How People Make Big Decisions

We all go through psychological steps when we make big decisions. Some people call this the “existential cycle,” which really has four stages: doing, contemplating, preparing, and experimenting.


Echoing Tolstoy on regret avoidance, Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently:

These four stages are much like exercises in risk management. No one wants to look back on his or her life at some point and say I wish I would have or If only I had.

While there are other ways, the existential cycle helps us make life changing decisions — like who to marry, where to work, and where to live.

The first stage, “doing,” is where you spend most of your life: It is your settled, equilibrium position. The doing may be all sorts of things— writing emails, riding horses, reading books, washing up, going to meetings, listening to lectures, cooking, dancing, running, sharing stories with friends, telling jokes, or making love. Of course, these are not done all at the same time (not unless you’re really talented). Whatever the activity may be, and however enjoyable or dull it is, you are doing it and it tends to keep you occupied.

Sometimes we get to “contemplating,” where we consider whether or how things would be different. What would life be like if you move to California? (Hint: It won’t make you happier.)

Then occasionally we move to “preparing.”

You search on the web for real estate agents in San Diego or Key West, find out what property prices are, check weather patterns, possibly even visit your preferred destination on your next vacation. You have moved beyond imagining how things could be different to investigating the practical options for how to make them different.

Finally you make the change.

You leave your job, buy a house, and move all your possessions. This stage is called “experimenting.” After you’ve settled in and started the beachside bar you’d dreamed about, this becomes your normal way of living, and you are once again in a state of doing.

The process isn’t overly complicated or hard. The challenge becomes moving through it at the right pace in a way that aligns with your principles.


The Doing Magnet

As you travel around your cycle, you will have conversations with yourself that stop you from moving on to the next stage and instead take you back to doing.

Sometimes these thoughts can be very sensible and prevent you from wasting time or following the wrong path. But sometimes, unfortunately, they prevent you from both spotting and taking opportunities that could dramatically improve your life. The trick lies in recognizing the internal conversations and being able to make an informed decision about whether to listen to them or to ignore them and move on.

When the Doing Magnet is Weak

Irrational exuberance are those people who are forever saying things like I wish I hadn’t rushed into that or If only I’d thought about it first. Rather than never crossing the Rubicon, they’re happy to head over far too easily— without ever considering the size of the army on the other side. In terms of the existential cycle, their doing magnet is relatively weak— the centrifugal momentum of the next new thing is stronger than the gravitational force of the status quo.

If you find that you can’t hold down a job, you can’t keep a relationship, you spend money on a whim, or you haven’t gotten around to making your home into a place you like living in, and you regret it, then you may be suffering from a form of irrational exuberance. The best advice in this situation is this: spend longer at the preparing stage before wading across your Rubicon.

For example, consider one of these choices:

  • Think through all the possible disadvantages of taking this course of action as well as the advantages— really make an effort to present the case for caution on this occasion.

  • Contrast the allure of the new situation with how your existing life might improve even if you don’t make this big change. People who are always moving on to new jobs often fail to consider how their current jobs could get better. A new job may be attractive, but it is wrong to assume the old one will stay the same. New possibilities could open up. What happens when your boss moves on?

  • Contemplate the bigger and better gains and pleasures you could have if you didn’t always go for instant gratification. Could the gratification get more gratifying?

  • Consider any decisions you made in the past that led to situations you later regretted. What can you learn from these that will help you make a wiser decision this time.

If you Want to Improve, you have to Cross the Rubicon

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

You have a choice in how you run your life. There is no “can’t,” only “will” and “won’t.” The trick is knowing why you are, or aren’t, moving around the existential cycle and, in particular, crossing your Rubicon. Like we’ve said, the right thing isn’t to always cross or always not cross. The right thing is to understand why you want to cross or don’t want to cross, and then make your decision.

Nevertheless, none of us want to live our lives in a constant state of doing. I might not be in good enough shape today to swim 2.4 miles, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future. Plus, our reasons for remaining in one state may not be strong. At some point, in certain aspects of our lives, if we want to progress, we must cross the Rubicon.

