A Dance with theDivine

A Dance with theDivine


We have to nourish our insight into impermanence every day. If we do, we will live more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life much more. — Thích Nhất Hạnh

I am sitting in Boulder, Colorado at the end of July. The hum of Summer is everywhere. Nature is asserting her way effortlessly with exponential ease. The encroaching abundance is tapping at the window panes. Self-seeded sunflowers are following the sun and rocking in the breeze. Somewhere a radio plays uplifting tunes and Winter feels like an almost forgotten era, an ice-age ago.

And yet, as a first-time visitor to Colorado, I am curious about the long Winters. How everything will recede into what T.S. Eliot called the deadlands: that dormant peaceful sleep. I can’t help but stare at the enthusiastic, leaping-green foliage and tune in to its amnesia of Winter where I too am seduced and can hear my own being whispering how Winter, this year, will never arrive. How can it? In this very moment, there is no place for Winter… it is impossible. Everything is awake, even in the deep of night. Everything is alive and communing with each other.

The hum of Summer is everywhere.

Sipping ice tea, I close my eyes and imagine the white forgotten wonderland; everything snow-capped and snow deep. Some of this green will hibernate and find its new breath somewhere between April and May. But a lot of this verdant splendour will simply die. And I’m filled with a simultaneous sense of Trust and Acceptance. There is no place for grief in this present moment; no place for conversations about the impermanence of life. Right here nothing is born or dying–it is exquisitely changing molecular shape and endlessly manifesting into countless organic configurations.

My thoughts turn to those I love who have slipped into the deadlands; who have given up the ghost. And I now feel my grief smiling as I think of their old body-vessels molecularly coursing through the icy rivulets into Gold Lake; becoming the indigo of the petals of the blue mist penstemon; the shout of the gold stonecrop moss; the irrepressibly subtle lichen determined to spruce up every rock; the intelligence shaping the deciduous bushes or the ever-green resilient pines; the soft fur of a chipmunk’s tail; or the generous Summer rains and all the wildflowers sign-posting my way HOME as I walk around the lake.

I am grateful that my direct experience with death and grief has evolved into a loving acceptance and a peaceful trust in this alchemy–mystery that we call Life. And I have known all too well the grip of grief who, like a relentless hurricane, told me over and over and over that inner-peace will never, ever return.

But it does. And it will, And it is.

My loved ones are everywhere on this material plane. They have never been anywhere else. Their life-force, their essence, their spirit is having yet more dance lessons with the Divine.

The metamorphasis fills me with trust and acceptance.

I cannot think about the infinite metamorphosis of Existence without calling upon Hafiz…

Deepening The Wonder by Hafiz

Death is a favour to us,

But our scales have lost their balance.

The impermanence of the body

Should give us great clarity,

Deepening the wonder in our senses and eyes

Of this mysterious existence we share

And are surely just traveling through.

If I were in the Tavern tonight,

Hafiz would call for drinks

And as the Master poured, I would be reminded

That all I know of life and myself is that

We are just a mid-air flight of golden wine

Between His Pitcher and His Cup.

If I were in the Tavern tonight,

I would buy freely for everyone in this world

Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty

Of time and space cannot endure very long.

Death is a favour to us,

But our minds have lost their balance.

The miraculous existence and impermanence of Form

Always makes the illuminated ones

Laugh and Sing.


Here to Learn.

Here to Learn.

Most people reading this will want to be happy and successful, however you wish to define it. Fair enough.

So it stands to reason that most of us will need to ask the question eventually, what that actually takes, what are the actual building blocks.

And of course, there are many variables. Where one went to school, who your parents were, whether or not you do your homework, whether or not you let your vices get the better of you, whether or not they let you into Stanford.

But there’s one interesting thing we’ve noticed: that super successful people are never-ending, perpetual learning machines. Somewhere along the line, they got the learning bug, and it’s still with them to this day.

You meet these people and you can tell, be they seventeen or seventy. They’ve got the bug, they’ve got the vibe. You just know.

