Steven Pinker’s TED Talk: Is the world getting better or worse?

I read Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, and came away more optimistic about humanity. We’ve made remarkable progress in even the last few decades, not to mention the drastic difference in the human experience over the past two centuries.

The book, though, is filled with an extraordinary amount of data backing up his arguments and is slow going.

TED recently released this video of Pinker’s TED Talk on the subject. In just 18 minutes, Pinker clearly makes his case. If you don’t want to make time for the book, this talk will suffice.

Sebastian Junger’s TED Talk: The consequences of a more disconnected society

This theme, that it’s all about relationships, keeps appearing in what I’m reading and watching. 

I watched this sobering TED Talk today by the author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger. It is a pointed indictment of a culture that is more disconnected and less tribal than ever. 

The rise in PSTD among returning soldiers, he asserts, may be more about the culture they’re coming home to than it is about their combat experiences. 

We are wired for community, for connection, to be a part of something beyond ourselves. If our culture is trending away from genuine, face-to-face human relationships, it’s on us to cultivate that connection. Our health and well-being are dependent on it. 

The quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your life. 

It’s all about relationships

I somewhat randomly clicked on this TED Talk by Harvard researcher Robert Waldinger this week.

He has carried on the research in one of the longest running research projects of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For more than 75 years data has been collected that has led to some clear answers about what makes for a good life.

Younger people tend to predict that fortune and fame will lead to happiness. That prediction doesn’t hold up.

Studying older people who have lived more life shows there is one key indicator for happier and healthier lives.

It’s actually simple and ultimately rather obvious. According to Waldinger and the study’s research, this is your ticket to a good life:

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

It’s all about relationships.

Not only will you have a happier life if it’s built around positive relationships, you’ll live a healthier and longer life as well:

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Even brain health and mental function were notably better later in life for those who reported stronger connections in their relationships.

Waldinger closed his talk with this:

“The people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships—with family, with friends, with community.”

“The good life is built with good relationships.”

I think most people will say they want a life filled with good relationships, but how often are we intentional about investing in our connections with family and friends and community?

What if you “leaned in” to the relationships that matter most? Imagine making family and friends your true priority in the way you spend your time and where you devote your greatest energy and creativity.

If you want a satisfying life, career success and financial well-being should be subordinate to the strength of the connections you make with the people who matter most.

If you don’t have close friends, make some. If your family life is suffering, get busy making it better. If you don’t have a community that you support and that supports you, do something about it.

Life as a human here on Earth is ultimately all about relationships.

“There isn’t time—so brief is life—for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving—and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” –Mark Twain



Band camp and intrinsic rewards

I was in the marching band in high school. Trumpet and French horn. I was no great musician, but I especially enjoyed the camaraderie. During the summer we all had to participate in band camp, where we learned the music and the show we would perform at football games and in competitions. (There was no actual camping, by the way. Not sure why it was called a camp.)

It was tedious and hot. Georgia-in-August hot. Putting the show in during the first days of camp took a lot of do-overs as everyone was learning where to go and when. After the band director would stop the show to correct something, we were then exhorted to hurry back to the sideline of the field to start over.

Well, it was hot. And tedious. And most teenagers in August who were waking up early maybe for the first time all summer are inclined to move slowly as they do this hard thing. And the director and the band officers would implore everyone to hurry, to run to get back to the starting point. It was mostly a futile effort getting a hundred high school students to run in the August heat across a dusty field.

I, however, was that kid who made a game out of it. I put a smile on my face and raced back across the field to the line every time, cheering and acting silly as I passed by many of my fellow band members. If I was going to have be out in the heat of an August day in Georgia doing this band practice, I might as well try to have fun.

If I’ve got a choice (and I do), I’m going to choose to be happy. And sprinting across the field at band camp while joking with friends made the tedium less tedious and added a dash of fun. I hoped to make someone else smile along the way as well. There were always a few of us who chose to make it fun.

Not many of my classmates, though, chose a similar response. Most dragged their feet and complained the whole way back to the line. Getting the band back in place to start over was a chore every time.

One day the director gathered the band up as practice was starting and offered a challenge. He would give fast food gift cards to those band members who showed the most spirit and energy running back to the line that day.

Well, every time we stopped and had to start over that day, the whole band went crazy, running back to the line with hyped up glee, yelling and cheering. One of my friends, who could have been the poster boy for the feet-dragging whiners previously, was all of a sudden Mr. Spirit, whooping and running each time we had a do-over.

