The world is what it is, absolutely and regardless of our wishes. Yet there is some truth to the idea that we make our own world. By what we think and what we do, we experience a world that can be different from that of others. If we are not careful, we may even mistake the world we make for the world that is, confusing our experience for universal truth. This applies to the people we deal with, too. Our thoughts and actions can create us a world where people are mostly happy, considerate and polite; they can also make our world a place where hostility and suspicion is the default attitude.

Our ways of thinking, interests and ideas direct our attention, and we only truly see what we pay attention to. In a crowded room, it can be that there are half a dozen ongoing conversations. We can hear them all, but can only really listen to one. The others we have to ignore, unless something in them invokes our conscious attention. The way we direct our attention determines what information we get; the information we get shapes our beliefs.

One way in which our ideas can shape what we see is known as confirmation bias. This refers to our tendency to look for evidence that supports what we already believe, instead of looking for contrary evidence that could prove our existing beliefs wrong. It’s easy to see how this applies to, say, politics and religion, but I think it can be subtler than that. It can also apply to beliefs about human nature – if you believe people are at root nasty, you can have that belief confirmed everywhere you look, and the same is true of believing in the fundamental goodness of humanity.

It is hardly controversial to point out that many things about us affect how other people react to us. Our status, and sex, and age, and looks and many other things have an effect on how we are treated. The same people will treat a beautiful, well-off woman differently than an ugly homeless guy.

Wondering about how differently the world would treat us if we were older, or younger, or of different sex may be fascinating, but it’s not that practical. But the same principle also holds true about the way we behave and carry ourselves. In many ways our outsides reflect our insides. Some stride around as if they owned the world; others like they wished to apologize for existing. In addition to their clothes, people wear their attitude. Some wear a cloak of hostility or suspicion or boredom. Some bear a crown of happiness; others carry weights of worry and stress. We are constantly sending out signals about who we are. And people tend to respond to those signals.

When we evaluate other people’s actions, we are suspectible to a bias that is so common that psychologists have named it the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to too easily explain people’s actions in terms of their personality, rather than the situation they’re in. When we look at, say, a man giving money to a person collecting donations for war veterans, we may mistakenly conclude that he is a particularly generous person, even if most people would act the same way in his situation.

The fundamental attribution error is all about us underestimating the power of situations. Guess what is the one constant in every situation you’re in? You. Every person you talk to is interacting with you. When you talk to a stranger – or a friend for that matter – he takes in what you’re saying, tone of voice, general attitude, manners, body language, facial expression and appearance, and almost automatically adjusts his response accordingly. If you’re not careful about it, you will assume that the way people act when dealing with you is just how they are, a part of their personality. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t – but the first impression can be quite misleading.

Besides the way we subtly affect the responses we get from those around us, we also shape the world around us – or fail to do so, which amounts to the same thing. We choose our friends and the people we deal with. We choose the career we pursue, and the jobs we apply for. We choose our hobbies. Most fundamentally, we choose how we direct our attention. All this can make a huge difference to our lives, and to what kind of world we live in.

Our attitudes, personality, manners, habits and choices change the world we deal with; in the long term, some of the changes become more or less permanent. The world is like a pool of water. When we look at the pool, we see fishes and plants and water, but we also see our own reflection. The first question is, what is reality, and what is reflection? The second question is, how to make sure our reflection makes the sight better?

We have limits, that is true
reaching beyond, we may rue
Where’s the clemency, the appeal,
from the constraints of the real?

Yet too often, we do mix
what is putty, what is fixed
customs, habits, one and all
held the same as apple’s fall

There is so much we can do
held back just by what is true
so lose the chains, break your tethers
dance on naked, no more fetters

How does one become good at what one does? How do we get from being utterly incompetent, to being skilled, to mastery? What explains the difference in skills between people? I’ve been reading books that focus on these questions. Each of them has a slightly different perspective on the matter, but they all agree on the essentials of the answer. The answer is practice.

This is more controversial than it sounds at first. That we get better by practicing what we do is obvious. That the effect of practice much exceeds that of inborn talent is less so. Practice may improve our skills, but what if the amount and speed of improvement depends mostly on natural talent? What if there are limits that prevent people who don’t have a natural talent for a skill from mastering it?