Whether their schtick was finance, or business, or science or the arts, they just allowed their minds to be open to the universe and take it all in. And they never stopped. Eventually, this led them to an idea or an angle nobody else had, and BOOM. Rockstardom followed.

We may not be rich, we not be pretty, but as long as we’re learning, as long as we’re determined to keep it this way, our lives are truly incredible things. So bear that in mind, and Godspeed to you.

By Gaping Void

Got mantra?

Got mantra?

We all have those instances when frustration, stress, or negative rumination threaten to ruin our day — and it’s up to us to course correct and reclaim our mood and productivity. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple positive mantra to act as that little reminder that everything will be OK. 

Like with meditation, there is plenty of research to back up the power of a mantra on our bodies and minds. According to one 2015 study, mantras can be effective even if people don’t regularly meditate. The research found that when someone repeats a mantra, it causes a major shift in their brain activity — specifically in the part responsible for internal evaluation, rumination, and mind-wandering. When researchers compared results between participants in a resting state who used a mantra against those that didn’t, the ones utilizing the mantra reached a more advanced state of psychological calm.

We asked members of the Thrive community to share the thoughts or mantras that help them stay positive, even on a bad day. From phrases they created themselves to age-old sayings that have spread happiness for years, their positive words have helped them overcome stress and anxiety, and will help you, too.

“Everything happens right on schedule.”

“It’s the one mantra I cling to as I watch life unfold around me in strange and beautiful ways. I can resist or I can flow, and either way, this mantra remains in place.”

—Lois Melkonian, life coach, Denver, CO 

“Things are not being done to me, they are just happening.”

“When I am having a bad day I tell myself this. When something is going wrong, many of us think someone is doing it to us, but sometimes we’re just victims of circumstance. Instead of rolling up in a ball and letting the negativity get to you, you need to realize that things just happen and deal with it. It’s like anything in life — you have to decide to either make the most of something or make the worst of it. We all know which decision would leave us happier at the end of the day.” 

—James Philip, serial entrepreneur, Chicago, IL 

“Remember who you are.”

“I have discovered that the shorter the mantra, the more easily accessible it is. Mantra is most beneficial when you are able to remember it when you need it. Stephen Hyde is a pro cyclist who shared this mantra in his documentary film, Mindful: Stephen Hyde. It is short, sweet, and effective. I have personally connected to it and really enjoyed sharing it with others.”

—Julie Westervelt, yoga teacher and founder, Austin, TX 

“It will get done.”

“When my plate is full — which is most of the time — I tell myself this. I remind myself I am fully equipped to do all that I want to accomplish. Nothing will stop me from achieving my goals. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are all the motivation you need to keep going.” 

—Marla J. Albertie, life and career coach, Jacksonville, FL

“Your way in is your way out.” 

“This mantra helps me not only stay positive, but also realize that I have the power to manage things without external validation. Business issue to solve? I’ll dive in to jump out. Heartbreak to go through? I’ll work to understand the lesson and search for answers inside, trust my gut, and learn how to sit on it and accept it. To me, this mantra is as simple as breathing — to breathe out you shall first to breathe in.” 

—Alla Adam, blockchain solutions architect, Chicago, IL 

“Love the life you have.” 

“I make a mental gratitude list and I say this to myself. At 69 years old and after 35 years as a psychologist, I recognize that appreciation and gratitude water the different aspects of our lives, and what we water and feed grows. So, I try to feel positive and appreciative, and observe the types of experiences I want to expand and grow in my life.”

—Tian Dayton, Ph.D., author and psychologist, New York, NY 

“Nothing lasts forever. Not the good, and not the bad.”

“I repeat this mantra not only during stressful times to lower my stress levels, but also during good times as a reminder to live in the moment.” 

—Sonia Ruivo, marketing consultant, Montreal, Canada 

“No one can take your joy.” 

“Mantras are a magical meditative vehicle to occupy our conscious mind and allow our subconscious to connect to our universal truth. This one mantra helps me keep buoyant amidst life’s tumultuous waves. Once you tap into the understanding that what we feel is ours, independent of the surrounding circumstances, we can reclaim the omnipotent power of which we are all capable — to feel, manifest, and live all that what we desire.” 

—Polo Reo Tate, author, artist, and speaker, New York, NY 

“You are a smart, powerful woman. You’ve got this.”

“I have a sticky note that says this on my bathroom mirror and I read it out loud to myself every morning before work. This mantra has helped me through many difficult times when I felt that I was completely out of my realm. The more I have looked myself straight in the eye and repeated these words, the more confident I have become.”

—Carrie McEachran, executive director, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada 

“Happiness is a choice, not a condition. I choose to be happy.”

“This mantra I, like many others, have suffered loss. At 40 years old, I lost my husband to an infection after a ‘routine’ surgical procedure. I was convinced I could never be happy again. In grief counseling, I learned that meditation might help me find peace. Meditating helped me discover that while I could not control feelings of sadness brought on by random memories, I could in fact, choose to be happy whenever I wanted to feel stronger. I found peace after all. Today, I allow myself to feel sad and I don’t judge that feeling or worry about any long term effects from it. I know that I can choose to be happy again.” 

—Raina Casbon-Kelts, chief experience office, New Orleans, LA 

“I step into my power regardless of what anyone else thinks.”

“This is one of my favorite mantras, even though I have a few! This mantra helps me win the war against the inner gremlins that try to shame me into hiding my gifts. It also empowers me to emit the light I feel compelled to shine. Since I do a lot of writing as a healer and coach, and am finishing up a memoir, this mantra is with me everyday. I feel a wave of courage each time I say it.” 

—Miriam Racquel (Meryl) Feldman, somatic healing, Chicago, IL

“Tomorrow is a new day.”

“This mantra that has seen me through many bad days. It serves as a simple reminder that ‘this too shall pass’ and a new day will bring new opportunities. It keeps the hope and light alive. It also reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara and her fortitude from the classic novel Gone with the Wind.

—Gia Ganesh, people and culture lead, Atlanta, GA 

“OK, next point.”

“I have received many mantras from meditation masters and enjoy them all. However, I created ‘next point’ as my signature everyday mantra. And It works every time. When I want to instantly shift my state from stress to serenity I say it to myself. It not only works for me — it also works for anyone I’m with in that moment. This mantra came about when I was taking tennis lessons; whenever I missed the ball, I would groan and grimace. My coach said to me, ‘Dianne, don’t have a mini-depression every time you miss the ball. Put your racket back, wait for the next ball, and swing!’ To me that meant: ‘OK, next point. Move to the next moment, Dianne. Every moment is fresh and new.’” 

—Dianne Collins, author and philosopher, Miami, FL 

“Inhale, exhale.”

“Repeating this phrase does two things: It reminds me to take deeper breaths and recognize that all energy is about circulation. Shallow breathing is often a negative impact of stress. Pulling in more oxygen creates more energy and allows you to release more toxins. You also cannot breathe in without breathing out and vice versa. This mantra helps ensure that I breathe in (receive support or help) and breathe out (take action or give support).”

—Beth Larsen, high performance and happiness coach, New York, NY 

“It’s all good!”

“I say this all day long with a smile on my face.” 

—Esma Deljanin, human resources manager, Westbury, NY

“I choose love.”

“This one simple mantra eases my heart, mind, and soul almost immediately, which still surprises me because it is, again, quite simple. My childhood is one of those that can be described as ‘complex trauma.’ Complex trauma can leave one with ‘scars’ of fear and self-loathing, yet I have learned that love saves and heals all. When I remind myself that ‘I choose love’ — and I might have to say it a few times for it to sink in — the fear, self-loathing, and negative thoughts that seem to overtake me lose their power and I am, instead, awash with love.” 

—Lisa Kohn, author, Wayne, PA 

“I am calm, cared for, and connected.” 

“My meditation teacher created this mantra for me as I prepared to visit my mother’s house for the first time after her death. I didn’t know if I could do what needed to be done, but these words were what I needed to regain my strength. They helped me through many difficult days, and  today when faced with stress, anxiety, or sadness, this is the mantra I still repeat to myself.” 

—Margaret Meloni, Ph.D., author, Long Beach, CA 

SPACING: letting the brain rest to absorb new data and learn.

SPACING: letting the brain rest to absorb new data and learn.

By Markham Heid

Your attention may be your most precious resource, and you only have so much of it to spread around each day.Work and social obligations demand a portion of it. And it’s easy to occupy whatever is left over with stimuli of one kind or another—whether it’s listening to a podcast or watching a show. For many people, time spent in the shower or trying to fall asleep at night may be the only remaining scraps of the day when their mind is wholly free to wander.None of this may seem like a problem.

After all, why waste time doing nothing when you could be doing something fun or productive?

As long as you’re occupying your mind with (mostly) high-quality content, what’s the harm?“. The research on learning is extremely clear,” says Loren Frank, a professor at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. “To learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.” Frank points to the evidence on educational training, which has shown again and again that people retain new information best when their minds are given time off to encode and consolidate.

Even outside of study contexts, taking small breaks after digesting new material—whether it’s a news article or an important email—appears to help your brain parse and memorize what you’ve just learned.

To better understand how brains process new information, Frank has conducted brain-scan experiments on rats. He and his colleagues have shown that when rats are allowed to rest after completing an unfamiliar maze, their brains appear to automatically replay the experience of navigating the maze. Confronted later with the same labyrinth, the rats find their way through it more quickly. On the other hand, when rats are immediately confronted with a new challenge after completing a maze, their brains don’t have the chance to replay what they’ve learned, Frank says. Later, when challenged again with the same maze, these rats aren’t able to navigate it any faster than they did the first time.Frank says the human brain seems to work in a similar way. “The brain needs free time to process new information and turn it into something more permanent,” he says.How much free time? That depends.

“We know the brain can get into its downtime state very quickly, and the education research suggests just a few minutes—five to 15—are enough to aid learning,”

The says. The amount of time a mind needs to construct a durable memory probably varies from one person to the next, and also depends on the complexity of what that person is trying to learn, he adds.Experts say idle time likely also helps develop mental processes that are far more complicated than memory storage and retrieval. “The deeper reflective states, where you make meaning of what’s going on and connect it to self and identity and integrate knowledge together into coherent narratives—these kinds of processes only happen when you’re not focused on some in-the-moment activity,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California.When your brain is bombarded with novel stimuli or information, she says, it can struggle to generate purposefulness and meaning. Too much of this can you leave you feeling aimless—or worse. “If you’re stuck in this feed-me stimulation loop, we know that this is associated with the feeling of being out of control,” she says. “It’s associated with anxiety and disconnectedness, and a feeling of, what’s really real?”

Mental idle time, meanwhile, seems to facilitate creativity and problem-solving.

“Our research has found that mind-wandering may foster a particular kind of productivity,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied mind-wandering extensively. He says overcoming impasses—including what he calls “a-ha!” moments—often happen when people’s minds are free to roam.Schooler mentions the common experience of not being able to recall a word that’s on the tip of your tongue—no matter how hard you try to think of it. But as soon as you move onto another mental task, the word pops into your head.

“I think it’s very possible that some unconscious processes are going on during mind-wandering, and the insights these processes produce then bubble up to the surface,” he says. It’s also possible that depriving the brain of free time stifles its ability to complete this unconscious work.

“I think we need to recognize that the brain’s internal train of thought can be of value in itself,” Schooler says. “In the same way we can experience a sleep deficit, I think we can experience a mind-wandering deficit.”“Many people find it difficult or stressful to do absolutely nothing,” he adds. Instead, Schooler says “non-demanding” tasks that don’t require much mental engagement seem to be best at fostering “productive” mind-wandering. He mentions activities like going for a walk in a quiet place, doing the dishes, or folding laundry—chores that may occupy your hands or body but that don’t require much from your brain.While a wandering mind can slip into some unhelpful and unhealthy states of rumination, that doesn’t mean blocking these thoughts with constant distraction is the way to go.

“I think it’s about finding balance between being occupied and in the present and letting your mind wander—[and] about thinking positive thoughts and thinking about obstacles that may stand in your way,” says Schooler.

There may be no optimal amount of time you can commit to mental freedom to strike that balance. But if you feel like it takes “remarkable effort” for you to disengage from all your favorite sources of mental stimulation, that’s probably a good sign you need to give your brain more free time, Immordino-Yang says.

“To just sit and think is not pleasant when your brain is trained out of practicing that, but that’s really important for well-being,” she adds.

Frank recommends starting small—maybe take a 15-minute, distraction-free walk in the middle of your day. “You might find your world changes,” he says.

Compassionate Directness: The Ultimate Competitive Advantage

Compassionate Directness: The Ultimate Competitive Advantage

by Arianna Huffington

In the 21st century workplace, company culture will be more important than ever. The future will be defined not just by constant change, but a constantly accelerating rate of change. Success won’t just mean being able to adapt to any one particular moment, but to the idea of accelerated change itself. This is why, more than ever, company culture will function like a company’s immune system. A healthy culture is resilient, able to manage external challenges, identify internal weaknesses, root out toxic elements and allow both the business and the employees to grow and flourish.

At Thrive Global, we believe the key to building a healthy and resilient company culture, one that will serve as the foundation for sustainable success, is something we call “Compassionate Directness.” We both teach it to other companies, and it’s the centerpiece of our own internal cultural values.

We define it as empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree, and surface problems, pain points and constructive criticism. And to do this immediately, continuously, and with clarity, but also to do it with compassion, empathy and understanding. With this as the foundation of company culture, both employees and the business can course-correct, overcome challenges, grow, evolve, achieve peak performance, reach their highest potential and truly thrive.

Too many companies believe we have to choose between being direct and being compassionate, between being honest and effective and being considerate and understanding. But we don’t. Compassion and directness are not mutually exclusive — they’re independent qualities that can be nurtured. And when brought together, the sum is greater than the parts.

The key is the unique, transformative power that both qualities have when combined. But only when combined. As we’ve seen in many of the companies we’ve worked with, when only one quality is present or is overvalued in a company culture, the result will be toxic, with damaging consequences for both employees and the company.

According to a poll from H.R. management platform 15Five, 85 percent of employees are dissatisfied with the level of communication in their workplace. And the quality of communication isn’t just about what is or is not being communicated, but about how information is being communicated. And that makes all the difference. The number one reason, according to Gallup, that employees leave their companies is the quality of their managers.

This can obviously be for many reasons, but we’ve seen what happens in the many companies in which directness without compassion is prized. Employees feel talked at instead of talked to. They become demoralized and disengaged. Feedback is met with defensiveness and resentment. Turnover goes up. Teams break down. And so do employees. One study showed that workers who felt that their managers were unjustly critical or ignored them had rates of heart disease one-third higher than employees who felt valued and listened to.

At Thrive Global, we’ve had a lot of experience with companies built on hard-charging cultures that focus on short-term growth and revenue at all costs. And yes, it can work — until it doesn’t. It’s the kind of short-term growth that sacrifices company culture, and along with it the prospects for long-term growth. Instead of growth built on expanding outward, it’s growth built on the company eating itself. And it’s not sustainable.

The idea that tough bosses who lead by fear and intimidation drive better performance is still believed in some quarters. But, as researchers have found, it’s a myth. “We’d love to find out if there are good aspects of abusive leadership,” Rebecca Greenbaum, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management, said. “There’s been a lot of research. We just can’t find any upside. Productivity may rise in the short term. But over time the performance of the staff or team deteriorates, and people quit.”

It also breeds what we call a culture of “brilliant jerks,” which arises when companies overvalue a narrow definition of performance. Creating a cult of the top performer leads to tolerance of otherwise unacceptable behavior. The collateral damage, often in the form of lower rates of retention and increased difficulty recruiting, might not be immediately obvious. But over time, as growth slows and appears to hit a glass ceiling, the costs become too great to ignore. It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult to root out. A study by researchers from The University of Central Florida’s College of Business confirmed that bullies who are thought to be top performers are much more likely to have their behavior overlooked.

