The Universe Conspiracy – Pronoia

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I have been developing a unifying theory about success (I know that sound a bold claim) partly influenced by Philip K.Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? First published in 1968, the book served as the primary basis for my favourite film Blade Runner. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, where Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by nuclear war during World War Terminus. Most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. To own an animal is a sign of status, but what is emphasised more is the empathic emotions humans experience towards an animal. But there is a problem with my theory; it is developing too easily. Someone told me that it was ‘cool’ because the Universe was conspiring in my favour. I am suffering from pronoia apparently.

Joseph Heller’s line in Catch 22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” – might have to be turned on its head for Hollywood star Susan Sarandon. “Just because you’re pronoiad, doesn’t mean they aren’t for you,” the actress might say. Susan Sarandon talked about her belief in ‘pronoia’ as she was revealing what a joyous experience it had been to make Cloud Atlas, the film adapted from the award-winning novel. Some might say this is nonsense because it is a Hollywood actress telling us this ‘fact’.

Pronoia is defined as the opposite state of mind as paranoia: having the sense that there is a conspiracy that exists to help the person. It is also used to describe a philosophy that the world is set up to secretly benefit people. Almost a Zippie mantra promoted by Saradon. A Zippie is a person who does something for nothing. Any supporter of free culture, free food, free books, free software is a Zippie – and the Universe conspiring a central belief.

But does it make the proposition wrong? As students of logic should know, not every appeal to authority is a fallacious appeal to authority.  A fallacy is committed only when the purported authority appealed to either does not in fact possess expertise on the subject at hand, or can reasonably be supposed to be less than objective.

Hence if you believed that PCs are better than Macs entirely on the say-so of either your technophobic orthodontist or the local PC dealer who has some overstock to get rid of, you would be committing a fallacy of appeal to authority — in the first case because your orthodontist, smart guy though he is, presumably hasn’t much knowledge of computers, in the second case because while the salesman might have such knowledge, there is reasonable doubt about whether he is giving you an unbiased opinion.

But if you believed that PCs are better than Macs because your computer science professor told you so, there would be no fallacy, because he presumably both has expertise on the matter and lacks any special reason to push PCs on you.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be correct, of course; an argument can be mistaken even if it is non-fallacious. Similarly, not every ad hominem attack — an attack against the man or women — involves a fallacious ad hominem.  Attacking the person can be entirely legitimate and sometimes even called for, even in an argumentative context, when it is precisely the man / women whom is the problem.

Attacking a person involves a fallacy when what is at issue is whether some claim the person is making is true or some argument he is giving is cogent, and where the attacker either

  • essentially ignores the question of whether the claim is true or the argument cogent, and instead just attacks the person giving it or
  •  suggests either explicitly or implicitly that the claim can be rejected false or the argument rejected as not cogent on the basis of some irrelevant purported fault of the person giving it.

So the question arises – does pronoia exist, ignoring who told us it might?. I have been exploring the idea that it if you do the right thing often enough, good things happen. The sneaking suspicion others are conspiring to help you and you them. Pronoia is also a prevalent theme in the 1988 novel The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In it, the protagonist, a young boy is told by an older man to pursue his dreams.

He tells the boy, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The book also deals with omens, signs that the universe wants the boy to follow a specific path, which will lead to his goal of fulfilling a dream.

The writer and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow defined pronoia as the suspicion the Universe is a conspiracy on your behalf.The academic journal “Social Problems” published an article entitled “Pronoia” by Fred H. Goldner in 1982 (vol 30, pp.82-91). It received a good deal of publicity at the time including references to it in Psychology TodayWired Magazine published an article in issue 2.05 (May 1994) titled “Zippie!”. The cover of the magazine featured a psychedelic image of a smiling young man with wild hair, a funny hat, and crazy eyeglasses. 

The simplest definition of pronoia may be to say that it is the opposite of paranoia. A person suffering from paranoia suspects that persons or entities (e.g. governments / deities) conspire against them. A person enjoying pronoia feels that the world around them conspires to do them good.

The principal proponent of pronoia in the 21st century has been the astrologer, writer, poet, singer, and songwriter Rob Brezsny. Brezsny’s book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, published in 2005, explores the philosophy of pronoia.

 

Can we reject it on the basis of the non expert status of the writer? Well maybe we can relax and suspend our disbelief and imagine that if we do good things –  good things may happen to us in return. Maybe it does not matter in the long run. No act of kindness (no matter how small) is ever wasted.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Ask Better Questions

Stop asking a dumb questions like, ‘what do you do?’.

Ask better questions. Every day. In my earlier years when I was naive I thought that my success would increase in proportion to the number of business cards I handed out. I handed them out in droves (printers loved it…) but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting any business. After a few years of experience under my belt I realised that it wasn’t the numbers that count, but the quality of relationships that I nurtured.

To be a great networker you must become “you” centred rather than “me” centred. Recognise that people want to talk about themselves more than anything. They are their own favourite subjects. Take advantage of that and learn these 10 questions that will make people feel warm, appreciated, and important.

Zig Ziglar, the famous sales trainer once said,

You can get everything in life you want if you just help enough other people get what they want. 

This is so true. Thanks Mr. Ziglar.

The following are ten questions that Bob Burg, author of the book, “Endless Referrals” gives to help you get to know potential referrers and leave a lasting positive impression. Try using them today and see this amazing thing happen.

