Author Archives: Pejman Azarmina

On dangers of glorification of success and winning

PedestalMost societies value success and winning, no matter how we define them. Winners and successful people receive more attention, are more popular, are generally better paid, progress in their careers faster and people would view them as role models, leaders and most importantly as being “right”.

In a capitalist society where income or net profit (in a business) is regarded as a critical metric for success, those who create more jobs, make most profit,  earn most and simply get ahead (by explicitly or implicitly beating others) along the way are generally better-respected, valued and glorified by the society. People want to follow their examples, listen to them and learn from them.

In a socialist society, it’s not that different. Success and winning are defined or measured differently, but the consequences are very similar. Those who serve the society most (such as civil servants, university professors, social entrepreneurs, job-creators, doctors or teachers) especially if they go above and beyond their call of duty become the role models and celebrities in those societies.

This trend exists even at nation levels. Those countries who are more successful or win in an international race (be it the World Cup or the World War) gain this special status. Think about the US and Soviet Union post WWII. Think about Germany and Japan in terms of their industrial might and success. Think about China, South Korea, U.A.E. and so on. Winning and success demands global respect and attention, followed by gaining more influence, power and authority over other nations.

So far so good. What is wrong with that? Why shouldn’t we celebrate success and winning? Why shouldn’t we respect and follow self-made billionaires, Gold Medalists, Nobel Prize winners and anyone who sits at the top of any organizational structure? Let’s ask the same question for successful people in our own circles. Someone we know who makes twice as much as we do? Someone who has one or two degrees more than what we have? Someone who is at the top of our class (for students)? Someone who is the boss of our boss (for employees)? Etc. Etc. Why shouldn’t we glorify them and follow their examples?

Of course, we can and sometimes we should. Sometimes a winner is “right”. Sometimes a more successful person should be a “role model” or a “leader”. But what if he or she is wrong? What if he or she sets a bad example or is a terrible leader? I would argue that our societies tend to overrate the righteousness of successful people and downplay their flaws or weaknesses. Also, our societies tend to glorify the elite and ignore the hidden moral and intellectual gems of the non-elite.

Let’s say 1 out of 100 people achieve a significant accomplishment. It’s much easier to [falsely] argue that based on this accomplishment [which is a fact], that person is superior to others. It’s such an easy [yet false] generalization, because we don’t need to evaluate the other 99 people and we don’t need to evaluate the totality of that 1 successful person.

This leaves us with a few significant implications to consider:

  1. Ideas and viewpoints of the few elite is heard and amplified more than the ideas and viewpoints of the rest 99%. Just look at a Speakers Bureau like Harry Walker and see what types of winners and successful people are listened to and get paid more to speak at corporate or professional events. Also, look at the job titles of those who write biography or career advice books. Is the story of a successful CEO or COO [who made it] more amplifiable and inspiring than the story of other executives and leaders who tried as hard but just didn’t make it to the very top?
  2. This blog is written one day after 2016 Super Tuesday. If glorification of success wasn’t a norm in our society, we might have had a different prospects and outcomes in our political system. People say “He must have done something right to be very successful”, implying that success justifies being/doing right and therefore he is a good fit to become the next US President.
  3. If success and winning were not glorified this much, children and young people wouldn’t be pressured so much to compete and beat the rest instead of partner and collaborate with others.
  4. At the global level, we might wonder why countries that are mightier or more successful economically should have a stronger voice and influence over matters such as war and peace. Or their votes matter more than the votes of other nations doing economically OK and not interested in military supremacy.

So what? Can we even change this norm? Perhaps not. Or not so quickly. But a starting point is by changing our own personal attitudes toward success and failure. By changing how we should celebrate failure and exercise humility upon our own successes. By trying to avoid an automatic extrapolation of strengths or righteousness based on one’s success or accomplishments. And by de-glorifying the elite in the eyes of our children, employees or students. To highlight that the winners are not necessarily right and the losers could be very right too.

Did Maslow get it wrong?

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsAlmost all of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). For something developed over 70 years ago, it’s absolutely brilliant, mostly because it proposes that in order to go one level higher, we need to fulfill the needs in the lower levels. One cannot self-actualize or in his words be ‘ultimately happy’ if esteem, love, safety and basic physiological needs are not met.

The impact of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs went much beyond academic circles and psychology literature. It changed the world by influencing the formation of Human Potential Movement in the 1960s and then arguably the development of an army of entrepreneurs, inventors and visionaries who made the pursuit of self-actualization as their life missions. Some of the icons behind the Silicon Valley of late 20th century and today were inspired directly and indirectly by Maslow’s model and the world owes him a great deal for how he envisioned our needs in this hierarchical manner.

But let’s take a look at the implications of this model and the assumptions it makes:

  1. That there is a linear sequence in order to self-actualize. We must satisfy our other needs before addressing our need to self-actualize. One cannot truly self-actualize if he or she is struggling financially, feels unsafe, is unloved and lacks self-confidence.
  2. That the ultimate need of a human being is self-actualization. This model doesn’t state this explicitly but it’s screaming this notion just by the visual representation of it: self-actualization at the top of our needs and the ultimate source of motivation.
  3. That self-actualization is only possible and attainable by a few [super-humans] who surpass the hurdles and obstacles of fulfilling all their other needs.
  4. That “self” is the center of the world. We need to think about actualizing oneself in order to attain our highest potential.

Let’s think about these! Is it really so? Do you agree with the implications and assumptions listed above? Or you too see the flaws of this system?

  1. We know that the our development can sometimes follow a nonlinear model. There are self-actualized people whose other needs are not met or they might be partially met.
  2. Self-actualization might not be the ultimate need of many. We humans have a complex value system and in some other things might be their ultimate needs, such as:
    • The need to do the right thing regardless of all circumstances
    • The need to serve humanity and others, even total strangers just because they are human beings like us
    • The need to serve and be there for our loved ones, family members or friends
    • The need to defend a group of people, an ideology or a belief system, just because we belong to the same group of people or we ascribe to that way of thinking
  3. SELF might not be the center of the world. Many people don’t live just to maximize their self-interests and potentials. People can live and be happy by serving others or serving various causes or non-self-oriented missions.

Let’s go back to the question at the top. Judging if Maslow was right or wrong is actually not the point. Pragmatically, the point is to consider whether this mindset is going to help people or organizations or is going to put them in a potentially dangerous trajectory. If the latter, why not considering other ways of looking at our needs and sources of motivation and to opt in for a more complex nonlinear yet closer-to-reality approach.

Who is your Thinking Partner?

We all think … for different reasons… most of our lives. We think to make decisions, big decisions like whom to marry and small decisions like what to eat for dinner. We think to solve problems, big ones such as finding a better-paying or more satisfying job to small ones such as finding a good parking spot. We think about ourselves, why we did this, said that and wanted those. We also think about others, why she did this, he said that and they acted like that.

We do it all the time… thinking, I mean. We ruminate on our thoughts, over and over again… to spend time, daydream, escape from reality and even suppress bad feelings that come to us the moment we are not engaged in an activity or conversation. In our loneliness, we think. We think about our past, our future, and about the mundane things and routines we obsessively pursue. Occasionally, we think to create: arts, ideas, sounds, images, you name it. Thinking is so powerful. Thinking is part of who we are. Thinking IS what we are.

©iStockphoto.com/Mark Stay

Most of the time we think on our own. But we also think in partnerships. We may not call it that way, but that’s what we actually do. Whenever we share our thoughts and ask for feedback, comments, advice, guidance, suggestions, it’s a way of thinking in partnerships. And the person we engage in that process is basically our “Thinking Partner“. It could be a friend, a family member, someone from work or even a complete stranger. The relationship is not that important, the nature of thought-sharing and partnership is what matters.

Sometimes we get what we need, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes we get too much. We usually don’t ask for psychoanalysis or value judgement when we ask for someone’s opinion. In other words, we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. We also don’t want someone else to make the decisions or solve the problems for us (although sometimes we do!). We want to take ownership of our problems, decisions and challenges and feel good about finding solutions and taking the right and even wrong paths that make sense to us. That’s it; nothing more; and for that reason, sometimes we tap onto other people’s thinking power, who care for us, or have more experience than us. They may be wiser than us, or just simply look at our issues from different angle. And that might be just what we need: a different perspective, a different way of looking at things. We take it in and make our own decisions, hopefully better ones.

We all have our thinking partners. Our moms, dads, friends, relatives, bosses, coworkers and even children can become our thinking partners at some points in our lives. They know us very well and most of the time they have our best interests in mind. However, they are not impartial. They have their own agendas and interests in their minds as well. And that complicates things. For a decision that directly affects our career, relying on a coworker or our boss (no matter how well-intentioned they are) might not give us the impartial and unbiased perspective we need. The same is with family members and friends. That’s why we need to be careful about whom we partner with or consult.

Sometimes we may even decide to ask for professional help. In other words, to pay someone to act as our dedicated thinking partner and do their job without biases or prior assumptions. He or she knows the boundaries, has experience in various thinking methods or processes and can hold us accountable for our own solutions and decisions. Isn’t that great? Sometimes it is, especially when we find the right one. But the good ones are not so easy to find and they are usually very busy helping many people at the same time. Still, it’s worth to find someone in our lives that we could count on as our own Thinking Partner.

So, to wrap up, I would like to invite you yo spend a few minutes thinking about these three things:
– Have you used a thinking partner at some points in your life? Who was that person? And in what respect did she or he help you make a decision, find a solution or come up with something new?
– Who is your ideal thinking partner? What are the criteria or characteristics that you are looking in that person?
– What areas of your life you think you might need a thinking partner? Career? Relationships? Spirituality? Health? Money issues? or something else?

End or Beginning?

A few days ago, I received a message from Peter Senge (the author of the Fifth Discipline and the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning) inviting me to reflect on a few question at a time that was marked by the end of a few-thousand-year-old calendar and the start of a new one. In particular, I was invited to think about the following questions:

  1. What am I committed to transforming in myself?
  2. What seeds do I, and we, want to plant and cultivate for the well being of people and all life on earth?
  3. What is the story that will be told in 100 years about what was transformed in this new beginning?

I took all these three questions very seriously and thought about the following answers:

1. What am I committed to transforming in myself?

  • To be less conservative and more courageous when it comes to expressing the truth and implementing justice
  • To be more proactive in connecting with people
  • To have no fear of failure, being judged and criticized by others

2. What seeds do I, and we, want to plant and cultivate for the well being of people and all life on earth?

  • Thinkocrats, especially as it relates to politics, leadership, education and healthcare

3. What is the story that will be told in 100 years about what was transformed in this new beginning?

  • That a group of people in 2012-13 decided to think differently about how they wanted to lead their lives and suspended some of their assumptions about how the world runs. In business, the “growth model” was challenged and people started to realize that “sustainability” and “growth” contradict by nature and the growth MUST stop at certain point of any kind of life cycle (including businesses and nations). In politics, the notion of “policy following the voters” was also challenged as people started to realize that if policy would only follow the voters’ wishes, a regression to the mean would be inevitable and no visionary leadership can exist. In medicine, a movement for “open system” started, which resembles the open-source movement in computer software. This movement changed the patient-doctor dynamics forever and had a huge impact on global movement of medical talent, cost of healthcare and patient choice. Hundred years ago, people started to fundamentally reassess the direction of human civilization and conducted some critical course corrections along the way.

I would like to share a musical sketch that I composed a couple of days ago that expresses the hopes I have for the future and the uncertainties that are the integral parts of this exciting journey.

Holistic Life Plans

There are more than seven billion ways to live a life and we can’t judge people based on how they live. Why? Because it’s either their conscious choices, which we can learn to respect; or it’s a matter of external factors. And we can’t really blame anyone for things beyond his or her control.

But when it comes to ourselves, we must ask this simple yet fundamental question: “How do I want to live my life?”  There are a few ways to answer this.

“What happens to me in the future is the result of my smart decisions, detailed planning and seamless execution.”

“What happens to me in the future is my destiny. No matter how much I think, plan or try, I can’t change my destiny. It will happen no matter what I do.”

“I don’t want to think about the future. All I have is now, the present moment, so I want to live it the best way I can.”

“I think and dream about the future a lot. But I don’t need to plan for it now. It will happen.”

“I have a dream for my future, but I don’t know how to make it a reality. Hopefully it will happen. I’m optimistic.”

“I choose to follow the template provided by my religion and spiritual beliefs, which tells me how I should live and gives me a method to achieve it.”

Each of these mindsets is valid on its own; we can’t say one way of thinking is right and another way wrong. However, the fact that you have chosen this book is some indication that you believe in something like the first statement above. If you believe that your choices, decisions, planning and hard work play a significant role in shaping your future, then what you will read in the coming paragraphs is going to be music to your ears.

Before starting, it’s important to note that there is a difference between a “significant role” and an “absolute role” in creating your future. No human being is able to predict the future or plan for it with 100% certainty. It’s humanly impossible. What you can do is to make your contribution as significant as possible. The rest should be left to your good fortune, a higher power (if you believe in one), other people and sometimes to pure chance.

The one-three-five-year plans

Creating a holistic life plan is very easy. It’s so easy that anyone can do it without the help of a professional. Let’s see how. I would like to start by sharing three holistic life plans belonging to a single person named Jason. The first one is a five-year plan, the other is a three-year plan and the last one is a one-year plan. Quite deliberately, I am not giving you a narrative of his future plans, so that you have the chance to re-create his story, dreams and ambitions in your own words.

A 5-year holistic life plan
(* PMP: Project Management Professional)

 

A 3-year holistic life plan
(* PMP: Project Management Professional)

 

A 1-year holistic life plan
(** PMBOK: Project Management Book of Knowledge)

As you see above, there is a lot of detail and data in these three plans, but the essence of them is quite simple. It’s a breakdown of Jason’s goals in different areas of his life with a timeline attached to it.

All these plans are holistic by nature. This means that they are not focusing only on one aspect of Jason’s life. They address different dimensions of his life, from work to relationships, from spirituality to recreation, from health to finances. Why? Because we can’t plan for something in one area of our lives and ignore the impact or influence on other areas. An individual’s life contains many different aspects—all those listed here and some others besides—and all of them need to be considered in the life plan, if the intention is to create a holistic one. Otherwise the plan, and the life, may become imbalanced and one-dimensional.

These diagrams represent one-, three-, and five-year plans. Obviously, we can make longer-term plans for 10 years and 20 years or shorter-term ones for three to six months. Experience shows that one-year plans are detailed enough to grab our attention and enable us to prioritize our daily tactics to achieve something. Three-year plans are somewhere between strategic and tactical in that they reflect our ambitions and visions, but at the same time capture enough of the detail needed for their execution. And five-year plans are generally strategic by nature; they help to keep us focused on our aspirations and long-term goals. Beyond five years, the accuracy of any plan diminishes significantly.

Although these plans are holistic, let’s keep in mind that the level of certainty we can expect will vary according to the specific area. For example, a plan to get a degree in subject X or live in city Y is much more within our control than planning to get married in three years or get a senior level position at company Z. We can certainly increase our chances in some specific areas, but we cannot guarantee them. In the case of marriage, someone else needs to choose us as well and either propose or say yes! Being conscious of this fact may prevent some disappointments or limit excessive daydreaming about things out of our controls.

How to create and use your plans?

