Monday, April 30, 2012

The attack of the white bird!

Last July, we got 4 zebra finches.  Now we have 13.  I'm about to separate the boys from the girls!  Anyway, I'm sharing a much exaggerated story that Simonne wrote about the time one of the juveniles (baby birds after they aren't babies anymore , but aren't quite mature) flew out of the cage.  I hope you enjoy it.  I certainly did!

What a night it was! Friday night: the night the white bird made its attack-at our house.

That night, when Zachary and I were talking and having some fun at the birdcage, the white bird made its attack.

It spread its wings, made sure the space between the open door and Zachary's body was big enough, then it flew through the opening; it was so fast Zachary and I did not see what had happened until we looked up and saw, hovering over our heads, the white bird. Zachary and I both gave out a yell. We jumped up from our chairs and looked up at it anxiously. The white bird glared down at us and we glared back up at her. For an awful moment nothing happened, but just for a moment. The next moment she dashed away. Zachary and I then unfroze. "We need to catch that bird before it destroys our house!" I thought aloud. "Quick, lets get the net!"

Zachary ran over into the school area, and came back with the net. "Good." I said, and in the same breath added: "You look that  way and I'll look that way and yell if you find her. We need to do this fast before she does too much damage!" 

Frantically we both ran in our different directions. I ran into the bedroom and looked under the beds and the sheets, in the closet, and behind the things on the shelves, but I didn't find her in there. I checked the bathroom. I looked in the sink, bathtub, and on the shelves where we keep our towels. I was just about to look in the middle-room when I heard a yell come from the dining room. "I found her!!"

I dashed down the stairs and into the dining room. It was just as Zachary had said. The white bird was right there perched on top of the birdcage looking quite disturbed. I grabbed the net from Zach and slowly approached the bird. When I was sure that I was close enough, I swung the net over the birdcage and then closed it, and looked in to see if I had caught it. But the net was empty and the white bird, of course, was no longer sitting quietly on top of the birdcage. The other birds in the birdcage watched all of this with wide eyes. I scanned the room with my eyes; looking for the bird. I spotted her sitting on top of the radiator. Zachary and I both reached out our hands and tried to close them on her at the same time, causing the horrified bird to jump backwards and fall behind the radiator. We stood still for a moment. Then I reached over the side of the radiator and pulled the cover off of it; and immediately the white bird flew from behind it. I let out a sigh. The white bird landed back on top of the birdcage. Zachary swatted at it. It immediately jumped off and flew over the table......and landed in my supper bowl! Zachary reached out frantically and caught the bird, put it back in the cage, and closed the door tight. It took a little while for Zachary and I to calm down. I had already not wanted to eat the rest of my supper, but now I had a reason for it. I was happy.

And as for the white bird, I don't really know how it was feeling. All I know was that it was sitting on a perch in the cage, looking at us and breathing with its mouth open. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Not Fragile

I used to believe that people are fragile. As such, it was incumbent upon me to do nothing that might disturb their fragile states. I avoided statements that might hurt or upset someone. I kept inside any thoughts where I was uncertain about the outcome of saying them.

The fragility of others was my number one motivation (and justification) for lying and obfuscating.

I became quite good at lying and obfuscating.

Being good at lying and obfuscating makes it easy to spot when others who are less adept than yourself are lying or obfuscating. I became a walking, talking lie detector. However, being sensitive to the fragility of others, I almost never pointed out when someone was lying.  I'd just keep it to myself.

I started classifying types of lies: misdirection, avoidance, obfuscation, etc. One of the more commonly employed types was: holding back. Someone clearly wanted to say something other than what he was saying.

Being a good liar and knowing the types of lies I reserved for different situations, I began recognizing when people were holding back because they were treating me as though I were fragile.

I didn't like it, not one bit.

I'd think, "Hey, I'm not fragile. Who are you to decide what I can handle? I can handle whatever you have say. "

It slowly dawned on me that perhaps I'd been wrong to treat others as fragile, that in fact, I had no right to decide for someone what she could or could not handle.

Knowing this, I set out to be more honest with people. I made a commitment to say what I was thinking no matter what.

It didn't go so well. I'd thought people would find my honesty refreshing, but instead, it seemed to make everyone uncomfortable, even me.

I retreated to lies and obfuscations. However, seeing that people were not really fragile, lying felt icky. So I decided to debug my efforts at honesty.

The first thing I noticed was that I was uncomfortable with what I was saying. I asked myself, "Why?"

I realized two phenomena. First, although I was acting as though people were not fragile, I still believed they were.  Hence, I was being careful. If you've ever watched an awkward, self-conscious child carrying a too-full glass of grape juice across a newly laid white carpet, then you have a sense of what it was like to watch me carefully being honest.

The other phenomenon was my thinking that what I had to say was "bad". It's one thing to tell someone that his brown socks aren't working with his black suit. It's another thing completely when you believe that brown socks with black suit is sacrilege. Even if you use the same words exactly, it comes off differently.

Isolating these two issues felt good, but I still didn't know what to do. How do you go about not believing that people are fragile? How do you stop judging what you have to say?

I concluded that the answer to both questions was: you cant!  So, rather than not treating people as fragile, I started treating everyone as strong, confident and competent. Before saying something to someone, I'd look at her, see her with those qualities, and set an intention to love and respect her.

To get rid of the judgments, I reduced what I had to say to just the facts, i.e., I dropped opinion, interpretation and meaning.  It's amazing what happens when you lose the what-does-that-say-about-you part of a statement.

I practiced and practiced and practiced. I became comfortable saying what I was thinking matter-of-fact-ly. I carry no hidden thoughts or resentments. There's nothing I've been "meaning to say." The air is always clear.

It feels way better for me and I believe that people in my life feel the same way.

I believe wholeheartedly that none of us is fragile and that none of us wants to be treated as fragile. I also believe that if you:

  1. come from a place of love and respect, 
  2. want the best for someone, and 
  3. get rid of judgment,
you can say pretty much anything to anyone and she'll feel good about it.

Who do you treat as fragile? Who treats you as fragile?

Happy Friday,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Shortcuts to the Worst Relationship, Ever

Sitting in the coffee shop yesterday, I could tell from bits of overheard conversation that many people had read and put to work the methods from my post, Shortcuts to Unhappiness.  Based on the success of that effort, I thought that today I would tackle another common challenge: primary relationships.  If your relationship is only so-so, by following the simple steps outlined below you can rocket it to the heights of dysfunction. I guarantee it.
  1. Keep Things Buried Deep Inside
    Whatever bothers you most about your partner, don't talk about it. Airing your issues, specially early on, will probably lead to an open discussion and open discussion is a problem, a big problem. Before you know it, you'll be talking about what troubles you generally and, if you're not careful, working things out.

    They key to a bad relationship is to hold your issues deep inside. It can be useful to mull on them, specially if it leads to your partner asking, "Is something wrong?"

    Of course the appropriate answer is, "No, nothing's wrong. Why? Do you think something's wrong?"

    Note: if you choose to mull, mull carefully. Avoid any thoughts that focus on you rather than the source of irritation. Some people have completely undermined mulling by asking themselves, "Why does that annoy me so much?"
  2. …Until You Can No Longer Bear It
    To maximize the effect of keeping things to yourself, you must let them out. The best time to do this is when the pressure is so great that you simply can't contain it any longer. Statistically, this is most likely to occur between 45 and 55 minutes past the time you usually go to bed.

    Airing your issues when you're dead-tired and incoherent is optimal, specially if your partner has just drifted off to sleep. Ideally you should awaken him from a REM state and, if possible, hold in your issues until the night before a big event where she "needs her sleep". If she says something selfish like, "Can't this wait until tomorrow night?", then: a) insist that you must talk now for the sake of your relationship, b) go for a drive, or c) cry.

  3. Confide in Anyone But Your Partner
    If you have a hard time holding in your issues, then share them with someone other than your partner. Anyone other than your partner will do, but it's best to go to someone who already doesn't really like him that much.

    There are three basic benefits to this activity. First, you'll release some of the pressure that may lead to inadvertent discussion with your partner. Second, if you choose the right person, you may discover other annoyances. Third, you'll reinforce the dislike of your partner held by your confidant.
  4. Envy Your Partner's Happiness
    The other day, my friend Will mentioned how happy his partner Mary gets when she sees him happy. It doesn't matter if they're together or if Will is off on his own, she just loves to see him happy and fulfilled. Yesterday in the coffee shop, I picked up on several people employing the antithesis of this technique, one that I would be remiss to exclude: envy your partner's happiness, specially in cases where you're not involved. It's one of those things that, once you see it, you think, "of course!", right?

    If your partner has a night out with her buddies, feign to have forgotten about it and prepare a special meal, just for the two of you. When she says, "Honey, I'm sorry. I've got to go. Remember, it's Wednesday, and I meeting up with the gang", look hurt.

    Say something like, "but... but... I worked all day to... oh never mind, you go have fun with your friends."

    Remember, look hurt, not offended. If possible stifle a cry or wipe away a tear. Reserve phrases like, Wow, it seems like you'd rather be with your friends than me or Sure, you get to go have fun all day at work while I'm stuck here with the kids for other opportune moments when there's not time to discuss it.

    Bottom Line: Make it not OK for you partner to be happy without you. Make it downright awful for your partner to be happier without you than with you. With any luck, he'll start to downplay his happiness outside the relationship. She may even dread leaving the house or begin to lie about where she's going.
  5. Employ Obligation Liberally
    It's important to avoid any motivation based on your partner's desires.  The last thing you want is your partner doing something for you simply because she wants to. Classic methods include the phrases: but you told me that, and, by now we should have.

    Remember, nothing kills love faster than obligation; whenever employing the but you told me that try to invoke your marriage vows or perhaps even better, a promise made prior to marriage when you were at the heights of romance.

    The by now we should have method can be applied to getting pretty much anything you want. By now we should be living in a house, not this crummy apartment. By now we should be able to afford a vacation. By now we should have had a least one child.

    If your partner questions your assertion, point to other couples who by now have...  However, be careful about external references lest your partner conclude, "Hmm... by now we should have been divorced for three years."

  6. Do Things for the Sake of the Relationship
    Nothing makes a relationship more onerous than insisting that you do things for its sake. With a little finesse, you can translate your relationship into something akin to a cantankerous, unwanted child from a previous marriage.

    For example, if you want your partner to spend more time with you, rather than doing something frivolous like concocting an evening that she would truly enjoy, insist that you spend an evening together for the sake of the relationship.

    The goal of this effort is to give the relationship a life of its own.  In addition to a sense of burden, this approach fosters a sense of helplessness. If you can get your partner to see a relationship as something that exists rather than a way to describe interactions between and perspectives of two individuals, you're golden.

    Be careful of overusing this technique. One day your partner might wake up and realize that there is no relationship; there's just him and you, and how each of you look at and interact with the other. He may feel suddenly empowered to change himself, how he sees you and how he relates to you, regardless of what you do or how you see him.  Very, very dangerous.
Oh, I could go on and on, but I think we'll leave it with these six for now. I'm certain that pretty much anyone can effectively use these techniques to undermine even the best relationship. Perhaps you've already used some of them?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Never Say, 'Never'

I've been thinking a lot about JK's comment on yesterday's post Teflon's Guide to Optimal Learning:
I like this article. I would like it better if all the "nevers" were replaced with "onlys" (it is a lot more positive that way!) It reminded me of my piano teacher - it IS a good idea to look at the music, if you're looking at your fingers they should be hit repeatedly!lol (jk)
There's an Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practice where you recast all negative statements in the affirmative. Rather than saying, "I'll never eat processed sugar again", you might say something like, "I'm going to eat only vegetables and fish." Rather than saying, "I've gotta get out of this job", you might say, "I'm going to find a job that's right for me."

It's a verbalization of the zen practice of moving towards what you want rather than away from what you don't want. It's wonderfully useful and for many, confounding.


Yeah, confounding. You'd be amazed at how often someone who's just adamantly stated that she'll never do something again or never see someone again will struggle to recast the statement into affirmative action.

