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The Compulsion to Prognosticate

We live in an uncertain world. We do not know what will happen next. We cannot control the actions of others. We do not know how long we will be around on this planet. We don’t know how long this planet will orbit around the sun.

All of this has always been true.

All of this seems even more true as we live in the current moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a broad array of collective behaviors among each of us. While the situation itself is a public health emergency that is experienced in biological particles that elicit physiological responses and even death, for most of us most of the time, the pandemic is most consciously experienced in a psychological space. We are faced with maintaining a sense of well-being and continuity in the midst of a world that looks and feels very different than the one we thought we were living in a few months ago.

Of all the varied coping mechanisms that I have observed being deployed during this crisis, the most poignant is our utter compulsion to prognosticate. From casual conversation to every pundit on every news network to the President of the United States, we seem obsessed with prognosticating about when we’ll get “back to normal”. Of course, the pandemic has thus far proved the most optimistic of these predictions to be wildly inaccurate, and –hopefully — will prove the direst prognosticators the same. The issue, however, is not the accuracy of our predictions. It is our seeming inability to not make them. We seemingly can’t help weighing in one when we think schools will re-open or travel will resume, and we wildly criticize those whose projections differ from our own.

Why are we so seemingly obsessed with predicting the future? We want to feel that we are in control. It is deeply unsettling to feel out of control and uncertain about the future. We like to live with the illusion that the world is predictable. We rely on patterns and rituals — morning coffee, Easter egg hunts, happy hours, sports playoffs — as markers in time that anchor our place in the world. Without these predictable patterns, we can feel a bit lost.

We also like to measure the limits of our endurance. We seem to have the capacity to push through a challenging experience when we see its endpoint. I can run a hard interval or burn the midnight oil for a project if I can envision — at the end of that 800 meters or 24-hour push — there will be a breath, a respite, or a reward. It is when there is no light at the end of the tunnel that we become susceptible to depression and learned helplessness.

So, it’s clear “why” we prognosticate, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy. In fact, I believe that this compulsion has negative consequences in an uncertain world. It keeps us from focusing on the moment, from being present, and it leads to greater feelings of insecurity when — inevitably — our predictions fail.

As we have sheltered in place, we have experiened that fear and doubt about the world. We have missed our friends and canceled our travel. But, we have also experienced good things. We’ve maybe relaxed a bit more. We have burned fewer fossil fuels. We have connected with our families at a deeper level.

If we spend the moment obsessed on when this all will end — on some normal (that by the way is a myth concocted by our brains to keep us psychologically safe from reality)– we risk missing out on the magic that is right now. If we obsessively push for a return to the past, to re-open our economy for example — we embrace an illusion of certainty that has never been true of the future. Further, we risk, by our actions, creating a far different future than the one we are obsessed with returning to. More specifically, if I’m obsessed with eating out at a restaurant again because that feels normal and I rush out to do so, my actions may further spread the virus leading to even greater disruption down the road.

So, next time you find yourself compelled to prognosticate — and you will either by your own volition or the inquiries of your prediction-addicted friends and families — make note of it, take a breath, and focus on the day that is before you right here, right now. That is what is “normal”. That is what is certain. That is what we will always have — not matter what the future looks like.

Consider the Collective

The world is in a furor over the COVID-19. The supermarket shelves are emptying. The pundits and presidents are exhorting. The numbers are growing.

At some point in the future, we can debate — with the benefit of hind sight — the effectiveness of all this chatter. We can share our concerns or praise for the institutions responsible for protecting people during crises like these. We can philosophize on how an increasingly interconnected world makes us all simultaneously more alive and more vulnerable.

Right now, however, is time for a conversation on how we approach this crisis — from an individualized or collective mindset. I would argue that we would do well by to embrace a collective, public health approach to our thinking around this issue. So much of the chatter in the world is about “How do I avoid getting/treat coronavirus?” That is fundamentally the wrong question.

In this world of viral infection — and indeed of viral ideas — it is the collective that matters. Our behaviors — washing our hands, staying away from public places, wearing a mask, etc. — should be performed for the good of the collective, not solely for our good. As a healthy middle-aged man, my risk of corona virus death is pretty low, but my capability to spread a virus to a neighbor, coworker, or stranger with more health vulnerabilities is great.

This is the same challenge that I present when people argue against the flu shot — and complain “I got the flu shot one year, and then got the flu.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason for getting a flu shot. Yes, we would all personally like to avoid the symptoms that accompany a viral infection, but the reason the shot is widely recommended is to prevent the spread of the virus across the population. It is a collective goal.

