Sorry, Paulo

“When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you achieve it,” wrote Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist. Well, not really true. Instead, it is your unconscious thoughts that shape much of your conscious being, which does the actual work of getting you there. So the only part of the universe that is conspiring to help you achieve it is the back of your mind. That is until you share your dreams with others who care about you, and maybe then a greater part of the universe conspires with you. Just wanting something won’t get you anything.

“I’m onto something”

We live in a cruel world. We are awash in information, and yet it never feels as if we have all the information we need to make those big life decisions. What perhaps makes this worse is that these decisions need to be made starting at a very early age.

Would those high-school subjects help me maximise my skills and talent? Will this college degree help me find the things I would love to do? Is that job really something I can spend all my waking hours caring about? Am I marrying a person who will be the soulmate I’ve always been looking for?

Choosing the “best” microwave for your home might be easier today than 20 years ago, but that decision wasn’t a very hard decision even then. The hard decisions remain hard because of an information asymmetry problem. You will always have far less information than you would like to make these decisions.

This is where our gut instincts help. It is not easy to explain why we get that tingling feeling of “I’m onto something”, when we get close to an answer we’ve been looking for, but that feeling is the best indicator that we have of being on the right path.

The trouble with gut instincts is that they feel too flimsy to base important decisions on. But the information asymmetry problem is never going away, and so it is perhaps better to hone our gut instincts through practice. You will fail but you will also learn and thus trust yourself more in this unpredictable world.

It is easy to keep postponing life’s big decisions in the hope that one day we may have all the information we need to find the answer. But if you’re sure you want an answer, just look for the “I’m onto something” feeling and take the dive.

Image by shinealight. CC-BY-SA.

Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily. is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.