Sunday, December 30, 2012

Are You Prepared?

But you don't understand. If I'm going to get up on a stage and perform, I have to have completely prepared the material. I have to know it inside and out. Otherwise I get so nervous that I totally lose it. I freeze. I can't play a note.

That's so limiting.

What's so limiting?

Needing to have totally prepared for the gig in order to perform without having a breakdown.

Don't you think it's important to be prepared?

I think it can be useful to be prepared, but it's far from necessary. In some cases knowing material inside and out can lead to a less inspired performance. Sometimes it's important to not be prepared.

Oh come on. Ask anyone and they'll tell you that they get nervous when they're on stage in front of an audience and they haven't fully prepared.

Statistically speaking, ask anyone and they'll tell you they get nervous prepared or not. Preparedness has nothing to do with it, or at least not directly. Preparedness is just one of many security blankets one can use to feel safer on stage.

OK, so if it's not preparedness, what is it.


Confidence in what?

In yourself.

But doesn't your confidence in yourself depend on how well you've prepared.

Yes, and no.

Sheesh... I knew there was gonna be a "yes and no" somewhere.

Yes, how you prepare helps build confidence, but no your confidence is not in your preparedness; it's in you. As soon as you start to question your preparedness, you're no longer trusting yourself; you're trusting your preparedness. Since in that moment you have no control over how well you've previously prepared, your confidence goes to hell.

OK, so if your confidence is not based on how well you've prepared, then what does preparation have to do with confidence?

Rather than preparing material, your prepare to be confident. You practice confidence.

How can someone practice confidence?

Well, for one, you could start playing in front of people without preparing for the specific event. You just get up and perform, trusting that you'll be able to play something pleasing, even if not exactly what you'd intended.

And that will build confidence?

Not necessarily, but in your case it couldn't hurt.

And that's it?

No, the more important thing is to get good at what you do independent of the events for which you want to be good. Practice every day and take delight in what you're learning. If you take delight in your own playing, other people will as well.

But I don't want to get all full of myself thinking that I'm another Miles or Freddy or Dizzy.

I didn't say, "Tell yourself how good you are."  I said, "Take delight in what you're doing."

OK, and then what.

Keep doing that and you'll be prepared. Then take every opportunity to perform in your newly unprepared, but prepared way.

And that's it?

I think so.

Happy Sunday,

Friday, December 28, 2012

What's Your Brand

Time to get ready for 2013. What's your game-plan for change?

Forget about the incremental changes, the "more of this" and "less of that". Let's go for a complete overhaul. 

Who will you be in 2013?  

While we're at it, let's drop qualifiers that muddy the water, e.g., "kind of" or "sometimes" or "pretty much".  Instead, let's use declaratives that involve neither adjective nor adverb. When considering strength: you will be a) strong or, b) weak. That's it. Nothing in between.You pick one or the other, plain and simple: no scale of one-to-ten, no situational qualifiers, nothing to compromise your declaration.

Not sure? Then pick the one on which you'd be most willing to bet $1,000. 

So, what's it going to be: 
strong[ ]- or -  weak[ ]
loving[ ]- or -  hateful[ ]
hardworking[ ]- or -  lazy[ ]
engaging[ ]- or -  standoffish[ ]
happy[ ]- or -  miserable[ ]
committed [ ]- or -  lackadaisical [ ]
sweet[ ]- or -  sour[ ]
passionate[ ]- or -  apathetic[ ]
spicy [ ]- or -  mild[ ]
Not sure? 

Hmm... is it the selection characteristics or your readiness to declare?

If it's the selection characteristics, pick any that you consider meaningful. What juxtaposed characteristics would you prefer? Hot or cold? Big or small? Fish or fowl? The main thing is to ask yourself, "What are the key elements that distinguish a personality?"

Pick a characteristic, think of it's opposite and determine which of the two you will be.

With characteristics that you've determined, how ready are you to declare? Is your readiness to declare impeded by your not having a preference or are you uncertain as to your readiness to live up to your preference? Perhaps there's a conflict between your aspirational you and your implementable you; there's the you that you want to be and the you who you believe you'll be. 

Is that it?

What characteristics inspire the greatest internal conflict between aspiration and implementation? Do you really wish you were someone who were reliable (note, not "more" reliable). Would you be someone who loves? (Note, not loves "more".)  In some ways we're talking about your brand. What's your brand? What would you like your brand to be in 2013?

Branding You
I've often consulted with companies that are trying to define their brands. I usually work with a team composed of executives and members of the marketing department. We start by talking about the company's existing brand and invariably we get something big, bold and beautiful. The team considers themselves to be the Apple Computer or the Mercedes Benz or the Michael Jordan or the Harvard of whatever it is they do. 

"That's who we are: we're the Jimi Hendrix of golf cart manufacturers!"

This is why companies bring in outside consultants to help with branding. The employees of a company often see the company's brand in terms of aspiration; unfortunately the aspiration can vary significantly from the actual company. A company that produces OK products, but charges a lot for them want's the image of quality carried by Mercedes Benz. A company that offers nothing particularly new or inventive wants the halo of innovation worn by Apple Computer. A company that is conservative and stayed wants a rock-and-roll image.

Problem is that, in order to be effective and sustainable, a company's brand must be organic. It must closely reflect who the company is. If it doesn't, then one of two things must change. The company or the brand.

The first step in the process is to set aside the aspirational brand and capture the organic brand. Sometimes you find that a company's challenges with brand are that the company's brand exactly represents who they are, and who they are isn't working. A company sells cheap stuff at a premium; they're brand is that they sell cheap stuff at a premium. Sometimes the brand is opposite; a company that wants to provide name-brands for less really provides off-brands for more.

More often than not you find that the company's brand is just fine but needs a little bolstering. The bolstering starts with getting past denial.

For example, having a strong, recognizable brand as the provider of cheap stuff is great. It's easy to articulate and sell. In a bad economy, being the "cheap" guy can be a real advantage. Being cheap is only a problem if you aspire to something else.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong with being outstandingly uncool. Duncan Donut's trademark pink and brown color scheme is anything but cool, but it's easily recognizable amidst a sea of signage. They're branding works, big time.

Your Organic Brand
The art is to reconcile your would-be with your is. In some cases, there's nothing more to be done than to embrace and accept the is. In other cases, it's time to change one or the other. In the end, the brands that succeed and thrive are the ones where would-be equals is. Sure, you can get by for a while unreconciled (US car manufacturers used to dismiss Japanese cars as having inferior quality),  but it's not sustainable.

You what's your organic brand? You pick the characteristics that you want to use as metrics. How's your organic brand compare to your aspirational brand? How will you reconcile the two in 2013?

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Changing the World by Being Himself

My friend Carolina travels the world working with families of children with autism. She takes delight in having learned as much from her clients as she has taught them. The other day she posted something on her Facebook page that I found moving and inspirational. I thought I'd share it with you.

Happy Tuesday,

A Conversation Overheard
Another airplane, another landing... I hear a man a few rows back. He speaks loudly using phrases like "children dying" and "it's just going to keep happening."

I wonder who he is speaking to with such an uncomfortable tone and if the conversation is leading toward some sort of fight.

I listen.

As I listen I slowly come to recognize something in the man's manner of speech. He sounds as if he may have autism, that he is simply perseverating on death in its various forms, speaking to anyone who will listen to him, trying to understand the impossible-to-understand recent events in the world.

In the midst of his tirade, the flight attendant announces that anyone needing a wheelchair should wait in their seats. The man changes focus. With a deep sense of urgency, he says loudly "I want one! Do I get one? Is my wheelchair coming? I need a wheelchair. Did they get my wheelchair?"

Then the sweetest thing happens. I hear the gentle voice of a woman, saying, "Absolutely sir. You will get your wheelchair. Someone will take great care of you."

I smile, feeling grateful that she sees his outburst as nothing more than than someone voicing his concerns in the best way he knows. She neither dismisses nor overreacts, but instead responds matter-of-factly. She helps him.

A new conversation unfolds. The man asks her what her name is, where she is going, and why she is going there. He asks who she is visiting, and finds out that she is visiting her son who is in the military. He asks, "Are you worried about your son dying, because I'm worried about him dying."

She answers each of his questions with a smile in her voice, a voice that is patient, sweet and helpful.

He ends the conversation with the best line ever. Suddenly changing topics, he says, "Do you remember those record player things we used to have? Don't you miss having them around? I just don't know how to do anything with computers."

Then silence.

I smile to myself, understanding his wish for a simpler world, with record player things.

My faith in humanity feels suddenly bolstered, thanks to a woman who took care of a stranger, and thanks to a man who changes the world just by being himself.

Maybe we no longer have the simplicity of "record player things," but by needing the help and support of others, he gives us all the opportunity to create a more compassionate, loving and accepting world everywhere he goes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Twelve Ways to Avoid Yes

Over the years I've come to appreciate the skills and expertise of people who, no matter what, avoid coming to agreement. It's an august group of non-compromising individuals who refuse to take "yes" for an answer, who'd rather die trying than win, who untiringly swim against the tide (even when the tide turns their way). They're true individuals who know every conceivable way (and many inconceivable ways) of avoiding the support of others in getting what they want, the dogs who know that you never want to actually catch the bus.

I recognize that I can only present a small sampling of the many, varied (and sometimes alarming) techniques employed by those whose skills far surpass my own,  but that's never stopped me before, so I'll give it a shot. If you're someone who revels in being alone and unsupported in your endeavors, then this may be the post for you.  In no particular order (because that's the way we like it when trying to dodge unanticipated success), the following will virtually guarantee that absolutely no-one (that's N-O-1) will ever buy into nor support your goals or efforts.

1. Move Away From, Not Towards
The primary requirement to failing at motivating others is to never clearly say what you want. Stick to things that you don't want. For example, rather than presenting a workable plan for feeding the poor, lament how terrible it is that the poor are hungry.

The beauty of moving away from what you DON'T want versus moving towards what you DO want is that you avoid the pitfalls of a clearly articulated, implementable and sustainable vision, and you know in your gut that inspirational vision can be disastrous when it comes to avoiding success. 

In the back of your mind, you might be thinking, "What do I do if someone asks me outright, 'So, what would you like us to do?'"

Fear not, outside of meeting people like yours truly, it's highly unlikely that you'll ever encounter anyone who will challenge you in this manner. However, if you do, wave your hands, turn from side to side and spout factoids like a garden sprinkler. Fill the air with disjointed truth that has no relevance whatsoever. Avoid clarity at all costs and remember, ambiguity about what you want is your friend,

2. Never Actually Say What You Require
Let's say that you accidentally screw up and state an affirmative goal. Stop yourself, catch your breath and do anything you can to avoid divulging what you need to achieve it. The last thing you want is to provide someone a clearly delineated shopping list of requirements.

Note that you needn't actually delineate your requirements for this to occur. A would-be supporter might casually jot down required items over the course of your interaction and without your having ever said, "I need these n things", clearly articulate your requirements at the end of your discussion.

Before you know it, some good-doer will have laid out your plan and volunteered to supply it. If you're not quick on your feet, you may be faced with the calamitous challenge of being offered all you need to succeed.

3. Don't Know What You Need
Of course, the easiest way to avoid accidentally spilling your requirements for success is to not know them. Avoid thinking through any method that might lead you to success. Make all plans so dependent upon uncontrollable contingencies that it's impossible to articulate all you'd need to be successful. In fact, if at all possible, avoid thinking all together. Instead, stick with talking about and "sharing" your concerns.

If someone points out that you're not clear or that you don't seem to know what you're talking about, tell them that you do but it's too complex to explain it. The comma-"to someone like you" can be implied.

4. Anti-Goals
Sometimes you have to get a bit stronger in your moving away from and create anti-goals, strongly articulated, bite-sized statements of everything you don't want. Create a list of all that you're fighting against and avoid any thought of what you might be fighting for. Sure, there'll be people who pull a little motivational jujitsu on you and try to articulate your negative goals in the positive, but don't worry. For every negative-to-positive move, there's a counter move.

The most oft-used is: "It's not that simple."

Depending on your audience, you can imply a comma-"stupid"  without incurring any penalties for negativity. Alternatively, you can use the phrase offendedly with a sort of "I'm hurt that you would so trivialize my efforts." True artists feign agreement by saying, "If only it were that simple."

5. Stay On Point
Ignore body language that suggests people are uncomfortable or losing interest in what you have to say. That roll of the eyes, that glance at the watch, that stretch and yawn are all forms of encouragement. Remember that it's your job to get your message OUT, not THROUGH.

6. Timing is Everything
Always schedule interactions at times that are convenient to you and hopefully, inconvenient to your audience. Better yet, don't schedule, just interrupt.

7. Avoid Your Audience's Motivations
The key to not selling your ideas is to stick to reasons that are motivational to you. Kids are great at this. When approaching mom or dad for something they want, they'll say things like, "All the other kids' parents are buying..." or "I really, really, really need this for..." or "Please, please, please. If you do this for me, I'll be sooooo happy."

Sure, parents often succumb to the motivations of their children, but if you try the same thing with others, you'll instantly quell any murmur of support. Tell people how important your cause is (to you.) Show would-be supporters empirical numbers that bear out your claims, but have no relevance to them. Talk about all the benefits to you and others, but absolutely avoid anything that your audience would find personally beneficial.

If you're not sure, simply avoid any mention of benefits.

8. Get Righteous
A simple way to avoid the core motivations of supporters who might actually prove helpful is to use mandates that involve a direct or implied negative judgement. For example, "Anyone one who gives a damn about the environment would be happy to..." or "Only a coldhearted bastard who hates children and puppy dogs would consider doing..."

Sure, your righteous indignation may inadvertently inspire guilt that results in someone wanting to help you, but never fear. Anyone so motivated is unlikely to have the wherewithal to provide any significant benefit.

9. Avoid Getting to the Point
As a manager, one of the rules I've always implemented in meetings is: Start with the so-what.

The reason is simple: 1) If I know what you want, it gives a context that I can use to better understand your explanation of why you want it and, 2) if I know what you want and agree, then there's not need to spend time on explanation.

Starting with the so-what has tumultuous implications when avoiding agreement. In fact, you'd do best to NEVER get to the so-what. Always start your appeal with the assumption that your audience knows absolutely nothing and will require an exhaustive explanation of why you want what you want before you can actually get to what it is you want.

10. Know Your Audience
It's heartbreaking to see how easily an individual can suddenly find himself the recipient of support as a result of a casual encounter. You sit down at the coffee shop and strike up a conversation with the guy at the next table. You stick to the rules and avoid any positive hook that he might latch onto. However, because you weren't diligent in knowing your audience you find yourself complaining to someone who routinely acts upon his desires. Before you know it, he's pulled every jujitsu move you've ever heard of and some you'd haven't.

Never assume that just because someone's in a coffee shop talking with others, he'd rather gripe than act.

11. Sell Past the Close
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, someone will decide that they want to help. If you some agrees with you, just keep selling as if she hadn't.

12. Refuse to Take Yes for an Answer
If all else fails, you can always refuse assistance. You can determine that the would-be supporter is simply not qualified to support you. He doesn't have the right character. She doesn't know what's she's getting into.

You can do it for his benefit asking him to take some time to think about it. Tell her that you'll call her in a week to check in and then lose her phone number.

You Can Do It, Not
Although I can't hold a candle to the expert practitioners I've encountered, I think my little list can still prove useful to novices who have yet to develop a capacity to avoid coming to agreement.  Don't feel that you have to implement all twelve steps to be successful. Any one or two will do.

Happy Monday,

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ron's Mantra

A guy that used to work for me, Ron, would often say, "There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working."

To some the words make no sense. To others they seem an oxymoron or just wrong. Technically speaking, the step from not working to working isn't an optimization; optimization can only be performed on something already working. Nonetheless, for me and others with whom I worked, Ron's words became a mantra: there's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

We mantrafied Ron's statement because it completely changed how we approached problems and, importantly, how successful we were at solving them. We were a group of engineers and computer scientists. However, unlike many groups of technologists, each of us had a strong creative streak. In team meetings, it'd take us a couple of minutes to solve the technical challenge du jour after which we'd spend an hour on all the additional features we could add based on the insights we gained from the initial discussion.

Were it not for the mantra, we'd never have got back to implementing the solution to the problem that had led to the meeting. As our ideas got bigger and broader, Ron would say, "Hey guys, that's great, but you know..."

The discussion would freeze in mid air, we'd each turn to look his way, the mantra would ring in our ears, and we'd get back on track.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Of course, Ron's mantra applies to more than engineering and science; it applies to pretty much anything you want to do successfully. Last night our Will Power rehearsal morphed into a fireside chat. As we enjoyed a sumptuous combination of cigars, diet coke, chips and guacamole, we talked about all we'd done in the past year and what we intended to do in the upcoming year.

One topic was that of continuous improvement; what will each of us do to become better musicians and players? I mentioned that the most important thing is to play every day, that if you play for forty minutes every single day, you can't help but to improve.

Scott responded, "Yeah, but doesn't it matter what you play? I want to make sure that I'm playing the right material so that I'm not wasting time."

That's when Ron's mantra hit me. In one sense, Scott was correct; if you're going spend forty minutes a day practicing, you might as well work with the most effective material. However, from Ron's perspective Scott was wrong. The reason is the word "if".

The problem is this: if you're NOT playing forty minutes a day, it doesn't matter what material you use. In fact, your concern about optimizing the material may result in your never practicing forty minutes a day. Since the first order optimization is the one that goes from not working to working, then any other optimizations that get in the way of the first are not in fact optimizations. They're detriments.

I said to Scott, "What you're saying is true; it's just wrong. The most important thing is to build the habit of daily practice. Once you've got that as a foundation, you can start making your practice more efficient and effective. However, without it, you've got nothing to optimize."

This morning my mind played through conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks where people weren't doing what they'd intended because they were waiting until they could do it "right".  In one case, "right" might have meant "least expensively". In an other, "right" might have meant, "when I get the proper equipment." In any case, "right" meant, "so I'm doing nothing."

In everyone's life, there are situations where Ron's mantra could be useful, where wanting to do the best is leading to doing nothing at all. The funny thing is that our assumptions about what it takes to do the best change once we start doing, period. The actual path to best ends up involving nothing we'd thought we'd needed.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What's Your Prognosis?

As a kid, I was diagnosed with dislexia and ADHD. Well at least that's what they'd have called them today. Back then they called them not-so-bright (NSB) and annoying, respectively. My capacity to annoy was enhanced by what would now be called Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism. In addition to bouncing all over the place, I seemed to be completely clueless when it came to social cues and conventional modes of interpersonal communication.

Nowadays they have more clinical names for these diagnoses and protocols to address them. Yet, when you get past all the rhetoric, in the back of the minds of many you still end up with not-so-bright and annoying.

Kids with combinations of the first two diagnoses have a tough time in school.  Kids with Asperger's-only often do quite well academically, but may struggle socially. Generally speaking, kids with any combination of these diagnoses earn the designation of "special." Usually, "special" doesn't translate to "genius-in-residence" or "gifted", but instead to "needs extra help."

In-and-of-itself there's nothing wrong with being someone who needs extra help. It's just that you start to notice how people change when they interact with you.  Although many are good at masking or even avoiding the "annoying" part, their manner, their word selection,  their facial expressions, their expectations all shout, "not-so-bright". So despite best intentions, you come to buy into the belief that you're not so bright.

You might be thinking, "Hey, I thought that people with Asperger's don't pick up on social cues like facial expressions."

That would be misleadingly correct. I used to think it was just me, but I've lately come to realize that the following is a common experience among people with Asperger's. It's not that you don't notice facial expression or change of gaze or gestures. It's that you notice so many little things in a person's manner it's impossible to determine which ones are meaningful and/or significant. Although you don't pick up on them, you may actually take in and process more nonverbal cues than others would.

Anyway, it didn't take me long to figure out that teachers and other adults saw me as not-so-bright. After all, not-so-bright was the formal diagnosis. For me the greatest challenge lay in the fact that I've always had a particularly strong capacity to annoy, specially when I'm excited about something I want to do or I've begun to obsess on something that I just can't let go of until resolved.

For younger kids the annoying part isn't too much of a problem due to a phenomenon I've deemed "survival of the cutest." I imagine that the homicide rate among victims with ADHD would increase significantly if it weren't for the fact that little kids are so cute. That said, from a Darwinian perspective it's amazing that I reached puberty. I never scored well on cuteness.

When I think about first, second and third grade, I have memories of adults getting annoyed with me and me trying to figure what I'd done to get them annoyed. My strongest memories come from times when I'd decided to get to the bottom of it by asking what I'd done. I'd obsess on getting a satisfactory answer. Of course, this only served to exacerbate the level of annoyance.

As an adult I still have strong powers of annoyance. However, I learned to control them, at least a bit. My control typically isn't as good as I think it is, but it's way better than it was. I've also overcome the not-so-bright stigma. That's not to say that people think I am bright; it's just that I think I'm bright. The crazy thing is that I still have dislexia, ADHD and Asperger's. It's just that I've learned to route around them or garner their power.

For example, I still often misinterpret what I've read because of having rearranged words or letters on their way in. Dyslexia still makes reading challenging, even reading musical notes. However, because reading has been challenging I've developed other modes of knowledge acquisition and transfer. Although I'd be hard-pressed to play from a sheet of piano music, it's no problem at all to play something I've heard. Similarly, I'd have a hard time reading a musical score; but to write one isn't at all challenging.

A side-effect of my dislexia is being able to translate anything in my head into a medium like music or prose or software. Wait... I hadn't thought about that one before. That's how it works! For me, writing software is just like playing music by ear. If I can see it in my minds eye, I can write the code to do it without really thinking about it. Hmm... that's pretty cool for someone who's "special."

Still working on the annoying part. Fortunately, I'm a much cuter adult than I was a kid. I know, that's not saying much, but to some people I'm even earned the designation of "cute."

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Promise Me This...

Promise me you'll always remember that you're braver than you believe and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Multi-disciplined You

Over the past couple of weeks, I've spent lots of time with executives from the healthcare industry. A common activity of those who want their companies to become more out-of-the-box in their approaches to solutions is the creation of multi-disciplined teams.

Traditionally, product teams and research teams were composed of experts from the same discipline. Over the past couple of decades, as disciplines grew in knowledge and experience, they split into sub-disciplines that, in turn, split into sub-sub-disciplines. Each new discipline concentrated around a subset of subject matter of its parent discipline. Each became more focused. Each became more narrow.

The conscious tradeoff was one of breadth for depth. A side-effect of this tradeoff was that experts in one discipline came to know next to nothing about other disciplines, even those closely related to their own. This was fine until companies and research organizations started to realize that, in order to be effective, solutions needed to be holistic. Pharmaceutical companies needed to consider a persons therapeutic activities. Therapists needed to consider a patient's medications. Doctors needed to think about diet and exercise.

The problem was that none of the experts knew much about other areas of expertise.  Since no one person had expertise in all the areas required to provide a holistic solution, organizations began to create groups of experts, each representing a component discipline. The multi-disciplined team was born.

In theory the idea sounds great. We'll bring together the best people from each field, an all-star team of luminaries from each discipline. We'll provide them all the resources they need to do great things.

In practice, it doesn't work.


Because a multi-disciplined team of people who are each experts in a single discipline is like a multilingual team of people who each speak only one language. Without overlap of disciplines, without common languages, it's impossible for the members to effectively communicate with or benefit from the expertise of others.

Sure, there may be other reasons that we don't see the anticipated benefits of multi-disciplined teams. However, without the ability to effectively translate expertise into language accessible to non-experts, there's little benefit that an expert can offer to a team.

The solution is obvious: multi-disciplined individuals. However it's unlikely to be implemented. The reason is that all our systems that recognize and accredit expertise reward specialization and penalize breadth. Topics of doctoral theses and journal publications are becoming increasingly narrow. Within the orthodoxy, to become a generalist is a bad thing.

Nonetheless, to effectively share your expertise with experts outside your area of expertise, you need to be able to translate it into the language of other experts: if not their native language, at least into one of their secondary languages.

A side effect of becoming a multi-disciplined you is that you become a better expert. You gain new perspectives on subject matter that you thought you knew inside and out.

New areas of expertise need not be, and perhaps are necessarily not, closely related to your primary area of expertise. However, if you want to be someone who can make a big difference in a world that demands holistic thought, if you want to be someone who can catalyze a multi-disciplined team, then its time to branch out and become a multi-disciplined you.

Happy Thursday,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Keeping Up with Quinn

As I prepare dinner, Iris paces back-and-forth past the kitchen island on which my I'm chopping peppers and onions. Her hands move in fits of frenzy, pausing to wait for her words to catch up, and then frenzying again.  "The problem is... the problem... the problem is that we're just not keeping up with Quinn."

"What do mean?"

"Quinn still has his challenges, but he's overcoming them faster and faster."

"Uh, huh."

"People see that he's growing, but they don't see how he's getting faster at learning to learn."

"He's accelerating."

"Yeah, he's... what?"

"They see his rate of speed, but they don't see that the rate is changing. Most people see just a snapshot of Quinn, like a picture of a car in motion. You can't see that he's moving.

Some people see how he's growing day to day and they have an idea of how fast he's going, like a car that you pass on the highway, but they don't see that he's getting faster.

Everyone thinks about Quinn like the car in the photo that seems not to be moving or the car on the highway that was moving slowly; they don't see Quinn as someone who's going to pass them."

"Yeah, and he's going to pass them soon, really soon. Some, he might already have passed."

"So why are you suddenly concerned about this?"

"It's not suddenly. I've been seeing it happen, but I haven't been able to put my finger on it. First, you've got the fact that once Quinn get's the idea of something new, he's relentless in trying it over and over until he gets it."

"Sure, but that's not something new. What's changed, recently?"

"Hmm... OK, here's something. Over the past weeks, we've been teaching Quinn sign-language. Being Quinn, he wants to sign everything he's says or hears. He's been picking it up really quickly."

"Oh, well that's it then."

"That's it then? I didn't even finish what I was going to say."

"Sorry, please finish."

"Since he's been signing, his spoken language has been improving and so has his spelling."

"Uh, huh."

"As his speaking and spelling improve, so does his signing."

"Uh, huh."

"Uh, huh what?"

"Anchor points."

"Anchor points?"

"Yeah, anchor points. Quinn's learning faster than other people, because he has multiple anchor points for everything he learns."

"You mean like when you learn a knew word and you visualize how it must be spelled."

"Yeah, like that. You set an aural anchor point when you hear and repeat the word. Visualizing how it's spelled sets a visual anchor point.  More importantly, when you sound out the spelling, you set a hybrid aural/visual anchor point that embeds much more deeply than the other two."

"And now Quinn has the signing. He watches his fingers and our fingers, so that gives him another visual anchor point. Plus, he feels the words and letters in his hands, so that's a tactile anchor point."

"With all those anchor points, it's no wonder he's learning so fast. If he keeps it up and if no one else is keeping up with his signing, he'll be passing everyone in no time. That's what happened for me in math."

"For you in math? I knew that this would eventually become about you. What about math?"

"In school, I was never good at math. I must have taken freshmen algebra four years in a row. When I got the job at Bell Labs, I had to go to night school in order to get ahead. That meant taking math classes. Moreover, it meant taking calculus classes. I had no idea what I would do."

"Yeah, but you're really good at math now."

"Now, but not then. Fortunately for me they cancelled the evening session because there weren't enough students enrolled. I couldn't make the daytime session because I had to work. So, I asked the professor if I could just come in and take the tests."

"But you said you were no good at math. How exactly did you expect that to work?"

"Um... good question. When the professor agreed to give it a try, I had this internal sense of panic as I smiled and thanked him. I had no idea how to go about it."

"What'd you do?"

"First thing was to buy five different calculus books. Whenever I read just one, I'd come up with so many ways to interpret the text that I'd get completely confused. However, if I read four or five versions of the same thing, I could lock down the meaning. It was painfully slow, but for the first time ever I felt as though I'd understood what'd I'd read."

"So reading the various versions was kind of like setting anchor points?"

"Yeah, but thing that really nailed it for me was to visualize the formulas. Previously, I'd always tried to memorize them, but they were just phrases and symbols. When I started visualizing the geometric images that the formulas mapped to, it was easier to learn them. It was like sounding out words and spelling them."

"OK, so that gave you a visual anchor point plus a hybrid one, right?"

"Yup. And the last thing I did was to practice. At Berklee, I'd learned what it meant to practice relentlessly. It was a skill I'd not developed in grammar school or high school. So, I treated calculus like I would a really gnarly piece of music. I broke it down and practiced each piece repeatedly."

"And it all worked?"

"Yeah. I was hoping just to make it through and instead I got the highest score on the final exam."

"Well, I've got to start setting some anchor points and practicing relentlessly. Otherwise, Quinn's going to blow right by me and I'll be running like crazy to catch up. He's already better than I am at sign language."

"Better not teach him to play drums, otherwise you'll never catch up."

"Very funny.... hah... hah..."

Happy Monday,

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Uncommon Sense

Common Sense and Conventional Wisdom. They're two phrases that are often confused and even used interchangeably. That's OK except that they often represent diametrically opposed answers to the same situation.

It's the first word of each phrase that causes the confusion. Indeed, common and conventional may be exchanged without modifying meaning much. However, that's not the case with sense and wisdom. Sense is something that comes from within; wisdom is something that comes from without. Sense is an intuitive, figure-it-out kind of thing; wisdom is a read-about-it, learn-it kind of thing. The two often yield different results and quite frequently, it's conventional wisdom that makes common sense so uncommon. Easy access to conventional wisdom (e.g., through google) often precludes the engagement of sense at all.

Problem is that conventional wisdom is often wrong (but it just makes up for it in volume). For example, let's say that you have pain in your right shoulder. You conclude that you've been working too long at your computer and that your muscles are overly tight. You ask friends what to do about it. One suggests a massage. Another shows you some stretching exercises. A third friend invites you to his yoga class.

Conventional wisdom says that any one or all of these can be a good solution to your shoulder pain. You try all of them. After the massage, you feel great, but by the time you go to bed, the pain starts to creep back in. The yoga provides a good distraction, but you're not sure it did much for your shoulder. The stretching felt good at first, but an hour later both shoulders are hurting.

Conventional wisdom says, "Stretch."

However, common sense (or perhaps, uncommon sense) says, "Compress."

For example, if you've got shoulder pain, take a couple of dumbbells (one in each hand), and hoist them up to shoulder height so that your forearms and hands are facing forward. Slowly exhale as you press the weights towards the ceiling until your arms are full extended; slowly inhale as you lower them to shoulder height. Find a weight that allows you to do this eight-to-ten times before you feel exhausted.

When you return to your desk, you'll find that your shoulder muscles have relaxed (all by themselves). Throughout the day, get up from your computer and repeat the exercise. Note that if you rarely or never work out, you may experience some aches and pains the next day; however, they'll not be from the stressed muscles. Just keep repeating the exercise; after a while you'll rarely if ever experience stress in your shoulders and you'll start to get into pretty good shape.

Conventional wisdom says, "That's not the way to do it."

Common sense tells you otherwise. All you have to do is to pay attention to your body and how it behaves. After exertion, muscles relax; it's just built into the system. It's one of those action/reaction phenomena, i.e., for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.

Don't have or don't want to use weights? No problem. There's a little trick that musicians, actors and public speakers use to relax before going on stage. Make like a body-builder who's trying show off every muscle at once. Hunch just a bit. Curl your arms in slightly so that you hands are just before your belly. Suck in a deep breath and try to tighten absolutely every muscle in your body. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter. Hold it.

Now release. Voila!

Of course, the conflict between conventional wisdom and common sense isn't limited to muscle relaxation. It's pervasive. You might be surprised by just how much conventional wisdom you've adopted in lieu of using your sense. It can be hard to spot. However, there's an easy way find much of it.

If you'd like to build your uncommon sense by shedding conventional wisdom, start with the things you do that never seem to work or work as well as they ought. Could be that they never really made much sense to you, but you know, everyone else does'em that way.

Once you find a couple, give yourself a little uncommon sense workout. Don't google an answer. Just think about how you'd go about solving a problem if there were no one to ask and nothing to google.

Have an uncommonly happy day!

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I wrote yesterday about a talk I gave in Washington DC the previous day at an international conference on mobile health. Rather than presenting the PowerPoint slides I'd prepared, I decided to simply tell my story, incorporating the facts and figures as I went. The immediate response was pretty amazing. However, I discovered yesterday that the ripple-effect was more far-reaching than I'd have imagined and as far as I can tell, positive.

Throughout the day, I was approached by people who'd heard about my talk from others and who had questions for me. Some were fairly senior officials in US healthcare; fortunately (I think), I had no idea about who they were at the time I was speaking to them. After talking with someone, the next person waiting to speak with me would say something like, "Do you know who that was?"

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been all that deferential anyway, but it was nice not to have been distracted by the position held by each person. Regardless of the position held, a common theme of discussion was innovation. How do we become more innovative in healthcare? 

Whether multinational corporation or government bureaucracy, innovation within large, mature systems has always been a challenge. Large organizations tend to attract people who like structure, organization and well-defined rules (not exactly your creative types) and throughout history, rarely has innovation come from within the orthodoxy. It seems always to come from without.

So my gut reaction to the question, "How does a large, bureaucratic organization become innovative", was simply, "It doesn't."  However, I didn't find that very satisfying and neither did anyone with whom I was speaking.

One man whose title was Director, Innovation said, "I see the problem with innovation; it's us. We're just not the sort of people who can be creative and innovative."

In my head, I heard Scott lamenting, "I'm just not the kind of person who can play bass and sing at the same time."

My almost involuntary response was, "Of course you can! You just don't know how!"

I awoke from my multi-millisecond revery to see the innovation director looking at me expectantly without a hint of skepticism or doubt. His expression shouted, "How? Tell me how!"

Before I had time to think, I heard my mouth say, "Rudiments. It's all about rudiments. You learn innovation by practicing little innovations."

This provided my brain just enough time to catch up as he asked, "What kind of rudiments? Can you give me an example?"

I said, "Sure. Have you ever spent significant time using your opposite hand? One time, I went for three months doing everything normally done with my right hand with my left. I learned all sorts of things I'd never have learned otherwise."

"But how did that help you become more innovative?"

My brain fully caught up, I said, "To be innovative simply requires you to be comfortable when exposed to stimuli and situations that are completely foreign to you. The more comfortable you are, the more open you become to situations and stimuli you usually avoid or ignore. As you open yourself to these, you start to see the patterns and opportunities that normally evade you."

He slowly nodded his head parsing what I'd said.

I continued, "Anyone is capable of innovation. It's a learned skill, not a gift. Some of us come with it factory-equipped; others have to get it aftermarket. Nonetheless, anyone can be innovative. The trick is that innovation is learned through doing, not through studying."

He responded, "So, I have to practice innovation like I'd practice my golf swing?"

"Yes, and no", I said. "It all depends on how you practice your golf swing. If you practice by replicating what someone taught you, then no. However, if you practice by listening to your body and making changes as they occur to you, then yes."

"Mmm... Hmm..."

"That's why it's important to start with things for which you've never been trained, things that you have to figure out on your own. The goal is to break down the neurological dams that limit thought-flow to the streams you've developed."

"Uh, huh."

"Much of formal training involves dam building: you know 'Do it this way; never do it that way'. So, if you start in an area in which you were formally trained, you end up fighting voices that are telling you, 'no!' The key is to come at the dams orthogonally. You want to find an activity in which you haven't been trained that requires a flow through the same dam. The simpler the activity, the better."

"So, write left-handed for the next three months?"

