Introspective Retrospective January 2010

As we get our February on, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a very brief stroll down memory lane. A thorough investigation of the past helps us prepare for the future and an entry on the subject helps me organize my thoughts, so here we go.

Today marks the 39 hash mark toward 100 days of Qi Kung. I have been practicing with erratic irregularity for about five years, so setting my sites on actually getting a consecutive practice down is a big deal for me. On Nov 8, after over a decade of smoking, I finally kicked the habit for good. It served me as a coping strategy for a very long time, so the adjustment to not relying on that crutch has been considerable. Serious Qi work has helped.

Luck Lessons: I started reading Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf of an abridged version here) which explores how cognitive practices can influence good fortune in your life. Far from waxing new age-y, Wiseman is a psychologist who backs his arguments with empirical evidence. My reading of it really regards “luck” as more a metaphor than actually bringing— what is by definition—a supernatural force to bear on your day-to-day. I’d also contend that a lot of the thinking Wiseman advances is Taoist in nature, which I will elaborate on in later posts. Feel free to download the .pdf and participate in this journey, I’d love to get your feedback on some of the forthcoming lessons shared here.

Think Fast, it’s coming. Influenced & inspired by Art of Non-Conformity, I am writing an e-book manifesto in collaboration with the talented staff at RMK Photography. I’ll keep you all posted on the project as we move further along. You can get a sneak peak checking out my five part series on Overcomplification, which outlines some of the basic ideas.

I also want to share some great finds I’ve had this month, namely:

Art of Conformity: Chris G writes a thought-provoking, globe-trotting, engaging & inspiring blog on changing the world.

Rambling Taoist: I came across this site looking for like minded, Tao-oriented folks. Trey, at Rambling Taoist, has been posting his interpretations of the classic Wen-Tzu, which I have found interesting & insightful.


Smile, it’s free

Adam-O is a Caine-from-Kung-Fu-kind-of-guy. He practices Kung Fu. He wears Shaolin robes. He travels small-town-to-small-town solving small town problems (see: The Incredible Hulk, The Fugitive, & The A-Team for more examples). When he occasionally appears back on the grid, he is always dropping knowledge. As I approach my 35th day of consecutive Qi Kung practice, I have begun to work in some of Adam-O’s suggestions into my practice. I am introducing a regular feature here that disseminates the pearls of wisdom Adam-O occasionally drops on me…. Here we go, Grasshoppers!

Smile. Adam-O suggested that I work a smile into my Qi Kung practice. This seems simple on the surface, but the fact is while you’re concentrating on the movements of practice, it is difficult to crack a grin through a furrowed brow of concentration. Doing so allows you to have fun while practicing, instead of wasting energy trying to get every motion right.

While it might sound like some useless hippy garbage, the fact is a smile lowers the Cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone) in your blood stream, it actually normalizes blood pressure, and amazingly it also boosts your immune system increasing antibodies.

I have also begun to translate this into my day-to-day as well. Smiling outside practice can change your outlook and the outlook of those around you. In fact, a Harvard / University of California study measured how social networks were connected with reported happiness. The study showed happiness is contagious, spreading among groups of people. Five thousand people with a more than 50,000 connection network of family, friends, co-workers and others were evaluated (read more here).

Richard Wiseman, author of the Luck Factor, points out that it may also change your fortune  (read more here or download a .pdf copy here). In his psychological investigation into luck, he interviewed numerous self-proclaimed lucky & unlucky individuals and had a team of researchers review the videos on mute recording hand gestures and body language, he found:

The differences between the lucky and unlucky people were dramatic. The lucky people smiled twice as much as unlucky people and engaged in far more eye contact.

If you smile watching the clip below, remember that it may be adding years to your life, quality to those years, and helping spread joy to family & friends!

Overcomplification Series (5 of 5): Play, Experiment & F**k up well

Goals are not a cure all for everything that ails you. They are not mana from heaven. They will not remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery (unless your goals are to remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery). As hard a sell as I have given goal setting, there are two points that should be made.

First, effort is required. The best-laid plans just lay there without work. It seems self-evident, but I still feel it need be said.

Second, you are going to screw up. Yep. Even if your goal is to be perfect, you aren’t going to make it. The original title of this series was how to NOT write & produce your play in five easy steps. In the past four years, instead of writing my play, I helped establish a theatre group, orchestrated fundraisers, found co-producers, directed a show and so on, with very little writing. I have also overextended myself on freelance writing projects, took on assignments that didn’t actually advance me professionally, and ended up unemployed twice.

In short, in spite of goal setting I have messed up a lot, but more importantly, I have learned from those failings. This entry is about learning through Play, Experimenting & F**king up well to manage and learn from mistakes (even big ones, like accidentally starting another Chicago theatre group).

Play: While I was working on this entry, I attended an event Embracing the Physical | Digital Divide at IDEO: A Design & Innovation Consulting Firm. Speakers & audience alike were very geeked by the possibilities inherent in design (admittedly, I was there because I’d been geeked by the possibilities inherent in design after having read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind). I was impressed by the presentations, demonstrating a creative convergence between art, engineering, marketing, and invention— (seriously, what is not to be excited about?)—but, what really impressed me is how much fun these folks seemed to have. Even scrambling under the pressure of a virtually impossible two-week deadline pulling virtually impossible hours to make it happen, they seemed to be having a blast.

They embody the spirit of play. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell writes in his book CrazyBusy about how technology invokes that in many of us:

Watch people on their cell phones or Blackberrys as they walk down Fifth Avenue or wait in airport lounges; there’s still a little bit of a kid at play in there. Talk on the phone as you walk down the street? Awesome, dude! Way cool. I can’t believe I can really do this! Look at those people walking by me looking at me as I talk on my phone….

Watch the stock trader multitasking, shifting from his phone to his email to the streaming stock quotes on his Bloomberg to typing on his PC to talking to someone who pops his head in the door. This orchestration of activities in nothing if not thrilling, at least for most people who do it (& call it work)… Watch the journalist putting together an article, finding in milliseconds on a Google search what used to take hours or days to research, cutting and pasting in seconds what used to take many minutes and painstaking attention to accomplish.

When I was out-of-work awhile back, I got sick of interviewers asking: “So, you’re a writer, what else do you do?” If it had happened once, I’d have written it off, but that it happened repeatedly— something was going on here.

They were talking, of course, about new media. I didn’t catch on right a way that the fangled interweb stuff that I was doing for fun was what they were asking about in interviews. When it finally clicked (after a rather painful interview experience), I subscribed to Wired and got busy… playing. I learned all the toys, tools, gadgets, and wa-hoo-ees that I could get my apps on. Now that my job actually involves Facebook-ing this is even truer than it was during my bout of unemployment, but maintaining a spirit of play is critical to keeping a level head about it. In fact, I am writing this entry right now because one of my close friend’s, John and I have been playfully “competing” (mostly against ourselves) for who is the most consistent blogger.

Don’t take my word for it though, here is IDEO founder Tim Brown talking about the link between creativity & play at the last TED conference:

Experiment: Goal setting itself, for me, was an experiment. The subsequent yearlong replication & even this ambitious five-year plan, both are experiments. I conduct random experiments with my life all the time, which end up helping improve it or getting abandoned quickly. I started applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done, as an experiment two-years ago (I am still applying many of the techniques), but if I hadn’t been able to apply them, they’d quickly be forgotten. I am applying Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf copy here) to my life right now as an experiment. This blog is an experiment.

The beauty of experimentation is that you can be uncommitted to a lifestyle change. It takes the pressure off of personal transformation. You introduce small tools, techniques or skills into your life, like the trial order on a TV shopping program, but return it with a lot less hassle if it doesn’t pan. That is how I was able to ply so many therapeutic techniques to my daily living as a counselor (see PART 1 for details). Experiment allowed me to try a technique for a little bit, choosing which to commit too, adopt and teach with no loss when the rest were abandoned.

F**k up well: Seth Godin’s rapid-read The Dip is slim enough to devour in half a sitting. The theme encourages readers to make it through the drudge, take risks and learn from mistakes. That, Godin contends is a recipe for success.

My takeaway from starting a theatre group, instead of writing a play, was simply that there are no shortcuts. In some convoluted way, trying to launch a Chicago-theatre group seemed like a quicker, easier route to getting my play on stage than writing, submitting, participating in fests and actually working the scene. It should seem self-evident, but it took 6-months of traipsing in the wrong direction to catch on. It makes sense, it seems easier to land a producer and do-it yourself than to pay your dues. The drudge, the work, the slogging through, the getting-there—that is Godin’s Dip!— and it pays off far more in the long run than a quick fix would.

The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, Also, Wired just ran a fantastic story with “Jack Donaghy” on the cover that is all about failing well. It is a great read and well worth checking out. The themes surveyed in this series will be visited again in this blog.

Lucky Duck

Ben Sherwood devotes an entire chapter of his remarkable book The Survivor Club to the science of luck. In an interview with psychologist Richard Wiseman, Sherwood differentiates four characteristics that set “lucky” folk apart from “unlucky” ones. The answer has less to do with supernatural forces or superstitious objects than it does perception. “Lucky” folk seem to have a broader awareness than their “unlucky” counterparts. Wiseman’s replication of a Harvard study on inattentional blindness further illuminates this point, his four reasons for “lucky” folk appear below the clip.

First, “lucky” people are often in the “right place” at the “right time” because they have the “right frame of mind.” Stumbling into chance opportunities is more often the result of being open to possibility. You can increase your luck simply by chilling out. Calm, emotionally stable, relaxed people are more aware of what is happening around them (& opportunities that present themselves) than anxious, overwhelmed, high-stress people.

Second, “lucky” people go with their gut, while according to Wiseman, “unlucky people often ignore their intuition and regret their decision.” This rapid cognition is the same thing Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Blink. While avoiding terms like intuition or gut instinct, Gladwell talks about the conclusions that the mind comes to in the first two seconds of encountering new information. You can increase your luck by paying closer attention to your initial reactions.

Third, “lucky” people persist in spite of failure. Sherwood writes that “lucky” people are “convinced that life’s most unpredictable events will ‘consistently work out for them,’ while, “unlucky people expect that things will always go wrong.” This ‘doom & gloom’ outlook becomes self-fulfilling. You can increase your luck by paying attention to your internal script. If you are in the ‘doom & gloom’ camp redirect your negative self-talk with positive affirmations, it can change more than just your outlook.

Fourth, lucky people have an uncanny ability to turn lemons into lemonade or as Sherwood puts it, “a special ability to turn bad luck into good fortune.” In times of misfortune, “lucky” people tap into their inner most resources to turn a potential disaster into a ‘lucky’ development. You can increase your luck by looking for opportunity in crisis.

Read more on how to make your own luck.

Five Lessons From Avatar

I will admit I was skeptical of James Cameron’s new epic Avatar. I didn’t believe that I would empathize with 9-foot tall blue creatures & the graphics seemed too video game-esque for my tastes.

I was wrong.

The film is a masterpiece. Cameron waited for years until the technology caught up with his vision. He literally dreamt the world that we see, wrote it, and shelved the project until it could be expressed the way the story needed to be told. He truly outdoes himself. Amazing eye candy, a story that feels like Howard Zinn on sci-fi, and a film that provides an actual experience well-beyond mere viewing. It leaves a mark deeper than its 162 minute viewing time. Below the trailer are five lessons I took away with me after leaving the theatre.

The interconnectedness of all things: Modern biology is finally catching up with indigenous tribal beliefs. Ecosystems have always relied on a complex series of interrelated, inter-reliant species of plant and animal, soil and cellular material. Decaying trees & plants add organic material to the soil, new plant life grows from these nutrients, animals & insects feed on this vegetation as sustenance and the green grass grows all around & around (& the green grass grows all around). The Na’vi vividly illustrate the interconnectedness of ecology by literally connecting with their environment. They have a mind meld with the horses they ride, the birds they fly, and even the trees where they make their home.

This metaphor is woven throughout the narrative. It underscores the contrast between the humans that perceive Pandora (the Na’vi home planet) as a hostile environment full of creatures intent on their demise (while they in turn exploit its natural resources indiscriminately) and the Na’vi who attempt to live in harmony and balance with their landscape.

Follow your instincts: At one point Neytiri, the Na’vi charged with educating the human Jake Sully, leaps from a ledge catching leaves & vines as she falls to slow her descent and bring her to the ground safely. In a scene reminiscent of the “jump” sequence in the Matrix, Sully must decide in an instant whether to take the plunge (& follow Neytiri) or not. He does so, rather clumsily, but makes it to the ground. This theme of “trusting your instincts” and feeling your way into what is right courses throughout the film, including a pivotal plot device that I can’t actually give away.  Sully is torn between loyalties throughout the film (the Natives & the military, the soldiers & science), but for all intents and purposes, what is “right” is not always what is obvious (even to the audience). By trusting his instincts, he is able to make very difficult choices, often at great personal sacrifice & risk, which have tremendous payoff in the long run.

Watch for signs: Neytiri should kill Jake Sully on sight, but when a fluff from a sacred tree lands on her arrow tip, she quickly realizes there is not much of a movie if she offs the main character this early. Signs are everywhere, if we are tuned in enough to notice. Throughout the narrative the Na’vi take their cues from the landscape around them and the biologically based spirituality that they have developed to interact with their environment. Psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor, explores the cognitive aspects of “luck” beyond superstition. He argues, “being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind.”  Scientifically speaking, “lucky” people aren’t supernaturally wired for good fortune, but are more tuned in, open, and receptive to possibilities. Our ability to perceive & take cues from signs around us isn’t spiritual, just more perceptive and aware.

Empty your cup: This point overlaps very closely to the former, probably should come first, and is based on a classic Zen story.

Mo’at, mother to Neytiri, in assessing what is to be done with Sully, whose Western/ human views make him a bumbling “infant” in the world of Pandora, instructs him to empty his cup, which is too full of preconceived notions to make him truly perceptive of what is happening around him. Basically, Sully must unlearn his programming before he can learn the ways of the Na’vi. The original story, at least how I originally heard it, goes something like this:

A Jesuit missionary in rural Japan calls upon a Master to learn Zen. He is ecstatic, animated and eager to discuss what he perceives as parallels between Biblical parables & Zen stories. The Missionary states eagerly, “I am so glad that you took the time to meet with me, I see so much overlap between our two faiths and I think this will be an excellent opportunity to—“

The Zen master raises his hand and asks only, “Would you like some tea?”

The Jesuit is not much of a tea fan, but is enthusiastic to make an impression. “Of course, that would be great, of course.” He responds, launching back into it, “Just as you recognize the significance of nature, so to did Jesus proclaim that he was beneath each rock, in all nature—”

Again, the Zen master cuts him off raising a hand, “Would you like some tea?”

The Jesuit hasn’t taken a sip, but shrugs politely. His cup is filled higher. He takes a sip of the steaming brew, making a show of enjoying it, before he tries another tact. “In Christianity, we also meditate, enter a deep reflective state, just as you meditate—”

He can barely get started before the Zen master offers more tea. The Jesuit cannot even answer before the Zen master pours, quickly overflowing the brim of the mug, spilling across the table and dumping into the Jesuit’s lap. The Priest yelps, pushes from the seat and leaps to his feet, “Are you crazy Old Man? I barely take a sip and you refill my cup. Every time I try to tell a story, you cut me off. What is the matter with you!?!”

The Zen master only shakes his head and says: “How can you expect to receive anything if you don’t empty your cup?”

Wiseman differentiated the personalities of his “lucky” (perceptive) individuals from his “unlucky” (unperceptive) subjects. Those who had poorer fortune tended to be anxious, tense, highly sensitive to stress, which often translated to their being uptight and shut-off from opportunity. On the other hand, those who had emptied their cup were more laid-back and relaxed, tended to open to greater possibility.

Adapt to your surroundings: In Shadows in the Sun, anthropologist, author and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis wrote of the inability of early British explorers to survive in the Artic. They refused to adapt and adopt the ways of the indigenous Inuit population, even mocking their animal skin lined, fur coats. They continued to wear cotton undergarments that quickly turned sweat to ice—freezing the fabric to flesh— causing hypothermia & pneumonia. To make matters worse, the sleds these explorers were using to transport their essential goods were loaded with the wares needed for a perfect British gentleman: fine China dish sets, leather bound books, silverware. These artifacts weighed them down as they attempted to traverse tundra and navigate harsh blizzards.

Jake Sully’s ability not only to ask for help, but also to apply the ways of the Na’vi quickly is essential to his survival. When he is first lost in the jungles of Pandora, it is assumed by Dr. Augustine that he won’t make it through the night. He catches on quick, learning that the Na’vi live in balance with the world around them; they respectfully use everything in the environment around them to help them to survive. In contrast, Sully’s fellow Marines, like the British explorers Davis describes, see themselves in opposition to their environment.

I caught Avatar at IMAX. It was an amazing experience of multi-sensory cinema. The combination of innovative 3D technology and great storytelling work together to draw the viewer in and take them on a journey, but the transcendent lessons imparted by the film are what defines its legacy.