How our collective imagination rules the world

I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the moment. The book, that describes our extraordinary journey from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. At the same time, the book is the best antidote to insomnia (which I don’t suffer from) that I’ve ever come across. I just can’t seem to stay awake for more than ten pages at a time.

I’m about 50% through the book now and so far the most interesting part, as well as the most shocking revelation, to me has been how the most impactful and powerful concepts in the world today are fiction or myths.
Let me track back a little bit. Around 70.000 years ago, we were still hunters and gatherers we lived in small tribes. Language wasn’t very far evolved yet, and the things we had to communicate about were all physical. It was very useful to be able to tell someone they should cross the river near the big tree, or to watch out for the tiger that was looking at a member of the tribe from a little distance. Around 70.000 years ago though, the cognitive revolution started and fictive language emerged.

A group of up to around 150 people can live or work together and function through intimate relationships. When the group gets bigger though it no longer works like that. The way in which humans resolved this, was through the introduction of fiction. Our language evolved and we became capable of communicating about things that weren’t physical. It turns out that large groups of people, strangers even, can cooperate successfully if they believe in a common myth. And so the first stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities emerged.

Religions have been very important and powerful myths that have brought people together, but that have also been used to create false dichotomies and drive polarization. Religions have had a huge impact on the history of humankind. And they are still powerful today.
Religious myths aren’t the only powerful fictional constructs that we’ve invented. Present day states are common national myths. A state is not a physical thing like a tree or a river. It’s a construct that humans agreed would be valid and because of that it can exist and hold (a lot of) power.
In today’s society, we have powerful and modern institutions that are based on the tales told by business people and lawyers.

Two lawyers who have never met can work together to defend a stranger, because they believe in the same laws, in the concept of justice and in human rights. Yet all of these things, laws, justice, human rights, only exist in the stories and common imagination of human beings.
The last striking example that stayed with me is that of modern-day companies and corporations. Let’s take Apple as an example. If all iPhones and iPads that exist in the world today would disappear, Apple would still exist. If all of Apple’s offices would be wiped off the face of the earth, Apple would still exist. If everyone that works for Apple would quit today, Apple would still exist. However if a judge would order the dissolution of the company, Apple would cease to exist. Despite all the people, the offices and the devices still being there. A corporation is a figment of our collective imagination.

Like a lot of people, I was very well aware of the myths and stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities. However, I have never stopped to think that the most powerful institutions in today’s world only exist in our own collective stories too. It’s very easy to chuckle at the myths and stories of other people, but we all take our own myths seriously. So seriously that people are being killed and wars are being fought to force our stories onto others.

I’m not delusive enough to think that the people fighting to defend their stories will stop doing that. I can make sure though that I continue to examine “my” stories and that I look at other people’s stories with empathy and compassion.
It’s easy to be hard on someone else’s opinions, but a lot harder to be just as hard on your own.

A plan for nicer evenings and longer nights

I went back to work on Thursday after two and a half weeks of holiday. A week and a half into the holiday, after being inspired by the book Multipliers, by Liz Wiseman. I felt motivated to get started again. When the time came to actually put my finger out and do something though I found it a lot harder than I anticipated. Part of that feeling is that let’s face it, it’s nice to be able to do exactly what you want all day. I like my job, but I like being on holiday even better.

The other thing that frustrated me was that I felt I was wasting the spare time I did have available to me in the evenings. I wasn’t doing anything useful, I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel good and I still went to bed later than I wanted to. As this is something that should be within my span of control I tried to determine what I would like my evenings to look like.

Living alone I often turn on the tv as background noise. When it’s on, it won’t just provide noise though, it will also distract me. Even if I don’t care at all about what’s on, I will read less and go to bed later when I turn on the tv. I have decided to try and keep the tv off and spend more time reading. I tried this on Thursday evening and it worked very well. I admit that the results of one evening aren’t exactly meaningful or consistent, but I’m carefully optimistic and will continue the experiment.

The other goal is to get to bed a bit earlier. By earlier I mean that I would prefer to be in bed around midnight. I’m a night owl. I don’t like mornings and people advocating that getting up really early will make you feel better and benefit your career have clearly never tried to talk to me before 8:30 AM.