As it turns out, there is not much evidence for inborn talent and inborn limits being that important in most areas – and there is plenty of evidence for the essential role of practice. Let’s take music. It’s one of those skills where people tend to think having natural talent – “a gift” – is important.

Yet when researchers in Great Britain studied young people introduced to study of music, they found no evidence for such a thing. These people varied widely – some of them had given up their instrument relatively early on, and some of them were top music school students. There was only one factor that explained their level of musical accomplishment. That factor was how much they practiced. The grading system used in Britain to grade young instrumentalists consists of nine grades. It turns out that you can’t reach any of those grades without putting in a given amount of practice. The researchers found no shortcut for musical talent; if some reached a grade earlier than others, it was because they practiced more.

So talent plays the second fiddle to practice when it comes to music. There are many other disciplines – like social skills, math and sports – of which people tend to think in terms of talent, when it is in fact the development of skill through practice that makes the difference. Even physical strength is to a large degree about skill; how many fast twitch muscle fibers you have matters, but so does how well you can contract and coordinate those muscles. Both the amount of muscle fibers and muscle control can be increased with training.

Practice matters. Is that it? The only thing that we need to do to become excellent guitar players, or writers, or chess players, is to just put in enough hours? No. If that were enough, everyone would eventually become great at what they do for a living. This doesn’t always happen – in fact people often become less good at what they do as time goes on. Would you make a bet that a senior teacher is better than one who has only been teaching for a few years? Only if you didn’t care too much about winning. Making the same bet about computer programmers wouldn’t be any safer.

Practice is not enough. It’s not enough to just keep on working and expect to become great at what you do – or even better at it. For practice to be useful, it has to be more than just mindless repetition. As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

Practice that gets results is specifically designed to improve performance. Ideally, it should be designed by someone who knows what he is doing. There are many skills that are very difficult to learn without the assistance of a coach or a teacher. Others may be less difficult to learn alone, but a teacher is needed to learn them well and to learn them fast. Well-designed practice typically involves breaking a skill down to its components and working on improving them separately as well as a whole.

Effective practice should not be easy. If we can do something easily, it means we’re already good at it. To become better, we need to work on improving things we are not good at. This is true almost by definition, but it’s still surprisingly easy for us to fall back to doing the easy stuff we already know how to do. If practice doesn’t involve intense concentration, fumbling and occasional failing, it’s probably too easy. As our skills grow, we need to tune our practice accordingly, so as to stay out of the comfort zone. It’s not the place where learning happens.

Getting feedback is another component of effective practice. To improve our skills, we need to constantly look for areas of improvement. Besides that, if we can’t see that we’re progressing, we’ll stop caring. Most activities offer some level of built-in feedback; when dancing, we can observe the reactions of our partner, a computer program either compiles or not, and so on. That helps, but getting somebody qualified to give us specific feedback is much better.

Unsurprisingly, repetition is another component of effective practice. For us to really master a component of a skill, it’s not enough that we know how to do it. We must drill it until we can flawlessly execute it without thinking. Since concentration is essential to learning, repetition must not become mechanical; to get the most out of practice, we need to be focused and looking for ways to improve with every repetition.

Two aspects of practicing effectively can be particularly difficult to people: keeping practice difficult enough, and receiving feedback. We tend to like doing things we are good at; less so with difficult things where we fumble and fail. We like being praised; being told where and how we suck can be unpleasant. The more we learn to like being stretched outside the limits of our current abilities and searching for points of improvement, the more we will learn.

This is where having the right mindset makes all the difference. Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that it’s the individual’s beliefs about the source of ability that determines their development. People who have a “fixed mindset” believe that our abilities are basically fixed; some people have them, some people don’t. People with a “growth mindset”, on the other hand, believe that our abilities are a result of practice and training.

Consider the consequences of holding on to either idea. If I believe that our abilities are basically fixed, I’ll place less importance on practice. Failure is an enemy that has to be avoided at all costs; failing means that I’m not smart or athletic or talented enough. Failing means I should just stop trying instead wasting time in futility. Failing publicly is especially bad, as everybody will see that I’m no good. Getting feedback is threatening; the person giving me feedback is placing himself at a higher level of natural ability.

