Category Archives: Reflections

Looking back

Towards the end of February, I realized that until that moment, I had read more than a book per week on average in 2019. I had heard about people reading a book per week and always thought it was impossible, but I decided that I would start tracking the books that I read and see how far I would come.
In March, while thinking about a structural solution to the ever-returning question of ‘what to blog about’, I decided to write about the books that I read. This had the added benefit of making what I learned from the books stick.
I’ll throw in the spoiler right here: I read 60 books this year and while I’m proud of the number, it didn’t feel like hard work at all. Reading makes me happy. I feel more relaxed after reading for an hour than I do after watching TV for an hour. Watching TV is the only thing I stopped doing to free up time for reading. I didn’t have to put everything else in my life on hold. It’s almost the opposite. There were several other “projects” that made 2019 a great year.

I started to learn to play the piano in February. As a teenager, I’d had guitar lessons for several years, but I never felt in any way competent or confident playing the guitar and gave up on it eventually. Since falling in love with Tim Minchin and his work and hearing him talk about how much he loves playing the piano I had been tempted to try playing the piano myself. Not to become famous or even ever play in front of an audience. Just for me. In February I made the decision to start small and sensible by renting an electric piano for 6 months.
I had one lesson but unfortunately, the piano teacher’s schedule didn’t align with my (pretty rigid) work schedule. Thankfully I got some good tips, the most impactful being the recommendation of the SimplyPiano app. It’s flexible and easy to use and as the app only uses positive reinforcement it’s also stress-free. The app allows you to play songs pretty much right away and it’s easy to track progress. In August, after 6 months with the rental piano, I decided that I liked (loved) it enough to buy my own piano. I will never be a concert pianist, but I absolutely love playing and I make enough progress to keep me interested (hooked).

In June I agreed to run the 16km “Dam tot Dam” run on September 22nd as part of a team from work. Anyone knowing me a little bit will realize that when entering a race, I don’t just want to finish it, I want to do well. Not to win it, but to run a decent time. I increased my running schedule significantly over the summer to get from my usual 10km to 16km at a decent pace. A bad cold just a few weeks before the race threw me back a bit, but I was able to finish in a decent 1:26:56.

In November I spent most of the month traveling to see Tim Minchin perform in the UK 5 times in 3 different places. I’ve been a big fan of Tim for 4 years, but as he hadn’t toured for 8 years, I hadn’t seen a full live show from him. It was a brilliant, crazy, and ok, somewhat tiring month.

While my reading wasn’t materially impacted by my other adventures, writing a blog post per week has proven to be challenging. Writing a post takes me between 3 and 6 hours. That’s almost a full weekend day. Towards the end of the year, I couldn’t find the self-discipline and motivation to invest that much time every weekend. Overall, I wrote 34 book-related posts since the beginning of March, which I’m happy with.
I’ve also learned that there are some books that don’t have a blog post in them for me. They can be great reads but might just not have enough background story to warrant a complete post. This mostly happens with fiction, as I don’t want to give away any spoilers beyond the basic premises of the book. It has made me decide not to write about books if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about them. The best examples of this are Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle books. I’ve written about a couple of them and I feel I’ve said everything there is to say about the series. I heartily recommend reading them, both the author and the protagonist are bad-ass women, but I won’t be writing about them anymore.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the full list of the books that I’ve read and the blogs I wrote about them. Having read this much I felt I should also list my top picks for this year. I liked most of the books that I read, but these stood out for one reason or another. My top has turned out to be a top 4 and it’s a 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction.

  • Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller and the best story that I’ve read from him so far is The Graveyard Book. It’s tense and emotional and uplifting and heart-breaking. It’s beautiful and I wish I could read it for the first time again.
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman has been mentioned in at least half of the other non-fiction books that I’ve read this year. It explains why humans behave the way we do. Perhaps if more people read it and understood the implications it would mean we could start thinking a bit more again and shout a bit less.
  • The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is based on a real-life story and evokes all the emotions. All the protagonists are women and I still can’t believe how brave these women were. Absolutely stunning.
  • Caroline Criado Perez is also a bad-ass woman for writing Invisible Women. This book talks about several situations and places where women are structurally neglected or simply forgotten about. It’s a bit of a depressing, but very important read. And if reading it pulled me down, I can’t imagine how Criado Perez felt while writing it, but we should all be grateful that she did.

I intend to continue reading at approximately the same pace next year. I’m enjoying it and it makes me feel good, so there is no reason not to. On top of that, there is always a list of books that I want to read. More books get added to the list all the time. At the moment the list is 15 books long, but I’m always looking for new ideas, so if you have a book recommendation please let me know what it is.
For now, the plan is to write (and publish) a blog post every two weeks. This will allow me to be a bit more selective when deciding what books I want to write about and it means I can spread the writing effort a bit.

First things first, though. I hope that you have a great New Year’s Eve and I’m wishing you a happy and healthy 2020. I’m looking forward to more books, friendships, music, travel, and beauty when you least expect it.

#

Title

Author

Blog

1

Start with Why

Simon Sinek

2

The Fault in our Stars

John Green

3

The Psychology of Time Travel

Kate Mascarenhas

4

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

5

Homo Deus

Yuval Noah Harari

6

Becoming

Michelle Obama

7

Drive

Daniel H. Pink

8

Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/30/creativity-inc/

9

Deadline

Stella Rimington

10

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams

11

Maybe This Time

Jill Mansell

12

Onbehagen

Bas Heijne

13

On Writing

Stephen King

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/09/on-writing-writing-advice-from-stephen-king/

14

Thinking Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/04/thinking-fast-and-slow/

15

Present Danger

Stella Rimington

16

Life, The Universe and Everything

Douglas Adams

17

Kern = King

Marco Frijhoff

18

The Power of Habit: why we do what we do, and how to change

Charles Duhigg

19

Milkman

Anna Burns

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/16/milkman/

20

Macbeth

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/14/macbeth/

21

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/23/good-omens/

22

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/07/how-mumbo-jumbo-conquered-the-world/

23

The Secret River

Kate Grenville

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/21/the-secret-river-how-a-lack-of-understanding-can-lead-to-a-disaster/

24

Rip Tide

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/28/rip-tide/

25

Thinking Ahead

Dirk Helbing

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/05/thinking-ahead/

26

The Happiness of Pursuit

Chris Guillebeau

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/12/the-happiness-of-pursuit/

27

Emilia

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/19/emilia/

28

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/01/midnights-children/

29

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/26/good-night-stories-for-rebel-girls/

30

Singing in the Brain

Erik Scherder

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/09/singing-in-the-brain/

31

Taking the Work out of Networking

Karen Wickre

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/15/taking-the-work-out-of-networking/

32

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/22/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish/

33

Women in Tech

Tarah Wheeler

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/30/women-in-tech/

34

The Geneva Trap

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/06/the-geneva-trap/

35

The War for Kindness: building empathy in a fractured world

Jamil Zaki

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/14/the-war-for-kindness-building-empathy-in-a-fractured-world/

36

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Gail Honeyman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/21/eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine/

37

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

Dale Carnegie & Associates

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/28/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-in-the-digital-age/

38

The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/04/the-taming-of-the-shrew/

39

The Alice Network

Kate Quinn

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/11/the-alice-network/

40

The Science of Storytelling

Will Storr

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/25/the-science-of-storytelling/

41

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/08/to-kill-a-mockingbird/

42

The AI Does Not Hate You

Tom Chivers

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/21/the-ai-does-not-hate-you/

43

Close Call

Stella Rimington

44

The Handsmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/06/the-handmaids-tale/

45

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/13/nonviolent-communication/

46

Invisible Women

Caroline Criado Perez

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/15/invisible-women/

47

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Heather Morris

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/24/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz/

48

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/20/fahrenheit-451/

49

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare

50

Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams

51

The Go-Giver Leader

Bob Burg & John David Mann

52

Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas

Adam Kay

53

Unmasked

Andrew Lloyd Webber

54

Sensemaking

Christian Madsbjerg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/03/sensemaking/

55

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

Greta Thunberg

56

A View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman

57

Bluebeard

Kurt Vonnegut

58

The Monarchy of Fear

Martha C. Nussbaum

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/22/the-monarchy-of-fear/

59

Het Wit en het Purper

Willemijn van Dijk

60

Pale Blue Dot (audio book)

Carl Sagan

My piano

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.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Lale as he told it to the author, Heather Morris. The book is very well written and so tense that at times I’m afraid to breathe. It’s hard to put down and reads pretty quickly, but not quick enough to be able to finish it without breathing.
The people in the book are all very human. Even the SS officers have their weaknesses.

Lale is a survivor, he does what he needs to do to have the best possible chance to survive the atrocities of Auschwitz. He’s careful not to hurt other prisoners, but he will not pass on an opportunity to get more food or clothes or protection for himself and his friends. You could argue that by tattooing the numbers on each new prisoner who enters either Auschwitz or Birkenau he hurts them by definition. But he figures that if he doesn’t do it someone else will and he’s probably right about that. The situation is a clear example of how hard it is to decide where you stand and how you will behave in a war. I don’t think you can know this if you haven’t been in a life or death situation. And I can imagine your decisions and behavior will change if the life or death situation lasts 3 years.

Lale falls in love with Gita in the camp. Their love lifts their spirits and the spirits of those around them. Their love is heartbreaking and empowering at the same time. It must have been very strong to be more important and more pronounced than their hunger and their fears. They take significant risks for each other. It also makes the story more bearable for the reader as it provides a glimmer of hope and occasionally even happiness.

Despite the love between Lale and Gita it’s a hard book to read. It would be easy to think this won’t happen anymore. That we won’t let one group of humans slaughter another group of humans based on one or more almost random criteria. But we know this is not true. Myanmar has rejected the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar security forces burn down Rohingya villages, murdering and raping the people.
In China at least 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims are being detained and tortured. Their children are often taken away from them and put into non-Uyghur families. We can pretend that ethnic cleansing is a thing from the past but its not.

Humans can be terrible people. And if we feel being terrible will allow us to be part of a tribe we would like to belong to we find it very hard not to be terrible. You don’t have to go to China or Myanmar to see this in action. I’m sure there is a social media pile-on happening as you read this. Someone who presumably said something someone didn’t like or did something they don’t understand will receive a terrifying amount of hate and threats from people they don’t know. No questions asked.

Selfishness has reached peak levels. If you are wealthy you don’t need a community to survive and many feel that they have to protect what they’ve got. Instead of helping those less fortunate than they are they fight to minimize taxes. They keep people who are in any way different at as much distance as possible. If they might get too close then perhaps bullying and threatening will scare them off. If people ask for help they are sent away, preferably to a place more horrible than the situation they originally fled.

Why do we do this to each other? Why not, if you have been lucky enough in life to have everything, share some of what you have with someone less lucky. Why not live and let live, even if people want to lead a different life than you do? It has been proven over and over again that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness (as long as you have enough to pay for all basic necessities). Helping others and bringing happiness to others is much more likely to bring happiness to you than money or possessions are. Maybe we can all just put this to the test. Who knows how much good it will do to us and the world around us.

Be kind to others, respect their opinions and preferred way of life, help people in need. Next time you feel outraged because someone is different, or doesn’t like something you like or likes something you don’t like try to take a deep breath and think about why this makes the other person a terrible person. What is it that upsets you? Can you try and put yourself in their shoes and empathize with them?

The story of the tattooist of Auschwitz is a powerful one, but it did nothing to improve my faith in humankind. This is exactly why the book is a must-read. We need to be aware of how easily we can be corrupted, so we can be vigilant.
When you finish the book you will be rewarded with the story about how the book was written, which is almost as good as the book itself and moving in its own regards.

Fahrenheit 451 – a classic that makes you think

After The Handmaid’s Tale, this book by Ray Bradbury is another classic and another book describing a dystopian US future. Guy Montag is a fireman and a fireman’s job is to burn books. When some secretly hidden books are discovered, usually through a tip from someone close to the booklover, the alarm in the fire station will sound and the firemen will rush out to burn them. The fire chief explains to Montag that it used to be ok to be different and read books. When the population grew ever bigger and denser it became important for the authorities to make sure there were no outliers and individualists. When everyone is the same there is no reason to compare yourself to others, thus taking away a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This reasoning is interesting, as in The Handmaid’s Tale underpopulation and the need for people to focus on simply reproducing as much as possible is cited as a reason to keep people from thinking for themselves.
We see this in the real world too. Different leaders come up with a myriad of reasons to explain why it’s important that they get more power. Most authoritarian regimes come into power because at least part of the people feel that they might have a point. Most of them will come to regret this later when the veil hiding the regime’s selfish wish for more personal power evaporates.

Both in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Handmaid’s Tale it is suggested that by taking away people’s opportunity to read you take away their opportunity to learn and think for themselves. Both societies were dreamt up by authors and it makes sense for authors to feel that books being banished and reading being forbidden is a disaster.
Personally, I love learning through reading books, but I think there are also other ways to learn and educate yourself on a whole range of different topics. Not reading books doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not actively working to learn and grow. You could watch TV shows that make you think or watch online documentaries. You can read blogs, listen to podcasts and listen and talk to other people and learn from them.

Entertainment in Fahrenheit 451’s society is provided by interactive shows that do nothing to educate or challenge people. The shows are displayed on large screens. The ultimate setup to strive for is for all four walls of your living room to be replaced by the screens. The people in the shows are described as “family”. Montag’s wife Mildred loves the screens (they have three walls covered) and proclaims that she is happy talking to her “family”. When she’s not watching the screens she has earbuds in her ears that allow her to listen to the radio or to the sounds of the sea or the jungle. They are noise canceling, so she can’t communicate with others while wearing them. Mildred doesn’t like disruption and she doesn’t want to be challenged to think. Neither do her friends when they come and visit.
There aren’t many women in the book and most of them aren’t painted in a positive light.
Thankfully Clarisse, the girl who lives next door to Montag, is one of the heroes. She makes him wake up from his apathy by asking him seemingly simple, but provocative questions. She makes him think for himself.

This is also what the author is challenging us as readers to do. Think. Don’t just live your life on auto-pilot, but think about what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This comes back to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” that I wrote about here. If we are the fish from the speech it’s important to make a conscious decision to recognize the water that we’re swimming in. Even when it’s always there. Especially when it’s always there.

After coming back from holiday last year I noticed that I didn’t feel good at the end of my evenings. I needed the disruption of the holiday to even notice this. I live alone and when sitting down with a cup of tea in the evening I always turned on the TV. I thought I felt better with the TV on because it provided some background chatter. Often I ended up watching though, even if nothing decent was on. When bedtime came around I felt like I didn’t get anything out of the evening. To conquer that feeling I stayed up longer, hoping that watching some more TV would make me feel better. It never did, but going to bed late certainly made me feel tired.

It’s been almost a year now since I stopped watching TV on weeknights. I also canceled my Netflix subscription. Instead, I read and I started to learn to play the piano. Both reading and playing the piano give me a lot of joy. It makes me feel like I used my time wisely and like I did something that I will still feel good about in the morning (do you ever consider when you have trouble going to bed because you think just one more episode won’t hurt, whether you will you feel better or worse in the morning because you watched that extra episode?). When I read or practice instead of watching TV I feel like I’ve had a longer and more fulfilling evening. It makes it easier to go to bed on time (sort of, I’m still a night owl).

Your experience might be completely different. You might not enjoy reading and watching TV or Netflix might genuinely make you feel good. If that’s the case then please continue to watch TV or Netflix! The point is to stop and think about it. Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you at least occasionally appreciating the water that you’re swimming in? You need to make a conscious decision to snap out of auto-pilot, as our brains prefer to just do what we always do. The brain is the organ that uses the bulk of our energy and to use it efficiently it usually leaves its System 1 monkey brain (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) in charge.

I know this all too well. I love structure, rhythm, and regularity. It means that I can use my energy on the important stuff like being kind and trying to empathize and having too many meetings and still giving everyone the attention that they deserve. And to occasionally ask “How’s the water?”.

How's the water

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

To Kill a Mockingbird – heart-rendingly relevant

This week I read a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee. It had been referenced in many of the books that I read over the last few weeks, which meant that it was top of mind for a while already for me. I was also curious to learn if there is a link between one of the main characters in the book, who is called Atticus Finch, and Tim Minchin’s character in Californication, who is called Atticus Fetch. It seemed too similar and unusual to be a coincidence, but I haven’t found the link if there is one.

I did find that another element of pop culture was inspired by the book. As a teenager, my favorite song was Wake Up Boo by The Boo Radleys for years. Boo Radley (whose real name is Arthur Radley) is the neighbor of the protagonist and her family. They haven’t seen him in years, the kids are even unsure if he’s still alive, although their father assures them that he is. He just stays inside the house.

The story is set in the 1930s in Alabama. It’s told from the point of view of an 8-year-old white girl. It’s an anti-racist story. It should be a story about how things used to be. But it’s so relevant today that at times I found it hard to read on. It’s heartbreaking.
The protagonist is Scout Finch, whose real name is Jean Louise. She has an older brother called Jem (short for Jeremy). Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer. Scout’s favorite attire is her overall and she likes to play outside with her brother and their friend Dill.

At the beginning of the book, the kids are still young and pure. Their souls are uncorrupted and they are raised to be fair and just. Living in a racist environment that is very hard to retain. The hatred and disdain for people who are different are very strong in almost all adults in the book.

A black man is accused of raping a white woman. Before the trial starts people in the streets have already convicted him. Some of them even want to play judge, jury, and executioner themselves. The fact that there is strong evidence that he can’t have done it is completely ignored by most.
Atticus has been assigned to defend the accused and both he and the kids have to deal with a lot of hatred over it. It’s so persistent that it’s starting to taint their innocence.

The book is filled with examples of how standing out in any way can make you the target of gossip, exclusion, and hatred. I wish it was possible to think that this is just the small-minded people in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It’s not. Standing out today is still very likely to make you the target of derision and hatred and in some cases even physical attacks.

Unfortunately, our brain is designed in a way that makes it very easy to hate anyone who you perceive as being different from you. People who support a different sports team to you, people with different skin color, people with a different political preference, a different sexual orientation or from a different country, city or neighborhood. By hating others we feel like we are part of a tribe and that feels good. We all have more similarities than differences, but it’s easier and more rousing to focus on the differences.
We teach our children to do the same from a very young age. Sometimes just because we set an example through our own behavior, but it’s also considered acceptable to teach them to mock “the other”. Most of you will now be thinking about extremist parents, but many have taught their kids songs that make fun of the nemesis of their favorite football team at a young age. Or taught them jokes about people from a neighboring country. I’m sure you can think of more examples.

I plead with you. Next time you think about labeling someone as different, even if it’s just in your mind, try to challenge yourself. Are they really that different? Could they feel the same way about you? Can you think of something positive about the person? Can you put yourself in their shoes? We all once had a child’s innocence, but we lost it along the way and we replaced it with opinions and biases. Let’s try to shed some opinions and regain some innocence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Let’s save the mockingbird. Let’s teach our kids to be respectful of others. To look beyond the first impression and focus on similarities. It feels like the world is in a pretty bad place right now, but we made it so. We can also make it better. One person at a time if we have to. Please.

I think there's just one kind of folks

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