Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

beware the coercion of malls

Gruen Pains

It was back in the mid 90’s when I first noticed it. After a lot of years of relative poverty and the busy-ness of both co- and single-parenting, I decided to take them on one of the favorite activities of my youth:
We were all going to the mall. I remember fondly going with my parents to Paramus Park in New Jersey, with the shiny stuff in Sears and Farrell’s Ice Scream Parlor and KayBee Toy and Hobby. Heck, while I don’t really remember it, my mother used to work at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City and apparently as a four-year-old I was quite popular among the shopkeepers.

I had a little disposable income, it was time to carry on that family tradition with my daughters. My girlfriend and I took the double-seated stroller and went off to East Towne with all four of my daughters, a caravan of fun. Unfortunately, about fifteen minutes into the visit, I started feeling lightheaded. Then nauseous. I felt weak, unsteady on my feet.

Thinking it was some kind of hypoglycemic attack, I bought a snickers and tried to power through it. No such luck. We left the mall after only about forty-five minutes. I was sad, but figured it was something I ate, or perhaps just a bug.

No such luck. Over the next two decades, even now, every time I go into a mall I am on a timer to see at what point I will just start to feel crappy. I blamed new security systems, I blamed flourescents, I even blamed overly-enthusiastic perfumed items.

Guess what? I was right, and wrong at the same time. What I was experiencing has been called “the Gruen Transfer” (or Effect) and it is well known. In fact, it’s intentional, though perhaps not to the extent that it happens in me.

Unintentional Coercion by Design

Viktor Gruen was an Austrian-born architect who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. He built a career here practically from scratch and in 1954 designed the first open-air mall in Detroit (ironically, the man who created what has become a symbol of American capitalist values was a committed socialist).

He didn’t intend for his invention to cause the effect that was later named after him, but it happened anyway:

The Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment. Spatial awareness of their surroundings plays a key role, as does the surrounding sound, art, and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace. – Wikipedia

While Gruen did want to prioritize walking (he designed many of the pedestrian malls in several cities) as he watched many retailers and other architects capitalize on the effect by intentionally making it more intense, he reportedly became “heartbroken”, especially since his attempts at publicly decrying the practice resulted in the effect being named after him.

Casinos are often held up as models of this kind of intentional disorientation, where “coercive atmospherics work in a way that does not acknowledge us as humans, but rather as brains with five senses” according to former ad man turned media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. However, if you think you are immune to it, you really simply aren’t paying attention: Mark Pollard gives a good description of how IKEA uses this method, for example, with everything from providing you with measuring tapes (better measure something!) as well as putting expensive items before cheaper ones. And, of course, there is the layout of the stores themselves, which make my old Dungeons & Dragons maps look downright banal.


Forewarned is For Naught

Remember when I talked about conditioning, and how even when you know about it you are still susceptible? Rushkoff has a term for it: the “Cool Kids”, who spot the advertising tricks and therefore feel as though they have shielded themselves from them. Unfortunately, this is only true on a superficial level; these kinds of sensory bombardments bypass the conscious mind through the biological stimuli and affect people regardless of their awareness.

On the other hand ,if you can’t control how you feel, you can control your actions. There are going to be a lot of people going to malls this weekend; here’s some techniques you can use to keep the coercion to a minimum:

  • Don’t Go. OK, it may be the most obvious, but it’s also your best defense. If you don’t want to get wet, don’t jump in the lake. There are many other ways to get fish.
  • Leave when you want. Listen to your fatigue level, and keep yourself from having to visit every store “just to see if there’s something on sale”
  • Go with a list. Know what you want, know what you need, and go in like you’re Marine Force Recon: get in, get it done, get out. Make a timed goal of it, deploy your friends as auxiliary forces, use your phone as comms and turn it into a live-action game.
  • Go as a rapturist. Instead of having the goal of “I gotta get something” try having the goal of “I’m gonna randomly make people’s lives better.” That might mean giving them your place in line, or lifting things down from shelves, or just smiling at the tired kid to distract them from crying.
  • Guilt Yourself Out of It. Given recent events in Ferguson, and the responding demonstrations in many other U.S. cities, do you really think participating in “Black Friday” is the best use of resources? Perhaps you could feel a rush of joy spending your money in other places.

I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, or even a socialist (you won’t find me designing any malls!). I’m just saying that when you walk into the mall, you are consenting to a coercive environment. So be aware. And be safe.
And be thankful. I know I am!

coercion awareness

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

I’m very excited to begin this post, even though it may be completely wrong.

As I mentioned in the last Weekend Roundup podcast, I’m going to begin an exploration into the idea of coercion. With relatively few exceptions, I’m going to be talking about the various ways that the phenomenon is a part of our practices, a part of our lives, and certainly a part of our love.

Coercion has a bad reputation; usually the word is not looked on favorably. Yet synonyms are used in some the most revered philosophies out there: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, for example. The art of the Persuasion Speech is taught in high school forensics as a useful skill, and it can be argued that the many books, courses, and coaches for interview techniques are about coercing employers into hiring you.

photo courtesy of Gexydaf

Hint: It’s not quite this obvious.

The problem comes when the power of coercion moves into darker waters, when it becomes manipulation. Yet even then it is sometimes championed – Robert Greene’s bestseller The 48 Laws of Power, for example, has chapters such as “USE SELECTIVE HONESTY AND GENEROSITY TO DISARM YOUR VICTIM”. Even children, Mr. Greene says, are manipulative:

“Children may be naive in many ways, but they often act from an elemental need to gain control over those around them. Children suffer greatly from feeling powerless in the adult world, and they use any means available to get their way.” (emphasis added)

And therein lies the truth of the matter: coercion is a strategy developed by humans as a form of power in order to get what they want. It may be used for “good” (I persuaded my partner to do yoga) or “evil” (I totally made her believe I was a Doctor and got her digits!) but in the end it’s done for selfish reasons (…because I don’t want to be alone).

We, uh, culpa

Most likely, if you were accused of being coercive, you’d either deny it or at least feel bad. Let’s agree, for the duration of this exploration here on Love Life Practice, not to do that, ok? We are all coercive as well as all coerced almost constantly, from the larger form of obeying societal laws under the threat of controlled violence to the simple act of convincing yourself to get out of bed because you should…or, more likely, because you promise yourself coffee or the equivalent.

So we’re all coercers. It’s like privilege; everybody’s got it, in one way or another, and what matters is that we recognize it and not abuse it and, if possible, use it for good. Before that can happen, though, there need to be some time noticing when we are doing it. And it’s not usually as easy to spot as someone lying about their job to catch the eye of an attractive mate. It takes physical form, it takes nonverbal form, it takes rhetorical form, and obviously it takes form in words.

Here, I’ll start. Here are the ways I am coercive during my professional life:

  • I will smile and be cheerful towards service industry workers regardless of how I’m feeling, because I know it will give me better service.
  • I usually dress with slightly more vanity than any particular social situation requires, because I know that it is a subtle way to make an impression and stand out in a crowd.
  • If a client is upset with me or with someone else, I will become extremely focused on polite responses and sticking to simple facts, avoiding letting any of my personal feelings of wrong or right or fairness show in my words.
  • If I am having a conversation with someone and I want them to think I’m smart, I will ask them to talk about something that they care about, and then turn on “active listening” skills so that they feel heard, knowing that it will give the impression of intelligence regardless of whether I’m actually interested in what they’re saying.
  • If I am managing a large group in a teaching situation and I identify someone who is likely to derail or monopolize the situation, I will deliberately create a topic I know they can speak on in order to make them feel valued and then guide the rest of the conversation towards the contributions of other people (technically a version of the previous coercive tactic applied to large groups).

There it is. My secrets lay revealed and I have come clean. Whew! Feels good to finally admit that I do those things. Maybe you’d like to try it? Go on down there into the comments and just let me know what kind of manipulations you use!

Unless, of course, you feel that my baring of my soul was actually another coercive tactic designed to appeal to your desire to reciprocate. In which case I will admit: yes, you caught me. You are astonishingly perceptive. As long as you don’t notice that I write in the first person in order to give you a false sense of being personally invested in my blog, I should be ok, though…

Your Power, Your Self

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole. Suddenly we’re second-guessing each other and ourselves and that way lies paranoia and madness. Since those are not particular personal developments I’m interested in fostering, please don’t think about it too much.

