Think Slow

Our 15-year-old nephew—a budding musician—was in town this past weekend, so I took him to the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. There he could see every type of musical instrument known to humankind (plus some) and, frankly, it gave me an excuse to play a few good guitars.  Not that I don’t have good guitars at home.  Later in the day my nephew had a chance to see and play my two prized Running Dog guitars made by luthier Rick Davis.

Playing my Running Dog

Playing one of my Running Dog guitars (photo by Claire Brown)

Davis was profiled in Tim Brookes’ 2005 book Guitar:  An American Life, where the author seeks to replace a badly damaged first guitar with a hand-crafted one “for the second half of my life.”  He writes that as he nears 50 years of age, he finds an itch that can only be scratched with a new guitar.  And as Brookes notes, “Guitar makers even have a word for these baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-those-dreams:  dentists.”

“Much later, after the guitar is finished, Rick will refer to ‘the eternal and infinite capacity of the consumer to confuse making a purchase with falling in love.’ I should have known better, I suppose—but then again maybe not. First guitars tend to be like first loves:  ill-chosen, unsuitable, short-lived, and unforgettable. I’m not sure I ever want to get to the point of making a rational decision about a guitar.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about decision making at key junctions of life.  Like Tim Brookes, there are some things—guitars among them—where I don’t want a rationale decision model to get in the way of my emotion. But we face many decisions that require serious thought and calculation. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would suggest that we let our emotions make all types of decisions where a slower, rational model should come into play.  There is a recurring theme in Kahneman’s book that “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

We put too much stock in the fact that we’re confident we’re making the right choice.  We put too much stock in our emotions.

“Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgement is correct.  Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.  It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you than an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

When important decisions have to be made, I’m trying to take the time to step back, work through the crux of the matter, set aside emotions, and push back against a quick confidence that I’ve reached the right answer.  Thinking and decision-making—deep thinking around critical moments in your work, career, or life—requires time.

Think slow when you should, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Would You Rather Be the Ornithologist or the Bird?

As our recent board meeting came to a close, I’ve reflected on how we communicate at these times to trustees, colleagues, stakeholders, donors, long-time acquaintances, and new friends.  Over the course of four days, we provide written updates, make formal presentations, discuss our goals, share experiences, and—at our best—turn those opportunities for communication into meaningful, insightful stories.

Carmine Gallo notes that prominent neuroscientists “confirm what we’ve known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and—most important for leadership—people recall and retain information more effectively when it’s presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.”

To be effective, stories must connect on a human, emotional level.  Sometimes that requires that we break out of the “rules” to find the right point of connection. Writer Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer, notes that while grammar is important in writing, it isn’t the be-all and end-all when we try to communicate.  There’s more we have to get across than just grammatical structure.

“Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it.  This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.  In the end it’s the language itself—the shimmyshine of it—that matters so much more than the manners the grammar police want to put upon it.”

I like the thought of the “shimmyshine” of the language serving a larger purpose.  In the same essay, McCann notes that, “On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings.  And the question is:  Would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?”

In written or spoken words—in telling our stories—let’s strive to be the bird.

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

What You Know That Just Ain’t So

In the midst of the disruption and turmoil that can be found around us, I have been reminded of the quote that began with Mark Twain and then was adapted by the great Negro League pitcher and philosopher Satchel Paige:

“It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”

We seem to be having an epidemic these days of “what you know that just ain’t so-itis.”  There are many reasons this could be the case, but an important one is that we’re bombarded with information that requires work on our part to filter and understand.  Warren Bennis has written that “adults learn best when they take charge of their own learning.  Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, which is the sine qua non in becoming an integrated person.”  Consider where we get information today.  In our interconnected yet at times isolated world, we all fall into the trap of letting others tell us how to think.  It is easy to let others take charge of what we learn.

Satchel Paige

Satchel Paige

What we know should be seen as only the starting point.  Author Colum McCann suggests that writers should not write about “what you know, write toward what you want to know.”

 “In the end, of course, your first-grade teacher was correct:  we can, indeed, only write what we know.  It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise.  But if we write toward what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of.  We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.”

In times of turmoil, it is important to focus on what you know, what you don’t know, what you want to know, and what you know that just ain’t so.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

What we do should be informed by what we know. Asking “what” will help.

Self-awareness is so important in facing life’s ups and downs.  Despite experience shaping our model of the world (as I’ve written before), bias still prevents us from making experience-based decisions, especially if we lack self-awareness.  A colleague recently sent me a note along with a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Dr. Tasha Eurich which explored this theme.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness

Eurich’s article spoke of two broad categories of self-awareness:

“The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.

The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.”

Self-awareness can help in confronting our biases. Common obstructionist biases in situations that should be informed by experience are the tendency to use confirmatory evidence, assumptions about causality, and disregarding negative information. My colleague’s question to me was, “Do we throw our hands up now?”

Not yet (she answered her own question). There are different ways to gain self-awareness outlined in the HBR article.  Dr. Eurich found that “people who improved their external self-awareness did so by seeking out feedback from loving critics — that is, people who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth. To ensure they don’t overreact or overcorrect based on one person’s opinion, they also gut-check difficult or surprising feedback with others.”  Introspection, on the other hand, was a surprisingly poor way to gain self-awareness for many people because we often approach it in the wrong way.  We begin our introspection with the question “why.”  Eurich makes the point that “why” invites negativity and rationalization. Instead, she encourages the use of “what” questions in forward-focused introspection, because identifying patterns in situations and decision-making allows us to see what actions contributed toward our success or failure. Asking “what” questions will help people make experience-based decisions.

