Life lessons from chickens

It’s no secret I keep chickens. I find this thoroughly rewarding, as not only are they lovely primordial creatures, but with some love and care will endow a supply of tasty eggs for around the same price as supermarket eggs.

A bird’s-eye view

Chickens are very odd creatures, and one cold morning recently I wondered what (if any) life lessons we might be able to learn from them. Given how many millennia chickens have been around humans, it is no surprise that we have many sayings involving chickens.Some of my favourites:

– “It is better to be the head of chicken than the rear end of an ox” – Japanese Proverb

– “Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching for what it gets” – Henry Ford

– “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” – Samuel Butler

– “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

– “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”

– “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”

There is some hilarious truth in many of these statements, in an divination or i-ching way perhaps considering chickens can help us reflect on our own decisions. After all, why did the chicken cross the road?

Still scared

More than these amusing proverbs, chickens fear change. It takes months for them to get used to eating out of a human’s hand, and they scatter very easily (hence the playground speak for scared, “are you chicken?”). In this way, they seem to be very similar to people. A quick google of “people fear change” leads to 223 million pages.

A famous study on “Framing” by behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggests that our loss aversion (desire to minimise perceived change) almost always altered our choices even when the other choice was identical. David McRaney summarised the study nicely:

Imagine the apocalypse is upon you. Some terrible disease was unleashed in an attempt to cure male pattern baldness. The human population has been reduced to 600 people. Everyone is likely to die without help. As one of the last survivors you meet a scientist who believes he has found a cure, but he isn’t sure. He has two versions and can’t bear to choose between them. His scientific estimates are exact, but he leaves the choice up to you. Cure A is guaranteed to save exactly 200 people. Cure B has a 1/3 probability of saving 600, but a 2/3 probability of saving no one. The fate of hairlines and future generations is in your hands. Which do you pick? Ok, mark your answer and let’s reimagine the scenario. Same setup, everyone is going to die without a cure, but this time if you use Cure C it is certain exactly 400 people will die. Cure D has a 1/3 probability of killing no one, but a 2/3 probability killing 600. Which one?

Most people chose Cure A in the first scenario and Cure D in the second, but both situations presented are actually the same with different framing. The results showed how humans choose the option that minimises loss: the one with the least perceived change. According to lifehacker, because we’re so opposed to inciting change, logic can go right out the window.

By being aware of this bias, perhaps we can avoid the perils of “being a chicken”.


Pilates changed the way I run

I tried a Pilates video a few weeks ago. I know that might not be very manly, but I thought I would try something different to shake things up. I hoped it would be a bit like yoga, and help with my core strength.

It had an unexpected benefit… I discovered Lateral Breathing. This involves breathing deeply and engaging core muscles, in order to maximise oxygen exchange. I’d strongly recommend it, it feels great! There are apparently lots of benefits, and the main one I’ve noticed is to do with running. And it isn’t just in the way it feels (since I track everything I have data):

  • Over the same course…
  • My heart-rate is very similar…
  • In exchange for a 1% higher cadence…
  • And 30secs/mile faster speed.
  • This is much more than the improvement I usually see in a similar 2 weeks of training.

So yeah, try it!

Smoggy running in Chongqing last year

You might be wondering why I’m talking about this. Well, it feels like innovation. You might’ve read last week’s post about Active Procrastination: you never know what might help you approach a problem in a different way.

Innovation often occurs at the crossings between two disciplines. Some varied examples:

So I suppose this blog post is a little nudge for encourgaging doing something different, outside your normal zones, in order to experiment and learn.

Go on, do something weird. You never know what ideas it might spark.





The key to being awesome: feedback

Last week I was talking with one of my friends. “I’m going to get fired, I know for sure I am delivering below what they had hoped” he said.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of fears voiced. I encouraged him, as I am now encouraging you, to SEEK FEEDBACK. There is no need to live with insecurity. Everyone should do this, as it is valuable information about ourselves that we can use to self-improve. Doing this regularly is even better! There is no need to wait a year for your annual appraisal: by getting quicker, regular feedback we learn faster. With this in mind, please do take a minute to give me feedback on this blog, either in the public comments, or privately here:

How can I get feedback?

Often, feedback comes in an annual appraisal with your boss. You will likely also be getting some kind of feedback from your close friends (e.g. “it is really annoying when you turn up late Harry.”) In this post I’ll outline some well-established methods for getting professional feedback.

Pick some people whom you value the opinion of. This probably will be people from work, but may include some friends or family. A broad variety of perspectives and relationships will help you get a fuller picture.

Now there are many different ways I’ve seen for gathering this kind of feedback.

Start, Stop, Continue

This is arguably the simplest for a beginner: simply email some people asking them:

  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue doing?

They’ll reply with some things, and maybe you’ll want to follow up with a one-on-one discussion to check your understanding on some of the points.

360 feedback

You can do this as “Start, Stop, Continue” or as a custom SurveyMonkey form with some traits you’d like particular feedback on. The “360” element of this is that you should ensure you ask not just your manager, but also your direct reports and other peers. The top link on google when I looked was this example. It is very quantitative and trackable if you do it regularly. I would only recommend this particular site if you have a direction you want to develop in though, as it restricts ability to comment on some things, like say whether they’d really appreciate it if you used some more effective deodorant.

Johari Window

This is a personality mapping test, where you can see how different people see you compared to your self-perception. I found this quite interesting and surprising. This is much more of a long-term improvement and measurement exercise, and again you won’t get specific feedback on performance, etc. in this. Try it out here.

A conversation

This is my favourite. It is best to give the other person time to prepare and get their thoughts in order about the feedback they’d like to give you. Keep it safe by using a start-stop-continue method or other framework if you prefer. If you have particular questions, you can ask them: again preparing this beforehand is great, but don’t hide behind a piece of paper. Ideally you’d both give one another feedback, since this is a great trust-building mechanism and you can both benefit!

Other methods

There are many other ways to get feedback. Let me know if you have another favourite in the comments below.

How should I take it?

Receiving feedback can be hard, especially if it feels critical. Remember this is an opportunity for you to grow, and these people are being nice enough to help you. If you take this with a developmentally-focused, rather than self-critical, mindset, then you’re on to a winner.