How to test your stories

At the time of this writing, the US election of November 3rd is undecided, showing signs that an eventual result will be contested. Those of us watching (most of the world) will experience feelings about this, along with an attempted explanation for ourselves. Yet most of us will never be privy to the sort of information required to generate a story approximating the truth. Hyperbole will abound.

The anticipated experience many of will have does not help our personal well-being. After all, we don’t like experiencing uncertainty, especially surrounding an emotionally charged event. Fortunately, a brief narrative accountability exercise can help us test our story about the election, or any other experience that pains us.

The exercise works best when someone else asks you the questions, and does not interject during your response, except to ask additional clarifying questions. Start by saying out loud the story in your head. Then, answer the following questions in order:

  1. Can you be sure that your story is true?
  2. Is there more to the story?
  3. Are you missing any information that would help you determine the truth?
  4. After your first three answers, do you still feel the same way?
  5. What is the challenge to be overcome?

We all conveniently leave out details in our stories, the bits that we know are contradictory or have non real basis in fact. That’s why this is an accountability exercise. By holding ourselves accountable, we recognize that we often allow ourselves to propagate negative feelings for no justifiable reason. Hence the fourth question about whether how you feel has changed.

The final question is about challenges. Life is about selecting and working on challenges, giving us purpose and direction. In all things, look for what the challenge really is, despite what you’ve been telling yourself. Then we can focus on what matters, and what we can influence for the better.

Be well.

Feelings and the limits of language

How are you feeling? A simple enough question, sometimes hard to answer. If you pay close attention, you know how you feel, but describing it to someone else seems impossible. The limits of language do not allow it.

Human beings love having words, or labels, for things. If we know what something is called, we think we understand it, but we don’t. Anger, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, and fear are all negative emotions. We intuitively think of them as different, but it is tough to make a case that they feel different physically; tight throat, racing heart, nausea, shakiness, sweating.

The differences we think we perceive are a matter of context, and our minds trying to explain the situation, usually on an interpersonal basis. The same is true for positive emotions. Language doesn’t exist to perfectly capture how we feel in every moment. And this is fine.

We need to separate feelings from words that, when strung together, form our stories about ourselves. Instead, pay attention to your feeling tone; pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That’s it. Once you know the feeling tone, your subsequent story is cast in a revealing light, helping you examine it; positive, negative, or undecided.

The simple and quick task of separating feelings from stories, and identifying the feeling tone, sets the stage for continued curious introspection, necessary to optimize well-being.

Be well.

Expect the Unexpected

We form expectations about all manner of things. Sometimes this is explicit, but often it’s not. Without being aware of our expectations, or testing their validity, we set ourselves up for disappointment. 

The most recent example of this is the proposed timing for reopening schools and the broader economy. It’s all over the media, people are protesting in the streets, governments are preparing frameworks. It seems like it’s on the doorstep. Then we hear an announcement that the mere possibility of schools reopening has been bumped back another two weeks. We feel disappointed, mislead, frustrated, ill-equipped. 

We likely didn’t even know that our expectations were building. It happens automatically and silently, based on snippets of data points and our desire to make them serve our purpose. When the verdict comes in, the inconsistency with the model of the world we built creates tension. This steals our attention. We then embark on a mission to explain how this happened, generally with the goal of confirming that we weren’t wrong to have held the expectation in the first place.

Another example to illustrate the effect of expectations is pain. When we go to the gym and have an intense workout, we expect to feel pain. In fact, we want to feel pain, as this lets us know we are pushing ourselves to create future gains. The next day, as we walk around sore, we confirm we did a good thing. Contrast this with waking up and experiencing a spontaneously stiff and sore neck. The actual sensation of pain is not all that different from our workout, but our interpretation is. We weren’t expecting this. We start thinking about what is wrong and projecting to how this will negatively impact the day ahead. The difference between these two cases is a matter of expectations.

