The Time Suck of Collaboration

“Resist the temptation to say yes too often.”

Everyone wants a part of your time. Even me. How can you learn to better manage it and avoid things that are unproductive?

In 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done Peter Bregman offers a simple solution that can be easily implemented. Ask yourself three simple questions before you accept any commitment.

1. Am I the right person?
2. Is this the right time?
3. Do I have enough information?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then don’t do it.

Pass it to someone else (the right person), schedule it for another time (the right time), or wait until you have the information you need ( either you or someone else needs to get it).

But you say … What if my boss asks me to do something that fails the test? In this case …

it’s not just okay— it’s useful— to push back or redirect so the work is completed productively. It’s not helpful to you, your boss, or your organization if you waste your time on the wrong work.

Trying to be helpful to everyone on everything is what puts us in a position of failure…

That’s the irony. We try to be so available because we want to be helpful. And yet being overwhelmed with tasks—especially those we consider to be a waste of our time— is exactly what will make us unhelpful.

As for those pesky meetings. Just say No.

When we get a meeting request that doesn’t pass the test, we should decline. When we’re cc’d on an email that doesn’t pass the test, we need to ask the sender to remove us from the list before we get caught up in the flurry of REPLY ALL responses. And a fifty-page presentation needs to pass the test before we read it (and even then, it’s worth an email asking which are the critical pages to review).

18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done was a worthwhile read.

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

The book of Trees

It’s tempting to consider information visualization a relatively new field that rose in response to the demands of the Internet generation. “But,” argues Manual Lima in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, “as with any domain of knowledge, visualizing is built on a prolonged succession of efforts and events.”

This book is absolutely gorgeous. I stared at it for hours.

While it’s tempting to look at the recent work, it’s critical we understand the long history. Lima’s stunning book helps, covering the fascinating 800-year history of the seemingly simple tree diagram.

“There certainly have been many new things
in the world of visualization; but unless
you know its history, everything might seem novel.”
— Michael Friendly

Trees are some of the oldest living things in the world. The sequoias in Northern California, for example, can reach a height of nearly 400 feet, with a trunk diameter of 26 feet and live to more than 3,500 years. “These grandiose, mesmerizing lifeforms are a remarkable example of longevity and stability and, ultimately, are the crowning embodiment of the powerful qualities humans have always associated with trees.”

Such an important part of natural life on earth, tree metaphors have become deeply embedded in the English language, as in the “root” of the problem or “branches” of knowledge. In the Renaissance, the philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, for example, used tree diagrams to describe dense classification arrangements. As we shall see, trees really became popular as a method of communicating and changing minds with Charles Darwin.

The Kept

In the introduction Lima writes:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[…]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

bookoftrees18-compressed

Our relationship with trees is symbiotic and this helps explain why it permeates our language and thought.

As our knowledge of trees has grown through this and many other scientific breakthroughs, we have realized that they have a much greater responsibility than merely providing direct subsistence for the sheltered ecosystems they support. Trees perform a critical role in moderating ground temperature and preventing soil erosion. Most important, they are known as the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. As a consequence, trees and humans are inexorably intertwined on our shared blue planet.

Our primordial, symbiotic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological associations to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

While we can’t go back in time it certainly appears like Charles Darwin changed the trajectory of the tree diagram forever when he used it to change minds about one of our most fundamental beliefs.

Darwin’s contribution to biology—and humanity—is of incalculable value. His ideas on evolution and natural selection still bear great significance in genetics, molecular biology, and many other disparate fields. However, his legacy of information mapping has not been highlighted frequently. During the twenty years that led to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin considered various notions of how the tree could represent evolutionary relationships among specifics that share a common ancestor. He produced a series of drawings expanding on arboreal themes; the most famous was a rough sketch drawn in the midst of a few jotted notes in 1837. Years later, his idea would eventually materialize in the crucial diagram that he called the “tree of life” (below) and featured in the Origin of Species.

Darwin was cognizant of the significance of the tree figure as a central element in representing his theory. He took eight pages of the chapter “Natural Selection,” where the diagram is featured, to expand in considerable detail on the workings of the tree and its value in understanding the concept of common descent.

1872_Origin_F391_figdiagram

A few months before the publication of his book, Darwin wrote his publisher, John Murray: “Enclosed is the Diagram which I wish engraved on Copper on folding out Plate to face latter part of volume. — It is an odd looking affair, but is indispensable to show the nature of the very complex affinities of past & present animals. …”

The illustration was clearly a “crucial manifestation of his thinking,” and of central importance to Darwin’s argument.

As it turned out it was the tree diagram, accompanied by Darwin’s detailed explanations, that truly persuaded a rather reluctant and skeptical audience to accept his groundbreaking ideas.

Coming back to the metaphor, before we go on to explain and show some of the different types of tree diagrams, Lima argues that given the long-lasting nature of the tree and its penetration into our lives as a way to organize, describe, and understand we can use the tree as a prism to better understand our world.

As one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting visual metaphors, the tree is an extraordinary prism through which we can observe the evolution of human consciousness, ideology, culture, and society. From its entrenched roots in religious exegesis to its contemporary secular digital expressions, the multiplicity of mapped subjects cover almost every significant aspect of life throughout the centuries. But this dominant symbol is not just a remarkable example of human ingenuity in mapping information; it is also the result of a strong human desire for order, balance, hierarchy, structure, and unity. When we look at an early twenty-first-century sunburst diagram, it appears to be a species entirely distinct from a fifteenth-century figurative tree illustration. However, if we trace its lineage back through numerous tweaks, shifts, experiments, failures, and successes, we will soon realize there’s a defined line of descent constantly punctuated by examples of human skill and inventiveness.

Types of Tree Diagrams

Figurative Trees
Figurative Trees

Trees have been not only important religious symbols for numerous cultures through the ages, but also significant metaphors for describing and organizing human knowledge. As one of the most ubiquitous visual classification systems, the tree diagram has through time embraced the most realistic and organic traits of its real, biological counterpart, using trunks, branches, and offshoots to represent connections among different entities, normally represented by leaves, fruits, or small shrubberies.

Even though tree diagrams have lost some of their lifelike features over the years, becoming ever more stylized and nonfigurative, many of their associated labels, such as roots, branches, and leaves, are still widely used. From family ties to systems of law, biological species to online discussions, their range of subjects is as expansive as their time span.

Tree-Eagle Joachim of Fiore

Vertical Trees
Vertial Trees

The transition from realistic trees to more stylized, abstract constructs was a natural progression in the development of hierarchical representations, and a vertical scheme splitting from top or bottom was an obvious structural choice. … Of all visualization models, vertical trees are the ones that retain the strongest resemblance to figurative trees, due to their vertical layout and forking arrangement from a central trunk. In most cases they are inverted trees, with the root at the top, emphasizing the notion of descent and representing a more natural writing pattern from top to bottom. Although today they are largely constrained to small digital screens and displays, vertical trees in the past were often designed in larger formats such as long parchment scrolls and folding charts that could provide a great level of detail.

La Chronique Universelle-compressed

Horizontal Trees
horizontal trees

With the adoption of a more schematic and abstract construct, deprived of realistic arboreal features, a tree diagram could sometimes be rotated along its axis and depicted horizontally, with its ranks arranged most frequently from left to right.

Horizontal trees probably emerged as an alternative to vertical trees to address spatial constraints and layout requirements, but they also provide unique advantages. The nesting arrangement of horizontal trees resembles the grammatical construct of a sentence, echoing a natural reading pattern that anyone can relate to. This alternative scheme was often deployed on facing pages of a manuscript, with the root of the tree at the very center, creating a type of mirroring effect that is still found in many digital and interactive executions. Horizontal trees have proved highly efficient for archetypal models such as classification trees, flow charts, mind maps, dendrograms, and, notably, in the display of files on several software applications and operating systems.

Jurisprudence-compressed

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge goes on to explore multi-directional, radial, hyperbolic, rectangular, Voronoi, and circular tree maps as well as sunbursts and icicle trees.

Seneca on Saving Time

Near the end of his life, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote beautiful insights into letters to his friend.

This letter, found in the wonderful collection Seneca, Volume IV, Epistles 1-65, is on the subject of saving time but contains wisdom on how we squander it as well.

Greetings from Seneca to Lucilius

Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius—set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which til lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words—that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity—time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.

The Epistles make a gentle introduction to Seneca and stoic philosophy. For more recommendations, see the stoic reading list.

Maya Angelou on Haters, Life, Reading, and Love

Maya Angelou

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of Maya Angelou’s material. Notably, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, and What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. Through that I’ve pulled out these 25 quotes that resonated with me. They offer timeless wisdom and advice on everything from what to do with haters to the importance of reading and love.

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

Continue to be bold, courageous. Try to choose the wisest thing and once you’ve chosen the wisest thing go out and try to achieve it. Be it.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s) he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Those of us who submitted or surrendered our ideas and dreams and identities to the ‘leaders’ must take back our rights, our identities, our responsibilities.

For a person who grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in the segregated South, with so many doors closed without explanation to me, libraries and books said, ‘Here I am, read me.’ Over time I have learned I am at my best around books.

I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

All men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being— what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself so you can internalize, ‘Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ That’s one thing I’m learning.

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Remember, people will judge you by your actions not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold but so does a hard-boiled egg.

It is sad but true that sometimes we need the tragedy to help us to see how human we are and how we are more alike than we are different.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.

Although nature has proven season in and season out that if the thing that is planted bears at all, it will yield more of itself, there are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvesttime they can reap onions. – Too many times for comfort I have expected to reap good when I know I have sown evil. My lame excuse is that I have not always known that actions can only reproduce themselves, or rather, I have not always allowed myself to be aware of that knowledge. Now, after years of observation and enough courage to admit what I have observed, I try to plant peace if I do not want discord; to plant loyalty and honesty if I want to avoid betrayal and lies. – Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations.

The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story…

I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.

To get a better sense of Angelou’s genius, you don’t have to read her Collected Poems. You can start with one of these three: Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, or What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self.

Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, a book by Daniel Levitin, explores “how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. … It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society—from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals—have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life.”

Memory

Memory is fallible. More than just remembering things wrongly, “we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly.”

The first humans who figured out how to write things down around 5,000 years ago were in essence trying to increase the capacity of their hippocampus, part of the brain’s memory system. They effectively extended the natural limits of human memory by preserving some of their memories on clay tablets and cave walls, and later, papyrus and parchment. Later, we developed other mechanisms —such as calendars, filing cabinets, computers, and smartphones— to help us organize and store the information we’ve written down. When our computer or smartphone starts to run slowly, we might buy a larger memory card. That memory is both a metaphor and a physical reality. We are off-loading a great deal of the processing that our neurons would normally do to an external device that then becomes an extension of our own brains, a neural enhancer.

These external memory mechanisms are generally of two types, either following the brain’s own organizational system or reinventing it, sometimes overcoming its limitations. Knowing which is which can enhance the way we use these systems, and so improve our ability to cope with information overload.

And once memory became external (written down and stored) our attention systems “were freed up to focus on something else.”

But we need a place (and a system) to organize all of this information.

The indexing problem is that there are several possibilities about where you store this report, based on your needs: It could be stored with other writings about plants, or with writings about family history, or with writings about cooking, or with writings about how to poison an enemy.

This brings us to two aspects of the human brain that are not given their due: richness and associative access.

Richness refers to the theory that a large number of the things you’ve ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations— memories can be triggered by related words , by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.

[…]

Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

We categorize objects in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Each of those ways “has its own route to the neural node that represents fire truck in your brain.” Take a look at one way we can think of a firetruck.

Firetruck

Thinking about one memory or association activates more. This can be both a strength and a weakness.

If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing.

Organizing our Lives

The ancients Greeks came up with memory palaces and the method of loci to improve memory. The Egyptians became experts at externalizing information, inventing perhaps the biggest pre-google repository of knowledge, the library.

We don’t know why these simultaneous explosions of intellectual activity occurred when they did (perhaps daily human experience had hit a certain level of complexity). But the human need to organize our lives, our environment, even our thoughts, remains strong. This need isn’t simply learned, it is a biological imperative— animals organize their environments instinctively.

But the odd thing about the mind is that it doesn’t, on its own, organize things the way you might want it to. It’s largely an unconscious process.

It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility, it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different kinds and different amounts of information than we have today. To be more specific: The brain isn’t organized the way you might set up your home office or bathroom medicine cabinet. You can’t just put things anywhere you want to. The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems— it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.

Consider this, then, as an analogy: You have an old house and everything is a bit outdated, but you’re satisfied. You add a room air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. A few years later, when you have more money, you decide to add a central air-conditioning system. But you don’t remove that room unit in the bedroom— why would you ? It might come in handy and it’s already there, bolted to the wall. Then a few years later, you have a catastrophic plumbing problem—pipes burst in the walls. The plumbers need to break open the walls and run new pipes, but your central air-conditioning system is now in the way, where some of their pipes would ideally go. So they run the pipes through the attic, the long way around. This works fine until one particularly cold winter when your uninsulated attic causes your pipes to freeze. These pipes wouldn’t have frozen if you had run them through the walls, which you couldn’t do because of the central air-conditioning. If you had planned all this from the start, you would have done things differently, but you didn’t— you added things one thing at a time, as and when you needed them.

Or you can use Sherlock Holmes’ analogy of a memory attic. As Holmes tells Watson, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as your choose.”

Levitin argues that we should learn “how our brain organizes information so that we can use what we have, rather than fight against it.” We do this primarily through the key processes of encoding and retrieval.

(Our brains are) built as a hodgepodge of different systems, each one solving a particular adaptive problem. Occasionally they work together, occasionally they’re in conflict, and occasionally they aren’t even talking to one another. Two of the key ways that we can control and improve the process are to pay special attention to the way we enter information into our memory— encoding—and the way we pull it out— retrieval.

We’re busier than ever. That’s not to say that it’s information overload, as there are arguments to why that doesn’t exist. Our internal to-do list is never satisfied. We’re overwhelmed with things disguised as wisdom or even information and we’re forced to sort through the nonsense. Levitin implies that one consequence to this approach is that we’re losing things. Our keys. Our driver’s licenses. Our iPhone. And it’s not just physical things. “we also forget things we were supposed to remember, important things like the password to our e-mail or a website, the PIN for our cash cards— the cognitive equivalent of losing our keys.”

These are important and hard to replace things.

We don’t tend to have general memory failures; we have specific, temporary memory failures for one or two things. During those frantic few minutes when you’re searching for your lost keys, you (probably) still remember your name and address, where your television set is, and what you had for breakfast —it’s just this one memory that has been aggravatingly lost. There is evidence that some things are typically lost far more often than others: We tend to lose our car keys but not our car, we lose our wallet or cell phone more often than the stapler on our desk or soup spoons in the kitchen, we lose track of coats and sweaters and shoes more often than pants. Understanding how the brain’s attentional and memory systems interact can go a long way toward minimizing memory lapses.

These simple facts about the kinds of things we tend to lose and those that we don’t can tell us a lot about how our brains work, and a lot about why things go wrong.

The way this works is fascinating. Levitin also hits on a topic that has long interested me. “Companies,” he writes, “are like expanded brains, with individual workers functioning something like neurons.”

Companies tend to be collections of individuals united to a common set of goals, with each worker performing a specialized function. Businesses typically do better than individuals at day-to-day tasks because of distributed processing. In a large business, there is a department for paying bills on time (accounts payable), and another for keeping track of keys (physical plant or security). Although the individual workers are fallible, systems and redundancies are usually in place, or should be, to ensure that no one person’s momentary distraction or lack of organization brings everything to a grinding halt. Of course, business organizations are not always prefectly organized, and occasionally, through the same cognitive blocks that cause us to lose our car keys, businesses lose things, too— profits, clients, competitive positions in the marketplace.

In today’s world it’s hard to keep up. We have pin numbers, phone numbers, email addresses, multiple to-do lists, small physical objects to keep track of, kids to pick up, books to read, videos to watch, nearly infinite websites to browse, and so on. Most of us, however, are still largely using the systems to organize and maintain this knowledge that were put into place in a less informatic time.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload shows us how to organize our time better, “not just so we can be more efficient but so we can find more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, and for creativity.”

What Is Meditation?

meditation

I’ve been putting this off for years. Now is the perfect time.

Meditation offers a path toward increased happiness, creativity and mindfulness. Steve Jobs was a lifelong practitioner, reading deeply on the subject and taking meditation retreats. Each year he’d re-read his copy of Autobiography of a Yogi.

I’ve always put off exploring meditation until later. I convinced myself I was too busy. That I’d explore it when things were less hectic. But I was wrong for two reasons. First, logically, if meditation is beneficial enough to practice at some point, it is probably valuable enough to practice now. That is if I think it will add value to my life, choosing to start becomes a matter of opportunity costs. What would I do with the time I’m spending meditating versus the benefits of meditation. The only way to really evaluate that is to do it and see the results. Second, and somewhat less logically, is that I’ve met some amazing – and incredibly busy people – in the past year and one thing that seems to keep coming up is meditation. None of these people “makes time for meditation.” Rather they all see meditation as an enabler of everything else they do.

As I reflect on my life, my priorities, my friendships, and my place in the world, there is no better time than now to start exploring meditation.

In Buddhism for Beginners, Thubten Chodron does a good job exploring meditation.

Let’s start with what meditation is not.

Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face.

[...]

Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we’re not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment.

Why do we meditate? What are the benefits?

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as “to habituate” or “to familiarize.” Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.

[...]

By building up good habits of the mind in meditation, our behavior in daily life gradually changes. Our anger decreases, we are better able to make decisions, and we become less dissatisfied and restless.

What is meditation? How do we learn to meditate?

Some people think they can invent their own way to meditate and don’t need to learn from a skilled teacher. This is very unwise. If we wish to meditate, we must first receive instruction from a qualified teacher.

[...]

First, we listen to teachings and deepen our understanding by thinking about them. Then, through meditation we integrate what we have learned with our mind. For example, we hear teachings on how to develop impartial love for all beings. Next, we check up and investigate whether that is possible. We come to understand each step in the practice. Then, we build up this good habit of the mind by integrating it with our being and training ourselves in the various steps leading to the experience of impartial love. That is meditation.

Meditation is of two general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. Within these two broad categories, the Buddha taught a wide variety of meditation techniques and the lineages of these are extant today. An example of stabilizing mediation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness.

Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealously by developing positive and realistic attitudes towards other people. These are instances of analytical or “checking” meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought.

Buddhism for Beginners is a great place to start and offers “a manual for living a more peaceful, mindful, and satisfying Life.”

(Image source)

My Interview with Jenny Blake

In May I did an interview with Jenny Blake on some of the public speaking I do and what it means to speak like a pro. The interview is live (and free) for 24 hours. Some excerpts are below.

On reading books.

Jenny: Shane and I both share that we have a compulsive shopping problem when it comes to books and I love when I first found Shane’s blog, he has this philosophy that he makes reading and learning an absolute priority. If there’s room in the budget for it, if there’s room in his day, he will cut out TV. He will cut out all other kinds of spending to make room for reading and gathering information. Shane, what’s so important to you about that?

Shane: I think it’s been, over my life, it’s been the key to learning, so throughout all school and university and it’s always been book based and I love books. I love the depth of thought that goes into them. I love the organization that people put into them.

I love that they’re not a two-page article just giving you a little bit of a twist on a topic where you run away thinking that you know something, but if you read four or five books on a subject, you have a much better understanding of that subject. Personally, I spend most of my time reading books when I can. I love them.

On our headline culture.

Jenny: I love the recent blog post you wrote on 10 Ways to be Smarter, Sexier, Faster and More Productive. You get to your blog and it’s like, “This is all BS. Stop clicking these links. Go read a book instead.”

Shane: I get emails all the time from people going, “How do I be more productive? What do I need to do?” I found myself drifting in that way too. I’m trying to get out of those headlines, but I’ve been experimenting a little bit. People click more on them. I get more traffic out of them, so it’s this great positive feedback loop.

But, at the end of the day, I think I just went through my Twitter feed one day and I was like, “I’m sick of this. I don’t want to see any more of this.” Why do people click on this? Because you forget it. The next day you’re clicking on the exact same thing because you’ve completely forgotten the 10 ways you can be healthy that change every two weeks.

My accountability talk at Bradley University.

Jenny: I love – on the topic of bringing all these disparate seeming things together, you recently gave a talk at Bradley University. … It just jumped out of the screen to me because the title of your blog post was something like On Accountability, but then I start reading your notes, your transcript from the speech and you talked about courage, resilience, moral codes, acquiring knowledge, failure, deserving success, complex problem solving. All of a sudden, I’m blown away. I’m like, “This isn’t about accountability. This is about so many important ideas.”

Shane: Thank you. It was one of the most amazing – yeah. It was an amazing experience for me … somebody asked for a custom speech on accountability and I kind of went through, “What does accountability mean?” What do I already know about accountability and how do I package that together and connect it?

You end up with all these disparate threads and it’s really cool how you can take that – the students there, I thought they appreciated the fact that I’m giving them multiple examples across a different subject. I’m not just up there talking about how to be accountable and all of that. How do you design systems that are accountable for people? How does accountability factor into different aspects of your life from sports to politics to school, to you as an individual?

Jenny: That’s what I love about it. It really stood out to me. That’s actually when I decided to reach out to you for this conference because yeah, it just – it’s what makes speeches like Neil Gaiman’s speech or even Steve Jobs – I’m putting you up there in the mix – Randy Pausch, these are speeches that, I think, they stand out to people because they don’t just give one topic where it is around one of them, but they really draw upon so many different areas to give a framework. Here’s how to think about this across multiple areas of your life and how it’s going to show up.

On why I started doing speaking engagements …

Shane: I know for me, I got interested in speaking because it was a way for me to challenge myself and frankly, it scared me. It was something I wanted to do to kind of push myself towards my limits, but not go past them and I really appreciated that.

Jenny: I love that you started speaking precisely because it scares you.

Shane: Yeah, well it’s scary to do that, but it’s necessary to challenge yourself too right?

On how I prepared for my first (and every speech since then) … hello deliberate practice :

My first speech I actually – and this is going to sound ridiculous, I can’t believe I’m saying this – I went out and I’m a big fan of deliberate practice. I went out … I bought a video camera. I recorded myself. I set it up in the room, recorded myself talking for about 20 times. The 20th time I felt reasonably confident so I sent it to my friends and I’m like, “I need some feedback on this.” It was just horrible. They were like, “Well, it’s not bad for a first try.” I was like “That’s my 20th try!!! What are you guys talking about?” Through that process I’ve gotten a little better at it (maybe.)”

How to follow through on all the interesting tips and ideas.

Jenny: Okay, our last Twitter question. How to follow through on all the interesting tips and ideas. I think that’s an actually important one going back to speaking. When you get up on stage, I often will say, “If all I do is inspire you today, I have failed.” If you don’t actually go do something differently as a result of this talk or workshop I don’t really see that as a success. I’m curious to hear – how do you help people actually take meaningful action?

Shane: I think it’s up to people to take meaningful action. That’s a choice you make as a person. I can give you all the tools and the blueprints to build a house, but unless you’re willing to do it it’s not going to happen. I think the way to do that is make things easy for people. If you want to start a new habit of flossing your teeth, I think it’s like B.J. Fogg who says, “Start with one tooth a night.”

Then the minute you do that one tooth you’re going to do the rest of them, but you break it down into the first step. Remove the inertia of doing nothing. Create some positive momentum. Two or three days later you’ll be flossing your teeth every night. I think that part of what we can do as speakers is when people walk away, the big thing to do is not sell all your possessions, fly to Tibet and become a monk.

It’s what can you be doing that’s a small step in your life, that may resonate with you or may not? Although it’s opening the door for people, but I don’t want to make people walk through doors. I want to open doors.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

In this short video, theoretical physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts our ego into the perspective of the enormous universe.

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Still curious? Tyson is full of wisdom. Check out: Why persuading with facts is not enough; Why words, names, and labels matter; and his list of books that every single intelligent person on the planet should read. And if that’s not enough, check out his fascinating book: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.

(↬ SwissMiss)