PLANS. Why do we believe our plans for the future will succeed and are surprised when they don’t? It’s easy to be hopeful about the consequences of good intentions but impossible to know with precision the outcome of a set of sequential events. We underestimate our presumptions and overestimate our strengths. We misunderstand randomness and think the future is likely to be an extension of the past. We know we make mistakes yet, for most of our lives, we remain unfailingly upbeat about our plans. We approach new and challenging circumstances with unrealistic expectations, harbour false assumptions and generally choose to ignore the early warning signs that something may be going awry..
Nicholas Taleb coined the term “narrative fallacy” to define how we invent convenient theories or explanations to spare us the despair of acknowledging that chaos, not order, rules the universe. In his treatise on black swan events, disruption is more the norm than the exception. The best laid plans often fail because the world is inherently unpredictable. Things invariably take longer and cost more than we assume. Plans don’t work as expected because the designated tasks and accountabilities require the cooperation of others. And that is never assured. As more people get involved, bringing their own beliefs, biases and misconceptions into play, the greater the likelihood of discord or delay.
As the world becomes ever more ambiguous, the possibilities of failure increase. Plans should be dynamic and open to frequent adjustment, which means the subsequent steps must be amenable to change in unknowable ways. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said people who are right a lot change their mind a lot. And the more complicated our plans, the greater the probability something will go wrong. Murphy told us that years ago. So, when making plans, set aside your Pollyannaish assumptions and contemplate the probability that things could go wrong. Balance hopefulness with empiricism and come somewhat closer to reality.
SLEEP. I am an accidental sleep researcher, the result of a fifty-year fascination with brain science. Two-thirds of adults today fail to obtain the recommended hours of sleep which is one reason the World Health Organization has declared sleep loss to be an epidemic in all industrialized nations. This is one consequence of the frenetic pace of change. Almost two hundred years ago, the invention of the telegraph transformed the world by relaying information at three bits per second. Forty years ago, the Internet increased that to 1,000 bits. Now it’s about a billion bits/second. That exponential increase in communications technology is a metaphor for how we choose to live our lives and hence our general apathy for a good night’s sleep.
Science tells us sleep deprivation demolishes the immune system, doubles the risk of cancer, encourages dementia, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and psychiatric disorders like extreme anxiety and depression. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths and industrial accidents directly attributable to fatigue. The shorter your sleep cycle, the shorter your life. On the flip side, sleep enriches our ability to learn and make good choices. It recalibrates our brain circuits, restocks our insulin and glucose, regulates appetite and lowers blood pressure. It is the single most important thing we can do to reset our mental, emotional and physical well being each and every day. Finding the solution, or perhaps more accurately the balance, is not easy. Like almost everything else, the answer lies in making the difficult but essential trade-offs as we advance in age. Have a pleasant dream about that notion tonight.
GOSSIP. Though we like to think otherwise, we all gossip. Despite a slight gender bias, research suggests as much as two-thirds of adult conversations consist of gossip. We talk about people whom we know but who are not fully aware of how we really feel about them. We speak of both friends and foes whom we like to either emulate or disparage. It’s one way we make meaningful connections with others, how we seek to cement important relationships, promote cooperation, aggrandize ourselves, stave off loneliness and learn about “the game” called life. Positive gossip enhances intimacy, neutral gossip can be calmingly informative and negative gossip often makes us feel better about ourselves. This is one consequence of our desire for sociability and why we choose to ignore the good advice that most received as children, to wit: “If you have nothing nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
This innate proclivity is compounded to a measurable degree by the seduction of social media. It’s an all-too-convenient vehicle for sharing tales about others more quickly, more conveniently and in greater quantity than our normal face-to-face interactions. While the quality of information exchanged online is usually questionable, it’s a form of entertainment and can occasionally be helpful when it precedes meeting a stranger. That said, the value of the information exchanged as gossip is inversely related to its recency and triviality. As humans, we will continue to gossip. But know this: whether truthful or malicious, how we speak about others invariably says more about us than them.