The best way to start is by creating your five-year holistic life plan, considering all the uncertainties and unknowns that may exist in your life. Then, focus on a more detailed three-year plan. Based on your three-year aspirations, create a one-year tactical plan detailing what you should be doing on a month-by-month basis to achieve your first-year goals. If you realize it’s too ambitious and unrealistic, go back to your three- to five-year plans and revise them until your first year plan becomes realistic. Then, execute the first-year plan and, depending on your actual achievements, review and revise your mid-term and long-terms goals and timelines. Every year, create a one-year tactical plan and stick to it as much as you can. With this method, you will not lose sight of what you aim to achieve in three to five years and you will also ensure that every step you take is moving you closer to your goals.

The key to this method lies in its reiterative and reflective nature. We don’t create a plan, then look at it as a holy text, because it’s not. Our plans should be like some living documents that we can go back to and refine as many times as we need to. Sometimes, they may be too challenging and other times too easy to achieve. Optimally, our plans need to be challenging enough to take us out of our comfort zones; yet not so challenging that they are unrealizable and leave us feeling frustrated, overworked and underachieving. There is a balance to be struck.

Also, though it’s good to be conscious about where we’re going in terms of our overall life direction, we will want to guard against becoming so obsessed with the future that we forget about the present and miss the whole point of life! Maintaining the balance between living in the present and moving in the right direction is perhaps one of the key skills that everyone needs to learn and master.

The Thinking Hour

Below you will find three blank templates of the one-, three-, and five-year holistic life plans. Feel free to complete them based on your aspirations, goals and dreams. Then follow the iterative steps described above to review, refine and revise them until you have a realistic plan to follow.

You can use this planning technique at the beginning of each year as part of your New Year’s Resolution planning. You can also use it near your birthday or at any time during the year. It’s very rewarding to achieve something that you planned for. And it may give you a heightened sense of purpose and meaning to whatever you do in different areas of your life every day. Give it a try.

Template for a Five-Year Holistic Life Plan
Template for a Three-Year Holistic Life Plan

 

Template for a One-Year Holistic Life Plan

The Purpose of Thinking

We are what we think; and the way we think determines how we experience life and where we go with it. Therefore, if we want to change our lives, we need to change our thinking first.

When was the last time you made an important decision in your life, solved a complex problem, created an innovation, thought about the purpose of your life or planned for something big? How long did you spend on that?

What kind of thinking are you better at? Are you a good decision maker? A problem-solver? A planner? A visionary? Are you a person who makes a lot of sense, or a person who says “I don’t know” a lot?

One useful way to answer these questions is to start by describing why we think, and what purpose it serves for us. If we examine the reasons behind the thinking process, we can better understand how thinking can be helpful in our lives.

To make decisions

According to the Millennium Project, our capacity to decide is one of the 15 global challenges for the humanity in the coming years. Making decisions is perhaps one of the most legitimate reasons for thinking. We have choice A and choice B. We think about both; then, we decide to go for one of them. Simple? Looks like it. And that’s basically how we make simple decisions like what to eat, what to wear or where to go. The same brain and similar method also helps us make some very complex decisions such as whom to marry, what to believe in and what to do with our lives.  The principles are the same: define a dilemma, identify various options, apply a thinking process (for example, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the given options), choose one option and go for it.

To solve problems

Being able to solve problems is actually a good way to make money by thinking. People are willing to pay us if we know how to solve their problems. And to do that, we need an unpleasant or unsolved situation, a few assumptions, some data, a good analytical mind and then boom: a solution. Easy? Sounds like it, but it’s actually more complicated than it sounds.

Doctors solve problems every day by diagnosing diseases and treating them. Management consultants do pretty much the same thing, the difference being that their clients are businesses, instead of patients.

There are also plenty of examples of problem-solving in everyday life: how to get through heavy traffic and get to our destination on time, how to get out of an unpleasant situation, or how to avoid a certain person as much as possible. Solving problems—which requires thinking—is part of everyday life and it may be part of one’s job too. So it’s very beneficial to become good at it, as it can differentiate us from others who are less skilled in solving problems.

To create something new

Composing an original song, programming software, writing a novel, making a film, designing a building and generating an abstract painting are all examples of creativity and innovation. It is a type of thinking that creates something where nothing previously existed. Literary works, arts, and musical masterpieces are made as a result of thinking in a creative way.

From time to time, we may need to think creatively about ourselves. Envisioning what we want to do in the future and where we are going in our life or career often requires creative thinking. In other words, it’s all about imagining a state of being that doesn’t exist right now, or exists only as a possibility, and then envisioning how we might make it happen somewhere down the line.

Doesn’t it sound important? Of course it does. Not just for the advancement of science, technology and the arts; not just for the sake of social reforms and the spread of democracy; but also for the actualization of each individual’s dreams. If we ask a talent show contestant, “Who is the next American Idol!?” the answer—without a second of hesitation—will hopefully be, “I am!” The journey to become something of greater value starts with a belief. This belief is basically a thought. It’s a way of thinking creatively about oneself.

Also, it’s interesting to note that creative thinking can happen in parallel to other forms of thinking. For example, some types of problem solving would require creativity on the side and the same is true with good planning and decision making. Creativity is an integral ingredient of higher thinking for any reason or purpose.