Plus, I don’t happen to think that all these habits are things that should be changed. These coercive – sorry, I mean persuasive – techniques are part of why I am somewhat in demand as a speaker, teacher, and facilitator within certain circles. I know that the skills have benefited people besides me; that makes it ok, right?

Don’t answer; that’s what we’re going to be talking about for a while. But do take the time to try and watch, from a more objective place, the ways that you shape your behavior for the purpose of affecting others. Don’t worry about changing them; it’s likely that a lot of them are subconscious and I suspect more than a few will surprise you.

If they do, I really would appreciate hearing about it in the comments, or if you want a bit more anonymity I’m happy to get a personal email. We’ll figure out whether we want to change later on; the first step is just noticing all the little tricks we’ve developed in order to get what we want…

* I do have some people personally invested in my blog; they’re my patrons and I am immensely grateful to them for what they do. Would you like to help them support my work here at Love Life Practice? It’s as cheap as $1/month and only a click away!

reinforcing habits|creating nowhere|the winning strategy of courtesy

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

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courtesy and kindness are winning strategies

Your Karmic Burden

I was looking for an opening to talk with you this weekend, but the opportunity never presented itself. The last time I saw you I was exceptionally rude to you and I feel really bad about that. There are no excuses for putting that much negativity into the atmosphere, but I was going through some medical issues that caused my moods to be erratic…

Anyway, no excuses. I am sorry and I feel bad. I hope you can forgive me and we can be happy friends again.

If not, I do understand and wish you the best.

That message appeared in my email yesterday morning, sent by a fellow attendee at a performing arts conference in San Francisco. I give her a lot of credit for sending it; I’ve talked before about the art of apologizing, and she nails it: identifies what she did wrong, explains without making excuses, and asks for forgiveness. She also makes a point of asking, not assuming or demanding, and wishes me well regardless of my reaction to her apology.

That is the way to apologize with class. I couldn’t have asked for a better example if I’d made it up. In fact, there’s only one problem with me absolving her of the rudeness:

I don’t remember it.
Being nice to other folks is also being nice to yourself

You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

It obviously weighed heavily on her mind, and I feel a little sorry for her. The fact is, while I believe her that the event happened, there are lots of people who are rude to me. Ranging from TSA inspectors to snappy baristas to anxious clients, I’ve been called things like “overrated piece of crap” and “ego-driven attention whore” (and that was from someone I had thought a friend).

I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. I also won’t pretend that my inherited response to pain is to get angry. I’ve lashed out on occasion, probably much like the woman who wrote that email to me, and like her I have regretted it for ages afterwards.

That, more than anything else, is why I’ve developed anger management skills over the years. It’s not altruism, it’s self-defense. I don’t want to feel bad about how I treated someone, so I take the high road, even when the other side of the conversation is full of bile and vinegar.

Killing Them With Class

“Gratitude is a sign of maturity…Where there is appreciation: there is also courtesy and concern for the rights and property of others.” ― Gordon B. Hinckley

There’s another selfish reason to take the high road: it drives the other side crazy. Rule one of internet flamewars is Don’t feed the trolls, of course, but rule two is probably Get out of the way and let the trolls destroy themselves. Many an internet “discussion” has been won by simply shutting up and letting the other side dig the hole of their own error, illustrating for everyone watching (and trolls really love an audience) just how wrong they are.

Another example was set by a client of mine just recently. I help monitor the social media for the company, and there was a brief flurry on twitter from a person who didn’t like the quality of the company’s product (in this case, educational videos). The person on twitter was sarcastic and bitter and very confrontational.

The client did try discussing the issue, but it’s social media 101 that it’s just about impossible to defend yourself from an online attack like that. Luckily there were other customers who rallied to the defense (which is also social media 101: allies can defend you better than you can). In the end the attacking party (who had never actually watched the videos they were criticizing) admitted that the attack might have just been motivated by a crappy day.

So my client won, right? Well, yes, but today they did something a bit further: they asked me to send the attacking tweeter a free membership to the video series. Instead of resting in the laurels of victory, my client wants to go the extra mile and prove that they won not because of clever social media strategy, but because of who they are and the quality of their product.