Whether we like it or not, we are part of an interconnected web that is more diverse and multi-faceted than ever. As citizens of that global order, we are required — not only to buy up all the hand sanitizer that Wal-Mart can hold to protect my family — but to consider the collective. This is a great opportunity to challenge our thinking and critically assess the ways we see this crisis portrayed in the media and in our personal conversations. If we can embrace this collective mindset more fully, it has incredible ramifications — not only for our ability to fight the threat of this (and the next) pandemic, but for the way we build a world more broadly that reflects justice, opportunity, and well-being.

Remnants

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food

until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;

for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:19

As I opened the email attachment, I didn’t anticipate it being dramatically different from the hundreds of other attachments I had opened in the previous month. Yet, as the PDF loaded, I found something strangely familiar staring back at me through the screen. It was like looking into to the face of a long lost cousin. What I had just received in my inbox was a later version of some work that I had pioneered a number of years ago.

My first reaction was one of joy. A piece of work that I had labored on for more than a year was moving forward into a more robust state. This work has the potential to provide real help to real people, addressing social determinants of health and building bridges across the healthcare and social services sectors. I was thrilled to see that this effort, from which I had become disconnected, still had life.

Then another emotion fired across my synapses. I realized that neither the document, nor the person who sent it to me or those who were executing the plan had any idea that I had played a fundamental role in making that possible. The history of how this idea began and the hard, pioneering work to advance an innovative concept had been lost. I would be lying if I were to say that didn’t sting a little.

I was left with these two fundamental emotions: joy about the product of my work and its ability to achieve the mission for which it was intended and sadness that my role in it had been erased from all evident memory.

When we say that we want to leave a legacy, do we mean that we want the sweat and toil that we exert to produce value in the world? Or do we mean that we want a monument — or at least a nice plaque — that recognizes us? Certainly these two ends are correlated and not mutually exclusive, but if we had to choose between them, which would we choose? Would you rather make a big difference and get no credit? Or get numerous accolades for things that don’t really matter? One preference is grounded in purpose, the other in ego.

In his book, ‘Ego is the Enemy’, Ryan Holiday described the challenge of ego in this way:

“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.”

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

I was writing a historical piece recently about a person who was well known “during his time”. All but a few names are obscured from history, and those that remain are always caricatures of reality transformed into legend. We are all in the midst of this dust cycle after all. Our best hope, therefore, is to leave behind remnants of progress — the impact made from a successful venture, the community built through loving relationships, the choices made to advance powerful ideas.

So, I’m left with two revelations. First, I need to work today with the expectation that I will never get credit for it. Someday, I will fade, and perhaps even these words will end up somewhere else — in their current form or remixed into inspiring new forms from others — without my name in the byline. If I am writing this to benefit others, then I have to be okay with that. If we can approach our writing, work, and relationships in this way, it may change the decisions we make and the way we choose to pursue our goals.

The second revelation is one of hope. When you put your heart into something — when you bring your sweat and energy into the world — and when that is based on the good intentions of building a better world — it has an impact. Unfortunately, most of this impact you will never get to see. Your efforts will a amalgamate with those that have come before, during and after. You’ll move on — from that job, community, or this earth — before the progress is realized.

Occasionally, you’ll strike a great victory, and they’ll throw you a parade. We must treat these moments as precious, but not be seduced by them. Most often, you’ll just get a glimpse of the remnants of your work — recognizable, but different — and you can secretly smile at the subtle evidence that you did leave a legacy — even if no one else knows it.

Hatchet Job

Over the course of the my life, I have developed many skills. Some of these came through formal instruction. For example, I took piano lessons for close to fifteen years of my life. Other skills came through more informal practice. No one has ever taught me how to enjoy a cup of coffee, but through admirable persistence, I am proud to report that I have mastered this skill. Some of the skills I possess came to me fairly easily, while others sucked tremendous effort out of me before leaving behind the nugget of learning. With this in mind, I want to make the following confession.

I’m not good at throwing hatchets.

A few months ago I took my first journey into the new entertainment craze. For my birthday, I gathered a group of friends, donned my best plaid shirt, and embarked on a facility. As a novice, I entered this enterprise believing that the center premise of the sport was:

Throw Hatchet, Hit Target.

With this assumption, I was pretty confident. I am a pretty decent performer at other games involving the throwing of objects (e.g. cornhole), so while I wasn’t cocky, I felt that I could hold my own.

