Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There May Be Side Effects

Don't you love the pharmaceutical commercials that end with that guy who's able to compress more words into ten-seconds than should be humanly possible. It starts with something like, "Common side effects include dry mouth, sleeplessness..."

I listen thinking, "Wait, did he just say 'death?'" or "Was that 'in some cases, cancer was reported?'"

More recently, advertisers have wised up to the fact that consumers might be paying attention and changed the method of delivery. Now the it's the characters in the commercial who casually deliver messages like, "If your head swells to twice it's normal size, discontinue use immediately and contact your doctor."

From their tone and delivery, they might have been suggesting alternative places for dinner.

How Silly
In the end, warnings about side-effects (at least as they're typically presented) are kind of silly.

First of all, complex systems always experience side effects when changes are made to them. You twiddle something here, and something way over there twaddles. It's the practical side of chaos theory.

Second, without a notion of frequency, a list of side effects is pretty much useless. Does the side-effect occur once in three cases? ...once in ten cases? ...once in a million cases?

Third, even if you have frequency, all that's typically reported is coincidence of the change and the side-effect; you don't know that the change actually caused the side-effect; you just know that they occurred about the same time. A good question would be, "How did the frequency of the side-effect compare to cases where the change wasn't made?"

Side-effects are an unavoidable part of life. Quite often, the side-effect usurps the original reason for making a change or taking an action.

Unintended Consequences
My love for math, science and programming is a side-effect of seeking a day gig that provided healthcare benefits. I never set out to develop a love for technology.

When Iris began taking Adderall for her ADD, she became more focused and aware of her environment. Interestingly, when she was less aware of her environment, she was more distracted by it.

A side-effect of her increased awareness is that Iris has become more caring. She notices things to be done and acts upon them. She'll see dishes piled in the sink and clean them. She'll hear the drier complete its cycle and fold the clothes. She'll show up behind me with a fresh cup of tea. None of these was an intended consequence of her taking Adderall.

At no time during high school or college did my daughter Eila say, "One of these days, I want to be the general manager of highly successful restaurant!"

My daughter Eila, who is strong both academically and artistically, pursued the paths that one pursues when being a good steward of her talents. Even though she did well, she didn't find the activities satisfying. So she stopped to figure out what to do next.

To make money, she began waiting tables. She found that she loved the energy of a large, busy restaurant. Within a few weeks, her boss promoted her to be a trainer. When she asked him why she was promoted so quickly, he responded, "You seem to be happy all the time, like you really love what you're doing."

Her entire career is a side-effect.

Coursing Through Life
Many of us more or less live our lives according to a plan of sorts. At early ages we identify our strengths and weaknesses. If we don't, others do it for us. Like rain runoff slowly etching channels in places where the resistance is weakest, our strengths (finding the least resistance from life) begin etching channels.

As water etches channels deeper and wider, two phenomena occur: the resistance to the flow decreases and the strength of the flow increases. The symbiotic relationship results in acceleration of both phenomena: the resistance decreases, faster and faster; the flow-strength increases, faster and faster.

The streams and rivers that define our lives evolve similarly. The skills and talents identified early as our strengths become stronger. The resistance to our using them becomes weaker. The contrast to dormant skills and talents becomes so great, that we never develop them. Our lives flow along the paths of least resistance.

That is, until something happens and there are side-effects. Something happens that disrupts the flow creating the opportunity for new channels to be established.

These side-effects are sometimes called "serendipity". That is, if you choose to see them as such.

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, December 26, 2011

Clerks Don't Code

It's 4:45PM, some day in late June, 1981. As the second hand passes from twelve to one, my officemate Bob pops up from his chair, grabs his jacket, and tosses a gleeful, "See you tomorrow" over his shoulder as he bounds down the hall towards the elevator.

The Bell Labs workday is officially over. It's time to learn.

I close the door to my office and pull off the cover of my TI Silent-700 terminal, a thermal-paper typewriter with two rubber cups hanging off the back. I plug my telephone handset into the rubber cups (a.k.a., acoustic couplers), dial up the VAX 11/780 and wait for the UNIX login prompt to appear on the thermal-paper that scrolls past the printhead just above the keyboard.

Although personal computers have hit the market, they're still considered something for kids and hobbyists, not businesses. The current trend in business is the move from room-size mainframe computers running batch jobs (one user at a time) to refrigerator-size minicomputers running time-sharing systems (many users at a time). Our VAX 11/780 is one of the more powerful minicomputers nominally supporting thirty to forty users at once. However, after 4:45 the number of users drops to fewer than ten and sometimes I get the whole machine to myself.

It's not as though I know what to do with an entire VAX when I get it. Even if I did, with its 300-baud modem (that's one third of one-kilobit) and thermal-paper display, my Silent-700 can't keep up with much.

I log into the system and type: learn.

learn is a program designed to teach people how to use UNIX. learn is my infinitely patient tutor and mentor. Step-by-step, learn explains an activity, provides me opportunities to try it, and then lets me know whether or not I've done it correctly. If not, we repeat the process as many times as it takes for me to get it.

In 1981 there are no icons, no WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editors, no graphical interfaces, no mice. To use a computer, you type. learn is showing me how to navigate the UNIX shell (the basic command-line interface) that lets you find files and folders, and lets you run applications. learn is teaching me how to use ed, the line editor used to create everything from documents to programs.

If you want to format text for printing, you can't just sweep a block of text with your non-existent mouse and select "bold" from a non-existent menu. Instead, you have to enter codes that tell the printer what you want it to do. Basic document formatting requires something akin to HTML, something we call NROFF. learn is teaching me NROFF.

And so it goes, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every night at 4:45, it's just me and learn.

Day Gig
My day-job is to manage the document library for a large development project called 3B5, a new UNIX washing-machine-sized minicomputer based on a new microprocessor the BELLMAC-32.

In large development projects like 3B5, it's important to document the design and architecture of various components. It's even more important to ensure that changes to design are reflected in the documentation. You've got Joe working on thingamawat-A and Mary working whosiwit-B. You don't want to find out three months down the road that Joe's thingamawat no longer works with Mary's whosiwit just because Mary decided to change her design and forgot to tell anyone about it.

I participate in "Change Control" Meetings where developers propose design changes, a group assesses the impact of those changes, and changes are denied or approved. If approved, the developer must update his design document. My job is to to make sure that the developer accurately updates her document and catalog the new document in the library. I also have to respond to documentation requests. Someone emails me, I photocopy what they want and send the copies to them via company mail.

One night, learn introduces me to a new topic, AWK, a programming language named for its creators, Al Aho, Brian Kernighan and Peter Weinberger, guys I would later get to know and work with. AWK's designed for processing text-based information. It has wonderful tools for pattern recognition and text replacement. As learn walks me through the basics I feel as though I've come home. Everything about AWK comes easily. Before I know it, I've completed learn's course.

Standing at the photocopier the next morning, I think, "Why couldn't I just write an AWK program to do this? Why not have AWK read the email request, figure out what documents people want, and then email the documents back to the requestor?"

Over the next few weeks, I spend my evenings writing the software that within a month will completely automate my job. After five weeks, I stop even checking to see if my AWK scripts have properly processed the requests. With my job automated, I spend more time with learn.

Clerks Don't Code
One day, I'm sitting in my office after work watching my AWK scripts scroll by. My feet are up on the desk and my guitar is in my hands. Suddenly, the door swings open. It's my boss, Dave.

He looks at me, my guitar and my Silent-700 scrolling away. He says, "Mark, would you please come to my office."

I follow him wondering what's up. Dave closes the door and asks me to take a seat. He sits down across from me, looks me in the eye and explains. "I understand that you've been writing programs. Clerks aren't supposed to be writing programs. Clerks don't code."

My heart sinks. I think, "I really need this job. I need the healthcare. I was just trying to learn as much as I could."

Dave says, "So, you're not a clerk any more."

I die.

"We're moving you to a development team."

I think, "I'll just go pack up. I didn't mean... You're what?"

The next day, my trusty Silent-700 is replaced by a brand new HP-2621 with a 2400-baud modem and Step by step, with infinite patience, learn is teaching me "C", the programming language of UNIX.

Happy Monday,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Think Different(ly)

Papa was a rollin' stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died
All that he left us was alone... lone... lone... lone...

It's 1973. I'm a sophomore at Wheaton Central High School. The Temptations, Papa Was a Rollin' Stone is climbing the charts and I'm trying to understand the lyrics. I know the words and all; I just can't figure out the meaning of the chorus' last line: All that he left us was alone.

The line haunts me. I think, "Why would someone owe money to some who died? Why would some who's dying make a loan to someone else? Maybe he took out a loan from a loan-shark and now the loan-shark is after his family?"

It just wouldn't occur to me that the phrase was "alone" and not "a loan".

It's 1997. Apple Computer has just launched it's new Think Different ad campaign, a campaign aimed at converting PC Users to Mac Users. The print and television ads are replete with images of people who's lives changed the world, people who scorned convention and followed the path their choosing.

The ads are inspirational and yet, each time I read or hear the phrase, "Think Different", I compulsively say (sometimes aloud), "LEE. Think different-lee. 'Think' is a verb. It requires an adverb, not an adjective."

It's 1994. In a PBS documentary, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs says...
When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

It's January -8, 2012. There's the stuff I know I can change. There's the stuff I know I can't. There's the stuff I think I can change, but can't. There's the stuff I think I can't change, but can. It's the last two that are the most challenging.

If I could only discern the difference before hand.

But then, what fun would it be if I knew.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's not there!

I remember this happening so many times:  My grandmother would say, "Faith, go look on the dining table for the bottle of ..."  "I don't see it, Momsie" "What you mean, you don't see it??" footsteps.... "See it there!???  Did you look???"  I usually look at the offending item in amazement.  Just a minute ago it wasn't there.  I looked.  I really did.  I just didn't see.

Have you ever not known something and didn't know you didn't know it?  You may have discussed topics based on this thing you didn't know you didn't know, answered questions knowledgeably, so you thought, spoken of things as impossible.  Suddenly, you find out something new.  It's as if a rhinoceros appeared in the room.  How could you have missed that?  How did you live before, not factoring this bit of information in?

Big, noise reducing headphones on, I'm watching an episode of the Sing Off, an a capella vocal competition and my current obsession.  I love a capella because I get to really listen to the voices, not disturbed by electric guitars and the like.  This year's Sing Off has taken a capella to another level, because all the sounds, electronic, scratches, reverb, cello, flugle horn, brass band, all of it is still there, done by human voices.  I find myself lost inside the music, listening to a particular song over and over again, each time hearing something new.  As I sit listening, I notice that I can't hear a particular vocal part.  I see the guy singing, I just don't know what he's singing.  I replay a few times, listening intently.  There are 3 members in this particular group, 2 are doing the bass/drum/percussion sounds, 3 are singing the words.  It shouldn't be that hard....  Isaiah is on the bed beside me and he hears the somewhat faint strains of what I'm listening to.

You don't hear the 3 separate parts?
What?  I take off the headphones
I'm just wondering if you don't hear the 3 separate voices.  I know who is singing what because I hear the 3 voices differently and I know what each person's vocal texture is and... 
I glance at him in annoyance.  If I could hear the 3 voices separately, I would not be sitting here repeating the last 15 second interval over and over.
No, help me understand.  You don't hear the 3 distinct voices?
You aren't being helpful.  You can hear them.  I know.  Now, shut up about it.  I'm trying to hear them.
I put the headphones back on.
When you hear what you listening for, tell me how you do it.  Since I hear it, I don't know what to do when .... tells me she doesn't hear it.
Is it because the part he is singing is an alto?  Alto is sometimes harder to hear and...
What? I take off the headphones.
He repeats and I give him another look that hopefully communicates his lack of helpfulness.

Finally, I am able to hear what I'm listening for. 
It was a combination of factors.  The guy I was listening to has a very high voice and he wasn't singing with and edge or texture in his voice, I was hearing him and thinking it was the girl. ...
But how did you hear it?  What did you do?
When I don't hear the parts in the arrangement, it's as if I'm only hearing one thing.  The music is just one complex thing.  I have to pretend the music is a room I have to step into.  I have to listen from inside the music.  It's as if I literally turn and focus my attention on the one thing, until it's clear.  Then I turn and look at something else.  Then I check if I can quickly switch my focus from one thing to another and still be aware of both things.

I'm not sure how helpful that was to him... but it was very helpful for me to clarify my process and the big role of my imagination.  Then, I can use it more intentionally!  If I contrast my not finding the bottle on the dining table that Momsie sent me to retrieve and me finding the vocal part:
  • I owned wanting to find the part.  I was less intentional about the bottle
  • I believed the part was actually there, I wasn't sure about the bottle
  • I decided I could find it, so I didn't back away from the initial feeling of confusion when I realized I couldn't find what I was looking for.
  • I paid attention to what I was doing to get a glimmer of success so I could do it more
There is always information around us that we aren't aware of.  Our awareness is mostly dependent on our perception of expedience and necessity.  What do you do to decide if you need to increase your awareness?  If you decide you want to be more aware, how do you go about discovering the rhinoceros in the room?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Y?