"Yeah, or without a GPS or map, take a different route to work every day."

"And that will make me more innovative?"

"I don't know. That'd be up you, but it couldn't hurt."

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Change from Within

Yesterday, I spoke at an international conference on mobile health systems and participated in a panel discussion. The theme for the panel was "The upcoming big-data deluge". The presenters included a business leader from a large IT company, a professor from George Washington University, the director of an international healthcare organization, and me. We would each identify and address what we believed to be the challenges of managing, filtering, interpreting and protecting the ever-increasing volume of biomedical data being collected not only in hospitals and practices, but also through consumer devices and self-evaluation tools.

Preparing for my presentation on Monday night, I researched facts and figures on the proliferation of sensor devices through products such as telephones and video games. I put together a cost-performance curve that anticipated the continued reduction in costs over the next ten years. Based on the proliferation rates, I calculated for the next five years, the per-week volume of new data being collected worldwide. The numbers were impressive and well beyond the capacity of any current system. All my numbers in place, I created a set of PowerPoint slides, submitted them to the conference website and went to bed.

The next morning, I headed over to the conference center and made my way to our designated presentation room. It was about eight times larger than I'd anticipated and, even though I was about fifteen minutes early, almost filled to capacity. I thought, "Hmm... these guys must be pretty well known to draw such a big crowd. This ought to be fun."

I walked up to the front of the room where the moderator and the other speakers were huddled, and said, "Hey y'all, I'm Mark." We shook hands and the moderator filled us in on the format. We'd begin the ninety-minute session with each of us providing a five-to-ten minute presentation and then open the discussion to questions from the audience. The order of the presenters would be alphabetical by last name; I would be last.

The business executive spoke first. His firm employed more than 100,000 people; his PowerPoint slides were polished and well done. He spoke primarily about the expertise of his company and its capacity to handle whatever data the world of medical forms and devices can throw at it. He was precise, to the point and clear. Eight or so minutes after opening he returned to his seat.

The professor's slides were, well, professorial. Each was crowded with enough detail to require five-to-ten minutes of explanation.  Many of them, he read verbatim. About five minutes after the ten-minute timer began flashing red, he skipped ahead to his conclusion slide, black with text, and read it to the audience.

The international healthcare director had well prepared slides that spoke to real issues encountered by his teams in the field. He gave equal time to solutions that had worked and ones that had not worked. Rather than waxing philosophical about the future of healthcare, he spoke to the biggest challenges he faced on a day-to-day basis.

It was my turn to speak. The moderator introduced me. I walked up to the podium and clicked to my first slide (to the left). I made a mental pass through all my facts and figures and looked up at the audience. As I did so, I flashed back to sessions with our weekly writer's group and thought about simply telling a story. In the moment between the time I clicked to my first slide and the time my mouth opened to speak, my mind changed everything I would say and present. Rather than talking about data, geopolitics and technology, I said, "When I was twenty-one or so, I stood at the checkout counter of the hospital where my wife Rene had just given birth to our first child, Joy. I had about two-thousand dollars cash (which was all the money in the world to me) and no healthcare coverage."

From there it just kind of rolled along. I managed to get in my facts and figures, but in a completely different context. The audience seemed to really like it. They laughed and even applauded from time to time.

Five minutes later, I sat down and we dug into the discussion. Afterwards, before I could stand up to shake hands with my fellow panelists, a queue of people wanting to talk with me had formed. I spent the next hour meeting people from all sides of the healthcare industry who wanted to know more about the systems we were developing and how they might use them. It was pretty amazing.

Afterwards, I felt grateful for all I'd learned from Jenny and Will about just telling your story. It's powerful.

Happy Wednesday,

Friday, November 30, 2012

Factory Equipped

We've talked lots of times about the common, yet dubious notion that people are some how hard-wired, the idea that some people are good at some things and other people are good at other things and that there's not a whole lot you can do about it. We've talked about the confusion between predisposition and predetermination. We've looked at some pretty extreme examples of people doing what others would have considered impossible, because they assumed the challenge was genetically predetermined.

We've talked and talked and talked about it. Nonetheless, whatever I've been saying hasn't been working. As I sat in the coffee shop the other day, the air was full of phrases like, "I'm the kind of person who has to..." or "I'm just not meant to..."

I know. I could have ignored the buzz in the air and continued typing, but, um, apparently I didn't. Somehow I found myself joining each conversation. Hmm... perhaps the word "interrupt" would provide a more accurate description than "join". I just wanted to ask what the speaker had meant by the phrase so that we could discuss it. Well, actually, I think I started with something like, "That's not even wrong."  Still, I wanted to quickly and logically get to the heart of how utterly ridiculous his or her statement had been.

When logic fails, go to analogy. Technically, analogy is a form of logic, but it's the weakest form, at least from the perspective of a philosopher or logician. Unfortunately, the weakest form of logic often has the strongest sway with the illogical. It's unfortunate in the sense that people think they're being logical when they say things like, "me learning math would be like a leopard changing its spots." (I know, that's simile.)

Unfortunate or fortunate, analogy seems to work. So I tried analogy as a way of explaining neuro-elasticity and the fact that none of us is hardwired.

Opposite-Handed Water Flow
My first use of analogy involved right- and left-handedness (we've talked this one before) and water flow. The right/left-handed part is more an example than an analogy; however, it comes across as analogy or simile.

It goes like this. Being someone who's good or bad at math, good or bad at athletics, good or bad at music and art, is like being someone who's good or bad at right-handedness. Right- or left-handedness are predispositions that are so strong, we never question them as anything but who we are; we never think to challenge them, let alone try to change them.

To make the predisposition even stronger, each thing that we do poorly (e.g., I'm do right-handedness poorly) is typically complemented by something we do well (e.g., but I'm really great at left-handedness). So just like water seeking the path of least resistance (simile on example/simile) we flow our developmental energies in the direction of the easiest trait. The more developmental energy we flow in that direction, the deeper the rut and the greater the disparity between the two traits--we become even better left-handers and apparently worse right-handers. (Note that the unfavored hand never actually got worse; it just never got better.)

Over time the disparity between our right- and left-hands becomes so great that correcting it seems a ridiculous waste of time and energy. Why do something that takes so much work when other things come so easily? Why bother?  So we continue as we have and the gap widens.

Then one day something happens to force a change, (e.g., you break your favored arm and are forced to get by with the underdeveloped arm and hand.) At first it's unbearably challenging. But you have no choice. So you start using your underdeveloped hand. You get better at it. By the time your favored arm has healed, it's not longer your favored arm.

In fact, anyone can become ambidextrous. It's not a question of can. It's a question of putting in the developmental time and energy. Not only that, but despite claims to the contrary, if you're disciplined about it (i.e., no cheating by using your favored hand), it will take you less time and energy as an adult than as a child.

This example/analogy/simile can be extended to any trait of skill. Anyone can become good at anything outside her skill set. It's just a matter of putting in the time and, as is the case with the incapacitated favored arm, avoiding the use of your favored skills and traits.

Factory Equipped
Here's another analogy that I tried the other day.

If you've ever purchased a new car, you might have noticed that the prices of the cars on the lot vary significantly for cars of the same make and model. One Chevy Nova might cost twice as much as the next, even though they're from the same model year. Why? It all comes down to how they were equipped at the factory. One comes with a monster audio system including a CD changer, DVD for the backseats and satellite radio. The other comes with an AM/FM receiver and speakers in the doors. One comes with an automatic six-speed transmission and the other with four-on-the-floor. One comes with leather seats and electronic controls and the other with cloth seats and mechanical controls.

The basics of each car are the same; however, they vary significantly in how they're equipped.

People are the same way. The basics are the same; however, we vary significantly in how we're equipped at the factory. Some of us seem to take to things naturally and others not.

Let's say you're on a budget and can't afford the tricked-out model of the car you want. You purchase the one that comes with fewer factory options. You can't watch DVDs in the back. You can't heat your bum in the luxurious leather seats.  However, you can get safely to and from work every day.

Six-months after purchasing the car, you decide, "Man, I really wish I had a satellite radio so I could listen to BB King's Blues station when I'm driving home from work."

You might think, "Wow, I really should have bought the upgraded version of the car with the heated leather seats and a DVD player so that I could have got the satellite radio." But you didn't. So you resign yourself to listening to whatever's on the FM.

Instead, you might realize that, even though your car didn't come from the factory with a satellite radio, it doesn't mean that you can't still get one. You say to yourself, "Self, on the way home tonight, let's stop at the Best Buy and see about getting a satellite radio installed."

Factory-equipped or not, you can still purchase and install an aftermarket satellite radio. Sometimes the aftermarket installations are way better than what came from the factory.

People are like that, too.

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gelukkige Dag

Most mornings, Iris' body gets up long before she does. It wanders slowly around the house like an unmanned canoe on an open lake, floating here and there with the changing winds and currents. Every once in a while her body will hum a song as if trying to encant her. Sometimes her body just stops, standing erect, eyes open, but otherwise asleep.

