#20: How to Make Wise Decisions in Times of Uncertainty
with Gregory Engel
March 23, 2023 | 61 Minutes
On "Inside-Out Career Design" this week, hosts Nicola Vetter & Peter Axtell speak with Gregory Engel
We live in chaotic times, a more uncertain and unpredictable life than ever. Making decisions big and small is more complicated than ever. There is so much noise, it’s hard to gain perspective. Where can we turn to for help?
Gregory Engel shows us how lessons from history can help us see patterns we’ve seen before and realize a lot of this chaos we’ve seen before. He teaches us how to gain a more solid foundation economically, emotionally, and spiritually. From this place, we can calm down, breathe, and care for our personal lives and those around us.
In our conversation, we talk about…
- how an early encounter with the lessons of Stoicism was a turning point in his life,
- how Stoic lessons are as relevant today as they were 1800 years ago,
- why in an age of a firehose of information, slowing down and taking in one insight at a time is so helpful and that physical books and audio books or whatever technology you use for insights can help you slow down,
- how history leads us to a lot of places that can expand our understanding of other areas,
- why Morning Pages are useful for insights and decision making,
- why starting a blog or newsletter is helpful to get feedback and not work in isolation,
- and why the idea of enough can be so freeing.
About Gregory Engel
Gregory has worked in software development since before there was a World Wide Web and has been coaching globally distributed technical teams in Agile principles and practices for over 15 years. Since the pandemic, Gregory has focused on helping executive management develop the system thinking skills they need to effectively lead their organization in the post-pandemic business environment. He is a Certified SAFe 5 Program Consultant and writes regularly on all things Agile for his newsletter, "The Stoic Agilist."
Connect with WhatsNext.com
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- Podcast: Inside-Out Career Design
- LinkedIn Career Group: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/2080874
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/whatsnext-com/
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- Twitter: https://twitter.com/WhatsNextMedia
Books, resources, and people mentioned in this episode
- Movie: Ben-Hur
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca
- The Buddha
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
- Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile – Things That Gain from Disorder
- Matthew B. Crawford: The World Beyond Your Head – On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
- Carol S. Dweck: Mindset – New Psychology of Success
- William B. Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
- Medium - https://medium.com/
- Obsidian - https://obsidian.md/
- Substack - https://substack.com/
About the Inside-Out Career Design Podcast
This podcast is obsessed with answering a single question: Is it possible to create an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life you love while building a successful and rewarding career?
Join Nicola Vetter and Peter Axtell, co-founders of the WhatsNext.com Career Insights platform and creators of the groundbreaking MotivationFinder assessment, as they follow their obsession with answering this question by sharing their insights, discoveries, and life lessons and talking with career experts, leaders, spiritual guides, psychologists, data scientists, coaches -- anyone and everyone who might hold a strategy or answer to the age-old questions of “what’s next for me?” and “what should I do with my life?”
They seek to transform suffering into joy for millions of people stuck and confused in their lives and careers.
Get ready to be inspired, motivated, and above all, to connect deeply with who you are and what you are meant to do with the time you’ve been given.
Gregory Engel 00:00
As long as you have that understanding of what's in your control and what's out of your control, life becomes so much easier. It's actually a huge relief.
Peter Axtell 00:08
Welcome to Inside-Out Career Design. In this show, we're obsessed with answering a single question. Is it possible to create an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life you love while building a successful and rewarding career? My name is Peter Axtell, and I'm here with Nicola Vetter. We're co-founders of the WhatsNext.com CareerInsights platform, and creators of the groundbreaking MotivationFinder assessment. Join us as we seek to transform suffering into joy for millions of people stuck and confused in their lives and careers. We'll share our insights, discoveries, and life lessons and talk with career experts, leaders, spiritual guides, psychologists, data scientists, coaches, anyone who might hold a strategy or answer to the age-old questions of: "What's next for me?" and "What should I do with my life?" Get ready to be inspired, motivated, and above all, to connect deeply with who you are, and what you're meant to do with the time you've been given.
Peter Axtell 01:12
Are you trying to figure out what to do with your life, to figure out what to do with the precious time you've been given on this earth? Or to figure out what only you as a remarkable and unique individual can bring into this world? If you are, please join us for one of our live and completely free online workshops, where we cover different topics to help you figure out what to do with your life and career without wasting precious time, taking wild guesses, or risking it all. To save your spot in our next live and free workshop go to WhatsNext.com/workshops. We can't wait to see you there. Again, that's WhatsNext.com/workshops.
Nicola Vetter 02:05
Our guest today is Gregory Engel. Gregory is the stoic agilist, how he calls himself and his newsletter. He has been writing software since high school and has a unique ability to create and respond to change in uncertain and turbulent environments. Using the ancient teachings of stoicism to help companies improve with Agile is his compassionate approach and secret to leadership.
Peter Axtell 02:39
Gregory knew that reading books, and studying the lessons of history was a way to expand his world beyond the small town he came from, especially the book meditations by Marcus Aurelius made a significant impact in his life early on, when he was only 16 years old. This for him was the beginning of going back in history and translating the principles he learned from ancient thinkers into today's landscape.
