Maybe negative new years resolutions might be better

I am quite certain that new year resolutions don’t really work, are more wishful thinking (gyms are full in January and empty in February), except when you are registered for a course, study hard and pass.

New resolutions but old habits. The paradox of new years resolutions is that you get into the new year with new ideals but you are still carrying the old habits.

I have personally never been successful with positive resolutions, but have been with stated negative year-end rules: in 2007 (never be late for meetings, submission for the year 2008 which worked well by injecting redundancies, and seems to have effortless carried over to today) and 2012 (no more neglecting writting and reading, with weak exceptions).

Intuitively this makes sense. Easier to eliminate some bad practice, rather than doing something new. We’ll try in 2014.

Thank You

Thank You
As the year 2013 comes to an end, I would like to express my gratitude to the people who have contributed to my development and growth this year. As an entrepreneur, it was never an easy year both personally and business-wise, certain difficult decisions had to be made, some life changing decisions, some brave decisions and some decisions difficult to implement.

Over 6000 people have visited my blog since August 2013, I really appreciate your visits and humbled by your contributions. I have learned and grown through your inputs. My wish for 2014 is for growth for you in your personal and entrepreneurship endeavours.

Like Seth Godin says: Lets go ahead and make something for the elites. Not the elites of class or wealth, but the elites of curiosity, passion and taste.

Thank you for everything you do. Most important, thanks for living your dreams out loud, bringing generosity, insight and wonder to the work you do.

Thank you, Dankie, Ngiyathokoza, Ke a leboga, Siyabonga, Inkomu, Ndo livhuwa, livhuwa, Enkosi, Ngiyabonga

Why watching and waiting is torture

Quiet Place
In a penalty situation in soccer, the ball takes less than 0.3 seconds to travel from the player who kicks the ball to the goal. There is not enough time for the goalkeeper to watch the ball’s direction. He must take a decision before the ball is kicked. Soccer players who take penalty kicks shoot one third of the time at the middle of the goal, one third of the time at the left, and one third of the time at the right. Surely goalkeepers have spotted this, but what do they do? They dive either to the left or to the right. Rarely do they stay standing in the middle, even though roughly a third of all balls land there. Why on earth would they jeopardise saving these penalties? The simple answer: appearance. It looks more impressive and feels less embarrassing to dive to the wrong side than to freeze on the spot and watch the ball sail past.

This is the action bias: look active, even if it achieve nothing.

This study comes from the Israeli researcher Michael Bar-Eli, who evaluated hundreds of penalty shoot-outs. But not just goalkeepers fall victim to the action bias. Suppose a group of youths exist a nightclub and begins to argue, shouting at each. The situation is close to escalating into an all-out fight. The police is the area monitoring the scene from a distance hold back and intervene only when the first casualty appear.

The action bias exists even in the most educated circles. If a patient’s illness cannot yet be diagnosed with certainty, and doctors must choose between intervening (i.e. prescribing something) or waiting and seeing, they are prone to taking action. Such decisions have nothing to do with profiteering or professional misconduct, but rather with the human tendency to want to do anything but sit and wait n the face of uncertainty.

Traditionally our fore-fathers have always been reacting to any slight movement they encountered. When they saw a shadow appear at the edge of the forest, something that looked like an animal, they did not take time to reflect on what that may be. They hit the road and fast.

Although we now value time to reflect more highly, outright inaction remains a cardinal sin. You get no honour, no medal, no statue with your name on it if you make exactly the right decision by waiting, for the good of the company, the government, even humanity. It is as if waiting is synonymous with incompetence. When a person opts to wait and think things through, or using the phrase “let me sleep on it”, that is a sign of weakness. People want to make urgent decisions, making business decisions as if walking into a clothing store and buying a shirt. If you demonstrate decisiveness and quick judgement, and the situation improves (though perhaps coincidentally), its quite possible your boss, or business partner, will shake your hand. Society still prefers rash action to a sensible wait-and-see strategy.

In conclusion: in new or uncertain circumstances, we feel compelled to do something, anything. Afterward we feel better, even if we have made things worse by acting too quickly or too often. So, though it might not merit a parade in your honour, if a situation is unclear, hold back until you can assess your options.

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,’ wrote Blaise Pascal. At home, in his study.

Why you should set fire to your ships

Next to my bed, two dozens books are staked high. I have dipped in and out of all them, but am unable to part with even one. I know that sporadic reading won’t help me achieve any real insights, despite the many hours I put in, and that I should really devote myself to one book at a time. So why am I still juggling all twenty-four? I remember listening to former President Mbeki’s radio interview saying he is reading three books at the same time (not simultaneously, if you know what I mean) . After succumbing to my urge of reading three books at the same time, I realised it is not for me.

I know of a friend a while back who was dating three women. He was in love with all three (so he says) and can imagine starting a family with any of them. However, he simply doesn’t have the heart to choose just one, because then he would be passing up on the other two for good. If he refrains from deciding, all options remain open. The downside is that no real relationship will develop. So why was still juggling three of them, even though he knew he had to choose one?

