Tag confidence

Out of the Box.

Special thanks to ::todoloko:: (original image can be found on Flickr)

Die Zukunft (The Future).

Recalibration I.

I read an article in a recent issue of The Atlantic which focused on the worsening employment outlook for today’s economy. The article painted a fairly dismal picture connecting unemployment with a vast number of downstream impacts, including socio, interpersonal and self that had negative consequences many years after the economic downturn.

The article sheds light on several impacted demographics – including recent graduates looking for work. This particular demographic – known as the “Millennials” or “New Boomers” – is referenced in a book called “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

In her book, Twenge ties the manner by which this generation was raised, their resulting high self-esteem, and their potential long-term success, particularly when faced with a jobless economy.

She notes that “… self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since.  By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent. (More than 40 percent of teens also expected that they would be earning $75,000 a year or more by age 30; the median salary made by a 30-year-old was $27,000 that year.) Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread.

“These efforts have succeeded in making today’s youth more confident and individualistic. But that may not benefit them in adulthood, particularly in this economic environment. Twenge writes that “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,” and that “the ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.

This really struck a chord with me as I have always believed that the key to success is self-confidence.  The fact that “… the ability to persevere is a better predictor of life outcomes” is a refreshing perspective.  In fact, I wonder if my challenge isn’t more about perseverance than it is about confidence.  This is an opportunity.

In thinking more about my development in 2010, I would like to improve my skills in three main areas – self-motivation, persistence and connection.  While I am not necessarily lacking in these three areas, it can be difficult to measure progress without a clear understanding of the underlying maturity model associated with each.  This exploration is also key to further push the “advancement envelope”.

The concept of motivation is something that ultimately drives one to achieve something. If you aren’t motivated to do anything, then it’s unlikely that positive things will happen to you (or anything for that matter).  However, motivation can be measured on a scale all of its own.

Of course, the two extremes are obvious – you are motivated to act, or you aren’t.  But what’s in the middle? How do you measure motivation?  And is there just one dimension to this motivation scale?

Let’s explore this concept in more depth.

A wish to learn new things has been a primary motivator in my life.  To go a step further, formal education can be an excellent motivator all on its own – you pay someone to teach you and indirectly hold you accountable through deadlines, quizzes and exams.  Through the process, you naturally become motivated to get a good grade.  In essence, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own – i.e. I want to learn so I take a class, which pushes me to learn more through the identification of a “grade” which allows me to achieve the goal I originally set out to do.

Another commonly heard motivator is money or material wealth.  While money does not bring happiness, studies have shown that people who have a reasonable amount of wealth are generally happier than those who do not.  Thus, attaining money is a powerful motivator.  But is money the motivator, or is the happiness that seems to come with it?

A third motivator is the simple act of pleasing others.  Your relationships with your family and friends may be important enough to drive you to act independent of goal.  Doing something to please others can be its own self-fulfilling prophecy  – i.e. your contributions give a sense of happiness to the other party which can improve the relationship (you are both happy).  The complexity in this case arises when the motivator begins to take on a life of its own.  Using the example just described, this motivator can start to work against the actor if the entire reason for acting is the underlying happiness of the other.

As you can begin to see, the concept of motivation is fairly complex.  What may be labeled as the motivation “source” may in fact be a mask for the true motivator (i.e. is it money or happiness?)  Motivators can also be deceiving – a genuine motivation source may begin to erode over time if the aim isn’t becoming increasingly visible.  Motivators can also be visualized to gain a greater understanding of what is driving (and perhaps what should be driving) the activity.

In a later post under the same title, I’ll explore this concept in more depth.  I’ll also start to introduce the concept of perseverance as I believe the two are closely related.

Evolution.

As I mentioned in my last post, this blog will start to focus more attention to the evolution of my new design firm, Big Generator.

As this blog has significantly helped me with my personal challenges, I think it will offer a similar benefit towards helping me keep up the level of motivation, persistence and energy that a new business venture requires.  I also think that the sheer transparency of what I am thinking about and how I am going about improving my business and design abilities can ultimately serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own.  If I think positively, the majority of the work that I do, both from core design and business perspectives, is also more likely to result in positive outcomes.