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

Step 5

Step 6

Step 7

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, December 19, 2011

One of These Days

Iris says, "Yeah, I really have to google that and see if it's going to work for me."

I say, "Why is it that whenever anyone says, 'I really have to' about something, it's the last thing they're going to do?"

Iris laughs. "Hmmm... How many weeks have I been saying it?"

"Pretty much ever day since Thanksgiving."

"Yeah, I really have to do something about that."

We laugh.

Then I realize that I'd not meant my question rhetorically. I mean, there was a statement in it and all, but I still wonder why so many activities that merit imperatives (have to, need to, got to, must) are activities that once mandated never take place.


OK, I get it as a passive-resistant tactic to avoid conflict. "Yeah, I really gotta do that some day" sounds like you're in agreement when what you're really saying is, "Would you just stop bothering me with this!" However, conflict-avoidance can't be the only reason, can it? There must be other motivations.

Perhaps it's a keep-alive, an incantation that won't necessarily lead to completion of the activity, but will keep it from fading into the milieux of would-haves and could-haves that clutter our lives. As long as I keep saying, "One of these days..." I'll keep alive the hope that one of these days may actually come.

That makes sense for things that are nice-to-haves or would-be-funs (I guess), but I'm not sure about imperatives. I must do this, seems to merit more than a keep-alive, right?

Maybe I've misinterpreted the phrases 'need to', 'gotta' and 'have to'; perhaps in the vernacular they imply something other than imperative? Like... um... like... OK, if they're not imperative, what are they?

I'm going to stick with them being imperatives (of sorts), but assume that they're invocation reflects some kind of internal conflict, a clash of the imperatives. "I gotta, but I can't because..."

Hmm... this has potential. If it's a conflict of imperatives, then it can be pretty easy to ferret out a solution. First thing is to identify the cause behind the because: ...because I can't afford it right now. ...because they'd never let me do it. ...because I'm too busy. ...because I first gotta get into shape (ooh, there's another because behind that one.)

It would seem that once you unearth a core cause behind the conflicting imperative, you could evaluate it to see if 1) it is indeed an imperative, and 2) if it's really more important than the imperative that it's precluded.

What do you gotta do some day?

Happy Monday,

PS If you're not sure, you might ask people around you. They may have a long list of your one-of-these-days aspirations.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

You Can Learn Anything, Fast!

A while back, I came of with a concept that I called Learning Quotient or LQ, a metric of one's capacity to learn. Although learning oftentimes requires the acquisition and memorization of knowledge, LQ focuses on the mastery of skills and techniques, pattern recognition and the ability to figure out what you don't know.

When I first wrote about LQ, I suggested that one could take measures to improve her LQ, to increase the rate at which she learns (more stuff in less time) or the stickiness of what he learns (like riding a bike). I also shared that Iris didn't see increasing LQ as a particularly useful or attractive activity--why would anyone need to learn faster?

Well, that last part has changed over the last couple of years as Iris has transformed herself into a friggin' learnin' machine. We've been playing with ways to increase her LQ.

Before we start, let's talk a minute about the misguided notion of IQ or Intelligence Quotient, the nearly ubiquitous measure of intelligence. At first blush, you might associate IQ with LQ. You might even see them as the same thing. You might have heard things such as "a person's IQ never changes." You might have taken an IQ test and know your IQ number.

Here are a few things important to remember about IQ and intelligence.
  1. IQ doesn't exist. There's no such thing as a static capacity for intelligence and no bio-medical basis for statements made about it. IQ was invented by psychologists and psychiatrists.
  2. IQ studies are incestuous. How do you evaluate a new IQ test? Make sure that it yields results similar to previously approved IQ tests. (How much IQ does it take to see that as stupid?)
  3. Intelligence is not about knowledge or memorization. Winning at Jeopardy requires no intelligence. A computer could do it.
  4. Intelligence is not an innate capacity; it's simply a side-effect of LQ. Improve your LQ and your IQ will magically increase.

Learn Anything
Let's get down to the nuts and bolts of improving your capacity to learn. It all starts with deciding to start learning again.

Everyone of us enters this world a bad-ass, learning machine. We acquire mobility, language, math and science. We learn problem solving and complex communication. The more we learn, the faster we learn, gaining speed and momentum.

And then we stop!

Like a freight train having exhausted its fuel while steaming ahead at full throttle our learning stops. And like a freight train, the great momentum of our learning carries us forward for a long time, slowing ever so slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, until we perform almost no learning at all. We simply regurgitate what we're learned, make small incremental changes to it, and shift from learning to memorization and intellectual masturbation.

In the absence of active learning, many of us slip into Jeopardy-induced learning-comas, our life support flowing vicariously through the learning and insights of others. Some of us seek help to reignite the our dormant capacity to learn. We sign up for classes. We read books. We talk about how we're going to... But we don't.

The tragedy is that the answer is so close at hand. It's just been obscured by years and years of misinformation about learning. Learning does not come from instruction. Learning does not come from reading. Learning is not a side effect of googling. Learning comes in doing.

To learn, you must do.
To do, you must try.
To do anything significant, you must try repeatedly.
To try repeatedly, means you must fail.
To succeed after failing, you must see failing as a good thing and learn from your failures.
To learn from your failures, you must be become intimate with each them.
To become intimate with failure requires you to pay attention or to foofooize it: be present with your learning.

Be the Ball
I'll provide you a quick list of LQ tips below, but they all depend on one thing more than any other: be aware of what you're doing, i.e., focus; pay attention; be present. Nothing else matters if your focus is diluted.

Focus is one of those things that's simple, but hard. Even the awareness of being focused dilutes your focus. However, it's not a bad starting place. So, to start, focus on being focused. Here are some things to remember...
  1. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking you're focused when you're not. For example, if you're concerned about how well you're doing or whether or not people like what you're doing, you're not focused on what you're doing. You may think that you are, but you're not. Focus is about the trip, not the destination.

  2. Focus is not just a mental thing; it's a physiological, multi-sensory phenomenon. If you're learning to play the bass guitar and you focus exclusively on your finger position, but ignore the texture of the strings against your fingers or the tightness in your shoulders, you're not focused. What about that buzz the strings make each time you relax your grip? What about the friction of the string against your right index finger as you pluck it?

  3. OK technically, I'm now misusing the word focus as I'm describing more than one focal-point. So let's shift to the word awareness. Being aware requires you to pay attention to multiple focal-points that, when combined, provide the complete experience of what you're learning. To be optimally focused, you must become aware of and catalog the various sensory stimuli that compose the learning experience. Basically, you want to create a personal experiential checklist.

