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We think that we're in control. We believe that our conscious mind directs our thoughts and somehow controls our subconscious mind. We're wrong.
In Richard Restak's The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own:
At the moment of decision we all feel we are acting freely, selecting at will from an infinity of choices. Yet research suggests this sense of freedom may be merely an illusory by-product of the way the human brain operates.
Restak gives the example of reading this essay. You scan the title and a few sentences here and there and eventually make a decision to stop reading or read on. You might then go back to the beginning and start reading, or you might start reading wherever it was in the article when you decided to stop skimming.
“The internal sequence,” Restak writes, “was always thought to be: 1. you make a conscious decision to read; 2. that decision triggers your brain into action; 3. your brain then signals the hands to stop turning pages, focuses the eyes on the paragraph, and so on.”
But this isn't what happens at all. “An inexplicable but plainly measurable burst of activity occurs in your brain prior to your conscious desire to act.”
The subconscious mind controls a lot of what we think and the connections we make. And, of course, our thoughts influence what we do.
Breaking codes in World War II was perhaps the largest big data project ever to happen in the world up until that point. The conscious mind could only do so much. One German cryptanalyst recalled, “You must concentrate almost in a nervous trace when working on a code. It is not often done by conscious effort. The solution often seems to crop up from the subconscious.”
Believing that the conscious mind calls the shots prevents us from understanding ourselves, others, and how to make better decisions to name but a few things.
In Plain Talk, Ken Iverson offers some insight on how to turn these thoughts into practical utility.
“Every manager,” he writes “should be something of a psychologist—what makes people tick, what they want, what they need. And much of what people want and need resides in the subconscious. The job of a manager is to help the people accomplish extraordinary things. And that means shaping a work environment that stimulates people to explore their own potential.”
We place too much emphasis on the conscious mind and not enough on the subconscious one.
Unless you manage your environment, it will manage you. The old question ‘would you rather be the poorest in a wealthy neighborhood or the richest in a poor neighborhood?' is based on how the environment controls our subconscious and our subconscious controls our happiness.
What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.
In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:
When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.
Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.
Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.
Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”
Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.
Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.
This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:
More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.
Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”
The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.
Henry Ford famously said of life before the car “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses“. This sentiment could be equally applied to the telegraph, a communications technology that came about 400 years after the printing press.
Before the telegraph, the speed of communication was dependent on the speed of the physical object doing the transporting – the horse, or the ship. Societies were thus organized around the speed of communication available to them, from the way business was conducted and wars were fought to the way interpersonal communication was conducted.
Let's consider, for example, the way the telegraph changed the conduct of war.
Prior to the telegraph, countries shared detailed knowledge of their plans with their citizens in order to boost morale, knowing that their plans would arrive at the enemy the same time their ships did. Post-telegraph, communications could arrive far faster than soldiers: This was something to consider!
In addition, as Tom Standage considers in his book The Victorian Internet, the telegraph altered the command structure in battle. “For who was better placed to make strategic decisions: the commander at the scene or his distant superiors?”
The telegraph brought changes similar in many ways to the printing press: It allowed for an accumulation of knowledge and increased the availability of this knowledge; more people had access to more information.
And society was forever altered as the new speed of communication made it fundamentally impossible to not use the telegraph, just as it is near impossible not to use a mobile phone or the Internet today.
Once the telegraph was widespread, there was no longer a way to do business without using it. Having up to the minute stock quotes changed the way businesses evaluated their holdings. Being able to communicate with various offices across the country created centralization and middle management. These elements became part of doing business so that it became nonsensical to talk about developing any aspect of business independent of the effect of electronic communication.
One can argue that the more revolutionary an invention is, the slower the initial uptake into society, as society must do a fair amount of reorganizing to integrate the invention.
Such was the case for both the telegraph and printing press, as they allowed for things that were never before possible. Not being possible, they were rarely considered. Being rarely considered, there wasn't a large populace pining for them to happen. So when new options presented themselves, no one was rushing to embrace them, because there was no general appreciation of their potential. This is, of course, a fundamental aspect of revolutionary technology. Everyone has to figure out how (and why) to use it.
In The Victorian Internet, Standage says of William Cooke and Samuel Morse, the British and American inventors, respectively, of the telegraph:
[They] had done the impossible and constructed working telegraphs. Surely the world would fall at their feet. Building the prototypes, however, turned out to be the easy part. Convincing people of their significance was far more of a challenge.
It took years for people to see advantages with the telegraph. Even after the first lines were built, and the accuracy and speed of the communications they could carry verified, Morse realized that “everybody still thought of the telegraph as a novelty, as nothing more than an amusing subject for a newspaper article, rather than the revolutionary new form of communication that he envisaged.”
The new technology might confer great benefits, but it took a lot of work building the infrastructure, both physical and mental, to take any advantage of them.
The printing press faced similar challenges. In fact, books printed from Gutenberg until 1501 have their own term, incunabula, which reflects the transition from manuscript to book. Eisenstein writes: “Printers and scribes copied each other’s products for several decades and duplicated the same texts for the same markets during the age of incunabula.”
The momentum took a while to build. When it did, the changes were remarkable.
But looking at these two technologies serves as a reminder of what revolutionary means in this context: The use by and value to society cannot be anticipated. Therefore, great and unpredictable shifts are caused when they are adopted and integrated into everyday life.
In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living.
The essence of his brilliance is captured on the section on love.
So much of meaning in life comes from the willingness to lean into things that make us vulnerable.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being the friend that my friends deserve, is that I have to put myself out there. It's the exposure of the self, not the protection, that creates meaning.
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
A few sentences later, he hits on the need for vulnerability.
[I]f in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.
As for finding love, we cannot direct the course.
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
As for your desires, turning into vulnerability, Gibran, who echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson's sentiment when he said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,' writes:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged hear and give thanks for another day of loving.
Love is process, not an outcome.
In The Prophet, Gibran goes on to explore the tension in love between intimacy and independence. Complement with Richard Feynman's beautiful Letter to his wife Arlene.
At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.
In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.
In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.
One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.
This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.
Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?
…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.
3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.
The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.
Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.
By adding just a little disorder, a company can give its employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we're stuck in our little box.
A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.
Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.
… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”
And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.
Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises'. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:
Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.
The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)
We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.
Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.
I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.
You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.
Few people know the details about one of the greatest stories in sports history. A classic David versus Goliath story that happened at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid when the U.S. Olympic Hockey team played the Soviets.
While the U.S. team had won the gold at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, they hadn't done much since then. The only notable showing was 5th place at the 1976 games. The Soviets, on the other hand, came into the 1980 Olympics having won 12 of the previous 15 world championships and 4 Olympic gold medals in a row. The Soviet record since Squaw Valley was 27-1-1.
In fact, the Soviets were so good, that in 1979 there was no NHL all-star game. Instead they just invited the Soviets to play a three-game series called the Challenge Cup. The U.S.S.R crushed the best players in the NHL 6-0 in the deciding game.
The Soviets beating the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Olympics was as close to a sure thing as you could imagine, or so it seemed. Only things didn't play out the way either team expected.
In his book, 99: Stories of the Game, the legendary Wayne Gretzky tells the incredible story of what transpired.
“In the United States,” Gretzky writes, “the goal was to build a team that, while not having much chance of winning, would at least not embarrass the country.”
Herb Brooks was hired as coach. If there was one guy in the program who wasn't playing to avoid embarrassment, it was Brooks.
Eighty of the best college players were invited to Colorado Springs in July of 1979 to compete for a roster spot (remember at the time the Olympic games were for amateurs). Although it wasn't so much a competition as formality. Brooks had won three NCAA championships coaching Minnesota, so he pretty much knew the 23 man roster he wanted.
A bit of leadership …
Brooks took one of the assistant coaches aside and said “A lot of these guys hate each other, and the only way I can think to make them a team is for all of them to hate me. You're going to have to keep all the pieces together and be the guy they can lean on, because they're not going to be able to lean on me. I'm going to be the same to all of them. I'm going to be tough on all of them.”
In a warm up game before the Olympics at Madison Square Garden, team USA lost to the Russians 10-3. The players were in awe of the opponent.
Brooks has spent a lot of time in Russia learning some of their systems. Herb discovered that when the Russians played hockey, they didn't shoot the puck unless they thought they could score, and so although it might look as if they had fewer than ten shots on goal, they were shots that counted. …
[I]t was all about puck possession. The Russian team didn't have to work as hard in defense because they had the puck so often. When a lot of people watch hockey, they don't seem to focus on that. A big part of my game (Gretzky) was the forecheck—chasing a defenseman down, lifting his stick, and taking the puck. If you take the puck off a defenseman or player in his own end, you don't have as many players to beat in order to score or to make a play.
An unexpected bit of ego and overconfidence …
The first medal-round game featured the Soviets and Americans. The game was played at 5 p.m. but didn't air on ABC until 8 p.m. “One of the most memorable moments in American sports history would be watched by most Americans three hours after it happened,” Gretzky tells us.
In the locker room just ahead of the game, Herb Brooks gave the most inspirational speech of his life. He told the guys, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. The moment is yours.”
The players skated onto the ice and looked up. The arena was packed. People were waving American flags everywhere. In the first minutes, the Americans surprised the Soviets with how fast and emotionally they played. Still the Soviets scored first. Then the unexpected happened.
Buzz Schneider took a slapshot and beat the legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, tying the game. The Soviets quickly scored again and it looked like the first period would end that way when Dave Christian picked up the puck in his own zone with only five seconds left. Rather than play till the whistle, a lesson we all learn at one point or another and one that was drilled into me by my high-school football coach, the Soviets had let up thinking the period was over. Christian shot the puck up ice, Mark Johnson chased it down, deked Tretiak, and scored with only one second left. Tie game.
In the second period, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled a surprise move. He replaced Tretiak—a guy known as one of the best goalies of all time—with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. I've (Gretzky) had the opportunity to sit down with Tretiak and hear his opinion about it. Tretiak was the biggest star in Russia—and maybe still is, thanks to what he did in '72 as a twenty-year-old goalie—and I think it used to drive Tikhonov crazy. He wanted to show everyone that his coaching was the reason they were winning the Olympics, not Tretiak's goaltending. And to this day, Tretiak thinks that's why he was pulled.
“Don't change a thing. Don't change a thing because they've changed goalies. Don't change a thing. Play the same way,” Brooks was heard telling his team.
A lucky bounce …
In the third period, the Soviets looked dominant again. Then, on a rush, a shot from Dave Silk slipped through a Soviet defenceman's skate right onto Mark Johnson's stick. Before Myshkin could move, it was in the net and the score was tied (3-3). A minute later, the American captain, Mike Eruzione, scored.
Now the Americans were leading, just ten minutes away from a shot at a gold medal. Brooks kept walking up and down the bench saying, “Play your game. Play your game.” He repeated it a thousand times at least.
Jimmy Craig (the American goaltender) was in the zone. He wasn't going to get scored on. When a goalie is in that kind of zone, especially in the playoffs, his ability to anticipate the shot is as good as the rest of his skill set. And Craig wasn't alone—the whole team was flying out there. When you go into a series without the sense of entitlement the Russians had, it gives you the intensity you need to get to that extra level.
The gamed ended 4-3 for the U.S. The Americans swarmed the ice. They could hardly believe it—they had to keep telling themselves, “We beat them. We. Beat. Them.”
It was the first game the Soviets had lost at the Olympics in 12 years.
There are several lessons one can take away from this story—Brooks' leadership to make the team hate him more than each other; Tikhonov's ego pulling the legendary Tretiak to show the world how amazing he was; and the importance of playing to the whistle come to mind. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that when the conditions are right, a group of “average people” can come together and get non-average results.
99: Stories of the Game goes on to tell 98 other stories about the game of hockey.
Krista Tippett, whose wonderful book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living distills many of her conversations, offers us a window into exploring ourselves and others, through generous listening and asking better questions by moving away from the false refuge of certitude.
On the art of starting new kinds of conversations Tippett offers shining wisdom, countering the notion that we need to win or lose.
I find myself drawn to black holes in common life— painful, complicated, shameful things we can scarcely talk about at all, alongside the arguments we replay ad nauseam, with the same polar opposites defining, winning, or losing depending on which side you’re on, with predictable dead-end results. The art of starting new kinds of conversations, of creating new departure points and new outcomes in our common grappling, is not rocket science. But it does require that we nuance or retire some habits so ingrained that they feel like the only way it can be done. We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about. This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.
Listening is an everyday act, and perhaps art, that many of us neglect.
Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.
Tippett introduces us to generous listening, language she picked up from a conversation with Rachel Naomi Remen, who uses it to describe what doctors should practice. Tippett explains:
Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability— a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.
Of the many reasons we would want to engage and renew our listening skills, asking better questions is near the top.
[W]e trade mostly in answers— competing answers— and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.
Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.
Questions themselves can offer no immediate need of answers. Counter to our notion that everything must have an answer, some of the most worthwhile questions are the ones with no immediate answers.
And yet we insist on dividing so much of life into competing certainties.
We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative involves a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching— not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.
In a way answers are like the goals that Scott Adams brought to our attention — a false, but comforting, refuge. Yet, for many of us probing ourselves with questions about how we should live and what it means to be a citizen in a global world, it is in the search that we find meaning.