Saturday, August 14, 2010

Six Decades and Counting

As a seven year old, one of my greatest ambitions was to own a pocket knife. My mom told me that I would have to wait until I was 10 to have that responsibility. I very clearly remember how I anguished over having to wait so long.

Today, I am sixty.

I tend to think in decades: I started work at HP in my twenties,, I was in my thirties when I first believed in Jesus, I was in my fifties when I finally found a psychiatrist who could help me.

What will I think of my sixties if I live to be 70 or 80?

- More and more I realize how important God, friends, and family are. All else seems to pale.
- I am at the start of a new career working as a peer specialist with folks who have struggled with mental health issues.
- I am finally beginning to understand what it means to "eat healthy".
- I rejoice in having a new knee that works so much better than my natural one did during my fifties.
- I love being a grandpa.
- I marvel at how my children are blossoming.
- Barbara and I love each other more and more. There seems to be no limit to how our love can grow.

Of course, this is also a season of loss. Skin continues to lose it's elasticity. Testosterone appears to be on the wane. It seems a bit harder to hear, and it takes just the right corrective lenses to see things right in front of my face. My thirst for adventure is greatly diminished. Comfort beckons seductively.

I have finally learned enough to understand how small my store of knowledge is and how vast is the potential to learn more.

As much as I love knowledge, I have come to prize wisdom even more.

I am delightfully near the end of my life on earth. As always, the day of my death may be today, or it may be decades in the future. However, the end is more plainly in view than ever before.

I am here as planned by God. But this is not my home.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The $100 computer for $100

So far the one hundred dollar computer intiative is stuck making two hundred dollar computers with a black and white screen.

However, $20 cell phones are all over the developing world. They aren't capable of doing a lot of the things that would be useful in education. But how much might it cost to upgrade them instead of creating a whole new creature.

Smart phones seem to do most of what a teacher would want for the class. Probably more.

Were one to shrink the memory some, make it a 1.5 pixel camera instead of five, and use a keyboard only instead of a touch screen, and a few other cost reduction measures, one could be within spitting distance of the $100 computer. Follow display and memory costs down the cost curve in 2011 and 2012 and I'm guessing that one would not even have to spit very far.

Volume is also a big factor. Here the third world model could piggyback of the sort of volumes that smartphones are enjoying.

We need to break the paradigm of phone vs computer and realize that what we have are less capable computers and more capable computers. All networked via LAN, WiFi, or cell signal.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ponzi and the Pyramids

We are flawed.  Those flaws result in a variety of aberrations that recur over the centuries.  Specifics may differ but the fundamentals are the same.  Greed drives certain investment schemes that are doomed  from their inception.  It is greed that enables us to overlook the clear evidence of the coming collapse.  It is also greed that motivates us to do our best to saddle someone else with the losses when the collapse does occur.

Decades ago, a friend,.  Jane*, asked my opinion of a proposal made to her.  At a gathering in Bob's home, a group of friends, acquaintances, and strangers listened to a speaker who offered them the opportunity to rapidly turn a $1000 investment into $64,000.  The speaker made it clear  that the 6400% return on investment could be theirs in a few months if they were spend a few hours each week simply sharing the good news about this investment with friends, family, co-workers, and others.

With some effort, I was able to convince Jane that the scheme was impossible.  She decided not to invest.  At least one of Jane's friends stopped speaking to her. She was frustrated that Jane would not participate. Other friends railed at her for being foolish to pass up such an opportunity.

To convince Jane that the scheme wouldn't work (for most of the participants).  I drew a graphic similar to this pyramid.

Illustration credit:  public domain, created by U.S. goverment

The pyramid shows that if each participant is able to find six new investors,  the total number of investors will soon exceed the total population of the world  Of course the number of willing investors would have been exceeded long before that.  Once no new investors can be recruited, the participants who joined in the last few levels of the pyramid all lose their money.  More than 90% of the participants will lose their money.

