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Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living

“I am a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

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Krista Tippett, the host of the compelling podcast On Being, is an incredible conversationalist. From poets and physicists to neuroscientists — her show offers conversations that traverse time and disciplines. At the heart of her inquiry lies space to explore what it means to live a meaningful life.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett, who listens for a living, offers an illuminating slice of these conversations. As a illuminating guide, her reflections walk us through the work of a lifetime exploring love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The book is organized around virtue and “gentle shifts of mind and habit.” She explores five raw materials for living a meaningful life:

Words — The language we use to tell stories to ourselves and others;
Body — “The body is where every virtue lives or dies”;
Love — More than something we fall into or out of, love is “the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of the human community.”;
Faith — “Literal reality is not all there is.”;
Hope — Hope has nothing to do with optimism or wishing, rather it reflects reality and reveres truth. Hope is a habit.

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

Each person explores these questions at one point or another in the context of our age and ourselves. The questions are not independent. Who we are to each other is a reflection of what it means to be human.

Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself.

Life is where we explore the mystery of ourselves and others. Here Tippett offers a voice to “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.”

In the introduction Tippett refuses the false duality and headlines that drive so much of our divide.

[M]any features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions.

Imagination and nuance and the spaces between headlines is where we live. The book is an exploration of these spaces.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.

She also offers a sobering reminder of our capacity to control.

We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications.

No section of the book is more compelling than exploring words — “I take it as an elemental truth of life,” she writes, “that words matter.”

This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.

On our affinity for tolerance she challenges us:

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth— tolerance— to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Words are containers.

The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

In one illuminating conversation, Tippett talks with one of her favorite thinkers about the failure of “official language and discourse” the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at the first Obama inauguration.

Alexander offers:

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you see on the news, doesn’t it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, “what I really would say if I could say it is . . .”

And how we are drawn to words that shimmer.

I learn so much every day from being a mother. My sons are 11 and 12, and you see the way children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they also are drawn towards language that shimmers, individual words with power. They will stop you and ask you to repeat a shimmering word if they’re hearing it for the first time. You can see it in their faces.

Words are the backbones to stories — the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

The art of conversation I’m describing here is related, but it is something subtly and directionally different— sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be. To me, every great story opens into an equally galvanizing exchange we can have together: So what? How does this change the way you see and live? How might it inform the way I see and live? I believe we can push ourselves further, and use words more powerfully and tell and make the story of our time anew.

“The world,” says physician Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Tippett, “is made up stories; it is not made of up facts.”

And yet we tell ourselves facts to piece together stories. Stories are how we make sense of life. Remen continues:

Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/ 11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories? Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.

[…]

There’s a powerful saying that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us.

Becoming Wise is for those of us who want to explore the great questions of life with imagination and courage, realizing that much of life is lived in nuance that changes with who we are and, importantly, where we are standing.

Principles for an Age of Acceleration

MIT Media Lab is a creative nerve center where great ideas like One Laptop per Child, LEGO Mindstorms, and Scratch programming language have emerged.

Its director, Joi Ito, has done a lot of thinking about how prevailing systems of thought will not be the ones to see us through the coming decades. In his book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, he notes that sometime late in the last century, technology began to outpace our ability to understand it.

We are blessed (or cursed) to live in interesting times, where high school students regularly use gene editing techniques to invent new life forms, and where advancements in artificial intelligence force policymakers to contemplate widespread, permanent unemployment. Small wonder our old habits of mind—forged in an era of coal, steel, and easy prosperity—fall short. The strong no longer necessarily survive; not all risk needs to be mitigated; and the firm is no longer the optimum organizational unit for our scarce resources.

Ito’s ideas are not specific to our moment in history, but adaptive responses to a world with certain characteristics:

1. Asymmetry
In our era, effects are no longer proportional to the size of their source. The biggest change-makers of the future are the small players: “start-ups and rogues, breakaways and indie labs.”

2. Complexity
The level of complexity is shaped by four inputs, all of which are extraordinarily high in today’s world: heterogeneity, interconnection, interdependency and adaptation.

3. Uncertainty
Not knowing is okay. In fact, we’ve entered an age where the admission of ignorance offers strategic advantages over expending resources–subcommittees and think tanks and sales forecasts—toward the increasingly futile goal of forecasting future events.”

When these three conditions are in place, certain guiding principles serve us best. In his book, Ito shares some of the maxims that organize his “anti-disciplinary” Media Lab in a complex and uncertain world.

Emergence over Authority

Complex systems show properties that their individual parts don’t possess, and we call this process “emergence”. For example, life is an emergent property of chemistry. Groups of people also produce a wondrous variety of emergent behaviors—languages, economies, scientific revolutions—when each intellect contributes to a whole that is beyond the abilities of any one person.

Some organizational structures encourage this kind of creativity more than others. Authoritarian systems only allow for incremental changes, whereas nonlinear innovation emerges from decentralized networks with a low barrier to entry. As Stephen Johnson describes in Emergence, when you plug more minds into the system, “isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals.”

Synthetic biology best exemplifies the type of new field that can arise from emergence. Not to be confused with genetic engineering, which modifies existing organisms, synthetic biology aims to create entirely new forms of life.

Having emerged in the era of open-source software, synthetic biology is becoming an exercise in radical collaboration between students, professors, and a legion of citizen scientists who call themselves biohackers. Emergence has made its way into the lab.

As a result, the cost of sequencing DNA is plummeting at six times the rate of Moore’s Law, and a large Registry of Standard Biological Parts, or BioBricks, now offers genetic components that perform well-understood functions in whatever organism is being created, like a block of Lego.

There is still a place for leaders in an organization that fosters emergence, but the role may feel unfamiliar to a manager from a traditional hierarchy. The new leader spends less time leading and more time “gardening”—pruning the hedges, watering the flowers, and otherwise getting out of the way. (As biologist Lewis Thomas puts it, a great leader must get the air right.)

Pull over Push

“Push” strategies involve directing resources from a central source to sites where, in the leader’s estimation, they are likely to be needed or useful. In contrast, projects that use “pull” strategies attract intellectual, financial and physical resources to themselves just as they are needed, rather than stockpiling them.

Ito is a proponent of the sharing economy, through which a startup might tap into the global community of freelancers and volunteers for a custom-made task force instead of hiring permanent teams of designers, programmers or engineers.

Here’s a great example:

When the Fukushima nuclear meltdown happened, Ito was living just outside of Tokyo. The Japanese government took a command-and-control (“push”) approach to the disaster, in which information would slowly climb up the hierarchy, and decisions would then be passed down stepwise to the ground-level workers.

It soon became clear that the government was not equipped to assess or communicate the radioactivity levels of each neighborhood, so Ito and his friends took the problem into their own hands. Pulling in expertise and money from far-flung scientists and entrepreneurs, they formed a citizen science group called Safecast, which built its own GPS-equipped Geiger counters and strapped them to cars for faster monitoring. They launched a website that continues to share data – more than 50 million data points so far – about local environments.

To benefit from these kinds of “pull” strategies, it pays to foster an environment that is rich with weak ties – a wide network of acquaintances from which to draw just-in-time knowledge and resources, as Ito did with Safecast.

Compasses over Maps

Detailed maps can be more misleading than useful in a fast-changing world, where a compass is the tool of choice. In the same way, organizations that plan exhaustively will be outpaced in an accelerating world by ones that are guided by a more encompassing mission.

A map implies a straightforward knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.

One advantage to the compass approach is that when a roadblock inevitably crops up, there is no need to go back to the beginning to form another plan or draw up multiple plans for each contingency. You simply navigate around the obstacle and continue in your chosen direction.

It is impossible, in any case, to make detailed plans for a complex and creative organization. The way to set a compass direction for a company is by creating a culture—or set of mythologies—that animates the parts in a common worldview.

In the case of the MIT Media Lab, that compass heading is described in three values: “Uniqueness, Impact, and Magic”. Uniqueness means that if someone is working on a similar project elsewhere, the lab moves on.

Rather than working to discover knowledge for its own sake, the lab works in the service of Impact, through start-ups and physical creations. It was expressed in the lab’s motto “Deploy or die”, but Barack Obama suggested they work on their messaging, and Ito shortened it to “Deploy.”

The Magic element, though hard to define, speaks to the delight that playful originality so often awakens.

Both students and faculty at the lab are there to learn, but not necessarily to be “educated”. Learning is something you pursue for yourself, after all, whereas education is something that’s done to you. The result is “agile, scrappy, permissionless innovation”.

The new job landscape requires more creativity from everybody. The people who will be most successful in this environment will be the ones who ask questions, trust their instincts, and refuse to follow the rules when the rules get in their way.

Other principles discussed in Whiplash include Risk over Safety, Disobedience over Compliance, Practice over Theory, Diversity over Ability, Resilience over Strength, and Systems over Objects.

Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Most great thinkers have speculated about the kind of leadership that might give rise to a better society, analyzing it through what’s sometimes called a “normative” lens: What should we be doing?

In Leviathan, for example, Thomas Hobbes argued for a single, absolute sovereign to hold together the social contract. He was addressing a debate over how leaders should act—whether they should follow their citizens’ wishes or act in the interests of future generations, against current pressures.

Other thinkers have focused on the real-world, actual path to leadership, leaving justice and civic virtue out of it; a more “descriptive” lens. For example, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, required reading at many college campuses, focuses on just that idea. How does power actually work? (Part of his answer was that power doesn’t always corrupt, but it does always reveal.)

Or take Niccolò Machiavelli’s well-known brand of statecraft:

Whoever desires to establish a kingdom or principality where liberty and equality prevail, will equally fail, unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambition.

Machiavelli may not have had access to statistical analytic tools, but the cross-national data seems to back up his crony-focused approach, according to the four authors of The Logic of Political Survival.

Over the course of 500+ pages of formal game theory proofs and model testing, they make a strong case for what they call Selectorate Theory.

That book is a bit dense, so for the layperson, two of the authors—Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith—also distilled their findings into the far more readable The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

Their idea is that governance—public or corporate—is driven by the self-interested effort of leaders to acquire and keep their power.

Under this lens, all policy decisions are a play for the loyalty of key backers, whether it’s the inner circle in a dictatorship or a whole populace in a democracy.

The logic of a leader’s political survival dictates all of the varieties of governments we see, from monarchies or corporate boards to communist states and democracies. According to Selectorate Theory, it boils down to the relative size of three groups:

The Nominal Selectorate (interchangeables), which has at least some small voice in choosing the leader. This is the pool of potential supporters.

Example: Millions of individual voters or small shareholders.

The Real Selectorate (influentials), who actually choose the leader.

Example: Senior members of the Saudi royal family or big institutional shareholders.

The Winning Coalition (essentials), whose support is critical both to gaining the leadership and to keeping it.

Example: A handful of board members and senior management.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art, and science of governing.

The difference in the relative size of these groups determines how much a leader can get away with and what the quality of life is like for those at the bottom of the system.

Dictatorships are governments based on a small winning coalition formed of a handful of generals, bureaucrats and regional leaders. The real selectorate is also small, and drawn from a large population.

In democracies, the opposite is true: the winning coalition is large, and the real selectorate is almost as large as the nominal selectorate. This means that dictators can keep their jobs by handing out private goods to their cronies, whereas democratic leaders have to dole out public goods to maintain their power. That seems to square pretty well with observations in the real world.

De Mesquita and Smith place the governance of most publicly-traded companies on the dictator side of the scale. A very small number of people usually determine the political survival of a CEO – small enough that the CEO can maintain power by making this small group happy rather than working for all of the shareholders.

In cases where companies have large groups whose approval is essential for leadership, public goods like increasing share value reward everyone and become the focus of the leader.

Much of political theory has focused on what justice and civic virtue looks like, without much evidence of the way things really work. But to change the world for the better, it is not enough to take a philosophical position. Wishful thinking has never been a wise starting point.

De Mesquita and Smith conclude that leaders shouldn’t be taken at face value on their motives.

Appeals to ideological principles and rights are generally a cover. J.P. Morgan had it right: There is always some principled way to defend any position, especially one’s own interests.

