Have you ever heard the expression: “strong opinions, weakly held”?

It was used in the mid-80's by Paul Saffo; Director at The Institute for the Future, to explain the process for creating acceptable forecasts. As there’s always so much uncertainty about future events, it’s impossible to have a perfect forecast. Therefore, the recommendation was to let your intuition guide you before allowing yourself to be proven wrong through creative doubt.

Although this phrase was coined for use with the forecasting process, it also serves as a fantastic mantra for many other applications.

In fact, I took the phrase on with my own career in financial trading to great effect. The approach built and built, until it became a concept of its own; and one that I would happily give a large amount of credit to for my overall profitability.

The concept?

“Adapt like water, absorb like a sponge”.

It was through teaching this trading concept to my students, that I soon realised the parallels with working life in other industries — and even just with life itself. It’s a phenomenal way to fully leverage the environment around you.

With that in mind, I decided to share my thoughts with the world (or the few that will read this on Medium) and hope you’ll ‘absorb’ the concept into your own life.

Adapt like Water

When making decisions, whether that’s something unimportant like what you will eat for dinner or a significant decision like whether to quit your job, you need to have absolute conviction in what you choose to do.

Sometimes it’s not easy; there are many routes you could consider, but only one that can make the final cut. In trading, the entire process is about making decisions; essentially the market can only go up or down, but it’s easy for us to get overwhelmed by the options and make ‘flakey’ decisions that we don’t entirely support.

“Paralysis by analysis”.

Too many options leave us bewildered and unable to commit to a single decision.

In these sort of situations it’s important to consider the facts and then make a ‘gut-feel’ decision. Just go with what you think is best — just like a muscle that needs to be trained, the more often you make decisions the better you will be at them.

That’s all understandable, but what does any of this have to do with water?

This is the true beauty of the concept. You need an initial decision and you need conviction, but then in a similar way to “strong opinions, weakly held” you have to be ready to be proven wrong. This is where I want you to begin thinking about water.

Imagine a stream (a stream in nature, not online streaming like YouTube!) and think about the way it moves. There is one overall direction that the water is moving in; it has conviction in its movement.

But what happens to the water when there is a stone or rock in its path? What does it do when there are obstacles in the intended direction?

Answer: The water adapts.

When we don’t take this approach, I typically see two alternatives with decision-making; particularly during trading. Either of them will have disastrous effects and will result in lessons learnt the hard way:

1. Not enough conviction — lacking in direction.

2. Too much conviction — not willing to accept alternatives or variations.

...Not enough conviction…

When you don’t have any conviction in what you are doing; whether this is regarding an individual activity or just with life in general, you will lack a clear direction to move towards. Without direction, you will be going every which way and never staying on track with purpose.

This is a disaster for productivity, success and self-esteem.

Something I see commonly among the Millennial Generation is many of us perceiving ourselves as ‘ambitious’ and really having conviction behind that belief. However, although we have conviction in being ambitious, we lack conviction in what that ambition will be applied to. Perhaps this comes as a result of the ‘instant gratification culture’ (which would warrant a whole article of its own).

Me: “Wow, you’re enrolling at university! What will you be studying?!”
Friend: “Psychology. I can’t wait, I really want to be a psychologist”
One year later…
Me: “Hey Friend, how’s the degree going?”
Friend: “Oh, didn't I tell you? I quit after six months.”
Me: “Why? What happened?”
Friend: “Nothing, it was fine. I decided I wanted to start my own business.”
Me: “Cool! What’s the business idea?”
Friend: “I don’t have one yet, but I know I want my own company.”

“Never mistake motion for action” — Ernest Hemingway

Whatever the reason, the resulting effect is that projects are started but not completed, dreams are chased loosely but not worked towards and we lose our sense of purpose, leading to a sort of existential crisis.

This can obviously have a harmful effect on self-esteem. If we don’t know what our purpose is, or what we are working towards, we can begin to feel a vacuum within ourselves that makes us feel insecure or even depressed (as discussed in Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl).

Rather than doing what the crowd is doing or being driven by peer pressure and social norms, we need to find our own direction and have conviction to move towards it.

...Too much conviction…

On the other end of the scale are those of us who hold strong convictions in everything we do. This can also be described as stubborn, pig-headed or stuck in our ways. However, it can also be due to ‘softer’ reasons such as self-esteem issues linked to fear of rejection and being proved wrong. Sometimes we find it easier to stay with our beliefs rather than take a reality check and understand that we may have got the wrong end of the stick.

This strong conviction or stubbornness can have harmful results. If you are unwilling to yield and you are completely incorrect with your approach, it will lead to complete destruction of what you are trying to achieve.

One comparison I like to keep in mind for this, is that of a boxer.

When a boxer is being badly beaten, it is up to their ‘corner’ to throw in the towel and call an end to the fight. The thinking behind this is that the corner team are keeping their boxer safe and away from unnecessary harm, in order for them to live to fight another day.

Inevitably, when the corner throws in the towel, the boxer complains and disputes it. They will use lines such as “I was about to start getting back into it”, “this was all part of my strategy” and “what fight were you watching? I was winning that”. Their pride won’t let them accept that they were on the losing side.

We need to keep this in mind for many things we do in life. Once we let our decisions be dictated by pride, emotions or our ‘monkey mind’, we are invariably going to find ourselves in destructive moments that could have been avoided. Remember to let yourself live to fight another day. Throw in the towel occasionally when it seems you might be wrong. Save your conviction for the times it’s needed.

Remember the water…

The water will adapt to obstacles in its way. It doesn't try and power its way through the obstacle continuously, it finds a way around it. It also doesn't bounce off the obstacle and go in the opposite direction.

We need to find suitable ways around our obstacles. Adapt to your environment; adapt like water.

Absorb like a Sponge

OK, so you've adapted to your environment and understood what you need to do to move past certain obstacles. How can you avoid being in the same difficult situations again, or if you are, how can you make sure you’re prepared?

This is where the sponge comes into our analogy. You need to be like a sponge and absorb the experiences you’ve been through, both good and bad. Many of us are positive people and only like to focus on the good things that happen, whilst others prefer to focus on the bad things and never accept the good things they have done or been through. Either way, we can easily develop selective attention that can be detrimental to our future. We must absorb experiences from both ends of the scale.

But why is this so important?

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” — Mark Twain

There are two ways to gain knowledge of a certain situation:

- Read other people’s accounts;

- Experience the situation first-hand.

The first option is a lot easier, especially in negative situations. But unfortunately, point 2 is the best way to learn and the most common. Since you can’t be prepared for every possible eventuality in life, you must experience some things first-hand without having any prior understanding of what to do.

"Once bitten, twice shy."

We all know this expression, but why is it that so many of us make the same mistakes twice? Through absorbing these experiences and learning from them, you will begin to understand what you could do better next time, how you can be prepared and how you overcame them the time before. You can also avoid walking down the same blind alleys of the past and making mistakes more than once.

This includes positive experiences too, because you will want to understand what you did so well and how you can replicate the experience in the future. Whether there were any specific anchors you can use to achieve the same state and therefore the same outcome in future. Whether in the same situation, or in other similar ones.

As humans, we are happiest when we are growing and progressing. Many of us assign this focus to academic study, but neglect other areas of our life. By taking on the mindset: ‘absorb like a sponge’, you will be growing and developing in all areas of your life, just by waking up each day and living.

Putting it into practice and next steps…

Remember your mind is the navigator of everything you do in life. If you want to change the way you’re living, you need to change the approach you take with your mindset. Most things you do in life will be in autopilot mode, because you are unconsciously competent (or unconsciously incompetent in some cases!) You will need to overcome this by making active changes in your conscious mind.

Consider your subconscious mind to be a field of fertile ground, ready to grow any seeds you plant in it. Your conscious mind therefore needs to play the role of the gardener; you must plant the right seeds and tend to all the weeds that may grow.

So starting this week, keep in mind the concept of “adapt like water, absorb like a sponge”; have conviction in your direction but be flexible and take on board every experience you encounter.

Author's Bio: 

Nicholas Puri is director of The Duomo Initiative and PuriCassar AG. You can follow him on Twitter at @nikipuri

He offers development in trading/investments and life skills for success. Nicholas acts as a mentor and adviser to new start-up entrepreneurs and is available for guest speaking assignments.