Facing the Unknown: Perspectives from the Past and Present

facing the unknown

The Unknown. Uncertainty. Randomness. Fate. Regardless of the name given to it, this force can alter our lives with a flick of the metaphorical wrist. It permeates all aspects of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Personally, I have an awkward relationship with all things unknown. When confronted with a situation that has no clear precedent, missing information, or an otherwise complete lack of clarity, I obsess. I obsess a lot. In fact, I’ll usually obsess to the point of misery.

Many types of uncertainty cause anxiety for good reason: health issues, job stability, national crises, etc. It’s quite fair to say that these situations warrant anxiety and extreme attention to their proper resolution.

In this post, I’m more concerned with uncertain, anxiety-inducing situations that should otherwise be exciting moments in your life:

  • Choosing a college (and subsequently, a major)
  • Launching your career
  • Finding a life partner
  • Moving away from home for the first time
  • Starting a business
  • …the list goes on

Again on a personal note, I’ve noticed that these exciting times in my life were often tainted with a sense of misery from the unknowns and uncertainties they brought along with them. Here are a few examples; can you relate?

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Be prepared to ignore your own advice (because eventually, you will)

It’s funny how we often ignore the advice we give others. For example, I’ve written about the importance of simplification, and it’s something I regularly recommend to those with a lot on their plate.

Yet, within a few months of writing that post, I’ve found myself busier than ever. This frustrated me to no end. “Way to follow your own advice, Jon,” I thought to myself, sarcastically.

At this point, I’ve come to accept that I can rarely follow my own advice as consistently as I dole it out. The classic struggle of ‘easier said than done.’ It’s important to catch yourself in these moments of disregard, so I try to be brutally honest with myself on this point. To help me with this, I periodically review a document I’ve written – I call it my constitution – and compare the advice contained within to the life I’m currently living.

In this constitution, I have brief, pithy statements of how I’d like to live my life, categorized into six headers. When I re-read my constitution two weeks ago, I was not happy. Of the six headlines below, I was only living true to three of them (those three are in bold).

  • Invest in health first.
  • Embrace opportunities to connect with people.
  • Become so good, they can’t ignore you.
  • Live a life of no regrets.
  • Have at least one passion project at all times.
  • Always look to surpass your limits.

In other words, I was so consumed with projects, learning new skills, and becoming better than I was the day before, I had started neglecting the other aspects of a life well lived (in my opinion, of course). This was contributing to that growing sense of dissatisfaction with life that we’ve all experienced at one point or another.

This time around, I took immediate action to remedy this. I took a step back from most of the projects I was working on (which required a tough conversation or two for the collaborative projects I was working on). From there, I reevaluated my priorities, which resulted in a stronger focus on my health, social life, and longer term goals. It’s been three weeks since I took action on this, and I’m already feeling happier and more balanced as a result.

As I learn to better recognize when my life is out of balance, there’s less turnaround time between dissatisfaction and improvement. Considering that our lives can shift in and out of balance sporadically, it’s important to keep this “rebalancing turnaround time” as low as possible through awareness and willingness to act quickly.

Therefore, here are some takeaways from this short post:

  • Be honest with yourself. Admit to yourself that you won’t always do what you know is best, regardless of how well you can dole this advice out to others. “Easier said than done.”
  • Put something down on paper. Maintain a document (a constitution, manifesto, mission statement, etc.) that outlines the life you want to live. Review it frequently.
  • Keep turnaround time low. When your life is out of balance, don’t be afraid to have difficult conversions and take uncomfortable actions to bring your life back into balance. Don’t wait for others to bring this balance to you. And if you can’t control this lack of balance, take any necessary steps to ameliorate the problem until you can take more substantial action.

What you can learn from tracking your happiness


For the past month, I’ve been using TrackYourHappiness.org – created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University – with the goal of learning more about what impacts my happiness, and to what degree.

TrackYourHappiness is free to use, but fairly intense. You fill out an intense survey at the beginning, and then the experiment begins. For the next few weeks, you’re texted randomly, multiple times throughout the day, with questions you need to answer. Your mission is to respond as quickly as possible with how you’re feeling at that exact moment (the experiential sampling method).

In the name of worthwhile data, I stuck through the few weeks of random interruptions, being sure to diligently fill out the survey as soon as I received it. Three weeks later, the report was ready.

I found some correlations that surprised me, and some that didn’t. Below is a summary of what I’ve learned from my happiness report. If you find these takeaways interesting and/or are interested in learning more about when you’re happiest, I’d highly recommend trying it. Note: You’ll need a smartphone to take the surveys if you’re frequently on the go.

What I Kind-of Already Knew

Here are a few quick learnings that simply verified a lot of what I already knew

  • I’m at my happiest when working in coffee shops, or being out and about. Staying at home tends to make me irritable (perhaps it’s FOMO?).
  • The top three activities that make me happy: conversation, listening to music, and working on passion projects. This is not a surprise, but cool to see graphed out on a chart. And considering that people typically do these activities in coffee shops, this may help explain the point above.
  • Outdoor or indoors – neither seems to have a major influence on happiness. Although outdoors had a slightly higher happiness rating, this is likely due to the fact that long work days, mundane chores, and time spent sick – unpleasant activities usually spent indoors – can skew the data.

Some Interesting Graphs

My happiness by day of the week really surprised me (see below). Why am I so happy on Thursdays? Might be a fluke in the data, or maybe not. This definitely requires more investigation, since I don’t do anything particularly unique on Thursdays, to my knowledge.

Happiness by Day of Week

Next, I noticed a very clear correlation between focus and happiness. I don’t want to jump the gun and say that being focused causes happiness, or vice versa – it’s simply a correlation for now. If I had to take a guess, I’m probably more focused on projects that I find interesting and challenging (better stated as flow). And as I learned above, passion projects are a key contributor to my happiness. Hypothesis: Passion projects keep me focused and happy, resulting in this correlation.

Happiness and focus

Similarly, there’s a correlation between my level of productivity and my happiness. I doubt productivity is the cause here either. For example, a full day of errands and laundry doesn’t make me happy. The correlation here is a little weaker, so I think the happiness is, again, tied to making progress on passion projects, rather than mundane chores.

Happiness and productivity

This next graph charts out my happiness, based on how many people I’m interacting with. It seems that I enjoy one-on-one conversations more than larger group conversations. It might be because I usually interact with larger groups at loud, crowded bars. Or perhaps I truly do enjoy one-on-one conversation because of the level of depth the conversation can reach.

Happiness and socializing


Some of this information is very handy as a troubleshooter. For example, let’s say I’m feeling particularly gloomy this week. I now know the questions to ask myself:

  • Have I been able to work on interesting projects, or engage in one-on-one conversations with people I enjoy being around?
  • Is it Wednesday? If so, it seems pretty normal to be a bit gloomier.
  • Have I had a chance to be productive and focus on work I find interesting?
  • …and so on.

By taking note of which factor is likely at play each time I’m feeling particularly great or awful, I can pay attention to longer term trends, and adjust my lifestyle accordingly.

For example, I’ve recently realized I’ve spent way too much time on work and side projects, to the detriment of my social life (especially the one-on-one conversations over lunch, coffee, etc.). This lack of balance started interrupting my focus, and significantly impacting my happiness. I’ve started making necessary adjustments to fix this problem before it snowballs.

By having a model to work with (even if it’s not completely accurate to reality – it’s only three week’s worth of data, after all), it puts you in a better position to troubleshoot your mood and take action.

I’d love to hear what you all think about this. Have you ever self-tracked before? Did you glean any insights from it?

Dan Ariely and Denmark on Expectations: Hope for the Best but Expect the Worst

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”


I’ve finally gotten around to reading Dan Ariely’s incredible book, Predictably Irrational. As is made obvious by the title, Ariely compiles all of his research on human behavior and catalogues the different ways humans predictably and consistently act irrational. And boy, there are a lot of examples in there!

The one that has stood out the most so far is that of expectations. Ariely provides compelling research that demonstrates how expectations actually affect how you perceive an experience.

For example, let’s say you just went on a trip to Disney World for the first time. You had zero expectations prior to the trip, and you received 30 enjoyment units from the experience (let’s pretend enjoyment can be measured by units). However, if you read a horrible review of Disney World the night before your trip (which significantly lowered your expectations), you might receive only 20 enjoyment units, even if you had the exact same experience as the previous scenario. In other words, if we have pre-existing expectations, our brains can override our perception in an effort to match that expectation.

Ariely concludes by letting the reader know that it can be advantageous to raise people’s expectations prior to an event or experience, because doing so will make the perception of the event more positive. This is absolutely true – when we believe something will be good, it generally will be good, and when we think it will be bad, it will be bad. In fact, this information is tantamount to common sense to people in marketing and sales. So why am I writing a blog post on it?

I’m writing this post because I don’t think Ariely’s recommendation is complete. If you want to use fancier dishes and varietal-specific wine glasses to make your dinners feel more luxurious, his research is right on the money – you’re more likely to enjoy a meal when presented in a nicer way. However, for people wishing to borrow this research to live a happier, more successful life, I think there’s much more to the story. An article from The New York Times, entitled Lowered Expectations, explains a phenomenon that runs contrary to Ariely’s research:

About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: “We’re the happiest lige nu.” Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally “just now” but strongly connotes a sense of “for the time being but probably not for long.” Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness … Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I read this particular article back in 2009, and it has made a significant impact in how I choose to view the world and my place in it. As someone who used to read books espousing the idea that anything is possible with the right set of beliefs, I believed that by setting my sights high and believing in my myself, I’d be putting myself in the best mindset to actually get there. But setting such high expectations for yourself can be dangerous, as I eventually learned. The next few years were filled with frustration as I wasn’t meeting my expectations of who I could become. Why was I failing so often? Why wasn’t I progressing faster? Why didn’t I have the confidence and energy to seize every opportunity? What was I doing wrong?

I’m not the only one to recognize this cycle of unrealistic, high expectations masquerading as confidence and positive beliefs, and how it can lead to feelings of despair, frustration and a lack of fulfillment. Alain de Botton captures this thought perfectly in his famous TED talk: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.

So although Ariely’s research demonstrates that a high expectation can positively influence your perception, don’t take that to mean that you should be expecting the best at all times in order to improve your experiences in life. The modest uptick in your enjoyment will often be nullified by the disappointment from your expectations not being met – after all, there’s only so high your expectations can go before they become unrealistic. Remember, Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

Despite my belief that keeping expectations low is a better strategy for happiness, I’m not here to take an extreme stance. Ariely’s research is rock solid, so there is benefit to following his advice. You just need to do it properly. Here’s the technique I use to get the best of both worlds, which I have borrowed from people much smarter than I could ever hope to be: Hope for the best but expect the worst.

Before an experience, hype yourself up. Going to see a movie? Read the positive reviews. Going to a new bar? Ask a friend for recommendations and personal favorites. Starting a new goal? Read some online discussion on the benefits of reaching that goal. This will give you a clear image of what the best case scenario will be.

However, once you’ve hyped yourself up and are excited for the experience, you must bring your actual expectations down to modest levels. You can do this by then imagining a just-as-likely poor outcome. Remember that movie you wanted to see? The reviews looked good, but you’ve seen crappy movies with positive reviews in the past, so it still might suck. The new bar you’re going to with your friends? Looks awesome, but you should be prepared to deal with insane crowds and lines, since it’s a popular place. That new goal you want to pursue? It will make a very positive difference in your life, but it involves grueling work, and many weekends burning the midnight oil in front of your computer. Better get ready to handle that.

By using this technique, you’ll still feel that initial excitement of trying something new (making you more likely to have a positive experience, a la Ariely’s research), but should things go sour, you’ve already acknowledged that this was likely to happen and have mentally prepared for it. This immunizes you to the gnawing disappointment so many of us feel when our expectations are set too high.

Some of you may find the technique above to be a little controversial, but I’ve been using it to great effect lately. I rarely find myself disappointed with outcomes anymore because I’ve already mentally prepared for the negative outcomes in advance. This has made me more resilient in the face of failure and has improved my happiness levels, not unlike the Danes referenced in the NY Times article above. However, because I still take the time to remind myself about the awesome qualities of my daily experiences, I’m ready to have a good time when things go as planned, allowing me the benefits mentioned in Ariely’s research.

One final example of this technique in action: starting this blog. I knew that having a blog would allow me opportunities to meet interesting people, speak at events, and possibly even make some money. This has happened in small doses, which is great. But before getting started, I also made sure to prepare for a very likely scenario: that I’d spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours blogging in my lifetime, and probably wouldn’t see much return at all for a majority of those hours. By being ready to accept that fate, I was given the strength to spend many weekends sitting in coffee shops writing, despite a low readership. My expectations were kept in check, so I never felt disappointment, failure, or regret. Yet, I never lost sight of the potential benefits of blogging, which gave me the hope I needed to make it all worthwhile. It’s incredibly hard to strike the balance between managing expectations and maintaining hope, but magical things happen when you figure out the right balance for you.

To conclude, I hope I’ve demonstrated that while Ariely’s research is very clear on how expectations directly influence our perceptions, it’s not the complete story for those of us who want to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. We need to also take a page from the Danes’ book and constantly keep our expectations in check. Remember: Hope for the best but expect the worst.

For more on the power of expectations, check out Goals, Sacrifices, and Expectations: How They Can Make You Happy (or Miserable).