Nicola Vetter 03:09
That's why we were so excited to talk with Gregory to learn more about stoicism, and how it can help someone who is looking for what's next. In our conversation, we also talk about how an early encounter with the lessons of stoicism was a turning point in his life. How stoic lessons are as relevant today as they were 1800 years ago. Why in an age of a firehose of information, slowing down, and taking in one insight at a time is so helpful and that physical books and audio books or whatever technology you use for insights can help you slow down. How history leads us to a lot of places that can expand our understanding of other areas. Why morning pages are useful for insights and decision making. Why starting a blog or newsletter is helpful to get feedback and not work in isolation. And why the idea of enough can be so freeing. And now it's time to listen and learn from Gregory. Welcome, Gregory. We've had a wonderful conversation some weeks ago, and I have read a lot about your thoughts that I believe can offer a different perspective to our audience of people asking, what's next for my life, for my career, or even the bigger question, what should I do with my life? But let's start with your own story. We want to hear about your insights, challenges, discoveries, life lessons, and especially those what's next moments in your life, those crossroads, how you approached them, what they taught you, and how you moved past them, how you navigated the challenges of work and life. So please share what brought you to where you are today.
Gregory Engel 05:33
That is a very deep and interesting question. And first, let me say thank you for having me on the podcast, I appreciate having this opportunity. When I reflect back on 60 plus years now of having been mostly successful with living on this planet, I can post that out into big moments of what's next, into smaller moments of what's next, and of course, a lot of little daily moments of what's next. And I think that really what it comes down to is life can often be an iterative process if we're going to succeed at what we're doing and pay attention to what we need to respond to. So my story, if I think back on what are some of the first biggest, next step moments, those would be points in my life where it was very clear, I had a choice and directions on where to go. Some of these are obvious, like, what career do I have in mind? What school am I gonna attend? Who am I going to marry? Where am I going to live? Those certainly stand out. And then a lot of smaller decision points that went into that, that whole process. So I'm not sure how much you want me to go into detail as far as specifics or?
Peter Axtell 07:04
Well, I'd be curious as to a couple of major turning points when you really had to make a significant decision. And what was your thought process? Did you make it all by yourself? Did you have help from someone else, a mentor, what was going on inside you when you had to make those major life decisions?
Gregory Engel 07:23
I think the first biggest change for me was probably in my mid teens. Like a lot of people I grew up in a family that was probably pretty average. So there were certainly struggles with that. I had a father that was in a wheelchair from polio in the 1940s. So I've only ever known him in a wheelchair. So in that timeframe around 15 or 16 I think the movie Ben Hur had made a splash on the screens. And I was very interested in history, in general, particularly Roman history. And I came across this character named Marcus Aurelius and liked some of what I heard about him. I knew he was an emperor in Rome, and that he had a book, I thought was pretty amazing. Because back when I was 15, the idea of someone living 2000 years ago might have been somebody living in the Jurassic era. It was just beyond my comprehension, so that someone wrote a book that was that old. So I read it. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and it had a very significant impact on me. And of course, I was introduced at that point to the stoics. So I read more about Epictetus and Seneca were two of my other favorites. And the takeaway from there, that really was the pivotal point for that point in my life, being 15 or 16 years old, was this notion that I have what's inside of me and I can control that. These would be my values, or my beliefs, my emotions even and everything else was outside of my control. It was going to be the fates, as the Romans might call it, would determine what was going to happen outside of my capabilities to control. All I had was, Stoics call it, my reason choice. I could choose where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to respond, more importantly, to outside events. So all the things that were happening around me that were unpleasant, I was choosing to respond to them differently as learning experiences, even to the point of some of them I put into the future. I'm not going to do that when I'm an adult, I'm not going to go in that direction, or make those choices when I have an income that allows me to make them and it served me very well. And it never stops. As long as you have that understanding of what's in your control and what's out of your control life becomes so much easier. It's actually a huge relief. And it plays out even today if someone cuts me off in traffic, that happens to everybody, and it's a common example, I'm very quick to recognize that that's somebody who has a story of their own. They're rushing to get home to a sick child, or they've had a bad day at work. It is not about me. Or they simply didn't see me in the rearview mirror. There could be many reasons, big or small. And it's easy to not even grab on to that. So I don't even have to let go of it. And as we go through life, we have more and more decisions that are more and more difficult, it seems, and it has served me well, ever since that time. So it'd be the first big turning point, I think. When you had the inevitable struggles that we all have, that was your source of wisdom, when you had to make decisions and you hit obstacles, it was the stoics that you went to. It wasn't your teachers, your parents, it was actually the stoics? To start with, as I got older and started to have better teachers in school, and I did have leaders there that helped me in other ways, in helping me make decisions, but they were mostly, frankly, academic, professional direction I might take, which was still very important. But as far as my own sense of self, or being, or who I am, it really did come from books. I didn't have access to given where we lived, there weren't that many people around us. So I didn't have any physical mentors. And we just didn't cross paths that much until later when I could get out on my own. And I could go seek them out. And I'd read about people, and I could go find them and study with them. And then that just accelerated the process. Yeah, it was really that simple, extract a lot from books, maybe people in our generation did that more than they do now.
