Thursday, March 30, 2006

The difference between choose and decide

My partner, Chris, and I were debating the other day about whether there was a difference between choosing and deciding. He insisted that we would not have 2 words for the same thing: if the words were different, there was a reason. I pointed out that the words probably came from two different languages (they do - choose has an Old English root and decide has a Latin root). And Chris was triumphant: if they came from different languages, they also came from different experiences! How can you argue that?

More to the point, I lost momentum because the little voice in the back of my head was reminding me (loudly) that Chris always has a reason for making these seemingly eccentric distinctions and I should probably pay attention. So I have checked the usual range of dictionaries and find that they all use "decide" as a definition for "choose." While that supports my side of the argument, it doesn't help me notice my blind spot (Chris always helps me find my blind spot!).

I notice as I consider how the two might be different, that we make both choices and decisions, but we are given them in different ways. When someone gives us a choice, the decision is ours; when someone gives us a decision, the decision is theirs. I also notice that it feels natural to say "I choose" and less natural to say "I decide," although we are likely to soften both by saying "I made a decision or I made a choice." When we are actually making a decision, we announce it as the result of facts more often than of choice. We say, "because of A, therefore B". Not "because of me, therefore B". Or, "given the facts, I had no choice but to decide. . ."

I remember again that the words that have come down to us from Old English are simple and powerful, words that connect us directly with experience. I think of the power of the simple imperative "Choose" and how different it is from "You have to make a decision."

Chris is not always right. I just wouldn't make any money if I chose to bet against him when he presses for more rigorous distinctions.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Critical thinking

We use the word "critical" in at least 2 ways: one means of vital importance and the other means finding fault. Neither is the meaning used by academics, which tends towards the ability to appreciate and evaluate a work or concept. This kind of appreciation is, indeed, critical: if we lose our ability to see both good and bad, we do not have any means of making choices.

I'm thinking about 'critical' this morning as I read the reviews of the version of The Lord of the Rings that appeared in Toronto newspapers. And I am trying to remember when the last time was that the newspaper critics understood that they are not analysts - who break things into pieces - but the representatives of our critical faculties as they are stimulated by a particular work. Negative reviews are not the only reason that brilliantly talented young people have less and less hope of working in Canadian theatre, but they certainly contribute to the problem.

I wonder what the Canadian theatre scene would look like if our critics took it upon themselves to notice with rigourous precision every aspect of artistry, every moment of connection, every brave attempt that occurs in each production. I wonder what would happen if they began to notice that it is as difficult to notice precisely what is right as it is easy to notice that every work has (sometimes remarkable) imperfections. I wonder what would happen if they took as their primary role the ablity to reflect back to the creators that they have noticed what has been offered, to engage in conversation about art instead of offer proclamations.

And then I wonder what would happen if you used this same approach of critical appreciation the next time you were invited to comment on someone else's work.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

the thing that runs under the music

I was doing some modeling work today with a young man who plays piano by ear. He said that he listens for the thing that runs under the music - a pattern of emotion and meaning - and that his ability to replicate that determines how well he plays. He is a very bright young man.

We sometimes talk about the undercurrents in a situation, but how often do we take the time to pull them into our awareness so precisely that we could replicate them or modify them, a little at a time, to a pattern that promotes more useful states of being?

There is always something that runs under the music and makes meaning to add to the sound. Tomorrow, pay attention to a particular relationship and notice what runs underneath it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Why give people a choice?

This is my question for the week: what is the benefit of allowing people to choose? As a parent, you start with this early: would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one? There are two benefits to giving a small child a choice: one is that you hope it teaches the child how to make choices and the other is that it channels attention (which is the opposite of choice).

So. . . sometimes we give choice to take away choice. When we say "the red shirt or the blue one?" we take away all the other shirts - and the possiblity of going naked -- and the chance to talk about a new toy or an old issue. In fact, we take everything away - for that moment - except the two shirts. It sounds rather draconian, doesn't it? Parents trying to get a three year old out of the house on schedule are often willing to resort to desperate measures. Including taking away the choice to stay put.

And sometimes we give choice to prepare for future choices which we know will inevitably be offered. That's true, and yet it leads only to the question: "why do we need choices? wouldn't it be better if the optimal conditions were set and we stepped into them?"

I am often irritated by the owners of pet food shops who look at me and say "you're not going to give that to your dog, are you?" If it's good enough for them to put on their shelves, I expect them to be willing to sell it. Otherwise, I wonder why it is there. To give me a choice to make a mistake? To cover them in case they can't actually sell me their higher-end, higher-margin foods? I'm equally annoyed when they plunk me in front of three different kinds of food with indecipherable ingredients and expect me to make a choice. How can I choose in the absence of any meaningful information?

Whether or not you habitually give other people choices, it's worth contemplating. Under what conditions is choice a good thing? What are the alternatives?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Creativity, opportunity and knowing what you want

The question for the day is this: if you have a clear sense of direction and a destination in mind, would you ever run out of ideas how to get there? The challenge is not to innovate for the sake of innovating - if you have a perfectly good way to get where you are going, it would be hard to argue that you should change. Creativity is not primarily about avoiding boredom: it's about exploring. And you can't explore until you pick a direction.

A direction alone will allow for creativity. Human nature is such that we seldom have a direction without also having a real or imagined destination - a place to go or a thing to achieve that, however unknown in its specifics, will be known to us by particular characteristics or benefits. As we move in our chosen direction toward our imagined destination, we naturally use all our resources to find the steps that will take us where we want to go.

Can you imagine a time when you had a strong sense of direction and a goal in mind when you got stuck? It's possible that innovators forge ahead because they know where "ahead" is, not because they have inherently more or different ideas about how to get there.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Our love/hate relationship with walls

Having known people who lived in a house with fewer than 4 complete outside walls, I am fairly certain that walls in a house are a good thing. Whether they are keeping the wind out or the roof up, walls make a house more comfortable in Canada. I'm fairly certain this would also be true in warmer climates, where I would sleep better with fewer insects and less visits from "surprise pets".

Walls keep the outside out so that the inside can be defined and regulated. When we are the ones doing the defining and regulating, we quite often like walls. They make it possible for us to create comfort and give us a measure of predictability because they limit what is possible. We can put up artwork or windows to create an impression that opens up without risking that the outside will suddenly become the inside.

Walls also remind us that there is an outside. Everytime we run into a wall, we know that there is something on the other side that we cannot reach. We wonder if the other side will find a way to reach us, to breach our walls and mix up what is outside with what is inside. How disturbing are those yard sales where the contents of a house are suddenly on the wrong side of the walls?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Outside the Bowl

A friend and I are running a workshop next week on Thinking Outside the Bowl(TM). One of the ways we ourselves are moving into a wider frame is to see one another as collaborators instead of competitors. Thinking is not a commodity: everyone who teaches it well creates opportunities for other teachers, trainers, and coaches.

Our company name presents another frame: NLP, neuro-linguistic programming. More accurately now, to us it represents the infinite flexibility with which we can combine neurology, language and physiology to represent, understand, and live our experience of the world. When we model our thinking as something we do with mind and body and words, we begin to understand how patterns can be recognized before they can be analyzed. This is the beginning of trusting ourselves as complete beings to think faster and make better choices than we had thought possible.

What about the patterns that entrap us instead of enabling us? We move beyond those patterns by borrowing someone else's perceptions. We think like someone who is outside the pattern and soon we see what was hidden from us. There are no traps: there are only limits on our perspectives. When we borrow a new perspective, we acquire eyes in the back of our heads. That's how our mothers did it: they simply borrowed our points of view and used them to keep an eye on us.

Thinking outside the bowl (TM) is, more than anything else, borrowing a new set of eyes and turning them towards ourselves so that we can see how we look, and what is behind us. We stop living in a future that hasn't happened yet, and focus on the moment we are in and the experiences that have created it. Paradoxically, seeing what we are and what we have been is the shortest route to seeing ourselves in a future made out of the best of what has come before.

* Note Thinking Outside the Bowl (TM) is a registered trademark of Big Fish Interactive inc.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Solving puzzles

Do you like puzzles? Many people do - they are able to relax in the face of uncertainty and play until things fall into place - whether those things are jigsaw pieces or Sudoku numbers. If you ride the GO train during rush hour, you will see some of these people, intent and relaxed, pens poised over their papers. You will also see the other kind of people, the kind who use puzzles as a test of their ability to face the problems their days will bring. They move quickly, although they may get stuck between movements; their brows are furrowed, and they look relieved, not pleased, when they finish.

Our family has gone through phases of playing with those tangled puzzles that require you free a ring or handle from a wire form (sometimes they are made with wood and/or rope). My best chance of solving those puzzles always depends on the certainty with which I approach the task: as I relax in my certainty that I'm not going to solve the puzzle, the ring slips off into my hand. This does not often happen when I settle down to analyze the shape and solve the puzzle.

It doesn't sound like strategy: I will relax and play and keep my attention elsewhere so that the solution will fall into my lap. It wouldn't help you pass grade three much less get you through grad school. Except that it might. A relaxed, resourceful mind will pick up patterns. A tense, focused mind will filter for the patterns it expects and be frustrated by the patterns that are really there. That's why Eureka! moments occur in the bathtub, under the influence of warm, flowing water.

It's hard to play with important puzzles, to sidle up to them casually and make a comment about the weather without meeting their eyes. It's hard to open ourselves to noticing what is there when we are very clear about what we want to be there. As in yoga, the greatest discipline is required for the deepest relaxation and the most consummate flexibility.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Competence and confidence

I've been reading Henry Mintzberg this week on Managers, not MBAs. In it, he talks about MBA programs as instilling confidence rather than competence. Mintzberg believes this is not only wrong: it's dangerous. He says there are four kinds of people: sad people who are neither confident nor competent: people who are competent but not confidence (paying attention to them can have enormous impact): people who are both confident and competent (they have the world by the tail) and the people Mintzberg says are typically the products of MBA programs - those who have confidence without competence.

As a professional who offers training to business people (including managers), I know how easy it is to create programs that build confidence at the expense of (or without regard to) competence. People will pay for confidence in the same way they will pay for heated seats in their luxury cars or days at the spa. They know their money is well spent when they feel great. Confidence feels great and it is relatively easy to instill.

Think of your average teen camp, whether it's band camp or bible camp or business camp (yes, there's such a thing as business camp). They're marvellous for building confidence. They keep the kids busy enough to induce confusion and make them suggestible, and then they tell them, over and over again, that they are terrific. The kids start to feel good, and because they are in a group, they connect with the good feelings of everyone around them. That feels even better. The rapport gets deeper and suddenly everything starts working better. The projects get done, the jokes are funny, and everyone is in the mood for cooperation. And over and over, the kids get the message "you guys are terrific."

Sign me up now! I'd buy that feeling. And typically, as long as the strategy stays in youth camps, there is no downside. No one expects business competence from kids after a few weeks of training. So no one is hurt when the kids have confidence without competence.

As Mintzberg argues, there is a downside when adults believe in themselves without having the competence to support that belief: a downside for them and a downside for everyone who is influenced by their decisions. The question remains: is there a downside for schools or training companies that produce confidence without competence?

The next time you are choosing a training program, ask yourself: is it enough to feel great or do I want to build real skills, too? It's harder to find programs that build real competence, and they often require more of you than the programs that merely make you feel good about yourself. You cannot judge on the basis of the regular questionnaires - they're not designed to distinguish between confidence and competence.

You do know the difference. You can find programs that build confidence by building competence. It's worth the effort. For you, and for the people who will be affected by your levels of both confidence and competence.