One of my first memories of wisdom, an eternal truth that run true and would be useful over time, came from my high school debate teacher, Terry Rose.
“Never Assume anything.” Terry said, “It makes and “ass” out of “u” and “me”.”
The poetic ring to the quip helped it stick all these years.
Oxford dictionary says “suppose to be the case, without proof.” It is that lack of proof, the presumption of correctness that is checked when you pause the “assume”.
Assumptions are those things that I take for granted. Things I assume. Now many times I may believe there is ample proof or I have received ample proof in the past, so these assumptions are usually not totally without proof. In fact I couldn’t go through a day without assumptions about all sorts of things like behavior of other drivers on the road, the path of the sun, available credit on my credit card, the tire pressure on my truck, the charge level in my motorcycle battery, endless.
I have found Terry’s shocking quip useful over the years for two reasons.
I remember it whenever I am around “assume” or an “assumption”. His voice in my head.
It causes me to pause and make sure I am not making an ‘ass” out of “u” and “me”. Just a slight pause, to question the assumptions. To check the assumptions. Make sure they apply. Make sure no one is going to be an “ass”.
Most of the time, this pause results in a little more exploration of the issue and a clearer decision being made. Just a moment is all it takes.
Take the moment. Don’t let assumptions make and “ass” out of “u” and “me”.
“I am super stressed out about living on campus at college, I think I want to live off campus,” my daughter said as I picked up the Facetime call.
My neck got tight. Eyes narrowed. Child in danger, get ready to fight.
I pulled up the Next Right Action worksheet in my head and started through it. Pause. Let her talk. As she talked, I explored. Problem: How to switch from on-campus to off campus 10 days from start of semester. Finding apartments, getting room/board refund, roommates, etc…
“Don’t give me any of that Stoic bullshit, just listen to me.” she says.
Process interrupt. Error. Error. The problem was suddenly unclear. Maybe it was not solve the on/off campus tactical details. That problem would not be solved on a 15 minute Facetime call anyway. The acute problem was that she was stressed and needed some empathy and venting RIGHT NOW. After that she may be ready to move toward solving the on/off campus problem, but her FIRST problem was not THE problem.
So I listened. Put all problem solving on hold. Many times the best solution to a problem is to exit the problem solving loop at Explore and just be curious and listen.
After we both calmed down, we brainstormed a couple of things to explore to get more information to solve the on/off campus problem. We are going to talk again in a couple days. While THE problem of stress and venting was not 100% solved (she was still worried), it was reduced probably 70% and that is progress.
Remember Martin: Look for THE problem behind A problem.
For as long as I can remember, I have had goals. At the end of a goal (successful or not) the question is always the same: What now? For a long time, the answer was another goal. This has been a treadmill to nowhere. When I started asking the question of where do the goals come from, it became clear that it was my values. My values determined what goals I thought were important. For a very long time I was unconscious of my values. I now spend most of my time exploring values and the goals follow from that. This can be either an unconscious process or a conscious process. The fact is that values drive goals. You set goals based on what you value. Life becomes enjoyable and easy when goals come out of considered values. The goals don’t seem to be so much work anymore.
Step 1 is to wake up to the fact that values drive goals.
Step 2 is to become conscious of your values.
How to take step 2? Take step 1 first. There are good value exercises like this one, which can get you started. Consider a purpose statement with my handy dandy tool. Don’t worry about getting them all right the first time, it is a journey, a process not a goal. I have found it useful to keep a values document which lists my values and some animating principals that I review on a regular basis. Figure out what is missing, what may have changed, if I want to re-order any of them. The win is to understand, not to get it “right”. I have shared mine below.
Sumner Redstone died yesterday. The media called him a “fighter”. He said himself, “I like to win.” He won over $4B for himself. All that fighting and winning: still dead.
Yesterday I crushed the hillclimb on my bike ride and “won” the leader board. I felt elated by the win! Coming in the door my 5 year old was sitting on the toilet waiting for someone to wipe her. So much for winning.
Last week, I “won” an argument with my wife on the merits, but the distance between us noticeably widened for awhile.
In my experience, tactical “wins” tend to become hollow when inconsistent with the meta environment. The first company I took public added over $500M to my balance sheet. A couple years later I was divorced, alone in a huge house.
I no longer fight to “win”. I fight to understand.
My wife was not “wrong”, I didn’t understand how she came to a different conclusion that I did. In a second conversation that focused on understanding rather than the “win”, we figured out the stories and values behind our positions and found a way to bridge to understanding. We still have different views on many things because we are different people, but we don’t fight to convince each other, we fight to understand each other.
Yesterday I had to drive to the store and couldn’t find my keys. Of course, I used the Next Right Action worksheet to find them, but this note to myself is about a subset of the problem solving: the “call a friend” part. In this case, ask my wife, Jen. How to ask for help is a whole category of problems in itself and the key I have found is how the ask is made. Here are the hypotheses I formed for how to ask along with the Likely/Easy rankings.