Almost everyone seemed to be responding to this new motivational tactic. Except, it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I hurried back, but not with my usual enthusiasm. Now, with a prize at stake, my motivation was gone. I didn’t want to be seen as faking it just to get some free food. And I did not win a spirit award that day. My friend, Mr. Spirit, did.

I remember feeling perplexed by my response. Why had I been bothered by the reward? Why was that enough to tone down my enthusiasm?

The reward for me previously had been an intrinsic one. It was the fun I had doing the thing. But when the reward was a free hamburger and being acknowledged in front of my peers, I put the brakes on. I didn’t understand the psychology then, but I now know that the extrinsic inducement sabotaged my motivation that day.

The next day at band camp there were no more gift cards to be awarded. And everyone went back to business as usual, with just the usual few choosing to delight in running back to the line just for the sake of it, not for any prizes. Those rewards had a very limited impact.

I know there is research now showing that extrinsic rewards turn out to have limited success and work primarily for tasks requiring a low level of mental and emotional investment. Bonuses and prizes and other external payoffs just don’t have the impact and staying power that everyone assumes.

Intrinsic rewards, though, are where the real juice is, especially for higher level work and organizational excellence. Finding how to tap those for yourself and those you lead can open possibilities for deep satisfaction and exceptional performance.

Check out Dan Pink’s TED Talk explaining what he discovered about the power of intrinsic motivation.


Mindfulness in ten minutes: Andy Puddicombe’s TED Talk and meditation app

My friend Jill came by my office yesterday. She reads this site and often sends me an encouraging message. I’m kind of freaked out when anyone lets me know they read this. It’s still in my head that I’m writing this just for my own benefit. Thanks to anyone who spares a moment for anything I’ve shared here.

Jill was telling me that she’s been using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app for a daily meditation practice. (And there, over on that Headspace link, you’ll find Hermione herself giving it a thumbs up. Brilliant!)

I’ve downloaded the app, and it’s impressively designed. I’m going to give it a go. Meditation has been on my to-do list for a while, but I just haven’t made it a habit. I’ve even got a couple of mindfulness books lined up in iBooks waiting on me. But this app just might be the tipping point for me. It literally talks you through the practice. I might have room for one more daily habit to track.

And here is Andy Puddicombe’s TED Talk advocating taking just ten minutes each day for intentional mindfulness (and there’s juggling, which is a fun bonus).

Digital AND analog

This talk by master penman Jake Weidmann about the dying art of penmanship is fascinating:

Weidmann’s talk makes me care about penmanship. He’s got a great stage presence and makes a somewhat obscure topic something worth talking about.

I have terrible penmanship. I’m left-handed and struggled as a kid trying to use a fountain pen. My gnarled death grip on the pen would have me smudging the wet ink with my hand. I remember being frustrated and a bit embarrassed about my sloppy writing. The only average grades I ever got were in 5th grade for handwriting. (Most schools today don’t even teach, much less grade, handwriting.)

So, I later took to a keyboard with enthusiasm and became a decent typist. To get in to the journalism school in college I actually had to either pass a typing test or take a typing class. I passed the test and can write pretty fast with a computer keyboard. (I think the journalism school not only dropped the typing test a year or two after I graduated in 1986, but probably even shipped out all the typewriters soon after as they made room for computers.)

Now, I find myself resistant to writing anything more than a few sentences by hand. I’ll use my phone or iPad or computer keyboard when possible. They’re convenient and fast and guarantee a neat, legible, electronic copy of what I write.

However, I do switch to thinking through some ideas by sketching out mind maps on my whiteboard and on the big notepad on my desk. I’ve got a clear separation between the digital and analog work spaces in my office. It’s nice to change gears and brainstorm with a marker in hand then turn back to the computer to input and polish and tweak.

The digital side of my workspace


The analog side of my work space (My family came in this afternoon and added their own touches to my work. My daughters cannot resist writing and drawing on the whiteboard.)

This talk about penmanship is a good challenge to care more about how well and how often I write by hand. Maybe I’ve been holding a pen all wrong all my life. My wife has lovely handwriting and is meticulous and careful about making her writing just right. She should have a font named after her.

I don’t think you need to ditch your handy digital tools. We don’t have to choose sides. You can use both. And if you’re lost in the distractions of your electronic life, try grabbing a pencil or some colorful markers and a big sheet of paper or massive whiteboard. They’re all just tools. Use them to bring out your best.

Diana Nyad’s audacious pursuit

I’m spending this weekend at the lake with my family. It’s a final summer getaway before my girls begin the school year on Monday.

Being on, around, or in water is good for my soul. Yours, too. There’s even a popular new book, Blue Mind, that explores the science behind why water makes us happier.