The first step in fixing the problem of unmet expectations is being aware of how often they occur. When we find ourselves disappointed with an outcome, or experiencing anxiety about how something might turn out, this should serve as a signal that expectations are involved. Next, consider whether we are expecting things that are within our control. Generally, we aren’t, including the first example about reopening the economy. We need to challenge ourselves to only be concerned with those things that are within our control, or that we can reasonably influence, and accept the rest. Finally, once we’ve reconsidered our expectations within what we can control, we should use the data available from past experiences to consider how likely the outcome is that we expect. As in science, we should welcome the opportunity to be wrong. This is how we learn.

The world is an unpredictable place. The only expectation we should have is that almost nothing will turn out exactly as we expected. And that’s OK. 

Be well. 

On Being Disappointed in Oneself

We’ve all experienced disappointment in many forms. Disappointment is the feeling of displeasure when something doesn’t turn out as expected. Perhaps the most insidious form is self-disappointment. It’s insidious because it occurs within the privacy of our own minds, subject to our inner monologues, badgering us relentlessly. I find the notion of being disappointed in oneself fascinating. Are we not supposed to know ourselves better than anyone? How is it that our expectations can be so routinely misaligned with reality that we feel sad when we miss the mark? I believe the fundamental problem has to do with our overextending the concept of personal agency, or free will.

Everyone has said something that they regret. Often this happens during an emotionally charged exchange. Whatever was said probably came out within a fraction of a second of its preceding thought entering consciousness. There was literally no stopping it. If asked to explain why what was said was said, there truly is no satisfying answer. Feelings were hurt. Self-disappointment follows. The explanation, however, while unsatisfying to the recipient of the regretful utterance, is interesting to explore.

All things that we say or do are a product of our conditioning and present context. Our conditioning stems from our predisposition – genetics and human instinct – and all of our life’s experiences to date. Context is the present state of everything going on around us. Where conditioning meets context, actions ensue. If the context is such that there is no time for metacognition – thinking about what you’re thinking – then the role of personal agency is drastically diminished. We act on conditioning alone. This is the case for most spontaneous conversations, sports, driving, and so on.

If we mainly act on conditioning, then why should we be disappointed in ourselves for things we had no chance to plan? I don’t believe we should. The only possible internal conflict with a given outcome, then, would be its discordance with a deeper set of principles we ascribe to ourselves. To be kind, for example. Am I always kind? Of course not. Yet, there is nothing to be gained from being disappointed in myself when circumstances arise in which I am not kind. I did not fulfill my aspirational value in a given moment. What I got was a product of who I was in a specific context at a specific time. Principles, by their nature, are general. They may guide thinking and conduct in the general sense but cannot determine how we will act in any particular circumstance.

What, then, should we do when we feel that twinge of self-disappointment? Be aware of the feeling, but don’t stop there. Consider whether what occurred could have been anticipated and mitigated in the exact context within which it happened. Chances are it could not, especially since much of our context is beyond our control. Next, we should become curious about how to begin shaping our future conditioning, so as not to act the same way when presented with a similar context. Taking a future-oriented problem-solving approach, guided by our principles, should be a successful treatment for the disappointed self.

Be well.

The Vacation Fallacy – Part 2

In wonderfully coincident timing, the Farnam Street Blog recently published a piece (click here) on how to think about your travel experiences. Their thesis aligns with mine (confirmation bias alert) in that vacation should be used as an opportunity to experience the diversity of the world and promote different perspectives. In keeping with their theme of mental models, they propose two ways of thinking:

1) Algebraic equivalence – realizing that different approaches can sum to the same value. Different cultures may have different definitions for things you take for granted. For example, some cultures place less emphasis on working life than we do in Canada. They may feel that other factors are more important to lead the meaningful and successful life we all seek. Experiencing this can be powerful enough to make you re-evaluate your own relationship with work and the meaning it creates for you.

2) Galilean Relativity – altering your point of reference, allowing you to make new observations. By getting outside of your routine environment, you are bound to notice new things about how societies, nature, transit, etc., operate. Gaining new perspectives and insights is one of the highlights of the travel experience.

They conclude their article with a few recommendations to help us get the most out of travel. These include journaling, not over-planning, deliberate goal setting, and having a growth mindset. All great advice! I encourage you to check it out.

Two hard truths to set you free

We think we are more important than we actually are. I mean this in the individual sense. Afterall, our own thoughts are the only ones we can think. Try as you might to, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” the experience will undoubtedly be coloured by your prior thinking and cognitive biases. Why does this matter? Because we get caught up in our inner narratives that tell us our perspective, our work, our contribution is more impactful than someone else’s. This happens quietly and insidiously, creating a sense of self-righteousness that erodes our well-being.

If your self-esteem is related to being right, feeling validated, or having others recognize your accomplishments, be prepared to feel down. If your expectation is that your work will make a difference, something largely out of your control, prepare to feel frustrated. If you can’t understand why others don’t see things your way, perhaps your analytical skills have become blunted by self-importance. This may sound extreme, but as you traverse the regular highs and lows of your week, I think these sentiments will resonate. 

Fortunately, you can free yourself from these perceptual binds by accepting two hard truths.

  1. You are replaceable. 

If I didn’t show up to work, a couple of people might think my unexplained absence was odd. After a day or two, some calls or e-mails would be placed to see what was up. Let’s say I then decided I was done; I wouldn’t go back. The immediate workplace concern would be to take stock of my former responsibilities and ensure that someone else was assigned to cover them. Intermediate to long-term plans would be made to find a lasting replacement. Three months from now, people may briefly recall the strange time when Andrew suddenly left. They would then go about their days. 

Now a real-world example. A teacher has been on staff at a local high school for 30 years. They taught thousands of students over this time. They were part of the fabric and culture of the school. This year, they retired. The staff had a lunch on the last day of school. A couple of colleagues paid a public tribute, shared some stories and bid their farewell. There was pizza. The retiree then walked out of the building for the last time. The administration then hired a new teacher. The remaining staff will file into the school at the start of the next year, their routines entirely unchanged. The incoming students will only know the retiree by their picture on the wall. 

These examples underscore that no matter how seriously you take your work, how much pride you have in the outcome, the world necessarily carries on in your absence. One could view this perspective as negative, deflating. The rational response is not to stop doing things because there is no point, but rather to cease worrying about day-to-day trivial matters and burdening oneself with overinflated self-importance. Accepting your replaceability causes you to evaluate the worth of your own progress, shifting toward a focus on the most meaningful pursuits.

There is a notable exception to the notion of being replaceable. You are not replaceable to your family and closest friends. It is to them, and only them, that your continued relationship matters, because the strength of that relationship is connected to their own well-being.

2. There is no legacy.

There are currently around 7 billion people on the planet. Billions have come before and billions more have yet to exist. The sheer magnitude of humanity makes the probability of your name or work being widely known, at present day, extremely low, let alone being recalled as some form of legacy generations from now. Of course, I recognize that most people don’t strive to become a global name. If notoriety is what you seek, it is likely to be sought or measured on a more local scale. But to what end?

Fame, that is strangers knowing who you are, is no reflection of the value you have created for yourself or anyone else. Fame is most often serendipitous. Value, on the other hand, is generally related to a dedicated pursuit of one thing that others deem to be desirable. Most links of the value chain, however, don’t indicate what happened upstream, or who was responsible for it. People are just happy to capture it. But time and desires change. What once was desired ceases to be so. The work done to generate value was not done in vain, it’s simply no longer as valuable as it once was. 