“Do you have my keys?” (3,5)
“Have you seen my keys?” (5,5)
“You were the last person to use my truck, where are the keys?” (2,2)
“I can’t find my keys.” (8,9)
The first three press the urgency of finding the keys, but deliver some level of problem transference and responsibility to the person being asked for help. They could even be a trigger for offense. The last one also has urgency, but none of the transference or potential offense. It ask for help by stating my problem clearly and without blame or transference. I went with that.
Jen hadn’t seen my keys. I found them in the pocket of my pants yesterday. And avoided a fight. The fight wouldn’t have found the keys any faster.
I woke up this morning with an idea totally clear in my mind. It was a problem I had been wrestling with for a couple of days and overnight my subconscious (likely in REM), connected the dots and I woke up with the answer. I call this a consolidation. Synthesizing data and wisdom from different experiences and fields into an “ah ha” moment. Many of the great inventions of the world were consolidations. Built on long slogs through the wilderness, treks to dead ends, learnings that seemed unrelated, until one day, it all fit.
Webster says “the process by which a new memory is converted into a form that is stable and long-lasting”. Consolidations can be a moment to note your own personal wisdom. I pay special attention to consolidations by writing them in my Morning Pages journal. And by paying special attention in the morning, before the details of the day demand attention. I even write the best down as “Seed Crystals” because consolidations can often serve to help with whole categories of problems across disciplines. How to create more consolidations for yourself?
read, learn, explore broadly, in seemingly disparate fields.
Long before Enzo Ferarri made red famous or Morpheus presented his red pill, Paconius Agrippinus advised us to “be the red thread“. While Enzo used red to feed the ego, Morpheus used it to free the mind. “Agrippinus was a highly regarded Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher who was known for his ability to do what was right, even when it meant going against the popular opinion. Agrippinus was a man of action, not a man of words. That’s why we know nothing of his writing, and only of his character as it is described by others.” (Seneca, Epictetus, etc) (daily stoic). Epictetus recalls a story about Agrippinus:
Agrippinus used the red to share wisdom and light on those around him. To be true to his values so others could see the truth in the values.
Feedback on the Next Right Action worksheet has been very helpful so far, thank you. As a sucker for punishment, I want to test the model at scale, so for the next 1,000 people who send me a problem, I will think it through with the worksheet and send it back to you. This is part of my research on problem solving. A goal of this research is to gather data around common daily problems and the most effective approaches to them. A couple of the hypotheses I am testing include:
Most problems fail the urgency/importance test.
Most acute problems have a systemic root.
Most people never engage System 2 for problem solving.
I will engage my System 2 on your problem. You may get some insights on how to approach your problem, you may think my approach sucks. Either way, we have both taken action and the research will move ahead. Let’s do this!
Ok, I am a nerd so computer science metaphors really work for me and “default mode” is a real doozy. When a computer system is powered on and not doing anything it is in the “default mode.” Just sitting there waiting for something to do. It has all its resources memory, hard drives, processors, programs, network connections, just sitting there waiting for inputs to it can decide what to do with the inputs. Ready and waiting for the next action. In default mode, the capability of the system for action is constrained by the capabilities of the resources available to the system. Too many inputs can lead to overload. Faulty inputs can lead to errors. Buggy programs can lead to errors. Slow processors can lead to long delays in action. Small memory can lead to thrashing. The system’s capacity for action can be improved by upgrading the resources available to it. This upgrades the default mode to handle harder problems. Ok enough with the computer stuff.
Humans have a default mode also and our capacity for action is constrained by the quality of the resources available to us.
Pick up something heavy? You have a certain strength in default mode.
Emotional state? You have a default mode. Fearful, calm, curious, etc.
Smarts? You have a default mode.
Problem-solving ability? You have a default mode, a standard way to approach problems with a given toolset (resources).
The default mode can be upgraded by upgrading the resources available in default mode. Human resources are upgraded by practice, training. Practice the opposite of the default mode.
Pick up something heavy? Practice lifting ever heavier things.
Emotional state? Practice the desired default state. Meditation, breathwork, ketamine, psychedelics, gratitude, etc.
This one totally tilts the Gunning – Fox index. Medicine is full of big words for simple concepts. In this case “we have no fucking idea.” An “idiopathic” disease is any disease with an unknown cause or mechanism of apparent spontaneous origin. The Greek roots are “idios”, or “ones’ own” and “pathos”, or “suffering”. Basically “a disease of its own kind.” If the doctor says you have an idiopathic xyz, he is telling you he has no idea. Something idiopathic exists in liminal space. Between things. Not this or that. Undefined.
When we mindlessly sleepwalking through life, sometimes things (especially emotions and reactions) can seem idiopathic also. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you fly into a rage. A picture of Donald Trump tilts you. Your wife asks for a cup of coffee and you say “get it yourself.” Why the strong reactions to small events? Why the outsize responses? At the time they can seem idiopathic. Luckily, with a pause, some practice, and some reflection, you can usually figure these out. Get out of the liminal space. Close the moral gap. The Next Right Action practice can be an antidote for idiopathic.