It's at those moments that I might wave my hand before its eyes as if fanning smoking embers to see if I can't spark a flame. The eyes blink, once, twice, three times. They flash upward at me. A brief glimmer of recognition crosses them and then they fall back into a dead stare. Undeterred, I fan some more. This time the commensurate motion is not in the eyes, but along the line of the jaw as it drops and pulls back every so slightly to reveal a smile. I know she's in there. I keep waving.

The eyes change. I can't tell you exactly what it is that I see (it's not motion or dialation), but a switch flips and they begin to slowly transition from dead to live. 

Iris is coming. She's slipping into her body as a famous actor might slip through the back door of a crowded theater. Her head jerks upward, her arms stretch outward, she yawns loudly with sylables that sound something like, "mmmmmyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaabadababadabadabaooooooooooo".

Iris has arrived. 

She yawns, stretches and shouts, "Nieuwe dag! Fine dag." (It's a new day, a fine day).

Niewe dag! Fine dag! Gelukkige dag! (happy day)


Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Boys

Once upon a time, there lived two boys. The boys were not like other boys. While other boys went to school every day, the two boys each stayed home. While other boys spent time with kids their own ages, the two boys spent time only with adults and siblings. While other boys would play or just hang out together, neither boy had ever experienced playing with a friend or just hanging out. In fact, neither boy talked at all.

Along came a woman who was not like other women. Even though she was small, whenever she spoke, she seemed enormous. Every part of her body would get involved in the simple task of speaking.  She had a funny way of saying things and often mixed up words from different languages like english and dutch. Even though she was a fully grown-up adult, she loved to play games and she had an almost magical ability to make a game of anything, even eating spinach or pooping on the potty.

The woman decided that she'd like to become a friend of each of the boys. Each and every day she'd visit their homes to play. At first, neither boy knew what to do with the strange little woman who talked funny and liked to play games. When she walked into their playrooms, they'd pretend that she wasn't there.

Although some friends might get upset if their playmates pretended that they didn't even exist, the woman was never bothered by it. She'd just sit on the floor and wait.

Sometimes the woman would join the boys in whatever activities they were doing. Sometimes she'd just sit and watch. Every once in a while, a boy would seem to notice she was there. He might mumble something or hand her a block or a crayon. Whenever this happened, you'd have thought the boy had given her a diamond or emerald. She'd thank the boy in her big, animated way.

One day when one of the boys mumbled something, the woman thought for sure that he'd actually said some words. She told this to other people who knew the boy, but they let her know that the boy didn't say words.  Because she spoke in a funny way, the woman was used to people not understanding her or thinking that she didn't use words. So she decided that the boy did say words; the problem was that she needed to do a better job of listening.

A couple of weeks passed as the woman learned to be a better listener. One morning as the boy played with his toy truck, he mumbled something, and the woman, who had become a very good listener said, "Did you say 'baseball'?"

The boy looked up from his truck, looked the woman in the eyes and stared at her. This was kind of special since the boy never looked anyone in the eyes.

The woman responded, "You did say 'baseball', didn't you?"

The boy got up from his truck, walked over to where the woman sat on the floor and hugged her.

As the weeks passed, the woman became an even better listener and boy became an even better talker.

A couple of years passed as the woman continued her daily visits with the boys. One day she decided that it might be a good time for the boys to meet each other. At first she thought that one boy might visit the other in his playroom, but she quickly realized that doing so might not work out that well. Each boy's playroom was his own special place. He could decide whether or not someone could visit him there. The woman didn't want to force a boy to accept a visitor whom he didn't want, but she also didn't want a visiting boy to be kicked out of the other's playroom.

What could she do? How could she get the boys together?

The woman decided to arrange a play date in the park near the boys' houses. It was a surprise play date since neither boy knew that he'd be meeting the other one. The woman would bring one boy to the park and her friend would bring the other boy to the park. Since the boys both liked to swing, the woman and her friend would take each boy to the swingset and help them aboard adjacent swings.

The woman and her friend started pushing the boys on their swings. Her friend pushed from the back; the woman pushed from the front touching the tips of the boys' shoes as their swings reached the top of their forward arcs.

Since the boys both knew the woman, each assumed that she was there for him. However, each one noticed that the woman was not only pushing his feet, but she was also pushing the feet of the boy next to him. The boys began to notice each other.

One boy started talking to the woman about the boy next to him. The woman told the boy the name of other boy. Then she told the other boy, the name of the first. Whenever the first boy would use the other boy's name, the other boy would smile.

After going to the park, the woman decided that maybe it would be OK to stop at the house of one of the boys and spend some time together on the porch. Sitting next to one another on the porch swing, the boys shared a banana. Afterwards, the boys sprawled out on the porch's stone floor, drawing letters and pictures with colored chalk.

The first boy wrote the name of the other boy and then said it aloud. This caused the other boy to smile. The second boy then wrote a word and said it. The word was 'Internet'. The first boy laughed.

Driving home, the boy who'd written the word 'Internet' sat quietly looking out the window. The woman pulled up in front of the boy's house and walked around the car to unstrap the seat harness and help him out. As she did this, the boy looked up at her and said, "I visited my friend today."

Once upon a time there lived to boys who were not like other boys, but who weren't all that different either.

Happy Saturday,

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I'm momentarily blinded by the incredulity of Scott's statement. Did he just say, "Look, I'm not a singer. I play bass. That's it. I can't sing."

The whole rehearsal room goes into slow motion like the shootout at the end of Bonnie and Clyde. The conversation carries on around me. I process what Scott said. I've heard him sing. He sings well. He blends well with other harmonies. He sounds great. He's just what we've needed. I've got recordings to prove it. He might as well have said, "Look guys, I've been having trouble with singing ever since the Swedish people started sneaking out of my closet at night and eating parts of my brain."

Something else must be going on. Out of the darkness, I hear Scott say something like, "I just don't want to let you guys down."

Let us down? What does he think he's doing by unilaterally determining that he "can't" sing. It's a cold slap on the face that revives me from my incredulity-induced blindness. My senses go into hyperdrive. My perspective swings around the situation like the camera's eye swinging around Keanu as he bends impossibly backwards to duck bullets shot at him by the agents of the Matrix. I think, "Ah... he's using manipulation. 'It's not you, it's me'. Why doesn't he just say,  'I don't want to take the time to learn this because I'm too busy' or 'I don't care what you guys want; I'm not going to do it.'"

My blindness dissipated, lenses made red by lack of integrity slowly drop down over my eyes. I'd better go get some caffeine to calm me down.

I slow my breathing and close my eyes.

I hear Scott say, "I just can't do it."

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

"Can we add the word 'yet' to that?"

What was that? Who said that?

"Let's just say that you can't do it, yet."

It's Will.  Yes, that's it. "I can't do it, Y-E-T, yet."

I look over at Will who's looking at Scott who's looking at Will saying something like, "Uh... Um..."

I head to the kitchen to make some coffee.

I hear the conversation continue. A few moments later Iris walks into the kitchen to make some tea. She smiles at me as she reads my mind. "It's the really talented ones who never learn what it means to try", she says.

I look up at her and say, "Huh?"

"Your heard me."

"Yeah, you're right. If you're as gifted as Scott is, things that don't come right away seem impossible."

She smiles and says, "Not possible, yet."

"Yeah, not possible, yet."

Playing with Quinn nearly every day, Iris has become an expert on 'yet'. She knows the profound impact the little word can have when it becomes deeply lodged in one's being. She's had a front row seat as Quinn has worked through the simultaneous challenges of autism and epilepsy. She's seen him work to exhaustion trying to get a handle on a newly learned skill, literally falling asleep at his litte table as he continues to try to get it.

For Quinn, there's no impossible, there's just difficult and even 'difficult' is transient. There are things he can do now, and things he can't do yet.

I return to the incredulity of "I can't do that." You might as well bring aliens, time-travel and infinite-improbability drives into the explanation. It's a criminally incredulous statement. Perhaps it and its cousin, "You can't do that" should be outlawed. Or perhaps they should be like apple pie served at restaurants in Wisconsin which must always be accompanied by a slice of cheddar cheese. The words "can't do that" should always be followed by the word 'yet'.

I can't do that, Y-E-T, yet. I don't understand that, Y-E-T, yet. I don't feel like it, Y-E-T, yet.

What would happen if we all worked to intertwine the word 'yet' round all the fibers that form the fabrics of our beings. What if, no matter how impossible something felt in the moment, the word 'yet' were to burn so brightly that it would dissipate all the ensuing fog?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

You're So Right

A snippet from a conversation between Iris and me...

"You're so right."

"And then you said that... Huh? What did you just say?"

"You're so right."

"I am? What am I right about?"

"Everything we've spent the last fifteen minutes debating."

"I'm right? Really?"


"But just ten seconds ago you were adamant in refuting every word that passed my lips."

"You're so right; I was."

"But now you're not."

"Now I'm not. I decided that I was being defensive and not really listening to what you were saying."

"So you just stopped."

"Yes, but more than that. Rather than trying not to be defensive, I decided to look at everything you said from the perspective that you were correct, that you had insights I hadn't yet seen or understood."


"Yes. Basically I decided to pass everything you say through a filter that says, 'You're so right.'"

"Wow. How's it working?"

"Really well. First, it's a lot easier than trying not to be defensive. Second, well, it's helped me to see that you were right."

"Wow, that's really cool."

"You're so right."

"But what if I'd been wrong?"

"Well, then I'd have come to that conclusion from a perspective biased towards your having been right."

"That works?"

"Sure. It's much easier to assess what someone says, when you're not being defensive; it's much easier to not be defensive when you're actively supporting the person against whom you would otherwise defend."

"Wow... You're so right."

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, November 16, 2012

Logically Speaking

Economists Should Be Logical
Driving home from New Jersey last night, I listened to podcasts of NPR's This American Life. I love the show. It's well done, it's informative and it's entertaining. There's just one thing about the show that from time-to-time causes me to say, "Hey, wait a minute. That's not even wrong!"

The thing that gets me going is how the narrators, interviewers and interviewees use logic, or more accurately, how they misuse (and in some cases abuse) logic. Sometimes the anti-logic leads to the same place one might get to through logical means; sometimes it wormholes to completely unfounded conclusions. I'm usually fine with the unfounded conclusions, unless one of them becomes the premise for the rest of the segment or show. In the latter case, I just skip ahead to the next segment or show.

Last night was particularly interesting to me because some of the logical gaffs were made by a Nobel prize winning economist who's focused on improving people's lots in life through education. I've always thought of economists as math-types, people who are sticklers for aptly applied logic, so his misuse of logic got my attention.

Teach Them to Fish
Over the last decade or two, the nature of human development initiatives has shifted from providing economic support to underdeveloped nations to improving the capabilities of the people in those nations; basically the thought has shifted from "give them a fish" to "teach them to fish". Most consider education to be a critical components of any plan to improve capability, so economists are trying to figure out how to make education more effective.

A considerable challenge is the fact that some people do well in traditional educational systems and others don't. The question last night was, "Why?" Why do some people acquire so-called "cognitive skills" more quickly and easily than others? The qualification of skills with the word "cognitive" led to a discussion of other types of skills or "non-cognitive" skills.

At that point everything got a little mushy. Since "non-cognitive" had a negative tone to it, the interviewer and interviewee searched for other phrases to substitute for it. They began by defining "cognitive skills" to mean the types of skills that are taught in school, e.g., math, reading, writing, and science. Non-cognitive skills were therefore the skills not taught in school, e.g., social interaction, leadership, resourcefulness.

Immutable IQ
Following a less than satisfying search for the right word, the Nobel-laureate said, "The thing about non-cognitive skills is that they can be taught. The problem with cognitive skills is that you're pretty much stuck with what you're born with. If you're in the top ten-percent of the IQ pool at eight years old, then you'll still be there at thirty-years old."

OK, this is where the rest of the show went down the drain. There's a commonly held belief that you can't change a person's IQ; it's innate and immutable. There are even some statistics that support this notion (but only if you're lousy at logic). Statistically, the performance of people on IQ tests doesn't change much over time. You score a 107 at five, 99.999% of the time you'll score pretty close to that at fifty.

The problem is that the statistic only shows a correlation; it doesn't show a causal-relationship. No one has answered the question: "why is that?" People have stated answers, (e.g., it's genetic or it's because the brain stops growing at a certain point), but no one has actually demonstrated a causal relationship. They know that the scores seem not to change. There are thousands of potential reasons why. For example, the answer could be, "Because no one believes she can change her IQ", or, "Because no one knows how to teach IQ."

Nonetheless, based on the fallacy that you absolutely cannot improve the level of someone's cognitive skills, an army of economists and educators are marching down the path to improving other skills. It's not a bad thing; learning other skills is quite useful. However, it's just silly to think that you can't help someone who "can't do math" to learn how to do math. The fallacy that became the premise of this episode nagged at me all the more because, no matter how math-challenged, I've never encountered someone whom I couldn't teach to do arithmetic, algebra, trig or calculus.

The confusion of correlation and causality is perhaps the most pervasively employed misuse of logic; it's nearly ubiquitous. All you have to do is watch a couple of television ads or listen to a political
pundit and you'll see it used several times. It's easy to assume that, because something's always gone a certain way, it always will go that way.

Sure, there are cases where it's a good assumption. However, to determine whether or not correlation can be trusted, one has to answer the question of causality. You see a correlation, you ask, "Why?"  Until the "Why?" is satisfactorily answered, you can't assume a causal relationship.

And, Or, Not
OK, enough of the confusion of coincidence and causality. Here's another little logical slight of hand that you can use to amaze your friends. Logic depends heavily on three words: and, or, and not. Undetected, one can completely change the meaning of a statement by substituting one word for another.

For example, take the statement:
You're not really busy if you're getting eight hours of sleep per night.
Seems pretty straight forward, right. If you sleep eight hours per night, you're not busy. Now let's add another statement.
You're not really busy if you have time to read the paper.
Another clear statement. If you have time to read the paper, you're not busy.

What if you don't have time to read the paper, but you are getting eight hours of sleep, or, if you've got time to read the paper, but are not getting eight hours of sleep? Are you busy?

That depends on how you connect the two statements. If you connect them with the word, "and", then you're busy. If you connect them with the word, "or", then you're not busy. If you simply provide the two statements on a checklist without any connecting words, then you're not busy.

Here's how it works. If you use the word "and" (e.g., If you're getting eight hours of sleep per night and you have time to read the paper, then you're not busy), then both side of the "and" must be satisfied to support the conclusion. However, if you connect the statements with "or" (e.g. If you're getting eight hours of sleep per night or you have time to read the paper, then you're not busy), then if either one is satisfied, the conclusion is supported.

Changing Polarity
What if you want to put the statement into the affirmative, e.g., "You're busy when..."?
This is where the slight of hand comes into play.  When you add or remove the word "not", everything flips: or becomes andand becomes or, not becomes not-not, not-not becomes not.

The affirmatively stated version of:
You're not busy if you're getting eight hours of sleep per night and you have time to read the paper.
You are busy if you're not sleeping eight hours per night or you do not have time to read the paper.
Note, the above translation is only works if you include all the factors that indicate busy-ness. If you have an incomplete list of things that qualify you as not busy, then you can't actually create a statement that would qualify you as busy.

Similarly, the affirmatively stated version of:
You're not busy if you're getting eight hours of sleep per night or you have time to read the paper.
You are busy if you're not sleeping eight hours per night and you do not have time to read the paper.
The rules are straightforward, but not always easy to apply. 

If you want to change the polarity of a conclusion (e.g., go from not busy to busy), then you must:
a) change the polarity of the contributing factors (e.g., go from sleeping to not sleeping) and,
b) exchange the words connecting the contributing factors (e.g., go from and to or, and go from or to and).

Finally, you can't transform a list that negates a conclusion into one that affirms a conclusion unless the negation list is exhaustive.

Leave out one "not" or leave in one "and", and you completely alter the meaning of the statement. 

This slight of hand is used frequently, oftentimes intentionally by political writers and pundits,  and inadvertently by people trying transform a negative statement into a positive one.

Try It at Home
How about teaching your kids about the fallacy of confusing coincidence and causal relationship and about the logical application of not, or and and, and then asking them to point out every time someone pulls a slight of hand.

It'd be fun, right?

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Make It Not-Fun

You can make pretty much anything you do not-fun. Really, anything. Sex. Eating. Sleeping. Playing music. Practicing algebra. Breathing. Hanging out with friends. Minor surgeries. Family gatherings.

OK, some may be easier than others, but you really can make absolutely anything an intolerable and deplorable experience.

It's much easier than you think.

The key is to start substituting the phrases "have to" and "need to" for the phrase "want to". That's pretty much it. You don't even need to say them out loud; just think them.

Rather than letting your autonomic systems control your rate of breathing, start thinking about each breath, telling yourself, "OK, it's time to breath. I've gotta do this."

With a little practice breathing will become a chore so distracting that you'll have little time for anything else.

To supercharge the effect of "have to" or "need to", make sure that the source of the mandate is someone other than yourself. Better yet, make the motivation of that person less than admirable. Remember, the mandate needn't actually have been issued by the person; you just have to think of it that way.

The progression goes something like this:

1. I love to have sex with Iris.
2. I have to have sex with Iris.
3. I have to have sex with Iris or she'll be really disappointed.
4. I have to have sex with Iris or she'll be really pissed off.
5. If I don't have sex with Iris soon, she'll leave me for sure.

See how quickly you can turn things around? It's amazing. Notice the last little trick I added to version number five: a deadline.  While hard-and-fast deadlines can be effective, a completely arbitrary and ambiguous one can transform displeasure into pure torture.

Yup, you can take pretty much any experience, no matter how great, and make it not-fun.

Perhaps you're already practiced in this form of experiential transformation? A natural adept? If so, you can reverse the process simply by undoing the steps outlined above.

1. Become specific about what it is you actually have to do and by when.
2. Determine for whom you're really doing it. (Hint: nine times out of ten, it's you).
3. Understand the motivation for doing what you're doing and see if they jibe with reality.
4. Recognize that even if someone else is involved, you're doing what you're doing for you.
5. Declare your choice: "I'm doing this because I want to."