It makes me feel very fortunate to work with clients like that. It sets a good model for all of us when interacting with critics.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly motivation to be nicer to people. Be mean, and maybe you’ll get free stuff!

Ok, so it’s not a perfect model. But the fact is, while it’s scientifically proven that depressed people have a more accurate model of reality, it’s also true that cheerful people have more fun being wrong. Make your choice; me, I’m gonna keep smiling and being nice.

I’m too old to be carrying that weight. How about you?

creating a bit of nowhere to know where you are

Know-Where Man

Location is a funny thing these days. Many of our devices are location-aware, so I can tell my phone “Remind me to take in the car seat when I get home” and it will actually wait until I’m near my apartment to let me know! My volunteer login code for the VA Hospital is stored in my Evernote application, and much to my surprise it popped up before I even knew I needed it just because it knew The last time Gray looked at this note, he was in this location; he’s there again, so he probably wants to see it again! It’s pretty awesome and a little creepy at the same time.

At the same time, as someone who travels a lot, I have to create my own little “homes” in order to keep my focus and sanity while on the road. There are specific pictures of my family that play on my phone like a digital photo frame. There is particular music that keeps me centered, and my iPad and Netflix provide me with familiar escapes no matter how unfamiliar my surroundings. A good friend of mine who travels even more gave me the power-travel tip of incorporating scent into the mix, though I’ve still not quite managed it.

Is home where the hearth is? Is it where you’re born? Where you grew up? Is it where your family lives, or where you carve out your own space?

These are all questions posed by Pico Iyer in his TED Talk “Where is Home?“, and I highly recommend you watch it at the end of this post. Among other things, he describes the way “home” has changed for the new generation:

…they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides… Home for them is really a work in progress. It’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

Interestingly, Pico suggests in his book The Art of Stillness that one of the best ways to learn more about your home – the place(s) that you spend your life – is to create little trips to Nowhere. He uses examples like Leonard Cohen and Thomas Merton, people who left their bon vivant lifestyles to join monastic lifestyles. Of course, we can’t all do that – but he points out that the busiest of people can carve out a tiny piece of time when their only job is to do nothing.

The Fruits of Your Rest

If you need an example of what can be accomplished by turning your attention inward, perhaps another of his examples, Emily Dickinson, will suffice. A reclusive woman who didn’t reach fame, fortune, or even really love during her life – but from her solitude rose verses that are passionate, deep, and unforgettable.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember my own exploration in creating times of “revery” – the “Simple Time of Peace“. It’s a very privileged and luxurious thing to be able to do, however. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Perhaps it’s more like one of John Cage’s musical pieces, where instead of filling the brain with distracting instruments and beats and harmonies he simply created a space for people to listen to their world.

Pico Iyer learned from Mathieu Ricard, the alleged “happiest man on earth”, that one of the mini-sanctuaries for the monk was airplane flights. It’s a literal interpretation of “rising above the clouds into the sky”, a common metaphor in Buddhism for clearing the mind.

It’s a crazy hard idea. Even while writing this blog post I have headphones on, listening to Celtic music to “help focus”. But really, what am I being distracted by? The life in the world around me? How amusing is it that while writing a post about life I’m trying to hide from it?

Where are your Sabbaths? Where do you find your revery when “bees are few”? I’m starting to look in my life for these little islands of Nowhere, in the hopes they will help me know where I am, as well as where I am going.

Where are you?

reinforce the habit you want instead of the habit you have

A Classical Re-Education

Operant Conditioning used in an experiment to change behavior

It’s easy to change the behavior of mice. And, it turns out, humans. Just ask the Slot Machine Industry.

Pavlov’s Dogs. Skinner Boxes. The world of classical and operant conditioning is often cold and pretty scary, not only because of the methods used on cute and fuzzy animals to learn about them but also because they work. I made the mistake of taking some advanced psychology classes in high school. That meant that when I went through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot I understood completely the ways the Drill Instructors were re-shaping my brain to suit their ends. Just because you understand that the symbol of the eagle globe and anchor is a secondary reinforcer doesn’t make it any less effective in making you want to stand straighter, run faster, snap salutes more crisply to “earn” the right to wear it.

