Nothing But Stars

The blue-grey clouds squished over the rooftops down the road as I warmed my hands on my mug of darker-than-clouds coffee. A good night’s sleep would have been nice, thank you very much, but no, I got to bed early, tossed like a fish till all hours, then awoke, twitching and wild-eyed, at 3:13am. I’m not superstitious, so twitching awake from a nightmare to my WalMart digital clock displaying the usual number of disasters followed by the unluckiest number didn’t bother me at all. Not one bit.

bluegreyclouds

When it’s black night out here you can’t see the next house, a hundred yards up the road, unless Mort is going fishing and he’s up early. Otherwise, new moon like this, you see nothing but stars until the sun oozes up over the hills behind my cottage. Then, the stars are there one moment, gone in a blue-grey haze the next.

Except that was all in my imagination, of course, what with the thick dark cover of clouds. It would get lighter. It would not get sunny.

Matched my prospects for the day.

I swallowed the last of the lukewarm brew in my mug and went upstairs to shower, shave, and dress for my last day as an outsider.

Contrast and Brightness

One month ago at this moment our yard was silent and white. A foot of snow covered everything, including the lake. The pines had a light frosting of white and the darker bark of the elms and walnuts stood out from it all.

Nothing moved. No sound but a tractor in the distance.

contrasting seasons

… more … “Contrast and Brightness”

Practical Advice from ‘The Invisible Gorilla’ by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (An Actionable Books summary)

“We experience far less of our visual world than we think we do.”

The Invisible Gorilla page 7

Imagine watching a video of two basketball teams dribbling and passing the ball. You count the passes of the white-shirted team to each other. You’re focused, but certainly not oblivious.

Just in case you haven’t seen this yet, stop right now and watch this video. Pay attention to the instructions. Then continue reading.

Watch the video before you continue reading!

Did you see it? Half — half — of the people who watch the video don’t see it.

This is not an “illusion” in the sense we’re used to. No tricks, no editing. The illusion is that we think we experience the world around us fully.

Truth is, we just might be missing more than we experience, just as you may have missed the gorilla in that video.

Rather than a theoretical manifesto, Chabris and Simons share solid research to alert us to six places we all think we’re experiencing more of our world than is true:

1. attention: how much of our environment we experience
2. memory: not only can we forget, we can remember things that never happened
2. confidence: greater confidence is linked to less ability, not more
4. knowledge: our knowledge of most things is seriously superficial
5. cause: we see causation far more often than the evidence warrants
6. potential: belief in shortcuts to expand our brain’s abilities

The primary example of the book relates to the invisible gorilla and our ability to pay attention. GEM #2 will explore how we see cause and effect even when it’s not there.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The Invisible Gorilla’ by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’ by Professor Frank Partnoy (An Actionable Books summary)

“The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of our modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly.”

Wait, page xi

You’ve heard the marshmallow experiment: sit a bunch of 4-year-olds down, give them a marshmallow, and tell them if they wait a few minutes before eating it, they’ll get 2 marshmallows. Those who could wait did better later in life in areas requiring self-control. (That’s a monumentally trivial summary of the monumentally important study.)

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’ by Professor Frank Partnoy (An Actionable Books summary)”

What Do Archery, Forgiveness, and Fear Have in Common?

The fingers of your dominant hand wrap around the bowstring. After aiming, you slowly open your hand. That’s it, just straighten your fingers. You don’t push or snap or yank. Just, let go of the string.
… more … “What Do Archery, Forgiveness, and Fear Have in Common?”

Practical Advice from ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath (An Actionable Books summary)

“The pros-and-cons approach is familiar. It is commonsensical. And it is also profoundly flawed.”

Decisive, page 8

Humans are fundamentally irrational. We like to think our decisions are logical deductions based on empirical data, but this ignores large and powerful portions of our brains in which emotions overpower or undermine logic.

This gives rise to four villains in our decision-making process:

  1. Narrow framing – spotlighting one alternative at the expense of others available
  2. Confirmation bias – developing a belief about a situation, then seeking out information that bolsters our belief
  3. Short-term emotion – mental churn which obscures perspective
  4. Overconfidence about how the future will unfold – we cannot examine what we can’t see or know

We may be irrational, but we’re predictably irrational. Forewarned is forearmed: knowing the villains means we can learn coping strategies.

Acting as if we already have a quality will produce it.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘The As If Principle’ by Dr. Richard Wiseman (An Actionable Books summary)

“Common sense suggests that the chain of causation is:
You feel happy — You smile
You feel afraid — You run away

 The As If theory suggests that the opposite is also true:
You smile — You feel happy
You run away — You feel afraid”

The As If Principle, page 11

Modern self-improvement texts universally direct us to change how we think in order to change how we behave.

