Friday, June 29, 2012

At Least...

Dad and Me
My dad and I are about as opposite as two people can be.
  1. Dad is the consumate pessimist (he would say, 'realist'). 

    I'm the consumate optimist (he would say, 'delusional').

  2. Dad is a math whiz. Give him a ten-digit number, and he "sees" the prime factors. When the Russians invaded Finland during World War II, he supported the family by tutoring college calculus; he was twelve at the time. While studying electrical engineering at MIT, he took all the advanced math courses for fun. Finishing a three-hour final in ninety minutes, he'd go back and outline the work in color. The instructors would post his test as the answer key.

    I failed freshman algebra three times and just barely made it through high school.

  3. Dad can't carry a tune in a bucket. As a child, the choir director at his church constantly asked him not to sing so loudly. 

    I was picking out tunes on the piano at three.

  4. Dad spends most of his time either in the past or the future.

    I spend most my time in the present.

  5. Dad never does anything he can't already do.

    Almost everything I do is something that I couldn't.

At the same time, dad and I have some remarkable (and in some cases nearly identical) similarities.
  1. We're both highly competitive. However, we view competition differently. Dad tends to vilify the competition and he really hates to lose. Some of my best friends have been my greatest competitors and I love encountering someone who can beat me in competition because that's when I learn the most.

  2. We're both super intense. However, Dad tends towards a dark, brooding and quite intensity. I tend towards a bright, brassy and loud intensity.

  3. We're both hopelessly romantic. However, dad, despite his pessimistic and serious manner is significantly more prone to whimsy. He routinely orders flowers, chocolates and other sundry gifts to be sent to any pretty woman who pays attention to him. It might be the receptionist at the dentist's office or a volunteer at his assisted living facility or a librarian who helped him find a book he'd been searching for.

  4. We both understand the positive benefits of positive outlook and optimism. However, dad seems only to want them for others.

Dad and Iris
It's our mutual understanding of this last point that often leads us down a path of conversation that both of us often find challenging.

Dad will tell you that it's important to see the positive aspects of any situation. He'll often encourage others to do so. How he does so is dramatically different than how I do so. (He would tell you that I'm splitting hairs.)

Pretty much every summer, we (dad, his kids, their kids, and my mom's family) all head to Myrtle Beach for a week together. Dad looks forward to this and it's critical to him that everyone show up. He'll guilt, he'll bribe, he'll cajole, whatever it takes to get everyone there. This year we'll be heading to what we've come to call "Grandpa's Tenth Annual Last-time-ever-going-to-the-beach-before-he-dies Week."

At Least
Dad, Iris and I sit on the balcony drinking coffee and watching the sun rise. If one of his kids didn't show up, even though everyone else is there, dad laments the absent child. If he doesn't feel well, he talks abou that. If the early morning temperature is already in the nineties, he worries aloud about how overly hot the day will be.

Iris or I ask him to try and find the positive in whatever it is he's lamenting. His positives are always preceded by "at least". If he's not feeling well, he says, "Well, at least I'm not dead." If he's missing my brother and his family, he says, "At least you guys are here."

Guess what? "At least" doesn't work. The phrase "at least" is like a tow-rope dad uses to drag along his pessimistic thought even as he feigns stepping into optimism.

Now that summer's here, I've been thinking about my dad and our annual trek. I realize that "at least" is symptomatic of a more fundamental difference in our two views of the world. The difference is that of "overlooking" the negative versus "transforming" the negative into something positive.

There's plenty of research across a range of disciplines that supports the notion that a positive outlook leads to better outcomes. Take any situation, find the good in it, and you'll get a better result than if you don't. You'll be more at ease, more aware and more capable.

Some people find that this doesn't work. I it's due to how they go about finding the positive. People who transform the negative into something good (e.g., make the rained-upon picnic a chance to frolic in wet clothes) have a completely different experience than people who try to overlook the negative (e.g., "well, at least we're still together").

I see the difference all the time as Iris describe her experiences and the experiences of others working with children with autism. Iris is always transforming anything into a good thing; not everyone does that.

How prevalent is your at-least factor?

Happy Friday,

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blind Spots

Everyone has blind spots: gaps in awareness. You see something over and over, but you never connect it to anything significant. You may even notice that you've seen it over and over. However, like cows in a field you pass every day as you drive to work, it doesn't really exist because it doesn't mean anything to you.

I have gazillions of blind spots. 

Every once in a while, I'll attach significance to a blind-spot's occupant and POW! The missing connection is made, the patterns take form, and where there was nothing, there is something.

Standing in the shower this morning I had just such an experience. I was thinking about my friend Pete and something he said as he packed up to leave after rehearsal last night. 

Over the course of the evening Pete and I had chatted about new work he'd taken on. Over the past couple of weeks, Pete's been writing software to control custom devices used in movie production. This is really cool because Pete's a hardware guy, not a software guy and for a long time he's wanted to get into writing code but he's struggled with it.

Pete and I had spent time together learning how to write software for a Mac, but Pete's drive to do so had waned.  So I was really glad to hear that he was back to writing code.

Okay, here's the blind-spot part. As Pete left, he said something like, "You know, I'm just more comfortable writing code for devices than for computers."

I acknowledged Pete's statement and believed I understood it. Writing software that gets downloaded into devices is quite different from writing applications for computers. To start, there's no visual interface; the software never directly interacts with people. The languages used are purer; they're not layered with all sorts of tools and libraries that, although designed to make programming easier, more often than not get in the way. Pete's statement made sense to me.

Then, standing in the shower this morning I thought, "What's 'comfort' got to do with it?"

Pete had said, "I'm just more 'comfortable' writing code for devices than computers."

My mind bridged the open circuit. The connection was made. A blind spot was revealed. Here's my revelation.

People let their senses of comfort
influence what they do and don't do.

Wow! For me, it was like finding the bad bulb in a string of Italian christmas lights. You replace it with a good one and the entire string lights up. 

For years I've heard people bring up discomfort in the context of not wanting to do something or wanting to do something only in a certain way. When someone said something like, "I don't feel comfortable singing into a microphone" or "I don't feel comfortable doing story problems", I'd 'get' that she didn't want to do it or that he preferred a different way of doing it. However, I'd never attach any significance to the word "comfortable"; she might as well have said, "I don't 'want' to..."

Seeing the blind spot, this sounds a little silly, but it just never occurred to me that feeling discomfort was a reason. 

So there I am standing in the shower contemplating my revelation, an archive of past statements of discomfort pouring through my mind. I notice that my battery-powered Oral-B is starting to run out of juice and that the bathroom has become so thick with steam that I can't see the shower wall.

I towel off, throw on some clothes and start typing.

I see the pattern now. I see that people use discomfort to demotivate themselves. 

I still don't really "get" it, but I "see" it.

I'm not sure which is more interesting to me: that I'd never connected the two (discomfort and demotivation) or that the two are connected.


Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Strong Powers of Denial

Each day after visiting her little friend Quinn, Iris comes home and shares stories of their time together. No matter what challenges they faced, Iris' voice is always filled with energy and delight.

Almost without fail, at some point in her story Iris will slow down as she describes how Quinn responded to or behaved in a given situation. She'll stop and look at me. She'll smile. Then she'll say something like, "Hmm... who does that remind me of?"

Sometimes it'll take me a moment to realize she's talking about me. Sometimes I've already been thinking, "Well, I understand why he did that. I'd do the same thing."

Apparently, although Quinn is just seven and I'm, well, fifty-five, and although Quinn faces the challenges of autism and epilepsy and I, well, I'm just challenging, we have a lot in common.

For example, Quinn and I are both our own biggest fans. After successfully completing a task, Quinn will tell himself (aloud), "That was awesome!" or "Way to go!"

I do that.

Quinn is also his own greatest encourager. When struggling or feeling too tired to continue, he'll tell himself (aloud), "You can do it." or "It's OK! Tomorrow's another day."

I do that.

Quinn becomes quite animated when he talks, using his body to accentuate his words, even when his physical expression puts him at physical risk, e.g., letting go of the ropes on a swing so that he can use his hands to express himself.

I do that.

When Quinn gets into doing something, he won't give up even if he's ready to fall over in exhaustion. He just keeps at it even as his eyes are slowly overtaken by sleep.

I do that.

It's in our shared capacity for persistence that Iris most often notes our similarities. When either of us (Quinn or I) gets it into his head that we're going to do something, it's takes a lot to get us not to.  Some would call it "persistent", others "obstinate". Some would call it "committed", others "intractable". Nonetheless, we tend to stick with things and see them through.

Persistence can be a great strength that carries you through adversity and challenge. It can be a great detriment that leads you into adversity and challenge By its nature, it's a tricky strength to manage. If you're really persistent, then you're persistent in your persistence. That makes turning off your persistence doubly hard.

I'm usually well past the point of having worn out everyone on a point before I notice that they're maybe wanting to move on to some other point: well past it.

Lately I've become better at recognizing the signs in others that they're just D-O-N-E, done. I'll stop talking and do my best to reduce my level of animation, but meanwhile brain races.  The ignition is off; the engine is still running and it'll keep running until it runs out of fuel. The only solution I've found is to reengage the transmission in some other gear and hope the drivetrain doesn't come apart.

Yeah, persistence is an interesting strength to manage. I'd say it's one of my core strengths, but it's by no means my greatest strength. Nope, my greatest strength is even more challenging to manage than persistence. It's what some have called,  "strong powers of denial".

No matter how dyer the circumstance, no matter how overwhelming the evidence to the contrary, no matter how many times I've failed, no matter how many others have given up, I always just "know" that success is around the corner. It's not a feeling that I have to work up. It's not something I even think about, really. It's just that I, well, I just "know".

If I just keep going a little bit further, if I just hang in there a little bit longer, everything is going to change. I don't have to know why or how it's going to change. I don't have to see a path from here to there. I just know it's going to change. It's the "just" factor.

I don't see this as denial. All the evidence stacked in my favor. The signs of positive change are everywhere. They may be small. They may blend into the fabric of everyday life. However, if you look for them, you can see them.

It's not "denial", it's, um... it's "insight!"

Anyway, with my great strength of insight (or denial if you choose to see it that way), persistence comes easy.

Come to think of it, pretty much everyone I know is persistent; it's just that most persist in activities they claim to dislike (if not disdain). Maybe they have strong powers of denial as well?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Aware of What?

After I posted Well Practiced, Yet Terrible, my friend Renee and I had several email exchanges regarding everything from regretting lost barns to the importance of spelling words correctly. Much of this was done in the context of "awareness".  Regarding spelling, Renee pointed out a couple of "especially lovable" examples of words I'd misspelled in my posts, that my misspellings may prove distracting to readers, and that I might benefit from increased spelling-awareness. Renee likened my spelling-unawareness to Butch's string-buzzing unawareness (see Well Practiced, Yet Terrible), and her string-tuning unawareness.

It was a fun exchange and it got me to thinking. When I wrote about awareness, I'd left out an important component: focus. To increase awareness is somewhat a misnomer. You're always aware of something (or many things). The challenge is not to increase awareness, the challenge is to focus it. So I give you Teflon's Postulate of Awareness.

Awareness can neither be created nor destroyed; 
it can only be directed and redirected.

So, assuming that you're of a finite nature, the question is one of priorities and (going back to yesterday's post A Good Idea) stop-lists. In order to become more aware of one thing, one must become less aware of another. You can't add to your focus; you can only shift it.

Take Teflon's Postulate of Awareness. As I typed, I was aware that "neither" is always accompanied by "nor", whereas "either" is always accompanied by "or". I was aware that you separate independent clauses with a semicolon (;) and dependent clauses with a colon (:).   I was aware of the various methods used in HTML to center and italicize text. I was aware of the CSS (cascading style-sheet) code required to change the font-size of the text.

This awareness proved useful. However, it was also a distraction.  I could have just typed two sentences instead of one sentence with two independent clauses. Most people wouldn't have noticed nor understood the difference. I could have skipped the text-formatting and who really cares whether you use "nor" or "or"?

(Even now I'm pausing to think about the placement of a question-mark when a sentence ends with quoted text. The rules are different for exclamations and question-marks than for periods. Sigh...)

Point is, no matter how fast I process all the above-described elements of my awareness, it takes time and more importantly, it diffuses my focus. My awareness is finite. I can't be more aware here without being less aware there.

Fortunately brief lapses in focus rarely affect anything in perceivable ways (that is unless your awareness is focused on perceiving those lapses). However, when you're in a high-performance situation, one that demands concentrated focus, then even the smallest lapse can have dramatic effect. Alternatively, if your focus bounces from minor lapse to minor lapse, your awareness can suffer from a sort of repetitive stress injury. Without concentrating too much on anything in particular, you can feel completely exhausted.

Having a set of symptoms and behaviors that put me into the category of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, my biggest struggle is not with increasing my level of awareness; it's with decreasing my level of distraction (the diffusion of my awareness). I have difficulty doing this in real-time. I'm often way down the rabbit-hole before I even notice that I've entered it.

So what do I do?

I do a lot of stuff that doesn't work. I do some things that work alright. However, the thing that works best for me is to simply decide a priori that I'm not going to pay any attention to anything that doesn't immediately contribute in a significant way to the task at hand. I define the specific elements of my planned unawareness and set a strong intention before I begin telling myself, "No matter what, I am absolutely not going to..."

The tricky part is that most of my banished elements of awareness are "good", even "valuable".  However, they don't significantly contribute to what I want to accomplish in the moment.

So it's not about increasing awareness; it's about honing focus. To hone a sharp blade, you shave away metal; you don't add to it.

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Good Idea

Spend enough time working with people who are talented, creative and confident, and you'll come to the realization that having a "good idea" doesn't mean a whole lot. Good ideas are so plentiful that being "good" doesn't qualify an idea for consideration let alone implementation. Unless you have infinite time and budget, you have to go with the "best" ideas only.

Deciding what idea merits "best" is another challenge. In addition to the benefits derived from an idea, you have consider time, cost, distraction from other work, implication to brand, your desire to pursue it, your ability to implement it, and so on.  Many great ideas simply aren't a match for you or your team. Many ideas would be too great a distraction from other things you want to do.

Stop List
Once you select the best idea or ideas, implementation can be another challenge. Perhaps the most challenging part is what we used to call the "stop-list".  Creative, talented and confident people tend to have full schedules. Implementing something new requires you to stop something old, oftentimes many things old.

Most people dread creating stop-lists; instead, they try to borrow a bit of time here and a bit of time there.  It's common practice and it works, initially. However, before you know it, the overhead of managing many simultaneous assignments starts to take more time than any one of the assignments. Your efforts within any one task become so diluted as to be ineffective. You allocate more and more time to shifting from one task to the next, remembering where you were when you last worked on it, rebuilding your context and getting started. We used to say, "It's not the engine; it's the transmission."

Even people who show great discipline in filtering all but the very best ideas struggle with stop-lists. The more talented, creative and confident, the longer they can go without it appearing to negatively affect the quality of their work. However, the effects are there and they go negative pretty early.

The reason I say "pretty early" is that there can be positive benefit to having diverse tasks, specially when they have little overlap. If you're working on a big creative project, washing dishes or mowing the lawn can provide renewal and insight.  If you're training for a marathon, then playing a musical instrument can give you  a new angle on how your body works.  Diversity helps you avoid repetitive-stress injuries (physical, mental and emotional). When managed well, the breadth of the experience increases the depth of experience. However, when not diversity becomes dabbling, and breadth replaces depth.

Good Idea Bin
There are benefits to having no stop-list. You become good at games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. You become interesting at parties (well, for at least the first five minutes of a conversation). You never become too attached to anything. You never have to choose between things you like. You never have to deal with the choices that come with great success. You can easily find like-minded friends.

The real question isn't, "Should you write a stop-list or not?"

The question is, "What do you want?"

If you want to do great things or to do things great, and if you're talented, creative and confident, you're gonna need a stop-list (no ifs, ands, or buts). Sure, there are people who have good ideas so infrequently that they want to patent everyone of them, but you're not one those people. You've got more good ideas than you'll ever be able to implement. Shoot, you've got more GREAT ideas than you'll ever be able to implement.

So, what are you BEST ideas? What percentage of your time do you allocate to them? Would you like to make them happen? What are you going to stop?

Happy Monday,

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Robot Side

My son Luke often calls me on his drive home from work. We usually spend a couple of moments catching up and then dive into whatever topic is on Luke's mind. Most of the time, we talk about software and databases. 

Luke recently transitioned from being a sales-and-support guy for a large corporation to being a database-and-software guy for that same corporation. He did it in a way that is almost unheard of nowadays. As a sales guy, he started fixing software-based things that were broken.

It started with Excel workbooks distributed to the sales people to help them calculate their compensation based on sales they made. When the numbers didn't add up the way he thought they would, Luke would dig into the Excel formulas and macros to see where the errors were.  He'd find the bug, fix it and then mail the workbook back to the IT department.  

Sometimes the developer would be a bit nonplussed; rather than taking Luke's work and redistributing it, she'd redo it herself. Luke would know this because the redistributed workbook would still have a bug or two. He'd fix it again and send it back.

After a while Luke realized that it might be more effective to send the repaired workbook to his boss rather than to the IT department. One day his boss walked into Luke's cubical and asked him if he could develop a spreadsheet to help manage a rather complex relocation of all the sales people into a new cubicle structure. Luke replied, "Sure!" and then called me on the way home to talk about it.

Luke and Jack
Luke had a good idea on how to do it from the perspective of logic and structure, but he wasn't sure on how to implement that logic and structure in software. I talked a bit about options and then Luke began asking questions. Forty-five minutes later I heard the voice of my grandson Jack greeting Luke at the door. Look said, "Thanks dad. I gotta go."

The next morning Luke emailed me an Excel workbook that implemented everything we'd talked about. On the way home that night, he called to ask me more questions. He'd noticed that Excel had limitations that made doing what he wanted to do harder than he thought it should be. I suggested that he might want to try Microsoft Access (a database program) rather than Excel (a spreadsheet program).

Luke asked more questions. I answered them. Jack greeted Luke. Luke had to go.

The next morning Luke emailed me an Access database. He'd got up after Sarah and the kids had gone to sleep and stayed up til 3:00 AM teaching himself Access.  He'd implemented the same complex algorithm that he'd implemented in Excel, but using a completely different set of tools. He hadn't stayed up because he'd felt he'd had to do it. He wrote in his email that it had been so much fun, he'd had to make himself go to bed.

When Luke called the next day he said, "Dad, I don't really feel like I'm doing that much. I just google examples of how to do different things and then write similar code that does what I want it to do. Sometimes the examples are overly complicated and long, so I rewrite them to make them more efficient and simple, but I never just write a bunch of stuff from scratch."

I said, "That's pretty much how anyone I ever worked with learned to code."

Luke said, "But shouldn't it be harder than that? I mean, if it's this easy, why doesn't everyone just do it?"

I said, "I don't know. Maybe they make it harder than it is? Maybe they don't have fun with it?"

Luke said, "I just can't believe that it's this easy. It gets harder, right?"

I said, "I guess that'd be up to you."

Luke continued doing side projects for his boss, and then for other sales managers, and then for people in the marketing department. One day the marketing director walked into the sales break-room, looked about, and then walked up to Luke. He asked if he was Luke. Luke replied affirmatively. The marketing director said, "I have a problem and I hear that you're the guy who can help me with it."

Luke called. We talked. Jack greeted him. Luke had to go.

A few months passed. Every couple of days we'd talk.  

One day Luke called and said, "Dad, guess what!"

I said, "What?"

Luke said, "I'm now officially a database analyst and developer."

Later in our conversation, Luke mentioned that there was one thing bothering him. He said that there were times when he felt like he should be getting more emotional about something, at least more anxious about it, but that he didn't because it seemed to be so impractical at that point. He said, "It's like I've got this robot side of me and this human side of me. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Is it?"

I woke up this morning thinking about Luke's question. Playing gigs over the last couple of days, the topic of stage-fright came up in several discussions. As we talked about it, it occurred to me that I never get stage-fright. When people asked me what I did to overcome it, I realized that the answer was, "nothing." Stage-fright always seemed so impractical to me that any time it looked as though I might be experiencing it, I just decided not to. It just wasn't useful.

I guess I have a robot side too. Is that a good thing?

Happy Sunday,

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Well-Practiced, Yet Terrible

Over the past few months (you may have already noticed this), I've been asking myself why it is that people who've repeatedly performed various tasks over an extended period of time are still terrible at performing them. They may not be terrible on an absolute scale, but certainly on a scale relative to the time invested in the task. In many instances, the terrible performers are well trained, even professional. Yet, their terribleness persists.

Last night I came to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with hours of practice, years of training, approach or methodology.  Sure, these all effect skill development and capability. Still, they're all insignificant relative to one thing: awareness

Let me give you an example. 

Last night as we rehearsed with No Room for Jello, I showed Butch some chord fingerings for a new tune. The chord fingerings were relatively simple as was the progression. Yet Butch, who is a capable guitar player, struggled to nail them down. 

During a break I sat with Butch and reviewed the chords one by one. Butch quickly replicated my fingerings and strummed the chords.  However, something didn't sound quite right to me. So I asked Butch to play each guitar string one-at-a-time. As he did, some strings wrang clearly, some buzzed and some were completely muted. So we slowed things down. Butch repeatedly played individual strings adjusting his hand and finger positions until every string wrang clearly.

It didn't take long. It wasn't in anyway difficult for Butch to do. In fact, it was quick and easy. Yet, it was something that he likely wouldn't have taken time to do had I not stopped him.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that Butch is a groove-player. He can lay down such a solid guitar groove that you don't need a drummer.  Groove players pay attention to rhythm and dynamics.  Pitch and note quality are of secondary importance (if any). With some tunes, Butch can place his fingers pretty much anywhere on the guitar neck and it sounds great. 

It all works until we play tunes that are more melody- and harmony-oriented. Butch can play these songs, but they sound, well, terrible. It's not a capacity or talent issue. It's a skill issue, one that can be easily remedied with time and practice. Yet, time and practice wouldn't matter if Butch's awareness were not to shift from rhythm and groove, to pitch and clarity.

As Butch and I discussed this, he was quick to pick up on what I was saying. He seemed to be aware of his lack of awareness in certain areas of playing. He described himself as a pattern player. He learns patterns (lots of them). If the pattern fits, it sounds great. If it doesn't, well...  

After rehearsal I thought, "Lots of patterns with limited awareness."

I think that's the core of it. Many of us learn by imitating patterns. Unfortunately, most teaching pedagogy involves explaining patterns to the students rather than providing opportunities for students to discover patterns. An explained pattern easily becomes one that's performed without awareness; a derived pattern requires awareness.  Sure, you can be aware when performing a pattern that's been taught to you, but you have to do so deliberately.

You can see this phenomenon of pattern-without-awareness in almost everything we do: making coffee, driving a car, jogging, performing math, counting change.

Without awareness, nothing else matters. Well, it can matter if your goal is to pass a class or get a job. It doesn't matter if your goal is to understand.

Happy Thursday,

P.S. Our band Will Power will be performing tonight in Manhattan at Otto's Shrunken Head, 538 East 14th Street. We go on at 10:30.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


When communicating a new concept, conceptual framework or system, it's a good idea to name the concept, the framework's components or the system. For example, rather than talking about a system that can do x, y and z or your theory on how the mind works. You simply talk about, the Zeta system of Mental Dynamism. It's just good marketing.

If the name is really good, before you know it, people will be referring to your concept or theory by name even if they have no idea of what it actually means or implies. Not only that, but people will start to treat your concept or theory as more than that. For them, the name will represent something that actually exists.

There are many examples of this. Freud coined (or at least made popular) the phrase unconscious (or unconscious mind).  It's a theory on how the mind works. It postulates that we each have a dark and hidden part of ourselves that can not be fully seen or understood.

It's a concept. 

It doesn't actually exist.

There is no unconscious mind or subconscious; for that matter, "mind" is also just a concept that doesn't actually exist.

Another example is autism. There is no such "thing" as autism. Instead, there are collections of symptoms (none of which are biological) that when displayed in certain combinations lead one to the diagnosis of autism. Autism is a concept. It doesn't actually exist.

The same goes for terms like democracy and socialism, work and play, right and wrong.  All are concepts. Each is something one might be able to identify via some real-world manifestation. Yet the manifestation isn't the concept. It's linked to the concept, but the links are dependent on the perceiver of the links. Some may see no links at all. Some may hold a different concept going by the same name.

They're concepts.

They're ways of thinking about a thing. 

They're not the thing.

The only value of a concept is in its usefulness and usefulness depends completely on what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to help your child respond differently than she is, then "knowing" she has autism is only useful insofar as it helps you achieve your goal. If your trying to become a better guitar player, then knowing or not knowing various aspects of music theory is only useful if it helps you to become a better guitar player (and better is up to you.)

I like naming concepts. It improves the efficiency of communications.

However, when one gets comfortable using the name of a concept without fully understanding the concept, there are side effects. The side effects are amplified when the one doing so is a teacher or in a position of authority. Before you know it, you've got armies of people using terms representing things that don't actually exist as though they did (take "global warming" for example). Further, since no one challenges them on or even asks about the meaning of the term, they take it for granted that they themselves understand.

Lately I've started asking people who've done well in college calculus to define calculus in plain english. You would think that it'd be easy for someone who got A's in math. I've only encountered two people who could do it; one needed a lot of hints and the other has since passed away. Yet those very same people claimed they "knew" calculus. In fact, what they knew were the names of concepts and for a period of time how to piece them together in useful ways.

When I worked at AT&T, I was often invited to be part of projects that involved the development of new concepts. The projects each started with a small, well-funded, specialized team working outside the mainstream. However, once the mainstream got wind of the project, it would inevitably balloon into a large project involving anyone who had a political stake in its outcome. Within a month or two there'd be meetings involving seventy or so people "developing a new concept".

As I sat in those meetings, I began to notice a phenomenon that I later named, "Pod-Speak". People who participated in the meetings quickly began employing the terms and phrases peculiar to the new concept. They used them properly in sentences. Others responded affirmatively to their statements. 

Yet, when I would ask a question, it would become immediately clear that no one actually understood what they'd said. If I or someone like me had not been there asking, none of them would have ever acknowledged that they'd not understood (neither speakers nor listeners). 

After a bit of playing political musical chairs the project would end up being staffed solely by the best pod-speakers, none of which knew anything about the subject matter.

Do you speak pod?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thirty Years Hence

It's 7:00AM, June 19, 2042. Iris and I head into Great Barrington for coffee and scones.  We pull up in front of Fuel, hop of the Harley and head inside. The sound effects of the bike leave you thinking it's really running on gasoline.

