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The Attention Span. "Squid, Zen and The Abyss."



Today’s topic is a universal idea that has a very dark side. But it’s central to accelerated learning, business expertise, and possibly even spiritual growth.

I was also grateful to be asked to appear on the Value Hive investing podcast, where we spent 90 minutes discussing my weird global phase change theory and the concept of “model destruction” that’s today’s focus.

As we all return to normal, if any of you are based in New York City and want to grab a coffee this autumn, shoot me an e-mail. The joy is in the network!

“Squid, Zen and the Abyss”

[12 minute read]

“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”- Abba Eban


Source: Getty Images.

The South Korean Netflix show Squid Game just went to number one in 90 different countries, with 79 times as much audience interest as the average title. It’s on its way to becoming Netflix’s most popular original title ever. “Squid Game Costume” was the #1 search term on Amazon. I am a firm believer that mega-viral global phenomena sometimes reflect emerging cultural trends. In fact, it’s one of the most interesting questions to ask: why this story now?

Squid Game is about how desperate, indebted citizens get forced into a Darwinistic life-or-death contest. The show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, confirmed that “this is a story about losers – those who struggle through the challenges of everyday life and get left behind, while the winners level-up.” Amusingly, one of the only developed countries in the entire world where it’s not #1 is Denmark, which also has among the highest social mobility and lowest inequality. It seems like Squid Games reflects the emergent movement away from an unforgivingly rigid and unequal market model, to one with more slack.

A curious thing about stories is that they don’t just reflect what we want from the outer world, but also our inner selves. Perhaps this viral myth is about more than economic inequality. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Einstein was right when he said that “you cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it.” There’s abundant proof all around us. Rationalists and intellectuals expertly dissect and diagnose our problems yet stutter when asked for any coherent solutions. Brute-force systemic interventions repeatedly fail, while producing metastasizing unintended consequences. My friend Jim O’Shaughnessy shared a marvelous quote from Robert Oppenheimer that sums it all up:

“It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not, is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.”

John Glubb’s theory of civilizations found that they last on average 250 years, and the “age of intellect” typically arrives just before a collapse. The period of most separation and disengagement from our environment also makes us the most fragile.

If we can’t necessarily change top-down, then we should look bottoms-up. The spooky implication from chaos theory is that the individual acting as a butterfly can influence the entire system. There’s a really quite strikingly beautiful union of business and spiritual thought that might give us some clues on how.

As we approach Halloween, I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. Author Jack Torrance responds to his writers’ block by endlessly typing the line “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” As he descends into insanity, his murderous rage is only thwarted by freezing to death in the Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze.

This is a grim metaphor for the dire consequences of getting stuck in infinite loops of rationality. A system that endlessly repeats the same behaviors enters the “frozen zone.” A business or individual that cannot innovate and play, becomes fragile, then dies. Torrance cannot find his own creativity, he can’t reconnect with the flow of life.

The thing that gets between you and seeing the world clearly is all your protections, traumas, and defenses. In a business context, this is “the way things have always been done.” This is something that can actually get worse with age; we get more attached to our professional identity, status, and material possessions. But if you can’t evolve as fast as our accelerating world, you risk being left behind. As management icon Peter Drucker put it: “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself but to act with yesterday’s logic.”

The absolutely critical, yet oft-neglected, implication is that your old model needs to be destroyed before it can be replaced. This is usually INCREDIBLY UNPLEASANT. Bridgewater is so fascinating, because it seems to have produced a corporate culture that optimizes for publicly destroying each other’s egos. Which leads to the utterly wonderful implication that a million people bought Ray Dalio’s operating system book Principles and virtually nobody seems willing to implement them in practice.

This is why it was incredibly exciting to learn about Lia DiBello’s concept of “strategic rehearsals,” introduced to me in this superb podcast with Cedric Chin. If repeated failure is the key to growth, DiBello has developed a business training system that optimizes for the experience of “visceral failure,” but within a safe context. As Chin writes:

“Cognitive Transformation Theory also helps us understand the reasoning behind DiBello’s training methods. It tells us that a training program to accelerate expertise should be optimised to break knowledge shields, and quickly. In other words, DiBello’s methods work because she lets teams fail in a very rapid, public manner, within a simulation that feels like the real company they work in. This visceral failure produces what she calls a ‘deconstruction’ phase, which then allows her team to step in and reorganise the company’s mental models.”

She produces constraints based on her own theory of business, then forces teams to work within those parameters to produce better working models. Thus employees don’t need to be fired or “upgraded” with MBAs, while the business can modernize rapidly and safely. What’s also incredibly interesting is she found it takes about 60 decision cycles to reprogram models in a bounded-domain. Thus she claims the 10,000 hours made famous by Anders Ericsson can be compressed into 6 hours. It’s the number of iterations, not the time, that’s important. [We’re hosting a live call with Lia on November 11th, invite coming next week.]

As you’ll know by now, when I find what looks like a universal principle, it has applications at different levels of reality. This concept of death and rebirth is a recurrent feature of myth and spirituality. You will also be entirely unsurprised that it’s also consistent with Iain McGilchrist’s majestic hemisphere theory. Essentially, we get stuck in a local optimum, “rationally” repeating the same ineffective behaviors. The left hemisphere cannot break out of its “hall of mirrors” to discover anything new. But the left doesn’t easily relinquish the steering wheel to the right, and it’s more holistic, revitalized worldview. Mary Louise von Franz describes it thus:

“Jung has said that to be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of the process of individuation. It is meant to be a situation without solution: the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that the man has to realize that whatever he does is wrong, whichever way he decides will be wrong. This is meant to knock out the superiority of the ego, which always acts from the illusion that it has the responsibility of decision.”

