The Psychology of Your Future

The gist: We often underestimate how much our future selves will change. We tend to think that we’ve recently become the people that we were always meant to be and value “now” the most until it becomes the past.

Dan Gilbert talks about our misconception about the power of time. While the past has proven that we’ve all been constantly changing, we are still inclined to believe that future changes will slow down, if not stop completely. Dan calls this the “end of history” illusion.

While our favorite bands 10 years ago might not matter as much to us anymore, we believe that our dream vacation now will still be our top destination 10 years from now. But in reality, our values, preferences, and even personalities all change over time. It is true that the changes tend to slow down as you age, but we are never in a state as stable as we believe ourselves to be in.

“It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”

This quote really hits it home for me. Every few years I look back and marvel at how much I’ve changed. Yet I still find myself waiting to reach that point in life where I finally have it all figured out, all pieces of my personal history have come together, and I have become the person that I will be for the rest of my life. But experiences have taught me that it’s never the case.

Changes in the past don’t bother us; it’s the unknown in the future that we cannot, or refuse to, imagine. But they are inevitable. One of the most calming things one of my friends has said to me is, you may or may not be at the same spot a couple years down the road, but you are exactly where you are supposed to be now.


Your Body Language Shapes You

The gist: Not only does our body language influence other people’s judgment of us, it also shapes how we see ourselves. 

From the studies Amy Cuddy has conducted, people’s postures affect their hormone levels, thus influencing their decisions and performance. For example, power posing for 2 minutes before your job interview can make you feel confident thus more likeable. Basically, you can trick your brain into performing in your favor.

To be honest, I’ve had my doubts about these psychological “tricks.” Sure, telling myself I can do it definitely will make things magically easier. But for the past few months, I’ve been carrying this routine where I look into the mirror every morning and say to myself, “I’m happy; today will be an awesome day!” Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? But it starts off my day on a positive note and sends me off with a bright attitude. This is Amy’s point. It’s not about changing the situation you are in, but rather to change your perspective and attitude, which might then change the outcome.

“Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

In response to the popular saying “fake it till you make it,” Amy tells a poignant story about one of her students at Harvard to illustrate her point: you can’t stop when you “make it,” you have to keep “faking it” until one day you realize that you’ve actually become it and that you don’t feel like you are an impostor anymore. Even when you are scared to death, keep telling yourself that you are supposed to be here.

Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. Sit up straight, walk with your chin up, smile. Feel good about yourself so others can feel good about you. It’s science. Your body language affects your testosterone and cortisol. And many desired qualities–confidence, composure etc.– are controlled by exactly these hormones.

Use your body to make positive suggestions to your mind, configure your brain, and internalize it until you actually become it.

Our Buggy Moral Code

The gist: We have strong beliefs in our intuitions even when they are wrong. Our attitude towards cheating varies a lot as certain conditions change. We may not be as moral and rational as we think.

“We have very strong intuitions about all kinds of things –our own ability, how the economy works, how we should pay school teachers. But unless we start testing those intuitions, we’re not going to do better.”

Most of us would say that we are good people. But to what extent are we honest? Are we affected by outside factors? Dan Ariely talks about a series experiments that he conducted to explore people’s notion of morality. Here’s what he found:

  • Many people cheat, but by just a little bit. We choose to cheat at a low degree when we can benefit from it without changing our impressions of ourselves. Dan calls it our “personal fudge factor.”
  • People cheat less when reminded of their morality. This is why we sign honor codes before taking exams in college—it shrinks our fudge factor.
  • When distanced from the actual money, we cheat more. Most of us wouldn’t take even 10 cents from a petty cash box, but taking a pencil from office is suddenly okay because it’s not actual money.
  • When we see someone from our own group cheat, we cheat more. Humans tend to act as a group thus are highly influenced by the environment we are in. Sometimes it’s not even peer pressure; we just conform to a certain action without realizing.

So how does this all link to real life? Dan mentions the stock market: what happens when people call money “stock”? How do people react when they see other people’s behaviors around them? It’s all in our buggy moral code.

Are we in control of our own decisions?

The gist: We are not as ration or in control as we think we are with our decisions. We are constantly and unknowingly influenced by how the options are presented to us.

“…If we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.”

We tend to think that we are blessed with rationality thus must be able to make appropriate judgments based on our preferences. But that’s just not the case. Dan Ariely uses a series of cognitive illusions to show that half of the time, we really don’t know what we want!

One example he uses shows that people’s choices of agreeing to organ donation are largely dependent upon what the default option is. Some might say, we choose the default because we don’t care about this. But Dan says that it’s the opposite. It’s because this subject is so complex and difficult that we don’t know what to do. Under such circumstances, we just pick whatever was chosen for us. What an interesting point—how often are we guilty of this illusion? How often do we just go with the default because it’s easy?

