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 a Wonderful Washington Weekend!

It is a great weekend to live in Washington…

Stanley Cup Celebrations Continue — From bars in Arlington to today’s game at National Park to the Georgetown Waterfront, the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals are having a great time celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship with the hometown fans.  While I was across the country when they clinched on Thursday evening, I could hear the city explode from Phoenix. We’re ALL CAPS here in D.C. It was an especially satisfying run, given 1) that they weren’t expected to go very deep due to losses of players to the expansion draft, and 2) that they got through a couple of perennial stumbling blocks:  John (Torts) Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets and—most significantly—the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Too bad Martin St. Louis—who was always a playoff pest—no longer plays for Tampa Bay.

If you want another thrill, watch the highlights from the cup-clinching game.

Pride 2018 Celebration — Thousands have descended on DC this weekend for the annual Pride celebration.  Andrew almost always makes it to Pride, but because of singing commitments out-of-town, he’s only able to attend Sunday’s festival.  (Work can be such a bummer sometimes!)  I have a number of friends and colleagues who are enjoying this celebration of diversity in the DC capital, and I suspect the good times are rolling.

Politics and Prose Member Sale — Several times a year, our wonderful independent bookstore, Politics and Prose , holds a big members sale…and it just happened to be this weekend.  So after our traditional Saturday morning farmers’ market visit and pastries at Tout de Sweet, we headed into town for the sale.

Candice was much more methodical in her research than I had been.  Nevertheless, I had a few titles in mind, and planned to trust my instincts when faced with a decision.

Books from Politics and Prose

Today’s purchases at the Politics & Prose members sale – what a treasure trove!

The books from Educated to the top are Candice’s choices.  Mine go down from there to the recent Pauli Murray biography Jane Crow.  Our summer reading bags are full once again!

And Did I Mention That the Nationals Won — Once the Nats were finished with the pre-game celebrations with the Caps on Saturday, they turned around to beat the San Francisco Giants 7-5, holding on to first place in the National League East.  Adam Eaton returned from the Disabled List and Bryce hit another home run.  Go Nats!

Have a great weekend…wherever you live (but this weekend, it is hard to top D.C.)

More to come…

DJB

P.S. — Oh, and not everyone stayed in Washington this weekend…that’s not a bad thing.

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

Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One

Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During a 2013 vacation where each family member chose an activity close-to-home for us to share, my wife’s selection was a day at a local retreat center.*  Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the center had created a labyrinth in the woods.  Labyrinths have come to have a special place in my heart.  A dear friend of our family who died in his early 20s was memorialized with a labyrinth designed for people of all physical abilities.  Andrew had spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair, but that never constrained his spirit. Back at the retreat center, “walking the labyrinth” became my activity for the morning.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust:  A History of WalkingAn early chapter is titled “Labyrinths and Cadillacs: Walking Into the Land of the Symbolic.” (I told you it was a wonderful book!)  Solnit, who describes herself as “having been raised as nothing in particular by a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew,” found herself walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco one evening and then muses on the “rules” and “moral” of the practice:

“…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.”

Trinity Church Labyrinth

Labyrinth in Memory of Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA

Walking in symbolic space doesn’t require any particular spiritual or religious practice, but it strikes me that thinking about these truths are useful for everyone. We take journeys in work and life and the path is seldom straight. Short cuts often lead to dead ends. As Solnit notes, “Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them … Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys.”

I hope you’ll take some time to think about your journeys, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* You may not be surprised that for my selection in 2013, I stretched the idea of staying in the region and chose a family weekend in Pittsburgh to see the Pirates, cross another baseball stadium off my bucket list, and work in a return visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  My daughter’s choice had us spending three days at the beach, while my son picked out four ethnic restaurants around DC where we expanded our culinary palates.  When you have 21-year old children and you’re paying college tuition, this “make your own” vacation is a good alternative to a couple of expensive weeks out-of-town.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I made a resolution in 2016 to return and read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.  International Women’s Day seemed to be a special moment this year to act on that resolution.

I took time today during my lunch break to read, once again, of the silencing that occurs when men talk over women.  As Solnit phrases it, “Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.”  We are living in an age when our civic discourse shows just how serious the impacts of this silencing can be.  Solnit ends the postscript to the original essay by noting, “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

I think about this dynamic a great deal.  When I’m learning from and celebrating the accomplishments of women, I am reminded of how important it is to have these basic rights. To hear from this experience and knowledge. To hear of these stories and perspectives.  When I find myself speaking over women in conversations or in meetings, I am reminded (often too late) of the position of privilege that I – a white male – often take for granted.

Solnit’s is a powerful voice, and I recommend you read anything by her you can get your hands on.  I went on a Solnit reading binge several months ago and found myself both humbled and enlightened.

I was also working on a presentation today which included a quote from The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.  That quote brought her story back to my mind: that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint. Pauli Murray is one of the great, underappreciated women of the 20th century who is rightfully celebrated today.  The quote — which is featured on a mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina — is as relevant today as it was the day she said it:

“True Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity.  It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

Wonderful words to remember on International Women’s Day…and every day.

More to come…
DJB