Dec 202010

How do master negotiators think and what do they do that helps them come up with creative solutions and get what they want without damaging relationships and creating a sense of injustice and being used on all sides? By focusing on coming up with solutions that gets as many people what they want. I’ve read a lot of books on communication in order to improve my relationships. Oddly, the best I’ve found is Stephen Covey’s classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People even though it’s not directly about communication. I’ve come up with a new sequence of conflict resolution that works even when the other person doesn’t even want to talk that goes like this:

stage 1 – build trust enough and build a high enough emotional bank account so you can talk without attacks or distrust (in 7 Habits — check out the chapter titled “Paradigms of Interdependence” between Habits 3 and 4);

stage 2 – listen to the feelings on all sides, often by you listening first and then being listened to about feelings, not about the actual issue yet (this is Habit 5 – Seek First to Understand and then to be Understood);

stage 3 – once you get a sense of the feelings and everyone feels everyone else understands them (not that you feel you understand the other person, but that they feel you do–which is harder), you can talk about what the issue is and how to resolve it by coming up with creative solutions which are win/win all around (this is Habit 4 – Think Win/Win).

These steps are not always sequential and you don’t have to always start at stage 1. This post is focusing on stage 3 and the part about creating win/win solutions and how this can go awry. I hope to not just parrot the brilliant writing of Stephen Covey but add a few insights which will help you solve your problems more creatively.

Let’s start with a conflict. Say a boyfriend and a girlfriend are negotiating watching TV together after coming home from work. Let’s call them Jack and Jill:

Jill: I wanna watch Two and a Half Men.

Jack: I don’t like that show. Let’s watch this great NOVA documentary!

Let’s stop here to discuss more:

Both of them have lots of trust with each other so they don’t need to start at stage 1, which is great! Neither of them has extremely strong feelings that they feel the need to talk about, so we can jump to stage 3 after recognizing there is a conflict. Now, if they followed traditional ideas of compromise in relationships what they would do is talk back and forth about the various TV shows they can watch till they found one that was acceptable to both of them (but not what they actually wanted). Or they decide to take turns watching TV. But this is a less than optimal solution because 1 + 1 = 1.5 in this case. Neither party gets what they truly want and neither party is as happy as they would have been if they’d just gotten to watch the TV show they wanted to initially (which would lead to a 1 + 1 = 2).

In 7 Habits terminology this is actually a bit lose/lose. Let’s review the different possibilities according to Covey:

  • win/win
  • lose/lose
  • win/lose
  • lose/win

There’s a distinction from game theory that’s relevant here that Covey doesn’t use (maybe because it wasn’t widely available when he wrote the book) but he tried to cover it with his idea of abundance and scarcity mindsets. This distinction is key; it is the distinction between zero-sum and non-zero sum games. Zero-sum games are situations or actual games in which the fortunes of both parties are inversely correlated to each other. That is, for one person to win, others have to lose. A chess game can’t have all winners. Non-zero sum games are situations where the fortunes of the two parties are not correlated, or in fact, may be positively correlated. That is, for one person to win, all people have to win, or if one person loses, all lose. Or, it can simply be that one person can win and another person can lose but one person’s winning has nothing to do with the other person’s losing. A relationship is a non-zero sum game and it’s often a dysfunctional, unhappy and soon extinct one that thinks that it’s a zero-sum game.

A fascinating history of humanity through the lens of these kinds of games is called Non Zero by Robert Wright. He has a TED talk about it here.

Here’s the most important distinction though which often surprises people who are already familiar with the idea of zero-sum games: zero-sum games are often situated within non-zero sum games. I learned this very important insight from Jordan Peterson. Say you and I sit down to play chess. That’s a zero-sum game and there is necessarily a winner and a loser (or a draw). However, you and I may be playing chess (zero-sum game) in order to play a greater non-zero sum game. The question to ask is, “why are we playing chess?” Say it is to have fun. Our non-zero sum game is thus to have fun. That means there’s multiple possibilities: that we both could have fun, or neither of us could have fun (such as if you’re a sore loser–saying that someone is a sore loser is a recognition of the concept I’m talking about), or one of us could have fun and the other one couldn’t. The person having fun doesn’t have to be the winner, actually, there’s “good losers” and “bad winners”, or people who’re just so stressed out that even though they’re winning, they’re not having fun.

Let’s add the dimension of time. Say we’re playing a game together multiple times over a longer term. What if you and I repeatedly play zero-sum games together? Well, it turns out that if I constantly lose, then I’m not going to be interested in playing the game anymore with you. Maybe you should let me win sometimes in order to keep me playing a game (or at least, let me do well enough to think that I can win or improve–such as by handicapping yourself which is often considered “fair”). And turns out that even rats have an understanding of this idea of “fair play”. Juvenile rats wrestle as a form of play and winning is pinning the other rat. A bigger rat will actually let the smaller rat win about 30% of the time, even though it could win 100% of the time. That keeps both rats playing the game over the longer term, while being “fun” for both rats. Win/win. You didn’t think rats had any sense of fair play, did you? That’s how deep the idea of fair play goes, evolutionarily.

Let’s get back to win/win, lose/lose, win/lose, lose/win. As you’ve guessed, zero-sum games can only be win/lose or lose/win (or draw which is sort of lose/lose…or win/win depending on whether you have a scarcity or abundance mindset). Non-zero sum games, though, can be all four: win/win, lose/lose, win/lose and lose/win. The thing Covey is trying to tell you in the book is: most of the games you think are zero-sum games are actually non-zero sum games, or, a lot of the games that are zero-sum are actually situated within non-zero sum games and its possible to go up to the non-zero sum game’s level to find a new game in which both win. He calls this propensity to frame most games (including zero-sum games) as a non-zero sum game, the abundance mindset. The opposite propensity: to conceive of most games (including non-zero sum ones) as zero-sum, he terms the scarcity mentality.

So, anytime you start to think “oh I’m going to win” or, “I’m going to lose” and get worked up about it, ask yourself if you’re actually playing a zero-sum game or just think you are. A common dimension for this is wealth or money. People often fall prey to the zero-sum ideas and think that there’s a fixed amount of wealth in the world. That the pie is fixed. Turns out, the pie’s not fixed, but is, in fact, constantly growing. There is a fixed amount of money out there (though it’s constantly growing, too), but not wealth. But this topic is a lengthy blog post for another day.

So, let’s get back to the discussion about TV. Recognizing that they think they’re playing a zero-sum game, Jack and Jill go up to the non-zero sum game:

Jill: Why do you wanna watch that show in the first place?

Jack: Well, I just got home from work and work’s really boring. I want something intellectually stimulating.

Jill: I also just got home from work and I’m exhausted. I want mindless entertainment and to laugh to forget the stresses of the day.

Pause here: Note how Jill seeks first to understand and asks the question before seeking to be understood. Both elements are crucial–that is, you have to get yourself understood, too. It can be dysfunctional and unhealthy if one person can always just do the understanding bit and never be understood. Resentment builds, but I’ll talk about dysfunctional patterns of this stuff later.

If both had one TV and both came down from work at the same time, then their attempts would really be zero-sum, because for one person to get what they want from the TV (intellectual stimulation) is completely opposite from what the other person wants (mindless mirth). If there’s one TV, they can’t just both go off and watch what they want in different rooms. If they came home at different times from work, then they could just watch TV at different times.

We’re at another crucial point here: the partners could do win/lose or lose/win here. Jack could say, “oh alright honey, let’s do what you want. Roll all over me.”. In a healthy relationship, it’s perfectly acceptable to occasionally do win/lose for the sake of another person, to build the emotional bank account. But to do it chronically leads to problems, which I’ll cover a bit later.

Jill: Why do we wanna watch TV together in the first place? We could watch it seperately in different rooms, so why are we even arguing or butting heads over this?

Jack: Well, I just got home from work and I wanna spend some relaxing time with you doing something together. I like that.

Jill: Me, too. Why do you like that?

Jack: Doing something “routine” or “mundane” with you like this helps make me feel like you’re a part of my life. To build a ritual that is really comforting to me. I don’t just want to watch TV with you today, I want to watch it with you every day after work.

Pause again: here’s an opportunity for Jack and Jill to compromise once again based on this new information. They could take turns daily watching something mindless and watching something intellectually stimulating. Jill could just zone out when the intellectually stimulating show is out and Jack could try to watch the mindless show by thinking deeper into what he’s watching. So, over the long term, this may be a win/win on the level of the game of their relationship, but on any given day, it’s not a win/win on the level of getting their after-work needs met. So, they keep trying, back and forth, until they hope to get a win/win scenerio that fulfills their desire to spend time together after work as well as their respective desires to get intellectual stimulation and mindless entertainment.

