Finding a Unifying Theme: Step 1 – Eliminate Superstition

On or around March 1st will mark my last day with Nortel after over 12 years. How is that for a push to find what you really want to be doing?

So, time again to answer the question, what will be my Unifying Theme?

For the attentive reader, you will recall that the title of this blog came from the book Freakonomicsby Levitt & Dubner. When in discussions with their publisher, they were confronted by the apparent fact that their manuscript didn’t contain a ‘Unifying Theme’, which –in their publisher’s estimation– was essential to a successful book. Because Levitt & Dubner could not immediately articulate what their theme was, they capitulated to the publishers and addressed the lack of a unifying theme right at the start of Freakonomics.

Around the same time I read Freakonomics, I was trying to figure out a title for my blog. What was I about? What was I going to write about? Would my blogging lead me on a path to discover where my true motivations and passions lie? Or would I –as I suspected– continue to find a diverse range of topics interesting –and blog-worthy– but never find any one area compelling enough to focus a large percentage of my time? At least as a consolation: if a book as successful as Freakonomics can succeed without a Unifying Theme, it must not be all that important!

You can imagine how crushed I was to learn, in Levitt & Dubnert’s sequel Super Freakonomics, that they had discovered that their first book actually did have a unifying theme. They decided it was: ‘people respond to incentives (although not necessarity in ways that are predictable of manifest)‘. In hind sight, I am really glad they didn’t lead with that!  The ‘no unifying theme’ preamble was much more mysterious and compelling!

Rats!!  Now they have gone and found their ‘Unifying Theme’, what about me?! Should I become an (micro-)economist?? And do micro-economists feel inferior to macro-economists?  But I digress…

Back to the topic at hand: what do Unifying Themes have to do with superstition?

Superstition has several definitions, but I am concentrating on actions based on “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.” (dictionary.com)

While you may think of things like ghosts, Friday the 13th, etc. I am thinking of more every-day examples:

  • Belief that if you just had more money, you would be happier.
  • The behaviours that got you where you are, will get you where you want to go.
  • Your income says something about how valuable a person you are.
  • You can work for the same company your whole career.*
  • Other people can give you the affirmation you need to make you life worthwhile.
  • People are only motivated by money.
  • Retirement will make it all worth it.

Its pretty easy to understand where superstitions come from: when you discover two things that often correlate, but don’t spend the time or energy to discover if they are causal. Just imagine the successful executive who has many good attributes, but also regularly yells or belittles her employees.  It would be fair for her to assume that her personality is what got her success, but is all of it really contributing to her success? If she stopped yelling at employees would the success go away? Might her performance actually improve?*** You don’t want to be like the pigeon that keeps dancing in a circle expecting food, just because the researcher once trained it that food would appear.

To find the ‘Unifying Theme(s)’ for your life, I think the first place to start is by removing your superstitions and gaining a better understanding of what really makes you happy. Test those assumptions in life that have kept you from doing the things that you want to do. Get your friends, family, co-workers to reflect back to you what they see as your motivations and passions. Better yet, invest some time and money in a good mental health practitioner** who can illustrate your superstitions and motivations. Various tools can help you find out your preferences, one of my favourites is from Gallup Research: StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths

Enough from me. Any advice from my audience on your approach to finding your ‘Unifying Theme’? Success stories are particularly welcome!

* Not one I ever had. I can’t believe how long I lasted at Nortel. There is probably a whole other blog post on that one.

** Finding one of these is hard, but very valuable.

*** There is a good book specifically addressing this topic: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

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TEDx Ottawa: A Resounding S.U.C.C.E.S.s!!

TED conferences are mind-blowing, but expensive and far away.  Sp when I heard about the TEDx concept (locally organized TED events) I was excited to hear that an event was being organized in Ottawa!  But how was a local event going to compare to TED conferences which regularly attract the worlds top thinkers?

The same weekend, I was trying to complete my presentation on a very compelling book that my wife bought for me: Made to Stick. This timing was very fortunate for my presentation because TEDx provided so many great examples about how to make ideas ‘Sticky’. I thought I would use the S.U.C.C.E.S.s acronym used by the book to illustrate some of my key take-aways from TEDx Ottawa:

S – Simple: Keep your message core and compact to increase the chance that people remember the one most important thing you want them to act on.

If someone really succeeded in getting their message across, I shouldn’t have to look at my notes! And one great example of this was Bob Ledrew who’s key message was to “Sing your song.”, which was all about remembering what things you were passionate about in your youth, and making sure that you make time for them in adulthood.  His personal story about his rediscovery of his passion for music, and his ‘House’ concerts was very inspiring.

U – Unexpected: If you can break a person’s guessing machine you keep their interest and increase the chance that they will absorb your message.

For me the ‘unexpected’ story that stuck with me most from the day was Ray Zahab‘s story about how he entered a Yukon ultra-marathon, and the mental and physical battles he fought during the race to convince himself that he could finish it.  At the end of the race he then says “Nobody is more surprised than me that I finished this race.” and the race marshall responded: “You didn’t just finish, you won.”

Cindy Chastain and Kip Voytek surprised me by clarifying the difference between ‘cooperation vs. collaboration’, and how most ‘collaboration’ strategies actually are about cooperation.  This surprise caused me to furiously write down their proposed approach to collaboration, which I will use!  As a result, I have a lot more ‘pleasure in not knowing’.  😉

C – Concrete: Everyone will take in your message using their own filters and lenses, you must make your message concrete to ensure that your audience gets your message, regardless of their background.

Images and video are fantastic ways to make your message concrete and accessible to a wide audience.  Najeeb Mirza used a video shot in Afghanistan to illustrate how people around have more in common than you would think!  It made me laugh to see a bunch of turban doffing Afghani tribesmen talking about who had the best cell phone.

Williams Jans‘ message about how ‘Bad Roads Bring Good People’ was driven home by his many great photos and video showing how friendly and happy people can be at the fringes of the inhabited world, and showed the joys (and laughs) of learning new languages!

Finally, Mark Levison talked about how images are ‘Google for the mind’ and there doesn’t appear to be an upper limit to how many images the brain can process.  So many of Mark’s comments echoed the ‘Made to Stick’ concepts that I ended up giving him my copy of the book when I was surprised to find out he hadn’t read it!

C – Credible: To get people to believe your message, you need credibility.  The book has many suggestions on how to accomplish this, but I used some TEDx presenters to illustrate.

Tracey Clarke has credibility for many reasons.  First of all, she is the managing director of Bridgehead Coffee, a company who has beaten the mighty Starbucks at the own game (in Ottawa anyway). This should be credibility enough, but then teaches us more about the dynamics of coffee business than I thought possible in such a short presentation!  Her many stories, pictures and detail about Bridgehead’s stance on coffee supply made me proud to be a Bridgehead customer!

Robert Mittelman, a Kiva Fellow, leant a lot of credibility to Kiva’s microcredit initiatives by his experiences with the program abroad.  It was good to hear how this money was being used, and how the inspiration flows both ways: debtor to creditor, creditor to debtor.

E – Emotional: In order to get people to act on your message, you have to hit them in the heart with it; with emotion comes action.

Mark Blevis and his message of the importance of children’s books really hit me at an emotional level.  It made me realize how I really didn’t recognize the importance of these books in providing children context on how to interpret and interact with their world.  The reminder that this is actually a high art form of imparting messages in a compact way to people with a limited vocabulary.  So is this emotion making me act?  Absolutely.  Just one week after TEDx I am sure I have had at least 4-5 conversations about the significance of children’s books!

S – Story: If you tell your message as a story, there is no way that your audience can remain passive. The act of listening to a story (as opposed to just a bunch of facts) forces the listener to build the mental image of the story as it is told, which increases the chances of the listener remembering it.

Danny Brown‘s presentation was all about story telling, digital storytelling in particular.  He told of the new Star Wars series that lost the viewer because it forgot that telling a human story was the important part, and not all the technology that enables it (actually I think it WAS Jar Jar’s fault).  I really liked how he compared the Millenium Falcon to everybody’s beater first car!

Nothing illustrates the power of story like Jowi Taylor‘s Six String Nation ‘Voyageur’ guitar!!  Every piece of this guitar has a story, and is perfectly united to his message of ‘One Canada’.  There was certainly a lot of emotion in his stories as well, as there were several that brought a tear to my eye, and the passion of Jowi about telling these stories was clearly apparent!  The best part about this guitar is that, for all the stories that are built into this guitar already, the guitar itself is creating so many new stories that are being captured by Jowi.  All Canadians must hear the story of this guitar, and I am certainly doing my small part.

I don’t want to diminish any of the other presentations by their omission here!  I got at least one great nugget from each presentation, and many great discussions with the presenters in the interludes.  It was a fabulous event, exceptionally executed.  Even the box lunch was fabulous!  I hope all people that attend TEDx events around the world are as lucky as we are in Ottawa to have such a great experience!  An experience worthy of the ‘TED’ name!

Thank Goodness for CANCON

Canadian Content laws, the reason why it often seemed Canadian radio stations in the 80’s only had a box of 45’s containing Kim Mitchell, Corey Hart, Rush, Honeymoon Suite & Bryan Adams, to fill the airwaves with music. At times it seemed ludicrous, even painful, but over the years something amazing happened: Canadian music got better.

Basically, Canadian stations were told, if they wanted a license, X% of the music they played had to be Canadian acts. Also written into many of the station approvals were dollar amounts to be used to help Canadian talent (ever wondered why the stations gave away $100K’s for winners of talent contests?).

The ‘capitalists’ amoung us would decry this as socialist intervention, but it seems this is one government initiative with a happy ending.

Canada now has the pool of talent required: musicians, producers, promoters, recording studios, etc., to produce really world-class talent.

While you will undoubtedly have different taste, for me some of these include: The Arcade Fire, Metric, Matthew Good, The Hip, Sam Roberts, Rush (hey I’m a drummer) & The New Pornographers. There are also certainly some (arguably Rush, Leonard Cohen & Neil Young) that would have made it without the help.

I believe CanCon, and some great Canadian radio stations, have created an environment for Canada to develop it’s own unique cultural music heritage that all Canadians can be proud of.

TED: A Great Resource for New Ideas!

Want an opportunity to see videos by some of the biggest thinkers in the world for free?  My friend Catherine tipped me off to the website TED.com.  “TED” stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment & Design’ which was the original scope of the conference when it started in 1984, but since has become much broader.

The concept of the talks is that each speaker is given 18 minutes to give the talk of their lives.  Here is a description of the conference from TED:

The TED Conference, held annually in Long Beach, is still the heart of TED. More than a thousand people now attend — indeed, the event sells out a year in advance — and the content has expanded to include science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world. Over four days, 50 speakers each take an 18-minute slot, and there are many shorter pieces of content, including music, performance and comedy. There are no breakout groups. Everyone shares the same experience. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.

Here is a selection of some of my favourite videos so far:

Malcolm Gladwell on why you can’t just listen to your customers (or where chunky spaghetti sauce comes from):

Stephen Levitt on why crack dealers still live with their moms:

Tony Robbins on ‘Why We Do What We Do” (he actually steals an extra few minutes):

Martin Seligman on positive psychology:

Finally, Sir Ken Robinson asks “Do Schools Kills Creativity?”:

And there are 100’s of others! Enjoy!

The Works of Ayn Rand

I recently signed up to a new Audible.com gold account which allowed me to buy expensive audiobooks cheaply, which justified me picking up the two massively tomes ‘Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand.

The two books, which I bought unabridged, totalled 80 hours of reading time which has kept me busy for the last couple of months. I read Fountainhead first, followed by Atlas. I really enjoyed both, with the caveat mentioned below*.

Rand uses characters which represent either extreme of ‘supermen’ like Howard Roark in Fountainhead and Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, or the ‘seconds’ (people that only survive by leaching off and controlling others) like Peter Keating/James Taggart.

The main protagonist is female in both cases, and struggles with an increasing self awareness of where they fit in this polarized world. Also common to both works is the love quadrangle where this female protagonist finally decides on the most ‘super’ of supermen.

*I wouldn’t recommend reading them back to back, as I did, since the themes are very similar, and can even get quite tedious after a while:

    • The benefits of pure capitalism
    • The evil of religion (somewhat indirectly)
    • You do yourself a great disservice when living your life for the benefit of others
    • The only purpose of government should be military, police and courts
    • The purpose of life is to use your mind to create
    • Socialism/collectivism is bad

I am sure I am forgetting a few, but I have to say I agree with her point of view for the most part.

She is a little too radical when it comes to the line between where government should and should not get involved. For example, health care would definitely fall into the private domain, where I -as a Canadian- believe in universal health care. There is a big difference between someone who chooses to live off of others vs. someone who has dependence thrust upon them by bad health or accident.

I took the time to read Ayn Rand because I always like to find a balance in what I am reading. After reading Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, I needed something pro-capitalist, and this hit the spot. As usual my opinion is in the grey zone somewhere in between.

As a final note, it is very likely that Ayn Rand’s work will soon experience a Renaissance, with Angelina Jolie slated to play the role of Dagny Taggart (good choice) in a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. It is currently slated for 2009, but turmoil over the director of the project may change this significantly.

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