Life is full of important decisions and they all have consequences. Large or small, positive or negative, intended or unintended, would you consider yourself wise when it comes to the choices that you make? What Is Wisdom is a book that invites you to practice many ways of thinking developed by philosophers throughout history and helping you make better decisions in an uncertain world.
The ability to switch between these ways of thinking will lead you to clear distinctions between what matters and what doesn’t. It will guide you towards regret-free decisions, it will give you the courage to take action when the opportunity arises, the prudence to pause when perspective is needed, and then the diligence to follow through to get closer to where you ultimately want to be.
May you enjoy with each step the sense of mastery, freedom, and wonder that awaits you. Let’s jump into my conversation with Kayvan Kian.
Welcome to Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Benji Block and today, I’m honored to be joined by Kayvan Kian. He has just come out with a brand-new book, actually, his second book, this one is titled, What Is Wisdom: A Collection of Practical Thoughts for Better Decisions in Life. Kayvan, welcome to Author Hour, thank you for joining us today.
Kayvan Kian: Thank you for the invitation, Benji. It’s an honor to be here.
Benji Block: Absolutely, I’m excited to dive into the content of your book here but maybe just give us some context on your background and what you do for a living?
Kayvan Kian: I do different things. One of which is writing and thinking. Most of my days, I work with clients as a consultant. I started as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. By now, I also have my own firm, it’s thinking and helping people not only on, let’s say, the business side of things but also on the people side of things, so how do you thrive not only as a business but also as a team, as an organization through these challenging times.
Benji Block: This is actually your second book as I mentioned. Talk to me a little bit about [it], one book takes hard work and dedication. To take on a second project like this, how did you know it was time? Was it something your clients mentioned? What brought on the second book?
Kayvan Kian: That’s a good question. I never thought that I would write a second book but the process was in a way, similar to the first. I noticed that with today’s world, there are certain challenges. I personally feel I have to think through a lot. I’m facing and solving these things for myself such as how do you make better decisions in an uncertain world when you cannot calculate a lot of things. Thinking back to March-April 2020, it was unclear how things were going to be next week, let alone next year.
This was not only decisions I needed to make professionally but also privately and after a while, realizing of course that I was not the only one dealing with this and realizing that others were in a similar situation and were thinking, “How do I even think about this?” That’s when I realized that much of this thinking and writing and all of this for myself could also be helpful for my clients and many others.
Defining Wisdom for Yourself
Benji Block: Yeah. When you’re thinking about the imagined, ideal reader for this book who might pick it up, is it someone that needs to kind of already be introduced to philosophy, or are you hoping maybe some will come to your book who are maybe scared to go read some of those older books because they don’t know where to start?
Kayvan Kian: I would say that the book is for everyone but I’ve tried to do my best, given that I wouldn’t consider myself a philosopher. I don’t have a degree in philosophy but I look at these things from a very practical angle like, what did somebody say 2,000 years ago and how could that maybe help me make a better decision today? And hopefully, it becomes much easier for those who have maybe never ever read a philosophy book before to say, “Hey, that’s actually interesting” and two, three pages [in], “I can see how this can help me” and who knows, are interested in reading other books about this.
Benji Block: Yeah, absolutely. I love how you’ve structured this book and we’ll talk about that in a bit but I’d love to hear your— kind of the beginnings of your— maybe you’d call it an obsession but your love for philosophy and these stories. Where did that come about and how did it start?
Kayvan Kian: I think it started somewhere early high school. I went to a high school where we also had ancient Latin and Greek. In a way, on one hand, it was memorizing a lot of words and things that are considered languages that nobody speaks any more, so you could say, “Okay, why bother?” What I mainly was fascinated by were the ancient myths, the stories, the lessons from back then, what they were thinking about, and already then, I felt that many of those things that people came up with those early times back then are still relevant for today.
Benji Block: For sure.
Kayvan Kian: Fortunately, I also had a few teachers who emphasized that also during university. That theme came back but it was only once I had my first startup or started also working as a consultant that many of these nice-to-have lessons became not necessarily a luxury anymore but a necessity.
Benji Block: Interesting.
Kayvan Kian: A high paced environment, a lot of complexities, things don’t always go as planned, there’s a lot of pressure from a lot of different sides to solve a difficult problem, a lot is at stake, and then something like the distinction between, “Okay, what’s in control, what’s not in control from the Ancient Stoics?” clarified a lot of things for today.
That’s how I felt that I benefited and only after then I realized that again, the people I was working with also liked it a lot but they usually would say, “I don’t have the time or the interest to spend the weekend reading all these books. Could you explain in five minutes what something we can do differently this week?” And I noticed that that’s what I really enjoyed, was translating these things in a way that makes it applicable in the moment.
Benji Block: Yeah and you do a great job of that in this book.
Kayvan Kian: Thank you.
Benji Block: Yeah, absolutely. Tackling a topic like wisdom is a big deal. It’s difficult sometimes and obviously, you’re saying pressure creates kind of this need, this desperate need for wisdom. Give me a working definition in your mind of what is wisdom to you?
Kayvan Kian: That is a very good question. I have my own answer so I wouldn’t pretend that this is the answer. The book hopefully helps the reader define for themselves what does wisdom mean, especially in today’s world. For me, it is the ability to switch between different ways of thinking and it took a while for me to realize that for myself and understanding that, “Oh this angle, this unique approach, that’s very interesting. Maybe this is what wisdom is as something that Aristotle said or something that Khan said.”
Over time, I realized that “Ah, actually I prefer not being bound by one way of thinking or by one person in the past or in the present but it’s the excitement to know, “Okay, which type of thinking would be most helpful and relevant now?” The book also doesn’t position one thinker above the other or one idea above the other. Again, that’s up to the reader to decide if you want to see it that way but the main skill was: how good are you at switching?
Benji Block: Yup.
Kayvan Kian: Hopefully that switching also gives more sense of choice, more freedom, flexibility, capability to adapt in today’s uncertain and complex environment.
Benji Block: Do you see any major differences between wisdom and discernment?
Kayvan Kian: You could. In a way, these are, I would say, very big words, “wisdom”, “discernment”. Also, What Is Water words like “meaning”, “energy”. There’s a little bit of a risk of thinking you mean the same thing but you don’t. To make it very simple and practical, I say, it is how you define it to be, and then based on that definition we can see how you think about it.
When it comes to meaning, of course, it’s a very big abstract word but in What is Water, it’s defined as that which I’m doing is contributing to something of importance to me, something larger than myself, something of significance and that’s it. At any moment of time, how good am I at noticing what I’m contributing to so I could at least infuse meaning in my activity where I might not have access to pleasure or I might chew alone or there’s something else that’s making it extra challenging? It’s helpful to give a definition to all of these things, also for the reader.
Benji Block: Yeah, I love your definition of wisdom. Obviously, how we think of these words in our head does matter but ultimately it is in the actual process of how we act that these things come to life. I just noticed a trend I would say, overall that it seems there are many that are maybe less interested in growing in wisdom and discernment and instead, wanting these quick fixes.
I’m guilty of this, right? Black and white, easy yes or no. Maybe someone just tell me what’s the right thing to do at the next step but there’s something about wisdom that’s needed in our conversations, right? That it’s not necessarily this is for sure the next best thing you have to do but it’s a template, it’s a way of thinking that provides freedom and I love that about your content.
Kayvan Kian: Thanks a lot.
Benji Block: Absolutely. What got you into this place of really searching out wisdom? What was highlighted to you about that word and what made that something that you wanted to really focus on for a whole book?
Kayvan Kian: The word wisdom always had something very appealing to it. You hear about these wise people or someone is wise, it has something mystical almost to it. For me at least, some words like “wonder”, right? It has this natural appeal and it took a while for me also to realize that I also use that word. Just as you just asked, what do you really mean by it?
When would you consider somebody to be wise? That became even more clear especially in the past years and especially since the start of the pandemic whereas you say, there’s a deep-seated need for most people that I know, including myself, for elements of stability also in life or certainty, a certain level of simplicity and clarity.