No, it actually makes it more horrifying. On the other hand, with a good understanding of things like operant conditioning you can get an idea of why things like Twitter are addictive and take steps to moderate the effects. And since it does, in fact, work, you can even use it on yourself.

The Strange Case of the Glasses

Here’s an example of using conditioning to change personal behavior: I have a tendency, entirely subconscious, to take off my glasses at any given moment and set it down wherever. The back of the couch, the top of my dresser, the stereo speaker, the kitchen counter…there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I have a little artisan glass dish that I could place them on – but somehow I can’t seem to get in the habit of using it.

Instead I tend to rely on my partner to help me find them. “Have you seen my glasses?” is a phrase that I really don’t even have to finish before she will be picking them up from whatever random place I put them. In fact, much like associative conditioning, I believe there is a certain posture I have which communicates to her Gray is looking for his glasses because she will sometimes appear with them in her hand before a word has left my lips.

Wonderfully helpful, right? I smile and thank her and praise her for her prescient fulfillment of my needs.

What kind of behavior is that reinforcing? I enjoy getting help; she likes me smiling; there is no motivation for either of us to change the behavior of laying down the glasses in various places. I suspect she thinks it’s adorably absent-minded or some such.

So how could I use conditioning to change my own behavior?

Creative Conditioning

If your first answer was “Have something unpleasant happen every time you can’t find your glasses, Gray!” then gee, thanks for thinking the answer is to make my life more unpleasant! Just kidding – I know it was rooted in an honest desire to help, and not in any kind of latent sadism on your part.

But unfortunately research shows that negative reinforcement and punishment (two different things, by the way) are not as useful as positive reinforcement when it comes to changing behavior. Not that it can’t be done – it just tends to be less predictable and much less permanent.

Instead, we might do things a bit differently. I could ask my partner to put my glasses, any time she saw them not on my face, onto that glass tray. She wouldn’t hand them to me, she wouldn’t even mention it to me. Meanwhile, I would make sure that if I couldn’t find my glasses that the first place I looked was the glass tray. Odds are that either she would have already put them there, or she would see me looking, do her little magic divination and find them, and place them there.

One way or another, I would be rewarded for looking in the dish by the glasses being there. Even better, it would probably (at first) be an intermittent reward, which is amazingly effective to trigger behavior. Want proof? Try not checking email for 24 hours. Heck, just changing to checking twice a day is pretty difficult.

Pretty soon my brain would connect the tray and the glasses, and my tendency would be to take off my glasses and just place them there. My partner would, theoretically, find the glasses outside of the tray less and less. Which would, of course, free her up to go and find my keys…

Bear in mind, it’s a theory. But it’s worth a try, and there might be some behaviors you can find in yourself (or that you might gently suggest to your loved ones) that could benefit from some good old-fashioned conditioning. One suggestion, though, which we’ll go into more thoroughly on Wednesday’s Life Post: take the time to find the behaviors that actually need changing, rather than looking to the media to find what they want you to change (usually with the help of products they’d like to sell you).

This is your brain; apply conditioning, rinse, repeat. And let me know how it goes in the comments!

hand signals for efficient meetings|the genuine path to success|maintaining intimacy while traveling

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

We’re almost to 1000 downloads per month, so HELLO to new listeners! You can still get a free hardcover copy of The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau if you post a review of this podcast either on iTunes or your favorite podcast aggregator!

Send feedback or questions to

You can also get a free draft copy of my forthcoming book The Defining Moment by becoming a Patron of LLP for as little as $1/month!

Yes! I support LoveLifePractice!

New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

how to maintain intimacy while traveling

The Age of Miracles

If I remember the story right, my paternal grandparents met at a USO dance just before Grandpa shipped off to fix bombers in Italy and Africa during World War II. They kept in touch via letters, maybe one or two a month, for two years before he returned. They were married, had three great kids and my Dad, too (zing!) and stayed together for more than half a century.

Think about that for a moment. Two years of just the occasional letter, during a time of war, no less, when you couldn’t really even be sure that the person on the other end was still interested or even still alive. Or think of the Civil War, when the postal service wasn’t nearly as consistent.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in San Francisco. I’m on a business/training trip, teaching some classes here and then heading down to L.A. to interview and train with a Japanese performance artist. I’ll be gone from home for ten days, and that comes after a previous ten-day trip in October. Meanwhile my partner and I are still very much in the “honeymoon phase” since our commitment ceremony last June, so there’s quite a bit of pining and “I miss you’s” going back and forth.

But that’s why I call this an age of miracles. Not the least because I get to sit in a chair and fly through the air to travel these thousand-plus miles. But because I can send her a message telling her “Love you” in faster than it takes you to read this sentence.

Literally. I just did it. And moments later got her response: Love you, back. More everyday. Are we spoiled? Is it silly or clingy or needy (or all three) to bemoan a ten-day separation when couples used to go through months, years of separation with minimal contact? I don’t think so. Like all feelings, it’s subjective, and it’s also tied a lot to expectation. If you know the person you love could contact you more than they actually are, then it can make those feelings worse. Getting a letter that was written by the light of burning airplanes in north Africa is probably a bit more exciting than a tiny text message.

Keep in Loving Touch

Because of my work, this is far from the first (or last) time that Natasha and I will be apart. Over the years of our relationship we’ve found a few ways that help maintain the closeness and even intimacy of our relationship in spite of the travel.

  1. Leverage Technology. We all carry these little miracles around with us, or keep them on our desks. Sending text messages or short voice memos to each other is a great way to give tiny touches of contact during the day. We also send “good morning” pictures (usually hers is to remind me to take my medication) and occasional snapshots during the day. So, things like this:
  2. Don’t Let Technology Leverage You. You may be wondering why we don’t use video messaging like Skype or FaceTime, or why we don’t take that radical step of using the phone to make a phone call (what a concept!)? The reason is simple: for some reason that technology doesn’t work so well for us. We both have busy days, and trying to match schedules for real-time communication is often difficult. Other people I know love phone calls and find text messages tedious. Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you are required to use it. Use what works for the two of you, and let the rest go.
  3. Ditch Technology. The US Postal Service is a miracle in its own way, and the personal touch of writing a letter or sending a postcard may be slow but it is always appreciated. Sure, you could send an email faster – but the visceral sense of ink on paper that you have actually touched makes a difference for your loved ones. As a side note: I’ve found a good compromise for this is the PostGram App. It combines the personal touch of your own photos with the tactile joy of getting a postcard, for only .99 each.
  4. Nothing is Too Small. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you are at a distance from your lover is the idea that they won’t want to hear from you. Here’s the tip: if you are thinking of them, let them know. If you think “Oh, I wish I could show her this shirt,” then snap a picture and share it. Part of the miraculous nature of technology is that if someone is too busy,  the message will wait for them. Many’s the time I’ve seen a voice message arrive when I was too busy to listen – but knowing that it was from my sweetheart means that I look forward to creating that moment of intimacy and actually hear her voice.
  5. Make Use of Talismans. Something as simple as a picture of your beloved on your phone, or a piece of jewelry that reminds you of your connection. By taking these talismans with you through your day, you create a shared presence that makes their absence easier to take. It’s the equivalent of the lock of hair kept by separated lovers in the days of yore, but it can be so much more. Once I sent a special cigar to a lover knowing that she would enjoy it while thinking of me, or more importantly, us. Sometimes it’s watching the same movie, sometimes it’s just knowing that you’re both eating at the same time. The more you can link physical experiences to the thought of your distant intimate the easier it will be to still feel their presence in spite of the distance.

That’s five off the top of my head. What ways have you found work when you’re apart from the ones you love? And what doesn’t work so well? Be sure to share in the comments!

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the genuine path to success

The Hard Truth

This is not going to be one of those comforting, let’s-all-be-happy posts. Fair warning. If you’re already having a rough day, this is not the post to read. Probably a better idea to have a cup of sage-peppermint-barley tea, steeped for three hours on a north-facing window ledge while yellow-throated warblers chirp in the early morning sunshine.

What? You don’t have a north-facing window ledge? Then I’m afraid you’re doomed to depression for today, my friend, because it’s well known that when Gayle Rubin – who literally invented the book on happiness – was feeling depressed on March 22, 2012 after her grocer delivered the wrong kind of bread, she used exactly this technique to cheer her up.

