Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

15Feb/150

Rest

I've talked about this in a slightly different form before, but I'm a firm believer in the value of rest. There are obviously many scientific studies that show the effect of rest on both physical and mental well-being with everything from the rebuilding and repair of muscle tissue to the development of synapses in the brain. It's an obvious need that we all have as humans.

However, although most humans get some sort of routine of sleep at night and take some amount of rest from normal work activities, I'd like to suggest that you challenge yourself on how you rest. My hypothesis is that many people can gain a significant amount of improvement specifically in their mental and creative capacity through a more intentional application of rest.

Our world is busy and hectic. I'm sure that humans have said this since the dawn of time. When the first nomadic tribes started using horses instead of just walking, I'm sure there was some naysayer in desert garb who said "Our lives are so BUSY now -- we have to take care of horses now in addition to everything else." I don't mean to suggest that we're unique in having busy and hectic lives. I think that many, if not most cultures have felt similarly in the past. However, I'm suggesting that we attempt to enjoy our life by avoiding both the temptation to muscle our way through it or to run away from it. It doesn't matter what it is that makes us busy or what it is that makes our days feel hectic, we need to set apart time to retract from this without completely giving up.

Sleep

I am a Christian and I do believe that prayer is a powerful and meaningful "retreat" that is, in itself, a form of rest. Christian prayer is the idea of direct communication with a loving God who we claim as our father. However, for Christians or non-Christians alike, I believe that there is an additional rest or retreat that is valuable.

First off, I'm guessing that most readers at this point will make the assumption that I will now talk about "shutting off the cell phone" or "logging off of Facebook" or "turning of the TV". These are all commonly called for activities. The idea that somehow retreating from technology will solve our problems. What I'm suggesting isn't necessarily in conflict with that, but I believe it's far more purposeful. Technology does not make our lives meaningless or boring or depressing or hectic. However, any technology that we use day-in and day-out is something that we should take a break from periodically. If you do not use a computer except on the weekends, I think the idea that you should "take a break" from using it is a little silly.

The purpose of rest and retreat is to allow for a certain sort of healing and recovery. Just as with muscles, we do need an opportunity to not use technology if we expect to be better in using it in the future. We need to identify areas where we can be "mentally muscle-bound". These are areas where we have developed skills or abilities that are perhaps not well balanced or contrasted with other skills that are being ignored.

For whatever reason, our brains have the strange ability to compensate for senses that are unavailable. Although most people will initially stumble and have trouble operating completely in the dark (as if they are totally blind), over time, the other sense can be honed to fill in a large part of the gap that eyesight previously provided. It seems natural to me that the same applies in other skills and abilities. We should ensure that we are not reliant on one "sense" so much that we are helpless when it becomes unavailable. By "sense" here, I mean some piece of technology, some ability, some tool, some technique. If the only way we typically communicate is through writing an email, we should consider taking a break from email in order to hone our ability to communicate in other mediums. If we are used to reading relatively short articles or blurbs of information (such as blog posts and mainstream media articles) we should take a break to focus on our ability to dig deep into lengthy and complex works.

Self-improvement involves constant analysis of where we are. Be aware of what you do often, and what you do infrequently and when possible, take breaks that allow you to hone those skills or those areas where you feel you've fallen out of practice or familiarity.

And when you need it, never think twice about taking a nap. We all need rest.

 

12Feb/150

Self-Confidence

Self-confidence can be a great thing, so long as you are truly capable of those things that you are confident about.

Feeling good about your own abilities can be very powerful. And correspondingly, lack of self-esteem can be a real problem. We ought to be confident with others when we're dealing with things that we are experts on. If we are a successful business-person, we should feel confident about talking about how our business runs and how we got it to where it is.

Feeling as if our own opinion is intrinsically worth less than others is definitely an issue and I'm sure many people struggle with it. But I think that overall our culture struggles much more with misplaced self-confidence than with a self-esteem problem.

