Super blood wolf moon lunar eclipse

2018-01-20 lunar eclipse (2)

Tonight’s rare “super blood wolf moon” lunar eclipse coincided with an equally rare clear January night in Seattle.  My little point-and-shoot digital camera didn’t do it proper justice, but it gives you an idea of what we saw.

Eclipses are transcendent events.  First and foremost, they’re beautiful.  I love the coppery glow of the moon set against a backdrop of stars.

Eclipses teach us humility. They remind us that no matter what’s happening in our lives, no matter the hustle and bustle or the trials and tribulations, the universe is unfolding at its own stately, majestic pace, just as it should.  I find this comforting.

Eclipses remind us how far we’ve come. It’s amazing how accurately we can predict exlipses now — this one, for example, beginning at 7:35 p.m. Pacific Time, total eclipse at 8:40 p.m., ending at 10:45 p.m. Centuries ago, an astronomer would be lucky to predict an eclipse within days! Jesuit missionaries in China during the 1600’s gained influence with the Emperor because they were able to predict a solar eclipse much more accurately than the Emperor’s own Chinese astronomers. (Ironically, the Jesuits’ success was based upon the Copernican model of the solar system, a model which the Church in Europe deemed heretical at the time.)

Eclipses were one of the first phenomena to attract our attention to the night sky.  And what a powerful attraction they have been! The prediction and explanation of eclipses has been a driving force in astronomy since ancient Greece. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, all of them contributed to our knowledge of the universe by working to improve our ability to predict eclipses.

Finally, eclipses remind us how far we still have to go. Yes, we have binoculars and telescopes to bring images of an eclipse closer to home. And yes, we’ve put a few men on the Moon and even sent a couple of tiny spaceships beyond the solar system. But we have yet to venture beyond our own Earth to the stars.

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Dare to Lead

Dare to Lead:  Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts
By Brené Brown
Random House, New York, 2018

Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, is about courage.  The book is pitched towards managers and executives to help them build the courage they need to lead their organizations.  But I think the book could just as easily have been called Dare to Live because it applies to many aspects of our lives. 

Brené Brown is a research professor in social work at the University of Houston.  She’s spent about twenty years researching vulnerability, shame, courage and empathy.  I first heard of her when I saw her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability

Dare to Lead builds on several of her earlier books including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, and on seven years of research into courage and leadership.   

Brown defines a leader as:

“… anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  [p. 4]

Leadership isn’t about power, or titles or promotions.  It’s about courage. 

It turns out courage isn’t some innate quality that you’re either born with or not.  Courage can be developed.  Brown teaches us four skills needed for courage:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability
  • Living into our values
  • Braving trust
  • Learning to rise

I’ll take a brief look at each of these and then circle back to a few themes from the book that I found especially important.

Rumbling with vulnerability

The core skill for building courage is the ability to “rumble with vulnerability.”  This is such a key concept that I want to unpack its meaning.

First, when Brené Brown uses the word “rumble” she’s not referring to some kind of West Side Story street brawl between rival gangs.  Rather, it’s a kind of conversation, a tough, potentially contentious and emotionally loaded conversation.  One that requires courage and also curiosity and generosity and the will to lean in to vulnerability.  It could be about an important business decision, a performance review, or about the division of chores at home.  I think a rumble is a lot like the “crucial conversations” described in the book of that name by Kerry Patterson and his associates (book, review). 

Next, Brown defines vulnerability as,

“…the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  [p. 19]

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” [p. 19]

In her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”  [12:30]

You can’t be courageous without being vulnerable, she tells us. 

Rumbling with vulnerability, then, is a commitment to having the tough, contentious, emotionally loaded conversations not just in spite of our vulnerability, but fully embracing it.  Just over half the book is devoted to learning how to do this.

Living into our values

Living into our values, the second skill for courageous leadership, means aligning our thoughts, words and actions with our values.

“A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.” [p. 186] 

First we have to identify our values.  There’s an exercise in the book to help you do this.  You’re asked to pick at most two values from a list of about 120.  Usually I skip over these sorts of exercises or self-tests but I went through with this one and I’m glad I did.  I started by circling about fifteen of the values.  I found I could cluster them together pretty easily into just a few groups.  For example, I put the values of learning, competence, truth, wisdom, curiosity, and humility together in one group.  From each group I then selected the one that I felt was the source or the driver for all the others.  In the end I arrived at curiosity and reliability as my two core values. 

I wouldn’t say the exercise was a great revelation, but distilling the list down to just two values did leave me with some newfound clarity. 

The next step is aligning our behaviors with our values.  There’s another exercise for this:  identifying two or three of your behaviors that support or align with your values, and two or three that undermine or wriggle away from them. 

Regardless of your values, Brown says,

“… daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”  [p. 194]

Our values must be our guiding lights that tell us how to act and lead.  When we’re faced with a tough decision, or a tough conversation, it’s our values that should point the way.  Living into our values takes courage. We do not always succeed.  Brown says that to support us in this work we need help: empathy from one or two people who know us really well, and self-compassion – being generous and caring towards ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate.

Braving trust

We can’t rumble with vulnerability if we don’t trust the people we’re rumbling with.  If we get even the slightest hint of untrustworthiness, we shut down, raise shields, and put on our battle armor. 

But what are trust and distrust?  Brown uses the definitions from The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman. 

Trust is “… choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  [p. 221]

Distrust is deciding that, “what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).” [ibid.]

She presents an inventory of behaviors for building trust.  It has the convenient acronym “BRAVING”: 

  • Boundaries – respecting each other’s boundaries
  • Reliability – doing what you say you’ll do
  • Accountability – owning your mistakes
  • Vault – keeping confidences
  • Integrity – living into our values, choosing courage over comfort
  • Non-judgement – so that we can ask each other for help without fear of being judged
  • Generosity – giving the most generous possible interpretations to the actions and intentions of others, also known as assuming positive intent

In order to trust other people, it’s necessary that we first trust ourselves.  So the BRAVING inventory should also be used as a tool to develop self-trust.

Learning to rise

Last but not least, to build courage we need to know how rise, how to get back up after we’ve fallen.  The failures and setbacks we encounter in work and life can be large or small: a project we’re leading misses a deadline; we don’t get the promotion we were hoping for; someone says something snarky at a meeting or at home and we take it personally.

Our first reactions are typically emotional and the first step to rising is recognizing that we’ve been triggered, that something has set us off.  When that happens we need to get calm and then get curious.

To regain calm, Brown recommends breathing, specifically box breathing, a technique used in mindfulness meditation and apparently by Navy SEALs.    

Brown notes that in the absence of data our minds will inevitably make up stories to fill in the gaps.  Those stories are often driven by our worst emotions — fear, anger and shame.  We make up worst-case scenarios.  We catastrophize.  If we’re not careful, our made-up stories can spin out of control into full-blown conspiracy theories.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, Brown calls these stories shitty first drafts.  She suggests we actually write down our shitty first drafts and then ask ourselves, “What more do I need to know about the current situation, the other people involved, and myself?” 

Then get curious. Talk, or rather rumble, with others to get the answers and fact-check our stories.  Start by saying, “The story I’m telling myself is…”  That way you’re taking ownership of your stories and you’re asking for help rather than making accusations. 

Knowing how to get back up helps give us the courage to dare. 

Shame and empathy

Brené Brown started her research career looking into vulnerability, shame, and empathy and these themes are woven through Dare to Lead.  I think they’re a really important part of the book.  I’ve covered vulnerability earlier so I’ll just mention some highlights about shame and empathy here. 

Shame is the fear of disconnection. 

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” [p. 126]  

It’s universal; the only people who never feel shame are sociopaths.

Shame is different from guilt and humiliation.  Shame makes you feel, “I am bad,” while guilt makes you feel, “I did something bad,” and humiliation is what you feel when something bad happens to you that you didn’t deserve. 

The opposite of shame and the antidote for shame is empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others.  Ir’s different from sympathy.  “Empathy is feeling with people.  Sympathy is feeling for them.”  Empathy builds trust and increases connection. 

Brown says that showing empathy to someone helps dispel their shame, but it takes skill. We need to take their perspective, to see the world as they see it.  We need to become the learner, not the knower, to truly understand another’s perspective.  We also need to be non-judgmental.  We have to try to understand the other person’s feelings and communicate our understanding back to them.

