Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Go Here ------>

So, if you're going to read just one post today, read Fossils by ever self-indulgent QuinnMama.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Because You Never Know

One thing is for certain: nothing is for certain. The people from whom you expect the most sometimes sputter and fail. The losers from whom you would never expect anything find the missing components for the jumble of parts that they heretofore have called a brain, and overnight they go from dunces to geniuses. The least-likely-to-succeed passes the most-likely-to-succeed, or vice versa depending upon your perspective. Pigs fly. Cows return. Hell freezes. Accountants sing.

You just never know.

And yet... we tend to set our expectations as though we do know. In effect we condemn people to life sentences: That Joe! he'll never amount to anything... Poor Mary, she just keeps trying as though she's somehow going to succeed... Old Harry sings so loud, I swear he's go no clue how bad he is. Why doesn't he just give up... Susie doesn't have a creative bone in her body... Jack can't do math to save his life...

We condemn people to life sentences being who we've known them to be. Ultimately, despite all the hyperbole, despite all the self-help books, despite you-can-do-it infomercials, we actively do not believe that people change. Even when we see evidence to the contrary, we deny or dismiss it as transient. Sure, he looks like he's changed, but you know what they say, "Once a thus-and-such, always a thus-and-such."

But the thing is, you just never know.

In those infrequent encounters with someone who seems to have changed, we test it. We look for holes in the story, fissures in the facade. Some take a wait-and-see attitude. Others actively poke at what they believe are the buttons that will cause the flood gates to open and the old person to come spilling out. We don't trust change. We actively seek evidence to the contrary. And, when we look long enough, we find it. It may be just a hairline fracture or just a whiff of the person who was, but we find it. And because we've been looking for the counter-evidence, no matter how small or insignificant it may be, it outweighs everything else, largely because the evidence supportive of change has not made it through our highly-honed, counter-change filters.

But the thing is, you just never know.

You never know who's going to be who they've been forever and who's going to break out and reinvent themselves. You never know if the change is going to last a minute, a year or forever. You never know who's going to continue changing and who's going to regress. You never know.

So, seeing as you never know, you can believe the "best" or you can believe the "worst" of others, of yourself. Despite euphemistic endeavor to the contrary, there is actually no middle ground here. You may articulate it any way you like, but in the end the net effect is that you either believe the best of others or you believe the worst of others.

Even though, you just never know.

Believing the worst is often more subtle than believing the best, largely because the best-believers tend to stand out in a crowd. Believing the worst is certainly more chic. There are so many forms of worst-believing: ranting, cynicism, depression, anger, fear, anxiety, worry. No one ever goes to a comedy club to listen to a best-believer. No one tunes into the evening news to hear all the best things of the day. Best-believers just aren't that interesting.

And yet, you just never know.

The most subtle worst-believing takes the form of expectations calibrated on experience. I've never been able to do thus and such before. Every time I try thus and such, the phone rings... one of the kids screams 'mommy'... we get an unexpected bill in the mail... I just can't seem to focus... We pile up truckloads of evidence so overwhelming that the possibility of change doesn't even occur to us. Our de facto mantras are those of stasis.

And yet, you just never know.

Even when we overcome our penchants for stasis and become cautiously optimistic, we limit the scope of our expectations. We don't go for winning, we just go for not losing. We retreat quickly from any expectation that might lead to disappointment.

And yet, you just never know.

Who are you actively expecting never to change? What is it that they'll never change? Perhaps you're hoping for change, but you've got your fingers crossed and emergency disappointment avoidance plan well rehearsed. What are you afraid would happen if you just started believing the best? What would change if you did?

Happy Monday,
Teflon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Start a Challenge?

In the last article I left you with the question:
what is something that you have never considered doing before, something that would challenge you and surely expand yourself into unknown areas if you would only grant yourself the time to learn how?
Before reading on, consider answering the question above. To practice challenging yourself and changing your beliefs it is important to think and move beyond the boundaries of your personal comfort zone by taking action. It's important to take all this out of the theoretical and into the practical. The examples I provide in my posts may need to be personalized and activated to provide you the greatest learning experience. If my running example doesn’t inspire your imagination, replace it with something else, something that makes more sense to you and helps you to connect with the concepts. Understanding your system of beliefs and its consequences starts when you translate my running stories and into situations that are meaningful to you.

So let me ask you this:
Do you want to move beyond the boundaries of what you believed possible for yourself? Do you want to change yourself in new and unexpected wonderful ways by taking on a big challenge?
As kids we change ourselves on a daily basis without thinking about it. It’s a part of life. We decide to do things without knowing what the results will be. Encouraging words from our parents or teachers help us to do and learn things we never even considered.

In primary school I was a quiet, shy child. When time for secondary school came, I told my parents I wanted to go to a school where I knew no one. At eleven years old I knew that it would be easier to make a new start, to establish myself in a fresh new environment. I knew that putting myself in a place of discomfort would help me expand and grow myself. And it did. Today, I am very grateful that my parents listened to me and decided to go with my inner wisdom.

I am a runner
After seven months of training I finally came to the conclusion last week that I am a runner. I was running my 8.7 mile run when a couple of early morning cars passed with the drivers looking at me. I was trying to imagine what they were observing. They saw a woman running persistently through the hills in the middle of nowhere. Clearly sweating and hot, while there is no indication that she is at the end of her run. I imagined it looked quite impressive. And realizing that, I became a runner in my own mind. Goodbye Try-er, hello Do-er!

Seven months ago
In my first running article What to do in 2010, I wrote that I wanted to come up with something really challenging and new for 2010, something I would never have thought to do, something that would truly challenge me. Something ridiculous! My goal of running a marathon was born.

In subsequent posts Marathon Training Week 1 and Marathon Training Week 2, I showed you some of the beliefs I held and how I changed some of them to help me overcome my startup issues. I believe that these are valid and useful ways of approaching new challenges and they formed a crucial part of helping me expand into new areas.

Fear of Failure
I believe that the way I started my running project is a great way to go when you want to start something new. You define a clear focused goal (running a marathon) and a timeframe (by the end of 2010) and an attitude of doing (I'm going to learn to love running). And then you start! Instead of listening to your judgments, you just start doing what you intend to do. Then while doing, you actively work to build helpful beliefs and address challenging beliefs.
Do and then change, not change and then do.
Since taking on my running challenge and writing about it, I've talked with lots of people about the challenges that they'd like to take on. The most common reason that holds people back is the belief that they must first figure it all out before starting. And when asking questions about their concerns it always seems to end up in the same place: what if I spent all my time on doing thus-and-such and it didn’t workout?

How to start overview
If you'd like to start something new, you can use the overview below to get started. I use experiences from my running as examples. However, I recommend that you replace them with examples that are meaningful to you.

1. Answer the question: what if I spend a lot of time on this and it doesn’t work out? 
What if I spent my time training for a marathon and then didn't run one? Hmmm... I assume that I surely would be in better shape than I am now. I would have a better idea of the physical shape I am in, especially if I had to stop because of physical condition. I would have challenged myself in new ways, and stimulated new neuropaths.

2. Decide on a specific goal and timeframe.
I want to run the New York marathon on November 5, 2010.

3. Declare your goal publicly.
Hello, world! I signed up for the New York City Marathon on November 5, 2010! Even though I hate running, I have promised myself I am going to love it!