While increasing the level of transparency is important, it’s unlikely that I’ll mention specific clients within these posts at least until the project has concluded.  If the client maintains all rights to the work, then I won’t, of course, be allowed to publish any related information about the engagement.  Independent of the situation, the process of approaching a new design challenge and coming to a final solution is worth documenting.  In many circumstances, the process of documenting your experiences can refine your level of understanding and push you to think about the situation in new ways.

At this point, the business “foundation” is nearly built – this foundation includes the core brand, web site, portfolio, letterhead, many project proposal letters, and a supplemental graphic visual suite.  The next step in the process is to develop a comprehensive client building strategy – to do this I am reading a book called Get Clients Now by C.J.Hayden.

After reading the first fifty pages, I’ve learned the key to a successful client building strategy is persistence.  To achieve persistence, the development of a formal plan is required.  To summarize here, there are five such steps that need to be followed every month:

  1. Marketing Strategies – selecting two to four client-building strategies
  2. Marketing Stage – identifying the stage of the marketing cycle where you are having difficulty
  3. Program Goal – identifying what you want to accomplish during that time period
  4. Success Ingredients – identifying the missing ingredients that you need to be successful
  5. Daily Actions – documenting the specific steps that you are going to do

In addition, there are six marketing strategies discussed in the text (from most effective to least effective):

  1. Direct Contact and Follow-up
  2. Networking and referral building
  3. Public Speaking
  4. Writing and Publicity
  5. Promotional Events
  6. Advertising

At this stage, my next step is to finish reading this text and start developing a monthly plan of my own.  In my a future post, I will share additional details about what my client building strategy looks like and how well it’s working.  As indicated earlier, sharing the strategy in this manner will help increase accountability and will provide a history from which I can learn.

Victim of Changes.

In August of 2009, there was a segment on the Today show that told the brief story of a man who had found his life partner only to eventually discover that she was seeking to end his life.  Fortunately, the “hit man” was an undercover police officer and the experience ended void of any tragedy.

While it’s difficult to generalize people’s responses to this story, I imagine most people place immediate blame on the wife and less on the husband.  After all, he is the victim.  But is this an appropriate response?  Remember, he chose to be with this woman and is now faced with trying to understand why he didn’t see the signs that led to this nearly tragic outcome.  At some level, he can be blamed for a situation that may have ended his life.

Let’s explore this concept further by looking at this from two opposite viewpoints:

Viewpoint #1: I am the master of my domain.

The first viewpoint is the belief that you are solely responsible for things that happen to you.  If you take this viewpoint, everything that happens to you is ultimately because of something that you did.  You can no longer claim to be a victim of circumstances, because the circumstance in question is something that you ultimately created.

For example:

If you get hit by a car, you are at fault for being in the path of the oncoming vehicle.
If you are in a career that isn’t going anywhere, you are at fault for making ‘wrong’ decisions that led you there.
If you are trapped in an earthquake, you are at fault for residing in that target location.
If you are in a relationship that isn’t working, you are at fault for participating and not leaving.

Again, if you employ this mindset, you are no longer the victim of circumstances.  You cannot introduce “higher authority” figures into the equation (e.g. “God has a plan ..”) or make similar statements like “There is a reason why this happened …” because these statements are perhaps masking the truth of the event.  Within this viewpoint, you are making decisions about what you do, who you interact with, where you live, etc. and those decisions ultimately result in events and things that impact your life – positively or negatively.

Viewpoint #2: I am a victim of circumstance.

Now let’s take a completely opposite perspective – one where your reliance upon a higher power guides your life path.  “God has a plan” or “I will pray that things will be better” or “That’s life!” are statements that reflect this viewpoint.  In some degree, you are taking responsibility (some if not all) off of your shoulders and accepting that things happen independent of your decisions or actions.

What’s interesting is that these viewpoints can be reversed depending upon the situation at hand.

For example, let’s say that you got a promotion at your job.  Even if you employed this “higher authority” viewpoint for things that generally happen to you, in this particular case you probably equate your recent success with your own abilities and decisions.  After all, you are the one who got promoted – and you wouldn’t have been promoted unless you were doing something right.  In most circumstances, your first response is not “That’s life!”  Instead, it’s one where you have taken charge of your destiny, and because of you, you have ultimately succeeded.

However, if someone close to you died unexpectedly, your first response would be – “Why did this happen?” or “Why did God let this happen?”  Because the situation is beyond one’s control, you cannot rely upon yourself to make immediate sense of the situation.  It’s only later in the grieving process where you may eventually shift your mindset and start to ask “What can I do to prevent this in the future?” (if applicable) or “What can I do to help others deal with an event such as this?”

In essence, your “life mindset” is altered depending upon what happens to you.

While I have taken the perspective of a given person, others’ responses to things that happen to you can sometimes take an opposite view to your own.  For example, if you are in a bad relationship, others may empathize but will ultimately question why you got in the situation in the first place.  If you were recently promoted, others may think of other reasons why you were promoted vs. focusing primarily on your core abilities.  If someone who you knew died in an accident, others may quickly decide that “God has his reasons …” which may be the direct opposite of how you may feel – especially if you played some indirect role in that person’s death (i.e. giving them the car keys, etc.).

Independent of how you look at these “life perspectives”, I think that personality type and life experiences will determine which perspective makes the most sense to you.  I think the lesson here is not to focus exclusively on one particular perspective, but be aware of the extremes and try to live life in the middle.  Of course, this is not easy – especially for someone like myself who believes that my life is driven by my own choices and less on the need for a higher authority.  But it is during times of sheer despair and confidence loss where this “centrist” perspective loses its value and you are forced to seek another viewpoint.

It’s a unique dichotomy that I don’t completely understand.

Contrast Ratio.

While the year is not yet over, 2009 has ultimately been a lesson in contrast.  In 2006 I went into a relationship with unique optimism, hope and love (marriage) to end up with feelings of terminal loss, distrust and despair (death).  Fortunately this experience has served as a catalyst to help me advance to a new level of consciousness and awareness.

While the phrase “experience” leaves considerable room for any sort of time measurement, for reasons of simplicity let’s assume there is a measurable start and end to the experience at hand.  For those who go into a situation that turns out similar to their original expectations, one can leave the experience with a sense of increased confidence in her/his ability to predict an outcome.  If these experiences repeat themselves – i.e. one is able to repeatedly predict an outcome – their confidence can grow.  In essence, these “positive” experiences begin to build a self-fulfilling prophecy where predictability and success go hand in hand.  After all, if I can look into the future, by default I have greater “control” over that future and my own destiny.

If, however, the experiences in which I partake have a different outcome than originally foreseen, then I may find myself taking part in an alternative self-fulfilling prophecy where “failure” and “unpredictability” are the norm.  In essence, I am losing the ability to predict the future and thus my feeling of “control” over my own destiny can and will likely erode.

Of course, what I am describing here are macro views and do not address the numerous nuances that can affect either scenario.  For example, one “bad” (or “good”) outcome does not necessarily mean that all subsequent outcomes will share a similar fate.  In addition, my ability to learn and adjust after each situation can significantly affect future experiences and their eventual outcomes.  While a continuous string of failures will eventually have a negative impact on one’s self-confidence, failure of any frequency or magnitude can be a powerful catalyst for action and innovation.

The ultimate goal is to find a balance between predictability and unpredictability, the latter of which resulting in some form of “lesson” that maintains this equilibrium.

So, what does an experience entail and how does one build the skills to achieve positive and more predictable outcomes?

An experience has a beginning, a “core” and an end.  A determination of whether the experience is going as originally planned or is deviating “off course” can occur in any of the three phases.  At a fundamental level, the basis of an experience is time.

While one can argue that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” path for a given experience, at a basic level you have a sense of where you want that experience to go.  For example, if a relationship is showing signs of erosion, not doing anything may eventually lead to its failure.  Thus, making corrections to the experience “course” to enable its long-term success may be right thing to do.

Whether to begin a new experience depends a lot upon your values and your goals.  While this decision is usually subconscious, if you don’t have a clear sense of either, your experience will be somewhat random. However, if your goal is to experience things with purpose, then your ability to choose experiences that provide a foundation for the “predictability/unpredictability balance” will become that much greater.

Let’s assume that you have chosen an experience with purpose – you are now operating within the experience “core”.  Your next logical goal is to participate in the most meaningful and positive way that you can – i.e. striving to reach a “self-actualization” phase of consciousness and operation.  In order to achieve this state of being, you need to pay close attention to the “hierarchy of needs” structure – not only in its original definition but one that is applicable to the experience at hand.

Focusing on the concept of self-actualization – and the supporting hierarchy – are both important because they can determine the quality and duration of the experience.

For example, in attempting to reach self-actualization, the mind becomes overly concerned with reaching that pinnacle, and virtually ignores everything else.  When layers of the hierarchy become eroded, and you no longer have the direction that your goals were providing, your reality crashes to the ground.  It’s similar to climbing a mountain, reaching the apex, and then realizing that you are out of oxygen (i.e. your support structure).  How are you going to get down?

The aspect that is central to avoiding this dilemma is time.  Time is the only thing that is constant through your journey across the hierarchy.  It’s the measurement that you need to be focused on to ensure your long-term “survival”.  What is happening in the “core” of the experience?  Is the hierarchy “intact”?  If it is not, what are you doing to ensure its overall stability?

If you are able to identify with these questions and answer them objectively, the quality of the experience for not only you, but others that may be involved in that experience, will be that much greater.  At a basic level, it’s synonymous with an individual vs. team mindset – focusing on the former is appropriate, but not focusing on the latter is not.

It’s worth noting that simply because you believe an experience is worth the investment doesn’t mean that the operating environment will work in your favor.  Forces can work with or against you in all phases of the experience.  Being able to clearly recognize these forces and how they impact your experience (and your hierarchy of needs) is another valuable skill.

Making a decision whether the experience needs to “end” depends a lot on the experience itself.  Taking inventory of whether the experience is obligatory or optional, and/or if it continues to align with your values and goals are both excellent barometers to appropriately close or abruptly terminate the experience.  Delaying a decision to bring closure to an experience can ultimately erode aspects of the hierarchy of needs without it being obvious that you are doing so.

What’s the lesson here?  In order to benefit from any experience, you need to have a clear understanding of what you value, what you want to achieve and what you desire.  Once you have this level of understanding, your ability to benefit from and self-actualize within the experience is dependent upon your awareness of the experience itself.  It is this level of awareness and the resulting decisions which will pave the way towards experiences that ultimately build self-confidence through a unique balance of predictable and unpredictable outcomes.

While you don’t have control over the future, you do have some level of control over your own destiny.

(While I’ve used my career and relationship as a basis for the “experience” definition, it’s important to recognize that the use of this phrase is applicable for all experiences regardless of classification.)

The Power of Gray.

Starting anything from nothing can be overwhelming enough to not start it at all.  In the art and design world, ideas usually start with a sketch, and if you can’t start a sketch, you’re pretty much stuck.

One of the reasons why artists find it difficult to start on any given piece is because the “canvas” is pure white.  Starting with paper that is already gray (of any shade) can help reduce the “fear” of making a mistake and thus increases the artist’s confidence.

A recurring assignment that I have been working on for the past several weeks in Design Drawing I involves sketching twenty objects (of varying types) using proper perspective, gradation, line weight and shadows.  One of the challenges that I have faced – and will likely face forever – is deciding what to sketch.  Interestingly enough, I’ve found that the shade of the paper helps me feel more confident and allows me to get ideas on paper much more rapidly.

There are times when even lightly shaded paper doesn’t do the trick.  You then have to resort to other methods.

Thumbnail sketches are a second option – i.e. smaller, rapid sketches that convey the general concept.  I’ve found this to be extremely useful for generating many ideas in a short period of time.  Not all ideas will have “merit” but for the remaining that do, it provides a good basis from which to create larger and more refined sketches.

There are times however when you run out of ideas even at the thumbnail “stage”.  Excluding the obvious solution – which may very well be to run out to the library or other research outlet to find new inspiration – one idea is to just draw anything, and I mean ANYTHING.  Random lines, circles, or any other primitive shape.  In a word – scribble! Once you have something down on paper, your brain will naturally start to find “meaning” in what you’ve drawn (more on this concept in a separate post).  Think of this concept as a “creativity primer”.

This technique is actually used by many artists, including Nicolas Bouvier (or “SPARTH” as he is better known in the concept design community).  His book Structura is an excellent compilation of his concepts, many of which were started from random lines and scribbles that were transformed into truly amazing illustrations.  The phrase “building something from nothing” is clearly evident here!

There are of course many other techniques that can help artists and designers increase their idea generation “potential” and give them the confidence to get beyond their fear and START being creative.  This “creativity generator” concept is very interesting to me because I feel it has applicability to many other areas outside of the art and design arena.

If you feel that you are struggling getting started with anything – think of how you can apply the “gray paper” concept to that particular challenge.  What can you do to help you get over your fear of the unknown?  You may not know what is blocking you from moving forward.  Therefore, think about the problem in a different way – think about ways to eliminate the barriers vs. thinking about the underlying activity.  You may find that this technique allows you to go past the tipping point which will allow you to move forward more easily.  If you find another barrier along the way, think of additional ways that can boost your confidence.

Start with the minimum to get the maximum.

Total Recall and the “Recovery Model”

In the movie Total Recall, Arnold Schwartznegger is faced with an interesting dilemma – he doesn’t know who he is.

“[…] While evading his assailants, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a former friend of his who had been asked to deliver a briefcase if he ever disappeared. The briefcase contains false IDs, money, weapons, devices, and a video player, containing a video disk he left to himself beforehand. Watching it, Quaid starts piecing together his past on Mars as a secret agent. […]” (Wikipedia, “Total Recall“)

When I saw the movie – now nineteen years ago! – I was intrigued with the concept of recording video for the sole purpose of watching it in the future.  It’s only recently where I’ve found a real purpose to employ this concept in real-life.

In the book “Blink“, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the concept of “thin slicing” – gathering just enough data / information to accelerate decision-making, while still ensuring the decision is “sound”.

Interestingly enough, one of the examples presented in the text shows the downside of “thin slicing” – making rapid (but unconscious) decisions when faced with a life-threatening situation.  From the text:

“Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with.  Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favor of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.

“The optimal state of “arousal” – the range in which stress improves performance – is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute.  After 145, “bad things start to happen”.  Complex motor skills start to break down.  Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult.  At 175, we begin to see an absolute break-down of cognitive processing.”

From this excerpt alone, it would appear that making quality decisions in these types of situations is next to impossible.  Fortunately, with training and experience, we have the ability to improve our decision-making skills even when time is very limited.  From the text:

“Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.”

What if, however, we took a reverse approach and conceptually accelerated time even further – i.e. providing a glimpse into the future?  This is where the Total Recall concept comes into play – i.e. recording video in the past for use in the future.

Let’s say that your house has been burglarized or that someone in your family has died unexpectedly.  In all likelihood, you are going to experience a sense of shock that such an event could happen.  The sheer disbelief may leave you somewhat paralyzed wondering what to do next.  Your ability to make effective decisions is going to be very poor.  Even if there are people there to help, you may find it difficult to comprehend what they are telling you.

One solution is to record instructions to yourself in advance of the actual event.

By accelerating time, you now have introduced a dimension of guidance that was previously unavailable.  You are, through the video, a digital representation into your subconscious.  By listening to the instructions presented in the video, you may be able to make better decisions to help you move forward and “survive” that particular event.  Providing guidance, encouragement and empathy in the video is also critical.

When you accelerate time, you have the power to develop effective “recovery models” to allow for enhanced decision-making in situations where one’s judgment and decision-making ability is impaired.

While the examples presented suggest the use of pre-recorded video for “life-altering” circumstances, this concept may also apply to situations where feelings of confidence loss or self-worth become at the forefront – the videos provide a temporary boost and represent perhaps the purest form of self-encouragement.