Shame says, “I’m never good enough.”  Empathy says, “you’re not alone.”

Okay, so what do shame and empathy have to do with leadership and organizational cultures, the focus of Dare to Lead?

Shame drives behaviors like perfectionism, bullying, harassment, blaming and cover-ups that not only contribute to a toxic organizational culture but are also the opposite of daring leadership.  It creates an environment where people don’t feel safe, don’t trust each other and cannot rumble with vulnerability.  Teaching people empathy skills, on the other hand, builds connection and trust and enables daring leadership.

Unsolicited Feedback

Dare to Lead is a “full stack” book about leadership.  It looks at leadership from psychological, behavioral and organizational angles.  More broadly, it’s about how to build healthy, trusting, fruitful relationships with others, whether they’re colleagues, friends or family members. 

I’ve tried to highlight the ideas I found the most important, but I know I need to re-read the book a couple more times to get the most out of it. 

I really like the central ideas of the book, that leadership requires courage, and courage requires vulnerability.  It’s not just the courage to make big, bold bets, or to strike out in new directions.  Yes those are important, but the courage Brené Brown is talking about in Dare to Lead is more about the courage to have tough conversations, give clear feedback, hold people accountable, learn from failure and setbacks without blaming, tackle sensitive issues like diversity and harassment, and to do all that in the full knowledge and acceptance of our own vulnerability. 

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The Deepest Well

The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effect of Childhood Adversity
By Nadine Burke Harris
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018

zoo bear
Photo by Rasmus Svinding on Pexels.com

“Imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear.”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris asks us to think about this scenario early in her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effect of Childhood Adversity.

“Immediately your body sends a bunch of signals to your adrenal glands … saying, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” So your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up and you are ready to either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s the response commonly known as fight or flight. It has evolved over millions of years to save your life.” [pp. 48-49]

We’ve all had experiences like this, maybe not meeting a bear in the woods exactly, but experiences that make your heart pound and time seem to slow down. It’s a normal, healthy yet primal response to a stressful or threatening situation. You probably know from experience that it can take a while to calm down, for your heart and your breathing to go back to normal. Those stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are powerful and their effects can be lasting.

But then Dr. Burke Harris asks, what if you don’t just encounter a bear in the forest? What if the bear lives with you? What if “the bear” is really physical or sexual abuse in your home, neglect or violence or other conditions that make your life hell?

You’re going to have that stress reaction, hormones flooding your body, often, perhaps dozens of times a day. The stress will go from tolerable to toxic.

As an adult you might be able to cope for a while. But how do children cope under such adverse conditions? How does toxic stress affect our kids?

The main point of The Deepest Well is that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can dramatically impact health over an entire lifetime. The book is about those impacts, how to recognize them and how to treat them.

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ACEs

The term adverse childhood experience comes from a 1998 study by Dr. Vincent Felitti, Dr. Robert Anda and their colleagues which looked at the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and health outcomes for about 17,500 men and women in the San Diego area.

Felitti and Anda identified ten ACEs:

  1. Emotional abuse
  2. Physical abuse
  3. Sexual abuse or contact
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Alcohol or substance abuse in the household
  7. Mental illness in the household including depression or attempted suicide
  8. Mother treated violently
  9. Parental divorce or separation
  10. Incarceration of a household member

Your ACE score is simply the number of ACEs you experienced before the age of eighteen.

ACEs touch people in all levels of society and from all backgrounds.  67% of the US population has at least one ACE and about 12.5% have four or more.  Dr. Burke Harris stresses this point because the American culture of individualism can sometimes lead to people being blamed for their health problems.  In other words, health problems are sometimes attributed to a person’s own behavioral choices, or neglect, or carelessness, without recognizing that environmental or developmental factors beyond their control can also have significant influence. 

Impacts

High doses of toxic stress during childhood development have a range of impacts:

Neurological: Affecting brain function including cognition, executive function and impulse control leading to learning difficulties and high risk behaviors like smoking, and alcohol and substance abuse.

Hormonal: Hormone imbalances contributing to obesity or occasionally stunted growth.

Immunological: Unbalanced immune system responses making people more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections, and even to autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, diabetes and celiac disease.

Epigenetic: Influencing how your DNA is read and transcribed. (I’ll come back to this one.)

According to the study, when compared to adults with zero ACEs, people with four or more ACEs are:

  • 2.2 times as likely suffer from heart disease
  • 4.6 times as likely to suffer from depression
  • 10.8 times as likely to inject drugs
  • 12.2 times as likely to attempt suicide

Epigenetics

One of the most interesting, and maybe controversial, ideas in the book is that ACEs can affect how your DNA is read and transcribed. Exposure to toxic stress doesn’t directly change your DNA, but Dr. Burke Harris says it can impact which parts of your DNA are switched on or off, and therefore impact which proteins are expressed when cells reproduce, and even how cells might function. These impacts are known as epigenetic.

Epigenetics, particularly in humans, is a hotly debated topic among scientists, as this article suggests. I can see that it would be advantageous for organisms to have a way to adapt to changes in their environment more quickly that random genetic mutation which takes many generations. Wouldn’t it be great if coral or whales could adapt more quickly to warming oceans, or if trees could adapt to hotter, drier climates? Still, the exact mechanisms by which such impacts are transmitted from parent to child don’t seem to be fully understood yet.

Treatment

Dr. Burke Harris advocates combining both medical and public health approaches to treating childhood adversity.

She outlines the medical approach throughout the book when she describes her work at the Bayview Child Health Center, and the Center for Youth Wellness, both in San Francisco. It’s a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach that addresses sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health and healthy relationships.

On the public health front, we’re still in the very earliest stages. Dr. Burke Harris urges early and regular screening for ACEs, for example at a child’s annual check-up. We need more research on ways to reliably detect the biological signs of toxic stress, perhaps through blood tests. And there probably needs to be greater coordination between doctors, schools and caregivers to ensure that children with ACEs are quickly identified and given the proper comprehensive care.

She concludes by urging everyone to recognize that how we’re affected by adversity is not a “referendum on our character.”

“… I know that the long-term impacts of childhood adversity are not all suffering. In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” [p. 218]

The important thing isn’t “overcoming” whatever childhood adversity you may have experienced, but rather understanding the impacts it has had on you, and developing mechanisms to support yourself and the people you love.

Unsolicited Feedback

Most of us understand that our experiences growing up have profound impacts on who we become as adults. Did our parents read to us as kids? Did they encourage us to participate in sports, or get involved in drama club at school, or robotics club? Were they religious or secular, conservative or liberal? The Deepest Well opened my eyes to the profound ways that childhood experiences can influence not just personality or career choices, but also physical and mental health.

The idea of ACEs and their impact is really important, and not just for medical practitioners and caregivers. I think it’s an important tool for self-understanding too. My parents divorced when I was a kid and I probably experienced some emotional neglect growing up, so I’d give myself 2 ACEs. Over the years I’ve come to understand how profoundly those experiences have shaped my life. But I never realized how much they could also be affecting my health.

Dr. Burke Harris does a great job throughout The Deepest Well putting a human face on the impacts and the suffering caused by childhood adversity. She presents detailed case studies of several of her patients to illustrate their symptoms and their responses to treatment. The stories are sometimes tragic and hard to read.

She also explains technical details well. She takes us on a fascinating tour deep inside the brain, tracing how stress responses are handled by the brain’s various sub-systems. She gives a good introduction to the field of epigenetics, something I’d never heard of before reading this book.

My one caveat is about the structure of the book. It’s semi-autobiographical, organized around the story of Dr. Burke Harris’s career. She takes us through her journey learning about ACEs and their impact, about how to care for her patients who have them, and about her work advocating for ACE screening. I was less interested in those parts of the book (sorry, Doctor!). There’s plenty of worthwhile scientific and medical detail throughout The Deepest Well, but if that’s your main interest, as it was mine, then you’ll have to untangle that information from her biography.

Related Links

Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime
https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime

Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/fulltext

New Yorker profile: The Poverty Clinic
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/03/21/the-poverty-clinic

New York Times article, Can We Really Inherit Trauma?
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/health/mind-epigenetics-genes.html

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Origin Story

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
By David Christian
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2018

Every religion, every culture, and every nation has its origin story. Origin stories tell us who we are, where we come from, how we got here, and how we should live with one another. They give us a common understanding of our place in this beautiful but sometimes frightening world.

