The Dark Side of Living and Moving Abroad

Nkem Ndem
Many days have since passed, still, I can’t shake off the dreadful feeling that came with the early hours of October 20, 2020.

I remember waking up and reaching for my phone, only to see messages from my friend’s wife telling me that the peaceful protesters at Lekki, Lagos, had been shot at by members of the Nigerian Army, leaving some protesters injured, and others murdered in cold blood.

The protests, which had begun to demand an end to police brutality and harassment of citizens by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), had escalated into the harrowing hashtag: #LekkiMassacre.

The thought of those innocent citizens lying there, helpless as a result of fighting for what was rightfully theirs, brought on a strong wave of anxiety – the kind that prickles your armpits, triggers nervous farts from your belly, and hits you with such nausea that you have to viciously grind your teeth to keep it from pouring out of you.

There was also the recurring thought that it could easily have been me.

I stay in Lekki Phase 1 whenever I am in Lagos, and I had friends who had been regularly going to the protests. It could have been me.

Seeing as it was about 8 AM for me in Japan, but midnight (the previous day) in Nigeria, I couldn’t reach anyone until much later in the day.

The first person I called was my favourite sister, Promise.

Then the rest of my family and close friends.

Thankfully, they were safe.

Speaking with one of my friends, however, a comment he made bugged me a lot.

He said, “Ah! My dear, you are so lucky you are not in Nigeria. Living abroad is the dream, I can’t wait to leave this country so that I can be happy in life, I swear.”


I wanted to say, “My dear, not all that glitters is gold,” but I knew he would only see it as me being ungrateful.

I mean, when you live and work abroad, you can’t complain to friends back home because, in their mind, you live the perfect life: beautiful weather, earning in dollars, 24 hours electric power supply, and good healthcare.

How dare you complain?

Following the turn of events in Nigeria with the protests, some Nigerians on social media have also comically indicated their readiness to leave Nigeria for countries such as Canada, Australia, Italy (thanks to the Oloture movie), and even Ghana—anything to escape the rot that is the Nigerian system.

To be fair, I get it.

But then I have to say, “Look before you leap.”

The idea of living abroad is often glamourised by the media, and we sometimes picture a perfect life filled with exciting adventures, unstinting opportunities for financial or career growth, the wonder and excitement of a new culture, food, people, and language, and so on.

But the truth is that living abroad is great until it isn’t.

Over time, the excitement and awe start to wear off.

The food that was once exotic becomes ordinary and utterly tasteless; the pressures of work combined with the herculean task of finding new friends and building a social life start to weigh you down; the unending list of bills make you want to ask if ‘na only you waka come’; and the loneliness chokes you so badly that life doesn’t just become less exciting, it also gets overwhelming and unbearable.

No one really tells you that relocating to another country comes with its own set of difficulties and concerns that, if not fully dealt with, can slowly lead to serious mental health challenges.

In the last 4 years, I have moved to and lived in 3 different countries, and I can tell you for sure that if someone had previously told me that I would ever get to the point of dealing with depression or any kind of mental health issue, I could have spat in such person’s face for even thinking it.

I mean, I am the strongest person I have ever met – emotionally and mentally.

My decision to move, live, and work abroad was meant to be a solution to the massive burnout I suffered from working multiple jobs in Lagos and still earning what I considered a pittance.

I was so relieved when we landed at Yangon airport, Myanmar, for my first overseas job that tears welled up in my eyes.

Now that I think about it, I guess that sense of relief was the reason I remained oblivious to the symptoms of depression until it escalated to the point of triggering an anxiety disorder as well.

I recall that for about three months before the night I became fully aware of the situation, I hadn’t been sleeping well and was always exhausted.

I had no energy, my patience level was significantly lower than usual, and I suffered a lack of appetite while also managing constipation that could not be abated by Tums.

Then there were the episodes of shallow breathing (I even went to the hospital to have my lungs x-rayed).

I was getting more emotionally fragile and highly unmotivated with everything.

I lost interest in socializing and that slowly bred what I prefer to call an existential crisis.

The crisis came with major intrusive thoughts that life was purposeless, hopeless, had no meaning and there was no rational reason to keep living.

It was insane.

The thoughts of death and dying were unending.

As much as I knew I would never harm myself, I found myself starting to empathize with people who commit suicide.

I thought, if they were ever mentally burdened the way that I was at the time, then maybe they were justified.

Of course, at the time, I wasn’t sure why all that was happening to me.

I didn’t understand it so I could not talk to anyone about it.

