Back to basics

Going ‘back to basics’ can be very useful – at work, playing croquet, making art or just in life generally. Sometimes the most productive thing we can do is to deliberately step outside the flow, and allow the resulting discomfort to guide our creativity, learning and/or development in whatever skill set we are trying to excel at.  That may mean a reset ‘back to basics’ – which will ultimately help us find more advanced and refined flow states in future.

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A couple of posts ago (The Zone of Opportunity) I mentioned the concept of ‘flow’, coined by psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  Broadly, flow is the mental state that emerges when your abilities match the specific challenge of your activity.  When someone achieves the balance between challenge and ability they experience complete absorption in what they are doing and thereby lose all track of time and sense of their surroundings.

Flow is a state humans seem to find innately pleasant and intrinsically rewarding.  Too much challenge, or too little ability and the task is unachievable and frustrating; on the other hand, too little challenge or too easy a task will likely lead to boredom and disengagement. So to maintain flow we tend to seek increased challenges to exercise increasing skills.  I have sketched this evolution here:

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One role for a coach / teacher / manager is to help you select appropriate challenges and skill development to create a feedback loop which will sustain flow enjoyment of a particular skill. This is what distinguishes a flow state from a simple ‘comfort zone’.

One of the reasons learning something new can be challenging is because it is initially difficult to achieve a flow state with a novel skill.  Re-engaging with something of which you have had some mastery can be more difficult, since you can perhaps recall previous flow states and be impatient to get back there.

20170822_095310For example I have found revisiting the fundamental skill of free-hand drawing with a U3A class a bit challenging – my engagement with this was longer ago than I first thought – I had dated one of these drawing books acquired during that period as 1993 – that’s over 20 years ago, how time flies!   It was hard to find any semblance of flow with new people in a new place, doing something you are not very well practiced at – challenge high / ability low.  But understanding the dynamic, and strongly feeling the need to relearn the basic skills of seeing and constructing images by hand, I will persist.

I have experienced and managed that kind of discomfort at various times in my croquet trajectory – which is far from maxing out the challenge / ability curve and delivering flow in every game!    One thing I have observed of myself and others on the same curve is that in the urge to improve performance or the desire to solve various problems of technique or game tactics can lead to a search for ‘magic’ solutions, a ‘silver bullet’.

The thing is croquet, like much of life, is a mean-reverting probabilistic exercise.  Let me unpack that 😉

Much of what we experience has a significant random element, and we exaggerate the degree of control we have over events.  So any given intervention may coincide with a better result, whether or not it has objectively increased our chance of success.  But if we think it has worked – even once is enough – that intervention can then get cemented into how we play the game (or whatever else we may be doing).

This is illustrated in the idea of the placebo effect associated with minor surgery, discussed in a Guardian piece – When surgery is just a stitch-up.  Andy Carr, a professor of surgery at the University of Oxford is quoted:  “People with arthritis of the knee or recurrent sore knees will have good times and bad times. If you see them at a time when their symptoms are particularly bad, then any time after that their symptoms won’t be as bad. It fluctuates, but people incorrectly associate the surgery as something that caused their pain to get better.”

Placebo effects aside, the fact is that things tend to get better on their own, or given its fancy medical name, regress to the mean. Prof Carr notes that this misapprehension applies to surgeons as much as patients – “Surgery is taught like an apprenticeship … You don’t necessarily learn the scientific method, you don’t necessarily learn about the biases you may form about the effectiveness of a particular operation, and you end up forming the same biases that other doctors and the general public fall for by assuming causation where you see association.”

This mistaken confusion of association for cause is a constant peril in skill acquisition and practice. It is laid out neatly in a blog post I read recently, Critical Thinking By Osmosis by Shane Greenup, a fellow participant in Journalism PLUS, a UTS Creative Cluster workshop group I have been part of recently.  He says:

“Successful critical thinking would include recognising that correlation is not causation” — you know this concept already don’t you? Correlation is not causation. I think that most people know this phrase, but how many times a day do you see it used to call out faulty causation? How frequently do you get to see the tool being used? How often do you get to watch this simple yet valuable tool of critical thinking being used, challenged, championed, questioned, and discussed within an applicable context in day to day life?