4. Do some quick research and create an action plan.
I browsed the web, scanned through books and read about how to start running. I used what I knew about my body (not in good shape) to adjust what I found to my needs. I quickly came up with a plan, one that I could start using immediately.

5. Start Doing Immediately (in the first two days after you declare your goal).
Two days after my declaration to run a marathon, I started running. I had no clue how I would fulfill my crazy plan, but I knew that doing nothing was not going to get me there. I recommend minimizing the time between deciding on your goal and acting upon your goal. You will not figure out everything before the start. Figuring out comes with experience. Experience comes with starting. Once you start, you can go back to check in, refining your action plan as often as you want. Indeed, you will uncover unexpected challenges and steps that you'll need to take to address them.

6. Celebrate Yourself for the Action You Are Taking.
So you're planning to run a marathon and you just completed your first walk? THAT IS AWESOME! You took action and you're moving towards your goal. Don’t worry that you're not running yet. Don’t worry about anything. Just shout: YES! I AM DOING IT! I AM TAKING ACTION TOWARDS MY GOAL!

7. Create a List of Pertinent Beliefs
On a daily basis write down the thoughts that help you persist in pursuing your goal and write down the thoughts that seem to hold you back from either starting or persisting.

This is where I leave you today. If you are ready to start a challenge, feel free to make your public announcement by answering the seven questions and posting them in the comments. Or alternatively, simply declare your goal for all to see! Next week I will talk about persistence, how to develop it and how to continue towards your goal in spite of the obstacles that crop up along the way.

Enjoy starting your new projects!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Highly Creative Saturday

I've been thinking a lot lately about creativity: what it is, how we do it and what it means (if anything). There's part of me that believes that, if there were to be a reason for being, it'd be creativity. If we were created in the image of god, the essence of that image is creativity.

In short, (momentarily setting down my existential perspective or perhaps, exercising the freedom found within it) to be human is to be creative. It's who we are. It's why we are. And yet, we tend to associate true creativity with a small subset of humans. The creative ones. The inspired ones. The artists. The musicians, The geniuses. In essence, we limit humanity to a small subset of humans leaving the rest of us to look on from the bleachers.

However, it's fallacy to believe that there are creative people and uncreative people; there are just people. Some exercise creativity and others are creative couch potatoes and arm chair quarterbacks, critiques and voyeurs. So, it's time to get off the couch and exercise some creative muscle, time to manifest the deity in whose image we were designed, time to have some fun. In honor of god, humanity and children who haven't yet been contaminated by formal education, I've decided to declare today Highly Creative Saturday.

What is Highly Creative Saturday? It's the day where we celebrate the uniqueness of each of us that is made manifest through creative expression. I don't use unique lightly. You'll never catch me saying the unfortunate yet ubiquitously uttered "very unique", nor will you catch me talking about the foo-fooish unique and special nature of each and every child. However, I do believe that each of us embodies the potential for creative expression that is indeed unique. And I do believe that a life void of creative endeavor is a life unfulfilled. So, hey, time to fill up.

How to Celebrate Highly Creative Saturday
To celebrate Highly Creative Saturday all you need to do is do something creative. Although one aspect of celebrating is creating the activities, here are a couple of ideas:
  • Walk into the kitchen with your kids, throw open the cupboards and create a delicacy without recipes, without trips to the store, just running with whatever the cupboard contents inspire you to do.
  • Take a digital camera (it needn't be "high quality" or expensive) and capture some photos from the perspective of a dog or an ant.
  • Transform contents from your trash cans and recycle bins into works of art
  • Record a symphony improvised on household items like pots and pans
  • Write the life story of a rock you found in the backyard
Again, coming up with the activities themselves is part of your creative process.

Ground Rules
For those of you who panic at the thought of completely unbounded exercises, fear not! I have some rules for celebrating Highly Creative Saturday.
  1. Use what you have on hand. There's no need to purchase any special items or creativity tools.
  2. Don't use instructions, recipes, sheet music or any other guides that tell you what to do and how to do it. If you run into challenges, figure them out.
  3. Don't try to be creative. Don't worry about doing well or getting it right. Just enjoy yourself.
  4. Whatever you do, finish it. Don't spend time polishing and refining your work to make a lasting statement. Abandon the fruitless pursuit of perfection. Complete one work of art and then move on to the next.
  5. Share it! When you've completed your masterpiece share it with others. YouTube it. FaceBook it. Call the neighbors over to feast.
Like many holiday, Highly Creative Saturday is best shared with others: your partner, your kids, your cousin Fred.

Whether you celebrate today, tomorrow or a year from now, I'd love to hear about your creative endeavors.

Happy Highly Creative Saturday!
Teflon

Friday, August 27, 2010

Grade Inflation

My daughter Eila was always good in school... more than good. She was from many perspectives, the perfect child. She was responsible. She was diligent. She was cheerful. She was creative. She was happy.

Unlike her amazing siblings whose interests would sometimes lead to encounters with local public security personnel, Eila was one of those kids who just never got into trouble. Eila did great in grade school. She did great in high school. She was doing great in college. However, something started bothering her; she was doing great, she was on track, and yet she didn't want to do what she was doing. She felt that there was more for her, something outside the normal go-to-college-and-get-a-job scenario. She also felt that she should be in school, that she should finish what she'd started, stay the course, go the distance.

So, despite the protests of her teachers, despite the dyer prognostications of her friends, Eila left school. She wasn't sure where she was going or what she was going to do, but she knew where she wasn't going to stay.

It wasn't easy for Eila. She'd been on a well-defined track for so long, she wasn't sure what to do next. She'd flirt with various ideas, but didn't really engage them. She'd start the engine and press the gas pedal, but the wheels would just spin, the car wouldn't move. Finally, after a week of deep exploration into herself and her motivations, Eila called me to tell me that she'd figured it all out.
Excitedly, Eila told me, "Dad, I know why I have been so uncomfortable not being in school. When I'm not in school, I don't know who's grading me. But you know what? I don't need anyone to grade me any more!"

Eila was just twenty and overnight she changed everything. She became her own keeper of the grades, her own evaluator, her own designer of curriculum. She never looked back. Why bother? But instead, she looked forward as the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future morphed into unbounded opportunity.

Out-of-the-Box
Over the past decade or so, the notion of "thinking out of the box" has come into vogue. People admire out-of-the-box thinking. Corporate execs will declare, "What we need here is some 'out-of-the-box' solutions?"

Ostensibly, out-of-the-box implies unbounded, creative thought not limited by convention and historical perspective. However, out-of-the-box really means just what it says, outside the normal boundaries, but just barely outside. In practice, we simply place a slightly bigger box around the current box and allow thought to occur in the space between. In some cases, this leads to incremental improvement, in some cases not, but in all cases, it precludes breakthroughs.

The problem with how we implement out-of-the-box thinking is that we immediately start to grade new ideas before they've fully formed, ending up with tiny idea abortions strewn around us. We feel that we're out of the box simply because we've voiced ideas that we'd never have voiced from inside the box, yet our grading system is still anchored deeply inside the original box, a grading system that considers ideas still in the box but touching the edges to be extreme.

You can think out of the box as long as you want, but if your grading system is still grounded in the box, well...

