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The journey is the thing

December 7, 2012

Heading home from a journey to Hogtown earlier this week, my wife and I listened to a CBC interview with Oliver Burkeman, author of the new book, The Antidote – an exposé of problems with positive thinking. This book is a critique of self-help books and seminars that focus on 'willing' yourself to be happy. One might fairly conclude that this is just a self-help book with an attempt to differentiate itself ironically by debunking self-help books. I have not read the book, though, and am not in a position to judge.

Essentially, from the radio interview, his message is that happiness is not the product of thinking happy thoughts. No argument there.

As I see it, we cannot resolve on the path to happiness without first defining the subject. What is happiness? Well, that depends, doesn't it? Everyone must come to their own definition of happiness, as one person's happiness may very well be another's misery.

For me, happiness is the emotional residual found on a journey in good company. Happiness is captured in being true to my guiding values. Happiness is embedded in pursuit of opportunities to explore and to learn. Happiness is tied to the belief that I hold some measure of influence in my own life and opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those around me… productive relationships.

I am careful not to articulate any notion of happiness for myself in the context of 'arrival' at a destination, an objective, or a goal. This, I believe, is folly. Have a destination… have an objective… have a goal… just don't look for happiness upon arrival. The journey is the thing. Specifically, the daily journey is the thing. Borrowing from the 'think global… act local' dictum, I say, 'think about the future… then think and act here and now.'

Not long ago, on TVO, I listened to Alex Himelfarb, Canada's former Clerk of the Privy Council (our most senior civil servant) sharing, among other things, his perspective on what makes a sovereign nation. I found his lecture thought provoking as I pondered the notion of how to define a nation. His definition embodied what he called a "collective capacity to shape the future." Pausing the program for a moment to think, I found this articulation intriguing, and broadly applicable, not just to nation states, but to organizations of any type and size. One might even consider one's own personal resources as a collective – bearing capacity to shape the future. I smile on the side as I say so, thinking of a friend in a country south of here who shudders every time I use the word, 'collective.' He equates that word with the image of a hammer and sickle, bathed in red.

For the moment, accepting that a nation state must embody a collective capacity to shape the future, I wonder about relevant metrics that could be employed over time as a gauge of a nation's health… or that of a business, a community, a school, a family… or as I say, myself. How is my collective doing today? In my business? In my health and fitness? In my investments? In my marriage and family and friendships?… listed here in no order of importance, of course. Am I adding value to your life as a reader? Have I prompted you to think?

Is my collective capacity primed for performance?

Accepting this capacity to shape the future as a critical component in how I define myself, I'm thinking that my very awareness of it could serve vital corrective action as I meander through the adventures and misadventures of everyday life. It follows, then, that conscious effort to create, promote, support, and sustain this capacity to shape the future will contribute meaningfully to my state of happiness, whatever that may be.

Widening the lens, I wonder how happy our nation (or planet) is, enabled or constrained by this collective capacity. Is our capacity as a collective greater than it was ten years ago… thirty years ago? As various players jostle for dominant roles on the world stage, do we feel enhanced or diminished in our capacity to shape the future? Do we enjoy congruence as a nested collective of collectives? Himelfarb would argue that capacity for national identity is tied to the proportionate mix of rights and responsibilities of the individual versus rights and responsibilities of the collective. As a direct function of this mix and of the state of this so-called collective capacity, are we as a nation happier now or less so?

Is our 'collective capacity to shape the future' a key driver of our happiness?

Oliver Burkeman argues that goals may hinder pursuit of happiness when creating a life focus that excludes balance. How many very successful people do we know who are not 'happy people?' This is not to say that we should not have goals, of course. The perpetual challenge is to constantly extend our reach without sacrificing our essence. As my wife regularly admonishes, 'moderation in all things.' I can certainly intellectualize agreement with her sentiment, but moderation, I'm afraid, is not in my operational vocabulary. For me, there's often only one way to do things… and that's all the way. See Guiding Value #11 as my hopeful reminder to myself.

But I digress…

If the secret to happiness is intertwined with a capacity to shape the future, I should pursue every opportunity to enhance this capacity, should I not? Just thinking happy, as Burkeman points out, won't get me there. Thinking may be a good place to start… hard to argue with that… but if thinking is not followed by targeted action, it's a waste. The journey's the thing.

Pushing this line of reasoning a little further, happiness would logically be tied to success, not only to shape, but also to predict the future. Insofar as we find ourselves unable to shape or direct what happens next, it behooves us to anticipate what happens next, and to position ourselves accordingly. Enter Nate Silver.

Nate Silver is the young author of The Signal and the Noise, published in September. Silver is a statistician who correctly forecasted the 2008 presidential race in 49 of 50 states. He also nailed the winners of all 35 contests in 2008 for the U.S. Senate. In 2012, he correctly predicted the presidential race in all 50 states and also 31 of 33 Senate races. I'm only part way through his book, but already find it of interest and thereby of value. Key to his thesis is the recognition and removal of bias from prediction. No one would dispute the need to remove bias in aid of objectivity. The task, then, is in the recognition of bias. Separating ourselves from ourselves is never easy, but this is step number one in making predictions. We have enough difficulty making accurate assessments of history, let alone the future. In making predictions, bias leaves most of us lost in a fog. This fog results from poor thinking, poor modeling, and poor discipline. I would add that failures in prediction also reflect our intolerance of life's uncertainties, leading us to default to personal biases as reflecting more a picture of what we 'want to happen.' Case in point: Karl Rove's meltdown on Fox News during the recent election night coverage.

Risk can be measured and therefore managed. Uncertainty cannot. It can only be labeled. Uncertainty needs to be addressed, and where possible, eliminated through constant modeling and re-modeling of our frameworks for gathering information and for making predictions. In the end, however, we cannot eliminate all uncertainty. Such is the life of puzzles and mysteries and black swans. We live in a world of swirling uncertainty. We live in interesting times, indeed.

Attainment of happiness, I would argue, is conditional upon tolerance of this journey's uncertainties. We are well served by regular mapping of what we know, and what we don't know that we need to know, the study of how to bridge the gap, and critically, the letting go of those uncertain things that just won't come cross the bridge. More on signals and noise when I finish the book.

For now, my takeaway is to:

Read much, study much, and think even more. Then, for goodness' sake, do something. Engagement, in the end, is everything.

With much happiness,


Kevin Graham

"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal."

Albert Pike


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