Being aware of and controlling for this is a key ingredient of critical thinking can guide more purposeful and productive interventions – it is not always comfortable, but almost always useful. Prof Carr acknowledges that “to tell a surgeon who has been doing knee arthroscopies for 30 years, and who has seen patients getting better, that they have just been wasting their time is very difficult.”  It can be equally daunting (and futile) to try and tell a croquet player who is performing moderately well that a basic element of their game would benefit from adjustment.

That player may well continue to seek further silver bullets and risk layering into their game further behaviours which at best might be a ‘quirk’ and at worst may become a ‘bad habit’ and set a ceiling on their further development or progress in the game.  Often people expect a coach to be the source of such magic ammunition. Doubtless there are many refinements to be applied and nuances to be mastered, and a good coach will be a store-house of such improving suggestions.

However, it has been my observation that rather than magic tricks, the best players seem to employ the basic skills of the game well … and consistently.   Often the basic cause and effect is quite simple, if demanding in execution, and an excellent coach will know (and be able to communicate) when the bullets and tricks have accumulated to the point of setting ceiling on performance and when it is time to ‘get back to basics’.

In my personal experience recently, teaching and coaching beginner croquet has offered an excellent opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of the game: stance and stroke, the pendulum swing, stalking the target – every time.  Going back to basics has also guided my attempts to sort out a nagging issue such as when sometimes I just can’t seem to hit a ball or run a hoop. The title of a book written and illustrated by the legendary NZ croquet player John Prince has always stuck in my mind – “Practice with a Purpose”.  I couldn’t agree more, so long as your purpose is rooted in a sound grasp of cause and effect, and you are prepared to endure the discomfort of ‘unlearning’ some of the things which you may have thought helped you in the past.

It’s funny how when you pick a topic you start seeing references to it everywhere – reading a random LinkedIn post led me to this commentary by author of “Do The Work”, Steven Pressfield. It is characterized as a book about RESISTANCE and its place in any creative process … I have not yet read the work, but I wanted to share his glimpse of the struggle to achieve creative outcomes.

It occurs to me that what is termed resistance can be seen as loss of flow, and sometimes the most productive thing we can do is to deliberately step outside the flow, and to allow the discomfort of resistance to guide our creativity, learning and/or development in whatever skill set we are trying to excel at. That may mean a reset ‘back to basics’ – which will ultimately help us find more advanced and refined flow states in future.

I will leave you with Steven Pressfield’s words as he struggles with his writing:

By the way, this process that I’m going through now after the collapse of Draft #11 is the process I SHOULD HAVE been doing from Draft #1.

I was lazy.

I was scared.

I didn’t push myself far enough.

That’s why #11 crashed.

That’s what I’m back to Square One, reverting to basics.

That’s okay.

It happens to everybody.

So to recap …

Last week we talked about the first level (for me, at least) of a Ground Up Rewrite.

That level was about genre.

It involved identifying the genre we’re working in (again, a task we SHOULD HAVE done in Draft #1 and even earlier) and defining for ourselves the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre … then reworking our story to align with those principles.

Level Two, what we’re talking about today, is about doing the same thing, not for Genre, but for Universal Storytelling Principles.

We go back to basics.

Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy

In my experience one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise, to make the most of what attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker. The one-page election brief drafted on behalf of the Marrickville Croquet Club Committee is an example of the craft.

Well, it is election time for NSW Local Councils, and at the Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) we decided that the Committee could usefully send an Election Brief to all candidates as part of our management of key stakeholder relationships.  We wanted to remind candidates of the existence and importance of the club locally and more broadly within the expanded municipality, and to seek their active support of the club in future if elected.

In my experience working as a consultant, consumer advocate and then a public servant one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise – it is often vital to capture your points as briefly and precisely as possible. You need to make the most of what limited attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker.  I think the following one-page brief I drafted on behalf of the Committee hits the mark as an example of the craft (note that the brief did not include the photos in this blog).

As an aside, to illustrate the effort in achieving concision, I was going to quote one of my favourite Mark Twain sayings:  If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.  However a little research, which led me to Quote Investigator, tells me that in fact “Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research”.

While many variations of the expression have been used by many famous figures, apparently the first English language example was a sentence in translation of work by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.  Indeed I actually like what we are told by wikiquote is the literal translation even more:

I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

A modern take on the need to be brief is the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’, which basically says you should be able to get your idea/proposal/request across to your intended audience in the time you might have them trapped in a lift … 30 seconds to a couple of minutes max.  In that pitch you need to get the listener engaged, interested and agreeing to your concluding ‘call to action’.

Not a bad thing to be able to do, although it perhaps has a bit of a Mad Men feel to it – I note Wikipedia characterises the series as an American period drama. My reflection is that you know you are getting old when period drama is set in times you can remember – I guess that’s why I get the leisure to write short blogs!

Enjoy, and remember, the opposite of a briefing is a longing 😉

Marrickville Croquet Club

Brief

Local Government Election September 2017

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The purpose of this brief is to acquaint Inner West Council candidates with the existence and importance of Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) as a community, recreational and sporting resource in the municipality.

MCC is a Marrickville community asset in a number of ways: it offers an inclusive, all-age, low intensity recreation activity in the municipality; it is financially self-sufficient and takes good day-to-day care of the facility maintained by council; it continues to build membership and community engagement, thus increasing utilisation of the facility and contributes to diversity of recreation options.

MCC was established in 1926 and is therefore a long-standing entity and reference for the landscape of Marrickville Park. The clubhouse and lawn were recognised in the recently completed Plan of Management as a significant heritage item in the park and MCC operates as an integral part of Marrickville Park with the continued support of council in the maintenance of the facility.

The arrangements for the retention and maintenance of the croquet club in the park have worked well to date and there seems to be genuine efficiency in combining croquet lawn maintenance with that of the park oval and cricket pitch.  With this support, MCC is delighted to curate and help preserve the croquet club as a living contribution to the heritage assets of Inner West Municipality.

MCC also contributes a particular recreational asset for the area: membership is diverse and players participate across age and gender.  Croquet offers an almost unique opportunity for people of all ages to interact in a recreationally competitive environment on an equal basis relatively independent of physical capability. MCC remains enthusiastic to engage with Council as it regains momentum post-amalgamation, and would like to participate in initiatives such as Sport-A-Month and similar programs to develop and encourage community participation in the sport.

MCC is the only croquet club in the municipality, drawing playing members from various corners of the area. With the relatively recent rebuilding of active membership and engagement, the Club now has scheduled play at the facility 5 days a week.  The club is well accepted and supported by the immediate local residents and continues to engage with the broader community such as in recent events with both Petersham after school care students and the Marrickville Heritage Society.

The club is diligent in seeking relevant publicity for the club and croquet in general and is taking advantage of contemporary communication tools to build an online community using Facebook, which now has 286 supporters (increased from 102 in 2013).

We ask you to note that the Marrickville Croquet Club relies on (and is of course grateful for) continued support from Council.   Without that support, MCC would likely cease to function, which would deprive the community of an excellent low-impact, age-inclusive recreational resource, while leaving open the question of preserving the heritage value of the croquet-specific physical infrastructure which has an important place in the park landscape.

We urge you, as a candidate for local election, to publicly commit to the principle that the Marrickville Park croquet facility should be supported and preserved as a functioning and intact entity.  Your confirmation of that commitment by email would be appreciated.

Management Committee of the Marrickville Croquet Club

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Image Consciousness

This blog is quite personal and image-heavy – it stems from my life-long fascination with images and how they can combine, overlay and transform from the naturalistic portrayal of reality as we perceive it, into abstract patterns, which probably better reflect the actuality that surrounds us and then back into images which our senses make coherent again.

