Tag Archives: motivation

Be a humble impostor

There is such thing as the impostor syndrome, in high-powered institutions when students and trainees hear their inner voices tell them that they are a fraud, that the admissions office made a mistake.  And the worst of it – on the next test, the truth will be revealed, and everyone will find out.

You might not be an impostor, but you also might be working among very smart people.  If you are as lucky as I am, you would have the occasional opportunity to be the dumbest person around.

I say lucky because once you realize that you work with a the world’s smartest people and trust that you still belong, you will have the humility to become a little bit more like them and the confidence to believe you can.

Have we begun to think like our media?

Once upon a time, there was no social media.  There was no traditional media.  There wasn’t even writing (yes, we are going way back).

Information relied on stories, particularly stories with well-defined heroes and villains whose actions are followed through elaborate stories of their deeds, as events were far more memorable than simple lists of facts.  Anthropologists believed that information was passed down by song, a natural mnemonic that helped countless village elders remember these elaborate stories. Continue reading

The Quest for Working Happily Ever After

Heart rate mildly elevated, the sweat glands open, eyes fixated on the task at hand.   Time feels slow – or even frozen – but also at once flies by between each glance of the watch.  It’s an experience termed flow, which has been famously described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in a book by its namesake.

Flow has many components, but the most easily understood set include challenge and feedback – engaging in a task just sufficiently difficult to the level of ability and knowing immediately whether you did the right thing.

Like Fight Club, the experience was in everyone’s face; Csikszentmihalyi just made it visible.  The experience was on everyone’s tongue, and he just gave it a name.  In fact, it’s an experience so addictive (yes, flow experience and cocaine both use the dopamine pathway) that we sometimes spend the entire first half of our lives seeking that experience which we call a career. Continue reading

First, take your own pulse

The brain is home to 86 billion neurons and is the organ that makes humans unique.  The ability to think and process information is long thought to be the unique evolutionary advantages humans have over other animals.

So it must be strange when such problem as “overthinking” exists.  It’s like saying that the cheetah runs too fast or that the iPad Air is too thin.

The problem of overthinking comes with stress, anxiety, or otherwise feeling the need to be in control – choking during a basketball championship, getting stage fright, or blanking out in front of a gorgeous date.

The irony is that the desire to increase control forces us to think harder, which unfortunately loosens our grips on the situation.

The natural course of thinking is towards simplicity.  With more practice, fewer neurons actually fire when we perform a learned action, and we are less aware of it.

It is when we no longer need to think about doing something that more brain capacity is opened up for creativity, for innovation, for breaking the dogma. At least one Nobel-prize winning idea was conceived during a routine car drivesongwriters often come up with new ideas in the shower, and the best comebacks to an debate usually happens on your way home.

It’s as if we have an entire other brain dedicated to perform learned tasks, so that the thinking brain can take a break and daydream.  It turns out that we do, and the system has been described and vetted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and journalists, to name a few.

In the end, although much sarcasm brims The House of God, it has one sensible rule:

Rule #3: At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.

Different people are all different

Many teenagers find it enormously difficult to fit in with the crowd, particularly when they also feed the need to stand out.  The things that differentiate us from the next person – love of comic books, thick glasses, or the giant 1mm mole on the left pinky – are frightening to the developing adolescent.

Growing up is realizing that many parts of life require us to embrace our “abnormalities” – impressing a first date (“I never thought I’d find another person who also likes ____.”), acquiring a coveted career position (“My ______ makes me the ideal candidate for your company”), telling a dinner party story (“The most ridiculous thing happened the other day…”).

It seems that being different is extraordinarily difficult.  After all, only a small number of people can be at the tails of the bell curve, and it is easy to feel just so… average.

In medical blood labs, “normal” is a vague definition.  The normal value range actually encompasses only 95% of numbers you would find in healthy people because there is some overlap with lab values in sick patients.  This means that if we measure enough numbers (say, about 20), we would find some abnormal values in everyone, healthy or otherwise.

These laboratory values catch doctors’ eyes.  They warrant extra seconds of discussion on rounds, extra discussion at the bedside for symptoms, and/or repeat laboratory evaluations.  Most of the time further investigations affirms the simple fact that even the most normal person has some measurable outstanding lab values.

In medicine, we learn that the completely average person simply does not exist.

The difference between lab values and real life qualities is that running a panel of 45 blood labs is simple, but identifying our own eccentricities and innate talents takes introspection and feedback from honest friends.  Then, embrace it – life may not have dealt everyone an even hand, but it is fair in that everyone is playing from some kind of a crooked deck.

No more boxes

Albert Einstein once said that “insantiy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Innovation is, then, about thinking outside the box and finding that brand new idea, right?

Thinking outside the box has become a cliched way to describe innovation – an ironically inside-the-box way to motivate someone.  It is also incredibly difficult, probably because no one really know where the box is, how big it is, or what’s in the box.

Our world is populated with myriad of boxes.  In the new world where information flows at the speed of electrons in every industry, every iteration of an idea has at some point been conceived, if not already attempted.  Google was not the first search engine, Microsoft did not make the first GUI-based operating system, Facebook was not the first social website.  The world had thought the search engine, the GUI, and the social network were niche products for the technology business, the geeks, and the science fiction novels.

Only when looking back 10 years later can we gleam a hint of new boxes in the making during those times.

So maybe “thinking outside the box” had it backwards all along, that we should be thinking without worrying about the box – that when a set-back pushes us down, it is worth to just stand up, brush off the dust on our buttocks, and charge right back into the fray with renewed vigor.  Boxes are for those looking back, not for the people that must keep moving forward.

Cutting through the bell curve

When coming up with new innovation, designs, or just another idea, sooner or later there will come an idea that few people like.

The normal distribution curve is shaped with most of its value surrounding the mean. This is the curve many things in nature follow – most of us are somewhere around the average intelligence, for example. Most people are somewhere around the average height with few tall and short individuals. And most of us have somewhere around the average ability to imagine what the future looks like.

If we were to plot ideas along a bell curve, we would have the few rare brilliant concepts in the far right, where most people in the middle of the bell curve would fail to appreciate.

So sometimes truly great ideas are so out of the box it is a statistical certainty that they are lost to the appreciation of the masses.

The question is, what will you do when you find next idea surrounded by nay-sayers – will you listen to them, or will you push forward with head held high?


The self-narrating animal

“We’re sto­ry­telling crea­tures by na­ture, and we tell our­selves story after story until we come up with an ex­pla­na­tion that we like and that sounds rea­son­able enough to be­lieve. And when the story por­trays us in a more glow­ing and pos­i­tive light, so much the bet­ter.”

– Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

Seven seconds

… is the average attention span.

Marketing theory says seven seconds is how much time a digital marketeer has to prime a customer’s attention.  Entrepreneurship adage claims that the first seven seconds of an elevator pitch matters the most.  It’s how long we take to figure out what’s on TV before deciding to switching the channel, how much time elapses before your doctor interrupts your “what happened,” and how quickly we grow tired of the mundane for a better thrill.

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One reason is plenty, two is too many

If you have more than one reason to do something … just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder