About Gary Short

Electrical Engineer that loves technology and books.

The First 20 Minutes, a great book about better health.

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds is a very enjoyable read. She writes the “Phys Ed” column for the New York Times, so this book is very conversational and easy to follow. She makes that point that commonly accepted beliefs about health issues, such as the practice of applying ice after a hard workout. Recent studies have demonstration that icing and even massage provides no significant reduction in soreness.

Some news is very encouraging. Just 20 minutes of intense exercise will give us our maximum physical benefits. There are some cases where only 6 minutes are needed. The greatest benefits are gained by those who do no exercise at all an then begin exercising. This seems to agree with a post by Nilofer Merchant  in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. She claims sitting is the smoking of our generation.Sitting down for a significant portion of the day can negate the benefits derived from some exercise.

Some results are surprising, such as that chocolate milk is better that Gatorade for sports recovery. I highly recommend this book.
The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer

Fascinating book about World of Magic

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mindby Alex Stone was a very enjoyable read.  I found it similar to Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everythingby Joshua Foer. Surprisingly, later in the book I read that Alex had consulted with Joshua about memorization techniques that played a part in a trick that Alex was developing. Both books are authored by freelance journalists that are writing about their journey through the personalities and techniques of rich worlds unknown to most people. (Maybe calling Alex a journalist is not accurate, but he has written for a number of periodicals. He is also (or was also) a Physics PhD student, and of course a Magician)

At first I thought that this book would reveal magic secrets behind the various magical professionals mentioned in the subtitle, but he only shares the techniques behind two of his own tricks. This book is more about the craft and history of magic.

He starts out describing how he got more and more involved in the magic community. Early in the book he made his way to the exclusive Magic Olympics where he failed miserably. He gave magic up after that for several months, but then started back, learning the discipline of Magic as an apprentice, instead of superficially learning the tricks of the trade.Magician_scratch

It was revealing how he first met Wesley “Wes” James, a gruff magic veteran and patriarch who held court in the dining room of a pizza joint. Alex brought with him a copy of S. W. Erdnase’s “The Expert at the Card Table”, a card cheater’s bible, hoping to impress Wes. Despite Alex’s naivete, Wes was willing to mentor him.

Alex shows his own shortcomings throughout the book. For example, he foolhardily attempts to make the acquaintance of some  “Three Card Monte” card sharks in a rough New York neighborhood. He writes an article in Harpers that reveals not only one of his tricks, but also that of a trick each of two of his fellow competitors at the Magic Olympics. His admits that his was an ill-advised attempt at raising respect for the field of magic by opening up a view into the craft of Magic. He was duly sorry for the attempt and we see his agony and distress when the Society of American Magicians asked for his resignation. (I will let you read to find out how that worked out)

Alex is torn as he becomes less connected to his graduate studies and more enmeshed in in the craft and science of Magic, and its history.

In his book he covers the gamut from Mentalists to Con Artists. It is fascinating reading, though I was not so impressed by his classifying religious figures such as Jesus Christ as practitioners of magic.

Alex shows some misgivings when he dabbled in the more disreputable side of Magic. He  manipulates the deck during a friendly poker game just to see if he could get away with it. It was not strictly cheating because his actions did not specifically benefit anyone. He just dealt from the bottom or middle of the deck amongst other sleights. He was even more troubled by his experience of performing mind reading tricks. People were so easily swayed by the tricks and even when told how he managed to guess personal knowledge, still thought that something of the occult was going on.

Alex reviews how human nature has a lot of mental biases that affect everything we do. As an example, clinical drug studies need to be specially designed to sidestep human limitations.

I gained new respect for the craft of magic because it becomes obvious just how talented and devoted these Magicians are. Such as Richard Turner who, though almost completely blind can astound even seasoned magicians with his card handing skills. Richard estimates that he has shuffled decks of cards in the tens of millions of times. He even has a special blank all-white deck that his wife lets him shuffle while sitting in church.

This book also relates to another that I am currently reading. “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How”.The repeated exact practicing that the magicians perform is the same concept that we need to follow to raise our skills to a new level.