As it turns out, I was operating on an inaccurate description of the activity. In reality, hatchet throwing is best operationalized as:

Throw Hatchet, Stick Hatchet in Target

As it turns out, this subtle change is difference between success and abject failure. It is the “sticking” point (pun absolutely intended). The likelihood of hitting the target and sticking the hatchet in the target are only weekly correlated.

On that first night, I tried every motion, speed, sound effect that I could, hitting all the meaty parts of the target, but watching my hatchet clunk to the ground at least 8 times out of 10.

This is an important lesson for us as we approach new challenges. While we can, and should, draw on similar past experiences for the skills and confidence they lend us, if our assumption of the challenge — biased by these previous experiences — is inaccurate, we may find ourselves retrieving the results of our efforts from the floor, instead extricating them from the wall.

Last week, I was invited to another opportunity to build this skill as friends gathered to celebrate a birthday. Armed with my corrected assumption, I studied (via Google and YouTube) the various techniques one could use to ensure “stick-age”. I watched the pro world championships. I practiced darts the day off to hone my aiming prowess. I was confident that this time would be better. But…

..I’m still not good at throwing hatchets.

Despite my revised worldview, increased knowledge, and enhanced preparation, I was still bound to futility in my hatchet attempts. As I retrieved failure after failure from the floor, my frustration grew along with my resignation of the above face.

Now, I am faced with a choice. Am I okay being bad at hatchet throwing? Do I value improving this skill? Is there value to me that could be gained by improving this skill? Do I have the means to improve this skill? Would improving this skill affect other areas of my life? Despite how emasculating it can feel, I don’t have to be good at everything, but despite how difficult it may be, some things are worth making the investment to learn.

It is in this space that we all live when faced with a challenge that outpaces our skills. If we decide that we must pursue the challenge, we have to put in place a deliberate plan for improvement (My son supports this idea in relation to hatchet throwing, begging for us to build a target in our backyard). Or, we may decide that the investment required to build that skill does not equate with the benefits. In this situation, I believe I can make peace with my futility — and be prepared for frustration that next time I get invited to a hatchet party.

It’s okay to be happy

We live in a world that prizes accomplishment. We demand that our lives matter, that we make a difference, that we add value to the world. Even in our leisure, we are pushed intrinsically and extrinsically to plan the best vacation and consume most delicious meal — to run or ski or hike farther and faster than last time.

In this push for bigger and better, there are so many good things that emerge. We learn and grow. We create things that make the world better. We experience life in its fullest and test our perceived limits.

Yet sometimes — at least for me — this constant push to be more and do more can distract from a core truth.

It’s okay to be happy.

While I want to be better tomorrow than I am today, it is okay to appreciate who I am right now. While there is so much change that our world still desperately needs, there are so many examples of progress that we could raise a glass to right now.

While we must keep pushing every day, we also must give ourselves permission to be happy — right where we are, right now.

Sustained Engagement

I had the privilege of spending time recently with some amazing activists– people who have been engaged in “the fight” — for affordable housing, for environmental protections, for educational reform — for years and for years. I marveled at their stories of the long journey, sometimes with little or no visible progress, from where they began to where they desire to go.

I find myself inspired by that level of engagement in others and want to learn from them. But, what it is that we mean by “engagement” after all? Let’s unpack this by looking at the first definition from the Oxford dictionary:

Engage = to “occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention)”

If we are awake to the world around us, we have a choice to make. With what do we choose to engage? Most of us certainly have no shortage of options. As I write this, I could be attracted to any one of dozens of applications on any of the three electronic devices within my physical reach. My attention could be occupied by the music playing over the speakers or the other people moving in and out of this shared space. My interest could latch onto any of the three dozen tasks in my ‘Next Actions’ folder.

With the exception of mindfulness meditation and sleep, disengagement is really not an option. With a number of engagement options approaching infinity, the nature of our engagement can be fragmented, causing us to chase our tails and burrow down rabbit holes that may keep us from our ultimate goal. Therefore, the more fundamental question is:

What engagements are you sustaining today?

Beyond the momentary fix of your shrinking attention span, sustained engagement is what makes the difference. It is essential in relationships of all kinds. It is the type of long-range thinking that helps one save for retirement despite the bulls and bears of the market. Sustained engagement is a fundamental prerequisite of producing any value from a term paper to scientific discovery.

This is exactly what we can learn from my activist friends. Sustained engagement is vital in our community work as citizens, activists, dreamers, and leaders. Change requires that we get occupied by something and stick with it beyond the ever-shortening news cycle. So, I will ask that question in one final way:

What are you engaged in today that you will still be engaged in a decade from now?