This situation embodies two distinct challenges:

  1. Translating a passive complaint into something actionable, and
  2. Thinking of an action that is moving towards something desirable rather than away from something undesirable.
Sometimes the loudest and most frequently uttered negative statements are nothing more than conversational filler or behavioral patterns. These statements often have ulterior motives; they garner attention; they win sympathy; they help the utterer avoid unpleasant topics. Despite their apparent emotional charge, they lack any depth of passion (as evidenced by the simple fact that they've never been successfully acted upon). 

The simplest response to a passive complaint is: "So what?" or "So..."

OK, I get that you can't stand Stephanie. So what are you going to do about?

You've made it clear that you don't like me working late on Thursdays. So what do you want me to do instead?

The response to So? may be a positive action (moving towards something) or negative action (moving away from something). The important thing is to translate passive to active. 

Oftentimes, there is no So what? The complaint is nothing more than a way of letting off steam or it has an ulterior motive.  However, once you have an action, you can begin step two: translate moving away from into moving towards. 

The basic question is: What do you want?

Frequently the response will be something not wanted.

Well I for sure don't want you hanging out with Tim anymore!

I just don't want to be carrying around all this extra weight!

To these types of statement, the response might be: OK, I understand what you don't want, but the question still remains, "what do you want instead?"

It may take a surprisingly long time to get to a positive statement of action. You might return to the same series of questions day after day, week after week.  She might roll her eyes or say things like, "There he goes again" whenever you embark on this line of reasoning.  

He might stop complaining when you're in the room. She may avoid you altogether. As I said, it's amazing.

Yup, recasting negative passivity to positive action is critical to implementing affirmative change. If you've integrated that into your daily living, then I'd like to introduce you to another great tool: Never.

Moving-away-from is not a bad practice in and of itself.  It's just debilitating when it becomes your most frequently employed or only practice. Why? Because Never is powerful.  

Fire can burn down your house, but it can also cook your food and keep you warm. Never can stop you from ever doing anything or it can empower you to do more.  The answer lies in how you use it.

I like the economy of Never.  For every never, I can think of a thousand always. It's easier to remember one never as a trigger-thought than trying to remember the thousand alwayses. There's a  place and time for never.  It's only problematic when you only use never (and of course, when you never use never.)

Happy Tuesday, 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Teflon's Guide to Optimal Learning

Let's get right to it, shall we...

  1. Never spend time memorizing something that you can look up. 
  2. Never look up something you already know, specially when learning something new.
    Learning a new subject involves learning new terms and concepts.  Time comes to apply what you've learned and you think, "Shoot, what was the term for thus-and-such?" or "What does the thingamawhat do?"

    When this happens you're tempted to go to the glossary, or flip back through the chapter, or look through your notes; resist temptation. If you were paying attention, the term or phrase is already in your memory.  You just have to work out the kinks along the neural pathways.

    When stumped, pause, close your eyes, take a deep breath and reach for it. More often than not, you'll find it. A couple of times and you'll own it.
  3. Never look up or accept answers that you can figure out for yourself.  
    You'd be amazed at all that you could figure out were you to trust yourself to do it.  The chords to songs, mathematical theories, food recipes, how to put together that thing you bought at IKEA, your partner...

    You may not always get it exactly right (the first time), but figuring out what you might otherwise have looked up has two great advantages. First, you become a really good figure-outer. Second, what you figure out will leave you with a much better grasp of the subject matter than what you don't.

    Reserve looking-up for confirmation of what you've figured out or as a last, last, last resort for what you haven't.
  4. Breathe
    You ever notice how you hold your breath when trying something difficult. It may be threading a needle, or playing a challenging piano phrase, or taking a photo, or wrestling free a jar top, or balancing on a snowboard.  It seems a natural thing to do and it's something that undermines your efforts.

    Pay attention to your breathing. If you find yourself holding your breath. Stop what you're doing. Start breathing. Take a moment to collect yourself. Picture yourself accomplishing the task. Take a deep (but not to deep) breath and then breathe out as you perform the action.
  5. Never look at what you can envision.
    When learning to play the piano or bass or guitar, we typically look at our hands. When memorizing text, we often read from the book or the script. When trying to remember someone's name, we often recite it while looking at her name tag. This doesn't work very well.

    The key to really learning is to envision what you're doing rather than looking. In the case of an instrument, picture you fingers moving across the fretboard or keyboard.

    In the case of a script or text, glance at it, then look away as you recite it.

    In the case of a name, look at the person and use his name in conversation immediately. Play with the name in your mind. Of what does it remind you? Ask her questions about her name. Is it a family name? Does it have a meaning or significance?

    Note: many piano teachers will instruct beginning students not to look at their hands, but instead to look at the music. In addition to being a bad idea, that ain't what I'm talking about.
  6. Practice well and consistently.
    If I were to say, "You can't learn to play the piano without practice. " or "You can't learn to cook without practice.", you'd probably agree.  Fact is, you can't really learn anything without practice including things like history, math and science.

    Sure, there are people who are "naturals"; they don't need to practice. But then again, they're not learning; they're naturals.

    The key to learning is practice well and consistently. To practice well:
    - take your time and slow things down to a manageable pace,
    - never do anything faster than you can do it well,
    - focus and pay attention,
    - implement items 1-5 from above,
    - whenever possible, check your work (record yourself, compare your answers),
    - slowly increase your pace to where you want it to be

    To practice consistently:
    - set a time and place where you can practice daily
    - as you get better, integrate your practice into your daily routines
  7. Spend twenty minutes a day on something you can't do.
    Do ever say things like, "I'm just not the kind of person who can..." or "I could never be good at..."  or "Thus and such is just not my thing?"

    Guess what? It's not true. There's nothing you can't do. There are only things you haven't yet learned to do. Fact is, if you practice well and consistently, you can learn to do pretty much anything.

    There are many great side-effects of consistently learning to do what you can't possibly do. They include:
    - increased learning capacity,
    - accelerated learning rate,
    - never, ever being bored or lacking something to do,
    - access to gainful employment,
    - reduced likelihood of Alzheimer's.

    Warning: this is a self extinguishing activity. Eventually, you'll just plain old run out of things to try.

    Warning: if you persist in learning to do things you can't do, you may become unbearably confident and threateningly competent.
Well, that's it for today. Let me know when you've mastered the above seven practices and we'll move on to knowing what you can't possibly know.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nutritious You

Have you ever heard someone who is getting her life together talk about filling her life with nutritious people, people who are sources of positive energy, people who are nurturing, encouraging, inspiring and uplifting. It's a great practice. Spending time with nutritious people can be really healthy. Similarly, spending time with people whose personalities lack essential nutrients can be draining and even debilitating.

It might be an artifact of living in the Berkshires, but I often hear people talking about having embarked on a new personal-relationship diet. They're cutting back on exposure to the non-nutritive people in their lives and loading up of nutritive ones.

Conversely, I don't believe I've ever heard anyone talking about becoming a more nutritious personality. Does anyone ever ask himself, "Hmm... How could I become the most nutritious person possible?", or, "If I were a food group, what would it be?"

I started thinking about various nutritional analogs to personality types.

Some people who are like sweets; they provide a quick hit of energy, but it dissipates quickly leaving you in a slump.

Some people are like proteins; they take much longer to metabolize and process and you don't feel an immediate hit of energy, but over time you find you've developed muscle and strength.

Some people are like garlic; they boost your immune system, but everyone knows you've been spending time with them.

Some people are like week-old sushi; they leave little parasites that continue to sap your energy even after they're gone.

Some people are more high-fiber in nature; they're difficult to process, but leave you feeling much clearer.

Some people are like vitamins (C, D, E, A, etc.); they provide a boost in a specialized area.

What kind of people fill your life? How nutritive (or not) are they? How would you describe your people-diet? High carbs? High protein? High fiber?

To what food group would you belong? How nutritive are you?  What would you change to improve the diet of people in your life?

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Big Deal

"'Him and me', it's 'He gave the case to him and me.'", John mutters.

"What'd ya say?", asks Steve.

"Nothing. Never mind."

"No, I really want to know. What did you just say?"

"I said, 'He gave the case to him and me.' That's how you would say what you just said in English."

"That is what I said."

"No, you said, 'He gave the case to she and I.'"

"OK, so I said that. What's the big deal?"

"No big deal. It's just that you'd think after paying a hundred grand for two years of business school, they'd have at least insisted on your knowing remedial English."

"Look. In two years at HBS, not one person ever corrected my English. So, I don't see the problem."

"Well, would you ever say something like, 'Me and her are working on this big case?'"

"Of course not."

"Why not?"

"Because I'd sound like an uneducated idiot."

"What would say instead?"

"Uh... 'Her and I are...', no, 'She and I are working on this big case.'"

"Why would you say it that way."

"I already told you. I don't want to be perceived as an idiot. I'd want to use proper English grammar."

"But when you say something like, 'He gave the case to she and I', you're making the same mistake, just backwards."

"What are you talking about?"

"You remember sentences diagrams: you know, subject, verb, object, indirect object?"

"Uh... yeah, kind of."

"Well, in the one case you and she are the subjects; in the other you're the objects."

"Jeez, I don't have time to learn all that crap again."

"Well, then you might as well start using phrases like 'Her and me went to the store' and at least be consistent."

"Oh come on. It's not that bad."

"Depends on who's listening."

"I don't have time to learn all your silly English rules."



"Yeah, OK."

"What, you don't care."


"But, you said I sound like an uneducated idiot."

"No, you said that. I just gave you an illustrative example of your misuse of grammar."

"But, I don't want to sound like an uneducated idiot."



"Sure. You don't sound like an uneducated idiot to me. I know you spent $100K on business school."

"Yeah. I'm... Hey, wait a minute."


"Well... hmm... isn't there an easy way for me to remember this one."


"Well what is it?"

"You really want to know?"

"Yeah, dammit. Would you just friggin' tell me."

"Just drop the other person from the sentence.  Use the pronoun you'd use when talking about just one person."

"For example..."

"For example, would you say, 'He gave the case to I' or would you say, 'He gave the case to me?'"

"He gave the case to me."

"Would you say, 'He gave the case to she' or would you say, 'He gave the case to her?'"

"He gave the case to her."

"There you have it.  What would you say if both of you were given the case?"

"He gave the case to...(mumble) her and... (mumble) me?"


"That's it."

"That's it."

"So why is this such a big deal?"

"It's not."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some of My Best Friends are Neurotypical

I have what you might call inverse-autism. While people with autism often experience sensory overload and resulting discomfort, I often experience sensory under-load and resulting discomfort. While people with autism often miss social queues, gestures and other non-verbal communication, I am intensely aware of and often distracted by every random glance, change of cadence, or absent minded toe tap. While people with autism struggle with abstraction and being overly literal, I hear unintentional double-entendres in every-other phrase.

Autism is often described as a spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The symptoms are arranged into groups with names such as Asperger's Syndrome, Classic Autism, Pervasive Developmental Delay (PDD), and so on, typically with Asperger's Syndrome playing the role of mild autism. In short, there is no such thing as autism per se, just collections of behavior patterns (responses to environmental stimuli) to which we've ascribed names.

From a more neuro-holistic perspective, Asperger's Syndrome would not be an end point but something more towards the middle. Instead, the endpoint would extend to the left passing through the neuro-typical center and out to the other extreme that I'll call Severe ADHD.

I tried googling what you might call Severe ADHD, but didn't find any terms; perhaps we could call it Teflon's Syndrome?

All this is on my mind because I just returned from an event in Washington, D.C., called the World Health Care Congress, an event I can best describe as a two-day period of extreme sensory-deprivation.

The event was billed as a summit focused on innovation in the delivery of healthcare services. Speakers used phrases like disruptive technology and social engagement. I was excited to see what the new breakthroughs were. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the overwhelming onslaught of creative ideas and breakthrough products.

I waited.

I opened one eye.

I opened the other.

I looked around.

I searched high and low.

I couldn't find anything that a self-respecting innovator would consider innovative. The more radical "innovators" were applying decade-old technology to century-old problems.