If your goal is to build something that will result in your being remembered long after you are gone, a legacy, you will most likely fall short. For this, too, is mostly out of your control. As with your replaceability, this should be viewed in a positive light. Why burden yourself with trying to influence the lives of those not yet in existence, when there is so much to be addressed in the present? You risk tying your sense of well-being, achievement, meaning or success to something that you will never experience. Instead, focus on meaningful efforts where you can improve and bring value to the current situation. 

This does not mean that we should not worry about the future state of humanity and the world we live in. The only way to effectively change it for the better, is to be firmly present in the happenings of this moment, where we can continuously do our best to be a force for good. 

By accepting that you are replaceable and that your purpose is not to create a legacy, you will stop prioritizing your time and work to the neglect of what matters most; your family, your friends, and your unique human experience. 

How to Practically Assess Health Information

You may have heard the term ‘evidence-based medicine’. This refers to practicing medicine with a solid grounding in scientific research. In medical school, we were taught how to critically appraise the evidence. Like any skill, this needs to be practiced. Hence, groups of doctors often assemble at a nice restaurant to discuss scientific journal articles. These ‘journal clubs’ promote evidence-based practice while bolstering our vibrant social lives.

Most of us, however, are not getting health information from the primary literature. The following scenario might sound familiar:

As you scroll through social media, a click-baity headline catches your attention. You take the bait and link out to an article from a media site you’ve never heard of with flashy ads all down the righthand side. You quickly skim the article or jump to the last paragraph to read its conclusion. In doing so, you’re unknowingly answering two questions:

  • Can I relate to this?
  • Does this support my already held beliefs about the topic?

After your brief skimming and intuition, you promptly decide if it supports or rejects your current worldview on the subject. In the former, you think ‘what an insightful piece’ (confirmation bias) and share it with your followers. In the latter, you think ‘this person has no idea what they are writing about…they are probably ignorant, stupid, or both’.

This approach, while common, is not useful. It is a product of our distracted world and results in hardening of already held beliefs. Instead, I suggest the following practical approach to assessing any health information you might be consuming, outside of the primary literature. It involves reflecting on five important questions.

Who is the source?

The source could be an individual or an organization. It’s important to find out where the information is coming from. What are the author’s credentials? Is this a researcher, journalist, news outlet, blogger (irony acknowledged), industry sponsor, etc? If you can’t figure out who the source is, consider this a red flag.

How is the source biased?

Everyone is biased. You need to figure out how, and if it could impact the presentation of their work. Be particularly cautious if the source has something to sell, benefits from a paid sponsorship, or has a track record of promoting a specific ideology.

Is the content credible?

In evidence-based medicine, we term this ‘internal validity’. This is harder to assess than the first two questions. One clue for credibility is the inclusion of references to primary literature. Even so, the author is generally betting that you won’t fact check them. If the subject is important enough, you should. Other indicators of credibility are discussion of limitations of findings or exploration of alternative views. These are necessary components of peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Beware content that makes extreme claims, using key words like ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘x causes y’, or ‘y cures z’. Good science is narrow in scope. In order to control for things, research studies have to be very specific. The result is that most evidence pushes our knowledge only incrementally. Findings usually don’t allow us to generalize to all contexts and populations, let alone make causal statements.

Does this apply to me within my context?

If you’ve made it this far, you now have to decide if the health information is actually relevant to your own situation. To do so, you need to know if the evidence upon which the source is based was generated from a population that shares your personal characteristics. These include age, sex, health status, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geography, and more. Put simply, does the study population look like me? If not, you don’t really know if the findings apply to your situation.

How can I apply this to my current health goals?

If all of the above questions hold (they won’t 95% of the time) you finally need to determine if the new information adds value. You probably have some goals for your health and well-being. These goals, both proximal and distant, inform your strategy and behaviour. If the health information you just assessed doesn’t fit with your goals, it’s not helpful. At least not now. But there is a chance that it applies to something you are working on right now. Great, this adds value! Now you’ve got some bona fide evidence-informed data to apply. Wasn’t that easy?