You’ll notice something in common with each of these questions. They all centre around the person you are talking to and allows them an opportunity to talk about themselves. Don’t expect to ask your Centre of Influence each of these questions, but do have a few ready when you talk to others. Think of it as a game – watch Brian Walters brilliant explanation…

 

 

Be Amazing Every Day
 

Which is better: Aggression or Collaboration?

It must be obvious surely? Or perhaps a trick question? Well the answer is not as obvious as you may think. Human beings probably have killed in war more members of their own species than any other animal species on this planet. It is undeniable that ours is a pretty aggressive species when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Aggression and war are hard-wired into the brain, but so are acceptance, empathy and collaboration. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out: FIGHT! is a recurring feature within Harry Hill’s TV Burp.

The term aggression comes from the Latin aggressio, meaning attack.Every night on the news there are reports about murders, wars and rapes. You might want to start by stop watching the news. But the news isn’t the only place where people encounter violent or aggressive behaviour. We see it at work, while commuting, on the tube and in the home. You can observe it in queues, shops offices and in sport. It starts in the school yard and grows as we get older.


I am a huge fan of Psychologist Robert Plutchik, whom identified eight primary emotions which he coordinated in pairs of opposites: joy versus sadness; trust versus disgust; fear versus anger and anticipation versus surprise. He created the 2D wheel and a conical 3D version in 1980 as a tool for understanding his psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion. Intensity of emotion and indicator colour increases toward the centre of the wheel and decreases outward. At the centre terror becomes fear and then apprehension; ecstasy becomes joy and then serenity. Secondary emotions are displayed as combinations of the primary ones. The cross over and closeness is revealing when we look at our emotions towards aggressiveness.

Researchers in ethology (which is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour under natural conditions) believe that aggression confers some sort of biological advantages. It all comes down to economics and the notion that aggression, much like anything else, has benefits and costs. Aggression may help an animal secure territory, including resources such as food and water. Aggression between males often occurs to secure mating opportunities, and results in selection of the healthier/more vigorous animal. Aggression may also occur for self-protection or to protect offspring.

Konrad Lorenz stated in his 1963 classic, On Aggression, that human behaviour is shaped by four main, survival-seeking animal drives.Taken together, these drives—hunger, fear, reproduction, and aggression—achieve natural selection. Well maybe. Humans share aspects of aggression with non-human animals, and have specific aspects and complexity related to factors such as genetics, early development, social learning and flexibility, culture and morals. What are these benefits and costs of aggression? Aggression between groups of animals may also confer advantage; for example, hostile behaviour may force a population of animals into a new territory, where the need to adapt to a new environment may lead to an increase in genetic flexibility.

It is interesting to note that during the Cold War, politicians on both sides used their belief that war was highly likely to justify the manufacture and deployment of more and more nuclear weapons. Yet the belief in the near inevitability of war makes war more likely. In 1978 Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson published a ground breaking book On Human Nature. The book tries to explain how different characteristics of humans and society can be explained from the point of view of evolution. Aggression is, typically, a means of gaining control over resources. Aggression is, thus, aggravated during times when high population densities generate resource shortages. According to Richard Leakey and his colleagues, aggression in humans has also increased by becoming more interested in ownership and by defending his or her property

With increased understanding of the relations between genes and environment behavioural scientists have acquired a deeper understanding of the bases of aggression than was previously possible. The brain is awash in chemicals, including hormones and neuro-transmtters that accentuate or dampen its responses and influence its organisation and operations. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay, amplify, or modulate signals that are sent between neurones and other cells.There are many different hormones and neurotransmitters, of which the most important are glutamate and GABA, which excite and modify synapses. From all of the possibilities explored and the theories made, you might think that there has been a conclusion made about exactly where aggression originates as well as what could incite a particular aggressive action, but there has not been. However the following compounds seem to be most active:

  • Adrenalin, which triggers the fight or flight response
  • Testosterone, which stimulates aggression
  • Oxytocin which instills trust, increases loyalty, and promotes the tend and befriend response
  • Oestrogen, which triggers the release of oxytocin
  • Endorphins, which reinforce collaborative experiences with pleasure
  • Dopamine, which generates a reward response and fortifies addiction
  • Serotonin, which regulates moods
  • Phenylethylaline, which induces excitement and anticipation
  • Vasopressin, which encourages bonding in males in a variety of species

Out of the last few years of neurophysiological research has emerged a new hope that solutions may indeed be found to the chemical and biological sources of aggression. But there is a caveat. While War has yet to be reduced to a simple set of deterministic biochemical events taking place exclusively within the brain, research clearly demonstrates that basic neurological processes provide all of us with alternative sets of instructions that lead either toward impasse or resolution, stasis or transformation, isolation or collaboration. While no one really knows the exact causes of aggression or if it can even be said that there is one thing that causes it. So, although, there may not be one conclusive answer to why people are aggressive, it doesn’t mean that a combination of theories can’t be right or that someday, researchers will find the answer.

The Cold War and the resonant fear of nuclear fear is now largely over, but old wars continue and new ones have been initiated in many parts of the world. You may hear that the waging war as an inevitable consequence of human nature. This attitude is not only dangerous in encouraging the view that war is the method of choice for settling disputes, it is also very wrong. To get the right answer requires not only a profound understanding of how the brain works, but a global shift in our attitude toward conflict, an expanding set of scientifically informed techniques, a humanistic and democratic prioritisation of ethics and values.

