Tuesday, December 17

Now You See It. . .and what happens when you do

I love books that make me think. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (2011) is one of the books, though the title is likely to exhaust you! In spite of its unwieldy and highly academic-sounding title, this book is quite readable and fascinating. And it's about learning.

This is one of those books with lots of underlining, notes in the margins, exclamation points, stars, arrows, and more to remind me what moved me, inspired me, or challenged me as I read it. Lots of dog-eared pages. I would love to use this text in a class or a workshop. LOVE it.

The author, Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, has been one of my educational heroes for a long time. She writes with clarity, humor, passion, and, of course, insightful intelligence.

One of the things Dr. Davidson addresses in this book is attention blindness. This piece from the Smithsonian calls it inattentional blindness, but it's the same thing. As Davidson notes, "Whatever you see means there is something you do not see" (p. 290). You can read more about this concept in her blog entry, Why You May Be Blind to a Good Idea (and What to Do About It). There are two basic lessons about attention blindness: 1) Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there and 2) No one person can see the whole picture.

This reminds me of the parable poem of the blind men and the elephant, but, more relevantly, of a writing activity during which students write a description of an object or scene from their perspective, having no idea what others might be seeing.

Dr. Davidson further states:
If I were to instill one simple lesson from all the science and all the stories in this book, it would be that with the right practice and the right tools, we can begin to see what we've been missing. With the right tools and the right people to share them with, we have new options.
From infancy on, we are learning what to pay attention to, what to value, what is important, what counts. Whether on the largest level of our institutions or the most immediate level of concentrating on the task before us, whether in the classroom or at work or in our sense of ourselves as human being, what we value and what we pay attention to can blind us to everything else we could be seeing. The fact that we don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there.
Why is this important? Because sometimes we can make ourselves miserable seeing only what we think we are supposed to see. When there is a difference between expectation and reality, we feel like failures. In one generation, our world has changed radically. Our habits and practices have been transformed seemingly overnight. But our key institutions of school and work have not kept up. We're often in a position of judging our new lives by old standards. We can feel loss and feel as if we are lost, failed, living in a condition of deficit.
The changes of the digital age are not going to go away, and they are not going to slow down in the future. They'll accelerate. It's time to reconsider the traditional standards and expectations handed down to us from the linear, assembly-line arrangements of the industrial age and to think about better ways to structure and to measure our interactive digital lives.
By retraining our focus, we can learn to take advantage of a contemporary world that may, at first, seem distracting or unproductive. By working with others who do not share our values, skills, and point of view, change becomes not only possible but productive--and sometimes, if we're lucky, exhilarating (p. 291).
Even if we are not overtly open to change and learning, our brains are constantly learning, unlearning, relearning. But we have to be willing to see it. We have to be willing to open our eyes and our minds. We have to be willing to experience change in ways that might seem alarming, even dangerous to our comfortable status quo. We have to be willing to ask the hard questions and then push through to the harder questions.

And once we see, we have to be willing to do and we have to be willing to continue to see.

Saturday, November 23

Only the (mentally) strong survive

Not too long ago I was on a hike with a friend and we were having one of those series of random conversations. One of us would say something that would lead to a tangent that would lead to another tangent. It was quite fun. One of the tangents included Darwin's theory of evolution, that idea of natural selection or what became "survival of the fittest" which led to discussing what "fittest" meant. So that conversation came to mind when I came across this article Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid. I believe that many of today's fittest are, in fact, the mentally strong.

I love the concept of "failing up." Because sometimes we do fail. Yep, we fall flat on our faces, metaphorically speaking, and we have a choice as we lie there. We can do a few quick push-ups before we get up, or we can just roll over on our backs and whimper. Except for the push-ups part, I try to opt for the getting up. By getting up we say, "This failure does not define me. I will learn from it and I will move on."

What mentally strong people don't do makes sense. They don't:
  1. Waste time feeling sorry for themselves. There could be a moment or two of aggravation, frustration, and those normal emotions that people experience. But there is also a time of reflection--"what can I learn from this and how can I build on the good experience and insight I've gained?".
  2. Give away power. This one can be harder, but it's remembering who you are and what you're capable of doing. Failing can feel like rejection of your talents, but failing in that situation might not be at all related to anything you've done or are capable of doing.
  3. Shy away from change. . .or be okay with your cheese getting moved and perhaps a lot. Here's another thing about change: it's an opportunity to learn that much more about yourself--your capabilities, interests, limitation. I was recently in a position that was clearly not to my strengths. I was all but set up to fail (though not deliberately), but I opted to work towards my strengths to see how I could make the best of the situation.
  4. Waste energy on things they can't control. I was just on a business trip that was fraught with challenges. Weather caused delays which caused missed connections, etc. I could have complained, but that would have accomplished nothing. Instead, when I got to talk with the rebooking agent, I was pleasant with her and thanked her for her help. She was doing her job as best as she could and really didn't need to be hassled.
  5. Worry about pleasing others. I think this can be a tough one, even for some of the mentally strong. There is a fine line between pleasing someone else and being kind or not hurting someone else's feelings, but that is often situational. The flip side is focusing too much on pleasing ourselves, which is a different kind of problem.
  6. Fear taking calculated risks. The key word is "calculated." It's important to envision and even plan for worst-case scenarios, but not get mired in analysis to the detriment of progress.
  7. Dwell on the past. That was then, this is now. Learn from then, and apply it to the now and the future.
  8. Make the same mistakes over and over again. "Research shows that the ability to be self-reflective in an accurate and productive way is one of the greatest strengths of spectacularly successful executives and entrepreneurs." I think the hard part is being accurately self-reflective: acknowledging our true strengths and determining how best to manage our weaknesses.
  9. Resent other people's success. Others have talents we don't. We cannot resent that others have taken advantage of presented opportunities or made good choices. That is a waste of energy (see #3) and can lead to wasting time (see #1) and giving away power (see #2).
  10. Give up after failure. Failure is an option. It has to be an option in everyday life. We will not always be successful in every single thing we do. So learning from failure is an important life skill.
  11. Fear alone time. See #8. Being alone, away from all of the noise and white noise, gives you the opportunity to reflect, to do those self-assessments, to examine those risks, and to make those decisions about what can and will change in your life.
  12. Feel the world owes them anything. The "world" has never owed anyone anything. Ever. That victim mentality gets you nowhere fast.
  13. Expect immediate results. Sure, sometimes a new possibility presents itself almost immediately. But sometimes the first thing isn't the best thing (see #6, #8, and #11). That could be rebound option, which might not bode well for you. As you contemplate your next steps, spend that time being self-reflective and examining the possibilities.
As I reflect on this, I think it's important to consider that it's not always the being strong. Sometimes the becoming strong is what matters most.

Monday, November 18

Tyranny of the Urgent: Impacting the Personal

Years ago The Navigator published a booklet titled Tyranny of the Urgent. It is a classic with perceptive insights into time management.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine and I were having breakfast and we talked about how hard we work for someone else and how little comparable energy we seem to put into our own passions, our own work, our own dreams.

We've all experienced the challenges of time management, of the "urgent" getting the most immediate attention. Although the urgent isn't always "urgent." It may be the thing that is demanding the most attention, but it may not be the most important thing to which you need to be paying attention.

A colleague and friend of mine used to talk about working constantly in a "hair on fire" mode. That wasn't good. It was reactive, which meant that people rarely felt as though they had the luxury of time to stop and think through solutions, options, or just do a reality check.

Rafe Esquith used that phrase differently in his book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire; his was the story of a remarkable teaching career in Los Angeles. The phrase bespoke energy and passion, but not without thought and insight.

All of that was brought home recently when I was confronted with a situation that forced me to rethink my own responses to the tyrannies of the urgent and "hair on fire" moments in my life.

This isn't a change like flipping a switch, at least not for me. I know I will have to be consistent about checking my responses to the situations around me and those that affect me. I know I will have to be more consistent about pausing to guard against responding reactively to the urgent that might not be urgent, or responding to the "hair on fire" that might not really be a fire. And I have to keep myself in mind so that I do not stifle my own passions and my own dreams.

I think it's a challenging balance so that I'm not so self-directed that I become inwardly insular, aka selfish. But though I seem to have a deep need and sense of responsibility to take care of others, even strangers, I need to take care of myself to. I need to be the best possible me I can be. Every day.

Sunday, September 15

Reflections and no regrets

Robin William is returning to television. In a recent interview, he was asked about being in television again and some of the changes he's made in his life. Having been through rehab twice, Mr. Williams noted some changes were out of necessity and some changes have been a choice. But when asked about regrets, Mr. Williams said he had none. "Regrets don't help anyone."

Friday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Days of Awe are what some call the
10-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur. This is a time of reflection and repentance. On Yom Kippur, Jews seek reconciliation with God as they prepare to move ahead in the new year.

As I was doing some cleaning, I came across a piece of paper on which I'd written, probably copied: "With clean hands we find our grace. We realize the slate can be as clean as we allow it to be."
Psalm 103:2-3 reads "Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases." (NLT). God forgives all of my sins and heals all of my dis-eases, those abnormalities of my being.

If you're still with me, you're wondering how all of these things go together. First, then, thanks for hanging with me.

Humanity seems to have a need to refresh and reset. At New Year's we want a clean slate. It is a time of hopefulness. We try for no regret and no recriminations. I believe we hope and try to learn from our mistakes, but wallowing in them, speculating on the "what if" of the past is pointless. We live in the present. The road that wasn't taken doesn't really matter as long as we learn something from that experience that informs our present and helps us prepare for a better future. Our mistakes and failures are just as important in shaping who we are and the kind of people we can be as our successes.

But it can be hard to forgive ourselves, so our slates may not be as clean as we could allow them to be. Yom Kippur doesn't mean Jews can't repent and seek reconciliation any time during the year, but it marks the importance of going through that process, sealing that in the past, and moving on to the future. Reflection is important; dwelling and wallowing, however, don't help us grow or improve.

"Regrets don't help anyone." Mr. Williams is right; they don't. Reflecting on our behavior and actions, acknowledging mistakes, seeking repentance where it is due, learning from our reflections and mistakes, living in the present, and striving for a better future.

That's what can help us become better people. For ourselves; for everyone.

Monday, September 9

Success through failure

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail." 
Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?" 
Robert Browing


Diana Nyad was 64 when she achieved her goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida, 110 miles. It was her fifth attempt since 1978; her fourth since turning 60. Each time she attempted the swim, she learned something new--about herself, about the conditions, about the kind of support she needed. Each time she failed, she learned something that would help her be more successful the next time.

There are those who believe she still has not succeeded, that she unfairly wore a mask and body suit to protect her from the jellyfish, that she swam too fast, that blah blah blah. There will always be skeptics when the seemingly insurmountable is surmounted.

An article in the September issue of National Geographic is titled "Famous Failures." Persistence. Resilience. In today's education space there are articles and studies about student grit, tenacity, and perseverance. It's curious to me that this American society--a culture that once proudly boasted of and honored "rugged individualism," that cherished and still occasionally recognizes American ingenuity--seems so often intent on schadenfreude.

Rather than celebrate the hard work of a successful venture, too many seem to want to cast aspersion. I suppose there are many things that drive that sort of mean-spirited behavior. Perhaps Diana Nyad didn't follow English Channel rules; that seems to be one of the complaints of the skeptics. Then again, she wasn't crossing the English Channel and she never claimed that she would follow those rules. Why is it so hard to say "Congratulations! Well done!" to someone who persevered to accomplish her dream? Who had supporters and encouragers to help her achieve that dream? Why must it be diminished?

Why can't this 64-year-old, who tried five times over 30+ years to complete this one task, be congratulated for what she did? That no one else has ever done? That others may try to do, and perhaps under English Channel rules because Diana Nyad has now established a benchmark.

You don't know until you try
We can learn from failure and we can learn from others' successes. In the National Geographic article, you can read about a failed Arctic balloon expedition. What has been learned from the degrees of success in each of those failures has led to remarkable technological innovations and learning about aviation and expedition in extreme conditions.

Everest climber Pete Athans says, “If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation. Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”

Saturday, September 7

Eyes and mind mostly open

Long ago, before Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and other such buffoons, I used to think I was somewhat conservative. I know I'm not a "liberal" as I think I understand that term, but I confess to being confused about what it means to be either liberal or conservative and the several shades of gray and other colors in the spectrum.

I realize that in some things I am more liberal than conservative and in some things I'm more conservative than liberal. I also know I change my mind about my positions on things as I learn more. And as I get older, I hope I get a little wiser about some things.

The latest incident to cause me such reflection is a brouhaha over Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. I used the book as a text in a college, and in relatively conservative Christian college at that. I did warn students of some of the graphics, but I also explained why we were reading and discussing it.

Would I teach it in 11th grade? I don't know. It depends on my students. There's a woman who Oregon who claims to be the voice of the conservative woman. She's helped me come to the conclusion that I'm not that narrow-minded nor, I hope, that insufferable. She went on and on and on and on about this book, and included some selective texts from The Bluest Eye to prove (!!!!) what a terrible book it is. She did her homework, I grant her that; she talked to a pediatrician and she did some research on Toni Morrison. She presented "research" and I'd want to check out the veracity of the presented research to determine how objectively she presented her findings or how balanced her reporting. She also quoted the American Academic of Pediatrics, though selectively. You can find the entirety of the AAP media report here. She raises some interesting points, but her tone she suggests that one dare not dissent with her position. And that saddens me because I think it might be interesting to have a conversation with her, but I doubt conversation is really possible; I fear it would become a lecture or a diatribe and intimate something unpleasant about my person or my thinking because I fail to agree with her.

I suppose what really wearies me is the insistence that lines be drawn, that there is no room for dissent nor, apparently, for objective and reasonable discussion regardless of one's position along the political spectrum. And there is no room for being more conservative on one thing and perhaps more liberal on another. No open-mindedness permitted. No tolerance for different perspectives.Minds solidly closed.

I know there are things about which I am more personally emphatic than others and positions for which I'm less likely to entertain differing points of view. But if my mind is always closed and my position always firmly staked on what I know at the moment, I don't think I would or could continue to grow or learn or develop as a humane and responsible member of the society in which I live and work.
s that exposure to violence in media has a significant risk on the health of children and adolescents and can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares and fear of being harmed. It is also associated with teen pregnancy and promiscuity. The AAP has also called on schools specifically to do more in the way of preventing young people from being exposed to and negatively impacted by harmful media
Read more at http://politichicks.tv/column/warning-graphic-common-core-approved-child-pornography/#xx7TzyBoKEdepG5O.9
The AAP states that exposure to violence in media has a significant risk on the health of children and adolescents and can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares and fear of being harmed. It is also associated with teen pregnancy and promiscuity. The AAP has also called on schools specifically to do more in the way of preventing young people from being exposed to and negatively impacted by harmful media
Read more at http://politichicks.tv/column/warning-graphic-common-core-approved-child-pornography/#xx7TzyBoKEdepG5O.99

Tuesday, February 5

Exasperation and malapropisms

Malapropisms. It's a fun word to say. And it means "the act or habit of misusing words to comic effect". I like malapropisms, especially when they almost make as much sense as the "correct" word.

What may or may not be an example is "flustrated." I first heard this word years ago from a physics professor who was just flustrated about his students' performance in class and on a test. I think this is a word that people have misheard, but I like the idea of combining "flustered" and "frustrated" because I think people often get flustered when they are frustrated. But just recently I heard someone say the word and I'm pretty sure he didn't realize it isn't an actual word. Yet.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was in a business meeting and someone said something like "One of the factors that exasperated the situation. . . ". I managed not to laugh out loud. "Exacerbated" can be a hard word to say and pronounce under pressure. And, to be honest, "exasperated" made a lot of sense in that situation.

So now I find myself listening for malapropisms and trying to figure out if the misuse makes as much sense of the likely intended word.

Sunday, January 20

The Story Behind the Story of Manti Te'o

Are we all really tired of the story of the non-girlfriend of Manti Te'o? Weary of speculating what he knew and didn't know? If he was involved in the hoax? Or if he's just sufficiently gullible to fall in love with a virtual personality?

What he knew and when he knew it is confusing. Why friends and family embellished the relationship that wasn't is also puzzling. But what is even more confusing is how easily the media fell for this story.

NPR's David Folkenflik examined this in his story, noting the media let its guard down. I'll say.

I don't follow Notre Dame, though I was aware of the football phenom, Manti Te'o. It was hard to follow college football and not know the name. I can't tell if Te'o talked about his girlfriend before she died; I get the impression he did not.

So I don't understand several things:
  • in an era when the media is notoriously inquisitive about every detail in the life of every pseudo- or about-to-be celebrity, why did no one do any kind of investigating about Te'o's private life?
  • as soon as the story of the girlfriend broke, why didn't anyone contact Stanford University or visit the campus for background information? The hoax would have been uncovered quickly then.
  • Why in the world would any member of the media rely only on other members of the media as sources? Isn't that Journalism 101?
Folkenflik concludes with this
Here's an instance of at least two experienced reporters who tiptoed to the edge of the truth and didn't quite believe where their reporting took them. The story was too important to let the absence of verifying facts get in the way. Just like fans in the stands, the reporters and their peers wanted the story to be true.
Well, okay, but that's a pretty shoddy excuse for not doing their jobs. And what's even more interesting to me is how the media keeps trying to report on this story while trying not to look incompetent about the way they report on celebrities and celebrity-like people.

It's bad enough there was a hoax. It's possible that Te'o fell in love with a non-existent person, which underscores the potential dangers of online "relationships" so there is a lesson here. It's really bad that the media got a selective conscious and, thereby, was duped. In my opinion, this story just gives us another reason not to trust the media's ability to report anything with any degree of honesty, integrity, objectivity, or truth.