Category Archives: Reflections

How our collective imagination rules the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end and a list

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we fight for facts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing through time

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I never read it before and I picked it because several people that I admire talk very highly of both the book and its author. It’s remarkably easy to read.

The most fascinating thing about the book though is the use of time in it. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, travels through time. He has no control over it, he just keeps jumping back and forth. As a reader, you only experience a moment once, but Billy himself can live through the same moment multiple times. He doesn’t change what happens, nor is there the suggestion that he would want to. He simply experiences it.

He meets many colorful characters, of which the Trafalmadorians are the most remarkable ones. They kidnap Billy and explain that they can see six dimensions. This means that they can see all times simultaneously. They see time in the same way that we see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Past, present and future just “are”. Because of this concept of time, they don’t see death as the end of something. It just means that the person who died will not be around in a particular part of time. But he or she will still around during other times.

Although I can’t see six dimensions, I like the idea of thinking about time like this. Someone might be here today, and they were around in the past. You spent time together. At a certain moment, the person might die. They won’t be around to experience new things together in the future. But the moments that you shared and the time that you spent together will always be there. We might not be able to experience all time simultaneously, but we can go back to those moments in the past and still enjoy them by remembering.

This is not only true for time spent with people who are no longer there, it’s also true for other moments in your life. Some of these moments might be crisp and beautiful, like the view of a mountain lake on a sunny day. Other moments might be more like a dark cave with spiders and bats flying around in them. Going back to those isn’t very appealing. You might as well avoid thinking about them too much, as you can’t change what already happened. It can be very soothing and inspiring to go back to enjoy the happy memories every now and then though. But don’t get stuck. Remember to experience today.

The impact of kindness

What a surreal time we live in at the moment. World leaders who lie more and are less eloquent than toddlers, large groups of people ignoring or even arguing against proven facts, because they don’t fit their narrative and so much hate and intolerance everywhere.
In today’s crazy world disagreements are understandable and perhaps even necessary. But there’s no need to be harsh, hateful and unkind to someone you don’t understand or don’t agree with. It doesn’t cost you anything to be kind. Even if you are having a discussion with someone. Being kind doesn’t take anything away from the point that you are making. In my opinion, it’s even the opposite. An argument that is made calmly and with respect for the other person comes across a lot stronger than one embedded in insults and name-calling.

Most people, when being attacked or insulted, will feel bad. Whether you are right or wrong, when someone rips you a new one it will affect your confidence. With the loss of confidence, you will have a harder time making a strong case for your point of view. You might feel like disappearing.
I try not to let unkind words get to me, especially in a professional situation, but sometimes they do. Unfortunately, I’m a lousy actor and I don’t have a poker face. If you pay attention it’s relatively easy to pick up on how I’m feeling.

That’s not the worst part though. As something like that will knock my confidence and requires a significant amount of energy to digest, there will be less energy left for everything else. I might lack patience when someone wants my help or attention. Maybe I’ll react blunter than I would like to, or perhaps I’d fail to listen to someone without judgment.
I might involuntarily pay someone else’s unkindness forward.

When you give someone a compliment, on the other hand, they’ll feel good. You will build them up. They will feel more confident and that in turn will make it easier for them to express themselves.
This means that bluntly criticizing and kindly complimenting someone are both self-fulfilling prophecies. The impact of your words will almost automatically confirm your opinion.
So I plead with you to try and be kind to people. Give someone a compliment if you feel positive about them. And if you don’t then just keep your mouth shut. You won’t achieve anything apart from tearing down someone you feel is already down. Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them.
Let’s bring some sympathy, tolerance, and kindness in this crazy world we live in.

Kindness is free, sprinkle that stuff everywhere

Expand your world, read a book!

I love reading, always have done. As a kid I used to devour books. If I was reading a book I liked, it would go with me everywhere. I’d be walking through the house, up and down stairs while reading, lay the table while reading and if my mum would have let me, I would have still been reading while we had dinner.

I was smart, shy and skinny, which meant I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I was dreaming about being naughty and audacious, but in reality, I was very disciplined and well behaved. When I was reading a book, I would feel completely immersed in the story. I would put myself in the shoes of one of the characters in the book and through them I would experience and do things that I wouldn’t think of doing in real life.
I can honestly say that reading these very diverse books made my childhood more fun. It allowed me to go on all sorts of adventures, understand what it might have been like to live in a different time or place and to see life through the eyes of someone else.