I approached speakers who'd described the need for innovation during their presentations asking them for examples of what they meant. Some would laugh nervously saying, "Well, you know, technologies that reduce costs while improving outcomes."

Others would point to examples outside the healthcare industry, or more specifically to people outside the healthcare industry, saying things like, "We have be more like Steve Jobs at Apple."

A third group described multimillion-dollar efforts to create new, pervasive systems that would transform healthcare service delivery. For example, one system would magically interconnect all the disparate collections of healthcare information and make them available at the click of a mouse. Having spent most my work life in systems development, I was excited about these efforts. I asked lots of questions. I quickly realized that time-travel would be consumer-ready long before any of these efforts reached the trial phase.

So what did I learn? Well for one, the phrase healthcare innovation could easily displace military intelligence and legal ethics as an example of the unintentional and widely employed oxymoron.

For two, I learned that, um... Let me qualify what follows by saying that a) I am prejudicially biased and b) I would welcome informed correction. Here goes. Nothing innovative will ever come from the neurotypical. At best the neurotypical seem capable of cross-derivation, i.e., taking an idea applied in one domain and then applying it to another, or as we used to say in school, they're copy-cats.

I don't mean to offend the neurotypical and I would welcome feedback and correction from any neurotypical advocates, but frankly, I don't see it happening. I just think it's important for the neurotypical to recognize that, if they truly want to see breakthrough innovation, they may need to embrace the discomfort that often accompanies exposure to the neuro-atypical (from either end of the neurological spectrum).

On flip-side, it's time that we start viewing undesirable, neuro-atypical behaviors as the side-effects of super powers that the behavior-er hasn't yet learned to manage: that we no longer toss out the baby with the bathwater, so-to-speak.

Other than that, it's really good to be back home among the neurologically-challenged.

Happy Wednesday,

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recapturing Purpose

Psychologists tell us that people whose lives are filled with purposeful activity are happier than people whose lives are not. They say that the choice of activity isn't so important as long as it purposeful. Washing cars, curing cancer, playing with your kids, feeding the poor, it doesn't really matter as long as you find it purposeful.

I see this as really good news, at least if you'd like to be happy or happier. This may sound a little out there but all you have to do is ascribe meaningful purpose to everything you do. Finis! C'est tout. Problem solved, right?

You may be thinking something like, "Yeah, right! You make it sound so easy as if you can just decide what your purpose in life is. It takes years to establish or find your life's purpose. Some people never find it."

If so, please hang with me for a minute or two and see if we can come to a mutually acceptable understanding. We might as well throw on the last pebble and tip the cart over the edge of the cliff. I can absolutely tell you what your life's purpose is.


You might bristle at this, but your life's purpose is: to feel good.

Wait, don't leave. Just hang in there a bit longer.

Let's start with people for whom it's easy to see. Consider anyone you know with an addiction. Whether it's drugs or food or alcohol or sex, it's all all about feeling good, typically no matter what the cost. People with addictions will sacrifice their careers, their relationships, their bodies in order to satisfy the addiction. If that's not purposeful, I don't know what is. Think of how often we measure someone's commitment to a purpose by the degree of sacrifice she's made in order to fulfill that purpose.

It's seems so oxymoronic that someone would do themselves so much damage in order just to feel good, but then we see it all the time.

Let's move to people who have a more typical sense of purpose. Consider the artists, musicians, scientists and relief workers who've dedicated their lives to their work. Their senses of purpose may be so strong that they've made sacrifices similar to those of drug addicts. You might hear them utter phrases like, "to be the best" or "to do the most" or "to be the first one to."

His purpose is to be the first one to discover a cure narcolepsy. She wants to be the greatest painter of the 21st century. He won't rest until all the until all the hungry have been fed.

When we hear phrases as these we think, "Ah, now there's someone with a purpose."

However, I would suggest that were you to grab a thread, tug gently and continue until you've unraveled it to its core, you'd find a surprise: feeling good. It might be feeling good about having done all you could. It might be feeling good about being the first or being the best. It might be feeling good about proving yourself to the naysayers or judges in your life. It might be feeling good about having been helpful. No matter where you being, you'd eventually get to feeling good.

Over the last ten years, I've spent hundreds of hours asking people about their senses of purpose and I've never found anything at the core other than feeling good or feeling better.

You might be thinking, "Yeah, but what about people who make the ultimate sacrifice. You're saying that someone would die in order to fulfill to feel better?"

I don't mean to trivialize such an action, but my answer would be, "Yes."

She would not have chosen that path given other options. She may have wished for alternatives. However, in the moment of decision something inside told her that to not make the sacrifice would lead to lifelong regret and unhappiness, or something of that order.

Again, it seems oxymoronic, but it's perfectly aligned. A child with autism (or other sensory challenges) may bang his head against a wall. Why? Believe it or not, he does it to feel better. Head banging stimulates his tactile and vestibular systems. Stimulating them significantly drowns out the noise from other systems. For a child with sensory integration challenges, visual overload can be as painful as having her hand placed on a hot stove. All she wants to do is to make it stop. It may be that the best way to do it is to bang her head against the wall.

It's akin to climbing into your car on a winter afternoon, rolling down the top, maxing out the heat, cranking up the stereo and blasting down the highway. You flood your senses with new stimuli. The air may be freezing, the music way too loud. You feel better.

I believe that if you're honest with yourself and you trace each thread to the point where its tied off, you'll find just one anchor: feeling good/feeling better.

How is this useful? If the psychologists are right, then we can all become happier by spending more time taking purposeful action. To do this, each of us must get in touch with what she considers to be purposeful. Knowing that feeling-good (about you, about your situation, etc.) lies at the core of all purpose, can make getting to that purpose a lot easier.

Happy Saturday,

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On a Roll

I've been having the most amazing week, composing and recording songs, mastering a new software environment, spending great time with friends, writing papers and print copy for brochures, creating PowerPoint presentations and so on. I love the diversity of experiences as my brain switches from one mode to another.

Lately I've been aware that perhaps the biggest challenge for me personally is switching context. To do the kind of work I do at the rate in which I do it requires me to envelope myself in the subject.