Jane was no math whiz, but she got the general idea. However, I was shocked to learn that among my coworkers, folks like Jim were participating. Jim has an advanced degree in engineering.  At that time he was the manager for a group of dozens of professionals.  He was responsible for budget management and profit and loss for an entire product line at a major electronics corporation.  Only God knows Jim's heart, but from what I knew of him, he was an honest man.  Yet somehow, he was helping to build the pyramid when a few simple calculations could reveal that it was doomed to failure.

I don't know if Jim  lost money.  Once a pyramid collapses, virtually none of the participants will talk about it.  The minority who actually made money fear the wrath of those who did not.  Those who lost are embarrassed by their gullibility.  There is an additional incentive to stay quiet: the entire scheme is illegal.

There are a many variants of the basic pyramid.  They have a few things in common.  Only the very earliest participants have a shot at making a profit.  New recruits are always told that they are "getting in early".  The fact that most participants will lose their money is denied, ignored, or said to be irrelevant because "we are getting in early".

Pyramid schemes are illegal.  To circumvent that difficulty, the scam is presented as a "multilevel marketing opportunity".  As with the pyramid, there an initial investment is required.  The participants are told to sell a product or service and keep a small profit from each sale.  If it stopped there, the opportunity to make money would vary depending on the skill of each new sales person, the desirability of the product or service, the size of the market and so on.  It is the multilevel aspect that should raise suspicion. In addition to selling products or services, each participant is exhorted to recruit a next level of participants who will also sell.  The person who successfully recruits some number of participants in the next level, receives either a cash bonus or a cash flow created from a small percentage of that next level's sales.  Every level is expected to recruit the members of a next level.  As with the pure pyramid, the number of participants soon swells beyond anything sustainable.
The majority of players lose their investment.  There are attempts to make multilevel marketing illegal in case where it is clear that the major incentive is recruiting new members.  However, the gray zone is large enough to house any number of such schemes. Long distance phone cards. Household products.  Dietary supplements.  Those are but a few of the items pushed in multilevel marketing.

Ponzi schemes are a variant where a small number of people benefit a lot by convincing many other folks to trust them with their money.  The return on investment offered ranges from very high to just consistently better than that available from legitimate investments.  Participants are allowed to withdraw earnings on their investment.  But the supposed earnings are simply cash extracted from new participants. Eventually the folks running the Ponzi scheme are unable to attract enough new investors to sustain the sham.  A spectacular recent example was the investment firm run by Bernie Madoff. Madoff's scam cost investors tens of billions of dollars. The phony investment firm existed for decades and brought great wealth to Madoff and a few others. The majority of investors lost all that they had invested as well as large illusory gains.

For most of us, earning money is arduous.  Saving requires discipline.  Investments entail risk.  Any offer that purports to eliminate even one of those barriers to wealth should be highly suspect.  You can bank on that.

*All names fictitious with the exception of Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Contracts, Warning Labels, and Liability Releases

Photo credit: Don't Do It from brettneilson

Addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1931, Alfred Korzybski said "The map is not the territory." A map is, of course a piece of paper covered in lines and printing. When I hiked the back country, I fervently hoped that my topographical map was a faithful representation of the trails I followed and the hills I had to surmount. On at least one occasion, I followed a trail to the summit of the Squaw Valley ski area, only to learn that the return trail I had planned to use was on the other side of an unscalable cliff. I read the map well enough, but it did not include sufficient detail to alert me to a cliff that was undeniably there.

In the same sense that a map is not the territory, a written contract is not an agreement backed by commitment and good will among those who sign it. For millenniums the most solemn pacts, treaties, and contracts have been made and then broken. Nonetheless, we are using more and more contracts of greater and greater complexity. The contracts have become so complex and lengthy that even an expert lawyer has to study one long and hard to deliver an opinion on its applicability to a specific situation. Any two lawyers might easily disagree. Furthermore, contracts are often signed by folks without access to legal counsel. Worse still, contracts are often signed by at least one party who has not read it at all.

Software can be expensive to create and cheap to copy. Consequently, buyers are required to sign a legal agreement regarding making copies and terms of use. Very few of buyers read the terms of use. The percentage is likely so small as to approximate zero.

Consider the Microsoft Service Agreement. Those who buy Microsoft products must accept it. The agreement is 12 pages (6594 words) long. Plus the main agreement refers to ancillary agreements, such as the 6 page Microsoft Privacy Policy. The privacy policy references the Microsoft Anti-Spam Policy, a mere lightweight at 460 words. These agreements include far more than a prohibition on copying the software. There are limits on Microsoft's liability. There are conditions on how the software may be used.

Similar agreements are required by most companies who sell software.

There is no value in those agreements. U.S. software is presumed to be copyrighted once it is written. Besides, what sense does it make to require someone to indicate agreement, when it is well known that they have virtually no knowledge of what they are signing.

The same applies to the "liability releases" that we sign continually. My sons loved paint ball competitions. To enable them to participate, I sometimes signed releases that said I couldn't sue the paint ball range, even if they harmed my son on purpose! That sort of release would be useless in court. We cannot sign away another parties's responsibility to take reasonable safety precautions.

Whether or not an agreement is required, warning labels proliferate. There are incredibly stupid warnings such as "Do Not Place Feet or Hands Under Mower Deck". We see coffee cups with the warning: "This Coffee Is Hot". Many common objects are covered with various warnings, and even if the object cannot support the labels, the same nonsense is included in owners manuals.

Contracts can be a valuable way to insure that the parties involved have carefully considered what they are agreeing to. However, our current plethora of boiler plate contracts, labels, and liability releases have become as ridiculous wall paper covered in print saying "running into this wall at high speed may result in injuries".

Legalese nonsense will continue to proliferate until a few brave citizens or companies dare to do business without it.

Meanwhile, please be aware that reading these blog posts can result in eyestrain, headache, blurred vision, and somnolence. Consult with your health professional immediately if you experience any discomfort whatsoever.

Popular Delusions and Madness Revisted

Photo Credit: Nazi Rally, Nuremberg 1934

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, was written by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, and first published in 1841. I highly recommend it. I confess, however, that certain aspects of the book are deeply disturbing. The book includes a selection of investment bubbles which resemble the Enron, Dot Com, and Credit Default Swap stories of our era. Mackay confirms that the madness has existed for centuries. The book is not limited to financial follies. Alchemy, witch hunting, and the Crusades, to name just a few, reveal that the delusions crop up in every arena: science, spirituality, and affairs of state.

Since the second and final edition of Mackay's book was published in 1853, humans have had an additional 16 or 17 decades to devise new, yet eerily similar, schemes for bring about financial ruin, persecution of innocents, and world wide religious wars.

In future posts, I will examine delusions prominent in the second half of the 19th century and the entire 20th century. As for the 21st, although I see a number of likely candidates, it is probably too early to document our current delusions.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


photo credit: Book Rowsby Jasoon

Thirty million book titles have been printed. Clearly the idea of being well read does not mean reading a substantial portion of those titles. At the rate of one book per week, a person with an 80 year "reading life" would read approximately 4,000 books. Even at one book per day, 80 years is only enough to read about .1% of those thirty million titles. Assuming each book is about an inch thick, 4,000 books would require more than 300 feet of shelf space. A modest size shopping mall bookstore has about 20,000 titles on hand. The book superstores have about five times that many.

Now that online bookstores exist, millions of titles may be available to anyone with an internet connection.

I'm not sure that the term "well read" has any useful purpose now, even if it did at one time.

Most of the books I have read have been for entertainment. A small number like my college calculus text were strictly for learning purposes. Some subset of the books I read for entertainment are also informative, even edifying at times.
There is only a small number of titles that I have read more than once. The bible tops the list with more than 20 readings. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is number two with about 12 readings. After that I can remember perhaps dozens of books that I have read twice, but certainly less than 100 (uh, not counting certain kid's books that I read over and over again to demanding toddlers).