They propose five rules to keep a hold on power in any system:

1. Keep your “Winning Coalition” as small as possible.

The smaller the symbiotic group of people beholden to you, the more efficient it is to retain leadership through giving private benefits.

2. Keep your “Nominal Selectorate” as large as possible.

You’ll want to keep your inner circle on its toes by having many people waiting in the wings to replace them. You also want a large tax base to draw from.

3. Control the flow of revenue.

State bankruptcy is a political crisis. It either means the leader cannot purchase political loyalty from key backers or, in a democracy, cannot afford pork-barrel projects to buy popularity.

4. Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

And make sure you’re the only one with access to the treasury.

5. Don’t take money out of your supporters’ pockets to make the people’s lives better.

Starving illiterates don’t make good revolutionaries, whereas dissatisfied cronies can oust you.

As a ruler, your inner circle may include very few of the people who brought you to power in the first place. Your fellow revolutionaries may be too much in the habit of revolution to be safe colleagues going forward. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:

It is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.

Much as we may wish it weren’t the case, the authors’ data suggest corrupt dictatorships or oligarchies handled in this way are actually quite stable and long-lasting.

As long as the leader offers more benefits to his essentials than they could expect from alternate leadership, the incumbent enjoys a large advantage, and coup attempts often fail. For example, from 1917 until the 1980s, all but one Soviet leader ruled until his natural death. The exception, Kruschev, was deposed after reneging on promises to cronies.

The three most important characteristics of a coalition are: (1) Loyalty; (2) Loyalty; (3) Loyalty. Successful leaders surround themselves with trusted friends and family, and rid themselves of any ambitious supporters.

Though the logic of politics cannot be changed, it can be applied to finding windows for change.

The beginning of a leader’s rule or his or her terminal illness mark unstable periods of the reign, particularly if an heir has not been assigned and groomed. Sometimes it’s a financial angle: Under severe financial pressure, even an autocratic leader may see that political reform holds the best promise of political survival.

(In Taiwan, for example, Chiang Kai-Shek expanded his own coalition, in response to various pressures, until one day he found himself in a democracy.)

If an autocrat’s “inner circle” feels that their future is insecure, they will be incentivized to improve the lot of the nominal selectorate in case they someday find themselves on the outside. Mobs may take to the streets or storm government buildings when they are encouraged to do so by someone powerful, like a military leader. And with this blessing from the inner circle, the power of the people can often topple the leadership.

While there is a lot of precedent for nasty regimes being overthrown, certain conditions are necessary to prevent another dictatorship from taking hold. Countries without the political curse of natural resource wealth are more likely to succeed in democratic revolution, because they rely on a well-fed and productive populace to sustain them. The overall structure of the populace and its underlying stability or instability, cohesiveness or disjointedness matters greatly.

And in the end, given that political regimes are extremely complex systems, some of this can simply be hard to predict.

If you liked this post, you might also love:

Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others – Idealists among us would hope that people with power who break the rules quickly and loudly fall off the corporate ladder. But, as the research asks, is this the case? Or does the very act of breaking the rules fuel perceptions of power and make the person more powerful?

Why Performance Won’t Get You Promoted – If you’re going to play the game you should at least educate yourself on the unwritten rules. In an NPR interview, Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer highlights why performance won’t get you promoted and why power is corrupting.

Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

Most of us want to be smarter but have no idea how to go about improving our mental apparatus. We intuitively think that if we raised our IQ a few points that we’d be better off intellectually. This isn’t necessarily the case. I know a lot of people with high IQs that make terribly stupid mistakes. The way around this is by improving not our IQ, but our overall cognition.

Cognition, argues Richard Restak, “refers to the ability of our brain to attend, identify, and act.” You can think of this as a melange of our moods, thoughts, decisions, inclinations and actions.

Included among the components of cognition are alertness, concentration, perceptual speed, learning, memory, problem solving, creativity, and mental endurance.

All of these components have two things in common. First, our efficacy at them depends on how well the brain is functioning relative to its capabilities. Second, this efficacy function can be improved with the right discipline and the right habits.

Restak convincingly argues that we can make our brains work better by “enhancing the components of cognition.” How we go about improving our brain performance, and thus cognition, is the subject of his book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot.

Improving Our Cognitive Power

To improve the brain we need to exercise our cognitive powers. Most of us believe that physical exercise helps us feel better and live healthier; yet how many of us exercise our brain? As with our muscles and our bones, “the brain improves the more we challenge it.”

This is possible because the brain retains a high degree of plasticity; it changes in response to experience. If the experiences are rich and varied, the brain will develop a greater number of nerve cell connections. If the experiences are dull and infrequent, the connections will either never form or die off.

If we’re in stimulating and challenging environments, we increase the number of nerve cell connections. Our brain literally gets heavier, as the number of synapses (connections between neurons) increases. The key that many people miss here is “rich and varied.”

Memory is the most important cognitive function. Imagine if you lost your memory permanently: Would you still be you?

“We are,” Restak writes, “what we remember.” And poor memories are not limited to those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. While some of us are genetically endowed with superlative memories, the rest of us need not fear.

Aristotle suggested that our mind was a wax tablet in a short book on memory, arguing that the passage of time fades the image unless we take steps to preserve it. He was right in ways he never knew; memory researchers know now that, like a wax tablet, our memory changes every time we access it, due to the plasticity Restak refers to. It can also be molded and improved, at least to a degree.

Long ago, the Greeks hit upon the same idea — mostly starting with Plato — that we don’t have to accept our natural memory. We can take steps to improve it.

Learning and Knowledge Acquisition

When we learn something new, we expand the complexity of our brain. We literally increase our brainpower.

[I]ncrease your memory and you increase your basic intelligence. … An increased memory leads to easier, quicker accessing of information, as well as greater opportunities for linkages and associations. And, basically, you are what you can remember.

Too many of us can’t remember these days, because we’ve outsourced our brain. One of the most common complaints at the neurologist’s office for people over forty is poor memory. Luckily most of these people do not suffer from something neurological, but rather the cumulative effect of disuse — a graceful degradation of their memory.

Those who are not depressed (the commonest cause of subjective complaints of memory impairment) are simply experiencing the cumulative effect of decades of memory disuse. Part of this disuse is cultural. Most businesses and occupations seldom demand that their employees recite facts and figures purely from memory. In addition, in some quarters memory is even held in contempt. ‘He’s just parroting a lot of information he doesn’t really understand’ is a common put-down when people are enviously criticizing someone with a powerful memory. Of course, on some occasions, such criticisms are justified, particularly when brute recall occurs in the absence of understanding or context. But I’m not advocating brute recall. I’m suggesting that, starting now, you aim for a superpowered memory, a memory aimed at quicker, more accurate retrieval of information.

Prior to the printing press, we had to use our memories. Epics such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, were recited word-for-word. Today, however, we live in a different world, and we forget that these things were even possible. Information is everywhere. We need not remember anything thanks to technology. This helps and hinders the development of our memory.

[Y]ou should think of the technology of pens, paper, tape recorders, computers, and electronic diaries as an extension of the brain. Thanks to these aids, we can carry incredible amounts of information around with us. While this increase in readily available information is generally beneficial, there is also a downside. The storage and rapid retrieval of information from a computer also exerts a stunting effect on our brain’s memory capacities. But we can overcome this by working to improve our memory by aiming at the development and maintenance of a superpowered memory. In the process of improving our powers of recall, we will strengthen our brain circuits, starting at the hippocampus and extending to every other part of our brain.

Information is only as valuable as what it connects to. Echoing the latticework of mental models, Restek states:

Everything that we learn is stored in the brain within that vast, interlinking network. And everything within that network is potentially connected to everything else.

From this we can draw a reasonable conclusion: if you stop learning mental capacity declines.

That’s because of the weakening and eventual loss of brain networks. Such brain alterations don’t take place overnight, of course. But over a varying period of time, depending on your previous training and natural abilities, you’ll notice a gradual but steady decrease in your powers if you don’t nourish and enhance these networks.

The Better Network: Your Brain or the Internet

Networking is a fundamental operating principle of the human brain. All knowledge within the brain is based on networking. Thus, any one piece of information can be potentially linked with any other. Indeed, creativity can be thought of as the formation of novel and original linkages.

In his book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and the Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet, distills the importance of the brain forming connections.

A piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.

Cognitive researchers now accept that it may not be the size of the human brain which gives it such unique abilities — other animals have large brains as well. Rather its our structure; the way our neurons are structured, arranged, and linked.

The more you learn, the more you can link. The more you can link, the more you increase the brain’s capacity. And the more you increase the capacity of your brain the better able you’ll be to solve problems and make decisions quickly and correctly. This is real brainpower.

Multidisciplinary Learning

Restak argues that a basic insight about knowledge and intelligence is: “The existence of certain patterns, which underlie the diversity of the world around us and include our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”

Intelligence enhancement therefore involves creating as many neuronal linkages as possible. But in order to do this we have to extricate ourselves from the confining and limiting idea that knowledge can be broken down into separate “disciplines” that bear little relation to one another.

This brings the entire range of ideas into play, rather than just silos of knowledge from human-created specialities. Charlie Munger and Richard Feynman would probably agree that such over-specialization can be quite limiting. As the old proverb goes, the frog in the well knows nothing of the ocean.

Charles Cameron, a game theorist, adds to this conversation:

The entire range of ideas can legitimately be brought into play: and this means not only that ideas from different disciplines can be juxtaposed, but also that ideas expressed in ‘languages’ as diverse as music, painting, sculpture, dance, mathematics and philosophy can be juxtaposed, without first being ‘translated’ into a common language.

Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot goes on to provide 28 suggestions and exercises for enhancing your brain’s performance, a few of which we’ll cover in future posts.

George Marshall’s 1920 Letter on True Leadership

“I am certain in the belief that the average man who scrupulously follows this course of action is bound to win great success.”

***

George Marshall must be one of, if not the most under appreciated leaders in American history, and certainly of the 20th century.

Not only was he the military genius in charge of the US Army during World War II and the most directly responsible for its success, he was considered the primary leader of the Allied War effort by every major Allied leader. Roosevelt found him indispensable as his Army Commander, Winston Churchill called him the “true architect of victory” in the War, and even Stalin claimed he’d personally trust his life to Marshall. General and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower was his disciple.

It was Marshall who, from a standing start of a few hundred thousand soldiers, raised an army of millions and oversaw the major operations that would lead to the liberation of Europe. (Brilliantly recounted by Rick Atkinson in his three volume series.)

Churchill put Marshall’s best qualities — his leadership in the worst of times — on display when he wrote:

There are few men whose qualities of mind and character have impressed me so deeply as those of General Marshall … He is a great American, but he is far more than that … He has always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement and disillusion. Succeeding generations must not be allowed to forget his achievements and his example.

Sadly, outside of military circles, that example does seem a bit forgotten.

Marshall is now mostly known for his genius Marshall Plan, which sought to re-build Europe (including Germany) in the aftermath of the war. But he was much more than that.

Before World War II, Marshall had a long and distinguished military career, including as the primary aide to General John J. Pershing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. And during this time, Marshall wrote a letter that perfectly exemplifies the qualities of a great leader. It would go on to be included in his posthumously published World War I memoir, Memoirs of My Services in the World War, 1917-1918.

Here, Marshall lays out the four qualities required to be a successful leader in a war situation.

What strikes us most about them is that they are neither complicated nor available to a select few nor specific to war at all. They are simply hard. And if Marshall’s life is a testament to anything, it’s that the ability to do hard things at the right time is the essence of a great leader.

***

November 5, 1920

General John S. Mallory
15 University Place
Lexington, Virginia

My Dear General Mallory,

Last summer during one of our delightful rides I commented on the advice I would give a young officer going to war, based on my observation of what had constituted the success of the outstanding figures in the American Expeditionary Forces, and you asked me to write out what I had said. A discussion with Fox Conner this morning reminded me of my promise to do this, so here it is.

To be a highly successful leader in war four things are essential, assuming that you possess good common sense, have studied your profession and are physically strong.

When conditions are difficult, the command is depressed and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic.