A decision to not cross the Rubicon based on the wrong reasons— when catastrophic fantasies rule our mind-sets— is what causes people to look back on their lives and think If only. … All of us who have looked back and been proud of what we have done have crossed the Rubicon at least once and maybe many times.

There’s a famous Latin maxim, carpe diem, which translated means “seize the day.” The question you have to ask yourself is, When it comes to crossing Rubicons, just how much of a Caesar am I prepared to be?

Accidents Will Happen

This is an excerpt from Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

The Mark 36 was a second-generation hydrogen bomb. It weighed about half as much as the early thermonuclears—but 10 times more than the new, sealed-pit bombs that would soon be mass-produced for SAC [the Strategic Air Command]. It was a transitional weapon, mixing old technologies with new, featuring thermal batteries, a removable core, and a contact fuze for use against underground targets. The nose of the bomb contained piezoelectric crystals, and when the nose hit the ground, the crystals deformed, sending a signal to the X-unit, firing the detonators, and digging a very deep hole. The bomb had a yield of about 10 megatons. It was one of America’s most powerful weapons.

A B-47 bomber was taxiing down the runway at a SAC base in Sidi Slimane, Morocco, on January 31, 1958. The plane was on ground alert, practicing runway maneuvers, cocked but forbidden to take off. It carried a single Mark 36 bomb. To make the drill feel as realistic as possible, a nuclear core had been placed in the bomb’s in-flight insertion mechanism. When the B-47 reached a speed of about 20 miles an hour, one of the rear tires blew out. A fire started in the wheel well and quickly spread to the fuselage. The crew escaped without injury, but the plane split in two, completely engulfed in flames. Firefighters sprayed the burning wreckage for 10 minutes—long past the time factor of the Mark 36—then withdrew. The flames reached the bomb, and the commanding general at Sidi Slimane ordered that the base be evacuated immediately. Cars full of airmen and their families sped into the Moroccan desert, fearing a nuclear disaster.

The fire lasted for two and a half hours. The high explosives in the Mark 36 burned but didn’t detonate. According to an accident report, the hydrogen bomb and parts of the B-47 bomber melted into “a slab of slag material weighing approximately 8,000 pounds, approximately 6 to 8 feet wide and 12 to 15 feet in length with a thickness of 10 to 12 inches.” A jackhammer was used to break the slag into smaller pieces. The “particularly ‘hot’ pieces” were sealed in cans, and the rest of the radioactive slag was buried next to the runway. Sidi Slimane lacked the proper equipment to measure levels of contamination, and a number of airmen got plutonium dust on their shoes, spreading it not just to their car but also to another air base.

The Air Force planned to issue a press release about the accident, stressing that the aircraft fire hadn’t led to “explosion of the weapon, radiation, or other unexpected results.” The State Department thought that was a bad idea; details about the accident hadn’t reached Europe or the United States. “The less said about the Moroccan incident the better,” one State Department official argued at a meeting on how much information to disclose. A public statement might be distorted by Soviet propaganda and create needless anxiety in Europe. The Department of Defense agreed to keep the accident secret, although the king of Morocco was informed. When an American diplomat based in Paris asked for information about what had happened at Sidi Slimane, the State Department told him that the base commander had decided to stage a “practice evacuation.”

Two weeks after an accident that could have detonated a hydrogen bomb in Morocco, the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission issued a joint statement on weapon safety. “In reply to inquiries about hazards which may be involved in the movement of nuclear weapons,” they said, “it can be stated with assurance that the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion . . . is so remote as to be negligible.”