  4. Since you can't actually focus on more than one thing at a time, you'll need to establish priorities for each item on your checklist. If you're running, the focus-points that help you maintain balance will be more important than maintaining a relaxed neck and shoulders. However, you still want to allocate some focus-time to the latter. It's easy to become so focused on the primary stimuli, that you ignore the secondary and tertiary stimuli (hence repetitive stress injuries).

  5. Practice shifting focus (remember, we're focused on focus, which is not necessarily focused on the activity.) You can do this by counting, e.g, count ten footfalls and then check your neck and shoulders for tension. You can do this on the clock, e.g., a minute's passed, how's my posture? Focus on shifting focus.

  6. Once you've got the stimuli down, it's time to play with them. What happens if I lengthen my stride? What happens if I shorten it? When I press the strings a bit harder, that buzzing sound goes away. When I relax my grip, my fingers move more quickly and accurately. Play with your new toolkit of sensory focal-points.

Once You Focused
Once you've got down focus, or at least are working towards it, there are many techniques that can improve your LQ. Here are some...
  1. Go Slowly: There's no bigger waste of learning time than doing something quickly and sloppily. It's actually worse than wasteful; it causes you to learn what you don't want to learn. You teach yourself things that'll you'll need to unlearn later.

    Whether solving a math problem or learning a scale or running a mile, never do it faster than you can do it well.

  2. Break It Down: There are very few complex tasks that cannot be decomposed into smaller, simpler tasks. For example, it's easy to improve by a factor of ten your capacity to learn music if you breakdown long, complex phrases into short, simple phrases that you practice slowly. Don't try to put together the big phrase until you've mastered each of the smaller phrases.

    The same goes for math and science, languages, etc.

  3. Build It Up: Once you've taken apart a large complex challenge and mastered each of the components, you'll need to reconstruct the large complex challenge. This is the point where most people fail.

    When building up the complex composite you gotta focus on the seams, not the components. I've listened to many musicians trying to reconstruct the complex piece from the phrases they've learned. Phrase, pause, phrase, pause, phrase, pause... like a sputtering engine. The individual phrases sound free-flowing and easy, but the transitions from phrase to phrase are laborious and painful.

    Focus on the transitions. Start in the middle of one phrase and end in the middle of the next.

    Again, this works for language, math and science.

  4. Persist: The most important thing is to persist. However, persistence becomes counter-productive once you lose focus or begin to practice badly.

Of Course You Can
There's no doubt in my mind that, if you learn to focus and you practice well, you can learn anything. I've never seen anyone do the above and not achieve her goals.

Alright, get out there and learn somethin'

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Mommy, can I type?  That's a common request in our house.  We have computer days and non-computer days but the kids know that the non-computer days become computer days when they can somehow convince me that what they are doing is for 'school'. 

Zachary decided to type the words to Silent Night.  Simonne commented that it would help him remember the words.  I agreed, thinking that it would also help him read the words.  He loaded up a youtube video with the lyrics and went typing away.  Sometime later, after the second stanza, I saw him typing:
(he helped me reproduce it for this post).It was such an abrupt change from the words and phrases.  He was typing in a staccato fashion, almost as if he wasn't thinking about forming anything specific.  Puzzled, I had to ask him about it.  Simonne, without looking up from her typing, said: That's how you play Silent Night on the steel drums. I looked back at Zachary startled.  This was the same Zachary that had vowed not to go back to any more steel drum classes because he was doing horribly. 

Their teacher invited me into the class last week for me to hear them play Silent Night.  I was very excited to see Zach so proficient.  I knew Simonne would play well, if only because the teacher asked her. Zach really does exactly only what he wants to do (so it appears to me anyway).  I figured he learned the song as a series of hand movements.  It never occurred to me that he knew the notes as well!
Later that evening, I called Isaiah over and asked Zachary to tell him the notes in Silent Night.  As Zachary rattled the letters out, I was amused at the befuddled look on Isaiah's face.  Since I had passed the befuddled stage, I went to curiosity.  Zach, I asked, did you memorize the notes to be able to play Silent Night?  He didn't answer.  Simonne commented that she didn't do that because she would lose track of her place in the song if she was thinking about anything else (like the names of the notes) but the song.  She sings in her mind and that helps her know which parts of the drum to hit.  Zach, with prompting, explained that he could imagine himself playing and tell us what notes he was hitting in his imagination because the notes were written on the drum.

Having not gotten very much farther than EGBDF in music theory (are those the lines or spaces?) I think I'm way out of my league.  In many ways, I'm glad I know I don't know.  I might be tempted to prescribe methods and dictate the process for the children's musical development.  Instead I'm forced to just allow it, to trust, and perhaps learn a thing or two.

My eyes met Isaiah's over the kids heads and I mouthed we are just lazy.  We have recently been talking about our own musical/instrument development.  There are really no obstacles, only our own willingness to move from not knowing to knowing, from discomfort to comfort.  In many ways, it seems children just move through those hurdles.  One more reason to embrace a more child-like approach.  Where's my recorder?

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Aha! moment

Mr. Smith was known for giving assignments on topics far removed from the current course content.  Well, so it appeared to us anyway, as first year, introduction to computer science students.  The second year students supported our beliefs with Smithy stories of their own.  Everyone who learns to write a working program, does so in spite of Mr Smith. 

The assignment that week was to simulate a calculator.  If the user entered "23+41=" at the command line (these were the days of command line prompts and floppy drives), the computer should respond with "64".  This had a vague connection to the lesson on arithmetic operations.  In addition to correct arithmetic, many opted to add screen embellishments that would allow the computer screen  to look like a calculator.

These were also the days of the 4 hour/week NCR Tower time limit so if you didn't have a computer at home, the situation was a little more grim.  I was one of those computer-less first year students.  Fortunately, the final years were sympathetic to our cause.  They had a PC lab (think Alleluia chorus).  If a PC was available, one of us could use it, then take our working program and re-enter it on the computer in the first year lab, debug for any differences between the machines and voila!

I'm sitting in the final year lab in front of a borrowed PC wondering how I could make my calculator behave more like an actual calculator.  Calculators start showing numbers on the right of the screen and the numbers increase left. Typical computer command lines start at the left of the screen and the numbers would increase towards the right.  Sean Parris, a final year student stood looking over my shoulder.  I must have spoken out loud, or asked him a question.  I'm not sure.  I just know that the moment of my inspiration for the next 2 and a half years of study was about to happen.  What about not reading the numbers as numbers but reading all the user enters into a character array.  Each time the user enters something, clear the screen and print the array on the screen up to the last thing input.  It will look like it's scrolling left

That was it.  Everything changed. He is a god!  How did he know that?  We could do that?  How did he say to do that?  A million questions flashed through my mind, and with them, the growing excitement.  There was more to this than Smithy let on!

That was the beginning of something new for me.  I had never felt like I had the power to manipulate the science, to discover, to explore.  Chemistry, biology and physics experiments didn't  me this sense of power to discover and create.  I felt like I was looking to see what others had already seen.  With the computer, I was looking to see what I could see.

I have to tell Sean this story.  I'm sure he knows, but it's easy to forget your impact on another person.  Just one second of enthusiastic attention to another person's life can help them open the door to a universe of possibilities.  Who are you inspiring today?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Whaddya Know?

What do know? What beliefs are anchored so deeply in your sense of reality that you never question them, so deeply that it never occurs to you to question them?

Is it esoteric and secretive or common and public? Is it exotic and mystical or it everyday and mundane? Is sacred? Is it profane?

Is what you know embodied in your belief in another: your lover, your mom, your dog, your cat? Is it your belief in you?

Is what you know global like the sun rising every morning or is it personal like the doubt that creeps in every time you encounter a specific situation?

What do you know?

What you know needn't be true; in fact, it may be absolutely false. What you know may never have occurred.

You may not be able to explain why you know what you know. You likely can't prove it, at least not to someone who knows something else.

What you profess as known may only vaguely resemble what your actions declare as known. Loud proclamations of providence are often tempered with insurance policies and longterm investments.

What you know may be good for others, but not for yourself. Our actions often escape the scrutiny of our knowing.

What I know is...

What you know defines who you are.
You are what you know.

How do you know what you know?

Forget about what you've been taught. Forget about what you profess. Instead, look at what you do consistently. The things that you do nearly every time the opportunities arise. Therein lie the answers to "what do you know?"

The one who says, "Every time I do this, I just know it's going to turn out badly", doesn't know it's going to turn out badly. What does he know?

The fretting mother who says, "I know Bobby's going to be just fine", doesn't know Bobby's going to be fine. What does she know?

The stage-frightened performer who says, "I just know I'm going to screw up my part" each time she walks on stage, doesn't know she's going to screw up. What does she know?

Think of all the absolutes that are negated by the very statement of them. "This is absolutely the last time that I'm going to..."

What do you know?

Perhaps the answer lies in those around you. If you asked your partner or you friends or the people at work, "What do my actions tell you about what I 'know?'", what would they say?

We often struggle with transformation because we don't fully understand the object of our transformative efforts. Whether it's remodeling a house or fixing a car or repairing a piano, successful transformation often depends on knowing what's there. Since what you know defines who you are, then perhaps the best way to transform you (if you so desire) is to start with understanding what you know.

Whaddya know?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Able Teacher...

...Willing Student

Why don't you just call Will. He'd said that he'd love to work with you.

I don't know. Wil is so busy and he's a professional who works with professionals.

What am I, chopped liver?




Never mind. Wil would be a great coach for you and I'm sure he'll let you know if he's too busy. Besides, he's told you several times that he'd love to coach you.

And so our conversation went time and time again. After months of unparalleled growth in her self-designed, music-education program, Iris had become stuck. Although her technique continued to improve, there was something missing in her performance and she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

In addition to playing guitar and singing with our blues band, Will Power, our friend Wil is a writer, a director, an actor and a performance coach. He's not only helped actors to improve their performance, he's also coached corporate executives and sales people. As we talked about Iris' roadblocks, it became clear that Wil could help her and Wil made it clear that he'd love to do so.

And for months, the offer remained in the category of "good idea", but that was it. Believe it or not, Iris isn't great at asking for or accepting help.

Motivational Tapes
A couple of months ago, our other band, No Room for Jello, performed at Club Helsinki in Hudson. Our guitar player, Pete (who's also the sound engineer at the club), made a twenty-four track digital recording of the evening. He dropped of a disk with the digital tracks and I went to work mixing them down to stereo recordings of the songs.

One night sitting at my Mac working on the songs, Iris walks into the room.

Is that us at Helsinki?


Wow, it sounds really good. Can hear something that I sang?


I queue up one of the songs where Iris has the lead vocal and press play. Iris smiles as the intro plays, but her smile fades as the verse starts, an overcast of concern spreading over her face.

Hmm... I've really got to call Wil.

Excited Student
Saturday morning. After several almost-got-togethers, today is the day. Although Wil told Iris that she needn't do anything special to prepare, she's been working all week to be ready. The house reverberates as she bounces from room to room cleaning and performing vocal warm-ups. She walks into my office beaming: today's the day.

It's 3:00. Will arrives. A few minutes later he and Iris are sequestered in the studio. Today's the day.

At 5:00 I hear footsteps in the living room above me. Iris bounds down the steps to tell me they're done. Let's get some sushi.

Driving to Bizen, Iris excitedly tells me about her lesson and all that she came to understand about herself, performing and the things that were holding her back. At Bizen Wil explains what a delight it is to have such an open and receptive student, someone who just goes for it without hesitation or question. Although I didn't participate in their session, I can't help but feel a deep sense of satisfaction in their work.

Proof of the Pudding
Proof of the pudding's in the eating. Proof of the coaching's in the singing.

It's Sunday, time for Will Power rehearsal, time to experience the coaching results first hand.

Our rehearsal schedule might be described as group stream-of-consciousness. Wil starts a jam. We all join in. The jam reminds me of Twisted, a melodically and lyrically challenging song recorded by Joanie Mitchell on her Court and Spark album. It's not a beginner's song. It's not an intermediate-level song. It's a song that's hard to sing and one that Iris and I have talked about as a some day kind of song. It's also not one of the songs that Iris and Wil worked on yesterday.

So what else would we do but try it?

After a few minutes figuring out keys and chords, we dive in and without hesitation, Iris starts singing. A half hour later, some-day has become today.

But wait, we still haven't got to the songs Iris and Wil worked out yesterday. Let's give'em a try.

We launch into Carol King's It's Too Late. Iris' presence changes as she stares across the room looking at an unseen source of inspiration. She sings. Her voice is rich and confident. Inspired, the band picks up on it, matching her style and strength. The feeling is relaxed and easy. We play fewer notes leaving plenty of sonic space for the lead vocal. We play better than we've ever played.

Able Teacher, WIlling Student
It's amazing behold the combination of able teacher and willing student. It's one of those phenomena that truly justifies that adjective synergistic. When you see it, the contrast to typical student-teacher relationships is like that of a full solar eclipse to partial ones; the partial eclipses seem special until then.