The newspaper subscription experiment shows that we are especially susceptible to the way options are laid out when we are unsure about our preferences. In other words, unless you are absolutely sure that you only want option A and hate option B with passion, your final choice can be greatly influenced by the presentation.

Of course it’s not realistic to completely avoid cognitive illusions. After all, we are just humans. But like Dan said, being aware of our limitations is crucial to designing a better world.

What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?

The gist: We feel good about our work when we feel proud, recognized, and appreciated. The intrinsic motivation is much stronger than any extrinsic motivation.

“How do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace and for the employees, I think we could get people to both be more productive and happier.”

To feel good about our work, we need motivation. If money is the best incentive, then people with high-paying jobs should be the happiest. If internal joy is the best, then people should do whatever they like even if their efforts aren’t recognized. But neither appears to be the case. As it turns out, we want our efforts to be seen. We want to feel acknowledged and valued. If there were no end result, even a fun job we would otherwise enjoy would become futile and unattractive.

In the Lego experiment, the participants who had their Legos destroyed every time they finished were much less likely to continue building them. This result holds true even for people that love Legos. This shows that not having our work recognized kills the joy from it. In workplace, ignoring people’s efforts is as bad as destroying it in front of them. But as a caveat, ignoring effort seems incredibly easy, but recognizing it isn’t so difficult—don’t over do it!

The origami experiment shows that we naturally like our work better.  No wonder my IKEA swivel chair looks so great to me, maybe because I built it. It’s important to note the fact that we are biased towards our own accomplishments. It skews our judgments and inhibits us from taking criticism well.

Dan Ariely’s talks never disappoint me! He’s definitely one of my favorite TED talkers 🙂

The riddle of experience vs. memory

The gist: Our “experiencing selves” live the moment and our “remembering selves” savor on memories. The two selves perceive happiness differently.

“And even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories.”

I’ve read and written a post about Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In this talk, Daniel talks more in depth about one of my favorite topics in the book: our two selves.

Many people are unaware of the fact that our lives are handled by two parts of ourselves. As every second passes by and becomes a part of the memories, the experience self is constantly handing the moments to the remembering self. The biggest difference between the two selves is in the handling of time.

Our remembering selves are not sensitive to time. For example, a one-week vacation seems to be just as good as a two-week one at the same place when you look back at it. If time doesn’t change the story, the remembering self will ignore it! The remembering selves tend to follow this “peak-end rule.” We only remember the best and last part of an experience. Interestingly, a procedure would be remembered as less painful as long as the end wasn’t painful, even if the whole process was longer.

We often let our remembering selves dominate. We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories. We look at the future thinking how it will later be remembered by us. For example, not many people would go on a vacation if they were told that they wouldn’t remember anything afterwards. But what about all the fun your experiencing selves will have? Similarly, the dominance of our remembering selves sometimes causes us to choose experiences that our experiencing selves don’t really need.

In reality, it’s our experiencing selves that are living our lives. While memoires are nice, how often do you look back and think about every moment? Not that often. Yet we still put so much weight on the remembering selves when making decisions. Why do we do what we do? I like the title of the talk. It’s a riddle. 


The 3 A’s of Awesome


The gist: Follow the 3 A’s of awesome to live awesomely: Attitude, Awareness, and Authenticity.

“You will never be as young as you are right now. And that’s why I believe that if you live your life with a great attitude, choosing to move forward and move on whenever life deals you a blow, living with a sense of awareness of the world around you, embracing your inner three year-old and seeing the tiny joys that make life so sweet and being authentic to yourself, being you and being cool with that, letting your heart lead you and putting yourself in experiences that satisfy you, then I think you’ll live a life that is rich and is satisfying, and I think you’ll live a life that is truly awesome.”

Hands-down one of my favorite TED talks. Neil doesn’t use any flashy language or fancy set up, yet you’ll get the feeling you get from getting touched and inspired by a talk.

Attitude: We are not sure about anything in the future except that it’s unpredictable. But wouldn’t life be boring if it always went according to the plan? All we can change is ourselves. Remain level-headed in good times, and more importantly, remain hopeful when things aren’t so good. Take baby steps and believe that it’ll all get better.

Awareness: Embrace you inner three-year-old and see everything as if you are seeing it for the first time. There is so much simple beauty in life that we just don’t notice anymore. Have a sense of awareness, and really notice the wonderful things around you.

Authenticity: In short, be yourself and be cool with that. We hear this all the time but it’s easier said than done. Even a confident person has  insecurities of looking weird or not good enough just being himself. But what’s weird? There’s no baseline for being normal! Being your authentic self, there’s nothing cooler than that! When you are authentic, “you put yourself in places and situations and in conversations that you love and that you enjoy; you meet people that you like talking to; you go to places you’ve dreamed about; and you end up following your heart and feeling very fulfilled.” Life is so great because of all the sweet moments, but those moments are “always, always, always fleeting.” There’s no time to be someone you are not.

I would also add Appreciation to the 3 A’s. It’s so crucial. If you take nothing for granted, then you will see everything you have as an amazing gift.

I’m following Neil’s I myself have a habit of writing down 3 awesome things daily. It reminds me of the small pleasures in life and be grateful. Sometimes it’s hard to think of awesome things when I’ve had a really bad day. But I try hard to think of some. Then I realize that there are many bright sides of life.

Half a Million Secrets

The gist: Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret,com, shares some of the secrets that strangers around the world sent on postcards.

“Secrets can remind us of the countless human dramas, of frailty and heroism, playing out silently in the lives of people all around us even now.”

This is such a lovely and heartwarming talk. Frank didn’t think he would receive that many responses when he first started handing out postcards on street corners. But now he has a mountain (quite literally) of postcards with people’s secrets on them. I was amazed by the ones he presented in the talk. Some are silly, some are courageous, some are shocking, and some are simply hilarious.

When Frank posted a secret that about someone saving the voice mails from their loved ones in case they never hear their voices again, he received voice mails from around the world that people have saved. I love the last voicemail that a young girl ever heard from her grandmother. I started tearing up as she sang her happy birthday. I remembered my own grandmother who raised and loved me. She passed away when I was 14. I’ve started having trouble recalling her voice. How I wish I had a message from her that I can listen to!

I went on and read some posts. Somehow reading these secrets makes me feel more connected to…everybody. We all have secrets, don’t we? We don’t believe we are as much alike as we are. Like Frank said, the secrets remind us of the human dramas silently playing around us now. It’s a wonderful world 🙂

If I Should Have a Daughter

­­­The gist: Sarah Kay performs two spoken words poem and talks about her experience of connecting people and educating youth through Project V.O.I.C.E.

Spoken words, essentially reading a poem out loud,  are incredibly captivating and riveting when performed by talented artists.

Sarah Kay delivered an amazing performance. The recital of the poem was accompanied by gestures and emotions. It’s just the right amount of theatricality that she added in there. I couldn’t look away from the screen the moment she started speaking. I felt connected to her, and that she was speaking specifically to me.

Sarah’s poem itself, in my opinion, while beautifully written, conveys a rather common message—a mother encouraging her unborn daughter to be bold and hopeful. What I found more interesting is her experience with spoken words. She was only 14 when she discovered this art form. And she followed the path ever since. She listed the three steps to take when pursuing a passion:

Step 1: Saying “I can.” Believe in yourself

Step 2: Saying “I will.” Take actions to pursue what you are passionate about.

Step 3: Infuse the work you are doing with the specific things that make you you.

“When I meet you, in that moment, I’m no longer a part of your future. I start quickly becoming part of your past. But in the instant, I get to share your present. And you, you get to share mind. And that is the greatest present of all.”

My favorite quote from the performance is from the second poem, Hiroshima. It reminds me of a quote from Tennyson, “I am a part of all that I have met.” The moments we share with other people, let it be friends or strangers, are the building blocks of life. We take whatever gained from the interactions with people we encounter, and bring it with us on the journey. It’s pretty cool to think that there’s a little bit of us in each other. Continue reading

The Art of Misdirection


The gist: This entertaining demonstration shows that where we direct our attention has the ultimate impact on what the outcome is. Sometimes it’s the things that we look at everyday that we are blinded to.

 “Attention is a powerful thing…it shapes your reality.”

While long-term goals steer you in the general direction, you might close many doors on yourself by over-focusing on one path. This is especially true for people like me in our early twenties. I have a friend who wanted to get into banking all throughout college but couldn’t land a satisfactory position. In his last semester he realized that he didn’t even like banking that much. He was simply so focused on achieving his original goal that he never considered anything else. So he started looking into sales, and it turned out that he’s a great salesperson. And now that’s what he’s doing and he’s happier than ever.

Another friend who graduated 2 years before me once said to me that new college grads tend to think they’ve “figured out themselves” or know what they want, but they really have no idea. The journey of discovering what you want is just starting as you begin your life beyond textbooks. I found this idea super encouraging—it’s the unknowns and explorations that make the future exciting! Be aware of where you put your attention, and keep your options open.

On the other hand, we are often so obsessed with our daily life and never-ending errands that we forget to spare some attention for the small but awesome things around us.  Just a couple of thoughts, do you know the color of the flowers on the sidewalk of your way to work? Have you focused on taking the “perfect picture” at a scenic spot instead of enjoying the moment? I once read a piece of advice about watching fireworks: you should never take a video of fireworks because you will never re-watch it; might as well fully appreciate the moment.

It’s hilarious to see the way Apollo Robbins takes away the wallet, watch etc. from the audience member without him noticing at all. It’s a bit scary to realize that our attention can be easily manipulated. “If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?”