To understand something

Thinking is a great way to understand things. There are plenty of ways to create understanding, but in essence we can categorize them into three main groups:

Making associations

When we see A, we think of B. When we hear C, we think of D. When we eat E, we are reminded of F. Our brains are wired in such a way that we naturally make associations. One thing always makes us think of another thing.

Making judgments

When we see A, we think it’s good; when we see B, we think it’s bad. Making judgments is a way of thinking that puts a positive or negative value or label on everything we see, hear or think about. It’s similar to making an association but with a positive or negative value judgment attached to it.

Making conclusions

When A and B happen, we can predict that C will follow. These conclusions utilize logical thinking, and generally are based on what we assume, have seen or experienced in the past. Making sound conclusions is not always easy and anyone may fall into the trap of making a conclusion based on what he or she wants to see and not based on sound judgment and what the facts tell.

To plan for goals

This is the tactical and operational function of our thinking. Our minds have an extraordinary ability to identify the tasks we need to complete in order to achieve a certain goal. For example, you may want to organize a successful party. You break down the tasks into inviting people, buying and cooking food, entertaining the guests, serving the food and drinks and cleaning the house after the guests leave.

A party is a relatively simple goal and most of us have already some experience with it. For more complex goals, it doesn’t make much of a difference and we can still use the same planning method. We begin by thinking about what needs to be done in order to achieve our goal, then we complete the tasks one by one and in the order we determined. And we persist until the goal is achieved. This is, in essence, an instinctive type of project management. And it seems that some aspects of our lives can be planned for like projects. Some real-life examples are getting into college, buying a home, organizing a wedding or applying for a job.

To fill in the gaps

Sometimes we have a capacity for purposeless thinking. These are the times when we’re alone, not talking with anyone and not doing anything in particular. We’re simply letting our thoughts wander, filling in the mental gaps, the moments of silence, the unstructured time. Just thinking… daydreaming… sometimes escaping the reality of our lives…ruminating on our thoughts… going round and round in mental circles… not planning, not creating, not making decisions, not solving problems, not even understanding things… just floating in our thoughts and enjoying the taste of thinking with no particular reason or purpose. This might be how some of us spend the majority of our free time. It’s like thinking in a loop: Starting from A, we go to B, then C, then D and then back again to A; on and on until something interrupts our train of thought. A person might do this day after day, week after week and year after year. There are many people whose thinking habits are just like this.

My new clients are usually surprised when I ask them to spend one hour in a given week just thinking. They often say, “I think for hours every day and you want me to think for just an hour a week?” Well, they have a point, but those hours of thinking they refer to are the loop-thinking or the gap-filler type of thinking. Although it might be very relaxing or preoccupying to think in loops, but from a practical point of view, this method of thinking doesn’t usually lead to a solution, a decision, a plan or a conclusion. So, it’s important to have this distinction in mind when you consider adding a Thinking Hour into your weekly schedule.

The Thinking Hour

Now that we have had a look at the six main types of thinking, let’s find out something about who you are based on how you usually think. Look at the following list of thinking-related tasks and functions. Then choose three of them that you believe you are quite good at and draw a circle around them:

  •             Making decisions
  •             Solving problems
  •             Envisioning the future
  •             Creating a story
  •             Creating a melody, a body movement (in sports or dance) or any other form of art
  •             Analyzing a situation, an observation or a behavior
  •             Criticizing a situation or a person
  •             Making judgments about situations or people
  •             Planning
  •             Organizing
  •             Daydreaming

What does this tell you about who you are based on the thinking types we learned earlier? How often are you using those top three thinking powers in your daily life? If you are interested in a self-improvement program, is there room for improvement in any of them?

A Day in the Mountains

I love mountains. Every week, as a teenager and then a young adult, I used to go to the mountains north of my hometown, find a trail, climb up for a few hours and then come back. Sometimes I went alone, sometimes with my father and sometimes with my friends. This was my habit for more than 10 years and those who grew up near a mountain range know exactly what I am talking about. The mountain metaphor is so strong, yet simple, that I believe anyone reading this chapter can benefit from and use it as a great tool for self-discovery. So, let’s start our thinking journey here by seeing ourselves in the mountains for a day.

Imagine yourself at the starting point. You are standing there, looking around. You have no clue which path to choose. You don’t know if you can get to a specific peak (or any peak) given that you have only one day. In fact, at this point you may not even be sure what your end goal is. Do you intend to reach the peak, enjoy the scenery, spend the day breathing fresh air, get fit, or show the way to someone who is there for the first time? Or is it something else? What you do know is that you are here and you only have until sunset to spend in the mountains.

Reflecting on these scenarios is important. This hypothetical day in the mountains could be a metaphor for your whole life and the way you go about planning for it. The point is not to change your approach to life and worldviews. It’s to enhance the level of your self-awareness and to help you create a visual representation for you overall life strategy and vision.

The 13 metaphors

Listed below are 13 possible scenarios for how one can spend a day in the mountains. There may be others, but we can start with these, as they seem to describe the types of decisions most of us make.

Metaphor #1: Join and follow the masses

A group of people shows up. We can’t see who is leading them; in fact, it seems as if no one is the leader. They are just walking together and everybody seems to be OK with that. We join and walk with them. It feels secure and safe. How could a group of people lose their way? On the way, we don’t need to pay attention to the trail markers or make any decisions about which path to take. We don’t even have to care about a destination and where the group is going. We’re there to enjoy the scenery and perhaps even make a few new friends.