We don’t need a fight to know, we need to begin with a willingness to start with ourselves.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Unknown Pleasures

The title of one of my favourite (and iconic) albums is Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. The title probably comes from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I have (honestly) tried to read it, but it is a long novel in seven volumes known both for its length and its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the episode of the madeleine. The narrator begins by noting, For a long time, I went to bed early. He comments on the way sleep seems to alter one’s surroundings, and the way habit makes one indifferent to them. As a neuroscience trainer, I love the idea of getting less sleep.

Listen to the silence, let it ring on. Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun. We would have a fine time living in the night, Left to blind destruction, Waiting for our sight. – Transmission (Joy Division)

Pleasure is usually describes as the broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking. It includes more specific mental states such as happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, and euphoria. In psychology, the pleasure principle describes pleasure as a positive feedback mechanism, motivating the organism to recreate in the future the situation which it has just found pleasurable. According to this theory, organisms are similarly motivated to avoid situations that have caused pain in the past. And then punk came along and I was inspired to know more.

Joy Division were formed in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1976 during the first wave of punk rock. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had separately attended the legendary Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, and both embraced that group’s simplicity, speed and aggression. In fact according to legend every one of the 200 people there formed a band. Ian Curtis, who Sumner and Hook already knew, applied and, without having to audition, was taken on.

In 1979 I bought this amazing album I went that year so see them play live at West Runton Pavilion (North Norfolk) and met with Ian Curtis . I loved him and what Jon Savage described their music as, a definitive Northern Gothic statement: guilt-ridden, romantic, claustrophobic. His life is brought to many people’s attention in the stunning film Control.Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, committed suicide on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first North American tour, resulting in the band’s dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order.

The cover of the Unknown Pleasures album stimulated my love of Astronomy, Pulsars and the Universe (I still have the T shirt).The cover of their 1979 debut album is probably more well known than the album or band themselves. Famed cover art designer Peter Saville is credited with designing the cover, but as the myth goes it shows a series of radio frequency periods from the first pulsar discovered.I was studying brain science at the time and using complex mathematics like Fourier analysis to decode the data of action potential in nerve transmission. I thought the image on the cover (and it is largely cited correctly) as depicting the first pulsar discovered (CP 1919). In fact it’s not the first isolated plot of that pulsar, which was made in 1967. That honour goes to Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge, whom I was very lucky to meet when my father introduced (as head of medical research) in Cambridge.

Radio pulsars are neutron stars, huge, spinning ‘nuclei’ that contain some 1057 protons and neutrons. The large clump of nuclear matter, which has a mass about equal to that of the sun, is compressed into a sphere with a radius on the order of 10 kilometers. Consequently, the density of the star is enormous, slightly greater than the density of ordinary nuclear matter, which is itself some 10 trillion times denser than a lead brick. Currents of protons and electrons moving within the star generate a magnetic field. As the star rotates, a radio beacon, ignited by the combined effect of the magnetic field and the rotation, emanates from it and sweeps periodically through the surrounding space, rather like a lighthouse beam. Once per revolution the beacon cuts past the earth, giving rise to the beeping detected by radio telescopes.

Peter Saville, who had previously designed posters for Manchester’s Factory club in 1978, designed the cover of the album. Saville reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black and printed it on textured card for the original version of the album. The image itself according to Scientific American writer Jen Christiansen was by Harold D. Craft, Jr., was a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 70s, working with cosmic data a the massive Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. You can read Christiansen’s account of her investigation, and listen to her interviews with Craft at Scientific American. He and his colleagues were experimenting with some of the first digital measurements of radio waves from pulsars (collapsed stars that flash like lighthouses), using radar equipment at the observatory. By chance, Craft ended up writing the computer program that would produce this iconic image.

Unknown Pleasures’ cover was computer generated.

Craft said he had no idea that his image was being widely used on the cover of a famous record. “I went to the record store and, son of a gun, there it was. So I bought an album, and then there was a poster that [they] had of it, so I bought one of those too, just for no particular reason, except that it’s my image, and I ought to have a copy of it.”

Unknown Pleasures was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, England between 1 and 17 April 1979, with Martin Hannett producing. Describing Hannett’s production techniques, Hook said,that Hannett was only as good as the material he had to work with, “We gave him great songs, and like a top chef, he added some salt and pepper and some herbs and served up the dish. But he needed our ingredients.”

The experience of pleasure is subjective and different individuals will experience different kinds and amounts of pleasure in the same situation. Many pleasurable experiences are associated with satisfying basic biological drives, such as eating, exercise, hygiene or sex. For real pleasure, try listening again to Unknown Pleasures again, now.

Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Big Idea: Trivial Bikeshedding Management

Did you know that today is National Trivia Day* and 50 years ago (last Wednesday 5th February, 1965) trivia was invented? Well sort of true; a Columbia Spectatorarticle appeared on this day and used the term trivia to topics like,

  • Who played the Old Gypsy Woman in The Wolfman?
  • Answer: Maria Ouspenskaya (I did not know this either).

Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who had proposed the new use of the term in their original article swiftly created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally (and emotionally) significant yet essentially unimportant facts, which they dubbed trivia contests. The expression has also come to suggest information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions, hence the brand name Trivial Pursuit (1982).

The word originates from the Latin neuter noun trivium (plural trivia) is from tri- “triple” and via “way”, meaning a place where three ways meet. The word trivia was also used to describe a place where three roads met in Ancient Rome. Often misquoted with the comedic line that 2 are irrelevant (trivial) as only the one leading back to Rome is important. They did not, as some wag (Frank Skinner) suggested, pin pieces of rubbish information at these cross roads.

