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“Thinking frameworks” for circumstances beyond your control

Breaking free from handcuffs

They say, “if you wanna get something done, you gotta stop complaining and start doing.”

It’s a great saying. It speaks #StraightFacts and demands action against complacency.

Regardless, I’ve got things I enjoy-but-not-really-enjoy complaining about on a regular basis. Here are my favourites:

  1. Discovering my love for education and technology related ideas but already being committed to an Economics degree
  2. Getting hired by a super cool company who will sponsor my damn immigrant visa
  3. Finding more time to do uncompensated but cool creative stuff, or to literally just bum around without worry

Most people probably don’t relate 100% to what I just outlined. However, looking at these points at a more abstract level, I think there are some fundamental struggles that are true to everyone.

What all these points have in common is that people want the best for themselves but can’t have them sometimes due to factors outside their control. Ever questioned why you’re studying what you’re studying? Ever fantasized about an almost-unachievable dream job?

Ever wanted more freedom to do stuff, but couldn’t due to circumstances beyond your control?

During my time on planet earth so far, this is the recurring question that I wrestle with. Today, I’ll share what I’ve got so far based on my personal experiences and contemporary thinking frameworks.

Funnily enough, the source of inspiration for this article came from a professor in one of my classes. He asked us to complete a free-format final report for his Business Situation Analysis class. I’m pretty sure he played an important role for bringing the way I work around my life’s constraints from what used to be the subconscious of my brain to the very front of my attention.

I can’t claim to have the same intellectual authority as a life coach / business executive / philosopher.

What I can claim is that what I’m about to share has been effective enough to help me deal with rough times during the last four years, even if it was mostly subconscious until recently. How to be more resourceful given limited resources.

What happens when you ignore your circumstances?

Glasses, Pink Glasses, Lens, Eyesight, Sight, Vision
“You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”
– Wanda the Owl, BoJack Horseman

A common mistake I’ve seen my classmates make in our classes is that they don’t distinguish between what my Situations Analysis professor calls desirable criteria and limiting criteria. Desirable criteria are factors that favour a particular decision. Limiting criteria are fundamental realities that are generally unchangeable.

In the pursuit of really fun desirable criteria like “higher profits” or “greater market share”, they omit the limiting criteria about the business they’re analysing, resulting in faulty, unrealistic, and dangerous recommendations.

Classmate: “Hmmm, international expansion seems nice, lots of profit, expansion, saves us against the risk of competitors that are forming alliances. Let’s do it”

Prof: “You are literally a small family-owned business in 1990 without access to the internet”

In my classes, a lot of professors joke that if we just used fancy management consulting frameworks for selecting romantic partners, we’d all have successful love lives. Develop a cost-benefit analysis, weight the pros and cons, make an informed decision.

It’s gotten to the point where I no longer laugh at these jokes. Partially it’s because they’re getting old, but also because I’ve un-ironically gained insight from them.

In the romance sector of the life economy, I call limiting criteria “deal-breakers” or “red flags”.

I have a lot of empirical case studies of peers in relationships that invest in seemingly bullish romantic ventures, focusing on the upside while hedging against red flags using rose-coloured glasses.

Their romantic partner might have packaged their crazy as “qualities”, much like how bankers packaged credit default swaps to push synthetic CDOs (good link, check it out) during the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Another way to look at circumstances: What’s stopping you from having a pet at home?

Dog, Young Dog, Small Dog, Maltese, White, Puppy, Young
“I feel like being able to have a pet is a worthy benchmark of quality of life. Not a fish. A real pet.”
– Andrew Yang, 2020 US Presidential Candidate, much to the dismay of single-issue fish owners

I read a tweet suggesting that having a pet at home could be a great benchmark for quality of life.

I gave it a thought, and decided that damn, that’s a very interesting idea, and perfectly captures the spirit of what I want to express in this article.

Ask yourself: “Why should I have a good boi at home?” Or cat, frog, parrot, ant farm, guinea pig etc. I did some googling: besides getting unconditional love, pets are a huge boost to your mental wellbeing, improve your physical health, and build character.

Now ask yourself: “Why shouldn’t I have a good boy at home?” I dug through the data, and found three main reasons:

  • Costs. Pets are expensive to maintain, and many require having adequate living space, which translates to a large housing costs.
  • Time. Pets are a large time commitment, and people just don’t have the time or energy to feed, groom, clean, and exercise a pet.
  • Grief. You might have had a previous pet that passed away and do not want to go through a similar experience.

Some other reasons could include concerns that a pet may negatively disrupt a living environment, and allergies. With the first reason, if you are concerned that a pet might destroy your furniture or make a lot of noises at night, a significant root cause is due to lack of training / not designing a good environment for your pet, which relates back to the “high costs” and “time” reasons.

With the exception of grief and allergies, virtually every reason people don’t get pets are due to a lack of quality of life factors that enable pet ownership.

I mean if you want to have unconditional love, getting a dog is a far superior option than committing to a romantic relationship.

That one sentence above touches a bit on systems thinking, which I’ll be elaborating on in the next section.

Systems Thinking + Agile Principles in Pet Decision Making

Resultado de imagen de iceberg model
Is it specifically a Corgi Husky mix that you really want, or something else?

One of the largest trends in the future of learning is Competency Based Learning, of which Systems Thinking is a vital element.

There is a lot to unpack about Competency Based Learning, but for this article, the importance of Competency Based Learning here is a shift of thinking of education as collecting facts and content to demonstrating skills and concepts as soon as they’re learnt. These skills and concepts generally emphasise more transferability across disciplines compared to the static content taught in more traditional models of learning.

Systems Thinking is one of those really neat transferable skills, and one that I wished I knew about earlier so I could have applied it more deliberately in my life.

With the help of the Iceberg Model above, I’ll show you how this applies to the question “Should I take a good boi home?”

Let’s look back at those “desirable criteria”, or how I like to call it, objectives: they include receiving unconditional love, having more emotional wellbeing, having more physical health, and building character. Extremely worthwhile to boost your quality of life.

Now lets have a look at the “limiting criteria”, or constraints: lack of time and money. At the “event” level, I identify these constraints.

A lot of pet owners don’t consider their financial or time constraints when deciding to own a pet, and the pet ends up suffering due to their lack of foresight and consideration. The pet owner also gets more stressed and pressed for resources, but that’s a minor issue compared to the treatment of the pet.

If you’re anything like me on the “patterns / trends” level – living with multiple roommates, systemically short of time, and lowkey broke until further notice – having a doggo is unfortunately not a realistic pursuit.

At the “underlying structures” level, I realise my constraints are due to me being a student on a full-time degree financed by my parents.

At these top three levels, due to circumstances outside my control, I’m not able to affect substantial change. So what options do I have?

At first thought, if you can’t have a physical pet, maybe having a virtual pet would be an okay substitute. So I download an app and start raising my dream pet, an octopus-dragon. I satisfy my constraints since maintenance of a virtual pet is a far easier time and money commitment than even a goldfish.

I could go as far as saying it’s “character building” in a sense that I would have to log in every day to feed and play with it, building discipline. Depending on the design of the virtual pet simulator, the built-in AI responses of my dragon-octopus hybrid could be far more interesting and responsive to feedback than many real-life pets.

Yeah uh, no.

This is where fundamentals in Agile principles come in. Specifically, the “responding to change over following a plan” part. I’m not suggest to never follow a plan, but rather plan for change, since you’ll probably never define your problem correctly the first time.

My octopus-dragon was frankly not cutting it, so in response to that, it’s time for some well-informed iteration.

The reason why I changed my professor’s “desirable criteria” to “objectives” is because it helps you cut out all the superfluous fluff and details and prioritise the things that matter most.

When deciding whether you should get a pet, you should consider whether there might be other ways to achieve your objectives by digging into the underlying things you value.

From the Iceberg Model, I took an examination on the “mental model” level, and concluded that while unconditional love isn’t something I actively looking for, besides that, I’m not really sure what I value.

However, by examining the mental model level, I realised I don’t need to achieve a certain benchmark of quality of life to receive the benefits of owning a pet.

There are plenty of alternatives that can achieve similar results. Examples include volunteering for emotional wellbeing, and excercise for physical health. Both build character as well.

After doing some trials for each of these options, I’ll have a better idea about which parts of my objectives I want to focus on, for example focusing on “discipline” and “compassion” in character building, and do more activities that develop these character traits.

You’re not limited by your constraints, so these “limiting criteria” would only be “limiting” if you framed the question as whether you should get a pet.

Consider frequently getting into existential crises, and make moves from there

Idea, Innovation, Imagination, Mindmap, Brainstorm
I couldn’t really find a great quote, but the idea of a three-dimensional lightbulb on a two-dimensional blackboard really speaks volumes about how you’re not limited by your constraints if you think outside of them. I would have used “think outside the box” but that’s kinda lame and overused so now you have a caption that’s a full paragraph of me rambling.

Zooming out to a completely abstract level, solving problems and creating solutions are basically meeting objectives under constraints.

The key here is to really understand what you value and act on them as much as possible.

That requires some huuuge introspection and #DeepThoughts. I’ve gotten into some not-really-fun-but-still-fun existential crises, and had a period of around 2-3 weeks bingeing on self-help articles.

I’ll share some findings with one of the ongoing complaints I made above.

I have a constraint of studying economics. Only when I was in my third year did I realise my true interests lie in education and technology. Related to that, I’m constrained by not having enough freedom to do stuff I want.

At first thought, my original solution was to do more online courses, and slack off studies in favour of doing cool things. This was not sustainable, and actually contributed negatively to my mental health for a while.

After an existential crisis about my future career path and the meaning of freedom, I realised that creating meaningful things sparked joy in me, and gave me the deepest learning and satisfaction (whatever that means, still figuring it out).

I’ve been attending a number of EdTech-related events recently, including a global EdTech summit during my exchange in Beijing, and more recently, a conference here in Madrid. Talking to professionals in the space really helped me understand (1) how an Economics graduate can help out and (2) how it really, really, really doesn’t matter that I studied Econ as long as I’ve got the willingness to learn.

Over time, I slacked off studies more strategically. I doubled-down on presentation and writing assignments (like this one) that involved a more “creating” aspect, and went much easier on case reading, focusing mostly on the cases’ key learning objective.

I’m still doing online courses, but much more selectively, with the end goal of creating visible things that brings learning value.

The next post you’ll see from me is actually based on one of Coursera’s most popular online courses, and I’m excited to share my takeaways with you soon.

Consider doing this for one of the complaints you currently have about your circumstances:

  1. Dive into the deep end of the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model
  2. Identify root causes, and examine your underlying mental models
  3. Come out with a refreshed sense of personal mission
  4. Apply Agile principles to devise a rough game plan with room to respond to change
  5. Continuously make moves – big and small – to keep moving forward 🙂

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