Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's a Skill, Not a Talent

Most of us believe that a person's intellect (her capacity to think) is fixed; it's something that each of us is born with and there's not a lot that you can do to change it.

It's not unreasonable to believe this. After all, it's what we've been told since we were kids. It's something upon which "experts" agree.

It's reasonable to believe that your capacity to think is fixed; it's reasonable, but it's also completely wrong.

If you want to change one thing that could change everything else, change how you think about thinking. Your ability to think is not a native capacity; it's a skill. And like any skill, it can be developed.

How would you develop it?

Well, think about it.

Happy Tuesday, Teflon

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Leaving Lovers and Skinning Cats

In the comment exchange back in "Sometimes", Teflon said,
"Someone insists that he can't possibly do something. I see fifty ways that he could."

As that comment continued rattling around in the back of my head since then, I noticed a few occasions where I found myself in that situation too. I'm fairly sure those occasions were nowhere close in nature to the ones Teflon faced, but in the moments of utter befuddlement that they caused me, I couldn't help feeling some kinship with him. I'm also sure that in my blissful ignorance, I must be presenting other souls in my life with similar moments, but it's up to them to blog about it.

Most of these situations seem to do with people skills, with a large subset of them being about oneself. In those cases, when the "fifty ways" moment hits, my first reaction often is a quick trip through sadness, anger and resoluteness. Sadness that I'm witnessing a full grown adult (usually) without an adequate set of tools and techniques for this most basic of needs for living in our world. Anger at our education system that continues to churn out such inadequately equipped products by the millions. And then I firm up my resolve to continue my own education process, and to promote that awareness to anybody I have responsibility for (or at least any influence over).

For instance, I see somebody intending to communicate a message. They try once, don't get anywhere, and throw their hands up in frustration, usually blaming their target for being obtuse or resistant. I see the whole thing play out, and go Huh?! In my mind's eye, a pulldown menu appears, with the following:

Ways to communicate a message:
  1. Verbally, with no affect
  2. Hammer the point home with a 2x4
  3. Indirectly or obliquely
  4. Nonverbally, using gestures and expressions only
  5. By example, in action. 
  6. Via a third party who may have a special connection
  7. Thru a Socratic dialog, asking Questions only, and letting him come to his own conclusions
  8. By hypnosis or other trickery in a weak moment
  9. Using leading questions
  10. Using thundering or flowery oratory
  11. Talking down to somebody, with the attitude that you clearly know more than him, and he is lower than pond scum if he questions that.
  12. Bullying somebody - using verbal force with someone weaker
  13. Diluting your own impact by using too much humor or too many nonsequiturs
  14. ... 
The ellipsis indicates that further scrolling will reveal more options. (Of course, not all the ways listed above are necessarily recommended, but being aware of them is critical, both to recognize when they are being used, and to know what to do if their effects need to be undone).

Other recent variations of this example occurred with trying to influence somebody's behavior (habitual or one-time), opinion or state of mind. Sometimes I see " I WANT X. I DIDN'T GET X" situations. My menu of exploratory questions unfurls: What are the other pieces of this picture? How big or complex is X? How big is the wanting? How many routes to X have been tried? How many times have any of those routes have been tried? How complex is the wanting? Of the steps in each route, how many are actions for me to take, and how many for others? How am I feeling? Why? ... What I see is an exciting landscape to explore, not a brick wall with a STOP sign.

This outstanding classic from the popular culture comes to mind:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=298nld4Yfds.

I'm convinced that it's an innate part of being human to be innovative, to learn, to never say die, to believe that there is a solution for every problem - that there are infinite options for the way forward, limited only by what we know at the moment and what we decide to see.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Let's Learn

Driving into town yesterday, I listened to a story on NPR that I found exciting. Researchers are waking up to the fact that IQ is not a fixed quantity determined by genetics, but instead something that seems to vary with activity and environment. They still seem not to recognize that IQ is simply a side effect of activity, but they're getting closer.

In this story, a researcher named John Hewitt spoke about the rates of learning in children, adolescents and adults. Learning rates tend to decline as we get older.  What he'd discovered was that there was a strong correlation between high IQ and children whose rate of learning declined less rapidly than the norm, people who continued to learn as a child would even in adolescence.

Of course the causal chain was interpreted backwardly (i.e., the IQ causing the extended period versus the extended period causing IQ), but still, it was pretty cool to see researchers starting to get it.

Another researcher used language acquisition as an example of how children learn faster than adults. No news there. However an interesting point that she brought out was that the primary difference between adults and children is not in the acquisition of vocabulary, but instead, in the intuiting of syntax. Adults can learn new words pretty quickly, but they tend not to abstract the rules of syntax from what they hear. Children do both.

This made sense to me and helped me to better understand something I've been considering lately.

As far as I can tell my rate of learning is still increasing. I'm definitely learning more quickly now than a year a go or a decade ago. I've come to think about learning and IQ much like one would think about working out and strength. The more I learn, the faster I learn.

What resonated for me was the abstraction of syntax. The things I love most about learning, the things about which I'm most curious are those that require me to discover and discern the rules that are inherent to any system. Even if they've never been stated, I've found that they always exist and that, by observing a system, you can figure out the rules that govern it.

It would seem that this kind of activity is akin to circuit training for the brain.

Later in the day, I read a post on Facebook that I found wonderfully affirming. Here goes...
"In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
Eric Hoffer

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, September 20, 2013

Honest Awareness

I love intense eagerness as well as eager anticipation (specially when it's intense). So, in response to Sree's comment...

In practice, there are three general responses to my assertion that someone is doing exactly what he wants to be doing.

1. That's completely wrong.
2. What do you mean?
3. Yeah, I know.

The first indicates a long road ahead, the second a shorter one and the third just a trip through the parking lot. In any case, I always start with a specific example provided by the unwanter. It never takes long to demonstrate the connections of wants and anti-wants. The main exception is when the unwanter decides to dig in her heels and defend her position in any way possible.

The most often used defense is non sequitur. Just a step or two away from conclusion, the unwanter introduces a perfectly true but completely irrelevant fact to takes us off course. Since I have no problem maintaining multiple conversational threads, I usually feign having fallen for the rouse and then, when the defender least expects it, bring the conversation back to the point of departure.

All that said, proving the point rarely results in change for someone who insists on being a victim of circumstance and forced to pursue activities he doesn't want to pursue. She'll seem overwhelmed by the potential responsibility of it. In those cases, I just back off (like way, way, way off).

For those who do want to take ownership of the coincidence of activity and wanting the activity, it comes down to the simple application of honest awareness.

Honest awareness is simple and straight forward. However, it can feel nearly impossible. The trick is to start with short, easy exercises and then to practice.

Before you can perform a task in the background without thinking about it, you have to learn to perform it in the foreground (often with great concentration.)  This is the case for awareness and honesty. Further, before you can perform a task in an ad hoc manner, it helps to perform it on a scheduled basis or in response to a specific trigger. To develop awareness, one starts by checking in with herself. Every hour, you ask yourself a set of questions, e.g, how am I feeling right now, or, am I talking too much, or, is what I'm doing right now in line with my goals for today.

The cool thing about pairing honesty with awareness is that you can focus your awareness exercises on being honest. Each time you say something or respond to a question, you can ask yourself, "How honest was my reply?"

The cool thing about this last exercise is that it doesn't take long for it to become a habit. Before you know it, you've become unavoidably aware of how honest you're being at any point in time.

Once this occurs, the rest becomes pretty easy. You move from being aware of your honesty to being aware of your wanting. What do I want right now? Am I doing that? If not, why am I doing it? What do I want that I'm getting by doing this?

You can routinize asking yourself questions by having your iPhone remind you or asking friends who see you to ask you questions whenever they do.  In any case, by routinizing the activity of questioning yourself, you begin to increase your awareness regarding the content of those questions.

That's pretty much it.

Happy Friday,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Gotta Wanna

People generally assign an activity to one of two categories: Gotta Do or Wanna Do.

Phrases and terms associated with the Gotta Dos include: "I hafta...", "They're makin' me...", and "I've got no choice but to..."

Phrases and terms associated with Wanna Dos include: "Someday I'd like to...", "I'd love too... but...", "I really wish I could... but..."

Gotta Do and Wanna Do are used so pervasively that the assignment of a task to one or the other category is rarely questioned. Further, Gotta Do has an almost magical capacity to render the motivation to pursue other activities impotent. It is frequently uttered as an incantation to ward off lurking Donwanna Dos allowing the invoker to feign wanting the Donwanna Do while neatly avoiding it. One needs simply say, "I'd love to, but I hafta..." and all protests to the contrary are rendered ineffective.

It's this last phenomenon that I find so curious and that others often find annoying when I find it curious. You see, in reality there are only Wanna Dos. Whenever we tell ourselves (or others) that we don't want to do something we're doing or about to do, we're lying. Although on the surface we may "honestly" believe that we don't want to undertake a task, deep down inside, there's a want that's being satisfied by the doing of it.

Distinguishing the differences between Gotta Do an Wanna Do is simply a matter of paying attention. If you pay attention to any Gotta Do, you'll find the underlying Wanna Do(s) right quickly. It ain't hard at all. You just have to be honest and aware.

I know. You might be thinking, "That's just not true! There are things in my life I hate to do, but I just don't have a choice."

I'd respond, "There likely are many things in your life that you hate to do, but do. However, you do have a choice. In fact, you have lots of choices."

You might think, "He's full of it."

Just go with me on this (at least for the moment).

Forget about figuring out the underlying wants that fuel your Gotta Dos and simply accept that they exist. Doing this you can simply decide, "I'm not sure exactly why, but I'm absolutely certain that I want to do what I'm about to do. Therefore, I'm going do it with the attitude that I not only want to do it, but that I love doing it. I'll figure out why I love it as I go."

If you do this and nothing else, you'll see a remarkable change in how you feel about what you're doing. You'll begin to see evidence that supports liking what you're doing. You'll get in touch with the benefits of what you're doing that fuel the underlying Wanna Dos. You'll feel better, and definitely be much more fun to be around.

There's just one caveat. If you decide to embrace the notion that everything you do is something that you want to do, you'll render ineffective the "I'd love to, but I hafta..." incantation. When someone asks you to do something you don't want to do, you might actually have to say, "Sorry, I don't want to do that."

Happy Sunday,

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Theory of Wanting

I'm always running into couples where at least one party is not happy with the other on a steady-state basis. As is the nature of steady-state phenomena, the unhappiness is not sufficient to have inspired decisive action. Usually it's simply inspired indecisive-action, e.g., acts of passive aggression, lamenting and complaining, and a general resistance to any idea attributable to the other party.

Complainers Need Not Apply
I love to work through problems, but I'm not big on hearing complaints and laments that don't lead to decisive action. Those who know me well know that the second time I hear them utter the same complaint, we're a) going to do something about it or b) implement a moratorium on complaining. Whether or not someone knows me, once I hear a complaint cycle by for the second time, I ask about it. The format of the question is something on the order of, "If you don't want that, then why do you continue to get that?" or, "If you don't like that, then why do you continue to do that?"

Almost invariably, the response is that of the victim upon whom the undesired activity or state has been foisted. It takes the form of, "I don't want it, but there's nothing I can do about it."

The part that gets most confusing to many a lamenter is that I don't pursue the "what you could be doing" side of the equation. Instead, I simply point out that he does in fact want what to do what he's doing, that he's getting what he wants.

This invariably turns into a kind of IQ test as I explain the interplay of words, thoughts, feelings and actions. If the IQ test is passed (i.e.) the lamenter realizes that what she wants is hidden within or a side-effect of getting what she doesn't want, then we proceed to the EQ test, i.e.,  reconciling what she can understand intellectually to something she can understand emotionally.

Want Theory
The problem with real-world wanting versus theoretical wanting is that, outside the lab, the wants are never pure. They're always compromised, sometimes with visible-to-the-naked-eye don't wants (such as "I don't want to be stuck with a $500/month car lease") or with invisible, microbial anti-wants (such as "I don't want to have to change my underwear every day.")

Since real-world wants are never available in their pristine form, they can be difficult to see. You have to get to them indirectly. The car payment you don't want is a side-effect of the car that you do want. The job you hate is a side-effect of the paycheck you to make the car payment you don't want because of the car that you do want. The suit that makes you so uncomfortable is a side-effect of wanting to look professional so that you can have a job you hate in order to get a paycheck you want to pay a bill you wish you didn't have to pay in order to get a car that you love.

And so it goes. To make this a little more concise, I've created Telfon's First Law of Wanting.

Teflon's First Law of Wanting

Every want has at least one associated anti-want, and 
every anti-want has at least one associated want.

Knowing that all desire abides by this first law of wanting is critical to understanding what you want. This leads us to a second law of wanting.

Teflon's Second Law of Wanting
Wants and anti-wants form want-chains in which
wants are interconnect anti-wants and vice versa.
Knowing this second law of wanting can make it significantly easier to find what it is you truly do want, to find the core want that's driving all the peripheral wants and anti-wants. You can start with either any random want or anti-want and move link by link to the core.

Relating and Wanting
So, what's Theory of Wanting got to do with relationships? Well, pretty much everything. You see, people are pretty good at knowing what they don't want. Ask them what someone what he doesn't want and you get a veritable projectile vomit of undesirable activities, things and states. However, ask him what he does want and... silence.

Since people are so much better at knowing what they don't want, they tend to focus on the unwanted aspects of life. (We do what we're good at doing.) Since they are bad at knowing what they do want, they tend to avoid any thought of it.

The result is that people are often unhappy with their partners because their partners are keeping them from being who they truly want to be, or having what they truly want to have, or doing what they truly want to do, and yet, they haven't a clue as to who they want to be, what they want to have, or what they want to do. All the unhappiness is just smoke.

So What?
The so-what is this. Until you know what you want, it makes absolutely no sense to be thinking about your partner and how she's keeping you from getting it. Further, after actually having figured out what it is you want, until you've clearly articulated it to your partner, it makes absolutely no sense to be thinking about how he's keeping you from getting it.

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, September 9, 2013

Free Speech, Attraction, and Competition

Thoughts on a Monday morning.

On Free Speech
I like that we have the right to speak, but not the right to be heard. The latter is not a right, it's a privilege that must be earned.

On Self-respect
No one but YOU can give YOU SELF-respect.

On Attraction
No one is attracted you if find yourself unattractive, at least, no one you'd want to find you attractive.

BTW, Being attractive has relatively little to do with being handsome, pretty, or having a "nice" personality.

Attraction and Relationship
Attraction is no basis for relationship. Many start relationships based on attraction. They figure that they'll work out the miscellaneous stuff (i.e., compatibility) later. Oftentimes each party thinks the other will change in order to be more compatible.

When (if) they work on compatibility, it's the big stuff, the religious stuff like god, diet, kids, and money. They rarely if ever work on the little stuff, the daily incompatibilities that "shouldn't" matter all that much.

However, it's the little foxes that ruin the vines, that eat the roots rather than the fruits.
  1. If you're someone who likes to snuggle at night, it matters that you're attracted to someone who needs his space. 
  2. If you're someone who pops out of bed and is out the door, it matters that you're attracted to someone who takes hours to get ready in the morning. 
  3. If you're someone who makes big decisions quickly, it matters that you're attracted to someone who can never decide what to order for dinner.
  4. If you're someone who's all about change and new experiences, it matters that you're attracted to someone who's all about predictability and stability.
  5. If you're someone who loves to cook for others, it matters that you're attracted to someone who's a finicky eater.
Attraction is not about pretty or being nice; it's about things like confidence, awareness and thoughtfulness. Really, these "intangible" attributes are palpable when truly present.

Attraction matters, but sustainable relationship is not about attraction. As mundane as it may sound, sustainable relationship is about compatibility. Really.

On Competition and Competing
If you struggle with the concept of competition or people who are "competitive", it's not because competition or being competitive is bad. It's because you're clinging too tightly to concepts like winning and losing: so tightly that you've intimately associated them with competition and competing.

Competition is a process, not an outcome. It's about learning, about winning or losing. Competition lets you to practice and develop skills. It lets you learn from other learners. It's one of the most powerful learning tools available.

When we avoid competition rather than addressing our competitive dysfunction, we miss out. When we don't foster and help develop competition in educational environments, we deny students access some of the greatest learning experiences available and we pass on competitive dysfunction.

Happy Monday,

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Over the years I come to appreciate the importance of specificity and detail. It's often an almost indiscernible difference in the finest detail that separates success and failure.

That said, specificity and detail can prove to be absolutely worthless in the absence of context. In fact, they can be worse than worthless. Without context, specificity and detail can be completely misleading, making knowledgable someone who knows absolutely nothing meaningful or useful, making certain that which is certainly wrong.

Context is the mechanism that transforms specificity and detail into powerful tools that improve outcomes and solve problems. Context transforms a pile of stones and pebbles into a fortified wall. Context transforms a hodgepodge of notes and phrases into a symphony. Context transforms jumbles of words and wrote recitation into a moving speech.

Without context, details are meaningless, less than useful. Without context, an airplane is just 10,000 spare parts hurtling through space in close formation.

So what?

There are two so-whats that I find immediately useful. One has to do with speaking and one with listening.

Regarding speaking, whenever you find yourself in a situation where your audience simply isn't getting your message. It could be that the problem has nothing to do with your being detailed, specific or clear. It could be that the problem lies in your not having provided sufficient context. Your audience may understand that A leads to B which results in C. They may simply be asking themselves, "So what?"

They may have no idea why you're telling them what you're telling them or why it matters (to them).

Regarding listening, whenever you find yourself wondering, "Why is she telling me this?" or you find yourself thinking, "Wow, he knows so much, but I have no idea what he's talking about," ask the speaker, "So, why are you telling me this?"

Whether listening or speaking, check in to ensure that you have a common context and you'll find that your communication with others improves wonderfully.

Happy Thursday,

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Birthday Wish

This morning I found out that tomorrow is my friend Will's birthday. I started writing a birthday wish for Will, but it turned into something much more general than that, something that might be a birthday wish for anyone.

Here you go...

If you are reading this, then you have survived your entire life up to this point. You have survived adversity, doubt, trauma, breakups, disappointments, formal education, holidays, family vacations and all manner of undesirable events.

And here you are...

You go, you bad ass! You're awesome!

Happy Birthday!

Being your birthday and all, it's time that you finally begin pursuing all you've wanted but have never believed you could have, because right now is the oldest you've been and the youngest you'll ever be.

What do you want? Can you see it? Can you describe it? Don’t worry about getting it right or perfect. You can’t (yet). It's gonna change as you move towards it.

So, picture what you want, etch it in your mind, and then...
  • Learn more than is required.
  • Act sooner than is necessary.
  • Be stronger than is possible.
  • Go longer than is reasonable.
  • Don't spend time on the stuff you already know how to do.
  • Become comfortable outside your comfort zone. (Repeat.)
  • Stretch yourself beyond your limits. (Repeat.)
  • Risk more than is than you can afford to lose.
  • Deliver more than you believe is needed.
  • Plan on things not always going according to plan.
  • Return frequently to the drawing board.
  • Learn from all (every little thing) you do.
  • Use what you learn to refine your vision.
When you can think of nothing else to do,  know that there are infinitely many things to do that you've not yet considered. When things seem to be falling apart, know that they may actually be falling into place. When something goes wrong, something that you can't explain or figure out, yell, "PLOT TWIST!" and move on.

Need a Warm Up?
Feel like you need to warm up a bit? Here are a couple of things you can do.
  • Know that dead last is better than did not finish which trumps never started.
  • Go twenty-four hours without complaining (not even once and even if there's plenty about which to complain).
  • Fill a cup of coffee to the point of overflowing and carry it across the room to the sink without spilling a drop.
  • Spend a week using only your opposite hand to write.
  • There's a riddle that goes, "How do you stop a friendly elephant?" The answer is, "You can't." Practice being a friendly elephant.
  • Every time you find yourself hesitating or doubting, remember that the only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can't achieve it.
Happy Saturday,

Thursday, August 22, 2013


The scariest thing in the world is someone who feels justified.

To be justified goes beyond having a reason or rationale for your actions. It give your a reason or rationale to do something that you'd normally consider wrong, but...

Justification lets you break your personal rules of conduct without really breaking them. It lets you reconcile the internal incongruity that comes with such a violation, making wrong right, but only temporarily and for "good" reasons. In short, justification lets you simultaneously break a rule and keep it.

There's only one problem with justification, well, two problems. First, people do all sorts of crazy stuff when they feel justified. Pacifists kill. Friends sell out friends. Givers hoard. Lovers hate.

Second, justification doesn't really work. It doesn't reconcile the incongruity; it just masks it. Using justification to reconcile internal inconsistency is like patching a gap in the floor with tiling grout. You can make it look as though there's no gap, but best not step there.

You'd think that these two problems alone would be enough reason to avoid ever justifying anything. However, there's more. Justification feeds on itself.

You justify taking action that you'd normally consider wrong.

You sell it and others buy it.

Problem is that you don't buy it.

It eats at you.

Before you know it, you're rationalizing your having justified something that deep inside you still feel to be wrong. You're justifying your justifying.

Justification compounds justification. It's grows non-linearly, if not exponentially.

Justification can take a lot of work.

But wait, that's not all. There's one more problem with justification. Justification fragments a whole person into lots of tiny irreconcilable pieces. Each time you justify an action, you create another crack in you, a hairline crack, a small fissure, a large gap. You break up you into smaller and smaller chunks of situationally defined persona.

You end up with no you, just a bunch of pieces that refuse to be reconciled. You're one person with one group and someone else with another. Heaven forbid they all get together for a party.

How do you avoid justification? How can you tell the difference between offering a reason for an action and justifying an action?

You can tell by how you feel when you offer that reason or explanation. If you feel defensive, then you're likely justifying.

What's the alternative to justifying actions that you can't reconcile with your personal code? After all, we all do so from time to time.

My favorite is pretty straight forward. I look at what I did and say, "Hmm... I screwed up. I don't want to do that again."

And then I move on.

Alternatively, I might say, "Wow, I totally violated my personal rule. That was a dumb rule. Let's dump it."

How much of what you do, do you feel the need to justify? How often do find yourself feeling defensive? Do you ever find yourself being one person here and another there?  How would your life change if you never justified or defended anything you did?

Happy Thursday,

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Can You Play?

During a break at one of our gigs, Ryan walks up to me and says, "Hey, I just got my drumming certification from UCLA."

"You just got what?", I say.

Ryan says, "My drumming certification."

"What does that mean?", I say.

"It means that I'm officially a drummer."

"It does?"

"Yeah, it does."

"Um...  Hmm... Can you play?"

"Sure I can. I got certified."

"OK. Um... Can you play well?"

"Define well."

"Let me do it by example. We just finished a set with Marc playing drums. In your estimation, do play better than Marc, as well as Marc or not as well as Marc?"

"Oh... well, I can play some of the stuff Marc played, err, at least a little of it."

"What percent of what Marc played can you play?"

"Hmm... like five percent?"

"And that five percent that you play, is it better, as good as or not as good as what Marc plays?"

"Well, depending on the day, it could be as good as Marc plays."

"What about right now?"

"Right now?"

"Yeah, right now. Like, if we were to get on stage and you were to substitute for Marc on the first tune."

"Hmm... probably not as good as Marc."

I explained to Ryan, "Look, it's great that you got your certification, but playing music is different than other professions. It's different from teaching music in school. After all is said and done, the only thing the people you work with care about is whether or not you can cut it; can you play or not?"

"Uh, huh."

"A certification might get you an audition, but it won't get you the gig."

"So you think getting a certification is a bad thing?"

"No, not in and of itself. However, it can be a misleading thing and it can be a distraction."


"Yeah, because it's easy to believe that having the certification will actually mean something to other musicians."

"How's it a distraction?"

"It's can be a distraction when you start pursuing exercises and techniques that you'll never use simply because their mastery will get you the certification."

"So what would you do?

"Play! Play as much as you can with as many great musicians as you can. Learn from them. Ask them about what they do and how they do it. Practice what you've learned and then get feedback on it from people who play really well."

"No certifications?"

"Not required."

"Then how will people know that you can play?"

"Trust me. If you learn to play exceptionally well, and you play frequently, they'll know."

One of the things I love about music, and for that matter, any performance oriented occupation, is that no one cares where you're from, who you've been or what you've done; they just care about who you are and what you can do. Can you play?

Of course, it's not really different from other professions. Whether you're seeking out a doctor or a lawyer or an architect or a landscaper, after all is said and done, you just want to know whether or not they're good at what they do. Musicians are just clearer about it.

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, August 9, 2013

Focus. Concentrate. Pay Attention.

Not too long ago, Iris was visiting with her friend Quinn, an amazing little guy who, at eight, regularly bursts through physiological and neurological barriers that would daunt most adults. Like most days, Quinn was working on honing a newly acquired skill. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he stopped, drew himself up and said, "Focus. Concentrate. Pay Attention."

He continued with his task.

Iris asked Quinn, "What did you just say?"

Quinn looked at her and responded, "Focus. Concentrate. Pay Attention."

He returned his attention to his task and continued refining his new skill.

After their visit, Iris told me about Quinn's prescription to focus, concentrate and pay attention. She decided that it wasn't a bad idea to check in with herself every once in a while to make sure that she indeed was focusing, concentrating and paying attention.

Last night at rehearsal, we worked through new material that was challenging in many dimensions. The harmonies alternated between major and minor tonalities. The tempo and rhythm changed regularly. The lyrics flew by at such a pace that, were you to think about the phrase you just missed, you'd surely miss the upcoming phrase that you hadn't. The pitches stretched our vocal ranges at both the top and the bottom.

There was no one thing about the song that was particularly challenging. The high notes were high, but not out of range. The rhythm and tempo changed, but they were not complex. The tonality alternated, but neither alternative was difficult to sing or play. Every aspect of the song was well within each of our capacities. Nonetheless, we struggled.

During a break, Quinn's words came to mind.



Pay attention.

As we launched into another round of the chorus, I closed my eyes, drew in a breath and let go of everything but the next note. I stopped thinking about getting it right. I stopped thinking about what we'd done or where we were likely to make mistakes. I stopped thinking about the technical aspects of playing or singing. I just dropped into the moment and took each word and note as they came.


This morning it occurred to me that our analyses of challenges and situations are frequently superficial. You encounter a challenge. You assume that the challenge lies in the task or activity in which you encountered it.

Makes sense, right?

Yet the real challenge may have absolutely nothing to do with the task at hand.




It's not about the task. It's not about required skills. It's not about knowledge or expertise.

It's about focus, concentration and paying attention: FCPA.

So then it occurred to me that one might think about FCPA as a skill. It's a meta-skill that spans other skills and disciplines. Yet it's a skill to be practiced and honed like any other.

Thing is, I've never seen FCPA taught in school. I've been told to do it, but I've never been taught it. FCPA shares characteristic with meditation, but meditation is often practiced in isolation, not as an applied skill. It works in the lab or when one has time, but not outside in the moment.

So, how would one go about developing FCPA as a skill?


Happy Friday,

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Daily To Do List

  1. Be awesome
  2. Take nothing personally (even if it was meant to be personal)
  3. Practice something I don’t do well currently do terribly
  4. Love big bigger
  5. Be thankful Express gratitude
  6. Don’t judge Judge positively
  7. Don’t accumulate negative judgments Say exactly what I mean (matter-of-factly when I think it)
  8. Avoid Embrace adversity
  9. Do better than yesterday (even if it requires me to do worse along the way)
  10. Discern inertia from momentum

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Do You See?

Four Concentric Circles

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Thoughts for Saturday

What follows is a set of thoughts, quotes and mixtures of both.

If your dreams don't scare you, then they're not big enough.

Weird is a side effect of awesome.

No one can help everyone, but anyone can help someone.

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.
Groucho Marx

When one person experiences delusions, we call it mental illness. When an entire society does so, we call it normal.

Wanna know who your real friends are? Screw up royally and see who's still there.

One kind word can change someone's entire day. Yet, the experience is rare enough so as to be memorable. Looking for something to do?

"It's nonsense", says reason.
"It is what it is", says love
"It's a disaster", says logic.
"It's nothing but pain and suffering", says fear.
"It is what it is", says love.
"It's ridiculous", says pride.
"It's foolhardy", says prudence.
"It's impossible", says experience.
"It is what it is", says love.

Don't compare your chapter one to someone's chapter twenty.

A great way to maintain unhappiness is to see the past as better than it was, the present as worse than it is and the future less resolved than it will be. It's guaranteed to work.

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.
Niels Bohr

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Albert Einstein

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us an understanding of ourselves.
Carl Jung

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.
William Gibson

A scientist is not someone who knows everything without question; she's someone who questions everything she thinks she knows.

Here's all you have to know about men and women. Women are crazy, men are stupid, and the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.
George Carlin

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where Is One?

My first month at Berklee College of Music was, hmm... let's say, "challenging."

I was nineteen.

I was a thousand miles from home.

I was a suburban kid who suddenly found himself living in the heart of the city.

Since my focus was composition and arranging, I'd declared piano as my principal instrument. This in and of itself was not a challenge. However, I was a sax player. I'd just begun to play piano six months earlier. All the other pianists had been playing since they were five.

To make things even more challenging, I'd decided that having my sax with me might become a crutch. So I'd left it at home, a thousand miles away.

Fortunately for me, the first month at Berklee was challenging for pretty much everyone. Unlike many colleges and universities that pack freshmen into large lecture halls for core curricula, Berklee divided each core course into thirteen sections defined by skill level. We spent the first week of school completing evaluations that determined our skill levels in areas like music theory, ear training, composition, arranging and analysis. At the end of the week we were placed into sections with others who had tested similarly.

The result was that there was no one in a given section for whom the work was easy. If one was challenged, then you could bet that everyone was challenged.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), I tested quite well. Each core course had sections A through M. All my sections ended up being L or M. Like I said, "Challenging."

The first day of ear training, the teacher walked into class smoking an unfiltered Camel. He dropped his backpack on the desk and retrieved a John Coltrane album. He placed the record on the turntable at the front of the room, dropped the needle in the middle of a solo, turned to the class and said, "Write this down."

Everyone just laughed thinking that he must be kidding: everyone, that is, but one guy, a nerdy looking guitar player from Long Island who'd immediately begun jotting down the notes as they flew by in flocks of seven and thirteen. Turns out that being in section M was kind of like fighting in the heavy weight category; there was no upper limit.

I'd always been good at transcription and ear training. I could do it better than anyone I'd known. But this guy... challenging.

As the semester progressed, I began to hit my stride and the courses became easier. Well, all of them but ear training. In ear training the teacher was determined to never let us actually catch the carrot or fully clear the bar. He never let anyone get too far behind, but no one ever got that far ahead. Before long even the guitar player from Long Island had become part of the pack racing after the carrot.

One day the teacher talked about always knowing where "one" was. In this case, "one" refers to the downbeat of a bar of music. A 4/4 bar has four quarter notes: ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR. A 3/4 bar has three. A 5/8 has two-and-a-half quarter notes or five eighth notes. As you listen to a piece of music, you first determine the meter. Is it 4/4 or 3/4 or 5/8 or 3/8, etc. Next, you listen for the downbeat (the beginning of each bar). Then you count.

It sounds pretty straight-forward and it is. However, that was only the beginning. The teacher wanted us not to count, but instead, to simply "know" where the downbeat was.  He'd play a tune and we'd tap our hands on our desks with each downbeat.

Once we had the basics, he pushed the carrot a little further out. He'd turn down the volume for a moment and ask us to continue tapping on one. A moment or two later, he'd turn up the volume to see if we were still in sync with the music.  You'd be amazed at how quickly a room of good musicians could drift far from the beat they were trying to maintain.

The nice part was the no one found the exercises demoralizing. Instead, we were all inspired to practice. Slowly we began to hold the beat over longer and longer periods of silence. As we did, the carrot sped ahead.

The teacher would call one of us to the front of the class and ask us to keep time. He'd turn down the music and the student would continue to tap on one.  He'd turn up the music to confirm that the student was still in sync.

Next, he'd ask the student to stop tapping and to begin to tap when asked, "Where's one?"

He'd play the music and then turn it down.

A bit later he ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the music.

It was challenging, but in reach. So the carrot sped ahead.

He'd play the music.

He'd turn down the volume.

He'd ask you about your weekend.

In the midst of your answer, he interrupt and ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the volume.

It was a challenge, an amazingly worthwhile challenge. By the end of the first semester, without thought or effort, every one of us absolutely knew where one was. Our internal clocks had become precision machines incapable of losing time.

As I think about it now, knowing where one is is fundamental to music. Yet, I know many musicians who've never acquired this basic skill. They often lose track of one or must count aloud to maintain it. Not having a sense of "one" makes it impossible to play a groove or to solo over breaks. Having to think about it is distracting and compromises your playing. Yet, not knowing is more common than knowing.

The tricky part is that most of us are reluctant to set aside time to learn basic skills that we've missed along the way. It seems silly to spend time on rudiments when we've been working on advanced skills. Yet, without the rudiments, the advanced skills never quite work.

Knowing where one is is just one of many such skills.

Happy Wednesday,

PS Happy Birthday, Iris

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

10 Minutes of Anything

Here's the deal.

There are skills that you can acquire only by repeatedly applying them. You can learn a lot about them by attending lectures, reading books and watching videos, but you can't learn them until you've used them repeatedly over time.

You can learn a lot about swimming, but you won't "get" swimming until you've spent time in the pool. You can learn a lot about music, but you won't "get" music until you've spent time playing.

To be clear, repeatedly applying a skill over time in no way guarantees that you will "get" it. However, not doing so can guarantee that you will not.

This rule of thumb applies to a relatively small portion of the things you'll learn in life. However, it applies to a disproportionately large portion of things that are worth learning: basically all of them.

The tricky part is this. How do you ensure that repeated application of a skill over time will lead to the development that you want? Repeatedly applying a skill will always lead to development and reinforcement of that skill, but it may not end up being the skill you wanted to develop.

I know many drummers who've practiced diligently for years. They can play remarkable drum fills and solos. Yet, they cannot keep time or play a basic groove. I know many computer scientists who've written hundreds of thousands of lines of software. Yet they don't understand some of the more fundamental aspects of coding.

You can do something for years and still completely miss the boat. So what do you do?

A centuries-old model of education that has been all but lost in modern western cultures is that of apprenticeship. An apprentice works for someone who has mastered a skill. In exchange, the master teaches the skill to the apprentice.

The bulk of the education comes in the form of activities that provide the apprentice the opportunity to apply elements of the skill in a manner that can be reviewed and corrected by the master. Oftentimes the connection between activity and skill is not apparent. The apprentice might think, "How does doing this help me to become better at that?"

The apprentice might bristle at the thought of repeatedly doing something that seems irrelevant to her goals. She might want to ask the master why she must do it. However, to ask would violate the nature of apprenticeship.

It's not that the question would violate a protocol per se. It's that the answer to the question can only be reached through application of the task. Although the master could explain the reasons for any given task and the apprentice could memorize and repeat the explanations, the apprentice would never understand them.

Moreover, having the reasons explained (giving the apprentice the answer) would deny the apprentice the opportunity to discover them. It's often through that process of discovering the reasons for a task that learning is achieved.

The idea of repeatedly performing tasks for which no one has explained the reasons or provided context is anathema in the canons of modern western education. Yet it is foundational to apprenticeship.

As a would-be apprentice, the key to success is to find a master who truly is one and who is someone you will trust implicitly, even when you can't see any good reason for doing what you're doing. Variance from the model isn't apprenticeship. It might work. It's just not the same thing.

Combine the concept of apprenticeship with 10-minutes a day and you can learn anything.

Happy Wednesday,

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

10 minutes of writing

The kids and I have started writing for 10 minutes as part of our school day.  For now, we are using 'I am looking at..', 'I am thinking about..', 'I remember..' to get us started.  The only instructions were not to think about the writing before doing the actual writing.  Here's one of mine, and one from Simonne (12).

“I’m looking at…”

I’m looking at Jaedon, fascinated by the 5 inch laceration on his right hand, examining it, touching it, smelling it, resting hi lips on it, being with it.  He stares off into space, totally comfortable, totally himself.  Although this laceration only became a part of him 2 days ago, he integrated it into his person hood within the hour.  He owns it, protects it, feels it and, in a weird way, embraces it.  He’s different because of it, cautious of exposing it to prying eyes and fingers, protecting it from sights and feelings, yet, he’s the same with it.  He is himself, the same giggling, smiling, moody, crying, hungry, playful boy that I’ve known all his life.  He’s the same, yet with a 5 inch laceration on his arm.
“Milk”, he glances my way, sees me looking and stares in to my eyes.  His eyes say “If you are looking, do something.  I’m hungry.  I’m always hungry.  No more, no less because of the exposed, oozing epidermis on my arm.  No more, no less because of my nakedness.  No more, no less because of autism, or whatever other ‘co-morbidities’ experts think affect me.  I’m me, and I’m hungry”.  For good measure, to reinforce the point, he suggests “oil?”.
“Sure, sweetie, you can get some milk and some oil”

"I'm thinking about..."
I am thinking about a spaceship.  It is unlike any other spaceship I have ever seen.  Most spaceships look dull in color, but this spaceship is bright orange with pink stars all along the sides. In my mind, I see the spaceship taking off, and the smoke from behind the spaceship is sky blue, instead of smoky grey.  I can see the spaceship soaring up towards the stars. I'm putting on my glasses to see it better as it zooms away.  It's a very good thing to have brought a telescope at a time like this, because once I saw the space ship from it's starting position, I did not want to take my eyes off it.  And so I have to keep looking at it, because when we don't really look at things we miss out on a lot. 

Now the spaceship is reflecting the sunlight and is changing color.  Slowly the orange fades into green, and the pink turns into purple, then blue.  Now, I'm pretty sure that it is turning white but I'm wrong.  Suddenly I can see them all: red orange, yellow, green, blue, purple; all the amazing colors of the rainbow shine off the glittering dot in the sky.  But now it's gone. 

I need to do my homework.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Matter of Perspective

Humans make judgments. We do it all the time.

We judge pretty much anything that enters our awareness.

You see it. You judge it. It's good, or it's bad.

The degree of goodness or badness may be so small that you don't notice that you've made a judgment. You smell bread baking in the oven and you breath a sigh of contentment; you've judged baking bread as good. You hear a snippet of the latest office gossip and your shoulders tighten; you've judged what you heard as bad.

Sometimes you don't use the words "good" or "bad" to reflect the valence of our judgements. You might use words like "OK" or "Hmm" (both of which could mean either good or bad). Sometimes you might pretend that a judgement is something else, an assessment.

Assessments are not judgments. They are qualitative and/or quantitative evaluations that lack emotional charge. They are evaluations to which we do not apply values.

Assessments are easily confused with judgments. People who make a matter-of-fact assessment are often accused of being judgmental. People who make judgments often explain themselves as having simply made an assessment.  An assessment always carries at least a bit of judgment and a judgment carries at least a bit of assessment.

The pure, non-judgmental assessment is a mythical creature. A formal assessment conducted by someone who has had no previous experience with the person, place or thing being assessed still carries bias (i.e., judgment), even if the assessment is purely quantitative and uses mechanical or electrical devices to record data. The data collector may have no judgments whatsoever. Yet bias can be found in the selection of criteria measured or questions asked or tools used.

So what?

Good question.

The answer is this. You can't get rid of judgment. To tell yourself otherwise is, well, silly.

So what?

So rather than pretending you have no judgments, how about embracing them for what they are? Know that any time you make an assessment, you've made a judgment. It can be positive or negative. It can be reflected in how you qualify or quantify something or someone. It can be reflected in your selection of the criteria you measure or the questions you ask.

It's always there and by paying attention to it, you can learn a lot about yourself and how you operate. More often than not you'll find that you "assess" as good, activities, things or people that align with your preferences or your goals.

Take the same product and render it in two colors, one that you love and one that you hate. Undoubtedly, your quality assessments of them will vary.

Take someone who is stubborn and pigheaded and align his goals with your goals. Voila! He's now someone who's persistent and will never give up.

Is it a flower or is it a weed?

Is she a creative genius or a head-in-the-clouds flake?

Is he an optimist or does he lack any sense of the "real world?"

Is she passionate or is she a fanatic?

Is he a visionary or a day dreamer?

Was she distracted or was her focus elsewhere?

Was he honest or insensitive?

Is she courageous or foolish?

Positive or naive?

Love your judgments (i.e., judge them as good) and you'll see yourself and how you do things in a whole new way (which I judge as good).

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Inspired, Inspiring

If you think something is impossible, don't disturb the person who is doing it.
Dr. Amar Bose
Dr. Amar Bose died last Friday. The founder of Bose Corporation was 83.

Dr. Bose was one of those characters who merited the qualifier, unique. He was an MIT educated electrical engineer with unbridled creativity, a canny entrepreneur who only built products that he found useful and interesting.

Dr. Bose founded Bose corporation while still studying electrical engineering at MIT. The company developed everything from concert-hall-quality speakers for the home to automobile suspension systems that used noise canceling technologies to cancel bumps in the road. He never took the company public (the goal of most tech entrepreneurs), but instead opted to keep it private so that he wouldn't have to compromise his research in order to satisfy the concerns of Wall Street. In a 2004 interview, he said:
I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs. But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn't been done before.
That's not to say that he didn't make money. He did, but he did it on his terms. He pursued what he loved to do and the money came.
At 13, I realized that I could fix anything electronic. It was amazing, I could just do it. I started a business repairing radios. It grew to be one of the largest in Philadelphia.
He never lost his love for what he did. At a time in his life when most would have retired and moved on, he still pursued his research with the same enthusiasm and energy he had when starting out.
The excitement level for me working on projects is really not a bit different from when I was 26.
Dr. Bose is one of those people whom I've found to be quite inspiring. I thought that you might too.

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, July 12, 2013

Drama Coach

Regarding Drama Free?, Sree wrote: 
I’m always on the lookout for effective tools and techniques to deal with drama generated by others. Among the tools I draw from: 
  • Be a good listener to understand both the explicit and unspoken messages being delivered. 
  • Reflect back to them my understanding in a way that they know their message was received 
  • Take nothing personally 
  • Know what to address now and what to table for later 
  • Know how to negotiate 
  • Act with integrity when a third party is involved 
  • Interrupt skillfully when the message starts getting repetitive 
I’d love to hear what yours are. A bigger question is how to detect and defuse drama that one generates oneself. Hmmm...
Sree's put together an excellent set of tools for managing drama, or for that matter, pretty much any human interaction. The first two, listening and reflecting back, are often combined into something called active listening. Active listening along with taking nothing personally are the prerequisites for the rest. If you've mastered active listening and never take anything personally, you may never need to employ the other tools.

As I think about it, taking nothing personally is a prerequisite to active listening. If you take things personally, then active listening can easily morph into informed criticism. Informed criticism does not achieve the same results.

As I think about it, Sree's listed another prerequisite to active listening; it's acting with integrity. I'd morph that a bit to just plain old have integrity, though, due to popular use, that phrase may be misleading. I don't use the word integrity to refer to morals or ethics. I use it to refer to consistency. Integrity means that what you see is what you get. Whether you're with this person or that, whether you're alone or with others, you're always the same you. There are no unresolved conflicts in your definition of you. You're fully integrated. So, rather than saying, "having integrity", let's say, "being integrated".

So, in active voice we start with 1) be integrated, 2) take nothing personally and 3) listen actively. The next three (4) know what to address now, 5) know how to negotiate and 6) interrupt skillfully) are specialties that build on the first three.

To be integrated and take nothing personally is basic to who you are. They form the foundation on which you are built. Once you've acquired these skills (yes, they're skills), they can serve as an early warning system that lets you know when something is awry.

When you've learned to be fully integrated, even the smallest lapse in integrity feels strangely off. It's not unlike what happens when you give up sugar and sugar substitutes. What used to taste good, now tastes too sweet. You taste sugar in all sorts of foods that never used to taste sugary. If you find yourself saying this to one person and that to another, you don't feel quite right. Something is off-rhythm or out of tune. You start to feel greater discomfort in not saying something that's on your mind than in saying it.

When you've learned to take nothing personally, it's (among other things) much easier to say what's on your mind, because what you have to say is never charged with judgment or defensiveness (a specific response to negative judgment). You can talk about what you're thinking matter-of-factly. Finding yourself getting annoyed, anxious or defensive sets off alarms; you know that you've taken something personally.

Listen Actively
Active listening, listening to someone and reflecting back to them what you've heard, is pretty straightforward. However, it's not always easy. It's a skill to be developed. The great active listeners not only have skills, but they also have a style all their own.

The easiest way to practice is to find some who will confirm or deny your having got it.
1. The speaker says something.
2. You say it back to her in your own words, "So what you're saying is..."
3. The speaker confirms your statement on two levels:
a) Did you in fact say what he said, and
b) Did you say it in a different way (or just repeat what he said).

If you were to do nothing more than to get to the point where you always received an affirmation on both counts, you'd see amazing changes in your interactions with people.

Interrupt Skillfully
The next step in developing active listening is timing. There are times when you don't want to interrupt and times when you do. As Sree points out, someone's becoming repetitive can be a time when interrupting skillfully may be the best course of action.

For me, the biggest challenge in knowing when and how to interrupt comes when someone never completes a thought; he speaks without ever using a period. In some instances, it's part of his process in getting to the heart of the matter, in others it's a way to avoid the heart of the matter.

The easiest way I've found to address this is to preface the conversation with the fact that I'm going to be interrupting from time to time to make sure that you're following the speaker. I may even designate a signal such as raising my index finger to indicate that I want to ask a clarifying question.

The speaker begins to ramble and you raise your finger. He stops and I ask, "So what you're saying is..."

This has four great effects. First, it ensures that you're really understanding what she has to say. Second, it allows the speaker to hear what she's said from a different person's perspective1. Third, it allows you to codify the ramble into a complete thought. Fourth, hearing ones ramble unbiasedly converted into structured thought can have a remarkable effect on a speaker, i.e., it can be wonderfully clarifying.

Make It Your Own
Once you've learned to listen actively (as confirmed by the speakers) and how to interrupt skillfully, it's time to have some fun with it by bringing your style into the mix. If you actually use your words when playing back someone has said in your own words, it's hard to avoid stylizing your listening skills. Other elements of style include playfulness, e.g., helping someone to see everything he's saying from a brighter perspective or even making a game of the interaction) and illustration (e.g., sticking with a specific metaphor or analogy as you play back what you're heard.)

Try It
I could go on, but I think Sree's list provides a great place to start. Besides, the more specialized tools aren't all that effective if you haven't mastered the basics.

So, how well do you listen actively? What would someone to whom you've listened have to say about that? 

Happy Friday,

This only works if you're actually listening well.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Steps Along the Way

"Wax on. Wax off."

"That's from that movie, right?  You know... uh... the Karate Kid."

"Yup, that's the reference."

"So why you bringing it up now?"

"Because it applies perfectly to this situation."

"Which situation?"

"Our situation. The one we're in right now."

"I guess. I never really got that part of the movie."

"What part?"

"The one where Mr Miyagi has that kid waxing all his cars for him. Poor kid just wants to learn karate and instead, he spends the whole day waxing the dude's cars. It ain't right. For sure I'd never let anyone pull that kind of crap with me."

"No kidding."

"Nope. So, what's up with the movie reference? What's it got to do with our situation?"

"Um... never mind."

Sometimes the path to learning is paved with activities that seem irrelevant or even counter productive. The activities make us uncomfortable. We ask why we must do them. We want to know if there are alternatives.

We typically find the responses (e.g., "just do it" or, "you'll see" or, "nope, this is the only way") unsatisfying. So, some of us quit. Some continue, but only halfheartedly. Some abandon (or at least temporarily suspend) disbelief and pursue the activities with intensity and focus.

The activities make no sense and yet, people who seem to know what they're doing insist upon them. For those who quit or only halfheartedly continue, the connections between activities and results are never made; the reasons are never understood. For those who continue with focus and vigor, the activities slowly build competence. Competence reduces discomfort. Comfort improves focus and attention. Better focus and attention lead to understanding.

The problem is that you often can't get there any other way.  There are things you can't understand except by learning to do them (or things similar to them). Without doing them, you can know about them; you just can't know them.

Oftentimes you can't get to know them directly; you have to tack in, i.e., you have to approach them indirectly using other activities that teach you a subset of the required skills. Sometimes these other activities seem to have nothing to do with what you're trying to learn, that is, until you've acquired the skills.

Happy Tuesday,

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Drama Free?

One of the things that Iris and I share is a desire to live in a drama-free zone. It's not that we avoid challenging or volatile situations. It's just that we choose not to respond to them with high degrees of emotion.

For me, there are several reasons I choose to live in a drama-free environment. First, I have so much I want to do, I prefer not to spend time indulging in drama. If there's something that needs fixing, I'd rather just fix it and move on. Second, I'm never bored (at least not when I'm alone) or looking for something to do. I don't require drama for its entertainment value. Third, I find folks who frequently indulge in drama or who need drama to function to be particularly, hmm... the word that comes to mind is the drama-inspiring "useless", but let's go with "not particularly helpful."

I've known people who can dramatize pretty much any situation, overloading it with so much emotion that they're rendered incapable of action even after the problem has been remedied and it's time to move. They experience post-traumatic stress from self-induced trauma. When the chips are down, when the stakes are high, when the odds are against you, well, they're the last people you want to see walking through the door.

They fill their lives with drama. Over time, the drama becomes something without which they don't feel quite right. Eventually, the drama becomes their lives. Every tweet or post is laced with the tragedy of having to wake up with the kids or spend another day at work. Life is drama. I guess that works, that is, if you've got absolutely no life.

It's akin to what can happen to someone with hypertension. As the meds and dietary changes reduce her blood pressure, something feels off. She doesn't feel as energetic or alive as she used to feel. The discomfort triggers her body's self-regulation systems and voila, her blood pressure returns to "normal". The better she feels, the more cause for concern on the part of her doctor.

I know, that statement about "no life" may have been drama inspiring and that brings us to the point I was sure to reach. You see, like me, Iris prefers to live in a drama-free zone. She has reasons similar to mine. However, she also has reasons that are not. It's only recently that the others have come to light and the way I've come to understand them is by contrasting and comparing our drama-management techniques.

Whereas I prefer to surface and eradicate drama the moment I sense it, Iris prefers to ignore it or shove it back into the box. The general results are similar; we have a house that is drama-free about 99.95% of the time (that's about 5.04 minutes of drama per week). However, the specifics vary significantly. Whereas Iris avoids drama and dramatic people, drama and dramatic people tend to avoid me. Dramatic people love Iris, but me, not so much. Whereas I tend to speak my mind and be done with it, Iris tends to hold things inside and let them build up. I don't have pent up emotions or issues that I need to discuss; Iris sometimes does.

In short, the difference between Iris' and my drama management techniques is that I have some.

Over the past week or two Iris has been courageously waking up and processing drama that's been lying dormant for years. The existence of so many unprocessed bits of drama quickly led Iris to the conclusion that drama-avoidance may not be the best form of drama management.

This begged the question, "Then why have you been avoiding drama?"

The question suggested the possibility, "Perhaps you don't know how to manage drama?", a possibility that Iris immediately confirmed.

Once Iris recognized that she'd been avoiding rather than managing drama, the instances of her doing so currently became impossible for her to miss. Let's just say that opportunities for her to practice new techniques abound.  Further, just seeing the challenge for what it was made it easier to manage and significantly less dramatic. It's been and continues to be quite a process.

What's your drama quotient? Are you a drama-free kind of person or a drama-junky? How much time does drama consume? How do you manage drama? Do you ignore it? Do you avoid it? Do you instigate it? Do you eradicate it? What would change if you had less drama in your life? How would you change if you were less dramatic?

Happy Saturday,

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

All You Need to Do

I'm continually amazed at the lengths to which people will go to avoid thinking.

By "thinking", I mean the synthesis of ideas and solutions versus the acquisition or regurgitation of ideas and solutions.

People will spend hours googling answers, thousands of dollars hiring others, and years ignoring an ongoing problem rather than simply stopping to think of an answer.

By "thinking", I mean, figuring out.

