Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review

The Beast in the JungleThe Beast in the Jungle by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazing tour de force storytelling by the master of subtle indirect exploration of inner life told through the eyes of an unrequited relationship about nothing happening. It's the fear of something bad happening that keeps us from living fully, from experiencing any joy. James knew life as a closeted gay man, the danger of being closeted even from oneself, the danger of writing about it directly, and what a beast all of that was.

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Book Review

The Death of Ivan IlychThe Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read The Death of Ivan Ilych a couple of months ago and I loved it. Some may find the plot depressing: middle level bureaucrat plods through an unremarkable life doing his best to fit in and impress according to social norms until suddenly he's ill and dies without anyone morning his loss, kind of like an unremarkable Scrooge without the soul saving intervention. But the genius of Tolstoy grabs and keeps the reader's interest by building up layers of details and observations. It's more than a "lead a meaningful life" morality tale. Tolstoy is working out for himself what may happen if he stays true to his aristocratic, materialist roots.

This is, I'm ashamed to say, the first Tolstoy I've read. But as a short novel, it's enough to hold one's interest without being too much and scaring you away. Now I feel like I can tackle the bigger works.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review

The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania GothicThe Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic by Wilfrid Sheed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Buzz off now; be a nice little intellectual disaster area, won't you?"

"While Mrs. Bannister was on hand, his father had been one of those fixed middle-aged men with a closetful of blue and brown suits and a repertoire of blue and brown jokes."

verb: undergo the formation of pus; fester.
synonyms: discharge, run, weep,become septic

"Other buses had come up behind, teeming, suppurating with boys."

I loved The Blacking Factory. It's up there with the best coming of age stories. It brought to mind Stephen King's wonderful The Body(and its excellent movie Stand By Me), Willa Cather's The Magic Bluff, and even J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, although it's mostly more humorous and optimistic. Sheed writes with a satiric eye for society's rituals and a strong affection for his teenage hero. I wish he'd written about my 15th year. He would have made it much more enjoyable.

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Book Review

CatholicsCatholics by Brian Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well written, if a bit over written. A good discussion of faith and duty. About monks with minimal outside contact, it reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Anathem on a much smaller scale. I need to ask a theologian about the ending because I don't quite understand it.

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Book Review

The Ebony TowerThe Ebony Tower by John Fowles

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Now was acutely itself; yesterday and tomorrow became the myths."

The Ebony Tower is really well written. I just didn't like what it was written about. At its core: author tries to work out for himself on paper his conflicted feelings about having an affair or staying faithful to his wife, reducing women to two dimensional objects in the process. He concludes by equating his lack of courage to go through with it to his mediocre output as an artist. He fails to realize the courage it takes to honor the mother of his children. Of the four characters in the story the ones with the most honor are the women. Lots of people say Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman is really good, but this just made me feel like I need to wash my hands. Ugh.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

6 Things The Happiest Families All Have In Common

Family life is hectic. Most of us play it by ear and hope it works out well.

Or maybe you haven’t started a family yet but when you do you want to do it right.

Aren’t there some legit answers out there about what creates the happiest families? Yes, there are.

To get the facts I called Bruce Feiler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secrets of Happy Families.

When writing his book, Bruce knew there were answers already out there — but not necessarily where we’d expect.

He found solutions to common family problems in business theory, Harvard negotiation techniques, and even by talking to Green Berets.

Below you’ll learn:

    The #1 predictor of your child’s emotional well-being.
    The #1 predictor of their academic achievement — and behavior problems.
    And the simple thing that steers kids away from drugs, toward better grades and even improves their self-esteem. And more.

Here’s what makes strong, happy families:

1) Create A Family Mission Statement

I asked Bruce what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.

He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.”

Ask: “What are your family values?” In business-speak: Develop a mission statement for your family.

Here’s Bruce:

    Initiate a conversation about what it means to be a part of your family. Sit down with them and say “Okay, these are our ten central values.”

    “This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.” or “We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing” or whatever it might be.

    When my family did it, it was literally a transforming experience. We ended up printing it and it hangs now in our dining room.

Does “defining values” seem too big and intimidating? It’s really nothing more than setting goals.

Here’s Bruce:

    Did we do every one of those things every day, every week, every month? No, that’s not that point. But the point is, when it goes wrong, you have that goal out there. “We want to be a family that has fun together. Have we made time to play recently? No, we don’t. So let’s make time to play. Let’s go bowling or hiking or roller skating.”

You have goals at work. You have personal goals. Why wouldn’t you have goals as a family?

So you and your family discussed your values and came up with a mission statement. What other thing did Bruce say was vital?

Like the mission statement, it’s another story. But it’s not about the future — it’s about the past.

2) Share Your Family History

Research shows whether a kid knows their family history was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.

Here’s Bruce:

    …researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.

And research confirms that meaning in life is all about the stories we tell ourselves.

But here’s what’s really interesting: recounting your family history is not just telling kids, “Our family is awesome.”

Recounting the tough times, the challenges your family faced and overcame, is key.

Here’s Bruce:

    Understanding that people have natural ups and downs allows kids to know that they too will have ups and downs. It gives them the confidence to believe that they can push through them. It gives them role models that show your family’s values in practice.

Mission statements, family history… that’s a lot of talking. When is all this supposed to happen? Whenever you get around to it? No way.

3) Hold Weekly Family Meetings

You’re not mom or dad anymore — you’re now co-CEO’s. To find the way to keep a family improving Bruce turned to the world of business.

Your family needs a weekly board meeting with all the shareholders present. Sound cold and clinical? Wrong.

Bruce’s wife says it’s one of the best things they’ve done to make their own family life happier.

It’s not complicated and it only takes 20 minutes, once a week.

Here’s Bruce:

    We basically ask three questions. What worked well this week, what didn’t work well this week and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead?

    And if the kids meet the goal, they get to help pick a reward. And if they don’t, they get to help pick a punishment. They don’t do it without us, but we all do it in consultation.

Bruce did a TED talk explaining in detail how techniques from the business world, like meetings, can improve our families:

So your family has a mission, a shared history and you’re meeting regularly. This is great because everyone is talking, which is crucial.

But what inevitably comes with talking a lot? Arguing. It’s normal and natural and that’s okay.

But you have to have rules so it isn’t a path to hurt feelings and homicide investigations. What’s the proper way to argue?

4) How To Fight Right

Bruce wanted to find the best way to resolve disputes — so he didn’t turn to books about families, he turned to a pro.

Bill Ury is co-founder of the Project on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and co-author of the classic, Getting To Yes,

What can one of the best negotiators teach families about resolving those inevitable everyday squabbles of life?

Bruce outlines three key steps:

    Number one, “Separate everybody.” In negotiation speak; this is “Go to the balcony.” Take a moment where you look back on the fight as if it were on a stage and you’re on the balcony and say “Okay, what’s really going on here?” This reduces emotions like anger.

    Second, we ask our kids to come up with three alternatives. In negotiation speak; this is “Expand the pie before you divide the pie.”

Bruce admits this part can be tricky. But you need to make it clear nobody is leaving the table until there are three options.

    The third stage is “Bring people back together.” In negotiation speak; this is “Build the golden bridge of the future.”

Have the kids pick one of the three that they like best. What’s key is that the children created the alternatives and agreed on the best solution.

As Bruce explains in his book, when kids get a say, it works out better for everyone. Don’t be a dictator unless you have to.

So mission statements, family meetings and fighting right are great — but what keeps a family together day to day?

5) Have Family Dinner Together… Any Time Of The Day

Research shows having dinner as a family makes a huge difference in children’s lives.

As Bruce writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:

    A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.

I know what many of you are thinking: Our schedules are crazy. It’s too hard to get everyone together. We can’t do it every night.

And that’s 100% okay. “Dinner” isn’t the important part. All that matters is that time together, whenever it is.

And it doesn’t even have to be that much time. How much real conversation happens at family dinner? 10 minutes.

As Bruce likes to say, the rest of the talking is “Take your elbows off the table” and “Please pass the ketchup.”

What’s the best way to make use of those 10 minutes? Here’s Bruce:

    So number one, the first big thing to be aware of is that parents do two-thirds of the talking in that ten minutes. And that’s a problem.

    So your first goal should be to flip that and let the kids do more of the talking. So that would be issue number one.

    Number two, I would say a great thing to do in that ten minutes is to try to teach your kid a new word every day. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence out there that one of the biggest determinants of success in school has to do with the size of vocabulary.

Mission statements, family history, meetings, fighting right, dinners… That’s a lot to do. Heck, it’s a lot to just remember.

What’s Bruce’s recommendation to the family that’s already strapped for time? What overarching theme can we see in all of these tips?

6) Just Try

Ask anyone if they want to make their family happier and, of course, they’ll say yes.

Then ask how many hours they’ve actively invested in that goal over the past month. I’m guessing the reply is going to be “Ummmmm…”

Reading about improving your family is only the first step. But the second step isn’t all that much harder: Try.

Here’s Bruce:

    We know if we want to improve in our career, we have to work at it. And yet, we don’t do that with our family life. We sort of say “It’s the end of the line, they’ll always be there. It’s always going to be stressful. I’ll just deal.” Well, no.

