Category Archives: Inspiration

The Inheritance

When reading the book of a play it can be hard to get into the story. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez doesn’t have this problem. The way the story is told is very smart. It’s understated. The topics are heavy but they are dealt with in what feels like an almost breezy way.
A group of men want to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. When things get rough, we pop out of the main storyline to the writers talking about the story and the characters.
The book is intense and peaceful at the same time.
The writers remain unnamed. They are young man 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. It’s the characters they create that are being brought to life.

In the end we’ll all become stories. But the same life can end up being a wildly different story depending on who tells it and what is put into focus. We naturally see the world from our own point of view. We are by definition the literal center of our own lives. Do you see yourself as the hero or the victim? Are you the star or the supporting character?

In the book Toby wants to be the hero. He wants his life to be grand and compelling. If the past or the present aren’t grand enough he will tell the story so that it fits his narrative. Eric is one of the very few people who know Toby’s real story. He loves Toby and supports him in his attempts to become a successful writer.
Eric feels that his own story is unremarkable. He is happy to let Toby take center stage and to allow him to shine.

Eric likes to stay in the background and let other people grow. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. I’d like to argue that it’s often those who feel unremarkable who go on to do extraordinary things. They don’t do it for glory. They might not even realize that what they are doing is special. When you point out their achievements to them, they often reply with “but I only” as a way to downplay their efforts and impact.
People like Eric are good company. They bring selfless joy to others while the glamorous and extravagant mostly think about themselves.

People focused on winning and being successful might not even notice who they are hurting while trying to achieve their dreams. I don’t think they are malicious. A lot of them are driven by insecurity and a need for affirmation. They would probably benefit more from therapy than from success.
After all, when you do become successful, people you don’t even know are watching your every move. Criticizing even the tiniest (perceived) stumble to compensate for their own insecurities. It’s a vicious circle.

For Toby, success also doesn’t bring what he had hoped it would. Like many who are relentlessly chasing success, he leaves behind a path of destruction and his story fizzles out well before its time.
What I’m trying to say is pay attention to the people around you. Don’t take your friends and family (and co-workers) for granted. Also take notice of people who are just passing by. To paraphrase Tim Minchin:
“Be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not.”

Be kind to the Eric’s in your life. To the quiet people around you who are providing support in the background. Who have a big impact by helping others find their strength and grow. We all want to be happy and live a rewarding life. We just have very different definitions of what rewarding looks like.
Don’t harass a quiet person for being non-demonstrative. Still waters run deep. They might be making extraordinary things happen.
I, for one, hope that one day I can be as selfless and as patient as Eric Glass. He’s as beautiful as the story that brought him to life.

The Demon-Haunted World

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how science works and why skepticism and critical thinking are important. The book is probably more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1995. With the internet at the center of many of our lives and social media allowing everyone to publish and share information, it is critical that we are able to evaluate what we see, hear, and read.

With a lot of non-fiction books, I feel that they are longer than necessary. After about 70% it often feels like the author repeats themselves or like there are too many examples to illustrate a concept.
The Demon-Haunted World is the opposite. It starts a bit slow for me. That’s not surprising as the book aims to explain science and critical thinking for someone with no prior knowledge of either.

The subjects that Sagan touches on are very broad. He details the injustices of the witch trials and talks about people who think they have been abducted by aliens. The parallels that can be drawn between them are interesting.
There are also people, especially in the US, who believe that aliens live among us and that the government knows this but is covering it up. Perhaps that explains a thing or two about the “situation” in the White House today. On the other hand, if there are aliens who are smart enough to travel through galaxies I don’t see how they would let Trump happen. Or, if they couldn’t stop it I assume they have buggered off to their own worlds again. Who would stay for this car crash if they didn’t have to?

Most people who claim to remember things that didn’t happen are genuine. They believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Our memories are incredibly unreliable. It’s easy to make someone “remember” something that never happened. A remarkable example is the fact that Reagan during his presidency regularly told stories from his past that turned out to be scenes from films that made a strong impression on him. It’s also quite common to remember a memory from someone close to you as your own. Our minds are fascinating but unreliable.

To support our fallible brains Sagan has included a “baloney detection kit” in the book. Here is my top 5 from the kit:

  1. Look for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  2. Arguments from authority don’t carry more weight than other arguments. Arguments from experts do carry more weight but are still open to scrutiny
  3. Try not to get overly attached to your own hypothesis or opinion. Keep an open mind for new and better ideas and hypothesis (but if you open your mind too much your brain might fall out)
  4. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain needs to hold up to scrutiny, not just some of them
  5. Ockham’s razor: if two hypotheses explain the data equally well choose the simplest one that introduces the least amount of new assumptions

What I like about Sagan and this book is his focus on how to communicate. By “waxing superior and contemptuous” about skepticism and science you are unlikely to convince anyone. Skepticism can come across as arrogant and heartless and it doesn’t have to be either.
We all cherish our beliefs and when someone challenges them this can feel like a personal assault. Whether your beliefs are related to aliens, witches, religion, or science doesn’t matter. Sagan asks “to temper our criticism with kindness”. To apply finesse when we share our believes and opinions. We all have different backgrounds, which means that we come to these discussions with different toolkits and baselines.

The way Sagan talks about curiosity, kindness, and communication inspires me. It makes me excited about communicating complex things in simple terms. About making people feel safe but also interested in learning and gaining knowledge.
I’m not a scientist myself. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions. Even in a fairly simple conversation, I have to remind myself to ask questions. I’m not sure why. Part of it has to do with the need to process new information before I feel comfortable enough to voice my opinion about it. Maybe another reason is that for several years while in school the safest option was to be invisible and not draw attention to myself.

The Demon-Haunted world makes me want to be more naturally curious, but it mostly makes me long to be a writer or a journalist. I would love to try and share science, skepticism, and critical thinking in a way that allows people with all sorts of different believes to open their minds a little bit. I might figure out how and where to do this eventually. Until then I encourage you to read The Demon-Haunted World. There is something in it for everyone and Carl Sagan made communicating about science an art form.

Every one of us is, in a cosmic perspective, precious.

Fed Up – Is Emotional Labor Crushing Your Spirit?

I’d had Fed Up by Gemma Hartley on my e-reader for a while, but was hesitant to start it, as I was afraid it was another relentless read about misogyny that would crush my spirit. I eventually started reading it while on a snowboarding holiday with enough exercise and positivity around to counter any potential sadness.
While the middle section of the book could have been snappier (this is true for many non-fiction books in my opinion), the beginning of the book made me realize something about my behavior in relationships. While the book mainly talks about romantic relationships I feel that it applies to friendships and professional relationships too.

The book is about emotional labor and how women are still doing the majority of it. Emotional labor is emotion management and life management combined. Emotional labor includes remembering to send birthday cards to friends and family, remembering to get the laundry done before anyone runs out of socks and knickers, knowing what everyone’s favorite meal is and making sure all the ingredients are on the grocery list and generally noticing when something in or around the house needs cleaning, replacing or tidying. Trying to remember all these things, worrying that you might be forgetting something and making sure it all gets done can be draining. It’s an invisible and unpaid mental burden.

To be clear, emotional labor is not so much about who’s doing the work. It’s more about who remembers that it needs to get done and who worries about it. Imagine that you have agreed with your partner that they take out the bin, but you have to regularly remind them that the bin is full or that the trash will be picked up tomorrow. That reminding needs to be kind and considerate, otherwise, you risk getting into a fight. If you have to remember them more than once it’s going to be even more difficult to ask them kindly without losing patience and without making it feel to them like you’re nagging. The amount of energy that you need to invest in the asking is almost not worth it. It’s tempting to do it yourself.

While I don’t have a partner or kids this did open my eyes about my role in many relationships, both in the past and today. I’m a bit of a control freak and I like everyone to be taken care of, which can lead to me trying to think for a lot of other people. It’s not that these people can’t think for themselves, or don’t want to think for themselves. I’m so on top of things that I don’t even give them a chance.

In the book, the author is going through the steps of trying to divide the emotional labor in her household equally among her and her partner. As with every problem, the first step is realizing what’s going on. What’s causing the frustration and resentment that she is feeling? When she figures this out (and writes a widely read article in Harper’s Bazaar about it) the next step is to try and explain the problem to her partner. This is more difficult than she expects and it requires patience. The chances of convincing your partner of your point of view while shouting it at them during an argument are very close to zero. You’ll need to invest time in explaining it while both of you are calm and able to have a proper conversation. Probably more than once.

Even after she’s made her partner understand they struggle to improve balancing the emotional labor between them. Eventually, she realizes that she is the one blocking improvement. Every time her husband takes care of something he does it differently than she would have done and she criticizes him that he’s doing it wrong. Sometimes telling him off, sometimes even redoing his work. Only when she realizes that she is sabotaging his efforts things start to improve.
If you feel like you are picking up more than your fair share of emotional labor be honest with yourself. Do you give your partner, friend or colleague a fair chance? Or do you step in to ensure perfectionism (aka things getting done your way)?

The beginning of the corona-crisis for me was a good reminder of this dynamic. I tend to try to carry the weight of the world and that of the people around me on my shoulders at the best of times. Doing so during a global pandemic when everyone is having a hard time adjusting and finding a workable balance is insane and unsustainable. After having tried to think and find solutions for relatively minor problems for more than 400 people for a few days I realized I had to focus on the big picture, or I was going to hurt myself not by getting infected with corona, but by worrying about everyone’s sorrows.

I’m happy to say that after two weeks I’ve found a much better balance. Changing this dynamic was made easier by the whole world changing every few days at the same time. Patterns were being broken everywhere, so this was just one more thing that changed.
Changing the dynamics that have been built for many years in a relationship is a lot harder. Although even those might be easier to change right now while we are all scrambling to find a balance inside our homes and coming to grips with an outside world that feels alien and has changed completely in the last couple of weeks.
The world might never be the same. Can you say the same about how emotional labor in your relationships is divided?

Emotional Labor

A snippet of the cover of the book Mindset, by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. Showing the title, the author's name and the subtitle "Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential".

Mindset

I started reading Mindset by Carol Dweck fully convinced that I had a growth mindset. She shattered my conviction in the first few pages of the book. There indeed things for which I feel that putting in the effort will allow both myself and others to get better. It turns out that there are also many things for which I have a fixed mindset and In those areas, I believe that I lack an innate talent required to ever be any good at it.