The availability of Internet search engines, downloadable books and manuals, youtube how-to videos and a generally inexhaustible supply of information has only served to exacerbate the phenomenon; statistically speaking, people no longer think.

By "thinking", I mean, being resourceful.

The phenomenon seems to know no racial or ethnic boundaries. It affects young and old alike. However, it does seem to skew towards those with advanced degrees, i.e., the more advanced the degree, the more likely one is to not think.

By "thinking", I mean, translating something you read into a visual representation.

It's this last example of thinking I find most telling. I work frequently with university professors who've received grants to conduct research projects using computers and mobile devices. The grant proposals always lack the specificity to design or develop what is required, so we'll get together and talk about what it is they really want to do.

I'll ask the professor what exactly she wants to do and invariably she'll answer with an unstructured brain-dump of miscellany that provides no additional clarity or insight. The lack of structure will be multidimensional with no sense of priorities, no sense of timing, no common threads of reasoning or motivation. So, I'll ask questions.

The problem is that questions can take a long time, a very long time, at least longer than the time we've scheduled. So, I'll suggest that it might be useful for the professor to sketch a storyboard of how he wants his application to flow. What happens first? Who's involved? What is required of each involved person? What does each person do?

Storyboarding or sketching a sequence is one of the best methods I know for creating clarity and structure, and driving to specificity. It is something that we all learn to do as children, something that comes quite naturally. It's something that's easy when you know what you're talking about (e.g., retelling a past experience) and something that can be quite difficult when you don't (e.g., feigning to retell a past experience).  Storyboarding is something with which principal investigators (PIs) on well funded research projects often struggle.

So what do I do? I offer to help her with her storyboard, i.e., I offer to be her outsourced thinker.

Now you'd think that anyone who thinks (specially anyone whose job is thinking) would insist on doing the thinking himself, that he might even be offended by the suggestion that he outsource thinking to me (specially considering that I'm not an expert on his subject matter).

You'd think that.

So, I'll organize and structure the experiment. I'll make priority calls. I'll determine the data that can be gleaned and the insights it might yield.

Every once in a while, I'll have a question along the way. If the answer involves information that can be found in the literature, then the professor responds quickly and easily. If the answer involves mental processing (i.e., thought), she'll defer to someone on her team (e.g., her statistician).

I find the idea of a "scientist" deferring to a statistician to be particularly disconcerting. The idea that a scientist would require a statistician to do his work is like that of a policeman requiring a bodyguard to do his. One cannot claim to be a scientist and yet require a statistician to understand one's own research project. Sigh...

All said, professors or principal investigators will go to great lengths to avoid thinking. They'll go to even greater lengths to convince others that they do in fact, think. This wouldn't be all that great a problem save for one thing; it's these same professors who are ostensibly teaching the best and the brightest to think.

My speciality in computer science is systems. I love to conceive, design and develop large-scale systems. I've built many over the years and have learned a lot about them.

One of the things about systems that people frequently fail to understand is how systems fail. The great thing about a good system is that it provides you leverage; a little effort yields a big result. The problem is that the leverage is unbiased. It can yield a big result that is good; it can yield a big result that is bad. As such, when systems fail, they don't "kind of fail", they fail completely.

If you catch the failure early enough, you can correct for it. If you don't, if the failure passes the tipping point, then there's no solution. You simply replace or reboot the system.

In corporations, the tipping point occurs when the poor employees become the ones doing the hiring. In education, the tipping point occurs when people who avoid thought become the ones doing the teaching.

The solution is easy, at least on an individual basis. All you have to do is to avoid not-thinking, to spend time contemplating rather than googling, to take the first crack at the repair rather than hiring the repairman, to visualize how it works rather than watching a video, to hear the notes in your head before you play the keys.

The solution is also easy on a general basis; when systems fail, they fail big. It just that it generally takes more time.

Specifically, the timing is up to you.

To what lengths do you go to avoid thinking? To what lengths do you go to avoid not-thinking?

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, July 1, 2013

So Much, So Little

Hold the Door
I'm always amazed at the way in which others respond to delivery people: not the delivery guy who's bringing your a long-awaited package, but the delivery guy who's struggling to open the door while balancing one-too-many packages on his hand truck.

What I notice is how rarely a bystander or passerby will stop to hold the door for him or how others will even pass through the door that he's attempting to open as though he were holding it for them. It seems strange to me because my first inclination is always to run up and hold the door for the delivery guy and I've always assumed that inclination to be the common one.

It's not.

I used to think this phenomenon was limited to delivery people wearing uniforms like UPS and FedEx employees. However, I've noticed that it also occurs with mothers young children struggling with strollers and carriages, and with musicians wrestling speakers and amplifiers.

The other night I played at a place where the band entered through the same front door used by all the patrons. I got there early and set up my gear. As I plugged in my last cable, I looked out the window and saw that the bass player and drummer had just pulled up outside. I ran outside to help them load in.

Carrying a bass speaker under one arm and a bass drum under the other, I tried to negotiate the double glass doors that led from the sidewalk into the club. I wedged the bass drum against against door jam and then leaned into it to keep it from falling as I let go of it and reached for the door handle. I couldn't quite reach the handle, so I grabbed the drum and repositioned it to give me a better position and leverage.

As I juggled the drum, the speaker and the door, a couple guys stood inside talking to one another and watching me through the glass. Neither made a move to open the door. When I finally got the door open and made my way through, I had to say, "Excuse, me", before either watcher made room for me to pass. The one who moved offered me an annoyed glare before stepping back just enough to let me pass by.

Last week, in Chicago, I had dinner with several guys each of whom had played music professionally. When I shared my juggling experience, they all nodded in sympathy, each having had similar experiences. This phenomenon is multiregional.

Conspicuous Consumption
I've come to realize that most adults are first and foremost, consumers. They spend little time creating or inventing or building; they spend most of their time consuming, planning to consume, reliving their consumption and telling others about it. Even their productive times (from baking to painting to building) can be forms of consumerism, rote activities based on recipes, not creative expressions of something inside.

Most adults are conspicuous in their consumption. When you ask them what they've been up to or what they're working on, answers include everything from television shows and movies watched  to trips and renovations planned to restaurants visited and the foods consumed there. When you ask them about what they've actually done outside of consuming, they look at  you funny as if what you've asked makes no sense at all (even after both brief and elaborate forms of explanation.)

"What do you mean, 'What have I done?" I've already told you; I had this wonderful meal at thus and such and visited these amazing ruins in there-and-then and then watched an amazing performance by who's-he-wit."

They're lives are so consumption oriented that no other mode exists.

What's pervasive conspicuous consumption got to do with holding doors?

I've heard people talk about television as being mind-numbing. People often watch TV to escape reality (even for just a little bit.) Those escapes are so media rich, the plots so easy to see, that little is left to the imagination. The mind goes numb as the viewer drifts into pure consumption.

When in the mode of pure consumption, there is little awareness left for anything else. We lose awareness, we lose consciousness. The more time spent in consumption, the less aware we become. The less aware we are, the less frequently we hold doors for struggling delivery guys, moms and musicians.

What's your consumer/producer ratio?

Happy Monday,

Friday, June 28, 2013

Never Give Up

There once was a wizard named Fred.

Fred was not a particularly good wizard.

In fact, he was a particularly bad wizard.

Fred was not "evil" bad; he was "inept" bad.

Despite his being a particularly bad, Fred had advanced degrees from respected schools of wizardry and he was well connected. So despite his being a particularly bad wizard, because of his credentials and endorsements, Fred held the most prestigious wizardly appointment in all the kingdom. Fred was the king's personal wizard and advisor.

The queen had had her doubts about Fred when she interviewed him for the position. However, not knowing all that much about wizardry, she had discounted her reservations and deferred to others more knowledgable in such matters.

That was a big mistake.

Each time the queen sought Fred's counsel on whom to appoint to a position among her royal advisors, Fred chose someone with impressive credentials, sterling endorsements and absolutely no experience in his areas of expertise.

Each time the queen sought guidance regarding the selection of implements for an upcoming battle, Fred chose exactly the wrong one ones. When Fred advised "rock", the opponent would invariably show up with "paper". When Fred advised "paper", the opponent would invariably show up with scissors. When Fred advised "scissors"...  well, you get the point.

Fred's acts of wizardry were no better. He'd consistently call out the names fifty-one wrong cards before naming the one selected. When making a canary disappear, the only one who could no longer see the canary was Fred. His acts of levitation always resulted the summoning of the royal paramedic squad.

After years of terrible advice and cringing every time Fred offered to perform magic or cast a spell, the queen decided that Fred should no longer be chief wizard. Unfortunately, Fred's was a lifetime appointment... unfortunately for Fred that is.

One fine morning, the queen called for a full session of her court. No one knew why the session had been called. The hall buzzed with rumors and gossip as the queen's clerk turned to the crowd and called the session to order. The room fell silent as the queen rose, looked to Fred and asked him to come stand before her.

Fred, who thought that perhaps he was receiving an award or even a knighthood, smiled gleefully, waving to the spectators as he strode to towards the throne.  He turned to face the queen, gave a slight bow, and then looked up expectantly.

The queen said, "Fred, over the years you have proved yourself to be an exceptional wizard and advisor. I dare say, no queen has ever had one like you."

Fred smiled, thinking that perhaps he might even be receiving a promotion.

The queen continued saying, "Fred, you are, in my not so humble opinion, the worst wizard and advisor ever. Therefore, I am terminating your appointment."

Fred cried out, "But Queen, my appointment is for life!"

The queen said, "Yes, it is. Therefore I have commanded my executioner to complete the terms of your appointment at sundown today. As is the case with any member of my court, you may chose the manner of termination."

Fred said, "May I suggest, 'old age'".

The queen answered with a glare and then continued, "You may be burned at the stake, beheaded by axe, hanged from the gallows or any combination thereof."

The queen looked to her left and said, "Guards, please remove the chief wizard and detain him in the dungeon."

It's inner workings frozen and rusted from years of inactivity and neglect, Fred struggled valiantly to engage his mind. What he needed was... what he needed was... was...  a... what he needed was a thought! As each of two burly guards grabbed one of Fred's arms, he blurted, "Queen, if you will please hear me, I have something to offer you that may cause you to change your mind, something quite valuable, indeed."

The queen gestured for the guards to pause. Fred struggled to generate the next thought.

"What have  you to offer me, Fred", said the queen.

"Your majesty, I must confess that I have withheld from my most powerful wizardry. My deeper skills are so powerful that I've always thought them too powerful to reveal. Unfortunately, I find myself in a position where I must now confess them to you."

"Go on", said the queen.

"Yes, um", said Fred. "Perhaps a demonstration would be appropriate."

"Indeed it would", said the queen.

"While I could call down fireballs from the sky or call up earthquakes from below, I believe something a bit less destructive might be appropriate", said Fred.

"Mm, hm", said the queen, beginning to lose in interest.

"Queen, if you will give me just six months, I will teach your royal horse to speak", said Fred.

"Teach my horse to speak?", asked the queen.

"Yes", said Fred, "I will teach him to speak fluently and expressively."

Every one in the hall held his breath as the queen pondered Fred's proposal. After a few moments, the queen looked Fred in the eye and said, "Fred, you have six months. However, you will be held under guard until either my horse speaks or your term has ended."

Later that evening as Fred sat alone chained to a wall in the dungeon, the door to his cell swung open and in walked his apprentice, Harry. Fred smiled, glad to see his friend.

As the sat talking, Harry became more and more gloomy. Fred asked him why he looked so sad and Harry responded, "I'm so glad that you got a six month reprieve, but I don't understand how it's ever going to work out."

Fred, who seemed not at all bothered by his prospects said, "Look Harry, today I went from having six hours to having six months. Many things can happen over the course of six months. Any one event has the potential to change everything. Who knows? The horse could talk. The queen could die."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

No One Knows What She's Doing

Generally speaking, absolutely no one knows what he or she is doing.

Really. It's a fact, just comes with being human.

Before you run off to find examples of people who do know what they're doing or dismiss my statement as just negative, please let me add this:
not knowing what you're doing is a 
natural and desirable state, i.e., it's a good thing. 
Yup, what separates humans from other species is that we have an insatiable appetite for learning. We're curious. We love that moment when, after toiling for hours on a problem, we see the solution and say, "Ah, hah!"

It's in our DNA.

Our drive to learn, grow and understand is more deeply entrenched and more endemic to being human than our drives for sex or food or sleep. It's insatiable. It can be satisfied only momentarily after rigorous periods of exploration and puzzling. However, as we digest what we've learned, it is renewed, moreover, it becomes even stronger.

Sometimes we try to sate our appetite for learning with  rehashed versions of what we've learned before, but the leftovers never quite do the trick. What had been satisfying isn't. So we find ourselves restless, confused and ready for more.

We are learning machines that consume and process vast amounts of fresh puzzles and problems. Hence, it's not natural to know what you're doing. If you do, then you're denying who you are and/or lying about knowing what you're doing.

So, if there is anything "negative" about no one knowing what he or she is doing, it's not the fact of it; it's the denial of it as our natural state of being human. To know what you're doing, to not struggle with new problems and challenges is to deny your humanity. It just ain't right.

So, if sometime to day you find yourself thinking, "What the heck have I got myself into here? I haven't got a clue as to what to do!", rejoice! You are celebrating your humanity.

If on the other hand, you don't find yourself in such a situation, well... um... hmm...

Happy Tuesday,

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What You Want (Part II)

At the end of What You Want, I gave you a little assignment.
  1. Grab a sheet of paper or open a program into which you can enter two columns of text. 
  2. Label the first column, "What I Regularly Want, but Don't Get". 
  3. Label the second column, "What I Regularly Get, but Don't Want." 
  4. Set at timer or mark your clock and, without pausing to evaluate, spend 90 seconds writing into each column as many things as you can.
If you completed it without hesitation, second guessing or rewriting, you probably have two fairly lengthly lists. If not, then you're due congratulations as you're regularly getting what you want and not getting what you don't want or condolences as you don't really want anything or lack a pulse.

Assuming that your lists are long enough to give you something to work with, let's take the next step; let's determine why your reality and your wants are not aligned.

Liar, Liar
The primary challenge when clarifying what you want is honesty. We often judge as bad what we want most and fail to acknowledge it or even actively deny it. This being the case, it's no surprise that we often don't get what we want or, even after getting what we say we want, feel less than satisfied.

The crazy part is that judging what we want precludes honest exploration of it; we judge it, so we never clarify it or get specific about it.

Why's that crazy? First, most people find that the clarity and specificity gained by honestly exploring what they want usually leads to something quite different from what they originally postulated as having wanted. Second, the judgements we hold often fade to nothingness as we get specific and clear; we judge the generic of "stealing" as bad, but don't judge as bad the specific "stealing a loaf of bread from an occupying army".

Without clarity and specificity, we continue to judge what we think we want; as long as we judge, we avoid clarity and specificity.

So, what do you do?

I found two solutions that work. First, find someone (or create someone in your mind's eye) who has no judgments about what you have to say. Tell them what you want and let them ask questions that lead to greater clarity and specificity.

Second, declare a temporary moratorium on judgments, just long enough for you to explore what you would want if, hypothetically, you weren't to judge it. You can resume judging as soon as you're done.

Wants in Conflict
Once you have an honest, clear and specific understanding of what you want, (or at least one that's more honest than you had previously), then it's time to renew your enthusiasm for judging. Judging plays a role in the next exercise: identifying wants in conflict.

If you look at your two lists, you'll see something hidden in each item: a conflicting want. For every "what you want, but don't get", there something that you get instead; what you get instead represents another want. Similarly, for every "don't want, but do get" there's a another want that is fulfilled by what you do get.

For example, you absolutely don't want to spend another Thanksgiving with Uncle Suresh, but you do. What's the conflicting want? Perhaps you want to spend Thanksgiving with your mom and she insists on inviting Uncle Suresh.

You don't want to spend $100,000 on college tuition, but you do. What's the conflicting want? Perhaps you want a really good job or you want to impress people with your resume.

You really want to spend more time practicing the guitar, but don't. What's the conflicting want? Perhaps it's spending time chatting up girls or watching reruns of MASH.

You'd love to spend just one Sunday sleeping in, but instead get up and go to church. What's the conflicting want? Perhaps you want to avoid doing something you'd judge as bad.

Every unfulfilled want has a conflicting want that is stronger and often hidden. Sometimes the conflicts are easy to see (e.g., do I want fish or chicken for dinner); sometimes they're more subtle (e.g., do I want to spend $100,000 on college or do I want to lose the respect of my long departed grandfather). Sometimes the conflict doesn't seem fair, e.g., why do I have to choose between getting a good night's sleep and getting ahead in life. Sometimes the conflict seems ridiculous, e.g., you're trying to tell me that I'd rather avoid embarrassment than help my child with autism?

Regardless of how they manifest, every item on your list is the result of a stronger want that is in conflict with the stated want.

Let's take the next step and revisit our lists of unfulfilled wants and fulfilled don't-wants. First, evaluate the honesty of your lists and make changes if necessary. Are you holding back? What judgements are in play? What would you change if you were to be completely honest?

Second, create a new page with two columns that mirror the first. For each item on the first list, specify in the corresponding column on the second list, the conflicting want (or wants).

Third, pick the pair of conflicting wants that seems to have the greatest impact on your life and talk about them. To be effective, drill down deeply and identify specific points of conflict. You may find that something that poses a general conflict doesn't pose any conflict in the specific. You may find that there are specific challenges, but they're manageable. You may find specific challenges for which you have no resolution.

Gain clarity on your wants in conflict. When you're ready, we'll talk about resolving them.

Happy Wednesday,