The Sleep Business

April 5, 2019

I suffer from insomnia so am always interested to read the latest thinking on the subject plus (hopefully) some new ideas or approaches. It’s now become apparent, with the flood of articles, books and courses on the subject, that it is also now a booming business niche. It may be that all this attention is in some ways counter-productive.

There’s a thought-provoking piece by Darian Leader in the Guardian on this topic. Here’s a couple of extracts:

Just as we are both evaluated and pushed to self-evaluate in so many other areas of life, so now sleep itself becomes the first point of our daily review. We wake up not simply to worry about the tasks of the day but, first of all, to assess whether we have had our required hours and then, inevitably, worry about the consequences of our failure. A few decades ago, variety shows on Saturday night would showcase performers singing and dancing, but today we also get a panel of judges evaluating. How long would it be, indeed, before this merciless culture of evaluation came to colonise other aspects of our lives, including sleep?…

The sleep industry needs a reality check here. Although many of us have our own individual problems with sleeping, this should not act as an excuse to move attention away from our political landscape. In a world of massive job insecurity, long commutes, economic precarity and the pressure to maintain a positive image, how well can we really be expected to sleep? Should we be blaming ourselves and our mattresses, allowing ourselves to be duped in this latest chapter of marketing the human condition?


The Two-Device Solution

April 5, 2019

Interesting observation from Seth Godin (whilst talking about productivity and distractions):

“One reason for this confusion is that we’re often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work. The distractions come along with the productivity.”

This leads him to this possible solution:

“Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking… anything that doesn’t directly create valued output (no need to have an argument here about which is which, which is work and which is not… draw a line, any line, and separate the two of them. If you don’t like the results from that line, draw a new line).

Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, “break time.” And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you’ve just learned something important.”

I’m about to upgrade my aging iPad to the alluring 2019 iPad Air so this is the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Simple solutions have a chance of working….

On a related note, I came across this recent tweet from Dr Bendor Grosvenor

“About a year ago, our school made the decision to do all schoolwork and homework on iPads. It has been a disaster. Kids just can’t cope with the distraction of everything else iPads have to offer. Schools – stick to paper and pen!”


The Art of Listening

February 21, 2019

In a number of articles on this blog I’ve talked about listening skills and how, on the whole, they’re under-developed and usually under-appreciated (see for example here). This has implications for both personal and business life.

Suggestions are sometimes given on how to listen better but these are often general and vague. Some more practical advice would be helpful. An article that addresses this is The Art of Listening from The School of Life.

The author points out that:

The real pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in understanding ourselves, becoming clearer about who we are, what we feel, what we want and what we might do next. The pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in self-clarification, not merely in hearing our voices.

It compares this to reading an engrossing book, where we can be totally immersed in one-way communication. The reason is that we’re always thinking about how what we’re reading applies to us:

Novels are stories of other people that we don’t mind hearing; because they are also, at their best, stories that teach us about ourselves. We’re prepared to spend hours hearing other people – like Tolstoy or Proust or Virginia Woolf – talking about their ideas and adventures. And remarkably, we don’t mind not getting a single word of our own into the arena because we’re actively understanding bits of ourselves by listening to their stories.

I’m reminded of a quote

“No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you’ll see why.” – Mignon McLaughlin (American journalist and author)

And the riposte is:

We might well reply that this is all very well, but that the average person we have to listen to is a lot less interesting than Marcel Proust. So no wonder we want to listen to the novelist and not the average person. But the people we have around us are a lot more interesting than we think – if we knew how to listen to them and edit them properly.

How can we mentally edit conversations? They give the following tips and common errors:

a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened. 

b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind. 

c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality. 

d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.

So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story. Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’ 

It ends with the optimistic:

That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do.

Why don’t you try it and see?


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 2)

February 8, 2019

This is Part 2 of a description of a talk I was invited to give to staff at the legal firm of Lima and Falcao by the owner Tiago Lima. It took place in Recife, northeast Brazil in November 2018.

In a previous post I discussed some of the attributes for a successful career and the tricky art of learning from mistakes. The rest of the talk focused on the role of taking and giving strategic advice and the importance of listening skills.

The Benefits of Taking Advice

To illustrate this I gave an example from my own career, when I was doing my PhD in particle physics at Imperial College, London (it’s to be found embedded in a much longer article entitled The Higgs Effect).

On one occasion word went out that he (Prof Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) wanted to interview each of the particle physics PhD students. There was a handful of us and no reason was given. This was quite unusual as we interacted with all the other staff on a regular and easy basis and communication was excellent.

