The competence required to read a room has never been a markedly polished skill for me. Rather than focusing on the environment between four walls, my brain typically falls into default mode somewhere between unnecessarily dissecting dozens of past events and catastrophizing incoherent future scenarios, creating a fun little never ending ‘doom-loop’. But then again, even a broken clock is right twice a day (2020 synonym: even a sneaker-head might trip over face mask they’ll sport in public once in a while).
Four arduous and uninspiring months ago, I strolled through the office door heading to my desk as I had done hundreds of times. The air/energy/vibe – call it whatever you please, it felt ‘off’. An uncomfortable, cringeworthy tension was making its presence known, everyone continually shifting in their chairs, never quite being able to settle into their typical morning routine. Not more than a few moments later our entire office logged onto a video call and were met with the melancholy face of our operations manager who had news.
“Effective two weeks from today, we will be shutting down our Nashville office and terminating all of your employment within the company. This was far from an easy decision, but we currently see no alternatives to this decision. COVID-19 has hit the travel industry hard, and we are having to make immense changes. We’re going to give you the rest of today off, and will give you more details tomorrow. Does anyone have any questions?”
Snide remarks were whispered under-breath by coworkers artificially propping their chins high, trying to shuffle out the door with the type of faux confidence you would typically only see from college school student who just cheated their way through a final exam, knowing good and well they’ll end up being exposed.
If you haven’t been laid off before, it’s pretty easy to explain. Did you ever get yelled at as a kid? Okay now, did you ever get yelled at as a kid – but by someone else’s parents? Where you not only feel newfound levels of inferiority, but where you also have utterly no ground to defend yourself? Yeah, it was a lot like that.
With what minuscule amount of self-worth was remaining, I stumbled through a couple half-hearted questions that were answered with more pity than substance.
“So what’re you doing for work now?”
While I may be justified in sense of the word, saying things like “Well I just never saw a global pandemic coming, that’s why I was unemployed for (insert) number of months,” I also can admit that was the easy way to wiggle myself out of any uncomfortable conversation about jobs.
As the year progressed into early March, it became apparent that COVID was going to have a serious impact on the economy. I understood the potential fallout but I did not prepare on how I would react, think about, or approach an impending job loss. I had no way of predicting the future, leaving questions unanswered: “How long will this pandemic last?”, “Can our company survive a downturn in bookings while being overextended-financially due to recently launching the Nashville market?” I didn’t have those answers, nor did I have a fallback plan in place for if layoffs were to begin. While I won’t plead the case of being the most unemployable person of the now millions jobless, I certainly didn’t have any offers or employment opportunities knocking on the door eagerly waiting to hire me right back into the work force.
There are some things in life that we can plan for, there are some things that we cannot. Was there anyway for a layman like myself to predict something as unforeseen as a global pandemic? Probably not.
“If I can’t predict, what can I do?
When you can’t predict with accuracy you can position. That means giving up something today to prepare a wider range of outcomes tomorrow. Positioning is always short term suboptimal. The longer your timespan, however, the more optimal it becomes. If you live a long life, it can’t help but be the correct strategy. Positioning doesn’t just apply to mortgages. For example, you can position yourself for the next job at work by learning new skills you don’t need today. You can position yourself for living a long life by eating healthy and exercising. You can position your company by keeping cash on hand.
Positioning doesn’t just ensure survival, it affords you the opportunity to periodically take advantage of chaos. Position means you’re always ready for what’s next.” Shane Parrish: fs.blog
Well said, Shane.
After slogging my way through what would only be fitting to call a “personal flaws assessment” (which was remarkably lengthy), I am now attempting to focus on concrete steps to better position myself for the next (insert: global pandemic, asteroid impact, extraterrestrial takeover, super-volcano eruption, solar flare). What did you say? Self-reflection? Nope, never met her. Although I may be lying to myself as to how much progress I’ve made in any non-fictitious steps toward better positioning, it’s the idea that counts…right? After what has felt like a 10-round mental boxing match between the primitive and developed portions of my mind, I’ve developed a conclusion which is likely already well known by many. The only difference between my perceived success or failure within any situation or against any obstacle encountered in the past is predicated entirely on how I am able to conduct myself within these four categories: Reacting, Analyzing, Diversifying and Predicting.
Our world is teeming with stimuli: from the excruciating sound of our alarm clock jolting us into existence, to peeking at our phone one last time to see if there’s a notification that must be attended to before bed, or possibly even succumbing to the leftover piece of cake we tried our best to hide in the back corner of the fridge. Surges of dopamine light up our day, carrying us from one moment to the next. This neurochemical process is unconsciously conditioning us to abstain from using our ‘thinking brain’ and handing the controls over to our much more sinister ‘impulse brain’.
“You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with magic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.” ― Warren Buffett
Creating the time to think and regaining control in our response after having been cut off in traffic, when in disagreement with a loved one, or after being laid-off at work can be the distinction between using reason and completely flying off the hinges. Not taking the one or two extra seconds before responding is how we end up making impulsive childish mistakes we always regret once a few minutes have elapsed. Taking deep breaths before making a comment or decision isn’t just a fib that your mom would tell you to make you cooperate. Reacting is almost always the poorest choice of action when we have the option to think and respond.
Perception of Reality
“Getting a flat tire is far more trivial than losing your job.” Yes, it is. But this doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be approached the same way. Being fired or laid-off may not be the preferable way to enter into the black hole that is unemployment and searching for a new career, but we need to recognize that we have the ability think about the bigger picture, to be aware that we’re likely to only encounter these difficult situation a handful of times for the entirety of our existence.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
If you had sent out a poll one year ago today reading “What potential societal, economic and/or health problems on the horizon should we be worried about? Answer: “, you would be hard pressed to find more than a few people out of hundreds of thousands who would have filled in the blank with “Global Pandemic” (ahem Bill Gates and Sam Harris looking at you).
It’s easy for anyone be a Monday morning quarterback, saying that there were ways to better prepare for when COVID would begin taking chunks out of the work force in historic fashion, but hindsight is always 20/20. Retroactively dissecting past can at times be helpful for future scenarios, yet I believe we should become more focused on creating better outcomes in the moment. How can we (more or less) inject time and put better default mental networks in place to make decisions in the moment that will ensure long-term success?
Patterns and Mental Models
Rather than regurgitating one of, if not the most, parroted case studies of all time: Gary Kasporov vs. Deep Blue (if you want a summary), I think it is safe to simply say that humans are incredible at recognizing patterns. Remembering where we placed our keys? Meh. The name of your waiter/waitress twenty seconds after they introduced themself? Not a chance. But what if you were at the supermarket and saw your teacher from the third grade? More than likely, you would recognize him/her. What about when that hear that song in a crowded office and you immediately are greeted with the sights and sounds of the exact moment you heard it at high school prom? We forget many details of everyday life, yet maintain an uncanny ability to recognize patterns.
“[This study considers] superior pattern processing as the fundamental basis of most, if not all, unique features of the human brain including intelligence, language, imagination, invention, and the belief in imaginary entities such as ghosts and gods.”
So if we are constantly recognizing patterns, the question becomes “How can we better interpret and relate the world of information around us to these systems we hold in our brains?” The answer: Mental Models.
“A mental model is an explanation of how something works. It is a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind to help you interpret the world and understand the relationship between things. Mental models are deeply held beliefs about how the world works.
Philosophers have discussed these ideas for hundreds of years, but the poster child for mental models is none other than Warren Buffets’ right hand man, Charlie Munger. He is and will continue to be regarded as one of the best minds we have seen in the last few centuries. Munger frequently references the ever more important quote in a world of specialization “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail“, exemplifying our need for a better ‘latticework’ of mental strategies to apply to situations continually happening around us. If we are unable to predict the future, we can change the way process and perceive information in the moment.
For example, supply and demand is a mental model that helps you understand how the economy works. Game theory is a mental model that helps you understand how relationships and trust work. Entropy is a mental model that helps you understand how disorder and decay work.
Mental models guide your perception and behavior. They are the thinking tools that you use to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems. Learning a new mental model gives you a new way to see the world—like Richard Feynman learning a new math technique.” – James Clear
“The average expert was a horrific forecaster. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, academic degrees, and even (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting, bad at long-term forecasting, and bad at forecasting in every domain. When experts declared that some future event was impossible or nearly impossible, it nonetheless occurred 15 percent of the time. When they declared a sure thing, it failed to transpire more than one-quarter of the time.” – David Epstein “Range“
The capacity our brains have to anticipate future events is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Predicting that traffic is going to bad for Labor Day weekend and leaving early for a trip ensures that you don’t arrive late for the party. Good job brain. Predicting the world would end in 2012 according to the Mayan calendar and planning to kill your pets to help them avoid suffering, is clearly not the best use of our intellect. No no brain, bad job.
We need to become aware of our predictions and come to realize that more often than not, we are wrong. This doesn’t mean we should never anticipate the future, it does mean that we should see our own limitations. There is an infinite number of ways that any scenario in our lives could play out, only of which one prediction will be correct.
Nassim Taleb beautifully articulates not only our failing predictions, but also our inability to accept the difficulty of adjusting in a surprising world “...[such as] the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse – and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent.
This is not a failure of analysis; it’s a failure of imagination. Realizing the future might not look anything like the past – and indeed that phrase may as well be a synonym of the word “history” – is a special kind of skill that is not generally looked highly upon by the analytical forecasting community.“
Mutual funds, ETF’s, index funds…diversification. It shouldn’t take Warren Buffet to tell you that your safest long-term strategy with investments is to diversify. So if diversifying works with money management, would it not make sense to apply this methodology to our lives across the board? Where can we apply diversification to other facets of our lives?
“Hey honey we’ve seen more than a few spiders and roaches in the house now that it’s getting colder outside, should we call the exterminator?”
“No not yet, I think we should wait until there are so many inside that we deem our house uninhabitable. That way the exterminator can just come inside the house and incinerate all of the pests with a flamethrower, it’s much quicker and cheaper than calling them every time we notice a problem.”
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Maybe that was a reach of an analogy, but it should at least make us think. We spend countless dollars in preventative work, investing in 401k’s to make sure that we’re able to live comfortably in retirement, changing the oil in the car every 3-5,000 miles, replacing a furnace filter every few months, but how frequently do we take an inventory of how our own body is holding up? Are we sleeping well? Do we have energy throughout the day or do we have frequent crashes? Are we monitoring blood work to do our part in staving off disease?
Often times someone may never know just how necessary staying healthy is until it’s too late, as we all fall victim to the normalcy bias. The normalcy bias in essence is the belief that “It hasn’t happened to me yet, so that means that it won’t happen.” It’s the under-estimation of catastrophes, disasters, global viral infections, or any crisis for that matter.
8/26/20: As I write this there is a Category 4 hurricane estimated to make landfall tonight less than 100 miles away, and all day I’ve fittingly been making fun of people stockpiling water, gas, and yes again…toilet paper
8/28/20: **edit** The hurricane took a sharp eastern turn before landfall and my non-factual based predictions were correct, feeding the ego of my normalcy bias guaranteeing I won’t change anything before the next natural distaster
We don’t know when the next bad fall or car wreck may occur, and I believe it only makes sense to keep ourselves in good-standing health for if and when the worst comes to fruition. It’s not hard to dream up dozens of of situations where being healthy pays off ten fold – take Kevin Hart’s statement about his recent, horrific car crash, “The work that I put into my core and my upper body over the years are what saved me….The health and wellness s—t is so much bigger than what you think it is, if I didn’t have that core I’d be paralyzed. I’d be f—ing paralyzed.”
Or let’s take the claim, “Older adults with reduced muscle strength have higher mortality.” Erroneous? Not when put in the context of common chain reactions. Weaker muscles lead to decreased balance and bone density which leads to falls which lead to nursing homes which lead to… “Hip fractures are associated with significant morbidity, mortality, loss of independence, and financial burden.6–12 In usual care, the reported 1-year mortality after sustaining a hip fracture has been estimated to be 14% to 58%” according to one study. Taking advantage of our health while we still have it can be tedious, confusing, and frankly a lot of work. But what’s the use of all other preventative steps in life if we aren’t healthy enough to take advantage of those actions?
“Many—maybe even all—of the issues we deal with, other people have faced before us. And, in some cases, those people even went on to write very long books about how best to deal with those problems. So if you can use a book, or an article, to learn and avoid making future mistakes, that’s a value add. (Sort of like a prebiotic for life.)” – Joe Holder
Reading about any and all topics that you are interested in will not only add advantageous knowledge to your repertoire, ready to be utilized and retrieved moments notice, it’s also fun. Learning from the past is part of what allows us to partake in more fruitful ventures the older we get, it’s why you rarely see young people described as “wise”. But what makes us human is our ability to learn from collective knowledge, to take advice and to heed from the smartest minds that have written and told their stories for hundreds of years, all available for our taking. We can use others failed, successful, or rather uneventful experiences to learn from, to give us the upper hand in what we are currently facing. Reading provides advice in many areas that our own experience cannot.
Adding New Skills
Maybe your job today doesn’t require you to know how to code, but how do we know that coding won’t be an invaluable skill as the singularity approaches? Learning to build a website on the side while you sell insurance could be the stepping stone to starting your own business when the opportunity presents itself in a few years. Learning a skill that seems pointless at the moment can put you in a position to be able to call upon a vast base of knowledge to help you succeed in the future. What starts as a hobby can just as easily turn into something that will one day eventually replace your main source of income, whilst being work you truly enjoy
Just ask Lynn and Nakia Price who started the, now famous, Turkey Leg Hut in Houston after barbecuing for friends and family at the Houston Rodeo. Yes, I am still thinking about the first meal I ever ate there.
No matter what the present moment holds, we always have the opportunity to shift our perception, think better, learn more, and put ourselves in a better position for whatever tomorrow may bring.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca