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April 2016

The Real Reality

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I’m fascinated by the way our brains actually operate, generating thoughts that generate our framework of what we call reality. I first became interested with the way we think when I studied Social Biology at college many years ago. This fascination never relented.

Interestingly, it takes around half a second for something to happen and our brain then experiencing it. In that time there’s a lot of processing that happens where the brain is essentially constructing a story. This story, not the thing that happened, becomes our reality. Different for everyone and, in fact, meaning that we’re all living in the past by about half a second.

Our brains have far more input on what we experience than our senses provide. For example, when we see something in front of us, there’s actually far less traffic coming inbound to our brain than there is coming outbound from our expectations. These expectations make up what is called our “internal model”.

A clear example of this is what happens when we look at something. Our eyes aren’t remotely stable, they move 4 times a second. What’s actually happening is what you can recreate by filming something with a really shaky hand! But we think we’re seeing things in a really stable way. This is because our internal model is imagining what we’re seeing. The visual cortex sends information to the thalamus and the thalamus compares those to what’s coming in through the eyes. The difference between the two is sent back and updates the internal model – our reality of expectations.

This impacts everything about us, from our identity to our aspirations in life. We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. It is tempting to assume that we get more wise, but what’s happening is that our internal model is getting more established. It isn’t necessarily better, it’s just been modified more. Our memories change as our internal model changes over time. Memory is therefore exceptionally unreliable as it is remarkably changeable. Our continual narrative gets updated and in turn, what we remember and what we think is re-shaped dynamically due to experiences which have their own significant challenges.

This is because our human biology severely limits what we experience. We only pick up one ten trillionth of the spectrum of frequencies that are running through us. In terms of sight, this is the visual spectrum of colour – again, something that doesn’t exist in the world, only in our heads. Other organisms have increased sensitivity on other parts of the spectrum, and this is scientifically down to how everything evolves.

In terms of time, our experience is not remotely linear and differs dependant on experience. Try and think of an experience, perhaps a bad one, that seemed to take ages. Or maybe a good one that went by too fast.

This time distortion actually happens in retrospect. It is a trick our brain plays. The memory of an experience expands the storyline and thus, the memory of something taking much longer, or shorter, appears real when we speak of it after the event. This could be ‘immediately’ (meaning at least half a second afterwards), or at a later date. Either way it’s a retrospective story that has been biologically invented.

Scientifically, we are controlled solely by our thoughts, for better or worse.

Reality is, in fact, whatever our brain tells us it is.

The Poison Of Can’t

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the poison of cant
The fact is, we can’t breathe underwater, unaided. We can’t fly either. In fact, there are a number of things we simply cannot do. However, I suspect that most of our usage of the word ‘can’t’ isn’t actually related to things we literally cannot do.

This presents the inaccurate use of the word can’t as a poison, a misconception based on incorrect reasoning.

The main problem is that when we say, “Oh I can’t do that”, the thing we are speaking about gets compartmentalised in our brain, adjacent to being able to breathe underwater, unaided. Happy bedfellows, languishing in the vortex of the un-doable. Our mental filing system then requires extraordinary effort to switch folders from ‘things I can’t do’ to ‘things I possibly can do’, which is why, after being told by someone that they can’t do something, the work is so tremendously difficult in changing their opinion.

The Poison Of Can’t is a nightmare to deal with.

Of all the poisons, this is one that has the most extreme effect on progress, development and innovation. Stuff that makes people and organisations grow. The C word (as I sometimes call it – just to be on the safe side) is built into our language so deeply that we say it without realising and then the poison gremlin takes over. It sits waiting for you to say things like “I can’t” or “We can’t”, then simply opens a mental drawer and plops the thing that you are talking about into it. Job done. It takes a nanosecond to do, and sometimes a lifetime to undo, if at all. If you’re lucky, the folder system you have in your head has weak locks, meaning it’s easier to re-file. But remember, weak locks are bad at keeping things in or out of anywhere, so you may be more susceptible to self-doubt.

When I was totally and utterly screwed over in business, losing pretty much everything in the process, I said, “I can’t fix this. I can’t make things better.” But, over an arduous five-year period, I realised that I could. And I did. So how can one move from a can’t to a can? Here’s a quick and dirty checklist to combat The Poison Of Can’t:

1. You need to define exactly what the thing is that you may or may not be able to do. Define it in exact terms. For me it was, on a human level, to be able to house, feed and support my family whilst not losing my mind in anxiety, stress and/or depression in the process. On a business level, it was to create an even better organisation than I had ever done before. On a moralistic level, it was to enable others to also reach their own potential.

2. Forget the tactics, forget the ways and means – first address a cold, hard question: “Is it humanly possible to do this thing?”. If the answer is no, your challenge changes from one of struggle to one of acceptance and adaptation. If the answer is yes, your journey begins, but it may be a 2000 or 20,000 day journey.

3. Now you’ve established what the thing is and whether it is possible, it’s now time to map out the separate steps you would need to take so you can start your journey. These steps should be achievable but you may find there are several sub-steps or dependencies. Then, you just have to get busy. If you have a barrier, refresh your answers to the points above. Remember, provided what you are trying to achieve is literally possible, it is down to you how successful you are.

For me, the above was my antidote for The Poison Of Can’t. Whatever level of this poison you experience, in others or yourself, try and avoid the C word wherever possible. It produces zero net benefit for anyone. Life is too short to eliminate the possible.

Taken as an excerpt from ’Business Poison’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/

Noise – the business and social disease

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noise disease

A thought on how we are affected by the volume of meaningless noise.

This is an unusual paragraph. I’m curious as to how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so ordinary and plain that you would think nothing was wrong with it. In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is highly unusual though. Study it, think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. If you work at it a bit you might just find out. Good luck!

Noise Destroys

The above puzzle may be familiar to those who often need to make decisions. There’s an initial acceptance that a puzzle has been set, time needs to be spent studying the data and, finally, a decision needs to be made. However, distractions (like reading this sentence) can reduce the focus and provide more information to process. This isn’t a trivial point as the fortune of companies rests solely on whether the decisions made turn out to be the right ones.

As part of my role in life of expanding the way people think, I assist others in understanding and capitalising on the effect that technology has on society and business. Evidently the need has never been greater. More than ever before, the volume of distraction is sky high, especially from connected technology. There have never been so many distractions competing for our attention, making decisions progressively harder. This is partly why it’s hard to spot there are no e’s in the initial paragraph.

In 2016, a single minute saw the emergence of 44.4 million WhatsApp messages sent, 422,340 new tweets, 205,600 million emails, 3.1 million searches, 400 hours of uploaded video on YouTube and 3.3 million Facebook posts, according to Smart Insights.

I’d wager that one of your several digital devices is competing with me right now for your attention. I’m envious; I don’t have neon flashing lights or an icon that displays numbers, rising on a minute-by-minute basis.

I call these distractions ‘noise’. The opposite of noise is ‘signal’, which is what really matters to us in a meaningful way. As we become more connected to each other, we find it harder to filter out the noise to find the signal.

I believe this is the primary reason for many of the negative aspects of modern life, including bad decision-making that often leads to business failure.

I’m convinced that as things progress there will be an increasing need to ‘De-Noise’. This is the activity of filtering meaning out of distraction and has been a major outcome of the sessions I run called ‘You to the power of TEN‘.

The Business Disease

The 24/7 Wall Street analysis of “The Worst Business Decisions Of All Time” makes compelling reading, yet there are many other theories as to how bad decisions happen. Today a popular view is that our brains are wired to be what Dan Ariely would call “Predictably Irrational.

A few decades ago I was lucky enough to be one of the first students of what is now popularised (by people like Ariely) as Behavioural Economics. Even then we were able to show that all decision-making was affected by a collection of heuristics and biases. Since then we’ve had books like “Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein and “Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner that show hundreds of case studies supporting this modern theory.

Despite being very fashionable, this isn’t the only perspective. One can find an alternative analysis within the 2009 book “Think Again – Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions by the Tuck School of Business professor, Sydney Finkelstein. He opens by stating, “Most leaders make bad decisions. Even great leaders can make bad decisions.” His analysis crawls through 83 flawed decisions and finds there are four common “red flag” conditions that can lead to errors in judgement.

1. Misleading experiences – Memories of what is thought to be a similar situation to the present one. For example, a new competitor has emerged in the marketplace and it reminds you of the time when you competed by lowering prices. Your subsequent success in your memory is firmly and forever linked to the price drop. Due to this, your strategic decisions are already biased toward lowering prices.

2. Misleading pre-judgements – Where previous decisions or judgements influence your thinking. For example, if you tend to start a new job by immediately replacing the sales and marketing team, you are biased towards repeating the same behaviour, regardless of whether it is the most suitable thing to do in the present situation. It’s just what you do.

3. Inappropriate self-interests – Subconscious personal agenda that conflicts with the job in hand or the outcome of the business. For example, if a hidden driver is personal fame and recognition at almost any expense, this will affect the decisions that are made even without being fully aware that this agenda is being applied to other contexts.

4. Inappropriate attachments – Loyalty and alliances that overrule rational or logical decisions. For example, giving a particular team member more responsibility even if they didn’t deserve it, or appointing a particular supplier even if they are not the best you could have chosen.

Finkelstein said: “Trust in our own judgement is so engrained it can make us ignore red flags that warn that a decision was flawed from the start. That’s how bad decisions get made.

Finkelstein’s theories are supported by looking at how I’ve observed decisions to be made – starting with information (i.e. inbound data from outside), into perception (i.e. how we view the information, sub-consciously guided by our heuristics and biases) and finally resulting with our decision (i.e. the chosen way forward).

In conclusion Finkelstein states that the antidote to this situation is in:

  1. Open-mindedness – Decision makers should be more open to new ideas and not afraid to look outside their comfort zones.
  2. Own up to mistakes – Being brave enough to admit when they’re wrong.
  3. Awareness and acceptance of change – In his own words: “Good leaders will get multiple sources of information and get honest feedback to make sure they are not missing or ignoring something that should be obvious.”

Personally I believe the 3rd point is the most problematic as if you initially perceive information ineffectively, you are ultimately doomed in decision-making.

The reality is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to perceive information effectively as there’s so much information to process. However, paradoxically, we need to access more of the information to ensure we are aware of what is happening around us…

…and the distraction paradox grows by the minute.

The Social Disease

From a human perspective it has become apparent that distractive noise is impacting our lives regardless of whether we’re at work or not. In any top ten list of unusual medical conditions, “Busy Lifestyle Syndrome is often mentioned.

Even a quick glance at the symptoms of Busy Lifestyle Syndrome will make you wonder whether it is really unusual or actually very common.

The primary outcome is losing track of the main thing we were thinking or doing. What was front-of-mind gets lost and we end up wrongly prioritising things that get us into all sorts of trouble.

The lead researcher on this, Dr. Alan Wade, says: “Forgetfulness is an ordinary part of getting older but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is now affecting people earlier in life as a result of busy work and home lives, and so-called ‘information overload’ from the various media channels we consume today.

This manifests as forgetting people’s names, forgetting a task you were meant to carry out, forgetting the values you stand for, forgetting the main reason for doing something, or even repeating an activity you’ve actually already completed.

Researchers have speculated that the condition could be cured by a low dose of the drug memantine, that is used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense if you consider that Alzheimer’s is essentially when the brain can’t convert short-term memories into long-term ones, meaning that memory itself dies away.

There’s a worrying correlation between the volume of noise from connected technology and the increasing volume of relationship breakdowns, and you may have read recently that teenagers are reported to have never been more unhappy, despite being more connected digitally than ever. I’m pretty certain this information is linked to the 53% rise in the diagnoses of ADHD cases. Perhaps there’s even a correlation between these stats and the fact that by the time a child leaves primary school they will have witnessed around 8000 murders on television.

Are we becoming desensitised as a result of the information overload?

Are we losing track as a species of who and what we are?

What does this mean to society and future generations?

Back In Business

In the context of the business world though we are still dealing with humans making decisions. The business context does not remove the social context. We are all still members of society. Walking into an office building doesn’t remove us from the increasing volume of noise in our lives. If anything it turns the dial up and makes the pressure of handling it even greater.

The behavioural economics that impact our decisions happen after the influx of noise. The pressure of the noise kicks in before we even get a chance to be biased.

Noise is the fuel of behavioural economics, accentuating our pre-set conditions, which we default to constantly. The more noise, the more our brain calls on our biases to ‘help’ us and, therefore, the more common it is to make flawed decisions. I believe this is the primary reason why the life expectancy of a business is now nearer 15 years, reduced from around 75 years a century ago.

I believe it is imperative for us to observe what is noise versus signal in our lives, and it is with this priority in mind that I will continue to assist wherever possible.

Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ by Jonathan MacDonald, available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/