Changes in life, sometimes, they just happen.
Why do they more often happen to some people? What traits have these people in common?
For the changes I am talking about, there is one big trait in common: these people are smart.
What is wrong with smart people, why aren’t they ever satisfied? Why do they need changes?
To be sure, being content is a great personal quality to have. It brings the mind into a good emotional state, where enjoying the present comes natural. It does matter a lot.
Being content and wanting more aren’t necessarily opposing forces. They can coexist. The few who succeed in having them both, those are truly set for success.
As it’s often said, the secret is to enjoy the journey more than the destination. I believe that is what driven, happy people have learned to do: no matter how many things they do, they enjoy all of them, one at the time. They enjoy doing them, even more than they enjoy the goals they reach eventually.
How do skilled people fight boredom?
This seemingly simple question struck me a few weeks ago. The direct answer –They just change what they do– leaves the truth hanging in the air: Why do they change it? And, how? The Oxford dictionary came to rescue me: A person of wide knowledge or learning, is the definition for “polymath”.
That is the key, as usual: learning. Polymaths fight boredom by learning new things. They immerse themselves in new concepts, arts and practice. Above all, they enjoy doing it.
It’s profoundly different from being fed up with one’s own job, wanting to quit and never look back again. That is called “running away from problems”. Skilled people do not run away from difficulties. They embrace them and learn their way up to a resolution.
That is it, on the how: fight boredom with learning. What about the why?
I believe they all have one trait in common: their mind is incredibly good at moving from concept to concept, at seeing interconnections between subjects. They are curious and ask a lot of questions (to themselves, first).
All this, in one word, is called Mindshifting.
The five components of mindshifting
1- Ask the right questions
There’s in fact only one way to ask the right questions, that I am aware of: to ask a lot of questions.
When I take this approach and start asking questions, they sometimes sound like random, nonsense questions. People often laugh at me and at my questions. That is fine. It may even be useful to decide what people I want to stay around.
There’s plenty of people who agree with my approach. I believe that the entire book Freakonomics (New York Times Bestseller) was conceived and written using this approach: in order to ask the right questions, one must start just asking. Eventually, some questions will be the right questions.
2- People matter
Self-motivated, driven, slightly obsessive people tend to think they can solve every problem by themselves. I do. And I am wrong.
The five people I hang with the most give a very good indication of who I am, and what type of person I am. This is known as the five chimps theory. Usually, I try to be around people smarter than me, with a definite contrarian approach to common beliefs.
Being contrarian is not necessarily a quality. One who’s contrarian just for the sake of being so, is not a lifelong learner. Let alone a mindshifter, which I see like the next-level-learner.
But, when I think statistically about it, today’s common wisdom is based on a lot of fake information. It’s based on the evidence that the majority of people are lazy enough to not ask questions and to believe (almost) everything they are told. It’s based on the evidence that people’s knowledge comes in good part from idiotic videos and posts.
When I think about it in this way, then, statistically, being a contrarian is useful. Chances are that the truth lies in the opposite of what people believe.
My favorite example on this subject comes again from Freakonomics. The number of crimes committed in the United States grew in a terrifying way until the 90s'. Then, even though all experts predicted a further increase, it went down very quickly. Luckily.
Years later, experts mentioned as most likely reasons the new laws on weapon possessions (guns, mainly), the increased number of policemen and women, the new strategies in the fight against crime. And a few more. Experts said it, so people believed it.
No expert mentioned that 20 years before, the United States had made abortion legal. And it’s a matter of (statistical) fact that children born against the mother’s will are more likely to become criminals. Thus, in fact, the crime rates went down because many criminals weren’t born in the first place. This argument, after I heard it, is so brilliant and it makes so much sense.
How did they arrive at such a brilliant conclusion? Searching. Asking questions. Even dumb questions may lead to brilliant conclusions.
The right people are the ones who are not afraid of asking questions, to be contrarian, but also to admit when a question is useless and when to be contrarian is silly. In other words, they are the ones who like to work with the brain.
Statistically, people have stopped thinking. It’s part of human nature, the laziness. Brain work feels uncomfortable at first, like everything that is done for the first time. But with time and dedicated practice, thinking may start to feel natural. The same as running slowly does not cause any pain to a fast runner.
That brings me back to the importance of people. If I am a runner, I need to work with people who can run next to me and push me forward every day a little bit. If I want to work with my brain, I need to stay around people who engage me with interesting conversations, spicy questions, and open-minded rationality.
On the practical side, I find that to ask a lot of questions is a good way to understand what person I am talking with. How does she react to my odd questions? Can she see beyond what lazy ones write or say on social media? Overall, to ask questions helps selecting the best five chimps.
On the other hand, people really matter. When I keep asking questions to myself only, I circle around the same concepts over and over, and I can’t get out of this maze. Brainstorming with people is, ultimately, the best way to improve.
3- Deliberate practice
Deliberate practice helps fight what I call the “illusion of learning”. How easy is it to “learn” something by watching a few videos, reading some articles, and looking at how other people have addressed problems with that tool/theory? It’s quite easy, indeed. But that is not learning. It’s just an illusion of learning.
Learning is made of three parts, all with the same importance. Memorization, Understanding, Deliberate Practice.
We often emphasize the second one as the most important, understanding. That’s a cultural problem, I believe. Especially in the western world, understanding is seen as the cool stuff that only smart people can do. Western education also promotes memorization. That is good, because memorization helps build neurons and patterns, same as understanding does.
Deliberate practice, though, is heavily neglected. And yet it’s the third, required component of real learning.