Breakthrough thinking occurs only when we tear down the box and jetisen the grader, even if only temporarily. When you do this, you give newly conceived ideas the opportunity to come to term, to see the light of day. You can always toss'em in a bag of rocks and drop'em in a river when you're done, but you'll be doing so with a full understanding of what they are and could be.

Who's grading you? Is it someone (or some ones) in your present, or is it a voice (or voices) from your past? Where does the voice of your evaluator originate? What does your grader tell you? When does it laud you and when does it reprimand you? Why?

What situations in your life could use a little out-of-the-box thinking? Have you tried to do so? If so, was the experience that of creating a bigger box or was it that of open-ended exploration? Did you silence the grader or did you bring her along?

What would change in your life if you didn't need anyone to grade you anymore?

Happy Friday,
Teflon

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Math Matters

matter - have significance. 
significant - likely to have a major effect

Faith: Farmer Brown had  559 sheep on his hill.  He added more and now has 834.  How many more did put on the hill?
This was the third story problem that we had done and I was sure we were smooth sailing because the other 2 went pretty well.
Simonne: Is that add or subtract?
Now, if I slowly replay the sequence of my thoughts, I recognize that this was the first moment of decision.  I decided to have a problem,  Deep inside me stirred an uneasy feeling.  I think, if I'm not mistaken, it was panic.  Yup, full scale panic.  I just didn't take notice of it at the time, but I certainly acted out of it. 
Faith: Well, what do you think?
Simonne: It's adding 
Faith: More panic.  What are you adding?
Simonne: 559 and 834 
Faith: How much would that be
Simonne: 1000 and something
Faith: Does that work in the story? 
Simonne: No.......It's subtraction
Faith: sigh
In between every question and every answer, there were doodles being perfected on the page in front of her. 
Faith: (What if she really doesn't get it?  She needs more practice and I've been too busy to make sure she practices and look at this, no generalization....)
Simonne: More doodles. 
Faith: Let's try that then and see 
Simonne: ok.  559 - 834 is ... 9 from 4, regroup the 5 ... 
Faith: (interrupts) let's try this again. Sigh.  (Don't give up, don't give up.)

10 minutes later. 
Faith: I'm not helping you anymore.  You know how to do this  My voice is not warm and inviting.
Simonne: Mommy, help me.  You were helping before...
Faith: no, you just wait for me to tell you what to do... You get $2 when you are done
.... whining, nagging,...I'm not sure which of us is doing what. 
Faith: Ok $3.  Just do it. (Am I accessing her motivation?  She is saving for that American Girl doll... )

20 minutes later
Faith: So if 559 sheep were on the hill and then there were 560, how many were added?
Simonne: one 
Faith: How did you know? 
Simonne: I counted. 
Faith: So if we had 559 sheep on the hill and then we have 834, how can we know how many more sheep the farmer got? 
Simonne: 560, 561, 562,.... I interrupted.  (Mark, I'm really being bone headed now.) you don't have enough fingers!.  She starts to make tally marks on the paper....

Let me give you context.  I've seen Simonne do 3 digit addition and subtraction pretty quickly without writing anything.  So 345 + 263 would go something like 345 adding 2 hundreds would be 545 then adding 6 tens would be 605 and adding 3 would be 608.  Her current answers are bordering on regression and I've seen that before (in another child) and had a similar panic.  Anyway, we eventually completed the problems we were working on.  Halfway through, I acknowledged the panic, and chatted with myself about it.  The bottom line is that I made Simonne's responses matter.  In other words, I made them significant, important. 

I have a love/apathy relationship with mathematics.  I enjoyed it in school because I didn't have to think about it.  Give me rules to follow and I'm good.  Not many things in school were as predictable.  Spanish and Literature surely were not.  Still, I really didn't understand math and came to find this out, the more of it I did.  Somehow, I was able to get reasonably good grades so I kept going, until I had 1 course short of a major in mathematics in my undergraduate degree.  I entered a period of enlightenment when I started teaching and really became enlightened when I stated having children.  We are all teaching mathematics the wrong way!  That was my revelation.  Unfortunately, I didn't really know the 'right' way, but explored many different alternative thinking/teaching methods that sounded wonderful in that lovely, romantic sort of way, the kind of thing that doesn't really happen in the real world.

Fast-forward a few years, and I'm working with my daughter on third grade mathematics.  These alternative, romantic teaching methods are slow, especially when the teacher is just learning them herself.   I can't abandon my new methods, but I can cover them in old attitudes.  I discovered a new equation:
effective technique +  not-useful attitude = ineffective technique, sometimes undesirable outcome

So my response was grounded in fear.  Fear that she wouldn't get it in time to go the grade 3 tests and do well enough so there is no harrassment from 'those people' who say things like 'Mrs Clarke, I don't agree with homeschooling but you seem to really have your act together.  You are very knowledgeable".  I'd love to tell them a few things... So fears of the 'system', fears of the math teacher's daughter not getting math, fears of my fears killing any math spark she might have, fears...  Funny how acting in fear creates the very thing you fear.

I'm looking at the fears, thinking, "Imagine that!" and thinking back to Jaedon.  Some time ago, I decided that his speaking, or, more recently, peeing and pooping in the toilet didn't matter.  I wanted it, I would work towards it, but I wasn't going to make its absence significant.  Instead, I made something else significant.  I decided the relationship I wanted to have with him was the most significant thing.  That determination frees me from the weight of his every response mattering.  He agrees or disagrees, it's all good.  He tries to work on his challenge or he does not, it's all good.

So back to math.  Simonne's internal process is so much more important to me than the 'correct answers' on a worksheet.  The more I focus on her process, the better I get at facilitating that process.  Most importantly, I can enthusiastically pursue what I want, and love every minute, not matter what her response. 

So today,
Faith If 280 people are at the party and they eat 3 hot dogs each, how many hotdogs are there?
Simonne: A lot
Faith: OK, so if everyone ate one hotdog, how many would we have?
Simonne: 280
Faith: So if everyone had 2 hotdogs, how many would we have had?
Simonne: 3 hundred and....
Now, upon reflection, I could really have relaxed into it there and let her work it through.  Next time... This time I redirected
Faith: So if there were 10 people at the party, and they each had a hotdog... What if they had 2?... and what about 3?  So if there were 280 people at the party and ...?
Simonne: 282? 
Faith: Ok, if we have 10 people at the party....?  How about if we have 5?  Let's draw that.  What about if we have 7?   If we have 13 people...? 
Simonne: Ohhh! We'll have another 280 hotdogs!

I'm glad we got there, but I truly had decided that it didn't matter.


Faith: So we have 127  tables at the party and each table has 2 chairs.  How many people got to sit? 
Simonne: This is just like the other one!

What are you making matter today?  Is it helpful and useful for you?  What else can you make matter that would really make a difference to your day?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Self-Confidence

You often hear parents talk about wanting to give their kids self-confidence. Of course, you can't actually give someone else self-confidence. It's somewhat an oxymoron. However, you can provide others the opportunity to develop self-confidence and to explore areas where they seem to lack it.

In many ways, the best way to help a child develop self-confidence is to do absolutely nothing. We often undermine development by doing things for our children that they could otherwise do for themselves. Sometimes we do it because we believe they need us to do it. Sometimes we fear the side-effects of their failed attempts. Sometimes we fear what others might think, e.g., seeing your daughter walk into school with her mismatched leotards, socks, t-shirt and floppy hat. Sometimes we simply don't want to wait for them to experiment.

