TedFav:  The Pope’s TED talk last week 

I have got to admit I am a big fan of this Pope.  Very early in his papacy he was asked why he wasn’t talking about traditionally thorny issues like abortion, priest abuse and gays in the church. He replied ” who am I to judge?”  Many were stunned. Isn’t the Pope the one who judges us here on earth?  Actually no. Only god judges in the end.  This pope has really focused on being humble (very Jesuit trait) and helping others.  His talk focuses on reminding us all of our common humanity in a time of extreme divisions.  While spiritual it is not a “Catholic” ideological pitch. It is reminding us of universal truths and the value of kindness, humility and our common human journey.  Very timely and useful.  

TEDFAV: Are we really in charge of our decisions?

The Stoics say that the only thing that is truly ours is our agency to make a decision.  To decide how to react in a situation. We can’t control anything outside ourselves, but we can control our reactions and decisions.  That has been very important advice to me.

But what if our decisions are tainted?  Do we always have the right information to make the best decisions?  Dan Ariely has been studying how people make decisions, specifically in a commerce setting, and has found that how the options are presented has a profound impact on the decisions people make.  As a result of this talk, I have added a new guideline to my own “How I make decisions” list.  If you are making decisions and are presented by someone else with the options in that decision, always ask yourself “Is there a third way?”  or “Are there other choices for this decision which are not here?”.  Otherwise you are handing most of the agency for that decision over to the person who designed the question.  Don’t do that.

TED FAV: This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Ok, so this is not a TED talk. It is a commencement speech from Kenyon college.  And a very good one.  Since I am touring colleges with my junior now, I am considering what to say to her as she goes off to college.  It occurs to me that many of the commencement speech contents after the fact may be relevant prior to entry into college. This one is exceedingly appropriate.

TEDFAV: Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Mark Twain once said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

My oldest, Finn is a Junior in highschool this year.  Yea, the worst year in highschool.  You have to do all your normal school work AND buff up the extra curricular activities AND do well on the SAT test AND figure out what colleges to apply to.  The pressure is intense.  And the only thing that seems to matter in Junior year are the results.  Grades.  Test Scores. College acceptance letters.  The focus is 100% on Outcomes.  No process.  No creativity.  No talk about the purpose or meaning behind all these outcomes.  No deviation from the objective measures of “success” as defined by our western academic system.

But does this model of education produce the best possible humans? Does it work for the wide variety of personality types out there?  Where does creative thinking come in?  America prides itself on innovation. But the educational system doesn’t teach innovation. By definition, any standardized system kills the outliers.  Yet the outliers is where the creativity and innovation comes from.

Leave it to a Brit (lovers of organization, conformity, empires) to ask the right question.  Are we teaching the skills we really want in our kids?  Or just stamping degrees on them?

REVIEW: Not Fade Away, Peter Barton

Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well LivedNot Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived by Laurence Shames
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In perhaps a misguided attempt to explore what it means to “live well”, a couple months ago I bought a bunch of books on dying. Or more correctly, on living knowing you are dying. While everyone is dying, most people live like it will never happen to them. Rarely do you hear from those who are actively living a life with the full, active knowledge that they are dying. The Stoics say EVERYONE should live every day like this, and wrote in detail about how to do that. Unfortunately modern man tends to not consider death until it is too late. The ones who do write about it tend to have some kind of terminal illness that brings the question to the top of mind. So the most available modern thinkers on living well while dying are the rich, smart terminally ill. Like Peter Barton. Or Paul Kalanithi.

Barton is not a philosopher. He was a very successful and smart business man. The book (thankfully) doesn’t spend too much time on biography and all the self important things done in life (although Barton did some awesome things). Barton stays focused on what the cancer was TEACHING him about living. On how to separate the body and the mind/soul. On how to focus on building the present. Barton had a partner writer live with him and help write the book over the last 9 months of his life. While I understand why he did this (he was not a writer), the chapters trade off between Barton’s first person account and Shames’ second person account. I didn’t like that structure and wish it had all been first person (even if it was ghost written).

I guess what I am looking for in these books are the nuggets that become self evident when you know your days are numbered, that you should have figured out beforehand. Here are some of my favorites.

“… as death grows imminent, the fear of it no longer serves a purpose.”

“My frame of mind was something I could still control.”

“Don’t ask permission, just beg forgiveness. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with your foot on the accelerator. If you drive with one foot on the brake, you’re not for us.”

“No future. If that notion is surreal and terrifying, it is also vastly liberating.”

“…wealth is a great deal more enjoyable if you’ve already taught yourself that you can have a good time without it.”

“There’s a next level where the soul can go, and the body can’t. Not that dissolving a partnership is every easy. But the alternative is even worse. Let the sout be sullied by the complaints of the body, and you’ve lost not only in one of life’s arenas, but two. ”

“When I hurt, I hurt. But it’s the attitude toward the pain that makes all the difference. Pain can make you thoroughly miserable, or pain can just be pain.”

Overall, a worthwhile read, but not 5 stars due to the clunky structure and mixed narrative.

View all my reviews

TEDFAV: How positive psychology has reversed how we “get” happiness, now you actually can

Pretty much all my life when I have wondered how to “get” or “achieve” happiness, the answer has gone something like this:  “First do X,Y,Z, then when you have achieved A,B,C, you can then be happy.”  Pretty much the entire western world has a cognitive happiness model with happiness delayed in the future after some long journey with various achievements along the way.  Consumer society is the most obvious offender “Buy This and get That”.  But career advice, most religious traditions and even the “self help” industry reinforces this delayed gratification mental model.

This model always caused my BS meter to go off.  Wouldn’t being happy now cause you and everyone around you to be happier now?  Why couldn’t I be happy now but still have dreams?  When hard or bad things happened, why should I allow that to make me unhappy?  Are there ways to build happiness NOW without buying into some huge new mental model of the world (one religion say), or hanging my hopes on THE ONE TRUE THING sold by GURUX?  I was always VERY skeptical that anyone or any organization had THE ONE TRUE THING that if I just bought it, practiced it, or believed it, all my problems would disappear and happiness would bloom like flowers.  Or Unicorns.

Well it turns out my contrarian view has attracted some scientists who have been building a new mental model about happiness which is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what we have been taught.  The field is Positive Psychology.  One of the lights is Shawn Anchor and he has a brilliant TED talk about the new model.   Anchor is also very entertaining and funny using many personal stories to describe the new model.  In the end he gives five evidence based practices that have been shown to be able to raise the “base happiness” level in people NOW.  You don’ t have to believe anything, buy anything, or join a cult.  By adding a couple of simple practices, in total of less than 20 minutes a day, you can reliably and quantifiably increase your base happiness level.  When you do that, it is self reinforcing and the world around you (seems to) change.  Actually what you have changed is your mindset from a “everything sucks, i am going to be happy later”, to “I am happy now and happiness is my natural state.”  If you are looking for an evidence based approach to happiness with some concrete exercises, this is for you.

Grab some popcorn.  Watch this one.  Change your life.

TEDFAV: Matthieu Ricard on Happieness

Ok, this talk is from way back in the stone ages (2004), but the message is eternally relevant.  Ricard is a French scientist who turned Buddhist monk in the Himalayas.  His scientific western mind syncs well with my own, making his framing of happiness as really “well being” is very accessible to me.  This is really a deep dive into how/why we “search for happiness” and how that search is in vain and going for the wrong goal.  Why do so many people “search for happiness” through conditions (get this car, get that place, do x, y, z) yet so few are successful.  By reframing the search and reframing the goal away from conditions and toward inner strengths, success is possible.  Ricard describes how to build the INNER conditions that are the real foundations of true happiness.

I can also recommend any of his books.

TEDFAV: Andy from Headspace on mindfulness

I had heard about meditation for along time before I was actually able to actually learn it.  It wasn’t until the Headspace app came out from Andy Puddicombe that meditation became accessible to me.   While many people deal with a busy mind by drinking, working, exercising, Andy went to Tibet and became a monk.  Now he is back to describe this ancient practice in very accessible terms to all of us in the west.  Oh, and he juggles as a visual aide.   Worth 10 minutes!

TEDFAV: Eckart Tolle on meditation

Ok, not a TED talk, but a very short and interesting talk on what meditation is, how it works, and why it is important.  In Eckhart’s unique self deprecating style.  Meditation is not a “doing” it is a “being”.

It is about being in the present moment. About tuning into the present.  In his words:

All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind. 

In 8 minutes, this is what Meditation is and how it will change your mind: