Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

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.

An update on my flow

About six weeks ago, I started to make some changes to the way I work to create more focused time. I wrote about my thoughts at that time here (https://kalliopesjourney.com/2017/10/21/from-buzz-to-flow-regaining-focus/). Since then I removed about 5 hours of weekly recurring meetings from my calendar, which of course immediately created a significant amount of time in which I could work. Not having unnecessary meetings also meant I had a lot more energy to spend on the tasks I wanted to complete. As an introvert, meetings require more energy than working on something on my own. So, while some meetings are fun and sometimes even useful, a better mix helps me to manage my energy throughout the day and week.

I also tried to be more effective while working on my tasks. I turned off all email notifications, so the only way to see if new emails came in, is by opening Outlook. This limits “external” interruptions. It also makes it easier to stay focused during meetings, as I don’t have to contain my curiosity.
I also tried to change my habits so that wouldn’t distract myself all the time by looking at my phone, Facebook or Instagram. This is working particularly well at times when I have enough energy. I still notice that when I’m tired, frustrated, or stressed that I look for distractions every few minutes. Managing this requires more practice, although the more comfortable and effective solution would be to manage my energy a bit better.

The first few weeks I was managing my calendar rigorously. That worked so well that after a few weeks I loosened my grip a bit, thinking that I had this under control. What followed were several weeks with training and off-site meetings though. Meaning that multiple days in those weeks were lost for doing actual work and having “normal” meetings. In those weeks the normal work got stuffed into the other days, which meant I tried to do five days’ worth of work and meetings in three days. I’ll just state the obvious: that doesn’t work. I got stressed out and frustrated over not being able to manage my schedule and too much time spent in meetings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the progress that I was able to make in my way of working. I was able to complete a lot more pro-active tasks and manage my energy better. That last both good for me and for the people around me. I will need to stay very alert though, loosening my grip means that my calendar fills up beyond what I feel comfortable with.
I also need to remember to take care of my energy first and other people second. If I’ve been in two days of off-site meetings I want to be in the office, to be available to other people. However, after two days like that I’m also in need of some solitude. Choosing to be in the office works well for a couple of hours, but after that I get frustrated by trying to combine too many meetings, catching up with work and unplanned conversations.  I’ll try to improve on that by planning a day of working from home after full day meetings next time.

All in all, some very positive results in a relatively short amount of time, with several opportunities to grow and improve on.

From buzz to flow – regaining focus

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Focus to succeed, about being able to focus on one goal for two years. Since then I’ve read “Busy” by Tony Crabbe and I’ve come to the realization that in today’s world most people, myself included, don’t even really focus on a single thing for thirty minutes.

In some cases, when I’m working on something I get distracted by someone asking me a question, or by a phone call. However, if no one appears at my desk or gives me a call right when I’m trying to get something done I will distract myself. I will open Facebook to check for new messages, check my phone to see if anyone tried to reach me, or have a look at that incoming email.

Thinking about it I think I seldom spend more than ten minutes focused on something during the day. For some reason, I think I do a bit better in the evening. Even now that I’m on holiday I look at Instagram while reading a book, or check for interesting news stories while cooking a meal.
The few things I enjoy most are playing tennis and running and those happen to be the things that get my complete attention for at least an hour. Coincidence or not?

According to Tony, we get a little dopamine buzz every time we switch attention, which makes us feel good for a few minutes. However, as the buzz wears off we need a new fix and thus switch again. And again.
I’m addicted to the buzz…

The best thing to substitute the buzz with is the nice high that you get from feeling in flow. Getting in flow requires us to deeply focus on something that is challenging and where we get direct feedback on the result.
When I get back to work and normal life next week I’m going to try to focus on a single task at a time. I think that is going to be a significant challenge in itself!
I’ll report back on how I’m doing in a few weeks.

stay focused on the end goal.jpg

Flow – Achieving Happiness

I’m currently reading the book “Flow” from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The subtitle is “The classic work on how to achieve happiness”, so it seemed like a good book to read. Not to say that I’m not happy, on the contrary, but there is always room for improvement when it comes to topics like this one.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but so far, it’s very interesting. It’s also at times a bit long-winded. Mainly when reading through the elaborate examples takes a couple of hours, which in my case most of the time means that it takes several days just to get through the examples. I didn’t find flow while reading those parts :).
I’ll try to write a couple of posts about the bits that I did find interesting though. A good reason to write a blog post is always to be able to find something that you might want to get back to later. Also, I quite often experience flow while writing a post, which means it lets me experience happiness.
And perhaps others find it interesting, enjoyable or inspiring too, which would be a bonus!

The book, of course, starts by explaining when you’re most likely to experience flow.

  • When you can fully concentrate on a single task or activity
  • When you know you will be able to complete the task, but it still provides sufficient challenge (it’s not boring)
  • When you don’t feel self-conscious

A good example for me is that I can experience flow Mirjam Tennis
when I’m playing tennis. I like to constantly improve myself and very much enjoy practicing. It is also possible to find flow while playing a match, as long as you’re more focused on the process than the outcome. I’m not too good at that and thus don’t really enjoy playing matches.

Running is another activity that lets me experience flow. It allows me to set a challenge depending on how I feel, or how much time I want to spend running when I go out. I can focus on sticking to a certain pace, ensuring that I run a certain distance, or go out for intervals and try to survive (anyone who has ever done intervals will understand that).

It is also possible to experience flow from for instance studying beautiful paintings, reading or writing poetry, cooking or eating wonderful food, dancing or listening to music. Reading all these examples made me think about many different things that I would like to spend (more) time on like going to museums, baking cakes, reading and playing golf. I’m pretty sure I could easily fill my days if they were twice as long!

At least that gives me plenty of motivation to start the next book I want to read, which is “Busy” by Tony Crabbe…