I love evenings. Even when I’ve been tired all day, I will perk up around 10 PM. This means that at 11:30 PM when my Fitbit starts buzzing to tell me that it’s time to get up and go to bed I feel like the best part of the day has only just started. I ignore the buzzing. The more tired I’ve felt during the day, the harder it is to get up and get to bed at a reasonable time. It’s a downward spiral.

As humans, we have a certain amount of discipline and restraint that we can use each day. There is more if we are well rested, but the supply is limited. So by the end of the day, I will have used most if not all of my “making smart decisions that don’t have an immediate reward” ability for that day. I guess this might explain why or how I can be so very disciplined in almost every other area, but I’m still incapable of managing my own bedtime.

My current working theory is this: Reading will make me feel better than watching television. If I can manage to read for one or two hours in the evening that should be an enjoyable way to spend the evening and make me feel like I accomplished something. Hopefully, this feeling of accomplishment will make it easier to go to bed on time. If it works, it will mean that I’m better rested, which will make it easier to make smart decisions. If only I can keep this going long enough to make it a habit (which I think means I have to be consistent for around 60 days), I might finally have found a solution for this 38-year struggle.
Fingers crossed!

The end and a list

It’s the evening of the last day of our holiday and I just started packing. Usually, I’d have gone over every detail of today and tomorrow in my head for a couple of days. Partially to ensure that there would be a solid plan for the journey, but mostly because I’d be longing to go home.
I’m not sure why this year is different. I’m still looking forward to going home. To my beautiful house, my comfortable bed and my perfect shower (with a view) and, even though A and I enjoy each other’s company very much, also to being alone.
And yet we are strangely unprepared. We don’t even know at what time we had to check out in the morning. While discussing it we landed on “probably a bit earlier than we are ready on most days”. Which is a fair assumption, as we would otherwise certainly miss our flight.

This holiday feels like it’s somehow not “done” yet. I can’t exactly pinpoint why that is. Perhaps because the influence from hurricane Leslie has meant that the weather hasn’t been as good as we’d have hoped. The weather was after all one of the main reasons why we chose to come here. We still had a great holiday though with some fun day trips and a couple of beach days, some tennis and a bit of running.

Perhaps the feeling is caused by my memories of the brilliant holiday that we had last year. To be fair, A had to remind me that I was actually sick for the first few days of that holiday, my memory had put that minor detail conveniently aside. But other than that, we had a great apartment (our first Airbnb experience). We were surprised by the stunning beaches and coastline of Crete, which we explored in the best possible (rental) car (an Alfa Romeo Giulietta). It also where and when I rediscovered my love for reading books. Two of the books that I read last year, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Busy by Tony Crabbe changed the way I work. After reading those books I blocked one day per week without meetings and on the other days, I also try to have three hours without meetings. I use this time to work on longer-term and more strategic projects. This approach means that I can look beyond today’s problem and the never-ending stream of email. It makes me happier and more productive. I also regularly feel like I’m in control of my days. Which is a big improvement.

This year I’ve read the amazing number of seven books during my holiday. Although I don’t think any of them will have as big an impact as Flow and Busy did, I did enjoy reading them and I got something out of all of them. For those curious, I’ll do a list.

  • I wanted to read I’m a joke and so are you by comedian Robin Ince because I found out that the book contained insights from an interview with Tim Minchin. The book is an examination of the human condition. I wrote a post about the inner voices that Robin describes in the book.
  • Leigh Sales is an Australian writer, journalist and news anchor. Leigh had been very lucky in life (by her own account) for many years and suddenly had to deal with several of life’s unexpected blows. In order to deal with her own anxiety, she decided to find out how people deal with sometimes unimaginable loss. I learned about Any Ordinary Day through the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” that Leigh creates together with Annabel Crabb in which they discuss theatre, television, and books. Leigh is a great journalist, but she also had a lot of empathy and compassion and she is acutely aware of her own biases. The book provides some very interesting insights into how people who have experienced incredible losses dealt with that. On top of that, it includes a lot of research on the way we deal with grief and fear. I’d recommend both the podcast and the book.
  • During an impromptu Twitter Q&A, brought about by a delayed flight, Tim Minchin (anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised by this recurring theme) shared that he was reading Gould’s book of fish by Richard Flanagan. I figured that what’s good enough for Tim is good enough for me. At the start, this turned out to be slightly optimistic, as I found it quite hard to read as a non-native English speaker. Luckily it either got easier as the book progressed, or I got used to it. The story is unusual, but interesting and the end is surprising and beautifully written.
  • Feminists don’t wear pink (and other lies) was supposed to be promoted in Top Shop in London, but the owner of Top Shop shut down the promotion at the last minute, causing quite some outrage on Twitter. This was how I found out about the book, which is a collection of essays by women on what feminism means to them. I expected this to be very moving, but I must admit that I was slightly disappointed by it. It’s a great initiative of course and I did learn from several of the stories, but it wasn’t as impactful as I hoped it would be.
  • Stella Rimington’s At Risk had been recommended by someone who knows me well several years ago, but it took me this long to try it. He was right though, I really enjoyed it. Stella is a former director of MI5 and At Risk is the first in a series about MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. It’s tense, but not too tense and Liz is a great character. I’ll definitely read the rest of the series as well.
  • The ideas behind Multipliers by Liz Wiseman were used in a training that I attended, but I never took the time to read the entire book until now. It describes how leaders either multiply how much they use of what the people around them have to offer, or how they (accidentally) diminish it. Like the training, the book really inspired me. I will definitely try to apply more multiplier behavior in my work. I normally read books on an e-reader, but I also ordered both the English and the Dutch paperbacks of this book. The English one because a physical book is more convenient to look things up and the Dutch one for people who are interested in reading it too.
  • For months now there has been a buzz on Twitter about the book and theatre show This is going to hurt by Adam Kay. Adam is a former NHS doctor and in this book, he shares his experiences. This book made me laugh out loud a lot (sorry A!), but it also made me cry. I absolutely recommend this because it’s funny, but it also gives some very valuable insight into the lives of junior doctors. Spoiler alert: they are not in it for the money!
  • Bonus: While in London on a city trip in May, A and I visited Shakespeare’s globe theatre. I had wanted to do that for years and finally made it a priority. It didn’t disappoint. I’ve been fascinated by Shakespeare for a long time and some of this was revived by Matt Haig’s How to stop time, which I read earlier this year. I was always worried that reading Shakespeare might be difficult, but after doing the tour of the theatre I bought Hamlet. I’ve now started reading it and I’m enjoying both the story and the fact that I’m finally reading it.

Phew! Summarizing the holiday and my reading was exactly the closure that I needed. I’m ready to go home tomorrow!

How can we fight for facts?

I’m in the south of Portugal at the moment and it’s chucking it down. Being stuck inside I’ve resorted to reading the news and that does nothing to lighten my mood.
I continue to be surprised and saddened by politicians who lie and cheat and by how many people are railing against science, facts, and evidence. My parents taught me from a very young age that it was ok to be naughty every now and then, but that lying was off limits.

I like to be liked and I don’t have a rebellious nature. I cannot comprehend how someone can be so bold to tell easy to debunk lies in public and indeed in the press. Let alone then accuse others of lying when they debunk the original lie. It frustrates me to see this happen and to have no idea what do to about it. A lie is still a lie, and not just a “different perspective” and we all know it.

If these lies would have small or insignificant consequences I might be able to ignore it, but the impact is huge. The fact that we don’t take climate change serious could mean that a lot of places where people have built lives today will become uninhabitable because of drought or flooding. Brexit will have a serious economic impact on people living in the UK as well as many in the EU and on UK nationals living in the EU and EU nationals currently living in the UK. Refugees fleeing warzones trying to get to safety have to live in degrading conditions because politicians in rich countries are using scaremongering tactics to explain why these refugees cannot be offered asylum and children are getting sick or even dying because parents don’t vaccinate their kids.

The brilliant and thought-provoking Dutch TV series “Onbehagen” (Discomfort) created by Bas Heijne discusses that civilizations rise and fall on the basis of their cultural ideas. What are people willing to fight for? Are we willing to fight and struggle and be uncomfortable for the values that brought us our safe and comfortable lives? After having defeated fascism and communism it seems like we have become complacent and assume things will work out for the best eventually, even if historical evidence suggests that defending a peaceful and inclusive society from the influences of racism, hate and other threads requires action.
I would like to know how to do this. What action can we take that will have an impact?

Of course, the first step is always to look in the mirror. Being aware of how your brain works and how your emotions can influence your ideas about what is true helps to weaponize yourself against outside influences trying to trick you into believing their sometimes appealing lies. This means we need to be open to learning and that we need to be aware that we are probably not infallible. For people who are used to being in a position of power and getting things their way in life this is already quite a big leap.

The next step is even more difficult and to be frank, I have no idea how to go about this.
How could we convince people who currently believe otherwise that climate change is a real problem, that refugees are not after their jobs and that vaccines do work as intended and save lives? We have to remember that people who believe the conspiracy theories stating the opposite genuinely believe them. There’s a good reason why the quote “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” has gained popularity over the last few years. A quote which ironically is often attributed to Mark Twain without any evidence that the quote was indeed uttered or written by him. He did express something that supports the general idea behind the quote though.

Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but they are thriving in a world that rejects established knowledge on a large scale. These theories, nowadays often spread or reinforced via social media platforms, erode people’s trust in science, expert’s opinions and authority. This, in turn, creates a fertile environment for more conspiracy theories to emerge.

If there is no credible source of news and facts that everyone can agree on, then how can we even start to have a discussion about what’s the truth and what’s a lie, let alone about what would be best for the world, our countries and most of the people living in them? How can we prevent going further down this rabbit hole where things that were previously commonly accepted as truth or fact are up for debate and discussion?

Based on what little evidence I have found it seems that rationally and calmly arguing one theory at a time is the best way to debunk conspiracy theories and lies. It takes a lot of patience to stay kind and calm while doing this and will not guarantee that you can convince the person you are interacting with. Another challenge is that most “common” people (people who aren’t artists, journalists or politicians) only have a very small audience, who, because of the echo chambers that we all live in, mostly will already hold similar opinions to our own.

So how can we make a difference and have a positive and noticeable impact on the world around us? How can we defend our culture and fight to protect the values that our grandparents fought a war for? How can we make sure we don’t let it get that far again?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I honestly don’t know. But I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Inner voices

Inner Voices

This blog is starting to turn into a collection of interesting ideas that I take away from the books I’ve read that I want to explore a bit more. I must admit that I’m quite happy with that for the moment. As I’m on holiday and thus have significantly more time to read than I normally do, the number of ideas for potential posts is also souring.

The first book I read this holiday was Robin Ince’s “I’m a joke and so are you”. This book is described as: “The popular comedian and science presenter Robin Ince blends memoir, wit, and popular science to examine the human condition. Informed by personal insights from Robin as well as interviews with some of the world’s top comedians, neuroscientists and psychologists, this is a hilarious and often moving primer to the mind.”

I found the book interesting and mostly entertaining, although I also feel that parts of it are especially relevant if you are a comedian, or if you are particularly interested in comedy and comedians. I’m very interested in a particular comedian, but I’m not necessarily a connoisseur of the genre.

One topic discussed in the book that I wanted to explore a little more is on inner voices. Lots of people have inner voices that take on many different shapes and forms. Some comedians use their inner voice to come up with jokes, while for others their inner voice almost becomes the joke.

Robin explains that humans are the only species who understand that they have inner voices (as far as we know). Even our brains only just developed far enough to be able to understand that our inner voices are in fact internal. Until around 3,000 years ago our predecessors thought that their inner voices were other people talking to them in a mystical or magical way. Oftentimes they felt it was a god who was speaking to them.

An observation that Robin makes that I found quite interesting, but that I understand is an acquired taste is that this might be why God seems to give the protagonists in the Bible’s old testament a hard time. Most people’s inner voice isn’t very kind and friendly, so if you mistake your inner voice for God’s voice, he might come across quite harsh and critical.