Peter Axtell 11:55
I think you bring up a great point. For somebody who is trying to figure out what's next to do with my life and my career, the wealth of wisdom that is in books, despite the fact that the numbers of people who are actually reading books, I really feel that people are missing out. Because you're a perfect example of going to books to get wisdom. Perfect example of that. I think that's a great lesson for anybody listen to this, to reading the biographies or whatever. What kind of other books do you read to help expand your horizons?
Gregory Engel 12:38
Well, history leads you to a lot of places. So I got to know about Buddha, and Krishna, a lot more about Jesus from the religious perspective. And then as I came up through public education and studied deeper philosophy, more current Western philosophies such as Nietzsche there's an endless list, it seems like. I could expand my understanding into other areas of what was available. You touched on something too that I think maybe once the half step back is that I think is important. Because I think it's true today, even though it was probably what helped me accelerate my understanding 34 years ago, is back then with a book, it took time, you would have to read it, you would have to go to the library and get it, you'd have to buy it and might come four weeks later. So you would read it and it would have time to soak in to my understanding, and I could correlate it with other ideas. Today it's such a fire hose or multiple fire hoses, that a person deliberately has to slow down and take some time when they're reading something like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus and think about it. Epictetus, for example, will have maybe one sentence or two sentences in a piece of any one of his books. And I almost always start my day reading one of those little snippets and let that percolate throughout the day. And even though I've read some of them many times, there's always a deeper, deeper understanding to some of these. So the things somebody can do today is deliberately slow down, doesn't matter that it's a book, it can be a web page, it can be a tweet, some little thing that catches your mind is to that's important, or that's funny, or that's encouraging. Anything that makes you slow down and stop. Give it a moment to sink in, and that moment could be maybe the rest of the day. But it's a skill. It's something I think we actually have to work harder at to learn how to do today. And in education parlance, that might be called the transference of learning. What is it that I read on this tweet that I want to know? Transport it to my understanding of how I'm going to treat my kids, or raise my pets, or move to a new city.
Peter Axtell 15:09
I'm very interested in this as well on how to extract stuff out of books rather than just reading and then you just forget everything. What actual tips would you give to somebody listening to this? The one was to slow down and then how would they actually take in what they read better.
Gregory Engel 15:27
That's a challenging question because it depends, I think, on a number of factors. Your experience with the material, of course, is important. I think Marcus Aurelius is very accessible. He writes in sort of the common language of the time, which anyone can understand. If you're wanting to understand someone like Nietzsche, that's probably more like opening up a biochemistry book and wanting to understand what's going on there. It's possible, but it would take more time. So the familiarity with the information and the topic can make that a little easier. So allowing some time for that. I think other factors that would make a difference in being able to absorb what you read would be the environment. If you can read away from noise, as disruptive noise, like traffic or jackhammer is obvious examples. Things like coffee shops are great places to read, because you've got the background noise that allows you that immersive experience to read a paragraph or a page or a chapter and your brain is better adept at soaking that in than if you're in a noisy workplace environment or someplace where you're going to get interrupted a lot. So minimize interruptions, minimize the distractions and the noise will help you learn better to absorb whatever that information is. There's a number of factors that can go into that is, there could be some other cognitive issues in play. People who struggle with dyslexia, this one I know too well, can make it a challenge to read. So finding in this case, technology that actually helps you out can be a big boon experiment around with how technology can help you out with that. Maybe listening to books is a better way to get the information rather than reading them, watching a video along with the book, if that's possible, you know, movies, for example, is a good way to absorb that information. So pay attention to cognitively how well you take in information, what's your preferred channels are and adapt your material to that.
Nicola Vetter 17:45
Now, you have not only read a whole bunch, but you've also been writing a lot about not only stoicism also about agile, which we'll touch on later. How did your writing journey start? And how has it helped you in your life and career?
Gregory Engel 18:06
Also very early, probably even earlier, no definitely even earlier than stoicism. My mother saved the book that I wrote when I was five, about a mouse living under a garbage can in a picnic area. You can hear the illustrations. So writing has always been a way for me to express myself. I mentioned dyslexia earlier, it's been difficult for me to read, I had a stutter as a kid, I had to overcome that. But I could always write fluently, once I knew how to write. It's the beauty of the written word, you can present yourself as you wish. And I encourage people to get better at their writing because it is a reflection on who you are. So writing from an early age, writing to express myself. And as I grew older, it became a way to clarify my thinking. And that's true today. I write articles and put them out on the internet and publish them so that I'll get feedback. Occasionally, it's very critical. Somebody will see something in what I'm thinking that is key for me to revise how I'm approaching the world or how I think about something. So that's how I clarify my thinking. And as a consequence, I think it clarifies at least hopefully a little bit how I speak and how I communicate my thoughts through the spoken word. And that's also never ending. I write every day for at least probably at least an hour depending. I just cannot not write. It's that important.
Peter Axtell 19:59
That's inspiring. Do you do morning pages?
Gregory Engel 20:03
I do. I was an early adopter of Julia Cameron's work when she wrote The Artist's Way. Read the hard copy on a beach in Hawaii and started right away. Again, no internet, it was all pen and paper. And it was that way for us. That book came out in early 90s was my pages were hard pages for hard written pages for at least 12 years, 12 or 13 years. Now I do it on a keyboard, I think I've got the practice of the principle behind it. Such that it works well for keyboards. So anyone thinking of starting something like that, I highly encourage Julia Cameron's book, and to write it out by hand, get it out of your head, and get it on to something that you can set aside and come back and read later.
Peter Axtell 20:49
When you say writing by hand. I hear all kinds of theories about it. She's a big believer in writing, literally pen to paper.
Gregory Engel 20:58
Peter Axtell 20:58
And then other people do it by keyboard. Do you have an opinion about that whether a keyboard or writing by hand makes a huge difference?
Gregory Engel 21:05
Definitely suggest starting by hand, pen and paper. There's magic that happens there. I think Matthew Crawford also has a number of books about creativity and getting our thoughts outside of our head with our hands. In his case, he's talking about building things, that there's something fundamental about that something neurologically important about doing that. That's how we as humans changed the world. It is big brains. But if they're locked inside our head, and we don't do anything, nothing happens. It's you know, these hands that we have that actually end up making the things that change the world. And so by putting pen to paper, and getting our thoughts out on paper, it's a very important transformative experience over time, particularly to do that. And once you understand that, or have a good feel for that, then certainly go to something electronic, it's a lot more convenient, I think, to be able to write the pages, anywhere I'm at if I've got some kind of device around me.
Peter Axtell 22:11
So you can transition from writing on paper to doing it electronically, and that works as well?
Gregory Engel 22:16
It does. And there's some benefits to that too. I use a tool called obsidian, to organize all my writing, I've got 1000s and 1000s of snippets in there. So I do my pages in there, and I add tags to it. So if I happen to be writing along, and I key into something having to do with how I'm going to market my practice, or my consulting. When I'm done with the pages usually takes about 20 minutes 500 words is what I shoot for, I'll add a couple of quick tags on some things that might be in that particular day's pages, hashtag marketing, hashtag software, whatever it is that happens to come up during my pages. Then I can cross reference it and get back to it.
Peter Axtell 23:03
Oh, let's drill down on this a little bit. Because I'm imagining that our audience, people who are choosing, changing, or advancing their career. And I think you've touched on a valuable tool to get this out of your head that you're imagining this and that, that you're writing it. How would you envision somebody who's trying to find their way, maybe they want to change their career, maybe they've just gotten laid off by Microsoft, how would you use this idea, to journal, to write morning pages to help them, to guide them to take that next step?
Gregory Engel 23:41
So often what comes up for me while I'm doing the daily pages, and I'd make a distinction between my daily pages and journaling. Journaling has a deep tradition in psychotherapeutic interventions, and I think a model in favor of some powerful things can happen there. My understanding of the distinction is that journaling would be for more therapeutic outcomes that are of a deeper nature whereas Julia Cameron's pages are a free form exercise in what's in my mind for about 20 minutes first thing in the morning to get the practice of my fingers on the keyboard or the pen on paper of transferring whatever's in my head onto a paper. I make that distinction. So the way I think pages are helpful for anyone considering where to next is that since it is a free form flow of ideas, that if what's on their mind happens to be a career change, or maybe they're being asked to relocate to a city. Their emotions, their feelings about that will come up and it's good to write them out. Then there's the option to go back and read the last couple of days or last couple of weeks worth of notes and they're there so that you'll recall what it is you might have been thinking and start to put some of the dots together, the connections together. I'll make up an example, if I had been doing the pages about a career change, or a job change, specific to a job over the last two, maybe three weeks, and I go back, and I look at those notes, and I see, you know, I really have a lot of negative things to say about this job. And they all seem to be around not being appreciated, or not having the opportunity to advance. And it may not seem while I was writing each one of those notes that it was a big deal. But the idea of putting something on a page, and then walking away from it, and then coming back to it later, is that that gets revealed, you start to see the patterns on what's important to you. And that, in itself can suggest some pretty powerful decisions or directions you may want to take and help with decisions.
Peter Axtell 26:04
That's a great idea to see the patterns of your thoughts about the pros and cons. Yeah, you're gonna say…
Nicola Vetter 26:10
Now people can see what you have written online on your website. And I am wondering what you think about people that are looking for this next chapter. Whether it might be helpful for them to become visible in a way like you are visible to the world, because you've put something out there. But it would be different than just putting something out there on LinkedIn or Medium. So do you think that might be helpful as well?
Gregory Engel 26:49
I do believe it's important to get feedback about what you're thinking about doing in the world. Writing is certainly one way to do that. YouTube videos, attending meetups, there's a lot of ways to participate in the world around you and hear from others, what they think of your ideas. It's better to have more input into decisions you're pondering than less. If you only get one or two people telling you Oh, yeah, you need to change jobs, then you might not be making the best decision. But if you have had a chance to expose your ideas to say 20 or 30 people over the course of whatever time, you might hear a different perspective that know where you're working is a really great company, you're just in a bad place, you need to try and see if you can move somewhere else. Or yes, it's a good idea to change. But here's a better company that will allow you to just almost transfer all your expertise, you'll get higher orders of feedback and more valuable feedback if you put yourself out in the world. And there are people that start blogs, and newsletters expressly for the purpose of journaling that whatever journey they happen to be on. And from what I've seen from a few of them that I'm familiar with they have had a very positive experience with that. So I would encourage it in any way you can think to do it. So we're not working in isolation. But probably we can all recognize when we've made some really bad decisions because we only consulted with me, myself and I.
Peter Axtell 28:36
We're big fans of William B. Irvine and his book on how to live us stoic life, or no, maybe it's A Guide to the Good Life, I think it's called. It'll be in the show notes. Because stoicism is so often misunderstood. It really stands for hope and optimism. So how has living a stoic life helped you in your life and career decisions?
Gregory Engel 29:01
What comes first to mind is there's just a whole lot that happens in the world that doesn't affect me, doesn't not because I don't care. It isn't that kind of issue. It's iPhones or I think the example I use pretty frequently. Once upon a time I owned an iPhone. I don't even know what version two or three, long time ago. Anytime there's a new iPhone, there's used to be people outside the store and around the block. I was never fascinated with that kind of technology, or I didn't get attached to it. It's again that internal thing, external thing. And so I was never drawn into this upgrade cycle of the latest and greatest hardware. The same thing for automobiles. I drive a 22-year-old pickup truck and hope to take that one to its rest grave. There's and on and on and on, it's an endless list. Then what I've been able to do then is separate out the criteria that are actually important to having a good life or living a good life. So even though there were times when I was not earning much money, I still made sure I could afford or bought the best food I could afford. So I had good nutrition, clean water, and everything to do with staying healthy, that so much revolves around having a good, healthy person in the recent pandemic is certainly a good example of that. So that was an important criterion for me to have good food, the best food I could possibly afford. Whereas phones, automobiles? My other weakness would probably be books. I've got way too many books. A friend of mine, once had a challenge for a group of us and he said, how many things would you have to let go of before you started to feel the pinch? Could you let go of your house? Could you let go of your clothes? Could you let go of your automobile, things like that. And for most of us, it got down to a pretty small list. And so for me, it was food, it was my books, it was also my tools, I do a bit of woodworking. If I can fix my house up without having to have somebody come in, then that saves me that energy. As a nice byproduct, I spend less money. So I'm very, very happy, certainly with my life. And have managed to build up enough of an asset nest egg that I think I'll be comfortable. All because I did less rather than chased more. We could talk more about more and when is enough enough. That's a whole other topic. Okay, I'll follow that trail. Because it does fascinate me. We're all familiar with this expression "moving the goalposts," happens a lot in the corporate environment. You know, if you just do ABC, when you get there, you'll get the promotion and the raise, and you get there, and somebody's moved the goalposts off. So it's just a little bit more. And that's different from this notion of enough. If I'm going for a goal, and I have a very clear sense of steps to get there, I'll probably get there seaming somebody doesn't move those goalposts. And then I've got my goal, and usually people trying to figure out a goal from there. But this notion of enough is different. So if I think if I have $60,000 a year as an income, that will be enough. And if I'm earning something like 40,000, or something like that, it might take me awhile to get to 60,000, probably a year or two, depending on the industry you're in, or the skills you got, or the credentials you have, it'll take you some time to get there. Well, in that journey to getting to enough, we change, our identity shifts a little bit. Now we're a little more fluid, if it's the case of income, I'll stay with that example. We're able to afford a little nicer thing, we can go out with our friends a little more often. So there's a little bit of bump in status. So over the course of that journey to what had previously been enough, our identity changes, and now enough is not enough, we want more. And there's these successive steps, these gradual iterations that are all about more and more and perhaps more. And in a worst-case scenario, there are people that have you know, millions of dollars, and they're always wanting something more, there's no way they could spend it all. There's nothing they can't pay for, certainly on the basic needs level. But they keep going. I think there's a story of when we had the crash of 2008, the banking crash, whatever economists call that. A German who had built something like a $5 billion empire and because of the crash, he had lost $500 million, and he couldn't bear the loss. He's now only got $4.5 billion. And so he killed himself by standing in front of a train. It's a pretty drastic response to having lost significant steps in that path towards enough. So when I coach teams, and I see this pattern pretty frequently, where they're always looking for my case, it's often software writing, the better software can be better, it can be better, the better. I want a future proof. They keep going and keep going. So I have to slow them down and teach them about this notion of when is enough enough. And I start have to introduce phrases like, well, it's not good enough yet, or it's not perfect yet. That word yet is pretty important. Something I learned from Carol Dweck work on mindsets, is that when you say that word, it gives a bit of space in people's minds to take a breath, figure things out, assess the situation. And Carol Dweck has the example of when you're telling young school children if they fail a test, or they didn't write a good essay, and teachers get a lot of mileage out of telling the kids well, it's a good paper, but it's not good enough yet, or you're not good enough yet at this particular sport. And words like yet introduced that opportunity for individuals to know, well, I can keep working at it, it's not a done deal. And they continue moving forward in exploring whatever it is they're interested in. So enough is kind of a tricky thing. If we don't have our eye on that it can actually control us rather than we controlling that notion of "Do I have enough?"
Peter Axtell 36:28
I think you bring up so many great points, Gregory. I'm thinking of somebody, they're going to have to change careers. And some people are, shall we say entitled, you know, I was earning this amount of money. And maybe I can't make that amount of money anymore in today's world. And I now have to make less money. That bothers people. And understandably, you get used to that. And you say oh my gosh, I'm kind of a step down. But what you're also addressing is a key point that the idea of enough is also a sense of freedom. Because I know for a fact, psychologically, in your mind, you think okay, if I just get that one more thing, and then I can relax. And this cycle continues on. And when it gets out of hand, it is literally like throwing gasoline on the fire, you think that you're going to get some inner peace, emotionally, mentally, and just the opposite happens that throws gasoline on the fire. And then you're trapped in this cycle. I imagine anyone listening to this, you're thinking I have to change my career and can advance my career. But what would it be like to set a goal? What would actually be enough? And how can I internalize the freedom that that could give me?
Gregory Engel 37:47
Yeah, what I would suggest there is a version of the experiment that some friends and I did ages ago. What would it be like to lose those things, you look around what you have now. Imagine not having them. And sometimes the thought experiment alone isn't enough. And a little bit of a tangent, but this idea of you know, fasting, see if you can go 24 hours without eating food. And what we came up with was there's a number of ways to fast, so have a spending fast. An experiment I did with this one is could I go a month and not spend any money? An entire month? And it's not the kind of thing you start tomorrow. I had to actually think about that. What do I spend money on? And what am I going to need to spend money on in the next 30 days? So it meant having a full tank of gas and running all the errands I was going to need to do before I filled up that tank of gas. So I had enough food in the house. I was single at the time by the way. What bills am I going to have to pay? Can I prepay them? What kind of expenses do I think I'm going to have? Am I going to allow myself whatever it was 50 bucks for going out for drinks with friends. I had to think for 30 days, and it was harder than I thought it would be on what I would have to not be able to do with a spending fast. There's that or you can actually if there's something you really like, I don't know, an Xbox, I don't have one, probably never will, give it to a friend for 30 days and see what happens to it. There's a lot of digital fasting that is pretty popular out there right now, turn your phone off for a day or a week and see what happens, turn off all notifications on your phone, uninstall them if need be, and find out really how valuable Twitter is, if you don't have it for 30 days, then you start to actually understand what enough is because you've pulled back to a different position that you still find out usually people that they're just as happy, and in fact, even happier. And that will sort of bring back that outside the frame notion of when it's enough, it'll kind of bring it back. And you may already be there. So it's deliberate things like that to readjust and recalibrate our understanding and thinking about what enough is and what do we want? And what do we value and what's important? And where's quality? There's a lot of things that start factoring into that.
Peter Axtell 40:52
What happened at the end of the experiment after 30 days?
Gregory Engel 40:57
Well, it had a momentum, it continued on. Obviously, I went grocery shopping. I didn't quite get that one right, but I was determined to stick with it. And frankly, without saying it, I think I leaned on a couple of friends at the end there to pay the lunch bill. You know, hint, hint, nudge nudge. This was shortly after I graduated college, so I had no money anyway. And so I continued on. And I think some of that still stuck today. It's hard to sell me something if I don't already want it.
Peter Axtell 41:32
So you don't say to your kids, kids, you're gonna be a little hungry for the next 30 days, but I'm doing this thing and just don't tell me that you're hungry, because we're going to do this thing. Probably not...
Gregory Engel 41:47
No, I wouldn't recommend that. If there's others involved, you need to have them in part of the plan.
Peter Axtell 41:55
In your writing, you talk about this concept called Aporia. My mom would call that a $25 word, I guess. What is Aporia? What is that? And probably people listening to this probably don't know what Aporia is either. So can you connect that idea in a way that would help a person trying to figure out what's next and is simple enough for the average person to understand, Aporia?
Gregory Engel 42:25
It is a $25 word. It's of that class of $25 words that cost that much because it is so valuable. It contains a lot of meaning. It takes a while to unpack it. It's a Greek word, I think it's Greek, that describes a mental state that happens when we're confused. As an educator, and a coach, it's something I actually try to create in my clients or the teams I'm working with, or my students to get them to a state where they're a little bit confused and a little bit out of balance about what it is they're studying. Aporia is that open frame where the windows open for us to actually learn something new. That internally, our thoughts and what we believe about a subject has been jumbled up just enough so that some new ideas can get into and we're struggling at that point to make sense of it to make it fit. It isn't particularly pleasant. People don't like being confused. They certainly don't like looking like they're confused. Yet it is absolutely essential to learning new things. I think Aporia is actually something most associated with Socrates. Socrates is infamous for pelting people with questions to the point that they would begin to doubt their own positions about what they believed about courage or something like that. And the reason he's doing that is to create that state of Aporia inside, what are typically his students, so that they can consider the weaknesses of the position they held, and the strengths of the position that they haven't considered. And when those two things come together, they understand their argument better and they understand the other side's argument better. Then they've got wisdom. Now they know something that the average person doesn't know. They know both sides of the argument.
Peter Axtell 44:37
Wow, is that a counterintuitive thing. You're saying that people could embrace the idea of being confused and not understanding and then sitting with that.
Gregory Engel 44:53
And to press the skill, if you recognize when that's happening, then you learn how to actually create that within your own mind as you're learning something new. It just turbocharges anything you're trying to learn whether it's physical or intellectual or anything like that. I've studied martial arts for a long time, I don't practice anymore. But for 25 years, I was on the mat to study Aikido. And it happened many, many times where I didn't understand physically what was being demonstrated and trying to figure out how to get my body to move in that direction. It is physically disoriented in the case of like learning how to dance or martial arts. And after enough experience with that it is no longer unpleasant, is just another thing to kind of work through and develop the skills to now focus on what it is that's new, what it is that you already know how to do, how you bring them together, and it can happen very, very quickly. So as a skill for generating something like Aporia that can be huge.
Nicola Vetter 45:58
Gregory Engel 45:58
You're still with me?
Nicola Vetter 46:05
We are totally with you. This is really interesting. Now, you've touched on your work today really slightly, you've been working as an Agile coach for a decade now?
Gregory Engel 46:20
You know, more than that, I think I officially had the title of Agile coach, thinking back maybe 12 or 13 years ago, sorry, I think I interrupted, maybe finish your question.
Nicola Vetter 46:34
Now, I'm wondering, because you have suggested that an agile mindset helps resolve ignorance. And I think many people misunderstand what ignorance means. So can you speak to that a little?
Gregory Engel 46:52
Let me start with this one, there's a little four by four square that is often shown about this little cycle people go through as they become experts. In one square they are unconsciously incompetent, they're not good at doing something and they don't know it. And they tend to make a lot of bad decisions thinking that perhaps they are good at it. Then something happens and it becomes exposed to them that they aren't very good. So now they become conscious incompetence. I know I'm no good, I know I can't do this dance routine. I'm a klutz. So they study and they work on that, and they become conscious competence, so that they are good dancers, but they really have to think about it. And it's not quite in their muscle memory yet. And they practice that long enough and hard enough, then they become unconscious competence. So they can go through and do a dance routine. And it looks as if they're not even thinking about it or having to work at it. That's the path of mastery right there. So in there's this notion of ignorance. And I think Socrates would probably say that, that's probably the root of all peoples stumbling block for gaining wisdom. I mentioned earlier, this notion of being able to argue both sides of an argument, or both multiple dimensions of an idea. Those who are not able to do that, and they have their opinion about the world or themselves, are essentially ignorant about what else is out there, then they have an experience that reveals to them, that there's so much more to who they could be, or the other side of the story kind of thing, walking in somebody's shoes, living in somebody else's house. Now that that ignorance has been challenged by different knowledge, or different data, more knowledge, and now they have to assemble that into a higher order of understanding about the world. And that is the essence of wisdom, is acquiring those multiple perspectives, whatever the topic, dance, philosophy, mathematics, how to write software, how to drive a bus. It's everywhere.
Peter Axtell 49:19
What is the definition of an agile mindset? And how does that help a person say, to make choices and decisions?
Gregory Engel 49:28
That comes out of my experience with using agile in specifically software environments. That's where the notion of agile that's typically talked about today came from, is how to write software better. But I've known ever since the beginning that that's a limited case for the value of practicing things that are agile or having an agile mindset. There's nothing new about agile in software development, it's got plenty of examples going back 1000s of years that if I'm going to run five errands on a Saturday morning, and I drive to the first place where I want to take care of an errand, and it's closed, I readjust, I figure out where can I go next. And that's the essence of Agile. You find the path of least resistance. And you keep working, iterating through potential solutions, on your way to building great software or, you know, training your dog or anything like that. So agile in my mind isn't really something new. It's the mindset that has become coated in I think a useful way in the last 20 years that this notion of iterating through till you find a solution, rather than stopping after the first iteration and saying, well, this isn't going to work. Of course, you're going to hit that. The nature of I think living across all of life on this planet is that it's a never-ending cycle of finding what works better, finding what works better, finding what works better. Very, very, very small pieces. And a whole lot of littles make up a whole lot a lot. And then you find yourself there, wherever there is you want to be someday. So that, in a nutshell is the agile mindset.
Peter Axtell 51:15
I love that. See, if I understand this, it means that you're agile enough to continue to seek new solutions to obstacles that you encounter and find the path of least resistance if you just keep going. So this idea rather than pounding against a brick wall, you're more agile seeing that maybe your view expands, it goes wider, where you see more possibilities of decisions that you could make. Is that true?
Gregory Engel 51:43
That is true. I can add to that as well that one way I describe the agile mindset is that it's a way of thinking that leaves behind it an absolute mountain of techniques, and tools and practices to help you do the kinds of things you just talked about. So it isn't like you're out on your own having to reinvent the wheel every time you encounter something is when you understand how to ask good questions. So one of the techniques in Agile is the five WHYs if you need to find out why something is the way it is you ask, Why is that the case? And you ask it at least five times until you hopefully get to a pretty low level of what the root cause is. You know, that friend of mine keeps showing up late to this meeting. Why is that? You go look for an answer. And you find out that he's always coming into the office late, okay, why are you coming into the office late? You find out that he's got a child with special needs that needs to be prepared for school. And at that point, you can probably stop, but you ask a series of questions with this five WHYs technique to get to a better answer than what you would have had if you just made something up off of limited information. And there's many, many, many techniques like that would fall under the umbrella of an agile mindset. And the more of those you're aware of, and the more of those you practice, the stronger the agile mindset is, and the easier it is to move through challenges day by day and year by year.
Nicola Vetter 53:18
Let's move from agile to fragile. In our conversation, you said, train the brain to be more antifragile, more flexible. Now, what does anti-fragile mean in practical terms and how can you form such a mindset?
Gregory Engel 53:41
Practice. That's how we get there. So how? What to practice? That's a very good question. There's a related word to antifragile and Taleb is the guy I think championed or came up with this notion of antifragile, really recommend his work. I can't improve upon the way he's presented it.
Peter Axtell 54:06
We'll put it in the show notes, it's Taleb Nassim I think or Nassim Taleb.
Gregory Engel 54:10
Something like that. Yeah. TALEB, I don't even know. But yeah, he's written a number of books on this notion of antifragile. But the related word to that that's a little bit different is this notion of resilience. And people I think can relate to that a little bit easier. So that's, I think, a good place to lead into what it is to be antifragile. If something is resilient, it usually means that if something on it fails, then there's a fallback system to compensate for that. If I'm working on a team, and I know a particular system that is required to be maintained, then maybe I have a backup. So if I'm sick or on vacation, then there's somebody who can take over the management of that system and there'll be no interruption to the business. So that would be an example of resilience. Our automobiles have many layers of resilience built into them, airbags and crunchable fenders, and all these things to help protect us in the event of something adverse happening. Anti-fragile is perhaps the next level above that, in that you are ending up in a place where you don't even need to worry about the resilience. And I'm simplifying greatly here. So it might go back to the example that I made about doing the spending fast and learning how what was enough for me was substantially less than what I thought. So that after I finished that little exercise, and I had built up enough savings, just because I wasn't spending money, not that I had to work at it, then I've got a mental state where I'm less influenced by vanity purchases or keeping up with the Joneses or things like that. So just isn't even an issue. It isn't that I have to be resilient to the fact that my neighbors got a nicer car, it just doesn't matter. So if we build our understanding of the world and our mental state and how we go about making decisions in a way that's antifragile, then, as the word implies, it's just difficult to break.
Peter Axtell 56:31
So this might be a good criteria for somebody, again, we'll come back to what should I do next with my life, to think about how could I build a resilient life, that gives me more freedom? It's a really good way to make that kind of decision about a direction to go. I think it's fantastic.
Gregory Engel 56:50
I agree. I don't mean to dismiss resilience. It's a good idea to have it. An example of something resilient is ever since I could afford it, and the rates were good, I had six months worth of CDs, laddered. So that each one would carry my monthly salary, if I lost my job. So I knew that if I lost my job, I had an income for the next six months. That's resilience. So I definitely recommend putting in resilience where it makes sense. Finances are a good place to do that. And then work beyond that to now make yourself mentally more antifragile to anything that's out there really.
Peter Axtell 57:36
Nicola Vetter 57:37
Yes. Because the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life. Right?
Gregory Engel 57:43
I would agree with that wholeheartedly.
Nicola Vetter 57:45
Yes. Now, Gregory, we are already at time. We didn't even move into so many other stories of your life, we might have you on again.
Gregory Engel 57:56
I'm open to that.
Nicola Vetter 57:57
It's been too much fun. But for this time, is there anything that we didn't touch on, besides all the other steps in your life and career, but something that you really want our audience to know?
Gregory Engel 58:11
A parting thought would be to have a robust network of relationships, acquaintances, friends, family. However, it is that you can build that up. It is far too easy, especially post pandemic to be isolated in ways that we don't even recognize are unhelpful and unhealthy. And we're starting to see I think the impact now that we're reintroducing ourselves back into social lives post pandemically. Anything you can do to keep those relationships healthy and alive, do it. I think there's been plenty of research that says it's the single greatest impact on longevity and health is the quality of our relationships.
Nicola Vetter 59:04
It is. And we are so happy to have you in our circle here. And not too far away from where we live.
Gregory Engel 59:12
Peter Axtell 59:13
That's a great place to stop right there. That's beautifully said.
Nicola Vetter 59:16
Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation. And I hope we'll have you on again.
Gregory Engel 59:22
I hope so too. Thank you both very much. Appreciate it.
Peter Axtell 59:26
We hope you enjoyed this conversation. One of my biggest takeaways was how Julia Cameron's morning pages are a free form exercise to capture what's on my mind for about 20 minutes down onto paper or in a digital format that I can go back to in a few days or weeks to see what I was thinking about and start to see patterns of what's important to me. For example, I might see patterns as to why I don't like my job. That clarity will help with better decisions.
Nicola Vetter 59:58
Yes, and what stuck with me was the point that it's better to have more input about what you're thinking of doing than less. Getting some input from 5, 10 or 20 people might change your own perspective. We've all made some bad decisions because we only consulted me, myself, and I. That's why people start blogging or writing newsletters to get feedback.
Peter Axtell 1:00:30
Or start Masterminds. To learn more about Gregory head to whatsnext.com/20, where we share the transcript, links, and more. Again, that's whatsnext.com/20.
Nicola Vetter 1:00:48
And if you like what you've heard, share it with someone you care about. And subscribe, rate, and review our Inside-Out Career Design podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode. Thanks so much for joining us here today. We'll see you next week for another episode. Same time, same place.