Saturday, November 22, 2014

Boundless Energy

Nature is super efficient at shifting limited resources to where they are need it. Our bodies seem to follow a 'use it or lose it' principle. Going to a park is a great visual reminder of this. Especially if you toss a ball around or start being silly on some of the climbing equipment. Kids seem to have boundless energy. Adults, and definitely this adult, seem very bounded. Admittedly the half pints have less to bound, but I don't think that explains it all. I have heard it said that sitting at a desk is the smoking of this generation. Working long office hours stooped in your chair is a pretty clear indication to the body to shift the energy elsewhere. Many who prioritise exercise manage to squeeze in 2 or 3 sessions a week. So it is no surprise that the little guys run circles around us. We know activity is important for kids. They have after school activities and are always being encouraged to play outside. When was the last time you went for a ride on your bike without a destination?

In the last few years I was lucky enough on two occasions to fit in one month yoga courses. It is very unusual to be able to get that big a gap once you enter the real world. One part of what was great about those times was the ability to fit in some maintainance. To tell my body that even though I have more grey hair and some crease marks between my eyes from overthinking things, I still would like to use the rest of my body. As Ken Robinson says, the body is not just a transportion vehicle for the head. It is incredible what happens when you are able to fit in daily exercise, periods of proper relaxation, a bit of nature and you eat well. Even washing the dishes (with the addition of some singing and silliness) becomes a lot of fun. Stress slowly falls off the body and you feel lighter.


What was also great about a month dedicated 'recovery' was that not only did I know I was relaxed now, I knew I would be relaxed in a weeks time. This meant there wasn't that impending doom of the upcoming week. Now I have been lucky enough to enjoy my work, so doom isn't really the right word, but all jobs come with a level of stress.

I am busy listening to Russell Brand's Revolution. I find him very entertaining even though he does require a slightly bigger bull for his bull quota. As a comedian that is his prerogative. He makes no pretence at writing the book for a balanced view or for those who disagree with him. He is writing to stir up those who already think what he thinks. There are trews in the book but I am not a revolutionary. I think the world has done a pretty great job wrenching more and more of itself out of poverty. That said, I think there are big challenges. Admitting that doesn't mean that the challenges are bigger that they have been. If you are not white or are a woman, gay, or in any way disadvantaged... life is improving over the long term. The remaining barriers are frustrating. They do get people angry. They are hard to change. But we are becoming aware of them. I am not going to stand on Hyde Park corner decrying the evils of the office environment and limited holidays as an evil conspiracy. I do think we can do a better job. Many of the things that allow us to be happy are within our grasp, it is just a case of prioritisation. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cunningly Caring

I have known some incredibly thoughtful gift givers. What has always touched me is the fact that the giver was clearly listening. It is difficult to give a meaningful gift to someone you haven't really engaged with unless you have a cunning plan. Cunning plans are rare and often not so cunning.

I have every now and then come up with something great, but I normally try think of the gift at the last moment and rattling through my brain can't make the connections. While our brains are incredibly powerful, their storage systems aren't exactly neatly filed away. We tend to just throw stuff in there. A couple of fun books which show how to improve your memory such as 'Mind Tricks' and 'Moonwalking with Einstein' talk about the value of learning lists and then making connections just so that you can find your way to the memories that are there. It also helps you form memories quickly because as you observe something, you are able to immediately link it. We are very good at ignoring stuff we don't think is important. When you learn a new word or something comes up in a conversation you were interested in, suddenly you start noticing that word being far more common than you thought it was. A big part of having a good memory is making quick connections as soon as you observe something.

Like many things that make us happy, the need to make quick connections when we observe great gift ideas has to become a habit. I find it far easier to write my blog every day than when I was writing less frequently. This is because I am always thinking about ideas for new posts. In every conversation I have, a little note scribbler is scurrying away in my head. I think the same thing might be true for gifts. If gifts are saved for birthdays and Christmas, then you suddenly have to come up with ideas just as you remember or are reminded.

An obstacle we face with gift giving is that life seems to have become more expensive even as people have become wealthier in general. More choice. More things just out of reach. Often we stop giving birthday gifts to adults and the Christmas tree is dedicated to the kiddies just to stop wallets bleeding. I suspect the more regularly you delve into cunning plans, the less it will cost as you will be able to pick up great deals. As for Christmas being for kids. I have one word for that - 'pffffffft'. Finally, we start worrying about the commercialisation of holidays that are important to us and that takes the shine off. There is no reason we can't invent holidays of our own. I am a big fan of creating annual holidays for any particular reason that floats your boat. Perhaps like giving gifts, identifying things worth celebrating is also a great habit to form. Remembering something important that happened to someone you care about is perhaps the best value gift of all.

Pffffft - We are all just big kids

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Comfortable Haze

I preferred the study part of working and studying to the study part of university. In standardising learning and breaking the work down into step by step sections, a course is forced to go at a certain pace as it works through the syllabus. When Salman Khan of the Khan Academy first started recording tutorials on Youtube for his cousins, they said they actually preferred it to him teaching them. This was because they could pause him. They could replay him. They could do all this without feeling embarrassed or pressurised. In formal studies with a class, you have to go at the pace of the class. This drove me nuts. Not because I wanted to speed up, but because I wanted to slow down and I didn't feel like I had context.

An important part of learning is becoming comfortable with the haze. You don't understand. Sentences don't fit together. You can't remember what individual words mean, and so the next word makes no sense. Eventually shapes start to emerge and interact and you realise where you are. I am not convinced learning is a linear process where you can go from lesson to lesson conquering each step. Tutorials had me tearing at my hair. Particularly if they were new concepts and then you had to do something which was marked at the end. You couldn't learn to be patient with yourself as you had this burden of testing at the end. As you went through the syllabus, tests would have to be studied for surrounded by whatever other dose of life circumstances was adding to your stress.

Industrialised Education doesn't test the depth of your understanding or your ability to perform as much as it tests Exam fitness. There is no stronger symbol for me than one of the exam venues I used to write in - the UCT sports centre. Rows upon rows of seats, pens and paper. Stressed students. I would love to produce four 10m X 20m paintings of these rows and rows of desks. In the middle of the room you could place a single chair and desk and then play a surround sound of furious scribbling. Remaining calm and being exam fit become the key things that get tested. You need to have practised writing under exam conditions over and over again until you are ready. Past papers aren't just about testing the knowledge, they are about training your body to cope with the actual event. I always tried to study very little the day before an exam, to go to a movie or something to clear my head, so that I could walk in calm.

UCT sports centre exam venue
Source: KRwhiteZA

I was actually a much better 'exam athlete' than I was in tests. Until I had gone through the full body of the syllabus and connected the dots I was very aware of how superficial my knowledge was. It often took the study week just before the exams for things to come together. I used to think maybe it would be a better idea to have study week in the first week of the semester followed by an exam. If you passed, good for you, but most people would fail and then start learning. Second time round you have the context. The exams I failed and had to repeat were some of the most enjoyable courses I did because I could learn haze free (ish).

Many get to the work environment and draw a solid line under their studies barely escaping the urge to tattoo 'done' on their foreheads. While working though, often exams become self study and it is another ball game altogether - you can slowly working through a subject at your own pace. You can get the context you need. For the most part though, it still becomes about that exam at the end - and that is what scares people. There is naturally the challenge of balancing work commitments, but that is a post on its own.

To encourage life-long learning, we need to harness technology to make testing environments less intimidating or at least more reflective of real life situations in which the knowledge will be used. We also need to think of education less as linear step by step process, and more as search for context.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Silencing Your Perspective

You can never see something from someone else's perspective. You can never have the experiences and context that colour their world. Thomas Nagel wrote the essay 'What is it like to be a bat' (quoted below) where he explains the challenge. Practising empathy is like practising meditation. It is in the process of bringing thoughts back to a point of focus - whether your breath, a candle, a sound or a thought - that exercises your ability to calm the craziness in your head. While we can't actually empathise fully, we can try.
'Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the world around by a system of reflected high-frequency sounds; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in the attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far) it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.'
Thomas Nagel
 Giant Golden Crowned Flying Fox
Source: Wikipedia

There are clearly differences between the level of empathy you can have for a bat and for a person. Within that the bigger the overlap in experiences and the more context is shared, the closer you can come to giving it a real shot. There are however limits. A man trying to think 'like a woman' is thinking 'like a man trying to think like a woman'. An adult child trying to imagine the world of his parents and the reason for the choices they made has decades of a fast changing world which they will never completely understand. If they did, they still can't strip away the context they have. They can't unexperience their experience.

One of the biggest obstacles to happiness I have come across is simply a complete befuddlement as to why other people don't think the way we do on the big stuff. We try understand their experiences but just can't understand why they can't 'see the light'. Deep down I am a sceptical, suspicious, evidence based person who prefers rational, logical, consistent explanations for things. I am starting to feel that this is not enough. Once you have enough of a foundation, perhaps you have to have 'faith' in your own ability to lean into other peoples worlds. You have to be okay with letting go of your own experiences and your own context to catch a glimpse. Clearly you need to have a strong BS detector, but in order to get to the juice of what others have seen, you don't want your BS detector flashing red and distracting you before they have exceeded their bull quota. Friends can provide this lifeline. Particularly really good friends who have known you for years. They can allow you to wander off and wonder off (I get those two mixed up - this time I want to use both). They can point out if you start losing yourself too much. They can bring you back having caught a glimpse and deepened your empathy.

Empathy isn't just about seeing from others perspective - it is about practising silencing yours.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beneath the Surface

Ken Robinson points out that if you ask a classroom full of 5 year olds who can draw, they all put their hands up. If you ask a group of 15 year olds who can draw, perhaps one or two will. At some point we learn what we are good at and we create an identity around that. We direct our activities towards the things where we are technically competent in a way that can be objectively assessed - i.e. we work for marks. School and then university become a filtering process where your identity is sifted out. I worked for 18 months at a school in Chichester which really encouraged music. In fact I ended up taking up piano while I was there and learning my middle c alongside 6 year olds. It really was a wonderful place which actively found a place for the creative side of learning. The music teacher from that school, Alex, shared this article which looks at the role of arts in education - Dance, Art, Music, Writing, Drama. More particularly, it also looks at how the arts can be left aside in education when money is tight and we start to prioritise.

Art from one of my favourite 5 year olds, Justin

Excluding the arts is as dangerous as excluding business skill for those who pursue the arts. The idea that we need to define ourselves and super specialise is a problem. The word 'balance' is often used, but I am trying to think of another one. I don't like balance because it doesn't seem to quite capture that we can be more effective by not neglecting the balancing items. The goal should be to educate you in all the skills that are needed in life. Some of these are tangible, but some come as a side product.

I did a semester of Computer Science at university. I really enjoyed it but it was just a filler course and I can't remember any of the programming that I learnt. What I do remember is that it taught a way of thinking. In writing code, it showed the value of structuring thoughts in a way that is easy to follow in order to find mistakes. It helped take ideas and distill them down to very clear, unambiguous instructions. I can't remember how to code, but that lesson stuck with me. The arts is similar but more pervasive than that. 

As I am relearning the piano, I am being forced to slow right down. I have to build the muscles in my fingers. I have to learn to connect them to what I see on the page. The left and right hand won't coordinate at first and are playing different parts. I have to slowly get to the point where they can do their own thing but fit together. As it comes together, the rhythm starts to appear after hiding as my fingers stumbled. This process seems to train patience and problem solving better than any of the courses I did in Business Science.

It is one thing to learn to identify problems. It is another to learn the process of solving them and that is where the arts come  into their own. The very goal of the arts is to look beneath the surface at the stuff that isn't obvious. It isn't good enough to be technically competent. You can't just learn the words in drama. You have to fight with them, chew them, and feel them until they come to life.

Education should be careful not to filter out the flavour.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bull Quota

Everyone should be allowed a quota of bull. When we watch movies, the suspension of disbelief allows us to enjoy the story. I suspect we would be happier if we extend the same to conversations with people whose stories are different from ours. In part this is because there are likely holes in our story too, and in part because life is just more fun that way. In Theatre Sport, it is only really funny if you go with the flow and build on what the last person has said. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, you may find you get to the important bits of the story instead of fighting them on unimportant bits.

The truth is, they may not really have thought about the unimportant bits. We fill in the gaps. Life is too complicated for us to have thought through every situation with cold mathematical logic, applying double blind tests, and waiting for enough information to make up our minds. Buridan's Ass is the hypothetical story of a donkey (appropriately) who is both hungry and thirsty and placed exactly halfway between a pail of water and a stack of hay. Unable to decide whether it is more thirsty or more hungry, it ends up dying of both. 

Most of us aren't Asses. Using emotions and a little noise we move through life able to regularly make choices without considering everything. This is a good thing. If your story messes with other people's ability to live, you will run out of your Bull quota. That is a bad thing.

Political cartoon c. 1900, showing the United States Congress as Buridan's ass 
Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Head Days

I have always believed that life tastes better with a touch of silly. A silly song. A silly dance. A silly way to raise funds. I think silliness has a magical bonding power. It lets you realise that while life is obviously very, very, very serious and your problems are very, very, very important... life in general is yummy. This isn't a case of rose coloured glasses, or glass half full spin. Life really does offer us beautiful things to look at, smell, touch, taste, hear and experience. It throws in some tough challenges but on the whole us human beans are rather good at solving them.
'I is not understanding human beans at all,' the BFG said.' You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans. Right or left?'
'Right,' Sophie said.
One problem we have is that men often don't discuss health issues. Certainly not uncomfortable things like testicular cancer and prostate cancer. Even more difficult to discuss are less clearly identifiable problems like mental illnesses or even just general mental health. Broken bones are easy to identify and are easily commiserated between male friends by sending a Chopper Reid clip. Banter or silliness can help the conversation get started, and lets be honest, there are few things sillier than a moustache. Here are a few examples - Mofrog, Moro, Mogoen, Moleo, Mottlemo, Modad and Mo-me. Pick your favourite one and give an excessively large donation that makes you feel smugly proud for the next 11 months till Movember rolls around again. Or make sure you know your family health history. Or both.

1 in 8 men are diagnosed with a common mental disorder at any one time. In 2011, a total of 6,045 people died by suicide in the UK and over 75% of these were men. That suggests we guys have a few lessons to learn about how to help each other, and how to look for help. One great way of practicing mental health is Yoga. This is often seen as something for the ladies with men preferring to hit the road, the weights or play a team sport. I have been doing Yoga for 5 years by complete chance. It just so happened that there was a centre in the same street as me. Trying to get out of the rain of mud island, I was looking for something indoors to do and this was very convenient. Many top sportsmen have taken to yoga. If you are hard enough to grow a mo... are you hard enough to do a bow? Part of the goal of yoga is to learn to release tension from muscles with a rather simple aim of being able to sit comfortably. If you can sit comfortably, your mind can stop constantly going back to the bits that are sore. You can give it a moments rest. It is a muscle too, so along with leg days, back days or  road days... it is good to fit in some head days.

Aussie Rugby team doing yoga

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beds & Desks

I don't think we choose to sleep too little. It just joins the 'find the time' queue. Churchill was famous for being able to nod off at any given gap to try and catch up. Napoleon could apparently sleep on horseback. I got inspired by a more alive famous person when I read 'How Life Imitates Chess' by Gary Kasparov. It is a good example of remembering that I loved a book, but not remembering much of the book. One point that did stick out is that Kasparov was a big fan of the afternoon snooze. I have always suffered from the traditional afternoon lull around three o'clock when productivity falls through the floor. Kasparov argued that pre-lunch sleeps were a great boost and shouldn't just be for later in life. I was working in Bermuda at the time, and completely convinced, decided it was worth zipping back to where I was staying for a power nap during the lunch hour. The problem was that the conflict now lay with two other happiness sponges - traffic and heat. Well, heat isn't a happiness sponge if you are wearing little more than a cold drink, but add it to hooting cars and smiles disappear.

We are only just starting to learn how to create work environments that really allow us to be creative, productive and happy. A unpleasant commute isn't the only solvable problem we face - John Medina in 'Brain Rules' gives a number of other suggestions. The one that stuck out for me was the idea of 'walking desks'. If you are walking at a comfortable pace - say 1.5km/hour - it isn't strenuous exercise but keeps you moving and allows thoughts to flow. Kate, a friend and HR business leader, has always been a fan of the lower tech, cheaper, and easier to implement method of going for walking meetings. If you have an hour long meeting with someone, why not walk around the block or the park together?

Spike Milligan said money can't buy you happiness, but it can bring you a more pleasant form of misery. The one area Benjamin Wallace believes it is worth spending money is on a quality bed. If you aren't going to be able to get some sleep during the day, because it would mean a double commute, then investing in an awesome bed is probably worth it. If you are going to spend 12 hours a day at your desk - you may be forgetting the 'use it or lose it' rule of the body. Perhaps walking desks are the awesome beds of the office?