Likewise, company cultures that undervalue directness have their own set of problems. When employees and managers are reluctant to speak up, whether it’s out of fear of being “the bad guy,” or rocking the boat, or because feedback is discouraged and disincentivized, ordinary challenges and setbacks are allowed to take root and fester. Opportunities to course-correct (“Captain, we appear to be headed for an iceberg”) are missed — often until it’s too late. Not every missed opportunity sinks the ship, but they’re still costly. One study found that every time an employee sidesteps raising an important issue, the costs to the company are an average of $7,500. It also becomes impossible to iterate and improve. And it sinks morale. Employees see things that aren’t working and become disengaged when there’s no acceptable way to say so.

And, worst of all, it’s not just the company that won’t grow and evolve, but the employees. Feedback is how we improve and get better. There’s nothing wrong with failure or mistakes. They’re inevitable. But being able to learn from them isn’t. And ignoring them or not giving employees honest, constructive feedback isn’t polite, it’s disrespectful — it doesn’t acknowledge their potential or help them reach it. It’s not supportive, it’s indifferent.

But for feedback to be given — and, even more important — received in a constructive way that leads to real growth, it has to be done not just with directness but with real compassion and empathy. This isn’t about being soft or solicitous, it’s about acknowledging the way humans work and that we bring our whole selves to the workplace. And this can only be achieved if the company cultivates a culture of trust and psychological safety.

As Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, says, it’s also good for business: “A new field of research is suggesting that when organizations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress,” she writes, “they may not only see a happier workplace but also an improved bottom line.”

But to be able to flourish, compassionate directness has to be undergirded by a strong sense of trust. Once that trust is there, feedback is taken not defensively, but in good faith. Employees and colleagues know their best interests are being taken to heart and they’re being supported. They know it’s not about the person, but the job. Problems can be surfaced in a way that’s not about blame. Companies can course-correct in real time. Employees and teams are much more likely to take risks, innovate, think unconventionally, and approach problems creatively. And they become much more deeply engaged.

That’s when the much buzzed about concept of “psychological safety” can take root. The term was coined several years ago by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

This is why compassionate directness just can’t be a top-down policy — it’s an on-going, two-way conversation. But it does have to start at the top. As research by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley shows, as people gain more power in organizations, they actually become less empathetic. “We often underestimate, once into positions of power, the effects we have on other people,” he says. That’s why compassionate directness requires that leaders and managers model it themselves, and work hard to be just as open to immediate and honest feedback and as willing to grow as every other employee. This requires courage, transparency and vulnerability.

Compassionate directness isn’t just another way to do performance reviews. To harness its unique power, it has to be a 360 company value — baked into every part of the company, its mission and its long-term goals. That’s why it’s first on Thrive Global’s list of cultural values — it creates the conditions for all of our other values. It’s the foundation of our ability to grow, scale and achieve our ambitious goals. 

When a culture of compassionate directness is created, people respond. They want to be empowered to make their voices heard and they want to be respected enough to get the honest feedback they need to realize their full potential. Changes in technology, workplace culture and the culture at large have ushered in a new era of expectations. Today’s workers place an unprecedented value on engagement, transparency and workplaces that offer the opportunity to grow. And when we learn to be better communicators, we’re more creative, we take more risks, and we’re far better able to identify problems and course-correct before they become crises.

Competing in today’s world requires recruiting talented employees, being able to retain them once they come aboard, and then being able to unlock their full potential. Compassionate directness doesn’t just make a company a more pleasant place to work — it drives better business outcomes, provides a competitive advantage and creates the resilient culture necessary to navigate constant change.

For many of us, compassionate directness may not come easily at first. And that’s ok. What’s important is finding ways to put it into action. When you flex your compassionate directness muscle, you’ll not only begin to see the benefits – you’ll see that it gets easier with practice. To help you get started, here are three of my favorite compassionate directness Microsteps:

Before your next one-on-one, pause to reflect before giving feedback.

If you’re stressed or rushed, you’re more likely to deliver feedback without compassion or empathy — even if that’s unintentional.

Each time you notice a problem, find a way to surface it immediately.

