Rethinking…

For many years I taught a college course called Issues in Consumer Economics. Based on that experience, I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life: An Uncommon Guide to Navigating the Consumer Culture. Here’s the first paragraph of the introduction to that book:

It is one of the illusions of these times that we can control our world and the people in it—an understandable desire, certainly, because it’s comforting to think we can make everything go our way. For many people, being in control gives them a feeling of security. And truthfully, it is possible to live that way for awhile. But eventually we encounter something beyond our control—an extreme weather event, a dramatic economic downturn, or a serious illness.

At the time, I was thinking of individual money management and being prepared for the unexpected. I certainly had no idea that we would, in my lifetime, experience two of these events at once and collectively—all of us, together, across the world.

I wanted my students to recognize that navigating the consumer culture is challenging, and requires us to be aware, to skillfully use our tools and resources, and to master ourselves and our impulses.

The consumer culture fosters none of that. In fact, it is structured to get us to act mindlessly. Encouraging students to think for themselves—rather than responding in knee-jerk reaction to cultural expectations—was one of my themes.

We are all being invited to rethink…

The double whammy of a pandemic and economic disintegration has shaken our culture to the core. Even the cleverest of us is not able to avoid it, so what are we to do? From my point of view, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity for thinking more consciously about the choices we make. If we don’t embody what we can learn about ourselves in a crisis, we slip back into habitual thought patterns as soon as things begin heading in the direction of normal.

What is “normal”?

Being normal means conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It refers to the usual, average, typical, or expected condition. In essence, “normal” is what we get used to, our expectation of the way things are or should be. But notice, nothing in the definition says that normal means the only or the best way.

As we navigate life in a world shaped by COVID-19, we are experiencing an intense disruption of what used to be considered normal. This is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we want to go back to those previously-normal ways of being when this pandemic is over. We might—or we might not—but at least we should think about it rather than default mindlessly to how things were.

If you have an inkling that your answer is “no”—that there are aspects of your life that you do not want to return to—then this is your chance to set the stage for some rethinking,

Steps for Constructive Thinking….

1  Become aware.

Open your eyes and your mind. See what’s going on, even if you don’t like it. See how you are responding (or not) and don’t judge yourself. Feel what you feel, but don’t wallow in it.

Ask yourself questions to help you zero in on what you value. What do you miss? Why? What do you like better in your life now? How might you make the situation better in some small way? Now? In the future? Here’s a question to get you started…

Taking for granted

2.  Capture your insights in writing.

Make a list of your insights…so you remember them when the crisis is over. Without conscious attention, it’s too easy to lapse into previous patterns, losing sight of the new way you’d rather be.

It’s a human tendency to default to what we’re conditioned to consider normal. Examples from two recent interviews of people who were in major cities during and after life-changing events. Author Adam Gopnik has lived in New York for much of his adult life. When asked if he thought things would be different after the current crisis, he said that, based on his experience of 9/11, he guessed not. Apparently, after things settled down, people largely went back to life as before. The same happened after the SARS epidemic in Asia in the early 2000s, according to Mark Machin, President and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, who lived in Asia at the time.

Obviously, then, change requires our conscious effort. And capturing your insights is the first small step you can take in the heat of the moment.

3. Get a sense of your “new normal.”

Create your “new normal” by being intentional about it. Imagine it. Feel it. Picture it. Give it a chance to become your expected state of affairs.

Rethinking normal…

In our daily lives, we are not often intentional about our future. Businesses, on the other hand, often use formalized processes to spark creative thinking to keep the business thriving. One of these techniques is “assumption reversal.

Assumption reversal was developed by Stephen Grossman, a creativity consultant… The purpose of this technique is to deliberately question your underlying assumptions about a problem to help spark new ideas for addressing it.

…By turning your assumptions on their head and creating a mirror image view, you can generate new ways of approaching problems and issues. …Your original assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but in reversing them you can generate new approaches. There is also the possibility that you may be harbouring false assumptions. If so, this technique will also help you to discover that this is the case and avoid the limitations that this can cause.

Assumptions become deeply entrenched, so much so that we are often unaware of the extent to which they dictate our actions and decisions. It takes deliberate effort—or a crisis like a pandemic—to put us in a frame of mind to reverse our assumptions.

If I were asked what could possibly be beneficial about the experience we’re having now, I would say it is the deep disruption of our assumptions about what is true, necessary, and constructive in our lives.

For further exploration about applying assumption reversal to everyday life, see this recent article from BBC News by Matthew Syed, British journalist, broadcaster, table tennis champion, and author of Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking. He writes, “Our world has changed immensely in the last few weeks but amid the upheaval and distress, there are reasons to believe we can emerge from the crisis with some human qualities enhanced.

