Extreme opinions are useful for promotion and debate

Given the sheer competition for attention on the internet, it is a melting pot of extreme opinions. Extreme opinions are great for publicity and entertainment value. They can also be pretty useful to spark debate.

But, by spurning nuance, extreme stands rarely help us get to the truth of the matter.

My approach over time has been to treat extreme opinions like the dissonance between the quotes – “many hands make light work” and “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Each is useful in stretching our thinking in the right context.

But, the truth, almost always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Making “be kind to yourself” easier to implement

The advice “be kind to yourself” tends to resonate with a lot of folks (me included) because of our default tendency to be harsh with ourselves. For years, however, I found myself wishing I’d find an easier way to remember it in the moment.

A model I’ve begun using to better translate this powerful idea reframes it around the question – who does your self talk sound like? I’ve picked three characters my self talk tends to sound like depending on the day. It could either be harshest critic (“that was a dumb move”), spectator (“hey, what happened there?”), or coach (“let’s talk about what happened there and what you’ve learned from it”).

You could imagine other characters across the spectrum- mom, close friend, critical friend, etc – depending on your natural tendencies.

Thinking about self talk from the lens of these characters and reminding myself to channel the coach more often has made it easier to implement “be kind to yourself.” Here’s hoping it stays.

If you have ideas/models/habits that work well for you, I’m all ears.

The one thing learning loop

In his book, Morten Hansen uses a concept he calls the “learning loop” to apply the principles of deliberate practice at work.

He suggests the following – pick one skill you’d like to get better at, find a coach/create a plan to improve the skill, periodically review progress, and then loop through the process.

The most useful lesson I took away from his approach was to pick one skill – just one. I’ve been guilty of trying to improve three or four things at a time for far too long. The downside of running so many loops is the absence of focus.

This simple idea has changed how I think of improving my ability to “communicate constructively and with clarity” during the workday. I can sense the sharp increase in awareness as I communicate over the course of the day. And, I’m looking forward to experiencing the results of this increase in focus in a few months.

Another timely reminder that more is not better. Better is better.

That root cause

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve analyzed people/relationship problems only to realize that the root cause is misaligned or unstated expectations.

It is amazing how many potential problems – in relationships at home, at work, and even that all important one with ourselves – can be nipped in the bud by the act of proactively understanding and then setting expectations.

The new year is a great time for revisiting, resetting, and realigning many of these expectations. Here’s to that.

Reflections from replacing a screen protector

I received a replacement screen protector recently (warranty). As detail oriented tasks are not my strong suit, I went to an AT&T store to request help with putting it on my phone screen.

A minute into the procedure (for the lack of a better word), the sales associate who kindly helped out was getting visibly frustrated. He had aligned it nicely but was unable to remove four remnant air bubbles. So, I gave it a try and got the number down to two – both of which were below the screen.

As he was steeling himself to try again, I thanked him for his time and explained that I’d be happy to live with this.

I admittedly came home and tinkered with it for another minute – but, I stopped.

For every such decision, I can think of multiple – big and small – where I’ve wasted a lot of time attempting to get to better and then to perfect. No good has come out of that wasted time.

The list of things worth maximizing in this life are very short. The sooner we realize that, the easier and happier our days are.

And, in case you are wondering about screen protector – I haven’t noticed it yet. When I do, I plan to do what I generally do when dealing with damaged objectives – I remind myself that the bubbles exist to remind me that life isn’t perfect.

It isn’t – thanks heavens for that.

3 reflections on the Echo Dot and Alexa

We recently received an Echo Dot as a gift. We tend to take a wait-and-see approach with most new technology and this was no different. 3 reflections from the first 3 weeks –

First up, our biggest use case is music – specifically children’s music. While we set the occasional reminder, Alexa and Amazon Music (free with Prime) have been an amazing add to the family. Amazon Music’s collection of children’s songs by the likes of Lisa Loeb and Caspar Babypants (the Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran equivalents for adults) is fantastic. And, it is much easier to request music by voice than fumble with a phone or an iPad while carrying a kid.

Amazon’s free music collection is also impressive. While we occasionally stumble upon a song that isn’t available, their radio stations / playlists are top notch for English music.

Second, Amazon delivers on value for money at the $30 price point. For most people, the Echo Dot might just replace the need for a speaker. I’ve written plenty about Amazon’s lead in the battle for the home – this experience has been further validation of the strength of their offering.

Third, I find it fascinating that Alexa and Google Home only offer a better manners option as part of parental controls. Why is it that we consider better manners only for the purpose of teaching kids?

From my experience, I have become more polite in the process of requesting our 2 year old to be more polite. I’d argue adults need this as much as kids do.

Perhaps the teams could consider a requirement for all users? At least one “please” for every 3 requests?

Overall, a fascinating device and one that has definitely added value.

