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Fascinating anatomy of decision making

Everything changes when you decide to be a parent. You can no longer stay in your couch all day reading books. Your favourite hangout every other evening is all but gone. You probably cannot see your friends as often as you used to. You definitely cannot travel around the world like there is no tomorrow. Yet, I remember graduating from “am I even ready to be a father”, to “I want a little baby holding my hands” in a matter of months. One morning, I was ready to be a parent. Just like that!

Now compare that with 6 months of agony I went through while buying my first sedan. I started with various online forums, read a million reviews. Saw hundreds of YouTube videos. I must have taken at least 40 test drives. I still had cold feet a day before the car was due for delivery. 

Odd, right?

We make decisions under sub-optimal conditions. 

Hardly any decisions are “perfectly” informed. In fact, lack of sufficient information is what makes decisions challenging. To matters worse, our choices are fallible to various biases. For instance, we are prone to “IKEA bias”. Assume you created a piece of furniture. You tend to value it more than other furniture. Similarly, it’s hard to notice faults with business or product that you may have built. Another example of cognitive bias is “Groupthink”. We tend to conform to the group narrative in order to avoid conflict. For instance, in a meeting if a couple of peers suggest another meeting to solve a problem, you tend to say yes, even if deep down you felt it wasn’t necessary.

Our past choices constrain our future choices. For instance, just because a set of stocks gave you handsome returns doesn’t mean they will next time. However, some of us tend to prefer some biased “favourites” in our portfolio. 

Worse, we do not always have the highest-level conceptual understanding of the decision. For instance, many companies around the world are going 100% remote. Some of them are giving an option to the employees, others are not. This will presumably reduce costs and provide people with flexibility. Are we sure though? Do we have evidence that long term remote work will not disturb the social fabric of the company? do we know enough about long-term health impact of work from home? we have anecdotal evidence about increase in productivity but do we know if this is sustainable? This however is not stopping companies from “re-imagining” future of workforce. 

remote or not remote that is the question
Remote or not to remote is a long-term question

Steven Johnson lays this out beautifully in his book “Farsighted: how we make decisions that matter the most”. He explains, this is the problem of “bounded rationality”. We are limited by the information we have. It is therefore imperative that we seek out a full spectrum of possibilities, and seek diverse views before making critical decisions. 

Decision theory – All heart or All brain?

There is a ton of literature in philosophy on decision theory. There is normative decision theory that suggests a good decision is the one that achieves the most desired outcomes. Normative decision theory assumes the actors to be perfectly rational. This is hardly the case with human beings but for software and methodologies it may make sense. Descriptive decision theory on the other hand says that, in situations of uncertainty, a good decision should prefer the option with greatest expected desirability or value. In simple words, you should try to apply a practical lens and then try to optimise value of the decision. 

The difference between the two is explained well by an argument in philosophy called as Pascal’s Wager. The decision in question is whether to believe in god’s existence or not. Under normative theory people might make a list of pros and cons, look at rational evidence of god’s existence. However, in reality, this is hardly the case. People make the decision to believe in god based on their own interpretation of uncertainty, risk, expected positive impact etc. I for instance, believe in god as force for good. The existence of god in my conscious thought makes my life better. Therefore, it is certainly desirable for me. This is the basis of descriptive decision theory. It is not always scientific or rational but valuable nonetheless. 

Your values are a sophisticated navigation system 

Building on the descriptive decision theory, it is worth noting that complex choices and life altering decisions can’t always be divided into sound unsound, rational and irrational buckets. We still respond to a lot of situations intuitively. While having a rough day, we might react to snide remarks with anger. When you are extremely stressed you might respond with eating indiscriminately! Rationality does not always find a customer during such situations. However, during stressful situation if you let your values drive you, you may not be as impulsive. For instance, “being secure” is one of my core values. When I am having a rough day, I do not respond to snide remarks with anger, instead I am able to choose to ignore them and focus on what is in my control. I am not always successful at applying the values navigation system. I still need to control mid-night snacking. 

midnight snack decision making
Midnight snack anyone?

There are other times when we simply do not have enough information to decide. For instance, in 2016 when we were blessed with a child, I was a few months into my new job in London. The changes in circumstances brought back a real prospect of moving back to India. Was raising a child closer to family more important than immediate career prospects? this was an extremely challenging decision. Deepika and I sat down and made a list of values that were really important to us. One of these values was “family first”. We believed, that our professional success alone wouldn’t make us happier. That point on, it was easy to follow through. It is needless to say that British weather helped us tremendously to make this choice 😜! 

moving is permanent
Boxes, boxes!