In the third century B.C., General Xiang Yu sent his army across the Yangtze River to take on the Qin Dynasty. While his troops slept, he ordered all the ships to be set alight. The next day, he told them: ‘You now have a choice: Either you fight to win or you die.’ By removing the option of retreat, he switched their focus to the only thing that mattered: the battle. Spanish conquistador Cortes used the same motivational trick in the sixteenth century. After landing on the east coast of Mexico, he sank his own ship.

Xiang Yu and Cortes are exceptions. We mere mortals do everything we can to keep open the maximum number of options. We grow up being told we should get a good education so that we can have options.

So why is it that when we have so many options we are unable to decide or prolong to decide, why do we act so irrationally? Because the downside to such behaviour is not always apparent. In the financial markets, things are clear: a financial option on a security always costs something. There is no such a thing as a free option, but in most other realms, options seem to be free. This is an illusion, however. They also come at a price, but the price tag is often hidden and intangible: each decision cost mental energy and eats up precious time for thinking and living.

We are obsessed with having as many irons as possible in the fire, ruling nothing out and being open to everything. However, this can easily destroy success. We must learn to close doors.

A business strategy is primarily a statement on what not to engage in. Adopt a life strategy similar to a corporate strategy:

write down what not to pursue in your life.

In others words, make calculated decisions to disregard certain possibilities and when an option shows up, test it against your not-to-pursue list. It will only keep you from trouble but also save you lots of thinking time.

Think hard once and then just consult your list instead of having to make up your mind whenever a new door cracks open. Most doors are not worth going through, even when the handle seems to turn so effortlessly.

If you have nothing to say, say nothing

When asked why a fifth of Americans were unable to locate their country on a world map, Miss Teen Carolina in the USA, a high school graduate, gave this answer in front of rolling cameras:

‘I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and I believe that our education like such as South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.’

(here is the link to the beauty queen answer:

Catastrophic, you agree. The video went viral. But you don’t spend too much time listening to beauty queens. Ok, how about the following sentence?

‘There is certainly no necessity that this increasingly reflexive transmission of cultural traditions be associated with subject-centred reason and future-oriented historical consciousness. To the extent that we become aware of the intersubjective constitution of freedom, the possessive-individualist illusion of autonomy as self-ownership disintegrates.’

This is a Top German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas in Between Facts and Norms. Both of these are manifestations of the same phenomenon, the twaddle tendency. Here, reams of words are used to disguise intellectual laziness, stupidity, or underdeveloped ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. For the beauty queen, the smokescreen strategy failed dismally, for Harbernas, it might be working (or not, it depends on which you are sitting). The more eloquent the haze of words, the more easily we fall for them.

During the funeral of our beloved formed president Nelson Mandela, news broadcasters had a lot of work to do in covering the event. Some channels had the ability to let unfolding events of the funeral tell the story instead of anchors having to talk through each vacant moment. The silence and the sight of the drummers and defence force marching to the marquee followed by the casket of Madiba is enough for viewers emotions to marinate in. No need to talk over such moments.

The twaddle tendency is also rife in sport. Sports anchors push breathless football players to break down the components of the game, when all they want to say is: ‘We lost the game – its really that simple’ the poor player will stutter some words together, sometimes using English which is not their first language. But the presenter has to fill the airtime somehow, and the best way is by asking the player or coach to blabber something about the game.

The twaddle tendency also happens when a political story breaks out and then political analysts have to comment on the story. More often there has not been enough time to analyse the story, then the poor analyst has to give some intelligent analysis and end up blabbering even if anyone would have given the same fresh analysis.

Politicians also fall prey to this twaddle tendency when they discuss different political systems, capitalism, socialism, neo liberal this or conservative liberalism.

The twaddle tendency is also true in commerce on a smaller scale: the worse-off a company financially, the lot of talk by the CEO in an effort to cover-up the hardship of company. Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric) once said in an interview:

‘You would not believe how difficult it is to be simple and clear. People are afraid that they may be seen as a simpleton. In reality, just the opposite is true.’

In conclusion:

verbal expression is the mirror of the mind. Clear thoughts become clear statements, whereas ambiguous/confused ideas transform into vacant ramblings.

The trouble is that, in many cases, we lack very clear thoughts. The world is complicated, and it takes a great deal of mental effort to understand even a small part of the whole. Until you experience such an epiphany, it is better to take Mark Twain’s advice:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing.’

Simplicity is the zenith of a long, difficult journey, not the starting point.

Beware of “chauffeur knowledge”

chauffeur opening the door of a car
After receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: “It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.” Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.”

According to Charlie Munger, one of the world’s best investors (and from whom I have borrowed this story), There are two types of knowledge.

– First, we have real knowledge. We see it in people who have committed a large amount of time and effort to understanding a topic.

– The second type is chauffeur knowledge — knowledge from people who have learned to put on a show. Maybe they have a great voice or are eloquent speakers, but the knowledge they espouse is not their own. They reel off eloquent words as if reading from a script.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to separate true knowledge from chauffeur knowledge. With news anchors, however, it is easy. These are actors. Period. Everyone know it. And yet it continues to astound me how much respect these perfectly-coiffed script readers enjoy, not to mention how much they earn moderating panels about topics they barely fathom.

