Friday, May 28, 2010

Powerful patterns

In my business, I see a lot of hype about specific patterns: learn this pattern and you have the key to success. Most of it is nonsense based on a fundamental (often buried deep) truth. Patterns are powerful. Not this pattern or that pattern. Any pattern has some power.

A pattern, from the French patron, is a type of theme of recurring events or objects, sometimes referred to as elements of a set. These elements repeat in a predictable manner. It can be a template or model which can be used to generate things or parts of a thing, especially if the things that are created have enough in common for the underlying pattern to be inferred, in which case the things are said to exhibit the unique pattern. Pattern matching is the act of checking for the presence of the constituents of a pattern, where as the detecting for underlying patterns is referred to as pattern recognition. The question of how a pattern emerges is accomplished through the work of the scientific field of pattern formation.

It's easy to look at a definition like this without anything sticking. Let's take some of this one and make it stick.

Patterns are predictable, replicable relationships between things. The things (elements) could be thoughts, behaviours, or physical objects. What matters is that these things are found together and that the relationships among them are constant. For instance: See the cookie. Eat the cookie. Feel bad about eating the cookie.

We call behavioural patterns "habits" when we do not like their results. When we like the results, we call them "discipline" or "skill." Both skills and habits demonstrate the power of patterns. We know now that patterns correspond to the way our brain works. Our brain is, essentially, a pattern-making organism. It's sole purpose, 24/7, is to generate patterns.

You might jump in here and object. "Why" you might ask, "is it so easy to develop bad habits and so hard to develop skills and discipline?"

The first thing I would say in response is "are you sure that it is harder to develop good habits than bad ones?" Here are two truths: it is easier to develop patterns that include emotional impact (like rewards) and it is easier to develop patterns that mimic relationships that are already familiar (like see food, eat food). This means that if you have a bad relationship with chocolate, you are easily able to acquire a bad relationship with french fries. It also means that if you have a love affair with chocolate, you are easily able to develop a love affair with another food that offers rich flavour and comfort. The power is not in one pattern but in using a pattern to move you toward choices or behaviours.

It's really hot today. Wherever people are in homes or offices where the air conditioning is functioning optimally, people are busy with whatever work or thoughts occupy them. Wherever air conditioning is making rooms too hot or too cold, people are noticing the air conditioning. We pay attention to things that are broken or dangerous or uncomfortable. The same thing is true of patterns. We pay attention to them when we do not like the results they are generating. When we like the results, we let the patterns unfold naturally while we think about something else.

All patterns are patterns because they can be repeated. The same elements occur in the same relationships to produce the same results. That's power. It gives us the one thing we really want most: the ability to predict the future. We know what is coming next because we recognize the pattern.

If the pattern changes, we do not know what will come next. We lose the ability to accurately predict the future. That's hard. We say to people "imagine what your life will be like when you lose 50 lbs. Everything will be different." That's terrifying. The human brain works in patterns. It wants to be able to assemble elements into predictable relationships. It cannot imagine difference (that's literally true, by the way. We cannot think thoughts unless they are connected to things already stored in our brains).

Directing change means finding the best pattern to move into next. It doesn't mean embracing the unpredictable (that only works if we can make that part of a pattern). It doesn't mean finding the closest pattern (that's probably the one that generated the current pattern). It means recognizing that each of our brains is a storehouse that contains multiple patterns that could be useful in any given situation. We can always find one that would replace a current habit in a way that seems helpful given our current context.

Ask yourself: what pattern have I already experienced somewhere in my life that would be useful to me in changing this pattern I do not like now?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Writing is hard work

I've spent the last two days training managers to write better emails. I'm always impressed by how deeply people want to express themselves effectively and how frustrated they get by the difficulty of writing. Writing means squeezing complicated, changing experience into one word at a time. It's like turning sand into diamonds. It takes time and it takes pressure.

When I was quite young, I was surprised that people found it so hard to be clear and correct. Now that I have had a few years to experience a wider range of perceptions and priorities, I am surprised that writing works as well as it does as often as it does. Just a few words open doors to new connections and they open windows on whole new perspectives. I have always been grateful for the experiences I was given through literature. Now I am also humbled by how often we mangle language and yet still get what we need through it.

Imagine being slow and limited and only able to do one thing at a time. Imagine that was enough to change the way people thought and behaved.

Kinda gives you hope, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Walking in the waves

It seems a little tame as a follow up to my last post, but that's the best part of what I have been doing this week. On the really warm days, I walk up to my waist and practice going with the flow. On the not-quite-so-warm days, I walk along the water's edge, sometimes in and sometimes out.

I am learning.

It doesn't look like learning from the outside. It looks like wandering or zoning out or just relaxing. And it is all those things.

From the inside, it doesn't feel like learning. It feels like walking, exploring, shell-seeking and splashing. And it is all those thing too.

Neither the inside or the outside holds the whole of the experience. Even when we put them together, we are missing something. We are missing the meaning of the experience, the patterns that I am walking into mind and body. The patterns at the edge of the water are the patterns at the edges of the world, at the edges of the mind. They are the patterns of negotiating change and identity.

The beach is the same every year. The beach is different every moment. Every reader understands this paradox. Analytically, it pulls in different directions. Experientially, it makes us whole.

And so, I am learning this week.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Bad luck. Good luck. It's hard to tell sometimes.

Tonight, my husband and I arrived at our vacation destination. It was hot and humid and we headed straight for the beach. We bought groceries and went out for music and nachos and margaritas. It was a perfect start to a relaxing week.

Until we went to bed. We teased each other about the extra pillow. I turned out the light. There was a loud exploding sound. My husband told me - quite urgently - to turn the light on. It took a second or two to figure out the switch in the unfamiliar room. When the lights came on, Rob was sitting up and it took a few seconds to be sure he was okay. Scratched on the wrist and stomach, but okay.

There were large splinters of wood in the middle of the bed. It seemed to take a long time to put the splinters together with the round hole in the headboard. Even then, I looked for another more reasonable explanation. I called security. He called the police. People came in and out. We met five or six police officers. They were all polite and helpful and professional and sympathetic.

They were largely ineffective. It wasn't their fault. They called their supervisors and looked for loopholes. There weren't any.

The man responsible for shooting at me and my husband is still in his hotel room, and he still has his gun. He put it under his pillow and went to sleep. By his wife's account he was snoring loudly when the gun went off. The burns on the pillow corroborated his story. Apparently, he felt safe sleeping on top of a Glock, and has no idea how he managed to fire it in his sleep. He had all the right papers to be carrying a gun - even into a hotel room. He had no criminal intent. And so he still has a right to his gun.

As I write this, we are a little shaky. I tell myself that it was no closer a call than many that happen as we travel busy highways. Life is like this. Sometimes it is hard to tell if one's luck is good or bad. If this is as bad as it gets, I think on the whole we have been lucky.

I am more troubled by two questions. The first is probably obvious. What happened to our right to a safe night's sleep? Why is that less important than someone else's right to sleep in a hotel with a gun under his pillow? I understand that his freedom to do something stupid was protected tonight. I wasn't. My husband wasn't. The hotel has given us another room for the evening. But the hotel won't be able to make us feel good about sleeping against a wall we share with unknown guests who might be sleeping with their guns.

The second question might be less obvious, and it is also more immediate. My parents will be traveling to Europe soon. One of my sons is there now, and a second one will be traveling over the summer. If this happened to them, I would probably want to know about it. But the shoe is on the other foot and I find I am reluctant to let them know what has happened. I don't want them to worry - especially the son who has just moved across the ocean for the next three months.

Here's what I learned tonight. Police officers in an American resort town don't seem to like guns anymore than police officers in Canada. Luck is hard to predict and hard to evaluate. Bullets can come through your wall and then disappear, leaving a hole and splinters and shattering rest. And it's hard to tell people you love that all these things are true.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

After an absence, it's good to be back

It's been a month since my last post, and it has been one of those months that feels like at least a season. A month ago, winter lingered in our minds. Now, it is exuberantly spring.

I told a friend who was struggling with writing to write to find out what he had to say. Increasingly, this seems like wise advice to me. The very young me always had a plan and a statement. At the time, that seemed hard-headed and practical. Now it strikes me as hopeful and idealistic. Very little works out exactly as planned and quite often that's a good thing.

So if we don't start with a plan, how do we start? It's like decorating our homes: we start with what we think will work and add and adjust and negotiate and accommodate as we go. Some treasures are too good to pass up just because they don't - exactly - fit into our existing style. Some treasures (other people's) are relics that we would love to let go, but can't. We learn to work around them.

I have come to doubt the rhetoric of the precise plan that is precisely executed. Even when that seems to be the case, it is usually a matter more of successful improvisation and negotiation than it is an elegant unfolding. Everything worth doing requires that we adapt and adjust. Like the saxophone player, we tune continuously if we want to play in tune continuously.

Of course, if there is no plan, there is nothing to adjust. That's like cooking without knowing if you're making applesauce and porkchops or brownies (which I make with applesauce). It's not easier or more flexible: unlimited possibility stops us in our tracks until we can impose what looks like order. It's not really order. It's more like boundaries or filters: we see best when we can fit what we are observing within our field of vision.

This blog post is part of my useful limits for this day (which threatens to spin in so many directions, all activity and no centre). Stepping back into the flow here allows me to find the flow in other places. I didn't know what I would say: I knew that it was time to talk and listen again and that doing it in this form would allow me to more easily enter the other forms and shapes that require my attention today.