I feel like we live in an age of limitless information right now, but we never seem to acknowledge that there’s a shortage of context. You know, in many ways, it’s why I started doing Between the Scenes. I realized in the short time I have on the show, there’s only so much I can convey as a message and you know that message is distilled and synthesized for people, but we process everything in bytes and we don’t realize that we have a lot of information but we don’t have the context that is so necessary for us to protect, you know, to process that information, which is so important. Context is everything, it’s truly everything.Trevor Noah
Ever scratched your head wondering why the life-altering advice that transformed your friend’s life didn’t make a dent in yours? Or perhaps, as a parent, you’re baffled how two kids, raised under the same roof with the same values, could end up as different as chalk and cheese. Or maybe, despite devouring self-help books and attending countless workshops, you find your life stuck in the same old rut. The answer, my friend, lies in the invisible layer that shapes our lives – context.
Whether you’re chasing more money, a larger audience, or a better relationship, it can be frustrating when things don’t pan out. Remember, one size doesn’t fit all in life. Understanding the role of context can turn your seemingly inexplicable struggles into crystal clear challenges.
Through my 13-year journey hosting the Unmistakable Creative, one thing has become clear as day to me – context is the puppet master, pulling the strings on our choices, the effectiveness of the advice we receive, and ultimately, our life outcomes. It’s the invisible layer of our reality, and when we fail to recognize it, we can end up spinning our wheels in the mud.
The Definition and Why Context is Everything
Context is a complex and multifaceted concept. As Dan Pink eloquently puts it, everything we understand about human behavior suggests that events occur at the intersection of the individual and the situation. This intersection is what we refer to as context.
Let’s break it down with a few simple examples.
Imagine you’re meeting someone for the first time, and they’re having a terrible day. Your immediate impression might be that they’re unpleasant or rude. However, under different circumstances, that same person could be utterly delightful. In essence, someone who comes off as abrasive in one context could potentially become your closest ally in another.
Take my personal experience with podcasting as another example. I launched my podcast a whopping 13 years before it became a cultural phenomenon. If you were to ask me for advice on starting a podcast now, my insights might not be as applicable or effective, simply because the context in which I started a podcast is vastly different from yours. This highlights how all prescriptive advice is context-dependent, a fact that often gets overlooked when we attempt to apply advice gleaned from self-help books or podcast discussions.
Let’s consider the productivity tips shared by the likes of Tim Ferriss. While these strategies might work wonders for a single individual with no familial responsibilities, they may not be as feasible for a mother of two young children. Telling her to dedicate an uninterrupted hour to focused work is unrealistic. As any parent would attest, taking care of an infant is a round-the-clock job, filled with constant vigilance to protect the child from potential household hazards.
As author Sam Sommers aptly puts it, Situations Matter. The situation, or context, significantly influences the outcomes and effectiveness of virtually every piece of advice you will ever receive.
The Hidden Variables of Context
So much of how we see and interact with the social universe around us is shaped by our immediate context. – Sam Sommers, Situations Matter
In every context, there are hidden variables that influence the causality of behaviors, beliefs, and outcomes.
In the movie Twins, Julius goes off in search of his twin brother Vincent.
In the movie Twins, Julius, who is intelligent, well-read, and was raised on an island where he was loved, goes off in search of his twin brother Vincent. Despite being incredibly sheltered with limited real-world experience due to his isolated upbringing, Julius has much to teach Vincent, who, in contrast, was neglected and often finds himself in trouble with the law, unable to maintain a stable job. The most significant lesson Julius imparts to Vincent is about the crucial role of environment in shaping one’s life. Their starkly different environments – Julius’s nurturing one versus Vincent’s challenging one – are clearly reflected in their respective life outcomes.
Two siblings, raised by the same parents and instilled with the same values, can still end up as different as night and day.
I often quip that in an immigrant family, the first kid serves as the guinea pig, bearing the brunt of all the parenting blunders. The second one, however, reaps the benefits of these lessons learned. If you’re the eldest, you’ve probably looked on in disbelief as your younger siblings seemingly got away with murder compared to you.
The transformation from child to teenager is a rollercoaster ride, rife with surges of hormones and an intense desire to establish social status.
When I hit puberty, my folks were caught off guard, clueless about the superficiality and social posturing that is a rite of passage for every teenager. However, by the time my sister entered her teens, they’d seen it all before and were better equipped to handle the drama.
Our parents’ financial circumstances also played a key role in shaping our individual experiences. During my formative years, my father was still climbing the career ladder. By the time my sister hit high school, he was a tenured professor, providing a more stable financial backdrop for her upbringing.
I moved around so much during my childhood that most of my closest friends are people I met in adulthood. However, my sister has maintained strong ties with friends she’s known since sixth grade. This has led me to develop a higher tolerance for uncertainty and an insatiable craving for novelty. Neither one is superior to the other; it’s just that our contexts, despite our shared upbringing, were vastly different.
Kids raised by loving parents in Environments of Expectation might grow up to be productive members of society and another raised by negligent parents might end up in prison.
Environment encompasses more than just our physical surroundings; it includes cultural upbringing, access to resources, the era we’re born into, and our social network. These factors deeply influence our behavior, beliefs, and life choices, often subconsciously. Recognizing the role our environment plays enables us to make informed decisions and lead more fulfilling lives.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers discusses how timing and birth year can impact success. He uses examples like Canadian hockey players, who are more likely to be successful if born early in the year due to league cutoff dates. Similarly, tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, born between 1953 and 1955, were perfectly timed to capitalize on the personal computer revolution. This highlights how the right timing can provide a significant advantage.
The timing of events in our lives plays a substantial role in their outcomes. For example, meeting the right person at the wrong time can result in a relationship that doesn’t work out, regardless of how compatible the two individuals may be. Similarly, launching a groundbreaking idea at the wrong time can lead to the failure of a potentially successful business.
The context of time also impacts the effectiveness of certain strategies or methods. What worked in the past often doesn’t work in the future and vice versa. This is due to the ever-changing nature of our environments, societies, and individual circumstances. Recognizing this fact can help us make more informed decisions and adapt more effectively to new contexts.
We all have genetic limitations and strengths.
My revelation about the role of genetics came during a particularly humbling experience in 7th grade. Picture this – a scrawny Indian kid (yours truly) attempting to keep up with football teammates who were the size of grown men. Anybody who is from Texas will tell you just how true this is.
The coach, having praised another team member for volunteering to play center, asked if anyone else was willing to step up. Seeing an opportunity to shine, I volunteered to play on the offensive line. However, when we went through tackling drills, I found myself up against a 300lb behemoth. As he pushed me back 15 yards, the team erupted in laughter, marking the abrupt end of my football career.
Despite the popular narrative in self-help circles that rejects the idea of genetic determinism, I realized that my genetics meant no amount of practice would likely turn me into a proficient football player.
Luck is often the product of a combination of beneficial factors such as good timing, winning the genetic lottery, and being nurtured in a conducive environment. For instance, my journey to securing a book deal involved writing a million words, but I also had the good fortune of being one of the initial 500 writers on Medium, having my book discovered by Glenn Beck, and gaining a ten-year head start on a massive cultural trend. These are often overlooked as hidden variables in causality when people follow prescriptive advice or critique others.
Probability Vs Possibility
In interview on the Unmistakable Creative my mentor Greg Hartle called people out for living in a dream world, obsessing over what’s ‘possible’ while ignoring what’s ‘probable’. Sure, we can fantasize about being the next Elon Musk or Serena Williams, but are we considering our context? Are we putting in the work to make it probable in our specific situation? Or are we just daydreaming and setting ourselves up for a reality check?
Hartle’s message is clear: It’s time to wake up. It’s time to understand our context, to see where we are and what we’re really capable of. Because in our current context, not everything that’s possible is probable. So, let’s stop fooling ourselves, let’s get our heads out of the clouds and our feet on the ground. Let’s start doing the work that our context demands.
Four key contextual variables that are beyond our control include genetics, environment, timing, and luck. Some individuals may fortuitously win the ‘genetic lottery’, while others may find themselves at a disadvantage due to these uncontrollable factors. It’s essential to acknowledge that these elements can significantly shape our experiences and outcomes, and they are not easily replicable.