The problem is that doing things for our children builds dependence and undermines self-confidence.

Correction
When we let children do things for themselves, we often feel compelled to provide guidance and correction. Doing so can be quite helpful. It can also be quite unhelpful.

The first rule of providing guidance is to understand what motivated the decisions or actions that you want to guide. Rather than saying, "Hey, don't use that butter knife to open the paint can!", you could start with, "So, what are you going to do with the butter knife?"

Ideally, you'd never tell her to do anything, nor would you ask any yes/no or multiple choice questions. You can lead the witness, but lead him with open-ended questions. Ask questions that evoke imagination: How will you use the knife to open the paint can? Can you think of anything that might work even better than a butter knife? What will you do with the knife after you open the paint can?

As hard as it might be, try to limit your correction and guidance to things that make a material difference; leave aesthetics out of it. Helping a child select clothing that will be comfortable is much different than helping him select clothing that looks good to you. Many people grow up completely confused by parents whose correction has been a matter of taste, not being able to tell the difference between quality and aesthetic.

There are times where immediate intervention and guidance is merited. However, they're far fewer than the occasion of intervention and guidance.

Skill-Confidence
There are many who confuse self-confidence with what I would call skill-confidence or situational self-confidence: confidence that ebbs and flows with task and circumstance. In fact, I would say that most people to whom others ascribe self-confidence are only situationally so.

You see it all the time with people who've trained extensively in a specific skill or discipline. When doing what he's been trained to do, he's extremely confident and strong. However, if you put him in a different situation, he shrinks and hides. Oftentimes the contrast is so high and the discomfort so great, that he'll avoid situations that are outside his area of skill and expertise. What passes as self-confidence is not. It's confidence in training and acquired skill.

The difference may be subtle, but it's meaningful. Skill-confidence relies on knowing how to do something. Self-confidence relies on knowing how to figure out how to do anything. It's learning something versus learning how to learn. The problem is that most education is spent on teaching things, not teaching how to learn.

To teach how to learn, you don't provide answers and guidance. Instead, you provide problems and situations, and then you ask questions.

Bad Idea
Of course, for all the positive talk about self-confidence, not everyone sees it as a good idea. Self-confident people tend to be less-easily controlled than others. They're also not very predictable as they don't buy into doctrine and party-line, but instead make each decision independently; one moment she seems to be a republican and in the next, a democrat. One moment she's totally on board with the corporate goals, the next she's criticizing one of the president's decisions.

Self-confident people are also hard to interpret. They present their ideas clearly and strongly, seemingly set on their decisions. And yet, when you confront them with reasonable data to the contrary, they roll over quickly. They seem not to be wed to the ideas they put forth so confidently. This contrasts sharply with the false-confidence exuded by many where they strongly espouse beliefs and then cling to them doggedly despite all evidence to the contrary.

And of course, you just never know what you're going to find when you get home when you have self-confident kids. For example, one night my folks were out with friends who had left their kids home with their oldest son who was twelve. The mom called home to check in. One of her younger daughters answered. She matter-of-factly informed her mom that Mike couldn't come to the phone because he was busy; he'd put out the fire and was now patching the hole in the wall.

In the end, you can't give someone self-confidence. You can give them confidence in you. You can give them confidence in knowledge. But self-confidence is something that each of us develops through trial and error, learning to learn, and learning to succeed even when it doesn't feel as though we will.

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pop Your Stack

I was totally in my groove, typing code faster than I knew what it would actually do. Everything was flowing, pure joy. After what must have been a couple hours (judging from the fact that my playlist had ended), I started getting a bit distracted, just momentarily and only every once in a while. It wasn't one of those hit-you-over-the-head types of distraction. Instead, I would simply find myself losing where I was in my code, not quite remembering what it was that I was doing.

It took me a while to even notice that I was getting distracted, let alone by what. My thoughts regarding the distraction were out of focus. It was more of a feeling, a foreboding, a sense of urgency. And then it hit me: I really gotta pee.

Comfortable in the knowledge that I knew what had been distracting me, I forged ahead with my coding, completely forgetting about my bodily urges, shutting the windows to dampen the noise of the party next door so to speak. But slowly, the party got louder and louder and suddenly I remembered, "Oh yeah, I reeeeeeally gotta pee!"

One TV show later, I stood up and turned to head to the bathroom. I took a step and thought, "Wait, I know how to do that!"

I quickly turned around stooped over my laptop and typed (not sure for how long). Satisfied with my work, I stood again thinking, "OK, what was I going to do?", my lower regions screaming the answer and my mind taking its good time to hear. I found myself rapidly baby-stepping to the bathroom. I dropped my pants, threw myself onto the throne... Aaaaahhhh...

Sitting there (for how long I don't know), I was still immersed in my software, lines of code racing through my head. Then, another distraction. Process... process... process... got it... thirst!

I walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water and was greeted by a pile of dishes in the sink. So, I put the drink on hold and turned on the hot water. A few minutes later, wiping the last water from the counter top, I breathed a sigh of satisfaction and headed back downstairs to my office.

As I passed the piano, I remembered that the damper for the B below middle C was sticking. After a moment's hesitation, I walked to the piano. Within a few minutes, I had the action out sitting on my lap and my screw driver tightening the set-screw that held the damper in place. I lifted the action to slide it back into the piano and noticed that it was really, really dusty in there. So, I stood up, placed the action on the couch and walked to the broom closet to get the vacuum.

As I pulled out the vacuum, I remembered that it hadn't been working very well. This would require tools. I walked down to the garage to grab a screw driver and pliers. Facing my workbench, I noticed that there were all sorts of odds and ends out of place. Half an hour later, I had every errant screw, nut and bolt secured in its rightful place in my screw-nut-and-bolt trays. Satisfied, I headed back into the house and thought, "Oh yeah, the vacuum."

I grabbed a medium-sized phillips-head screwdriver and pliers and headed back up the steps to the living room. Fifteen minutes later the vacuum really sucked. As I closed it up and began coiling the cord to put it away, I noticed the piano action sitting on the couch. Oh yeah, the piano.

Ten minutes later, I scanned the cavity left vacant by the piano action, satisfied that there was no dust left, or least none that I could get to. I coiled up the vacuum cord, placed the vacuum back in the closet, and began heading back to my office. Oh yeah... the action.

I lifted the piano action from the couch, walked it over to the piano and slid it into place. Then a I played a couple of notes to make sure everything was working. A few songs later, I stood up satisfied with the piano and headed back to my office. Sitting down to type, I found myself still distracted. Oh yeah, thirst.

I walked up to the kitchen commanding myself not to look left or right, but to simply find a glass and fill it with water.

Five minutes later, I walked back up to the kitchen a second time to take the full glass of water down with me to my office.

Stacking
Computers are not very good at figuring out what to do, but they're excellent at remembering what they were doing. You can interrupt a computer hundreds of times and it will eventually get back to what it was originally doing. The technique used to remember what was going on is called a stack. You can think of a stack as a pile of sticky-notes. Each time you start something, you right it down on a sticky-note and place it on the top of the pile. As you complete a task, you remove it from the top to reveal what was piled just below it.

People are often much better at figuring out what to do than they are at remembering what they were doing. Unlike computers, humans aren't particularly good at organizing interruptions. These interruptions can happen on a micro-level (a phone call in the middle of dinner), or on a macro level (a car accident on the way to your wedding). Sometimes we get back on track quickly (OK, now where were we?) and other times, well, we never get back.

Maintaining a stack, either mentally or by using sticky notes is a great way to manage your time and to ensure that you get done the things you want to get done. It's also a great mental preparation for following the threads of conversation when talking with Mark Kaufman.

Reconstructing a stack that hasn't been maintained is a bit more challenging. Particularly if the whole concept is new. However, doing so can be wonderfully rewarding. In essence, it's an organized way to answer the question: how the heck did I get here?

Reconstruction can start at the beginning, working forward, at the end, working backward, or somewhere in the middle and then working in either direction. You start wherever your memories are most clear and vivid. For example, you might begin with: I was going to school to study art when I met this guy. Moving forward, you might ask, "OK, so what were you doing specifically when you met this guy?" Moving backwards, you might ask, "What were you doing before you went to school?" or "Why were you going to school?"

The entire exercise could be constructed with sticky notes. They needn't be one on top of another, but instead simply laid out in order. Once you've reconstructed your stack, you might decide that it's time to pop it and get back to whatever it was you were intending to do... five minutes a go... five days ago... five years ago ...five decades ago.

What does your stack tell you?

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

Monday, August 23, 2010

Let Go and Hang in There

As much as we'd like to attribute success to skill, insight, know-how and talent, as much as we'd like to attribute failure to overwhelming odds, stacked decks and tremendous challenge, success and failure are almost always simply a matter of attrition. It's only rarely that we actually fail; most of the time, we just give up.

Now, I've got no problem with quitting. I think quitting is often the best course of action, especially when you're pursuing something where succeeding isn't all that attractive or when you're working with others who themselves aren't really about succeeding. However, what I often notice is that people have a strong resistance to simply saying: "I quit! I gave up! I could have succeeded if I just kept going, but I didn't want to."

Instead, they site the challenges they faced: running was really hard on my knees. They may site mitigating circumstances: then my job changed, an I simply couldn't get up every morning and write. They may passively blame others: we simply couldn't find enough people to work with our child. They may blame Froid: I'm just not the kind of person who can handle that kind of pressure. They may blame their parents: when I was a kid, I was never given any self-confidence.

All these may be contributing factors, but none is actually a reason for failure. They're what we in the trade would call: lame excuses. In the end, you gave up, you quit.

Not That There's Something Wrong with That
So why not simply say it? I imagine there are as many reasons as there are people and situations, but all have at their core a judgmental attitude towards quitting. Most of us were raised with the idea that quitting is a bad thing. You have to hang in there. What are you, some kind of quitter? You gotta admire someone who's willing to go the distance. Quitter is synonymous with loser. No, strike that, quitter is worse than loser. Losers die trying. Quitters are deserters, betrayers.

Of course we could further complicate this by attributing our attitudes towards quitting to our parents or society. But, regardless of the source, our attitudes (no matter how they got there) are ours alone to maintain.

Here's the really interesting part. I would wager that the reason most of us quit is based in our judgmental attitude towards quitting. Because we deem quitting worse than losing, we end up in situations where it would be better to die trying than to win. Surviving against all odds, going the distance, dying for the cause are all admirable. To quit is to be disdained.

So, rather than simply saying, "I quit!" we become saboteurs. We plant the seeds of defeat and cultivate them. We notice every ache and pain as we begin running. We push hard on the people that would help us looking for flaws, cracks and fissures. We find reasons to have no time to write our business plans. We push ourselves extra hard, denying ourselves downtime, to test our endurance. We actively expose and amplify anything that might go wrong. We plan our exit strategy from the get go. We weave our led parachutes. And before you know it, voila, the weight of the parachute drags you out the back of the plane.

Letting Go
The sequence often proceeds as follows. You begin by anticipating failure. However, you judge failing as bad, so you determine that you're going to need to quit. However, you judge quitting even more than you judge failing, so you begin to actively and covertly pursue acceptable ways to fail. You plant seeds. You look for evidence. However, the seeds grow uncontrollably and before you know it, your reserve plan to fail has bloomed into a robust garden.

So, one could argue that all failure is rooted in clinging to success, making succeeding important, paramount. If you let go of succeeding and instead simply work towards your goals with no thought of success or failure, you increase the likelihood of success.

Immune to Burnout
When Iris and I meet new people, the topic often turns to "So, what do you do..." When I describe my work, people either glaze over or they seem unduly impressed or they look at me incredulously. When Iris talks about spending twenty hours per week playing with children with autism, the response is always, "Wow, that must be terribly demanding and tiring work." There seems to be a universal belief that working with children with autism is hard.

I'll often explain that Iris typically comes home with even more energy that when she left the house. Her work isn't a challenge, it isn't hard, it's energizing! And again, I get incredulous looks. People will often explain that they know someone who works with autistic kids or that they have a family member with an autistic child or that they themselves have spent time with autistic kids. It's a burn-out job. It wears you down.

Some will assert that Iris must simply be very resilient. Others, that she must be very good and successful. But, it's not that. Whether a child has a breakthrough or exhibits signs of moving backwards, Iris comes home all Chatty-Katty enthusiastically describing her day and what happened. It's not that she's successful. It's not that she has great endurance and resilience. It's simply that she enjoys what she's doing and is enthralled with what she learns. Most importantly, she's not hanging on to success. Therefore, she's not afraid of failure. Therefore, she's not looking for reasons to justify quitting. Therefore, all she sees is goodness.

Are You a Quitter?
Look, whether admittedly or not, every person on the planet quits from time to time. When was the last time you quit? Did you declare it loudly, or did you explain it away trying to translate it into overwhelming defeat? Why did you do what you did?

What activities are you currently pursuing while surreptitiously planting the seeds of defeat? Where are you hanging on so tightly to success that you're wearing yourself down? What things are so important that they've become burn-out jobs?

What will you do differently today than you did yesterday or last week?

Happy Monday!
Teflon

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let it melt like chocolate

Yesterday morning I ran my third run of 8.7 miles. I am in week seven of my half marathon training and I am doing great. When running, I regularly write blogs articles in my head about the victories, the enjoyment and the struggles. But after the one and a half hour run this doesn’t normally materialize in a blog. Instead I eat, drink, shower and rest a bit before I leave for work.

Regularly I have conversations with others about my running. I speak with friends who like to start being more active, but who don’t know how or where to start. I speak with people who have given up running because of injuries. And a few people with whom I speak tell me how they hate to run! Hmm, where have I heard that last comment before?!

In this "learning to run" experiment I learned a lot of things. Most importantly I can say now that I love the runs and that I am really looking forward to them. This was one of the main goals I had in mind when I started. To have fun while learning this new sport that I always judged as “stupid, unhealthy and ridiculous to spend your time on”.

I feel blessed to be able to enjoy the wonderful nature by running through it. By breathing the air and smelling the plants and flowers. By listening to the birds singing and enjoying the dogs running with me along their yard fences. Hearing my footsteps on the gravel and my breathing create a symphony with the nature I am in. In those moments that’s “all what is”. Nature and I are one, in a way much better understood and accepted by our ancestors then by us “modern civilization”.

Learning to run has given me a greater insight in myself. I know more about how I function, how I process information, when I have the tendency to quit, how I can motivate myself and how I can elevate myself to new heights that I though would stay locked forever. I have been a great student of myself and I have actively put the teachings into action, adjusting how I go about running.

I have changed. I have become a very active learner. What I mean by this is that I have been "doing" instead of trying to understand first. I did go to the extremes for a while. I was so absorbed by doing, without feeling able to put it into words that I skipped writing to you for a while. Now I finally seem to have arrived at a new understanding and slowly the words start to come.

In my next articles I will share with you my experiences, the teachings and the challenges. I will compare where I started seven months ago to where I am today and draw conclusions that seemed to have helped me and I hope will help you.

Today, I would like to first ask you the following question: what is something that you have never considered doing before, something that would challenge you, and surely expand yourself into unknown areas if you would be able to allow yourself to take the time to invest yourself in learning?

My next blog post will pick up with this question. Imaging the question to be a piece of chocolate melting slowly on your tong. Enjoy the flavor, the change of substance, and the aftertaste. Play with the question in the way your tong places with the chocolate and experience the answer bubbling up like the enjoyment you experience while the piece of chocolate is melting. Do you enjoy the answer? Do you resist the answer? Do you answer?

Have a great Sunday! Speak to you again in exactly one week.



Love, Iris

(Yes, I will be there next week. I’m writing the article right now!)

Choosing Sides

In sales, they call it the presumptive close, "So Mr. Courts, would you like the blue Ferrari or the red one?" In math, philosophy and logic, it's called a dichotomy, taking something and splitting it in half so that there are no overlapping parts, a part is either here, or it is there. In literature, it's often referred to as dilemma, a difficult and trying choice between two unattractive alternatives: "Miss Noordermeer you have only two options, either marry the rich and smelly banker or forfeit the family tulip farm!"

In any case, research studies at the Teflon Institute of Anecdotal Data sugests that:
the number one cause of bad decisions is being faced with two alternatives that are both wrong, (or in many cases, not even wrong.)
Most of us feel compelled to categorize. We categorize people. We categorize activities. We categorize objects. We categorize situations. Further, we tend to limit the number of actively managed categories to two: yes/no, good/bad, expensive/affordable, can/can't, would/wouldn't, like/dislike, love/hate, yin/yang, id/ego. We tend toward dualism. We do this because it's easier, more efficient.

To do this, we drop nuance and detail intentionally blurring the edges and distinctions as we merge things together. We start with Dim-Sum, distinct delicacies with easily perceptible nuances, we toss them into a pot that more closely resembles Bouillabaisse, and then we turn on the blender and get a smoothie. Katsu and sushi end up Japanese smoothie. Tacos and chicken with mole sauce end up Mexican smoothie. We create a world with rounded edges and low contrast.

The problem is that we become patsies, easy marks for purveyors of limited options. We see the choices before us and something inside nags at us, something that we can't put our fingers on, something saying, "Is this all there is?"

And we ignore it. When faced with a dilemma, we don't say, "Hey wait, you're trying to get me to decide between two terrible alternatives as though they were my only options!" Instead, we agonize over the choice.

Think about all the unnecessary dichotomies you've accepted throughout life. Most of us talk with our children about where to go to college, never considering the question of whether or not to go to college. Most of us struggle with off-the-rack career options, never considering a custom tailored one. Rather than listening to our bodies and eating what makes sense, most of us select from a set of pre-fab diets. To buy or rent. To work or to stay in school. To play music or to make money. To marry and settle down or to stay single and on the move. All are common decisions, all are unnecessary dichotomy.

To Build a Mosque
Consider the debate raging over the erection of a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. There are two dominant arguments, both of which are completely erroneous and ultimately destructive. One view suggests that, because the terrorists who brought down the towers were Islamic extremists, building a mosque would be an affront to the surviving family members of those killed in the attack. The second view suggests that even though the attackers were Islamic extremists, the US constitution protects the rights of religious organizations to worship where they will and besides, they're not building right on ground zero.

Both views are simply wrong. The very nature of either implicitly acknowledges some connection between the terrorists and other practitioners of Islam. One uses it as justification, one tries to work around it, but neither says, "What's one thing got to do with the other?"

I've had a couple of discussions with reasonably intelligent people who have said, "Well, as long as they don't build it right on ground zero."

Left-brained logic seemed to have failed them as they'd gone into simple right-brained associative mode. So, I would explain using analogy (seems to work better with people in right-brain mode), "Imagine if a group of atheists got together in Oklahoma City to protest the erection of a church near the bombed federal building because the bomber had been a Christian extremist. Would you support them?"

In some cases imagery succeeded where logic had failed and the response is, "No, of course not... Ooooh... now I get your point." In others, sigh...

Pluralism and Other Half-Assed Measures
Pluralism recognizes the existence of multiple groups, views and/or systems that are each legitimate and valid, and yet, may be in conflict with one another. Pluralism is being recognized in many disciplines from philosophy and religion to politics and science. Practically speaking, pluralism is significantly more functional than monism and dualism. It allows for diversity of thought and opinion and mitigates against the incessant desire to make one good and another bad.

However, in many ways adopting pluralism is surrender to categorization. It says, "OK, look, we're never going to get people to abandon their positions and embrace ideas and concepts without bias and predetermined conclusions. So, instead, let's simply get them to agree that there can be multiple, conflicting views each of which is nonetheless valid."

Indeed better, but still not getting to the core.

Whose Side You On?
One of the more pervasive and insidious manifestations of unnecessary dichotomy is the ever available: who's side are you on anyway? For some reason, when conflicts arise, we feel compelled to cast one side as good and the other as bad. People involved in the conflict often want others to declare their alignment. Blur, blur, blur...

I just finished reading the book, Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. If you haven't read him, I highly recommend the book Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, written by him and Neil Gaiman. I would describe it as a humorous take on the Apocalypse.

In Guards! Guards!, following a series of harrowing events, guard captain, Sam Vimes, encounters the city's patrician, Lord Vetinar who advises him:

I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.

Lord Vetinari
Patrician of Ankh-Morpork

I think this is an amazing tidbit, immensely clever and worthy of reading the entire book. So often, when we try to help people avoid succumbing to the penchant to take sides, we try to couch it in terms of everyone being good, saying things like, "Look, there are no bad people, just people who disagree."

This inevitably invites debate: "But there are some people who are really, truly bad! I mean, you've got your Hitlers, you've got your Stalins... you've got your music critics."

Pratchett sidesteps this handily: There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.. Knowing one's own nature, it's much easier to argue that there are indeed truly bad people than it is to argue that there are indeed truly good, one's without guile or fault. This allows us to focus on the real nature of the problem, not good versus bad, but instead, what exactly is at issue. What are the parties trying to achieve, individually and collectively? What are their core motivations? What are the alternatives that might satisfy everyone? And so on...

Not sure where this is all going as I just kind of woke up this morning and started typing. However, I think what I'm leading to is the creation of a movement beyond pluralism, one in which participants actively resist the urge to categorize, mix, blur and blend. It might require a twelve step program of sorts. For example, one step might involve a review of all the people in your life whom you've placed into a bucket of bad or foe, reconsidering your decision, and then calling them up to apologize. You might get together with others and share all the decisions you've made in your life due to the acceptance of an unnecessary dichotomy. We could have a website and t-shirts and theme songs and...

Anyway, that's what was on my mind this morning.