The problem is traditional origin stories, especially religious ones, no longer reflect today’s modern, globalized world. They’re just myths and fables that few people believe anymore.

Origin Story - cover

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything is a global origin story for a modern, secular world. The author, David Christian, is Distinguished Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  He explains at the outset,

“Within the creative hurricane of modernity, there is emerging a new, global origin story that is as full of meaning, awe, and mystery as any traditional origin story but is based on modern scientific scholarship across many disciplines.” [p. ix]

The fundamental idea of Origin Story is that history is all about the development of complexity in the Universe. It’s a story that spans 13.8 billion years from the Big Bang right up to today.

Thresholds

Christian arranges his origin story around a few pivotal events that he calls thresholds. Each threshold is a milestone that marks the creation or emergence of a new, increased level of complexity in the Universe.

“The thresholds give shape to the complicated narrative of the modern origin story. They highlight major turning points, when already existing things were rearranged or otherwise altered to create something with new, “emergent” properties, qualities that had never existed before.” [p. 11]

Christian identifies eight of these threshold moments when the correct conditions – “Goldilocks conditions” – gave rise to something new and more complex. The bulk of the book tells the story of these thresholds. Let’s take a quick tour.

Threshold 1: The Big Bang. In the beginning … all the matter and energy of our Universe was contained in a single point smaller than an atom. It exploded 13.8 billion years ago, kick-starting the Universe with an enormous, unimaginable blast of energy. Electrons, neutrons and protons emerged within seconds. About 380,000 years later the first atoms, hydrogen and helium, congealed out of the rapidly expanding cloud of matter let loose by the Big Bang.

Threshold 2: The stars light up. The thin fog of hydrogen and helium atoms created by the Big Bang began to form clumps as gravity drew neighboring atoms towards each other. Eventually gravity made these clumps so dense and so hot that some hydrogen atoms began to fuse together into helium which in turn released more energy and more heat. At about 10 million degrees, hydrogen fusion becomes a self-sustaining chain reaction. A mere 600 million years after the Big Bang, a star is born. And not just one star; billions, and trillions of them. Under the guiding hand of gravity they grouped together to form the complex structures we know as galaxies.

Threshold 3: The elements. As stars age and die, the gravitational forces at their cores recreate the ultra-high temperatures and pressures that existed only in the first moments after the Big Bang. Hydrogen and helium start to fuse into larger, more complex elements like carbon, oxygen and iron. When dying stars finally explode in novae and supernovas, they spread their exotic contents into the universe, seeding it with the potential for even more complex structures, like planets and people.

The solar system, our Earth, and all of life only became possible when stars began to die.

As Carl Sagan famously said,

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”  Carl Sagan, Cosmos.

Threshold 4: Our solar system. In the same way that hydrogen and helium atoms clumped together to form stars, larger atoms began to assemble into more complex chemicals. They formed molecules, including water and silica, essential for the creation of rocks, asteroids and planets, and they formed amino acids, essential for the emergence of life. Our solar system formed this way about 4.5 billion years ago.

Threshold 5: Life. Life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, probably in the salty oceans near volcanic heat vents. Equally important, and perhaps even more miraculous, was the emergence of a way of encoding the templates for life: DNA. All organisms, even single cells, have an emergent property called agency; they act on their own behalf. They manage energy and they manage information. They seek certain outcomes (food, reproduction) and avoid others (obstacles, poisons, predators). Here, Christian notes, “are the beginnings of desire, caring, purpose, ethics, even love.”

Threshold 6: Humans. Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct primate species in Africa somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Today, there are more than 7 billion of us. We don’t just dominate every other species on the planet, we have the power to shape and even destroy Earth’s entire biosphere. What gave Homo sapiens such a decisive advantage? Christian argues that it was language that set us apart.

