Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga. The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Books Everyone Should Read on Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Psychology and Behavioral Economics Books

Earlier this year, a prominent friend of mine was tasked with coming up with a list of behavioral economics book recommendations for the military leaders of a G7 country and I was on the limited email list asking for input.

Yikes.

While I read a lot and I’ve offered up books to sports teams and fortune 100 management teams, I’ve never contributed to something as broad as educating a nation’s military leaders. While I have a huge behavorial economics reading list, this wasn’t where I started.

Not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to choose books that these military leaders wouldn’t normally have come across in everyday life. Books they were unlikely to have read. Books that offered perspective.

Given that I couldn’t talk to them outright, I was really trying to answer the question ‘what would I like to communicate to military leaders through non-fiction books?’ There were no easy answers.

I needed to offer something timeless. Not so outside the box that they wouldn’t approach it, and not so hard to find that those purchasing the books would give up and move on to the next one on the list. And it can’t be so big they get intimidated by the commitment to read. On top of that, you need a book that starts strong because, in my experience of dealing with C-level executives, they stop paying attention after about 20 pages if it’s not relevant or challenging them in the right way.

In short there is no one-size-fits-all but to make the biggest impact you have to consider all of these factors.

While the justifications for why people chose the books below are confidential, I can tell you what books were on the final email that I saw. I left one book off the list, which I thought was a little too controversial to post.

These books have nothing to do with military per se, rather they deal with enduring concepts like ecology, intuition, game theory, strategy, biology, second order thinking, and behavioral psychology. In short these books would benefit most people who want to improve their ability to think, which is why I’m sharing them with you.

If you’re so inclined you can try to guess which ones I recommended in the comments. Read wisely.

In no order and with no attribution:

  1. Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  4. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
  9. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates
  10. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
  11. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
  12. Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  13. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H. Frank
  14. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
  15. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
  16. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  17. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate
  18. Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin
  19. Games of Strategy (Fourth Edition) by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath & David H. Reiley, Jr.
  20. The Theory of Political Coalitions by William H. Riker
  21. The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations (PDF) by John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.
  22. Fight the Power: Lanchester’s Laws of Combat in Human Evolution by Dominic D.P. Johnson & Niall J. MacKay.

The Difference Between Prodigals and Misers

Gustave Flaubert, the keen observer of human nature, looked at the hidden motives that lead people to act in accordance with their nature.

This passage from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert is worth reflecting on.

From the idiot who wouldn’t give a sou to redeem the human race, to the man who dives beneath the ice to rescue a stranger, do we not all seek, according to our various instincts, to satisfy our natures? Saint Vincent de Paul obeyed an appetite for charity, Caligula an appetite for cruelty. Everyone takes his enjoyment in his own way and for himself alone. Some direct all activity toward themselves, making themselves the cause, the center, the end of everything; others invite the whole world to the banquet of their souls. That is the difference between prodigals and misers: the first take their pleasure in giving, the second in keeping.

Commenting on this passage in Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide, Frederic Lenoir believes it “describes the core of egotism that underlies the pursuit of our aspirations and the realization of our actions.”

Ten Pairs of Opposite Traits That Creative People Exhibit

Traits of creativity

This beautiful excerpt from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention beautifully illustrates why it’s so hard to pin down creativity and creative people. His book passes the Lindy test — it was written many years ago, which is incredible in today’s world of pop psychology.

Are there no traits that distinguish creative people? If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes – instead of being an ‘individual’, each of them is a ‘multitude’. These qualities are present in all of us, but usually we are trained to develop only one pole of the dialectic. We might grow up cultivating the aggressive, competitive side of our nature, and disdain or repress the nurturant, cooperative side. A creative individual is more likely to be both aggressive and cooperative, either at the same time or at different times, depending on the situation. Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire.

  1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
  2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
  3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
  4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.
  5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
  6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.
  7. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping [of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’].
  8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.
  9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
  10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

Turning Towards Failure

Turning toward failure

Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. ‘Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life,’ writes the economist Paul Ormerod, at the start of his book Why Most Things Fail, but in this sense corporate life is merely a microcosm of the whole of life. Evolution itself is driven by failure; we think of it as a matter of survival and adaptation, but it makes equal sense to think of it as a matter of not surviving and not adapting. Or perhaps more sense: of all the species that have ever existed, after all, fewer than 1 per cent of them survive today. The others failed. On an individual level, too, no matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story – no offence intended – will be one of failure. You bodily organs will fail, and you’ll die. (Source: The Antidote.)

If failure is so ubiquitous you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either. In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman visits a ‘Museum of Failed Products’ and comes away with quite a few insights into our reluctance to accept, or even acknowledge, our less successful ventures.