To develop software well, you must focus on a specific component while maintaining an intimate awareness of the context in which that component operates. To compose a part for a specific instrument requires you to hear all the other parts in the arrangement. To write a solid paragraph for an effective brochure, you must maintain an awareness of the brochure's overall flow and storyline and of the potential reader, her interests and motivations.

Being keenly aware of context transforms work from correct to great. It let's you produce what the customer wanted, not just what he said he wanted.

Where Was I?
The problem is that context switching can be difficult, specially when the context is large. First of all there's the where was I phenomenon. You ever pick up a novel that you put down six months earlier? You know, one with way too many characters and an overly complex plot line. You find yourself flipping back and forth through previous pages to piece together an obscure reference or to recall whether it was Fred or Frederick whom Harriet disliked intensely.

That's what it's like to reengage a large software system, specially when its been developed by many people over many years. Making a simple two-line code change to an obscure module that's rarely invoked can have a pervasive effect on the system. To avoid this you must be familiar with the overall context. A five-minute change can require days of context-building.

That of course assumes that you're not simultaneously maintaining other contexts. If you are then there's a second phenomenon: what was I doing?.

What Was I Doing?
The what was I doing phenomenon occurs when switching from one large and complex context to another. It's like waking from a day dream in which you conduct an orchestra performing the new piece that you haven't yet written. The flute and oboe climb towards the surface of the cello section's ostinato. They struggle to break free of the stubbornly repeated motif. Yet they can't.

Why are they lost in the dense orchestral undergrowth when they should be soaring high above the swaying treetops of the violins and violas. You know the answer, but you can't put your finger on it. It's... It's...

It's the font on the title section of the survey page. No matter how many times they change the CSS file, the survey page doesn't match the rest of the website.

You blink your eyes and ask yourself, "Huh?"

And then, "What was I doing?"

You answer yourself, "Oh yeah, I've gotta figure out why the survey page isn't behaving according the master CSS file."

Then you get back to building your software context, or more accurately, you start over.

Just a Moment
Let's say that you've finally overcome the first and second phenomena. There's one more. It's: can I interrupt you for a moment.

You've spent the last hour gluing together the shards of a broken context. You gingerly put into place the last piece. You're only slightly aware of the sudden change to your spacial context. Someone is standing at your door or sitting in the chair opposite your desk.

You stop, the last contextual piece held firmly between your thumb and index finger, the glue slowly setting as you look up to acknowledge the change to your spacial environment. He says, "Hey, are you busy."

You realize that he can't actually see the metaphorical shard of glass wedged between your fingers. You mean to say something, but all that comes out is, "Uh. Um."

"Good. I just have a quick question for you. Won't take a minute."

You try to speak, but all that comes out is a sigh as you finally release the breath you took in just before putting the last piece into place."

Answering the question requires yet another context. As you switch, you're distracted by the sound of your almost rebuilt context falling apart.

It's probably this third phenomenon that I find most challenging. The reason is that it's so hard to explain to the challenger. He interrupted your for a good reason. She waited for you to acknowledge her before interrupting. He only took a minute. Oh how much that minute cost.

Overcoming Contextual Challenges
Over the years, I'd come to resign myself to being contextually challenged. If I were myself watching myself I'd have been all over myself for that kind of fatalistic resignation. However, over the past week I seem to have made a breakthrough, at least on phenomena one and two.

I started relaxing into contexts rather than building them. In particular, I found it immensely useful to transition from one complex context to another by performing simple activities related to neither one. To move from writing words to writing code, I sweep the garage or wash dishes or take a shower. Just five minutes of unrelated activity appears to be a great substitute for hours of focused effort.

Or so it would seem.

Outside of a Go Away sign posted on my door, I still haven't figured out a way around the third (just a moment) phenomenon, but I have hope.

Happy Thursday,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Did You Know?

Did you know that you pretty much always want to go with the extra-large pizza, even if there's a special small- or medium-sized pizzas?

Why? Because the extra-large pizza provides deceptively disproportionate value.

You see, pizza is typically (and deceptively) sold by diameter. Choices of small, medium, large and extra-large might include 10-inch, 12-inch, 14-inch and 16-inch options, respectively.

Comparing the diameters, the medium is 20% larger than the small, the large is 17% larger than the medium and the extra-large is 14% larger than the large. The prices are often commensurate with the difference in diameter. For example the prices for small, medium, large and extra-large might be $10, $12, $14 and $16, respectively.

Thing is, the value of the pizza is in how much pizza you actually get to eat. This is defined by the pizza's volume, not its diameter.

Assuming that the pizzas all come with the same crusts and are equally deep (or thick) we can compare the area of each pizza (i.e., the number of square inches covered by each pizza) as a proxy for its volume. To do this we go way back to basic geometry: Π r2, PI times the radius squared. Since PI is involved in all the computations, we can drop it when performing the comparison. That leaves us with just the radius squared.

In fact, for comparison purposes we can just use the diameter squared; we don't need to divide it by to to get the radius.

Comparing the squared values of the diameters (16"x16", 14"x14", 12"x12" and 10"x10") tells a completely different story. For example, although the diameter of the large pizza is 40% greater than that of the small pizza, you get 78% more pizza with the large than the small, almost twice as much.

Although the diameter of the extra-large pizza is 60% greater than the small pizza, you get 156% more pizza with the extra-large than the small. That's 2.56 times as much pizza!

Here are some other comparisons:

I thought you might like to know that.

Happy Tuesday,

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Breakthrough Sunday

Is there anything in your life that you'd love to change, have repeatedly tried to change, but have failed to change? Something that, if changed, would change everything else? Something that you would trade almost anything to get or get rid of?

I'm not talking about mother-in-law or your boss... well maybe... but more about something in you. Actually, even if we were talking about your mother-in-law or your boss, we'd still likely start with something in you.

If there is something you'd like to change but have not changed, here's a clue: what you're doing isn't working.

That'll be five dollars please.

What that's you say? Duh? You already knew that?

I beg to differ. If you know what you're doing isn't working, then why are you doing it?

Cat got your tongue?

Look, either you aren't really aware that what you're doing isn't working or continuing what you're doing is more important to you than your desired change. So which is it?

Let's say that it's the former and let's further qualify my statement to: you know that what you're doing isn't working, but you can't put your finger on exactly what isn't working or why it doesn't work.


Let me suggest that you do in fact know exactly what is not working, but that you're hoping that it's something else. I suggest this not because I know you well, but simply because it's something we humans do. We hope that there's a magic way to lose weight without actually reducing intake. We hope that there's a way to make money without increasing effort. We hope that there's a way to deal with problems by not facing them. We hope that there's a way to become happier by changing things outside ourselves.

We hope that the root cause of any problem isn't what we suspect it to be and quite typically only effect desired change when we finally abandon that hope and get down to dealing with what we knew all along was the culprit.

Sound familiar?

If not, then, um, never mind. If so, how about making today Breakthrough Sunday.
  1. Pick something you'd like to change. It can be anything: how you react to your uncle Hiram... the color of the living room... the way the bathroom door squeaks when you try to close it quietly... your general state of being.

  2. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, count to three and shout out whatever it is that's blocking change. Don't think about it. Don't second guess. Just go with whatever comes to mind.

  3. Whatever it is you shouted out, don't do that today or better yet, think of a nice alternative to that. For example, if you never get time to catch up on Sundays because you're so busy preparing the big family meal, then decide that today you'll order takeout Chinese or Sushi. You'll have more time to catch up and you might even get to socialize with your family.

Yup, it's Breakthrough Sunday. It's the day on which we formally recognize that what we're doing ain't working and therefore, do something else.

Happy Breakthrough Sunday,

Friday, April 6, 2012

Candy and Cake



Mark K

The man playing the piano is Lew Scharpf. Given his musical craftsmanship, mild mannered demeanor and sweet personality you'd never guess that his day gig is as the Vice President of R&D at IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc).

The singer is my mom, Betty; she's fast approaching her seventieth birthday and you might not hear it in her voice, but at 5'2" and just over 100 pounds by comparison even Iris seems physically large.

This post is a fulfillment of my promise to Mark K that I'd share one of the cassette recordings I discovered last Saturday while cleaning out the garage and wrote of in Betty Sings.

The song is Candy and Cake, a Bob Merrill tune from 40's. I picked it for a couple of reasons. First you get to hear my mom speaking (just a bit) as well as singing. Second, you get to learn something about her from the few words she says.

My mom grew up in a mill town in northwest South Carolina. Her dad was the mill's general manager. Her mom played organ at the Southern Baptist church; her dad led the singing. As you might imagine, all this strongly influenced my mom's perspective and manner. Even 50 years after leaving South Carolina for New York City, she introduces the song almost apologetically because it's "frivolous".

Her apologies said, she goes on to sing Candy and Cake with all the the energy that she might have put into something less frivolous and more "appropriate", for example, Amazing Grace or Blessed Assurance. That was my mom.

So Mark K, here you go...

Candy and Cake

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Keys to Studentship

Over the years I've become an excellent student. By excellent, I mean that I've developed the skills required to quickly and thoroughly learn what someone offers to teach me, many times to the point of bypassing the teacher's understanding what she is teaching.

It may seem a bit presumptuous or rain-man like to qualify one's own skills as excellent, but when it comes to learning confidence in one's skill is a critical success factor. If you don't see yourself as an excellent student, then you're likely not. If you see yourself as an excellent student but would never say so, then you're definitely not.

Using my criteria (quickly acquiring and comprehending what someone offers to teach), how would you rate your studentship? Let's do this on a scale of one-to-ten, ten being the most excellent and one being the least. Taking no more than three seconds to consider it, how excellent is your studentship?

Hmmm... Really?

OK, let's try again. This time call to mind the person whom you consider to be the greatest student ever. We'll make her a ten. Now call to mind the person whom you consider to be the worst student ever. We'll make him a one. With these two people anchoring the endpoints, how would you rate your studentship?

Would you like to improve your score? Here's how.

1. Trust the Teacher

The first step in becoming an excellent student is to decide that you know nothing and the teacher knows all. Note that this is a temporary state, not a lifelong commitment. Suspend disbelief and accept everything the teacher says as gospel. If something doesn't make sense or rubs you wrong, decide that it's due to your poor understanding of the topic.

When you fully trust the teacher, you'll gain insights that you would never have acquired otherwise. When you question the usefulness or effectiveness of what a teacher has to teach, you undermine your studentship.

2. Accept the Curriculum

People hire me to teach them to do what I do. Sometimes it's software and technology; sometimes it's marketing; sometimes it's music. The other day I was hired to help a software team that had been struggling to develop an advanced website. What I had anticipated being a ten minute review of my agenda ended up taking the entire morning as several of the software developers questioned the the relevance of various agenda items.

If my only concern had been relaying the material, I might have said something like, "Look guys, you hired me because what you're doing isn't working. I put together this agenda because I know it works. So for the moment, please go with me on this. If at the end of the day you can't do what you hired me to teach you, you don't have to pay me."

However, I decided to teach studentship instead. I entertained their questions. I let them drive the agenda. As the day progressed, the necessity of dropped agenda items became obvious. We ended up trying to pack an entire morning into the last twenty minutes of my visit.

A teacher may ask you practice and learn things that seem completely irrelevant to the task at hand. When this happens, remember Mr Miyagi's instruction to the Karate Kid: wax on, wax off.

3. Be Childishly Curious

The greatest asset of any student is unbridled curiosity. Rather than questioning the teacher or the agenda, rather than asking questions that demonstrate your knowledge, ask questions that improve your understanding. How does that work? Why does it work that way? What does it feel like? Where could I apply that? Can I try?

The questions needn't be voiced, just asked. The teacher needn't answer; just by asking the question you may gain an insight.

Note that the absence of curiosity leads to the I-thought-I-understood-what-he-said phenomenon that many experience the following day.

Take childlike delight in what you're being taught and be endlessly curious.

4. Put It to Work

Never take take a class that has no laboratory component. You can't learn to play piano without playing. You can't learn to swim without swimming. You can't learn to write without writing. You can't learn math without working problems. You can learn about any of these things, but you won't know them.