At most I average one book per week. So if I live to be eighty (and keep reading!) I have time to finish another 1000 titles. I was shocked when I first did that calculation. A thousand books feels very limiting to me. I suddenly regretted all the poor quality titles I have read in the past 50 plus years. I also regret that my choice of books has been so incredibly haphazard. I don't know what reading plan I might have followed, but I do know that I haven't followed any sort of plan at all.

Of course, I have read a lot more than just books. I think of stacks and stacks of newspapers, magazines, brochures, junk mail, e-mails (well virtual stacks), and more. I have definitely benefited from reading. No question. What I wonder is, could I have benefited more by reading less or more selectively.

During most of my life I feared that I read too little rather than too much. Now I think more in terms of having read valuable things versus useless ones. But how shall I value any given bit of reading? I really don't know.

I am having one of those days where I question the value of just about everything I have done. I'm glad that loving my family and having a few friends has been part of the equation. I have also prayed a bit and served a few folks. However, a great deal of what I do seems utterly purposeless.

I pray that I will be more able to do work that pleases God and spend less time worrying about it. Colossians 3:23

Monday, February 01, 2010

How I Met GOD

photo credit: God is moon by Gr├ęgoire Lannoy

One day a friend and I were shooting arrows straight up and seeing how close we could let them land without flinching. We took a break and talked about God. I think I was 10.

"God, if you exist, show us right now. At least send a lightning bolt or something."

No show, no bolt. So we were pretty sure that the whole God thing was just made up.

For a kid dumb enough to rain arrows on himself, you might be surprised at how smart I was in science. I loved it. I studied it for fun. By the time I was 14, I had won a science competition over 400 other kids. I pretty much cheated. I studied the general science book that all the questions were to be taken from. I read it cover to cover. The book didn't mention God.

Years later. I was an engineer. I helped invent computers, the Internet, and LEDs. There were probably only a few million of us working on that stuff. We divided the work into pieces. Really, really small pieces. Nonetheless, I felt smart.

I continued to love science. In my early thirties I performed an experiment to see how much alcohol and illicit drugs it would take to destroy me. It took a lot. My zeal for the experiment waned. I decided to shut it down.

Now I had a chance to do personal research on how hard and how miserable it is to quit. Various people told me that I would probably fail to stay quit if I didn't get help from God. Oh yeah. God. I hadn't met him and was still almost positive he didn't exist. That made it hard to ask him for help.

I started reading books that did talk about God: The AA "big book", William James, and Carl Jung. I decided God was really just a name for some of the amazingly complicated chemicals in my head. I was a lot more comfortable then. I knew quite a bit about complicated chemicals.

However, I realized I had not spent much time thinking about the chemicals named God. Now that my life was on the line (not to mention my comfort), I decided I better put a high priority on getting to know God better. I decided to spend almost as much time thinking about God each day as I spent listening to the car radio while commuting. Major commitment.

Apparently talking to yourself is actually good so long as your self is really big and important. I figured the God chemicals must be the big, important factor since the rest of my chemicals composed an o.k. human, but not one that could inspire worship from anyone other than a dog.

Of course I am simplifying things a bit. I knew God wasn't just chemicals. I knew there was also electricity and a lot of genetic information painstakingly crafted by eons of accidents. Once again, I realized I was smart. Most people did not understand how accidents could result in people.

I did.

I wrestled hard with my own head, seeking to get a glimpse of the God part of it. I really needed to get to know God, because I was having a very tough time staying quit, just like everyone said I would. I even got up early most days to make time for wrestling. I hate getting up early. Early is a sharp pain, whereas late is just a dull ache.

I got frustrated. I thought to myself , "I need to work harder on my concept of God."

That was when GOD chose to speak to me. GOD said, "I am not your concept, you are my concept." Speak is the only word I have for it. But it wasn't a matter of vibrating air molecules. Neither was it that little voice inside my head that I use for talking to my self.

I was scared. Not because I thought I was hallucinating, but because I knew I wasn't.

I knew I had met GOD.

Over the past 25 years or so, I have gotten to know GOD much better. However, when a person is infinite (well, three persons), the things you learn seem quite small compared to the things you still don't know.

