Sunday, 30 October 2016

Vol #1, Col #24: The Best Laid Plans

Col24_BestLaidPlansWhen it comes to developing (and maintaining) psychological maturity, a key ingredient to success is cultivating a sunny disposition. As the words to the theme of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian so smartly prescribe, one should always strive to “look on the bright side of life.” With that said however, equally important is establishing a realistic perception: both of the external world, AND when it comes to yourself and your own capabilities. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew and know your limitations.

While this sounds like commonsense advice that wouldn’t require much brain power to follow, if you start to take a tally of your own experiences, you may be surprised by just how many times you’ve succumbed to what social psychologists term, “the planning fallacy.”

As Kahneman and Tversky explain in their 1979 journal article, Intuitive Predictions: Biases and Corrective Procedures, “the planning fallacy is the tendency of individuals to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete most tasks.” Its root causes?
  • The OVERestimation of one’s abilities

  • Focalism: the belief that one’s current task is unique; something that results in a failure to reflect upon past experiences of a similar nature in which there were negative outcomes

  • The failure to consider plausible complications and obstacles
And finally…The conceptualization of the task as one complete activity, rather than acknowledging finalization requires the completion of a series of necessary milestones

As I believe is fairly self-evident, all of the above factors can be attributed to egoism. Humans, because of our natural desire to confirm POSITIVE beliefs about ourselves and therefore maintain a positive self-image, are EXTREMELY biased when it comes to personal evaluation. When a new responsibility is attributed to us, the average mentally healthy individual will accept said task with the belief they will accomplish it easily and quickly, without facing any “jams in the machine”. If the task is associated with a sense of power and/or prestige, our perceptual bias will be even more pronounced because we all want to be able to see ourselves as possessing both characteristics as they make us more “valuable” from an “evolutionary fitness” stance.

On the same token then, it’s no surprise that also due to evolutionary impulses
(specifically to avoid danger), we judge the actions and abilities of others SEVERELY and have a tendency to focus on things that would confirm NEGATIVE beliefs about them. This is particularly true if we perceive an individual(s) as a threat to our security, romantic life or cultural belief system…ergo racism!

Like all things in life, the trick is finding balance. Being confident and holding positive beliefs about oneself and one’s abilities is a GOOD thing. Being cocky and unwilling to own up to your deficits however is NOT (ironically, cockiness is typically rooted in insecurity but that’s a whole nother can of worms). Assessing situations positively too is something we should strive for, but NOT to the extent that you become an eternal optimist/idealist who is unable to evaluate things realistically in terms of the “what if” scenarios.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that you can ultimately NEVER plan enough…or plan for the unexpected. In two words, shit happens.
While we cannot always control that which occurs around us, ongoing personal disappointment can be at least minimized if one is willing to practise introspection. Here, an example from my personal life yet again proves illustrative:

For the past couple of years, I’ve juggled multiple part-time employment schedules in order to earn enough
to both get by and be able to save up for the future. While this may sound like a nightmare scenario to many, believe it or not doing so has actually afforded me more free time to be able to devote to things I’m truly passionate about such as: fulfilling my creative impulses and “keeping house”.

I was recently offered and accepted (foolishly and regrettably) a full-time 9-to-5 type position. Within moments of doing so, I took ill and became overwhelmed not because of the difficulty of the job, but rather because getting up at 6 am meant I had to go to bed by 8:30 pm (at the latest) and going to bed at 8:30 pm meant I no longer had the time nor energy to exercise, cook nice dinners for myself and my spouse, or even clean my house. It didn’t help of course that I was devoting 35 hours a week to something that was sold to me as a “dream job/career opportunity” but turned out to be nothing more than monkey work…but we’ll leave that as a sidebar. Suffice it to say that while the position paid well, I was utterly miserable and felt as though any semblance of a life I previously had had gone by the wayside.

Obviously, this was a pretty major disappointment for me in all regards. It meant that I had given up one of my part-time roles that I truly enjoyed for nothing and it surely didn’t help that I got reamed out by the Head of HR for quitting. On a positive note however, this experience reaffirmed something important about myself: where my priorities truly lay and the kind of lifestyle that works best for me as a result.

Had I practise introspection and honestly evaluated everything prior to taking on the role, this whole song and dance could have been avoided, but my dears there’s no use in crying over spilled milk. The moral of the story? Even perfectionists, such as myself, have to be willing to admit defeat upon occasion.