To conclude, your values are your guide. They are your navigation system through the complex pathways of decision making. 

Deciding and opting are not the same thing!

Let us build on how we can use values to make good decisions. Sometimes decisions are not about making complex choices, but they are rather about assuming a new identity. Graduating from one set of values to a higher set of values. Resetting your values in simple words. 

For instance, when you opt to have children, you are graduating from “individual freedom” to “family”. These values do not co-exist, but you are basically saying that the value of “family” is now more important to you. You are choosing to become a different person, opting to be a parent. This is why some of the most complex and critical decisions in life do not feel all that difficult. 

Next time you face a critical life choice, consider if there is an opportunity to redefine your values and identity. You don’t always need to decide, you can opt! 

Is your next personal decision an aspiration or an ambition?

One of my mentors asked me to enrol in a yoga class last month. He suggested that improved breathing techniques served to increase his stamina and reduce stress levels. This was very exciting. Everyone holds an ideal image of themselves. I was no exception. I thought, “this is brilliant, I can finally start a healthy morning that I have been procrastinating about”. Turns out, I almost fainted during a 3-hour class and did not want to continue. It took me two attempts to do it at my own convenience. In the hindsight, I let my aspiration to be a different version of myself interfere with a more rational and suitable way of achieving my goals. 

Yoga is life but not for me I guess
I am still a Yoga wannabe! Not quite there though 😁

Take another scenario, at the beginning of the year, I started a weight loss regime. I knew exactly what I wanted. I persevered, and I lost 7.5 kgs. in 3 months. This is called ambition. 

Notice the subtle but really important difference. Ambitions know exactly what they want, aspirations only have a vague sense of value, they hope a future version of yourself will appreciate. We are always hatching plans to do new things. Try to analyse if it’s an aspiration or an ambition. There is nothing wrong with being aspirational but you are likely to be disappointed when things don’t go as planned. 

Have you noticed how unfulfilled choices haunt us?

When Deepika and I were travelling through South America, we were stuck in Manaus, Brazil for a couple of days as our flights to Argentina got cancelled. We missed a couple of places on our planned itinerary. Although we had the time of our lives in the Amazon rainforest, it was hard to get over the missed spots on our itinerary. 

The Amazonas
The Amazonas was fascinating!

It’s strange how unfulfilled choices haunt us. That country we did not move to, the job we didn’t accept. While the outcome is not always in our hands, being aware of this phenomenon while making life altering decisions is helpful. I use the “no regrets” principle. If the decision is once in a lifetime opportunity and I have thought it through, I usually am biased towards acting on it. As I wouldn’t like regrets later. Perhaps another trip to South America when the pandemic passes. 

Are you differentiating between means and ends? 

Before we get all hung up on “no regrets” it is crucial to understand if a decision is a means or an end. For instance, if you are deciding on whether to take up intermittent fasting, what is your end goal? If it’s weight loss, then it’s a means decision not an end decision. This means you could weigh alternatives. On the other hand, if you were deciding on saving up to buy a house, there are usually no alternatives. You should make such decisions more carefully and with intention. 

As per HBR, this is really critical for executives. Executives should try to figure out what is strategic vs. what is problem solving. Senior leaders lay a lot more stress on strategic decisions than problem solving. Good leaders also lay more stress on impact than speed of decision making. Also, decisions need to be actionable – otherwise they are just good intentions! 

Mental models & Lessons from Jeff Bezos

Mental models are a powerful technique to quickly weigh important decisions. These encompass values, expertise in a domain, extensive experience and great leaders have a wealth of these mental models. 

For instance, Jeff Bezos attributes a lot of his company’s success to effective decision making. In a letter to his shareholders in 2015, Jeff suggests that most decisions should be made with around 70% information you wish you had, if you wait until you are at 90% you are probably too late. He also says that some decisions are like a one-way door and they cannot be reversed. Bezos calls them Type 1 decisions. 

Amazon is a behemoth and why?
Amazon’s secret

Other decisions are like a two-way door, they are fully reversible. Bezos says such Type 2 decisions should be made fast, as you can always walk back through the door. Bezos also uses disagree & commit technique. When you are in charge of a situation, sometimes you may not have a consensus, but as a leader you will have the responsibility to find a way forward. In such scenarios its helpful to say, “I know we don’t have an agreement, but I would like you to move on and commit to this decision”. 

Beyond anatomy of decisions

Now that we have learnt about the anatomy of decision making, let’s understand briefly, the psychology of decision making. 

Decisions are basically influenced by perception of risk. Our risk perception is shaped by our knowledge and sometimes other people’s opinion. It is therefore important to gain the highest conceptual understanding of subject matter before making critical decisions. In the age of information overload, it is also crucial to be choosy about what and whom to listen. Be wary of what you consume on social media. Don’t trust everything. 

