Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

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

The AI Does Not Hate You – A story about Rationalists

The first thing that’s useful to know about Tom Chivers’ book The AI Does Not Hate You is that most of the book is not about AI. This is a book about the Rationalist movement and their figureheads.

Let me save you some time by summarizing the AI narrative of the book.
The Rationalists believe that we might be able to create an AI that is much smarter than the smartest human in the next 50 to 100 years. When this happens they believe that there is a significant chance that AI will either make us immortal or wipe us all off the face of the earth. Immortality in this context should not be seen as ensuring that our bodies can keep going for all eternity, but perhaps by extracting your brain and storing it in an external system that is much easier to preserve than our bodies.

It’s unlikely that the AI’s ultimate goal would be to extinct humans. Most likely we would simply be in the way of the actual goal that it’s trying to achieve. We might be using up resources that it feels could also be used to achieve their assigned task in a bigger, better, more efficient way. The recurring comparison to an overly focused AI causing problems and perhaps even extinction is the broom that is bewitched to fill up the cauldron in Disney’s the sorcerer’s apprentice. The broom fills up the cauldron but doesn’t stop when it’s full, completely flooding the place. When Mickey chops up the broom to try and stop it the little bits of broom all turn into individual complete brooms, now flooding the place even quicker than the one broom was before.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the key figures of the Rationalist movement, came up with the summary that inspired the title of the book: “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else”. At the early stages of the movement, Yudkowsky set out to explain what AI is and why he feels AI poses an existential threat. While writing he felt that he had to explain a lot of underlying or slightly related concepts first. Whatever we think about him, he certainly wasn’t work-shy, and he just started at the beginning. He wrote a series of blog posts, now called the Sequences. The total volume is significantly bigger than the combined books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Rationalists believe that trying to mitigate the risk of an AI killing us all is worth a lot of time and money. They come to this conclusion by evaluating the risk in a very rational way (this won’t surprise you), but they make a few assumptions that I personally wouldn’t make. The most important one is that they assign the same value a potential future human life as to the life of someone living today. They argue that the number of potential future lives that could be “lost” if we go extinct in the next century or so is huge and because of that, even if there is only a tiny chance that AI might kill us all, it is worth a lot if we can take steps towards preventing extinction.
To increase the number of potential future lives that could be lost as much as possible they assume that we will be able to not just live on earth, but also on many other planets and space ships.
I must admit that this was enough for me to mentally discard the Rationalist movement as “slightly out of touch with reality”. I’d choose to invest in other things like climate change to just mention one that is top of mind.

Chivers spends a lot of time discussing if the Rationalists are a cult. Personally, I don’t care. Whether or not the Rationalists are a cult has nothing to do with the risk that AI poses to humanity and they don’t seem to be forcing their view onto anyone. In fact, based on this book I can only conclude that they feel that most of the world isn’t smart enough to understand, so there’s no point trying to convince them.
Chivers himself comes across as a bit of a Rationalist fanboy who gets to play along with some people in the movement in many places in the book, while he positions himself as the less nerdy, more streetwise outsider in other places.

Many Rationalists are polyamorists and as long as it’s consensual that is completely up to them. I don’t even want to know. Especially not if I’m reading a book about AI. Chivers however also discusses some cases where people in the movement were accused of sexual abuse and abuse of power, only to very quickly dismiss these cases as being “no worse than in other communities”.
This was almost enough to make me stop reading the book.

Leaving a book half-read annoys me even more than reading about Chivers dismissing the abuse accusations and the discrepancy between the title of the book and its contents, so I did finish the book in the end. I did learn a bit about AI and more than I bargained for about Rationalists. There are some interesting bits in the book about human brains and biases and there’s an interesting explanation about that fact that a lot of arguments are disagreements about labels, rather than disagreements about content.
However, if you are interested in AI I would recommend that you pick a different book. If you want to learn about the Rationalists from someone who loves the movement and their ideas, I can highly recommend this book.The AI does not hate you

The Science of Storytelling

I started reading The Science of Storytelling because it was a non-fiction week and I wanted to change the theme away from feminism and leadership through empathy and kindness.
The author, Will Storr, decided to write the book when he discovered that there were many parallels between what psychologists and neuroscientists tell us about how the mind works and what storytellers tell us about narrative. To me, it felt like the book was at least as much about human behavior as it was about storytelling and I found it more interesting and fascinating because of it.

Storr argues that it’s not the plot that makes a book gripping and enjoyable, but that it’s the characters and our ability to relate to them and experience the change that they go through throughout a book. This change is essential. The story shouldn’t just describe what the protagonist experiences on the outside, it should also be about the world inside them. What do they feel when their core beliefs are challenged and how does this change them?

The world as we see it is actually constructed in our brains. As we observe the world our brains put a very strong filter over it, that is based on our genes and everything that we have experienced in life up until that point. No two people observe the same scene (in real-life or in a story) in exactly the same way and the amount of false information that our brains can put into any observation is staggering. We don’t do this on purpose. We wouldn’t be able to stop it even if we wanted to.
The way we experience reality is warped by faulty information. We create a distorted version of reality inside our skulls. Because this is the only reality we know, we have no way of determining what part we made up based on our biases and the narrative that we created about ourselves.

When people plead with us that we’re mistaken or cruel and acting irrationally, we feel driven to find a way to dismiss the arguments they present to us. We know we’re right. We feel we’re right. We see evidence for it everywhere. We all feel that we see and experience the one objective version of reality, yet we all experience something slightly (or not so slightly) different. The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that our filters are somewhat similar. This makes it easier to understand and often agree with these people. The more different someone’s experiences have been, the more difficult it is to imagine yourself being in their shoes. It’s not hard to imagine that this can be a source of conflict.
I can think of several moments in the last week that I have argued out loud or in my head about how my view of a particular situation is right and thus the other person’s view must be wrong. Reading this last paragraph makes me shiver. Would it be possible that how I see the world is not how it really is? Is it possible that I might be wrong?!?

The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armory of crafty biases. When we come across a new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. When it’s consistent with our model of reality our neural reward systems spike and we feel good about it. If not, we want to reject it and we look for justifications to do so. These responses are fully unconscious and they have a powerful influence over us. When deciding whether to believe something or not, we don’t usually make an even-handed search for evidence. Instead, we hunt for any reason to confirm what our models have instantaneously decided for us. On top of that, we kid ourselves that this one-sided hunt for confirmatory information was noble and thorough.

This process is extremely cunning. It’s not simply that we ignore or forget evidence that goes against what our models tell us (although we do that too). We find dubious ways of rejecting the authority of opposing experts, give arbitrary weight to some parts of their testimony and not others, lock onto the tiniest genuine flaws in their argument and use them to dismiss them entirely. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, you haven’t been on social media much lately and might have been unusually productive by avoiding this time-consuming source of frustration.
If you think that you’re too smart to fall for the confirmation-bias trap you’re wrong. Intelligence isn’t effective at dissolving these cognitive mirages of rightness. Smart people are mostly better at finding ways to “prove” they’re right and tend to be no better at detecting their wrongness. I hope this makes you do a double-take and at least briefly reevaluate some of the discussions that you had recently.
While all of this is shocking, it also explains a whole lot. For instance about the debate on the seriousness of the climate emergency that we are experiencing in the world, but also about how certain world-leaders can continue to live with themselves and even still have a loyal following.

The models in our brains are flexible during childhood and adolescence. After that they become mostly fixed and changing them becomes harder and more painful. This explains why older people have more trouble dealing with change and why older people often seem to become more unreasonable and bigoted.
It also means that our experiences during our childhood and adolescence are very important. They are instructive to the people we grow up to be. Our popularity at school, the way our parents look at the world around them and the role models that we look up to influence how we experience reality and look at the world forever. It’s not impossible to change as a grown-up, but it is a lot harder.

A lot of us will naturally prefer storytellers who have a similar background to our own. If we want to get a better understanding of other people we should try to branch out. Through stories of people who have lived different lives to our own, we can experience different models first hand through the eyes of the protagonist. This can help us to become more understanding and appreciative of different cultures and ideas.
While emerged in a well-designed story, we start to think about a character as if we are them. Our bodies even physically respond as if we are. Our heart-rates might go up and our blood vessels might dilate. We become so absorbed in the world of the storyteller that we forget about our surroundings and we miss our train stop or forget to go to sleep.
This resonates strongly with me. It even adds a new excuse to the “why I don’t go to bed on time” list. I thought it was just me being stubborn and focused on the short term, but it’s actually because I’m temporarily suspended in a different world!

Although I realize we can’t force people to consume certain stories, whether in film or through books, people seeing the world through the eyes of their foes might be just what the world needs. If stories can help us to bridge the gaps in understanding and generate empathy for different cultures and ideas they might be what’s most likely to save us from eradicating the human race or even destroy our planet.
Having a better understanding of how my brain works and how unreliable it is, means that I will try to be more vigilant when I feel that I’m right. Knowing that understanding other people’s models will make me more sympathetic to their ideas, means that I will try to branch out in terms of the types of books and authors that I read. I know that I won’t be able to beat my brain and my biases, but I can at least try!

I could have written several completely different posts about this book, which is a testament to how full it is of interesting facts, stories, and information. I could have written about how happiness is mostly about being engaged in what you are doing at this moment and not about some pot of gold that is to be found at the end of the rainbow through some magical quest. I could also have written about how a gripping story follows the change that a protagonist is going through. Or about the power of metaphors and the use of cause-and-effect and how we confabulate. I also found it interesting to read about how similar a healthy brain and a mentally ill brain really are. It’s fascinating and frankly a bit scary to read about how competitive we are and how we perceive others who we deem more successful than ourselves for one reason or another.
If you are at all interested in the human condition or in how to tell a gripping story I recommend that you read The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.

A reader lives a thousand lives

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!

The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World

I feel very strongly about kindness and empathy. I always try to be kind, even when I’m tired and in a hurry and I don’t feel like it. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. When I learned about a book called The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World I immediately knew I wanted to read it.
Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford University who has been studying how empathy works for many years and he wrote this book about his most important findings.

The first time I started thinking about empathy was after hearing David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water”. I realize there are serious problems with David Foster Wallace’s legacy, but the speech is so powerful I still want to quote it. The speech is about making a conscious decision to think about what you’re thinking, instead of just living your life on autopilot. Many of us are like the young fish described at the start of the speech. And the people in the supermarket. And the people stuck in traffic.
If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
 
You get the idea.
 
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
 
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Our feelings and emotions are not determined by what happens to us. They are determined by how we react to what happens to us. I try to always keep this in mind and actively practice it. People who I think of as assholes who are in my way don’t think about the world with me at the center of it in the way I do. They, by definition, experience life and the world around them with themselves at the center of it all. They might have very good reasons for behaving in the way they do. They might be very annoyed by my behavior, even if I didn’t mean to annoy anyone, or if I had a very good reason for behaving the way I did.
I know for a fact that I’m sometimes annoying for the people close to me because whenever they complain about others I try to come up with suggestions about why the people they are furious at behaved the way they did. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to hear when you are trying to blow off some steam.

In the book, Zaki describes how empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness. It triggers us to help others, even at a cost to ourselves. This cost is worth it, both on a personal and an evolutionary level.
If many humans weren’t willing to help others we would not exist and certainly not thrive as a species. Human baby’s and kids are helpless for much longer than most other species’ offspring. They need their parents and community to take care of them, despite the cost of energy, time and money.
A personal benefit of empathizing is that it will help us to attract friends. We like people who empathize with us. Decades of evidence show that people who empathize with others have more friends and experience greater happiness.

I don’t just try to execute my quest for kindness and empathy in my personal life. I also extend it to my professional life. I work hard on building a culture that makes people feel appreciated and safe. Where leaders are kind and enable their teams to learn and grow and use their potential. Even if that potential is greater than that of the leader itself. We should reward people for achieving great things together, for helping each other and for leveraging everyone’s strengths.

Zaki’s research confirms that this is a good strategy. Organizations that focus on kindness flourish, even when it comes to the bottom line. In 2012, Google found that its people-oriented teams were also their most successful teams.
For several decades people have believed that the best way to motivate employees is by offering them bonuses for individual excellence. While this may motivate some people, most people feel unhappy in an environment in which they constantly have to outdo their colleagues. It generates anxiety, fatigue, and hostility. It limits results and increases attrition. A rewards system that promotes cooperation, on the other hand, increases morale and productivity.

The second person who has influenced my thinking about empathy is Tim Minchin. This also started with his commencement speech in which he shares 9 life lessons. Number three is about empathy and being humble.
Remember, It’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
 
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
 
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
 
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

Tim Minchin’s idea that you can practice being empathic is in line with David Foster Wallace’s idea about actively thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s supported by Zaki’s research results.
A century ago, scientists were convinced the adult human brain was fixed. That it couldn’t grow or change. This also meant the assumption was that character and behavior was fixed. That it couldn’t be trained or adjusted. If you weren’t kind or empathic that was just who you were.
Part of who we are and how we behave is genetically determined. Studies have shown that empathy is about 30% genetically determined. For generosity, this is 60%. I guess that explains why my mum could have bitter discussions with my grandma about who was allowed to buy the other person dinner and why I have very similar discussions with my mum today.

If 30% of empathy is genetically determined this still leaves a lot of room for improvement through experience, training, and education. Our actions, inactions and life’s choices make a real difference. Education grows the brain, while stress causes atrophy. Empathy is a skill that you can improve on just like math, running, and weightlifting. People might start at different base levels, but their competency is by no means fixed.

Training to be empathic can be done by simply thinking about what you’re thinking. Feeling empathy is easier for someone you know personally than for the abstract concept of a group or a tribe. Especially if you don’t belong to that particular group. If you hate a specific group of people, getting to know someone from that group and being treated with kindness by that person can in some cases change your mind about the entire group. In the words of Mark Twain “Getting to know people and traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”.

People feel more empathy for others when they understand what they are going through. You can learn about other people and their circumstances in many different ways, but nowadays it can most realistically be experienced using Virtual Reality. Experiments show that people who have experienced a refugee camp through VR are more empathic towards refugees and are also willing to donate more money for relief efforts even months after their VR experience.

Actors pretend to be other people, which means that they have to think about what the person they are pretending to be thinks and feels. This is a form of practicing empathy. It’s therefore not surprising that students who train to be actors don’t only develop their acting talent, but also their empathy.
Reading and acting can be a way to practice empathy in safe environments, without judgment. Storytelling doesn’t just provide joy and amusement, it can also make people kinder!

I’m so fascinated by the impact that empathy can have and how you can learn to be more empathic that I could go on and on about it. I empathize with you, the reader though. I realize you have other (better) things to do besides reading this blog.
I do ask you to read or listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech and think about its contents.

If you are interested in empathy Jamil Zaki’s book is a very worthwhile read. In this post, I only touched upon a tiny little part of the topics that he discusses. If you are a parent, a caretaker, or if you work in medicine in one capacity or another the book contains some valuable insights that aren’t obvious. At least they weren’t to me.

Empathy is the mental superpower that can overcome the distance between two people. Empathy is personal, but it’s also collective. We are herd animals. We behave in the way we see people around us behaving. We observe others and copy parts of what they do and think. You only have to look at local accents to realize that this is true. Fortunately, we don’t just respond to norms, we also create them. Setting examples of kindness and empathy helps to let other people be more kind and emphatic too. Let’s create a trend together.

Women in Tech – hopeful stories and helpful advice

I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and it made me feel so insecure and anxious that I had to put it away for a while. It’s a testament to how important that book is but I still need to function, so I’ll read that in bits and pieces.
To counter the negativity I needed something upbeat, but as the feminist theme was still resonating strongly I chose a book by Tarah Wheeler on Women in Tech. I’ve been following Tarah on Twitter for a while and I think she is incredibly cool. I can try to explain here, but I won’t be able to do her justice, so just check out her feed yourself.

The book was a good choice. It’s not just positive stories (it can’t be when talking about women in tech), but it’s hopeful and kind. And as I’ve been a woman in tech for the last 20 years there are no earth-shattering surprises in the book to throw me off balance.
Writing this post was hard though. There are so many things in this book that I can relate to and that I would have liked to share a story about that I could have written a book about the book. I have tried not to, but this post still ended up being quite long.

The book is written as a chronological career in tech. It starts by talking about applying for jobs in the tech industry, covers some specifics about several different types of jobs that you can have in the industry, talks about your brand, about mentoring and being mentored and finally about moving into a leadership position in a tech company or even starting your own company.

The book starts with the shocking revelation that since I was born, the percentage of women working in computer science and achieving computer science degrees has decreased. This means that despite tech companies desperately looking for women to diversify their teams most women are still choosing a different career path. The reasons for this are numerous and a lot of them are hard to resolve.
One of the reasons is the unconscious bias of teachers, parents and eventually inevitably of girls themselves that math, physics, and technology are for boys. It’s in the wording and images that we use and in the way that we think about stereotypes for people in these fields.
Another important challenge is the lack of role models. I was lucky because my mum was a computer programmer. This was never discussed as being remarkable at home which means that for me the image of a woman working as a technologist was normal and natural. Most girls don’t have role models like that though and on TV and in books these roles are often still played by boys with floppy hair and glasses.

People also often feel like you need to be “special” to be able to succeed as a software developer or as a systems engineer or a security expert (or hacker). When I was still a developer myself people would often comment that “I must be really smart then”. You don’t need a special brain to be able to be successful in technology. If you are willing to work hard and you like puzzles (and I know a lot of women and girls who like puzzles) you are already half of the way there.

Tarah and her co-authors are very open about their successes as well as their failures in the book.
One of the lessons that she learned when moving into leadership roles is that you need to shift your approach. As a woman in tech, you’ll be spending quite some time making sure people see that you are good at what you do, that you belong. You’ll have to be more vocal about your achievements than what comes naturally to most women. As you move into a leadership role you need to adjust this. You shouldn’t be out to prove that you are the smartest person in the room. Instead, you should attempt to create an environment in which your team feels that they are smart and capable to allow them to do their best work. In this, she touches on one of my favorite topics of this moment; using the full capability of your teams by being a multiplier of their energy and intelligence. (For more information check out Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.)

The story of Kamilah Taylor, one of the co-authors, also resonated with me. Kamilah is a software engineer at Linked-In (at least at the time of writing the book) and has an MS in computer science and robotics.
She talks about the pressure of representing a minority (in her case 3 minorities) in a field. As you move up the ladder in your career people will inevitably start to look up to you. This is a great feeling and very reaffirming, but it also ups the stakes. It starts to feel like if you fail, you don’t just fail for you. It feels like you are letting down all the other women in your company or even in tech. Making a mistake or things not working out as you wanted gets a lot of extra weight.
This can work as a powerful motivator, but it also adds more stress that you need to cope with.
I feel this too. Occasionally I strive for things because I feel it will set a good example, rather than because it’s something that I genuinely care about.

The stories in Women in Tech are valuable and easy to relate to and the book is a very enjoyable read. What amazed me is the invitation that Tarah extends several times in the book to reach out to her personally for advice or help. It’s inviting and powerful. I’d be scared to do this as in my experience of writing a relatively successful tech blog, sharing your ideas makes people feel entitled to a lot of your time and energy anyway. On the other hand, as a lot of them will feel entitled you might as well invite the people who’d otherwise not feel comfortable enough to reach out.

The main thing that I took away from the book other than the pleasure of reading it, is to be even more aware of my unconscious biases. Being open-minded, thinking critically and constantly examining your own ideas and assumptions is what will allow us to grow as a people and even as a species. Find both the similarities and the differences between you and everyone else and use empathy to relate and connect.

Tarah Wheeler