Happy Sunday,
Teflon

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Well-Intended Boneheaded Moves

We all do it from time to time, some more frequently than others. We see a situation where we want to help and we just know we can make things better. So full of love, goodness and the best of intentions, we jump in and... well... it just doesn't work out the way we planned it. Not only does our help fail to make things better, it actually makes them worse. Instead of thanks and praise, we are rebuffed and asked to try not to be so helpful.

I've seen many relationships degrade or completely break down due primarily to well-intended, but inept efforts to help: children who avoid their parents, former friends who avoid one another, siblings who can't be in the same room. So today, I thought it'd be fun to play around with common ways of helping that are basically really stupid.

Oh Come On, It's Easy
Yesterday in Will I Never Learn, I talked about how liberating it can be to find yourself in an impossible or at least improbable situation. It's freeing because it eliminates the prospect of failure: not failure in terms of completing the task, but failure in terms of the expectations of yourself and others.

When working with someone who's already unsure of themselves and has a poor self-image (either generally or in the context of what you're trying to accomplish), telling him that something is super easy is a great way to ensure he either quits early or never tries. Teaching someone to ski, you may say, "Look at all the little kids flying down the mountain. See how easy it is!" and they hear, "This so easy that you'd have to be friggin lame-o moron not to be able to do it!"

Your soft words of encouragement land like bricks dislodged from a tall building. Your intention is to let her know that she can do it once she learns how to do it and even though it seems impossible, it's not. So, instead of saying, "Hey, this is a piece of cake!", say that.

False Praise
Among the more dreaded phrases heard by man is: "Honey, does this make me look fat?"

I believe several books have been written to exclusively address how to respond to that question and its variants. Unfortunately, the very nature of the question results in a high-probability of an affirmative answer. Combine that with the nature of most relationships and you have an extremely high probability of impending falsehood.

Lying about your assessment, whether you simply say, "No! You look great!" or you feign narcolepsy, says two things about a relationship: 1) you believe that he can't handle the truth, and 2) you certainly can't handle telling the truth. It breeds mistrust and is a setup for a big break somewhere down the road.

We use false praise all the time, especially when we're trying to be encouraging. We tell kids that they did a great job. We tell employees that their doing fine. We tell partners that they look great.

When I got to Berklee, there was a young sax player who had arrived for auditions with a toy saxophone made of plastic. It didn't have a reed. It only played a C-major scale. And yet, here he was at Berklee for auditions as a sax player. He'd played it for years and no one had ever told him, "Hey man, you know that what you're playing ain't actually a saxophone, right?"

False praise and it's close partner, the omission of accurate feedback, are setups. However, avoiding false praise is not as difficult as it might seem. We typically use false praise because we answer generally reducing a complex assessment to a yes or no, good or bad type of answer. The answer to those who want to be encouraging is to become more specific. You can buffer your "negative" feedback with points of "positive" feedback, e.g., "I like how the color of that dress brings out your eyes, but the cut isn't really working for you."

Let Me Get That for You
One of the rules I've learned in teaching people about computers is this: If you're typing, then they ain't learning. It's amazing how often we try to help people by doing for them the very things that they need to learn to do. Each time we step in, each time we grab the wheel, each time we save the day, we undermine confidence, self-esteem and learning.

In some cases, the message comes across: "Looks like you're not going to get this right, I'd better do it for you." In other cases, the message is: "Hey, if you just wait long enough or don't try at all, someone will take care of it." In either case, the learning process is interrupted.

The trick is being willing to let others fail. It's easy to learn things that come naturally. One could argue that in those cases, you're not actually learning at all. However, real learning occurs when you do things that don't come naturally, when you fail over and over again, see the pattern in it and then overcome it. You can't do that when someone steps in to do it for you.

What You Really Want to Do Is...
We all appreciate situations where we're able to provide advice that is meaningful, relevant and useful. It feels good to help someone in this manner. There are times when advice can be the best way to go. However, giving advice short-circuits learning. It's like assigning math homework with all the answers filled in. When we advise people, we deny them the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

In many cases, advising builds dependency and for many, that dependency is appealing. I know lots of people who feel really food that others depend upon them for advice. In many ways, it's all good. And in many ways, it's not.

Every once in a while, my daughter Eila will talk about the period where I simply stopped advising my kids, but instead would ask them questions. At first, she found it frustrating, even infuriating. Why couldn't I just tell her what to do? However, in fairly short order, she began coming up with her own answers, answers that were better suited to her than any I could have provided. Along with her answers came increased confidence and capacity.

So, if you're big on providing advice and guidance and you really want to help, try questions. That's my advice.

If I Build It, They Will Come.
This is one of the more bone-headed moves that I still find myself pulling. I often find myself in situations where I can see the problems, I can see the answers, I know what to do and how to do it, but... the people whom I would help aren't ready to see problems or hear answers or do anything. So, what do I do? Walk away, right? Nope. Instead, I decide that, if I just go do it for them, then they'll see what I'm talking about and they'll jump on board.

In the end, I've decided that it's best not to try to help someone who's not ready to help himself. Though that doesn't seem to stop me from trying.

You Know, I Had the Same Problem and....
We used to call them war stories. You walk into someone's office with a problem that you're trying to solve and in a good-natured attempt to relate to you, the person whose help you're seeking launches into her own story of a similar situation. Before you know it, you've completely lost the track of why you walked in in the first place.

We all want to relate to others and to establish common ground by sharing common experience. However, there are situations in which establishing common ground isn't the highest priority or where it can tip into one-ups-man-ship. Sometimes, the best way to establish common ground is to simply listen and ask questions.

We're All a Bit Boneheaded
We all make well-intended boneheaded moves. Sometimes we compound them, layering move upon move upon move in our efforts to undo what we've done. Boneheaded moves are easy. Any idiot can do them. Or any genius. Or any loving and caring parent.

What boneheaded moves have you made in the last week? What would you do differently?

Happy Saturday,
Teflon

Friday, August 20, 2010

Will I Never Learn

I have this knack of, umm..., let's call it getting myself into things... situations where I start to wonder, "How the f*%k did I get myself into this?", and perhaps more importantly, "How the hell am I going to get myself out?"

I've had this ability for as long as I can remember and I've applied it to situation after situation after situation. The funny thing is that each time I'm surprised.

Not College Material: 1975
At the end of high school, I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. Fortunately (I guess) my dad had a very clear one. I was going to go the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana. The only catch was that my high school GPA was somewhere in the vicinity of property values in Detroit. Not long after I submitted my application, I received a notice telling me that I might do better elsewhere.

Reading the note, I breathed a sigh of relief. What business did I have going to a University; high school had been bad enough. But my dad wouldn't hear of it. Turns out that Illinois paid particularly close attention to your score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and I had not performed particularly well on them, particularly because I had forgotten about them completely and had played a gig the night before that got me home particularly late (4:00 AM) to be greeted by my particularly pissed off dad.

So, my dad arranged for me to take the SAT again giving me two pieces of advice: 1) after you select an answer to a math question, look at it to see if it makes sense; and, 2) if you get stuck, just move on. After I taking the exam, he had me write a letter to the admissions office explaining how disappointed I was not to have been accepted and explaining my SAT situation. Anyway, my subsequent SAT score apparently indicated an unprecedented increase in academic prowess and, much to the dismay of me and my fellow Wheaton Central High School graduates who were also heading to Illinois, I was to be among them.