Make it not-fun. Make it fun. It's all up to you.

Happy Tuesday,

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Get Full of Yourself

My mom was always concerned that I not become prideful, puffed-up or haughty. Growing up, she was vigilant in her pursuit of my humility. She'd explain the merits and importance of being humble. She'd point out situations in which I'd come precariously close to stumbling into pride. 

Whenever she assessed that her explanations were not yielding strong enough results, Mom would try the "or else" approach, e.g., "you'd better not become too prideful, or else no one will like you."

Some or-elses worked better than others. Since I wasn't exactly a friend magnet, the "no-friends" or-else had zippo impact. 

When it seemed that nothing was working on me, Mom would switch to more dire or-elses, e.g., eternal damnation and hell. She might say something like, "You know what the Bible says! 'Pride goeth before a fall.'"

I'd respond, "I believe you're referencing Proverbs 16:18 and it's 'Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.'"

A look of consternation would wash over her face as she tried to maintain course while struggling with her pride in my knowing and being able to accurately quote the reference. Her pride would win out and she'd forget whatever it was that had spurned her intervention. She'd pat me on the head, tell me that I was a good boy, and life would move on.

Despite their apparent ineffectiveness, my mom's words stuck with me. Moreover, they took deep hold as I struggled with the hellish implications of pride and haughtiness. Were I to encounter opposition to a new idea, even though every fiber of my being screamed, "Go for it! They're all wrong. You CAN do it", I'd hear my mom reminding me of the consequences of a prideful and haughty spirit and I'd back down. I'd find myself in limbo, the purgatory that exists between not trusting yourself while also not trusting others.

Uncle Screwtape
At nineteen I read C. S. Lewis', The Screwtape Letters and things started to make sense. In Screwtape, Lewis presents correspondences between a junior devil, Wormwood, and his mentor, Screwtape. Screwtape provides sage advice on how to ensnare a soul.  In one letter of instruction, Screwtape explains the nature of pride and humility. In particular, he points out: "You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character."

On my first reading of the book, I must have spent twenty minutes on just that sentence. Had I got it all backwards? I'd thought for sure that humility was all about knowing one's place and never thinking much of one's abilities. 

Lewis went on to explain (via Screwtape), "The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things."

OK, I'd definitely got it backwards. I came to the conclusion that humility as self-deception (convincing yourself that whatever you do isn't all that) doesn't really serve anyone and that, in many cases, it's counter-productive; denying yourself tends to lead to denying others. On the other hand, celebrating all you do makes it easier to celebrate all that others do. There's no envy of others because there's plenty of celebrating to go around.

Basically, the traditional model of humility is a zero-sum game; to praise one person is to denigrate another. However, if humility is simply a process of celebrating accomplishment regardless of who attained it, then there's no cost to it; there's plenty to go around. The key was to become full of yourself, so full that you overflowed to others.

So I did. After improvising a really sweet line on my tenor sax, I'd tell myself, "Wow, that was sweet!"

If the next player improvised something even better, I'd say, "Wow, that was really sweet!", and then I'd see if I could do even better the next time. By being satisfied and celebrating anything I did, there was no need to bring down anyone else, no need top build myself up. It was what it was, and it was worth celebrating.

All this may seem backwards and I'm pretty sure that, if you were to do it artificially (i.e., pretend), it wouldn't have the same effect. However, if you start to think about what you do as really great, you'll get over yourself way faster than if you try not to.

So, how about we make today, Get Full of Yourself Monday? Go out there and be so happy with yourself that it overflows onto anyone you encounter.

Happy Monday,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Complication Fascination

On Monday night, Iris and I played showcase at Club Helsinki in Hudson with our band No Room for Jello. Having packed up our gear and loaded it into our cars, Iris, Scott and I spent a few minutes relaxing and chatting before heading out into the crisp, clear, twenty-two-degree evening. We'd had a great time playing; it was easily our best performance ever. After indulging in a bit of revery regarding how well we'd done, our conversation turned to things that we could do even better next time.

Iris noted that with an over supply of adrenaline, she'd rushed the pace of several songs during the first set. Scott talked about forgetting parts of some of the arrangements. I mentioned... hmm...  OK, I didn't really bring up anything that I could have done better. As we shifted from what we could improve to how we could improve it, a curious phenomenon occurred. I think I'll call it Complication Fascination. Both Iris and Scott skipped past some of the obvious and simple paths to improvement, opting instead to explore more esoteric and complex ones.

One thing about performing in a small group (No Room for Jello has just four fulltime members), is that everything you play is exposed; there's no place to hide. If you simply stop playing at times you're unprepared or uncertain, the musical gap can be more pronounced than a mistake would have been. So, in a small group context, fast improvement by everyone is critical to strong performance.

Scott and Iris are both relatively new to small group performance; I've been doing it for, err... decades. So, talking on Monday night, I had the simple advantage of more experience and having had to work through the types of challenges each of them was facing. I pointed out that, while there was merit to some of their esoteric assertions, it might be more productive to start with a couple of more mundane and accessible activities, e.g., daily practice versus cramming the week (or night) before the gig. Long-story-short, my mundane assertions couldn't hold a candle to genetic predisposition or the requirement of 10,000 hours to become expert.

Driving home, I said to Iris, "I think it's all a lot simpler than you and Scott were making it out to be."

She replied, "Yeah, you're probably right, but it's a lot more fun to make it complicated."

The next morning, Iris and I picked up where we'd left off, expanding our discussion to include examples of Complication Fascination that we'd observed over the previous week.

Delete All
A few days ago, our friend Brian stopped by the house. As we talked, he shared his challenges with hoarding. Brian is a writer. His hoarding is all about his writing; he hangs on to everything he's ever written just in case any one of them has something that could become great. His computer is cluttered with thousands of files that he'll likely never open. Yet he's loathe to delete even one. As files accumulate, he spends more time managing what he's written and less time writing.

During our conversation, Brian came to the realization that he hoards because he fears losing his capacity to write something as good as he's written (let alone better than what he's written). Seeing this, Brian decided that it was all crap, that he can indeed write much better now than previously, and that he'll continually improve as a writer. There was nothing to fear. Brian resolved to free himself from his past and move forward.

When I asked him how, he said, "By deleting all my electronic files, burning all my paper ones, and giving myself a fresh start."

Simple, right?

Yet as Brian's resolution passed his lips, Complication Fascination set in. Brian's eyes darted back and forth as he considered ways to keep just some of the files, you know, the ones with real potential. Perhaps he could store them all somewhere safe so they were out-of-site, but not forever gone. Before you knew it, Brian had translated a simple delete-all strategy into complicated series of schemes that were hard to follow, let alone implement. Complication Fascination had done its job.

What You Know is Broken
Yesterday morning as Iris talked about drumming, she mentioned that she'd become so tired during our second set that she'd had a hard time holding tempo while playing more complicated beats. Her realtime solution was simple and elegant. Rather than stopping or slowing down the songs, she simply played a less complicated rhythm. No one was the wiser.

As she pondered why she'd become so fatigued, she considered her diet, her sleep patterns, her intake of various allergens, etc. I thought aloud, "it's just because you were playing with your muscles tensed. It'll happen every time. All you need to do is play in a more relaxed state. That comes with daily practice."

Iris said, "Could be", and then continued with her other explorations. Every one of Iris' assertions made sense. Every one of them had the potential to cause fatigue. However, Iris had already acknowledged that she'd been tight as she'd played and I knew from experience (personally and with others) that tight=fatigued, every time.

I pointed out to Iris that one of the really useful tools I'd discovered while debugging large scale systems was to always start by fixing what you know is broken. Sure, other things can have influence or even be causal, but you don't get a clear picture until you fix the stuff that you know's broke.

Iris said, "Yeah, but what about..."

I began to respond, but saw that she was grinning.

It Can't Be That Simple
For years my dad's struggled with unhappiness for which the primary outlet is Vodka. As a result of his drinking, he's managed to burn through a lot of good will and social capital, so he frequently finds himself telling his story to a new set of would-be supporters. Each time he gets a new audience, his story lines become more complex and tangled.

Every once in a while, I'll get to be part of the audience. After the rest of the audience leaves, I'll talk with my dad about what he shared, asking him questions and pointing out discrepancies. We'll slowly unravel his twisted tale, and end up with something almost existential in its simplicity, e.g, so what you're saying is that a) you drink because you're unhappy and b) you're unhappy because you don't have any interests that you pursue.

My dad will look at me with a glimmer of hope as he latches on to the simplicity of it. The glimmer falters and then fades, dowsed by Complication Fascination. His countenance changes as he thinks, "It can't be that simple."

His reasons are many, but a big one is guilt. If it were that easy all along, then he could have had a completely different life. At 84, that's too much to bear.

We all experience Complication Fascination from time to time. It can be enticing. Yet, more often than you would expect, the simplest, most obvious solutions are also the most effective.

What complications have you fascinated?

Happy Wednesday,