With journalists, it is more difficult. Some have acquired true knowledge. Often they are veteran reporters who have specialised for years in a clearly defined area. They make a serious effort to understand the complexity of a subject and to communicate it. They tend to write articles that highlight a variety of cases and exceptions. There are other journalist who however conjure up article off the tops of their heads, or rather, from Google searches. Their texts are one-sided, short and often as compensation for their patchy knowledge.

The same also happen in motivational speakers, most have chauffeur knowledge. They read books, watch YouTube clips of other speakers and then formulate a talk and present it. Some are very eloquent speakers, some funny and some are look presentable and charming, they have not done hard core work, research, worked on a project, made mistakes, learned lessons from it and share their experiences.

Mostly, it is the experiences and stories of others who have walked the talk that speakers share. There are speakers who have done projects, worked in teams, asked questions, research answers, tested the answers and obtained hard-core experience in the process and then share their experiences.

The same superficiality is present in business. The larger a company, the more the CEO is expected to possess ‘star quality’. Dedication, solemnity, and reliability are undervalued. Too often shareholders and business journalists seem to believe that showmanship will deliver better results, which is obviously not the case.

To guard against the chauffeur effect, Warren Buffet has coined a wonderful phrase, ‘circle of competence’. What lies inside this circle you understand initiatively, what lies outside, you may only partially understand.

Circle of competence: You have to stick within what you call your circle of competence.

You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. It doesn’t matter the size of the circle, but it is important to know you limit, to know what you know for certain and what you are not particularly qualified for.

In conclusion: be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. Do not confuse the company spokesperson, new anchor or ringmaster with those who possess true knowledge. How do you recognise the difference?

There is a clear indicator:

True experts recognise the limits of what they know and what they don’t know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, ‘I don’t know.’ This they say unapologetically, even with a certain pride. From chauffeurs, we hear every line except ‘I don’t know’.

Build your own castle

Three scenarios – which would annoy you the most?

A) Your friends salary increases. Yours stays the same

B) Their salaries stay the same. Yours too.

C) Their average salaries are cut. Your is too.

If your answered A, don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal: you are just another victim of the green-eyed monster.

Here is an Orange Free State fairy-tale: a farmer finds a magic lamp. He rubs it, and out of thin air appears a genie, who promises to grant him one wish. The farmer thinks about this for a little while. Finally, he says: ‘My neighbour has a cow and I have none. I hope that his cow drops dead.’

As ridiculous as it sounds, you can probably identify with the farmer. Admit it: a similar thought must have occurred to you at some point in your life. Imagine your colleague scores a big bonus and you get a gift voucher. You feel envy. This creates a chain of irrational behaviour: you refuse to help him any longer, sabotage his plans, perhaps even puncture the tyres of his Porsche. And you secretly rejoice when he breaks his leg at the gym.

Of all the emotions, envy is the most idiotic. Why? Because it is relatively easy to switch off. This is contrast to anger, sadness, or fear.

‘Envy is the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it,’ writes Balzac

In short, envy is the most sincere type of flattery; other than that, it’s a waste of time.

Many things spark envy: ownership, status, health, youth, talent, popularity, beauty. It is often confused with jealousy because the physical reactions are identical. The difference: The subject of envy is a thing (status, money, health etc.). The subject of jealousy is the behaviour of a third person. Envy needs two people. Jealousy, on the other hand, requires three: Mpho is jealous of Tshepo because the beautiful girl next doors calls him instead.

Paradoxically, with envy we direct resentments towards those who are most similar to us in age, career and residence. We don’t envy businesspeople from the century before last. We don’t begrudge plants or animals. We don’t envy millionaires on the other side of the world, we envy just those on the other side of town. As a new writer, I don’t envy musicians, managers or dentists, but other writers. As a CEO you envy other, bigger CEOs. As a supermodel you envy more successful supermodels.

Aristotle knew this: ‘Potter envy potters.’

This brings us to a classic practical error: Let’s say your financial success allows you to move from one of Johannesburg’s middle-class neighbourhood to the glitzy leafy suburbs of Sandton. In the first weeks, you enjoy being in the centre of everything and how impressed your friends are with your new house and address. But soon you realise that the houses of completely different proportions surround you. You have traded in your old peer group for one that is much richer. Things start to bother you that haven’t bothered you before. Envy and status anxiety are the consequences. Christopher Wallace (best known as Notorious B.I.G) raps about more money more problems.

How do you curb envy? First, stop comparing yourself to others. Second, find your ‘circle of competence’ and fill it on your own. Create a niche where you are the best. It doesn’t matter how small your area of mastery is. The main thing is that you are king of the castle.

In today’s world, envy is no longer vital. If my neighbour buy himself a Porsche, it doesn’t mean that he has taken anything from me.

When I find my friend suffering pangs of attack of envy, I hasten to reminds him: ‘It’s OK to be envious, but only of the person you aspire to become.’

Build your own castle.