What we do should be informed by what we know. It’s hard. But asking “what” will help.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

How Do We Know What We Know?

In recent weeks, a friend acquired a book by Rebecca Solnit, an author I admire.  I immediately offered to read it at the same time, in order to discuss it together.  Having read the book several years before, why return to this one when I had so many unread books in piles around the house?

The answer comes in understanding how we know what we know.  That’s been on my mind recently as I’ve thought about topics as wide ranging as cultural norms, untold histories, political divisiveness, and generational perspectives. Just how do we—as humans—shape our personal world view?

Skyscape at Villa Panza

Pondering the big questions

In rereading Solnit’s book, I came to the material at a very different time in my life and that of our country. I had vaguely remembered parts of the book from my first reading, but frankly there were whole sections that seemingly had escaped my notice or understanding the first time through.  But I also realized how much more of the book aligned with my current “model” of how the world works. And I don’t think that’s by accident.

“Reading and experience train your model of the world,” writes Paul Graham. “And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”  Henry David Thoreau said something similar when he wrote: “Every man…tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain.” In Thoreau’s formulation, I “half knew” what I’d read earlier, and was ready to receive it on a second reading and have it connect more deeply with my model of the world.  Graham, the computer programmer and investor, notes,

“…reading and experience are usually ‘compiled’ at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase ‘already read’ seems almost ill-formed.”

There’s much to be learned by going back to that which has formed us—consciously or unconsciously—to see how our current base of knowledge and experience reacts with this material today. In fact, it is critical to continued learning.

So take the time to reread the books that captured your imagination as a teenager, or in graduate school, or in mid-life. It is one way we know what we know.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Bad Stories

I am in the middle of an impressive yet troubling book by Steve Almond entitled Bad Stories.  This work about the American psyche in 2018, by the New York Times best-selling author and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast (with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed), looks at the many reasons we came to be where we are today as a nation. There is much to consider in this work, and I may return to it in future posts.  But for now, I want to focus on stories—good and bad—and what they can mean personally and professionally for those of us who look to “tell the full American story.”

Almond writes, “I’ve placed my faith in stories because I believe them to be the basic unit of human consciousness. The stories we tell, and the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience.”  He then quotes the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who insists that our species came to dominate the world in part because of “our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend beyond our bonds beyond clan loyalties.”  For a powerful example of storytelling, we don’t have to look much beyond last Saturday’s address at the royal wedding by Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry.

As a lover of history, I believe in the power of stories.  Like each of you, I’ve heard them my entire life.  As I wrote recently, people I love told stories that were wrong—bad stories—which perpetuated a false reality that was focused on keeping one race of people under the control of another and to “warp our fears into loathing.”

Almond says,

“Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good….For most of our history, humans relied upon folklore and religious parable to conceptualize the common good.  But much of our progress as a species, Harari insists, is a function of cultures shifting from superstitious stories to verifiable ones, as happened during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century.  Our embrace of reason and empiricism has saved a lot of people from dying of illness and starvation.  It has led to a standard of living within many precincts of the world that would have been unimaginable in previous epochs.  It has not, however, changed the fact that we still choose the stories by which we construct reality (emphasis added).

What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are bad, meaning fraudulent either by design or negligence?  What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous?  Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront?  What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance?  The principle argument of this book is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes (emphasis added).

…bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.  If bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.”

Bad Stories

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

We work at telling the full American story at the National Trust in part to correct bad stories, and in part to take reality seriously.  I think that is work at the core of our lives together.  It has also led me to think about the personal stories I tell myself and others. When I get a (minor) fact wrong I’m fond of saying, “this story may not be factually accurate, but it is true,” meaning that it points us in the right direction.  Almond, in a response to a question from his seven-year-old son about the truth of a set of stories, says something similar when he notes that the truth of certain stories isn’t really the point.  “A story didn’t have to be true (which I interpret as factual) to produce a good outcome, to help people behave a little more kindly.” Sometimes the intent of the storyteller to either build up or tear down is the determining factor of a story’s value.

If we can recognize the value of others as well as our role in listening to, understanding, and honoring their stories, I believe we’ll be on the right path to taking reality seriously.  And we’ll be correcting bad stories.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Work With Your Door Open

At a recent staff retreat, I urged everyone to “work with their door open.”

It may have seemed like a strange request since we don’t have offices with doors in our headquarters at the National Trust, and many of our historic sites and field offices also utilize open plan design.  But whatever the personal office situation of those in the room, I was making the request in a more figurative sense.

In an observation that isn’t original but aligns with my own, I have noticed that people who have the door to their office closed throughout the day may get more work done today and tomorrow, and may be more productive than most in the short term. However, several years later somehow they don’t quite know what problems are worth working on. All the hard work they do can be tangential in importance.

On the other hand, those who work with the door open get all kinds of interruptions.  But they also occasionally get clues as to what is really going on in the world and what might be important.  In my mind, those interruptions are more than worth the short-term drop in productivity.

Being open, being collaborative, being curious: those are the ways we learn.  In our minds, in our personal interactions, and in our focus on others, we can work “with our doors open” and accomplish so much more together.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB