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

Procrastination

I’ll tell you all about the downsides of procrastination later.  When I get around to it.

Seriously, indecisiveness can be bad.  Indecisiveness can also lead to better choices and better results. To discern which it is, we must understand why we may be waiting to make a decision.

If you find yourself chronically putting off difficult tasks you know you should tackle, then you’ll find this path leads to the loss of time, the loss of respect of co-workers and family, and it can cost you in results. Perhaps when you are in a situation where you don’t enjoy or admire your work, you have to force yourself to push forward. When that happens, Paul Graham suggests, “the results are distinctly inferior.”

However, if you are doing work you enjoy and still worry that you are indecisive, Graham and others see us making better choices with more creative outcomes by waiting for a more deliberate answer.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says, “You call it procrastination,  I call it thinking.”

“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the ‘absent-minded professor,’ who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s ‘small stuff?’ Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out…”

I sometimes find myself filling up a to-do list and checking off the boxes to convince myself I’m not procrastinating.  (That’s Graham’s type-b procrastination listed above.)  Or I rip through a project and finish it early.  Again, I convince myself I’m not procrastinating.  But as Wharton School professor Adam Grant notes, “Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional.”  He notes in an essay entitled Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, “My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.”

Right or lefgt

Right or left – Let’s think on that for a while…

Truth be told, I have had a first draft of this post in my box for over a month.  In that time, as I read various articles on the topic and thought about what I wanted to say (i.e., procrastinated), one of the clearest thoughts I’ve found came from Richard Hamming, who asks the simple question:  “What is the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?”  If we’re focused on that — even while daydreaming — there’s a better-than-average chance that we’re a “good procrastinator.”

Have a better-than-average week.

More to come…

DJB