PS: There is, of course, the downside of having a device over hear conversations. The party line from Amazon is that Alexa only hears things when she’s summoned. I am reluctant to buy that and have gone in with the assumption that anything within Alexa’s hearing range is sent to Amazon. As things stand with our experiment now, that’s a trade-off we’re willing to live with.

Why millions of kids can’t read and a better way to teach them

NPR had a fascinating article on the transformation of the early reading curriculum at a kindergarten school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The dominant method for teaching kids to read comes from an influential and incorrect theory that pushes for teaching people using context and visual clues.

The better approach is to help kids/people understand that written text is a code for speech sounds. So, the process of reading is really a process of decoding these sounds.

Harper attended a professional-development day at one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The teachers were talking about how students should attack words in a story. When a child came to a word she didn’t know, the teacher would tell her to look at the picture and guess.

The most important thing was for the child to understand the meaning of the story, not the exact words on the page. So, if a kid came to the word “horse” and said “house,” the teacher would say, that’s wrong. But, Harper recalls, “if the kid said ‘pony,’ it’d be right because pony and horse mean the same thing.”

Harper was shocked. First of all, pony and horse don’t mean the same thing. And what does a kid do when there aren’t any pictures?

This advice to a beginning reader is based on an influential theory about reading that basically says people use things like context and visual clues to read words. The theory assumes learning to read is a natural process and that with enough exposure to text, kids will figure out how words work.

Yet scientists from around the world have done thousands of studies on how people learn to read and have concluded that theory is wrong.

One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding.

So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.”

The results of this approach in the past 3 years have been great.

In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.

The meta learning here is the importance of educating educators in cognitive science in addition to their respective subject material. To help people learn better, we must understand how people learn first.

This learning applies in our day-to-day as well. We often play the role of educators when we teach our partners, kids, or co-workers about something. Understanding how they learn and process content will help us make a lot more progress in our attempts.

Writing for self vs. writing for others

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to folks interested in writing publicly (on a blog of their own, Medium, Linkedin, etc.) over the years. As you might imagine, I’m a huge proponent of writing regularly in public as the act of doing so can have a transformative effect on our life by pushing us to be more accountable to ourselves, to think more clearly, to reflect more often, and to synthesize what we learn.

While most of the questions at the beginning of these conversations tend to be tactical, the place where I think the rubber hits the road is the conversation around purpose – is the writing intended for oneself or for others?

This is a fundamental choice because the process and rewards vary significantly.

When you write for yourself, the process takes a lot less time. Since you are writing primarily to clarify your thinking, you don’t need to worry about polishing or distributing your content – you just start a blog in a small corner of the web and get on with writing. As part of the thinking process, you focus entirely on optimizing your learning versus trying to figure out what your audience would be interested in.

So, you focus on iterative shipping by writing to think and improving how you think over time. As a result, you get to treat everything you write as a hypothesis and don’t worry about the consequences of being wrong. Finally, sharing what you write on your favorite social network is strictly a choice if you feel the social pressure + time to benefit trade-off is worthwhile. Even if you do decide to share, you don’t need to obsess about notifications and feedback. If it isn’t a “hell yeah,” you can choose to not share it.

Like all decisions, this choice has accompanying consequences. The consequence of writing for yourself is that the rewards are almost entirely intrinsic. You might earn yourself a few subscribers over time – but, your subscriber count, follower count, website visit count, monetization (if any), fame, etc., will likely never be anywhere as good as someone who focuses on writing for others.

Conversely, if you started out writing for others, expect less intrinsic benefit. The correlation between popular content and valuable/learning filled content isn’t high. :)

Like many things in life, I find that this misalignment between expectations of process and outcome drives most folks to quit after writing publicly for a couple of months. While they might have set out to write for themselves, there often are unsaid expectations about building a massive subscriber base – or vice versa. The end result is disappointment.

So, if writing publicly is on your list of new year themes/resolutions, I hope you’ll take time to clarify the purpose and your expectations on process and outcomes. While I can’t speak for writing for others, if these are aligned for the purpose of writing for yourself, I can say with reasonable confidence that the long term benefits of doing so are extraordinary.

Misusing the word feel

What percentage of our use of “I feel” is actually followed by a feeling?

When we use phrases like “I feel that” or “I feel like,” we communicate thoughts and judgments instead of feelings. The appropriate use of “I feel” would be to say “I feel hurt” or “I feel frustrated.” Even saying “I feel misunderstood” communicates a judgment.

There is great power in communicating feelings and needs because they enable us to focus on the issue at hand while ensuring we move past passing judgments about others. But, channeling that power requires us to use language the way it was intended.

And, the first step to that is to pay attention to the language we use.. and misuse.

My biggest reflection from this idea is the importance of clarity in our bid to communicate constructively. When I wrote out my theme – “Communicate constructively and with clarity” – I thought of these as two separate goals. But, they’re likely more related than I initially thought.

(H/T: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg)