Friday, November 30, 2012

Factory Equipped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People are like that, too.

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gelukkige Dag

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

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

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

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

Iris has arrived. 

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

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


Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Saturday,

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

I slow my breathing and close my eyes.

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

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

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

What was that? Who said that?

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

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

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

I head to the kitchen to make some coffee.

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

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

"Your heard me."

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

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

"Yeah, not possible, yet."

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

You're So Right

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

"You're so right."

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

"You're so right."

"I am? What am I right about?"

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

"I'm right? Really?"


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

"You're so right; I was."

"But now you're not."

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

"So you just stopped."

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


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

"Wow. How's it working?"

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

"Wow, that's really cool."

"You're so right."

"But what if I'd been wrong?"

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

"That works?"

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

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

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, November 16, 2012

Logically Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It'd be fun, right?

Happy Friday,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Make It Not-Fun

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

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

It's much easier than you think.

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

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

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

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

The progression goes something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Tuesday,

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Get Full of Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Monday,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Complication Fascination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What complications have you fascinated?

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, November 5, 2012

Intellect as Skill

How do you poop? Not the consistency or frequency, but the method. Are you quick or do you take your time? Do read while pooping? If you've brought nothing with you to read and there are no magazines or newspapers near the toilet, do you peruse the labels of whatever occupies the medicine cabinet? Do you relax or tense? Do you wash your hands afterwards? Whatever way you do it, outside of changes imposed by circumstance, you've probably pooped pretty much the same way for years. Pooping is just something you do the way you do it.

How do you drive? Where do you fall on the cautious to reckless scale? Does yellow mean slow down or does it mean speed up? Do you signal before lane changes? Do you change lanes? Do like to have the radio playing? Do you prefer talk-radio or music? Have you memorized the locations of all the speed zones between your house and work or were you unaware that there were speed zones? However you drive, outside of changes imposed by circumstance, you've probably driven the same way for years. Driving is just something you do the way you do it.

As children, we learn approaches to various activities that we integrate so completely that we come to see them as innate. They become part of who we are, almost definitional. The process of integration is important because it frees our active minds to pursue other, more foreign tasks that require a greater degree of attention. A side-effect of tight integration is that, once integrated, we rarely revisit a process to look for ways to make it more efficient or productive. When challenged to do so, we often feel a sense of confusion ("What do you mean, change the way I poop?") or discomfort ("I've always pooped this way. It's the only way I know; I'm not sure I could poop another way.") or violation ("Hey, this how I poop, man. It's part of who I am. If you don't like it, you can just...").

How do you think? Not how well do you think, but the method. What's your first response when confronted with a challenging problem? When someone launches on a verbal explanation of a visual phenomenon, do you see it in your mind's eye or does your mind's eye glaze over waiting for a pause so that you can say, "uh, huh"?  Does your body tense or relax? Do actively practice being aware of your surroundings? Do you recall conversations in detail or do you have only the slightest inkling that they ever occurred? Are you quick or slow? Cautious or reckless? Confident or hesitant?

Psychologists tell us that one's IQ (intelligence quotient) is pretty much fixed. You've got what you've got and there's not a lot you can do about it. They tell us this because they've periodically measured the intelligence of individuals over time and seen relatively little change. Of course this doesn't actually tell us that intelligence quotients can't change, it just tells us that (within the confines of their studies) they don't change. Just like pooping and driving.

They're wrong, of course. W-R-O-N-G, wrong. Intelligence can change just like pooping and driving. The key to changing how well you think is to change how you think. Changing how you think begins with recognizing that intellect is not an innate capacity, but a skill. "Smart" is not a state of being, it's an activity. The recognition must be more than an intellectual acknowledgment. It must be something you feel in your core like a deeply experienced "Ah-hah!"  Somthing like, "Ooooh... I get it. I can completely change how I go about thinking and, by doing so become like 200 times smarter."

The next thing is to sign up for some thinking classes.

Oh, there are no thinking classes in your town? Hmm... OK, here's what you want to do. 

Thinking is a relatively straightforward process. In fact, it's necessarily straightforward. Convolution is a clear sign of the absence of thought. Thinking starts with and is grounded in awareness. The more aware you are of anything that comes to your attention, the more of it you take in with clarity. The more you take in with clarity, the more useful the experience becomes to thinking. A lot of muddled thought is actually a side-effect of muddled intake--garbage in=garbage out. So, good thinking starts with good paying-attention.

How well do you pay attention? When someone speaks, do you focus on him visually as well as aurally or do you glance about the room? Do file your nails or text on your iPhone? (I know, you believe your attention is not compromised by texting, but then why do you stop texting when you speak?) When someone describes something that is visual or aural, do you follow her every word reconstructing the visual or aural experience in your mind, or do you get lost?

Learning to pay attention (taking in what's being said and translating it into something you can see, hear and feel) is critical to becoming a better thinker. Anyone can learn to do so; however, most aren't willing to make the investment at becoming good at intake. The trick is simply to practice and to be aware while you do so.

Decide to pay full attention to someone. The moment you recognize that you've missed or haven't followed something, stop, slow things down and try it again. Ask the speaker to repeat what he said or to clarify it. Restate what you missed or misunderstood in your own terms and seek verification from the speaker.

There are other things you can do to become a really skilled intellectualizer. We'll get to them later. However, none of them matters until you become a good intaker.

How do you poop? How do you dress? How do you drive? How do you think?

Happy Monday,

Friday, November 2, 2012

What Was Impossible

Here's the main thing.

Whenever you find yourself considering something that is completely impossible, remember this: you're completely (i.e. 100%) wrong. 

That's it. It all starts with the knowledge that every fiber of your being that screams, "No way! I could never do that!" is wrong. Your intuition, your gut, your violated sensibilities, they're all W-R-O-N-G, wrong. 

You feel overwhelmed. Wrong. Well, not exactly. Your feelings are your feelings. However, were you to get over the feelings of being overwhelmed, you'd realize that there's nothing about which to be overwhelmed. You're not overwhelmed; you just feel that way, and your feelings are W-R-O-N-G, wrong.

So that's the main thing. The second thing is: whenever you find yourself considering something that is completely impossible, remember this: you don't have to do it all at once.

One of the side effects of feeling something is impossible or feeling overwhelmed is deciding to "just get it over with." This approach is, you guessed it, W-R-O-N-G, wrong.  The key to doing the impossible is to break down the impossible into nice only-slightly-overwhelming steps and to pursue them one at a time. If a step is too overwhelming, then you break it down again.

Deciding to do it all at once is a surefire way to prove that all your wrong intuitions and sensibilities were right (which of course they weren't). You point your snowboard straight down the bunny slope. You lean forward, close your eyes and yell, "Geronimo!" You slide forward straight down the hill gaining speed and momentum, opening your eyes just before you plow into the class of beginners congregated at the bottom. You come to in the ambulance and remind yourself, "I knew I couldn't snowboard!"

W-R-O-N-G, wrong.

Yup. Even when you momentarily defy your sensibilities, everything inside you may still seek to prove them right. This brings us to the third thing. Whenever you find yourself considering something that is completely impossible, remember this: 1) you're completely wrong, 2) you don't have to do it all at once (break it into steps), and 3) keep trying. 

Sure, you'll fail. If you're at all persistent, you'll fail frequently. Nonetheless, with each failure comes insight and learning (if you're open to them and don't see failure as a bad thing.)

So, to put all this differently, whenever you find yourself considering something that seems completely impossible, but you just know you can do it, remember this: 1) you're completely right, 2) all you have to do is to break it down into manageable steps, and 3) keep trying. 

Happy Friday,