More accurately trivia are the three lower Artes Liberales: grammar, logic andrhetoric. These were the topics of basic education, foundational to the quadrivia of higher education, and hence the material of basic education and an important building block for all undergraduates. In management terms I came across Parkinson’s law of triviality on my MBA course years ago. It also known as ‘bikeshedding’ and was first described by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. His argument was that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Parkinson observed and illustrated that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time with pointless discussions on relatively trivial and unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the less-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task to criticise constructively. As he put it:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualise a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.

Thus bike shedding involves discussions about relatively unimportant issues which result in extensive debate. Know that feeling at many a management meetings?

It may be the result of individuals who wish to contribute feeling that they do not have the knowledge or expertise to contribute on more significant issues. Bike shedding can result in discussions that, whilst on-topic, nevertheless effectively drown out other discussions on more significant issues.

My top 7 favourite pieces of trivia are currently:

  1. On Good Friday in 1930, the BBC reported, “There is no news.” Instead, they played piano music.
  2. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was spending $2,500 a month on rubber bands just to hold all their cash.
  3. M&M’s actually stands for “Mars & Murrie’s,” the last names of the candy’s founders.
  4. In 1907, an ad campaign for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes offered a free box of cereal to any woman who would wink at her grocer.
  5. The Arkansas School for the Deaf’s nickname is the Leopards.
  6. The Vatican Bank is the world’s only bank that allows ATM users to perform transactions in Latin.
  7. The unkempt Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame has a rather proper real name of Norville Rogers.

*There is a National Trivia Day, but it is January 4th.

Be Amazing Every Day

Innovation is full of Paradox.

Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins.

Tom Peter’s again, right on the money. Paradox can prove to be very revealing about human nature and leadership. Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory. He once said, ‘Now that we have met with paradox we have some hope of making progress.’ 

At the most basic level, a paradox is a statement that is self contradictory because it often contains two statements that are both true, but in general, cannot both be true at the same time. What generates real innovation is actually understanding why (and how) paradox can inspire people.

The origins of innovation can be found in the evolution and development of the neocortex. These higher centres of the human brain are the source of abstract thought and also our very human quality of learning from failure. The ability to Explore, Play and Create Novelty in a safe environment becomes critical. The word ‘innovate’ can be traced all the way back to 1440. It comes from the Middle French word [which apparently on my Linkedin profile is something I am an expert in] ‘innovacyon’, meaning ‘renewal’ or ‘new way of doing things’. This echoes Peter Drucker’s brilliant reflection on innovation,

Change that creates a new dimension of performance.

The act of introducing something new (innovation) begins with an internal brain process. We can look at where by using tools like fMRI to determine which areas ‘light up’ during the process but it’s origin is unclear. Somewhere there is spark, a neuro-chemical reactions and the beginning of the fascination over an idea. This state of innovation, constant fascination and being intensely interested in something, is a primitive survival mechanism that might not help survival (you might eat the wrong killer berry). Yet by making a safe environment, where we can explore, play and create novelty we create a spark that both motivates and innovates.

Daniel Pink beautifully describes (in his book Drive) the paradox of money as a motivator (watch the surprising results it delivers). Companies need to allow more autonomy and self direction. That’s why Google gives its workforce 20% of their time to explore projects on their own. That’s why 3M and W.L. Gore do something similar. They know that the root of innovation is fascination and failure.

Wise leaders accept their setbacks as necessary footsteps on the path towards success. In The Innovation Paradox, Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes argue that failure has its upside, success its downside. These two are not as distinct as we imagine. They co-exist, are even interdependent. Both are steps toward achievement.

It’s not success or failure, but success and failure.

Every company worth knowing has identified innovation as a core competency needing to be developed. However a large percentage of our time and our organisation’s energy is necessarily spent on activities that don’t require innovation. We also know that scaling up an innovation depends on the operation of relatively routine tasks and processes, many of which are in place and already have been proved effective. What’s needed in organisations whom aspire to a culture of innovation, is the energy to create a spark and then embrace success and failure as equals.

The key to the innovator paradox then is the development of this neurochemical spark within people. So what sparks people? If you do some analysis of the most creativity and innovate people in history, you will find that the spark lies deep in their brain. They are able to be curious and creative. They become fascinated, even obsessed by ideas. While it can certainly be supported by systems, it can never be reduced to systems. Because that’s where innovation starts, with the innovator and the inspired individual, compelled by their DNA to make a difference. Then all that person needs is from you is time, some resources, meaningful collaboration, and periodic reality checks from someone who understands what fascination is all about.

One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king. – Abraham Maslow

If you study the lives of people who have had those Eureka moments, you may well note that their breakthroughs almost always came after extensive periods of intense, conscious effort. They worked, they struggled, they explored, played and created novelty. They gave up, they recommitted and then the breakthrough came, often at unexpected moments. The conscious mind works overtime in an attempt to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Unable to come up with the breakthrough, the challenge gets turned over to the subconscious mind, which then proceeds to figure it out in its own, without time pressure and focus.

Coming up with the right question is at least half of getting the right answer. If you want a breakthrough idea, begin by coming up with a breakthrough question. Find the one that communicates the essence of what you’re trying to create. Perhaps Einstein said it best when he declared, Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted. He was referring, of course, to the part of the human brain that ‘knows’ intuitively; the part that is tuned in, connected, and innately creative.

If you, or the people who report to you, are not currently in a state of innate fascination, it’s time to turn things around. That is, of course if you really want to spark some innovation. Throughout history, the best managers and leaders always have allowed this special space of paradox and innovation to exist. Since failures so often lead to successes, and vice-versa, rather than try to sort these two out, wise managers focus on the innovation process and what can be learned from it.

What exists on the other side of failure, is fuel for your untapped creativity.

Be Amazing Every Day.

[If you don’t get this message, call me; if you do get it, don’t call. Spread the word.]

Wrong-Brained

Sometimes I just want to give up. I really don’t know why I bother with my epic quest for truth, science and reason.

You are such a right-brain thinker’, she yelled.

I probably should not have said she was so wrong. Maybe I should not have added that she was being a ‘meme sustaining poptart psychologist’ and ‘both neuro-scientifically and anatomically inaccurate’. Like the time she came in when I was watching the cricket and said, “It’s over” and I replied, “No, 3 balls left”.

Despite what you may have been told, you are not left-brained or right-brained. From books to television programs, you may have heard the phrase mentioned numerous times or perhaps you’ve even taken an online test to determine which type best describes you. From self-help and business success books to job applications and smartphone apps, the theory that the different halves of the human brain govern different skills and personality traits is a popular one.

According to this (wrong) theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance, each side of the brain controls different types of thinking. Additionally, people are said to prefer one type of thinking over the other. For example, a person who is labelled left-brained is often said to be more logical, analytical, and objective, while a person whom is labelled right-braine is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. So what exactly did this theory suggest?

The Right Brain Nonsense: According to the left-brain, right-brain dominance failed theory, the right side of the brain is best at expressive and creative tasks. Some of the abilities that are popularly associated with the right side of the brain include:

  • Recognising faces
  • Expressing emotions
  • Music
  • Reading emotions
  • Colour
  • Images
  • Intuition
  • Creativity

The Left Brain Nonsense: The left-side of the brain is (not) considered to be adept at tasks that involve logic, language and analytical thinking. The left-brain is often described as being better at:

  • Language
  • Logic
  • Critical thinking
  • Numbers
  • Reasoning

Too bad it’s not true. Short of having undergone a hemispherectomy (removal of a cerebral hemisphere), no one is a left-brain only or right-brain only person.In pop psychology, the theory is based on what is known as the lateralisation of brain function. So does one side of the brain really control specific functions? Are people either left-brained or right-brained? Like many popular psychology myths, this one grew out of observations about the human brain that were then dramatically distorted and exaggerated.

To try and put this to bed forever, a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One, University of Utah neuroscientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring their functional lateralisation – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and while they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralised, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network. Jeff Anderson, the study’s lead author and a professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah says:

It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain, language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right.

But the brain isn’t as clear-cut as the myth makes it out to be. For example, the right hemisphere is involved in processing some aspects of language, such as intonation and emphasis. Where has this come form because I am pretty sure you will have heard it? Experts suggest the myth dates back to the 1800s, when scientists discovered that an injury to one side of the brain caused a loss of specific abilities. The concept gained ground in the 1960s based on Nobel-prize-winning split-brain work by neuropsychologists Robert Sperry, and Michael Gazzaniga. The researchers conducted studies with patients who had undergone surgery to cut the corpus callosum – the band of neural fibres that connect the hemispheres – as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy.

They discovered that when the two sides of the brain weren’t able to communicate with each other, they responded differently to stimuli, indicating that the hemispheres have different functions.Both of these bodies of research tout findings related to function; it was popular psychology enthusiasts who undoubtedly took this work a step further and pegged personality types to brain hemispheres.

Brain function lateralisation is evident in the phenomena of right- or left-handedness and of right or left ear preference, but a person’s preferred hand is not a clear indication of the location of brain function. Although 95% of right-handed people have left-hemisphere dominance for language, 18.8% of left-handed people have right-hemisphere dominance for language function. Additionally, 19.8% of the left-handed have bilateral language functions. Even within various language functions (e.g., semantics, syntax, prosody), degree (and even hemisphere) of dominance may differ.

Additionally, although some functions are lateralised, these are only a tendency. The trend across many individuals may also vary significantly as to how any specific function is implemented. The areas of exploration of this causal or effectual difference of a particular brain function include its gross anatomy, dendritic structure, and neurotransmitter distribution. The structural and chemical variance of a particular brain function, between the two hemispheres of one brain or between the same hemisphere of two different brains, is still being studied.

Researchers have demonstrated that right-brain/left-brain theory is a myth, yet its popularity persists. Unfortunately many people are likely unaware that the theory is outdated. Today, students might continue to learn about the theory as a point of historical interest – to understand how our ideas about how the brain works have evolved and changed over time as researchers have learned more about how the brain operates. The important thing to remember if you take one of the many left brain/right brain quizzes that you will likely encounter online is that they are entirely for fun and you shouldn’t place much stock in your results. According to Anderson:

The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of ‘left-dominant’ or ‘right-dominant’ personality types. Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.

We love simple solutions (see also 21 days to break a habit) Human society is built around categories, classifications and generalizations, and there’s something seductively simple about labeling yourself and others as either a logical left-brainer or a free-spirited right brainer. The problems start, however, when the left-brained/right-brained myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What research has yet to refute is the fact that the brain is remarkably malleable, even into late adulthood.

It has an amazing ability to reorganise itself by forming new connections between brain cells, allowing us to continually learn new things and modify our behavior. Let’s not underestimate our potential by allowing a simplistic myth to obscure the complexity of how our brains really work.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Nielsen, J. A., Zielinski, B. A., Ferguson, M. A., Lainhart, J. E., & Anderson, J. S. (2013). An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging.

