Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Part 2 - TED talks that will change the way you view the world

Following is the second of a series on TED talks that will change the way you view the world. The talks selected are drawn from the more than 150 that I've listened to this year.  

David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes 

You can cast aside those old world history textbooks – historian David Christian covers it all in 18 minutes, guiding us through the history of our planet, and the elements that led us to where we are today.

Key Christian quotes:

·       “. . . what makes humans different is human language. We are blessed with a language, a system of communication, so powerful and so precise that we can share what we've learned with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals who learned that information, and it can accumulate from generation to generation. And that's why, as a species, we're so creative and so powerful, and that's why we have a history. We seem to be the only species in four billion years to have this gift. I call this ability collective learning. It's what makes us different.”

·        “. . . fossil fuels and collective learning together explain the staggering complexity we see around us.”

·       “What we see around us is staggering complexity. Eric Beinhocker estimates that in New York City alone, there are some 10 billion SKUs, or distinct commodities, being traded.”

·        “Collective learning is a very, very powerful force, and it's not clear that we humans are in charge of it.”

·       “What can big history do? How can it help us? “. . . [B]ig history can . . . show us the nature of our complexity and fragility and the dangers that face us, but it can also show us our power with collective learning.”

Christian, credited with coining the term “Big History,” has developed the Big History Project, a free online course funded by Bill Gates. Christian was born in New York and grew up in both Nigeria and England. His TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Part 1 - TED talks that will change the way you view the world

Following is the first of a series on TED talks that will change the way you view the world. The talks selected are drawn from the more than 150 that I've listened to this year.  

Hans Rosling: “Let my dataset change your mindset”

In just 19 minutes, Hans Rosling will change the way you view the world. His stunning presentation makes clear: it’s time to stop using the term “developing world.” It no longer fits, it’s no longer appropriate and the data, simply, does not support it.

Through a series of dramatic visuals, Rosling forces us to re-map how we think about the world. Says Rosling: “The world is converging . . . we cannot put it into two parts,” namely, Western world and developing countries. “It’s far more dynamic than that.” As his TED bio explains: “. . . most of the Third World is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the West did.”

With dynamic illustrations, Rosling takes us back 200 years to chart the growth of countries around the world, then focuses on the recent growth of the middle income countries, adding: “. . . this  is where I suggest to my students, stop using the concept ‘developing world’.” Using his Trendalyzer data-bubble software, Rosling begins in the year 1802, then quickly rolls the tape forward to illustrate the dramatic changes across the globe. Trust me, you’ll be blown away.

Key Rosling quotes:

·       “There is no such thing as an HIV epidemic in Africa. There's a number, five to 10 countries in Africa, that has the same level as Sweden and United States.”

·       “I was at the Global Health Conference here in Washington . . . and I could see the wrong concept even active people in United States had, that they didn't realize the improvement of Mexico . . . and China, in relation to United States. . . .  [Mexico is] on par with the United States in these two social dimensions. . . less than 5% of the specialists in Global Health were aware of this.”

Rosling, who passed away this past February, was a Swedish physician, academic, statistician and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation. He delivered this talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_at_state) at the U.S. State Dept. in 2009. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wish you had more willpower? No you don’t – three reasons why

“Willpower is for people who are still uncertain about what they want to do.” – Helia

Forget willpower. It’s elusive, ill-defined and hard to sustain. There’s an easier way. Years of scientific research confirms that the key to lasting change has to do with habits. So if you want to make lasting change – in your relationships, your career, your attitude, your self-image – you don’t need more willpower, you just need new habits.

Says Benjamin Hardy, writing for businessinsider.com: “Whether you want to get healthier, stop using social media so much, improve your relationships, be happier, write a book, or start a business — willpower won’t help you with any of these things.” In fact, says Hardy, “willpower is what’s holding you back.”

Adds Vanessa Bennington, in a piece for breakingmuscle.com: “. . .  the superhuman willpower some people seem to possess might just be really awesome habits that make resisting less than healthy options and sticking with a fitness program effortless.”

Here’s why willpower is a fugacious solution:
1.     It’s a depleting resource; 
2.     It’ll fail unless you change your environment; and 
3.     It’s not a long-term solution.  

Depleting Resource
“According to psychological research,” says Hardy, “your willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use. As a result, by the end of your strenuous days, your willpower muscles are exhausted and you’re left to your naked and defenseless self  - with zero control to stop the night-time munchies and time wasters.”

Len Markidan, writing for homeofficehero.com, agrees: “Self-control works like a muscle. Your self-control ‘muscle’ has a finite amount of energy each day. As it gets depleted, your ability to make willpower-driven decisions goes down. . . . Wouldn’t you rather use your limited willpower for big, important decisions than routine, everyday ones like whether you’re going to floss or read for 30 minutes?”

Can willpower help us control our anger? Little chance, says Susan Heitler, in a piece for Psychology Today: “Because the mind ‘goes backbrain’ (into being controlled by the automatic pilot part of the brain instead of the thinking part) with elevated emotions, it's too late then, in the midst of a stressful moment, to depend on sheer willpower to manage yourself well.  The better strategy is to build habits that will stand you in good stead when you need them.”

Change Your Environment
“No matter how much internal resolve you have,” insists Hardy, “you will fail to change your life if you don’t change your environment.” He goes on: “This is where the willpower approach fails. The willpower approach doesn’t focus on changing the environment, but instead, on increasing personal efforts to overcome the current environment. What ends up happening? Eventually you succumb to your environment despite your greatest efforts to resist.”

Hardy offers a quick example: “If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, you must stop: 1. being around people that drink alcohol; and 2. being at places that serve alcohol. Your willpower will fail if you don’t . . . . If you want to become a professional rock-climber, you need to surround yourself with professional rock-climbers and orient your whole lifestyle to that goal.”

Seek Long-Term Solutions
The message is clear: long-term change flows from strong habits, not strong willpower. But how do we acquire good habits? 

“The ability to build habits isn’t innate,” Markidan reminds us, “it can be learned.” And how we talk to ourselves makes a difference. Instead of telling ourselves, “If I did [habit] every day, life would be amazing,” says Markidan, try saying: “I’m going to do [habit] every day so that I can achieve [result].”

Markidan shares his three-step formula, drawn from two experts in the field: BJ Fogg (Tiny Habits) and Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit). His three steps: 1. Break down our goal (the smaller the better); 2. Attach it to an existing routine; and 3. Reward yourself. Bennington offers a similar formula: 1. Identify a cue; 2. Establish a reward; and 3. “Create a plan that enables us to enjoy our reward without derailing our goals.”

Rewards. Routines. Cues. Plans. Notes Markidan: “. . . when it comes to building habits, systems are infinitely more effective than willpower.”


Monday, November 13, 2017

USSs: Do you deliver more than you receive?

Welcome to the field of Suggestology, the science of advice, persuasion and exhortation.

What’s a USS? It stands for “UnSolicited Suggestion,” that is, a suggestion that flies off our lips even before a person has asked for one. It’s a familiar pattern between parent and teenager, between friends, at any age. 

          Statement: “I’m not feeling too well. I think I still have a fever.”

          Suggestion: “Maybe you should call the doctor.”

          Statement: “I can’t stand my boss, he’s such a jerk.”

          Suggestion: “Why don’t you quit and move on?”

The problem is, your friend hasn’t asked for a suggestion.

As practicing suggestologists we dispense advice in the lunch room, the grocery store and the kitchen table. Too often, we rarely shy from telling others exactly what we think.

·        We tell folks what to say (“Just tell him you’re not happy”);

·        We tell them what to do (“Go ahead, call her”);

·        We tell them how to think and how to feel (“Don’t let that bother you, don’t even think about it”).

To be fair, most suggestions are well-intentioned (“I just wanted to help.”) But too often, they’re unwelcome intrusions in a conversation. 

When a person complains about their job, they don’t necessarily want someone to tell them that it’s time to start looking for a new one. When a person struggles in a relationship, they don’t necessarily want someone to tell them that it’s time to find a new mate. And when a person reflects on a recent poor showing – in the boardroom or the ballfield – they don’t necessarily want someone to tell them what to do the next time around.

Subtle or direct, a USS remains a USS. If only we could wait for the question.  

Question: “I’m not feeling too well. I think I still have a fever. What do you think I should do?”

Suggestion: “Maybe you should call the doctor.”

Question: “I can’t stand my boss, he’s such a jerk. Do you think I should stay?”

Suggestion: “Maybe it’s time to start looking for something new.”

Parents: Living in the Land of USS

Parents, at every age, are adept at offering USSs (some years ago, on the way to school, I asked our youngest daughter to recall a recent USS from my lips; it took her less than two seconds to recount the latest!).

As parents, we live in the Land of USS for good reason – we care about our children, we want to protect them, keep them safe, happy and healthy.  We suffer when they hurt (emotionally or physically) and we worry about their future. But instead of waiting for the question (“What do you think I should do?”), we rush ahead and miss an opportunity to just listen.

So the next time a young one is airing it out, try listening as long as you can, then pose these five unambiguous words: “Would you like a suggestion?” Chances are they’ll respond with a quick “No, thanks,” but wait five minutes, or an hour or so, and you just might find they'll swing back and say: “OK, what is it, what’s your suggestion?”

Here’s hoping.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Should we talk to strangers?

Kio Stark insists we should. In a stirring TED talk, Stark shares how talking to strangers can enhance our lives and open us to new opportunities.  Stark’s chief concern: by teaching our children, and ourselves, to fear strangers, we just may be closing ourselves off to meaningful encounters.

Stark is one of those rare humans who consciously makes contact with strangers, wherever she finds them.  And I can relate. I’m often struck by the fact that while 7.2 billion of us are, in essence, fellow travelers, we nonetheless spend much of our time separating from one another.

Not Stark. When she says hello to people on the street, as she often does, her four-year-old asks: “Do we know them?”

“No, they’re our neighbor.”
“Are they our friend?”
“No, it’s just good to be friendly.”

Stark pauses every time she says these words because, “as a woman, particularly, I know that not every stranger on the street has the best intentions.” But Stark insists: “It is good to be friendly, and it’s good to learn when not to be, but none of that means we have to be afraid.”

Author of the novel “Follow Me Down,” and the TED book “When Strangers Meet,” Stark cites two major benefits to using our senses instead of our fears:

“The first one is that it liberates us. When you think about it, using perception instead of categories is much easier said than done. Categories are something our brains use. When it comes to people, it's sort of a shortcut for learning about them. We see male, female, young, old, black, brown, white, stranger, friend, and we use the information in that box.

“It's quick, it's easy and it's a road to bias. And it means we're not thinking about people as individuals. I know an American researcher who travels frequently in Central Asia and Africa, alone. She's entering into towns and cities as a complete stranger. She has no bonds, no connections. She's a foreigner. Her survival strategy is this: get one stranger to see you as a real, individual person. If you can do that, it'll help other people see you that way, too.

“The second benefit of using our senses has to do with intimacy. I know it sounds a little counterintuitive, intimacy and strangers, but these quick interactions can lead to a feeling that sociologists call ‘fleeting intimacy’. So, it's a brief experience that has emotional resonance and meaning.”

Five ways to connect with strangers

So how do we do it?  What techniques can we use to connect with strangers? Stark offers five:

1.     Smile. “Find somebody who is making eye contact. That’s a good signal. The first thing is a simple smile. If you’re passing somebody on the street . . . smile. See what happens.”

2.     Triangulation. When you’re with a stranger, find a third object (e.g., a piece of public art, a scene on the street), then “make a comment about that third thing, and see if it starts a conversation.”

3.     Noticing. One popular way to connect is by simply giving a compliment. Says Stark: “I’m a big fan of noticing people’s shoes. . . . And they're pretty neutral as far as giving compliments goes. People always want to tell you things about their awesome shoes.”

4.     Dogs and Babies. “It can be awkward to talk to someone on the street,” notes Stark. “You don't know how they're going to respond. But you can always talk to their dog or their baby. The dog or the baby is a social conduit to the person, and you can tell by how they respond whether they're open to talking more.”

5.     Disclosure. “This is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it can be very rewarding,” explains Stark. “So next time you're talking to a stranger and you feel comfortable, tell them something true about yourself, something really personal. . . . Sometimes in conversation, it comes up, people ask me, ‘What does your dad do?’ or, ‘Where does he live?’ And sometimes I tell them the whole truth, which is that he died when I was a kid. Always in those moments, they share their own experiences of loss. We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even with strangers.”

Stark’s bottom line: “If you don't talk to strangers, you're missing out. . . . We spend a lot of time teaching our children about strangers. What would happen if we spent more time teaching ourselves? We could reject all the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other. We could make a space for change.”


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Showering only once a day? It may not be enough

If you’re looking to spark your creativity, showering once a day might not be enough. 

Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin, for instance, takes six to eight showers a day, telling Emily Chang in a Bloomberg TV interview: “I'm not a germaphobe. It has nothing to do with germs; it's all about a fresh start.”

Certainly, no one’s suggesting you spend half your day in the shower. But the point is worth making: creating periods of relaxation throughout your day (e.g., engaging in tasks that allow your executive functions to stand down) is critically important for stimulating creative thoughts and new ideas.

Explains Scott Barry Kaufmann, author of “Wired to Create” (as quoted in an article at italiers.com): “The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams,” he said.

Adds author Jonah Lehrer (as quoted in bufferapp.com): “Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease – when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain – we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. . . . It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along – we just weren’t listening.”

When our minds wander, we enter what psychologists call the “incubation period,” freeing up our subconscious for unique and novel thoughts. During this state, neuroscientists report, dopamine pumps into our system, allowing our creative juices to flow. A piece in openculture.com points out: “Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty theorizes that the key biological ingredient in incubation is dopamine, the neurotransmitter released when we’re relaxed and comfortable. ‘People vary in terms of their level of creative drive,’ writes Flaherty, ‘according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.’ More relaxation, more dopamine. More dopamine, more creativity.”

The key, then, is to build periods of relaxation into our daily routine (or what one author calls “strategic slacking”).

How do you spark your creativity?

Naturally, we all possess a wealth of creative potential – the challenge is finding ways to unleash it. Have you ever heard a friend say: “Oh, I’m not really a creative person.”  Sorry, I’m not buying it.  Creativity isn’t confined to writers, artists, sculptures and musicians – it touches every field (e.g., medicine, engineering, finance) and everyone.  When I hear someone declare: “Oh, I’m just not creative,” it brings to mind what a teacher once shared: “If you ask a room of first graders: ‘Who can draw?  Who can sing?  Who can dance?’ everyone’s hand goes up.  If you pose the same question to a group of 6th graders, half the hands go up. If you ask it again in 11th grade only one or two hands will rise.”

Therein lies our problem.  Since creativity affords no absolute measure, the challenge shifts to how we perceive ourselves, and our abilities. Showering, it appears, is a wonderful way to spark creativity (one international study found that 72% of people get their best ideas in the shower).  But beyond the waterfall, the key is creating daily opportunities (cooking, gardening, long walks) that allow our mind to relax and unwind from the pressing demands of the day. 


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Should you pay your kids to do their homework?

If you’re paying your kids to do their homework, it just might be time to cash it in.

Not that it can’t work.  It can, and it does.  One study*, in fact, found that paying children to complete their homework raised math scores by three-quarters of a grade (though no similar increases were realized for reading, social science and science). And other studies have shown that paying for homework is far more effective than paying for grades.

But a rising tide of research, and psychological analysis, points in the opposite direction. Three key conclusions:

1.      Paying your child to do their homework is a short-term solution. Explains psychologist and author Eileen Kennedy-Moore, as quoted in a time.com article penned by Francine Russo: “The occasional parental bribe won’t turn a child into a pumpkin and may be useful for getting over a short-term hump with a specific behavior. . . . But for more important and more long-lasting behaviors, it makes sense to look for more enduring solutions.” Added Kennedy-Moore: “[Paying kids to complete their homework] can lead to a very unattractive bargaining attitude, where kids demand, ‘What do I get if I do that?’ ”

  1. Monetary rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation for learning. Explained Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, in an article for education.com: “Unfortunately, well-known research by Edward L. Deci and others concluded that students who were paid for specific activities exhibited a decrease in intrinsic motivation to perform those activities. Many studies since Deci’s groundbreaking research replicated the findings that any kind of rewards – whether candy, class credits, awards, tokens or prizes – have the same result: a weakened internal drive toward the rewarded behavior.”
3.      Cycle of dependency. An article at webmd.com quotes author Elizabeth Pantley: “Although the bribe can produce short-term results -- stopping temper tantrums or getting a kid to do homework – it can also ‘up the ante’, setting up a continuous cycle of crying and bad behavior.”

In her article for time.com, Russo cites research by Harvard economist Roland Fryer who conducted a series of randomized experiments to see if “paying kids to do academic tasks like reading more books” would improve academic performance. It didn’t. Fryer’s conclusion (after paying $6.3 million to 38,000 students in 261 schools): “The impact of financial incentives on student achievement is statistically zero in each city,” according to his study findings which were published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

So if greenbacks aren’t the best idea, what’s a parent to do?  When your child says “I’ll do it later,” or “I don’t have any homework,” what’s the best approach? Below are half a dozen suggestions, courtesy of experts in the field, to help you navigate the homework minefield.

1.      “Eliminate the word ‘homework’ from your vocabulary and replace it with the word ‘study’”, according to Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller, authors of “The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose.” In other words, have “study” time, and set up a “study” table. Say Moorman and Haller: “This word change alone will go a long way toward eliminating the problem of your child saying, ‘I don't have any homework’."

2.      Replace monetary and external rewards with encouraging verbal responses, add Moorman and Haller. And Nancy Cedillo, of Liberty Township, agrees (as quoted in a piece by Cindy Kranz, writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer): “I believe verbal praise and lots of it is the way to go - complimenting them lots and lots on the quality of their work and on not complaining about it. . . . With the reward system, they get the message that they're doing it for mom and dad, and to get this or that. Then, when the next assignment or job come up they'll think, ‘What will I get if I do this?' It's the wrong message.”

3.      Ignore the whining.

4.      Keep ‘em close. Explains James Lehman, writing for empoweringparents.com: “For a lot of kids, sending them to their rooms to do their homework is a mistake. Many children need your presence while they work. We call that technique ‘proximity’.”

5.      Remove distractions – TV, Internet, phone, iPad.

  1. Reward your children with the gift of time, not material benefit.
Finally, some important perspective from Kranz: “Parents have to realize lack of academic motivation is pretty normal. You need to take the attitude there's nothing wrong with your kid. He just doesn't want to sit there and do math problems. He's not rebellious. You're not a bad mom. He's not a bad kid.”


*Eric Bettinger, an education policy expert at Stanford University, reported slight improvements only in math scores. The modest improvements, where they occurred in both sets of experiments, says Bettinger, should not be completely dismissed. “The math scores showed about a three-quarters of a grade improvement, which is nothing to scoff at.” It’s possible, the researchers say, that different study conditions might produce better results, but so far the evidence doesn’t support the benefits of enticing children with money.