Musings – Part 9

Musings – Part 9

A few of the things I’m thinking about during this period of isolation:

Forgiveness.  We all do things we wish we could take back, and likely would, if only we had the chance. So why should we hold others accountable for being imperfect and fallible? When we no longer see their behaviour towards us as the totality of their character, but rather the result of their circumstances and frailties, then we’ve achieved a state of forgiveness.

Hanlon’s Razor says “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity.” In other words, how people act, in moments of anxiety or uncertainty, is not necessarily who they are. The capacity to forgive is a skill. Like muscles, skills are strengthened through repeated use. Just as strong muscles are necessary to physical health, forgiveness keeps our emotional circuits healthy and in balance.

Forgiveness is easier said than done. The annoyance or pain we feel about “what happened” has a stickiness quality to it – our feelings linger long after the event. Research says forgiveness decreases our feelings of anger, anxiety or depression while improving our relationships. It also makes us less self-conscious and insecure. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily make us feel better about ourselves or more accepting of others. It’s really about unloading resentment and letting go of what weighs us down. It’s not allowing ill will to define who we are. It’s a gift we give to others that also helps us overcome what we think is unforgivable.

Carefully consider the expectations you have of others. Do you want them in your life or not? If yes, determine which behaviors you will or will not accept. Then tell them. Communicate the consequences of future infractions and recalibrate the boundaries. If not, forgive them. Then forget them. Move on. It’s another choice point. Let your ruminations of being mistreated wash away. Let the urge to see recrimination or revenge die. It’s not helping anyone, least of all you. See the experience as learning how to be more skilled in the games we all play every day.

Tradeoffs.  Life is not zero sum. Every choice has an opportunity cost: there are losses and gains to be made. If we can’t calculate tradeoffs, we lose more than we gain. Trying to get everything done is usually a recipe for getting nothing done. The enemies are our habits, obligations or an inability to set priorities (a future blog topic). Getting really great at some things invariably means becoming mediocre at others. People with world-class technical skills are often socially clueless. Success in one endeavour can be to the detriment of another. If we use an hour for one thing, we can’t use it to do something else.

The world in which we live has improved our lives in many ways. We are, for the most part, stronger and healthier. But also more vulnerable. We are susceptible to viruses – both literally and figuratively – to terrorists, to the inevitable consequences of climate change, and to other existential threats to our well being. Our greater freedoms require greater responsibilities. The more interdependent we are, the more dependent on others we become. And the more vulnerable to economic, political and social disruption. The more we trust, the more our trust is shattered by those we should not.

The longer we live, the more likely we will encounter some form of dementia – currently, one in nine North Americans over 65 suffers from serious cognitive decline; by 2050, that number is forecast to be one in three. That’s the definition of a pandemic. Our brains were only built to last so long. Learn how to take care of yours. To everything of consequence, there are trade-offs. Those who know how to make tradeoffs get more out of life than those who try to get everything. Learn what they are.

Motivation. Perseverance is unrelated to reward. Performance bonuses, for example, create expectations that are difficult to sustain and often generate unintended consequences. When the railroad was built across America, workers were offered $50K per track mile. The result was a lot of unnecessary curves. When IBM offered a bonus for every line of code, the outcome was superfluous computer programming. When Mexico asked people to use their cars on alternate days to reduce smog, the rich bought another one and added to the pollution. Rewards simply drive us to earn more rewards; they don’t activate the brain’s motivation system (located in the ventral striatum). Reward occurs elsewhere – in the nucleus accumbens, which is the source of dopamine (our pleasure drug).

Motivation stems entirely from the strength of one’s commitment. This is the foundation of success. When motivation becomes a problem, start asking “how strong is my commitment”? The distinguished professor Harry Harlow long ago concluded from his research that monkeys solve puzzles simply because they find it gratifying to do so – in other words, the task is its own reward. Many people don’t get that simple concept.

We cannot motivate people; we can only demotivate them. Motivation is internally generated (and depleted). It does not come from others and cannot be given. It happens when we anticipate an affirmation of personally significant achievements. And sustainable motivation only occurs when we’re making meaningful, step-by-step progress. We all enter the world motivated – with the will to get better. This is why it’s so easy to inspire or excite children. They are permanently curious, hence highly motivated to learn. The greatest achievements throughout history have never been a consequence of promised rewards. They only came from within.