I think, to an extent, I was also ashamed of my thoughts.

The most chilling part of it all was that I wasn’t myself for all that time and no one noticed. Not my family.

Not my friends back home.

No one.

And yes, that’s another thing – when you move, your family and friends chat you up and FaceTime you like there’s no tomorrow for like the first one or two months, but as time goes, they kind of stop.

Perhaps, the time difference doesn’t help.

The panic attack that shook me into awareness came that night out of the blues.

No trigger.

Nothing at all.

I just remember that I woke up abruptly from sleep, my heart was beating ultra-fast, and a still small voice in my head said, “This is it, you are about to die now, say your last prayers.”

It was the most intense panic attack I have ever experienced to date, and I would not wish it on anyone, not even my enemy.

I wasn’t sure how I got to my neighbor’s apartment, but luckily she was awake.

She was, of course, terrified as I knocked on her door in my underwear.

She called the ambulance and they came, but before we got to the hospital, I was beginning to feel better.

The nurses did a full bodywork as well and said I was fine.

Then, after a series of questioning by the doctor, I was prescribed some anxiety medication, and scheduled to see a resident psychiatrist.

I initially opposed the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, not because of any stigma, but because it would cost me $250 per session and it wouldn’t be covered by my health insurance.

The schedule I was given was also a bit loaded. I eventually caved in and after a few sessions, she determined it was ‘expat depression.’

Further sessions and study of my symptoms also determined I had an additional anxiety disorder – all from starting life in a new country.

Who would have thought this was a thing?

I opened up to a few friends earlier this year about my experience and how I dealt with it all, and I found that one who relocated to Canada and others who live and work in some other parts of the world also had similar experiences but never talked about it for fear of being tagged ‘weak.’


I think it is a shame that we do not talk enough about the depression that comes with moving abroad or just the mental health side of it.

It is something people have been and will continue to deal with.

No one is immune when it comes to stress and mental health issues. Being aware of it and knowing others who are going through it, or have gone through it, can be helpful.

My experience and those of my friends are probably unique to people who move abroad alone and for work purposes.

Perhaps the experience may be different for people who move abroad to continue their education or people who move with their family.

While I cannot speak for all situations, I have to say that if you are planning on relocating abroad for any reason at all, please manage your expectations.

Do not imagine a chop life situation, expect it to be challenging.

Research properly and ask people who moved to your intended location questions about coping with life and the standard of living there.

Doing that will help you shape the right mindset.

Next, ensure you prioritize self-care when you eventually move so that you are able to face the challenges that each day brings.

Remember to sleep and exercise.

Recognize depression if or when it sets in, and seek help at the earliest opportunity.

You can keep up with friends and family at home as much as possible, but also try going out and making new friends locally.

Finally, know that there is no shame in running home if you find that you can’t cope.

Your happiness and sanity matters.


Nkem Ndem is a member of D.I.S.S Alumni, Class of 2001. This article was originally published on Bella Naija blog.

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Mental Health Prevalence in Children and Youth

Editor’s Note:

This article was originally published on Safe Responders’ website (

Safe Responders is a volunteer-based, non-profit organization, which provides free emergency response services in Nigeria.

Okechukwu Onye, a member of D.I.S.S Alumni (Class of 1997), founded Safe Responders.


picture of a frightened boy

According to World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

The United Nations, for statistical purposes, defines ‘youth’, as those “persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years, without prejudice to other definitions by the Member States”.

By that definition, therefore, children are those persons under the age of 14.’’

Mental health disorders account for the highest burden of disease among young people worldwide.

More than 50% of mental health disorders can be diagnosed before the age of 25, making childhood and youth years a critical time for mental health promotion.

Early identification and access to effective treatment is very important.

Having a mental health disorder at a young age is different from having one as an adult.

When a developing child or youth is afflicted with a mental health disorder, it becomes difficult for them to acquire the necessary skills and habits that they should, at that time in their lives.

Prevention of a disorder at a young age may significantly decrease the chances that a child will suffer from a disorder later in life.

Promoting healthy behaviours and taking steps to better protect young people from health risks are critical for the prevention of health problems in adulthood.

Therefore, it is strongly advised that parents should keep an eye on their children if they have any reason to believe that something is not right.

If they are evaluated of any mental health disorder earlier, treating and managing it becomes easier.

Early signs of Mental Health Disorder in Children and Youth

There is no medical test or scan that reliably indicates whether a person has developed a mental illness.