Less than a month later, Walter Gregg and his son, Walter Junior, were in the toolshed outside their home in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, when a Mark 6 atomic bomb landed in the yard. Mrs. Gregg was inside the house, sewing, and her daughters, Helen and Frances, aged six and nine, were playing outdoors with a nine-year-old cousin. The Mark 6 had a variable yield of anywhere from 8 to 160 kilotons, depending on the type of nuclear core that was used. The bomb that landed in the yard didn’t contain a core. But the high explosives went off when the weapon hit the ground, digging a crater about 50 feet wide and 35 feet deep. The blast wave and flying debris knocked the doors off the Gregg house, blew out the windows, collapsed the roof, riddled the walls with holes, destroyed the new Chevrolet parked in the driveway, killed half a dozen chickens, and sent the family to the hospital with minor injuries.

The atom bomb had been dropped by a B-47 en route from Hunter Air Force Base near Savannah, Georgia, to Bruntingthorpe Air Base in Leicestershire, England. The locking pin had been removed from the bomb before takeoff, a standard operating procedure at SAC. Nuclear weapons were always unlocked from their bomb racks during takeoff and landing—in case the weapons had to be jettisoned during an emergency. But for the rest of the flight they were locked to the racks. Bombs were locked and unlocked remotely on the B-47, using a small lever in the cockpit. The lever was attached by a lanyard to the locking pin on the bomb. As the B-47 above South Carolina climbed to an altitude of about 15,000 feet, a light on the instrument panel said that the pin hadn’t reengaged. The lever didn’t seem to be working. The pilot told the navigator, Captain Bruce Kulka, to enter the bomb bay and insert the locking pin by hand.

Kulka couldn’t have been thrilled with the idea. The bomb bay wasn’t pressurized, the door leading to it was too small for him to enter wearing a parachute, and he didn’t know where the locking pin was located, let alone how to reinsert it. Kulka spent about 10 minutes in the bomb bay, looking for the pin, without success. It must be somewhere above the bomb, he thought. The Mark 6 was a large weapon, about 11 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, and as Kulka tried to peek above it, he inadvertently grabbed the manual bomb release for support. The Mark 6 suddenly dropped onto the bomb bay doors, and Kulka fell on top of it. A moment later, the 8,000-pound bomb broke through the doors. Kulka slid off it, got hold of something in the open bomb bay, and held on tight. Amid the gust and roar of the wind, about 3 miles above the small farms and cotton fields of Mars Bluff, he managed to pull himself back into the plane. Neither the pilot nor the copilot realized the bomb was gone until it hit the ground and exploded.

The accident at Mars Bluff was impossible to hide from the press. Although Walter Gregg and his family had no idea what destroyed their home, the pilot of the B-47, unable to communicate with Hunter Air Force Base, told controllers at a nearby civilian airport that the plane had just lost a “device.” News of the explosion quickly spread. The state police formed checkpoints to keep people away from the Gregg property, and an Air Force decontamination team arrived to search for remnants of the Mark 6. Unlike the accident at Sidi Slimane, this one couldn’t have produced a nuclear yield—and yet it gained worldwide attention and inspired a good deal of fear. “Are We Safe from Our Own Atomic Bombs?” the New York Times asked. “Is Carolina on Your Mind?” echoed London’s Daily Mail. The Soviet Union claimed that a nuclear detonation had been prevented by “sheer luck” and that South Carolina had been contaminated by radioactive fallout.

The Strategic Air Command tried to counter the Soviet propaganda with the truth: there’d never been a risk of nuclear detonation, nor of harmful radioactivity. But SAC also misled reporters. During a segment entitled “‘Dead’ A-Bomb Hits US Town,” Ed Herlihy, the narrator of a popular American newsreel, repeated the official line, telling nervous movie audiences that this was “the first accident of its kind in history.” In fact, a hydrogen bomb had been mistakenly released over Albuquerque the previous year. Knocked off balance by air turbulence while standing in the bomb bay of a B-36, the plane’s navigator had steadied himself by grabbing the nearest handle—the manual bomb release. The weapon broke through the bomb doors, and the navigator held onto the handle for dear life. The H-bomb landed in an unpopulated area, about one third of a mile from Sandia. The high explosives detonated but did not produce a nuclear yield. The weapon lacked a core.

