Afraid to Think

“I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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Racism as squandered alliance

“I strongly believe that for all the ways white people benefit materially from racism, that we’re very damaged by it. [Many] poor white people see themselves as white before they understand themselves as poor. There’s a potentially very powerful alliance between poor whites and poor blacks in our country, and that alliance has been undermined. And ultimately, I think, who it benefits is a tiny, tiny little segment of the society — this is another way of talking about the one percent.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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I’m starting to understand how the whole concept of willpower is a sham.

It’s sort of funny because I took an entire college course on the psychology of willpower. All sorts of experiments have been conducted on people’s ability to do things like “delaying gratification” (such as looking at but not eating a bowl of cookies) and voluntarily withstanding various types of pain (how long will you immerse your hand in ice water?). There are mathematical models describing how willpower is depleted and renewed and how it relates to the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the anticipated reward.

The first signs of brewing trouble came (for me) in the form of studies showing that diets, exercise programs, and other regimes of “do it because it’s good for you” (including some religious doctrines) generally speaking do not work. They often work in the short term, but in the long term are more likely to leave participants worse off than they were before they started.

Then I began to see that the whole concept of willpower is antithetical to mindfulness, wholeheartedness, integral psychology, Zen, etc. These approaches first and foremost teach us to get out of our heads and tune into the sensations and experience of the body in the present moment. We work to fully experience our feelings, our body’s needs like hunger and movement, and our spiritual needs like connection and compassion. We then try to proceed in life honoring those needs without overriding them with preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “proper” or “civil” or the way to fulfill some other role that we are used to occupying (student, parent, spouse, employee, caretaker, and on and on).

Willpower is forcing oneself to overcome one’s own instincts and needs. Mindfulness is compassionately accepting and integrating our whole self, as it is, right now. These are polar opposites.

Ironically, the creators of the diets and workouts — and the prophets who headline our major religions — most likely were enlightened. That is, in a compassionate and mindful way they discovered methods by which they achieved health and happiness. Then they wrote those methods down for the benefit of the rest of us. And then, the rest of us started trying to force ourselves and each other to do those things.

Clearly there is no intrinsic problem with eating healthy and getting exercise and being honest and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. The problem comes when we try to do those things by force of will rather than out of compassion and mindfulness for what our whole self wants and needs.

I say this as someone who has been more or less stuck in my head for my entire adult life and who is at the present moment deeply hungry but putting off getting food because my mind wants to write this article and is afraid of pausing even for a few minutes because the rest of my body might realize that there are other, more pressing needs.

If that’s willpower, I no longer want it.


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Good and Bad

One of the ideas that stuck with me after reading Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg, 3rd ed. 2015), is that words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’ can often be problematic. For example:

In expressing our feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions, rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say, ‘I feel good about that,’ the word good could mean happy, excited, relieved, or a number of other emotions. Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling. (p. 43)

Notice how Rosenberg very intentionally did not say that using vague words is bad or wrong — which would of course be a contradiction! Rather, he walked the talk and described a specific problem that can arise when such words are used. (Elsewhere in the book he describes all sorts of terrible problems that can arise from using judgmental language including “right” and “wrong”.)

Part of what’s poignant about this is how easy it is for my mind to jump to the simplified version: that using these words is bad or wrong. They appear frequently in conversation, social media, news, and books. So now every time I notice one, I have an opportunity — I can judge the wrongness/badness of the writer, or I can simply become curious and see if I can think up a more specific way to phrase what they may have meant (helping to improve my own communication skills). Sometimes my mind does both. Sometimes I end up liking the author’s word choice a lot.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Nonviolent Communication is that it is a self-help book (which we would presume to contain some ideas about what sort of behavior is good or bad) written entirely without resorting to judgmental language like “good”, “right”, “should”, and “must”. Instead, everything is framed as techniques that can be employed to achieve certain goals or qualities.

If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. (p. 81)

I think it is critically important to recognize that someone who does not practice nonviolent communication is not bad or wrong. They may be suffering unnecessarily, but they are doing their best.

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The realness of thinking

I sometimes wonder why our culture finds brain physiology so compelling. For example, I often see science writing that goes something like this: “After performing [some mental or physical task], subjects displayed improved [memory, cognition, sleep, mood]. But not only that, MRI scans showed that their brains literally changed size and shape!

That’s like saying: “After [some exercise program], subjects were able to lift on average 20 more pounds than they were at the start of the program. But not only that, their muscles literally changed size and shape!

Issue 1: If the goal is to lift more weight, then the details of what happened physiologically are irrelevant to whether or not the intervention was a success. (Either the participants got stronger or they didn’t.)

Issue 2: The fact that physiological change occurred should have been obvious, since any change in behavior or ability must be reflected in our physical bodies.

Similarly in the brain-training studies, if the goal is to achieve improved cognition, sleep, mood, etc., then the details of what happened physiologically don’t have any bearing (positive or negative) on whether the intervention was a success. (If cognition/sleep/mood had not been affected, even a radical observed change in brain size would not change the fact that the intervention failed. Conversely, if no brain changes had been observed, that wouldn’t detract from any success the intervention enjoyed — it just means that the anatomical aspect of the change has not yet been discovered.)

Likewise, the fact that a physiological change occurred should not have been surprising. Unless you believe that minds somehow avoid the laws of physics, they must have a physical representation in the body. So any change in thinking or behavior must be represented physiologically somewhere. While it is indeed exciting that neuroscientists are able to see some of these changes in brain scans, their existence is expected — it confirms the known laws of physics.

Yet it seems to be a continuing source of surprise that just by thinking, you can change the physical structure of your brain.

Perhaps it’s a surprise that thinking is that real.

As more of us learn how to observe and change our own patterns of thought — and witness the very real effects on our emotions, behaviors, and psychosomatic physical illnesses — maybe then the realness of thinking will become less of a surprise.

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Real life

“Kathleen was 35 years old and… came from a large Catholic family. She had been stuck in early adolescence for years and was destined to stay there for the remainder of her life, as many parochial school students do, having learned from the nuns that the most important thing in life was to put on an act for parents and overseers and live your real life on the side.”

-Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty (p. 45)

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The media

It’s interesting that everyone seems to be unhappy with the “mainstream media”. Those “on the left” tend to feel that the pursuit of “unbiased” reporting is lending credibility to candidates and stories that simply aren’t credible. Meanwhile, those “on the right” tend to believe that the pursuit of “the facts” is at best a distraction from what they care about, and at worst an elaborate scheme to cover up elitist conspiracies.

Is it possible for the media to address these concerns without going out of business or fragmenting into the “echo chambers” we are now seeing of special-interest news feeds that are not helping anyone to understand each other better?

  • Can journalists acknowledge that everyone is biased, and therefore that pretending to be truly unbiased is inauthentic?
  • Can scientists acknowledge that all facts are human creations, and as such are inherently prone to some uncertainty?
  • Can religious leaders acknowledge that all scripture requires human interpretation, and as such is also inherently prone to some uncertainty?
  • Can laypeople acknowledge that some important truths are difficult or impossible to understand without years of training and effort?
  • Can politicians acknowledge that they, like all people, have made devastating mistakes?

In short, how do we present the news of the day authentically, humbly, and realistically? (How would Jesus, or the Buddha, report the news?)


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Meditation on the “Four Immeasurables”

“Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship.

“Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion for your conflicted, struggling self.

“Then bring your capacity for joy to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life’s tiny pleasures.

“Finally, look at yourself with upeksha (“even-mindedness, non-attachment“). You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.”

-Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (p. 85-86)

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A definition of meditation

“Meditation… is a discipline that helps us to take greater control of our minds and channel our destructive impulses creatively.”

-Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (p.84)

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How does a manager abolish managers?