When evening comes and all are exhausted, hungry and possibly dispirited, particularly in unfavorable weather at the end of a march or in battle, you must put aside any thought of personal fatigue and display marked energy in looking after the comfort of your organization, inspecting your lines and preparing for tomorrow.

Make a point of extreme loyalty, in thought and deed, to your chiefs personally; and in your efforts to carry out their plans or policies, the less you approve the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.

The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude. Never ask for the relief of your unit and never hesitate to attack.

I am certain in the belief that the average man who scrupulously follows this course of action is bound to win great success. Few seemed equal to it in this war, but I believe this was due to their failure to realize the importance of so governing their course.

Faithfully yours,

George C. Marshall
Major, General Staff
Aide-de-Camp

*     *     *

If you’re interested in learning about Marshall, there are several good books written about him including Leonard Mosley’s biography, his own WWI memoirs in which this letter is printed, and Winston Groom’s book about Marshall, Patton, and MacArthur and the winning of the war.

Making a Change: One Small Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu

***

Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.

This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn’t surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.

The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.

With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.

Kaizen has two definitions:

  • Using very smalls steps to improve a habit, a process, or product.
  • Using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions.

For this discussion let’s focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”

Thinking About Change

First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.

We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.

Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.

The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.

The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.

It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.

Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.

The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can’t succeed 100%?

Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.

There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

So let’s make our way back to New Year’s. These types of resolutions don’t work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.

In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don’t forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.

Small Steps for starting to exercise:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, purchase a hand grip to squeeze while watching television (or squeeze old tennis balls). This will burn a few calories and get you accustomed to the idea of moving your body again.
  2. When you’re ready to get moving, walk around the block once a day, or take one flight of stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Pass one additional house per day, or repeat one extra step on the staircase until you find the habit growing solid.
  4. To further increase your appetite for exercise, think about the activity you would most like to engage in – swimming? Skiing? Tennis? Find an attractive picture of that activity and place it on the refrigerator, on top of the television, or in the corner of a mirror.

Small Steps for saving money:

  1. Set yourself the goal of saving just one dollar per day. One way to do this is to modify one daily purchase. Perhaps you can downgrade from a large, relatively expensive latte to a small, plain coffee. Maybe you can read a newspaper for free online instead of buying one at the newsstand. Put each saved dollar away.
  2. Another tactic for saving a dollar a day is to share a daily indulgence with a friend. Buy one large coffee and pour it into two smaller mugs. Buy one newspaper and swap sections.
  3. If you save one dollar each day, at the end of the year you’ll have $365. Start a list of things you’d like to do with that extra money and add one idea each day. You’ll learn to think about far-off, more sizeable financial goals rather than immediate cheaper pleasures.

Small Steps for asking for a raise:

  1. Start a list of reasons you deserve more money for your work. Every day, add one item to the list.
  2. Spend one minute a day practicing your request to your boss out loud.
  3. Increase this time until you feel ready to make your request in person.
  4. Before you actually ask for the raise, imagine that the boss responds poorly – but that you walk out the door feeling successful anyway, feeling proud of our effort. (This step – really a form of mind sculpture – helps you manage any lingering fears.)

Small Steps for using time more productively:

  1. Make a list of activities that take up your time but are not useful or stimulating to you. Watching television, browsing through stores, and reading things you don’t find pleasant or productive are frequent sources of poorly used time.
  2. Make a list of activities you would like to try that you feel would be more productive than your current ones. Each day, add one item to the list.
  3. Once you have identified more-productive activities that you’d like to try, go ahead and give them a whirl – but in a very limited, nonthreatening manner. If you want to keep a journal, do so – but promise yourself to write just three sentences per day. If you’d like to take a yoga class, you might begin by just sitting in the studio’s lobby and watching students pass in and out. Soon, you will find yourself participating more fully in your activity. And you’ll hardly notice that you’re spending less time in front of the television.
  4. Each day, write down the name of one person who you feel is living a productive life. Then write down one thing that person is doing differently from you.
    (If you want to me more productive might we suggest – Productivity That Gets Results)

You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.

But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year’s resolutions.