Perception Paradox: Who Changed?

written by Dan Silvestre
Personal Development

perception paradox

“People are into startups a lot these days.”

This is something interesting I heard from a 22-year old friend the other day. Let’s call him John.

I am past 26 and as far as I can tell, “these days” are at least the last 10 years. People have been “into” startups for as long as I can remember (at least since I first started paying attention to it).

The “startup rage” has evolved over the years. You got unicorns, cockroaches, and anything in the middle.

In 2001 – I was only 11 and my only concern was soccer – there was the tech bubble.

This is resounding evidence that probably the rage has passed.

The perception of what is trending and interests people is affected by environment.

For example:

I now work for a tech company.

We organize Australia’s Biggest Startup & Growth Conference. It has a line-up of keynote speakers, as well as Startup Booths and Pitch Competition. It also has other events, like a Hackathon and Capture the Flag.

Every day I read news about startups, funding rounds, valuations, and IPOs.

Heck, Hacker News has become almost my new homepage!

I enjoy reading Paul Graham’s essays on startups in my spare time.

I read books about tech, business management and being an innovator.

Add to that the dozen of newsletters that I subscribe to that write about startups, VCs, and new products.

Finally, this is a favorite topic of work friends to talk about.

One could say that I am surrounded by information and discussion about startups all the time. And that’s precisely what flaws my perception that “the startup rage has evolved”.

A couple of years ago I worked in a bank.

Conversations revolved around “procurement documents”, “board presentations” and “operational cash-flows”.

All in all, a very different environment, both in conversations and type of people.

I still read about startups and tech firms, but less than I do now. Few of my friends would be interested in such a topic since most of them were still in college or on their first job.

And yet most of the unicorn valuations and funding booms happened in 2009. The “startup rage” has not been evolving: quite the opposite.

The environment flawed my perception.

My friend John is still in college interns at a tech company, working a couple of times per week.

Suddenly his environment – arguably girls, beers, dreadful exams and evil professors – changed 360 degrees.

It changed his perception, thus leading him to believe that “People are into startups a lot these days.”

The Perception of Money

perception paradoxThe first time I traveled to Australia I was backpacking around South East Asia. I then decided to go all the way down to Sydney to visit a friend.

I took that opportunity to visit other cities.

In Melbourne, I couch surfed at Jeremy’s, a tall surfing Australian that had previously stayed in my house.

At that time, he was doing his exchange in The Netherlands and went to Portugal for a few days. Now, two years later, I was the one doing the traveling while he was already a full-time bee in a prestigious Law Firm.

One night we went out for drinks in his favorite uni bar and talked about the adaptation of college life to a job. We ordered Pizzas – only $5 each! – and happily chugged some beers.

I was quick to compliment the food, partly because they were great pizzas and partly because he was buying. After that, he made an interesting remark:

“It’s funny, this was my favorite place during uni. I would come here many times a week and eat these same $5 pizzas and thought they were awesome. I have a full-time income now and can afford to eat at fancier (read: pricier) places. For some reason, these $5 pizzas are not that great anymore.”

It was an insightful comment. I pressed: “Is the quality of the pizzas worse or have you acquired – for lack of better word – a more refined taste?”

He was aware that probably he was the one that had changed. And he wondered if it was always going to be like that.

After becoming an intern he graduated from those pizzas to burgers and the occasional steak. His intern income allowed him to.

After moving one step up in the company (and lots of steps in wages) he was now fond of a particular kind of steaks and liked fine-dining.

I have seen it a lot of other friends too. Suddenly that one suit that got you through college presentations is not good enough for your new consultancy job.

Or you stop drinking beer and ask for wine during a meal because that is what grownups do.

The change of income changes the perception of value.

Think about asking “College You” for two hundred bucks for a shirt. He would probably tell you “Dude, that’s like almost a month of beer. Plus, I don’t even wear shirts, bro”.

However, you now have a job and might not even blink at that monetary decision.

With the rise of income, price matters less than other factors.

For example: comfort – a nicer shirt or first-class traveling -, speed – new phone or next day delivery -, status – a car or a house.

Our own perception is value is often wrongly associated with the price tag.

Those $5 pizzas were as good as they ever were, if not better.

Comparing your buying decisions in time can lead you to understand what changed: the environment or your outlook on money.

Unless the same exact items are getting more expensive, it’s probably on you and me.

The Perception of Time

perception paradox

I was recommending books to a 23-year old work colleague that seemed interested in the stack I have at my desk.

He scanned a few of them for some minutes. I asked him if he was looking for suggestions, but he was quick to point out that he had no time. He needed to study for his Master degree exams.

I told him he could read them after exams, but apparently, he was not a “book person” (whatever that means). I teased him, saying it would be really complicated when he actually got busy for real.

First takeaway: I should really hang out with older people.

Second lesson: we seem to think we are always getting busier.

Starting at high school – the first time you start having to prioritize what to do – up until retirement, people always seem to get busier on every “life level”: high school, college, masters, full-time job, family, and career.

Take college, for example:

Your workload, when compared to high school, multiplies ten times over. Moreover, the intensity changes dramatically. You are regularly doing papers, studying for midterms, homework and tying it all up for finals.

From the first class to the final grade, the “cycle” time is much shorter than a high school trimester.

And then you need to add up all the “distractions”: hobbies, clubs, parties and nights out, dating and figuring out life. If you also happen to start living on your own then add all the chores your parents did at home: cleaning, ironing, grocery shopping… And some even stack a part-time job on top of it all.

