Small Acts Video: Change the Environment

Disney’s Animal Kingdom has an attraction called Kilimanjaro Safaris. It’s one of their premier attractions. And if you take the 18-minute safari in the propane-powered Jeep, you’ll be awed by the sight of black rhino and cheetah, elephant, flamingo, gazelle, giraffe, hippo, lion, even wildebeest. And when you come around a corner near the end of the safari, there above you on the side of the mountain are two lions laying majestically, looking out over the savanna.

It is awe-inspiring. It looks like a scene from “The Lion King.” And so you take a few photos with your son’s mouth gaping open. But if you think about it, how in the world do you get a lion to sit majestically on a rock when maybe it’s 98 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the summer, or maybe it’s a chilly 40 degrees in the middle of winter even in Florida? Well, the designers of Animal Kingdom Kilimanjaro, they’ve engineered that rock to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. That’s right, they engineer the rock to be more attractive, more enticing, in the same way that buildings are designed to redirect people traffic and roads are designed to manage car traffic.

Sometimes to build innovative solutions, we need to change the environment, chance the circumstances to find new insights and create new kinds of conversations.

Passion Doesn’t Appear. You Create It.

Do you know anyone who has been called ‘gifted’? Anyone ever call you a ‘natural’? To begin with, being called gifted or a genius at anything can be a curse. It can also set you up for a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome.

I’m suggesting that not many people start out being “gifted” at much of anything. We develop interests. Interests lead to dedication and work. The work pays off. We get skilled. We deepen our focus. We get even better. Now we’ve developed a passion that someone else starts to call a gift. But the passion started with work.

Some studies designate only the top 3% as actually gifted. But even among those identified as gifted and talented, there is quite a bit of debate about how to handle them, and guide them in development.

The one thing that is clear is that ‘giftedness’ presents itself in different ways. IQ tests alone can benefit students from particular backgrounds and be biased for cultural specificity. For example, you could take a highly intelligent person from the Amazon rainforest who can identify and correctly use medicinal plants, and yet they might be baffled by a standard IQ question such as: “4, 9, 16, 25, 36, ?, 64. What number is missing from the sequence?” (Answer and explanation here.)

Back to the point: While people might start with a mental or physical attribute that allows them to be more inclined toward excellence at something, the truth is that almost all of the excellence you may witness is generated by hard work and showing up day after day to put in the hours. Passion doesn’t often arrive fully formed, but instead is cultivated over time.

Evidence also suggests that we learn what we are passionate about not through dogged persistence of one singular goal, but through experimentation, failure, learning, and then moving on. David Epstein chronicles the story of Roger Federer who, unlike the Tiger Woods story, did not specialize in tennis at all. In fact, Federer bounced from swimming to badminton to soccer to skateboarding before finally deciding to pursue tennis. Epstein calls this a “sampling period” and argues it’s much more common that the heralded stories of Tiger Woods.

Not only is the sampling period important, but the simple fact of allowing the child to choose the sport, or the instrument, or the academic area, or the profession, or whatever – is critically important to maintaining and developing that passion. This allowing-my-kid-to-quit debate has certainly struck a nerve with some people. I have some thoughts on the matter as well.

There is some evidence to suggest that if you’re on the fence, maybe you should take the leap and quit. Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, conducted a study online in which participants who were considering a career change could flip a coin, heads for quit and tails for stay. He found that six months later, those who flipped heads and changed jobs reported that they were substantially happier. (The more consumer friendly podcast version is here)

We know Vincent van Gogh as a famously gifted artist. But he didn’t decide to paint until he was 27. Prior to that he studied theology, worked as a clerk, a bookseller, and aid to an art dealer. It seems the strongest path to finding your passion is not determined specialization, but instead intentional exploration. Consider that Nobel laureates in science are 22 times more likely to have artistic pursuits outside their field, than their less recognized colleagues.

Stay curious my friends.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

The Source Code of Grit

A couple weeks ago I was out doing my favorite thing – riding a bicycle on the local roads I know so well. It was a gorgeous afternoon. Blue skies, light air, 80 degrees. Descending a hill at about 30mph, I heard a loud crack on my right and looked up to see a 20 foot dead tree falling directly in my path. With no time to touch the brakes, and barely time to acknowledge what was happening I crashed into the tree less than a second later, before it even came to rest in the road. I vaulted over the bars, and catapulted, spinning majestically through space, to land on my back in the middle of the road.