How are you as a teacher? Are you as able as you'd like to be? Do you exude passion for all you teach?

How are you as a student? Are you open and receptive, or do you hesitate and question? Do you take delight in the learning?

Happy Tuesday,


I'm a groupie, I guess.  I fall in love with people and want them around me forever.  It's my fundamental problem with death.  I don't want you to leave.  But my obsessive thinking about the possibility of your leaving prevents me from enjoying the fact that you're here.  Now, right here in this moment, I get to enjoy you completely.  The best gift I can give myself and our life together is to forget about where you will be tomorrow, and explode my capacity to love you today.

I just finished watching this story and found it very moving so I thought I'd share it.  I wonder what Isaiah will think if I wake him up to tell him I love him?  I probably don't need to.  He probably knows.... I'll go tell him anyway.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If You Could Fly

The other day, Iris made a play-date with her little friend David. They would spend time together playing music, reading books, baking cookies and whatever else came to mind...

I sit at my desk coding. It's one of those amazing afternoons where I get to not deal with people. I'm translating the new subcutaneous heart-attack detection algorithm from Visual Basic (the language we use to prototype the system) into C++ (the language we use to implement the system on an implantable medical device or IMD).

The task is a bit more challenging than basic translation. The prototype takes full advantage of all the power you get with the latest and greatest PCs. The IMD has less processor power than a Commodore-64.

To make things more challenging, I have to take into account how my code will consume battery. The IMD needs to run for four years on a single battery (without a recharge). If not careful, I could easily write software that drains the battery in an eighth the time.

I'm in heaven.

As I consider how to efficiently implement a slope-of-the-slope calculation without floating-point capabilities I hear Iris' truck roar up the driveway and into the parking lot. A minute or so later, I feel a barometric change as the front door swings open and Iris and David bound into the house. The house shakes as the door slams shut (Iris has been into weight lifting lately) and just in case I'd missed their arrival, Iris calls out, "We're here!"

I shout from my office. "Welcome home, baby! Hello, David!"

Patter, patter, patter. David (who's never been to my office), rambles down the steps, races to my desk, and says, "iPhone" as he grabs mine.

For perspective's sake, I'll tell you that I'm blazing fast with computers and the like; when it comes to user interfaces, I can fly. Yet, I can never imagine being as fast as David is with my iPhone. Within seconds, he flips through all my applications, calling them out as he goes. Next, he jumps through all the settings, again calling them out.

I almost miss the part where David starts to delete the applications that he deems unnecessary. As I see the icons start to jiggle and his index finger torpedoing toward one of the circled X's, I divert the missile with the top of my hand as I palm the screen and say, "David, this is my iPhone. I use it for my work. I need those applications. You can play with my iPhone, but not if you delete applications. If you do, then I won't let you play with it. OK?"

I press the iPhones return button, the icons settle. As if to make sure he understood me, David sets them into motion again and looks at me as his index finger targets another circled-X.

"Wow, he's really fast", I think as I just barely head him off.

"David, remember what I said about deleting applications?"

David acknowledges me by pressing the return button. The icons quiesce. He heads back to the phone's settings and begins a little ritual. Each time he presses an icon or text-link, he calls out its name and then circles the room once running at a full clip.

"Airplane Mode, Off!"

Patter, patter, patter.

"WiFi, On!"

Patter, patter, patter.

"Choose a Network"

Patter, patter, patter.

On one of his circuits, David spies the settings icon on the display of my Mac Tower. He sees the keyboard which unlike most desktop computers has a trackpad in the center. He glides the cursor over the settings icon and clicks.

"System Preferences!"

Patter, patter, patter.


Patter, patter, patter.

David's ease with the iPhone and the Mac are remarkable. When it comes to trying out new system, you've got two types of people: the ones who click quickly, but haphazardly and the ones who click slowly and deliberately. You rarely see someone who clicks quickly and deliberately and you never seen anyone as fast as David.

This morning, I've been thinking about David's finesse with my iPhone and Mac. I imagine that the activity would be considered an example of "stimming" (short for self stimulation), an effect of his being on the autism spectrum. Common examples of stimming include rocking back and forth, head-banging, finger-flicking, spinning in circles, humming, repeating words or sounds and complex body contortions.

Stimming helps you to regulate your sensory systems, to quiesce them when they get over stimulated. People may stim to relieve discomfort and stress, but they may also stim to express emotion.

Pretty much everyone stims from time to time: tap your feet, crack your knuckles, wring your fingers, twiddle your thumbs, get lost in the ticking of a clock, count the tiles on a floor or in a ceiling). However, the stims of people on the autism spectrum are often more pronounced and may seem downright strange. Therefore, we often discourage stims or try to replace them with other, more desirable behaviors.

Yet, as I watched David racing through the icons with such confidence, precision and skill, it was as though he were flying. Sure, I can see that you might want to discourage David from pressing icons, calling out their names and running in circles around the room. You might want to get him to do something else, something more socially engaged or educational or productive. But why would he want that?

Imagine if you could fly. You race through obstacle courses without hesitation or even slowing down to take a corner. You get from home to work in seconds instead of hours. You feel an unparalleled sense of freedom and empowerment.

However, you're strange. People feel uncomfortable around you. No one else flies; you shouldn't fly. Why don't you just forget about flying and walk like everyone else?

But why would you ever want to walk, when you can fly?

Happy Monday,

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bigger Life - the sequel

In recent blog posts, we have been discussing personality types and communication styles. It has been an area of tremendous interest for me, for reasons I’ll explain soon, but I’ve also had conflicting thoughts about it, which is why I have been wanting to write a post about it for over a month but managed to tie myself in knots before even starting. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, I’ve decided to communicate my remaining thoughts on the matter, even if it takes us on a wild ramble.

I first came across personality type classifications in a training course I took at work many years ago. The model they used was the Myers-Briggs system, a rather elegant classification that used four ‘dichotomies’, each with two possible values, yielding a total of 16 personality types, represented by four letters, like ESTP, INTP, etc. (see HERE for details). I think I came out as an INTP at first, and the resulting profile described me fairly well. But after getting deeper into it, I decided to take the test again, and answering a couple questions differently made me come out an ESTP, and that profile didn’t seem too far off either. So that kinda diluted my enthusiasm for it. Also sixteen was way too many types to be able to remember and use in day-to-day life. But it had certainly aroused in me an interest in and desire to understand other people and how to work better with all kinds of people. Because back then – this is almost 20 years ago now – I used to find myself completely at sea when working with people, compared to which working with machinery and computers (as an engineer) was so much more predictable and comfortable. There were just so many people in my family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and so many instances, where their behavior would be completely mystifying.

