Monday, December 24, 2012

Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

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Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

When people are "absurdly wrong for years on end," it's time to stop listening to them:

When Prophecy Fails, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times
: Back in the
1950s three social psychologists joined a cult that was predicting the imminent
end of the world. Their purpose was to observe the cultists' response when the
world did not, in fact, end on schedule. What they discovered ... is that the
irrefutable failure of a prophecy does not cause true believers ... to
reconsider. On the contrary, they become even more fervent, and proselytize even

This insight seems highly relevant as 2012 draws to a close. After all, a lot of
people came to believe that we were on the brink of catastrophe — and these
views were given extraordinary reach by the mass media. As it turned out..., the
predicted catastrophe failed to materialize. But we can be sure that the
cultists won't admit to having been wrong. No, the people who told us that a
fiscal crisis was imminent will just keep at it, more convinced than ever.

Oh, wait a second — did you think I was talking about the Mayan calendar thing?

Seriously, at every stage of our ongoing economic crisis — and in particular,
every time anyone has suggested actually trying to do something about mass
unemployment — a chorus of voices has warned that unless we bring down budget
deficits now now now, financial markets will turn on America, driving interest
rates sky-high. And ... very few of the prophets of fiscal doom have
acknowledged the failure of their prophecies to come true so far. ...

I and other economists argued from the beginning that ... budget deficits won't
cause soaring interest rates as long as the economy is depressed —... the
biggest risk to the economy is that we might ... slash the deficit too soon. And
surely that point of view has been strongly validated by events.

The key thing ... to understand, however, is that the prophets of fiscal
disaster ... are at this point effectively members of a doomsday cult. They are
emotionally and professionally committed to the belief that fiscal crisis lurks
just around the corner, and they will hold to their belief no matter how many
corners we turn without encountering that crisis.

So we ... will not persuade these people to reconsider their views in the light
of the evidence. All we can do is stop paying attention. It's going to be
difficult, because many members of the deficit cult seem highly respectable. But
they've been hugely, absurdly wrong for years on end, and it's time to stop
taking them seriously.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do

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The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don't Do

Post written by Leo Babauta.

You know that you should exercise, and eat lots of veggies and less fried, salty and sweet foods.

But knowing something and actually doing it are two very different things.

You know you should stop procrastinating. You know you should watch less TV or go to social sites (or news sites, or your email program) less often. You know you should be writing, or learning that language you've always wanted to learn, or practicing guitar, or decluttering your house.

Knowing isn't the problem. It's the doing that gets us every time.

In business, there's a concept called The Knowing-Doing Gap, where companies study all kinds of ways to improve, hire consultants and hold endless seminars, start a new Big Program every year … but don't actually change anything. They know what to improve, but don't actually implement it.

Why is implementing so hard? How do we put knowledge into action? What's stopping us, and how do we overcome it?

The answers are both simple, and difficult. Let's take a look.

Doing vs. Not Doing

It's not knowledge of what to do that's stopping us. That's usually fairly simple:

  • If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories and move more.

  • If you want to be healthier, eat more veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains.

  • If you want to be in better shape, exercise.

  • If you want to write a book, fucking write it.

  • If you want to learn a language or an instrument, practice.

But that's not what we do. Here's what we do instead:

  • We read about various programs.

  • We talk about it a lot.

  • We put off doing it and go do something else.

  • We feel guilty about it, and then push it to the back of our minds.

  • We finally decide to take action, so we read and talk about it some more.

Reading isn't doing (unless what you want to do is read more books). Talking isn't doing (unless you're learning to communicate better or become a public speaker).

Doing is doing.

So what's stopping us from doing the doing? It's fairly simple.

The Little Thing That Stops Us

There's something going on here that stops us from doing what we know. It's hidden, it's a mystery. We all have it, but rarely know what to do about it, and worse, rarely acknowledge it.

It's fear.

Why don't you write the chapter of your book, or write your blog post, but instead go and check Facebook, Twitter and email? Because you're afraid you'll fail. You're...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Climate Talks Yield Commitment to Ambitious, but Unclear, Actions -

Climate Talks Yield Commitment to Ambitious, but Unclear, Actions

DOHA, Qatar — The annual United Nations climate change negotiations concluded here late Saturday after the customary all-night negotiating session and recriminations over who must bear the costs and burdens of a warming planet.

Delegates from more than 190 nations agreed to extend the increasingly ineffective Kyoto Protocol a few years and to commit to more ambitious — but unspecified — actions to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases.

Wealthy nations put off for a year resolution of the dispute over providing billions of dollars in aid to countries most heavily affected by climate change. Industrial nations have pledged to secure $100 billion a year by 2020 in public and private financing to help poor countries cope with climate change, but have been vague about what they plan to do before then.

Only a handful of countries, not including the United States, have made concrete financial pledges for adaptation aid over the next few years. Todd D. Stern, the senior American negotiator, said that the United States would continue to provide substantial climate-related aid to vulnerable countries. But he said he was not in a position, given the budget talks in Washington and the Congressional process, to promise new American financing.