I don't feel as smart as I did. I am, however, much happier.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fractals: Who Knew?

The word fractal was coined in ca. 1980 by the mathematician who was the first to demonstrate how an obscure branch of geometry could be used to generate remarkable models that show properties that are stunningly similar to complex configurations in nature: the branching of trees, coastlines, broccoli florets, galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and many more.

I had heard the word, but didn't know much about them until I read a post in Christine Quigley's blog (my favorite blog!). I especially recommend the 50 minute video she showcased, it is entitled Fractals: The Colors of Infinity.

Despite my engineering education, advanced mathematics (Calculus and beyond), has always been a weak area for me. Even after the excellent explanations and examples in the video, I could not actually generate an image using a fractal. Nonetheless, one property of fractals really popped out at me.

A fractal is a short mathematical expression (example: Z = z times z plus c) which can be iterated to produce artifacts of enormous complexity, endlessly unique shapes with recognizable similarities.

Thus fractals can be used to create geometries more characteristic of nature than of a machine shop's product. One example would be the shapes of trees. Although every oak tree branches in a unique pattern, the patterns of oak tree branches is readily distinguishable from the patterns of pine tree branches. The coastline of Ireland is quite different from the coastline of Puerto Rico, and yet island coastlines are easily recognizable as such on a map. The scale is not important, a bonsai cypress bears a striking resemblance to a huge old growth cypress. Australia's island coastline is clearly in a class with Jamaica's .

What struck me was that a process composed of a few simple steps can create infinitely complex shapes with easily recognizable similarities. I see a parallel with Christian lives. Following Jesus
requires us to invite him to help us iterate on relatively straight forward set of teachings: love one another, forgive one another, give generously, serve humbly, and so on. As each of us repeats those steps over and over, a pattern emerges that is unique to our own life and yet recognizably similar to the lives of other faithful followers of Christ. In a similar way, the pursuit of worldly goals consists of iterations of pride, greed, lust, hate, and so on. Again, each worldly life will differ from all others and yet there are easily recognizable patterns that emerge.

Scale is not important here, just as with fractals. A small kindness resembles a large kindness; a small theft resembles a large one.

Simple steps are not necessarily easy steps. Even small simple steps may be very difficult. Forgiving a small injury may prove more difficult than forgiving a larger one. Giving a billion dollars may be easier for Bill Gates than giving a thousand is for a single mom of limited means.

Fortunately, each of us is simply responsible to follow God's leading, one step at a time. And because God knows that we will fail apart from his help, he has provided the grace we need.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

High Priests of the Big Bang

Wonder. Humans wonder. We want to know.

Journalists created five W's and an H as a mnemonic to help them satisfy our curiosity any time they report an event.

  • Who? Who was involved?
  • What? What happened (what's the story)?
  • When? When did it take place?
  • Where? Where did it take place?
  • Why? Why did it happen?
  • How? How did it happen?
We are most satisfied when all of those questions are answered. Of course, for even the most trivial stories, say a fender bender at rush hour, it is possible that we will never get all the answers.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that we humans struggle to create a story about the origin of the universe that satisfactorily answers all of the Five W's and the H. A quick survey of cosmological theories over the centuries shows that we have had a tough time answering even one of the questions. It is not surprising that there have been attempts to shorten the list of questions.

For many centuries, physicists supposed the when question to be irrelevant. The universe was declared to have had no beginning and no end. Timeless and infinite. But, for most of the last century, scientific thought about the physical universe seems to point to a beginning: the big bang. Before the big bang, neither when nor where existed. Space and time did not exist until the big bang happened. The clock couldn't start ticking until then. Many physicists estimate that the clock has been ticking for about 14 billion years.

There is no strong consensus on when (or even whether) the universe will end. Consequently, one may find several scenarios: The big freeze, the big rip, the big crunch, The big bounce, and the multiverse. Cosmologists seem overly fond of the word big. Big compared to us I suppose, but I thought we had given up having man be the measure (and center) of the universe. Multiverse is a contradiction in terms, since universe is meant to describe all that is.