As I was swimming in the open water of the lake this morning, I thought of Diana Nyad, the great distance swimmer who recently, and finally after four failed attempts, conquered the daunting 100+-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

She decided to revive her swimming career only after turning 60 and then put herself through as difficult a physical and mental challenge as you can imagine. She swam through shark infested waters and nearly died from horrific box jellyfish stings on a failed attempt, and then gave it yet another try.

She’s done a couple of dynamic TED Talks that tell the story of this seemingly foolhardy quest. Here’s the most recent, after achieving her goal:

Her previous TED Talk is inspiring as well.

Nyad has an ebullient, charismatic stage presence. She lights up the room. Her enthusiasm for her daring approach to life is infectious.

What will you do with your one wild, and precious life?


Drew Dudley and “lollipop moments”

Life can turn in a moment. A seemingly small gesture, an act of simple kindness, can make a big difference. In a world of people busy distracting themselves, being present and attentive and kind has become a superpower. You can be a hero for others just by paying attention and caring.

I was reminded of Drew Dudley’s excellent TED Talk today and sent it to my student staff. It’s a call to be excellent in the little things that make up what he calls “everyday leadership”, to be kind and present and to acknowledge those who have made a difference for you. Awaken possibilities where you can and pay forward the kindness you have received. Consider the “lollipop moment” that inspired Dudley’s talk:

Dudley is a terrific speaker with a simple, yet powerful message. It doesn’t take much to be a transformational leader. No titles or degrees are required. No need to seek permission. Just look for opportunities, no matter how small, to be helpful and to be kind.

And what if you thanked those who created lollipop moments for you?

Consider picking one day each week to find someone to thank – Thankful Thursday, maybe. Call or write a note or send a text, whatever works for you. Think of a teacher or former colleague or an old friend or family member. Even a random acquaintance who might not know you personally or even remember your shared moment would appreciate being thanked.

“We celebrate birthdays where all you have to do is not die for 365 days, and yet we let people who have made our lives better walk around without knowing it.”

–Drew Dudley

And just thanking someone for a possibly forgotten lollipop moment might create a new lollipop moment given back to the original giver. You can change the world – which really just means changing a person’s world – simply by creating meaningful moments, moments of kindness and hope and courage.


The near win

Reaching a goal can derail you. Accomplish it and then what? New goals, I suppose. But a life built around systems and process and thoughtful routines will bring more excellence and more consistent satisfaction than the ups and downs of goal-setting.

There’s something transcendent about striving, reaching for what you know may actually be unreachable. It keeps you hungry and sharp and makes you open to change and growth.

Success is an ending, and can leave you feeling lost on a regular basis. Mastery, though, is a pursuit. It’s a journey, not a destination.

I enjoyed this brief TED Talk by art historian Sarah Lewis, who champions the merits of the “near win”, of falling short, yet, or consequently, continuing to strive and improve and ending up further along than success would have propelled you.

Seeing this resurrects the desire in me to find some sideline activity that I can pursue in an attempt to achieve mastery. A hobby or craft or physical discipline that has no end other than a path of excellence.

By the way, I appreciated Lewis’s speaking style. Her stage presence is not effusive, not charismatic, and not quite conversational. But she’s quietly solid and impressively clear. It seems like it’s more of a spoken-word essay than a talk, but it works for her. This seems like who she is, and she clearly cares about what she’s saying and what she’s learned.

Seeing her on stage reminds me that there is no one best way for speakers to connect. Well, there is one way, and that is authenticity. That works for every speaker.

Happiness, the pursuit

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After celebrating Independence Day here in the U.S.A. last week, we should remember the goal for those revolutionaries ultimately was a nation that would especially protect the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“.

A government cannot grant you happiness. But it’s nice of ours to at least promise to get out of the way and not impede our pursuit of it.

How’s the pursuit going for you? Me? I think I probably have moments of happiness at a slightly above average rate. Happiness, though, is an elusive state. If you notice yourself feeling happy and try to dissect why, you lose the feeling. You can look back on truly happy moments after the fact, but it’s hard to catch happiness in the act. What if the act of pursuing actually prevents you from reaching the desired state?

Can you list distinct, indisputable happy moments in your life? This is a good exercise for your journal. What are the peak happy times from throughout your life, the big falling-in-love and birth-of-your-children moments, and the small, quiet sitting-on-a-covered-porch-during-a-gentle-rain moments?

It’s worthwhile to excavate those memories and try to understand why those moments stand out. You might discover some common elements to help set yourself up for even more happiness, to create the conditions most likely to spark more happy memories. Why not be happy on purpose?

This enlightening TED Talk from Matt Killingsworth highlights his research showing that people are happiest when they are lost in a moment, when their minds do NOT wander.

This seems true for many of my happiest moments. The chatty part of my brain, the happiness-killing part prone to near constant monologuing, disappears when I’m in a zone, whether that’s work or play or reading or watching a movie or riding a roller coaster. Happiness is absorption.

Jason Silva, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast, said that his aim is to build his life around flow states. Excellent idea.

How can I set myself up for more flow states, more moments getting lost in something that quiets that inner monologue, that stops my mind from wandering away from the present moment? What are the conditions that tend to lead to this kind of absorption?

Can I craft my day around creating flow states for work and for play? Set up my work area, tune out distractions, and just begin, whether I feel like it or not. Maybe by creating the climate for happy moments and engaging in activities that require complete absorption, happiness will pursue me rather than the other way around.

More happiness, less pursuit.


Ken Robinson: Creating a climate of possibility

Sir Ken Robinson has the most viewed TED Talk ever, and his latest talk on education is a must-watch as well:

Notice his presentation style. He uses no slides, no video. He stands in one place and holds the audience’s attention with his wry humor and short stories and wise insight. His humor charms the audience throughout. The man has terrific stage presence without seeming to try hard. He’s just chatting, in a rather low-key manner, as though he’s talking to a small group of friends. He seems authentic and approachable, and, therefore, very persuasive.

His message, though, is dynamic and powerful. We must do better at educating children. We must free teachers to connect with kids where they are. We must honor and nurture creativity. We must create an expectation and an environment where these young humans can come alive, each in their own way.

Robinson’s final story about Death Valley provides a terrific metaphor and a strong finish for his talk. Flowers blooming in Death Valley proves that it’s not dead, just dormant. So, too, our failing students, or rather students being failed by our education system, have life in them and need only a change in climate and conditions to blossom as well.

The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. -Sir Ken Robinson

Any great organization, whether a school or business or family, is great primarily because of its culture, its climate. If you’re in charge of something, if you’re a leader or want to be, the most important task is to create and nurture a culture that informs and empowers the people you serve.

And culture revolves around the “why” questions. Ask “why” before worrying about the “how’s”. “Why are we here?” “What’s our purpose?” “Why do we what we do?” Compelling answers to these questions can build and sustain a culture and create possibilities previously unimagined.


What movies teach kids

I enjoyed this TED Talk by Colin Stokes about the way movies are affecting his young children. He makes some great points about the role of female characters, but his key point is what movies are teaching boys.

As the dad of two young daughters, I want my girls regularly to see strong and smart female characters in movies. (And they love movies.) But I want boys to see that, too. I want the boys and men who will be in my daughters’s lives to see women as just as strong and smart as my girls do.

Certainly, my kids are informed about their possibilities more from their family and the people around them in their actual life, but there’s no doubt the stories they consume affect them.

But it goes beyond just having more female lead characters. The stories need to be smart regardless of the gender of the characters. Some of the Barbie shows I’ve seen my kids watch are filled with girl characters, but they don’t model a level of thoughtfulness and intelligence that make the viewer better for the experience.

The quality of the stories we consume can shape the stories we tell with our lives. I want my girls to get lost in books and movies and comics that inspire wonder and delight and challenge them to live a great story themselves.

Hackschooling: 13-year-old explains how he’s remixing his education

This kid is so impressive as he tells his story about hacking his education:

What great poise and stage presence from someone so young. And I admire what he and his family are doing by choosing an unconventional approach to education. I know so little about alternatives to conventional schools, but seeing stories like this one makes me want to explore how best to educate my own kids rather than just defaulting to what almost everyone else does.

via Unschoolery

On not knowing

A neuroscientist offers a compelling case for the value of ignorance, of knowing that you don’t know:

Reminds me of a quote from Joseph Campbell that continues to resonate with me:

He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.

Instead of being sure of answers, it’s better to know the next questions to ask.

Getting stronger

This is another great TED Talk*. Here, psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares research showing that facing stress head on rather than avoiding it or being crushed by it has beneficial effects:

Adversity and responding effectively to it generate growth. I’ve been learning that masters get great at something because they keep doing hard things, bumping up against their limits, and persevering to get better.

“No pain, no gain” is a real thing. But I’ve prided myself on avoiding stress when I can. This talk lets me know I should throw myself into the fray regularly and embrace difficulty and challenge more often.

Next time I get the panicky, tight feeling inside about a hard thing approaching, I should welcome it as an opportunity to get stronger.

*HT Getting Stronger blog