Next I read an immensely entertaining but eye-opening book called “Personality Plus”, by Florence Littauer, recommended by a business book club I joined. This model consisted of just four types – Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic and Melancholy (the concept of ‘humors’ dating back to the ancient Greeks) but allowed the possibility of a primary and a secondary type. For the first time, I found a model that would explain the actions of most everybody I knew. For instance, (as I mentioned in recent comments), I typically like to filter & organize my thoughts and use as few words as possible to communicate them. So the aunt who talks first and thinks later used to drive me nuts. When I learnt that I was a Phlegmatic, and that Sanguines actually talk to organize their thoughts, I could finally allow her to be the way she was, without making her wrong. That overbearing cousin was a Choleric, with a strong bias for action and results, and little tolerance for feelings. And the brother-in-law’s chronic paralysis of analysis was merely the Melancholy’s desire for being precise and right taken to an extreme.

I can’t tell you the calm that came over me when such a big part of the world clicked into place like that. Moreover, I gained a great deal of validation in my own feelings and tendencies. I swelled with pride when Littauer listed the Phlegmatic’s assets: "the gift of mediation, uniting opposite forces; the ability to listen, while others have their say; the patience to put up with provokers; the determination to keep your head , while all around are losing theirs; the will to live in such a way that even enemies can’t find anything bad to say about you". Finally, someone gets me!

Over time, though, a creeping sense of stagnation overcame this calm, as I put myself into the prison of the static personality type. I convinced myself that, being a Phlegmatic, I was not cut out for leadership or bold actions, that I was condemned to being a loyal follower or supportive presence. It took a lot more reading and ongoing personal examination to understand that any limits I perceived were those I put on myself. So, even though I still recommend this book heartily (and study of this area in general), I am careful to add a caution that it should not be seen as a static label. So the concept of ‘color energies’ that I've recently learnt accomplishes that in an easy way.

There are doubtless many more models out there, but the proof of the pudding is in how easy they are to assimilate, remember and use. In my opinion, 16 (Meyers-Briggs) and 8 (Insights Discovery) are too many. I found 4 (DISC, humors) to be perfect – large enough to be comprehensive, small enough to remember and apply on the go. But I also found another model that goes one further and breaks it down into just two dimensions: Pace & Priority. That is, one can be Fast or Slow paced, and one can prioritize either People or Task. The combinations still yield four types, same as the DISC or humors system, but using just those two counts to get a read on a person is a snap. You could meet a complete stranger, and within a minute or two be able to assess how best to connect with him or her.

Now, over the years, I’ve invested a ton of my energy and time using these methods to tune up all my relationships, and I’ve been mystified (and occasionally frustrated) by people who have access to this same information but fail to use it. Again, this same model came to my aid. The overriding goal for Phlegmatics (or Steadys) is harmony; they want peace at any price – which explains why this is a big deal for me. However, each of the other three types has a different priority – action, fun or the truth.

I think the holy grail of personal growth (or at least one of the top few grails) is to be equally comfortable with all four communication styles, and to be able to effortlessly switch to the one most appropriate for the situation. For instance, as a Phlegmatic (“I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure”), I have worked hard on decision-making, and now I’m routinely in situations where I’m the most decisive person in the room. However, I know I still overpay for peace and prefer to lurk on the lower rungs of the assertiveness scale. So if all you Driver- and Influencer-types (like Faith) can share what makes you tick, I’d love to hear.



Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Don't Need to Know

Susan, all I can say is that I want be with you. I was a fool to leave you, crazy. Something happened and it all became clear. You are the perfect woman for me. There can be no other.

Wow, Hank, that's a pretty extreme contrast to what you told me a week ago. I remember phrases like "we're just not right for each other" and "people change" and "it's not you, it's me."

Yes, I did say those things. I must have been completely out of my mind. When I came to my senses, I couldn't believe what I'd said or how wrong I'd been. There it was, the truth staring me in the eye. I knew I had to get you back.

So what happened? What sparked such an epiphany?

Oh, just a bunch of things that got me thinking more about you.

Things? What kind of things?

You know, things happen that get you thinking? Uh... You miss your train and you gotta wait for the next one; it gives you time to think.

Missing your train inspired you to completely rethink your relationship with me?

Well, not exactly, I mean, it was a lot of things working together. All that's not important. The important thing is that I came to my senses.

Uh huh. But there must of been something significant to inspire such a radical change. You were totally done with me. If I were a betting woman, I'd have bet that I'd never see you again, let alone hear what you're saying now. What was the big event?

It really doesn't matter does it? What matters is that I'm here and you're here.

No, what matters to me is why you're here. So, give it to me. What changed?

Well, if you really think it's that important.

It's that important.

OK, but you have to know that the reasons don't change how I feel about you.

I understand.

Well, um... Dana dumped me.

What? Dana? Dana from accounting? You left me for Dana?

Well, no. I mean, we had grown apart and things had changed between us.

Things like Dana you mean. I can't believe I bought that line of crap you sold me. I can't believe that I was about to buy another.

Now you're all upset and you've completely lost track of the main point. I'm here and I want to be with you more than anyone else in the world. I knew that it'd be better if you didn't know why.

Better for whom?

Happy Saturday,

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where Do You Go for Questions?

Pablo: Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Sree: As of this morning, Wikipedia had 3.8 million entries. But where do you go for questions?

Faith: The questions are inside us, but we have done inordinate amounts of practice with answering someone else's questions (exams, school, interviews); we have forgotten where to go to get our own questions.

Teflon: Faith, I couldn't disagree more. Hmm... OK, I could, but still I disagree a lot. I mean, uh, what you said sounds great and all; it's just that it in no way reflects reality.

A Great Researcher
When I first started working in the research group at Bell Labs, my boss, Tom London, pulled me aside and told me, "Look Mark, I know you've got a lot of skill and you've developed a great base of knowledge, but that's not going to be enough here in research. What you've got is the ability to answer questions and to prove hypotheses. However, the thing that distinguishes the great researchers from the rest of the pack is not the ability to answer questions; it's the ability to ask."

I thanked him for his guidance and went back to my office wondering what the heck he was talking about. Over the following weeks, it became clear.

Up to that point, my experience as a technologist had been team-oriented. I worked on projects that involved people from multiple disciplines: electrical engineers, physical designers, software developers, product managers, etc. The goals of the project were set by others. Our job was to implement them.

