How we can thrive in a world of Chaos



Late last year I gave a TEDx talk about "thriving in a world of chaos", looking at how we can deal with a level of unpredictability and a speed of change we were not genetically designed for and searching for some answers to the question of balance, performance and happiness in the face of uncertainty.

The talk was part of TEDxBeaconStreet, itself an incredible feat of ingenuity pulled of by John Werner who you will find these days roaming the halls of the MIT Medialab.  Enjoy and let me know what you think.

The Age of Markets, of Chaos 

Over the past 15 years we've lived through an incredible amount of change which has left may people reeling.  It's particularly true in the US where there is, for many, a loss of the sense of security (terrorist attacks), of financial stability (banking crisis), of employment certainty (again, financial crisis), of prominence (the rise of China) and even possibly of our own long-term survival (climate change).

At the same time we've witnessed a dramatic acceleration in the rate of (technology-induced) change.  Google's IPO was only 10 years ago.  YouTube, the largest media site on the planet, Facebook or Twitter are not even 10 years old.

The company best symbolizing this new era, the Age of Markets (post), is the totemic company of the age, Amazon and its cloud services.  To cite my friend Sean Park:

  • The technology of the digital age is driving an unprecedented explosion in the ability to create markets in anything. Trade anything. Not just physical goods. Not just financial instruments. But ideas. Events. Outcomes.
  • The emergence of these kinds of markets will -over time – impact how we view and interact with the world in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. They will fundamentally alter the current world economic and social paradigm.

The net result is a dramatic acceleration in the rate of change.  I use the word Chaos with intent.  As I wrote in a Wired article, outcomes can best be seen as fractal and we need to embrace that unpredictability as a fact of life and learn how to harness it, thrive with it.

We strive for comfort and security yet we live in an unpredictable world.

Allostatic Load

Humans were designed to deal with fight or flight situations, situations of extreme danger where the body would generate immediate and dramatic peak responses to enable us to survive.  Humans, however, were not designed to deal with a chronic, sustained exposure to stressors -- this is slowly killing us.  From Wikipedia

  • Adaptation in the face of stressful situations and stimuli involves activation of neural, neuroendocrine and neuroendocrine-immune mechanisms. This adaptation has been called "allostasis" or "maintaining stability through change", which is an essential component of maintaining homeostasis. The main hormonal mediators of the stress response, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), have both protective and damaging effects on the body.
  • In the short run, they are essential for adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival “allostasis”. Yet, over longer time intervals, when called upon frequently, the resulting “allostatic load” exacts a cost that can accelerate disease processes. Allostatic load can be measured in physiological systems as chemical imbalances in autonomic nervous system, central nervous system, neuroendocrine, and immune system activity as well as perturbations in the diurnal rhythms, and, in some cases, plasticity changes to brain structures.

Allostatic load, a notion that tries to capture the long-term impact of stress on the body, is what is killing us.  What are we to do ?  The answer is : reprogram what we perceive as stressors.

Seizing luck

In the face of highly uncertain outcomes, people will tend to default back to luck to explain success.   As eloquently expressed in this incredible post by David McRaney: 

  • Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle.

Richard Wiseman did not take this at face value: he studied luck.  He found that unlucky people were narrowly focused on outcomes and the specific tasks rules required to achieve these outcomes.  Lucky people had no pre-conceptions of when luck might strike; they had no pre-conceptions of what success might look like, they were more available and displayed no fixed routines.  The takeaway of this is that we should all stop trying to predict the future bur rather let ourselves be malleable and open to whatever may happen.  Per Wiseman via Mcraney:

  • Luck is a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people

Designing Your Work Life around Chaos

Assuming you have accepted Chaos as your friend and your guide, the next step is to understand how to organize a work life that is conducive to both performance and happiness.  

In this realm I turn in my talk to well-know and exposed researchers.

Csíkszentmihályi & Flow
Csíkszentmihályi gave us the notion of Flow.  Flow is "completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand."

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the conditions under which Flow can be achieved are:

  1. Clear, ambitious but attainable goals
  2. Sense of Personal Control
  3. Direct and immediate feedback
  4. An activity inherently rewarding
  5. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

Pink and Reward at Work

We think status and money are indicators of success and implicitely correlated to happiness, but Dan Pink has popularized compelling research demonstrating the opposite is true for knowledge workers

  • Autonomy 
  • Mastery 
  • Sense of Purpose

Maslow and Self

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.  I won't rehash Maslow here but fundamentally it's all about under the Why / Higher Meaning of what you do things.  

A sense of purpose is in my mind the most important element in thriving in a world of chaos.  We need to let Chaos wash over us, embrace it to achieve performance and happiness.

If you look at the above list, you will understand why I spend my life funding entrepreneurs and convincing people to go work at startups.  They are the perfect vehicle of the age.

Parenting in Chaos

Since TEDxBeaconStreet was held at the Lincoln School in Brookline, I wanted to finish with a note on parenting.  I think we're not just trying to teach skills at this stage and put people on rails for success, we're trying to bring up little individuals who know how to thrive in chaos.  We need grit, character, the ability to fail and to get back on their feet.   We also need to give them the ability to determine what they will be great at.  I believe anyone can be exceptional at something, and being in touch with your true self and having a strong sense of purpose is how kids will achieve greatness and happiness.  It is unfortunate that we live in a world where we try to constantly shield them from risk, responsibility and failure.  By trying to protect what is dearest to us, we're keeping them from learning much of what they need to thrive.

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  • Koen Lenssen

    Thanks for posting Fred! Very insightful.

  • Jos Burger

    Excellent Fred!

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  • Sebastien Latapie

    Great talk, very well done.

  • http://workhacks.com/ Julia Roy

    Do you know, or have you been connected with Steven Kotler? Steven introduced me to the science behind flow. He has written books about it but I am really excited about his Flow Genome Project http://www.flowgenomeproject.co/

    • http://www.freddestin.com Fred Destin

      Did not know it but have more checked it out and loving it – thanks !!