14 March, 2011

The usefulness of an action

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about classes of actions, and how we decide or define what we want or what we should do. A major part of human life consists of making decisions about how to spend a given time frame and then executing the relevant actions following the decisions or choices. But how do we actually make these choices? How do we actually decide what to do? There are several possible ways to classify actions and the decision criteria, but this time I’ll look into just one of them: usefulness. I think it’s a very commonly accepted proposition that one should focus on doing things that are useful.

What is usefulness, and when can something be called useful? Dictionary.com defines the word useful as
1.       being of use or service; serving some purpose; advantageous, helpful, or of good effect: a useful member of society.
2.       of practical use, as for doing work; producing material results; supplying common needs: the useful arts; useful work.
It is clear from the dictionary definition that a thing is useful when it promotes achieving a certain goal or result. The useful is a means to obtain something that we hold to be intrinsically valuable. To put it in different words: the useful action is the way towards the goal, whatever it is. The goal is of intrinsic value.
There are some variables to consider in deriving the usefulness of an action. These would include at least
  • magnitude of effects
  • mixture of effects
  • division of effects
  • effort expenditure
  • considered time frame
Magnitude of effects
This means that the larger the effect on promoting the reaching of my goal, the better an action is. Naturally, the ultimate best action would be one that instantly makes me reach my goal (unless the journey itself has intrinsic value, of course). The effect can be divided into several subcategories, as there are effects on personal, social and society level. Especially the two latter are often key to understanding the ethics of an action.
Another very important point in effects is that they are in no way limited to the normal business understanding of value creation. Unless one’s goal is strictly economic success, there are beneficial actions, which on the outer layer seem to be totally useless. In its extreme form, this would reduce friendship to networking and relaxing to recover strength for economic endeavours. But just a not: this is not the only way to think about it, and not the only possible goal. 

Mixture of effects
An action, which only has positive effects, is better than one with also negative ones. This is psychologically an interesting category, since we have a habit of deciding in favour of alternatives with no drawbacks, even though the end effects might be greater and the net result better with the “worse” option. This is even more so in the case of positive effects in the future, yet negative effects in the present.

Division of effects
An action which benefits several people is often more worth my time than an action benefiting solely myself. Negative effects are not so bad if they affect only me, as I know already how I feel about those. Bu negative effects on other people are unpredictable, since I will hardly ever know for sure how those people feel about something. So to impose negative effects on others is a risk.

Effort expenditure
Clearly, an action is more useful if it consumes fewer resources and leaves the possibility to do something else too. But it’s not so easy to know, what constitutes as a big effort. What’s the standard of comparison? A further complication is that not all resources are equal: time is not money, or at least not in a linearly translatable way. So a question of its own is to devise a scheme to be able to make decisions about different resources: what are the connections of time, money and mental health, for example? I’m sure everyone has their own answer to that.

Considered time frame
Last, but not least, one variable not to forget is the considered time frame. It is very different to analyze actions in the scope of a day than in the scope of several years. Going for a run makes me feel energetic in the short term, but in the long term it promotes health and lengthens my lifespan. Studying, for example, is a good example of something, where most of the important effects are considered to be long term. I’m not sure if I agree with that, but still, I agree there are actions with which most of the positive effects come only later, and the effort is still linear right from the start (or is it really?). 

Even after this framework, there are still many unresolved problems in deciding, whether a given action is useful and in what degree. Some of these problems go very deep into philosophy or psychology, and I am definitely not expecting to come up with a magic solution. Problems such as
  • How much do we give weight to others’ feelings?
  • What is my goal in the end?
  • What is the difference in wanting something in itself, or wanting something to prove a point in the social ranking, and how can I know which one applies to me wanting something?
  • When will I know an action is the best possibility? Could there have been better choices?
  • How much does it make sense to “sacrifice” for possible positive effects in the future?
The list is not in any way comprehensive, and I definitely don’t know the answer to any of those questions – if any of them. Nonetheless, I believe that a structured framework is always beneficial and at least it does help to try to formulate thoughts and decisions properly.

11 March, 2011

Finding the point in pointlessness

One of the reasons to go for an exchange exactly this year was to get a bit of breathing space. I have some formidable, even a bit scary, changes coming up in the next years. I’m thinking about my future studies, career and all that stuff and planning for some big things to happen. Thinking that through requires some effort. That’s why the idea was to escape my previous surroundings and get out of the oh let’s just go for a beer and stop worrying mentality. I’m not meaning this as any accusation towards any of my friends. It is a normal way of coping with the status quo of everyday life. For these questions, however, I felt I needed to be somewhat alone to be able to question my life properly. The distortion and noise from the normal life would just have been too big to really concentrate. Surprisingly I never expected was how hard it would be to try to do nothing.

Normally, I’m so used to running the gauntlet of everyday life that not having all those essays, exams, deadlines, meetings, projects and parties now seems somehow quite weird. Here, I have an enormous amount of free time and I deliberately try to avoid filling it with all the normal stuff. I’ve tried to be, abnormally for an exchange student, very picky about my time to savour those free time moments. I made a decision early on in here, which was that if I plan to have time to think, I can’t spend every night hanging around in clubs until 5am. Well, I couldn’t take the smoke here anyway. Goddamn Austrian smoking laws! But I digress.

I’ve got to admit I’m still not very good at this emptiness. Quite often it leads to hours spent watching TV or listening to the same old music I always listen to. So I’m blocking my train of thought with all that stuff that hardly can be called important. And that makes me feel like I’m letting myself down: instead of thinking or educating myself, I’m watching some neverheard dude do some I-don’t-even-care stuff on screen. Time well spent. This heavily Lutheran influenced work ethic of a previous competitive sportsman is a problem in its own right, but I’ll get back to it some later time. So far I’ve mainly ben bypassing dealing with that and tried to develop myself (whatever that means) a lot.  I’ve tried increased my book intake: I now spend around 10% of my time reading. All fine and well, except force-feeding somebody else’s thoughts doesn’t help much if I’m supposed to be thinking my own stuff. I find most books very fascinating, but only a minority of them will help me with the issue What is it that I want to do? Especially as I’m not even deliberately seeking books related to that issue, I’m just reading stuff that I find generally intriguing.
Thinking about life, the universe and everything is a very subconscious process and probably that’s why I’m having some trouble with it. It’s not something that can just be decided to be solved in an evening. I can’t just sit down and force myself to think about it. The process just needs to drag along, run its own course and then, sooner or later, I’ll feel like I’m done with it. There will never be very concrete results. All the ambiguity about future career prospects, where I’ll live or how many kids I’ll have or when will surely be there. The future will never look like a single determined pathway. But that is exactly the point: the ambiguity of I have no idea what to do with my life should be replaced by the I know what I’ll do and stuff will happen kind of uncertainty. It’ll still be uncertain and that is to be embraced as a part of life – not regarded as something negative.

06 March, 2011

Language experiences in Austria

For me, like for so many other exchange students, language was one of the main reasons to select my location. Therefore, it is obvious my development in acquiring the skills needed to comprehend this Austrian dialect of German is critical to my happiness level. If I'd fail at improving my German (or Austrian) during these 10 months, I would feel very disappointed. Every time I talk to somebody auf Deutsch I have an internal radar on, analyzing my performance. As with any learning, the success has been mixed.

I fondly remember one encounter from my first week here. I went to open a bank account and Henry decided to tag along. He went in first, and the very nice bank clerk seemed to know English well enough to manage the opening of the account in short order. I was next in line, and told up front that I'd prefer to speak German, if she only would speak a bit slower than normally. I can still recall the look of relief on her face. If I wouldn't have known the context, I'd thought he was praising some higher power for uplifting her from hell. She did tell me that her English wasn't that good and that she was already really tired - it was late afternoon - and was happy to speak German again. That really got me into a good mood about my German and I approached every situation thereafter with even more confidence. Successes make learning a new language that much more pleasant.

As for the not-so-successful stories, I have a hard time choosing. Possibly the low point was on a train ride from Vienna to Graz. I'd just returned from a weekend in Hannover, and was pleasantly surprised of the ease I could communicate with the locals over there. You see, they speak the most perfect Hochdeutsch one can find. In here, well not so. In the trains you're normally only asked once for your ticket, and I had already presented mine. For some reason this time there had been a change in the train guard personnel, and a woman was going through the train and checking tickets again. I, however, didn't know what she wanted and thought that it can't be the ticket, as it had already been checked. So, I asked her to repeat the question, but really could not make out any discernible words. After the third time, she just retorted: "You don't speak very much German, do you?", which earned my not-so-grateful response "Sure I do, but not your damn dialect!". I wasn't feeling too good about myself after that...

Oh, and yesterday in a bar, I was trying to order a drink, and the waitress kept continuously addressing me in English. I found that really offensive, as I don't think my German is that bad! (Even though I've once been asked by an Austrian if I'm Swiss...) Anyway, the situation resolved itself, and I found out that the waitress couldn't speak German - she was Swedish! So, for the rest of the orders it was time to practice my Swedish skills, which undoubtedly have seen better days.

The whole thing about languages is very central to the general feeling I have around here. All in all, I'll admit that I could've improved more, but I'm still fairly satisfied about how it's gone. And, thanks to Henry, my English is actually in the best shape it's been for a while!

04 March, 2011

Making personal changes work

Change, one of my favourite words. Change stands for a challenge, a chance to turn something into a better version. A chance to make the transition to 2.0. Of course, change is also something that disturbs the pattern. So it's okay to be a bit nervous about it. After a change, you can't keep doing things the same way - that's the definition of change. On the other hand, changes make life more interesting and in that way contribute to our happiness.

The opportunities for changes in life are relatively easy to detect, and not only because the multitude of flaws in personal action patterns. With an honest outlook on one's behavior, it shouldn't be too hard. Personally I rather often feel a twinge about something that I do, and I know that it could be much better. I can do it. Yes I can. I just need to make a bit of effort.

Well, often that's exactly how far I get, and no further.

Too often, the actual change never happens, despite my strong disposition that it has to change. Thoughts never transfer into actions. Frankly, that bugs me a lot. It seems like a pretty stupid thing to do: deciding that you want to change and then not making it happen. Why is that? More importantly, how to make it work? How to change the changing?

I used to be very confident about my strength of willpower. I used to think that I just need to decide for a change and it'll happen. True enough, sometimes it does, but mostly not. Mostly, I get stuck between the action and decision phase, not because the change is so complex, so difficult or so frightening, but because I just don't make it happen. It's like there would be something wrong between the neurons transferring the information from the decision-making centre to the "let's do this" branch of my brain. What's even more stupid: I know the change is supposed to be happening, but it's not. And I know it's my fault - who else could I blame for failing to change? So, in the end I feel sad for disregarding my own instructions and not changing, making the situation worse, not better! Not very smart.

Fortunately, I've discovered a way to reroute this blockade in my mind. One trick I've learned over time is to not try abstract leaps.The change needs to be tied to something concrete. The change needs to happen with some concrete thing. Sometimes I've focused my idea of the change and focused it on an object, so that whenever I see that object I immediately think of the change I want to achieve. Quite naturally, this works best with an object you perceive positively and somehow associate with the change. For example, as I was trying to increase my levels of writing and reading, I focused it on my coffee mug. Now whenever I see the coffee mug, I go "well, I should probably read or write something now". And lo and behold, during the last months I've been reading and writing more than ever - and my instant coffee jar has emptied, twice!

Another trick is to change in parts. If the upcoming change looms too large, divide it to subprojects. This is a piece of advice told to me several times at organizational development lectures, but only now have I learned to apply it to myself. As an example I can tell about a research project that I'm doing. The goal is to a) get to know the business ethics field, b) see if there's a connection between the position in organizational hierarchy and ethical decision making. This project will last for a good 6 months, so I divided it into subprojects. So far, I'm mostly in schedule, meaning about halfway through. Will sure be interesting how the end part goes.

An exchange year has been a good way to make changes and take chances, exactly as I had hoped. I'd recommend it as a way to escape the current environment if big changes are what you want. Go abroad and discover yourself in a new way. Discover yourself in a new way - that could be a motto for most personal changes. Or at least it should be.