Learning, politics, reading, Reflection, Technology

Summer Reading

This isn’t an exhaustive list – l read whodunits and lighthearted novels in the summer in addition to the endless newspapers and magazines – but some time ago I decided that hard cover and paperback books still count. Those pictured above are important and life changing.

With the Harari trio I started in the middle with Homo Deus as a Christmas present from family members who know I like this kind of thing. The second earlier one, Sapiens, was inspired by reading the first – and the last, 21 Lessons, was immediately on my must read list. I note that within days of publication it is already second on Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller List with its release only this September.

Harari can be described as a cultural historian and these three books deal with the the future, the past, and the present. He is insightful, opinionated and always provocative. Critical of both religion and politics for their insularity and selfcenterdness, he repeatedly says we need a new story for a global world. Journey of the Universe just might fill that role and I am curious whether he has read it. The authors are not cited in the index in any of them.

Journey of the Universe is a book, a movie – available via a website with that name – and also a conference at Yale in which the last book in the image is a Christian reflection on the story. It’s focused not solely on the planet but on an even bigger story. Author Brain Swimme is quoted on the back cover of Living Cosmology saying that mulling over the contents could be life changing. I agree. I don’t know whether all faith groups have responded to this – but they should. More on this in coming posts.

effectiveness, Learning, Reflection

What we want

I am preparing for a long meeting of an organization where I am an active volunteer and reading preparation materials in advance.  Because we work with children and vulnerable adults we undergo something described as Sexual Misconduct Training.

That title here is a good example of a misnomer – and it also reflects an error in thinking. Rather than making something that we don’t want go away, we need to focus on the desired result – a safe and caring place for everyone demonstrated by behaviour that is defined, understood and practised.  As it stands, the title sounds like training in the exact thing that we don’t want.

Rather than fixing problems, focusing on a desired outcome is a good plan for both training descriptions and strategy formation.

character, effectiveness, Leadership, Learning, Reflection

A different take on leadership

This past week I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was  to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training.  The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.

Several participants had been asked to research and bring  leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles.  Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”,  offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report.  In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”.  “Servant” leadership was also on the table.

My own contribution came from a longer paper I wrote some years earlier and I focused first on changes in  world view, vision and mission, structural change, personal characteristics and personal development.  My key words echoed some of the others – “disicipline”, “humility” and  “learner”.  I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.

The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence.  We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.

A Failure of Nerve  was compiled after Firedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued.  It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as advisor to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders.  He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.

Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking.  Here are some that apply to leadership:

  • Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.
  • ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.
  •  Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
  • Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here

Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as  family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational  in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families.  Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium.  When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play.  When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.

The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room.  But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.

There is much more to  learn in Friedman’s approach – and that will be a feature of future posts.

Benjamin Zander, Leadership, Learning, Reflection, Teamwork


The orchestral conductor, Benjamin Zander, is a frequent business speaker and famous for his TED talk. now viewed by more than eight million people.  Conductors are sometimes viewed as the last of the great dictators.  Zander is different.  He had an epiphany some years ago when he realized that the conductor of an orchestra plays a different role.

The insight transformed his conducting and his orchestral musicians immediately noticed the difference.  Now he’s a leader who asks for input in the form of written comments at every rehearsal.  He understands that the musicians’ skills and experience enhance his own.

His gifts as a teacher are remarkable too and they are now shared through masterclasses for all of us on YouTube.  The students perform with technical brilliance before he enters in with a consistent message –  it is time to relax and let go of the kind of competitive excellence their preparatory training has provided and instead relate to their audience.  Transformation happens before our own shining eyes.  (This sample and others are well worth watching now or at a later time. To enjoy it to advantage if your time or tolerance is limited, listen a bit to the beginning and move the arrow to 9:00 minutes and watch some hair pulling – not a conventional teaching technique – but see how effectively it works in creating a totally different kind of performer).

Zander’s passion is for introducing classical music to those unfamiliar with it and he does so with incredible skill and experience in making audiences and performers connect.  It’s a worthwhile example of how a leader inspires and transforms performance.

Beauty, Creating, Learning, Reflection, self realization

Pathways to Change

In the previous post I spoke of Rosamund Zander’s guidance for individual change. She also dealt with bringing change to families and organizations by recognizing that others, like ourselves are walking stories.  As the book progresses she focuses on energy.

She starts with a scientific analogy.  Energy becomes amplified, she says, when in proximity to waves of similar tone and length.  Visionary people use it that way too – though her she defines energy as commitment to something broader than our personal concerns.  And it’s not just about  getting one’s own way.  We enter relationships of collaboration and become catalysts to create a new story.

The physical world is dynamic – an ecosystem where things connect, react and change. The canopy of trees outside my window is awash with green where weeks ago there were naked limbs. Blossoms will turn to fruit, seeds will scatter, new growth will erupt and old growth with succumb to lightning or disease..

It’s a fractal universe too – in nature and in computer simulations and even in emotions when we share feelings and experiences that cross cultures and times.

When we want to change things, we traditionally  develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics as though we are totally in charge – usually forgetting that there are other forces and energies operating around us – in a  playful universe of galaxies.

Zander suggests we try to think of ourselves less as actors and doers and more as conduits that interact with the energies of others – especially in bringing about change. That story is called possibility and it mirrors natural evolution.  Humans act and talk. How we do both has a marked effect on the bigger picture. She observes

We reconcile by acts and words; we restore through how we relate and how we grow; we inspire through what we build and the art we make; and we cure ourselves by how we care for others and what we give away. In those ways we bring our hearts into a collective resonance – and that is where the power lies.

Nations have child stories that often need a re-write. As we work on our personal maturing,  we change our habits and find new insights and truths that become more like the patterns of nature.  Rather than either/or we learn to live with ambiguity.  We lessen our need to always be right or to avoid the realities staring at us.

Our caring for the earth needs a rewrite even more.  Evolution has always favored invasive species – yet humans are the most invasive of the lot.   Urban living divorces us from the natural world. Nature embraces all systems, Zander says, while we have primarily looked after ourselves.

She has several prescriptions –  get out and walk in nature, question the child stories that place man at the center as the hero. Stop treating nature as a thing to exploit and re-frame it as an evolving system constantly becoming more complex and beautiful.  Take the same stance toward human relationships. “What would be a more compassionate or collaborative way of doing things?  Through the practice of what art may I expand my heart?”, she asks.  It’s an invitation to join an infinite story.

She closes with what she terms infinite games:

  • Take an infinite leap and find someone who has been lost to you
  • Get the love you want
  • Make a decision in a different way that you normally do – change a habit
  • Choose a guiding principle – some examples are wonder, service, courage and authenticity – and commit to making every decision based on it for a day or two.

The entire book is an entertaining reminder that I am not the center of the universe – and at the same time, there are plenty of new possibilities ahead.

games, Learning, Reflection

So Why Choose Games?


So why would a reasonably sensible aging person like the writer suddenly start to play computer games? I tried them out after watching grandchildren play them and after reading Jane McGonigal’s more recent book, SuperBetter – just to see what it felt like.  Many of things she talks about in Reality is Broken rang true.  I feel as though I am engaged in a productive sequence and improving as I go.  It’s nice to find success at the beginning – but pretty soon there is an increasing challenge.  I confess to going on line a couple of times to get help at certain levels – another benefit is that there can be collaboration – real or virtual.  Things get harder to solve the longer I am at it and I need the help.