If I believe that we get better as a result of practice and hard work, my attitude will be completely different. Failure is a natural part of the learning process. It means I’m not good enough yet in this particular thing, so I should keep on practicing. It’s a reason to work harder, not to stop. If others see me fail, it’s not a big deal. Feedback is something to be sought after and treasured.

These two mindsets lead to very different results. It probably won’t surprise you that the growth mindset encourages growth and learning, and the fixed mindset doesn’t. There are plenty of studies attesting to this. We can also think of examples from our own lives.

There are many people attending dance classes who refuse to step onto the floor at a dance party due to their own perceived lack of skills. Yet being the least skilled dancer on the floor doesn’t actually hurt anyone; social dancing is necessary to become a better dancer, and the less skilled you are the faster you improve. So people are actually depriving themselves of the change to become good dancers because they are not already good enough, and they don’t want others to see this. I didn’t personally make this particular mistake of fixed mindset, but I’ve made the same mistake in other ways. The pattern is the same; because one is reluctant to draw attention to one’s shortcomings, one can’t actually improve those shortcomings. It’s absurd and even sad.

Fear of failing publicly can be a powerful limiting force in our lives. Letting go of it, to whatever extent, is incredibly liberating. I’ve found that a healthy disregard about what others think is helpful, but so is understanding the role of practice. Growth only happens outside the comfort zone – and when we venture outside our comfort zone we will make mistakes. Screwing things up occasionally means we’re doing difficult enough things. Failure may be painful, but not failing at all is a very bad sign. It means we’re constraining our lives and only doing what we already know how to do.

How we respond to what life brings our way is a matter of mindset. It may not be easy to change patterns of thought that we may have spent a lifetime repeating. But so what? Habits of thought, like other habits, are formed by repetition. They are formed by practice. As with skill, even if we never reach the highest levels, every step of improvement means we are better off.

To control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

— Herbert Simon

Every moment, we receive a huge amount of information through our senses. Yet only a tiny portion of it ever makes it into our conscious awareness and the rest is ignored. We direct our own minds; to focus on these things, to work on that problem, to retrieve particular memories – or we just let them drift from one thing to another. This is attention. Learning to direct it is absolutely vital for enjoying ourselves, getting things done and for learning new things.

In his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes attention as “psychic energy”. Attention is the key element in the state of flow he writes about. Flow is optimal experience, that enjoyable state of consciousness where we are completely focused on the moment. Usually, flow experiences are not the relaxed, passive moments of our lives. Rather, they are the times when we stretch our abilities to their limits, trying to accomplish something difficult. They might not be that much fun while they’re happening, only when looking back.

Flow experiences have several common characteristics that are the same the world over. They are usually achieved through a challenging activity, something that requires skill. If what we do is easy for us, we don’t get optimal experience, we get bored. If what we do is too hard, we get anxious. The challenge needs to be just balanced with pur own abilities.Now, when something requires all our skills to deal with, we need to focus all our attention on it. This is the reason that during a flow experience the only thing people are aware of is the activity itself. Our very sense of time may be altered, so that time seems to pass either unusually slow or unusually fast. This complete focus is possible because usually the goals of the activity are clear, and feedback on how we are doing is immediate.

During the flow experience we have no attention left over to be self-conscious. After the experience, though, our self-image is strengthened, due to new skills, achievements, and enjoyable memories. After a flow experience, we know that we have grown, become more than we were before experiencing it.

What is the common element in all these characteristics of flow experience? Attention. The difficulty, clear goals, and immediate feedback are what makes it very easy to focus all of our attention on what we’re doing. Losing ourselves in the activity, altered sense of time and enjoyment are results of this total concentration.These are experiences we make happen. Experiencing flow is all about focusing attention on what we’re doing. That is the difference between gaining pleasure from food and enjoying food. Even a meal that is quickly eaten while working on something else may feel pleasant; to enjoy a meal, we need to give it our attention and discriminate among the various flavors, and so on. Pleasure can be experienced without any effort on our part; that is not the case with enjoyment.

Besides being enjoyable, concentrating on what we’re doing also the way to do well and get things done. While writing this post, there were several times I stopped to check Facebook and do other unrelated stuff. If we only count the amount of minutes I spent doing something else while writing this, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. If we consider what it takes to get into flow state and to keep the train of thought rolling, it was a big deal. I could probably have gotten this written in about fifth the time if I had managed to give it my full attention from start to finish. When I’m doing programming, whether I get into flow state or not makes all the difference in both how much I get done, and how much I enjoy it.

When an employee spends his time during work surfing the net, the assumption usually is that he’s doing it because it’s more enjoyable than work. The person himself may think so, but my experience is different. Reading miscellaneous stuff from the web is easier than work; it’s not more enjoyable. Actually, it’s a very unpleasant way to spend one’s days. Being immersed in work is enjoyable. Doing random stuff  – especially while knowing one should be doing something else – is very much not enjoyable. It’s the mental equivalent of eating candy as opposed to a good meal; tiny, cheap bursts of pleasure that in the end amounts to nothing – except for a sense of nausea if done too much.

Paying attention is crucial to learning new things or developing skills. I remember with annoyance all those lectures at the university I spent concentrating on anything but what the lecturer was saying. I would have been better off skipping those lectures altogether and doing something productive or fun elsewhere. Paying attention to whatever we’re practicing is what allows long-term changes to occur in our nervous system; going through the motions while thinking about something else is worse than useless.

Daydreaming, goofing off and taking breaks from concentration have their place. The problem is when we do these things too much or at the wrong time. For me, it’s very easy to get into flow state when I’m dancing, reading a good book, climbing a wall or working on interesting new software features. These activities are very enjoyable to me, and easy to give full attention to. But what about less enjoyable activities, say paperwork? It’s not like we only do challenging things with clear goals and feedback. It is with these less interesting tasks and duties where we have to struggle to pay attention. Although concentrating on them is more difficult, it’s no less important. The better our concentration, the better we enjoy what we’re doing, the faster time will pass and the faster we actually get it done.

How do we get better at paying attention? A simple answer would be to just do it, to will yourself to pay attention. The problem with that is that trying to solve internal problems using only willpower is about as effective as solving external problems using only physical strength. It can work sometimes, but it’s inelegant and ineffective. Working smart beats working hard any time.

Like any ability, concentration is something that can be improved with practice – by developing good habits and unlearning bad ones. When it comes to developing general ability to concentrate, I suspect meditation may be one of the best methods. Meditation is all about controlling attention. One study found that people doing meditation did better on tasks requiring sustained attention. Another showed that long-term meditators have thicker insula, which is the part of the brain that is activated when we pay close attention. A less hardcore option for improving concentration would be to progressively increase the amount of time spent on tasks without allowing our attention to drift to something else.

For me, the most important thing in getting myself to concentrate on less interesting things has been to eliminate distractions – which when working on a computer means a personal ban on non-work related web sites. The Internet is one vast distraction machine – endless amounts of mostly useless but easy and attention-catching things to read or watch, all within easy reach. When I went on a media fast about a year ago, I noticed an incredible boost in the amount of stuff I got done, and also in how much I enjoyed myself. I’ve been slipping since; perhaps it’s time to tighten up my mental diet again.

Considering the effect the way we direct our attention has on our lives, characterizing it as “psychic energy” doesn’t sound silly at all. How we direct our attention determines the course of our lives, the skills and even the personality we develop. There are so many choices where we can direct our attention – skills to learn, work to do, meaningful experiences to enjoy. All of those choices are not good, but not making them may be the worst choice of all. Not directing our attention and allowing it to drift from one easy distraction to another is terrible waste of time and life and mental energy.

If you made it all the way down here, congratulations. You paid attention.

Our culture doesn’t generally approve of mean people. This is a good thing; people being mean is unpleasant, especially if they’re being mean to you. Society usually encourages us to be pleasing and agreeable to other people. Now what could possibly be wrong with that? Usually nothing, but it can bring trouble to people who take it too far, and sometimes to people around them.

One area where being too nice actually hurts the one who is treated nicely is feedback. Being told when we are doing something wrong is invaluable. If we want to get better in some skill or to become a better person, we need to have our weak spots pointed out to us. If we have totally screwed something up, it’s generally obvious to us, but surprisingly often others see things we miss.