The problem I see again is with laziness and with the general trend that information of low quality is spread all over the internet in an easy-to-collect way. We fill our brain with it, and believe we have learned something new and cool. The truth is harder. First of all, it doesn’t give any real competitive advantage (which sometimes is what I look for). Low quality and easy-to-get knowledge simply means everybody already has it. In second place, quite frankly, I don’t like low quality knowledge.
The second, big problem comes with educational institutions. Sadly, they are often evaluated by the number of students that successfully completes a course, or degree. This creates for institutions the sad necessity to make content “easier” to digest.
I love Coursera, and have taken many courses there, as well as entire specializations. But I have to say, the quality of their practical content (assignment) has gone down over time. And I believe it’s affected by the drop rate of the learners.
Thus, deliberate practice is something that each learner has to do for themselves. Deliberate practice crashes the illusion of learning entirely. It takes time, sure, but why should I rush?
4- Selective Ignorance
Continuous flow of demands. Requests about literally everything. Every moment, from other people.
And it’s difficult to say no. The world teaches that opportunities matter. So does opportunism. Never say no to an opportunity, no matter if it’s a good or a bad one.
Selective ignorance is, basically, just the opposite. Selective ignorance is the introvert best win. It’s the best reason to say thanks, but no.
From my point of view, it’s all about how much I care about my goals. If I care about them, then I have to say no to many things. I need to cultivate a bit of loneliness, silence, and above all focus on the few things that really matter to me. Selective ignorance means to dismiss everything else that is not right there at the top of my priorities.
Because if everything is a priority then nothing really is a priority.
This is why I start every week by telling myself the 3 main things I need to do during that week. I write them down, and also try to schedule time for them in my calendar. When that time comes, there is no phone, no chat, nothing. The world stops existing for a bit.
Selective ignorance is a concept that I learned only very recently. I find that it empowers my routine enormously. Especially as a former freelancer, I had troubles in saying no. As a lifelong student, I still find it difficult to resist the temptation of one more class.
The reality is that general competence, the contrary of selective ignorance, can be useful too. In many instances, to know and to do a little of everything may be a successful approach.
However, for perfectionists like myself, general competence alone is bound to fail. There’s not enough time in one life to be great at many things. My personal approach is to try to be in the top 5% for many things, but only one or two at the time. This was my motivation for continuously learning as much as I could about software, engineering and computer science. I can see that my passion (and my mind) is shifting towards something else now, and maybe I will be ready to change some time soon. But one thing is sure, I didn’t let general competence distract me during those years. I was in full selective ignorance mode.
Or, was I? Well, I also think just one main thread is one too few for a human life. Intellectual, complex personalities need more stimuli than what may come from a single source.
This reminds me of the Pi-theory of learning. Pi, is to be intended as the Greek letter: π.
The theory says that to be a successful learner is worth having two main “legs”, that is, two main topics to specialize in, along with “branches”, that is topics in which we are less knowledgeable but still (know something about). It’s opposed to the old T-theory of learning, which recommends one “leg” only.
For me, software engineering and chess were the first lovers. Engineering stayed, chess left. And here it comes the beauty of this theory: I am sure I will pick up chess again at some point in the future. Just for fun, but that is enough.
Engineering stayed and was joined by data science. The branches become, quite naturally, business and economy. Then, all of a sudden, endurance sport came like out of nowhere, and it’s got a pretty important piece of my life. Writing, and music branching all around.
5- Broaden the Passions
Which leads me to the fifth, last and most important component of Mindshifting: broaden your passions.
The most intriguing question for me is: how does it happen?
That natural instinct that slowly but surely makes me realize that my mind is shifting towards a new passion. How did it happen?
Talking about myself, writing is a good example. How did writing become so central in my life, that was all centered around engineering and applied science? It didn’t happen overnight, and it took time for me to realize what was happening.
In fact, I believe it started with reading. I had always been an avid reader of easy books, thriller and romance. When I started travelling (“vagabonding”) it became more difficult to find and carry books with me. The breakthrough was simply to buy the Kindle. I started reading so much!
Then, again for no particular reason, I started reading more serious books. The first one, which still is one of my all-time favorites, was The Magic of Thinking Big.
With that one, I entered a bright tunnel of books about philosophy, human behavior, introspection. If I had to name two more (so to make a top-three list), I would say Thinking: Fast and Slow and Vagabonding, but then I would feel bad to leave out The Irrational Bundle, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman (favorite of B. Gates), Man’s Search for Meaning, and many others.
Then, all of a sudden, I felt the need to write. And look, I am not a good writer. I am too technical, and the only things I wrote in the past are scientific papers published in IEEE or engineering conferences. But it didn’t matter, because it was a need.
This is the answer then: interest becomes need, need becomes passion.
It happened to me also with endurance sport. And again, I am not that great of an athlete. It started out just as a challenge and curiosity for a discipline that requires a lot of focus and dedicated practice: triathlon. At the same time that I started training more seriously, I also became interested in why some people are so good at this and others (me included) are not? I nurtured my interest reading a few books, such as The Triathlete Bible, The Passion Paradox and Endure, and as of today I am still on a fantastic journey set to find out where the limits are.
Nurtured interest became a need for understanding which then became passion.
Directing the shift
I had initially titled this section “Choosing the Shift”. But, a mindshift cannot really be chosen.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, sometimes changes just happen. We can’t control our mind in full.
Certainly though, we have the possibility to direct the shift. Mindshifting is typically about a new passion in life, a new project, or a new lifestyle altogether. It’s a big change and as such there are a lot of facets and micro changes into it.
All this means that a mindshift will also require a lot of decisions. Some will have a heavy effect on the overall journey. I have only one, final suggestion on how to make these decisions:
Provide value to others
I think it’s very easy: most of what we do in life should be meant to provide value for other people. If you are going through a mindshift, just make sure you build it around things that can help others. And good luck!