Friday, October 31, 2014

Finding Flow

One of the disadvantages of our inability to keep lots of things in our head at one time is that we aren't great at stepping back, looking at the big picture, and deciding what tradeoffs we want to make. One of the advantages of our ability to not keep lots of things in our head at one time is focus.

Meditation is not something mystic or fluffy. You can dress it up any way you want to make it appeal to you, but what it really is is practising focus. We are all good at putting the majority of things out of our mind. It is just the last few things that we struggle with and hop between. Enter Flow.

Flow happens when you are involved in a skill based activity where the feeling you have is so intense you feel like you don't exist. Your identity (worries, daily life, fears, responsibilities) disappears from your consciousness. That sounds almost exactly like a definition of meditation. The great thing with flow is that we all find it in a different place, and often it is when we are engaged in the process of creating something new. Even when it is not necessarily creating a physical thing, watching someone in flow is a thing of beauty (Federer, Messi etc.).

I believe strongly the world is moving forward. The reason being that a fundamental thing that makes us happy is being creative. We find something that pushes us. Not so much that we are anxious and not so little that we are bored. As each of us push a little, we all benefit. One challenge we face is that we have lots of people whose daily tasks are such that the skill level required is low and the challenge is low. Worry, apathy and boredom can become a habit. If we are able to nudge more people out of those zones then I think we will be on the right track.

So if you want to start a meditation practice, one way to do it is to find something that has a long path of progression where the challenge can push just beyond your skill level. Something that offers life-long learning.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Be Yourself, but Be Wolverine

The body is an incredible self-healing machine. We love stories where superheroes like Wolverine regenerate, but often this is more like time-lapse photography than something completely in the world of science fiction. In reality scars fade. We walk again on broken limbs. Even broken hearts mend. We aren't as amazed by it because there is no fast forward, but it is still just as amazing.

I think learning is similar. The curse of knowledge makes it difficult for us to remember what it was like to not understand something. It makes it tough for us to empathise with people who haven't had the same experiences. We tend to specialise in our work so much that often we don't even acknowledge how hard the stuff we have conquered is, so we don't feel good about it. We are often surrounded by people who do understand what we do, or at least share a common language/jargon. It is only in stepping out into places where what we know is different from others that we can recognise some progress we have made (while learning how little we know about other things).

Part of what makes learning exciting though is when you can 'see'  the progress. When you can be Wolverine. One of the reasons I like Yoga is that even after 5 years of practicing, I am still very aware of how stiff I am. There are many postures which it feels like my body is telling me are impossible. Two things help though. When I am practising regularly*, I often have a moment somewhere, not necessarily on the same posture where I go slightly further than I have ever gone before. That is an awesome feeling. It is only slight improvement but it feels great. Where I really notice it is when I introduce someone new - particularly someone who is as much of a ball of stress as I was.

I don't think a love of learning can be all about the end game or goal. We have to enjoy the process, and part of enjoying that is finding a way to be able to see the progress.

*Regular Practice - Rule of Thumb
1 time  a week to maintain interest
2 times a week to maintain level
>3 times a week to improve
Daily to be Wolverine

'Always be yourself, unless you can be Wolverine, then always be Wolverine'
(or Batman or a Unicorn or a Pirate)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Always Angry

I am suspicious of the value of anger. Yet, if you allow yourself to be, there are lots of things to be angry about. I find it an irony that often some of the most caring, creative, compassionate, liberal people I have met are often also amongst the angriest. It makes sense in that they care about justice. They can empathise with the hurts of others and they want the world to be a better place. But is anger productive?

When we see that news isn't an unbiased account of the world prioritising what we think is important. We can get angry. When we look at who we choose to make into celebrities, and then see others who doing great work that is desperate for some attention. We can get angry. When we read a book, essay, article, blog post or tweet that treats someone unfairly. We can get angry. If it is directed at you, then you can get incredibly angry.

As a kid, I was introduced to the concept of 'Righteous Anger' with the story of Jesus cleansing the temple'And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade." So culturally we accept anger with a just cause. We don't however often agree on what those just causes are, and we don't normally get angry for higher principles. Sometimes the thing that sets us off may not even be the root cause of the anger.

'Christ driving the money changers from the temple' El Greco

Road rage is clearly pointless. I drive assuming someone is going to do something stupid. This does earn me the title of 'Miss Daisy' in my family but also means I am not completely grey (yet). The thing with anger is it doesn't just stop. It can wind you up so much that you can't think about anything else for a while. Once you get out of the car post road rage, you and your passengers suffer, but the idiot (it was obviously their fault) likely feels nothing. So we all try not flip easily. It is not worth it.

The bit which is harder to decide on is whether we should try never flip. The idea of 'righteous anger' may in fact give us an excuse. We want to allow the ability to show that we are passionate about an issue, and I think it can in fact be useful when surrounded by people who agree with you. My main worry is that I think it is a close to useless way to get other people to change their mind - even if you are correct. It is also feels like it quickly becomes a habit. You end up being alway angry, just like the hulk.

It must be very difficult to be a generally angry person while also being a generally happy person. Anger has a real cost to the person who is angry. So the burden of proof should really be on finding cases where anger has actually been useful.

Do you have an example of when anger has been both justified and effective? 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Journey of Discovery

Knowing someone who is a 100 year old chain smoker does not prove that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. The world is partly a random. A magical sprinkle that mixes things up just to make it interesting. I like to think that things don't happen out of malice or good will, they just happen. We make the best of them. That doesn't mean we can't work to put the odds in our favour.

I used to believe that smart people couldn't be racist, sexist, homophobic or bigoted. The truth will out. Learning about Wouter Basson made me doubt this. Here was an incredibly intelligent man who had also been an agent of evil. The truth is that things are more complex than that. What we believe and how we feel is made up of so many parts we don't understand. Who we interact with. How we react to situation. What random sprinkle happens to dust us. We like stories, and the stories of evil people who were really smart may tempt us to believe that education doesn't help. I don't believe that is the case.

I had always understood the Nobel prize to be awarded for a significant contribution to humanity. I knew of the problem that awarding it late in someones career could sometimes give them additional notoriety and a louder microphone at a point when their thoughts had veered off track. When their thoughts harmed more than helped. When Obama won it raised a new point for me. Sometimes the award was made in hope rather than in recognition. It was an investment in promise. That felt less comfortable for me... but the award isn't democratic, and there is no reason it should be. It is unashamedly in favour of certain principles and the committees who award it go after supporting those in the way they feel best. Still, I am not sure I would have done the same.

Then this year Malala won. I didn't know much about her but the cause she stands for is one I care about. I do believe in education as a tool for peace. Despite Mr Basson, I do think education is a powerful tool against the cancer of ignorance. I also think that a society which denies girls access to education is unacceptable. The controversy here is that she is 17. Again, the Nobel Prize seems to be an investment in potential. Is it an unfair burden to place on someone so young? Well, after reading her book I think it is very clearly a cause she is willing and able to commit to.

The book makes it clear that her ideas are not completely formed. It makes it clear that she is still young, but she is hungry. Her thoughts will develop. Her mind will mature. She will iron out contradictions. She will be embarrassed about some things she thought. Anyone who learns anything of value will feel the same. She will debate. She will read. She will listen. That is what education is, and I for one am glad that the random sprinkle left this symbol, not of an extraordinary girl, but as a symbol of every girl and of every boy and of a love of learning.

Congratulations Malala and good luck on your journey of discovery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Is it Fake?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides a common language and standard criteria to be able to work with mental illness. Martin Seligman and others decided that it was a problem for psychology to be focused on disorders and illnesses. Most people are well. They could be happier, but they are well enough. The field of positive psychology rose as an attempt to shift rigorous, more scientific work towards the field of mental health rather than just illness.

Some cultures are more comfortable being upbeat that others.

Being 'overly positive' actually really gets under the skin of those weary of fakers. Social Media in general, and Facebook specifically, get scathing attacks as self-promotion platforms with people tending to only share the good news or pictures of them smiling. Unsurprisingly, we don't think it appropriate to take a photo of someone when they are crying bitterly, post, and like it.

In the workplace, there are those who are comfortable confidently and quickly putting their ideas forward and speaking with conviction. Others are very conscious of how little they know, the bits they don't understand, and the things that go wrong. Since the world is dynamic, and it is unlikely that the 'doubter' will get to a point where everything is understood, the gap between the over and under-confident can be rather permanent.

I have shared two clips below. The first is a brief clip with a panel including Warren Buffet on what it takes to be a success. In it he mentions doing a Dale Carnegie course when he was 20 and how much this helped. Carnegie is a great example of the dilemma facing people who don't like faking. Growing up, I knew of the book but never read it. In fact, we used to use the title to sarcastically tease people - 'How to win friends and influence people'. I read it for the first time this year and it is really good but it feels a little like a book for a magician or a palm reader. It feels like a book of tricks. It also feels like the tricks would work. If someone is genuine and their heart is in the right place, following its principles is fantastic. The doubters would be worried about the power of the same principles to manipulate since there isn't complete transparency. Carnegie suggest for example that it is a waste of time to ever directly criticise anyone. He uses Lincoln as an example and gives anecdotes of how successful this strategy can be. This is the opposite of what those who believe in tough love and focusing on areas for improvement would do. Is it fake?

I feel like the work that Seligman and others are doing is finding a middle ground. Applying rigour to what can feel like the fluffy self-help domain. Artists, writers and musicians also have to play their part. Although we complain about only positive stuff on Facebook, we also feel very uncomfortable when difficult stories are shared widely. Creative people allow us to recognise our own troubles in their work while maintaining privacy by not admitting that it is us. Finally, the doubters may need to accept that some degree of 'faking' is necessary as Amy Cuddy's powerful talk suggests. They will also need to have some faith that fluff does tend to come out in the wash, so adding real value does tend to win out over time.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dining Hall Happiness

Some of my best memories of happy times come from my university dining hall. The documentary 'Happy' looks at why the Danish consistently rank as one of the happiest countries in the world and argues that one of the reasons is Cohousing. The community is planned, owned and managed by the residents with private homes but shared facilities such as cooking, dining, child care and gardening.

The thing that immediately appealed to me was the idea of the shared cooking. Going to a restaurant with friends is awesome, but it is not quite the same. Few could afford to do that every night, and just getting a group of friends together nowadays can be a nightmare given how time and proximity poor we are. In the example they gave, there were 20 families living together. They each cooked twice a month freeing up the food preparation time the rest of the month but meaning they still ate home cooked meals rather than TV dinners.

Below are some pictures I took while in my university dining hall. As you can see, we loved the food and it made us very happy. Many of the wonderful people in these photos are scattered all over the world so it would be impossible to recreate the daily interaction we were used to. Social media has helped a little. Twitter allows you to wonder with your tray until you find an interesting conversation to drop in on. Facebook seems to be having more active debates with people starting to share a little more than photos and jokes. But actual face time is harder.

I have tried to think why if communal dining halls are such a cause of happiness, there aren't more commercially provided ones? I haven't looked into the economics of them but from my experience at university, I know the pressures on the food providers, as soon as you bulk up, to reduce costs. Quality was always an issue, hence the ecstatic photos below. It is also not a business I would immediately think of as attractive. You want something that has a competitive advantage. You want barriers to entry so others can't recreate what you are doing easily. Ideally you don't want to be invested in a commodity. I can't think how dining halls will be provided commercially unless they can be added to something else which offers the opportunity for a profit. There are some things you can't wait for the market to provide.

Perhaps just organising more shared meals but in a less formal way than a dinner party is an approach. I have heard of the concept of an 'extra plate' where you offer to cook for your neighbour once a week and vice versa. The Danes have shown a way - I wonder if it will catch on.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Doubt or Contempt

Hanlon's Razor - Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

As we stumble through life figuring out each complicated situation, we have enough of a difficult time working out what motivates ourselves. Sometimes we do things that seem Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We may regret stuff but we have to get on with it and most people somehow manage to put themselves in the category of good person. Giving the same benefit of doubt to others is perhaps where we sometimes struggle.

Allowing people the benefit of doubt has to be a key to happiness. It is simpler to categorise people and put them into a box as soon as they disagree with you on a point that 'no good person would disagree with'. We also like conspiracy theories. We like a good moan. And who doesn't like a bit of mob justice righteous indignation? Someone does something wrong and people gather together to get the torches and pitchforks. As soon as the benefit of doubt falls away, contempt sets in and this mixture of anger and disgust is hard to shed. Psychologist Paul Eckman claims signs of contempt are one of the best predictors that a marriage or relationship is doomed.

The fact that good and evil aren't neatly separated unsettles us. People like to believe for example that the Holocaust would never have happened in America. If you are in a persecuted group, you like to believe you would never do the same to anyone else. Stanley Milgram's experiments are disturbing showing 2/3rds of ordinary people able to commit what can only be described as evil when in the wrong circumstances, leading to a possible definition of evil as willingness to blindly obey authority. Morality and psychology is messy. We are still figuring things out. We are still figuring ourselves out. Philip Zimbardo's talks about Milgram and his work in the TED talk below.

I am a big believer in giving the benefit of the doubt. I also believe that having compassion rather than forgetting or excusing is necessary. Evil doesn't exist as separate category and most times something horrible happens we have to figure out how that happened. How can we try stop it happening. Many moral questions are really messy and contradictory. Saul Smilansky looks at 10 of them that will make your head spin in '10 Moral Paradoxes'.

The one making my head spin at the moment is hearing about Bill Cosby. Having lost heroes like Hansie Cronje and Lance Armstrong, I don't like the idea of losing another one. I guess the point that Zimbardo makes above is that both heroes and evil doers are ordinary people, but that is hard to process. I don't know where to place the benefit of doubt here either. The Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile scandals have shown how much has been covered up. The issue with rape allegations is that often it is incredibly difficult to prove since there are normally no witnesses so courts of law are not really a great way of stopping anything. It is something we have to stop though. What do you do when the law doesn't help?

A bit of a rambling post, but as a believer in benefit of doubt, and of avoiding anger and contempt - this news story is making that hard.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Steal & Push

As an artist your goal may be to create something unique. As a contrarian investor, you have to go against the crowd - and be right. As a scientist, you want to push the boundaries of human thought doing something no one has ever done before. In creative fields there is a big drive to depend first and foremost on yourself. You don't want to be sullied by others. You want to be an independent thinker.

Independence is not however the same thing as ignorance. Take the smartest person in the world and lock her in a room for a long enough period. Take an artist and close him off from the world. Take a scientist and remove the aggressive peer review - and you lose'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn.' T.S.Elliot

Austin Kleon has written an awesome one-sitting* book with 10 lessons about being creative. One comment is that nothing is original: 'The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something "original," nine out of ten times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved.' 

Trying to be original is something of a burden. It stops you from working because you constantly worry. It becomes about you and being judged as original rather than the quality of the work. It becomes about your ego rather than whether what you are doing is of value. I regularly talk about Bruce Lee's 'Absorb. Discard. Add' philosophy. I think if you think of yourself as part of the bigger group, and the creative stuff happens at the edge, you need to understand and have in your toolkit the knowledge, experience and flair of the rest of you. You being the group. You being everyone. You being everything.

Then you push the boundary. You make everything bigger. Originality doesn't have to separate you from the world.

*Often books say what they want to say quickly, then spend the rest of the time padding it out sufficiently to appear serious.