Children are often taught that their work is excellent, even when it's really not when compared to their peers. They are taught that they are incredibly smart, when they really aren't.

The word "excellent" should really mean something different than "good". If I have a good employee, I mean that he performs his duties well and does a good job. This does not make him excellent. Excellent implies that he truly stands out among employees as a particularly exceptional character.

In my company, as in many companies, we have annual performance reviews. During these reviews, our manager assigned a nProud!umber between 1 and 5 that indicates our performance for the year. I had one manager who consistently gave 4 and 5 ratings to all his staff. His explanation was that "we only hire the best and the brightest, and you all are exceptional employees". This really isn't the point of the evaluation. The point is to show which employee or employees from the larger set of all employees truly are exceptional. Most employees should probably be given a 3 rating -- the description next to this number indicates that an employee with a 3 rating "consistently performs his duties as assigned and meets deadlines" (or something to that effect). In reality, that describes most good workers. People that you want to stay with the company forever if possible and that are a delight to work with and spend time with.

To make everyone special is to make no one special. The point of lifting some people up as experts in their field, or people deserving of honor and reward, is because they truly outshine those around them.

But to take this back into the realm of self-confidence, I think that far too many people in the modern believe that they have amazing "skills" when really their skill is mediocre at best. Consider those who have written some code in their life. Programming has become a very common auxilliary task for many professions. People who work with computers in various fields find it useful to spend some time writing code of some sort to automate, or simplify, or reduce complexity in their ordinary jobs. This is great for them, but they are not experts in most cases.

I'm here to burst some bubbles. Spending a few hours, or a few days, or even a few weeks learning a new skill does not make you an expert. Furthermore, going to a university for an undergraduate degree, or even a graduate degree, does not make you an expert. Even spending years of your life exercising a skill does not make you an expert.

Let me explain what I mean by an analogy: Playing the piano is a lot of fun. Many people enjoy it and many people are even good at it. There are very few experts. I cannot simply become an expert because I practice each day or because I go to an expensive school or because I buy expensive pianos.

Becoming an expert at something is a combination of the effort that you put into a skill and the inherent talent that you possess for that skill.

Keep in mind, it's not enough to just spend time with something. Some people will never excel at something even if they are passionate about it. I've read books by authors who have written for over 40 years whose books are still drivel. I've seen construction work done by people with years of experience in a variety of contracting work that's still awful. I've seen software that's written by veterans of coding who had to punch out their code on ancient computer systems that's simply terrible.

I'd encourage the following:

  1. Don't expect people to respect you and your work because you were educated in a particular field. Having an MBA does not mean you know how to run a business.
  2. Don't think that because you work in an industry, you are therefore an expert in that industry. There are far too many people in jobs that they are lucky to have, and really aren't qualified for.
  3. Critique the praise you receive. Are they simply flattering you because you can do something for them? Are they ignorant of your actual skills? Simply because many people praise your abilities, does not mean that you are exceptionally good at what you do.

But, you might ask, what's the point of being all negative about your own abilities? Am I just being a killjoy that encourages morbid introspection and wants you to run yourself down professionally?

I think the best answer is that you cannot become an expert at something when you already believe you are one. We learn best from our failures. The smartest people I know are people who are painfully aware of many areas where they lack knowledge and ability. They actively pursue these areas and attempt to fill gaps where they know they are less than they can be. They become experts in part because of their own innate talent, but also because of their dogged determination.

So be humble. Never assume you are the smartest person in the room. Never talk down to others when they share an idea. Be ready to learn from anyone. Sure, there will be idiots that you interact with in life and people that rapidly show themselves to be ignorant of areas that you are very knowledgeable about. You certainly are smarter than some people. But if you start with the idea that you are very smart, very experienced, and very wise, you're very likely to get to no smarter, no more experienced, and no wiser through your interactions with others.

Also, it's just annoying.