In my interview somehow or other I started going on about the low public profile of particle physics even though some amazing advances were being made and they weren’t being well communicated to the public. He agreed with me, said it was an important topic and suggested I seize the opportunity and do it myself! This totally shocked me as this wasn’t the sort of career or activity I had in mind, although with hindsight it might have been excellent advice.

I’ve often thought about this and how best to benefit when being in the (rare) situation of talking to someone who can give advice from a genuinely big picture. My guess is that they’ll always say something you don’t expect and you might even find a bit odd! That’s because they see things completely differently (years of experience, wider network, deeper insights).

However I think the smart thing to do is to write the idea or suggestion down, leave it a while (let it incubate) and then just openly think about it even if it contradicts practically everything else you’re doing. I’m not saying I would have been good at popular science or that I would (in reality) have enjoyed it but I did lose an opportunity by not giving it the attention it deserved.

As we’re often told, chance favours the prepared mind. In this case, being prepared for the unexpected!

The general point is to listen carefully to the advice given and not be judgemental. If the suggestions are not what you were expecting (as in the example above), let the ideas incubate slowly and try to keep an open mind on new possibilities. There may even be connections or opportunities that are relatively easy to develop and try out. In the example above, I could have written a short article for a popular magazine to see what was involved (namely the time and effort required). It would have been a diversion from my main research but a low cost and low risk ‘experiment’.

Nowadays, writing articles and books popularising modern science is fairly common and whole areas of bookshops are devoted to this area.

Listening Skills

Whilst involved in technology transfer projects in a very large science and technology company, QinetiQ, I became interested in the topic of corporate knowledge management. This covers the different ways people create and share knowledge (as opposed to information). One important way is through conversations, where explaining something to someone else can let you see something in a new light or perhaps a question might spark a new idea. A fascinating topic is ‘how do we listen’. Listening to what someone says is actually quite hard as explained in the quote below:

“Very few people are good listeners. A good listener listens slowly to what is being said. He does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge nor does he sit there formulating his own reply. He focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said. He extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way. It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.” – Edward de Bono

Just try it, it really is hard although presumably gets easier with practice.

The table below indicates the common way we converse (discussion) and an improved way (dialogue). If you’re not convinced, just eaves-drop on most conversations, you’ll see that they are usually very one-sided and limited.

The differences between dialogue and discussion

As a practical tip, you could experiment with inserting some dialogue in place of discussion and see what results. This may be especially useful in situations where there is a conflict or established set views or the matter is very important.

In fact this slide created the most interest which is revealing as energetic conversation is a strong feature of Brazilian culture!

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 1)

February 6, 2019

In November last year I was visiting the city of Recife in northeast Brazil. During the stay, I got to know Tiago Lima, the owner of the law firm Lima and Falcao. He was interested in the variety of career changes I had made and he invited me to give a talk to his staff on the insights I’d gained. As I was thinking about career insights in general this was a fortunate meeting of minds.

I decided to focus on telling stories that were general enough to be transferable to other areas and focused on four main points:

  • The Iceberg Illusion (Skills for Success)
  • Learning from Success and Failure
  • The Benefits of Taking Career Advice
  • Developing Listening Skills

A theme for the talk was to emphasise the realities of career decisions and events and to contrast this with the often simplistic stories of success found in popular business and personal development books.

This and another post will elaborate on the talk.

I started with giving a brief overview of my career so far. The main point is that it spans the academic, government and commercial sectors. Each sector has it’s own strengths and weaknesses and you learn different things in each one as well as with the interactions between them.

The Iceberg Illusion

I spotted this graphic whilst browsing one day and it neatly visualised quite a few things I’d been thinking about. It was produced by Sylvia Duckworth who is an award-winning educator, author, and brilliant sketchnoter.

The picture illustrates the difference between a superficial and deeper analysis of success. What interested me was that the attributes on the bottom were a mixture of ‘character’ skills (determination, hard work etc) and ‘emotional’ skills (handling disappointment, failure). Just having one set of skills is unlikely to be sufficient.

For this slide I explained that the ability to deal (emotionally) with failure and disappointment was essential as it is certain that every task you carry out or aim you have will not always be successful. There will generally be a continuum of results; some really good, a lot average and some rather abject. If you are perceptive and reflective you should be able to learn from all of the results to increase your overall impact.

I was impressed that this advice was given to students, a very mature move. I don’t ever remember anyone saying these sorts of things to me at any time during my career but I think I would have benefitted if they had (and said them at regular intervals, it’s always easy to forget the obvious or unpleasant).

There’s also a fun graphic which illustrates what you think or hope might happen on a project and what can easily happen (the rocky road to success, see here).

In general you have to be able to cope with grimy reality and not just it’s idealisation.

Learning from Success and Failure

Given that not everything will be succesful, it’s helpful to reflect on results to try to learn from mistakes. This is not easy as people often indulge in the blame game ie it was everyone’s fault but not mine! This avoids getting to the heart of the matter.

An associated viewpoint is summed up by this quote:

“Problems are only opportunities with thorns on them.” – Hugh Miller

In other words, it’s sometimes possible to turn a problem (perhaps a mistake) into an opportunity but this may not be straightforward and need some creative thinking.

John Cleese and the Fawlty Towers team

A vivid example of this is given by a Monty Python story, featuring the famous comedian John Cleese. It illustrates how open and closed thinking can yield very different results coming from the same situation. 

The details can be found in my article as well as some tips on creativity by Cleese. They’re simple tips but nonetheless helpful:

  • try and learn something new each day
  • sleeping on problems can be very effective
  • losing something and then recreating it from scratch often yields a better result
  • no distractions (at all) – it’s hard to get back into the flow
  • no one knows where ideas come from
  • create a mood that encourages creativity (the ‘tortoise mind’)
  • establish boundaries in both space and time (an oasis where it is ‘safe’ to be creative)
  • being busy and being creative are probably at odds with each other
  • if you’re purely busy, it probably means that you don’t really appreciate creativity

Although not mentioned in the talk, two other posts are also relevant, the preoccupation with success and the fascination of failure.

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and to Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.


The Unhealthy Preoccupation With Success

September 19, 2018

Starting from complex bid writing in large organisations (some were successful, others not), I’ve always had an interest in how you can best learn from ‘failure’. You can hold post-mortems of projects and bids but these are often not as helpful as you may hope (see here).

It’s interesting to read how others handle this success/failure split. For example, the England football team did pretty well in the recent World Cup in Russia. Pippa Grange was the team psychologist and there’s an interesting article on her approach and views here, including: 

Grange has no fear of failure either. She has written: “I’d like to turn this unhealthy preoccupation with success on its head and put it on the record that I think failure is really useful. For without failure we cannot progress longer, higher or faster. It’s a funny paradox – our successes are achieved through trying, and trying most often ends in failure. Every day in our general lives and our sporting lives we will win some and lose some; it’s just part of the way life should be. It could be missing out on a promotion, being pipped at the line in a running race or bombing out in an exam – it doesn’t matter – the important lesson is to learn from our failures, reassess, rethink, move forward (sometimes in a different direction) and keep those dreams and goals alive.”

Good summary: reassess, rethink and move forward (sometimes in a different direction). I like the emphasis on doing things a bit differently next time not just rehashing what you’ve done and hope it’ll be better next time (the common default).

Failures can of course shock and scar and have the effect of encouraging you to avoid similar situations (fight or flight). This will get in the way of ‘reassess, rethink and move forward’, at least in a balanced manner. One interesting suggestion to overcome this is to use humour:

One way to know you’ve reached a healthy place is your sense of humor. It might take a few days, but eventually you’ll see some comedy in what happened. When friends tell stories of their mistakes it makes you laugh, right? Well when you can laugh at your own mistakes you know you’ve accepted it and no longer judge yourself on the basis of one single event. Reaching this kind of perspective is very important in avoiding future mistakes. Humor loosens up your psychology and prevents you from obsessing about the past. It’s easy to make new mistakes by spending too much energy protecting against the previous ones. Remember the saying “a man fears the tiger that bit him last, instead of the tiger that will bite him next”.

I can see that this might work although I’ve never tried it myself. The article also gives variety of tips on how you can learn from mistakes.

Finally, for perspective, here’s a radical counter-viewpoint:

Another common misconception: you need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don’t know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked – and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.

….

Success is the experience that actually counts.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.

The only comment I’d add is that sometimes it’s hard to learn from successes, just as it is from failures. Sometimes you can be successful simply through luck but even then I guess you can always argue that you can make your own luck (see here)!

For context and motivation on this topic, please see my previous post.


On Blogging Today

May 20, 2018

From the blog of Mark Bernstein, Chief Scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of the powerful note taking app Tinderbox, on the evolution of blogs:

“Weblogs promoted conversation. I warned (at Blogtalk Downunder) that comments kill weblogs, and I was right. Facebook and Twitter are platforms for comments that dispense with the weblog; they give us all the disadvantages and keep all the profit.”

A while ago he wrote 10 Tips on Writing the Living Web which is still worth reading today.