It’s too much to put the same energy into all the levels: most people succeed at one or two while disregarding the rest. It’s safe to assume a great student has a messy room or little to no social life.

Student life can be very stressful.

When you are thrown to the “job-world” however, you end up discovering that student life was a walk in the park.

Now, fully grown up and ready to produce value for the economy, you seem to think that “College You” was as lucky as one can be.

Your job now takes at least a third of your day, leaving you with one third to yourself – what I call the day after the day – and one third to sleep. Furthermore, you have strict rules in terms of scheduling, such as office arrival and departing hours.

The uncertainty of timings in college life is gone.

Sure, you had to study for your finals but you could choose when and where to study. Your papers would get done in the very last days – a classic example of Parkinson’s Law – while partying and hanging out with friends up until that point.

In a way, time was flexible in college and now it became rigid. We start using calendars and to do lists as well as scheduling lunches. In a way it makes you feel you value time a lot more.

Your environment changed your perception of time.

Nevertheless, it does not directly relate to your age: delaying or ignoring a shift in the environment will not change your habits.

As an example: when most of my classmates finished their studies they entered the corporate world and found the immense benefits of calendars and scheduled lunches.

At the same time, I was traveling around South East Asia for a gap year and didn’t even own a phone.

I would only get into that unrestricted club several months later.

As a final note: I have no doubt that you will look back to “Corporate You” with disdain once you evolve to Family You.

I cannot begin to imagine having to “juggle” a partner and kids. Plus the most critical time in a career (that normally shapes the rest of it). Finally, add what was there before, such as friends and hobbies.

And don’t forget the mid-life crisis!

I am blessed to have time right now to be writing these words.

Appreciate them, they might be the last!

The Perception of Priorities

perception paradox

Let’s rewind to the story of book recommendations to my colleague. His exact sentence upon hearing my recommendations was:

“I am not a book person.”

This is a classic example of perception of priorities.

You don’t classify the world into two major categories, “book people” and “not book people”. The world is not binary and it’s hard to label people that way.

What about people that read one book per year? Are they “book people” as well?

And the ones that have read one book in the last 5 years? Is there a minimum quota per annum? Surely they can’t be considered “book people”, although they have read books before.

What happens, in reality, are levels: there are people who don’t read, some who read a couple of books, those who read a lot and then the voracious readers.

At its very core, reading is a matter of prioritization.

Everyone can read and books are available cheaply. To read a book you simply must start at the first word and continue reading until the last one. Not exactly rocket science.

We read a lot every day – social media, blogs and websites, news, subtitles in movies if need be – without even noticing it. However, a lot of people have a hard time sitting down and reading from a paperback.

It’s easier to claim they do not like to read. This is probably what he meant by categorizing himself as “not a book person”. But that is effectively saying they prefer to do other things instead of reading.

“I just don’t have time” or “I have been super busy” are lies we tell ourselves. We use them to explain our choices to watch TV, play games or go to the gym in our free time.

And that’s quite alright.

I didn’t read much during college. I always intended to do it but never quite found the time for it.

However, I developed the strange habit of reading lots of books when backpacking, picking used ones for cheap. I read more than 100 fiction books during that time. If you joined all that time together, it would be a little over a year. That – by any standard – is an impressive rate.

Since I travel in learned minimalism, I do not carry a lot of things, especially gadgets. This frees up my mind, time and bag for books.

Now, I read more than ever. You can always find me reading at lunch and after work, alternating between 5 books at any given time. I find it entertaining and calming. I prefer to read before going to sleep than watching a TV show (bonus points: it helps you sleep better).

What changed?

I have changed my environment but almost no one in my circle reads like I do.

As I grew older, I found more pleasure in reading and diving deep into some topics (adults like to call this “maturing”). In order to have time to read, I forego or diminished the time spent on other activities that give me less pleasure.

At the same time, I have absolutely no desire in going to the gym with the office group.

I am – admittedly – not in the greatest shape of my life, but I can survive. I would hate going to the gym and would quit sooner than later. To keep in shape I find other activities that I like – such as tennis or soccer – and do them less regularly.

And that’s completely fine.

It would be foolish to press my work colleague to read my recommendations at any cost. Not only he wouldn’t do it but also would find me a little smirk. He chooses to pursue other interests with his time.

It’s a matter of priorities.

The Perception of Environment

People are “into startups” as they ever been. Those $5 pizzas are as tasty as they were a couple of years ago.

Our perception of money, time and priorities are bound to change as we change the environment.

The poor College You that lived for fast-food, noodles and cheap meals is now replaced with a 2.0 version. Corporate You has acquired a taste for finer things in life. He looks forward to 7-course degustation menus, preferably with wine pairings.

At the same time, you likely booked in advance: you cannot afford to wait for a table anymore. Things have been crazy at work and you long to go back in time and be a student again. Feeling lost, you wonder how your friends do it.

Some ignored working right away and traveled around the world in hostels and bars. They might have a harder time career-wise but that’s not on their minds right now. For now, they just want to experience different cultures, gastronomies and make new friends.

Changing environments – defined here in a broader sense of the location, people or information – leads to a change in one’s habits and hobbies.

Don’t blindly assume that everyone and everything changed as well.

Always question yourself:

Who changed?

Tags:: Growth, Thinking

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