We follow Alex as he bulks up for a International Brotherhood of Magic (IBM) competition, even following the exercise regimen of “Finger Fitness: the Art of Finger Control”. This time he does not return humiliated.

If you have read Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind please let me know what you thought. An thanks to all that use my Affiliate Amazon Link for your shopping pleasure.


5 steps to better sleep and review of “Dreamland” by David K. Randall

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleepby David K. Randall is another in the recent stream of accessable science reporting by  journalists, like books by Malcolm Gladwell and Charles Duhigg.

This probe into the science of sleep is for Randall a personal quest to understand his own sporadic sleepwalking. From it we learn that to get better sleep we should:

  1. Avoid coffee and alcohol around bedtime
  2. Take advantage of the circadian rhythms by getting natural light during the day and lower lights and avoid artificial lights around bedtime
  3. Avoid non-sleeping activities in the bedroom
  4. Take a cool shower, since, in falling asleep, the body temperature drops and the hands and feet get hotter as they give off heat, it can be helpful to cool down.
  5. Exercise,which improves sleep, though some of the effects are more mental than physical.

We learn much more from this fascinating read which I review here. We learn that the advent of the light bulb significantly changed our sleep rhythms. Pre-Edison writings show that people would commonly awake once during the night and would engage in sundry activities before returning to sleep until morning. A study decades ago showed that when isolated from artificial light subjects return to a pattern of first and second sleeps. I have found personally when I get to bed early I will more likely awake in the middle of the night. I am less stressed to know that this is natural and not the sinister sign of insomnia.

Some sleep experts are puzzled as to why people would choose to share a bed with a spouse when it can mean a worse sleep for both of them. Further work confirmed that despite that, the benefits for some of bonding and security take precedence over comfort.

A chapter on dreams is interesting as it follows the theory of dreams from Freud with its pervasively sexual interpretations to modern researchers that ascribe less mysterious motives to our dreams. Many find them to be no more than the nocturnal counterpart to the daydreams that occupy our blank mind. Dreams could be understood by experts as being the brain reviewing and making sense of the previous waking hours. Where dreams are unusual or strange, they still are borrowing information that is present, around us in our daily lives.

A symptom of PTSD is recurring nightmares. One researcher found that some were helpful to take the recurring disturbing images and purposely choose replacement images that they would think about as they fell asleep.

I find the chapter about dreams as a source of source for ideas and breakthroughs to be more interesting. There are examples as diverse as Paul McCartney and Stephanie Meyers (of twilight fame). One theory was that the creative insights were the byproduct of memory housekeeping that occurs while we are in the REM sleep state.

Across the board, sleep helps us learn and solve problems. When we cannot get a full night’s sleep, a nap can provide an improvement in cognitive performance. Some businesses have installed designated napping areas in their offices.

Randall reports that lack of sleep has tragic effects in the military where friendly fire incidents are associated with lack of sleep and battle fatigue. Most military personnel rely on caffeinated drinks,enhanced coffee or even stimulants in pill form to stay alert. Many studies and experiments have tried to overcome man’s need for sleep. The bottom line was that only sleep can reliably overcome the lack thereof.

The chapter on sleep-walking, -driving and even -killing is fascinating. It is sad to think of those who, like the author who are victims of this condition, interesting how the has grappled with deciding how we treat crimes committed during sleep.

A chapter on sleep apnea, where a blocking of the airway routinely during sleep discusses the invention of the CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) machine that uses a pressurized face mask to keep the airways of apnea sufferers open as they get much needed sleep.

Insomnia is common. It is challenging, because though sleep is so beneficial for us, concentrating on getting to sleep makes it more elusive. Insomnia might be a cause of depression, not a result. Sleeping pills came in to fix this problem, but they showed a long list of side effects, including loss of memory and sometimes death by accidental overdose. Sleep aids are a big market with about one in four Americans having prescription sleeping pills in their medicine cabinet. Ironically some studies have shown that some products do not offer significant improvement in sleep quality and only a tiny improvement in quantity. Some sleep drugs make it harder to remember tossing and turning during the night. One, Ambien can lead to waking behavior that is embarrassing and vaguely remembered.

Studies showed that changing behaviors, not taking sleep pills are best for long term sleep quality. Though age is a factor in reduction in sleep quality, because REM sleep begins to decline after age 40.

Sleep inertia is the quality of fuzzy headed-ness that we have when we are awaken from sleep. It is a real curse to pilots that doe on long flights and then need to make crucial decisions after awakening abruptly. maybe this is the reason that I cannot feel awake after trying to take a Sunday afternoon nap. Student trying to avoid disrupting sleep at the wrong moment designed a system to track sleep stages (I believe there is now a Iphone app for this). It became a product that gives each sleep session a score from 0 to 120. Using the numbers allows people to do experiments to optimize sleep

Science has found that sleep depends on two things, first, getting the mind to calm down and second becoming comfortable enough that that physical issues are not obstacles

Finally, there is no perfect mattress, each seems to prefer whatever they are used to. An expensive mattress might feel vastly more comfortable, but it will not translate to a significantly better sleep.

Thanks to all for their support of my blog by visiting and buying anything via my link to Amazon!

An Important Read about Poverty in America

This was a change for me to read The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, but with the recent talk about the divide between the rich and the poor, I wanted to see what this book had to say. Though I do not agree with everything that the authors put forth, there was a lot that challenged assumptions that I have made and views that I have held.

Poverty Tour

They share the stories they heard when their Poverty Tour went on the road and visited communities across the U.S. The stories they found were heart rendering. Many were examples of people that were what they felt was a comfortable middle class life, and then health problems, or the Great Recession caused to be dropped down into poverty.

They go over the history of the last few decades of treatment of poverty in the political arena. The poor seemed to become more and more marginalized. I was reminded that it is common now to look at the poor as being in a state of sin or maybe immorality.

This is a pretty quick read, and gives one much to think about. I was surprised that President Reagan is not held in high esteem by everyone. Likewise, the welfare to work programs instituted by President Clinton were not considered a good thing, in that the authors felt that some poor were pushed unprepared into the workforce.


There is a significant amount of reference to Greed. This sort of discussion is rare amongst  the Conservatives or Libertarians that I listen to occasionally. I guess that the Free market point of view is that the Market will properly channel Greed into growth, efficiency and innovation, which will generally improve our lives. I think that government regulation seeks to counteract rampant greed by legislating against monopolies or creating consumer protection laws.

Of the things that I do not agree with in the book, is the general theme that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is dangerous because of the possibility that there will be a class war, or at least a considerable destabilizing influence on our democracy. The authors, or at least one of them seems to be on the side of the occupy Wall Street participants, or the group that advocated the homeless squatting in houses that were vacated because of foreclosure. I suppose that it is just the concept of civil disobedience that I disagree with in these cases.

The authors state: “This manifesto is founded on the fundamental conviction that there must be a renaissance of compassion in America: There can be no genuine compassion without a resurrection of an explosively radical movement of righteous indignation directed at eradicating poverty.”

I think that some assumed that the market economy is what it is, and people should learn to thrive by their own talents and efforts. It seems important to consider that an unfettered market that can lead to extremes of wealth, it will naturally lead to extremes of poverty.

I would consider signs of unhealthy greed being the one case where Wall Street banks facilitated the creation and selling of securities that were doomed to fail, and yet sold them whole-heartedly  to unsuspected buyers.

The other area where I think that regulation has caused unforeseen effects is how it is better for banks to evict owners of foreclosed properties and leave them empty, (supposedly being better off taking the loss) rather than working to help someone stay in their home.

Common Myths about Poverty

The book shares the following 10 Myths about poverty, a few of which I probably ignorantly believed.

  1. Poverty is a character flaw.
  2. America’s manufacturing is going to bounce back.
  3. The Great Recession has ended.
  4. Minorities receive the majority of government entitlements.
  5. No one goes hungry in America.
  6. America takes care of its veterans.
  7. Government handouts created the nation’s deficit.
  8. America’s wealthiest pay more in taxes because they earn more.
  9. Medicaid takes care of our senior’s health care needs.
  10. Poverty does not exist in the suburbs.

I think that the biggest benefits of The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto is that it reminds us that despite the political rhetoric, there are many that are below the poverty line that really want to better their lives. I believe that many were propelled into poverty by the recession caused by poor policies and corporate misdeeds.

I highly recommend this book where the authors strongly encourage us to treat the poor compassionately and to spend as much creative effort to find innovative solutions to poverty as we do to create the next gizmo or blockbuster entertainment.

Have you read this book, or listened to the radio program of the authors? Let me know! And thanks that use my links to Amazon.com. Your purchases there help support my blog.


Gaming as a path to longer life?

I recently listened to a TED talk by Jane McGonigal entitled “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life”.  She is also the author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. In her TED talk she talks about all the benefits of playing games. I cannot do justice to the wealth of information in her talk, but I she does make the case that not all the time spent playing games is time we will regret not having done other things. She quotes the research out of BYU that shows that parents that play video games with their kids have better real relationships with them.

She shares how creating a game around her recovery from a severe head trauma helped her get through that challenge.

I really have mixed feelings about this topic. I really do like playing video and computer games (once I have moved up the learning curve a bit). I do find that it is easy for me to spend lots of time playing, like when Lode Runner came out on Macintosh (sp?) when I was in college, and I played all through the night. Even a few years ago, I would spend so long playing Civilization on the PC that my neck would freeze up in the position that I was holding it. My kids like when I play video games with them, but I need to considered it time with them, otherwise it seem like a wasteful luxury.

A closely related topic, is gamification, where you add game elements to traditionally non-game activities, like business processes at work.  I just read an article about the benefits of gamification in the enterprise. It talked about things such as leader boards and badges, and I was pretty confused, but then I thought about Amazon.com and how you can earn “Top 1000 Reviewer” and other “badges” such as that. I do find myself checking to see how I rank in writing reviews on Amazon.com. I have heard that posting rankings can backfire with some people, but it does also bring out the competitive spirit as well. Some parents can be adept at turning chores into games.

I notice now that there are a good number of web sites around the gamification topic, such as http://www.gamification.co/, http://gamifyforthewin.com/, as well as a Course on Gamification that started last month on Coursera.com.

What areas can you think of that could benefit from gamification?


Key to Changing our Habits

From The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, we learn the science behind habits. Habits lead to lasting change. This book goes well with and overlaps just a little bit with Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength which I reviewed a few months back. I will cover it in a few posts because of the volume of great information contained in it.

Duhigg shares that habits are comprised of three components

The Cue is a trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode and that tells us which routine to follow. The Routine is the action that occurs and the Reward is the event which helps the brain figure out if this routine is worth remembering. As we go through this cycle, the routine gets reinforced within the basal ganglia in our brains.Soon our conscious mind can go deal with other matters and the routine gets played out without effort.

As a habit gets developed both the cue and the reward create a craving in the brain. Businesses use these cravings to its advantage. Toothpaste adds mint related ingredients, because we associate the tingling feeling with clean teeth.

A series of experiments was performed with Eugene, a man who (because of a viral infection that attacked his brain), could not remember anything more than a few minutes. Through repetition, he learned to pick the “correct” card when shown two cards. He could give no explanation of why he made the particular choice. In fact, he was not even aware that he had sat down choose between two cards many times before.

After discussing individual habits and their formation. Duhigg talks about habits in the organization. In this, probably the best section of the book, we learn about how Paul O’Neill transformed Alcoa. When O’Neill was chosen as CEO of Alcoa, he knew that Alcoa had plenty of problems and he had to change the culture. Many were dismayed when he first met with Wall Street investors, and told them that the Plan was to make Safety the highest priority. Many were dumbstruck, when he responded to questions about financial strategies by reiterating the evacuation plan for the building, and pointing out the emergency exits.

What O’Neill was doing by choosing Safety as his Mantra, was taking advantage of a Keystone Habit. A Keystone habit is one that positively affects other beneficial habits. By emphasizing Safety, O’Neill was doing several things. He was changing the way that management interacted with the laborers. He was making everyone focus on making the plants run more efficiently, because if they are efficient, they are less likely to cause injuries. If someone got hurt in an Alcoa plant, whole procedures kicked in to make sure that issues were resolved. This focus lead Alcoa to become very profitable, and successful. This Keystone habit played a critical role.

Durhigg shares how Keystone habits can help individuals.

  •  ” When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically people who exercised start eating better and being more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change”

I can vouch for the power of Keystone habits. For me, riding my bike to work is a keystone habit. When I do it, It causes me to try to eat healthier, to not drink sodas at work (even though they are free!) and I feel like I am more focused and productive.

  • “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence. making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.”

There is a lot of other good info in The Power of Habit, which I strongly recommend, and I will write more about in a future blog post.

In the Appendix, Duhigg provides a reader’s guide where he suggests affecting change by  the following steps:

  • Identify the routine

Maybe the routine is grabbing a sugary soda, or losing our temper when talking to a co-worker. We first need to identify the action that is the core of our habit. Particularly if it is one that we are trying to change. Experience has taught us that it is not easy to simply get rid of the action, but better to determine a substitute action. Maybe we need to substitute a few squeezes to a stress ball, instead of saying the words that we will regret.

  • Experiment with rewards

We generally have habits, because they provide us with some reward. We need to see how our new routine provides us with a reward that is desirable enough to draw us to the new action. It might be the same reward associated with our old action. We should get creative here.

  • Isolate the cue

What is the event that causes our habit to kick in? This can be tricky. Our environment is very noisy and distracting so we need to keep a good record or diary to discover recurring patterns.

  • Have a plan

Once you understand your cue, routine and reward you can make a plan to remold your behavior. For example, let’s say that you want to stop playing solitaire when you have deadlines to meet. You realize that you do it because you are tired of typing. It gives you a reward because it is satisfying to win the card game. A plan would be to recognize the Cue of getting tired, and planning at that point to stand up, stretch, and maybe care for the houseplants in the office. Since you like the natural touch, this is rewarding, and is healthier than playing solitaire.

This book also would be good with Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by a host of authors. Thanks to all that have used my affiliate Amazon Links (in the side panel or through any of the book likes). Remember it does not cost you extra but supports my website.

Do you have a good procedure to change habits? Share it with us!

The Magic of Checklists

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande is a very important addition to the literature about improving the execution of just about anything.

Gawande was asked to lead a panel of World Health officials in coming up with ways to improve the outcomes of surgical procedures world-wide in a daunting variety of Health Facilities, from rural health clinics in India to historic hospitals in England. There was a lot of discussion about the many improvements that could be pushed out to the health community, but they decided to borrow from the world of aviation where the use of checklists has a long history of effectiveness.

Gawande shows that there have been remarkable improvements in safety and positive outcomes when Checklists are instituted in hospital trials around the world. In this book he also learns from Aviation experts how to get checklists right.

Checklists are helpful for a number of reasons

  1. Humans are notorious for assuming that they can keep everything in their heads. This is tied to the main tenant of the Getting Things Done approach to personal effectiveness. It takes a lot of mental resources to keep more than a few items in our heads, as a result, we have added stress and we miss things. A checklist is a great way to save the tasks so that we do not have to. I found this was the case when I as a youth worked at Burger King. I can proudly say that I was exceeding fast on the Whopper Board (where we made the single patty burgers). However when I came back to work there part-time after a spending two years in Chile, I could not perform as well. Before Chile, I would mark the special orders on the burger packages, immediately as they were called over the PA system and we were swift as lightning, however two years later, after Chile I would for some reason try to keep it in my head, and would invariable miss orders.
  2. Checklists allow the whole team to focus on a small number of important behaviors. They found that something as simple as including an bullet to have the team tell each other their name and their responsibility within the operating room, yielded a great deal of benefit of improved communication during the procedure. Team members were more likely to voice concerns and mistakes were avoided.
  3. Checklists bring consistency to the world of Mavericks and Heroes. Many people bristle at the thought of having rules and procedures take the life or creativity out jobs, however, when we leave it to chance and impromptu action, then we leave room for mistakes and inefficiency. It reminds me of the case of the piano tuner who decided to do everything slowly and properly, he found that he actually completed his tasks faster than when he cut corners and rushed. Check lists allow us to carefully do things the right way.

I like how this fits into the Getting Things Done approach where we capture a list of next actions within our computer, or notebook or whatever. Even making a list of things to be packed for camping is such a time saver. Like going over a checklist before a regular planning meeting to see that we are discuss all the right stuff. We use our brain power in one concerted effort to make a good checklist, and then we can spend our mental energy on more creative efforts, and to improve the checklist.

I can see application of these principles in many places, such as in a family with a “Saturday Night Checklist” with (find church shoes; make sure church clothes are laid out; etc.)

The topic sounds boring, but Gawande has good stories that apply to the application of these principles. He also wrote Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performancewhich is also fascinating reading about improvements in medical care.

How do you think that checklists could make your life easier?

How to get new ideas

I recently became involved at work with helping facilitate a brainstorming session. It did not help much that this comic strip was just published (thanks to http://dilbert.com):

The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

So I had to delve into the latest research about it. It turns out I had the books that Scott Adams probably read or heard of to come up with this comic. There is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain. I had recently watched her TED talk so I had her book checked out of the library. She makes a point that you are better off coming up with ideas off on your own, and the research she cites does agree.

I also have been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer which is so packed with useful research, that I will devote a few future blogs to it. Jonah does address the fact that traditional brainstorming was refuted in studies done in 1958, soon after the practice was introduced. He cites later studies that seem to significantly improve the output of brainstorming sessions. There are two ways to increase output.

1. Ban the “no criticism” rule

While many thought that avoidance of criticism would encourage full participation. The discouraging of discussion cause participants to be less engaged with each other. At Pixar, their high creative output is due to the open and frank discussion of ideas.

2. Introduce disruptive thinking

Brainstorming is more open and ideas of a larger scope are produced when the participants are exposed to a moment of dissent, even when the dissent is wrong. In the study, participants were shown some colors and were asked to name them. In one group a plant, early on would say pink when red was shown. The other had participants name the colors accurately. In a subsequent creative exercise those that were exposed to the dissenting view were much more creative. Just the exposure to the one alternative view caused the participants to view things a little more flexibly.

I think that there are lots of techniques to introduce that dissent or disruptive thinking. This brings me to Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition) by Michael Michalko. This book has dozens of different ways to get us looking at our problems in a new light.They have evocative names such as “False Faces”, “Cherry Split” and “Lotus Blossom”. Some are out there (get people thinking differently by removing shoes and allow others to try them on; I shudder at the thought), but most look worth trying out. One that I like is carefully listing the problem, stating any assumptions, and reversing each of the assumptions, and see what insights come to mind.

The book unabashedly to teach you to

     Generate ideas at will
     Find new ways to make money
     Create new business opportunities
     Become indispensible to your organization
     and much more.

Do you have any favorite creativity techniques?

Tips to Develop Focus and Discipline, from The Practicing Mind

I have been reminded about the importance of state of mind when engaged in any number of activities, including learning new skills, and developing habits from The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life – Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process.

This smallish book by Thomas M. Sterner is an antidote to the current culture of rushing around, multitasking and instant gratification. Sterner draws on his early and recent experiences of learning piano, other instruments, and golfing as well as his personal studies of world philosophies and his personal experiences now as a concert piano technician and restorer. His tips are well explained and are encouraging as he shares the following:

Focus on the Process, not the Product – First of all it is important to focus on the task at hand and not fret about your progress against your ultimate goals. He compares it to swimming where you take a number of strokes before sticking your head up to see if you are on course, instead of looking for your distance landmark after every stroke.

Remember the Lesson of the Flower – The question “When is a flower perfect” could be answered many ways, but if we consider it closely we would have to conclude at each stage, it is perfect. We need to have the same acceptance of ourselves at each stage of our growth.

Create a Trigger – As is backed up by science in a number of recent books, Sterner points out that it can be helpful to choose a small action or event, that will serve as the kickoff to our execution of our practiced behavior. It could be as with professional athletes that will adjust their jersey prior to an attempt, or it can be in the workplace where we see ourselves start losing our temper at a coworker.

Remember the Four S’s, simplify, small, short, and slow – Here it is important to break up our actions that we are trying to improve into small bits that we can work on carefully. One term used to describe effective ways to improve is Deliberate Practice. Sterner makes some very interesting observations about being deliberately slow. He tells of a packed day that he was running back and forth between concert halls, and he decided that he was just losing the life balance game, and feeling frazzled. He decided that despite all that he was going to need to do that day, he would intentionally go about it deliberately and slowly. It felt great as he did it, but he was afraid that he was running late as a result. When he got back to his truck and looked at the clock there (he had removed his watch) he found that he was way ahead of schedule.

Equanimity and Do, Observe and Correct. – Sterner encourages us to develop a even tempered detachment to our behavior and actions. This will allow us to remain calm and in the present. We can correct ourselves without beating ourselves up.

Sterner gives further suggestions as to how to learn from our children’s approach to life. I found this to be a very powerful book, and one that I intend to apply to my own life. I will try some of the suggestions to reduce some of my mental multitasking at work. When I ran an errand yesterday, I turned off the radio and just concentrated on my driving. Frankly I did not notice much difference, but maybe that other drivers did. I strongly recommend this book, as I am going to apply in my own life.

How do you learn new skills? Please share.


Some Tips From a Thoughtful Book on Thinking

I picked up The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction
because of the promise of the title. It is chock full of down to earth tips and advice to encourage us to take the time to use our brains more for contemplation and introspection.

There are chapters on the following topics:

  • Why You Don’t Think and Why You Should
  • Finding the Time to Think
  • Attention: Awareness and Much More
  • Reflection: The Art of Going Over Your Life
  • Introspection: Self-Knowledge for Success
  • Exercising Self-Control
  • Embracing the Positive
  • Being Proactive
  • Making Wise Decisions
  • Nuturing Outstanding Thinking: Insight, Discovery, and Creativity
  • Managing Adversity
  • Choosing to Be Thoughtful
  • Conclusion: We Are What We Think

The author, P. M. Forni has created here a very thoughtful book about thinking. Even the tips at the end of the chapter are not “next actions” but are more often or not, items to think about.

Sometimes I felt that I was listening to Ophelia’s Father, Polonius as he gives his fatherly advice to his son, including the counsel to  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Maybe it is because book relies more heavily on common wisdom, with some anecdotes but less on the neurological science common in the recent stream of self help books.

There are some valuable nuggets such as this paragraph that stood out:

I am not arguing that reality exists only as a mind construct. We are, however, all under the spell of an illusion of sorts. The illusion is that we are one with life, when instead life’s experience is always a mind-mediated one. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed with utter clarity two thousand years ago, it is not things in themselves that disturb us, but rather what we think of them.

You will note that he quotes one of the Stoics. He does rely on classic thinkers to illustrate some of his points and also a few more modern writers.

I found it interesting that he take Nike to task for promulgating the culture of throwing caution to the wind with “Just Do It”, since I have always understood it to mean, “get off the couch and take action”, not “mindlessly take action”.

Some sections are a little confusing. He debunks the myth of NASA developing a space pen while the Russians were smart enough to just use a pencil, where the truth is that both programs bought from the Fisher Space Pen Company, He then goes ahead and uses the apocryphal story to make his point about creativity.

Forni references the classics, both the society of stoics and the temple at Delphi as well as modern experts such as Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

I found this book to be a real jewel when closely read and pondered. This is no easy collection of checklists, but is rather a gathering of small essays and that discuss the benefits of thinking in all areas of life, and provide suggestions on how to raise our thinking to a new level and to realize the associated benefits.

In what areas of life do you think you could improve your thinking?