    If we work with our families and take small steps to try and make them better, we actually can make our families happier. And in the process, we can make every member of our family happier. So what’s the secret to a happy family? Try.

And the research backs Bruce up.

Studies show improving any relationship is as easy as actively showing interest in the other person or sharing with them.

In fact, pretending time with your romantic partner is a first date makes it more enjoyable for you and for them. Why?

On first dates we make an effort. And that’s the secret here too: don’t just think about it, invest time and energy.

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

Here are Bruce’s 6 tips:

    Create A Family Mission Statement
    Share Your Family History
    Hold Weekly Family Meetings
    Fight Right
    Have Family Dinner Together… Any Time Of The Day
    Just Try

Families come in all different shapes and sizes these days and the world moves a lot faster than it once did. But don’t fret.

Research shows that anyone can have a happy family.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

    Researchers have found that a loving family life can be created among any group of people. Long-term studies comparing adopted children to children raised by their biological parents find little difference in the children’s feelings on family life, and no difference in their ability to enjoy good relationships with peers.

    – Neiheiser 2001

Share this post with your family. Start a conversation. Hold that first family meeting. And more than anything else: Try.

6 Things The Happiest Families All Have In Common

Leaves Upon Time's Branch

...Leaves, upon Time's branch, were growing brightly,
Full of sap, and full of silver dew;
Birds beneath its shelter gathered nightly;
Daily round its flowers the wild bees flew.

Sorrow passed, and plucked the golden blossom;
Guilt stripped off the foliage in its pride
But, within its parent's kindly bosom,
Flowed for ever Life's restoring tide.

Little mourned I for the parted gladness,
For the vacant nest and silent song--
Hope was there, and laughed me out of sadness;
Whispering, "Winter will not linger long!"...

Emily Bronte

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fun Night

Dinner and walking along the beach with Sergio.

End of the Trolley Line

End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois, 1893, oil on canvas by American artist Frederick Childe Hassam (1859–1935).

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

Some days the to-do list seems bottomless. Just looking at it is exhausting.

We all want to know how to stop being lazy and get more done. I certainly want the answer.

So I decided to call a friend who manages to do this — and more.

Cal Newport impresses the heck out of me. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. He’s insanely productive:

    He has a full-time job as a professor at Georgetown University, teaching classes and meeting with students.
    He writes 6 (or more) peer-reviewed academic journal papers per year.
    He’s the author of 4 books including the wonderful “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” And he’s at work on a fifth.
    He’s married with a young child and handles all the responsibilities that come with being a husband and dad.
    He blogs regularly about productivity and expert performance.

And yet he finishes work at 5:30PM every day and rarely works weekends.

No, he does not have superpowers or a staff of 15. Okay, let’s you and I both stop being jealous of his productivity for a second and learn something.

Below you’ll get Cal’s secrets on how you can better manage your time, stop being lazy, get more done — and be finished by 5:30. Let’s get to work.

1) To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

Here’s Cal:

    Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Now that you look at the whole picture you’re able to get something productive out of every free hour you have in your workday. You not only squeeze more work in but you’re able to put work into places where you can do it best.

Experts agree that if you don’t consider how long things take, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I can hear what some of you are thinking: But I get interrupted. Things get thrown at me last minute.

Great — build that into your schedule. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Things will change. But you need to have a plan, otherwise you’ll waste time.

Want to stop procrastinating? Schedule. Here’s Cal:

    Assigning work to times reduces the urge to procrastinate. You are no longer deciding whether or not to work during a given period; the decision is already made.

Does this sound too mechanical? Overly structured and not much fun? Wrong.

Research shows that it’s even a good idea to schedule what you do with your free time. It increases quality of life:

    This study was designed to identify the relationship between free time management and quality of life, exploring whether the amount of free time or the way people using their free time relates to their quality of life… The result has found a positive relationship between free time management and quality of life.

Okay, the to-do list is in the trash and things are going on the calendar. How do you prioritize so you’re not at work forever?

2) Assume You’re Going Home at 5:30, Then Plan Your Day Backwards

Work will fill the space it’s given. Give it 24/7 and guess what happens?

You need boundaries if you want work/life balance. But this also helps you work better because it forces you to be efficient.

By setting a deadline of 5:30 and then scheduling tasks you can get control over that hurricane of duties.

Cal calls it “fixed schedule productivity”:

    Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way. My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions.

What does research say prevents you from getting burned out at work? Feeling in control of your schedule.

Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can decrease your stress level.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

    Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.

You’ve drawn a line in the sand and worked backward, giving all your tasks hours in your day. But how do you handle longer term projects?

3) Make A Plan For The Entire Week

I think you’ll agree that the last thing this world needs is more short term thinking.

You’ll never get ahead of the game by only looking at today and never thinking about tomorrow.

How do you write books, teach classes, meet with students, do research papers and be a good parent consistently? Plan the week.

Here’s Cal:

    People don’t look at the larger picture with their time and schedule. I know each day what I’m doing with each hour of the day. I know each week what I’m doing with each day of the week and I know each month what I’m doing with each week of the month.

Are you rolling your eyes? Does this sound overbearing? It’s simpler than you think. What’s really necessary?

Just one hour every Monday morning. Here’s Cal:

    Every Monday I lay out a plan for the week. I go through my inbox, I go through my task list, I go through my calendar and try to come away with the best thing to do with each day this week. I write it in an email and I send it to myself and leave it in my inbox because that’s a place I know I will see it every day and I’ll be reminded of it multiple times throughout the day.

And he’s right. Research shows you spend your time more wisely when you follow a plan.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

    Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings, though meetings with employees were correlated with higher sales; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.

Maybe you think it’s enough to run down the week’s duties in your head. Nope.

Studies show writing things down makes you more likely to follow through.

So you’ve got a fixed schedule and a weekly plan — but the math doesn’t add up. There’s just too much stuff. Cal has an answer for that too.

4) Do Very Few Things, But Be Awesome At Them

Maybe you’re thinking: I just have too many things to do. I could never get it all done in that amount of time.

And Cal concedes that you might be right. But the answer isn’t throwing up your arms and working until 10PM.

You need to do fewer things. Everything is not essential. You say “yes” to more than you need to.

Ask “What’s creating real value in my life?” And then eliminate as much of the rest as you can.

Here’s Cal:

    You’re judged on what you do best so if you want to have as much success as possible you’re always better off doing fewer things but doing those things better. People say yes to too much. I say no to most things. I’m ruthless about avoiding or purging tasks if I realize they’re just not providing much value.

You feel like you have no time but John Robinson, the leading researcher on time use, disagrees. We may have more free time than ever.

Via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:

    He insists that although most Americans feel they’re working harder than ever, they aren’t. The time diaries he studies show that average hours on the job, not only in the United States but also around the globe, have actually been holding steady or going down in the last forty years. Everybody, he says, has more time for leisure.

So what gives? It feels like you have no time because it’s so fragmented with little annoying tasks that drain the life out of you.

So do less. And be amazing at those things.

Your plans are in order and by doing less, it all fits on the schedule. But one question remains: what exactly should you be doing with your time?

5) Less Shallow Work, Focus On The Deep Stuff

All work is not created equal. Cal says knowledge workers deal with two fundamentally different types of work, Shallow and Deep:

    Shallow work is little stuff like email, meetings, moving information around. Things that are not really using your talents. Deep work pushes your current abilities to their limits. It produces high value results and improves your skills.

And what’s the problem? Most of us are “drowning in the shallows”:

    People who are the most busy often are getting a lot less done of significance than the people who are able to stop by 5PM every day. That’s because the whole reason they need to work at night and on the weekends is because their work life has become full of just shallows. They’re responding to messages, moving information around and being a human network router. These things are very time consuming and very low value.

Nobody in the history of the universe ever became CEO because they responded to more email or went to more meetings. No way, Bubba.

Cal has it right: Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted.

Give yourself big blocks of uninterrupted time to make things of value. What’s the best first step?

Stop checking email first thing in the morning. Tim Ferriss, author of the international bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, explains:

    …whenever possible, do not check email for the first hour or two of the day. It’s difficult for some people to imagine. “How can I do that? I need to check email to get the information I need to work on my most important one or two to-dos?”

    You would be surprised how often that is not the case. You might need to get into your email to finish 100% of your most important to-dos. But can you get 80 or 90% done before you go into Gmail and have your rat brain explode with freak-out, dopamine excitement and cortisol panic? Yes.

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

Cal’s five big tips:

    To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.
    Assume You’re Going Home at 5:30, Then Plan Your Day Backwards
    Make A Plan For The Entire Week
    Do Very Few Things, But Be Awesome At Them
    Less Shallow Work, Focus On The Deep Stuff

Schedules and plans sound cold and clinical but the end result couldn’t be farther from that.

You’ll be less stressed, create more time for friends and family, and make things you can be proud of.

Here’s Cal:

    Knowledge work is really just craftsmanship. It’s just that what you’re crafting is information and not carved wood. You’re crafting ideas. You’re crafting knowledge out of raw material and the more you think about it like a craftsman, the happier and more satisfied you’ll be, not to mention more successful.

The offices of the world could use a few less cubicle drones and a few more proud craftsmen.

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Meeting new people can be awkward. What should you say? How can you make a good impression? How do you keep a conversation going?

Research shows relationships are vital to happiness and networking is the key to getting jobs and building a fulfilling career.

But what’s the best way to build rapport and create trust? Plain and simple, who can explain how to get people to like you?

Robin Dreeke can.

Robin was head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program and has studied interpersonal relations for over 27 years. He’s an expert on how to make people like you.

Robin is the author of the excellent book, It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.

I gave him a call to get some answers. (Note that Robin is not speaking for the FBI here, these are his expert insights.)

You’re going to learn:

    The #1 secret to clicking with people.
    How to put strangers at ease.
    The thing you do that turns people off the most.
    How to use body language like a pro.
    Some great verbal jiu-jitsu to use on people who try to manipulate you.

And a lot more. Okay, let’s learn something.

1) The Most Important Thing To Do With Anyone You Meet

Robin’s #1 piece of advice: “Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.”

Ask questions. Listen. But don’t judge. Nobody — including you — likes to feel judged.

Here’s Robin:

    The number one strategy I constantly keep in the forefront of my mind with everyone I talk to is non-judgmental validation. Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take.

    It doesn’t mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations are.

So what should you do when people start spouting crazy talk? Here’s Robin:

    What I prefer to try to do is, as soon as I hear something that I don’t necessarily agree with or understand, instead of judging it my first reaction is, “Oh, that’s really fascinating. I never heard it in quite that way. Help me understand. How did you come up with that?”

You’re not judging, you’re showing interest. And that lets people calmly continue talking about their favorite subject: themselves.

Studies show people get more pleasure from talking about themselves than they do from food or money:

    Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money…

(To learn how FBI hostage negotiators build rapport and trust, click here.)

So you’ve stopped being Judgy Judgerson and you’re happily validating. Oh, if it were only that easy… What’s the problem here? Your ego.

2) Suspend Your Ego To Get People To Like You

Most of us are just dying to point out how other people are wrong. (Comment sections on the internet are fueled by this, aren’t they?)

And it kills rapport. Want to correct someone? Want to one-up them with your clever little story? Don’t do it.

Here’s Robin:

    Ego suspension is putting your own needs, wants and opinions aside. Consciously ignore your desire to be correct and to correct someone else. It’s not allowing yourself to get emotionally hijacked by a situation where you might not agree with someone’s thoughts, opinions or actions.

Contradicting people doesn’t build relationships. Dale Carnegie said it many years ago — and modern neuroscience agrees.

When people hear things that contradict their beliefs, the logical part of their mind shuts down and their brain prepares to fight.

Via Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential:

    So what happened in people’s brains when they saw information that contradicted their worldview in a charged political environment? As soon as they recognized the video clips as being in conflict with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic went dormant. And the parts of the brain that handle hostile attacks — the fight-or-flight response — lit up.

(For more on keeping a conversation fun, click here.)

So you’ve stopped trying to be clever. But how do you get a reputation as a great listener?

3) How To Be A Good Listener

We’ve all heard that listening skills are vital but nobody explains the right way to do it. What’s the secret?

Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and focus on what they’re saying right now.

Be curious and ask to hear more about what interests you.

Here’s Robin:

    Listening isn’t shutting up. Listening is having nothing to say. There’s a difference there. If you just shut up, it means you’re still thinking about what you wanted to say. You’re just not saying it. The second that I think about my response, I’m half listening to what you’re saying because I’m really waiting for the opportunity to tell you my story.

    What you do is this: as soon as you have that story or thought that you want to share, toss it. Consciously tell yourself, “I am not going to say it.”

    All you should be doing is asking yourself, “What idea or thought that they mentioned do I find fascinating and want to explore?”

Research shows just asking people to tell you more makes you more likable and gets them to want to help you.

The basics of active listening are pretty straightforward:

    Listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, disagree or “evaluate.”
    Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like “yes” and “uh-huh.”
    Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.
    Inquire. Ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.

(To learn the listening techniques of FBI hostage negotiators, click here.)

I know, I know — some people are just boring. You’re not that interested in what they’re saying. So what questions do you ask then, smart guy?

4) The Best Question To Ask People

Life can be tough for everyone: rich or poor, old or young. Everyone.

We all face challenges and we like to talk about them. So that’s what to ask about.

Here’s Robin:

    A great question I love is challenges. “What kind of challenges did you have at work this week? What kind of challenges do you have living in this part of the country? What kinds of challenges do you have raising teenagers?” Everyone has got challenges. It gets people to share what their priorities in life are at that point in time.

Questions are incredibly powerful. What’s one of the most potent ways to influence someone? Merely asking for advice.

Via Adam Grant’s excellent Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

    Studies demonstrate that across the manufacturing, financial services, insurance, and pharmaceuticals industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates. Advice seeking tends to be significantly more persuasive than the taker’s preferred tactics of pressuring subordinates and ingratiating superiors. Advice seeking is also consistently more influential than the matcher’s default approach of trading favors.

Twisting your mustache thinking you can use this for nefarious purposes? Wrong, Snidely Whiplash. It only works when you’re sincere.

Via Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

    In her research on advice seeking, Liljenquist finds that success “depends on the target perceiving it as a sincere and authentic gesture.” When she directly encouraged people to seek advice as an influence strategy, it fell flat.

(For a list of the questions that can create a strong bond in minutes, click here.)

But what if you have to approach someone cold? How do you get people who might not want to talk to you to willingly give you their attention?

5) How To Make Strangers Feel At Ease

First thing: tell them you only have a minute because you’re headed out the door.

Here’s Robin:

    When people think you’re leaving soon, they relax. If you sit down next to someone at a bar and say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” their shields go way up. It’s “Who are you, what do you want, and when are you leaving?” That “when are you leaving” is what you’ve got to answer in the first couple of seconds.

Research shows just asking people if now is a good time makes them more likely to comply with requests:

    The results showed that compliance rates were higher when the requester inquired about respondents’ availability and waited for a response than when he pursued his set speech without waiting and inquiring about respondents’ availability.

Nobody wants to feel trapped talking to some weirdo. People are more likely to help you than you think, but they need to feel safe and in control.

(For more on how to make friends easily, click here.)

Even if you get all of the above right you can still come off like a shady used car salesman. And that fear stops you from meeting new awesome people.

Robin says one of the key reasons people come off as untrustworthy is because their words and their body language are misaligned. Let’s fix that.

6) The Best Body Language For Building Rapport

Your words should be positive, free of ego and judgment — and your body language (“non-verbals”) needs to match.

Here are the things Robin recommends:

        “The number one thing is you’ve gotta smile. You absolutely have to smile. A smile is a great way to engender trust.”
        “Keep that chin angle down so it doesn’t appear like you’re looking down your nose at anyone. And if you can show a little bit of a head tilt, that’s always wonderful.”
        “You don’t want to give a full frontal, full body display. That could be very offensive to someone. Give a little bit of an angle.”
        “Keep your palms up as you’re talking, as opposed to palms down. That says, “I’m hearing what you’re saying. I’m open to what your ideas are.”
        “So I always want to make sure that I’m showing good, open, comfortable non-verbals. I just try to use high eyebrow elevations. Basically, anything going up and elevating is very open and comforting. Anything that is compressing: lip compression, eyebrow compression, where you’re squishing down, that’s conveying stress.”

Research backs him up. From Dale Carnegie to peer-reviewed studies, everyone says smiles matter. (In fact, to increase their power, smile slower.)

It makes us happier too. Neuroscience research shows smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate — or $25,000.

Via Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act:

    Depending on whose smile you see, the researchers found that one smile can be as pleasurable and stimulating as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate! …it took up to 16,000 pounds sterling in cash to generate the same level of brain stimulation as one smile! This is equivalent to about $25,000 per smile…

(To learn how to decode body language and read people like a book, click here.)

So now you come off as the pleasant person you are, not as a scheming taker. But what do you do when the other person is a scheming taker?

7) How To Deal With Someone You Don’t Trust

The name of this blog is not “Helpful Tools For Sociopaths.” I’m not trying to teach you to manipulate others.

But what should do you do when you feel someone is using these methods to try and manipulate you?

Don’t be hostile but be direct: ask them what they want. What are their goals in this interaction?

Here’s Robin:

    The first thing I try to do is clarify goals. I’ll stop and say, “You’re throwing a lot of good words at me. Obviously you’re very skilled at what you’re doing. But what I’m really curious about… What’s your goal? What are you trying to achieve? I’m here with my goals, but obviously you have to achieve your goals. So if you can just tell me what your objectives are, we can start from there and see if we can mutually take care of them. If not, that’s fine too.”

    I watch for validation. If someone is trying to validate me and my thoughts and opinions, I am alert to it. I love doing that as well. So now I’m looking for intent. Are you there for me or are you there for you? If you are there strictly for your own gain and you’re not talking in terms of my priorities ever, that’s when I’m seeing someone is there to manipulate me.

Want to build a connection with someone? Focus on trust, not tricks. That’s how you earn respect. Trust is fragile. And mistrust is self-fulfilling.

When you ask people what the most important character trait is, what do they say? Trustworthiness.

    Participants in 3 studies considered various characteristics for ideal members of interdependent groups (e.g., work teams, athletic teams) and relationships (e.g., family members, employees). Across different measures of trait importance and different groups and relationships, trustworthiness was considered extremely important for all interdependent others…

(To learn how to detect lies, click here.)

That’s a lot more to digest than “Just be yourself” but far more effective. Let’s round it up and make it something you can start using today.

Sum Up

Here are Robin’s tips:

    The single most important thing is non-judgmental validation. Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.
    Suspend your ego. Focus on them.
    Really listen, don’t just wait to talk. Ask them questions; don’t try to come up with stories to impress.
    Ask people about what’s been challenging them.
    Establishing a time constraint early in the conversation can put strangers at ease.
    Smile, chin down, blade your body, palms up, open and upward non-verbals.
    If you think someone is trying to manipulate you, clarify goals. Don’t be hostile or aggressive, but ask them to be straight about what they want.

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Friday, September 16, 2016

Burning Man 2016

Leslie Segala

Checking into Mama's

What would happen if companies managed themselves like nonprofits; doing what's best for their clients and treating their employees like volunteers, grateful for what they do and giving them room to be human? And what if everyone showed up to work like volunteers; happy to be there, enjoying meaningful work, and appreciating their co-workers? Everyone should volunteer to get to experience that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's a simple plot; a young writer pays an overnight visit to an old writer, his idol, and gets caught up in a bit of domestic drama. The characters are complex and complicated, neither terribly heroic or terribly villainous. The ebb and flow of things, things said and un-said, things admirable to one person are foibles to another. All this is really well done, but I didn't like it. Roth seems to be borrowing a plot from Henry James and quotes a novel of James', but he's lacking the tension of James' closeted homosexuality. That unrequited energy of James' that seeps out into the atmosphere of everything around it isn't present in Roth's writing.

There's also a musing about Anne Frank and how she might feel about her story and fame if she were alive today, which is really interesting, but feels just plunked down almost arbitrarily into the middle of this. Roth knew and admired Saul Bellow and I don't like him either. I read Humbolt's Gift and promised myself I wouldn't have to read another Bellow book ever. So this just isn't my taste, but you might like it.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Destination Addiction

Claude Théberge

What If

What if our religion was each other, if our practice was our life, if prayer our words? What if the temple was the Earth, if forests were our church, if holy waters ~ the rivers, lakes and oceans. What if meditation was our relationships, if the teacher was life, if wisdom was self-knowledge, if love was the center of our being?

~ Ganga White

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Lion King

I finally got to see The Lion King today. The two best parts me were the song Endless Night, of course. And at the opening of the second half cast members were in the audience flying their birds around. One of them was standing several rows behind us but his puppet was on the end of a really long pole and he had it come down and stop right in front of this little girl sitting in her Dad's lap. It made the show for her and her Dad and me, too.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016


Consanguinity ("blood relation", from the Latin consanguinitas) is the property of being from the same kinship as another person. In that aspect, consanguinity is the quality of being descended from the same ancestor as another person.

“We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations,  which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” - Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

Online today I came across the e-version of the Pocket Constitution Mr. Kahn was holding at the Democratic Convention. For 49 cents I couldn't resist. I'm pretty sure I read the Declaration of Independence in Junior High, but certainly not since.

I particularly like this in the context of our current tensions based on skin color. In light of what we now know about human origins and genetics, we all need to listen to the voice of consanguinity.

Burning Man

By Rand Larson

Book Review

The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True SelfThe Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True Self by Deepak Chopra

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"... without wholeness, all we can create is superficial change."

" Denial is a false solution."

"Love doesn’t need seeking. Like the air you breathe, it exists as part of nature; it’s a given."

"Big, blown-out fantasies about our lives stem from the pain of our unrealized potential,"

"Those we project on hold pieces of our unclaimed darkness as well as pieces of our unclaimed light."

I gave this book 4 stars more for it's subject matter rather than how it is written. For those of us who find the Law of Attraction doesn't work, or, worse, works in reverse, and therefore seems like so much smile-an-be-happy bullshit the Shadow is the other half of the equation the Law of Attraction is missing. This book asserts that the Shadow, compulsive behaviors, self-sabotage, bad decisions, life messiness, dramas, or even our pet peeves with other people, rather than being denied, turned off, or turned away from should be, must be, looked at as another way the universe shows us ourselves, as a source of knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and energy. Instead of banging our heads against the wall wondering why these things show up in our lives again and again we should look under the hood to see what kind of pain and fear we're hiding from and compensating for.

As to how it is written: Deepak Chopra goes first with a broad collage of the spiritual, metaphysical source and reason for the Shadow and how to approach it. I must say the first part of his essay is some of the messiest writing of his I've waded into. He puts forth divergent subjects in one paragraph but doesn't connect the dots between them. But stick with it. He soon settles down and gives us some gems we can use. Debbie Ford's part is next and it contains the most nuts and bolts we can use to turn our Shadows from destructive forces into positive, creative energy. But after Chopra's and Ford's encouragement to build a stable core and expand our awareness to encompass our Shadow and make it part of our Whole, along comes Marianne Williamson with her judgement and separation saying the shadow must be "gotten rid of". I found Ms. Williamson's writing the least useful and plowed through it as quickly as possible, although I did find a couple of gems, such as: "Rather than self-hatred, I was flooded with compassion for myself, because I realized how much pain I would have had to be in to develop that sort of coping mechanism to begin with."

This book is a good starting point for learning about the Shadow and I plan to explore more, mostly through Ms. Ford's work since she has the best concrete details for how to tap into its positive force.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 02, 2016

This is a Participatory Universe

By Maria Popova

It from Bit: Pioneering Physicist John Archibald Wheeler on Information, the Nature of Reality, and Why We Live in a Participatory Universe

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

The question of what is true is, of course, invariably a binary one — in answering it, we must choose between true and false. Left or right, the red pill or the blue pill, the ultimate “To be, or not to be.” Information theory is built upon this binary mindset — the if this, then that logic of most programming languages is predicated on the true/false dichotomy in executing commands — and it to this elemental relationship between information and human consciousness that Bohm was speaking.

A little more than a decade later, the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911–April 13, 2008) enriched this idea in a concept he called It from Bit. More than thirty years after he popularized the term “black hole” — a term for the cosmic object which consumes most information into oblivion — Wheeler suggested that our experience of the objects, events, and phenomena that constitute reality is the result of binary decisions — true/false, yes/no, on/off — which we make in the process of observing them.

Wheeler first presented his It from Bit notion at a Santa Fe Institute conference in the spring of 1989. That fall, he formulated it in a paper published under the title “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” in the Japanese journal Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Foundations of Quantum Mechanics in the Light of New Technology. It was later discussed in the excellent 1992 essay collection The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context (public library) by physicist Timothy Ferris (not to be confused with Tim Ferriss), which is how I was first led down the rabbit hole of obscure academic journals searching for Wheeler’s original text.

By the time of his death, Wheeler was last living link to Einstein and Niels Bohr, with both of whom he had collaborated directly.

In his paper, Wheeler writes:

    "I, like other searchers, attempt formulation after formulation of the central issues and here present a wider overview, taking for working hypothesis the most effective one that has survived this winnowing: It from Bit. Otherwise put, every it — every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes or no questions, binary choices, bits."

    It from Bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.

With an eye to the famous statement that “time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live” (which Wheeler, like many others, misattributes to Einstein, but which was in actuality thought up by Einstein’s premier biographer, Dimitri Marianoff, in his book Einstein: An Intimate Study of a Great Man), he adds:

    "No account of existence can ever hope to rate as fundamental which does not translate all of continuum physics into the language of bits. We will not feed time into any deep-reaching account of existence. We must derive time — and time only in the continuum idealization — out of it. Likewise with space."

Returning to the loop upon which Bohm had puzzled a decade earlier, Wheeler writes:

    "Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics."

His closing sentiment offers a beautiful testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Looking back on the central inquiry animating his It from Bit concept, Wheeler concludes:

    "Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on that issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, “Oh, how — could it have been otherwise! How could we all have been so blind so long!”

Developments like the nascent Golden Age of gravitational astronomy, which owes a great deal to Wheeler’s work, are among the most thrilling such clues in the direction of headway. But before we can arrive at the moment French polymath Henri Poincaré called “sudden illumination,” when the beauty of such greater simplicity is revealed, we must wade through the thicket of greater complexity, the distillation of which is the daily and perennial task of science.

It from Bit: Pioneering Physicist John Archibald Wheeler on Information, the Nature of Reality, and Why We Live in a Participatory Universe

Today at Mama's

Man, I love these people. I just wanted to give them all hugs!

Outside the Balcony

Broad-Winged Hawk

By Scott Ament

Unrealized Potential

"Big, blown-out fantasies about our lives stem from the pain of our unrealized potential," - Debbie Ford

Thursday, September 01, 2016

It's a Given

"Love doesn’t need seeking. Like the air you breathe, it exists as part of nature; it’s a given." - Deepak Chopra, The Shadow Effect