By far the most striking thing about the museum of failed products, though, has to do with the fact that it exists as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection, a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid repeating errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives arriving every week … are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for-success – and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realize how much they need, and are willing to pay, to access (the museum of failed products). Most surprising of all is the fact that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum of failed products, over the years, have come there in order to examine – or, alternatively, have been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created and then abandoned. These firms were apparently so averse to thinking about the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.

I’ve spoken about Burkeman’s book before. There is a great chapter on the flaws related to goal setting and another on the Stoic technique of negative visualisation but they all come back to the concept of turning towards the possibility of failure.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goal setting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail.

So what does it all mean? If avoiding failure is as natural as failure itself, why should you embrace it (or even attempt an Antifragile way of life).

… it is also worth considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace it. The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful. The second is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

It’s almost jarring how simple and sensical that is, considering our aversion to failure.

Accepting failure is becoming more conversational, even if we’re a ways from embracing it. ‘Learning from our mistakes’ has become the new business mantra, replacing ‘being innovative.’ Although, I can see this quickly losing its shine when the mistake is idiotic.

Burkeman notes, it’s just too easy to imagine how the Museum of Failed Products gets populated (it is also worth noting that successful products have a lot to do with luck.)

Back in Ann Arbor, at the museum of failed products, it wasn’t hard to imagine how a similar aversion to confronting failure might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if the product’s likely failure was recognised … those responsible for marketing it might well have responded by ploughing more money into it. This is a common reaction when a product looks like it’s going to be a lemon, since with a big enough marketing spend, a marketing manager can at least guarantee a few sales, sparing the company total humiliation. By the time reality sets in, (Robert) McMath notes in What Were They Thinking?, it is quite possible that ‘the executives will have been promoted to another brand, or recruited by another company.’ Thanks to a collective unwillingness to face up to failure, more money will have been invested in the doomed product, and little energy will have been dedicated to examining what went wrong. Everyone involved will have conspired – perhaps without realising what they’re doing – never to think or speak of it again.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is an eye-opening look at how the pursuit of happiness is causing us to be more unhappy than ever.

Winifred Gallagher On Living a Focused Life

focused life

“The American dream is no longer just to get rich quick, but also to enjoy doing it, the new captains of industry offer various best-selling decalogue for achieving this goal. Their tips range from philosophical (learn from your failures) to the practical (never handle the same piece of paper twice). There’s one insight into both productivity and satisfaction that they inevitably share, however: the importance of laser like attention to your goal, be it building a better mousetrap or raising cattle. Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I’ve been exploring my ability to focus lately. It seems,  the more we practice and the more we try to become aware of when our focus slips away, the better and more productive we become. Being in this moment — not the past and not the future — is something I’ve learned through yoga and philosophy.

One thing that really helped was to identify and systematically remove distractions from my life. This made it easier to work on awareness, that is, staying in the moment, or as Gallagher, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts it:

Stay focused on the moment, (Csikszentmihalyi says), even when you’re engaged in routine tasks or social encounters. Practise directing and mastering your attention by any enjoyable means.

What does, ‘by any enjoyable means’ actually mean? The more I try to be aware of how my focus ebbs and flows, the more I realize it’s intrinsically tied into the activities I’m participating in.

According to the under-appreciated mid-twentieth-century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the way to ensure this calm but heightened attention to the matter at hand is to choose activities that push you so close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. In a variation on James’s recipe for interesting experience – the familiar leavened by the novel – Hobb’s ‘art of choosing difficulties’ requires selecting projects that are ‘just manageable.’ If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.

If you are an avid reader this should sound familiar. This is where learning happens. This is how we get better. Back in early May I wrote a post about how Kyle Bass feels freediving enables better decision making. A good chunk of that post echoes the statements that Gallagher makes above. If you are looking for challenging work or leisure that will help you maintain and even improve your ability to focus, I think Hobbs puts it best when he says the secret of fulfillment is, “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”

To put it simply, you will know when something is worth your time because it will be engaging to you and focusing at those moments should feel almost effortless. Inversely, if you constantly find your mind wandering and you’re struggling to maintain your focus, it’s probably time to reassess how you are using your time. This is not to say that self-discipline and perseverance aren’t important, but if you want to be as productive as possible, asking yourself why you are doing a specific activity is just as important as hammering through it.

Once again Gallagher puts it nicely:

There are different formulas for the fulfilling experience variously described as ‘interesting,’ ‘peak,’ or ‘optimal,’ but rapt focus is central to all of them. Whether the equation’s other integers are the novel balanced with the familiar or the challenging with the enjoyable, they add up to the same thing: engagement in activities that arrest your attention and satisfy your soul. If most of the time you’re not particularly concerned about whether what you’re doing is work or play, or even whether you’re happy or not, you know you’re living the focused life.