The Air Force grounded all its bombers after the accident at Mars Bluff and announced a new policy: the locking pins wouldn’t be removed from nuclear weapons during peacetime flights. But the announcement failed to dampen a growing antinuclear movement in Great Britain. [SAC commander] General [Thomas S.] Power had inflamed public opinion by telling a British journalist, who’d asked whether American aircraft routinely flew with nuclear weapons above England, “Well, we did not build these bombers to carry crushed rose petals.” Members of the opposition Labour Party criticized Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for allowing such flights and demanded an end to them. Macmillan was in a difficult position. For security reasons, SAC wouldn’t allow him to reveal that the bombs lacked cores—and wouldn’t even let him know when American planes were carrying nuclear weapons in British airspace.

Within weeks of the accident at Mars Bluff, a newly formed organization, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), led thousands of people on a protest march from London’s Trafalgar Square to the British nuclear weapon factory at Aldermaston. The CND rejected the whole concept of nuclear deterrence and argued that nuclear weapons were “morally wrong.” In preparation for the four-day march, the artist Gerald Holtom designed a symbol for the antinuclear movement. “I drew myself,” Holtom recalled, “the representative of an individual in despair, with palms outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad.” He placed a circle around the self-portrait, an elongated stick figure, and created an image later known as the peace sign.

The Soviet Union worked hard to focus attention on the dangers of SAC’s airborne alert and the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. “Imagine that one of the airmen may, even without any evil intent but through nervous mental derangement or an incorrectly understood order, drop his deadly load on the territory of some country,” Khrushchev said during a speech. “Then according to the logic of war, an immediate counterblow will follow.” Arkady A. Sobolev, the Soviet representative to the United Nations, made a similar argument before the Security Council, warning that the “world has yet to see a foolproof system” and that “flights of American bombers bring a grave danger of atomic war.” The Soviet concerns may have been sincere. But they also promoted the idea that American bombers were the greatest threat to world peace—not the hundreds of Soviet medium-range missiles aimed at the capitals of Western Europe. Bertrand Russell, among others, had changed his view about whom to blame. Having once called for the United States to launch a preventive war on the Soviet Union with atomic bombs, Russell now argued that the American air bases in England should be shut down and that Great Britain should unilaterally get rid of its nuclear weapons.

The mental instability of SAC officers became a recurrent theme in Soviet propaganda. According to a Pentagon report obtained by an East German newspaper and discussed at length on Radio Moscow, 67.3 percent of the flight personnel in the United States Air Force were psychoneurotic. The report was a Communist forgery. But its bureaucratic tone, its account of widespread alcoholism, sexual perversion, opium addiction, and marijuana use at SAC, seemed convincing to many Europeans worried about American nuclear strategy. And the notion that a madman could deliberately start a world war became plausible, not long after the forgery appeared, when an American mechanic stole a B-45 bomber from Alconbury Air Force Base in England and took it for a joyride. The mechanic, who’d never received flight training, crashed the jet not long after takeoff and died.

A former Royal Air Force officer, Peter George, captured the new zeitgeist about nuclear weapons, the widespread fear of an accidental war, in a novel published amid the debate over SAC’s airborne alert. Pulp fiction like One of Our H Bombs Is Missing had already addressed some of these themes. But more than 250,000 copies of George’s novel Red Alert were sold in the United States, and it subsequently inspired a classic Hollywood film. Writing under the pseudonym “Peter Bryant,” George described how a deranged American general could single-handedly launch a nuclear attack. The madman’s views were similar to those expressed by Bertrand Russell a decade earlier: the United States must destroy the Soviet Union before it can destroy the West. “A few will suffer,” the general believes, “but millions will live.”

