Practical Philosophy

Articulate chaos into order

Why is it that, when we feel lost, confused or in despair, talking to a friend can make us feel so much better? The answer is that articulating our experiences can help us better understand what happened, and how we can use this information in the future.

When I experienced a pretty serious financial emergency running my business last year, it made me question a lot of my perceptions. Was my business model valid? Was I a terrible business person? Was I a failure? In an emergency (emergence-y), the scary and unknown emerges and creeps into our world. What was once order is now chaos.

To deal with emerging chaos, we have to articulate the situation, and quickly. Articulating problems helps us organise our thoughts. It can help us bring together separate instances into a coherent narrative.. so we can establish what to do next. We need to ask ourselves what happened (the past), where we are now (the present) and what we are going to do about it (the future).

First question, what happened? Ok, I bought way too much inventory and ignored my budget. Terrible move. I know I have a tendency to be less organised, and that’s why I created a budget in the first place. For the first time, I ignored it and spent too much.

Second question, where am I now? I have $5,000 in the bank account. I have just enough money to pay for taxes, but I won’t have enough to re-order inventory. I feel incredibly guilty about this and the stress is overwhelming.

Third, how am I going to move forward? I will create a website sale to get some immediate cash-flow, and I will inject $5,000 of my own money into the business to keep it going. I will forgive myself for making an honest mistake (other people have done the same thing). I will move forward, following the budget from now on.

By articulating my emergency, I confronted the chaos. I pointed a flashlight into the dark and scary tunnel of the unknown and illuminated it. This made it much less scary, and the stress much easier to bear.

Thoughts from 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.

Practical Philosophy

Just listen

Active listening is being 100% focused on to what your conversation partner is saying.

The biggest challenge is “calming our inner schizophrenic”. This is our tendency to think about what to say next. It is our mind wandering, thinking of a new topic or preparing a clever answer. In either case, it’s us, talking to ourselves, rather than listening to what the other person is saying.

Active listening is to drop all of our cares about “what to say next”, and to just focus 100% on what your partner is talking about. When you feel your mind wandering, be mindful of it, and bring your attention back on what your conversation partner is talking about. Just listen.

When you just listen, you get more out of your conversations. First, your brain is primed to learn what the person is talking about. When we passively listen, we tend to forget it quickly.

Second, your conversations will get way deeper, and way more interesting. You will pick up on ideas beyond the surface level. You will discover underlying emotions, motivations and connections to other ideas you may have.

Third, you will build rapport. A good conversation partner listens to what you have to say. This is why active listening is the first phase in any negotation. You need to build rapport and trust before you can begin to influence behaviour.

Practical Philosophy

The insufferable Alpha Geek

For a large part of my 20’s, I definitely believe I partly was an Alpha Geek. After some early entreprenerial successes in my late teens, I was setup to become a proper nightmare to work with. At my first digital marketing job, I got reported to HR, not once, but twice, for my conduct in working with agencies. I wasn’t afraid of speaking my mind about poor strategies and I probably worded things insensitively.

The Alpha Geek mentality is not practical. First, it makes you incredibly difficult to work. Nobody likes to approach an Alpha Geek because they fear being criticised, or called stupid. This means the Alpha Geek has a tendency to be ostracised – and certainly not promoted. If you have ambitions, you have to drop the Alpha Geek mentality.

The Alpha Geek mentality is also not sustainable. Everybody gets humbled eventually. I certainly did, several times. The first time was when I lost my client base as a freelancer. The second time was after I made a series of poor decisions which nearly collapsed my e-commerce business. Both instances made me think “Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am”. And that’s a healthy thought to have because hubris is really a form of self-deception. Opening my eyes to my own fallibility and breaking out of my fixed mindset was the first step in really making personal and professional progress.

The Alpha Geek is a concept introduced by Camille Fournier in The Manager’s Path.

Practical Philosophy

Great people design their reputations

Julius Caesar was known for the dramatic. Crossing the Rubicon was a symbolic act of “no going back”. Later, he would wear red at parades, like Mars. He would host gladiatorial games to rouse the people. He would ride Cleopatra through the streets of Rome. One thing could be certain: Julius Caesar made it a reputation to put on a show.

In The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene points out that great people deliberately choose their reputations. They pick a strength, and focus on building as much attention to it as possible. With enough attention, their strength becomes a reputation.

Genghis Khan deliberately built a reputation as a merciless conqueror. Any cities that rebelled against the Mongols were massacred – in some cases including the women, children, and even pets. The result was that neighbouring cities would immediately surrender out of fear of repurcutions.

Winston Churchill developed a reputation of being a dramatic orator. This carried weight, and made his words carry a kind of magical weight to them. Listening to any of Churchill’s speeches today still carries this magic – and partly because of his reputation.

Society is based on appearances, and because most people act the same way, most people get lost in the crowd. To get noticed, you have to make an effort. And the best way of doing this is to develop a reputation for something you are great at.

According to Robert Greene, the early parts of our career should be devoted on building this reputation: to get as much attention as possibler to our key strength. That could be communicating, or negotiating, or working hard, or leadership, etc.

And interestingly, this is the same recommendation as put forward in the career development book The Squiggly Career. In this, the authors first task readers with choosing several strength to develop into “super strengths”; strengths they want to build reputations out of.

If we don’t build our own reputation, then other people will. What do people talk about us when we step outside of the room? Who knows. An insightful exercise is to ask other people what they think your main strengths are. I did this with my ex-boss and colleagues, and had unexpected results.

Practical Philosophy

Words have unintended consequences

In both How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 48 Laws of Power, the authors highlight that you should be very careful when disagreeing with people. If somebody raises an incorrect point, and you correct them, they will often perceive it as a challenge to their intelligence. Being argumentative is a quick way to build resentment, regardless of how right you are.

Recently, I caught up with an old friend. In our conversation, we talked about a mutual friend. “Yeah, she’s doing this now.” “Oh, she’s travelling there.” “Remember when you asked what school she went to because of her bad spelling?” Oh shit. It must have been a bad joke I made years ago. Nonetheless, I felt terrible and apologised. It was a stark reminder that when you say things, you cannot take them back.

Saying less is generally better than saying too much. It’s wise to control your emotions and reign in the need to make that sarcastic comment. Why? Your words and actions have unintended consequences.

Practical Philosophy

You must learn to control your emotions

A few years ago, I went out with some friends. We were crossing the road, when a van tried to push through the red light and beeped at us to “hurry up”. One of my friends, in a sudden fit of rage, kicked the van. Yep, he actually kicked the van. I didn’t really know how to react. I asked “are you alright?” He pretended like nothing happened, but it was pretty clear he regretted his outburst.

Losing your cool in public often causes you to look ridiculous. While you may think it is a display of your passion and standing up for yourself, more often than not, it makes you look like a fool. Why? Because other people watching you are not feeling those same emotions. To them, you just look like a man who has lost all self-control.

In the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, his first lesson is that we must learn to control our emotions. Emotions throw reason and judgement out of the window. The last time I got seriously angry, I broke a clothes hanger and damaged my wallpaper. Humiliating. I regretted it later. When we cannot control our emotions, we lose self-control. Without self-control, we cannot possibly follow any logical plans to better our lives.

Because most people are driven by emotions, it is also important to manage your words or face unintended consequences.