Positive Thinking

My Example Was Bull

If you haven’t yet read yesterday’s entry, read it first.
If you found yourself agreeing with this headline after reading that post, read on.
Noticing and updating unproductive habits of mind is a skill, like karate or skating, that requires starting simply, practicing often (faltering too) and always finding room for improvement. Our ego authored those unproductive mental habits, and so it will feel threatened by any attempts to dismantle them. This is why non-ego-threatening examples are great. Examples of jogging are less threatening than, say, examples of why you remain stuck in a low pay/unfulfilling job, why you have trouble keeping a stable relationship, why you argue incessantly with loved ones, why you feel nobody loves you, why you haven’t told your parents you love them. However, a strong ego may still feel threatened by even a simple example. A strong ego will find excuses to discount the message:

  • “His sentence structure was bad, his grammar, punctuation.”
  • “He uses words that are too big (he’s arrogant)”
  • “He doesn’t use big enough words (I’m arrogant)”
  • “When I turn my head jogging is of no consequence, he’s just being overanalytical (his example was bull)”
  • “Who does he think he is, on what ground does he claim to know anything?”

These are all ego-derived arguments to keep you from questioning your ego’s primacy in your mental chain-of-command. Ego arguments all boil down to ego telling you, “ignore him, he’s wrong, you need to keep me in control, it’s for your own good.”
As I said yesterday, the best thing we can do to improve our circumstances is to observe our patterns of mind and choose which ones we want to keep and replace the others. The biggest blocker to starting this process is ego. Since ego created all of those unproductive mental patterns in the first place, it will fight to keep them there. Recognizing egoic defense mechanisms are important… until you see them you have no choice, you just go with whatever ego tells you. Once you recognize them you can choose keep listening to ego (which got you where you are today) or try something else.

Positive Thinking

Small Gestures and Large Habits of Mind

The best thing we can do to improve our circumstances is to observe our patterns of mind and choose which ones we want to keep and replace the others. Mental patterns are always at work; seemingly inconsequential behaviors can be indicative of a mental habit worth considering.
My rural jogging route has me on a moderately busy road for about a hundred yards as I cross from my neighborhood to the next one over, and it’s across the street. Recently, as I approached the intersection I noticed my own behavior: I looked over my shoulder to see if traffic was approaching me from behind. Surely all of us do the same. But what struck me was that I did this even though I wasn’t ready to cross yet and I could clearly hear the traffic coming up behind me. One could say “never too safe” when crossing roads, but in this case, my looking back was not about safety… I wasn’t even at the intersection yet, so there was no urgent need to look back; and by hearing alone I could gauge how many cars were behind me and how close they were, yet I turned my head for a second opinion.
Obviously, when it is time to cross the road, I look both ways, and I would never recommend otherwise. However I posed a couple of questions to myself: why am I looking back when I’m not ready to cross the road yet? and why am I looking back when I know there are cars behind me? I had no good answer for either question. It’s like repeatedly checking for your boarding pass on the way to the airport… it comes from not trusting one’s own senses. I know I have my boarding pass, so no need to check. I know there is a car behind me, so no need to look back.
These small behaviors brought to my attention a mental habit I need to improve: trust my senses (not trusting my senses mucks with intuition too). As I change my behavior in these small arenas, that new mental habit trickles in to other areas of my life.

Positive Thinking

When a Question is Not a Question

Questions can be used to disguise unpleasant ideas: accusation, judgment, fishing for praise, sympathy or generally seeking attention come to mind. Here are some examples:

  • “Is that what you’re going to wear?”
  • “Do I look [insert insult: old, fat, tired, haggard, etc.]?”
  • “How long do you think it will take me to vacuum, wash and wax both cars this weekend?”
  • “I was thinking of buying you this, would you like it?”
  • “I cleaned the house top to bottom today. Should I do all the laundry too?”
  • “I put a lot of work in to this spreadsheet. Can you tell me if it looks right?”
  • “Is it okay with you if I eat some of my birthday cake?”

Questions-that-aren’t-really-questions are a manipulation to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Perhaps we are proud and looking for praise but are embarrassed to say it directly; perhaps we want help but we don’t want to acknowledge the help– that would require us to be grateful in return; maybe we are angry but are uncomfortable with our own anger or upsetting someone else. When we do this likely we don’t even realize it… but do it habitually and people on the receiving end will catch on.
We disguise communication because we are avoiding paying a price (having to experience anger or vulnerability, for instance). But we pay a price either way. In hiding our true intent, others regard for us diminishes; we are perceived — rightfully so — as not a straight talker, manipulative. When our intent is hidden even from ourselves it certainly makes it harder for us to understand the true motives of others, and it makes it harder for us to be with them in a way that makes a positive difference.
The price we pay for covert communication is worse than the price we thought we were avoiding.

Positive Thinking

Suppressing Anger is Not a Spiritual Value

I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with anger for a long time… safe to say decades. I remember as a child admiring Spock and wanting to be just like him… seemingly free from the trouble of negative emotions. I judged anyone who “got angry”. Feeling superior to “angry people” while denying my own anger created its own set of problems.
My relationship to anger is part of my spiritual journey. But there is no shortcut on that path— stuffing my own anger doesn’t make it go away, it just comes out disguised: judgementality, gossip, accusation, snark, sarcasm, questions-that-aren’t-really-questions, depression (wallowing), egoic noises, edginess, avoiding, giving unsolicited advice, “making observations”, disproportionate reactions to situations. Not pretty.
As I woke up to the fact that my anger issues were in fact mine I became aware of all those unhealthy habits I took on to avoid anger (in myself and in others). It became clear that what I saw as my “spiritual superiority” was not that at all, but my box full of coping mechanisms. What a let down.
A handful of people close to me might describe me as “more angry” now. However, the opposite is true: I am better at expressing my anger, I am less judgemental of others expressing their anger, and as a result I and those around me have permission to express and release anger rather than holding on to it and simmering. That list of disguised anger? I do each of those far less than I used to. However if you are someone that is asleep to your own anger issues and you are around me when I get angry  (or for that matter, around anyone who expresses their anger responsibly), watch yourself employ one or more of the items on that list. In fact, that list is an excellent litmus test to apply to yourself to check your own anger issues. If you find yourself saying, “I do some of those, but I don’t have anger issues”, think again.
I still have “problems with anger”, but I’m more aware of the unhealthy tactics I have used, so more often I am able to make a conscious choice about how to handle matters rather than unconsciously reacting and making things worse rather than better. I would love to live in a world free from anger, but denying, suppressing and judging anger gets no one there.

Positive Thinking

Avoid "Why?"

Seth Godin writes Why ask why? and calls “Why?”  “the most important question”. I think Seth Godin is an insightful marketer and I love reading anything by him, but on this I disagree.
“Why?” is quicksand. The word has inertia built-in to it; it lacks its own forward momentum. It focuses attention on the problem; focus too long and the goal is forgotten altogether. Yes, it creates context, but context can become a mental perimeter, restricting solutions.
“Why?” is a comfortable refuge for those stuck, unwilling to take the difficult steps to move out of the present situation and in to a solution. Those stuck often volunteer an answer to the unasked “Why?” as a defense against the solution. “I do x because y”, and y will surely sound really convincing. Once defensiveness starts, everyone’s mental energy is diverted.
If you have difficulty “owning their anger”, you can use “why?” as a covert accusation. “Why did you do that (dumb) thing?” is used passive aggressively to disguise anger as inquiry, to blame the accused for the presence of the upset and to position the accuser as a victim.
Don’t ask “why?” if you know someone in the room has a vested interest in the status quo. That stuck person may try to enroll the rest of the group.
You likely already know “why”, so better to skip it and just ask “What next?”.


Stars Have No Minds?

An article by Matthew Francis over at Ars Techica contains one idea so seemingly self-evident as to be boringly uncontroversial: “stars have no minds”.

Science has given us scientific method, a terrific protocol to ferret out fact from fiction when describing our physical universe. Problems arise, however, when scientists throw around statements that scientific method has not proven. If you are a scientist, one might conclude that anything you say has been proven by science… that would be wrong on their part, and an abuse of your position.
I am not here to assert that stars have minds. But even though it seems reasonable to conclude that they don’t, nobody really knows, and scientific method seems ill-equipped to answer that question.
Obvious statements should be easy to prove, yes? Except that it’s impossible to prove or disprove whether something has a mind until we define what is a mind, and while there may be broad scientific consensus on what a brain is, a mind is a different matter.
If we assume that a brain is prerequisite to have a mind then the matter is settled, yet scientific method does not allow for assumptions in evidence of proof. Sure, no one has ever seen a mind without a brain, but as Carl Sagan said so well, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
When unprovable statements are made under the guise of science, it is at best a failure to honor scientific method. At worst it is intellectual bullying: asserting belief as fact, stifling inquiry. Religious folk don’t have sole claim to righteousness– it can take many forms, and “I’m scientific” is one. Be intellectually honest, honor scientific method: know when you are discussing unproven topics and simply say “I don’t know”.

Positive Thinking

Time to Retire "Hypocrite"

I bet you never called someone a hypocrite and ended that exchange with an increased closeness and respect for each other; the word is filled more with smugness than utility.
Accusing another that way gives us a feeling of superiority, but what a hollow feeling. If someone claims to be a certain way, and you witness them failing to live up to their own goal, better to remind them of their goal and assist them in returning to it. It is not an easy strategy– it can be far more difficult than lobbing an insult – but the reward is substantially more.
You may think that the price that you pay for this strategy is the heated conversation that will surely ensue. But there is a higher price: by being tough on them in reminding them to keep with their goals, you give them permission to be just as tough on you when you slide from your own goals. This the true reason we fail to assist others when they slide; because when we slide it’s not because we forgot, it’s because keeping our goal is difficult, and we don’t want anyone keeping us to our commitment. When we remind someone else that they slid from their commitments and make them uncomfortable in asking them to recommit, we give the other person (and implicitly, everyone) permission to do the same with us.
There’s a lot wrapped in the term hypocrite. It fails to make a difference with others because we don’t want anyone making a difference with us. It’s time to grow beyond that.

Positive Thinking

Upgrading "Role Model"

The term role model is lacking.  It fails to convey its own potency… it sounds passive, belying its real nature. It fails to convey its scope… as if there is a limited number of things one could role model. It comes with a sense of burden: if you are a role model today but not tomorrow, then you may get accused of being hypocritical. It feels stuffy… are you eager and excited to be a role model?
Our attitudes and behaviors are not unlike a virus… they are infectious– and not just the desirable behaviors. When people around you clam up, you tend to clam up. When people around you are gregarious, you tend to do the same. When someone is vulnerable with you, you feel safe to open up too. When someone is argumentative with you, it is tough to not be argumentative back.
With this truism in mind, we can turn it in to a game: we become the change we want to see in others, and watch it spread.
To continue on the virus analogy, our undesirable behaviors are a dis-ease… they keep us from our natural state and separate us from others. Imagine that dis-ease forming a membrane around us. The solvent for that membrane is found in its opposite. That is why we feel ‘disarmed’ by the friendliness of others.
If our behaviors are infectious then we are carriers; infecting those around us, who may behave in kind. Armed with this knowledge we can make a difference in a situation where we would like to see someone else change their posture.
Here are some examples to try out:
Is someone being defensive? be vulnerable with them.
Is someone avoiding you? engage them.
Is someone pussy footing? be direct.
I’m not saying these approaches are easy, but I am saying that they are things you can do in a situation you may feel you have no control over.
I haven’t figured out a replacement for the term role model, but making a game of “viral behaviors” has advantages. It recognizes the power of even our smallest gestures. It says we are always “modelling” behaviors, even the bad ones, so its our choice in any moment what we want to model. As a game, it is playful, not stuffy. It acknowledges that the game doesn’t stop… when we remember it is a game we can choose to be the carrier; when we forget, we are easily infected. It doesn’t label us as a hypocrite when we don’t take on the behaviors we want to see in others, rather it shows that we let ourselves be infected by someone else; once we recognize that we have the choice to recommit to the game or be defeated by it.


Technologists Need to be Less Satisfied with Technology

Dr. David Gelerntner

A lot of convenience and power could be gained, and a lot of unhappiness, irritation and missed opportunities avoided, if the industry thought about design, instead of always making it the last thing on the list. We need more people who are at home in the worlds of art and the humanities and more or less diffident in the presence of technology. There are not enough articulate Luddite, anti-technology voices.


That skill you don't want to take on is scarce

A quote from Seth Godin’s Blog is stuck with me [emphasis mine]:

Learn to produce extraordinary video and multimedia. This is just like writing, but for people who don’t like to read. Even better, be sure to mix this skill with significant tech skills. Yes, you can learn to code. The fact that you don’t feel like it is one reason it’s a scarce skill.

Whenever I “don’t feel like it” that quote pops in to my head, then I go and do it.