Another fascinating aspect of decision psychology is decision fatigue. Human brains are designed to ration decision making. When we are faced with a decision, we almost always choose the shortest path first. Don’t believe me? Try looking at difference between opt-in percentages, and opt-out percentages on customer experience choices such as paperless billing. 

In addition, whenever we make too many decisions, we simply shut down decision making part of our brain and go with whatever is default. This has profound impact on life around us. For instance, Prisoner’s fate in parole hearings fairly correlates with the time of day their case is heard by the judge. Early hearings and hearings after a break tend to be more favourable. Think about that for a minute. 

My hack to deal with this is being mindful about decision fatigue. Schedule rest just before an important decision-making situation. Schedule important decisions after a break or in the morning, if you are looking for highest chances of a favourable outcome. 

happiness is not conditional
Happiness is ahead of both good and bad decisions as you will learn and get better!

Finally, if you aspire to learn more about topics like this, please subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter. Happy decisions!! 😊

Processing…
Success! You’re on the list.

References:

  1. Mindset – Carol Dweck
  2. Steven Johnson – Farsighted: how we make decisions that matter the most
  3. New Yorker – Art of Decision Making
  4. Scientific American – Article
  5. HBR – link here
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Can your communication survive data asphyxiation?

Do you deal with lots of email communication? Do you have lots of virtual meetings throughout the day? Then this is for you! I came across an interesting Tweet last week that I would like to share with you.

When I dug deeper, I concluded that it was plausible. The expectation that you can be creative virtually, is like asking someone to run a 500m sprint with their toes in sand 😅. When we are working remotely, we are constantly trying to compensate for lack of non-verbal cues, such as eye contact, ambient signalling, gestures and many other factors that are simply absent. We feel watched, or just a little disconnected even though we are connected! There is a lot of interruption with muting, unmuting, “can you hear me” sort of situations. The distractions are simply jarring for our ability to think creatively. The overwhelming amount of sensory input affects not only our creative ability, but also our ability to listen, read, and pay attention.  

We are consuming way too much information.

Emails, WhatsApp, Slack, WebEx, Zoom, YouTube, Netflix, and a billion other apps. How do you even make sense of so much data? Actually, you don’t. Your brain has not evolved to handle that kind of sensory overload. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT suggests that your brain is at best like an amateur plate spinner. It is frantically trying to keep the next plate from crashing down. Are you particularly thinking well at such a time? Probably not. All you are doing is taking finite attention and dividing it. As a result, you are also reducing the quality of attention for every multi-tasking activity you take up. Don’t believe me? Try taking a call when spinning plates in the air 😁.

Information overload

This is happening all around us, I think every one of us is affected with information overload or data asphyxiation. In conclusion, we don’t listen well or read well as much as we used to. This has a negative impact on how we communicate.

Communicating with brevity is a career booster!

William Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At work, creating a one slider presentation is harder than creating 30. It is more challenging to have an effective elevator pitch than speaking for 30 minutes. This is because brevity forces us to be creative, precise, and effective. The more clarity you can drive through your communication, the more you can get ahead in your career. I would urge you to consider a few tips.

Communicate facts, keep opinions to the minimum. Don’t repeat the points you are trying to make. Use short and crisp sentences. Don’t make open ended comments and then speculate over them. As much as possible do not “think out aloud”.

speak when silence is not golden
Speak only when your words are better than silence! – Gautam Buddha

If you are speaking in a group, speak only if you have something relevant for everyone, and valuable to say. Don’t speak just because you haven’t spoken for a long time and you feel left out. If you ever accidentally go on a rant, it is never too late to recover. Take a pause, you can use self-reminder phrases such as, “I promise I’ll stop speaking in a minute”. Enunciate!

Punchy, short and crisp e-mails can work like magic

Avoid

“I hope you are doing well”. 

At work, people expect you to get to the point immediately. It is not considered rude by most standards, so we can skip the pleasantries unless you are writing someone for the first time or are responding to someone’s enquiry.

Subject lines are a powerful lever. Many messages can be conveyed without the receiver having to open e-mail at all. As an example,

“prep for the session with Mark due tomorrow [EOM]”. 

If you cannot end your e-mail in the subject line itself, then keep the subject line actionable. For example,

“outstanding reviews awaiting your action” 

is better than

“Reviews”.

Use paragraphs, bullets, well. If you are referring to an action, put it as a new paragraph or simply start it as a new line. For example,

Hi Mark,

I actioned personnel reviews last week, and I found them complete on all counts. I am looking forward to your comments. Particularly on soft-skills.

I would love to have your inputs by 23rd September.

Abhi

Bullets, with indentation work well if you are listing actions, or capturing a structured thought process. For example,

All,
Please review the themes and confirm if they make sense
- Once you review, we can:
* Merge & finalise
* Add questions onto each theme
* Circulate back for your review
- Final speaker event is 30th September

I will be scheduling a meeting 2 days prior for a dry-run

Abhi

After a meeting, proactively send out minutes. Never send minutes that are open ended! What is the action, who is it for, when is it due? Use active tense by default in your writing. For example, instead of saying

I would like this to be completed by next week

you could say

Please, can you complete this by next week”. 

Avoid using unnecessary words! For example, don’t say “really good”. Say “great” instead! Don’t say “let us make an effort”, say “let’s try” instead. These are not hard fast rules, but just some tips. Use them with discretion.

Brevity in communication doesn’t mean rudeness

Someone may respond to an e-mail as simply

“ok”. 

While the person sending such e-mails may not realise, it can come across a bit harsh. FYA is also one such response that can be considered rude. It doesn’t take an essay to be nice. If you want something done via an e-mail, simply ask politely.

“Please, could you do this by Monday? Or could you confirm if it’s feasible to complete this by Monday?”. 

This is better than,

“Complete by Monday”. 

You may have a need to be directive on some occasions. In this case, please be polite.

Use ad-hoc connects more effectively and reduce email traffic

I find this hack from an ex-boss very effective. He would respond to almost every email that is of the nature, please clarify something, with

"pls. call me"

He would also be very approachable via phone. This killed email traffic like no other. In conclusion, over-communicate on phone.

phone communication is better than vc
Phone, not video is your best friend!

Use email only to formalise something. Keep free slots in the diary to allow time for ad-hoc connects. If possible keep a couple of days in your diary much freer than others. This gives you the balance you need between meetings and other types of interactions. 

Pick up important communication in the morning 

Mornings are when your brain is fresh. Write important emails, presentations, and content in the morning. You will notice you will do it much faster and more effectively. 

Turn on your video when speaking, turn it off when listening. 

This is a great hack I have learnt on VCs. Turn off video when you are not speaking. It makes you less self-conscious, and allows you to listen more carefully. When you turn on video while speaking, you can at least get some of the non-verbal cues across. Use gestures while communicating, use your hands, it’s a great way to be more effective on video. I found head-bobs to be effective as well 😀. 

Use DND on Slack, Skype and WhatsApp effectively

I am sure that you use some form of chat at work. You have friends, colleagues, that ping you from time to time. When you are doing focused work, keep your devices and work chats on DND. This reduces distractions, and avoids context switching penalties. Sometimes no communication is precision communication. 

Keeping a back channel open on chat communication is amazing in long meetings! 

Keep a group or chat with a co-worker(s) on for long meetings. Find out if you share the same understanding or share if you think the person speaking needs to read my post 😜. On a serious note this is fun, contextual and quite helpful to exchange real time thoughts. There is a possibility that it will lead to a distraction though.

The reason this is so effective is that all people in the meeting will have same context baseline and at least parts of their attention are focused on the topic, so if you have a back channel open with them you can communicate better without losing context.  

Finally, communicate with purpose, and clarity

I am sure you have seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk.

He explains in this video how “why” is the most important question. When you communicate, without taking too much time, jump to the “why”. Then the rest can follow.

In addition to purpose, another important thing is clarity. Brevity & clarity are two different things. Imagine you are explaining a group challenge to a set of people. Assume you did great by explaining the purpose of the challenge. Now, are you touching upon all dimensions? are you illustrating data, are you providing sufficiently clear examples? And are you removing any room for ambiguity by explaining the scope of the challenge? Not only what it is but also, what it is not? Clarity might sometimes make the communication verbose. However we must use judgment when it’s needed and when it’s not.

Another important aspect of precision communication, is the flow. If our communication is not sequenced properly, you might lose your audience immediately. One of the worst mistakes people make is to jump from one topic to another without sufficient linking. One is left wondering, so how is this related to the previous thing we read or discussed?

A master communicator is also a great storyteller. A great story flows amazingly well. There is a hook, a setting, a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. More on that another time.

In conclusion, amidst the deluge of information around us, data asphyxiation is omnipresent. Most of what we write or say doesn’t have the necessary impact in an attention deficit world. Therefore, precision communication should be our tool of choice to make a meaningful impact.

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Self-awareness – think you have figured yourself out? think again.

A meeting room filled with palpable tension, ended with my senior mentor letting me know that despite my excellent track record, I needed to work on self-awareness, and walking off. I had no idea what he was talking about. A few conversations later, I realised that many people perceived me very differently than I imagined – and one behavioural error was costing me my professional brand!

self-awareness meeting
That meeting changed my life.

I learned an eye-opening but a lifelong lesson.

Self-awareness is not just about knowing yourself but also your standards

What are your strengths, weaknesses, what ticks you, what makes you weak in the knees, what makes your eyes lit up? These are not trivial questions. In this article, I present some techniques that might help.

Self-awareness is a well-researched area in psychology.

Most popular research on the topic is a theory is called “The Objective Self-Awareness Theory” (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). It posits that all of us have certain standards that we hold ourselves to. We are also constantly evaluating ourselves against those standards. As a result, we can either be satisfied or there may be a discrepancy between our assessment and the standards to which we hold ourselves. In case we fall short of our expectations, we either act or we ignore the discrepancy. Some factors that affect how we react to the discrepancy include how much effort we deem it is going to take. If it’s a quick fix, we are most likely to correct our behaviour to be more in line with our standards. We also tend to avoid a long drawn path.

unrealistic standards
People sometimes insist on holding themselves to unrealistic standards

Research talks little about how standards are set, however it is well known that they are and should be malleable. A lot of psychological problems originate because of people’s insistence on holding themselves to unrealistically high standards.

We need to constantly evaluate the standards to which we hold ourselves.

If you have just had a child, it is impossible to be 100% productive, or at least very difficult. It is okay to adjust expectations that you have about yourself at such a time. Another concept I find very useful is the compounding principle. Small changes add-up over time. Make a habit to reject any unrealistic expectations for an immediate reward. Tell yourself that as long as you have added value to yourself, it is okay to let the positive change / reward reveal itself over time. For instance, if you are beginning to read up, start by reading a short article on the area of interest. Then graduate to a paper, or a small book. The chances of you building that reading habit are much greater if you start small and carefully control your own expectations.

Identify your values as clearly as possible 

Knowing the right way of doing something in absence of facts is based on beliefs & values. Do you know what your core values are? What do you stand for? Do you stand for loyalty, commitment, and reliability? It is important to take time and list down the values that you stand for, there may be many. A good test I have always found is to ask yourself in the absence of these values can I survive or sustain in a work or life environment? If the answer is no, that is a core value for you.  

When we know our values very clearly, we are most likely to make the right tradeoffs. Better, we don’t let random setbacks bother us as long as our value system is not perturbed. For instance, if time commitment to your children is a core value for you, you will not mind declining that additional meeting at 8pm, worse if any criticism arose because of it, you will be able to better manage it.

A close circle of well-wishers can massively improve self-awareness

Loved ones, people who care about you, can play the biggest role in improving your self-awareness.

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That one advice from your mother who tells you, “you are going too fast, Son, you need to slow down” can change your life positively forever. At the very least it can make you think. I have friends at work that will ping me after every presentation to tell me what I did well, or what I did wrong. I have people in my team who give me feedback that because of certain way I executed a change, some people felt a certain way. This is the only compass you have at workplace or in a relationship where you can truly understand how you are doing.

Moms are the best, nobody can give you more selfless advice

Relationships are unique. You might admire your partner, or your friend, you spend a lot of time with each other. However, did you observe that when you spend time apart you learn a lot more about each other? Spending time apart can help us become more self-aware of our relationships.  

It is okay to express disappointment or anger. As long as you are being aware of it. In fact, I have observed that being true to your emotions and feelings encourages most honest conversations which is why many arguments with close friends and your loved ones are followed by strong feelings of affection. This is the best dose of self-awareness you can get in the shortest amount of time 😄. At work, being true to emotions and feelings in a self-aware way can bring out authentic leadership. This applies to both positive and sometimes negative emotions.

Follow writing or another form of self-compassion

When I am writing, I am in the flow. I really feel great when I am writing. Also, when I am in the flow, I am able to better observe myself. My thoughts don’t wander. I am able to be self-critical, and evaluate what is going on in that moment. As a result, I am able to think about aspects of my memories, experiences, and learnings. Over time, I believe I know myself a lot better than I did before I took up writing.

I highly recommend writing

This could be a different activity for you. Perhaps Yoga or meditation? How about a workout? A quiet walk by yourself on a breezy evening. Everything works!

What sort of unconscious brand do you carry?

One of the wisest people I know at work once said, it is not about how you try to present yourself. It is about the unconscious brand you carry. For instance, he said, are you late by a few minutes to every meeting? A few instances later you are the person that is late to every meeting. Are you tardy with e-mail? you have a lot of instances of people chasing you? Congratulations, you have just become the “doesn’t ever respond to email” guy! This is really important.

You don’t know until you are aware!

Your behaviour needs to match the mental image you want people to carry of you.

Know your triggers

While delivering a presentation, a left-field question can trigger an emotional reaction or stump you. This has happened with me a few times. Sometimes there is an annoying character that will come at you out of nowhere. If you know that this is a trigger, you will have a practiced response – which can be either to politely provide rebuttal or sidestep altogether! Nonetheless it is better than an emotional response. Also, I do not need to talk about not “reacting” to emails. You can be forgiven for doing it once, but if you know you are prone to it, have better self-control.

You also meet lots of people, bosses, clients, and peers that have no idea how they are coming across. Some people are very cryptic, while others are nagging, some are nosey while others are aggressive. Sometimes people are simply unaware and may be willing to change, in this case you simply have to point out. You need to be sure though. Especially while dealing with really senior people, whether you are the right sort of person they will accept the feedback from. You also need to be trusted. At times the most critical lesson I have learnt is to just let some unaware people be. If unaware individuals are part of your team, also know that it is your responsibility to make them a better professional by talking to them about self-awareness. Use discretion though as every person is different, and they have different tolerances.

You think you have figured someone else out? think again.

Now that we have read about self-awareness, let me share with you a final thought. People are complicated. We usually have no idea what is going on in their lives. Some have kids with special needs, others are caring for ailing parents, some are in depression and others are fighting deep seated issues.

It usually takes years to get to know someone at work really closely and understand experiences that shaped their behaviour. In summary, don’t conclude that you have figured someone out without spending enough time with them. Just step back, and take your time.

After the tense interaction with my senior mentor, I learnt that self-awareness is actually a higher form of consciousness.

Abhi Shah

One that brings you face-to-face with new dimensions of reality about yourself. Equipped with that you can finally be ready to conquer the toughest competitor you would ever meet. Yourself! [/stu]

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Self improvement – How can I make myself invulnerable to criticism?

Self improvement is incomplete without certain immunity to criticism. How many times has your day been spoiled by harsh words? Perhaps your boss, parent or spouse said something and you felt terrible for a long time? Criticism can bring us down on the brightest of days. It is incredibly difficult to be self-motivated all the time. Whether we admit it or not, we all are vulnerable. One of the best self-improvement lessons I have learnt is to choose my reactions to criticism slowly & thoughtfully.

Invulnerability is bad for self-improvement.

self improvement through being safely vulnerable
Shed that weight, its not necessary

Invulnerability suggests you put up many defences to ensure you are not vulnerable at all. This can impact you negatively. Criticism is often an opportunity to learn or introspect. It is also an opportunity to keep your ego in check. What you really need is to be safely vulnerable. In this post, I share some ways of doing that.

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Healthy criticism is actually great. Have you ever met a person that criticises you all the time? I tend to ignore such people, as they are often projecting their weaknesses out by criticising everyone and everything. However, when a lot of people criticise you about something, you have got to listen. Unless of-course like Galileo you have a theory about Earth’s relative position with respect to the Sun. Indeed, there are scenarios when you are right, and the world is wrong. Alas, not all of us are Galileo. Therefore, we must pay attention and entertain a contrarian point of view.

Understanding intent is key

Criticism reveals more about the person criticising than his or her subjects. Do listen carefully. Criticism is bad when it is full of blame, and focuses on personality rather than behaviour. Suppose someone snaps at you in office, “you have no idea how to write presentations”, don’t let it bother you as it is classic blaming and it reflects poorly on the person criticising than you. It talks about what is wrong rather than how to make it right. It indicates implied contempt. Instead, if that person made a constructive comment or, “your slides are not flowing well, perhaps you should consider changing the sequence” that is actually not criticism it is useful feedback. It is the only way one can get better. You should treat such feedback like pearls collect as many as you can and get richer!

Emotional Intelligence is an important trait for effective self improvement

Emotional intelligence is about knowing yourself very well and your ability to truly understand your worth. Most people who struggle with criticism do so because they have certain insecurities about themselves. For instance, some people associate their identities with their flaws. I am really bad at public speaking, or I am not great at politics. In case of such people, when someone criticises them negatively, they think its their fault. It makes things worse and has an overall poor impact on one’s well being. This negative identity association can only be avoided by placing a high value on and nurturing your self-esteem.

self improvement through emotional intelligence
Source HBR on Emotional Intelligence

Take time to come to real terms with your achievements. Accept compliments or at least get into a habit of saying “Thanks, that is very kind of you”. Over time your self esteem will greatly improve. In critical situations, ask yourself am I being too harsh on myself? practice self-compassion.

We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.

Swami Vivekananda

Also, you will notice your self esteem is directly proportional to how your mood is, and exercise is the most natural and most sure shot way of elevating mood and keeping it steady. Once you are grounded and confident about yourself, you can build on that steady foundation through self improvement.

Criticism can be one of the best ways of building a strong relationship

self improvement through altercation
An altercation is a great way to deepen relationships

I was in a conference call many years ago. I was negotiating a contract, and I was reading out a clause to explain our position. The lawyer on the other side snapped back and said, “we know how to read, can we get to business”? This was harsh, it was critical of the way I was making a point and I admit, it hurt. I did not disturb the conversation, but after our call I dropped him an e-mail and suggested that we chat.

He reluctantly agreed to chat one-on-one, and I explained him that I was merely trying to convey differences in language of the clause, and that his sudden snide remark made me feel terrible. The concerned colleague was very apologetic and not only issued a written apology but appreciated that I didn’t get mad at him but gave him constructive feedback. Turned out, we made great progress after that.

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude

William James

Conflict management is an art, and way beyond the scope of this post, however criticism often leads to conflict. It is important to remain calm, and try to manage the situation in a logical way after you have had a chance to cool down. If you take some extra efforts to reconcile with the individual after you have had the conflict, you will find that your relationship will get stronger. The whole storming, norming, and performing phases are not just on paper. They actually work in my opinion, even in your personal relationships.

Be a great listener and genuinely show that you are not perturbed by any kind of criticism or feedback.

The best and most successful people I met take criticism, feedback, comments like a sponge. They are so composed, and calm through it all. They do not bat an eyelid. When someone is being harsh they dis-arm him / her through their disdain for emotions. Not only that, but also they are great listeners and acknowledge the critic.

self improvement through composure
Self improvement through composure and great listening

For instance when someone says, “I don’t think you can do public speaking very well” the maestro at handling criticism will calmly respond with, “I understand why you may think that way, do you want to share with me a few tips about how I can improve on public speaking”? that’s it, disarmed. What is best, is that they do genuinely take the feedback, analyse it, and become better. They will also conveniently ignore negative criticism. Be that guy or girl!

Positive body gestures can help balance the chemical response of your body to criticism

Open Arms, a Smile, shaking hands, fist bump are the types of body gestures that elicit a hormonal response at a micro level. When you greet someone with such body language and a smile on your face, you are defusing their instinct to criticise. This may not always work, but it is definitely worth a try.

 smiling
Smile is a short range criticism defuser, but please criticise this post!

Great mood can make you smile, but did you know that a smile can elevate mood as well? Smile releases dopamine and serotonin in your body which reduces your blood pressure and anxiety. A dash of humour does the same trick as well. In fact when you share a laugh with someone it is very unlikely that the person will criticise you the next instant. Even in face of harsh criticism, one should smile, and respond positively. As a result, your response is less likely to be flight or fight.

Pro Tip for self-improvement – It’s okay to prioritise optimistic people over constant negatives

Learn to spot a person, sometimes unfortunately a friend, boss or a colleague, who just cannot help but constantly be negative about everything. These people drain us of our will power and energy. They just create a domino effect that can shake all the hard earned self esteem. No matter how resilient you are, sometimes people get on your nerves. There is an easy answer to this. Avoid such people.

Abhi’s tweet

If you must deal with such people. Use a combination of assertiveness and selective sharing. Assertiveness will help set the expectations right from the very beginning. It is also okay to tell them NOT to make comments that may be upsetting. Selective sharing will ensure you talk only about what is needed, and share only what is needed – this limits exposure to the criticism. However, best possible option is to completely ignore the said individual.

Finally criticism and rejection are very similar, your reactions can very well be similar as well. I think the most important lesson is to delay our reactions and respond to these thoughtfully. Rejection as well as criticism come with many self improvement opportunities. How many will you latch on to?

References

Clive Simpkins

HBR Emotional Intelligence

Psychology Today (Dr. Steven Stosny)

Psychology Today (Dr. Leon Seltzer)

NBC News

Greatist post on criticism

Categories
Learnings

Mental Health – The power of vulnerability

Let me admit. I have gone through episodes of mild depression and instances of intense anxiety over the past decade. There were days when nothing seemed right, and there were days when I pushed myself so hard that I found it difficult to cope. I didn’t ever take anti-depressants, but mindfulness practices, support from family and friends and a few other tips helped me come out much stronger on the other side. As we go through one of the worst challenges humanity has seen in decades, it is important to be mindful about mental health, not only for yourself but also for others. I would like to share some practical tips that strongly helped me and are still helping me!!

It’s okay to be vulnerable!!

|| जगी सर्व सुखी असा कोण आहे. विचारे मना तूचि शोधूनी पाहे. मना त्वाची रे पूर्व संचित केले. तया सारिखे भोगणे प्राप्त झाले ||

Sant Ramdas

This is an excerpt from the works of Sant Samarth Ramdas called “Manache Shlok”. Samarth Ramdas was a noted 17th century saint and spiritual poet of Maharashtra, India. He is most remembered for his Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism) text Dasbodh.

My personal interpretation : once we understand that our feelings are a consequence of our conscious and subconscious thoughts and actions, it becomes easier to deal with them.

Do not consume or spread unconscious lies in order to protect your mental health

It was also a revelation to me that sometimes we unconsciously communicate lies about ourselves. Most of us suffer from optimism bias. We tend to share or consume more positive aspects of our lives. As a result we believe that other people’s lives are better than that of our own! This induces anxiety. In addition, Social media also fuels it really hard. During such times, what we need to do is muster courage and not bottle up our emotions, we need to share them instead.

Vulnerability is a superpower.

It’s okay to be vulnerable. In fact it’s powerful to be vulnerable. A few famous celebrities such as Deepika Padukone, Selena Gomez, Princess Diana, Prince Harry have openly talked about their depression battle. You can also talk to a friend, your partner or a parent, or your teacher or a mentor. Tell them that you are feeling low, and ask them for help. Bestselling author Brené Brown has an amazing TED talk as well as a book titled “The Power of Vulnerability”. She says, “it takes courage to be vulnerable, by being vulnerable you are opening yourself up to the world around you and allowing yourself to be in touch with your most authentic self”. According to Brené, this is how you can have a happy and fulfilling life.

mental health
Best horizon views are wide open!!

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.”

Brené Brown

Understand the most common causes of depression and anxiety

Depression is way more common than you think. WHO suggests that depression is the single biggest cause of disability (7.5% of all disability days). It also estimates that approximately 264 million people are currently suffering from depression worldwide!! There are however some common reasons for depression. Understanding them makes it easier to be mindful about them and potentially even avoid going into a depression.

Loneliness

Extended periods of loneliness makes you twice as likely to be depressed. This is concerning during a pandemic. We need to seek and maintain social connections – calls, video conferencing, or just going for a walk or meeting people (whilst following social distancing) should keep loneliness at bay. We should give special consideration to elderly, and technology can play a vital role.

Toxic Work

When you are at work, and you don’t have control over your performance or future, you are likely to be depressed. We have to have honest conversations at work to avoid this, staying silent is much more detrimental in the long run.

Lack of contact with nature

If you are not in touch with nature, if you haven’t seen sunshine for long, it can affect your mental health. Nature has special healing powers – do gardening, go for a walk in the grass and try to “touch” the grass by walking bare feet for a while. Look at the night sky and soak it in!! Wake up early and watch sunrise, or simply adore colours of the evening sky when the sun sets. You can connect with nature in so many ways – this will help keep your mental health in good shape!

Unresolved emotions

These are the major cause of anxiety or depression. Sudden loss of loved one, or turbulence in a relationship, failure, an undesired job can cause anxiety. Just being more self-aware of your unresolved emotions and confronting them should help in these circumstances. There may be times when it doesn’t help, in which case don’t think twice before seeking medical help.

Physiological factors

Poor diet, poor sleep, substance abuse, lack of exercise, are also too common enemies of good mental health. I would like to call out exercise and diet in particular – get a smart band / mood diary and measure your sleep and mood on the days on which you eat well and sleep well and you exercise!! See for yourself – because often “my Mum told me that” is not enough.

Genetics

Some people are more pre-disposed to mental illness than others. Now you cannot change what you were born with (at least not yet) but if you are mindful of all of the above, perhaps you could make a difference to your quality of mental health – this is for sure.

It’s time we shed the stigma associated with mental health

It’s NOT okay to ask someone who is suffering from depression to “cheer up”. If you cannot help, offer a chat, or simply say I may not appreciate what you are going through but is there anything I can do? A person can be healthy otherwise yet sometimes suffer a physical ailment. Similarly, mental illness doesn’t mean a person is mentally unfit as a whole.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”

Marie Curie

When the world is showing unprecedented signs of dogma, hate, discrimination, racism, and despair, we need to stay more vigilant than ever. Our self-awareness and our attitudes towards mental illness can actually yield a healing hand towards a society that probably needs it the most.

Do you have a valuable experience to share? Please do take a minute to comment below.