At the same time, it’s a context that many also consider to be the opposite: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. One option is to ignore that context and say, “Well, I’m going to make things as simple as clear as possible and this is just how I believe things should be done” but there’s only so much you can try until reality strikes back.
Benji Block: Right.
Kayvan Kian: You say, “Okay, wake-up call.” Reality’s way more complex than maybe I would even prefer it to be in today’s world because it’s already tough and challenging for many. The underlying wish and thought is that I meet many idealistic people. I meet people who I would consider to be genuinely good-hearted, well-spirited, they mean good things, they are creative, they are problem solvers and the like.
At the same time, the question is, how do you channel this in a way that actually benefits others, benefits the communities, society, and the families, their organizations, their teams? That’s not very self-evident, the bridge. One of the chapters in the book is also exactly about that, it’s that good intentions don’t automatically lead to good results, and people who have tried a lot in the past, wisdom comes with the years.
Life will teach you all these lessons one way or the other but my hope is that maybe there is a way to fast track that to at least understand some of these things before it’s too late.
Switching Lens Based on the Situation
Benji Block: What I want to do is, we are going to jump into a few of the stories and the people that you highlight. We’ll highlight three, I’ll highlight one and I’ll give you the freedom to pick two that you’d like to highlight for our listeners. But before I do that, I want to ask you one question and it’s actually the first question, the first sentence that you pose in the book.
The question is this, would you consider yourself wise when it comes to the choices that you make? I want to hear what your answer would be right now, having now the full context of writing this book and really contemplating that.
Kayvan Kian: Maybe I’ll answer with the second sentence of the book. At least, wiser than last year or last decade, for what that is worth.
Benji Block: Yup, it’s funny how, as we learn and as we grow, we’re actually becoming more aware of how much we don’t know, right?
Kayvan Kian: Exactly.
Benji Block: It’s an upside-down world that we kind of live in and the more you pursue wisdom, the more you realize how hard it is to attain.
Kayvan Kian: Exactly and maybe the book is just scratching that surface. If we’ll speak with each other next year, you can ask me that question again.
Benji Block: Yeah, and we can say wiser than the last time we talked for sure. I’ll highlight this chapter that you wrote on Aristotle and there was a paragraph that really jumped off the page at me and so I’ll just read it for you here. It says this:
“In a world that feels more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, where the results of one’s actions are not always as hoped for, it isn’t always apparent how to discover meaning in one’s work and therefore, it can feel difficult to find. In the words of Nietzsche, “A ‘why’ that can help you bear anyhow”—” which I love that sentence— “In the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, an often-overlooked realm where one can always find meaning in these situations is virtues, character traits that are considered to be positive.”
I love that idea, I love that theme. When you think of Aristotle and his writing and what he said on virtues, what have you gained from that and what insight do you think our listeners might take away from him?
Kayvan Kian: I hope that people see that our actions don’t only shape the external world but also your internal one. Whether again you want it or not, and sometimes when the results are not clear, at least who do you want to become might be much more clear. Then you might say, Oh, the situation is not easy, the situation is testing my patience, or, this situation might even be fearful.”
Instead of thinking about that as something that you might want to avoid at all cost, this chapter helps us want to see these chances maybe as an opportunity to actually see it as the only way that you could become a more patient person, a more courageous person, a kinder person, a more generous person. And this all of a sudden can simplify many situations that one could find themselves in.
Benji Block: Yeah, thinking about who you want to be versus maybe, “What should I do or where should I be?” It’s just a clarifying question because who you want to be is something— it’s how you show up in any room ever, right?
Kayvan Kian: Yeah, exactly and realizing that if you are mainly spending time in a context and environment that does not test you, then the question is, “Okay, what kind of person do I think I’ll become in five or ten years from now and would I be proud of that person? Would I consider that person a role model? Would that person inspire me or not?” It is something that is easily overlooked in the day-to-day life because there is, of course, this need and temptation for maybe more comfort but thinking about how the challenging situations that you’re in any way could actually be something that’s depending on how you look at it.
At a certain extent, you could even embrace certain parts of it, even be grateful that, “Ah, I always wanted to be a kinder person, my kindness is being tested now. What action would a kind person do right now so I can emulate that and grow through those difficulties, not in an intellectual way but in real life?
Benji Block: Right. I think kindness and patience are the two that we always hope that we have but we always hate the test that shows us if we actually have it, right?
Kayvan Kian: Exactly.
Benji Block: Patience is one of those things that you really only gain once you’re stuck in traffic or dealing with some difficult person somewhere and so that virtue grows in the situation you don’t want to be in, so I love that. Would you highlight for us a couple of stories or people also listed in the book? Obviously, you give so many great chapters and different virtues and things that we can grow and apply but I’d love for you to just pick a couple and talk to us a little bit about them.
Kayvan Kian: Yeah. Well, I can pick a few that especially the past years have helped me a lot.
Benji Block: I would love that.
Kayvan Kian: One chapter is called the “Bruce Lee Can Help You Adapt and Overcome Obstacles.” This is an interesting angle because in a way, it is either, you could say complimentary or it’s even the opposite of what Aristotle says over here. Very often, we might find ourselves being stuck in a situation and the idea would be, put more effort, put more hard work, push through but the insights of this chapter from ancient philosophy and also eastern philosophy and Darwinism and all of that is to be water.
It is to say that you don’t necessarily have to go through an obstacle especially when it is much easier to just go around it.
Benji Block: Right.
Kayvan Kian: But also with a sense of peace almost when I first read and heard about these ideas, the idea that says when water hits a rock, what does it do? Does it stop and complain, “Why did life bring this rock into my path”? No, it simply slides around the rock and moves along. It doesn’t underreact, it doesn’t overreact, it doesn’t stop. It just flows to the best of its abilities exactly as it needs depending on the situation and this metaphor has helped me often to also distinguish between what are the real goals and what are the means to get there.
At work, I’ve had situations where I try to convince a certain individual to support an initiative and it’s realizing this person was not very supportive and then I thought, “Okay, what could be a different way to persuade this person? What could be a different way to get this person on board?” And then realizing that getting this person on board seems to be almost a goal in itself and is distracting from the real goal and is there a way to continue even maybe without this person’s support?
Is there an easier way? As water would say, not underreacting, not overreacting but just sliding around and more often than I thought for myself but also with clients I work and friends, I think these things through, often that’s possible. That’s where Bruce Lee comes to help.
Benji Block: I love that. I mean, even just to think of water, its taking from nature is such an easy metaphor to remember.
Kayvan Kian: Exactly and as you can imagine, after the first book What Is Water, everything that has to do with that theme catches my attention even more so, I think than last year’s.
Benji Block: Right, I love that.
Kayvan Kian: That is one chapter that helps, still helps, and I believe that especially in today’s world, it requires a sense of adaptability, flexibility, that you might get stuck in elements of bureaucracy. You might get stuck in structures that were put in place for different times and it is indeed easy to get frustrated, to complain.
The answer then becomes, are you going to take Aristotle’s point of view and saying, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to practice patience, to practice diligence and all of that” or in this case, will you go maybe for Bruce Lee’s advice and say, “Okay, what’s not maybe the shortest path but the fastest path?” Just remember that time is ticking. How do you get closer to where you want to be?
Benji Block: Yeah and wisdom is, again— like you said before but I loved what you said— it’s the switching to different ways of thinking because there are certain situations that lend themselves better to each of those and as an individual as you’re listening to this, I’m sure these situations of your life, you’re thinking, “Oh, in this way, I could be water and then in this way I need Aristotle” so I love that. Highlight for us maybe one more that comes to mind?
Kayvan Kian: Another one that I find helpful on a daily basis is also a bit linked to how do you channel that idealism, that energy, that enthusiasm, that positive spirit to do something that can be helpful to solve problems is a bit of a paradox. It is a chapter on Hippocrates where basically he hits on the breaks before you move or take any action and the chapter is called, “Hippocrates Can Help You Prevent Unintended Harm”. The idea in this is that in a world that is more complex than we probably will ever know, there is a difference between what you could consider first-order and second-order effects. On one hand, when you pick an action, you have the immediate consequence and that immediate consequence could be seemingly beneficial but of course, life goes on and that consequence also has its own possibly unintended consequences.
When you add those up, then of course the question becomes, was this a wise decision? Did I take the right action? You win a little bit and then you lose maybe a lot and there is, of course, the difficulty of predicting the future that we all experience on a day-to-day basis but at least some humility to say that my solution, my simple solution or simplistic one you could also say actually might really make the situation worse in the end than it seems.
It’s the question that in the end, it’s the results that matter that the patient comes out better than before after the effects of the treatment. If you include those as well, does the community benefit in the end more than what you just calculated maybe on paper? This is a chapter that helps me a lot and it also brings a certain humbleness of how brilliant an idea could be because we don’t know until something has been tried out.
In that sense, not to deter you from taking any action or some paralysis by analysis but in fact to maybe think about what could be a pilot, right? What could be a small-scale trial? Can I test something in practice instead of only in theory before we make this a very big initiative and in the end might cause more harm on a large scale irreversible than we even wanted?
Applying the Lessons Learned to Your Organization
Benji Block: I’m encouraged in the business world specifically with this one because I do feel like technology has allowed us to pilot things more easily than committing to things for really, really long periods of time. I think you do see some lessons being learned in that space and I couldn’t agree with you more. There are definitely times in life where we won’t know until we try so to have a trial period and then reassess is the wisest thing we can do but sometimes we get so excited about our idea, right?
That we’re like, “We’re going to do this forever” and so I absolutely love that one. Is there a specific thing in your life, an area, maybe it’s in business or anywhere else where this one has really helped you?
Kayvan Kian: It has mainly to do with the less tangible sometimes more people aspect, the complex social problems people might have at work in an organization where sometimes the idea could be, “Oh but if we just changed this and this or we introduce a new policy” or do something that sounds good or looks good on paper, realizing that we might actually make the situation worse in the end.
When you think about HR policies when it comes to everything around recruiting or attracting talent in our organization or changing a certain way of working, removing certain policies, it is helpful to be a bit more mindful and as you said, not be blinded by our positive intent combined with the urgency of the problems to sort of skip many steps and not even consider or imagine that things might not turn out the way that you hope them to.
Benji Block: Well, what a fun and engaging book and I could literally talk to you about this for hours but I’m sure our listeners would tune out, so we’ll tell them to go pick up the book. Again, the book is titled, What is Wisdom?: A Collection of Practical Thoughts for Better Decisions in Life. Great title, great conversations, great chapters, and stories given here.
Let me ask you this: when readers are done with this book, what do you hope their main takeaway is? And I guess I would put it this way because there’s so many takeaways, how do you hope that the reader feels?
Kayvan Kian: I hope the reader feels more empowered, more sense of choice, and more excited to, in a playful way, apply many of the ideas of the book and not only in their professional lives but also in their private lives as well.
Benji Block: That’s great and I definitely think having taken a look and read this book, readers are going to get that out of it. I also, I have to say real fast, I love that you put pages where they could take notes right in the book. I think that’s such a good idea, you could almost carry it around if you journal or you do kind of a morning pages thing, you are bringing this with you and be able to— man, it’s like the perfect companion so I love that you did that.
For people that want to stay connected with you outside of the book, you have a website or other places people can reach out?
Kayvan Kian: Definitely, so the website is my first and last name.com, so kayvankian.com, but I am also on social media. For instance LinkedIn, you can just look me up and send a message either through the website or any other way that you prefer.
Benji Block: Thank you so much for taking time and chatting with us today on Author Hour. Congratulations on this book. I know it’s going to be a great resource for so many as they pick it up and read it.
Kayvan Kian: Thank you so much for the invitation and a thoughtful conversation like this.
Benji Block: Absolutely, cheers.