Archive | March 2015

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I like to think that if I were a public figure, I would recognize myself as being target-rich, and for my own protection I would develop a higher sense of self-awareness so that I wouldn’t trip on my own hubris. However, target-rich people and organizations…well, just keep providing new targets. This is how I should have replied when friends asked about my thoughts of the recent brouhaha surrounding Starbucks’ “#RaceTogether” campaign. At the time, I just shrugged it off, but afterwards, I thought more about it, and my delayed reaction was the above “target-rich” musing. My more nuanced and serious reactions are these: 1. Not bad intention, but beyond-clumsy snafu-caliber execution; 2. But “Why?” in the first place? 3. Can’t corporations just stop championing social causes, be they conservative or liberal? Of course, nothing is ever just so simple.

You have figured out what “*$” stands for, right?images-3

While I would rather see corporations focusing on their main goal, bringing value to commerce and making profit thereby, it would be grand if they can take more responsibility for and ownership of their roles in our collective society, their reliance on the infrastructure for which we all chip in (two of numerous examples: education of their workforce and access to their “customer support” via the internet), and above all their mistakes. That means: I take the stand that “corporate social responsibility” is part of the id for corporations. Given that one of my foundation principles of organizations is its “social system” in which all elements are interrelated, then it follows that corporations have to join with the rest of the society on a wide range of social issues. Join, but do not presume that they are anointed leaders just because of their size or brand name. Does our purchasing power – which is the key to corporations’ market shares and profits – give corporations the right to represent our social views? This question invites debate that will not lead to any clear conclusion. However, knowing that the conclusion may be elusive doesn’t mean we should stop the discussion.

Similarly, just because race relations is a profoundly difficult and complex topic, leading to uncountable debates without clear conclusions or solutions, doesn’t mean that we should shove it aside. Not only is race relations a difficult topic, it is highly emotionally charged, and its prominence in this society surges and recedes depending on circumstances; but some may argue it has been especially emotionally charged in recent years. And few can engage in racial issues thoughtfully and intelligently; or, more pointedly, even when someone can speak and/or write beautifully and penetratingly, s/he can still excite hostile reactions.

images-2Against this backdrop, what made Starbucks’ executives think that they could just pick up the torch without any forethought as to “what’s next?” How many people feel totally comfortable entering into this topic with just anybody, even if you might have encountered the same barista a dozen times? And who’d want to talk about race at 6AM or 5PM in a café, especially if there are 5 more people behind you? How exactly did Starbucks foresee these conversations beginning? proceeding? and concluding? What was to happen if some customers got agitated with each other? Should Starbucks’ baristas intervene?!

Most corporations, actually probably all of them, exhibit inconsistencies on matters of social conscience; this is one of the reasons why, when they champion a social cause, they might end up with egg on their corporate faces. The current case of the hole Starbucks dug for itself is a perfect example because the corporation isn’t exactly a shining beacon for diversity, not in its hiring and certainly not in its appeal to its clientele. While many of their urban stores’ free providing for some of the homeless is a good gesture, the whole cappuccino culture (outside of Italy) isn’t inviting to the lower / lower-middle class where, since race and class issues are almost always inseparable, the racial mixture is most diverse. This doesn’t mean that Starbucks or other corporations cannot engage in such a topic. However, did they really think through what they wanted to talk about, or focus on? Evidence suggests that they were woefully inadequate in their preparation and execution.images-4

Recalling the common saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” I recognize that intention is only the starting point, and most often the easiest step. A more nuanced version of the saying, “Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works” reminds us that the real work – per Starbucks, the real work of thinking through what their intentions might elicit – too often doesn’t happen.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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We Must Continuously Improve ____________…or, must we?

How can we not want to improve ourselves all the time? How can organizations not expect continuous improvement on productivity? How can we not demand perfect safety and security? Indeed, how can anyone with a functioning brain reject “improvement?” Well…it all depends on the types of improvement. If it’s about improving a mind, it likely concerns the breadth of topics or proficiency in a certain field; if it’s about “improving” (i.e. decreasing) a waist size, there’d better be a floor number below which it’d be silly as a goal. But improving toward perfection? We can drive ourselves insane.

The idea of “continuous improvement” sounds commonsensical, but we are often fooled by what appears to be common sense. (Read Everything Is Obvious: How common sense fails us, by Duncan J. Watts, or my previous posts on the book, here, and here) In matters with imposed measurements, attempt to drive continuous improvement can only end in disappointment at the least, and destruction at the worst.

Learning how to draw upside down continues to teach me.

Learning how to draw upside down continues to teach me.

I’ve written before about how the third law of thermodynamics dictates the impossibility of driving out defects except at the lowest temperature. And extracting the remaining imperfections on the way toward that goal has a concomitant high cost. Putting it differently, improving safety and security might be a worthy goal, but to improve from 90% success rate to 95% would cost more than from 85% to 90%, and exponentially upward from 95%. For an organization to aim at the impossible goal of a perfect safety record is essentially a death knell; it would demoralize the workforce, choke off all innovation and creativity, and consume all available resources and then some. It’s particularly ironic – though I think a harsher adjective is totally justified – for science-oriented organizations to follow such anti-science practices.

At a personal level, aiming for perfection is tantamount to starving our own creativity and sense of self. As many have written on “perfection,” the measurement is set up against others’ expectations; it’s typically about pleasing others. That inevitably makes a person insecure since he always looks for others’ approval, needs to feel superior, and consequently has to demean people around him. For people searching for perfection, measurement is important, be it a test score, rankings of the schools they attend, the value of their possessions, or the number of compliments they get per week…and so on, anything that can be quantified, they want more. And the cost goes up in acquiring all these symbols.

A common saying is: Numbers don’t lie. Again, it depends. I think numbers carry different weights in different fields or for different matters. In the world of physical sciences, numbers are the foundation for precision, but in the world of social science, numbers often are subject to “socially constructed reality.” Quantifiable “continuous improvement” makes me nervous; it can escalate into something ridiculous. I often wonder about what may happen to many of the Olympics events in 10 to 20 years. I mean, can one set a world record of 100-meter track in 6 seconds? Or, throwing the javelin150 meters? Or, swimming the 100 meter butterfly in under 40 seconds? Yes, I Googled the world records, and my proposed numbers are insane. So, what should the athletes aim for? What should their coaches tell them? I suspect this type of continuous “improvement,” more like perpetual escalation or paying the exponentially increasing cost to approach the inevitable asymptote, is one of the reasons we “wear our exhaustion as a status symbol,” an article to which I alluded in passing in the previous post. For some students, no sooner do they score perfectly on SAT, their parents would come up with other measurable goals. That last increment in the march toward perfection – if it exists – is going to exact a heavy toll.

Continuous fun!

Continuous fun!

For the majority of people who don’t race in the Olympics, there is the race for grant monies, for promotions, for market shares, for advertising accounts…the more the merrier. When someone finishes a proposal, her immediate reaction is, “What’s next on the list?” Not sharing a moment of relief with colleagues, or giving one’s direct report a nice pat on the back and the right to chill for 15 minutes, or making up some lost fun time with family members. If you catch yourself saying, “What’s next on the list?” just stop. Just STOP! Yet, many people are so accustomed to working ten plus hours a day, six-seven days a week, that if they are forced to stop, they literally wouldn’t know what to do next. They need that list. So, have a list of fun things to do before stopping.

Having said all this, I recognize that there are people whose passion for what they do runs so deep that they truly and genuinely enjoy themselves when they lose themselves in their “work,” which isn’t really “work” to them. In that state – what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously coined “the flow” – creativity blossoms. Immersion in flow might be considered a type of “continuous improvement” profoundly different from record keeping, documentation, or jumping through hoops after hoops. The improvement realized when a person is in the flow is about stretching her mind, both in depth and in breadth, not training for precision.

The sky is the limit.

The sky is the limit.

I don’t mean to demean Olympic activities nor improvement for physical prowess, but I use these as examples to demonstrate how we can mislead ourselves in “improving ourselves.” As I often express: the real world does not operate on either-or framework. In fact, many of us learn from our physical activities to stretch (pun intended) ourselves in mental domains; they are not mutually exclusive. However, we need to learn to distinguish between measuring our improvement for that miniscule uptick intended to impress others, versus simply improving without needing to measure.

 Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

“Time” Is Real & Measurable…yet time is also very subjective

Most of the time, the idea of “time” resides in our perception. “You have too much time on your hands,” or, “I don’t have enough time to…” Every minute or hour is exactly the same quantity as the one before and the one after. Yet, try to tell that to a harassed father or a Fortune 500 VP (who could be a mom with 2 toddlers). Of course, everyone knows that stress, anxiety, and sense of time (or the lack of it) are intimately related. We don’t need more social research to tell us that, but we sure can use more social studies to tell our bosses and their bosses. On the fifth hand, who has the time to read about this, or listen to others’ “whining?” Willingly, or unwillingly, as a society, we collective play into “wearing exhaustion as a status symbol.

I’ve said it before, “Stress is both subjective and objective.”  So I am glad that research has born out this notion. Studies show that when people are asked to state just two goals, they feel less stressed than those who are asked to state two conflicting goals in their lives. The same researchers followed up with actual measurement of people’s anxiety levels (self-diagnosed answers to survey questions). Not surprisingly, many scholars have linked today’s myriad of technologies to our stress level.

ephemeral beauty

ephemeral beauty

Time is fluid; time is porous. Nowadays, as the boundary between work and play gets murkier, the feeling of “not enough time” gets stronger. Even though on average (remember, it may not apply to you as an individual) Americans have worked less hours over the decades, people feel more stressed than ever. One of the reasons is the blurred work-play boundary. Of course, there are other reasons. Since the 2008 recession, many white-collar professionals have had to work extra hours and take on more responsibilities, all without additional pay; this would not be reflected in the statistics. Others have had to take on more than one job to sustain themselves, but this population might not be the majority, therefore only minimally impacting the statistics.

However, time may not be the major resource for which we feel the greatest need. As technologies encroach upon our lives, they compete for our attention span, a terribly important resource that we often take for granted. Would we know when that “take for granted” thing is gone? When so many items in our environment signal their demand our attention, we forget that we have only a limited amount of that resource. The link I provide for the “attention” issue is excellent in drawing our attention to the issue of our public space, billboards, buses, airports, train stations…all occupied by advertisements or TVs, multiple visual and audio assaults. Silence seems to be a scarce and expensive commodity these days. By paying for the “privilege” you can get into the semiprivate, quiet lounge at the airport. Mathew Crawford in “The Cost of Paying Attention,” says it well, “Silence makes it possible to think.” (Italics mine)

If we can turn off the noises around us, we might be able to hear ourselves better. In moments of silence, we often feel that time is slowing down; we can breathe better and see our goals clearer. The “time, conflicting goals and stress” researchers offer at least two methods to counter stressful feelings: 1. Practice breathing slowly, especially in times of stress, and 2. Reframe your goals. Instead of making goals “conflicting,” make them “exciting” or “challenging.” Some people might regard such tactics childish and pathetic…I challenge them with, “What harm would it do if you just try it?”

As it has been proven that we can adopt a body posture to give us a greater sense of power, we certainly can practice deep and rhythmic breathing to slow down time, or reduce our stress and anxiety. Or, try to reframe the situation in a positive light. Most of the time, our mind leads actions, but sometimes, we need to act first before learning from our actions. Try it, it may be a fairly easy habit to adopt. Yes?

aging beauty

aging beauty

As I was finishing my draft of this article, I encountered one of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming essays about time. A young neurosurgeon wrote about his reflection of time. At age 37, he was facing his impending death – time moved too fast — while caring for and loving his infant daughter who couldn’t yet know about time. In reading his essay, time stopped for me. I absorbed his words, I listened to his voice; while I felt saddened by his fate, I also felt the warmth of his wisdom and love.

Take your time; take some time to do what you love. Till next week,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

The Social Psychology of The “Spock” Phenomenon

It tugged at my heart when I read the news that Leonard Nimoy died, at age 83. Mr. Nimoy’s “Spock” character in the short-lived but long-lasting impactful Star Trek series definitely fulfilled his destiny to “live long and prosper.” And based on various accounts, Mr. Nimoy was a fine, multi-talented human being. I am by no means a sci-fi aficionado, but I have enjoyed a few sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows. As a social scientist, I am always intrigued by the social psychological aspects of these stories (the scientific propositions, though fascinating and certainly fun to speculate, can be at times too fantastic).

imagesSeen through modern lens, and perhaps even from the perspective of the late 60s when the series ran, Star Trek seemed campy. So why and how did the series gain such faithful followers? I don’t mean just the generic “crazy” fans, but people who were, and still are, genuinely engaged in the episodes and characters. While each character in the series captured audiences’ hearts and souls, the half human – half Vulcan Spock definitively won a much larger reception worldwide. From the “readers’ comments” to articles on Mr. Nimoy’s death (sample of readings listed below), I lost count of how many expressing sentiment such as, “You inspired me to pursue science.” According to Mr. Nimoy’s account of his own encounters with fans over the decades, that was a common refrain. A TV series, a fictitious character, somehow manages to produce such a lasting impact that reaches across the globe. A teacher’s wildest dream. Or, as Mr. Spock would say about such a phenomenon, “Fascinating.”

I am sure that the timing of the series had something to do with it, being a decade after Sputnik. While Sputnik had already sparked an uptick in the country’s collective fever for scientific study, Star Trek ignited growing young minds’ imagination in a way that Sputnik did not. Spock embodies “the logical scientist” without messy human emotional baggage. Yet his thirst for knowledge also includes understanding human emotions. He doesn’t always accept these emotions, but he tries to learn about them. As a result, Spock is never clueless, and he made being smart truly cool.