Once the scheme is uncovered, the general’s air base is assaulted by the US Army. The president of the United States tries without success to recall SAC’s bombers, and the Soviets question whether the impending attack really was a mistake. As an act of good faith, SAC discloses the flight paths of its B-52s so that they can be shot down. After negotiations between the leaders of the two nations and revelations about “the ultimate deterrent”— doomsday weapons capable of eliminating life on earth, to be triggered if the Soviets are facing defeat—all but one of the SAC bombers are shot down or recalled. And so a deal is struck: if the plane destroys a Soviet city, the president will select an American city for the Soviets to destroy in retaliation. The president chooses Atlantic City, New Jersey. The lone B-52 drops its hydrogen bomb over the Soviet Union—but the weapon misfires and misses its target. Although Atlantic City is saved and doomsday averted, Red Alert marked an important cultural shift. The Strategic Air Command would increasingly be portrayed as a refuge for lunatics and warmongers, not as the kind of place where you’d find Jimmy Stewart.

General Power was unfazed by protest marches in Great Britain, apocalyptic fears, criticism in the press, freak accidents, strong opposition at the AEC [the Atomic Energy Commission], Eisenhower’s reluctance, and even doubts about the idea expressed by [former SAC commander General Curtis] LeMay. Power wanted an airborne alert. The decision to authorize one would be made by President Eisenhower. The phrase “fail safe” had been removed from Air Force descriptions of the plan. The word “fail” had the wrong connotations, and the new term didn’t sound so negative: “positive control.” With strong backing from members of Congress, SAC proposed a test of the airborne alert. B-52s would take off from bases throughout America, carrying sealed-pit weapons. At a White House briefing in July 1958, Eisenhower was told that “the probability of any nuclear detonation during a crash is essentially zero.” The following month, he gave tentative approval for the test. But the new chairman of the AEC, John A. McCone, wanted to limit its scale. McCone thought that the bombers should be permitted to use only Loring Air Force Base in Maine—so that an accident or the jettison of a weapon would be likely to occur over the Atlantic Ocean, not the United States. During the first week of October, President Eisenhower authorized SAC to take off and land at Loring, with fully assembled hydrogen bombs. The flights secretly began, and SAC’s airborne alert was no longer a bluff.

This is an excerpt from Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

A Visual History of Human Knowledge

Infographics expert Manuel Lima, who brought us the amazing The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, has a TED talk on how knowledge grows, which ends up being a fascinating history of visualizations as well as an insightful look into our cultural urge to map what we know.

For a long period of time, we believed in a natural ranking order in the world around us, also known as the great chain of being, or “Scala naturae” in Latin, a top-down structure that normally starts with God at the very top, followed by angels, noblemen, common people, animals, and so on. This idea was actually based on Aristotle’s ontology, which classified all things known to man in a set of opposing categories, like the ones you see behind me. But over time, interestingly enough, this concept adopted the branching schema of a tree in what became known as the Porphyrian tree, also considered to be the oldest tree of knowledge.

The branching scheme of the tree was, in fact, such a powerful metaphor for conveying information that it became, over time, an important communication tool to map a variety of systems of knowledge. We can see trees being used to map morality, with the popular tree of virtues and tree of vices, … with these beautiful illustrations from medieval Europe. We can see trees being used to map consanguinity, the various blood ties between people. We can also see trees being used to map genealogy, perhaps the most famous archetype of the tree diagram. … We can see trees even mapping systems of law, the various decrees and rulings of kings and rulers. And finally, of course, also a very popular scientific metaphor, we can see trees being used to map all species known to man. And trees ultimately became such a powerful visual metaphor because in many ways, they really embody this human desire for order, for balance, for unity, for symmetry.

However, nowadays we are really facing new complex, intricate challenges that cannot be understood by simply employing a simple tree diagram. And a new metaphor is currently emerging, and it’s currently replacing the tree in visualizing various systems of knowledge. It’s really providing us with a new lens to understand the world around us. And this new metaphor is the metaphor of the network. And we can see this shift from trees into networks in many domains of knowledge.

We can see this shift in the way we try to understand the brain. While before, we used to think of the brain as a modular, centralized organ, where a given area was responsible for a set of actions and behaviors, the more we know about the brain, the more we think of it as a large music symphony, played by hundreds and thousands of instruments. This is a beautiful snapshot created by the Blue Brain Project, where you can see 10,000 neurons and 30 million connections. And this is only mapping 10 percent of a mammalian neocortex. We can also see this shift in the way we try to conceive of human knowledge.

These are some remarkable trees of knowledge, or trees of science, by Spanish scholar Ramon Llull. And Llull was actually the precursor, the very first one who created the metaphor of science as a tree, a metaphor we use every single day, when we say, “Biology is a branch of science,” when we say, “Genetics is a branch of science.” But perhaps the most beautiful of all trees of knowledge, at least for me, was created for the French encyclopedia by Diderot and d’Alembert in 1751. This was really the bastion of the French Enlightenment, and this gorgeous illustration was featured as a table of contents for the encyclopedia. And it actually maps out all domains of knowledge as separate branches of a tree.

But knowledge is much more intricate than this. These are two maps of Wikipedia showing the inter-linkage of articles — related to history on the left, and mathematics on the right. And I think by looking at these maps and other ones that have been created of Wikipedia — arguably one of the largest rhizomatic structures ever created by man — we can really understand how human knowledge is much more intricate and interdependent, just like a network.

Chris Dixon on Why Companies Fail, The State of Venture Capital, Artificial Intelligence


“We think of ourselves the way that maybe a law firm or a talent agency or someone would where our first job is to provide services for the entrepreneur. Our secondary job is to pick the right company.”

This is the fifth episode of The Knowledge Project, our podcast aimed at acquiring wisdom through interviews with fascinating people to gain insights into how they think, live, and connect ideas.


On this episode, I have Chris Dixon.

Chris is a partner at perhaps the most famous venture capital firm in the world, Andreessen Horowitz or commonly known as a16z.

We talk about the history of venture capital, why companies fail, the future of artificial intelligence and the Idea Maze. I hope you like this interview as much as I did.




Show Notes


A complete transcript is available for members.

Books mentioned:


Stronger: Developing Personal Resilience and Becoming Antifragile

How is it that some people come back from crushing defeats while others simply give in? Why does adversity make some people and teams stronger and render others ineffective?

These are the questions that George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed.

According to them, there are five factors of personal resilience.

1. Active Optimism. Optimism is more than a belief, it’s a mandate for change. It’s the inclination to move forward when others are retreating. This mandate can be so strong that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You must acquire the courage to make difficult decisions.

3. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Persistence can be omnipotent. As comedian Jonathan Winters once quipped, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, while at the same time knowing when to quit.

5. Interpersonal Support. Who has your back?

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background.

Before you can develop resilience, however, you need to know yourself.

Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist, wrote, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”

Increasing Decisiveness and Taking Personal Responsibility

The authors talk about how to overcome indecision and increase personal responsibility.

1. Problem: Paralyzing fear of failure

Solution: Never forget this simple guiding principle: Anything worth having is worth failing for. And don’t forget the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

As I wrote in my post on mistakes: “Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond.”

2. Problem: Fear of ridicule for being different. It’s no fun to be laughed at.

Solution: Most people ridicule what they do not understand. In his 2008 bestselling book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell makes a cogent argument that extraordinary success is often predicated upon being different. Gladwell describes people who were not only different but possessed what many thought of as liabilities.

3. Problem: Procrastination. Waiting too long to act. The desire to wait until the moment of absolute certainty before making a decision can be compelling.

Solution: What we too often fail to understand is that almost all opportunities come with time limits. As we wait for that moment of absolute certainty, we also see the window of opportunity become smaller, until the opportunity is lost. In the words of Mark Twain, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

If you are procrastinating because a task seems overwhelming, simply use the “Swiss cheese” technique. This is a method recommended by time management expert Alan Lakein in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Rather than avoiding something because it seems overwhelming, break it into smaller, more manageable, component tasks and do the more manageable tasks at a time. (Also see my webinar on how to be way more productive.)

I’ll skip a few and hit on information overload.

6. Problem: Being overwhelmed by too much information, too wide a scope, or too little time.

Remember the 80/20 Rule: 80 percent of your problem comes from 20 percent of the potential sources. It’s a derivation of the skewed (non-Bell-shaped) distribution of Power Law statistics. For example, 80 percent of all healthcare costs come in the last 20 percent of your life. Eighty percent, or more, of polluting vehicle emissions come from only 20 percent of all vehicles. Eighty percent of casualties in a terrorist attack will be psychological as opposed to physical. You get the point. So rather than view problems as being universal and paralyzing, search for the applicability of the 80/20 Rule. Focus on the minority of potential sources that may account for the majority of the problem. Then, if appropriate, apply your resources to the 20 percent. Malcolm Gladwell concludes that if you use this approach, you may actually be able to solve a problem rather than simply palliatively manage it.

Try practicing Occam’s razor (a.k.a. the law of simplicity): When faced with competing alternative courses of action or competing conclusions, choose the one that rests upon the fewest assumptions.

Also consider whether the problem is a mystery or a puzzle.

In the end the authors sum up the lessons they’ve learned on human resilience.

The seven characteristics of highly resilient people are:

1. Optimism
2. Decisive action
3. Honesty
4. Tenacity
5. Interpersonal connectedness
6. Self-control
7. Calm, innovative, nondogmatic thinking.

The authors spend a great deal of time on the first 5 factors which they see as sequential.

Coming back full circle to the five factors they now re-write them:

1. Active Optimism. Active optimism is more than a hope or a belief. It’s a mandate to bounce back, to be successful, to avoid being a victim. Active optimism is the belief that you can be an agent of change. Optimism breeds self-confidence that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it is honed with a dose of realism. Optimistic people are often viewed as more attractive to others than are pessimists. But the optimistic mandate to be resilient alone is not enough. It must lead to …

2. Decisive Action. You must act in order to rebound. You must learn to leave behind the comfort of the status quo and make difficult decisions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if all you do is sit on the right track and wait for something to happen, it will. You will get run over. Or, perhaps at least an opportunity will be lost. Being decisive is hard. That’s why it’s rare. But by being decisive you distinguish yourself from others, usually in a positive way. As such you may then become the beneficiary of the halo effect, a lasting positive regard in the eyes of others. Making hard decisions to act is made easier when based upon a …

3. Moral Compass. There are four points to our moral compass: honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethics. Use them to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances. Simply do what is right and just. Your actions always have consequences. Consider the consequences of your actions not just for you but for others as well. Once your decisions have been made, employ …

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. In 1989 Woody Allen was credited with proffering the notion that about 80 per cent of success is showing up. We can modify that notion somewhat and say success often comes to those who not only show up but tenaciously show up. Show up and carry with you a relentless defiance of failure (but keep in mind that success may have to be redefined occasionally). Marine General Oliver Smith is quoted in Time magazine about his change of direction during the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” To find hidden opportunities and aid in physical and psychological energy, rely upon . . .

5. Interpersonal Support. Remember, no person is, nor ever should be, an island. Great strength is derived from the support of others. Going through life alone means no one has your back. Surround yourself with those of a compassionate heart and supportive presence. Knowing when to rely upon others is a sign of strength and wisdom. Supportive relationships are most commonly earned, however. Give to others. Be supportive without any expectation of a return. It will be the best external investment you can ever make.

Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed goes on to explore these five aspects in greater detail.

Map and Territory

“(History) offers a ridiculous spectacle of a fragment expounding the whole.”
— Will Durant in Our Oriental Heritage


In 1931, in New Orleans, Louisiana, mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper on mathematical semantics. To the non-technical reader, most of the paper reads like an abstruse argument on the relationship of mathematics to human language, and of both to physical reality. Important stuff certainly, but not necessarily immediately useful for the layperson.

However, in his string of arguments on the structure of language, Korzybski introduced and popularized the idea that the map is not the territory. In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences.

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