I’ve noticed that many women in dancing classes are kind of shy to give negative feedback to men. I’m not sure whether the same is true of the men; I do know that even if I notice something that a woman could do better, I don’t always point it out. The result of not giving feedback is uncorrected problems and worse dancers all around.

This kind of thing can also be a problem at work. If a manager is a bit too nice person, he may not be willing to give negative feedback when he should, which hurts everybody in the long term: the employee, who will be less likely to correct the problem, his co-workers who will have to take up the slack, and the manager himself who has to watch in frustration as the same problem keeps on happening over and over again.

Many nice people have problems with saying “no” even when it’s in their own best interest. In casual dancing, people sometimes resort to subterfuge and pre-emptive flight so they don’t have to refuse being asked to dance. This timidity might be understandable if they just don’t feel like dancing with the other person. Even in those cases I think “thank you very much, but not right now” is preferable. But when there is a good reason to refuse – let’s say dancing with the guy is outright painful, or he does things like blow in the girl’s ear during the dance – hiding from confrontation only serves to maintain the bad situation. The guy won’t get clear message that he’s doing something wrong. The girl will have to waste time and energy on avoiding unwelcome attention.

Another place where being too nice can be really troublesome is when it comes to romantic attraction. A while back, I was part of a conversation where a girl told the rest of us how her long-time male best friend had made a confession of love to her. She was not at all interested, but hadn’t told him yet. She was asking the rest of us about it. We were counseling brutal honesty, pointing out that leaving him hanging wouldn’t be right. She seemed to have a lot of trouble with this and was kind of hopeful that maybe he would get the point if she just acted coolly towards him. We wasted no time in crushing those hopes. It was very clear that leaving things unsaid here wouldn’t do anybody any good; trying to be nice would be the cruelest thing she could do.

How does it work? Why do people have such a problem with hurting someone else’s feelings, even when that is exactly what they should do? I think it’s often about empathy. Feeling other people’s emotional pain can be especially unpleasant if it’s something you yourself have caused. Other times it could be about fear of making a scene or possibly coming across as a nasty person. Honesty can be unpleasant in the short term. It’s the same as with exercise or dieting or getting over procrastination: To do the right thing, we need to understand the long-term value of what we’re doing, and get into the habit of actually doing it.

The root of the problem is placing too much importance on pleasing other people. Being nice is … nice. It’s not something of fundamental importance. When trying to be agreeable conflicts with really important values like truth or justice or self-respect, there is no question which should win. When being nice takes precedence in those kinds of situations, somebody has to pay the price. Usually it will be somebody nice. And that’s not nice at all.

When we think of fear, what comes to mind is the raw experience. Shaking hands. Dry mouth. Heart beating fast. That slightly sick feeling at the pit of your stomach. Thoughts of whatever we fear filling the mind. These things combine to make up the experience of fear.

This kind of fight-or-flight fear is rare in the daily lives of most people living in peaceful societies. Yet there is another kind of fear, which is a lot less easy to detect, and consequently a lot more dangerous. Paradoxically, the power this quiet fear has over people dwarfs that of intense terror.

What is this fear I’m talking about? It is the kind of fear that masquerades as the voice of reason. It is that voice that pops up in your head when you think about stepping outside your comfort zone, and starts listing all the reasons why you should not. Doing anything worthwhile also means taking the risk of it going wrong. The voice of fear downplays the worthwhile part, and lovingly elaborates on all the ways things could go wrong. It might speak somewhat like this:

Thinking about getting a new job? Don’t do it. The way job market is right now, you won’t find one. And if you do manage to get a new job, there’s no guarantee that it won’t turn out to be much the same as the old one; it just won’t be as secure. What you have now is not that bad. Sure, it might be boring and badly paid, but you can’t expect anything better. It’s not that important; you still have your evenings and weekends, after all.

The words may vary depending on the person and whatever he is thinking about, but the message is the same: don’t do it. Don’t change jobs. Don’t ask that girl out. Don’t talk to that interesting person on the bus. Don’t try to stop that injustice. Be safe. Unfortunately, to quote Steve Pavlina:

The word safe is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective it means “being free from danger.” As a noun it’s “an enclosed storage container with a lock on it.” If you’re living the adjective, you’re living the noun too.