I’m deeply excited about the future of self-managed organizations, but I’m uneasy about the way some of these organizations are undergoing the transition. Perhaps this is captured in the opening paragraph of an article from The Atlantic: “This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution….”

There’s clearly something ironic about abolishing managers “by order of the CEO.” In the old system, of course, the CEO did have the power to declare such a change. But to begin a glorious new era of empowered employees by commanding it? That feels to me like a dangerous precedent, and a recipe for all the sorts of problems that self-management is intended to solve.

I realize that this sort of transition is going to be difficult no matter what, and I don’t claim to have any magic solutions. But I do wonder what alternatives might be explored that are more in the spirit of empowerment, wholeness, and purpose. Could the CEO invite teams to experiment with self-management, and support their efforts if and when they proceed? Could the CEO begin to practice self-management, at least within her own team of executives? Could the CEO share with the rest of the company his own authentic hopes and fears about a potential transition?

And what is a CEO to do if the company as a whole does not want the freedom, responsibility, uncertainty, and pain that comes with such a transition? Wouldn’t it be against the spirit of a compassionate community to force such a change? And anyway, wouldn’t such force merely arouse suspicion, resentment, and resistance from those who it is forced upon?

In Zappos’ case, anyone who did not want to transition were invited to leave the company with generous severance pay. I like the individual freedom in this, but again I worry about the precedent: not everyone is welcome in this community.

I suspect there is still a lot of opportunity for creativity and experimentation in helping organizations transition to self-management more gradually, organically, and compassionately.


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“To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning towards disorder and surprise. How we open or close to the reality that we never arrive at safe enduring stasis is the matter, the raw material, of wisdom.”

-Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise (p. 67)

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5-hour workday

“When I tell people my team only works five hours a day, their response is always, ‘That’s nice, but it won’t work for me.’ The 9-to-5 is so ingrained in their minds that they can’t imagine anything else. But you can reduce your hours by 30% and maintain the same level of productivity.”

-Stephan Aarstol, The Five Hour Workday

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What is true?

The classic Zen koan goes: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Today I ask: “If there exists a fact but no one believes it, is it true?”

Science seeks to uncover objective truths — facts that exist independently of any given person’s beliefs. But scientists are still human, and humans make mistakes (logical and otherwise), so you can never be absolutely certain about any given scientific truth, no matter how many experiments we run. (As a scientist or science-minded person, it’s easy to overlook this depressing fact.)

Meanwhile, if someone believes something, then the fact that they believe it is, in and of itself, true. This is why journalists report on what people believe, even if there may be compelling evidence that the belief is faulty. As Simon Sinek puts it in his classic TED talk: “People will do the things that prove what they believe.” If you believe that global warming is a hoax, or that immigrants are responsible for economic decline, you will vote for a candidate who appears consistent with those beliefs. So in determining the outcome of the election, the belief carries far more weight than what happens to be objectively true (which no one can be absolutely certain about anyway).

A belief is our own subjective experience of what is true. It’s what’s real to us. It’s internally certain. And as such it often carries far more power than what may or may not be externally factual.

In this sense, you could argue that beliefs are more true than facts. Beliefs are the truest thing there is for the person that believes them. Moreover, if you are interested in taking action in the world, and inspiring others to act, then knowing what people believe is usually at least as important as knowing the facts.

So if there exists a fact but no one believes it, is it true?

And if it’s true, does it matter?



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Designs do not imply truth

“Often, what we have conjured [in the past] assumes the sheen of inevitability, as if its results were inalienable facts in the world rather than the product of someone’s ideas and actions. In other words, design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions, supplying form to the fictions by which we live. We rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by our paper money or the imagined national narratives engendered by borders. Unlike words, the meaning of which can be debated, the objective materiality of designed objects exudes a unique power. Once established, it’s difficult to think outside the systems and structures these objects represent.”

-Michael Rock, “The Accidental Power of Design” (NY Times)

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Not Knowing

“The vulnerability of not knowing is in fact the only portal through which breakthroughs occur.”

-Amy Whitaker, Art Thinking (2016)

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Many ways to meditate

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Learning takes time

I recently found a sticky note from around 2004 on which I had written: “In the future, artificial intelligence may obviate the need for certain skills, but the act of learning is a very human process that proceeds at human pace.”

Since then I’ve been puzzling over what exactly I meant by that. (It’s a classic example of obvious or profound?) Here’s what I think I meant: The rate at which humans learn is essentially limited. Of course, the pace of learning does vary somewhat in different situations, but this variation tends to be within, say, an order of magnitude and there is no known way to get around these limits.

Whether by impatience or optimism, I frequently forget this. As soon as I learn something useful or exciting, I start trying to rapidly explain it to others, expecting them to learn it using far less time and effort than it took me. While in some sense it’s generous to assume that others are such fast learners, it’s also a form of hubris for me to believe that my explanation is somehow orders of magnitude better than the explanation given to me. It would be as if I somehow found a magical shortcut that makes teaching and learning easy.

None of this is to say that great teaching doesn’t exist — it does, and in every domain teachers have worked tirelessly towards making learning more efficient and more fun. Motivation, support, curriculum, collaboration, and many other factors help optimize human learning. The point is simply that these optimizations have diminishing returns. That is, there’s a theoretical maximum implying that it’s impossible to learn all of calculus in one week. (On the other hand, it is possible to teach in a way that is arbitrarily ineffective — say, by putting a student in a room with no supplies and yelling at them all day.)

If all of this is true, then we would not expect any educational technology to dramatically improve student outcomes, unless we were replacing dramatically ineffective prior teaching methods. In other words, to claim that a dramatic improvement is possible is to state that the current methods are dramatically poor — in which case, there are probably plenty of alternative improvements which do not require advanced technology.

The only way technology can dramatically “speed up learning” is by making certain skills obsolete, so that it is no longer necessary to learn them at all. For example, humans in the developed world can get along fine without knowing how to grow food or survive in the wilderness (or do long division). Modern technologies have obviated the need for those skills. Some people might still want to learn them, but for those who don’t, the learning time has been effectively reduced to zero — a dramatic advance! That in turn leaves time and energy for learning other things that have become more important (say, computer skills).

This is why my focus within educational technology has always been toward obviating the need for a skill rather than tweaking the learning process or transferring existing lessons to tablets and smart boards. This is why I’m so interested in Bret Victor’s work on graphical tools for math and programming that could obviate the need to learn traditional, difficult methods for algebra, calculus, and debugging. It’s why I’ve spent so much time working on tools that make it possible to do data analysis safely without learning all of the details of statistics and visualization techniques.

But perhaps my sticky note was simply a reminder to have patience for learning. Wisdom is prized precisely because it cannot be short-circuited.

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Change by replacement


Posted in UXPA Seattle

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The middle manager predicament

“Landing in the middle of the status hierarchy actually makes us less original. When [psychology researchers] asked people to generate ideas, their output was 34 percent less original after being randomly assigned a middle-manager role than a president or assistant role. In another experiment, merely thinking about a time that they were in a middle-status role caused participants to generate 20-25 percent fewer ideas […] than thinking about being in a high-status or low-status role.”

-Adam Grant, Originals (p. 84)

I suppose “death by middle management” is basically cliché at this point. But normally I just hear people joking about it. It occurs to me now that middle managers are a good case study for examining the problems with traditional management hierarchies, because middle managers are subject to the stresses both of trying to please those above and trying to be responsible for those below. (To put it another way, the system gives them less than one-person’s-worth of power, yet more than one-person’s-worth of responsibility.)

The way I interpret the experiment’s results above is that being in a power hierarchy at any level stifles creativity, but middle managers receive a double dose.

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The fat hypothesis

“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a 2008 analysis of all studies of the low-fat diet, found “no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of dietary fat causes heart disease or cancer. Another landmark review […] stated “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of [coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease]”.