There is no such thing as the “Black Vote”.

Like many of us these days, I find myself frequently digesting media in relation to the current presidential campaign. I am intensely interested in how this period of the American experiment plays out and take seriously my role as a citizen in that process. As I consume the media related to the election lately, I keep hearing a simple phrase repeated:

(Candidate X) doesn’t has (or doesn’t have) the “Black” vote.

This phrase troubles me.

At best, this is an example of loose usage of language to describe data in an overly-simplistic and reductionistic manner. This happens all the time in the popular media as complex nuances of error margins and polling methodology are boiled down into a sound byte, absent the nuance, study limitations, and concern over the data literacy of the audience.

Indeed, the headline is not inaccurate. Analysis of polling data certainly shows trends in the cross-tabulations of the number of individuals who select “black” to indicate their “race” and their support for a particular candidate. However, while factually accurate, these reports often fail to note that the only way in which these cross-tabulations are formed is by forcing individuals to select from a half-dozen socially-constructed categories to describe their race that fail to accurately describe a complicated construct.

I do, of course, support one of the core intentions behind this type of reporting. Clearly, it is vital both morally and practically that all voices be heard in an election, especially when those voices are from groups that have been historically marginalized- and notably when the percentage of those who might self-identify in a category have been low in previous contests. For example, the population identifying as “black” in Iowa is approximately 3% and New Hampshire is 1%. So, pointing out that demographic changes in the electorate are coming in an upcoming state (e.g. 27% of the South Carolina population identifies as black) is highly appropriate.

This troubles me, however, because our inexact use of language preys on poor data literacy to reinforce the notion that there is homogeneity in the ideas and attitudes of a socially-constructed racial group. It feeds our lazy minds and doubles down on our internal heuristics. I believe we can do better in three specific ways.

  • Identify the forced choice that separates the racial groups in a poll. These are not finite, clear-cut delineators between people. They are a socially-constructed and (often) dominant culture accepted set of options that at best oversimplify the complex and evolving concept of self-identification. Reporters should stop saying “Blacks say..” or, “Whites say..” and temper their language to describe those who “identify as” as a particular group. This subtle nuance may help draw attention to the inherent difficulty with these categorical descriptions and soften the reinforcement of harmful, historical characterizations that can be exacerbated by this type of reporting.
  • Describe the variance that exists within groups, not just between them. An over-simplified headline stating that “X wins the Black vote” could mean the candidate received 51% of that vote or 100%. Descriptions should be more accurate and highlight the full range of responses from that group. This reinforces the notion that, while we use categories to simplify data analysis, we recognize (and value) homogeneity and diversity that lives within all groups.
  • Incorporate mixed methodology to capture a deep understanding of what these votes mean. Given the complexity of racial selection, the history of this country, and the massive amount of rationale that one might base their selection upon, we need more qualitative data along with the quantitative to illustrate the complexity and diversity of these decisions. These data should embody the same amount of rigor applied to the collection of the qualitative polls, not just pull random quotes that support a narrative.

It is a big year for the United States and a great time to get engaged in political discourse. As we do, we should be rational, engaged consumers of the information sent our way and demand that it is presented in a way that moves us forward as a nation.

The Ideal

It was less than ideal. The cold rain came down as I attempted to run through the puddled streets. As the miles ticked by, the heat receded from my fingertips and my lips felt the icy sting from the combination of wet and cold. My fickle brain kept asking: ‘Why are you doing this?’ I saw no one else.

When the weather is 70 and sunny — when the skies are clear — these streets are full of every manner of people. Runners, walkers, strollers and bikes clog the sidewalks and trails. When the “ideal” happens, the masses emerge, while these less than ideal days yield only a few brave souls. 

I wonder how many people spend their lives waiting for the conditions to be perfect before they act. They wait for the clouds to break. They wait till they get more money. They wait till they get married. They wait till they get promoted. They spend most of our lives waiting for some ideal day to come.  
For those of us who find ourselves stuck waiting for some ideal future, here are three realities that we must realize:

1. The ideal is a rare occurrence. Of all the given days of the year, most of them are too cold, too hot, too wet, too cloudy, too windy, too humid, or too something. Very few days are just right in the course of a year or a lifetime. If we were to add up those few ideal days and contrast them with the remainder of those we are given, I believe we would discover that most of our lives — most of our runs, most of our days at work — are indeed less than ideal.

2. As with all things, this too is a matter of perception. The same person who complains that the 60 degree day is “too chilly” in the fall will be complaining that it is “too warm” in the spring. One person’s dead end job is another’s dream job. We are indeed fickle shoppers of the ideal, and the perception from one person to the next is weakly correlated. Therefore, we can conclude that in reality the ideal is an illusion of our perceptive systems, our context, our experience and our mindset. Not to suggest that things like frost bite are not real, but our concept of what is ideal is truly more perception than reality.

3. If we spend all our time waiting for the appearance of the ‘white whale’ of an idyllic situation, we will most likely not be ready for it. If I spend my winter binging Netflix and saying “it’s too cold”, when that gorgeous spring day emerges, I will be fat, out of shape, and therefore, unable to enjoy the opportunity of running without the confines of a hat and gloves. If I wait to be promoted to a desired role, I may find that I failed to learn some of the key lessons that would make me successful in that role. By setting my sights so fully on that future state, I may have failed to learn the lessons of the current one. It is on the less than ideal days — indeed the majority of them — that the building blocks of success are laid.

Today is less than ideal. Get over it. That’s just the way it is.

How will you spend it?

The Physics of Work

“I can’t wait to retire,” he said, “I’m tired of working.”

“I need to establish better work-life balance,” she said.

What is this thing we call “work”, and why does it seem so onerous? It seems that in a world of increased well-being and leisure, work has been defined a a necessary evil, something done primarily for extrinsic rewards for a period of time until we can justify its elimination. Work is described as something distinct from (and therefore balanced against) the fundamental concept of “life”.

Before we condemn work as something that we hope humanity evolves from in some future state, let’s take a look at the term from a scientific perspective.

Enter Physics

I am not a physicist, but I understand that work is the product of two factors: force and displacement

Force is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, when many people talk about “work”, I believe they are really talking about force. We know that we have the capacity to exert force on the world, and we are always embodied with a sense that the amount of force we can create is finite and extinguishable. We get tired. We get distracted. We know that we can only work so hard for so long before our ability to generate force diminishes. Force is purposeful  and effortful. It requires intention. Though we don’t like to think about it, eventually we die and cannot produce any more force.

Displacement is more foreign to colloquial ways of thinking. In simple, scientific terms, displacement is movement in the direction of the force. It is the movement of a soccer ball away from the kick. It is the air rushing from my mouth when I exhale. Displacement is change. It is impact. It is the result or outcome of our efforts — and it happens outside of us, in the world we inhabit.

Herein we see a key point: Work is not just effort, but the marriage of effort and impact — force and displacemnet. Work is not just the exertion of energy, the exhaustion of our bodies — it is progress. We don’t just work to do stuff. We work to accomplish something. This may be why we hate so deeply tasks that we perceive as meaningless. We are built for purpose and have an innate desire to see our finite ability to produce force create displacement in the world around us.  

Sometimes displacement is difficult to ascertain in the short term, but there are no immovable objects, there is just force over time. As a product, the amount of force that is brought to a problem interacts with the subsequent displacement to produce the total work. This is another argument for the benefits of human collaboration. To create change on wicked problems, we almost always need more force than one individual can generate. 

Drawing from this physics perspective, work does not mean “what I do between 9 and 5”. Work is any and all actions that I bring to the world. It is the investment I make in my relationships, It is the effort I put into maintaining a healthy body. It is time spend volunteering or learning or being a citizen. All of these are work. All require our exertion of force. All create displacement in the environment. 

Work is not distinct from life. In fact, work is an essential component of life. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that you skip your vacation, abandon your retirement plans, or abandon rest and leisure. Rather, I think we should re-think the way we talk about work– expanding our focus beyond the force to the displacement — and beyond these false boundaries. I don’t ever “go” to work. I do work all day, every day, until I am dead.

What force as you using to create displacement in your world today?

Lines

When you find yourself near the end of a long line, what do you think?

Do you bemoan your rotten luck and bad timing?

Do you honk your horn, work up a sweat, and curse the gods?

Do you feel lucky that you’ve chosen a popular path, building anticipation of what joy awaits at the destination?

Do you feel like a conformist drawn into the vortex of conformity with the masses?

Do you consider the event a shared experience with other human beings or take every effort to nudge yourself forward and improve your situation not thinking about your fellow line-mates?

The way in which we approach a wait reveals a great deal about our mindset. The story we tell ourselves drives how we feel about the situation– is it an undeserved violation of your human right to proceed unmolested or an opportunity for memorable (or perhaps even cherished) experience?. This mindset determines what we receive — or don’t – from the experience.

The same may be said about anytime we face any obstacle that stands between where we are and where we want to be — or basically anytime we attempt anything at all.

What will you tell yourself?