Dr. Richard Wiseman, Britain’s only professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, shows in The As If Principle that instead, we can focus on actions which will change how we think and feel. We get the same results, only faster and, according to Wiseman’s studies, more consistently and reliably.

Acting as if we already have a quality will produce it.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The As If Principle’ by Dr. Richard Wiseman (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Learned Optimism’ by Martin E. P. Seligman (An Actionable Books summary)

“One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.”

Learned Optimism, page 8

Al Capp’s satirical comic strip Li’l Abner introduced an iconic character, Joe Btfsplk. Joe walked around with a dark cloud over his head — literally. He brought misfortune everywhere he went. In one sequence, he escaped his cloud, but took it back, accepting that was just who he was: the little guy with the dark cloud over his head.

It’s common to believe that some of us are born with a sunny outlook and others are doomed to life under a dark cloud.

It’s not true.

Optimism can be learned and pessimism overcome.

A pioneer in the field of positive psychology, Martin E. P. Seligman has spent decades studying negative and positive thinking, developing practical methods to transform the former into the latter.

Whether we are pessimistic or optimistic depends on whether we see adversities as

  • permanent
  • pervasive
  • personal

or

  • temporary
  • specific to these circumstances
  • not our fault

Optimism, it turns out, is a skill each of us can learn. Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Learned Optimism’ by Martin E. P. Seligman (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘To Sell Is Human’ by Daniel Pink (An Actionable Books summary)

“1. If the person you’re selling agrees to buy, will his or her life improve?
2. When your interaction is over, will the world be a better place than when you began?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, you’re doing something wrong.”

To Sell Is Human, page 232

In the closing words of To Sell is Human, Dan Pink puts his mouth where the money is. Whether we like it or not, selling is a very human experience. Those of us who like it, in fact, have a distinct advantage over the inhumane practices we’ve come to associate with the word “salesman.”

Research confirms what we already knew: the word most associated with “sales” or “selling” is pushy, followed closely by sleazy, slimy, manipulative, and dishonest. Back in the bad old days, a salesman had all the information. You were at his mercy (if such existed.) Caveat emptor; buyer, beware!

Thanks to the internet, today we all have the information. Pink coins a new phrase: caveat venditor. Yes, in a world where information is ubiquitous, buyers know as much as or more than the seller. Not only can we protect ourselves from bad products and services, any seller dumb enough to behave unscrupulously can be pilloried in pixels around the world.

While many believed that universal access to information would make sales irrelevant, the surprising discovery is that a large segment of workers are still engaged directly in sales. If we include what Pink calls “non-sales selling,” that number becomes “all of us.”

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘To Sell Is Human’ by Daniel Pink (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘The Icarus Deception’ by Seth Godin (An Actionable Books summary)

“We’re living in a moment of time, the first moment of time, when a billion people are connected, when your work is judged (more than ever before) based on what you do rather than who you are, and when credentials, access to capital, and raw power have been dwarfed by the simple question ‘Do I care about what you do?’”

The Icarus Deception, page 219

Most of us grew up in a world where everyone had a job. A world where publishing a book meant being picked by a publisher, where recording a music album meant being picked by a record company. School was a place you went Monday through Friday from 9 to 3 where you were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. You were also taught to sit still, follow instructions, color inside the lines, and fit in.

Above all, you were taught to fit in.

That world is over. Though it lingers, the future, the very near future, belongs to those who are willing to stand up, stand out, and turn anything they do into a remarkable work of art. This idea is the basis of Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The Icarus Deception’ by Seth Godin (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘All In’ by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton (An Actionable Books summary)

Why Is This My Most Searched-For Post?

For being old and off-topic, this post gets a surprising amount of traffic. I’m curious: what brought you here? Tell me, down in the comments form below or on the contact page.

“‘Do you believe I can cross the falls [Niagara] with this wheelbarrow?’ he called out.

‘Yes!’ they yelled as one.

‘Wonderful,’ he said. ‘Then who will get in?’”

All In, page 4

The Great Blondin didn’t settle for simply walking across a high wire strung above Niagara Falls. Back flips. Chairs. In the quote above, a wheelbarrow.

There’s a world of difference between what we say we believe and what our actions show we believe.

The fans were delighted to watch. Participate? No thank you.

One man did. Blondin’s manager, Harry Colcord, climbed up and got in the wheelbarrow.

That is the kind of belief which makes the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘All In’ by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘The Laws of Subtraction’ by Matthew E. May (An Actionable Books summary)

“[W]hen you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens.”

The Laws of Subtraction, page xii

A long time ago in a world most of us have never seen, simply speaking up got you noticed. Most folks went through life without trying to attract attention. The simple agrarian world didn’t require a coordinated online marketing network to survive.

Today if you have anything you want heard, if you endeavor to create art of any kind, your venue has shifted from “my village” to the entire world. For the past 50 years business folk have acted as if the loudest voice saying the most words wins.

Extra buttons. Brighter colors. Faster. Bigger.

More.

In a world of excessive excess, subtraction is not only good creative and marketing thinking, it’s morally responsible.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The Laws of Subtraction’ by Matthew E. May (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Losing My Virginity’ by Richard Branson (An Actionable Books summary)

“Conventionally, you concentrate on narrow boundaries when running a company. Not only do I find that restrictive I also think that it’s dangerous.”

Losing My Virginity, page 409

I was astonished to discover that this 600-page book could be boiled down to a handful of business principles. A separate lesson all its own, you’ll realize as you read Losing My Virginity that Richard Branson, rebel that he is, rebels in a consistent and predictable manner.

Raised by parents who constantly challenged him, beaten down by teachers who were clueless about his learning disabilities, Branson’s youth gave him a balance of determination and joy. His businesses have all been an extension of his personality. While it’s easy to dismiss advice like “have fun, be creative, follow your dreams” as new-age nonsense, it’s hard to argue with the success of the man who has launched more billion-dollar businesses than anyone in history.

Because his success is, not just well-known, but the stuff of legend, I’ll include more extensive quotes than usual, and keep my comments to a minimum. He can speak for himself.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Losing My Virginity’ by Richard Branson (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ by Clayton M. Christensen (An Actionable Books summary)

“I know for sure that none of these people graduated with a deliberate strategy to get divorced or lose touch with their children—much less to end up in jail. Yet this is the exact strategy that too many ended up implementing.”

How Will You Measure Your Life?, page 4

How Will You Measure Your Life extrapolates business and life lessons by combining these principles:

  • what gets measured improves
  • hindsight is easier but foresight is better
  • business and life often run parallel

The advice throughout the book focuses not on the minutiae but the big picture, teaching business lessons and applying them to life choices. The result is forceful in its clarity and simplicity.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ by Clayton M. Christensen (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Why Business People Speak Like Idiots’ by Brian Fugere (An Actionable Books summary)

“Bull has become the language of business.”

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, page 2

Every single one of us can tell the difference between human communication and business communication—when we’re reading. For some reason, when we’re writing, we lose our minds.

The best books on change are written, not by folks who never had to learn, but by those who’ve “been there” and wish they hadn’t done that. Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky – authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots – all worked at Deloitte Consulting, committing the very crimes outlined in this book when one day they woke up and smelled the, er, aroma of what they were saying in their professional writing. After creating software (called Bullfighter) to help them monitor their own writing, they gathered what they learned, verified their thinking with a little informal research, and identified the four main reasons business people speak like idiots—and how not to.

Fugere and company describe four “traps” that business people can fall into with their writing. In each case, they speak to how someone falls into the trap, give examples, and offer clear advice on how to avoid the trap in the future. In case the title of the book doesn’t make this obvious, every lesson is delivered with humour in clear, simple language.

Why business people speak like idiots is a fun read; educational without being too dense.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Why Business People Speak Like Idiots’ by Brian Fugere (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Turning Pro’ by Steven Pressfield (An Actionable Books summary)

“Turning pro is not for everyone. We have to be a little crazy to do it, or even to want to. In many ways the passage chooses us; we don’t choose it. We simply have no alternative.”

Turning Pro, page 5

Steven Pressfield knows more about suffering than I do. If you’ve ever tried to create something, you know what that means, but I’ll spell it out for anyone who’s confused.

Everything worth doing is art. The obvious stuff – writing, painting, sculpting – is art, certainly.

There’s another kind of art though, and it exists in your business, in your life.

If you’re trying to do something with real meaning, something not quite orthodox, you have felt what traditional artists feel every day: Resistance.

In Pressfield’s earlier book, The War of Art, he detailed what Resistance is, and how to combat it. It was originally titled The Writer’s Life so it’s no surprise that it’s slanted toward those who share Pressfield’s profession. But as a man of broad vision, he knows that we all face Resistance, what Seth Godin calls the lizard brain. When we try to do something important, the voice in the back of our head tries to stop us.

In many cases, it wins. Even those of us who’ve read and re-read The War of Art until it’s worn have succumbed to Resistance.

We needed more than awareness. We needed a tool, a path, a flashlight.

Turning Pro is a flashlight on the path.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Turning Pro’ by Steven Pressfield (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman (An Actionable Books summary)

“Every significant choice we make in life carries with it some uncertainty.”

Thinking Fast and Slow, page 270

It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence and impact Daniel Kahneman has had on today’s thinkers. His TED profile says, in part, “Widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioral economics — exploring the irrational ways we make decisions about risk.” The list of books which are a direct or nearly direct result of his writing would be enormous. Even a partial list of his literary children and grandchildren here at Actionable Books is impressive: Drive, Freakonomics, How We Decide, The Luck Factor, Now, Discover Your Strengths, Outliers, Predictably Irrational, Uncertainty, The War of Art, Who Moved My Cheese?, A Whole New Mind.

Kahneman’s work, alone or with longtime collaborator Amos Tversky, is foundational to our understanding of ourselves. Credited with creating behavioural economics, the science of why we don’t make sense when we think about money, he won the Nobel Prize in 2002. The prize is not awarded posthumously, so Tversky is not officially listed as a recipient, yet Kahneman considers it a joint prize shared with his friend Amos. His love and admiration for his collaborator and friend is evident throughout the book. I suspect it prompted the book’s premise, our Golden Egg.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘The Progress Principle’ by Teresa Amabile (An Actionable Books summary)

“When we surveyed hundreds of managers around the world…95 percent of these leaders fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of motivation…the conventional rules miss the fundamental act of good management: managing for progress.”

The Progress Principle, pages 3 & 10

The husband-and-wife team of Amabile and Kramer have studied creativity for more than 35 years. Along the way, they have challenged some long-held assumptions about how we work, how we create.

During a year-long study involving over 120,000 work events reported as they happened, they noticed a pattern: what mattered most in any work environment, no matter the worker’s basic personality or position in the company, progress, however small, was the greatest indicator of their happiness and performance.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The Progress Principle’ by Teresa Amabile (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘The Woman Who Changed Her Brain’ by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (An Actionable Books summary)

“[J]ust as our brains shape us, we can shape our brains.”

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, page 8

For as long as I’ve known him, my friend T has had an odd mannerism. When I’d walk up to him in a group, he’d give me a blank glance and say nothing. When I’d join the conversation, he’d suddenly blurt, “Joel! Hey, how are you?” as if he’d just seen me.

In reality, that was when he’d first recognized me.

T can’t tell the difference between two faces any more than you can tell the difference between two sheets of paper. Until he identifies people by some other means, he doesn’t know, can’t know, who they are.

This creates challenges. When T goes to the airport to pick his wife up after visiting her mother, he has to ensure that he’s “picking up” the right woman, because he can’t recognize her. After a certain incident involving a woman wearing a coat exactly like one his wife owns, he’s learned to be circumspect when approaching women at airports.

Prosopagnosia is the fancy name for face-blindness. It’s one of many neurological conditions which Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has learned can be addressed with carefully crafted mental exercises which literally change the brain.

When T finally thought to mention this to me just over a year ago, I was floored. I have seen him accomplish amazing feats of recognition due entirely to amazing coping strategies. He spent his entire childhood learning how to recognize people. He was 18 before he realized that most people have a system in their brain which makes it the most natural thing in the world.

The two halves of that story, T’s coping strategies and my failure to recognize his condition, are the two GEMs below. Each side of the coin has a lesson.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘The Woman Who Changed Her Brain’ by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (An Actionable Books summary)”

Practical Advice from ‘Priceless’ by William Poundstone (An Actionable Books summary)

“The same psychological tricks apply whether you’re setting a price for text messages or toilet paper or airline tickets.”

Priceless, page 7

This is not a book about coming up with prices, it’s about understanding them. More accurately, it’s about our fundamental misunderstanding of what prices even mean.

Poundstone frequently references Dan Ariely, Kahneman and Tversky, Richard Thaler, and others who will be familiar to those of you who like to read about how our brains work – and how they often don’t.

A series of short (2-5 page) treatises which build and focus as you move through the book, he begins with our cluelessness about prices, gives us some psychological grounding, shows us good and bad pricing in action, and gives us greater awareness of our limitations and how to shore them up.

Here’s what you’ll learn: … more … “Practical Advice from ‘Priceless’ by William Poundstone (An Actionable Books summary)”