As we walk through the front door... well it's not really a door, more of a column of air, we see Mickey sitting at the same seat he'd been occupying for ten years way back in 2012. Absorbed in his ancient Macbook Pro, he types furiously. As we approach him, Iris calls out, "Hey, Mickey."

At the sound of her voice, Mickey looks up smiling. Then he sees me. I hear him mutter, "Oh, geesh!"

He looks down. He looks up. He looks down. He looks up.

Finally Mickey says, "The answer to your question is, 'Yes!'"

I say, "The answer to what question?"

Mickey says, "You know what question. It's the question you ask me every time you see me."

I say, "You're kidding?"

Mickey says, "Nope. So just go ahead and ask. Let's get this over with."

I say, "OK. Umm... Are you still working on that book?"

Mickey says, "Yes!"

I say, "Exactly which rewrite is this?"

Mickey says, "You don't want to know."

I say, "Sure I do. You just don't want to say. Which rewrite is it?"

Mickey humphs and says, "129."

Iris orders a soy latte and I get an Americano.  As I take my first sip of coffee, the pungent aroma and flavor take me back. Memories flood my mind. I think, "Ah, they still have never cleaned the expresso machine."

The impact of the experience is powerful. It carries me back to a time thirty-years prior. I think about Iris and me sitting in this very place contemplating what to make of our futures. I think of the questions we asked one another, the hopes and doubts we shared, the visions we shaped.  I think of how things turned out so differently than we expected, yet still in line with where we wanted to go. I think of all the changes we made and all the things about each of us that never seemed to change, or at least, not for long.

I think about all the things we didn't do. With as much as we wanted to do, the things we didn't do far outnumbered what we did. Yet I feel no sense of loss or regret. I feel... well... inspired.

I take Iris' hand, look her in the eye and say, "Remember how we always wanted to..."  

She looks at me and smiles, "Sure I do. So, you ready to start planning the next thirty years?"

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, June 18, 2012


I've been spending a lot of time lately on pedagogy, the process of teaching and learning.  I've been doing this mainly because not doing it isn't working.

For example, for the longest time, rather than teacher, I've played the roll of answer-man when it comes to music. At band rehearsal we listen to a song we want to play. I hear all sorts of nuances that I immediately map to musical forms and structures. I hear that the Miles Davis tune So What is being played in D-dorian, not D-minor. Listening to Carol King's It's Too LateI hear the sharp-11 in the melody as she sings the word Something in the phrase "Something in side just died and I can't hide..." and know immediately that the underlying chord is a Bb-major-7. 

When it comes to music, the left and right hemispheres of my brain work so seamlessly that they seem to be connected by some kind of hyper-network. When I hear something, I don't stop to translate it into structure; I just "know" the structure. When I think of a structure, I hear it.

It's not something that I was born with. It's not something that came to me naturally. It's something I was I taught. 

My first sax teacher, Hobie Grimes would give me music assignments. I'd figure them out and learn to play them. At twelve, I didn't know that other twelve-year-olds weren't being handed the flute music for Flight of the Bumble Bee and being told to learn it by transposing it for Bb Tenor Sax. I didn't know that other kids weren't learning all the modal scales in addition to the major and minor ones. I didn't know that kids didn't stay after their lessons were over to transpose and play french horn ensembles with other students.

They were just my weekly music lessons.

I had no appreciation for the fact that my mom had spent months researching teachers to find Mr. Grimes or that she drove an hour each way to take me to lessons or that she waited in the car for two to three hours while Mr. Grimes gave us whatever impromptu assignments seemed most appropriate in the moment.

I had no idea.

I certainly didn't understand the implications of Mr. Grimes' approach. You see, he not only taught me about music; he taught me how to learn and understand things about music that I'd never been taught.

He taught me to see patterns and say, "Oh, that's really just this, but with a slight change."

He taught me to break things down into smaller chunks in order to learn them.

He taught me how to put the pieces together so they didn't sound like a bunch of pieces.

He taught me that, if you can't see it one way, then look at it another way.

Mr. Grimes taught me how to learn, not just how play. He taught me how to derive and apply music theory, not just what the facts and names were. He taught me that, if you stick with it, you can figure out anything.

Anyway, having had the results of what Mr Grimes taught me being so readily available, it's been easier and quicker for me to just hand out answers rather than teach how to derive the answers.

But you know what? That doesn't work very well if you want everyone in the band to be strong musically. So I've decided to slow things down and teach.

You know what else? It's really fun.

Any situation going on in your life where it might be time to slow things down and teach?

Happy Monday,

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Old Dog

People often say that learning becomes more and more difficult as you get older. This apparent phenomenon is attributed to many factors. For example, they used to think that you can't produce new brain cells, that you're born with so many and their numbers slowly diminish over time. They used to think that.

Some attribute diminished capacity to learn to loss or reduction of other physical capacities such as seeing and hearing.

To be fair, given most of the evidence (i.e., all the people in your life), it might indeed seem that learning becomes more difficult as we age. However, I think a more accurate statement might be: people seem to learn less quickly and effectively as they grow older. I would also suggest that the phenomenon has nothing to do with learning, but instead, with unlearning.

When you're very young, you're almost a blank slate. You have very little bias and no built-up intuition.  As such, you see what is presented just as it is. You hear what is said just as it is. You don't dismiss physical sensations because you've felt them before.  Everything comes in for processing.

At first its nearly impossible to mistake one word for another because you don't have words. You may see things that people call by the same name to be completely different from one another, e.g., what makes those two things both 'grandpa'. You may see things that people call by the different names to be nearly identical, e.g., some people call poop 'icky' and other seem glad for you efforts.

However, as you get older you build up an arsenal of anti-learning systems. You no longer hear sounds; you hear words. You don't take the time to really look at someone's face as they speak, because you already "know" what they look like. Before you know it, you have a "way" you do things. It's filled with bias and assumption. You have intuition which is likely almost always wrong or at least limiting. It becomes nearly impossible to see something that you don't expect to see, that doesn't fit into your worldview.

With all this going for you, it becomes nearly impossible to learn anything you don't already know.

There's a solution.

It can be a bit challenging, but only emotionally. It's the basis of studentship the world-over.

Find someone to teach you (or someone to imitate) and decide that you know absolutely nothing. No matter what your intuition says, you do what she does or what she tells you to do. Even if everything inside you is screaming, "No, we don't do it that way!", you do it that way.

Not only that, but you do EVERYTHING he says, even the stuff that seems irrelevant or unimportant. You see, since you don't know ANYTHING, you can't tell what's relavent or important.

That's it.

It's pretty straight forward and yet apparently nearly impossible (based on the frequency of successful examples.)

I can tell you one thing though. I've never seen it not work.

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Who Will You Be?

Who will you be, today?

What will be the qualities that uniquely identify you among all the people that others will encounter?

Will you be present or distant?

Will you be black & white, shades of gray, or vivid color?

Will be too small to see or too big to ignore?

Will you be aware or ignorant?

How will you attend to your awareness...

...when you see an older woman struggling with her groceries as she tries to open the door.

...when a glance at the rearview mirror reveals a guy riding your bumper.

...when a kid walking down the street in front of you casually discards on the sidewalk the wrapper of his candy bar.

...when someone you're talking to seems inattentive or distracted.

...when a friend's demeanor tells you that something isn't quite right.

Who will you be, today?

Will you be the strong one that people turn to or the one who turns?

Will you bring perspective or will you fuel discord?

Will you be a taker or a giver?

Will you receive graciously or refuse to accept?

Will your love be so big that it's inescapable or will it be so small that it's invisible?

Will you be dry-erase or permanent?

Will you be easy or hard?

Will you be light or heavy?

Who will you be today?

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, June 11, 2012

It's Not What You Think

In the continuing saga of the unfairness of life, there's a theme that recurs constantly. Just when you finally get it, "it" changes or "it" turns out not being it.

You finally learn to read the signs of a child who's experiencing sensory overload and it turns out that he's just acting out. You finally learn to hear the transition from one key to the next and it turns out that the pianist simply made a mistake.  You finally learn to stick to your plan and it's actually time to improvise.

"It" becomes "not-it" all the time. However the transition seems most abrupt and disconcerting when it occurs just as you've figured "it" out.

It's not fair.

In fact it would likely be the case that just after you figured out that life's not fair, life would take a sudden turn for the better and rain down fairness upon you. And you know what? You'd miss it because you'd just finally got that life is NOT fair.

So what do you do?

Here's the deal. It's NEVER about getting IT. NEVER!

OK, except in settings of formal education, it's NEVER about getting IT.

It's ALWAYS about getting HOW to get it and become QUICKER and BETTER at getting it. Once you focus on getting IT, you've kind of missed the point. After all, how hard could IT be to get.  The point is the GETTING part.

So, getting IT is not the point of getting it. GETTING it is about learning HOW to get it.

That's it.

Happy Tuesday,

Why Do You Want That?

Since it's all about what you want, not what you can have (see Of Course You Can), you might find yourself answering the question: "What do you want?" (see What Do You Want?) rather than: "What can you have?" As you do, you'll likely encounter another question: "Why do you want that?"

If you hear someone ask it, you may hear an implied comma-stupid (i.e., Why do want that, stupid?). You may suddenly feel defensive about your stated desire. You may feel embarrassed. You may beat a hasty retreat and say something like: "Oh, I don't really want that" or "Yeah, you're right."

There's something about answering why-questions that leads us down the path of justification rather than the path of motivation. However, the justification of a desire or action tends to occur after the fact and, as such, is rarely the motivation for the desire or action. Yet the "need" to justify can be so strong that we often lose site of motivation once we head down that path of justification: sometimes temporarily, sometimes indefinitely.

We're so conditioned to justify (look how much we practice) that we often hear accusation in questions that have none. Whether or not it's there, we hear the accusation, we launch the justification. The sense of need to justify our every desire is the number one reason we lose touch with what we truly want.

Justification has other side-effects. The most impacting is: resentment. We either pursue our wants but feel that we always have to justify that pursuit or we don't pursue our wants because we feel we can't adequately justify them. Whether or not the person or people to whom we feel we owe the justification ever asked for one, we start to resent them for it.

Over the years, the resentment towards someone based on the need to justify can become enormous, even if the person never asked us to justify anything.

So, what do you do?

I imagine that psychologists and psychiatrists have made billions on this very issue and that there are many complex and well tested solutions that I know absolutely nothing about. Rather than looking into that, I came up with my own which is rather simple and has no basis in psychology or psychiatry. It's just something that I've done for myself and seems to have worked. You might call it a "justification-free diet".

Basically it goes like this. Any time you find yourself answering the question "Why do you want that?" (or one of it's many variants), you make no statements of justification, only statements of desire. That means that you don't use phrases like "need", "have to", "can't", or "forced me to".  You just say why you want it.

Sounds easy, right?

Still, you may find it difficult to do. You may slip right into justification without even noticing it. So the first step is to simply say, "Because I want it" or "Because I want to."

Someone may respond with, "But why do you want it?"

So you take the second step and say, "You mean, 'what about it appeals to me?'"

She says, "Yeah, what about it appeals to you?"

This brings us to the third step. You make simple statements about what appeals to you. You don't try to make them eloquent or compelling. You just say them.

As you do this, you may notice things that come to mind that you don't want to say aloud. When they do, just say them. You'll feel way better and you'll likely spark some great conversation.

However, if you find yourself "unable" to say them, then make a note of them so you can explore them later. It's the judgement of appealing factors (the ones that you keep to yourself) that are likely keeping you from your wants.

Could be time for a justification-free diet. Try it for a day and see what happens.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What Do You Want?

Knowing that "not-having" is a question of wanting versus a question of capacity (if you don't know this, please read Of Course You Can), the next question is: What do you want?

Believe it or not, for many people this may be the most difficult question to answer. I experimented last night last night during breaks playing with the Velvet Frog Band at the Taconic Wayside Inn in Copake Falls, NY.

A guy walks up and tells me, "Man, I've always wanted to play saxophone like you do. I really wish I could do that."

I respond, "Actually, no, you don't."

He says, "I really do."

I say, "If you really did, then you would."

He begins to say something that I assume is going to be a defensive statement encompassing reasons why he can't, but then stops. Instead he asks, "What do mean?"

I explain that anyone who really wants to can play saxophone like I do. It's just a question of priorities and perhaps finding someone to show you the path.

He says, "OK, I get it. But if I don't want to play saxophone, what do I want?"

I say, "Good question. What do you want?"

Again he takes a breath as if to speak and stops. He does it again. He does it again. Finally he says,
"Wow, no one's ever asked me that, at least not in the way you did. I have no idea what I really want."

And so it went. Person after person after person. Not one could answer the question, "What do you want?"

So, what did I do? I asked more questions and I discovered patterns in why people couldn't answer: What do you want?

For example, many people after speaking fondly or even passionately about something would say, "But I really wouldn't want that."

To me it sure sounded as though they did, so I asked more questions and began making assertions. Some of the reasons that emerged were:

  1. What I really want would be bad for me or others.
  2. I don't deserve what I really want.
  3. I've made my bed so I have to lie in it.
  4. I just don't know how to get from here to there.
  5. Even if I got what I wanted, it would never last.
I'm sure that there are others; however, these were the high-fliers last night. 

Regardless of the reason, the basic mechanics of not knowing involved several steps:
  1. Deny yourself permission to want what you want. 
  2. Since you're not allowed to want what you want, you never look deeply into it or explore it.
  3. Without open investigation of the want, you never know if you really want it.
  4. You also never know if you don't.
  5. Without closure, the want is left open like an untreated sore, never getting better and never getting worse.
What do you want?

Happy Sunday,

P.S. I would note that for many, the question "Why do you want that?" was next to impossible to answer as they invariably took it as an accusation, not a facilitation of understanding.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Of Course You Can

OK, let's get one thing straight: statistically speaking, there is no such thing as "can't", i.e., the percentage of things that you actually can't do is so infinitesimally small that for all intents and purposes, there's nothing you can't do.

Please don't confuse this with the encouragement that your mom gave you when she told you that you could do anything. (Your mom did tell you that, didn't she?) And this has nothing to do with each of us being special. It's a simple existential statement kind of like, "I am, therefore I can."

The reason I wanted to start with this is that I'm getting just a bit weary of people saying that they don't because they can't. They don't exercise. They don't have a better job. They don't know the material. They don't write every day. They don't play as well.

Statistically, all such statements are bullshit. What they mean to say is that a) they won't or b) they don't know how to.

Won't is the more common of the two and in many instances is confused with the second. Most things we "can't" do are simply a case of not really wanting to do them. The not wanting is sometimes direct and sometimes indirect.

For example, "I can't make the party" is often stated as a direct not wanting. It's a socially acceptable substitute for "I don't want to come to your party and be bored out of my mind." (The reasoning may vary.)

"I could never play the bass like Victor Wooten", is more likely an indirect not wanting. I want to play the bass like Victor Wooten, but I don't want to put the time and effort into it. Even the second order not wanting can be viewed as (and is often stated as) cannot, e.g., I can't afford the time and effort.

Of course you can. It's just a question of priorities. So the more accurate statement might be, "I'd love to play bass like Victor Wooten, but I have other things that I'd rather spend my time doing than practicing bass."

So there is no can't; there's just wanting and not wanting.

Unfortunately, wanting and not wanting isn't black-and-white. Instead, wanting comes in shades of gray. This makes identifying not wanting a bit tricky. Without a context the not wanting looks like wanting. However, when juxtaposed to other wants, it fades to a not-want. You end up with conflicting wants and you pick the one that is the strongest.

This brings us to the second substitute for "I can't" which is "I don't know how to..." More often than you would imagine, your sense of not being able to do something is simply and artifact of not knowing where to start or how to go about it.  Not knowing how can make pretty much anything seem impossible. Even if it seems possible, not knowing how to go about it can make it much more difficult.  There are many impossible things that are easy once you know the trick to doing them.

Not wanting and not knowing how can get a bit confusing. When you don't know how to do something, then you assume that learning to do it will take a lot of time and effort. The assumption of big time and effort leads to low priority.  The low priority causes you not to even think about easier ways to go about it. Before you know it, not knowing has become not wanting has become can't.

This is the scenario that baffles me most. I daily encounter people who can't do something because the approach they know how to do is too time consuming or challenging.

I'll ask about the approach and think, "Shit, I wouldn't want to do that either."

I'll then suggest another approach that's much easier and quicker. That's where the baffling part occurs. I think, "Wow, I'd be relieved to find out that I could do something ten-times faster with significantly less effort than I'd anticipated."

However, my would-be could-be often responds with a) disbelief, or b) a statement on the order of, "that's not how I do things."

I think, "But the way you're doing things isn't working. Why would you want to keep doing things that way?"

OK, I more than think that.

The response is typically a defense of the person's approach or an existential statement, "that's just how I work."


It's simple, really.

You can if you want.

You can faster and easier if you know how.

You can know how if you're open to it.

Happy Saturday,

Friday, June 8, 2012

Playing the Part

It all started a couple of months ago. I was listening to a new pod cast of This American Life (my favorite radio program). The last segment of the podcast  (#458: Play the Part) was about a married couple who had made a breakthrough in their relationship after determining that the husband had Asperger's. Through the course of the segment, the couple and interviewer discussed Asperger's, how they came to the diagnosis and what they did about it. It was fascinatingly insightful and I've since played the segment for all sorts of people. (I posted an excerpt from the podcast here if you'd like to listen.)

One of the methods that the husband came up with to address his social misfires was imitation. Basically, he listened to and watched others who were socially adept. He looked for patterns. For example he, analyzed how they spoke paying attention to changes in pitch, rate, volume and inflection. He translated his analysis into techniques and methods that he tried out and practiced. He became good at sounding as though he were neuro-typical and when you hear him speak on the podcast, there's nothing in his voice, cadence or inflection that would indicate anything but a gregarious, social adept.

Yet he's not (at least not yet). He's simply playing the role of someone who is neuro-typical. As the couple and interviewer discussed this, the basic sense was that what he's doing isn't real; it's just pretend. Therefore it's less satisfying or, in some ways, invalid. Still, the wife preferred someone playing the part of a neuro-typical husband over someone who was simply neuro-atypical.

That's where it started.

A few weeks back our friend Renee dropped off a book for us to read. It's called Look Me in the Eye (my life with asperger's), by John Elder Robison.

Iris and I sometimes read a book together so that Iris can practice English pronunciation. Look Me in the Eye seemed a good opportunity for this.

We sit down together on the couch and Iris begins reading the prologue by the author and the forward written by the author's brother, Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors. I normally skip past prologues and forwards. However, in this case, I'm hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

Iris launches into the first chapter in which Robison talks about his childhood. His writing style is crisp, clear and to the point. As Iris reads, I find myself thinking, "Hmm... I did that when I was that age." or "Wow, I always felt that way too." or "Man, I've had exactly that experience."

After a bit I ask Iris to stop so we can talk about what she's just read. The interruptions become more and more frequent. It makes getting through the chapter a little challenging, but for me (and I think for Iris), a lot more satisfying.

As with the husband in the podcast, Robison talks about imitating others who were neuro-typical. The difference is that he did this all on his own as a child of five who'd not been diagnosed with Asperger's.

We finish the first chapter and I have to stop to process it all.  The sense I get from Robison is that he also doesn't consider his imitations of neuro-typical behavior to be "real".

So that brings us up to this morning.

I've been thinking a lot about two things. First, although I'm recalling events from forty to fifty years ago, my recollections of my experiences, actions and emotions as a child so closely resemble those of Robison, I can't help but think that were I five today, rather than in 1962, someone would have diagnosed me with Asperger's if not autism.

It seems really strange, because I'm not very Aspergian. Nonetheless, my internal evidence is stacked in favor of my having been Aspergian. Further, a lot of my strengths are tied to my ability to tap into Aspergian qualities such as persistence to the point of obsession or the ability to visualize and analyze large, complex systems.

Second, if it is the case that I would have been diagnosed with Asperger's, then what happened to change all that?

I keep coming back to imitation. As far back as I can remember, I've been able to imitate others: the sounds of their voices, the ways they walk, the mannerisms they use, even how they think.  Further, as a socially inept kid desperate for a lasting friendship, I was strongly motivated be good at imitating people who were able to develop lasting friendships. I became a student of the socially adept; I imitated and practiced, obsessively.

I think the main difference in my experience is that the imitation became real. Maybe it does for anyone who does it long enough. Maybe it does if you don't think about it not being so. I don't know. I just know that it did for me.

Where's this all going? I don't know. However, writing it down this morning has been really clarifying for me. Thanks for listening.

Happy Friday,

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Can You Hear Me?

I was pretty young, about five or six, when I first recognized that people don't actually listen when you talk to them. With most people it was easy to tell; nothing in their actions acknowledged that you were speaking.

With some it would take time.  You talk. She sits quietly looking at you.  After a few moments, her eyes momentarily dart away from you as a distraction enters her field of vision. The frequency and duration of darting increases. Finally one of the distractions holds her attention and you disappear.

Some non-listeners are more difficult to spot. Their eyes don't dart. They say, "Uh, huh" at just the right time.  They may even ask questions in response to something that you said.  Then out of the corner of your eye, you catch a tapping foot or rolling fingers.  And then, of course, there are the responses that have absolutely nothing to do with what you said.

Nope, not many people listen when you talk.  I think it might have something to do with having been taught not to interrupt someone who's talking. They confuse not interrupting with listening.

Thing is, I prefer interruption to not listening. In my experience, it's the people who interrupt (on topic) that are often the most engaged in a conversation. They may not be listening well, but they're engaged and therefore have the potential to listen.

Anyway, all this occurred to me at a fairly young age and it kind of stuck with me. Nowadays, I just don't expect anyone to really listen to what I'm saying.  This basic expectation significantly has shaped my approach to people. Generally, I ask questions of people rather than telling them anything about myself.  If I do talk about myself, I avoid most things that I would find interesting and stick to topics that most people seem to find interesting. If I talk about things that do interest me, they're rarely current, but instead things I thought about or worked through years ago. Even then I limit my scope to topics that don't sound complex or esoteric.

Still, I often toss out keywords and codes to see if someone is listening or if they'd have any interest in things that interest me.

For example, in a conversation about music and sound, I'll mention the twelfth-root of two when discussing even-tempered versus enharmonic tuning.  (The twelfth-root of two is the ratio used to establish the frequency of adjacent notes in the even-tempered scale.) Most people just let it slide by without pausing or asking about it. Some stop and ask, "The twelfth-root of two?" However, their eyes quickly glaze over as start to explain. Every once in a while (like twice in my lifetime), someone will say, "Yeah, that's it! That's why you can never truly tune a guitar."

Iris and I often encounter people with expectations similar to mine. Many of them use codes too. I usually pick up on them and provide the appropriate counter-code. In a flash, their facial expressions melt. Their bodies relax. Observing the phenomenon, Iris will say something like, "Pretty cool when someone actually gets what you're talking about."

That comment usually helps complete the transition as the speaker recognizes that not only is someone listening, but they actually seem to understand she's experiencing.

Nope, there aren't too many people that listen, just enough to keep you looking.

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

It's All a Game, Right?

Iris says to me, "I just realized that not everyone makes a game of things they do."

I say, "What do you mean?"

She says, "For example, when people want to make a game out of teaching something to a children, they seem to really struggle with it as though it were not something they do all the time."

"You mean like people working with Quinn?"

"Yeah, with Quinn or with any child, really. You watch them do it and it seems like transforming a learning experience into a game is hard work."

"But it's not for you?"

"Of course not and it's not hard for you either. Whenever you want to teach someone how to do something they absolutely believe they can't do, you just make a game of it, right?"

"Uh, huh."

"That's because you and I turn all sorts of things into games all the time. We make play of everything."

"Like washing dishes or running miles or practicing music or writing software?"

"Yeah, they're all just types of games and they're fun."

"And you're just now noticing that not everyone does that?"

"Yeah. I mean, not everyone does, right?"

"Nope, not everyone does."

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, June 4, 2012

Victim of Training

I don't know if it's simply a result of increased awareness on my part or if the rate of incidence is indeed rising. In either case, it's alarming.

What's alarming?

The number of people who've been victimized by formal education.

Victim's of formal education?

Yeah, victims, you know like robbed or assaulted or pillaged.

Robbed by formal education?

Yeah, robbed.

How exactly does that happen?

How about I give you an example?


You ever see someone who's been taught exactly how to swing a golf club?

Yeah, I guess so.

She's been taught to hold her head this way and to turn her hips that way and to bend her elbow just so.

Shit, I've been taught that.

OK, so how natural does it feel to swing a golf club when you do everything you've been taught to do?

Umm... I don't know. I haven't ever been able to do everything I was taught to do.

Then how natural does it feel to swing a golf club when you try to do everything you've been taught to do?

It doesn't feel natural at all. In fact, it feels downright awkward.

Then you're a victim of formal training. Your formal training robbed you of your natural swing.

But, I never had a natural swing.

Sure you did. You just never developed it.

Hmm... OK, I kind of see what you're talking about with the golf thing, but how does that generalize?

It happens all the time, or so it seems to me.  You hear someone sing and his voice doesn't sound at all like him; you think, "Uh oh, he's had singing lessons."  You see someone struggling to work a math problem that you know she could do in her head; you think, "There goes another victim of formal education."  You see someone who can't prepare a meal without a recipe; you think...

I know, "There goes a victim of cooking lessons."

Yeah, or televised cooking shows or cookbooks or magazines.

OK, let's say that people are victims of education or training.  How else are they supposed to learn?

Good question. Hmm... How about through imitation?


Yeah, rather than learning through formal instruction of technique and method, you simply imitate someone who's able to do what you want to do.

So if you want to learn to sing, you find someone who sings and you copy them?

Pretty much. I mean, you want to find someone who sings like you want to sing, but that's about it. You don't worry about technique. You don't worry about getting it right. You just imitate the singer: not just his voice, but everything he does. You stand in front of a mirror and do everything you can to become that singer.

But isn't that just copying. If all you're doing is copying someone, are you really learning anything? What if you learn to sing and you have know idea how you're actually doing it.

I think that's when they call you a natural.  Come to think of it, that would be a great time for formal education.  Rather than learning a bunch of techniques and then trying to apply them, you first learn how to do something and then add in the techniques that you find most useful. It's kind of like trying to turn the wheels of a car that has no power steering. If it's sitting still, it's next to impossible. However, once it's moving, it's a piece of cake.

Isn't that kind of backwards?

In the context of formal education, yeah. However, in the context of how we naturally learn, I think not.

So, if I want to learn to do something, I find someone who already does it the way I'd like to do it and I imitate them.

Yeah, I think that's it.

Happy Imitative Monday,