Cars stopped in both directions blocked by the tree, and I lay in the middle of the lane, staring up at the sky, taking inventory. I was gently touching my collarbone and thinking, “It feels a little funny, but I’m sure it’s fine,” when I heard footsteps running toward me. A woman appeared above me, blocking the sun, looked down and said, “I’m Jill! We’re visiting from Florida! That was incredible! Are you OK?”

Oddly enough, in that moment all I could think about was that I was going to be late to pick up our daughter. She was having a play date with a friend. I needed to get home and go pick her up. I asked if I could call my daughter. Jill paused and said, “How about we call 911 instead.”

The next few hours involved EMTs, an ambulance, the Sheriff, a fire truck, hospital technicians and doctors to finally arrive at the conclusion that I had a nasty collarbone fracture. Have a look.

Of course the following days were painful and frustrating. Every physical movement alarmed my shoulder, every gesture was measured. It took hours to find the nerve to take a shower. Sleeping was horrid. But all I needed to do was be a little grittier, a little tougher, right? And then I could push through the obstacles, push through the frustration, be a better patient. C’mon suck it up. Just choose a better attitude, right?

Here’s the point I’m getting to. A lot of the contemporary literature in popular psychology has co-opted this notion of grit to apply to everything from parenting to coaching to managing. If only our students could be grittier, our players tougher, our employees more determined – everything turns out better. Here’s another article about all the magic that comes with grit.

The more you examine this idea, the more it seems like a gross simplification. Even Angela Duckworth, who popularized the notion of grit, has reservations that the idea has been over-applied and misunderstood.

When I reflect on my bike accident, and think about how to persevere through my own setback, I find the work of David DeSteno much more relevant and applicable. His basic argument is that grit is difficult to summon, and even harder to maintain on its own. Grit alone, demands self-reliance and willpower, which is lonely and difficult. Willpower wanes over time, and when it does we are more likely to succumb to self-disappointment and frustration.

Instead think about the origins of grit. DeSteno’s research demonstrates that you can set the conditions to become grittier, but those conditions are more social in nature. Compassion, Gratitude, and Pride of a job well done, are the engine of that grit we’re all striving for. The operating system of that flinty stick-to-itiveness is social reliance, not self-reliance.

In a series of experiments, researchers demonstrated that self compassion – not self-esteem or even happiness – was a stronger influence for high work performance, ethical choices, and overcoming personal weakness. The root of performance, morality and personal mastery starts with compassion.

And think about gratitude for a moment. Gratitude for what someone did for you encourages us to think about what we will do in the future, to aspire to a better version of ourselves, to imagine ourselves delivering a meal for someone in need.

On the deepest, unconscious level, gratitude is really about being grateful for the actions that are yet to come.
– David DeSteno

Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Small Acts Video: The Leadership Skills of the Future

– [Narrator] Do you ever wonder if your technical skills are up-to-date? Do you worry you don’t have what it takes to be a leader in this changing world? You may find the most powerful skill you can develop is not technical, but human-to-human.

– No doubt, it is a chaotic, fast-changing time we live in. Automation, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, cyber threats, business bots, the internet of things. I mean, it would seem that in this age of hyper acceleration, and technology, and change, and innovation, we would need technical skills to keep up, right? Well, maybe, maybe not.

Earlier in 2017, Deloitte completed a survey of 8,000 millennial professional workers all around the world to get their view on the future of business, and the study revealed that it’s actually not technical skills that are needed. Analytic skills, IT skills, financial skills, even language skills, all ranked below the importance of leadership, mental flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration in the workplace. See, technical skills, they can be sourced or they can be learned as needed, on demand, for specific purposes. Leadership skills are universal, they’re constant.

That’s right, the strongest traits needed in the future are not technical skills, they are human-to-human skills. Leadership and relationships drive progress in the world and they matter today more than ever before.

– [Narrator] Sergei’s team has been assigned a new and complex project. He realizes the project will involve several strong personalities, and there may be challenges with subject matter experts. Sergei decides to spend time at the onset of the project, talking about ground rules and offering support for team collaboration. On a scale of one to 10, how good are your human-to-human skills? Consider these four, listening, creating, critical thinking, and collaborating. Where do you most need skill development?

Add Gratitude to Your Grit. Stir.

We’re told if we can only be a little grittier, a little tougher, we can keep our promises to ourselves, go to the gym more, finish the book, and generally be a better version of ourselves. “Stick-to-it-iveness” can be an excellent predictor of achievement and success for some people. Just look at Michael Phelps, Shaun White, or Lindsey Vonn. Hours upon hours of quiet toil at their sport. And then they win.

Must be the grit, right? Who *wouldn’t* expect these superstars to have grit? But willpower alone is demanding and exhausting. Willpower will likely wane over time and can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being.

Stress, anxiety and loneliness are increasing globally, and in those circumstances, emphasizing grit can have a negative effect. When you tell someone who is stressed-out to simply work harder, and lean in to their work, you’re telling them to rely on their internal willpower. And when that gives out, they often wind up telling themselves that they aren’t good enough. That’s where a good dose of self-compassion comes in.

David DeStano has been studying the intersection of grit (self-focus) and gratitude (social-focus) for years and has discovered there are some powerful side effects when you combine the two. Grit is your own perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Gratitude is appreciation and thankfulness for others. When you combine the two, you get individual excellence plus generosity and collaboration.

Gratitude is not only an emotion experienced in the past, it’s an emotion that guides future action. The reason you go over to your friends house on a rainy Sunday at 8am to help move their furniture into a truck is because you care for them. Over the years your friend has made numerous gestures of kindness and generosity. You feel grateful. And the reason you want to help is to maintain the strength of your relationships.

In a series of DeStano’s studies, he found that when you feel a sense of gratitude towards someone, you don’t just want to help them in return, you want to help just about anyone – even complete strangers.

In one amusing study, he and his colleagues took a group of graduate students and divided them in pairs. Each pair had to go into a quiet computer room and perform a difficult and tedious task on a computer. It was an awful task that took half an hour.

The two of them were left alone to chat and get to know each other while they performed the task. However, one of the two people in the room was a confederate, secretly an agent for the researchers.

While they both worked on the task, the confederate would finish first. As they were leaving, the computer of the research subject would crash and go blank, ruining all of their work. The confederate would then offer to help “fix” the computer, claiming they had some IT expertise. After working on the computer for several minutes, the confederate would strike a secret set of keys and *surprisingly* reset the computer, saving all of the long and arduous work.

The research subject is grateful of course. And later, when the confederate asks for help on a separate school-related project, the person primed for gratitude was more likely to be helpful, and help for a longer period of time. That’s no surprise.

The surprise came when the researchers introduced complete strangers who then asked for help on a school project. In that circumstance, research subjects primed to be grateful were almost twice as likely to help a complete stranger, and spend more time helping them.

In DeStano’s work, he has discovered that a sense of gratitude is linked to achieving longer term goals because gratitude is a social emotion. It’s a feeling that comes from experiencing, or thinking about, others in our lives. And when we reflect on our gratitude toward others, we reinforce our commitment to them and want to strengthen those bonds.

That sense of community and gratitude then strengthens our own resolve to persevere toward our own goals. It’s a reinforcing cycle.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

You’re Trying to Hire the Wrong People

What do you think is the average age of the founders of most new companies? Or an even better question is, what do you think the average age is of founders of high-growth startups? The kind of start-ups that take off and scale and grow quickly? Do you think it’s 25 years old, 35, 45, 55?

When asked this question most people say 25 and the voting gets lower as the age range goes up. The truth is that the average age of all new founders is 42, but the average age of the founders of the fastest growing and most lasting successful companies is 47. And founders with an average age of 50 are almost twice as likely to create a fast growth firm with a highly profitable exit, the kind of exit that makes investors rich.

Surprised? Maybe you bought into the romantic idea that all savvy entrepreneurs are young like Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Sarah Blakely, the founder of SPANXX. The truth is that older entrepreneurs have more experience, broader networks, and deeper wisdom, which seems to contribute to their capability to innovate successfully. And by “innovate successfully” I don’t mean they possess creativity. Lots of people are creative, but the difference between being creative and being innovative is the ability to execute – to lead a team to realize a shared vision.

As more and more work is routinized, outsourced, or automated, highly innovative people are exactly the kind of people most organizations need and want right now, but instead most hiring managers are hiring for PLUs – People Like Us. To ensure we have “culture fit” we hire people who look, act and behave like we do. We know we should be hiring for values, but often we confuse values for people who have the same interests.

That cultural conformity is terrible for innovation. Serial innovators are people who have lots of diverse interests, zig zag from job to job, often hold different kinds of roles within companies, experiment in different domains, read widely, experiment with hobbies, and often stay in contact with people who work in different lines of work. They are also often consistently counter-cultural in their efforts. Chuck House, who developed a number of innovative new products for Hewlett-Packard, was awarded a “Medal of Defiance” by the President of HP.

And because of this diversity and breadth of experience, these candidates appear on paper to be inconsistent in their work. On paper they look flakey, distracted. But they are also exactly the kinds of people who are more likely to borrow brilliance from other domains because of their experience, and become powerful innovators for your company.

Most job descriptions are overly narrow, and hiring managers focus on resumes that have predictable, consistent trajectories that align with the target abilities they are trying to hire for. Keep in mind this is a short-sighted approach. It’s a tactical hire, not a strategic one. When hiring, don’t just think about the task you are trying to accomplish, think about the kind of company you aspire to build.

Finally, make sure you have a diverse set of interviewers. Women are more likely to join a company when they can interact with women who are already there, and can witness a company’s commitment to diversity. As Katherine Swings points out, one of the biggest deciding factors on whether or not a female candidate accepts a job is if there was a woman on the interview panel.

Innovation isn’t rocket science. It can be deconstructed and learned by anyone. Try our course Out•Innovate the Competition to build measurable innovation in your workplace.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Small Acts of Leadership: Choose Learning Goals, Not Performance Goals

– [Announcer] Do you sometimes praise people at work for being brilliant? Do you praise your kids for being naturally gifted? Instead think about praising the hard work that lead to this success.

– Carol Dweck, at Stanford University, has been writing and teaching about how the mindset we choose in every interaction, either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset largely determines whether we continuously learn and grow, or whether we believe we are locked into a fixed level of intelligence, or creativity, or similar ability.
What she discovered is that when we tell our kids or our coworkers how smart, or naturally gifted they are, we reinforce a world view that these things should come easily, that they should always perform well, that they should always shine. Because when you praise for innate talent you create a form of status.
If someone believes that they have special talents and they’re expected to perform well, well then the thought of failing becomes really scary. So often those labeled as gifted and talented will then choose easier tasks because they want to ensure that they have consistently high performance. I mean after all, nobody wants to be revealed as an imposter.
In Carol Dweck’s studies she discovered that those who are praised as brilliant, but then perform poorly on a test are also more likely to lie a little bit about their own results. So in sharing their test scores with other partners, other kids next to them the kids told their friends that they did better than they actually did. Well presumably this was to maintain their social status as talented.

“What’s so alarming,” Carol Dweck says, “is that we took ordinary children “and we made them into liars, simply by telling them that they were smart.”

– [Announcer] Paula is very good at organizing events. Whenever there is a social occasion people volunteer her to manage it. Paula learned how to be hospitable earlier in her life and was held to high standards. She’d like to learn to enjoy more casual entertaining, and asks her easygoing colleague Mitch to partner with her in planning the next event. Complete this sentence. People think I’m really good at blank, so I’m usually on guard to be sure I perform. Then complete this sentence. What I’d like to learn is blank. Ask yourself, can you use some of your natural talents to help you learn new behaviors or skills? If so, what are they?

Win or Lose, Never Stop Learning.

The USWNT is exactly as unapologetically spectacular, or arrogant, as you perceive them to be. If you find team captain Rapinoe to be brash and cocky then you can find lots of articles out there that might agree with you. And if instead, you find her and the U.S. Women’s team to be confident, cohesive, joyful, and magnificent in their success, there’s an even bigger cheering section out there. As Alex Morgan and many others have pointed out, there’s quite the double standard when it comes to goal celebrations.

Yes, the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup. It was tense, competitive and beautiful to watch. The Netherlands side held the U.S. team to a scoreless first half. Something that hadn’t been done throughout the entire tournament. Up to the final, the U.S. team had scored in each match within the first 12 minutes, sometimes within the first 5 minutes. In the end the U.S. side prevailed, and has not lost a match in the World Cup tournament since 2011 (They are 13-0-1).

But look deeper. The Netherlands did lose, but they played with excellence and determination, and lost with dignity. The cover of the Netherlands Times sports page today reads, “Disappointed, But Proud After World Cup Loss.” Proud they should be, because not only did they play with heart and tenacity against a U.S. side favored to win, they had sensational chances with Lineth Beerensteyn through the U.S. defensive line, and spectacular saves from keeper Sari van Veenendaal.

Van Veenendaal went on to win the Golden Glove award for best keeper at the tournament for save after save after save. And despite being dominated on ball possession by the US team in the first half, 62%-38%, the Dutch came out in the second half to gain time on the ball with 46% possession.

It wasn’t enough to win, but remember we will all lose at some point. I know it’s sacrilege to say, but the USWNT will eventually lose. Even the New England Patriots will lose. We’ll all lose eventually – an interview, a contract, a job, a promotion, or maybe even a date. The most important thing, of course, is to understand that the landscape is always changing. There is always a chance to learn, to change, to win.

Look at women’s soccer. The game has changed dramatically in just 15 years. In the 2007 World Cup semi-final, the USWNT lost badly against a Brazilian team and the dazzling superstar Marta. In the 79th minute of the game, Marta received the ball on the left side of the field with her back to defender Tina Ellertson. With Marta’s first touch she flicks the ball over her left shoulder, over the defender, while spinning right around the Ellertson. She gathers the ball, cuts right across another defender and strikes to the back of the net. You can see it here.

Today’s solution to Marta’s move would be to foul the attacker and concede a free kick. Ten years ago no one had seen such a move, and were flatfooted by her brilliance. The USWNT of that era played a simple, long ball-oriented game which relied mostly on simply having better athletes than their opponents. The plan was to play the ball deep and outrun your opponent. It worked, up until Marta.

“That was one of those moments where as an opposition player you were devastated because it was likely our worst loss in the history of the national team, but on the other side, recognizing that you just saw a glimpse of brilliance.”
– Heather O’Reilly, who started that match for the USWNT.

Enjoy the wins, but when you do lose, study that loss like a scientist. Because you can always change, and come back stronger.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Small Acts of Leadership: Nourish Your Team

This is a true story. Rona Cant is an adventurer. She taught me something kind of fascinating about dog sledding deep in the northern wilderness of Norway. Each evening on her expedition, her team of three sleds and 28 dogs, they’d usually camp near a frozen lake or maybe a river, and while her traveling partner Cathy put up the tents, Rona, she’d build a fire and she would untether the dogs and inspect each and every one of them for cuts, for injuries, for soreness. And their guide, his name is Per Thore, he would take this huge auger and he would go out onto the ice and he would drill a hole through almost a meter of ice to retrieve fresh water and then Rona, she would hike out to the well through waist deep snow and ladle 40 liters of water into these plastic containers. She’d haul them back to the campsite.

Several more trips were required to deliver all the water to the spot by the fire, where Per Thore was busy sawing chunks of frozen reindeer meat to then mix with some dry food and the water to set over the campfire and make a stew, and it was all for the dogs. The dogs required more than 60 kilos of food every single day. And then finally, Rona would return to the hole in the ice one last time to retrieve 10 liters of water for the humans. You see, only after the dogs were fed and cared for would the three adventurers take their first sip of water and the reason is obvious. Without your team in the wilderness, you die. Without your team, you are going nowhere. They are the engine that makes the expedition possible and without their health, their well being, their rest, their focus, all is lost.

Nourish your people first. The only difference between ordinary and extraordinary is the strength and the conviction of our teams. Teams can take us places that we can only dream of alone.

You may not be racing a team of dogs through the wilderness, but as a leader, you must always nurture your team or your projects will be stuck and lost in the woods. Sanjay’s team has had many disappointments lately. Product tests have failed, systems crashed, and it takes a lot of time to get the operation up and running. What the team needs is support and lots of it. Sanjay knows he cannot solve these problems alone, and he needs to stop and support his team so they can be at their best. Play the video clip for your team. Ask them to think creatively about what nourishes them, what makes them strong and healthy enough to work together every day. Together, think of a few things that leaders can do more regularly to keep the team strong.

A More Powerful Way to Build Habits

I’m trying to play more guitar. So I took the guitar out of the closet, tuned it up, and keep it by my desk, within reach. It works. I play more. It’s a small, simple habit stack that helps me achieve a small goal. But what about longer term goals, bigger goals – the kind which require persistent effort, and the outcome is unclear and far away? Like saving monthly for retirement, or eating kale?

Previously I wrote about the notion of activation energy – which is basically the idea that if you make something bad for you harder to do, you will be less likely to do it. And inversely if you make something good for you easier to do, you will be more likely to do it.

So, for example, if you want to go running tomorrow you place your running gear next to your bed so it’s the first thing you see in the morning and it’s easily accessible to put on. Or if you want to stop eating ice cream, you simply stop buying it, so in order to eat ice cream at 9pm it would require you put on go-in-public clothes and drive to the corner store and buy it. You might, but it would be a hassle.

The ability to delay gratification, and value the future more than the present, seems to be the holy grail for better health, better relationships, and better careers. But the prevailing themes we keep hearing in the media are about grit, tenacity, and perseverance. And often the advice to be grittier comes across as the importance of being more robotic, more cerebral, and more disciplined.

This is an argument in which we try to remove temptation, remove emotion, and take away the stress of dealing with temptation and bad choices, and create better habits simply by applying some self-discipline, and some cool tricks and life hacks. James Clear has lots of habit tricks that I greatly enjoy and apply.

David DeSteno, professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, has different ideas. His research suggests that the disciplined habit-tweaking approach described above is basically a form of impulse control. If our impulse is to do something that has long term negative consequences, then we need only change the environment and circumstance, and be a little mentally tougher, to help control that impulse.

DeStano argues that exercising self-control as a rational, logical approach to solving an emotional self-control dilemma is another way of suppressing our immediate desires. It’s not really human, and it’s not our instinct. DeStano suggests that we may get more powerful results not by rejecting, controlling or diminishing our emotions, but instead by activating the right kinds of emotions and leaning in to those, and using emotion as fuel instead of denying it.

Let me explain. We do have self-control, but our self-control did not evolve to maximize our 401k. Self-control evolved to make us better collaborators with other people. Because if you are viewed as sharing and compassionate and generous, then you are trustworthy and others will work with you, help you and share with you. And when you can figure out how to be a trustworthy collaborator, you are more likely to be part of a tribe and survive longer when the hyenas come around.

The kind of self-control to avoid buying a new car in order to maximize our 401k is an intellectual, rational kind of control. It’s not always easy to simply will ourselves to not eat the ice cream, or not have another drink, or to go to the gym after work. This is because we naturally devalue the impact of our short-term choices and we have a hard time imagining the long-term impact on our future selves. Basically we have a hard time envisioning our future selves because we think we won’t change.

Yes, we recognize that in the past we did change. Look at those photos of young me. I was so silly and naive. But now that we’ve evolved into who we are today, we think we’re all done changing.

It’s easy to look back on our past selves with a kind of bemused, slightly embarrassed recollection, because we can see how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned and developed. But at the same time we are terrible at imagining our future selves. We think who we are today is who we will be in the future. Wrong. We are always changing.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you have ever been.
– Dan Gilbert

The key to envisioning a positive and healthy future version of you is to tap into those emotions which activate future thinking. Gratitude is a powerful emotion for envisioning a positive future self. We often think of gratitude as a reflective emotion, as in “I’m so grateful Sally and Barbara helped me through my difficult break-up with Marcus.” But gratitude is a powerful emotion for guiding our future actions. If we’re so grateful for Sally and Barbara, we are likely to envision ways to reciprocate. We’re likely to imagine who we will be in the future when we are helping Sally and Barbara because of our sense of deep gratitude.

The emotion of gratitude relies on our connection to others. The emotion exists to ensure that we reciprocate and continue building our relationships. If Sally and Barbara help us out, and we never reciprocate because we don’t care or we don’t understand empathy, then the relationship dies.

DeStano argues that the right kinds of emotions to drive the choices and habits that create a better version of ourselves are the morally-toned emotions of gratitude, compassion and authentic pride of a job well done. Morally-toned emotions are the kinds of emotions that make us feel connected with one another, and help us envision a shared future together, and therefore help us value longer term benefits.

In DeStano’s research they asked participants to place values on immediate versus future rewards, and found that on-average, people valued $17 right now as roughly equal to receiving $100 in a year. In other words, almost everyone would rather have a little bit now instead of a lot more later.

Then they primed their research participants to think of something they are grateful for, and found that participants began to almost double the value of future benefits. After priming for gratitude, it would take nearly $33 right now in order to have the same value as $100 in a year. Gratitude and compassion seem to have the capacity to encourage people to place a higher value on their future selves, and thus encourage people to make better long term decisions.

But don’t get lost in focusing on just future benefits. Gratitude and compassion have been demonstrated to reduce blood pressure, increase immune responses, allow people to sleep better and a whole host of other immediate mental and physical benefits.


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