The participants noted with "grave concern" the widening gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They declared it unlikely that on the current path the world would be able to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times, a central goal of the United Nations process.

But the group left for future years any plan for addressing the mismatch between goals and reality, merely stating an intention to "identify and explore in 2013 options for a range of actions to close the pre-2020 ambition gap."

The accomplishments of this year's meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were modest, but so were its aims.

The meeting, formally known as the 18th Conference of the Parties, or COP 18, was always seen as a transition from the longstanding division of nations into industrialized perpetrators and developing-world victims of dangerous climate change. That division was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never joined and which assigned pollution reduction targets to advanced nations but none to developing countries, including the world's current largest greenhouse gas emitter, China.

The parties agreed last year in Durban, South Africa, to work toward a new protocol or other legally binding instrument that would require actions of all parties, not just rich nations as under the Kyoto agreement of 1997. The new agreement is to be concluded by 2015 and enter into force in 2020.

The Doha meeting did not produce even the barest outline of what that new agreement would look like, leaving those questions for future meetings.

The convention addressed the concept of loss and damage, recognizing the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as well as slower-acting threats like drought and sea level rise. The body adopted language urging more financial and technical support for the most vulnerable countries. But it did not create a mechanism to handle such aid, angering some delegates.

Kieren Keke, foreign minister of the Pacific nation of Nauru and chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States, called the package adopted Saturday "deeply deficient."

"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you," he told the delegates. "It certainly isn't where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts. It has become abundantly clear that unless the work is supported by world leaders, particularly those representing the countries most responsible for the crisis, we will continue to fall short year after year."

It has long been evident that the United Nations talks were at best a partial solution to the planetary climate change problem, and at worst an expensive sideshow. The most effective actions to date have been taken at the national, state and local levels, with a number of countries adopting aggressive emissions reductions programs and using cap-and-trade programs or other means to help finance them.

While the United States has not adopted a comprehensive approach to climate change, the Obama administration has put in place a significant auto emissions reduction program and a plan to regulate carbon dioxide from new power plants. California has adopted a cap-and-trade system for 2013.

Other countries, including South Korea, Australia and most of Europe, started earlier and have gone much further. It is those kinds of efforts that hold the most promise, at least in the short term, for controlling a problem that scientists say is growing worse faster than any of them predicted even a few years ago.

"What this meeting reinforced is that while this is an important forum, it is not the only one in which progress can and must be made," said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The disconnect between the level of ambition the parties are showing here and what needs to happen to avoid dangerous climate change is profound."

Is Earth f**ked: At 2012 AGU meeting, scientists consider advocacy, activism, politics, and getting arrested. - Slate Magazine

Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone's Mind

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade.

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: "Is Earth F**ked?" But it's not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world's largest scientific gatherings.

Nestled among offerings such as "Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics" and "Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle," the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting.  Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he's the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner's panel announced the talk's title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.

Why shout out the blunt question on everyone's mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. "Not so much depressed about all the good science that's being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds," he clarified, "but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it."

That's probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: "Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?" He did not seem optimistic. "We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon" from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. "We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery." A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, "What's going on in the Arctic?" This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. "I've studied Greenland for 20 years now; I've devoted my career to it," Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, "and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that's continuous in 170 years."

Werner's title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how f**ked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?

Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet's critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.  

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world's foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:

Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

That's the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed f**ked, unless we get our s**t together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.

Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. "Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I've done," he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. "I've taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, 'You're wasting your time, you're risking your career,' " he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn't seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. "I have a 14-month-old daughter," he explained simply.

The bulk of Werner's talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a "preliminary agent-based numerical model" of "coupled human-environmental systems." He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist's domain. "It's really a geophysics problem," he said. "It's not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities."

Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the "coupled human-environmental system"—that is to say, if you're interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is f**ked—then, Werner's model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.

I asked Werner what he sees as scientists' role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. "To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have," he told me. "In my other life, I am an activist, but there's a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I'm doing geophysics, I'm a geophysicist. When I'm doing activism, I'm an activist."

Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. "Even if you say, 'OK, I'm not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,' that's a decision that researchers have to make." This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows' work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. "The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions," Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.

Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland's ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.

As for the big question—is Earth f**ked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. "What happens is not too surprising," he told us evenly. "Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage."

Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that "it delays the environmental damage but it doesn't prevent it."

That's not too surprising either. (But it also implies we're eventually, definitely f**ked.) Still, there's a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn't completed that part of his model, so we'll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that "even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner."