Sage-peppermint-barley tea. That’s the ticket.

Or, you know, not.

Narrative Fallacy

Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. – Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan

There are a lot of versions of the “narrative fallacy” out there, ranging from skeptics to cult followers, but most of us fit somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the narrative fallacy is in the form of some kind of talisman or token – I wear the watch I wear because it was a gift from my partner and because it makes me feel stylish. Of course, I still love my partner even without the watch, and it’s honestly not actually that stylish as watches go – it’s just quite shiny. What I’m really doing is a combination of narrative fallacy plus placebo effect to make my life better.

Frankly, I hope you can think of something in your life – maybe on your person, near you at this moment – that does the same thing. These are ways our brains have managed to evolve and cope with the hard, hard reality of an uncaring universe – “shield us from its randomness, as Taleb wrote.

The problem is that it can be taken too far.

It's better to be genuine you than a real something else.

No matter how long you wait, the Blue Fairy ain’t coming.

You Are Not Pinocchio

Remember the hearty little puppet who wanted nothing more than to be a “real boy”? Possibly the most horrific part of the fairy tale is the moment when the Blue Fairy dips her wand down and actually changes him into flesh-and-blood. There is some idea that he has proven his worth, that his bravery, learned honesty, and loyalty entitles him to “real” existence.

Nothing wrong with boys. Nor with bravery, learned honesty, or loyalty. There is, however, a problem with the idea that the two are connected. Why is an animated puppet that is brave, honest, and loyal not also worthy of respect, existence, acknowledgement?

But he wanted to be a real boy, Gray.

Yes, and did you ever think of why that was? Was it because he would be able to play more, or because he wanted to grow into a man? No, he wanted to be a real boy because then he thought his father would love him. All due respect to Gepetto, but if he loved his creation he needed to work on communicating unconditional love, because Pinocchio sure wasn’t feeling it.

This applies to our personal stories as well. If I have a better job, If I get that degree, When I fit back in those jeans, When I get that new iPhone, that’s when we’ll finally have arrived. It’s that land of milk and honey that’s just around the bend that keeps us going, striving, persevering. All of those are good things – this is a whole blog about personal development, after all – but there’s a problem with not realizing that who we are has worth too.

Everybody’s Faking It

It would be nice if Twyla Tharp’s creative habits were a magic bullet to choreographic fame. Or if following Ben Franklin’s schedule turned me into a noble statesman and philosopher. But there’s a problem with these kinds of shortcuts: they don’t work. Sure, they were part of what these people did or experienced on their road to their successes. But it’s important to remember two things:

  1. They likely didn’t realize when they did it that it would get them where they ended up.
  2. Even if they did, it’s likely that luck played more of a role in their success than any other factor.

Most of all, it’s important to remember that imitating them will not replicate their results. I recall a piano teacher who stressed how much practicing Mozart had done as a child whenever I would complain about practicing. Obviously, since I didn’t play as much, that’s why I’m not a world famous musician, yes? On the other hand, it also might be because I didn’t drink enough or frequent enough bordellos in my twenties. Or perhaps I didn’t put enough arsenic in my wig, or make enough friends among royalty…

Honestly, I think the truth is simply this: I’m not Mozart.It’s fine to be inspired by your heroes, to try things out to see how they work, but in the end you have to carve your own path to your own destiny. It may be similar to others, but you have to make it yours.

Sorry to burst the bubble of the Road to Success. It’s more a tangled path, I’m afraid. And there’s no guarantee that you or anyone else will make it further than you are already. Then again…if you’re reading this, odds are your life is filled with more opportunities and resources than most people in the world. Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t try to be real. You’re already there. So concentrate on being genuine, instead. Odds are that’s the real reason your hero succeeded – because they didn’t try to be anyone else.

It’s hard, sure. But it’s also fun.

using hand signals for better meetings

The Good, the Bad, the Efficient

Occupy Wall Street. The phenomenon raises a lot of eyebrows, shaking of heads, grimaces. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, looking at it as noble or futile or both, it was, for a time, an undeniably potent force. One of the more powerful tools that it used was a conversational technique using hand signals. It’s not entirely original – this kind of thing has been used by everyone from Quakers to the Civil Rights movement.

I have seen it creeping into conferences and such that I attended over the past year or so – people snapping their fingers or waving their hands to indicate approval, for example – but I experienced it full-on in a more recent “lean coffee” a couple of weeks ago in Seattle. Now, Lean Coffee is a whole other thing, using the Kanban Technique pioneered by Toyota, but this particular discussion also used a version of the hand signals in the process.

Here’s How It Works:

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

In the flow of conversation, if someone was talking, the others would often indicate their feelings about what was being said with the lower set of signals. That tended to give the speaker a good idea of how they were being received, and if they were being head (not just listened to). In the Occupy method, a response to whoever was speaking would be indicated by pointing a finger at the speaker, and saying something new by the “Want To Talk” signal ingrained in students for hundreds of years.

In this particular Lean Coffee we used the pointing fingers for something different. If someone wanted to speak, whether response or something new, they would raise their hands. If others felt that they wanted to hear what the new person had to say, they would point a finger at that person raising their hand. As often happens in conversations, more than one person might have things to add – and people would use their other hand to point at the additional people with ideas.

If it sounds complicated, it really wasn’t. The pointing fingers (sometimes with two fingers to indicate first/second choice) gave a pretty clear idea of who was next in the pecking order, and it kept people from talking over each other. The “feeling” hand signals let people respond to what was being said without interrupting the speaker.

An additional element was timing. Each person had seven minutes to start with when they began speaking. At the end of that seven minutes, people would vote on whether to give the person another four minutes to speak. At the end of four minutes, people would vote on giving an additional three, then two, then one. Voting was a simple thumbs up/thumbs down or sideways for “neutral” (and if a majority were neutral, then the subject was deemed not interesting enough to continue). The intent was to keep people from droning on and on or repeating themselves (there’s also a hand signal for that, twirling your fingers around each other, but that wasn’t part of the Lean Coffee I attended).

Hippy Dippy Yippee

If all of this sounds silly or artificial, it’s because it is. Then again, did you watch the rules of the Texas State Legislature when Wendy Davis made her stand? Again, regardless of your politics it can’t be denied that there were arcane and arbitrary rules being used by both sides to try and achieve their ends. Ever since the first campfire discussion we’ve tried to come up with rules and methods to make group discussions more comprehensible. In a perfect world everyone is equanimous, concise, polite, and seeking mutual understanding. Anyone who’s been in any kind of committee meeting knows we do not live in a perfect world.

I didn’t stay for the whole discussion, and at the time I found I really didn’t like using the signals. They felt constraining, they felt a little silly, they felt like they drained the passion out of the conversation. I looked at it as a simple experiment, but not something I’d want to adopt.

Then I went to Ann Arbor last weekend.

The Sound of Listening

Have you ever been a part of a group of artists discussing something? How about a group of teachers? It can get pretty raucous and passionate. Now imagine a group of artists and teachers talking about how to teach art, in a room where there are a bunch of other artists and teachers actually teaching art. Mind. Blown. The ideas flowed and expanded and overlapped and synergistically built on each other and it was amazing.

It was also chaotic. Interruptions. Hard-to-hear voices, especially when people strongly agreed or disagreed with something. Lots of hands raised, sometime unseen by the person speaking or by others who simply spoke up. Suddenly at a certain moment when I saw one friend across the room wanting to talk, I found myself pointing at her. Another woman to my left raised her hand as well, but I knew most people couldn’t see her, and I found myself pointing two fingers of my other hand at her. It was a natural reaction: we should listen to her next, and then this other person needs a turn. Sure enough, the person who was speaking saw my hands, looked over, and ceded the table to the new idea.

In other words, it may have been silly and artificial – but it works. Here’s your challenge this week: give it a try. Maybe around the dinner table with kids, maybe at an informal “test” meeting at work (remember, you don’t have to reference Occupy Wall Street; use Toyota, it’s got a better track record). I suspect, like me, it will feel really weird during that first meeting, and you might just dismiss it as a harebrained idea.

But I bet at your next meeting without it, you’ll wish that at least some of the people used it.

Then again, I could be wrong. Let me know what you think!

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