culture then reinforces habits of mind to form a mental map that circulates among individual agents, and is continuously refined so long as the company exists.

Good companies understand the limits of control for inspiring knowledge work—the dominant form of work in today’s economy—and so offer substantive wiggle room for individual agency.

In contrast, companies that prioritize structures of command and control locate the firm as the primary actor rather than the employee, and so shared consciousness becomes false in the sense that it does not necessarily reflect the reality of circumstance for the individual. False shared consciousness at its most extreme corrupts agency, distorts perception, and manifests as totalitarianism, whereby the individual disappears in the service of a delusional politic.

Organizations cannot simply will themselves into greatness by virtue of the actions of the few. Rigid structure tries to limit what biologists call emergence, a condition in which local interactions between agents reorder a complex adaptive system not unlike that of a business. To companies and leaders that want more control, things like dialogue, creativity, and innovation, which all accelerate emergence, are anathema to them because they disrupt the status quo, and make it incredibly difficult to influence what people will do.

Self-aware companies embrace this paradox. Institute too many measures of control and you lose in the modern digital economy. Institute too few and you plunge into chaos and disorder; people still want to know that someone is driving the bus.

A middle path offers what John Locke envisioned in his Two Treatises: An organization that operates in accordance with and complements human nature, both the good and the bad, and channels it in the service of collective betterment. Self-aware companies, interestingly, defy easy comparison as each embraces individually claimed threads of distinction.

Leaders looking to increase the aperture of their organizational lens, and thereby heighten the absolute level of awareness within their organizations, can promote diversity of thought and heterogeneity through their hiring practices and their reinforcing the primacy of employee contribution.

Engaging workers and investing in them as future leaders of the company generates a certain kind of momentum that fosters emergence. When employees feel like leaders, they act like leaders, and as self-aware individuals will contribute to the growing self-awareness of the organization by simple virtue of their being present.

What You See Is All There Is

The world doesn’t give us decisions to be made made like answering a multiple choice problem, though sometimes we may believe that’s the case. Nobel Prize Winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman and his collaborator, Amos Tversky, tackled the blind side of decision-making in their pioneering work on prospect theory. Their 1979 paper, Prospect theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk, illustrated humanity’s collective divergence from neoclassical economic decision-making. The two conducted a series of psychological tests that unpacked the heuristics and biases that influence how we perceive the costs and benefits of a given decision, and how our judgments are often incongruent with various decisions’ objective values.

I was talking with a friend recently about some choices he’ll soon have to make in his career. We spent a good deal of time on the phone and went through several scenarios and permutations thereof on how things might play out. When I got off the phone with him I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had missed something. Though we swarmed the issue he was dealing with aggressive and penetrating intellectual consideration, I had this sense that we had missed something important.

A few hours later it hit me. Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the notion of “What You See Is All There Is.” We tend to make decisions independent of outside considerations unless we go through the taxing mental exercise of developing counterfactuals. We simply fail to account for the incredible complexity of our world when making decisions and tend to rely on a small and not necessarily representative sample of observations when formulating conclusions or courses of action. Our brain can deal with the known knowns, but has a difficult time conceptualizing known unknowns, phenomena that is relevant to the problem at hand but for which our mental reserves have no information on. And it goes without saying we tend to immediately discount the unknown unknowns, the proverbial “black swans” of our world that Nassim Taleb has brought into so many contemporary intellectual conversations.

I ended up sending my friend a well thought out counterfactual argument to basically everything I had described during our phone call. I had been relying too much on intuitive judgment at the expense of exploring outside possibilities, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. The final course of action turned an otherwise myopic and short-sighted plan of action into one that was much broader and more thought through. We turned a yes/no question into a multiple-choice question, and in the process gained a far better sense of what was at stake.

Just remember, zoom out when something feels off and remember that your brain believes that what you see is all there is, especially since the truth is anything but.

The James Bond Paradox

The wife and I saw Skyfall over the holiday weekend, and I have to say we were pleasantly surprised. A lot of folks disliked Quantum of Solace, but I think that commonly held opinion ignores just how atypically good Casino Royale was. Skyfall continues the reboot’s emphasis on the development of Bond as a character, which the trope-heavy pre-Daniel Craig films failed to accomplish in any meaningful way.

After perusing a few articles on the sartorial persuasions of our favorite international assassin (can you blame me?), I stumbled across a citation for a piece published in the academic journal Individual Differences Research on, of all things, James Bond. Author Peter Jonason makes the argument in his article “Who is James Bond?: The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style” that, despite going through life as a high-functioning psychopath, Bond possesses a trait triumvirate which proves highly predictive of achieving success in life.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, and a University of Cambridge research psychologist, illustrates how some of society’s most effective leaders and professionals score uncommonly high on the clinical psychopathic spectrum. For example, of our former presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton exhibited the greatest number of psychopathic traits, findings borne out by a study conducted by psychologist Scott Lillenfield, who surveyed and analyzed the responses of a collection of presidential biographers and subsequently contributed to Dutton’s research.

Dutton notes that psychopathy, like many things, operates on a sliding scale, and that certain psychopathic traits have been shown to provide evolutionary advantages to those who possess them. WIth respect to James Bond, psychologists have deemed the personality make-up of of our favorite super spy The Dark Triad. Per Wikipedia:

The Dark Triad [of] Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, all of which are interpersonally aversive. . . refers to three theoretically distinct but empirically overlapping personality constructs. The term reflects the perception that these three diagnostic categories have at least some common underlying factors:

The narcissistic personality (in the clinical sense) is characterized by a grandiose self-view, a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and egotism. Some theories, such as those of Heinz Kohut, associate it with the protection of a radically weak, shamed, or damaged self.

The Machiavellian personality is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, with a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and deception.

The psychopath, or antisocial personality, is characterized by impulsive thrill-seeking, and in its “primary” form by selfishness, callousness, lack of personal affect, superficial charm, and remorselessness

The paradox here, of course, is that these three traits together in fact prove beneficial in spite of their being interpersonally aversive! Jonason’s paper teases out a story that shows that the high levels of openness, self-esteem, and extraversion Bond exhibits because of these personality constructs, when combined with his correlating low levels of conscientiousness and anxiety, give him an advantage in social situations and the wont to “persist in the face of potential social rejection and retaliation.”

As argued by Jonason, men with “a specific triumvirate of personality traits–the stratospheric self esteem of narcissism; the fearlessness, ruthlessness, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking of psychopathy; and the deceitfulness and exploitativeness of Machiavellianism–can actually do pretty well for themselves out there in the echelons of society.”

For the aspirational among us who drive toward success every waking moment of every day, there is a certain level of ‘crazy’ associated with such behavior. I couldn’t help but think of the inherent duality that marks great leadership when reviewing Jonason’s article, and the way in which opposing ideas and forces can lead us to ever greater heights despite intrinsic antagonisms.

As discussed in earlier posts, power and influence are necessary to get things done, but it is what you do with them that ultimately determines whether you fulfill your higher purpose and live a meaningful life. In the same way, the personality traits affiliated with the Dark Triad are in of themselves neither good nor bad, but rather are constructions for understanding the nature of why we do what we do. Humans are incredibly complex, and while psychology can give us clues, we have to ultimately bring a critical eye to these sorts of frameworks and avoid the temptation to take them as gospel.

Jonason concludes that, in a world where others may seek to manipulate to get what they want, the best defense is a good offense:

In a world where individuals want to avoid being taken advantage of, those high on the Dark Triad, like James Bond, who tend to be more agentic than others, have a particularly difficult task at hand. How to get what they want without rousing the suspicions or retaliations of others? The answer is to be extraverted, open, high on self-esteem, and low on conscientiousness and anxiety while being individualistic and competitive.

Food for thought, to be sure. Oh, and remember, you want your martini stirred not shaken, that is, unless you want cold water, some chipped ice, and a dash of gin and dry vermouth.

Realism and the Workplace

A word of caution to those of you who are just entering the workforce. The work world you encounter may differ from the one described in some of the popular management literature out there that advocates lifting wholesale its lessons with nary a concern for repercussions.

Checking email only once a day, for example, is a practice that will very quickly get you fired. Your job is to take such lessons and consciously integrate them into your reality by tempering them against real-world circumstances.

And it is up to all of us to make the lessons, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of how the world ought to be come alive by confronting and questioning with honesty, integrity, and critical thought, the counter-productive inertia that so easily develops in human systems.

Consider that good intentions without power are just that: Good intentions. Power lets us get things done, and without it we are useless.

We have to acquire power in a way that is congruent with our deepest values while maintaining a situational awareness that trade-offs may occur in an environment that does not reflect our deepest values. When we do have power, the onus is upon us to change the system to reflect those values for the betterment of those who succeed us.

Everyday Negotiation

Swathes of literature discuss the nuances and intricacies of successful negotiation. There is plenty of excellent advice out there, but today I want to discuss one technique that comes out of some of the excellent research done on cognitive biases.

In his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, amongst other things writes about how cognitive biases and heuristics affect how we behave under some of the most mundane of circumstances. In this excerpt, Daniel Kahneman discusses the powerful role of anchoring effects in negotiation and how to fight their influence.

We see the same strategy at work in the negotiation over the price of a home, when the seller makes the first move by setting the list price. As in any other games, moving first is an advantage in single-issue negotiations—for example, when price is the only issue to be settled between a buyer and a seller. As you may have experienced when negotiating for the first time in a bazaar, the initial anchor has a powerful effect. My advice to students when I taught negotiations was that if you think the other side has made an outrageous proposal, you should not come back with an equally outrageous counteroffer, creating a gap that will be difficult to bridge in further negotiations. Instead you should make a scene, storm out or threaten to do so, and make it clear—to yourself as well as to the other side—that you will not continue the negotiation with that number on the table.

Depending on the nature of one’s work or extracurricular persuasions, we are not apt to encounter such instances of overt negotiation with much regularity. But if we think about the myriad of interactions we go through in day-to-day living, often we are looking to get something from someone in exchange for something we possess, or the converse in which someone is looking to get something from us.

If we approach conversations as negotiations (where appropriate, of course), this knowledge may give us pause should we find ourselves working toward an agreement that began from an unfavorable starting point. In such cases we may have the presence of mind to simply walk away. I can’t help but think how contrary this is to our nature, where, when confronted with a challenge the natural instinct is to fight back rather than disengage, even if disengaging is our best course of action.

Behavioral science seems to play this out—we shouldn’t always trust our gut.

The Best Strategic Gift

Over the past week change has come at me hard and fast. My normal routines are gone along with the regularity they once brought.

So I’ve found myself turning inward. Not in an excessive, touchy-feely way, but in a way that has encouraged mindfulness and meditative clarity.

Lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to step back from all the doing and striving and goal-oriented behavior and am approaching things with a beginner’s mind.

Not judging or imposing my thoughts upon what I’m experiencing, but simply experiencing things as they come. It’s difficult to do, and when we’re children and everything is so bright and interesting and new, it requires no special effort to find that space. As we grow older, finding that clarity requires concentration and focus.

It’s easy to get pulled into our mind’s ongoing internal editorials, streams of consciousness of thinking and rumination that can quickly come to dominate one’s daily existence. That’s how we begin to lose touch with the reality of our situation.

Our success is often defined by our ability to act, not react. Establishing mental distance through mindfulness allows us to move beyond being a pawn on the chessboard. With focus, reflective clarity and inquiry, we become the grandmaster that sees the board of our lives from above.

Apple’s Secret to Success is Not What You Think

There is brilliance in execution, but how many times have we mistaken it for innovation or creativity?

Apple’s success lies not in its ability to innovate, though it certainly does that, but in its capacity to achieve supreme alignment in the products it produces. This is execution.

Diamond Multimedia released its portable Rio MP3 player in 1998. HP and Microsoft were showcasing tablet technology as early as 2001. Sony began selling ultra-thin laptops in 2004.

Execution is the ability to focus and discipline one’s efforts into making a product or delivering a service where all elements align into an elegant, effective whole that, by virtue of its quality, provides exceptional value to the customer or client.

The iPod, the iPad, and the MacBook Air are products greater than the sum of their constituent parts.

Sure, it’s sexier to talk about how prescient Steve Jobs is, how creative and unexpected the minds at Apple are. But what if Apple simply pays obsessive, neurotic, disciplined attention to every facet of what it’s doing, afflicted with a drive to perfect that goes beyond the competition, inspired by forces outside the market to execute brilliantly because there simply is no other way?

The technologies Apple has based its growth upon are not unique to the company. What Jobs & Co. did differently was to look at these technologies not as random bells and whistles but as notes on a musical scale that could work in harmony.

The next time you’re confronted with a problem, consider execution as much as you consider innovation. You might be surprised by what you find.

Note: This post was inspired by an interview with Jim Collins that can be found here