Tag: Oliver Burkeman

More advice on perfectionism

A few years ago I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is even better than people say. I was reminded of this quotation via Oliver Burkeman’s Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves

Today’s title comes from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which is an incredible book. Soon after the above quotation, he continues,

The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.

John Berger

That period of time when you come to be you is really interesting. As an adolescent, and before films like The Matrix, I can remember thinking that the world literally revolved around me; that other people were testing me in some way. I hope that’s kind of normal, and I’d add somewhat hastily that I grew out of that way of thinking a long time ago. Obviously.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that we cannot know the ‘inner lives’ of other people, or in fact that they have them. Writing in The Guardian, psychologist Oliver Burkeman notes that we sail through life assuming that we experience everything similarly, when that’s not true at all:

A new study on a technical-sounding topic – “genetic variation across the human olfactory receptor repertoire” – is a reminder that we smell the world differently… Researchers found that a single genetic mutation accounts for many of those differences: the way beetroot smells (and tastes) like disgustingly dirty soil to some people, or how others can’t detect the smokiness of whisky, or smell lily of the valley in perfumes.

Oliver Burkeman

I know that my wife sees colours differently to me, as purple is one of her favourite colours. Neither of us is colour-blind, but some things she calls ‘purple’ are in no way ‘purple’ to me.

So when it comes to giving one another feedback, where should we even begin? How can we know the intentions or the thought processes behind someone’s actions? In an article for Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explain that our theories about feedback are based on three theories:

  1. Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses
  2. You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you
  3. Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is

All of these, the author’s claim, are false:

What the research has revealed is that we’re all color-blind when it comes to abstract attributes, such as strategic thinking, potential, and political savvy. Our inability to rate others on them is predictable and explainable—it is systematic. We cannot remove the error by adding more data inputs and averaging them out, and doing that actually makes the error bigger.

Buckingham & Goodall

What I liked was their actionable advice about how to help colleagues thrive, captured in this table:

The Right Way to Help Colleague Excel
Taken from ‘The Feedback Fallacy’ by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Finally, as an educator and parent, I’ve noticed that human learning doesn’t follow a linear trajectory. Anything but, in fact. Yet we talk and interact as though it does. That’s why I found Good Things By Their Nature Are Fragile by Jason Kottke so interesting, quoting a 2005 post from Michael Barrish. I’m going to quote the same section as Kottke:

In 1988 Laura and I created a three-stage model of what we called “living process.” We called the three stages Good Thing, Rut, and Transition. As we saw it, Good Thing becomes Rut, Rut becomes Transition, and Transition becomes Good Thing. It’s a continuous circuit.

A Good Thing never leads directly to a Transition, in large part because it has no reason to. A Good Thing wants to remain a Good Thing, and this is precisely why it becomes a Rut. Ruts, on the other hand, want desperately to change into something else.

Transitions can be indistinguishable from Ruts. The only important difference is that new events can occur during Transitions, whereas Ruts, by definition, consist of the same thing happening over and over.

Michael Barrish

In life, sometimes we don’t even know what stage we’re in, never mind other people. So let’s cut one another some slack, dispel the three myths about feedback listed above, and allow people to be different to us in diverse and glorious ways.


Also check out:

  • Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117 (The Paris Review) — “I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull.”
  • How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis (The Atlantic) — “I had found my salvation in the sheer endless curiosity of the human mind—and the sheer endless variety of human experience.”
  • A brief history of almost everything in five minutes (Aeon) —According to [the artist], the piece ‘is intended for both introspection and self-reflection, as a mirror to ourselves, our own mind and how we make sense of what we see; and also as a window into the mind of the machine, as it tries to make sense of its observations and memories’.

Header image: webcomicname.com

Things that people think are wrong (but aren’t)

I’ve collected a bunch of diverse articles that seem to be around the topic of things that people think are wrong, but aren’t really. Hence the title.

I’ll start with something that everyone over a certain age seems to have a problem with, except for me: sleep. BBC Health lists five sleep myths:

  1. You can cope on less than five hours’ sleep
  2. Alcohol before bed boosts your sleep
  3. Watching TV in bed helps you relax
  4. If you’re struggling to sleep, stay in bed
  5. Hitting the snooze button
  6. Snoring is always harmless

My smartband regularly tells me that I sleep better than 93% of people, and I think that’s because of how much I prioritise sleep. I’ve also got a system, which I’ve written about before for the times when I do have a rough night.

I like routine, but I also like mixing things up, which is why I appreciate chunks of time at home interspersed with travel. Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Guardian, suggests, however, that routines aren’t the be-all and end-all:

Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.

Expecting something new to solve an underlying problem is a symptom of our culture’s focus on the new and novel. While there’s so much stuff out there we haven’t experienced, should we spend our lives seeking it out to the detriment of the tried and tested, the things that we really enjoy?

On the recommendation of my wife, I recently listened to a great episode of the Off Menu podcast featuring Victoria Cohen Mitchell. It’s not only extremely entertaining, but she mentions how, for her, a nice Ploughman’s lunch is better than some fancy meal.

This brings me to an article in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker, who writes that kids who watch and re-watch the same film might be on to something:

In general, psychological and behavioral-economics research has found that when people make decisions about what they think they’ll enjoy, they often assign priority to unfamiliar experiences—such as a new book or movie, or traveling somewhere they’ve never been before. They are not wrong to do so: People generally enjoy things less the more accustomed to them they become. As O’Brien [professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business] writes, “People may choose novelty not because they expect exceptionally positive reactions to the new option, but because they expect exceptionally dull reactions to the old option.” And sometimes, that expected dullness might be exaggerated.

So there’s something to be said for re-reading novels you read when you were younger instead of something shortlisted for a prize, or discounted in the local bookshop. I found re-reading Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment recently exhilarating as I probably hadn’t ready it since I became a parent. Different periods of your life put different spins on things that you think you already know.


Also check out:

  • The ‘Dark Ages’ Weren’t As Dark As We Thought (Literary Hub) — “At the back of our minds when thinking about the centuries when the Roman Empire mutated into medieval Europe we are unconsciously taking on the spurious guise of specific communities.”
  • An Easy Mode Has Never Ruined A Game (Kotaku) — “There are myriad ways video games can turn the dials on various systems to change our assessment of how “hard” they seem, and many developers have done as much without compromising the quality or integrity of their games.”
  • Millennials destroyed the rules of written English – and created something better (Mashable) — “For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language.”


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