“In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.”

-Ian Leslie, The Sugar Conspiracy (The Guardian)

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Manager approvals

Adam Grant, Originals (p. 40):

When managers vet novel ideas, they’re in an evaluative mindset. To protect themselves against the risks of a bad bet, they compare the new notion on the table to templates of ideas that have succeeded in the past. When publishing executives passed on Harry Potter, they said it was too long for a children’s book; when [the division president] saw the Seinfeld pilot, he felt it was “too Jewish” and “too New York” to appeal to a wide audience.

The book goes on to cite studies which found that managers, test audiences, and the creator of a given work all had poor track records when predicting the creative work’s real-world success. Instead, the most accurate predictions were made by creative peers evaluating one another.

It makes you wonder why today’s companies still make most of their decisions via manager approvals. Which also makes you wonder if there might exist a more effective approach


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Scarcity vs. Mutual Benefit

A core thesis of Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) is that there is no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil. Rather, everyone simply has needs which may be met or unmet. “Moralistic thinking” judges an action or person that meets your needs as “good” and one that does not meet your needs as “bad”. Rosenberg argues that all violence is caused by such judgements and offers techniques for interpreting the world more compassionately.

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, chronicles the history of the world as the progress of biological and then social organisms to unleash new ways of collaborating in order to achieve mutual gains. This includes everything from the mutual advantage of organelles joining together inside a cell to the mutual advantages of paying taxes for shared services like roads and armies. It helps to explain the evolutionary development of human brains able to cooperate with ever larger social groups, as well as the emergence of human traits such as kindness and altruism.

Wright also makes it clear that there have always been plenty of situations where collaboration does not lead to mutual gains. When there is a fixed scarcity of food, water, control, or some other resource, violence and war have been the logical strategy to claim the limited spoils. (And the two situations are intertwined: competition for limited resources created the evolutionary pressure that favored human groups that were better at cooperating internally.)

I believe these authors offer two perspectives on a single phenomenon. Namely, we humans are flexibly equipped to deal with two distinct types of situations: those where collaboration results in mutual gain; and those where it does not.

When we act out of fear (including its variants, guilt and shame), we are using the part of our psyche that is adapted to scarcity and competition for limited resources. Scarcity calls for violence, and so our action will necessarily be violent. Nonviolent Communication describes a wide range of violent actions — not just physical but also relational and emotional violence, as well as violence to our own internal sense of worthiness.

When we act from a feeling of compassion (i.e. caring and love), we are using an altogether different part of our psyche that is adapted to the possibility of mutual gain. Such situations call for empathy — an understanding of others’ needs as well as our own — so that we can work together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Our action is likely to be creative, searching out opportunities for new forms of mutual gain.

Among other things, this helps to explain why people meet the expectations of their environment. If you approach someone with violence or by wielding power, they are likely to assume they are in a scarcity situation and will probably respond using their fear pathway. If you approach someone with compassion, they are likely to assume they are in a mutual gain situation and will probably respond using their cooperation pathway.

Mindfulness meditation and other spiritual traditions (with their practices covering gratitude, compassion, patience, etc.) can be seen as a way to train the mind to react to as many situations as possible with the cooperation pathway rather than the scarcity pathway. This goal follows from the understanding that cooperation creates abundance, whereas violence only leads to more scarcity.

It may be that when we talk about “angels and demons of our nature”, we are really referring to our compassion and fear pathways. However, calling one of these pathways “good” and the other “bad” is itself a judgement that inevitably leads to more violence. The Zen of Fear is to nurture compassion for that part of us that is designed to face scarcity.

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Causality of Success

“Most people assume the following formula: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. Success first, happiness second. The only problem is that this formula is broken. The formula is broken because it is backward. More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

-Shawn Achor (TED talk, via Corporate Rebels)

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Listening to hearts

“I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. […] I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads. [When I focus on their] feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 151)

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“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 147)

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