Listening to the voice of fear too much is the kind of thing that stunts lives. The earlier it does its work, the more effective it is. It doesn’t have that much effect on someone who is already committed. Squashing thoughts and dreams, and stopping them from turning into decisions, is a lot easier.

I used to be reluctant to admit it to myself when I was afraid of something; I didn’t like what it said about me. As if denying being afraid makes one courageous! But that’s not the way it works. Fear denied is not fear defeated. You don’t defeat an opponent by refusing to admit he exists. All those plausible reasons not to do something that come to mind – if fear is excluded as an explanation, they come across as your own best judgment. And why should you go against your own judgment?

When fear is recognized and consciously acknowledged for what it is, many resources to combat it immediately come to play. One of the most potent of these resources is pride. Pride is, in philosopher Ayn Rand’s words, “the virtue of moral ambitiousness.” It is the determination to build up the best character you can; this includes refusal to give in to fear. For a sufficiently proud person, being afraid of doing something is all the more reason to do it. But first that person has to realize that he is afraid. The same is also true of all conscious strategies to combat fear, such as pre-committing to something scary or developing courage incrementally.

This is why I believe introspection and self-knowledge are truly vital tools in becoming a more courageous person. Even people who have no qualms about admitting they’re afraid don’t always notice it when they are. It takes practice and careful listening to tell whether the voice you hear is the voice of reason, or the voice of fear.

I think this illustrates a valuable point about emotions in general: repressing or denying them can be as dangerous as blindly indulging them. The rational approach to emotions is to identify them and their causes as they occur. Learning how to do this is a skill like any other. It takes practice to develop, but is well worth the effort. It is a fine thing to have a mind that is clear to itself.

Last weekend I took part in an event called Garage48. The basic idea is to get together with some people and build a working prototype of a service or product in just 48 hours.

It was a blast. I joined a team with three other people, and we built a feedback web service called We Hear Voices. It was a very intense experience; I grabbed four hours of sleep each night, but otherwise it was pretty much nonstop hacking. Getting this kind of flow on and getting results is very enjoyable.

At Garage48, hacking away

At Garage48, hacking away

One thing that struck me about the whole experience was the value of constraints. We often think of constraints as a bad thing; when working on something, obviously it’s better to have more time, more money and more people. Right? Not always. The value of constraints is something the famous web application company 37signals is very big on. During the event I think the limited amount of time and us having a very small team worked in our favor.

Everyone who has worked on something knows the value of a deadline. It works as a motivational tool and sets a definite time for doing something instead of waiting for the inspiration to strike. For Garage48, the deadline comes after 48 hours, and that is what makes the whole thing so intense. People are there to work, and there is no time to work on anything that is not essential. The productivity boost that this mindset provides is incredible; as a member of our team commented, you get as much done in 48 hours as you get during a month of normal work. Slight exaggeration there, but you get the idea.

Besides focusing our minds on doing only essential work, and on doing it fast, the time limit also forced us to pare down the feature set of our product. We got plenty of neat ideas about features we could add to We Hear Voices. Some of them we did add, but more often we decided that there was no time for that during the weekend. The result was a very focused and simple application, both of which I regard as good things.

Our team was the smallest in the event, with just four people. Yet we were one of only three teams to get out a ready for use service in 48 hours. Sure, it helped that we had a very simple idea, and that everyone in the team was a developer, with skills that made a great fit. But I think the small team size helped more than hindered. The larger a team grows, the more need there is for communication, organization and management within the team. We only needed to set down a vision of what we wanted, decide what each of us wanted to do, and get started. For a much larger team, that would be harder. To be effective, they need much more communication and coordination within the team, with someone in a clear manager role. And that eats time.

Garage48 is all about working under strict constraints when it comes to time and money, and no constraints on how to get work done. It works. Many thanks to the organizers for making it happen, and to my fellow team members Jens, Jori and Mikito for the great time we had, and the good work we did.

Many things affect how we see the world. There is, of course, the world as it is, the objective reality. Then there is what we consider important. The second determines how we interpret the first, and what we pay attention to.

Now, let me paint you a verbal picture of what working life is like, today.

The working life is ever more demanding and stressful. At the same time, the work is more likely to be unfulfilling. Work in most big companies tends to consist of long periods of stressful boredom interrupted by moments of absurdity. The worker of today is more at risk of being laid off than before, with less job security. The young, if they find work at all, are forced to work in periodic jobs that provide no long-term prospects or security.

Would you say that this is an accurate picture of the working life today? It’s not. Some of it may be true, some of it may be false, but it’s not accurate. To be accurate is to be in careful conformity to truth. This list of mine is accurate in the same way a picture with all the beautiful parts of it smudged away would be. It is entirely about negative things: suffering, boredom, problems and hindrances. It is about the bad rather than the good.

We could construct a similar list of gloom about any aspect of life: about relationships, about diet, about being young or old or middle-aged, about being a woman or about being a man. It wouldn’t be that difficult; all we’d have to do would be to look at the papers. Maybe we even know people who speak this way, people who are focused on all the things that are going wrong, in the world and in their own lives. I’d say that they don’t pay enough attention to the value of things.

The great investor Warren Buffett has said: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Buffett was speaking about investing, but that quote also applies to life in general. We spend our time, the hours of our lives. We face disappointment and pain. We take chances. Sometimes we meet rejection and failure. That is the price. But why do we pay it? Because we expect to get value in return. That value may take many forms. It may be money. It may be love or friendship. It may be the simple joy of effort. It may be a garden well tended or better health. But whatever it is, there is a price to pay. The price may be ridiculously low compared to the value, but it will be there. Even if it’s just a bit of your time.

There is a great Oscar Wilde quote about attitude towards price and value: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” By the same token, a naive person would be someone who saw the value of everything and the price of nothing. All in all, I’d much rather be naive, if I had to choose between the two. Think about what it is like to be a cynic, and to see the price of everything and the value of nothing. If you only see the effort you have to make, the time you will lose, the risk of failure, and not the rewards you may have, you will never make the effort. Why go through the trouble? It’s not worth it, and you’ll probably never succeed anyway. A naive person will face terrible disappointments, but at least he will try.

I am not telling you that we should all become naive. After all, it’s not like we have to be either cynical or naive. We can be realistic. A realistic person is able to see both the price and the value, and to pay the price when it’s worth paying, to take such chances as are worth taking.

Unfortunately, being realistic is not very easy for most of us. Many people, when they speak of realism, really mean cynicism. There is a principle in psychology known as negativity bias, or “bad is stronger than good”. Or, to put it more accurately, bad is more attention-grabbing than good. People in general are quicker to form bad, rather than good, impressions and stereotypes of other people. Bad emotions are more likely to have impact than good ones. In English, there are more words for negative than for positive emotions. People hate losing money more than they like to win money. Bad events have longer-lasting and more intense psychological consequences than good events. We pay more attention to the price of things than to their value; bad is stronger than good.

Now, I happen to think that, as an attitude, this is not realistic or rational. Actually when it comes to what we focus on, I think our attitude should be the exact opposite. If we live for the sake of all the good things in life, they are what life is all about. The bad that comes along with the good is simply the price we have to pay; not something that we can afford to ignore completely, but certainly not the most important part of life, either.

Where am I going with all of this? Perhaps it’s just to pay more attention to the value of things. If you are like most people, you probably think too much about the price, and too little about the value. I know that I do. Yet the value is what really matters in life. Not the loss, but the gain. Not the failure, but the success. Not the bad in people, but the good in them. Not all the small annoyances, but all the little things that delight us.

Price is what you pay and value is what you get. Do you know the value of things?

So, this blog is one of the things I decided to start this year. Frankly, I don’t yet have much idea what it will be all about. I might write about philosophy, technology, business or psychology. I might write personal anecdotes or post pictures of kittens. It may be I’ll not write anything at all. Let’s see how things develop.

I’ll start off with a poem:


What is comfort, familiar ease
but treading water, ersatz peace
Cramped soul, no room to grow
nothing to learn, the same old to know

If you seek the maiden fair,
you have to brave the dragon’s lair
Just the same, fear has place
with finer things and better days

When steps are strange and going’s tight
You may know the path is right
Jump the groove and choose the ways
Through stranger nights to brighter days

From somewhere, you may get the idea that I’m not yet entirely comfortable with this blogging thing. You would not be entirely mistaken. In any case, happy year 2011 to everyone reading this!

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