Don’t just hope a problem will go away, or assume someone else will fix it. When you speak up with compassionate directness, everyone benefits.

Each time you have constructive feedback, share it with compassion.

Giving compassionately direct feedback is how we course-correct and grow as individuals. It’s also how many of our best ideas come to light.

Nudging the world toward smarter public policy: An interview with Richard Thaler

Nudging the world toward smarter public policy: An interview with Richard Thaler

Oct 23, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

Interviewers: Dan Novallo and Allen Webb

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

Some economists spend their professional lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land building abstract models of a rational economy that doesn’t exist, never existed, and never will exist. But Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago professor who just won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics, is that rare academic whose ideas not only address real-world problems but have also been put into effect.

In the United Kingdom, for example, a “nudge unit” (actually, the Behavioural Insights Team) inspired by his work aims to develop policies helping citizens make better choices.

It got its nickname from the title of the book Thaler wrote with Harvard’s Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, about applying behavioral economics to the functions of government.

Policy makers can nudge people to save more, invest better, consume more intelligently, use less energy, and live healthier lives, Thaler and Sunstein argue, through greater sensitivity to human tendencies such as “anchoring” on an initial value, using “mental accounting” to compartmentalize different categories of expenditures, and being biased toward the status quo.

In this interview with University of Sydney professor Dan Lovallo and McKinsey’s Allen Webb, Thaler describes some of the Nudge Unit’s early efforts to boost both organ donation rates and the volume of data that governments and businesses share with individuals. The more transparent data environment envisioned by Thaler holds profound implications for business leaders. “Strategies that are based on obscuring the consumer’s choice,” argues Thaler, will not be “good long-term strategies.”

The Quarterly: What’s your sense of how the Nudge Unit came about in the first place?

Richard Thaler: I got to know David Cameron and George Osborne. David Cameron and George Osborne have been, respectively, the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer of the United Kingdom since May 2010. right after Nudge came out. One of their young staffers had read it and passed it on to them. Mr. Cameron liked it and put it on a required summer reading list for the Tory MPs. Gratifyingly, this turned out not to be just a campaign gimmick. When they got in office they said, “Let’s try to do something.”

People in Downing Street call it the Nudge Unit, but the official term is the Behavioural Insight Team. A bunch of bright civil servants on the team are going around trying to get agencies to think about how they incorporate this tool kit into the things they do. It’s hard to know whether this is early days of a new administration or people being polite to me. But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the openness—almost the eagerness—of people to talk to us. I’m sure that there are skeptics. But they are keeping that skepticism to themselves, at least initially.

The Quarterly: What is the core message you try to deliver in those meetings?

Richard Thaler: My number-one mantra from Nudge is, “Make it easy.” When I say make it easy, what I mean is, if you want to get somebody to do something, make it easy. If you want to get people to eat healthier foods, then put healthier foods in the cafeteria, and make them easier to find, and make them taste better. So in every meeting I say, “Make it easy.” It’s kind of obvious, but it’s also easy to miss.

The Quarterly: Which of your ideas seem to be gaining the most ground?

Richard Thaler: Two things seem to have traction. One is building on the idea of changing defaults, which is an idea that had already caught on. A big pension reform that Adair Turner took on had automatic enrollment built into it.

The Nudge Unit has an advisory committee, and in the very first meeting with the committee we said, “Let’s try to do something about organ donations.” The idea I’ve been pushing on for that is something I call “prompted choice” that we use in Illinois, where I live. When you get your driver’s license renewed, they ask, “Would you like to be an organ donor?” In Illinois, that doubled the number of people on the organ donation list. So a decision has been made to do this in the UK, starting with motor vehicle registration and possibly moving to the National Health Service, which could make more sense in the UK, since everybody’s enrolled in that, and not everybody has a car.

The Quarterly: So defaults, which have already had an impact on pensions in the UK, are now coming to organ donation. What’s the second big priority?

Richard Thaler: The second thing that is getting traction is about data. There’s a big report the Nudge Unit has written, and the interesting thing here is they have gotten a big bunch of companies to agree to sit at the table and help design this.

One general principle is that lots of good things can happen if the government just releases data it already has in machine-readable, downloadable format. A good example of this is in San Francisco, where the Bay Area Rapid Transit system has for years had GPS locators in all their buses and trains. There was some big control room someplace where you could see all these things moving around. They took that data that they already had and put it online in real time in a format that app designers could tap into. Now there’s an iPhone app that knows where you are and will tell you when the next bus is coming.

So that’s one part: government releasing data. The second part is getting firms to release data. One goal there is to get complete price transparency. Another initiative is getting companies that are collecting data on your usage to share that data with you. When it comes time to renew my smartphone calling plan, I’d like to be able to get a file that I could upload to some Web site that would tell the search engine the way I use the phone and, so, what features I should be looking for. It might even be able to tell me, if I’m about to switch to some new model, how much more my data usage is likely to jump based on past experiences.

The Quarterly: What are the business implications of the data policies that the Nudge Unit advocates?

Richard Thaler: I firmly believe there’s a kind of regulation that can improve competitive outcomes that some firms should be afraid of but others should welcome. It’s clear that some companies’ explicit strategy is obfuscation. Rather than “make it easy,” their goal is to make it hard: They make the pricing strategy obscure. They make it easy for the consumer to screw up. And then they make a lot of money.

Right now, it’s very easy to find what the best airfare is from Chicago to San Francisco. It’s not so easy to find all the charges that might come associated with that, especially if you have a big suitcase. And there are plenty of stories of credit card companies that are making all their money on late fees and increases in interest rates, and debit card companies that will stick a big charge that puts you over the limit at the head of the queue, so that the next six times you swipe your card for a coffee, you get charged 25 bucks each time.

Now, in my dream world, through all these data release programs, we make it easier for consumers to be smart shoppers, because the release of the data spawns Web sites that offer shopping tools. It’s not that we want consumers to spend any of their time poring through Excel spreadsheets. We want them, with one click, to be able to go to a Web site and be told, “Your credit card company is charging you hundreds of dollars worth of fees, and if you switch to this other one that sends you text messages when you are about to go over your limit, you could cut your costs in half.”

Many firms view this with fear and trepidation, and some of them should. But others should view this as an opportunity. There’s an opportunity for firms that want to compete on the basis of fair dealing. If we really succeeded with all these initiatives about transparency and making it easier to shop, then we’re going to make it possible to compete on a completely different level. Firms that honestly can say to themselves, “We succeed by having the best products and treating our customers fairly, and we’re getting screwed by the unscrupulous guys”—they should welcome this initiative. The ones who are doing the opposite should fight me tooth and nail.

The Quarterly: You described a more transparent environment as your dream world. Can you point to places where it may become a reality anytime soon?

Richard Thaler: The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has created a national Web site where people can post complaints about products, such as children’s cribs. This is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart because two of my good friends had an 18-month-old son die in a crib accident at day care—in a crib that had been recalled, but there was no way to find out about that.

Now, there are companies that are fighting this because, they say, some of the information that will be posted will be malicious. While of course it is true that some people may post bad reviews of products—and even the greatest products have some detractors—a good product will manage to overcome some bad-mouthing in the social media. If you’re really proud of your product, then you won’t mind a complete airing of people’s opinions.

What firms have to understand is, this sort of transparency initiative—and, in fact, more generally, the whole Nudge approach to government—is a middle ground. The alternative is having the government administer a two-year test of every product you make. That is much worse from a producer’s point of view.

We’re all going to make some mistakes, and nobody builds a crib that’s intended to strangle toddlers. But sometimes they’ll build a crib that human parents will set up wrong. A crib’s got to be designed in a way that nobody can possibly set it up wrong. And if somebody figures out how to set it up wrong so that it’s dangerous to kids, the manufacturer should want to know.

The strategy of dealing with these things by settling lawsuits with the unlucky consumers, subject to nondisclosure, is not one that’s good for the world. Strategies that are based on obscuring the consumer’s choice are not good long-term strategies. And I would encourage firms that are making their money that way to think long term and think about how they can survive in a world where everything is transparent and obvious.