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but it is also its cause. This is the dark night of the soul. The old habits of the rational mind need to be exhausted in order that novel strategies can emerge. So that the environment can provide its own fresh cues to you. This is the principle behind the Zen koan. When we’re asked “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” the idea is to give our rational mind a question with no answer, to force it into submission. This opens us to the experience of a world beyond labels and frameworks, the world of the flow of reality and the right-hemisphere. Controversial guru Osho puts it well in his book Intuition:

“Yoga is an effort to reach the oneness of being through the left hemisphere, using logic, mathematics, science, and trying to go beyond. Zen is just the opposite: the aim is the same, but Zen uses the right hemisphere to go beyond. Both can be used, but to follow Yoga is a very, very long path; it is almost an unnecessary struggle because you are trying to reach from reason to superreason, which is more difficult. Zen is easier because it is an effort to reach the superreason from irreason. Irreason is almost like superreason — there are no barriers. Yoga is like penetrating a wall and Zen is like opening a door.”

We either fall into the valley to rise again, or leap to an adjacent peak. In business, “yoga” is the strategy of repeated iteration, of banging your head against the wall until you eventually surrender to a fresh approach. But what is business zen or “irreason?” Well, I think a clue comes via The KCP Group favorite Rory Sutherland. During our “Most Interesting People in the World” talk, he offered his delightful suggestion for when something isn’t working: “have you considered doing the opposite?” If something’s not selling, try raising the price. One example of this was KFC in South Africa. He argued that most people went to KFC for one of two reasons: for a bargain or for a treat. When the price was neither cheap nor luxury, it didn’t appeal to either of those mindsets. So, they successfully raised the price. Dyson has found fabulous success by turning the grudge purchase of a utilitarian vacuum cleaner into a sleek luxury. Sutherland’s mantra is “the opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea!” Rarely true in physics, often true in evolution. If rationality is failing you, do something totally irrational.

Seinfeld never really made it across the pond when I was growing up, but I am told there’s an entire episode where perpetual loser George Costanza does the opposite of everything he’d normally do and turns his entire life around. If pure rationality has taken you to a dead end or local optima, the only thing that’s left is irrationality. In nature and business alike, predictable things get killed. Yet you have the agency friction that proposing irrational strategies is often career suicide.

What’s staggeringly optimistic is that the global phase change we’re now accelerating towards seems to be unfolding in an emergent way: nobody is driving it. It might be an “irrational leap.” The explosion of creativity through NFTs, decentralization through blockchain, and a wider appreciation of externalities through ESG are just symptoms. The fact that they look flawed or irrational is a specific indication that they might be evolutionary. If they were obvious and linear, they wouldn’t be solutions to the problem of rationality. It also suggests that we can jump to the adjacent fitness peak through zen without the abyss of yoga.

This returns us to Squid Game. Last week, I met with dynamic geopolitical strategist Marko Papic. The idea of his that is most interesting is based on constraints, specifically the median voter. Politicians talk a lot, but actually move in the direction of their median voter. He believes developed world voter preferences are increasingly shifting from a laissez-faire, markets-driven framework to a much more interventionist period. Especially in the U.S., where polls indicate that the median voter no longer cares about “balancing the budget” or small government. It’s an emergent, bottoms-up shift in the morphic field that will drive a top-down response. This is totally consistent with the universal principle of slack that underlies both DiBello’s and Sutherland’s work. Strategic rehearsals work because you can fail repeatedly in a safe environment. You can only experiment with Sutherland’s “behavioral moonshots” within an organization that embraces sufficient creativity and flexibility. Voters are demanding more forgiving economic systems, with greater fiscal support. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Sutherland’s book is titled Alchemy; a process that describes the psychological union of opposites to produce gold, and sometimes preceded by a “nigredo,” a blackening period of despair and paralysis.

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”- Joseph Campbell



Related reading and listening.

  • Why Listen. Ferriss’ unexpected transition from productivity-obsessed life-hacking to compassionate spirituality has been one of the most moving things I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years. This both represents the global phase shift we’re experiencing and provides an example of the kind of people we should now follow: he straddles both worlds. The problem with a lot of spiritualty is that it’s either smug, superior or alienating. Like Ferriss, Shukman is unusually humble and approachable on a fascinating topic.
  • Read: The Importance of Cognitive Agility by Cedric Chin (39min read, paywalled).
  • Why read: A repost from last month, because this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on business, learning and personal evolution. It’s well paired with Cedric’s podcast above. It’s so useful because it’s focused on model destruction, not knowledge acquisition and new practices/advice. This is very unusual. And because Cedric is an absolute machine, he’s written a detailed rundown of 8 case studies of how strategic rehearsals have worked in practice. An invaluable resource for a business leader. The insights on the 60 decisions cycles were taken from another excellent podcast with the wonderful Sean Delaney on What Got You There. As I said above, we’re hosting Dr. DiBello for an expert call on November 11th.

Have a great weekend!

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