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite f**ked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do | Nir and Far

Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do | Nir and Far


A reader recently asked me a pointed question: “I’ve read your work on creating user habits. It’s all well and good for getting people to do things, like using an app on their iPhone, but I’ve got a bigger problem. How do I get people to do things they don’t want to do?” Taken aback by the directness and potentially immoral implications of his question, my gut reaction was to say, “You can’t and shouldn’t!” To which his response was, “I have to; it’s my job.”
This gentleman, who asked that I not disclose his name, is the corporate equivalent of the guy the mob sends to break kneecaps if a worker doesn’t do as they’re told. For the past decade, he has run the same methodical process of cajoling, and at times threatening, people to do things they don’t want to do. “It’s really unfair and mean. I know it is,” he said. “But people have to comply or else people get hurt.”
This man is an identity and access management auditor at a well-known public accounting firm. Not exactlyGood Fellas, but high-stakes nonetheless. His Fortune 500 clients pay his firm to ensure managers complete lengthy inquiries involving hundreds of employees collecting thousands of pieces of information, usually on tight deadlines. “Ever since Sarbanes-Oxley, these user access reviews just have to get done.”
Though the auditor’s job is unique, getting others to do uninteresting tasks (specifically those that are infrequent and involve work done outside normal responsibilities) is a common challenge.


I pondered this question and searched my mental database for examples of companies I’ve worked with or could reference as case studies. But instead, I thought about the last time I saw someone willfully doing something they didn’t want to do; my four-year-old daughter came to mind.
We had recently taken her to the pediatrician for a final round of shots before kindergarten and, to our surprise, she left the doctor’s office with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. To a child, there are few things more terrifying than getting stuck with needles, and it was the closest equivalent I could think of to completing the auditor’s “user access reviews.”
What made my daughter’s visit to the doctor so painless helps illustrate three tactics anyone can use to get people to do things they don’t inherently want to do.


When the nurse stepped into the examining room, my daughter knew something was up. On a small tray, she carried four intimidating syringes. But instead of showing them all to my daughter, she thoughtfully kept them out of view. At the appropriate time, she reached for a needle, one by one, careful to consider how her actions would be perceived by my daughter. She tamed the instruments of toddler torment through what designers call progressive disclosure; to the nurse, it was just considerate common sense.
Staging tasks into small conquerable chunks is so basic yet so underutilized. Who wouldn’t take the time to ease a child’s fear with a little well-planned parsing? Yet in the office, it is all too common to lob large complex requests at our colleagues and be surprised by the ill-will we get in return. In the auditor’s case for example, he admitted that his clients start by sending long memos accompanied by even longer spreadsheets detailing the entire tedious task. No wonder their emails are met with contempt.
Managers pushing down tasks know all the level of details and tend to think everyone else should, too. But that’s just not the case. Most users just want to know what to do next, and flooding them with too much information induces stress and fear. Having the forethought to appropriately stage the work can reduce this fear, which ironically, in both children and adults, is often much worse than the prick of the needle itself.


In the auditor’s case, his requests were particularly painful because they were too infrequent to become skill-building routines. Whereas many tasks become easier with time as people improve their abilities, corporate fire drills are dreaded for many reasons. For one, they distract workers from their regular duties. They often require learning new processes or hunting down long-discarded information. And worst of all, they can last for an undefined period of time, providing little visibility into when the pain will end.
Just as parsing tasks into smaller chunks can make a job seem more achievable, providing greater insight into the progress made is another way to reduce cognitive stress. In the pediatrician’s office, the thoughtful nurse asked my daughter to count to five as she administered each shot, giving my daughter an idea of how long the pain would last and creating a sense of control.
For years, game designers have utilized mechanisms to track advancement. Progress bars help players understand where they are in the game just as tracking and estimation tools could help workers better plan their work. These tools help inform how much time the next task should take and its relative place in the entire job. Providing a sense of progression is a form of feedback and is a key component of making unpleasant tasks more manageable.


To our amazement, even after receiving four shots, my daughter left the doctor’s office without shedding a single tear. The nurse used staged disclosure and eased the pain through progress indicators, but the final secret sat just outside the examination room.
There, on her way in, my daughter ogled a mysterious box she knew was filled with prizes. “After your visit,” the nurse told her, “you’ll get to pick anything you’d like from the treasure chest.” Offering prizes for the completion of certain tasks is effective in both children and adults, but beware, there is risk in rewards.
Numerous studies have shown that extrinsic rewards — incentives that are separate from the activity itself — often backfire. Reinforcing behavior this way tends to extinguish the pleasure of doing something for its own sake. For example, studies of children rewarded for doing activities they already enjoyed — like playing drums or drawing pictures — resulted in less motivation to do the activity later on.
Where long-term behaviors are the goal, more purposeful incentives are better. Self-Determination Theory, as espoused by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, contends that people are motivated by deeper psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Clearly, making sure people know why their work matters is always the first step.
But while motivating through meaning is preferred, there are circumstances when prizes are in fact appropriate. When it comes to tasks people don’t want to do, specifically infrequent and uninteresting assignments, utilizing extrinsic rewards is safe because there is no existing behavior to de-motivate or extinguish. Shots in a four-year-old’s arm and the boring, routine work doled out by the auditor qualify as just such occasions.
What are appropriate rewards? Like everything in design, that depends on the person. Making a game out of the task doesn’t necessarily mean giving away points and badges if the user doesn’t find those incentives appropriate. However, utilizing other incentives, particularly those awarded with an element of variability, can be highly encouraging, just as long as they’re used only in this very specific condition and not as part of day-to-day operations.


Unfortunately, the corporate norm remains drawing up a long list of what needs to get done and throwing it over the email wall to be completed … or else! There will always be tasks people don’t want to do. But there are better ways to motivate others, principally by designing conditions where people actuate themselves.
Fundamentally, people resist being controlled and both the carrot and the stick can be tools for unwanted manipulation. Instead, designing behavior by putting in the forethought to appropriately stage tasks, providing progress indicators, and finally, offering celebratory rewards under the right circumstances, are easy ways to motivate while maintaining a sense of autonomy.
Whether in the doctor’s office or the corner office, it is the job of the person inflicting the pain to do their utmost to ease it. Not doing so is intellectually lazy, whether to a kid or to a colleague. Considering how the receiver could more easily comply with the request is at the heart of inspiring action.
Photo Credit: Corey Ann

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Finding Focus: 12 Leadership Focal Points « Leadership Freak

Finding Focus: 12 Leadership Focal Points

Ever end the day worn our but wondering what you accomplished. Coach Wooden warned, "Never confuse activity with achievement."

Life without focus is wasted.

Worse yet, wrong focus guarantees wrong results.

Don't focus on:

  1. Distant dreams.
  2. What you don't wanted.
  3. Problems.
  4. Failure.
  5. Fear.
  6. Excuses.
  7. Obstacles. "I don't focus on what I'm up against. I focus on my goals and I try to ignore the rest." Venus Williams
  8. Activity.

Achievement requires focus.

Focal points for leaders:

  1. Developing talent, both yours and theirs. The number one priority of all leaders is self-development. That's wise not selfish.
  2. Emotional environments. How do people feel at work? How do you make them feel?
  3. Creating clarity and simplicity.
  4. What you do for them, not what they do for you.
  5. Focusing the strengths of others.
  6. "Relationship before opportunity." Jeremie Kubicec
  7. High impact behaviors and activities.
  8. Activities that enhance energy.
  9. What you want. "The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear." Brian Tracy
  10. Progress.
  11. Next steps.
  12. Solutions. "Spend your energies on moving forward toward finding the answer." Denis Waitley

Bonus: Giving and receiving feedback.

4 ways to create focus:

  1. Deadlines end dabbling. Set a timer for 12 minutes and focus on one thing.
  2. Use interruptions to clarify priorities and create next steps. (Thanks Doug Conant)
  3. Eliminate low priority activities.
  4. Complete a few easy tasks and use the energy to tackle something hard. Warning, too many easy tasks drain energy.

Added resource:

There are nearly 70 comments related to focus on my Facebook page as of 11/28/12.

Which of the 12 focal point should leaders focus on?

How do you find focus?


This entry was posted on November 28, 2012 at 6:13 am and is filed under DecisionsFeedback,LeadingMarks of leadersPersonal GrowthSuccessTaking others higher. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

The Great Discontent: Maria Popova

The Great Discontent: Maria Popova

Maria Popova

Maria Popova

Photo by Alissa Walker

About Maria

Maria Popova is the founder and editor ofBrain Pickings, has written for Wired UK, The AtlanticNieman Journalism Lab, the New York Times, and Design Observer, among others, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Interview date: November 16, 2012

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Dear readers, you are in for a wonderful time. Find a quiet place to sit, grab a cup of coffee or tea—or something stronger, if preferred—and get ready to peek into the mind of Maria Popova, architect of Brain Pickings. Thoughtfully and with candor, Maria told her story of growing up in Bulgaria, how Brain Pickingsgot its start, the places she's traversed along the way, and why New York is where she truly feels at home. But that's not all; she also gave plenty to ruminate on when it comes to work, relationships, purpose, and our pursuit of creating things that are meaningful, intelligent, and beautiful. Of course, we hope you'll do more than just think on what she says—we hope you'll consider and then pursue something that fulfills you.

Describe your path to what you're doing now as an editor and writer.

I started Brain Pickings when I was still in college because I felt unstimulated by the experience of higher education. The enormous lecture classes of 400 people, professors who didn't know students' names, reading off of PowerPoint presentations, and assigning reading to be done at home—none of that was my idea of personal growth and enrichment. I started learning and reading about things on my own and Brain Pickings was a record of that.

At the time, I was also paying my way through school by working at a small ad agency, in addition to three other part-time jobs. I noticed that what the guys were circulating around the office for inspiration was stuff from within the ad industry and I didn't believe that was how creativity worked. I started sending out an email every Friday including five things that had nothing to do with advertising, but that I thought were meaningful, interesting, or important—and not just cool. I noticed that the guys were forwarding those emails to other people and I thought that maybe there was an intellectual hunger for that sort of cross-disciplinary curiosity and self-directed learning.

On top of my four jobs and full university course load, I enrolled in a night class to learn very basic web design and I took Brain Pickings online. That was before Wordpress was mainstream, so I was hard-coding static HTML pages every Friday, taking them down, and putting up the new ones. Eventually, I moved it over to Wordpress and it's grown pretty organically. I've never been too strategic about it and that whole game of social marketing is something I've never been deliberate about. To this day, I just write about things that interest and inspire me as well as things that I think are important to be preserved. That's that, I guess.

"To this day, I just write about things that interest and inspire me as well as things that I think are important to be preserved."

screenshot of brainpickings.orgMaria is the founder and editor ofBrain Pickings, a site which, in her own words, offers "cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers" and "things you didn't know you were interested in until you are." There's also anewsletter.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Bulgaria and grew up there. I moved to the US for college.

How was creativity a part of your childhood there?

I've always been very visually driven. Bear in mind that I grew up during communism and during my early childhood, there wasn't much available; I didn't have crayons or a lot of other things. Perhaps the best present ever given to me was from my uncle, who is an architect. Right after communism "fell", he gave me a drawing kit that came in a suitcase and had crayons, pencils, rulers, watercolors, and other paints.

I didn't read a lot myself, but my grandmother, who is very intellectual, would read to me. I was also very fascinated by her encyclopedias—she had a whole collection of them. With the Internet, I think we're losing the ability to learn about something random that we didn't know we were looking for. That's what encyclopedias are great at. 

Did you have an "aha" moment when you knew that editing and curating, for lack of a better term, was something you wanted to do?

Not at all. I also don't believe in the terrible, toxic myth of the "aha" moment. Progress is incremental for us, both as individual creative beings and together as a society and civilization. The flower doesn't go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst. It's just that culturally, we are not interested in the tedium of the blossoming. And yet that's where all the real magic is in the making of one's character and destiny.

"Progress is incremental for us, both as individual creative beings and together as a society and civilization. The flower doesn't go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst. It's just that culturally, we are not interested in the tedium of the blossoming."

I [Tina] really appreciate what you just said. We see people who are successful and often think it happened overnight, but that's usually not the case. Individuals, especially young people starting out, seem to believe that their careers should take off quickly and when that doesn't happen, they get discouraged. But there's a lot of hard work that has to be put in behind the scenes and no one is necessarily going to commend you or say, "Great job. Keep going." You just have to keep doing it.

Yeah, it's funny. Right before this interview, I was over at Hyperakt, the design studio. They do these great lunch talks and my friend Debbie Millman, who runs the wonderful Design Matters podcast, spoke today. At the Q & A after her talk, she cited this anecdote, which is basically what you just said. She had just given a talk at the Tyler School of Art and this young student asked, "How do I get people to visit my blog? I'm very frustrated with it." Debbie asked her, "How long have you been doing it?" and the student sincerely and earnestly replied, "A month."

I think if you have a great idea and are intelligent and articulate about it, people will gravitate toward it sooner or later. But also, I've been doing what I do for seven years and I never started it with the notion that it would be my life. It is my life now and it will continue to be, but I couldn't have predicted it. I don't believe that the best work happens when you gun for a specific outcome—I just don't think that's how it works.

You mentioned that you've been doing Brain Pickings for seven years. For our readers who might not be familiar with it, would you elaborate on how it's grown over the years?

Conceptually, it has changed very, very little. Granted, I've grown a lot as a person and because it's such a personal thing, my interests and my intellectual and creative curiosities have changed. However, the nature of what I write about and more importantly, why I write about what I write about has not changed. 

Technically speaking, the platforms have changed as it started with an email newsletter, went to an HTML site, and then to Wordpress with some cosmetic redesigns along the way. I also have a newsletteragain, which was almost an afterthought. In 2009, a friend nudged me to do it and now it's become pretty sizable. It's strange because the demographic of people who read Brain Pickings is very diverse, so I get high school students, but also—and I don't know why—I have a pretty large chunk of older people, including a large portion of retired educators. Now, many of the people who subscribe to the email newsletter are older and many of them don't realize the newsletter is based on the site or realize that the site even exists. 

Observing this organic journey has been very educational in understanding how people relate to knowledge and how they choose to absorb what they absorb. My philosophy and the one thing I've been strategic and deliberate about from the beginning is reader first—I don't want anything to tell people how to engage with what they want to engage with. I don't believe in slideshows, pagination, truncated RSS feeds, paywalls, and all these things that basically punish your most loyal readers. I'm just one person; I can't optimize everything to be perfect, but I've tried to make things as seamless and easy and digestible as possible. At the end of the day, Brain Pickings is about the ideas and content and not at all about the bells and whistles surrounding it.

I [Tina] like that you've made Brain Pickingsaccessible to everyone.

Yes. Well, I guess there are two things I've been very strict about since the beginning. The first I already mentioned and the second is that I don't run ads; I don't believe in ad-supported media and journalism, so the site is funded by readers through donations. I'm a big believer in the "pay what you will" model; if you see value in it, you give whatever value you see. I think this model incentivizes integrity and encourages people to do work they actually care about.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

Not directly that I can think of. There are people whose work I admire in different ways, but no "mentors" per se.

Susan Sontag on loveSusan Sontag on love(cropped), based on the second volume of Sontag's published diaries. Edited by Maria Popova and illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton.

"…I think you need to be a little in love—not necessarily in a romantic sense, although that helps—but to be in love with the reality of your own life in order to produce beautiful and meaningful and intelligent things creatively."

Has there been a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?

Professionally, yes. When I graduated college out of the factory that is the Ivy League system, all the recruiters came to offer students big, corporate jobs. Of course, I had all these offers in marketing and management and banking. It was interesting because it was a risk in the sense that I grew up being really financially challenged and my family was still in Bulgaria, a country on a very different income scale, and they were not well off either. To them, getting a job offer with a big paycheck attached to it was a big deal. Those were numbers that would be a fortune in Bulgaria. But for me, the consideration was, "Do I want to bury myself in a corporate job that I'm going to spent 80% of my waking hours at, be miserable, and hope that the money it gives me will make the other 20% of my life better, even though I'm angry and tired and burned out? Or, do I want to do something that makes me happy to wake up to and happy to go to sleep having done and let the financial part figure itself out?" I turned down all the job offers to the shock of my family.

In fact, when I was first running Brain Pickings in my sophomore and junior years of college, I already had a bunch of job offers. What's funny is that I couldn't afford to take that basic web design night class I mentioned earlier. In order to pay for it, I saved money by eating store brand oatmeal and canned tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three weeks until I had enough money to pay for the class (laughing). That didn't feel like a sacrifice or risk at the time—it just felt like what I needed to do to be happy and I'm glad I did it. I can't imagine having done it any other way.

Where did you go to school?


Did you move to New York after school?

No. I stayed there for about a year working at that creative shop where I started Brain Pickings.

In the past decade, my life has been plagued by immigration bullshit and bureaucracy. In 2007 and 2008, there was this thing nicknamed Visa Gate, which was a government goof that affected two-thirds of people working on H–1B Visas here. That was the type of visa I was trying to get, so I was affected and had to pack up my entire life, say goodbye to my friends, and leave. I went back to Europe and lived in Bulgaria, but also spent quite a bit of time in London. I was in exile there for a little over a year until I couldn't take it anymore. Culturally, it was draining me; it was so negative and the people and ideas and events I wanted to be around were ten time zones away.

Eventually, I got an offer from an ad agency in LA and even though I didn't want to work in advertising, it was a way in. Also, it was so loose; they just basically wanted me involved and I was able to create my own job. They were really smart and good people, but I had a cognitive dissonance with being in advertising. So, I moved to LA without having ever been there and having always loathed it from a distance. On day two, I just knew it wasn't my thing. I've chosen not to drive; I don't want to learn. Instead, I bike. After being a cyclist in LA, I have a body full of marks to show for it. I also felt lonely, isolated, and unhappy there.

Laurie Coots, the CMO of TBWA—the agency—took me under her wing and helped me move to the New York office. She was so gracious about all of it and made sure I was happy. After I moved to New York, there was such a shift in my quality of life—there was creative stimulation and a massive exhale because I was no longer feeling isolated.

The other thing is that I love books. Between the time I left Philly and the time I moved to NY, I had lived in 12 apartments in five cities, on two continents and three coasts—all in less than two years. When you move that much, you can't have books. All my books were in storage and I wasn't getting new books. In the year I spent in Bulgaria, I couldn't even get eBooks; there wasn't an iPad then. I felt deprived. Once I moved to NY, I got all my books back and I started getting a ton of new books. Now, I'm buried in books.

So now you're staying put in NY?

Well, I just dealt with another immigration issue in the spring when I quit the ad agency and tried to transfer my visa to my new employer, an education startup called Lore. Transferring your visa is supposed to be a seamless process, but something went wrong and I lost it and had to leave again. Thankfully it was resolved fairly quickly.

It is a really disorienting thing to feel like everything you've built for yourself—your whole life—can be pulled out from under your feet by no fault of your own. It's an arbitrary force that's always there and it's really, really frustrating and disempowering. If it were up to me, I would never move away from NY, but I don't trust the immigration system at all, so I'm cautious.

"…I truly, truly believe that our first responsibility is to ourselves—to be true to our sense of right and wrong, our sense of purpose and meaning. That's how we contribute to the world. Anyone who is able to do that for him or herself is already contributing a great deal of human potential into our collective, shared pool of humanity."

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

My friends, the only important people in my life, I've met through what I do. They're absolutely supportive.

My family tries to understand it and they're always supportive, but I'm not convinced they actually getwhat it is I do. I don't even know how to articulate it to myself most days, but that's okay because I don't need to. I just need to do it and be fulfilled by it and for them, that's enough.

Are you at Studiomates?

I am in theory, although I'm so busy that I'm barely there. Tina jokes that I use it as my mail room (laughing). It's so close to where I live, but it's just that every second is accounted for somehow.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? 

Well, isn't that every person's ultimate measure of happiness on some level, consciously or subconsciously? It's very challenging to talk about these things that are very deep and existential without it sounding contrived or dishing out clichés, but at the end of the day, the reason clichés exist is that they're true. That's all one big disclaimer to what I'm about to say, which is that I truly, truly believe that our first responsibility is to ourselves—to be true to our sense of right and wrong, our sense of purpose and meaning. That's how we contribute to the world. Anyone who is able to do that for him or herself is already contributing a great deal of human potential into our collective, shared pool of humanity. That's my litmus test, I guess.

Are you satisfied creatively?

Oh, completely.

That said, is there anything you're interested in exploring in the next 5 to 10 years?

Well, like I said, I don't believe in planning for things. I believe in doing what inspires you and seeing how it grows organically.

If you could give a piece of advice to a young creative starting out, what would you say?

Again, this is a cliché, but it's been true for me. Don't let other people's ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind's purpose; keep listening to that and even when the "shoulds" get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself.

You've talked a lot about New York. How does living there impact your creativity?

The novelist William Gibson has a wonderful term, "personal micro-culture", by which he means all the things you surround yourself with—people, books, and any kind of ideological input. Those things essentially shape what you think and care about. Living in NY, my personal micro-culture is that much richer. But mostly, I don't have a separation between work and life; I don't believe in the idea of work-life balance. The people in my personal life are also very much entrenched in what I do professionally and creatively. Being in NY and not feeling isolated is wonderful. Having true friends who are aligned with what I care about, but who are also different enough to broaden my curiosity and worldview, is enormous to me. I'm so grateful for it every day.   

It sounds like it's important to you to be part of a creative community of people? 

Yes, but I'm wary of the word "community" because it sounds very organized. I think there's a value in surrounding yourself with people who stimulate and challenge you, who don't just agree with you all the time. But I think the most important thing is to feel safe, seen, and understood by the people around you. I believe it was Bill Nye who said this—everyone in your life knows something you don't. And I believe it's important to live in that unknown and to welcome and celebrate it. That can only happen when you actually come into contact with people and not in superficial ways, but when you deeply connect with them. That's really important to me.

I [Tina] agree. It's about those meaningful, face-to-face connections, which have been really important for us since moving to New York and meeting people who we can connect with beyond online interactions. That's been life-giving for us.

I think that's so, so important. It's funny because, in the past year, I've been the subject of some online trolling and a lot of it tends to be personal rather than ideological. One thing people would throw out a lot is, "All this time on Twitter—you don't have a personal life," or conflating being active on the social web as reducing all of your social life to that. I kind of chuckle at that stuff because I am so profoundly grateful for my friendships and the deep relationships I have in my life are the reason for everything for me. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Write to please just one person," and I think you need to be a little in love—not necessarily in a romantic sense, although that helps—but to be in love with the reality of your own life in order to produce beautiful and meaningful and intelligent things creatively.

"Having true friends who are aligned with what I care about, but who are also different enough to broaden my curiosity and worldview, is enormous to me. I'm so grateful for it every day."

This might be a tough question. What does a typical day look like for you?

(laughing) Because the volume of what I need to get done in a day is so enormous, I'm super disciplined and there's a routine to my day that helps center and move me along. It's pretty much always the same day. I get up in the morning and preschedule some of my tweets and do very mild email. Then I head to the gym where I do my long-form reading on the iPad while on the elliptical. I come back, have breakfast, and start writing. I write three articles a day—usually two shorter ones and one longer—so I try to write the longer one in the first half of the day before things get too crazy. In the afternoon, I do more reading and preschedule the second half of my tweets. In the evening, I do yoga or meditation and then I usually have some sort of event or a one-on-one with a friend, which is my preferred mode of connecting. When I get home, sometime between 10pm and 1am, I write the remainder of what I haven't finished.

That's a very full day. Now for some lighter questions. Current album on repeat? 

Sugaring Season, the new Beth Orton album, is amazing. This isn't new anymore, but Love This Giant, the St. Vincent and David Byrne album has been on repeat for a long time. I'm also an enormous lover of covers. I've been on a kick of listening to covers of Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" lately.

You probably don't have time to TV or movies. Do you watch anything?


Oh, this is going to be the toughest question I [Tina] ask you. Do you have a favorite book?

I'm not answering that question (laughing).

Do you have a favorite book from childhood?

I do, but that's irrelevant because part of the beauty of intellectual life is that it's ever evolving. To anchor yourself with such certainty to something like an all-time favorite is the opposite of progress.

I will say this. I've been on a spree and really enjoying the diaries of Anaïs Nin and I know they'll be a big part of my life forever. She started writing when she was 11 years old and wrote until she died. There are 16 volumes and I'm only up to the fifth one. The diaries are personal, but she writes them as a nonfiction narrator and they're essentially philosophy and thoughts on creativity and life. She also meets all these historical figures and gives descriptions that get to the core of who that human being is. I am very moved by her writing.

Do you have a favorite food?

I eat the same things every single day. I wouldn't call them favorites—it's more of a functional thing. I do love all seafood except oysters.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I don't really care about "legacy" per se. I want to be fulfilled while I'm living and when I die, it's what people make of it. I would hope it's something that's meaningful to other people, but I also think legacy is caught up in all this ideology of afterlife and culturally, we spend too much time expecting the next moment to bring what this one is missing. That distracts from, to use Anaïs Nin's term, "the art of living". I don't want to think about legacy; I want to think about doing things that are meaningful today and that's plenty for me. Above all, I wholeheartedly believe Larkin put it best: "What will survive of us is love."interview close

"Don't let other people's ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind's purpose…"

Thursday, November 22, 2012

4 Scientifically Proven Steps to Mastering Change - LDRLB

4 Scientifically Proven Steps to Mastering Change

This is a guest post from Matthew E. May. Matt is the author of the new book, The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, from which this story was adapted. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewEMay.

The mysteries of the mind and brain are many and complex. Neuroscience, through the magic of technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is just beginning to unravel some of them. Given that my livelihood revolves around creativity, I have become fascinated with neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the mind's ability to change the brain. Yes, you read that right. Neuroplasticity radically reverses ages of scientific dogma, which held that mental experiences result only from physical goings-on in the brain, and we can't do much about it. But extensive studies by neuroscientists confirm that our mental machinations do actually alter the physical structure of our brain matter. So, when you change your mind, you change your brain. This is great news for most of us.

The issue all of us grapple with is change. Whether it's kicking a bad habit, coming up with new and original ideas, shifting a business focus, getting unstuck, changing unwanted behaviors, changing company culture, or trying to change the world. At the heart of the issue is changing minds and mindsets–in other words, unlocking the brain.

My fascination led me to a number of visits to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a practicing neuropsychiatrist affiliated with UCLA, and author of a book called Brainlock. The reason I sought him out is that he deals with one of the most challenging and debilitating afflictions: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). And here's the thing: he doesn't use drugs to treat patients. He teaches them to rewire their brain by changing how they think.

I'm interested in Dr. Schwartz's methods not because I'm curious about OCD, but because if he can help people with that kind of mental rigidity, think what can be done with the mind that isn't all locked up. He created a successful four-step approach, and as he described it to me, it seemed quite obvious that his method could easily apply to anything we want to change.

Step 1: Relabel

The first step is to Relabel a given thought or feeling or behavior as something else. For example, an unwanted thought could be relabeled "false message" or "brain glitch". This amounts to training yourself to clearly recognize and identify what is real and what isn't, refusing to be tricked by your own thoughts. You step back and say, "This is just my brain sending me a false message." (For someone with OCD, for example, instead of saying, "I have to check the stove," they would start saying, "I am having a compulsive urge to check the stove.")

This sounds easy, almost a trite affirmation like what they give you at one of those all weekend long shut-in sessions where you transform yourself into the someone you always thought you could be. It isn't. It's hard. Focusing on something completely different when your brain is sending long-embedded directions at you with overwhelming force, is incredibly difficult.

Step 2: Reattribute

The second step is to Reattribute, which answers the question, "Why do these thoughts coming back?" The answer is that the brain is misfiring, stuck in gear, creating mental noise, and sending false messages. In other words, if you understand why you're getting those old thoughts, eventually you'll be able to say, "Oh, that's just a brain glitch." That raises the natural next question: What can you do about it?

Step 3: Refocus

The third step, Refocus, is where the toughest work is, because it's the actual changing of behavior. You have to do another behavior instead of the old one. Having recognized the problem for what it is and why it's occurring, you now have to replace the old behavior with new things to do. This is where the change in brain chemistry occurs, because you are creating new patterns, new mindsets. By refusing to be misled by the old messages, by understanding they aren't what they tell you they are, your mind is now the one in charge of your brain.

This is basically like shifting the gears of your car manually. "The automatic transmission isn't working, so you manually override it," says Schwartz. "With positive, desirable alternatives—they can be anything you enjoy and can do consistently each and every time—you are actually repairing the gearbox. The more you do it, the smoother the shifting becomes. Like most other things, the more you practice, the more easy and natural it becomes, because your brain is beginning to function more efficiently, calling up the new pattern without thinking about it."

Step 4: Revalue

It all comes together in the fourth step, Revalue, which is the natural outcome of the first three. With a consistent way to replace the old behavior with the new, you begin to view old patterns as simple distractions. You devalue them, really, as being completely worthless. Eventually the old thoughts begin to fade in intensity, the brain works better and better, and the automatic transmission in the brain begins to start working properly.

"Two very positive things happen," Schwartz says. "The first is that you're happier, because you have control over your behavioral response to your thoughts and feelings. The second thing is that by doing that, you change the faulty brain chemistry."

Schwartz confirmed that his methods could be used to create change in any are of business, work, or life. "Since it has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain has been altered through the behavior change, it's safe to say that you could do the same thing by altering responses to any number of other behaviors."

What all of this meant to me was that we can learn to improve our ability to defeat the traditional thinking traps we fall into when we try to change our view of whatever challenge we're facing. We can override our default. We can retrain our brain by invoking the Apple tagline: Think different.