However, people should look out for the following as possible signs of a mental health disorder:

  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and colleagues
  • Avoiding activities that they would normally enjoy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having consistently low energy
  • Using mood-altering substances, including alcohol and nicotine, more frequently
  • Displaying negative emotions
  • Being confused
  • Being unable to complete daily tasks, such as getting to work or cooking a meal
  • Having persistent thoughts or memories that reappear regularly
  • Thinking of causing physical harm to themselves or others
  • Hearing voices
  • Experiencing delusions

Key risk factors for mental health disorders in Children and Youth

  • Civil conflicts and Political instability
  • Poverty
  • Underemployment and unemployment
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Child Abuse
  • Molestation and Rape
  • Violence
  • Diseases and ill Health (such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and the current COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Social Influence, Bullying and Stigmas
  • Homelessness

Common Mental Health Disorders in Children and Youth

Anxiety disorder and panic attacks

When a child has an anxiety disorder, they begin to lack proper social interaction and associate many ordinary things with intense fear.

This can be scary for the child because they don’t necessarily understand why they act and think the way they do.

Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience.

Most of the time, these emotions are not a problem.

People who struggle with anxiety disorder often find themselves struggling with low self-esteem.

They may have poor confidence in themselves or think they are worthless.


Depression is diagnosed if a person experiences these symptoms for more than 2 weeks: Feeling sad, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, difficulty concentrating and making a decision, changes in appetite, overeating or not eating enough, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue, restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech, feelings of worthlessness or guilt and thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) – Anger  

Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is an impulse-control disorder characterized by sudden episodes of unwarranted anger.

The disorder is typified by hostility, impulsivity, and recurrent aggressive outbursts.

People with IED essentially “explode” into a rage despite a lack of apparent provocation or reason.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that can cause extreme periods of low (depressed) and high (manic) moods.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health disorder in which you cannot stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can’t be seen by others.

But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life.

It is characterized by unstable moods, behaviour and relationships.

Dissociation and dissociative disorders

It is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.

Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder.

Drugs & alcohol addiction

Drug and alcohol addiction affects a person’s brain and behaviour and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication.

Substances such as alcohol, marijuana and nicotine also are considered drugs. When you are addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.

Eating disorder/problems

An eating disorder is when someone has unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviour around food.

Hearing voices

Mental health professionals may call hearing voices an ‘auditory hallucination’.

A hallucination is where you might see, hear, taste, smell or feel something that exists only in your mind.

It can be a common symptom of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder or severe depression.


Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.

A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items.

Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.

Hypomania and mania

Mania and hypomania are periods where a person feels elated, very active, and full of energy.

Hypomania is a milder form of mania.

Mania and hypomania both involve periods when the individual feels excited or experiences an energized mood.


Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

It is a mental disorder in which a person feels the need to perform certain routines repeatedly (called “compulsions”), or has certain thoughts repeatedly (called “obsessions”), to an extent which generates distress or impairs general functioning.

Panic attack

A sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than imminent danger.

Paranoid Personality disorder (PPD)

People with PPD suffer from paranoia, an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others, even when there is no reason to be suspicious.

Personality disorders

A personality disorder is a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time.


Phobias are a persistent, intense, and unrealistic fear of a certain object or situation.

Postnatal depression & perinatal mental health

This is a depression that occurs after childbirth.

Those who develop postpartum depression are at greater risk of developing major depression later on in life.

Symptoms might include insomnia, loss of appetite, intense irritability and difficulty bonding with the baby.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis given to people who develop a certain set of symptoms following a traumatic event.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

PMDD causes severe irritability, depression, or anxiety in a week or two before your period starts.

Symptoms usually go away two to three days after your period starts.


Psychosis is a term used to describe when a person perceives the world in a different way to those around them.

This can include how a person will experience, believe or view things.

Schizoaffective disorder

Schizoaffective disorder is a mental illness that affects a person’s mood, thoughts and behaviour.


Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that affects the way a person thinks.

It may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behaviour that impairs daily functioning, and can be disabling.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

A mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year.


Self-harm is when someone purposely hurts themselves, usually in order to cope with intense emotional distress.

Sleep problems or Insomnia

Sleep disorders are a group of conditions that affect the ability to sleep well on a regular basis.

Insomnia, the inability to get to sleep or sleep well at night, can be caused by stress, jet lag, a health condition, the medications you take, or even the amount of coffee you drink.

Suicidal feelings

This is when someone thinks of taking their own life.


Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causing feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.

Specific ways to promote mental health in Children and Youth include:

  1. Early childhood interventions (e.g. providing a stable environment that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, with protection from threats, opportunities for early learning, and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive and developmentally stimulating);
  2. Support to children (e.g. life skills programs, child and youth development programs);
  3. Socio-economic empowerment of youth (e.g. improving access to education and microcredit schemes);
  4. Programs targeted at vulnerable people, including minorities, indigenous people, migrants and people affected by conflicts and disasters (e.g. psycho-social interventions after disasters);
  5. Mental health promotional activities in schools (e.g. programs involving supportive ecological changes in schools);
  6. Housing policies for the homeless
  7. Violence prevention programs (e.g. Prevent access to drugs and arms, promote ‘’drink responsibly’’ among youth);
  8. Poverty reduction and social protection for the poor;
  9. Anti-discrimination laws and campaigns;
  10. Promotion of the rights, opportunities and care of individuals with mental disorders.

Mental Health Care and Treatment

It is always important to take psychiatric care for the patient with mental health illness.

Although it is considered a stigmatized and spiritual matter sometimes, however nowadays people are getting aware of these things and seeking medical treatment and psychosocial counselling for their betterment.

Therefore, building life skills in children and youth and providing them with psychosocial support in schools and other community settings can help promote good mental health.

Programs to help strengthen the ties between the youth and their families are also important.

If problems arise, they should be detected and managed by competent and caring health workers.

Treatment Methods for Mental health disorders include:


Pharmacotherapy/Medication is a therapy that uses pharmaceutical drugs.

Pharmacotherapy is used in the treatment of mental illness through the use of antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and anxiolytic drugs.

These drugs do not really cure mental disorders, rather, they can improve symptoms and help a person resume social interaction and a normal routine while they work on their mental health.

Physical activity

For some people, physical exercise can improve mental as well as physical health.

Playing sports, walking, cycling or doing any form of physical activity triggers the production of various hormones, sometimes including endorphins, which can elevate a person’s mood.

Activity therapies

Activity therapies, also called recreation therapy and occupational therapy, promote healing through active engagement.

Making crafts can be a part of occupational therapy.

Walks can be a part of recreation therapy.

In recent years colouring has been recognized as an activity which has been proven to significantly lower the levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety in many studies.

Expressive therapies

Expressive therapies or creative arts therapies are a form of psychotherapy that involves the arts or art-making.

These therapies include art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy, and poetry therapy.

It has been proven that Music therapy is an effective way of helping people who suffer from a mental health disorder.


Psychotherapy is a general term for the science-based treatment of mental health issues based on modern medicine.

Examples are Cognitive behavioural therapy, Psychedelic therapy, transpersonal psychology/psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and Dialectical behavioural therapy.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and some primary care physicians carry out this type of treatment.

It can help people understand the root of their mental illness and start to work on more healthful thought patterns that support everyday living and reduce the risk of isolation and self-harm.


The practice of mindfulness meditation has several mental health benefits, such as bringing about reductions in depression, anxiety and stress.

Mindfulness meditation may also be effective in treating substance use disorders.

Further, mindfulness meditation appears to bring about favourable structural changes in the brain.

Mental fitness

Mental fitness is a mental health movement that encourages people to intentionally regulate and maintain their emotional wellbeing through friendship, regular human contact and activities that include meditation, calming exercises, aerobic exercise, and mindfulness, having a routine and maintaining adequate sleep.

Mental fitness is intended to build resilience against every-day mental health challenges to prevent an escalation of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, and help them cope with the escalation of those feelings if they occur.

Spiritual Counseling

Spiritual counsellors meet with people in need to offer comfort and support and to help them gain a better understanding of their issues. These types of counsellors deliver care based on spiritual, psychological and theological principles.

Although, this is often misconstrued by some religious leaders, who believe that mental health disorders are signs of possession by the devil.

This has led to several mentally ill patients being dehumanized, as practiced in the ancient days, before Dorothea Dix, a retired Boston teacher who is considered the founder of the Mental Health Movement, began a crusade in 1943 that would change the way people with mental disorders are viewed and treated.

She submitted a Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts, describing the abusive treatment and horrible conditions received by the mentally ill patients in jails, cages, closets, cellars and pits, chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.


A person coping with mental health difficulties will usually need to make changes to their lifestyle to facilitate wellness.

Such changes might include reducing alcohol intake, sleeping more and eating a balanced, nutritious diet.

People may need to take time away from work or resolve issues with personal relationships that may be causing damage to their mental health.

People with conditions such as anxiety or depressive disorder may benefit from relaxation techniques, which include deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness.

Having a support network (e.g. Volunteer groups, close friends and family, pets) can also be essential to recovery from mental illness.

Friends are a support system for the child and family as a whole.

Living with a mental disorder is never easy, so it’s always important to have people around to make the days a little easier.

However, there are negative factors that come with the social aspect of mental illness as well.

Parents are sometimes held responsible for their child’s illness.

People also say that the parents raised their children in a certain way or they acquired their behaviour from them.

Family and friends are sometimes so ashamed of the idea of being close to someone with a disorder that the child feels isolated and thinks that they have to hide their illness from others when in reality, hiding it from people prevents the child from getting the right amount of social interaction and treatment in order to thrive in today’s society.

Therefore, it is strongly advised that parents should keep an eye on their children if they have any reason to believe that something is not right.

If they are evaluated of any mental health disorder earlier, treating and managing it becomes easier.




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How to Make Better Decisions


What should I wear today?

What should I have for breakfast?

Should I take that job offer?

thinking man

Every day, we make countless decisions.

A lot of our decisions are instantaneous.

We don’t think too much before making them.

But some decisions are deliberate.

We take our time, weigh the pros and cons, before deciding on a course of action.

Decisions affect our happiness, health, relationships, and career.

Our future largely depends on the decisions we make today.

Yet, we rarely think about decision-making itself.

We don’t know why some of our decisions end up detrimental, even though we felt good when we made them.

We also don’t know why some decisions end up excellent, even though we felt horrible when we made them.

A few months ago, I stumbled on a decision-making process that helped me make better decisions.

I used this process to stop eating junk food and start saving consistently.

The process is called Second-Order Thinking.

It’s not the only helpful decision-making process.

There are other methods–and even apps–for decision making.

But I prefer Second-Order Thinking because it’s simple and effective.

Below is the article that introduced me to it.

Second-Order Thinking

Thinking process

When making decisions, how often do we choose long term gain at the cost of short term pain?

A good decision-making process reveals the future consequences of our decisions.

It solves problems in a manner that avoids unintentional and unforeseen outcomes.

Second-order thinking makes us go beyond what we know, to things we haven’t thought about.

It’s easy to make decisions that make us feel good in the short term without thinking about the potential negative impact of those decisions in the long-term.

Our experiences limit our ability to go beyond the available and seek hard truths by asking difficult questions, exploring unknown territories, and doubting what may seem like an obvious choice.

We stay inside a safety box that is easily accessible to us and guides us in making a large part of our decisions.

How we think and decide is largely shaped and constrained by this box.

Second-order thinking requires going out of our comfort zone to think outside this box.

It requires analyzing the potential impact of our decision into the future.

It requires asking these questions:

  • How can I make decisions with positive outcomes compounded in the future?
  • Is this decision attractive only because it has an immediate effect (first-order consequence) positive?
  • What can be the potential downside of this decision and its effect later?
  • How far can I look to determine how every subsequent decision creates a world of possibilities or limits the outcomes I can achieve?

Second-order thinking provides a framework to make decisions by learning the second-order consequences of our decisions and analyzing its impact in the near future.

Going beyond second-level thinking is difficult, but some people learn to expand their thinking to the third level, the fourth level and even higher levels by asking the same questions at each level.

Ray Dalio describes this very well in his book Principles:

“Failing to consider second and third-order consequences are the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases. Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.”

First-Order Thinking vs. Second-Order Thinking 

Before we learn how to apply second-order thinking to tap into the unknown, let’s understand the difference between first-order and second-order thinking.


It’s important to differentiate between the two to make a conscious effort to shift from first-order to second-order thinking.

Inside the Box Thinking

inside the box thinking

First-order thinking looks for easy answers driven by our past experiences and beliefs.

It puts more weight on the immediate effect of our actions and ignores the subsequent impact.

When we seek instant gratification, our first order thinking is at play.

It’s activated by system1 thinking which is intuitive and fast (Source: Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman).

This form of thinking is effective when we need to make quick decisions without exerting effort.

A good part of our daily decisions falls into this category — what dress to wear to the office, where to meet a friend for dinner, and which turns to take while driving to work.

The conventional nature of first-order thinking confines us to get the same results as everyone else.

In summary, first-order thinking is safe, superficial, reactionary, obvious, fast, easy, and conventional with a focus on immediate impact.

Outside the Box Thinking

outside the box thinking

Second-order thinking is hard and looks beyond our current assumptions and beliefs.

It requires massive effort to dig out the potential impact of our decisions way into the future.

It involves system2 thinking which is deliberate and logical.

Going beyond intuition and seeking unconventional solutions by applying second-order thinking is what makes great thinkers.

How to Develop Second-Order Thinking: Template to Make Better Decisions

To develop second-order thinking skills, let’s learn to evaluate the impact of first-order effects by creating a template using these steps:
  1. Note down the first solution that comes to your mind with its immediate positives and negatives. This is your first-order thinking.
  2. Then ask “What will be the future consequences of this decision?” to evaluate the 2nd, 3rd level…nth level consequence. For each decision and level, write its corresponding positives and negatives.
  3. Ask more and more questions
    • What are my risks associated with this decision?
    • How does my decision impact others?
    • Why do I think my decision is right?
  4. Choose the decision where second and third-order consequences are positive even though first may not be positive (short term pain in favour of long term gain).
  5. Learn to recognize and apply the feedback loops. It may not help with your current decision, but over time it will enable you to make better decisions.

Once you adopt a second-order thinking mental model and start applying its template in your decision process, you will see the positive results of your efforts compound over time.

Howard Marks, a great American investor, shares his views on first order and second-order thinking,

“The difference in workload between first-level and second-level thinking is clearly massive, and the number of people capable of the latter is tiny compared to the number capable of the former. First-level thinkers look for simple formulas and easy answers. Second-level thinkers know that success in investing is the opposite of simple.”

Let’s learn examples of first-order and second-order thinking.

Example 1: Managing Crisis at Work or Avoiding One

When dealing with a crisis at work, a manager can adopt either first-order or second-order thinking.

First-Order Thinking:

I have done it in the past.

I know how to do it way better than anyone else in the team.

Let me take over and resolve it for now.

My team can learn later.

First-Order Thinking Consequence:

The manager needs to intervene every time there’s an issue since she never facilitated her team to solve problems on their own.

She is constantly busy dealing with crises and never finds time for team development.

The team does not feel empowered and people in the team do not grow, which results in low team morale.

Second-Order Thinking:

I have done this in the past.

I know how to do it way better than anyone else in the team.

But, if I continue solving it, I will never allow my team to step up and resolve issues on their own.

This is an excellent opportunity for my team to learn how to manage and deal with crises.

I will be available to guide them through the process.

Second-Order Thinking Consequence:

In the first few instances, the team may struggle and take slightly longer to resolve.

However, they will be better equipped to handle such issues on their own in the future.

It will free up the manager’s time to do effective planning that reduces the number of such crises.

The team also feels motivated and empowered to do more.

In this example, first-order thinking has short term benefits with long term negative impact.

Second-order thinking has a short term pain with multiple benefits in the long run.

Which one will you choose as a manager?

Example 2: Hiring for Now vs the Future

While making a hiring decision for a position that’s open for a long time, a hiring manager can either apply first-order or second-order thinking.

First-Order Thinking:

I need to fill this role.

Many projects will be delayed if I do not get someone to start immediately.

This person seems like the best fit for the current role.

She has certain gaps that may be challenging for my future needs.

But, we can attend to them when the time comes.

Let’s hire her.

First-Order Consequence:

The new hire can get the projects started.

As these projects increase in complexity, she starts facing challenges in providing direction and guidance to her team.

This leads to communication gaps, lack of clarity, and poor collaboration causing multiple project delays.

The culture of the organization also takes a hit as constructive arguments become destructive and employees start blaming other teams and functions for missing their deadlines and not achieving results.

Second-Order Thinking:

I need to fill this role.

Many projects will be delayed if I do not get someone to start immediately.

This person seems like the best fit for the current role.

But, she has gaps that will be challenging for the future demands of this position.

I need to hire someone who can meet my requirements for the future and not just my current needs.

While the next few months will be tough, the right thing to do will be to keep looking till we find someone suitable.

Second-Order Consequence:

Projects get to a slow start.

However, within the next few weeks, people in the team step up to take additional responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the hiring manager is also able to bring a strong leader with great potential and required qualities in line with future demands.

The new leader rallies the team through strong clarity, sense of purpose, and direction that motivates employees to put their best effort forward.

The team can make great progress under her direction and achieve substantial results.

This is a great example of why applying second-order thinking is crucial while making hiring decisions.

A deliberate attempt to apply second-order thinking can provide a huge advantage to individuals and organizations.

I hope you’ve been inspired to think differently and make that extra effort to visualize the future and reap its many benefits.

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