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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesDecember 2004 Brainstorm E-Bulletin

December 2004 Brainstorm E-Bulletin

Due to my recent trip to the States, this e-bulletin is coming out later than usual–just in time to wish you all the best for the holidays. It's a busy time for a lot of people, but maybe you'll have the chance to create a little quiet space for yourself in the middle of it. Leave the e-mail for a day, give the TV a rest, even turn off the mobile phone. (I love what Garrison Keillor wrote about the latter: "There was no radio in The Spirit of St. Louis and nobody knew where Lindburgh was as he flew the Atlantic until some fishermen spotted him off the Irish coast, but a man on a train from New York to Boston must furnish frequent updates on his progress.")
Hmm, maybe that's a good resolution: to say fewer things that don't need saying, and more things that do….
Here are this month's ideas and inspirations:
Are These the Two Secrets of Genius?
I recently read a biography of Walt Disney and was struck by how curious he remained throughout his life. In an article in this month's issue of "Popular Science," an article about Amar Bose (inventor of great speakers, among many other things) revealed he also is driven by curiosity. "I never went into business to make money," he said. "I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn't been done before." He puts his money where his mouth is, too: most of the company's profits go right back into research and development. Disney did the same thing, many times risking his fortune to finance wild new scheme (feature-length animated films, Disneyland, and the mostly-unrealized Experimental Community of the Future).
Bose once asked the brilliant mathematician Norbert Wiener the reason for the latter's breakthroughs. Wiener said two words: "Insatiable curiosity."
All three of these people kept looking for new and better ways of doing something; they never sat back and accepted that the way things are is the way things have to be–there is always a better way…and their child-like curiosity (and their willingness to invest in their quest) led them to those ways.
Action: As you look forward to the New Year, consider what you have accepted as "good enough." Now try looking at it from a child's viewpoint and ask a lot of questions. How could it be more effective, more enjoyable, more pleasing? (Ignore the usual constraints when considering these questions.) You may find your curiosity reviving–and new ideas starting to flow! Once they do, also consider what resources you may need to invest (= risk) in order to turn those ideas into reality.
Why Resolutions Fail
Psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists have studied why so often we don't follow through on our resolutions (New Year's and others). They discovered that our ability to change habits requires experiencing a positive emotion about the new behavior. In other words, just thinking you "should" do something isn't strong enough to last very long.
Secondly, we have to overcome the automatic nature of old behavior patterns. These patterns usually have triggers that lead us to do what we've done a lot before. The trick is to figure out what those triggers are and replace them with triggers for the new behavior. For example, if you want to get up earlier, and your normal pattern is going back to sleep after the alarm rings, currently the alarm bell may trigger your hitting the "snooze" button. To change the trigger, you could put your alarm bell out of your reach, so you actually have to get up to turn it off.
Action: If there is a behavior you want to change, first make sure that the new one is something you really want, and use your imagination to get excited about the new outcome. Second, consider what currently triggers your old behavior, and brainstorm how to change the trigger so it leads you into the new, desired behavior instead.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles…
…begins with a single step, the Chinese say. So does James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson Dual Cyclone Vaccum Cleaner and other breakthroughs. He reveals one of the reasons for his success: "We never stop inventing. We keep making little changes, and by the time people notice, it looks like a quantum leap."
Action: Sometimes taking a giant leap forward is tremendously exciting, but much of the time progress actually is more like Dyson's description. Consider whether you could apply this approach to a challenge in your life: choose one area of your life you'd like to improve, and each day come up with one tiny improvement you could make.
What Can We Learn from a Traffic Roundabout?
You may know that one of my favorite creativity strategies is "try the opposite." That is, look at how things are usually done, and see what ideas come from considering doing it the opposite way. In a recent issue of "Wired," I ran across a great example of this, as reported by Tom McNichol in an article about Holland's traffic engineer Hans Monderman. At a busy intersection, "several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behaviour–traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings–and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn't contain: sings or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk…"
Sounds like a prescription for lots of accidents, right? But the opposite is true. The very ambiguity of the situation makes drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians pay attention and spontaneously figure out how to make the flow work.
Action: For your next challenge, take the time to consider two things: first, how the opposite of the usual approach might work; second, whether you can improve the situation by removing something rather than adding more elements.
Gross National Happiness?
Social scientists Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania have suggested creating a national index of well-being, the happiness equivalent of a nation's Gross National Product. They point out that while our standard of living has gone up, our levels of happiness have not. Maybe if we measured how various things effect the quality of our lives, not just the amount of money in our pockets, we might start making decisions differently.
Action: Why wait for a government to start measuring happiness? It might fun and productive to look back over the past year to see what were the things that gave you the greatest happiness. (Did they cost anything?) How can you bring more of those into the coming year? What things that didn't give you much enjoyment can you let go, to make more room for the good things?
And a Quote to Consider
This quote comes from Nkosi Johnson, a Zulu boy who was infected with the AIDS virus and in the brief time before his death at the age of 12 became a spokesperson for the battle against AIDS. His mantra was: "Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are."
Until next time,
PS: Here is another installment in a series I call "Letters to an Unknown Friend":
Dear Friend,
You're in a trance at the moment, did you know that? A book I’m reading contends that we’re in a trance of one kind or another most of the time, and it does make sense. The author, Adam Crabtree, says a trance is a state of narrowed attention, in which we get absorbed by something and tend to lose awareness of most other things. In that sense, anytime we're reading, we're in a trance. Also when we’re daydreaming, worrying, fantasizing, remembering, and certainly when we're dreaming.
So far, so harmless, right? Well, Crabtree belie
ves that we are also in the grips of trances that may be limiting us. For example, there are family trances, in which you are assigned, often very early in your life, a certain role. Maybe you were labeled the smart one, the dummy, the baby, the scapegoat, or the savior. We tend to stay stuck within the limitations those roles place on us.
We are also all part of a cultural trance that tells us how to live. Three of the major trances he identifies for Western culture are those that tell us that science has all the answers, money is the best way to get security, and if we don't have an ideal body shape there is something wrong with us. Because these trances are supported by the media and by our educational system, usually we aren't even aware that we are in their thrall. It reminds me of the saying, "I don't know who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish."
Crabtree doesn't say that all trances are bad. In fact, he acknowledges that they are a source of stability. But it strikes me as true that we go through much of life never questioning the major assumptions that have a big influence on how we spend our lives. For example, how do you feel about your body? Is it a source of concern or even shame that maybe you’re not the ideal body shape? Is it something that you’ve spent a lot of money on, maybe for diet foods, gym memberships, cosmetics or supplements that promise to do miracles? I’m certainly not suggesting that exercise and a sensible diet are a bad thing. In fact, some time I'll tell you about my various struggles with getting enough exercise to make up for the fact that I spend a lot of hours sitting in front of a computer. But there's no doubt that we spend billions of dollars a year and, worse yet, probably thousands of hours, feeling bad about ourselves because we have bought into the cultural trance of youth and beauty.
The same is true of our belief that money is the answer to most things. Again, don’t get me wrong. I like having money and I can remember, not at all fondly, the years when I had to measure every potential purchase greater than five dollars. But for a society that keeps saying that money can't buy happiness, we sure spend a lot of time chasing it. When Internet wizards in their twenties were making huge fortunes I sensed an atmosphere of outrage among a lot of people who had not made fortunes. It's as though they felt they were entitled to make millions, and were looking around for someone to blame for the fact that it hadn't happened. You could almost hear their sighs of relief when the "dotcom" bubble burst.
I spent eight years in the show-biz world in Hollywood, and I noticed an interesting thing. I saw actors, directors, writers, and people in the music business make a lot of money and then buy a big house with a big pool, a fancy fast car, a designer wardrobe, and so on. These things didn't make them happy. So what did they learn from this experience? That obviously they needed to make more money so that they could buy a bigger house with a bigger pool, and a faster car, and a more exclusive designer wardrobe. Some of them went through this again and again, and still came up with the same moral. Some of them, of course, came to a different conclusion: that if money couldn’t make them happy, then drugs could.
The third trance Crabtree mentions, that science has all the answers, is back in the ascendant. With gene mapping and various developments in biotechnology, science is making great strides. That's terrific, but maybe we’re heading toward another phase like that of the Victorians at the turn of the last century. They were sure that almost everything that could be invented had been invented, and humans were close to knowing everything knowable. That’s a kind of pride that ends up biting us in the backside sooner or later.
If you want to read the book, it's called "Trance Zero." But in the meantime, it might be interesting for you to try an experiment. A couple of times a day, in different situations, try waking up by questioning the ground rules of the trance you're in.
If you're in an elevator, you're in a social trance with generally fixed rules, The right thing to do is to look up at the numbers, not at your fellow passengers, and certainly it's not done to talk to anybody you don't know. For the fun of it, break the rules and see how startled the other people are to be woken from their trance, too.
If you're in a relationship trance, where you and the other person have long-established rules about the kinds of things you do together, try suggesting something that will break the rules. This could be as simple as suggesting that you go bowling or that you spend a night at a hotel in your home town, pretending that you've just met. There's no telling how your partner will react—Crabtree warns that awake people are not always popular…but they do tend to feel really alive. Let me know what happens!
Your friend,

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