Robin describes his inner voices as a very active panel of critics. Most of us will be able to relate to this in some way. You’ve met someone you like and afterward, you wonder if you might have said something silly. Robin’s inner voices won’t ever allow him to let go completely. When he’s enjoying a concert “waving his arms like he just doesn’t care” his inner voices will tell him he looks silly and he’ll stop.

I’m happy to say that my inner voice is a bit less critical, or more free-spirited. I think that enjoyable experiences often happen when I’m not self-conscious or when I can allow myself to be open to a sort of childlike wonderment. The most fun concerts (not necessarily the best) are the ones when I have no problem letting go and I’m not worried about looking silly. I have to admit that these often happen at Lowlands musical festival. Being in a parallel universe for three days does help to forget about the real world and its rules about how adults should behave.

Another great Lowlands experience was when they had huge swings set up. I would stand in line to go on the swings every day. In all the pictures that my friends took while I was on them, I have a silly big grin on my face. It made me realize how much I love swings and I decided that if and when I would have a garden I’d get a swing. I’m proud to say that I kept that promise to myself and the swing in my back garden is one of my happy places.

The swing in my back garden

I think life is more enjoyable when we as adults are able to appreciate the little things. Worrying about what other people might think serves very little purpose. Because your world naturally has you at the center of it, it feels like other people will notice and care about everything that you do that might not fit a certain mold. In reality though, most people are too busy worrying about themselves to spend more than a few brain cycles on what you are up to.

My inner voice doesn’t always allow me to have this much fun. Like most people, I do have a tendency to worry about how I could have handled certain situations better. This is often because I feel that I should have been more patient. My impatience is probably my most pronounced character flaw. It’s definitely the one that gets me in trouble with my critical inner voice most often. I’m getting better at restraining my impatience, even if I still feel it. The unpleasant conversations that I’ll have with myself if I don’t can last for days and are a big part of the motivation to do better.

I’m also regularly bothered by what’s called “l’esprit d’escalier”, or coming up with the perfect reply a few hours or even days too late. I can replay situations in which I feel I should have given a smarter or funnier response many times in my head. In this capacity, my inner voice is not helpful at all. After all, what happened is in the past, so there is no point worrying about it and reliving over and over again. It would be much more practical to decide if I want to follow up on the event in one way or another. If so, follow up, if not, stop thinking about it.
If only it was that easy to mute my inner voice!

The third manifestation of my inner voice is me having conversations with other people, in my head. This can be people I actually know and talk to in real life, but it can also be people I wish I’d know. Sometimes this might be practicing a conversation that could actually happen. Other times it can be testing an idea to see if I can explain it and to try and determine how the person I’m testing the idea on might react to it. The other person never explicitly responds, it’s just me talking to my projection of someone else. Written down it looks a bit crazy, but it can help me to make judgment calls (like “should I publish this post?”) or to prepare for situations that I’m nervous about. In some cases, there is no noble goal or pay-off and it’s pure fantasizing about a conversation I wish would happen.

In a way writing these blog posts is similar. The difference is that the conversation isn’t happening in my head. They are monologues on paper and eventually in OneNote (my writing tool of choice) and on this site. When writing posts I try to let the tone of voice be as close to that of my inner voice as possible. If I edit it too much it loses most of the risk, but also most of the excitement.

What does your inner voice sound like?

Art Matters

Art Matters and life is not linear

I read Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell this week. The book is written by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell illustrated every single page. It’s a lovely little book about the importance of making art, libraries, reading and allowing ideas to exist and spread.

One of the things that Neil says in the book, is that he doesn’t have a career because he doesn’t have a career plan. He writes that if you start a career in the arts that you have no idea what you are doing, where you might be going and how you should get there. Neil suggests that chaos and happily working on one thing after another until it looks like you’re doing something eerily similar to building a career is something that is only for artists. That people with “regular” jobs have these fantastic plans when they finish school and start working. That we know how to get from one role or level to the next and that we know what the next step or even the end game will be.

That is of course not how it works. At least not for most people. Most of us just do the best we can and work as hard as we can on whatever is currently in front of us. When you do that, in a lot of cases the next opportunity will present itself after a while. It might not be what you expected. It might even take you in a completely different direction from where you thought you would be going. If you are excited about the opportunity and there are no insurmountable practical reasons not to, by all means, jump at the opportunity.

When I left high school I wanted to be a lighting technician (working on the setup and operation of lights for theatre and concerts). Before properly starting on that career path I changed my mind and became a web developer. Even that decision was driven by circumstances. I found out that being a female lighting technician comes with some specific challenges and that I didn’t want to have to deal with those challenges for the rest of my life. At the same time, for a school project, I learned to build websites with a group of fellow students. I liked the combination of logic and creativity that was involved in building the websites. Through family and friends, we found quite a few customers and that was how my web development career started. Through similar coincidences, I subsequently became an expert in a Microsoft platform, a presenter, a writer, a project manager, an account lead and now a COO. I could never have imagined either the direction or the timing of any of these steps and it’s one of the things that I like most about my career. I don’t know where this path will take me next, but I’m sure that I will recognize the next opportunity when it presents itself.

Artists and people who do not make art for a living are more similar than we are different. None of us know how our lives and careers will unfold. We all need a bit of luck. All that we all can do is to do the best we can.

I highly recommend reading Art Matters, regardless of how you make a living. If you are interested in hearing Neil and Chris talk about it you can watch Art Matters Live. Both the book and the video are sources of joy and inspiration.

Make good art

How we connect to a story

For a while now I have wondered what it is that makes me like a book or a story. This surfaced again recently while I was reading “The Note” by Zoë Folbigg. The description of the story seemed to be similar to the stories in Jill Mansell books, which I love. The Note has also received critical acclaim. Yet while reading it I couldn’t get into it and I didn’t understand why.

What I was able to distill based on earlier experiences is that I need to be able to identify with the protagonist to feel that I can get into the story. This doesn’t mean that she has to be a 38-year-old white woman who works for an IT company. I have been able to connect with protagonists that were different in many different ways. Even protagonists that weren’t human. But what does allow me to identify with a protagonist? Why do I feel like I’m living the story while reading some books and feel detached from others?

The book that I’m currently reading has helped me resolve this mystery. The book is called “Story Genius” and the author is Lisa Cron. Story Genius is one of many books that claim to explain how you can become a better writer. Its angle is different from most others in its genre though. The book explains the science behind what your brain needs to get pulled into a story.

For us to connect with a protagonist we need to understand what drives this person. We need to understand who the protagonist is before the story starts. Unless the protagonist is a baby and the story starts on the day of her birth, she will have a back story. She will have experienced things that have shaped her believes and her feelings. Understanding these experiences, the things she learned and how she has been hurt and celebrated in the past will help us to see inside our protagonist.

Throughout the story, the protagonist will try to learn something or gain something. The misbeliefs that she picked up throughout her life might get in the way of getting what she wants. By understanding what drives our protagonist from the inside, we can connect to her. We are experiencing the story as if we are part of it. Even if our own lives are very different and if we would take different decisions in similar situations. We all have the same basic needs. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, recognized for our efforts and be part of something. If we feel that our basic needs are at risk we experience one of four basic emotions; happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Because the basics are very similar for all of us, it’s easy to understand a protagonist’s reaction when their core beliefs are at stake.

With the help of an MRI scientists have been able to prove that when you read a story that allows you to connect with a protagonist, your brain reacts in the same way it would when you experience the situation yourself. That is why it’s so hard to put a good book down and why you feel sad when you finish it. You become part of the narrative and it feels like everything that is happening to the protagonist is actually happening to you. When the story ends it feels like having to say goodbye to close friends.

I tested the theory against a couple of books that I like and so far it is holding up. As long as I can understand what drives the protagonist and why he or she makes certain choices I can connect to him or her. These books are also the ones that are very hard to put down.
In the books that I can’t quite get into, the backstory of the protagonist is missing, or the decisions that he or she makes do not make sense based on what I know about their past experiences.

If I ever feel brave enough to try my hand at writing fiction I know where to start. I should start by creating the past and the beliefs and misconceptions of my protagonist.
Don’t hold your breath though. It could be a while…