It surprises me that one of the more literate cosmologists hasn't proposed the the big whimper, thus allowing us to start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Cosmologists have done their best to answer the what, when, and where questions. Things get messy when we move on to who, why, and how. Those who are disinclined to the spiritual side resent the suggestion that a who is involved. With no who, the question of why is difficult to entertain. Theists propose a Big Who and believe that the Who knows why.

Cosmologists have an o.k. story about the how follows the big bang. They don't have much to say about how the big bang happened. It would be a description of no space and time suddenly spawning a singularity that contains all space time and proceeds to spread out over as many dimensions as we care to do the math for. So nothing results in everything tightly compressed , followed by expansion ended by freeze, rip, crunch, bounce or the poet's entry, whimper.

This would seem to be a story that suits both theists and atheists. The matters of who and why could be declared outside the scope of the cosmological debate. However this seems to trouble some atheists, who insist there is nothing outside the scope of the physical universe. Theists, like myself, wonder what makes the atheist care about the who and why questions, since they seem to insist that who and why don't exist. It seems the atheist wants the theist to play by the rules while insisting that there are no rules.

It is those atheists who want theists to shape up and fly right that I would call the High Priests of the Big Bang. The High Priests seem to damn the theists, and not with faint praise. I pray God would bless the atheists, and sincerely hope that damnation is not their fate nor my own.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Living Poised Between Heaven and Hell

photo credit: Heaven & Hell by J. Lozano

When things are great, we say "this is heaven on earth". When things are really bad we say "I am going through hell".

Neither is true.

Our lives are a mixture of pain and sorrow, pleasure and joy. We work to move closer to the good and further from the bad, but we know that bad things of one sort or another will dog us to the end of our days on earth. When life is particularly difficult, we may despair, yet the sun rises each day, flowers grow, children laugh. We could not survive if all things were evil.

We exist somewhere between the worst and the best we can imagine. We may rest easy at a spot where the hellish events on this earth seem to be far from us, but we know that in a single moment, terrible suffering may beset us.

Recently a friend and five of her seven children were in a van, on a freeway, returning from a vacation. Her son was driving and made a common mistake for a new driver, he over corrected the steering in response to a small difficulty. Even at the legal speed limit, that one error was enough to cause the van to careen and then roll several times. The friend and four of her children were battered badly, but sustained no serious injury. However, one daughter repeatedly struck the pavement. When all movement stopped, she was badly injured and pinned under the weight of the van.

Disease. Accidents. Financial ruin. Each can occur at any time. I thank God that I have enjoyed a life where such difficulties have been the punctuation in sentences, rather than the body of the story. There are some who struggle to see the few bright spots in their otherwise bleak existence.

Optimists and pessimists are both frequently correct. However, both are fallible and unable to predict the future accurately. From conception to death, we live poised between heaven and hell. Our best efforts may not succeed in moving us closer to heaven. Our personal failures and our worst enemies may not be able to move us closer to hell.

God knows the troubles we experience. He became a man and walked the earth. He suffered and died. He has not forgotten a single one of us. He calls us to him, that we may be assured a home with him for all eternity. We must focus on what is ahead as we endure what is here. We can be thankful for the good things in this life. Better is yet to come.

Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Pray to serve better.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

What Most People Need Is A Good Listening To

You probably have a lot to say, a lot on your mind, a need to vent a bit. So do I. So do most people. There is a plenitude of folks who want to talk. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of folks who want to listen.

Perhaps you are thinking, "That's not true. I have to listen to others all day long. I am lucky to get even a scrap of air time." That may well be. There are plenty of people who feel that they have to listen. I am talking about people who want to listen.

It is much more difficult to listen when compelled to do so instead of desiring to do so. You may very well hear every word spoken. You may even remember most of them. But as John Milton wrote "The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven". The ear can pick up the sound waves, the brain can process and store the message, while the mind is stubbornly pursuing its own agenda. Sometimes that agenda is well meaning, as when we are wondering what is the best thing to say in response to what is being heard. Other times the mind is simply bouncing about from topic to topic and only occasionally stopping in to participate in the current conversation. Very little true listening is going on. Regardless of whether we are sympathetic or merely bored, hearing is not listening.

If I want to listen, I must start with the proper motivation: How can I best serve this person?. Desiring to serve differs fundamentally from desiring to be served. How we grow our desire to serve is a topic outside the scope of this essay. For my purpose here, I am going to assume that we want to serve.

We must dump the idea that listening is a passive activity. To really listen, we must actively consider the words, the tone, the body language, and the context. Our goal is to understand what the speaker is saying, as well as why they feel it needs to be said. We can gauge the efficacy of our listening by checking to see how well we understand. The simplest way to check is to occasionally rephrase a part of what you have heard and feed it back to the speaker. You will often get a response ranging from "No, that's not what I mean" to "Well, sort of" and on to "Exactly!".

I like to fish. Fishing is most exciting when I feel the line tug in a way that makes me cry out "fish on!". When I paraphrase what someone has said and they say "Exactly!", we both get a similar thrill. I use exactly as a representative word. The speaker may actually say "Yes!", "That's it", or any of a wide range of exclamations and affirmations. It may even be a nonverbal response. One of my friends energetically points his finger at me when I understand him well; another widens his eyes and nods.

That moment of understanding is precious to both speaker and listener. It is a building block for relationships.

Another way to check understanding is to respond to what you have heard by telling an anecdote. Strive for a quick story that shows how you have experienced or observed something very similar to what the speaker hopes to convey. When you miss the mark, common responses include a frown, a puzzled look, or even a head shake. Verbal responses may be as direct as "That's not what I am talking about" or as passive as a vague "oh". In those cases you may need to reestablish the speaker's train of thought by referring back to what was said earlier or by asking a clarifying question.

Speaking of questions, avoid asking questions that are really disguised advice. It isn't nearly so disguised as you think. Advice should only be offered when asked for. Even then, offer it sparingly. People with advice are abundant. People willing to listen well are rare, and correspondingly more valuable.

You may find yourself longing for someone who will listen well to you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just be patient. Model the behavior you would like to see. Remember to encourage those who listen even a little, and to cherish those who listen well.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Been There, Failed That

Sometimes failure can be a powerful source of comfort. Not so much for the person failing, but for all of their friends, acquaintances, or even anonymous observers. One place I have noticed this is in meetings. When I just can't follow what is going on, and I have to stop everything to ask for an explanation, I almost always see relief on some of the faces in the room. Maybe they too needed help to understand, or maybe they are just enjoying seeing how dense I am. Either way, I have contributed to their sense of well being.

As a young engineer, I dreaded making presentations to audiences that were either large or full of people to whom I was a peon. However, one day I was standing near my boss's boss when he was called upon to address a large room full of people. I was close enough to see his face twitch a bit. I could hear a small tremor in his voice. I saw that deer in the headlight look in his eyes. Once I realized he was nervous, I could have decided that it simply proved that I was right to be afraid of speaking to groups. I had often thought that way. This time I was struck by a new idea: if he is two levels up ladder, 15 years more experienced, and still quaking about sharing a few words, then it is no big deal if I suffer that same anxiety. That epiphany occurred 35 years ago, yet I remember it vividly. It has helped me countless times.

I made sure I shared lots of my failures with my kids. I knew they would eventually learn that I was fallible, even if I tried to hide it from them, but I really enjoyed giving them advance notice. Sometimes I blushed when they laughed heartily at my shortcomings, but my shame was only momentary. It was soon supplanted by the warm glow of knowing that they had just been freed to make a few mistakes themselves without undue worry.

False humility drains failure of much of its value. I mustn't pretend that I always fail. I don't. Very likely some of my successes have inspired others. I too enjoy seeing someone surmount a challenge.

Seeing others both fail and succeed allows me to see them in depth. I am far more able to identify with them. We share a common plight.

I hope we can all find the courage to showcase at least a few of our failures. It will make the world a better place.