An example of something I have (Had? Not yet, but I’m working on it.) a fixed mindset about is being able to play music. I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar in my teens and I was never any good at it. I had lessons and practiced, but never with a solid expectation that I would get good. I was always insecure because I saw others who were much better. I was a lighting engineer at the time and compared myself to the people I saw play on the stage. I stopped playing after a couple of years and didn’t touch another instrument until I was tempted into trying to learn to play the piano a year ago.

A fixed mindset means that you believe that your qualities and those of others are carved in stone. That you have a certain amount of talent and that you’ll have to make do with that.
With a growth mindset, you believe that you can cultivate and improve your qualities through effort, practice, and help from others. This doesn’t mean you believe that anyone can become Einstein or Van Gogh or Tim Minchin. It means that you believe that you can improve compared to your own starting point. How far you can improve depends on many factors and in some cases talent is one of them.

It turns out that your mindset has a profound impact on the way you lead your life. If you have a fixed mindset it’s hard to try something new. After all, if you fail it means you’re no good at it and might as well give up straight away. Asking for help is hard because it means admitting to failure and deficiency.
A growth mindset can develop a passion for learning. Trying something new can be seen as a challenge and failing is a chance to learn and improve. Instead of hiding deficiencies, someone with a growth mindset will focus on overcoming them.
It’s easy to see how having a different mindset can significantly change the way you live your life.

Like almost everything else, our mindsets can also be changed and developed. This can be worked on from the inside but is also influenced by external sources. The most direct way to influence someone’s mindset is through praise and criticism.
Dweck explains that praise should be given for effort, trying different strategies and asking for help when needed, not for result (or speed). If you praise a kid because it read a book or got a good mark in school by telling it how smart it is you are suggesting that it’s an innate quality that allowed it to succeed. The kid might feel there’s no need to learn anymore because it’s already smart. If next time the mark ends up being much lower it might feel like a failure.

Be aware that it’s damaging to praise a kid for effort when the kid didn’t actually try hard or ask for help. If a kid fails because it didn’t put in enough effort it should be told so. In a kind and empathic way. A lazy, confused or insecure kid isn’t going to suddenly be motivated when it’s being belittled or threatened.
I’m using kids as an example because it’s easier to associate ideas and behavior around praise and learning with them, but it works exactly the same for us as adults.

In an experiment, two groups of people were being given a puzzle to resolve. One of the groups was given fixed mindset praise when completing it, the other group was being praised for the effort that they put in and the strategy that they used. When asked if they liked the next puzzle to be more difficult or similar to the first one, the group given fixed mindset praise overwhelmingly chose one that was similar to the first puzzle. Resolving the puzzle means you’re smart and failing to resolve a more difficult one might expose you as the fraud that you are.
The group that was praised for their effort was interested in the challenge of a more difficult puzzle.
This effect is visible regardless of the type of mindset that people had before the experiment started.

The impact of fixed mindset feedback is similar. When missing a shot while playing tennis you can get annoyed and tell yourself that you’re hopeless, or you can challenge yourself to stay loose on your feet and try and hit the next one better.
We don’t even need others to talk us out of a growth mindset and into a fixed one. Most of us are perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves. Having others confirm our fixed mindset will make it much harder to find a way out towards a growth mindset though.
If you want to get better at something try to find the motivation to put in time and effort and ask for help. Being brave enough to do this means we can grow in almost every area of our lives.

Carol Dweck is very open about coming to the insights she describes in Mindset through her research. She repeatedly talks about how she struggles to stay in a growth mindset herself in different areas of her life, despite having witnessed the evidence of the benefits first-hand. This is both a refreshing position for an author to take in their own book and it’s reassuring that even someone who wrote a book on the subject is still struggling to put the ideas into practice.
I feel that anyone can learn from this book. When read with an open mind it’s a strong dose of motivation and inspiration. Use it to your advantage.

I was inspired by this book. I have to admit that I feel inspired by many books and I’m not going to apologize for it. Reading books is a great way to grow and learn for me. While I struggle to get out of my fixed mindset when it comes to making music and art, I do have a growth mindset when it comes to improving my behavior and increasing my intellect.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I’m going to practice my piano playing!

An images showing two heads in profile. A blue one on the left has Growth Mindset and characteristics of it written in it. A grey one on the right has Fixed Mindset and some of its characteristics written in it.

The cover of the book #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

#Girlboss – Advice about Life with a Touch of Rebellion

I’d never heard of Sophia Amoruso. That might be because I’ve been hiding under a rock, or it might be because I’m not the target audience of her successful webshop, Nasty Gal. I’m also not the target audience for her book, #Girlboss (hashtag included). The target audience of the book is young women (perhaps up to 30?) and girls. The target audience of the webshop is described on the site itself: “WE EXIST FOR THE “GIRL IN PROGRESS”. BADASS TO THE CORE, EVER-EVOLVING AND GROWING, STRIVING TO BE BETTER EVERY. DAMN. DAY. FLAWS ENCOURAGED.”. Caps included. I love growing and evolving, but I’ve always lacked in the badass department.

The book is about Sophia’s own journey from being completely broke and starting a little eBay shop selling vintage clothes to owning and running the multi-million dollar business that Nasty Gal is today. The book is filled with tips for girls who would like to start a company and become a “girlboss” too, but it also includes many tips on how to handle some of life’s challenges in general.
The book is a funny mix of stories about rebellion and an anti-establishment attitude and sensible and quite conservative advice.

In the book’s introduction, Sophia tells her readers to never grow up and to not become a bore. I failed miserably there and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Shortly after that inflammatory advice, Sophia explrds that are really credit cards and how forgetting about them can easily ruin your credit score, even if you only bought something small and cheap on them. She warns that you shouldn’t spend money that you don’t have. Nowadays this advice might not be uncontentious, but it’s very sensible!

Some of the advice and insights that speak to me (and admittedly make me feel righteous), as a manager of young people includes:

  • If you get to talk to customers on behalf of your company, you are the face of the company. Make sure you are polite and that you apologize on behalf of the company if something went wrong, even if it wasn’t your fault.
  • Compromise is a part of life
  • Promotions at work are earned by doing really good (and perhaps not always fun) work for years. They are earned by standing out and taking responsibility.

You could argue that she’s a hypocrite for moving between an anti-establishment attitude and promoting capitalism in the space of only a few pages. It made me smile though. Imagine going from having no responsibilities, all the time in the world and no money or worldly possessions to being a successful businesswoman, running a company that employs thousands of people and having a Porsche car and millions in the bank in only a few years. Part of her brain might still be trying to catch up with her current role and life. Throughout most of the book, this results in a fun and refreshing sort of quirkiness, that might be exactly what young girls who are looking for some inspiration can relate to.

Although the book clearly wasn’t written for me, I did find it inspiring. It gave me a little kick in the behind during the holidays to get up and do something useful with my time off (other than reading lots of books, which I do also think is useful) and it made me determined to get to the bottom of some work-related topics that I was still a bit mystified by.
The advice to not always take everything so seriously and see small challenges as a game does apply to me. It’s been given to me before and I still have no clue how to implement it. There’s always more to learn. It’s what makes me feel energized and alive.

I’ll finish this post with a statement from the book that I can fully get behind:
“Being mean won’t make you cool, being rich won’t make you cool, and having the right clothes won’t make you cool. It’s cool to be kind. It’s cool to be weird. It’s cool to be honest and to be secure with yourself. Cool is the girl at a party who strikes up a conversation with you when she notices you don’t seem to know many people there.”

Sand Talk

The first book I’ve read in 2020 is Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. Tyson is an Aboriginal person from Australia and in this book he tries to show the reader what today’s world looks like through the eyes of an Indigenous person. Tyson’s background is probably as far removed from mine as it can be.
The fact that I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture means that I lack quite a bit of basic knowledge that would have helped to place some parts of the book into context. At several points in the book, I have to work hard to keep up with the pictures that are painted (sometimes literally) and the explanations that are given. Tyson empathizes with his readers. Stating he gets frustrated when elders seem to mix mind-blowing insights with random, illogical ideas. Wildly new ideas don’t just blow a mind though, they also expand it.

Learning
Expanding your mind, or learning is fun. When new neural pathways are created our brain rewards us with a chemical burst that makes us feel good. Often when people are learning they are smiling.
Today, many people are also afraid of learning. They feel insecure and prefer to have their existing ideas echoed back at them rather than learning about other people’s experiences and points of view. Seeing as learning makes us feel good, we shouldn’t fear to learn about new ideas, we should be actively looking for them! Learning about new ideas doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your mind. You might still feel that your idea is better than the new idea, but at least try to temporarily suspend your confirmation bias to listen to and learn from others.

Stolen generation
Tyson is part of the stolen generation. In the 1920s the Australian government felt that it would be a good idea to take Aboriginal kids away from their parents and put them in white foster families. Even typing it almost makes me cry. People can be so needlessly cruel, even to innocent kids. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it doesn’t happen today, as separating refugee kids from their parents at the border isn’t any better. And in The Netherlands, the government likes to send kids who have been here all or almost all of their lives “back to where they came from”. Which is a country they don’t know anything about and where they don’t speak the language. Aaargh!
Right, sorry, I was talking about the book.

Patterns and systems
Indigenous Australian cultures think in patterns, rather than in individual and concrete events, words and objects. They feel that we shouldn’t look at individual elements of a system, but that we should always look at the system as a whole. For instance, the terrible fires in Australia and the floods are in Indonesia shouldn’t be looked at as separate, standalone situations. They are both parts of the same system, they are connected. To resolve them we need to look at the whole system. We need to work with the land and our environment, rather than against it. We’ve been trying to force it into submission for a long time, but it’s starting to hit back at us. It’s time for us to adapt and to find a more sustainable way to interact with our planet. This means that many of us will have to adjust our way of thinking and our way of living. That’s going to be hard and disruptive, but fires and flooding are even harder and more disruptive.

Narcissism
We also need to work together as people, instead of against each other. Even within our own tribes, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. This is bad for our mental health, but it also stops us from working together effectively. Aboriginal culture assumes that everybody has a bit of idiot in them from time to time. A part of you that whispers that you are special and better and more important than other people. Some people feel like this all or most of the time. Fighting this narcissism is hard and the internet and social media make it even harder. According to Tyson, the excesses of malignant narcissism need to be contained in a team effort, by all of society, working together.

Leadership
Aboriginal wisdom asserts that sustainable leadership consists of four steps: Respect, Connect, Reflect and Direct. Notice that too often we get this completely backward. Not just as individuals, but also as organizations and governments. We start with the assumption that we know better and try to Direct people, communities, or even our kids to do what we want how we want it. When that fails we might Reflect on why it’s not working (in the most positive scenario, there are plenty of examples where we just direct some more, but let’s assume we learn). We gather data and measure outcomes and figure out that we need to hear from the people we are trying to direct. We try to form relationships and Connect with those we want to tell what to do or how to behave. Through these relationships we discover the final step (which should have been the first), we find a profound Respect for those we originally felt were just pawns that we had to get to execute or support our brilliantly (in isolation) crafted plans.
Needless to say, you’re much likely to build support and sustainable relationships if you turn the steps around and start by respecting people and trying to connect with them.

The book is a very interesting read. I can relate to many of the ideas that Tyson shares in it. I’m not sure if it will be possible to get people’s mindset changed to embrace the idea of living in harmony with the land. How most of us think and live today is so radically different the change is even hard to imagine, let alone execute. This isn’t to say that I don’t think it would be a good idea. I’m just not sure if it’s possible. Where would you start if everything had to change? Colonists have tried to force their ideas and way of living onto the Indigenous people of Australia. They have been trying for a long time now and used a lot of violence and while they have significantly damaged Aboriginal lives and heritage, I don’t think they’ve managed to change Aboriginal culture. I’m not convinced it’s possible to do so the other way around either.

I tried to share some of the ideas that Tyson lays out in the book. I had to use my own words and sentences, which means that it has a completely different vibe than the book does. By doing this I did exactly what the book describes we shouldn’t be doing: I picked individual ideas and expanded on them, rather than looking at the whole system at once and look for patterns.
If you feel that the ideas are interesting then please go and read the book, so you Tyson can explain them properly and you can get a better sense of where the ideas are coming from.

Tyson Yunkaporta

The Monarchy of Fear – A Philosopher Looks at our Political Crisis

Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear is first and foremost a call to think. To think critically, even when it’s uncomfortable. In her own words “Even though it’s hard, it’s important to think and examine options and angles, rather than lazily jumping to conclusions and blaming minorities or women.”. If you do think critically you might think that the title suggests that the book is about fear instead of about thinking and you’d be right. Fear and thinking are closely linked in the sense that it’s hard to think clearly when you are afraid.
In evolutionary prehistory this was useful. When seeing a tiger up close, following fear’s instinctual prompting is much more useful than thinking long and hard and deep until you end up as the tiger’s dinner. In our complicated modern world, however, we can’t rely on instinct. We have to think and think critically.

There is a lot of fear in the world today and most of it is based on real problems like rising real-estate prices, increased costs of health-care and education, the climate-emergency, and the uncertainty about what the impact of AI will be on the job market and the type of work that we do.
These problems are difficult to solve. A lot of studying, modeling, and thinking is required to come up with potential solutions. Implementing these solutions will also take a long time and require that we change the way we live. Even then there is no guarantee that these solutions will indeed resolve the problems they were designed to mitigate.

With so many things to be afraid of and so few easy solutions, it’s comforting to be able to find a “bad guy” who can be blamed for it all. People have a deep-rooted need to feel that the world is just. When it doesn’t present itself in that way pinning blame and punishing the adversary feels like taking back control. When there isn’t really a person or institution to blame it seems very attractive to start “othering” groups like immigrants, religions, women, or the wealthy elites. Fear gets mixed with anger, blame and envy and makes it hard to be empathic. Fear makes us naturally asocial and narcissistic. Add all that together and you can see today’s world emerging.

Unfortunately, aggressive “othering” strategies stop people from thinking and doing useful analysis. Thinking is hard, anger and blame are easy. And they are retributive, seeking to inflict pain in return for the fear a person or group is feeling. This burning desire for payback of perceived wrongdoings is a risk for democracy.
Aristotle discussed fear in a treatise on rhetoric for politicians. In order to persuade people to do what you want, he said, you have to understand how their emotions work, and then you can tailor what you say to their own psychology. To whip up fear politicians should
• Talk about supposedly impending events that are highly significant for survival or well-being;
• Make people think it will happen soon;
• Suggest that things are out of control.
Through this recipe, fear can be manipulated by spreading false information and by phrasing impending events as unavoidable and significant threads. This knowledge can be used for good but it can, of course, also be used with bad intent. This is exactly what’s happening with companies like Cambridge Analytica, who influenced voters through social media campaigns full of lies, tailored to play into their specific fears.

To fight these tactics is hard and it requires a lot of effort and awareness from individuals. We need to all think critically and read widely. Meaning don’t just read what’s offered to you through the echo-chambers of the internet, but also actively look for other sources of reliable information. That’s not just true for “them”, but also for you and me. The echo chamber echos for everyone and adds to our confirmation bias, our natural tendency to dismiss any information that isn’t in line with our previously held beliefs.

Another way to fight the false dichotomies created by fear and misinformation is by being hopeful and spreading messages of hope. People who were able to remain empathic and hopeful in the face of fear and oppression were, for instance, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Both were able to unequivocally condemn racism without seeing racists as evil or inhumane. Even after 27 years of captivity, Mandela saw the humanity and the will to do good in his oppressors, despite their awful deeds. Most of us don’t possess this level of patience and empathy, but most of us aren’t held captive for 27 years either, so perhaps we can manage to show some empathy and kindness towards someone who is tweeting something you don’t agree with. Although never imprisoned, former president Obama is setting the right example with the most-liked tweet ever: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I feel that the topic of this book is incredibly important. The better we understand the mechanisms behind the fear and the anger and the othering, the better we can counter it. Please remember that we have to counter it with patience and love and empathy and not with more anger and othering. You might have every right to be angry about something someone else says or does, but attacking them isn’t going to convince them to change their minds. It’s only going to make them angrier. It’s incredibly difficult, but we have to try to fight anger and hate with love and empathy. Let’s try to help each other to show love and see other people’s humanity. And if you can, read The Monarchy of Fear to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

In Sensemaking Christian Madsbjerg makes a plea for the value of the humanities in a time where there’s a lot of focus on STEM-knowledge. It was recommended by Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer and thinker whose work I love. Sensemaking is defined as the practice of cultural inquiry using human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences. In other words, we want to gain an understanding of other people and their worlds and experiences. What matters to them and how is this different from what matters to us? Sensemaking allows us to empathize. This is valuable from a philosophical and political point of view, but also, at a much more cynical level, from an economic point of view. It can tell us how people will vote in the next election and what type of car they are likely to buy.

The book refers regularly to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his ideas. Heidegger argues that our reality and how we experience the world is highly contextual and historical. Most of the time we are incapable of thinking beyond our own social context. While we feel like we’re completely autonomous individuals, our thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by where and how we live and grew up.
To gain some insights into other people and their lives, we have to let go, at least a little bit, of our own biases and assumptions. The humanities are essential in teaching us how we can do this.

Science and algorithms can explain gravity and solar eclipses and they can eradicate smallpox and measles. To explain why Trump and Brexit are happening and why we are giving measles another chance we need to study people and cultures. Making sense of cultures, customs, and meanings requires a perspective, which is why it’s unlikely that algorithms will be able to figure them out. Algorithms lack a point of view and they lack empathy.
One way to build empathy is by reading. Reading shows you that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. It can be different. Reading allows us to experience other lives and other worlds than our own We get to live them in our imagination. While watching TV you’re a spectator, but reading makes you a participant.

My own journey is somewhat parallel to that of the world at large. Until I started working fulltime I was an avid reader. I read everything I could get my hands on from adventures to spy stories to historical novels. In high school, I got the opportunity to become a lighting engineer in the theatre production that we set. I loved it. I loved the magic of theatre and the combination of technology and creativity. When I went on to study electrotechnical engineering with the aim to make a career as a lighting engineer. I took a different turn and ended up in software development. For over 15 years, most of what I read had to do with technology. I told myself I didn’t have time to read books and I lost interest in them.

Working hard and gaining specific technical knowledge will serve you well up to a certain point in your career. Three years ago I moved away from software development towards a leadership role and I felt ill-equipped. I started reading books on people, culture, and behavior to fill the gap that I felt I had in terms of understanding what drives and motivates people.
For people in technical roles, we all accept that it’s necessary to continue to updates your knowledge. In the past large software platforms released new versions approximately every three years, which means that you had to refresh about 75% of your skillset every three years. Now that these large platforms are all offered as cloud services that are getting new releases at least weekly, a lot of technical specialists have to refresh their knowledge constantly.

What I find remarkable is that we seem to find it acceptable that people in leadership or sales roles for example still base their behavior on insights that were common 20 years ago. They don’t read up on the latest studies about human behavior. They feel that because they have been successful in the past there is no need to change. These are the same people who feel that the people with technical skills should always be fully up-to-date on the latest developments in the world of technology, have the latest certifications and preferably be experts in multiple technologies or skillsets to ensure that they can be staffed on as many different projects as possible. The hypocrisy blows my mind.

Maybe I felt driven to learn more about people and cultures because I was used to always studying technology and it felt unnatural to stop learning just because I moved away from technology. Maybe I was driven by my perfectionism. Perhaps it was just insecurity. Whatever it was my change in job sparked a renewed love for reading in me. I’m alternating reading fiction and non-fiction and both have helped me tremendously in getting to grips with my new role and who I wanted to be as a leader. Reading helps me to get up to date with the latest studies on human behavior, it helps me to get a better understanding of how people and cultures are changing over time and the stories and wisdom that I read about inspire me.

I full support Christian Madsbjerg’s plea for the value and importance of the humanities. We have so much data and logic at our fingertips that at times we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the only truth. We forget or even lose the ability to apply critical thinking. The numbers are one perspective, but it’s understanding the human circumstances that will help us to understand people’s motivations and our world. Human behavior doesn’t follow models, it’s by definition irrational and thus hard to predict.
In order to make a meaningful difference, you have to give a damn and algorithms will never actually give a damn. We need people for caring and the humanities to teach them how to.

Nonviolent Communication

I’ve been a co-trainer on a great program in which we use the Nonviolent Communication approach as described by Marshall Rosenberg, but I hadn’t read his book until now. The book contains so many great insights that I will probably read it again.

When Rosenberg talks about nonviolent communication he doesn’t mean talking without physically assaulting the person or people you are communicating with, although that too is a pre-requisite for creating a connection. Nonviolent means communicating using observations and avoiding judgments, expressing what we feelings instead of our thoughts, sharing our needs instead of using learned strategies to get what we want and requesting instead of demanding. Applying these four steps might sound easy, but it’s very hard to do. We are used to having an opinion about most if not everything and we naturally feel that the world revolves around us and our experiences. This is not surprising as we all look at the world from our own unique perspective. Looking at it through someone else’s eyes requires significantly more effort and is therefore often not bothered with. I’ll describe the four steps of nonviolent communication in a bit more detail to give you an idea of how it works.

Sharing observations instead of judgments (step 1)
Describing what we observe makes it easier for other people to listen to us. Although your observations will always be influenced by who you are, you can describe them using objective language, free of judgment. When we use judgmental language it’s very likely that the person we’re trying to connect with feels put off or even attacked by our words, which gets in the way of creating a connection and communicating openly and effectively.

Express what we feel instead of our thoughts and emotions (step 2)
What we feel is personal and can be directed in two ways, inside and out. What we feel external is fairly straightforward and most people would be comfortable sharing that they are hot or cold or that the chair they are sitting on is soft. Sharing what we feel on the inside leaves us exposed and vulnerable. This makes it very hard for many people to open up about what they really feel. What we tend to do is trick ourselves by creating sentences like “I feel that he might be holding something back”. In this case, we’re not sharing what we’re feeling, we’re sharing what we’re thinking. When the word “feel” is followed by “that” it will almost always be a thought and not a feeling that is being expressed. When we say that we feel sad/frustrated/happy/angry we are sharing what we feel on the inside.

Sharing needs instead of strategies (step 3)
We all have basic needs. A lot will be the same for most humans, although a few will always be more important to you than others. My most pronounced basic needs are recognition, autonomy, and control. If your basic needs are not being met you will generally come up with strategies to try and get back to a situation where your basic needs are being met. If I feel like I’m losing control I might get bossy for instance. If your basic need is attention you might have a strategy of becoming very quiet in the hope that your partner notices or you might start to sulk or stand in front of the TV until you get the attention that you are craving for.
Our strategies might work, but they don’t make us nicer people to be around and they don’t create a connection with others. If, instead of getting bossy, I were able to say that I’m stressed out or frustrated because I feel like I’m not in control the people around me are much more likely to sympathize. They might even be able to help me regain the feeling that I’m in control.

Requesting instead of demanding (step 4)
After sharing an observation, expressing our feelings and revealing our needs we can make a request to the person or people we’re trying to connect with. Making a request instead of a demand means of course that we have to ask a question, but it also means that we have to be willing to accept a “no” to our request. If we make a request and we get angry or upset if we get a “no” that means that the request was a demand after all.

Applying these 4 steps takes a lot of practice. It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to apply in a conversation. I’ve been teaching nonviolent communication for a couple of years and that plus reading the book still only got me to the point where I’m aware that I’m often unable to apply it in conversations. This week I tried to apply it in a WhatsApp conversation, which I immediately admit isn’t necessarily ideal for creating a connection. It did give me time to think about how to construct a sentence using the steps above as contrary to what many seem to believe, WhatsApp communication is asynchronous. Despite the extra time I had to think about the sentence I wanted to use to create a connection with the person I was chatting with I couldn’t do it. I was unable to construct a sentence using Rosenberg’s approach that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ll continue to practice and I’ll read the book again!

For me, nonviolent communication has always been focused on connecting with others. I was surprised to read about using it to show self-compassion. I’d never thought about that, but it makes sense. It’s also very hard to do. You don’t have to worry as much about coming across as weird because you use somewhat unusual sentences, I’m quite comfortable with my own weirdness. Not so much with my own inadequacies though. I find it much harder to be kind to myself than to be kind to others and I know several other people who are the same. We are expecting a lot from ourselves and it all has to be done perfectly and with a smile. I like Rosenberg’s advice to avoid “shoulding” yourself. We feel “we shouldn’t have done that” or “I should get up earlier”. “Should” implies a demand and it threatens our autonomy. We respond badly to demands, even our own demands on ourselves. It might not feel like you have a choice but phrasing it in your mind like it is a choice will make it easier to keep yourself motivated. “I choose to do abs exercises tonight because it will keep my bowels moving and my belly looking tight.” “I choose to go outside in the evening to throw out the trash because I want to get rid of the smelly bin in the kitchen.” I apologize for the silly examples. You can probably tell that I have an easy life, especially while I’m on holiday.

There are so many things worth sharing in this book that I could go on forever, but I won’t. I went back and forth between sharing the things that I found most remarkable in the book and sharing at least some of the basics. I choose the latter, although it pains me not to be able to talk about the role of empathy for yourself and for others in nonviolent communication. If you just read the book and tell me what stood out most for you we can talk about it and I can get it out of my system that way. Thanks!

The 4 steps of nonviolent communication

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

I chose to read this book because, well, who wouldn’t want to win friends and influence people. I thought it made sense to go for the updated version “in the digital age” because email and social media have a significant impact on our lives and the way we communicate.
It lists Dale Carnegie (and associates) as the writer, but upon a short investigation it turns out that mister Carnegie was born in 1888 and died in 1955. I think it’s safe to assume that his associates did most of the rewriting. Although no doubt it’s based on the original How to Win Friends and Influence People that mister Carnegie wrote in 1936.

A very short summary is partially provided at the start of the book. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. If you’re wrong, admit it. Listening is more important than talking if you want to create a connection to someone. Find out what matters to them, discover their core desire. Apart from a good summary, it’s also good advice. Like most of the management and self-help books that I’ve read recently it all comes down to kindness and empathy.
Part of this might be my unconscious bias. I believe this to be the case, so I’m significantly more likely to extract this from any book that I read. For the same reason, I’m also more likely to pick out books that I think will promote this idea. Even though the basic principles described in How to Influence People and Win Friends aren’t new I was inspired by the stories and ideas in it.

Social media has put communication in today’s world on steroids. The speed of it all and the potential reach can be very helpful, but it can also lead to shallowness and thoughtlessness. It’s very easy to criticize or even insult someone from the comfort of your own home, enjoying the anonymity of an untraceable username and drawn curtains. You can stand out by being kind and considerate. Even if you don’t agree with someone you can try to empathize with their position and situation. You can stop and think about how they must feel, especially those who are copping a lot of nastiness online. If you are truly unable to address someone in a respectful way you could always consider to not say anything at all (I know, it’s revolutionary).

You don’t have to criticize others to appear interesting or important. If you criticize or complain about someone to other people, these people will undoubtedly wonder if (or even assume that) you would talk about them in the same way. It makes it hard for people to trust you.
If you can stay true to your own values and at the same time show compassion for those you don’t agree with you build trust. Communicating in a caring rather than a condemning way is a good differentiation strategy in a time where the spirit of communication is often less than dignifying. Whether online or in a boardroom, if you manage to speak in a spirit of respectful affirmation you are much more likely to win friends and influence people.

A lot of focus on social media is put on the number of likes our content gets. We believe that influence and happiness come from the sheer volume of impressions that we manage to collect. It doesn’t. A like on what someone posts on social media can be the start of a connection. It sends a signal that you agree with the content as well as (at least to a certain extent) the messenger. It can also create affinity to other people who are drawn to the same people and opinions, but for a true connection, you need to share more than a like. A like is safe, but also shallow.

True influence flows from drawing together people with shared interests. Influence is not about you. And you don’t need the following of a celebrity to build something of significance. You are ultimately building a community when you initiate interactions with what matters to others. You want to add true value to people’s lives. Don’t worry about how many people you are connected to but worry instead about who you are connected to. Who are they and what are you doing to value and honor them. Most happiness can, after all, be drawn from making other people feel good. It’s not the number of people and messages that matter, it’s the few that are truly meaningful that make the difference.

This really got me thinking about what I want to achieve with this blog and my weekly book posts. I’m no longer too bothered by the idea of attracting a large following or a large number of readers, but what do my posts mean to you, the people who do read them? To be honest I have no idea. I love to read and write and the weekly posts keep me accountable. After some valuable feedback from a great friend and writer, I started to make sure that the posts have more of “me” in them instead of just being a plain summary or review of a book. It has helped me to find an angle for the posts, even if there isn’t that much to say about a book. But what do you get out of my writing? Other than hopefully a few minutes of entertainment while reading and perhaps the occasional idea about a book that you might want to read.
I will do more thinking on this, but if you feel that my posts provide value to you I would love to hear about it. If you have an idea about how my posts could be of more value to you I would be grateful if you are willing to share it with me.

It’s funny that when we communicate our message, we spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about the way we come across. We also spend a remarkably short amount of time wondering what really matters to the intended recipient. This is true for blog posts, personal communication, and the marketing messages of many companies. We should pay more attention to details, to people’s needs and wants. Focus on other people’s goals and you might reach your own. Just focusing on the big picture of your own goals will get you nowhere if you need other people to achieve them. Too often we are campaigning instead of connecting.

It’s safe to say that even though the ideas behind the book are almost a hundred years old it’s still very relevant. It provides inspiration about basic ways to behave and interact with other people, as well as how to use social media.
There is one thing I don’t like about the book. At times it uses expressions that to me feel old-fashioned and demeaning towards women. It’s never direct and probably unintentional. Perhaps it’s in bits of the original 1936 text. But having re-written a lot of the book it should have been easy to come up with a different way to get the message across.

There is of course more to the book than I touched on in this post. The ideas that also stood out to me but that didn’t make it into this post were the tips on how to give feedback and how to share praise. How can you give someone feedback in a way that they will be open to receiving it and that allows them to learn from it and feel inspired by it? Rather than knocking down their confidence and making them scared to experiment and innovate. How do you handle and address your own failures? Nobody’s perfect and neither are you. What is the impact of praise on people’s motivation? Spoiler alert, it can be significant!