By experiencing life through the eyes of different people, reading also helped me to build empathy. I learned how different people (or characters) felt in different situations and how they all reacted differently to those situations. It helped me to realize how I would like to be treated and how I would like to try and treat others.
In the film “You’ve got mail” there is a beautiful quote about the impact that reading as a child might have.
“I started helping my mother after school here when I was six years old. And I used to watch her. And it wasn’t that she was just selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever it was that they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

I feel that as an adult, it’s still important to read regularly. Reading allows you to learn things about the world that we live in. It will also allow you to escape from it from time to time to experience a different type of life. It might make you forget about sorrows or humble you if you feel that you’re on top of the world. It allows you to expand your world and look beyond what is right in front of you. Reading will help you to continue to learn about anything that you are interested in and it will help you to grow as a person.

Like many “professionals”, I haven’t taken the time to read a lot over the last few years. Most of what I have been reading has been articles related to work. Since a few months now though I have made an effort to read (a lot) more. I’ve been reading fiction, as well as the newspaper and several books about different ways to manage my days and my time, and about approaches to leadership and different world views. I feel that all of this is contributing to me being a more informed and more balanced person and that it’s allowing me to learn and grow. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, it is a lot of fun. I still love to read. I can highly recommend it.

Carl Sagan2

Loud is becoming normal, let’s be reasonable and kind instead

Tim Minchin’s lyrics in the song “Loud ” from Matilda the Musical are scarily relevant in our day to day lives at the moment.

People don’t like smarty-pants
What go round claiming
that they know stuff
we don’t know.

Now, here’s a tip:
What you know matters less
Than the volume with which
What you don’t know’s expressed!

Content, has never been less important.
So you have got to be…
Loud!

The context of the theatrical narrative is missing of course. In the musical this is sung by Matilda’s mother, who’s one of the baddies. However, I’m sure many of you can reconcile this with your recent experiences!

In many situations and environments today, if you want to convince someone, it’s often more efficient to be loud, than it is to be right. Make a big spectacle and if you can, pick one small aspect of the other person’s argument and make it sound ridiculous or offensive. You can do this online, in a newspaper, but also in a face to face conversations. It works best when there are multiple people following the conversation, as it is an incredibly effective strategy to grab a lot of attention and to get people to think that they agree with you.

Being loud takes on different forms in different situations. In a face to face discussion someone can increase the volume at which they deliver their arguments. In a real-life conversation, especially when multiple people are involved, it’s also often quite hard to find the right moment to start making your argument without interrupting someone and feeling like you’re being rude. I’m often amazed that some people seem to be able to talk forever without having to take a breath. If it wasn’t so frustrating you’d almost admire them and advise them to take up free diving!

On the Internet loudness takes on slightly different forms. It can include personally attacking the person you are supposed to be having a discussion with. The attack doesn’t have to be related to the arguments that they are using, it is also quite common to attack part of someone’s personality and/or intelligence. Taking valid arguments completely out of context and stripping them of all nuances can be very effective as well and this can be very hard to defend yourself against. After all, you did use the argument. There was a lot more to it than what you’re being attacked over, but seeing as you’re trying to reason your way out of this, instead of countering by also being loud you won’t be able to grab the same amount of attention. Taking the time to consider the nuances and dig into facts and logic is harder and not “cool”. Which makes it less popular with the masses.

As a reaction to the bleak picture painted above it can be tempting to unleash your frustration about not being able to get your point across for reasons that feel unfair onto someone who’s loud. Letting yourself go when it’s normally not your style won’t make your feel good though. In fact, in most cases it will make you feel worse.
This might be a reference that only resonates with a specific audience, but I’m going to use it anyway. Meg Ryan’s character in the film, “You’ve Got Mail”, is frustrated about her mind going blank and not being able to come up with snide remarks when she’s being provoked. But when she is finally able to come up with zingers during a conversation the way she’s always dreamt of, she feels terrible afterwards.
When you reply to a loud person by being loud you become the very thing you dislike. By resorting to ignoring the nuance of someone’s arguments, or by trying to offend someone you lower your standards.

Wouldn’t it be inspiring if people that are able to construct arguments based on reason and who are normally calm, collected and polite, would in fact remain calm, collected and polite? Most people who are currently being loud won’t care about any eloquent and fact-based arguments. But wouldn’t you feel more hopeful about the future, if in heated face to face conversations more people would stay calm and polite, even when provoked? If in derailed social media discussions, you would find some classy and factual replies amidst all the loudness?

More importantly, wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you were able to stay polite and just show an appropriate amount of emotion. Expressing some emotion is good, because it shows that you care. I’m not advocating that we should start acting as robots. On the contrary even. I would like us to put more emphasis on the fact that we are engaged and caring human beings.
I think I would feel good about myself if I would be able to be reasonable and kind, so I’m going to try to put this into practice. Perhaps the only difference I can make is to lift my own spirits. But there is always a chance that my attitude and intentions inspire someone else and together we can make a bigger difference.

Don't raise your voice, improve your argument