Compared to work – paid or volunteer – there is real satisfaction in playing.  The goal is clear.  There are actionable steps to carry out.  In life, getting things started in the right way is often a mystery, but game developers sequences things properly.  Even when I am up against a brick wall, I still think I can scale it and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t fall for buying extra turns regularly offered when I fail but come close to success – because they come at a cost –  usually a small amount for a single player though I can also spend several dollars. But small amounts for millions of players add up to huge profits for the game company.  I sometimes wonder if success after a certain number of failures at a given level are built in –  say that success is automatic after 43 failures, for instance – just to make sure that I don’t drop out before becoming really addicted.  There are also free rewards constantly offered to keep me onside.

The real difference between the game and real life is a surprising one –  failure in the game is actually fun. Getting it wrong in school brings a reprimand or a failing grade.  Getting the wrong note while practising the piano hurts both the ears and the ego..  But failing in a game has little negative feeling in comparison – in fact, failing becomes a way of life in the game. It’s designed right into it. Sometimes the graphics make you laugh when you fail. Success is nice too though and it is recognized.  In the game illustrated above you hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when you get a level right.

So what keeps us going?  McGonigal cites Martin Seligman’s notion of flexible optimism and also talks about “emotional stamina” – a concept developed by Raph Koster.  As an aside, its nice to know what liberal arts degrees lead to in the 21st century – Koster’s majors were creative writing and poetry leading to his becoming a game designer and theorist. He says its not the not monetary rewards of real world achievement that we enjoy in a game.  It’s learning. When we succeed – even after a period of considerable failure – the immediate euphoria fades rather quickly and we even find the game boring.

McGonigal also notes that Seligman’s idea of flexible optimism relates to the notion that a feeling of constant optimism almost becomes manic – followed by depression.  By combining success and failure in a game we attain the benefits of both.  It’s a virtuous circle that allows us to remain realistic but open to new adventures and possibility.

games, Learning, Reflection

The Benefits of Games


Moving on with Jane McGonigal’s outline of the benefits of games in Reality is Broken. Kids have always loved games but as I write this it is estimated that about one million people are at it.  Why?

McGonigal notes that it is work we choose to do.  Play, as she says is hard work with high odds of success.  It’s exactly the opposite of depression. The plus side includes positive emotions, engagement and action.  There is a lovely video circulating of an austistic teen playing Pokemon Go who has moved away from an agoraphobic fear of going outside and enjoying being there.  The small creatures were the initial lure, but it has enriched his experience.


When I was out in a park last night being instructed instructed by my nine year old grandson, I was certainly not the only one playing around.  It was a nice change from a few years ago when everyone talked incessantly on their cell phones in public places. It’s fun.  It’s also easy to see that any game can become addictive and habitual – but those are human issues – not totally the fault of the game.

Games are a nice contrast to the real work that many of us are obliged to complete. They aren’t boring.  Much of the work that others assign – or even those we assign to ourselves don’t optimize our time or talent.  Much work is bereft of meaning if we are simply cogs in the wheel of a large enterprise where there is a disconnect between what we are asked to do and its ultimate result.

McGonigal predicted Pokemon Go’s ascendance when Reality is Broken was first published for the right reasons – though we might question it as hard work.  But I’m a newbie.  An older grandson observes that a friend has the whole collection already with one exception – but he has the missing one – will he trade or reveal this? The dilemma is keeping him busy,  Games like Minecraft involve the mental choices and creative thinking.  The whole world is action oriented and we are the actors.

McGonigal acknowledges that the idea of flow has been around for a long time and references on my favourite books, Flow, by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – and also generously tells us that the surname is pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hi. We experience flow when we are doing something we love – running, painting, playing a musical instrument – when there is no sense of time and a wonderful feeling of euphoria,  The right match of game can do this for moments at least.

It’s not money or prestige that drives us to games.  It’s something much more intrinsic. We are immersed temporarily in an experience with differing degrees of pleasure or challenge. We aspire to succeed.  We don’t mind failing because we are usually learning in the process.  We have the sense of being part of something social.  I admire the word choices of my competitor in Words with Friends – even though sometimes I’m playing with a robot. The experience means something.  We have to delve into what the full benefits are and see whether there are possibilities of transferring some of them back to the real world.