Excellent studentship requires you to put to practice what you've been taught. Further, you must do so shortly after the teaching. Studies have shown that our ability to comprehend and retain what we've been taught is significantly improved if we put it to work within a few hours of the lesson. If you wait until the next day, you've compromised your capacity by 70-90%.

Whenever possible, try what you've been taught before leaving the class, specially if you can convince your teacher to hang out and answer questions.

5. Decide that You Can

No matter how good the teacher, you won't learn well if you question your capacity. Even the slightest doubt has a disproportionately large impact on your learning capacity. Decide that you are and excellent student and be an excellent student.

It's important to note that you're responsible for studentship, not for learning. Learning is a collaborative effort between you and your teacher. If you deliver on studentship, then you've upheld your part of the bargain.

Go ahead, say it aloud: "I am an awesomely amazing, excellent student."

Hesitation to say so (you don't have to use my words exactly) is a good indicator of doubt. Stating aloud your belief will reinforce your belief; trust me.

Be a Great Student

So, how excellent is your studentship? How well do you suspend disbelief and put your trust in your teachers. How willing are you to abandon your sense of relevance? Do children marvel at your curiosity? Do you immediately put into practice all you've been taught? Are you an excellent student? Will you be?

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

So Long Angels

It all began a few months ago. Jonathan and I are talking on the balcony of his new condo looking at the ocean. Jonathan says, "You know, once I'm gone, Steve's gonna want to get rid of you."

I say, "Yeah, I know."

"You do?"

"Sure, he can't handle being around anyone smarter than him. Isn't that what you told me?"

"Yeah and he can't even conceive of someone being able to think the way you do."

"OK. Steve's gonna want to get rid of me. So..."

"So, knowing that, you gotta promise to see this through."


"Because he might get annoying, but he'll come around. You're the only one in the company who can do what I can do and he's smart enough to see that he'll be shooting himself in the foot."

"Uh, huh. Sounds like fun", I say with more than a hint of sarcasm in my voice. "He's gonna fire me."

"No, he won't. You'll see."

"He will. Not only that, but he won't do it himself. He'll make Rich do it."

"Come on, man. Steve's got more integrity than that. If he does fire you, he'll look you in the eye and tell you himself."

"Betcha he won't."

"It's a bet."

Yesterday I was able to fulfill my promise to Jonathan and, by the way, win the bet. I'm glad about the latter because if there were anyone who could collect on a bet posthumously it would be Jonathan.

Last Thursday morning I get a call from Rich, my boss. After a lengthy preamble he tells me that due to the financial situation the company is conducting a layoff. After a few questions I find out that it's a layoff of just one person, me. Since we've completed all the exploratory work that requires more advanced skills the company is going focus on maintenance of the existing product.

I ask, "Rich, are you telling me that I'm too highly skilled and experienced?"

Rich replies, "Uh... Well yeah, I guess so. I'm really, really sorry about this."

I say, "No worries, man. We're good. You're actually letting me off the hook."

I hang up the phone and walk up stairs. I say to Iris, "Hey, baby, Rich just called. He fired me."

Iris says, "Cool! Now we can get on to other stuff."

Yesterday morning at about 4:00, I drove to New Jersey for exit meetings. I took the software team through everything I'd been working on so that they'd be up to speed. I had some really warm and wonderful conversations. I drove back home. It was great day.

Steve was out of town.

The night before my exit meetings, I thought about all the wonderful people I got to know while working with Jonathan and his gang. A melody popped into my head, so I recorded it. I call my little song, "So Long Angels."

So Long Angels

Happy Wednesday,

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Betty Sings

One of my more useful and perhaps less irksome quirks is that my methods of relaxation tend towards meaningfully productive activity. My personal getaways include cleaning up kitchen and sorting through heaps of accumulated I'll-put-this-away-laters. After a long weekend of under-stimulation with family, there's nothing so relaxing as a couple of hours of coding software.

There are many positive side effects to my relaxation techniques. We're never without clean clothes. I always know where to find even the most obscure spare part to any of the numerous gadgets we have lying about the house. I can shop for food without running inventory or preparing a list. We get to implement many of Iris' brainstorms which otherwise would have ended up lost on scraps of paper left lying where ever the storm occurred.

Over the past week, I've been motivated to copiously employ my relaxation methods at an accelerated rate. Yesterday, as I unpacked a box that had traveled with us unopened through four moves, I found a surprise. It wasn't a half-eaten sandwich from 2004; it was a recording of a solo concert by mom in October 2000, just a year before she passed away. I pulled open the case and slotted the CD into my Mac. Listening to the piano's opening refrain, I could tell from the wobble, phase shifting and the absence of higher frequencies that the CD was a copy of something originally recorded on cassette tape.

So I did what anyone who uses meaningfully productive activity to relax would do; I ripped the CD into AIF files, opened up my mastering program and began fixing the recordings.

Together, my mom and dad represent the yin and yang of my existence: my mom the bright-eyed singer with big ideas and unbounded creativity, my dad the overly practical engineer who values hard work over inspiration. They're about as opposite as two people can be and yet they spent nearly fifty years together.

My mom was one of those fortunate people who died healthy. At seventy she could still sing with all the control and expertise that she had at twenty. She taught aerobics classes. She was active from sun-up to late in the evening. She was so healthy that they didn't spot the cancer until it was far too late to treat. Unlike many for who death-by-cancer is a long and tortuous road, my mom died quickly, less than a month after the diagnosis.

I sit at my desk processing the recordings. I poke and prod each audio file pushing for the best it will give me. I listen to my mom singing for the first time in over a decade. As she sings, I hear everything she ever taught me being put to work. I hear her focus her voice to optimize the sound quality and projection. I hear her use dynamics in unexpected ways to surprise and delight her audience. I hear how she articulates so that even people in the back rows can understand every word. She focuses her energy. She makes nothing else matter in that moment. Her joy and freedom are contagious.

As I listen it all comes together for me. My mom was able to perform with such ease before an audience of six or seven hundred people, because she brought that focus and energy to everything she did. Whether preparing a cake and coffee for a lone friend, entertaining a houseful of guests or singing before thousands of people, she was the same person.

I just felt like sharing that with you.

Happy Sunday,