Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga. The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

How many of today’s problems are the result of leadership?

What’s lacking, the author of The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership argue, is the lack of real leadership.

Here the problem may lie with a lack of deeper, broader insights, the kind of insights that technical skill alone does not confer— the ability to see the big picture, to connect with members of the organization, to foster a meaningful and productive work environment, and to steer the corporate ship through the challenges of highly competitive markets and new technologies.

***

What is leadership?

The authors define the term “leadership” in a way that that differentiates their “interpretation from the offhanded views that too often distort the word’s meaning.”

It is the assumption of the authors that leadership is an uncommon composite of skill, experience, and ripened personal perspectives. It is, of course, the last of those elements that sets the real leader apart from those who simply “run” organizations. Ripened personal perspectives are an essential ingredient in a leader’s efforts to develop and articulate a sound corporate vision. Real leaders, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, see things more rapidly than does the typical executive. At least in part, their insights are a reflection of an “inner” clarity that allows for fuller concentration on the challenges at hand.

This is why leadership cannot be “done by the numbers,” why those who have failed to comprehend the motivating subtleties in their own lives are unlikely to achieve the status of “leader.” Simply put, only those men and women who have cultivated a care fully conceived philosophy of life are ready and able to exhibit the kind of workplace mastery suggested by the term “leader.” Now for some, invoking the term “philosophy” in this context may seem strangely out of place. To one degree or another, we all have been conditioned to believe that philosophy is at best a kind of noble laziness, a speculative exercise devoid of concrete benefit. Yet it may be that many of the inefficiencies and failures that plague our managerial environments are ultimately related to an inadequate consideration of what philosophy has to offer.

***

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

1. Know thyself. Understand your inner world, your bright and dark sides, your personal strengths and weakness. Self-comprehension is a fundamental precondition necessary for real leadership.

2. Office shows the person. The assumption of authority brings out the leader’s inner world. It reveals whether the leader has undergone a process of honest self-discovery that allows for the productive application of power.

3. Nurture community in the workplace. Community development and positive sentiment are virtues leaders must nurture by providing the right support, guidance, and incentives.

4. Do not waste energy on things you cannot change. Do not waste resources and energies on things you cannot control, and therefore, cannot change.

5. Always embrace the truth. Effective leaders should always embrace the truth, always encourage candid criticism throughout the organization, be skeptical of flattering appraisals, and never let authority place a wedge between them and the truth.

6. Let competition reveal talent. Nurture an environment that can use the forces of competition constructively, create a platform that releases the ingenuity and creativity of your employees in pursuing corporate goals and objectives, identify subordinates who use competition as a constructive force, steer away from subordinates who use competition as a destructive force.

7. Live life by a higher code. Dedicate yourself to a higher standard of personal conduct; don’t harbor ill-will toward those who offend; be ready to assist those who are in need without asking something in return; remain calm in the face of crisis; dedicate yourself to principle without compromise; earn the trust, respect, and admiration of your subordinates through your character, not the authority conferred upon you by the corporate chart; turn authority into power.

8. Always evaluate information with a critical eye. Don’t rely upon old premises, assertions, and theories. Develop a critical mindset that accepts nothing at face value, certify the credibility and usefulness of critical information, analyze the con text that produces critical information and the messengers who convey it, and never rush to judgments.

9. Never underestimate the power of personal integrity. Personal integrity is a critical asset for real leadership. Always set an honorable agenda, adhere to a code of professional conduct, never try to justify dishonesty and deceit, rather “fail with honor than win by cheating.”

10. Character is destiny. True leadership is ultimately traceable to factors of character and personal integrity; much of what is called “destiny” lies in our hands, not in mysterious forces beyond our control.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders is a worthy read for anyone looking to embark on a journey of critical self-examination. You’ll learn form the revered anctiel thinkers like Aristotle, Hesiod, Sophocles, Heraclitus, and Antisthenes.

The Difference Between Prodigals and Misers

Gustave Flaubert, the keen observer of human nature, looked at the hidden motives that lead people to act in accordance with their nature.

This passage from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert is worth reflecting on.

From the idiot who wouldn’t give a sou to redeem the human race, to the man who dives beneath the ice to rescue a stranger, do we not all seek, according to our various instincts, to satisfy our natures? Saint Vincent de Paul obeyed an appetite for charity, Caligula an appetite for cruelty. Everyone takes his enjoyment in his own way and for himself alone. Some direct all activity toward themselves, making themselves the cause, the center, the end of everything; others invite the whole world to the banquet of their souls. That is the difference between prodigals and misers: the first take their pleasure in giving, the second in keeping.

Commenting on this passage in Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide, Frederic Lenoir believes it “describes the core of egotism that underlies the pursuit of our aspirations and the realization of our actions.”

Turning Towards Failure

Turning toward failure

Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. ‘Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life,’ writes the economist Paul Ormerod, at the start of his book Why Most Things Fail, but in this sense corporate life is merely a microcosm of the whole of life. Evolution itself is driven by failure; we think of it as a matter of survival and adaptation, but it makes equal sense to think of it as a matter of not surviving and not adapting. Or perhaps more sense: of all the species that have ever existed, after all, fewer than 1 per cent of them survive today. The others failed. On an individual level, too, no matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story – no offence intended – will be one of failure. You bodily organs will fail, and you’ll die. (Source: The Antidote.)

If failure is so ubiquitous you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either. In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman visits a ‘Museum of Failed Products’ and comes away with quite a few insights into our reluctance to accept, or even acknowledge, our less successful ventures.

By far the most striking thing about the museum of failed products, though, has to do with the fact that it exists as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection, a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid repeating errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives arriving every week … are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for-success – and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realize how much they need, and are willing to pay, to access (the museum of failed products). Most surprising of all is the fact that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum of failed products, over the years, have come there in order to examine – or, alternatively, have been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created and then abandoned. These firms were apparently so averse to thinking about the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.

I’ve spoken about Burkeman’s book before. There is a great chapter on the flaws related to goal setting and another on the Stoic technique of negative visualisation but they all come back to the concept of turning towards the possibility of failure.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goal setting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail.

So what does it all mean? If avoiding failure is as natural as failure itself, why should you embrace it (or even attempt an Antifragile way of life).

… it is also worth considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace it. The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful. The second is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

It’s almost jarring how simple and sensical that is, considering our aversion to failure.

Accepting failure is becoming more conversational, even if we’re a ways from embracing it. ‘Learning from our mistakes’ has become the new business mantra, replacing ‘being innovative.’ Although, I can see this quickly losing its shine when the mistake is idiotic.

Burkeman notes, it’s just too easy to imagine how the Museum of Failed Products gets populated (it is also worth noting that successful products have a lot to do with luck.)

Back in Ann Arbor, at the museum of failed products, it wasn’t hard to imagine how a similar aversion to confronting failure might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if the product’s likely failure was recognised … those responsible for marketing it might well have responded by ploughing more money into it. This is a common reaction when a product looks like it’s going to be a lemon, since with a big enough marketing spend, a marketing manager can at least guarantee a few sales, sparing the company total humiliation. By the time reality sets in, (Robert) McMath notes in What Were They Thinking?, it is quite possible that ‘the executives will have been promoted to another brand, or recruited by another company.’ Thanks to a collective unwillingness to face up to failure, more money will have been invested in the doomed product, and little energy will have been dedicated to examining what went wrong. Everyone involved will have conspired – perhaps without realising what they’re doing – never to think or speak of it again.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is an eye-opening look at how the pursuit of happiness is causing us to be more unhappy than ever.

Winifred Gallagher On Living a Focused Life

focused life

“The American dream is no longer just to get rich quick, but also to enjoy doing it, the new captains of industry offer various best-selling decalogue for achieving this goal. Their tips range from philosophical (learn from your failures) to the practical (never handle the same piece of paper twice). There’s one insight into both productivity and satisfaction that they inevitably share, however: the importance of laser like attention to your goal, be it building a better mousetrap or raising cattle. Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I’ve been exploring my ability to focus lately. It seems,  the more we practice and the more we try to become aware of when our focus slips away, the better and more productive we become. Being in this moment — not the past and not the future — is something I’ve learned through yoga and philosophy.

One thing that really helped was to identify and systematically remove distractions from my life. This made it easier to work on awareness, that is, staying in the moment, or as Gallagher, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts it:

Stay focused on the moment, (Csikszentmihalyi says), even when you’re engaged in routine tasks or social encounters. Practise directing and mastering your attention by any enjoyable means.

What does, ‘by any enjoyable means’ actually mean? The more I try to be aware of how my focus ebbs and flows, the more I realize it’s intrinsically tied into the activities I’m participating in.

According to the under-appreciated mid-twentieth-century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the way to ensure this calm but heightened attention to the matter at hand is to choose activities that push you so close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. In a variation on James’s recipe for interesting experience – the familiar leavened by the novel – Hobb’s ‘art of choosing difficulties’ requires selecting projects that are ‘just manageable.’ If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.

If you are an avid reader this should sound familiar. This is where learning happens. This is how we get better. Back in early May I wrote a post about how Kyle Bass feels freediving enables better decision making. A good chunk of that post echoes the statements that Gallagher makes above. If you are looking for challenging work or leisure that will help you maintain and even improve your ability to focus, I think Hobbs puts it best when he says the secret of fulfillment is, “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”

To put it simply, you will know when something is worth your time because it will be engaging to you and focusing at those moments should feel almost effortless. Inversely, if you constantly find your mind wandering and you’re struggling to maintain your focus, it’s probably time to reassess how you are using your time. This is not to say that self-discipline and perseverance aren’t important, but if you want to be as productive as possible, asking yourself why you are doing a specific activity is just as important as hammering through it.

Once again Gallagher puts it nicely:

There are different formulas for the fulfilling experience variously described as ‘interesting,’ ‘peak,’ or ‘optimal,’ but rapt focus is central to all of them. Whether the equation’s other integers are the novel balanced with the familiar or the challenging with the enjoyable, they add up to the same thing: engagement in activities that arrest your attention and satisfy your soul. If most of the time you’re not particularly concerned about whether what you’re doing is work or play, or even whether you’re happy or not, you know you’re living the focused life.

Why Our Relationship With Ourself is the Most Important of The Three Marriages

“We are each a river with a particular abiding character,
but we show radically different aspects of our self
according to the territory through which we travel.”

The Three Marriages and Mastering Yourself

The most difficult of David Whyte’s three marriages, found in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, is the marriage to the self, which lies beneath both the marriages of work and relationships.

Work, Self and Relationships: Together these form The Three Marriages.

What is heart-breaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity; an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.

In the midst of a life where we work hard to put bread on the table and foster a relationship, we often neglect “the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside.”

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

[…]

If we are involved in the outer world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the outer world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.

We can easily become afraid of the internal questions and the silences that illuminate them — which is why of the three marriages the marriage to oneself is the hardest.

The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

In a world that doesn’t sleep, where we are bombarded from morning to night, this is the most difficult marriage.

To the outward striver— that is, most of us— it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for a renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.

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three_marriages

The Need for Silence

All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us.

Equanimity, in the Buddhist tradition, roughly translates into “to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.”

Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our outer commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages (work and relationships) it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage; this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a stopping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from.

For the busy, Whyte argues, it is nearly impossible to stop and read the following:

In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.
Tao Te Ching (translation by Witter Bynner)

In an argument reminiscent of the one I made in my webinar on being more productive, Whyte says:

“Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then, there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from that spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.

The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big; we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.

The marriage with our self is the most difficult. It’s “connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away.” In our world of non-stop busyness, the cracks of silence that open can reveal an unfamiliar character. Developing this inner relationship, “we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth.”

This is where we live. This is where we die.

The sudden absence of our partner waits for us. The end of our work or our retirement waits. The hospital bed waits. Right now, in some obscure medical appliance company in a corner of a bleak industrial estate, the very bed on which we will lie, trying to get the great perspective, is perhaps being manufactured as we read. We don’t want to know, of course, but all our great contemplative traditions concerned with this marriage, say, this willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence, are not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait, especially until your faculties have atrophied or your youth has gone, or you have lost confidence in your self? Why wait, to be, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “a bride to wonder”? To become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

Whyte’s book is a fascinating exploration of the three marriages that challenges our conventional notions of balance.