My first semester was like being dumped on Pluto. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. With no one yelling at me in the morning to get up and go to school, I managed to miss a lot of classes. I didn't party so much as sleep. I don't know if it was the kindness of the teachers or luck of the draw or being able to BS my way through essays, but somehow I made it through the first semester with three C's and one B.

The next two semesters weren't much better, but then something changed. By the fourth semester (second half of the second year), I decided that I was going switch from liberal arts to music. I also decided that I was going to get all A's. Further, I decided that I was going to make some money working twenty-hours a week. I signed up for six classes including theory, composition, arranging and, umm..., math; I got a job washing dishes at Papa Del's Pizza; and I launched Mark 2.0.

Unexpected Freedom
For whatever reasons (ones that are first becoming clear to me even now as I write), I found being in a situation where I couldn't possibly succeed remarkably freeing. My entire life I'd been terrorized by the words: "Youshould be able to do this; it's easy." Whenever I heard them, I'd freeze in my tracks knowing that failure was only steps away and that failing would confirm my being a complete idiot. However, when I told my dad about my plans to take the maximum course load, to work a job and to get all A's, he actually said, "Are you sure you want to take all that on?"

Even as I write this I'm reliving breathing a sigh of relief.

That semester was my best school experience, ever! I made it to all my classes. I worked hard at the pizza shop. I learned a lot. I got all A's. For the first time ever, I heard my dad on the phone telling his friends about my academic exploits. It was pretty remarkable. However, something had changed in me along the way. It was as though I'd ignited this fire that was consuming fuel faster than I could feed it. What had seemed impossible and freeing at the get-go had become expected. I needed more.

Earlier that year, I'd made friends with an amazing guitarist who'd been at Berklee College of Music in Boston. We'd hang out in his dorm room and he show me various techniques that I wasn't learning at Illinois. He not only knew traditional music theory, but he also new pop theory and jazz theory. So, by the middle of my all-A semester, I decided that I was going to leave Illinois and head to Boston. Not only that, but I decided that I was going to declare piano as my principle instrument. Being a sax player, I was tired of having to recruit ensembles to play my music just so that I could hear it. If I played piano, then I'd be able to play it for myself.

It was early spring. I applied to Berklee and found a teacher at Illinois who would help me learn to play the piano.

On to Boston: 1977
In September, I arrived in Boston with my suitcase and without my saxophone. (I didn't want to give myself any outs.) At Berklee, we all took various tests and evaluations the first week so that we could be placed in class sections with people of similar skill. Each class (arranging, composition, theory, ear-training and analysis) had thirteen levels.

Somehow I ended up in the top one or two for each. The people around me were amazing. The first day of ear-training, the teacher walks into class, drops the needle on a Coltrane record and says, "Write this down." I thought he was kidding, but then I look to my left and see the guy next to me pick up his pencil and begin writing. OK, maybe I needed to rethink this a bit.

My piano teacher showed absolutely no mercy when I told him that I'd only been playing for a few months. He handed me a book of Chopin Etudes and pointed to the sections that I was going to have learned by next week. Each week, our arranging class performed the week's assignments. I would slide down in my seat hoping not to be called upon to play, but alas, the day came, and I sat behind the piano to play with the rest of the class. Embarrassing would have been a step up.

I left class that day wondering, "What the heck did I get myself into?" and "How am I going to get through this?" But I did. I practiced like never before, four to six hours a day of metronome work with the piano. I started translating everything I heard (elevator music, passing boom-boxes, fire truck sirens) in to notes. I developed a new technique for composition and arranging that involved a rapid cycle of write, crumple, toss in bin.

In the end, I don't know exactly how, but I did well, really well. Again I got all A's.

Time to raise the anti. I got married...(1978) We got pregnant...(1979) I quit Berklee... We moved back to Wheaton...

I've talked before about when Joy was born (December, 1979). We had no healthcare and little income. It was challenging. In 1981, I got a clerical job at Bell Labs. It was more money than I'd ever made and the benefits were great. I was set! But noooooo...

I decided that I was going to be technical! I was going to show everyone that I could do mathy-type stuff. I was going to become a Member of Technical Staff (MTS), the top of the technical ladder.

I enrolled in night school. I stayed late at work teaching myself UNIX and shell and C. I volunteered for projects that were way beyond my skill set. It was like my moto had become, never accept a job that you're qualified to do. Long work days, night school four days a week, directing choirs, playing music, and two more kids (Eila and Luke) were, well, hard. But, I was learning so much. Two years later, I'd finished my bachelor's degree and I was ready to be promoted to MTS. (I later found out that people had rarely scaled the technical ladder from clerk to MTS and that it typically took at least ten years.)

The route to MTS included graduate school. I could either go to night school locally for two to three years being paid at the MTS salary level or I could go to school fulltime for one year being paid a small stipend. Rene and I had a house, three kids and a car payment. The choice was obvious. But...

Graduate School: 1983/1984
I applied to MIT, Princeton and University of Illinois. I got into Princeton and Illinois. I didn't have enough money to make it on the stipend alone, but I could work ten to twenty hours a week to compensate. So, we sold the house, packed up the kids and moved to Champaign/Urbana. The masters degree program at University of Illinois required a thesis. So, participants in the Bell Labs program were allowed to extend their stay through the summer (beyond the two-semesters of the academic year). However, I couldn't afford to stay that long. So, I decided that I would work, take five graduate classes one semester and four the next, and write a thesis in two semesters. Anti-up.

I gotta say, the question, "How the hell did I get myself into this?" was a relatively constant companion through those nine months. It still may be the hardest thing I ever did. If I didn't make it, it would have meant forfeiting all the work I'd done so far and my MTS position. It was tough. Yet, nine months later, I had my masters degree and we were on our way to New Jersey.

On and On...
And so it continued. I eventually ended up in basic research with a million dollar budget to be creative. It was dream job, and yet, I wanted to do more than come up with ideas. I wanted to see them implemented. So, I left the safety of research for the uncertainty of the business. I learned and I grew and I would wonder, "How'd I get myself into this?"

I left the security of AT&T for a struggling start-up in Boston where I was the CTO and VP of Marketing. I commuted from New Jersey to Boston, working sixteen hour days and I'd wonder, "How'd I get myself into this?" But I learned and I grew.

We sold that company to Intel. I had stock options, an amazing salary and bonus structure, and a great job. So, what did I do? I quit and started my own company with my own money paying people with money I got from my credit cards when my cash ran out and wondering to myself...

You'd Think I Woulda Learned
Over the years I and the people around me have come to expect that, given two choices: stay comfortable where you are or venture out into something completely uncharted about which you have no clue, I'll always choose the latter. No problem. However, despite having experienced emerging on the other side so many times, I still will sometimes be surprised by how hard it is in the middle. Despite the preponderance of evidence, I'll occasionally find myself asking those two questions. And in those moments, the situations will truly feel impossible. My sensibilities will be telling me to quit.

But, those feelings and sensibilities are ephemeral. They pass. Sometimes after a good night's sleep. Sometimes after working out rigorously for a couple of hours. Sometimes just by forgetting about it and diving into something else like music. Sometimes simply because someone else says, "Hey, did you think about..."

You'd think I'd have learned by now.

Happy Friday!
Teflon