Rogers, M. (2013).Researchers debunk myth of “right brain” and “left-brain” personality traits. University of Utah, Office of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071275

Less is More

The common phrase ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’ is a familiar dictum to many managers and leaders, who have had this concept drilled into them since their earliest days of MBA school and management training. I’ve heard it from family members, teachers and employers. Indeed I am sure you can can recall horror stories about bad managers who lost control of their authority by becoming too familiar with their juniors and people they were meant to be leading.

So a crucial leadership question is, does the familiarity really breed contempt? If it does, how does the leader maintain the perfect balance (the so called Goldilock’s Syndrome) where he/she has to get it just right level of familiarity? Is less more which would offer camaraderie and also avoid the potential contempt by the subordinate? In the first decade of the 20th century, an obscure British journalist came up with a newer version of the phrase. His name was Holbrook Jackson, and he was pretty well known among the journalistic intelligentsia of the time. He said,

Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference

The far better known (both at the time and subsequently) Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton’s had a particular preference for paradox, and was never hospitable to platitudes. Chesterton adds to the Jackson quotation, with an acidic,

But it can breed surprise. Try saying ‘Boots’ ninety times.

Excellent, and worth a try! Benjamin Franklin went further (not in a management sense) and proposed that fish and visitors have something in common. Both begin to stink after 3 days. The present research offers empirical support for Franklin’s quip. The more people learn about others (and anyone who has had houseguests knows all too well how much one can come to know in a short time) the less they like them, on average.

The present neuroscience research shows that although people believe that learning more about others leads to greater liking, more information about others leads, on average, to less liking. It seems ambiguity (i.e. lacking information about another) leads to liking, whereas familiarity—acquiring more information—can breed contempt. This less is more effect is due to the cascading nature of dissimilarity. Once evidence of dissimilarity is encountered, subsequent information is more likely to be interpreted as further evidence of dissimilarity, leading to decreased liking.

The evidence seems to be on the whether familiarity always breeds contempt, is that it depends on a variety of factors. However is seems that familiarity can breed contempt, more often than does not. To give some hard evidence and big data for this theory, Sirota Consulting, they surveyed and looked at employee job satisfaction of 1.2 million employees at 52 companies over 30 Years. According to Sirota’s research there is a significant decline in overall job satisfaction after an employee has been working with an employers for an average of six months or more.

The leaders who always maintained a safe distance with subordinates at all times, so that those employees did not cross the line of respect, earned more respect. It certainly involved non-transparency from leader in various matters, but the show still went on successfully. There were absolutely no complaints, even though the annual raises were poor and performance ratings were below average. The subordinates often praised the leader, and even justified the low raises as not being the leader’s fault (Stockholm syndrome )

It seems the leaders who offered total transparency and camaraderie to their subordinates, often found some of their subordinates being disrespectful and deceitful towards them, despite their good deeds and commitment to employee development and promotion. interestingly there were complaints from employees who always received good raises, but received only one time low raise and below average rating (which was fair and just because of the subordinate’s poor performance).

The 4 things that seem to matter most are (and are regarded as being savvy):

  • Equity – to be treated fairly
  • Achievement – to be proud of the job and company
  • Confidentiality – knowing when not to share
  • Camaraderie – to have good, productive relationships with fellow employees

It always makes sense in keeping the correct and careful balance in maintaining professional relationship between the leader and the subordinate at all times. Socialising with those we lead is to be cautioned, for it can most probably lead to contempt and loss of respect. Nonetheless, the leader can still opt to socialise with subordinates at company functions or special occasions, yet always maintaining the socialisation at arms-length.

In summary there is no doubt that familiarity can breed contempt, but the savvy manager must understand how to develop a working camaraderie without crossing-the-line into revealing personal details.
 The last word and best insight on this Familiarity Breeds Contempt story comes from Mark Twain, who said it most appropriately:

Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Please Upload Your Brain Now.

Please Upload Your Brain Now.

Please Upload Your Brain Now…or at least that’s what my first hero of science, Ray Kurzweil thinks we will be doing in 2040. He might be wrong (or so his critics believe) but then again he might be spot on. I have been fascinated with my own brain for years. He has spent his life inventing machines that help people, from the blind to dyslexics (me). Indeed, I am writing this article with his software as my undiagnosed for 40 years dyslexia and broken wrist prevents typing [full stop, new paragraph]. Should, by some terrible unpredictable misfortune, Ray Kurzweil died tomorrow (I for one hope he gets to 2040) the obituaries would record an inventor of rare and visionary talent.

I read Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, in 1990. I still have it on my shelf. I was bowled over (and still am) by his future thinking and his thoughts on the brain Within the book, it forecast the demise of the USSR due to new technologies such as mobile phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. Nearly true if you substitute twitter and Facebook. In the book Kurzweil also extrapolated pre-existing trends in the improvement of computer chess software performance to predict that computers would beat the best human players by the year 2000. Yay! In May 1997 chess World Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue computer in a well-publicised chess tournament.

I think I was one of the first to buy his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. By then Kurzweil has become known, above all, as a technology speculator whose predictions have really polarised opinion. He does not get it right all the time of course. As he said at the TED conference in February 2005:

By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.

Nearly, but no big cigar.

Now, he believes we’re on the brink of a new age (again this has been my discussion with multiple academics this week) called the singularity when technology will allow us to email each other objects run as fast as Usain Bolt (for 15 minutes) and even live forever.

Aside from futurology, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He has written books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism. Kurzweil is a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, as has been displayed in his vast collection of public talks, wherein he has shared his primarily optimistic outlooks on life extension technologies and the future of nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology. Is there sense to his science – or is the man who reasons that one day he’ll bring his dad back from the grave just a mad professor peddling a nightmare vision of the future?

Lets go back to my ‘home turf’ of brains. According to Kurzweil, technologists will be creating synthetic neocortexes based on the operating principles of the human neocortex with the primary purpose of extending our own neocortexes. He claims to believe that the neocortex of an adult human consists of approximately 300 million pattern recognisers. He draws on the commonly accepted belief that the primary anatomical difference between humans and other primates that allowed for superior intellectual abilities was the evolution of a larger neocortex.He claims that the six-layered neocortex deals with increasing abstraction from one layer to the next. He says that at the low levels, the neocortex may seem cold and mechanical because it can only make simple decisions, but at the higher levels of the hierarchy, the neocortex is likely to be dealing with concepts like being funny, being sexy, expressing a loving sentiment, creating a poem or understanding a poem, etc.

Indeed he claims to believe that these higher levels of the human neocortex were the enabling factors to permit the human development of language, technology, art, and science,

If the quantitative improvement from primates to humans with the big forehead was the enabling factor to allow for language, technology, art, and science, what kind of qualitative leap can we make with another quantitative increase? Why not go from 300 million pattern recognizers to a billion?

Ray Kurzweil is now 61 and sincerely believes that his own immortality is a realistic proposition. In Kurzweil’s estimation by 2030 we will be able to outsource our brain to:

  • upload the human brain to a computer [cloud]
  • capturing a person’s entire personality [cloudy]
  • all past memories [cloud forecast]
  • every skills and ability
  • their very essence and history

The rest of his timetable he is quite clear on (not in order of date but possibly in my order of achievability):

2025 Reconnaissance Dust: These so-called ‘smart dust’ – tiny devices that are almost invisible but contain sensors, computers and communication capabilities – are already being experimented with.

2035 Nano Assemblers: He says that these three-dimensional printers that can create a physical object from an information file and inexpensive input materials. So we could email a blouse or a toaster or even the toast. There is already an industry of three-dimensional printers, and the resolution of the devices that can be created is getting finer and finer.

2037 Respirocytes: A respirocyte is a nanobot (a blood cell-sized device) that is designed to replace our biological red blood cells but is 1,000 times more capable. If you replaced a portion of your biological red blood cells with these robotic versions you could do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours.

2040 Transhumans: Humans and non-biological machines will then merge so effectively that the differences between them will no longer matter; and, after that, human intelligence, transformed for the better, will start to expand outward into the universe, around about 2045.With this last prediction, Kurzweil is referring not to any recognisable type of space travel, but to a kind of space infusion. “Intelligence,” he writes, “will begin to saturate the matter and energy in its midst [and] spread out from its origin on Earth.”

2044 Foglets: Foglets are a form of nanobots that can reassemble themselves into a wide variety of objects in the real world, essentially bringing the rapid morphing qualities of virtual reality to real reality.

Of course Kurzweil’s ideas have generated massivecriticism within the scientific community and in certain sections of the media. The very idea of a technological singularity is controversial, while it is a popular concept in science fiction. Lots of academics have voiced skepticism about it’s real-world plausibility. See the this talk by James Stirling Long Now Foundation entitled The Singularity: Your Future as a Black HoleIn the cover article of the December 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, John Rennie criticises Kurzweil for several predictions that failed to become manifest by the originally predicted date.

I am more positive about his thoughts and predictions. Why? Well Kurzweil is extremely well informed about technologies in development (and sits of Google X board) and is highly insightful about how they can feed into one another, particularly over the relatively near term. He is very sharp on trends and all his predictions are thought provoking. His unwavering confidence in the law of accelerating returns allows him to shrug off contradictory facts and perspectives as mere temporary inconveniences. But then again haven’t all great scientists and futurologist but thought as arrogant?

He might be wrong by a year here, a decade there sure; but the accelerating returns of technology will sweep them all away en route to a singularity beyond human imagination ruled by one eternal truth: that Ray Kurzweil was, is, and always will be the smartest guy in the room

Well maybe.

Be Amazing Every Day.

A Passion For Customer Service Excellence

A had a meeting last night with the smartest guy in the room. It was a big room too, at the Hoxton Holborn. Boy he knows his stuff. He asked whether I was superman. He could not comprehened someone (me) writing 132 articles in 180 days (let alone reading them) as well as training every day, inspiring thousands of clients, running a business, training 4 restaurants, 2 Hotels and coaching lots of people.The answer is of course no, I am not Clark Kent. I am just living the be amazing every day programme. So my connection (call him Mr T), whom I have the total respect for, asked me to write about something in today’s article.

What is customer service excellence? 

Actually it is is a brilliant, highly complex and difficult question. Except it is very simple. Customer service is just a day in, day out ongoing, never ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate, type of activity. Watch this first: 3.14 seconds of Tom Peters A Passion For Customers:

 

 

Now think about the last hotel you booked in and had poor service:

Customer service excellence has always been and will always be one of the critical competitive advantages for any business. Richard Whiteley In his popular book, The Customer Driven Company, (1991) emphasises the theme saturation with the voice of the customer as the key to ensuring excellent customer service and consequently a successful and profitable business. Failure to listen and respond to the voice of the customer causes stress, anger and frustration for millions of customers and the ultimate failure of those businesses that are not happily and intimately connected with their customers.