In research, although we referred to one-another as colleagues and collaborators, we worked for the most part, independently. More significantly, each researcher determined her own "what" on which she worked. There were no predetermined projects, no goals, no plans. You got a basic budget and the opportunity to get a bigger budget if you had a really great idea and could sell it.

During the first few weeks I spent a lot of time talking to other researchers in order to get my bearings. As I did, the meaning in Tom's message became clear. For example, I might ask...

Can you tell me a bit about your project?

Sure, I'm working on a new ways to represent the relationships among data using 3-D matrices. Using a mouse, you can pan, tilt and zoom. It's as though you're flying through the data.

OK, I think I've got a picture of what they might look like. So what do you hope to demonstrate through your work?

I want to show that you can represent data in this fashion, that the relationships among information can be represented using proximity, size and even color.

Umm... Haven't people been doing that for years? Have you seen Tufte's book on the Visual Representation of Quantitative Information?

Tufte shows what one can accomplish with static physical media. I want to show that you can do similar things virtually.

Uh huh.

I would leave thinking, "Well of course you can represent the relationships among data geometrically; the rest is just a simple matter of programming. Even the challenging parts that are limited by processor performance will disappear over the next couple of years as processors get faster and memory gets bigger. What exactly is there to prove?"

Two Things
The more I talked with people, the more interested I became in what makes a great question. I realized that learning to question is a skill that can be developed like any other skill. I came to recognize two basic tacts that seem always to yield great questions.
  1. Always ask the obvious question, specially when it's being avoided.
    Faith, I think this resonates with your statement of the questions being inside us. We learn not to ask the most obvious questions. We do so in order to avoid embarrassment, to be polite, to not touch on a sore subject. Yet, it's usually not asking the obvious questions that lead to speculation and rumors. We end uo asking them of everyone but the one who might provide an answer.

    Further, it's the simple, obvious questions that serve as stepping stones to the the deeper, more meaningful and insightful questions.

  2. Always be asking yourself, "So what?"
    Answering So what? is the greatest filter I've found for weak questions. It's also a way to dig deeper and find the rich, meaty questions.

    What if I did know the answer to that? How would knowing that change things? What would I do differently if I knew that? Who would be interested? Why did I ask that?

OK, that was way more longwinded than I intended. I must think that learning to ask questions well is really important. In fact, it may be the most important thing to learn, a skill to be practiced and honed.

How about a fun learning-to-ask-questions exercise that you can do with your family.
  1. Pick someone in your life that everyone in the family knows. It could be a grandparent or a neighbor or a teacher or a friend.
  2. Have each family member independently interview that person for twenty-minutes recording the interview on audio or video if possible or by writing down questions and answers.
  3. Have each family member write up their interviews.
  4. Using the interview notes, have each family member write a story about the person interviewed.
  5. Spend an evening or afternoon together, sharing your interviews and stories. Talk about what you asked and why. Talk about what you would other questions you would ask if you were to do the interview again.

Hmm... why exactly would you want to do that?

Happy Friday,

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bigger Life

Yesterday, in response to Big Life, Sree posted some comments on roles and personality types that I found inspiring and useful.

For example, Sree points out that classification can help us to better understand and communicate with others.

I think the basic concept of classification is very useful at first – at least, I found it tremendously useful to explain the behavior of people around me, and to a certain extent my own.

That garrulous aunt who used to drive me up the wall? That overbearing cousin who keeps ordering people around? That nitpicky brother-in-law? All can be neatly explained by identifying their personality type.

It even helps me work with them ongoingly – I know to emphasize facts and figures with my brother-in-law, actions and results with my cousin and people and fun with my aunt.

Sree also points out that classification can be useful in understanding our own behaviors and the roles we take on when around others.

It’s also useful when looking at one’s own actions in the past. I can see that I’ve typically been Compliant when around my mother, but an Influencer around certain friends.

I think this insight is a great one to draw upon when seeking to change behavior. For example, let's say that you want to become more assertive. There are likely people around whom you're a wallflower and those around whom you're already pretty darn assertive. What's the difference? What "makes" you assertive with some, but shy with others?

I totally agree with Sree's identification of the point where classification goes from useful to counter productive; it's when we start confusing what we do with who we are.

I think the pitfall comes when I project it into the future. When we start saying things like, “Oh, I’m a Steady type – I don’t want to raise objections at the meeting”, or “I’m a Driver – I just don’t know how to tone it down”, that’s when we start limiting ourselves. And I think it’s because we have unknowingly converted “Communication Style” to “Personality Type”, which as you pointed out, Tef, is something we consider fairly static.

Unwittingly say something at a party to which people take offense. Are you an insensitive bastard or did you innocently step into something you had no way of seeing?

Forget the name someone to whom you were just introduced. Are you just bad with names or were you just not paying attention when introduced?

Stutter and stammer when trying to express something. Are you someone who's not good with words or did you just make what you had to say too important?

Classifications and personality types quickly backfire when we transform them from a way of looking at ourselves and those around us to a statement about who we or they are. Do you ever find yourself saying things like, "I'm just the kind of person who..." or "People like me have to..." or "You know, guys like that...". To quote Faith (and Bob Newhart): "JUST STOP IT!"

Another important distinction that Sree calls out (this is specially important if you can't distinguish doing from being) is the difference between concept and execution.

Also, each of these behaviors can be done well or badly. A Driver can direct tasks well, but may also come across as overbearing or pushy. The Steady type is valued for being supportive, but could also be weak and indecisive, and so on.

If you get annoyed by overbearing and pushy Drivers, if you lack patience for painfully slow Compliant types, it could simply be that you've been exposed to Drivers and Compliants who just aren't that good at it.

Finally, I love the idea of viewing personality types as a color.

Just last month, here at work I was at a training class where a similar classification was presented as ‘color energies’. So the Driver would be a Fiery Red, the Influencer a Sunshine Yellow, the Steady an Earth Green and the Compliant a Cool Blue.

So we just use different energies at different times and in different situations, with no implications on personality or static-ness. We may have a strongly preferred energy, but as long as we remain aware that we have a choice in the matter, it’s all good.

Let's say that you're working on a project and you want to stay in an Influencer mode. When things heat up, you tend towards being a Driver. When the bosses are around, you tend towards being a Compliant.

You ask a friend to help you stay an Influencer. Whenever you start shifting to Driver, she says, "Hey, you're starting to look a little red there", or to Compliant, "Do you need some air? Looking a little blue."

It'd be fun.

In short: classifications can be really useful until they're not at which point they not only become useless but really not useful.

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
- Pablo Picasso

As of this morning, Wikipedia had 3.8 million entries. But where do you go for questions?