There have been many comments on the “diversity” impact of the series, again embodied by Spock. Because of his inter-species background, many people of minority backgrounds have sought comfort, inspiration, and wisdom in the character. It is usually his unemoting deliberation when explaining social psychological dynamics that allows reason and dignity to coexist. So, while the Spock character is an invention and “unreal,” somehow, he comes across totally believable. And Captain Kirk was right to say that of all the souls he had known, Spock was the most human.images-1

Personally, I find in the Spock character a pursuit of purpose and determination to make a difference in the universe that is most engaging. And he would pursue making changes by changing circumstances rather than throwing his weight around. He never uses “because I am smart (or, my IQ is N, in the stratosphere)” to stop or win an argument, even though he was almost always right. He was never self-centered but always listened to others’ ideas…before refuting them logically. Yet, he was willing to concede in matters that were emotional, illogical, irrational, without denigrating his human counterparts. Compared to the current crop of TV shows that pretend to celebrate the cerebral talents of self-absorbed infants (I am thinking of Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory”), Spock is the genius with genuine mature humanity. For every scientist out there inspired by Spock, Cooper probably lost three.

Granted the Spock character was not invented by Mr. Nimoy but by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original TV series, yet, it was Mr. Nimoy who brought Spock to life, and made him more real than Roddenberry’s original writing. Like many fans, I cherish Star Trek, and particularly the unique Spock. And in learning a little bit more about Mr. Nimoy, I am thankful that such a beautiful human being walked among us for a while.

I wonder what effects Star Trek would have on the current generation. What do you think?

Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Suggested Readings:

Kicking Habits, Forming Habits…good habits or bad habits, it all depends.

I get irate whenever people try to tell me what to do; it’s a childhood reaction I’ve never learned to outgrow. Is it bad? I could have missed good advice. Is it good? It has taught me self-reliance. Of course, ultimately, it depends on how I manage my irritations. So, when my dental hygienist tried to convince me that it would take only about 21 days to form the habit of flossing everyday, I smiled and demurred. Silently, I said, “That 21 days is a bunk.

First of all, averages or statistics don’t really apply to individuals; they’re information about the aggregate, a group of people. Second, according to some researchers who wanted to have a closer examination of this “21 days to form a habit” claim, their studies show that the actual average is 66 days, and the range is 18-245 days. However, more importantly, the length of time varies among individuals and among types of habits. Maybe for some people it’s easier to form the habit of folding laundry than writing two hours every day…but not if you’re a devoted writer who’d prefer to wear rumpled clothes.

outside SF (1)

However long it takes for a person to form a habit, the foundation lies in what motivates her to do so. For some people, watching TV is a bad habit, but for others, it’s a form of relaxation. If a person forgoes watching TV but spends the freed-up time playing computer games… Spending “too much time” on the computer? It depends on what you do on the computer, no? It behooves us to think about what it is that we want to achieve for ourselves and what underlies our anxiety.

Forming a habit is never just a matter of willpower. Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, provides a good clarification: “Willpower is more about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good habit ensures you’re rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place.” Good habits are about structuring our daily lives and environment so that we minimize those temptations that we deem unhealthy or unhelpful.

Structuring our habits requires both positive thinking as well as recognizing where potential negatives may hide, and in that order. We need to know what our dreams are, but we also need to be cognizant of where obstacles may lie. To focus on only one aspect is likely to lead us astray, and to think of obstacles first is likely to sap our energy. For instance, I only recently figured out my painting habit. I usually enjoy the first 5-10% of each of my paintings; I hate the following 80+%. I have to kick myself all the time to finish each painting, and then, I step back and think, “It’s not half as bad as I thought.” So I know what I’d like to achieve, and I have finally learned to grit my teeth for the majority of the journey thus allowing the end to bring the final joy. If I were to focus on only the potential negative side: wasting time, watercolors, papers…I might as well give up painting, which actually I did for quite some time.canyon wall 2

Some people scorn habits and others love them. But imagine having to mindfully engage in every single activity every time: We’d be exhausted before lunch. In fact, we repeat about 40% of our activities every day (huge variance from person to person), and habituation frees us to devote windows in our minds to the pursuit of bigger (and more important?) matters. Rather than wondering whether we should or should not have habits, it seems more important to be mindful of what habits we want to create and maintain, and how to use them to stretch ourselves in new areas and directions.

Poets give poignancy on the otherwise mundane matters. I like Mary Oliver’s words on habits:

The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers. The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to come real.”

So, form away your habits. And if you’re trying to instill a “good habit” don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t stick, if you’re trying to defeat a “bad habit” don’t regret its resurgence … just don’t rationalize.

Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com