All of that said, maybe by realizing they just want to spend time together–that that’s their real purpose behind watching TV together, they could both or one of them could say, “I don’t really care about my after-work desire because I’d rather just spend time with you”. So, maybe Jack says, “I’ll just lie next to you while you watch TV and that’s ok even if I don’t get intellectual stimulation cause we’re spending relaxing time together and I get my ritual”. But, maybe they keep trying to find a better solution. This solution may seem like win/lose on one level (Jack doesn’t get intellectual stimulation), but it’s win/win on another level: Jack gets most of his other needs met: to spend time together and to have a ritual. Sometimes, in relationships, you accept lose/win at one level to get win/win at a more important level. This sort of “compromise between levels” can also be avoided as much as possible, but is a much better sort of compromise than the straight compromise on the issue I mentioned earlier, and occasionally you do it for the relationship.

Jack: Ok, so is there anything that means we spend time together and we get our respective needs met? Let’s just brainstorm some ideas first.

Jill: We could watch a movie instead? You may get so engrossed in a movie that that’s more intellectual stimulation than in a 20 minute show?

Jack: I suppose, but then we’ve to find a movie that also gives you the kind of mental relaxation. I guess we can try that.

Jill: <says some movie names>

Jack: I don’t really want to watch those. How about these? <says movie names>

Jack: None of those seem to fulfill both our needs and I don’t really want to watch them. We’re ending up with the same problem as with finding a TV show we can both agree to.

Jill: Ok. How about we go out. Forget TV. We’ll go out for a picnic. If we do this every day while it’s summer, we can both make it a routine. There’s a park nearby and all we need is a blanket. You can watch people and get intellectual stimulation and I can just lie back and watch the clouds.

Jack: That’ll work! And if I get bored, I can just bring a book along.

Deal! Both kept going till both found something that’s fulfills all their needs. Now Jack and Jill are going to have a much better relationship. This “disagreement” actually led to making some serious deposits in each other’s emotional bank accounts, so the relationship actually improved through the course of this disagreement. And everyone got what they really wanted. Amazing. You may say that Jack and Jill didn’t get to see what they wanted to see and they both lost. If you do, you’re paying too much attention at the wrong level. They didn’t want to watch the tv shows for the sake of watching those tv shows–in this case it was to get their emotional needs met. So finding other stuff that fills their emotional needs just as well means they get what they really want.

I’ll admit: most of my discussions don’t go this far. I’m often like Jack and I give in on my needs on a particular issue in order to “win” at the higher level of the game of the relationship. I’m a bit on the self-sacrificial side, but I’m working to improve that (why? isn’t being self-sacrificial noble and a good thing? I’ll get to that later). Also, this whole process can be pretty damned tiring. It often requires a lot of conscious thinking which is often what you’re least interested in doing after a long day at work. But, it’s often worth it to go through this process to get at the results.

Now, you may be thinking, “all this conversation between Jack and Jill is too clean and real people don’t talk like that. It seems forced and artificial and I’d feel awkward trying it in my relationships. Besides, what if the other person’s not interested in playing along–it won’t work if only one person’s doing it?” Let me address those: re-read just the conversation without my commentary and you’ll find pretty normal conversation. Try reading it out loud if you want to test it.

Secondly, if it seems forced and artificial–that’s cause it can feel that way, but only at first. To do anything that improves a relationship but requires change can feel awkward at first, especially if you’re worrying about what the other person will think or how they’ll respond. Well, just push yourself gently through that sense of awkwardness and keep doing it. You’ll start to see rewards.

Finally, what if only one person is doing this? That can be a problem in the long-term for the relationship, but in the short-term, you don’t need both people to be explicitly familiar with these ideas to make them work. If you explained them to the other person in the relationship (or sent them this blog post), they would probably agree with it. But, as proof that this works if only person is doing it: read the conversation again. Only one person is doing it at any given time. Jill is the one who’s applying the 7 habits clearly, and Jack is not trying to prevent her work because they have lots of trust and security. She’s seeking to understand first and then to be understood; she’s the one asking the “why” questions and after she gets an answer, she explains how she feels and she throws out a lot of the options.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t go from your normal way of dealing with conflict and negotiation to this overnight. I actually found it easier to start off a new friendship with an understanding of these concepts, than to convert old relationships that work differently to this way. Some of those old relationships have been important enough to go through the awkwardness and so forth, though. And if both people recognize a relationship as important and there’s enough trust in a relationship, then it’s ok to talk to someone and say, “listen, can we try out this new way of approaching conflict and negotiating differences? It’ll feel awkward and forced at first but eventually it’ll become automatic. I care about this relationship and I think this will really improve it. What do you think?” Some relationships are setup so that it’s really uncomfortable to admit your feelings (“I feel awkward”) or to tell the other person you care about them and the relationship, or that you want to improve it. But consider carefully whether those are things you’d really like to have an in that relationship. Maybe you’d like to change it so that the relationship CAN talk about feelings, or that they can make a conscious attempt to improve things.

Another note: to go through this process the way Jack and Jill did requires a fair bit of self-awareness. Jack and Jill needed to be have self-conscious awareness of what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling that, and they’re willing and able to articulate it (because of the trust, security and precedent of doing so in the relationship). So, like they immediately told the other person why they want to watch a certain TV show and went to the understanding of their emotional needs rather than just saying, “I wanna watch it cause I want to”.

How do you develop that sort of self-awareness? Journalling really helps. When I’m going through something emotional, I write about it, often in the form of a draft email I may send to that person. Over time, this habit has led to me developing greater self-reflective awareness in the moment rather than only after writing about an issue. Another thing that really helped was practicing mindfulness meditation. There are likely classes somewhere close by to you, or you can find guided meditation cds and mp3s online.

What do you do about situations which are truly zero-sum? While you shouldn’t be hopeless about finding creative solutions, there’s a danger in being too optimistic. What if there aren’t any creative solutions that are truly win/win? This happens when the differences are caused by some fundamental value differences or differences in vision for the future. I’ll answer this question in the context of a marriage but the ideas can be applied to any sort of relationship.

John Gottman, PhD (who is a fantastic researcher who predicts divorce with over 90% accuracy) calls these “perpetual problems” vs “resolvable problems” in his great book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Clearly, if you don’t believe that there’s any such thing as perpetual problems and that all problems are resolvable (and therefore don’t believe there’s fundamental differences between people), then you’re going to have a hard time constantly trying to move an immovable object. You’ll either degrade into constant fighting, or you’ll be constantly be going through the steps I outlined above and get nowhere. So, what do you do?

First, you’ve to figure out which perpetual problems you can live with in another person. Gottman offers an example which I’m paraphrasing: Jack marries Jill and they end up at a party. Jill wants Jack to stop leaving her alone, but Jack wants to talk to new people and Jill doesn’t want to join him in doing so cause she’s uncomfortable around new people. This will likely remain a problem forever. But if Jack had married Beth instead of Jill, they would never have gotten to the party cause Beth is constantly late and that really bothers Jack, and half the time they end up having a fight over this and don’t end up going to the party at all. If Jack had married Jen, then they wouldn’t have even been going to the party together because Jen hates parties. Jack would have just been going to the parties by himself while Jen stays at home. Over time, though, this causes them to lead more and more independent lives and eventually they divorce. So! You’ve to figure out what perpetual problems you can live with.

Secondly, you do have to have a conversation with your partner about the issues and what they mean to them. Following the steps above will do this for you. This way, you’ll know that having a cabin really fulfills a lifelong dream of spending time in wilderness for one person. And you can trust and honour that, even if that dream directly interferes with your dream of saving for your child’s education because the other person wants to spend the money in the cabin. This is where compromise has its value. But compromise with love and in a way that both people agree is fair (which may not be 50-50!).

Thirdly, you’ve to learn to treat the perpetual problem with a sort of peace and as something to get used to. Something that’s a part of growing older, or whatever. Part of the ups and downs of life. Find a way to not treat it as a cutthroat issue that you’ll have massive blowups over. Gottman uses the example of treating it like a “trick knee” or a “bad back”, things that you get used to as you grow older. Maybe you can treat it like the toilet flush lever you always have to jiggle or hold down. An annoyance but you’ve gotten used to it.

This way, you don’t try to cut each other’s necks when discussing a perpetual problem. Some common ones include one spouse not wanting to have a baby but the other does, one partner wants sex more often while the other one doesn’t, one partner wants the other to do more housework when the other one doesn’t, religious differences, whether a spouse sides with the in-laws or with their partner, etc. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he gives lots of good “compromise points” ie right balance of win/lose for each partner. Funnily enough, for the bit about how to tackle a husband siding with the in-laws (especially his mother) over the spouse: Gottman says you have to side with the spouse over the mother every time. :p

I mentioned a bit about dysfunctional relationships and this concept. Let me elaborate on that.

There’s a number of ways that a pattern of dealing with “games” in a relationship can be a little bit pathological. Some are obvious. Some are much more subtle. Obviously, I’d say the healthiest way to deal with this is to adopt the abundance mindset (constantly construe situations as non-zero sum), and to keep going till you hit a truly win/win solution. To do that, you’re going to need self-awareness and communication skills, as well as some imagination to think up creative solutions. All those things can be developed. I’ve gotten to the point now where most of this stuff is automatic (though it’s taken about 4 years of practice…but that time’s going to pass anyway, so get to it!). When someone brings up a conflict or asks me to do something I disagree with, I automatically go up a level and ask why, listen to their why for emotional needs/wants, repeat it back to them, then using my self-awareness I identify and use courage to express my emotional needs/wants (though I often fail here and sacrifice being understood to resolve the conflict), then try to enroll both of us in finding creative solutions that are truly win/win, then follow through on my end of the bargain to deliver those solutions and hold the other person responsible for their part. I try to do this in an atmosphere of teamwork rather than me vs you, and try to do with as little resistence as possible. But it’s taken a lot of work to get here and I’m really glad I put in the work because my relationships are way better now.

Anyhoo, on to the pathologies:

Obviously zero-sum thinking (scarcity mentality) leads you to only perceive things as win/lose, lose/win. If one party in a relationship is thinking this way, they’ll constantly see the attempts of the other party who has an abundance mentality as attempts to manipulate them and get their way. Compromises can lead to a lose/lose solution. Therefore, you’ll constantly assign a score to a relationship and be really sensitive to ideas of being taken advantage of and of unfairness and injustice. This distrust will be picked up by the other partner and they’ll start to distrust you. Not a good atmosphere to build in a relationship.

If one partner “constantly” does lose/win and sacrifices themself for the sake of the relationship or the sake of ending conflict. If Jack constantly does that, though, constantly “loses”, he’s going to become resentful and want to stop playing the game. Sometimes that means he may stop playing the game of the relationship and end it, citing that it’s to unfair and that Jill always get what she wants. Or he may just continue to suffer with feelings of being taken advantage of and that Jill never does what he wants, or Jill never sacrifices like he does. Why would someone want to do this when it hurts relationships in the long term? Well, lots of reasons and different individuals do it for different reasons. One may be that someone’s been deeply scripted in being a martyr and of being the “sacrificial one”, often a stoically sacrificing mother. Another way is to have something to hold over the other person and manipulate them. “I sacrificed so much for you, can’t you do this one little thing for me?” But doing these things reduces the emotional bank account and the trust and is essentially emotional blackmail.

Obviously if one partner “constantly” does win/lose, then they’re selfish. That said, for the other person to continue to play the game and not just quit, the other partner also has to have to submit to losing and they may do that for the reasons I mentioned above.

It’s also possible for someone who is in a really self and other destructive pattern to constantly do lose/lose. In extreme anger, it often becomes lose/lose because one partner is trying to hurt the other for the pain that was caused. This is obviously not good for a relationship in the long term. Both partners feel victimized. This can happen when being in a relationship with a dysfunctional person who may come from a dysfunctional family. Being in a relationship with someone who abuses drugs can also be this way. However, you have to ask, well, why does the non-drug user stay in the relationship? Why does someone stay in an abusive relationship in general? There’s many reasons and most of them are not the fault of the person who’s staying in the relationship. Blaming the victim doesn’t get you anywhere. However, there are times that a person feels, for one reason or another, that they don’t deserve any better and that it’s their lot in life to end up in a abusive relationship cause that’s all they’re worth. This sort of dysfunctional pathology can be really bad when someone subtley goes out of their way to end up in an abusive relationship…by subtley encouraging the other person to be abusive. Which really sucks. For example, daughters of alcoholics, despite being abused and seeing the abuse happen to their mothers and constantly saying they don’t want to get into that, end up in a relationship with an alcoholic at a level greater than “chance”. Sometimes this happens very subtley, so she might go find a frat boy who drinks a little bit too much for his own good (but not to an alcoholic level). Then maybe she’ll start to get him mad when he’s drunk (by yelling at him for whatever reason) until he starts to abuse her. Then she’ll play out her role of being the victim which she’s deeply scripted in and which is what she’s been trying to play out. We become deeply scripted in certain roles and it can be hard to change them, and we may feel deeply uncomfortable if we’re not playing those roles, even if those roles are unhealthy or dysfunctional for us.

Anyhoo, so, we’ve looked at dysfunctions of not seeking win/win in a particular situation and dysfunctions of not seeking win/win over the long term and through multiple games. What happens when a particular person who has a certain pattern gets together with someone else who has a different pattern?

Win/lose person gets with win/lose person often ends quickly because the focus of each person is to get their needs met at the expense of the other person. If one person changes to lose/win, then this relationship can continue.

Lose/Lose person gets with lose/win, win/lose or even win/win person. All these tend to end badly because the lose/lose person is just trying to destroy the relationship. If someone’s scripted in lose/win and sacrificing yourself without concern to your own needs being met, then this may continue for a long time with both people in utter misery. These tend to be deeply toxic, abusive (perhaps only emotionally) relationships in which neither partner gets their needs met. The lose/lose person is aiming at destruction, not anything particular.

Lose/win person gets with win/lose person (or vice versa :p). This kind of relationship is where one partner feels they’ve to be self-sacrificial constantly and may see this as their “lot in life” for this sort of relationship to continue. The other person, of course, takes advantage of this to get what they want. This sort of pattern can continue for a long, long time, each each partner but especially the lose/win one constantly feeling like they’re sacrificing. The way out of this patterns tends to come when at least one partner (usually the lose/win one–cause the win/lose one has a vested interest in continuing this) realizes that their legitimate needs aren’t getting met. Often this needs to happen through recognizing their needs are legitimate (in abusive relationships, the win/lose person often tells the other person that their needs are’t legitimate). Take a step back, if you had a best friend you loved who complained about the same things you do about your relationship, would you tell them to leave this relationship? List out your needs aren’t being met by that person or at all (especially be careful if YOU don’t think you should have certain needs) and put the list away for a bit. Come back to it and ask if they’re legitimate for each one and then decide whether you can continue the relationship if they’re not being met and the other person’s not willing to meet them because their whole schtick is winning at your expense. Google “abusive relationship” or “emotionally abusive relationship” and answer those quizes about whether you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. Careful, cause you may not actually want to find out you’re in an abusive relationship.

Lose/win person gets with lose/win person. This one is kinda funny in that two self-sacrificial person get together and both will feel like–and look for opportunities to–constantly sacrifice for the other person. Then they may both feel that they unfairly do not get their needs met and both constantly feel resentful and that the other person always gets their way. This kind of relationship can go on for a long, long time.

Lose/win person gets with win/win person. This is similar to the lose/win person with the lose/win person. The win/win person, though, will try hard to make sure the other person wins, too, but if the lose/win person is so deeply scripted in lose/win that they won’t even acknowledge that the other person is letting them win too, then they can be resentful and say things after a while like, “you constantly get what you want” or “I do so much for you but you do nothing for me”. Over time, if this relationship continues, it can sometimes transform the win/win person into lose/win or win/lose person to keep the relationship going.

Win/win person gets with win/win person. Hooray!

Quick note for lose/win, self-sacrificing people (such as me): In our culture, we’re taught and deeply scripted in the idea that tis nobel to sacrifice. It can be. But if you’re going around sacrificing when it isn’t necessary so you can feel noble or as not a bad person or to avoid feeling selfish, or to avoid becoming/being thought of as a win/lose person then that’s not very noble. Sacrifice when necessary, when there is no other choice, is noble in that you act with stoicism and courage in the face of a challenge. But sacrificing for the sake of sacrificing can become unhealthy. Your needs are often more legitimate than you think and it’s not necessarily selfish to ask for them. If you feel you do this, then try slowly and gently pushing through the feelings of selfishness, the fear of becoming a win/lose person, and that you shouldn’t have these needs cause they’ll just be let down or that they aren’t legitimate and ask for your needs from the partner. If your partner (who you don’t think has some sort of pathologies) turns them down, ask them if they’re legitimate needs. You can also ask others if these needs are legitimate, such as books on relationships or therapists or google.

Note: what I’ve written here may be categorized as unverified research. A lot of this if from my own experience and my combining the random research I’m aware of. Be very careful when taking advice on relationships, but especially about pathologies and dysfunctions from the intertubes. If you think there may be an issue, go see a qualified professional, whether for yourself (eg if you’re concerned you’re too self-sacrificing and you feel you may be causing it cause you’re playing the victim role) or for your relationship. Good luck!

Aug 292010

Students often fall into a “survival” mindset and that can cause a lot of procrastination. Thinking that, “if I can just get through this, things’ll get better”. I talk to students all the time who don’t like what they’re doing in school. They’re not enjoying school or enjoying the process of getting a degree, they’re just trying to get a degree and “make it through” before their “real life” starts.

Here’s the problem, that last year or two is a long time. Too long to just “grit my teeth and get through it”. After I failed my first year and took some time off, I was contemplating how many courses to take. I considered trying to “get through it” by taking more than a 100% course load. But I realized that even doing that, it would still take me three years. That’s a long time to be working that much and I would just burn myself out.

My way out of this dilemma is to take fewer courses. I take a 60% course load every year. That, for me, is a sustainable amount. By sustainable I mean I could do this for many years to come. It’s not too little school and it’s not too much school. It’s just right for me. I don’t get burned out or resentful about the neverending march of assignments and readings, but I have enough courses to keep my stimulated. I enjoy my courses a lot more than if I was taking 100% course load, and I get way better grades.

I decided I wouldn’t wait till the end of my degree for my “real life” to start. I enjoy myself a lot. I spend lots of time with friends and have lots of fun. Since my plan after university is to start businesses, I asked myself why I had to wait and I’ve already started. School is not something to “get through” hopefully with a piece of paper on the other side, it’s an intellectual exploration and development. My “real life” is now and school is one equal and important (but not too important) part of it.

The survival mindset creates a lot of procrastination, cause you come to see every assignment as an obstacle to you “getting through it” hopefully with as little pain as possible.

This post was inspired by Cal Newport’s Open Letter to students on the Danger of Seeing School as a Trial to Survive. He didn’t elaborate what a survival mindset was so I thought I would.

Edit: Consider this – while I’m in university, I have way more time flexibility than I will ever again till I retire, I can live more cheaply than I likely ever will and am thus more flexible than ever, I have some of the smartest friends I ever will–indeed some of them are the smartest folks in Canada, I have access to some of the smartest minds in the world in the form of my profs (esp. at University of Toronto which is a top-30 institution in the world), I am more carefree than I ever will be in my life until retirement, I have the fewest obligations I ever will till retirement, I am more intellectually challenged than I may ever be in my life, and I’m growing more than I ever might in my life by virtue of being at this stage in my life. This is truly the best times of your life, and it may well be downhill from here. So, ENJOY IT!

Ask yourself these questions: your profs are ok with you showing up ten minutes late but can you do that in a job? Most people’s friends end up being the people they work with, which may not be the smartest people around, will you really have much smarter friends than you do now? Will you have as much access to leaders in your field as you do now in terms of profs and researchers? How long before you get a kid, a mortgage and an ever-growing list of obligations and can’t enjoy life as much anymore? Will you really be as intellectually stimulated as you are now? Will you be challenged to grow as much as you are now?

University isn’t something to get through, it’s something to enjoy to the fullest. I like to think of it as “intellectual exploration”. Wander around the campus, wander around the courses and take courses which seem interesting to you without regard to which program they’re for. After a while of exploring topics that seem interesting to you, you’ll hit on one topic that you’re so gripped by that it’ll sustain your interest for years. For me it was psychology. You’d be surprised where this approach leads. It’s more uncertain than treating university as job education and getting a “safe” degree, but it’s a lot more fun and interesting. Plus you can always go back to get a “safe” degree. Though ten years out of school, there’s no difference in wages between people who got “useless” degrees like philosophy or english and people who got “safe” degrees like commerce. The only difference is in people with professional designations like engineering or accounting.