“Whatever happened, our species seems to have been the first to cross the linguistic threshold beyond which information can accumulate within communities and across generations. Like a gold strike, collective learning unleashed a bonanza of information about plants and animals, about soils, fire and chemicals, and about literature, art, religion, and other humans. Though some information was lost every generation, in the long run, human stores of information accumulated, and that growing wealth of knowledge would drive human history by giving humans access to increasing flows of energy and increasing power over their surroundings.” [p. 174]

Threshold 7: Farming. Early humans were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. Collective learning helped them to increase their population, but ultimately it reached a limit, bounded by the amount of energy humans could forage from the land around them. Then about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch known as the Holocene, humans began farming. Farming is such a difficult and chancy business that it’s quite possible we took to it reluctantly. But it created what Christian calls an “energy bonanza” that enabled humans to support a huge increase in population.

Here’s where collective learning really paid off. When humans reached a plateau on the population growth curve, they had an option not available to any other species on the planet: they could innovate. Using knowledge, collectively accumulated and passed from one generation to the next through language, Homo sapiens were able to escape population restrictions imposed by the limited amounts of energy that could be gained from foraging. In other words, humans innovated their way out of an energy crisis.

Threshold 8: The Anthropocene. About 200 years ago with the discovery of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil, humans unleashed another energy bonanza, ushered in the industrial era and crossed the eighth and final threshold.

“Without really intending to, we have introduced changes so rapid and so massive that our species has become the equivalent of a new geological force.” [p. 259]

We are now living in what some geologists call the “Anthropocene”, the human epoch.

Christian ends Origin Story with a question: can humans transition to a more sustainable world in which we deliberately and carefully manage Earth’s entire biosphere. In other words, can we cross Threshold 9?

“For us humans, the next one hundred years are really important. Things are happening so fast that, like the slow-motion time of a near accident, the details of what we do in the next few decades will have huge consequences for us and for the biosphere on scales of thousands of years. Like it or not, we are now managing an entire biosphere, and we can do it well or badly.” [p. 289]

Unsolicited Feedback

Prof. Christian’s modern origin story really is as meaningful and awe-inspiring and mysterious as any traditional one. The fact that it’s not complete, that there are still gaps in our knowledge, makes it even more compelling and more believable for me. A story spanning 13.8 billion years that had no gaps and no inconsistencies would seem far too perfect to be credible. More important, there’s room for the story to improve and grow over time. It invites inquiry rather than demanding faith.

It’s an origin story that has no creator god. It doesn’t need one. I wholeheartedly agree. If humanity is to unite in the shared task of taking care of our Earth, then we must set aside many of our differences including religious differences. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in one god or many gods or zero gods, the Earth is warming, the seas are rising and we must act together. A global origin story built on our accumulated scientific knowledge is a great place to start. Gods just divide us.

One possible criticism of the book is that ethics and morality are largely absent from this origin story. Christian alludes to the agency in all living organisms as the basis for ethics and morality but he just touches on the subject and then moves on. I think this is deliberate. Origin Story covers 13.8 billion years of history. That’s enough for one book.

A consistent theme running through the whole book, and across all the thresholds, is emergence, the idea of new things with new properties and new levels of complexity arising from the evolution of existing things. I really love this idea. It tells us that evolution, growth and novelty are embedded in the fabric of the universe.

Christian tells his origin story beautifully. He explains scientific ideas from many disciplines clearly and without over-simplifying. Yet the book isn’t just dry technical detail. It’s compelling, even exciting in places. The thresholds form a great organizing framework. Throughout the book, he does a wonderful job giving you a sense of just how enormous the universe is, how long it’s been in existence, how much energy and matter it contains, and how sudden and recent and precarious human history really is. It’s breathtaking.

Finally, I get the sense that Prof. Christian is fairly pessimistic about our chances of crossing Threshold 9 to a more sustainable world. He’s right to be concerned, and right to sound the alarm.  There’s no question the challenge we face now is greater and more urgent than anything we’ve dealt with before. But his own book tells us that we humans have repeatedly innovated our way out of crises, and that we, alone of all the species on the planet, are capable of doing this.  That gives me hope.

Related Links

Origin Story is based on a course Prof. Christian taught at Macquarie University and later turned into a web site called The Big History Project. It’s available for anyone to study online.
https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home

David Christian’s excellent TED Talk, The History of Our World in 18 Minutes is here:
https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history

Bill Gates’s review of Origin Story:
https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Origin-Story

If you want a deeper exploration of how a scientifically-based origin story could serve as the foundation for ethics and morality, then I’d highly recommend Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman. (My review)

Christian refers to the idea of “planetary boundaries”, a set of red lines that we should not cross if we want to sustainably manage Earth’s biosphere. That’s the central idea of the outstanding book Big World, Small Planet. (My review)

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On Writing

On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
Scribner, New York, 2000

I’ve posted before that there are two kinds of books about writing: those that focus mainly on the craft of writing, and those focused on the act of being a writer.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tilts towards the former but it’s also heavily laced with autobiography.

On Writing

King goes into depth about a writer’s most commonly used tools: vocabulary, grammar and paragraph.  He talks about the three most important elements of fiction writing: narrative which drives the story forward, description which gives sensory impressions to the reader, and dialog which brings characters to life.

Even though I don’t write fiction, I found lots in the book that applies to non-fiction too.  Good writing is good writing.

He also touches on what it’s like to be a writer.  He says the first key to success as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot.  There are no shortcuts.  He aims to write about 2000 words or 10 pages every day.

I like how he describes what fiction writers do:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.  The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible.” [p. 163]

But mainly I like what he says writing is:  “Telepathy, of course.”

Across space and time the writer is trying to put their thoughts into the mind of the reader.  It’s not something to be taken lightly.  In fact he says so,

“Come to it [writing] any way but lightly.  Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”  [p. 106]

Unsolicited Feedback

A confession:  I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s books nor seen any of the movies based on them.  Call me a coward, but I don’t like horror.  Not being a King fan, I wasn’t all that interested in the autobiographical sections of the book.  If you are a fan, you’ll learn plenty about his life and the origin of some of his stories.

I don’t know if this is true of his fiction, but in On Writing King writes in an incredibly natural voice.  It’s relaxed and informal yet clear and passionate.  You could imagine yourself sitting beside him on the porch of his house in Maine (assuming it has a porch) just listening to him talk for hours about writing as if he was reminiscing about his childhood, which he also does in this book.  It reads so easy, but of course that’s a sign of true mastery.

 

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is brilliantly written and utterly harrowing.

During World War II, an estimated 200,000 Asian civilian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were used as forced labor by the Japanese Imperial Army to build a 415 km railway linking Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). About 60,000 civilians and over 12,000 Allied POWs died during construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway.

The movie Bridge on the River Kwai is loosely based around these events.

Among the POWs forced to work on the railway were about 13,000 Australians, of whom more than 2,700 died.

Narrow Road to the Deep North - cover

The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the life story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian Army doctor, the senior officer among a group of Australian POWs, who tries to care for his men under brutal conditions. While the POW experience forms the heart of the novel, Richard Flanagan shows how even the survivors are profoundly damaged by war. Dorrigo Evans’ life in particular seems to be battered by malevolent random forces and missed opportunities.

Flanagan’s writing is extraordinarily powerful, especially in the imagery he uses to portray the suffering and the deaths of the POWs.

The novel takes its title from a book of the same name by the 17th Century Japanese haiku poet Basho. That book describes in prose and poetry Basho’s 2,500 km journey on foot from Tokyo to Tohoku in the northeast corner of the main island of Honshu. It’s essentially travelogue. There’s bitter, and I assume deliberate, irony in using the title of that book, an important work of Japanese literature, as the title of a novel depicting prisoners of war forced to build a road for their Japanese captors.

I’m not doing this book justice at all. It’s complex and deep, and probably needs several readings to be fully appreciated. It’s forceful and compelling and definitely worth reading, but it’s also dark and tragic and not for everyone.

Related Links

The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass
https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/thaiburma-railway-and-hellfire-pass

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Informal Leadership: Leading Without Authority

During a lunchroom conversation at work the other day, a colleague asked how you can lead without authority. How can you be an effective leader without having the formal or positional authority of a VP, director or manger?

It’s a great question. I want to give a fuller answer here than my impromptu thoughts at the time. In my role as a technical program manager at a Seattle-area ecommerce company (no, not that one), just about everything I do is accomplished without formal authority. I’ve been both a manager and an individual contributor over the years so I hope I can offer some useful perspective whether your job requires you to lead without authority or whether you’re just looking for ways to broaden your influence in your organization.

There’s a massive amount of literature about what makes a good leader and I don’t claim to have read more than a tiny fraction of it. One recurring theme though is the distinction between being a manager and a leader. While the best managers are also great leaders, great leaders don’t have to be managers. I like the term informal leadership for describing leadership without being a manager.

So if you’re not a manger but still want to lead or develop leadership skills, what can you do?

To start with, the scope for informal leadership is extremely broad. Informal leadership is not just picking over the table scraps left behind by formal leaders. In fact, I can think of just four things leaders do only when they’re managers:

  1. Staffing activities like hiring, firing, rewarding and promoting.
  2. Allocating people or money to teams and projects
  3. Setting goals and priorities
  4. Assigning tasks

Of course these things are important and hugely impactful, but just about everything else leaders do can also be done without formal authority including developing vision and strategy, defining and exemplifying team values, communicating, simplifying, collaborating, coaching, problem solving, etc. As an informal leader, you may not control these things or have the final say, but you can contribute to and often heavily influence them.

There are even some things you may be able to do more effectively as an informal leader:

  • Scouting the road ahead, looking for opportunities and threats, identifying promising new technologies
  • Challenging assumptions, practices and systems and experimenting with new ones
  • Spotting problems, conducting detailed technical investigations, and proposing and implementing solutions

That’s because managers, by definition, have to manage existing businesses, workloads and people. They can’t spend too much of their time immersed in detailed technical or operational issues. Software development managers, for example, cannot review every line of code or design change. And the Vice President who years ago wrote in C and C++ probably can’t even spell R today. That leaves space for others to step forward and play an informal leadership role. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s a necessity. Teams can’t function properly without informal leaders because managers, the formal leaders, can’t do it all.

Okay, so how can you be on effective leader without authority? I think success as an informal leader depends upon three things.

Credibility: You need to be knowledgeable, believable and rational for others to take you seriously. The best place to start is the area you’re presently working in, where you already have expertise. You might be a senior engineer or an architect guiding more junior members of your team, for example, or a new hire with relevant prior experience from another company. This knowledge and experience can serve as the foundation for informal leadership. Over time if you build on and broaden that foundation you’ll gain credibility in more areas.

Integrity: Most people have little difficulty not being lying, cheating, back-stabbing scoundrels. There are exceptions, of course, and they should be avoided like radioactive waste. But what I’m referring to here is positive integrity, the things you do rather than things you don’t do. This includes treating everyone with respect, assuming positive intent in others even when you disagree, communicating clearly and honestly, giving constructive feedback when necessary, keeping your commitments, listening carefully, and not gossiping about what you hear.

Helping others: I think this is really what informal leadership is all about. Helping others, your co-workers and your managers (yes, them too), achieve their goals; recognizing problems, pitfalls and roadblocks; helping to resolve, avoid or remove them; helping everyone on your team to learn and grow.

Don’t formal leaders, managers, also need these qualities? Absolutely. But they’re even more important for informal leaders because they don’t have the positional authority that managers do.

Perhaps the hardest part about informal leadership is recognizing the opportunities and the needs. Look for gaps and overlaps. Listen for gears grinding and brakes squealing. Then act. Perhaps you notice persistent performance issues in a particular component. Talk to the relevant stakeholders and propose a re-design. Look for opportunities to extend or re-purpose existing system to meet new needs or fix critical problems. How many times did Scotty or Geordi save the day on Star Trek by reconfiguring, rerouting or realigning some part of those absurdly unreliable warp drive engines? Or maybe you see there’s interest in a new approach to data modeling or machine learning. Try putting together an informal study group to learn about it, the way Hermione Granger organized a Defense Against the Dark Arts group in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book, movie). It’s not always technical, and it’s not always work-related either. Sometimes what a team needs most is a social convener like the character Elizabeth McKenna in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (book, movie). She led by recognizing the need for connection and companionship among her neighbors living under German occupation. She also showed tremendous courage and moral leadership.

I can’t promise that informal leadership will necessarily get you your next promotion, or that it will automatically put you on a path to a management position with formal authority. But I’m certain you’ll be better for it, and so will everyone you work with.

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