Think about it, talk about it…

In these days of physical distancing and staying home, there are a lot more telephone and video chats happening. After you’ve caught up on the news of how family and friends are doing, you might be looking for other topics of conversation. Talking about some of the philosophical issues that are coming up for you is a good way to increase your own perspective.

Conversation starters might be observations or questions such as…

  • I’ve been thinking about…
  • Since I’ve been home more, I’ve noticed that…
  • Do you find you have more time to think these days?
  • In the midst of all this, I’ve been surprised that…
  • After this is over, I think I’ll…
  • What will you no longer take for granted?

I have even found this time of upheaval an opening to talk about death and dying, which was the theme of my writing last year. If you have insights or conversation starters to share, or other comments about any of this, I’d love to hear from you.

If you missed it last week…

A free digital version of my book is available until April 20 as part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale. Download your free copy using this link which takes you directly to my book page. Click on the orange button in the right-hand column that says “Buy with coupon.” It will take you to the cart and show a price of $0.00. You can download the book in whatever form you prefer (epub, mobi/Kindle, pdf, etc…)

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. It doesn’t mean I don’t accomplish things. But I go about it differently.

The problem with resolutions…

Resolutions are cousins of goals, and both are fraught with similar difficulties. One problem is that goals and resolutions are pass/fail propositions. They come with baggage. You make it or you don’t. If you don’t, you are judged—by yourself and others—as a failure, a bad person, less than.

Another difficulty is the inflexibility of resolutions and goals. Stephen Covey, in First Things First, compared goal-setting to placing a ladder against a wall and resolutely climbing to the top, only to get there and discover you had placed it against the wrong wall and wasted a lot of time and effort getting somewhere you didn’t want to go.

Adam Alter on Goals

Often the goal was achieved at a cost—the sacrifices that were made to push through and get to where you said you were going. Perhaps there’s an element of character-building when we say we’ll do something and follow through no matter what. But I think we do better when we set up our lives in ways that allow us to respond to changing conditions.

Sticking to old plans isn’t useful in rapidly changing conditions…

I’ve noticed that business researchers are now writing about how important it is for companies to be able to pivot as circumstances change. The same applies to our personal lives. Heaven knows, we are living in times of rapid changes of great magnitude. In the last year there have been numerous occurrences—political, environmental, social—that would have been  unthinkable a short time ago.

It’s tempting to act mindlessly…

Goals are easy in that you have rules and parameters along the way, so you can put yourself on autopilot. Psychologist Adam Alter has something to say about that. He’s an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the New York Times bestselling author of two books. In a recent interview he said, “When there’s a goal, humans move mindlessly toward it. This is a principle that’s used to advantage in designing slot machines and video games.”

Alter’s view is that goals are a broken process that can’t help but be unfulfilling, as he explains in this brief video.

His alternative is to set a system that emphasizes the process instead of the far-in-the-future result that seems like an anticlimax when you reach it. This approach gives more immediate reward for effort but, like goals, still has the potential to be inflexible and unresponsive to changing conditions.

We are in times where we can no longer afford the luxury of mindless, knee-jerk, habitual behaviours. My alternative to goals is based on intention and following the energy.

Life on the unfolding path

Following the energy is a mindful way of engaging with the activities of life, Setting an intention puts things in motion. You follow the energy by tuning in and being alert for subtle messages as you move through your days. The trick is to not overlook those messages or discount them when they present themselves.

Here’s a mundane example that I know many of us have experienced in some variation: You’re in the store picking up groceries and something catches your attention. It’s an ingredient you rarely use and your mind says, ‘What do you want that for?” Since you haven’t plans to make anything using it, you move on. A couple days later, in the midst of a snow storm, you are cooking dinner for an unexpected houseguest. The recipe calls for—you guessed it—the ingredient you left in the store. If only you had paid attention.

I had my first direct experience of the unfolding path when I went to England for the first time many years ago. I knew I wanted to travel from Schumacher College in Devon to Stonehenge, and had a time frame but no specific itinerary arranged in advance. By paying attention to prompts and information that appeared along the way, I had some surprisingly profound experiences.

This was a revelation to me because until then I had been someone who liked to have every detail nailed down. In the years since then, I’ve come to appreciate that living by intention and following the energy makes for a much more interesting life.

The first step is to cultivate your ability to pay attention to the promptings, your intuition, or however it is they present themselves. Make it your intention to open up to them, and you might be surprised what happens!