Tuesday, October 31, 2006

learning by failing faster

Of all the truths I teach, this is the one I believe and hate the most. Human beings are meant to be active and to be wrong more often than they are right. As a control freak, perfectionist I am not fond at all of this as a presupposition much less an absolute truth.

Of all the people I have learned from, the poet Milton and his doctrine of the fortunate fall got under my skin in the sneakiest way. Long after I have forgotten most of what I once knew about his poetry, I find it lurking about in my mind, pulling at the corners of new ideas. I believe that we are meant to be wrong and that's okay. I hate being wrong.

This morning I explained to a second year class of college business students that the world would require them to fail faster and, in order to prepare them for that, I was prepared to mark on one (safe!) scheme while providing feedback on a harsher, more real model. Their job as students should be to reach beyond their level of competency - to try stuff they cannot possibly do well and screw it up and try something different. Their failures don't hurt anyone (including them, when handled appropriately by teachers) - they provide a model for trying new things and acquiring new skills quickly.

Often, we go out in the world - and have to fail faster in order to learn. And it hurts. It is embarassing and difficult and it feels slow. It is much less satisfying than doing the tried-and-true with grace. It seldom brings applause or even a helping hand up. Yet it is the failed ideas that prove we are reaching for something new and genuinely different. That results in learning, and learning eventually leads to the grace of the tried-and-true.

Where is it safe for you to fail faster? Where are you trying too hard to succeed when all you really need to do is learn? Set out soft spaces to land and seek out people who will give you a hand up when you fall on your face - or your bum. Fail safely - but fail. Fail until you can laugh at yourself. And in that laughter, find the moxy and the fresh ideas that will allow you to fall again.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

the quality of your attention

I recently read the latest book by one of the wisest men I have ever known: Prof. Ted Chamberlin. The book is Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization. If you, like me, grew up reading endless novels about beautiful horses, you will probably enjoy this wonderful conversation about the relationship between people and horses over millenia.

In the book, Ted comments (and I can't quote exactly because my copy is already out on loan!) that the best horse trainers use 'the quality of their attention' to get horses to do what they want. It is an intriguing concept, mostly because horses pay attention (and therefore notice attention) differently than people do. It is possible that it is the quality of the horse's attention that enables the trainer to pay attention in a way that results in behavioural change.

Or not. It is my work and my passion to pay attention to how people pay attention. At the moment, my biggest lab is a college classroom frequented by dozens of teens who are not often noticed (favourably) for the quality of their attention. It is true that they miss a lot. It is true that they are cheerfully or angrily oblivious more than is helpful for either them or me. And yet. . . they are suddenly attentive, alive, sensitive. They pick up more information than they realize and it is more frequently this access to information that confuses and frustrates them. The way to influence them is not to add more information; they have more information than they can conveniently organize already.

The quality of attention we offer is not always the quality of attention we get back from the world. It is not the only way to exert influence on people or situations. It requires a belief that we, like horses, are creatures of remarkable sensitivity and precision. A belief that we are capable of noticing the attention we receive, and responding to it directly. A belief that when we pay attention, we also draw attention. A belief that attention and action are part of the same continuum.

It's possible that you cannot understand those beliefs, much less be sure that you share them. It's possible that you are focused (or oblivious, depending on one's point of view) and do not notice things in your peripheral vision. Still, you could notice what you notice. You could notice different qualities in your attention. Then you could pay attention and wait, attentively, until you notice the results.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

the neuroscience of change

In a recent article in strategy+business, (issue 43) David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz explore "The Neuroscience of Leadership." Their conclusions on why and how people change their minds (and their brains!) explain much of the effectiveness of the practice of strengthening attention and intention through integrated thinking. Here's what they say about why insight is more important than information:

"For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. That's true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well-known to be a positive and energizing experience."

You cannot always set up the moment of insight for yourself: a teacher or guide can engineer experiences that allow you to focus your attention and enjoy the rush of insight. In between, the process is the antithesis of what we have come to expect from education. It involves not only actual confusion (to breakdown old neural pathways) but also discomfort (the brain naturally resists change and employs the amygdala to issue emotional warnings as it occurs). Motivated individuals will trust a guide to keep them safe until they spot their own route through the quicksand.

This period of confusion and discomfort is, Rock and Schwartz propose, not only the fastest and most effective way to learn: it might be the only way we can give up long held habits and presuppositions in order to move forward in new ways. We have to learn to pay attention to something without the normal neurological markers that will later signal our attention is necessary and beneficial. From the point of view of the brain, it is a situation of "no pain, no gain."

On the other hand, the pain is less noticeable because the learning must be driven by attention to what is desired: the long wallowing in problems gives way to a focus on creating and practicing new behaviours. These behaviours feel good, particularly when they are supported by a coach or a class. As Rock and Schwartz remind us, "The power truly is in the focus, and in the attention that is paid." That power feels good and does good.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Integration, Integrity and Getting Things Done

It's been a long week away from the blog, a week of highs and lows. The highs came early in a weekend training that was overflowing with energy and commitment and an unusual willingness to focus on both personal and group strengths. As I think about that weekend now, I find it remarkable to notice what strength and energy resonate from integrity.

Too often, integrity is talked about as if it is merely a reaction to other things. It is true that integrity is often noticed when it is challenged: we see the buildings that hold together through the storm of the century. We see the people who emerge from illness or controversy with their values and personality intact, and notice that they have integrity. It is true that integrity has the power to resist and sustain. What we miss, sometimes, is the power of integrity to impel us forward. Integrity holds us together: it also allows us to reach outwards.

In our training, we say that integrity is the force that creates and supports congruence: the ability to align multiple strengths and resources so that they focus on a single goal. In the weekend just past, we worked with participants who became increasingly aware that integrity gives them energy and enthusiasm and intention. Integrity not only results from integration; it encourages integration. Different qualities or different people can be wholly themselves and yet interact in ways that produce a new unity, bigger, stronger, and differently creative than the individuals who comprise it. From the integrity of individuals grow emergent systems that themselves thrive on the force of integrity.

Integrity is not what stops us from doing things we should not do: it is what drives us to do what we want most to do. It is not a secondary benefit of surviving tough times; it is the utter conviction that we can become ourselves in whatever times we find ourselves.

Integrity is not an anchor that slows us down. It is the wind in our sails.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

what is integrated thinking?

You know that you are part of lots of different worlds. In each one, there are roles you play, roles others fill for you, and combinations that make your heart sing. In each one, there is also the potential to be pulled in different directions, to be crowded or pressured, to be forced into roles that just don't fit. Sometimes you feel that you are in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you feel out of step. What makes the difference?

You know that you are made up of many different roles. There is more than one voice in your head. Sometimes this diversity makes you feel strong, flexible, aware of your all-but super powers. You know the strength that comes from connecting different experiences, different dreams, different points of view. Sometimes you see things from so many perspectives that your vision splinters like a kaleidoscope. Sometimes your dreams seem to cancel each other out. Sometimes you know the exhaustion of expending strength in multiple directions. You are multi-talented; you suffer from multiple personalities. What makes the difference?

It's not enough to understand one thing at a time in a world where everything is connected to everything else. Understanding the connections is primary and understanding grows from attention. When you pay attention to connections, you start to see that everyone and everything is connected with thousands of invisible threads. You start to notice how one change ripples into many changes. You start to notice the difference between the team that is more than the sum of its parts and the person you are when you cannot get it together. You develop integrity: the strength to hold together under a range of forces.

Integrated thinking is not seeing the forest and it is not seeing the trees. It's seeing that the forest exists because of the trees. It's seeing that each tree becomes itself in the forest.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

what is NLP?

Neuro-linguistic programming is a collection of practices that allow individuals to make changes in themselves and to influence change in other people. The name is rooted in what has since proven a faulty assumption that the human mind works like a computer. Neuroscience has since proven convincingly that the human brain is not a computer (the mind even less so), but the brain does run on patterns. These patterns are shaped whole at each moment: what fires together wires together in the neural webs that give us our experience of states of being.

The second fault in the name, less commonly noted, is the separation of language from neurology. Language, like other forms of thinking, is a neurological process. Despite this confusion, it is true that thinking that has an impact on the world combines three elements: neurology, language and physiology: NLP. The practices of NLP (not the label) are in line with much of current thinking in the neurosciences (like current thinking in most fields, there is always room for controversy). They engage multiple centres in the brain and body in processes that influence internal and external representations of experience.

If that's too complicated or too general, try this: NLP is a set of practices for focusing on what you want and how to make it happen in the world. It is not thinking for thought's sake: it is thinking for people who take action. Training in NLP helps you to identify, isolate and replicate the combinations of language and experience that will shift people's thinking (your own or other people's) in ways that result in action.

My favourite definition might be this: NLP is the deliberate practice of whole brain thinking by the embodied mind.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

giving your attention is a gift

It is the weekend in Canada when we are all reminded: give thanks.

As I think of the many, many things for which I am filled with thanks, the one that leaps forward today is the gift of attention. I am thankful that attention is a currency in which we are all rich: every waking moment, each of us has the opportunity to spend an equal amount of attention. As we do, we are rewarded with discovery, connection, invention, and more often than seems reasonable, different kinds of love.

And I am overwhelmed with thankfulness for the attention that other people give to me. Whenever someone holds me in their thoughts, or stops the voice inside their head to listen to my voice instead, they entrust me with a piece of their lives, a moment they cannot get back or reinvest. This is true of the friends that send an email when I most need to read it, the family who listen, the students who focus on my thoughts instead of their own. It is possible to imagine life without words: to imagine life without attention is too utterly lonely to contemplate. Even animals pay attention.

On this weekend when we remember to give thinks, I thank you - for the moments spent reading and making this connection.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

developing resiliency

Apparently it was Benjamin Franklin who first said that the only thing more expensive than education is ignorance. We could rephrase it as the only thing that costs more than thinking is not thinking. It provides the negative frame for all kinds of education: in the long run, not knowing costs the most. Whatever you spend on training or education is a form of insurance.

Insurance is a form of resiliency: the ability to bounce back after failure or adversity. Resiliency is a big seller in fields like child welfare, where everyone admits that adversity is an inevitable consequence of being alive. It's a more difficult sell in fields like self development, where everyone hopes that adversity can be made obsolete by something that sounds suspiciously like magic.

No happy person wants to believe s/he will need to be resilient: when we are happy we want to believe that happiness can persist. No unhappy person finds it easy to imagine resilience: when we are down, we lose our belief in bounce. It is hard to catch people in the right state for developing more resilience, a state of equilibrium in which they can imagine landing on either side of the fence.

And yet resiliency is the key to our success as a species. Human beings have a wonderful capacity for imagining difference, and wonderful resources for remembering good times. We are good at noticing other people and imagining that their experience could be our experience. We latch onto possibilities. Although we are not the fastest or the strongest animals, we are the ones who bounce.

What gives you bounce when you need it most? How could you develop resiliency so that it kicks in faster or bounces you higher? How could you support resiliency in someone who needs it today?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

get ready for grey

Grey is coming. Not in your hair: that is now a choice, not a fact of life. The grey that is coming will soak through your days as fall begins, and settles in, and turns into winter. There will be days of bright autumn colours; days of deep blue skies; days of dazzling white snow. And, before the world turns green again, there will be lots and lots of grey.

How do you prepare for days that begin and end in darkness, and never become brighter than a dull grey? Two kinds of people do well with the onset of this weather: people so immersed in ideas that they never notice their surroundings, and people who make an effort to achieve brightness in a grey world.

As I write, I am reminded that it is past time to connect my speakers and let music change the rhythm of my day. It takes an act of will to counter the rhythm of the rain, an intention to live in the sunlight whatever the weather is doing. I turn on the music, and I turn on the lights, and I invite those influences to soak into me as I continue with the chores and opportunities of the day. I try to move through the fog, knowing that I do not have to choose what I am given.

What do you do to counteract an environment that weighs you down and dims out your bright hopes and colourful thinking? Do you dispel the gloom for other people or search out the glow of people who laugh and create and make changes whatever the weather? You can escape into total immersion into any activity that captures enough of your attention, or you can notice that you feel as tired and grey as the weather. Then you can change how you feel - because your feelings are always and only yours. You get to have them, and you get to choose whether or not to hold them.

Above the clouds, the sun is shining. Let your thoughts carry your attention to a place where you can look upwards and outwards. It feels great. Or grab your best pudde-stomping boots and play with the water that wants to play with you. Either way, you can lift the grey just by deciding that's what you want to do.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

when the week starts badly

One of my favourite children's books is by Judith Viorst. It's called Alexander and theTerrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. I thought about it a lot yesterday; it was not a good start to the week, and today has not been much better. Some days are like that.

What do you do when a day goes bad on you? I announced it to the class I was teaching - and they actually shuddered. Then I smiled, and we all agreed my day was about to get better. And it did: the class went better than the rest of the day had. I started where I was (without sugar coating - in fact, without eating sugar which is occasionally a reasonable response to a bad day) and I engaged the support of a room full of young people who temporarily made me one of "us" instead of one of "them."

In the book, Alexander plans to move to Australia - or to send other people there. It's as far away as you can get. And that's a good strategy for dealing with bad days: to remove yourself as far away as you can get from what is making you miserable. You probably can't fly to Australia but you can move your mind to something entirely different, something outside yourself that is capable of holding your attention - or of scrambling it. Either will give you a break by breaking the pattern of your day.

Sometimes baby steps just don't cut it. If you're having a bad day, you need a surprise, a remarkable treat, even a once-a-year chore. Incremental change won't do it: you need big change. Take a giant step in a different direction. And wear your duck feet.