The majority of people on earth fall into this category. Following social norms, conventions, traditions, customs, pop culture, trends, religions and to a lesser extent any other ‘-isms’ such as Buddhism, communism and capitalism, fit into this mega category. Why is that? Because it is much, much easier to do what is expected of us, and what is socially acceptable for our group (however we want to define that) than it is to veer away from the norms and strike out on our own.

The inherent passiveness of this option is not necessarily bad. As long as we really do what falls within our society’s norms, we are probably very secure and reasonably satisfied, which is great. But for people who don’t want what falls within the norms, this option is going to be tough.

Metaphor #2: Rebel and do the opposite

We may initially join a group and walk with them for an hour or so, but something about being part of a group may bother us and we decide to leave the rest and take a different path. At the first fork in the road, the group chooses the right path; we turn to the left. Then, we meet another group on our way; and at the next fork they take the left path, so we take the right. Our approach is not based on getting to a destination; it’s more about taking the path the others don’t take.

Most teenagers, and some young adults who are still searching for a sense of personal identity and uniqueness, will probably fall into this category. This scenario also represents anarchists and antisocial people. Please note that an oppositional stance, similar to the conforming stance discussed in Metaphor #1 still results in having our actions influenced by the masses. In this case, we wait and see what others do or what the norms are, so that we can do the opposite.

Metaphor #3: Follow a guide

We decide one day is too short to wander around, get lost in the mountains and not get anywhere.  Alone, or with a few of our friends, we find a guide. She or he says, “I am going to XYZ. Do you want to follow me?” We say, “Yes,” and then start to follow. It feels different from joining the group, because at least one person is in charge and claims that he or she knows the way. Our guide’s destination or way of life may become our destination and way of life.

Celebrity fans, sports fans, and followers of authors, gurus, TV personalities or business icons often choose this path. The same could be said of people following fascist or populist leaders and some (not all) corporate executives. The ‘guide’ in this scenario typically doesn’t have a 1:1 relationship with his/her followers. He or she generally speaks to a mass audience.

Although people may be fanatical about their idols and role models, but it’s becoming less often that people would follow someone else’s way of life in its entirety. For example, Lady Gaga may have millions of fans out there, but it doesn’t mean they all want to live their lives exactly as she does.

Metaphor #4: Ask a guide

We decide we need a guide, but we don’t want to follow him or her, we just want the advice. The guide may explain where to go, or give us a map; but we start and continue on our own. At some point later on, we may want to use another guide. We find one along the way, or call the first one (if the reception is good) and ask for more guidance. We continue until we get to our destination.

Almost everyone uses a counselor, life coach, thinking partner, teacher or mentor at some point or another in life. This also applies to people who rely on their mothers, fathers, spouses, children, friends or wise uncles and aunts to make important decisions.

Metaphor #5: Follow the map

We don’t believe in guides, we don’t want to join a group, we don’t want to follow anyone, and yet we don’t see a point in just doing the opposite of what others do. For us, the destination at the end of the trail is important: we want to reach the peak, or perhaps we want to look at a campsite halfway up the mountain. We get a map and study it carefully. We find where we are and where our destination is; then consider all the different trails that might take us there. We choose one, fold the map into our backpack and start our journey. We trust the map and hope that it hasn’t changed since it was first printed.

This approach applies to all those who like to “figure things out” by reading books or religious texts before they decide on any course of action. It’s a robust way of finding our way to the top, but at the same time it’s based on the assumption that the map is correct and we have the right skills to read it.

Metaphor #6: Follow your senses

Like the person above, we don’t believe in guides, we don’t want to join a group, we don’t want to follow, and yet we don’t see a point in just doing the opposite of what others do! But instead of using a map, we decide to find our way by using our own eyes and senses, looking around and seeing the scenery. We choose a beautiful peak or a shelter somewhere in the distance. We trust that we can get there in time. We move toward that direction and hope that we will find trails that can lead us to our destination.

People in this group make their decisions mostly based on their direct observations and external inspirations. Do you remember America’s Got Talent 2010 winner, Jackie Evancho, who saw the film version of the musical Phantom of the Opera and decided she wanted to become a singer? It can happen to all of us; we meet a person, we decide we want to become someone like him or her. We see something in a movie or on TV, we get so much excited or inspired that we decide we want to do the exact thing or something similar in our lives. The examples are endless.

Metaphor #7: Be prepared first

For someone in this category, being prepared for this journey is everything. Before we even go to the mountain, we stop at a wilderness outfitters shop and spend two hours of our day buying all the equipment and food that might be useful along the way. We check the weather channel to make sure it isn’t going to rain and there won’t be a storm during the day. We check what other dangers (like snakes) might exist on the mountain and we make a good plan for any of these scenarios. Finally, we are ready to start our journey—with a heavy backpack and ready to deal with any kind of incidents along the way.

This category represents very conservative people and obsessive planners who don’t want to risk being unprepared for anything in their lives. Sometimes it’s a good strategy to be prepared, but we need to be careful that it doesn’t take too much time and doesn’t turn into an obsession for over-preparedness.

Metaphor #8: Experiment, make mistakes and learn

People in this category may say, “I am here to learn. I fall; I get up. I take the wrong path; I come back and take the right one. I get into trouble; I work it out myself or shout as loudly as I can for help.” We want to experiment. We want to make mistakes and learn from them. And we don’t care if we reach our destinations or not. The whole point of the day is to learn by doing.

Many teenagers and young people prefer to strike out on their own this way and gain the benefit of their own personal experience. The advantage of this approach is that once we learn something through direct experience and making mistakes, that learning becomes hard-coded into our brains and in other words part of who we are. The price might be too high to learn something in this manner, but that’s how we learn things in real life. People generally don’t like advice and want to try things on their own.

Metaphor #9: Follow your intuitions

We realize that doing anything mentioned above could be equally right or wrong for us. And we can’t tell the difference by just hiking and climbing the hills. Therefore, we decide the answer is within ourselves: our inner world. We sit down somewhere near the starting point, take a look around and then turn our attention inward. We spend a few minutes thinking through what is important to us and what we want to achieve or experience or feel from this day at the mountain. We might then think about what kind of paths we want to take. Then we do what our inner thoughts and reflections guide us to do. Sometimes, we decide to sit next to a brook or waterfall along the way and repeat the same process, just to check if our steps are aligned with the ideas inside our head and the beats of our hearts.

This metaphor represents those who know themselves really well and want to create harmony between their inner and outer journeys. It’s a very intuitive way of finding the path and making sure that we follow our instincts along our life journeys.

Metaphor #10: Follow your logic

By thinking logically, we assess the benefits and risks of every decision we make along this journey. We make sure our overall goal is feasible enough and the routes we plan to take make the most sense. For someone in this category, logic is the ultimate guide in the sense that no matter what we see around or on the map; no matter what the group does, our leader says or our guides recommend; we will apply our own judgments and wisdom to ensure that it is the right thing for us to do at that moment.

Two great examples of people who follow their logics in their life journeys are positivists and believers in science and a scientific way of thinking. For someone in this category, the Plan or the Path should be logical and “make sense”; otherwise, it’s not worth trying.

Metaphor #11: Hope for a miracle

We might decide we do want to go up into the hills, but we don’t want to take a hike. We know there might be a donkey going up that can give us a ride, so we wait for the right donkey to come along. It may show up. It may not. But we take our chances.

Mostly people who believe in gambling, lottery tickets, serendipity and destiny will fit into this category. The ones who believe in soul mates, who get all bright-eyed after one date because they think they’ve found Mr. Right. They want a relationship that requires no effort from them at all, and a partner who is magically perfect and fits their needs exactly. They generally also want a big, expensive lifestyle, but don’t necessarily want to work for it—they want to win it in the lottery, or with their next great business idea, or through a spouse, or through litigation. The chances are quite slim, but this approach does have the advantage that very little effort is required.

Metaphor #12: Stay within your comfort zone

People in this category are reasonably happy with what they have at the starting point, so there is no need to climb the hills or reach the mountaintop. The scenery is good, we have food and we decide to spend our day exactly where we are. No need to have a guide, a leader or a group to join. No need to even think about what’s next, because we like where we are and what we have. Why change something that is already OK?

This scenario represents people who delay starting their adult life journeys. Typically, they still live with their parents, and are either unemployed or work as little as possible just to make ends meet. They are OK with getting money from the government or their parents. And usually in speaking with them, there is no sense of ambition, goals or plans. They typically say, “I am happy where I am.”

Let’s not confuse the comfort zone of this group with the comfort zone of the “join and follow the masses” group. In this group, the comfort comes from not even starting the journey and staying at the starting point (like where we are in our early 20s), the latter’s comfort zone comes from the ease of a mindless move with a big group. It’s comforting to be in Rome and do as Romans do.

Metaphor #13: Do nothing; there is no point in even trying

The last approach is to question and eventually deny the value of the whole experience. One peak looks much like another so there is no point in going all that way and even if there was a point, there is probably no trail that can take us there. It’s all a waste of time and we might as well have stayed home. It was a bad idea in the first place to go to the mountains. We might believe that this way of thinking is an important discovery of ours and we should tell everyone coming to the mountains the same thing: that there is nothing to be gained, experienced, or achieved from this day in the mountains.

This category mainly includes skeptics, nihilists and pessimists. They question everything, they spread negative thoughts and most importantly they don’t let others achieve anything either.

 

Now that we came to the end of explaining these metaphors, let’s not forget that in real life people mix and match various approaches to life in general and how they live in particular. We may start as rebels, then switch to crowd joiners and at some point decide to follow our own intuitions. Sometimes, we even use multiple methods at the same time; for example, we may ask a guide, follow our logics and use the map simultaneously, just to be on the safe side. You see; life is a complex event and oversimplifying it in itself is not going to solve anything. However, the advantage of knowing these metaphors is that now we are able to analyze this complex picture by breaking it down into smaller and more understandable chunks. That’s how we can improve upon and redesign our approaches to life, if we want to. Please read The Thinking Hour section next to see how you can re-engineer yours too.

The Thinking Hour

Now you get to create your very own metaphor of your journey through life. To begin, try to think about what kinds of landscapes come most frequently to your mind: mountains, the sea, the forest, the desert, farmland, cities, the beach, or something else? Then, choose one of the 13 scenarios above and apply it to that scene. For example, someone may combine ‘sailing on a boat’ image with ‘follow a guide’ scenario, which could translate into following a big cruise ship out to sea. Try to choose the scenario that best describes how you are now, not how you would like to be in the future. Finally, if you can, draw that image or Google a picture that represents your choice.

Now it’s time for deep thinking. For one full hour, please think about alternative scenarios that you could have chosen or you may choose in the future. For example, how would it feel different if you could use a map and compass to find your destination instead of following that big cruise ship? What if you try to observe the horizons and choose your destination based on what you actually see? Now think about your responses and if there is anything that you would like to change, consider what steps you need to take in order to change your original scenario to the one that makes more sense to you or makes you happier.

Please note that there are no right or wrong answers in this process. It’s just a matter of you wanting to make thinking an active part of your life planning and being more systematic about it. It might be useful to keep your ideal scenario and scenery in mind when reading the next articles; as it may help you make choices in line with your personal vision.

What is your thinking style?

Every individual has a unique thinking style. This style determines how we interpret the world around us; how we make decisions, solve problems, plan for our future and connect with other people in the world. How can we aim to develop our thinking skills without first knowing where we stand and how we usually think? This kind of self-knowledge and self-awareness is a crucial step in our personal and professional journeys to become better and more wholesome thinkers and leaders.

As part of this Thinking Hour, your assignment is to reflect on your unique style of thinking and find a way to visually present that. There are perhaps as many styles of thinking as the number of people on earth; therefore, it’s not going to help if you are provided with a simplified set of options to choose from. Please be descriptive in your responses. Show what is unique about you, what is familiar about you and what is surprising in your thinking style. Let’s see how Janet described her thinking style in words:

My name is Janet. I am a free thinker by nature. I love to think freely about anything and to come up with any conclusions I want. My thinking doesn’t recognize limitations and doesn’t appreciate boundaries. I am also very attentive to details. I can’t help it. I always pay attention to the little things that differentiates one thing from another. This means that sometimes I miss the bigger picture and the context of what’s going on in my life. The other thing you should know about my thinking is that when it comes to decisions, I can’t make up my mind quickly and easily. It takes me a long time to make decisions. Obviously, I am stuck in the analysis stage. I can’t pick one choice among many others. But when it comes to creativity and innovations, I am the best person you want in your team. I expand the options, I question the status quo and I take it one step further than wherever it was before.

You see, Janet’s description is very helpful to know her better. We can instantly determine where her thinking strengths are and what areas may need some development and help. Writing this paragraph also helped her to articulate her thinking habits and gain more clarity on what is important or challenging for her. Hopefully, this will be a fun and eye-opening Thinking Hour for you too. To help you in this process, you can use the following descriptions and templates to gain a better inner insight about your thinking style.

Detail-Oriented vs. Bigger Picture

Whenever you are thinking about something, do you typically think about a lot of details, calculations, numbers or do you prefer to simplify the picture and look at it from some distance. For example, a detailed oriented person likes to check the itemized calls in a phone bill but a big picture person only looks at the balance and if it’s the same as previous months, doesn’t look any further. In real life, detailed oriented thinkers are better analysts while big picture thinkers are better strategists. Which approach is your typical or predominant tendency?

Pragmatic vs. visionary

These two types are not necessarily at odds with each other. But putting them in one spectrum may help you with this assignment. A pragmatic person bases his or her thoughts on the realities at present and wants to make decisions or offer solutions that are immediately applicable and executable. While a visionary-type person doesn’t care much about the present and is good in imagining what future may look like and shares his or her proposed way to get there. Are you a pragmatic thinker or a visionary?

Absolute vs. relative

Some people think better when the choices are more defined, differences are like black and white, and there is more certainty in the assumptions being made. On the other hand, relative-minded individuals are comfortable thinking in an uncertain frame of mind, with lots of shades of grey and not being sure about the certainty of the options or assumptions. Are you an absolute thinker or a relative thinker?

Inside or outside of the box

An inside the box thinker likes to see his or her options and choose from them. He or she accepts the assumptions and the rules of the game and is quick in coming up with an answer given the reality of the situations or data at hand. An outside of the box thinker doesn’t typically look at the choices at hand. He or she challenges the basic assumptions and proposes solutions or answers not thought of before. As an example, if a few scientists are working on sending an astronaut to the space station to do some repairs and are evaluating the shuttle option versus using a rocket, an outside of the box thinker is thinking about sending a self-repairing robotic module to the orbit. In your life, are you more comfortable with inside the box type of thinking or outside of it?

Areas of thinking

Some people are better in making decisions, some are better with finding solutions and some have a talent in being creative. The areas of thinking are numerous and the majority of people are not consistently strong in all of them. There must be some areas that you might be better at and some areas that we may need some improvement. Think about yours and find out which area(s) you have more strengths in and how you can illustrate that with some examples and stories. Are you known for your wisdom, creativity, quick answers, diplomacy or else?

To end this Thinking Hour with a tangible output, create 1-3 drawings or charts that represent your unique style of thinking and describe them in a couple of sentences. Tell us in the comment box how it went and what you discovered about yourself.