dance_with_life

The quality of my life has improved since I moved to a village. I adore the space I have now.

One of such offerings is a big garage. But even such a garage can easily be filled in no time. And, indeed, our garage has imperceptibly become a land of stock and stuff.

Not on purpose, of course, but merely as a result of our careless storage.

The garage has not called for an immediate attention, so it has patiently waited for its turn.  I’ve had more pressing issues to handle for months. It has gracefully stored everything needed and not, or perhaps needed-one-day-in-the-future, islands of old articles, heaps of papers, buggies, tables, chairs, car seats, garden equipment,  paints, tools, toys, boxes and whatever you will think of – surely we have had it there.

It was a mess.

The cleaning of the garage was on my to-do list as a some-day project. And perhaps it would have stayed there for a long time, but there was a sudden call for action.

While we were away, the garage was flooded by unexpected heavy rains. As a result, on return I was welcomed by unpleasant smell, rotten card boxes and damaged stuff.

“OK, I’ve got it now. No more excuses.”, I said to myself.

I decided to clean the garage.

“Easier said than done”, I thought.  The mess was truly overwhelming.

I was standing there in the middle and feeling the heaviness of the space filled with stuff. I heard a cry for order. The things were not happy, to say at least. However, instead of having a clear plan of action, my thoughts were cluttered and foggy as if in response to the disharmony around.

I had no idea how to start and how to end. I had no clear sense of direction of how to sort things out. It was too much stuff everywhere in all sorts of shapes, sizes and condition. And I felt small, overpowered and tensed by the task. Yet, it had to be done….

I decided to shake these feelings off. I took a few deep in-breaths followed by long out-breaths. I slowly started to relaxed.

“Let the dance begin”, I’ve smiled to myself.

“I need the space back”, I thought.

 I decided to take the stuff out.

“But … hey … I am in a dance.” I’ve reminded myself.

“I like the free-style.”

So, instead of a dedicated effort to move things out,  I took a series of seemingly unrelated or even distracting small steps. From the same dance, of course 🙂

As with dancing, I needed to warm up, with various exercises first. In doing so I gave myself the possibility to both feel and appreciate the space and surroundings. I wanted to feel the dance floor, as you can imagine 😉

I was moving out the bulky items and the small ones, both in collections and individual ones. At the same time I was introducing other steps. For instance, when I discovered a few garden tools I had been desperately missing for some time (that I knew were there but had no idea were), I choose to collect them all in one place first. There was no logical order of moving things out, but inspired by what I thought was compelling to focus on at a given moment.

The moving-out steps were easily interlaced with floor sweeping ballet, re-packing and sorting hip-hop, gracefully jumping over the rooms and collecting new members for the garage, and some lovely speed-ups with the kids playing outside.

Such an approach is certainly unusual for me. When I set to do a task such as cooking or cleaning the house I simply do it. Now, I’ve set myself to a creative (even if chaotic) dance. What did cause the difference? Well… I usually know what to do and how to do it. I have a vision. Now, I had no idea but the motivation for a clean and neat space.

The challenge of garage un-messing was new, or at least very different from my usual undertakings.

There was a hidden structure in my free-style dance. For an outside observer I would have been randomly jumping from a task to a task. For myself, I have acted in response to the moment following the natural choreography that has slowly revealed itself.

After some hours, I’ve finally arrived at a place of space. The bulk of the stuff was outside.

I was again standing in the garage in the appreciation of such a big storage space. Even though I still had no clear vision for order, the insights were there. I’ve paid attention to the sorts and kinds of stuff so I’ve slowly gathered the impressions.

I decided to place the most bulky yet not-to-be-moved items first so that they could define the space in a solid way. Then, I decided to place the opposite – the stuff that would often be in and out such as kids bikes or garden equipment. Finally, I was left with a vast land of stuff of varying sizes and heaviness.

In creating the space for all these items I’ve pre-classified them based on purpose and I was dancing some of them away towards garbage or donation boxes (to be taken to a recycling center and charity shops). The dance has continued but now it was fast paced. I was moving, shifting, holding, pushing, repacking and re-boxing things around. The space was there and I had the freedom to move as I wished.

Every number of steps I made myself stop to feel the space again and the overall surroundings. When I recognized any discord I repeated the parts of the process of moving, shifting, holding, pushing, repacking and re-boxing. Whatever was needed.

The hours flew fast and I arrived at the final result. I was pleased with it. The garage has become a welcoming and very spacious space. The stuff found their new places in friendly neighborhoods. The light came in.

“I’ve done a good job” I thought.

***

The whole dance of space creation was a pleasant experience in contrary to what I anticipated from a tedious task of moving bulky stuff and getting dirty hands.

What is the moral of the story?

When faced with new, uncomfortable challenges, be it a serious disease of your child, a threat to loose a job, a big loss, an accident or a serious injustice, choose a dance approach. The conditions of your challenge are the music but it is your style and your moves that matter.

You need the space, the feel of the music and environment, the freedom to move and the dancing steps. It will make a difference.

Create the space first. This can be done in small steps by either creating it in a physical environment or in a mental/emotional one. Perhaps you need to reorganize your office, shift stuff around the house or clean the garden. Or, perhaps you need a mental space created through relaxation such as a walk in a park, climbing mountains, a long bath, volunteering help, or a good book. Or, perhaps you need to create an emotional space by letting flow the emotions freely through a physical exercise, cry and talk, reflection or a deep tissue massage. 

Every tension is contraction. Contraction means the space is restricted and confined.

Every relaxation is expansion. Expansion means the space is abundant.

Be present. Feel the situation, the circumstances and the environment. Hear the music. It is by probing, taking small actions and experiencing the responses, you will begin to feel the way forward.

Take the natural steps. Make them in the direction that feels natural. Learn about the problem, the circumstances, the disease, the people, the negotiations, the skills or whatever needs to be dealt with. Dance freely. Interlace your learning, thinking and doing with other activities or aside tasks. Take a day off. Go hiking. Rent a boat. Do a bungee jump. Reset.

Your mind needs to digest the information and experience without your inner control freak. This is possible when you begin to feel the in-and-out rhythm. The out is necessary for progress.

***

Breathe.

Expand.

Be present.

Dance.

***

The image above shows a beautiful quilt by Inge Duin. See more of her works on  www.ingeduin.nl.

 

When you live long enough you begin to realize that pain, loss and disappointment are an integral part of life, sometimes even daily companions. Of course, joy, surprises and blessings are there as well, but often overshadowed by the other polarity.

It is certainly hard to be an optimist when the dark hours come and the challenges are bigger than you could ever imagine.

Perhaps the wind blows in your face and it blows hard.
Perhaps you have to endure an unending stream of losses, including your income, health, pets, family or friends.
Perhaps your patience and physical aptitude are stretched to the limit of what you thought was possible.

Yet…

The call is not necessarily about being an optimist, but about being okay. The latter means that you stay in your center.

There may be no glory in your experiences but also no despair. You accept whatever comes even if you do not welcome it in the first encounter. Whatever comes, however, belongs to your life. Resistance will make things more difficult to experience, while acceptance will help you to go through them.

What you need to realize is that there may be a thin line between being a pessimist and being okay. The difference lies in your focus and expectation. Pessimism focuses on the past and foresees (or is afraid of) bad things happening in the future. Pessimism adds more odds to prove it to be true.

Being okay focuses on living in the now, and the trust that things will ultimately work out to your advantage. Being okay gives you back the power of who you are.

It helps you to become transcendent, vivacious and still.

Sometimes a real victory is a quiet survival from day to day. Sometimes getting out of bed and making a few steps may be the hardest thing under the sun, similarly as working long hours at your job, day by day, or going through a break-up or a series of losses.

In such times there is no need to play an optimist, dancing and rejoicing how great your life is, but simply discovering what can be done, step by step, and attending to it. Even if the doing becomes taking care of the most basic needs.

You are not your problems, neither defined by them.
You are not your difficulties and neither defined by them.
You are also not your challenges, neither defined by them.
While they are there to challenge you, they are not you.
You are a God’s child, an individual consciousness, on the path to become Yourself.

When you focus on the middle path, being okay despite the circumstances, you acknowledge that the external reality doesn’t have a hold on you. You affirm that the circumstances do not control you. You may not be able to control the circumstances, but you set yourself free from them, coming back to your center.

It is an important distinction. You are strong and flexible. At your inner peace.

The incredible consequence of this approach is that you stop being a victim and begin to relax. When you relax and trust, you begin to open up for new possibilities and opportunities to come to your life. Oftentimes the possibilities are there, but it is the tension, the contraction and the ghost of the past that keep your vision limited.

When you relax, you stand up straight and simply look around.

With time, for sure, you will see.

Your biggest challenges draw what is best in you – your incredible ability to grow and love.

***

patience

This post is dedicated to myself, from a wise Ela to a down-to-earth one.

Patience

Our life experience is rich. Our days are intense. With the amazing speed of technology we have slowly been loosing a sense of gradual development. We become witnesses to high progress jumps and we forget the slow pace.

Our personal development doesn’t match the technological one. And with the ever present push for newer, faster and better solutions we have lost the virtue of patience.

Not surprisingly the words “patient” and “patience” are related. Patients need to be patient. Diseases, health issues and accidents teach us to appreciate slow progress, no progress or even regress.

The most difficult part of being patient is when dealing with ourselves and other people. This is a skill necessary for life.

Ourselves

Patience is a virtue, moral excellence to be kind and respectful to yourself and others. It has a tremendous impact on personal growth.

When it comes to physical changes, we understand that patience is necessary.  We don’t expect to have a new house built in a week, a profitable business set overnight,
or a child speak after they are born. We know there is a slow progress to be expected.

Personal growth requires tremendous patience. It doesn’t necessarily take years, although it may, of course. What is more important is that the attachment to outcomes is misleading. Personal growth requires work, conscious acts and adaptations when we carefully observe how things develop. Although it is often slow, it does eventually work.

The time is needed because there are many interconnected factors that need to change together, such as limiting beliefs, behavior, environment, values, relations and so on. Any small change in one area may cause a cascade of changes to happen in the other ones.

We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, especially when we start a new project or work on a new skill. However, we badly underestimate what we can accomplish in five years. Check it out for yourself!

How happy are you with the progress this year?
It is possible that the progress is much slower than you anticipated.

What did you expect to have had achieved by now while you look from the perspective of five years ago?
It is possible you have moved mountains in some areas that you have not even expected.

As difficult as it may sound to accept it – it is OK if a change takes five years. It may be slow but the time is there to pass anyway. We may consciously choose to have a life of a better quality in five year time than the one  have now. It is about the appreciation of the delayed reward.

And then there might be times when there is no progress, or even a regress it feels. It is OK too. Be patient. Wait. You may sometimes lack the skills, understanding or knowledge for the challenge or situation you have at hand. It will ultimately improve when you gain the right perspective or skills.

Other people

When people become upset or irritated easily, they may call you names or speak in non-respectful ways. Bitter words are being said that hurt deeply. Some are sharp as
blades and may leave open wounds for years.

When people have strong opinions they may stay blind to other points of view,  and judge you badly on the spot, especially when a conflict arises.

When people are overworked, stressed or overtired, they become vulnerable. A simple act that goes against their expectations may cause an emotional outburst and blames.

When people are ill or suffer from dementia, they become difficult to their care takers. Harmful things are being said and deeds done, yet we need to remember that this is not the person we used to know but the illness acting in the moment.

There is a huge cost to impatience and, on the contrary, patience leaves us free.

When you react immediately on the flow of emotions you may easily end up blaming others or doing harmful deeds. It is usually difficult to work out a compromise or a good relation again if the conflict has run out of hands.

It is a good idea to be careful with what we say and how we say as words have a tremendous impact. If you feel that you may burst out – it is best to call for a stop and communicate it to the other party. If you are upset, it is best to sleep things over, a few nights or even weeks, and take a few iterations in your thoughts  or writing before you speak out.

And this is where patience come in. It makes us wait to choose the proper words that express our concerns yet are respectful to the other person. In my personal experience, it takes between 3 and 7 iterations before I can say things without the blame or other unnecessary emotions. Patience and kindness are related.

Cost of impatience

There is a bigger cost of impatience than the one described above. People tend to make wrong deeds or commit crimes because, at the bottom, they lack patience in their lives. They are in favor of instant gratification and they miss the virtue of patience. They want something and they want it now. Action on such an impulse is based on the emotional-cognitive brain, while waiting or working towards a solution requires conscious thoughts and actions.

Such people go and steal, because they can’t wait to save the money while working at a job. It is just too slow.

They go and kill somebody because they want their possessions now or they don’t know how to solve a conflict with the person involved.

They beat up their pears because these pears just called them names. There was no way to stop the overwhelm of emotions.

Patience is however a skill that can be learned since childhood. If you have a child and always give him a toy/pleasure he wants, you certainly strengthen his expectations to instant gratification. It is a good idea not to do it often and introduce challenges that involve a delayed reward. Read also about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment to find out how important it is.

Finally

When as a young person you feel impatient with your parents because they want to know what you’re doing or where you have been, it is not because they want to be mean, but because they care.

If you feel impatient with your kids because they misbehave, it’s not because they are nasty, but because it is their natural inclination to test the boundaries and challenge authorities. They will learn from it.

If you feel impatient with your colleagues, because they have changed the agreement, are blind to the “obvious truth” or blame you for (non-)doing things, it is not because they are arrogant and disrespectful. Perhaps, it is so, because that are unable to think with you or see a bigger perspective at the moment.

If you feel impatient with your husband/wife, friends or  family members because they seem to make stupid mistakes or stick to their limited point of view, it is not because they are against you on purpose. Perhaps, it is so, because they have underlying fears and concerns that need to be addressed first.

The cost of impatience is big. You don’t need to pay it if you just pause and think of the alternative.

***

Photo courtesy Aussiegall, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

***

 

rational_decision

  • How come you have applied the best strategies to make the best decision, yet the solution you arrived at did not stand against the expectations?
  • How come you have spent so much time on analyzing the data, but the solution did not bring the happiness you were after?
  • How come you have dissected the problem so well, yet the solution was only mediocre?

How I made a rational decision

Ten years ago I was buying my first laptop ever for work and I could freely choose the one I wanted. Laptops were very expensive then so I wanted to make the best decision possible.

What did I do?

I took it very seriously. I spent a whole month studying information on the Internet about available laptops. Although I defined a few important characteristics, it still left me with more than 150 possible laptops. I was studying reviews, people who commented on user’s experience, and multiple indices and statistics.

In meantime, my colleagues made their choices. It took them perhaps 1-2h to decide for particular Asus laptops. Then they were teasing me on my being stuck at multi-objective optimization. They had lots of fun at my decision making process.

Finally, I arrived at a perfect laptop, the best combination of memory, hard disc, video graphics, speed of processor, touch pad etc. To my surprise, happiness did not follow. Despite my lengthy ration decision making process, the laptop didn’t serve me well. It turned out into a horrible experience.

It was a laptop that had never worked. I mean, it worked with simple tasks, but most of the time there was something wrong with the touchpad, mouse or keyboard that prevented me from working smoothly. It contributed to months of frustration.

The laptop went through multiple repairs until I lost patience and abandoned it completely. I was crushed, especially that the other Asus laptops worked like charm.

I learned my lesson then. With gratitude.

Th next time when I was buying a laptop, I gave myself a few hours to make a decision. Most of that time was devoted to learning about possible options and laptop characteristics. The decision itself took a split of a second.

First, I decided to buy Asus. Next, I asked my colleagues for suggestions (read: learn what experts say) about current best features to optimize for the tasks I would need to perform. Finally, I studied available Asus laptops and made a choice which was the most appealing. I simply chose a laptop that felt right. In addition, I mentally decided to make it work for me. And it was a great buy indeed. It worked like a charm, too.

What’s the point of this story?

Rational decision making

In general, there are three approaches to decision making: rational, emotional and intuitive (or any combination of these if processed sequentially). In the rational decision making scenario you:

  • Define the case and the decision to be made.
  • Identify the features (characteristics) of the problem.
  • Identify the criteria for the result.
  • Analyze all possible solutions.
  • Predict goodness-of-fit = calculate consequences of the solutions based on their ability /likelihood of fulfilling the criteria.
  • Choose the best option.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but it is not. Why? Because rational decision making relies on a few strong assumptions:

  1. All options are possible to consider.
  2. There are descriptive features for the task.
  3. There is a clear way (function) to evaluate the future consequences of the features.
  4. There is a well-defined criterion for the result.
  5. There is one best outcome.

In reality these pre-suppositions often do not hold. First, it may be hard to choose a few important features and a performance measure as a function of the features. Even if you define the most important features, you may also include others weighed appropriately to reflect their importance. Secondly, it may be impossible to evaluate all options. Next, it may be hard to judge the goodness of the result from an external point of view. Finally, there may be multiple solutions.

The challenge of the rational approach is there because we hardly ever have well defined features and a performance (or error) measure available for optimization. What we usually encounter are situations of multi-objective optimization. This means that we have a few criteria or error measures that we want to optimize simultaneously. Since the criteria are often interconnected, one needs to pre-define either a linear or nonlinear trade-off. And this is hard if not impossible beforehand.

To make things worse, we are not always sure whether some of the features need to be considered as part of  the criterion-hood 😉 If you are in the field of multi-objective optimization then you know that this is not a straightforward task. The solution lies somewhere on the so-called Pareto front, which is a surface of multiple solutions.

Consider this scenario

Imagine you want to buy a laptop. If your only criterion is cost then you can optimize it easily by buying the cheapest laptop available. Yet, this is not what you want.

Say, you are a programmer/researcher and you want a laptop with a fast processor and a large memory. Moreover, it has to be light because you want to carry it around while running memory-exhaustive applications. But you are also picky about some user-experience features.

You have strong opinions about keyboards and you only like the ones with a certain softness. Moreover, you hate flashy buttons and you would like to a laptop with plain keyboard only. You want to buy the cheapest laptop under the constraints mentioned above. Some can be quantified by numerical characteristics (memory size) while others may not (softness of the keyboard).

If you are given an upper limit of money, you may decide to sacrifice hard disc space for a large RAM memory. What also happens is that some of the features (such as large RAM and big hard disc) may be put into the goodness-of-fit criterion in which you will be looking for a trade-off between cost and the size of memory and storage.

What should be a trade-off?

You will usually not define it explicitly but analyze a number of options usually hesitating between a few. At that point, the solutions will differ by different nonlinear trade-offs of the individual features. Making a rational choice would require the definition of the optimal trade-off function, which is often impossible.

Consequently, you will either analyze the few choices endlessly to collect more outside evidence (extra features that will enter the equation), such as reviews and opinions or you will make a decision by emphasizing which feature is the most important (say, cost).

However, you may also follow a different route by fixing the laptop’s weight to a certain range (as a feature) and then define a good trade-off between the sizes of  memory and hard disc.

Do you see what I mean? There is an inherent difficulty to define well-descriptive features, their importance weights or the goodness-of-fit measure.

The curse of dimensionality

Let’s look at the features now. In the field of statistical learning there is a famous phenomenon called “the curse of dimensionality”, “overtraining” or “Rao’s paradox”. I will explain it below because it has an impact on our decision making process.

Originally, we may assume that the more details (features) of the case we collect, the better the description of the situation we have at hand. The more details, the better quality of the description and the more informative decision.

Counter-intuitively, it is is not valid.

Let’s consider the traditional statistical learning. If you take a single model and keep adding features (details) to see how well your model is doing according to a chosen error measure or performance criterion you will observe a very particular behavior.

If you keep the number of observations (say laptops to consider, people, etc) fixed but you add more and more features (details), the error will originally decrease, only to steadily increase after a while. See the image to the right.  If we look at a goodness-of-fit function, it will behave the other way around. It will originally increase with the increasing number of features and steadily decrease after a while. This happens after a sufficient number of features is reached.

What we are saying here is this:

There is a certain point after which adding new details becomes useless, and moreover, they may work against your model (error measure or goodness-of-fit function).  You are going to get worse results.

Incredible, isn’t it?

Human decision making

Consider now human decision making.

There is a consultant who looks at symptoms of a difficult cancer case and has to make a decision whether to send the patient to an operation or radiotherapy. There is a company CEO who analyzes multiple indices of the company performance (sales, cash-flow, marketing strategies etc) and has to decide about the next strategy of growth. And there is you to choose your laptop, your university, your holiday destination, your next job, your house, your wife and so on.

Well if you take the same analogy as above to a human decision making based on the data, we may conclude that the quality (performance) of the decision will initially increase up to a few features (pieces of information) and deteriorate if you start adding more features. Or in terms of errors, the error of the decision will initially decrease up to a few features and increase if you keep including more.

Our rational mind is unable to juggle more than 3-7 pieces of information in a given moment.

We cannot possibly weight say 20 features and optimize trade-offs between multiple criteria in our minds to get the best decision. The reason is simple. There are too many variables of different kinds and too complex models (non-descriptive features, nonlinear relations between features, multiple or nested criteria, vague goodness-of-fit function, etc) and the optimum is simply not uniquely defined. The optimum is not a point but merely a surface of possible solutions for various trade-offs.

And you lack a meta criterion to tell you which trade-off to emphasize.

Rational analysis: a brief how-to

The learning point is as follows. If you want to stick to a rational decision making, constrain your problem and the solution path sufficiently:

  1. Select a few well-defined features (characteristics, descriptions), ideally not more than seven.
  2. Choose a simple criterion.
  3. Choose a simple goodness function or performance measure.

For instance, you may consider a case with  “yes”/”no” decisions described by  a number of binary features (“yes”/”no”) and a simple goodness-of-fit function calculated by a weighted average of feature contributions. Or you may have a complex model (in your working brain) but you only rely on a few well-defined features. This will work well.

In the cases above you can define optimal decisions given the limited framework. In many other cases, however, your rational decision is suboptimal because you cannot define your necessary features and criteria well. Moreover, your suboptimally best decision will likely be not the best because you have missed a feature or modification that you were unaware of at the time of decision making but which will largely influence the situation.

In addition, too much data and too much information will inhibit your decision making. You may simply get stalled in a surface of a few possible solutions which optimize the features and criteria in different ways. And you will not know how to choose a meta goodness-of-fit function to select one and only best solution. So, you will hesitate or wait for ages until you get tired and pick an arbitrary solution from the permitted ones.

So, what is the best approach for complex situations?

Is it emotional decision making???

Addendum

This is added by my friend Bob.

It is fascinating that computers as well as humans suffer from the “curse of dimensionality”, or confusion by details. This phenomenon was objectively measured in many experiments. The results of an early one, from the 70’s, is shown in the image to the right.  It is an old scan of an old paper, so please forgive the quality. It shows that the accuracy of the diagnosis of a group of 100 medical experts first increases and then decreases as a function of the number of medical tests (symptoms) that are being considered. This points to the fact that in a large medical examination always some problem may be found. May be there is nothing wrong in it, just the result of statistics!

***

Photo courtesy Jamie Frith, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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The series of posts on decision making