So Mr.T, here are my Seven Excellent Customer Service Commandments

1. Under promise, carefully understate and over deliver. Exceed customer needs and expectations. If customer satisfaction has one sure thing, it’s about exceeding expectations and how well it works. People like to be pleasantly surprised, within limits. Build relationships with your customers. In a highly competitive service environment, meeting customer expectations may not be enough. Successful companies strive to not just meet, but to exceed customer needs and expectations. Nothing impresses a customer more than an employee who goes, “above and beyond the call of duty” to ensure total customer satisfaction. Today, customers expect something more than this traditional customer service. They not only expect, they demand exceptional customer service. They are particularly pleased when businesses exceed their expectations, show that they care about them personally, and employees work swiftly and effectively on their behalf.

2. Ask the right questions.Spend a lot of time talking to customers face to face. You’d be amazed how many companies don’t listen to their customers. Never stop learning about your customers. This means really listening. Often, the only thing a customer wants is to feel understood. Learning how to listen effectively is not a widely held skill. However, it can be taught, and listening training is a common feature of many customer service courses. Know your customers so that needs can be anticipated. This best practice requires that owners and employees constantly ask questions, collect, analyze and use data. Feedback from the customer is a source of constant business renewal and adjustment. As the business environment changes and as customer needs shift, continuous feedback allows a business to adjust and change accordingly. The critical question is, “What do my customers need, and how can I best provide it?”The purpose of a business is to create a customer who creates customers. ~ Shiv Singh

3. Maintain happy employees. Remembering that happy employees make happy customers is a critical bit of advice for every chief executive. Happy employees mean happy customers. In most businesses, especially service oriented businesses, the employees’ attitudes and behaviours determine the quality of customer service. Herb Kelleher, former Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Airlines, argues,

Put employees first and customers second.

At first this may seem contrary to the notion of having a company that is customer focused. But, if we adhere to the notion of a happy employee makes a happy customer, then this makes sense. Southwest Airlines has been successful in a very competitive business (see / read again my blog on 10x companies by Collins on Great by Choice) Southwest has instilled a spirit of entrepreneurship in all its employees. The philosophy is that Southwest Airlines is in the people business and it just happens to run an airline. Companies that consider they are in the people business are companies that provide excellent customer service. Tom Peters, (1999), says that we should make work fun. In a company that makes work fun, employees look forward to their job where they are valued and appreciated.

4. Create and use service standardsYour customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. ~ Damon Richards. Successful companies that provide excellent customer service clearly define the service standards that are essential for business success. Service standards serve two purposes. First, they are a powerful force for shaping the image that your customers have of you. Secondly, they are a great tool for measuring how well each employee in your business meets the levels of service, which are essential for your business success. Service standards should be measurable because you can manage and train for things that of excellence in customer service.

5. Have a written plan for ensuring excellence in customer service.

This one, Mr T I am always amazed by – organisations that don’t have a plan. A written plan helps to ensure a total organisational culture you can measure. Especially critical is developing a mission and visionary plan that stresses the importance of customer service. The mission statement for the customer-oriented company clearly puts the customer in the spotlight. If a company cannot clearly identify the customer within its mission, the mission statement does not contribute toward the goal of customer service. The visionary plan should be developed among all employees with leadership from the owner or chief executive officer (CEO). It should have a limited number of goals that powerfully speak to the direction of the business and its emphasis on customer service. It’s recommended that not more than five to seven goals be developed. Customer service may be incorporated into one of the major goals or it may be inherent but clearly recognisable in all the goals. Having a plan in writing and frequently making reference to the plan is a way to put customer service in the forefront of a company’s business plan. This written plan should be based on customer input. The customer should be involved in the development of the plan, and it should be continuously updated and adjusted, as customer needs and expectations change in the changing environment.

6. Smash the barriers to excellence and adopt Excellence, always.

Here is a simple but powerful rule: always give people more than what they expect to get. ~ Nelson Boswell. 

It seems to be the natural tendency for organisations and businesses to develop a bureaucracy over time. The longer a business has been in existence, the more rules, policies, and regulations it seems to have in the rulebook. Frequently, these rules, regulations and policies are barriers to customer service excellence. Employees must be freed of the shackles of too many rules, too many regulations, too much paperwork, and overly restricted communication channels. Only then, will employees be free to truly focus on the customer and provide excellent customer service. The employees themselves are the best data source for identifying and eliminating these barriers, but the customers too can be an excellent source of this critical information.

7. Offer your customers options. If you can’t satisfy your customers needs and expectations, the next best thing is to offer options for other sources of service, even if it is a competitor. This shows the customer that you truly care about them and not just in selling your service. Good customer service is made, not born. Most companies find that employees require training to provide good customer service. Some of the areas in which employees often get help from customer service training include:

Then and only then can you walk the talk at the top. It is critical that the owner or chief executive officer of the business demonstrates a genuine concern and desire to provide excellent customer service. Tom Peter’s called it MBWA (managing by walking around). Nice.

So, Mr T, my 7 rules for Customer Excellence can be found in companies that exemplify a decision to do only excellent work.These practices are not just something the company does, these practices are the company. Every employee in the company must understand and carry out these practices on a daily basis. Hiring people with the right attitudes and keeping them constantly trained, rewarded and recognized for demonstrating the best of these twelve practices is the way that companies achieve success. It is essential that the top person in the organisation, CEO or owner also demonstrate these practices; not just among external customers, but among those internal customers, especially employees.

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves. – Steve Jobs

I am no Superman Mr T. I amazing, every single day.

Be Amazing Every Day.