Context and Cognitive Bias
If context is something that impacts every area of our lives, how and why are we so blind to it. Cognitive bias results in contextual blindness. These inherent biases in our thought processes can distort our perception of reality and influence the decisions we make. Ignoring context can lead to misinformation, misinterpretation of advice, and poor decision-making.
It’s not a good idea to use famous rich people as examples, because the press only write about the very richest, and these tend to be outliers. Bill Gates is a smart, determined, and hardworking man, but you need more than that to make as much money as he has. You also need to be very lucky. – Paul Graham, How to Make Wealth
All forms of aspirational media (biographies of successful people, podcast, self help books, etc) are rampant with survivor bias.. What we don’t hear about is people who worked equally hard, did the same things and ended up wildly different results. Nobody writes books or makes movies about people who bust their asses and die penniless and broke. This is why outliers are lousy role models for most of us.
We all have a natural tendency to look for evidence that confirms our beliefs. There’s no place where this is more clear than our politics.
People who watch Fox news will seek evidence for the fact that Trump is a genius who is innocent while people watch CNN are more likely to see information that he’s guilty and an idiot. And it doesn’t help that algorithms curate content for us based on our preferences. Regardless of your politics confirmation bias will influence the media you choose to consume.
Confirmation bias goes beyond media consumption.
Imagine you’re an iPhone enthusiast. You’re drawn to articles singing praises of Apple’s sleek design and user-friendly interface, while Android’s glitches and design flaws are your go-to anecdotes. You’re exploring the smartphone landscape with iPhone-tinted glasses, my friend. That’s confirmation bias for you.
Now, flip the script. You’re an Android aficionado. You relish articles that laud Android’s customization and cost-effectiveness, while Apple’s high prices and rigid system make for your favorite water cooler talk. Again, confirmation bias is at play, steering your exploration of information.
In both scenarios, confirmation bias is your silent partner, guiding your information gathering and reinforcing your beliefs. It’s like a spotlight, illuminating facts that align with your views and casting shadows on the rest. So, whether you’re team iPhone or Android, remember to take off those tinted glasses once in a while and embrace the full spectrum of information.
Causation and Correlation
We frequently make hasty conclusions about causality in various aspects of life. My favorite, albeit absurd, example involves women with small dogs. After dating three women who owned small dogs, and having things not work out, I now instinctively swipe left on dating profiles of women with small dogs. As ludicrous as this may sound, I do it even if it means possibly missing out on meeting the love of my life. Of course, I still believe that’s unlikely.Let’s look at a less ridiculous example: habits of successful people.
Reading about Elon Musk’s 100-hour work weeks and minimal sleep might make you think that adopting his habits will lead to similar success. But this overlooks several contextual factors. Musk launched his first company during the internet’s early days, and his above-average intelligence, a genetic advantage, greatly contributed to his achievements. Furthermore, despite his childhood bullying experiences, Musk hails from a privileged background. These are all parts of his context that significantly shaped his success, and they can’t be cloned simply by mirroring his work habits.
How to Become More Aware of Context
Becoming more aware of context is key to personal and professional growth. It’s about understanding that our thoughts and actions can change depending on different situations. This isn’t being inconsistent, it’s being adaptable as we journey through life’s ups and downs.
Building this kind of awareness is a skill that we can improve over time. It needs us to really listen, to feel empathy, and to be ready to question our own set beliefs. It also means looking at the world in a wide-ranging way, appreciating the many different experiences of other people. And it requires humility, admitting that we don’t know everything and being open to learning from others. This isn’t a sign of weakness, but proof of our readiness to grow and learn.
Understanding context isn’t just about self-awareness, it’s about recognizing the invisible threads that weave the fabric of our lives. It’s about seeing the bigger picture and being able to place ourselves and others within it. Our lives are not lived in a vacuum, but in a rich tapestry of intertwining contexts. The more we acknowledge this, the better we can navigate our own paths, and appreciate the journeys others are on.
As we strive to become more context-aware, we learn that our strengths, limitations, and realities are all part of a complex, ever-changing landscape. This is not only a crucial step in personal growth, but also a vital tool for understanding and empathizing with others. Now, let’s delve deeper into how context can help us acknowledge our limitations, capitalize on our strengths, and stay grounded in reality. Remember, in varying contexts, everybody is full of shit, including me.