From my earliest years I was intrigued by the magic of my father’s camera, as it fixed moments in time – as you can see I still have it.20170724_161414

The sheer cost of chemical photography in those time deterred me from venturing early into photographic practice, but my appreciation and consumption of the world of images continued apace: still, moving, natural, surreal, transforming, dissolving, merging … especially in the world of the cinema and experimental film-makers.

How I wished I could make that magic.  Eventually I could afford an SLR camera of my very own, and again within the meagre budget of a teaching-fellow funded postgrad experimented with framing and capturing the world around me. But the expense, limitations and complexities of analogue chemical photography (not to mention my limited experience and expertise) constrained my ability to engage with the image ‘magic’.

To experiment in that direction I turned to collage in my idle moments after arriving in Sydney, snipping and overlaying images, to allow one to ‘breathe’ through the other and thus to explore serendipitous and fortuitous emergence.  I was also attracted to the way that the street edited the images plastered up on posters and billboards around the inner city – portrayals of contemporary obsessions, randomly overlayed and then stripped back, both by the action of people and the environment. I captured a number of these on Polaroid, but again, not an inexpensive exercise! This was in the days of the rather sterile debate about whether photograph was art – a question rather settled in the affirmative today I think!

 

Eventually it occurred to me that if I wanted to engage with images more fully in this way I could do so by creating the representation from scratch – oh, wait, isn’t that what artists do as a matter of course?  Indeed, but this created the imperative to confront the idea implanted in me at high school that I was not artistic, could not draw or paint.

So I did, largely self-taught, but with a couple of community college course thrown in.  After getting a handle on naturalistic portrayal and figuring out I could indeed draw (passably if not brilliantly) I started to use paints and canvas to create and combine images – looking at the emergence (or is it submergence) of the iconic Marilyn image,

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delving into the Polaroid project for street-edited wall art,

20170808_083011and then into more abstract work with possible self-portrait dimensions …

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Then the miracle of digital happened – and of course photography is now a bit like breathing – commonplace but nevertheless of vital significance!

Firstly image-capture was democratised in the early noughties and I used the technology to document many a street image. I recently posted to Facebook as digital archaeology, after logging in to Flickr for the first time since forever, an image posted there in October 2006, one of the first taken with my then new FujiFilm camera … titled as ‘Face of an Urban Dryad’, I had noted on Flickr that it was: “A gentle spirit – beauty emerging from abrasion and decay”.  2017-08-07_05-33-02

Interestingly at the time such work felt a bit commonplace and at times scarcely worth doing, but over recent years the streets have become much more regularised in what is postered up, where, and the supply of interesting images has dried up considerably. So I value my archives that much more!

And then image-processing software has become widely and cheaply available, while processing power has continued its inexorable Moore’s Law fuelled march, now allowing sophisticated image manipulation in the palm of your hand …

I am reminded of a similar remark by the Tabernacle to Zed towards the conclusion of the 1974 movie Zardoz … oops, sorry, that was a lapse into complete obscurity

… but this is my blog after all 😉

I have the movie on DVD if you’d like to watch it sometime.

 

 

That technology has led me to my most recent experimentation with the ‘blank canvas’.  Using a wonderful but free Google app called SnapSeed it possible to take an entirely tactile approach to photo editing – essentially finger painting!  As examples I have completed the blank canvas with a wall art image captured on the backstreets of Marrickville,20170719_101351-05

and then with an earlier photo-montage piece, ‘Terrigal Rose’, in which I had combined and morphed digital photographs using PC-based tools. You may notice Marilyn looking on …20170719_101351-04

20170801_153030My ambition now, as well as continuing to use the digital tools, is to re-connect with the world of paint and drawing, taking an almost ‘slow cooking’ approach to image construction and re-construction, paying attention to different details and layers.  Using the most immediately available subject I am reacquainting myself with the simple tools (not so simple actually) of pencil and paper, and I am then interested in re-interpreting my Polaroid project image once more, onto a smaller canvas.

Then we will see what might emerge …

 

Fake news anyone?

Fake news is very much in the news recently – the keynote presentation on the topic by Professor Jeff Jarvis at the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at UTS last week got me thinking about the current erosion of ‘trust’, the shift from ‘siloed’ to ‘networked’ communications and media and how a viable business model for news media is actually essential to democracy, which in turn is essential to an innovative and adaptable economy and society.

Last week I went along to the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).   The Centre has the very useful goal of helping us to understand key areas of current media evolution and how new technologies and digital transition can be harnessed – to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.

As well as reconnection with various colleagues from the ACMA and other networks, I also very much enjoyed the keynote presentation by Professor Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He chose as his topic ‘Fake news’, which he then with a very sensible sense of irony denounced as a bogus topic.  The real topic he suggested was the current erosion, and urgent need for restoration of, ‘trust’: trust in ‘facts’ as a basis for policy action; our ability to conduct civil community discourse; political and other institutions; and news media.

20170725_175309-02One observation I would offer on the issue of so-called ‘fake news’ is that there has been a long established practice on public relations of ‘slanted’ if not ‘fake’ media stories – although it would seem that the velocity of less-than-reliable news has sped up with the rest of the news cycle.  Jarvis raised dramatic but not alarmist concerns about the ‘weaponisation’ of information manipulation and the ability of various actors to leverage the media tools now available to foster polarization and attack the ‘truth’ through scale and speed of communications.

When pondering the trustworthiness of news, I remembered the notion that traditionally journalism has not been rated as high as many other professions in terms of trustworthiness.  I hunted out the latest Roy Morgan survey on the image of various professions, conducted in May 2017.  This finds only 20% of Australians rate Newspaper Journalists ‘very high’ or ‘high’ for ethics and honesty with 17% so rating TV Reporters.  However, looking at the time series helpfully provided by Roy Morgan, it is worth noting this is actually an all-time high for newspaper journalists on a rising trend, and up from 12% in 1976. TV reporters are shown to be reasonably stable around the mid-teens since 1988 when first measured.

This suggests to me perhaps some support for the avowed optimism Jarvis offered, with strategies and counsel about using traditional and new journalistic practice to counter the attacks on trust, to build news literacy, resurrect civility and encourage responsible sharing. What particularly struck a chord with me was his stress on the need for journalism to develop as an audience-centric service.

In my own thinking about media and communications futures I have found the application of network thinking and analysis to be very useful.  The world of communications has moved over the last couple of decades from one of massive ‘silos’ such as TV stations and printing plants to one in which the functions of those silos have been spread out across wide and varied networks, from the electronic hardware of the Internet and to the software based landscape of social media. This has been, to use an often misunderstood and sometime overused term, a ‘paradigm shift’, which has shaken business models and re-arranged social structures.

Under the ‘silo’ paradigm, agents such as journalists and regulators could see themselves as standing ‘outside’ the silos, but they are now effectively participants, enmeshed in the networks of the new paradigm. And this is where, as I understand it, Jarvis is going with his thinking and teaching: forget about so-called ‘objective’ reporting and engage meaningfully with real communities and deliver them a service they find valuable. Makes sense to me.

One important and obvious dimension of the paradigm shift has been the commercial challenges to the business models of the incumbent media industry ‘silo-owners’.  That in turn has been an ever increasing threat to the business-as-usual activities and very livelihoods of people working in them – such as musicians, photographers and journalists. This was an ever-present motif in presentation and the Q&A that followed: how can the activities of journalists be made commercially viable?

I was reminded of the classic and prescient 2009 article by US digital analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’.  His persuasive analysis was that print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting and the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.  However, the marriage of this heavy-lifting journalism to the stream of advertising revenue was essentially coincidental.

Shirky notes “This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting … that the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”   And if this relationship was under stress in 2009, things are reaching breaking point a decade or so on and Shirky’s wry observation “that ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model” is becoming very real indeed.

The persistence but ‘hollowing out’ of established masthead media, was chronicled by media and technology editor Nic Christensen in his final day at Mumbrella, writing about the “ … massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.”

The same sentiments were reported for Canada by Nieman Lab: “To be clear, though, almost all daily publishers have found them themselves forced to cut, given the cascading losses of their broken print business.  … We’re not mourning the death of printed newspapers, but of all the reporting — pixels or paper — that’s been disappearing for a decade.”

Clearly a business model beyond click-bait is needed.  What that might be is a matter of urgent inquiry by many and anxious anticipation by others – despite what may be an emerging market failure, such a thing will be next to impossible to regulate into existence   News itself may be a commodity, but without a fountain-head of reliable reporting about things the great and the good might prefer we remain ignorant of, democracy has a profound challenge.

And without the great capacity of genuine democracy to renew and sustain an innovative and adaptable economy and society we all risk being significantly poorer, materially and in spirit.  Hopefully journalists find ways to be engaged, adaptive, entrepreneurial and commercially viable – all of which it must be said is much more easily advised than done – and the new UTS Centre for Media Transition can assist.

The Zone of Opportunity

Croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop. I never really ‘got’ (or liked) the sporting analogies many people use in their business vocabulary. But coaching has emerged as an important common ground, since hitting the relevant ‘zone’ helps participants identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes.

Playing croquet for the last six years or so has been an extremely interesting and instructive journey.    I slowly whittled down my handicap as the necessities and interruptions of full-time work allowed, and now a major re-invention project is to play more competition croquet.

As it happened, shortly after taking up croquet, I did an intensive leadership development course, which included a number of residential sessions at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School. That was a pretty special place – it was apparently sold in 2016 to a retirement village operator, which feels a bit like the end of an era. It boasted a vineyard, private beach access, 95-bedroom accommodation, conference and training facilities and four dining facilities.  The course was a memorable experience, engaged in intensive cohort learning with a number of my colleagues.

The thing is, croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop.  The Mt Eliza experience and focus on complex adaptive systems thinking provided many tools and insights to inform and energise that observation.  Croquet provided a valuable additional case study over the nine month duration of the course, and in subsequent reflection and use of that training.

One such tool was the notion of ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.  The idea is well explained in the classic article by Chris Argyris, ‘Teaching Smart People How to Learn’. I have found this useful and important both in management and in my chosen game; because as a manager often the challenge is guiding your best people to be even better, and because croquet tends to be a game that attracts smart people.

Until I actually played a competitive sport I never really ‘got’ the sporting analogies many people are fond of employing in their business vocabulary.  I observed that these analogies often created in- and out-groups, appeared to discouraged diversity and often favoured male values. One of the attractive things for me about croquet is that by and large it is gender-neutral, with men and women playing on equal terms.  It is also very age-inclusive.

Without abandoning those observations, I have found a greater ability to relate to appropriate sporting insights, properly delivered.  In particular coaching emerges as an important common ground.

A couple of months ago I completed a Croquet Australia coaching course and as a result was endorsed as a Foundation Coach (level 1) for the three codes of Association, Ricochet and Golf croquet – I even got a badge!

20170725_084101-01I found many points of resonance between the material we covered and my management practice and learning over many years, some of which may unpack into future blogs … I don’t pretend to be anything but a fledgling sporting coach, but I am an expert generalist manager.

One notion I picked up on in particular was the ‘Zone of Opportunity’, which forms the title for this blog.  In croquet it has a highly technical application, but it resonates much more widely for me. It fits snugly into the complex adaptive thinking body of thought, exemplified in the sapling that clings to its opportunistic niche in the feature image.

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To the technicality – if your croquet ball is much more than 30 degrees off the centre-line of the hoop you are attempting to run, it is simply not possible for it to be hit through.  Skill and practice can shade the edge of the zone, but clearly it materially improves your chances if your approach shot lands you comfortably within the zone.

Single-loop learning might focus on practicing how to run difficult angles, while double-loop thinking might suggest practicing approaches that consistently land well within the zone as more fruitful.

20170725_085117So the more general use of the term is the coaching necessity to help anybody you are helping to develop, in whatever field of endeavour, to best apply their abilities to solve the skill-related problem, as it is relevant to them.  Finding and exploiting their zone will help them identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes. Obviously this should not simply be a matter finding a ‘comfort zone’ and sensible coaching sets a path of achievable development to levels of greater performance.

This references another use of the word ‘zone’, where players often referred to ‘being in the zone’.  A psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the word Flow to describe this feeling.  In essence, flow is characterized by achieving complete absorption in what you are doing and thereby of losing all track of time and sense of your surroundings.  Flow is broadly defined by a balance between ability and challenge, when your abilities match the specific challenge you can enter the flow state: croquet players as they build their break, craftsmen when they employ their skills, artists when they paint, writers when they craft their words.

In fact, in a double-loop style observation, this is essentially why I write this blog – as I write, time flies, my skills develop and I have fun: what more reward can anyone sensibly seek in life?

 

In celebration of running fast

Running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive. Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!

Last week I celebrated working my way back to what I regard as my peak fitness, measured by completing two full runs, being 14 laps of the park, including a full complement of 8 uphill sprints.  I was last at this level consistently about a year ago. A couple of minor health episodes back then meant momentum was lost and working had to maintain the habit, I have had to build back, gradually adding laps and then sprints.

I have always pursued my running from the perspective of sustainability rather than performance – so I do not keep track of lap times, and have not entered distance events etc. – I just keep going back week in, week out.  About 15 years ago the doctor observed my blood pressure tending to the high side of normal, despite my regular regime of walking and bike riding established in the decade before that.  So I started jogging.

And start from the very beginning it was, jog a quarter lap of the field, walk a quarter and so on and managed to cover maybe a couple of full laps this way to start.  Eventually I built up my endurance to run 14 laps of the park twice a week where we now run (after initially running with my teenage son, I have been joined in recent years by my wife).

Then a few years ago, at a work-sponsored health check, an advisor suggested perhaps adding some higher intensity elements to the run. I agreed to try, despite misgivings about possible injury – I am not going to bore you with the litany of minor exercise-related aches and issues that I have dealt with over the last couple of decades!

And you know what!? I really liked it … who knew?  I only started jogging to manage my blood pressure, and couldn’t really say I like it much, but it worked and I kept at it.  But as I took off, running as fast as I could up the (not too steep) hills in the park, I found a very rewarding sense of momentum and energy. It is difficult to convey what a contrast all this is to my youth, when I dislike exercise, loathing running in particular, and would go to considerable lengths to avoid it.

My friend Ward and I would walk around the field as others ran, usually conveniently out of earshot of the PE teacher, who basically gave up on us. Most memorably we worked out that we could walk one lap of the yearly school cross-country in the roughly the same time as it took all the others to run the required two – we narrowly escaped the embarrassment of being featured among the place-getters, which would have brought our subterfuge undone!

As we walked we would talk, and seek to unravel the mysteries of adolescence and the world – it was time spent exercising our intellects.  In fact our observation of a particular cumulus formation that resembled the fateful mushroom cloud informed my creation of the following poem some time later.  It is a narrative piece rather than a cry from the heart – a hyper-compressed science fiction story. That said, on reflection I suspect it also captures the impact of living with the more-or-less immediate threat of nuclear war current in the mid-sixties, a sense similarly conveyed by this detail from a collage I made shortly after arriving in Sydney in the late seventies.  Perhaps the poem also unconsciously references the sense of a dangerous adult world awaiting outside the school environment, as confining as it may have felt at the time.

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A Freak of Nature

Two boys play on a field.

On the road, separated from

The school by a tall fence,

A restless spectre stalks.

 

Tall, gaunt, this haggard creature

Of insistent gait paces,

Purposeful yet of arbitrary intent,

Bent to its fatal task.

 

It looks to the sky,

And a gleam fills its eyeless socket,

The reflection of awesome powers

Manifest in one excruciating flash.

 

Opaque with energy, the sun explodes,

Time collapses inwards, dragging the threads 

Of reality into its firestorm,

Tearing warp from weft.

Beyond sharing this as a non-running reminiscence, partially in memoriam to Ward, who sadly I heard died a couple of years ago, I was moved to do so by a sense of technological wonderment.  Having remembered the poem, I located a slightly scrappy type-written copy in the depths of my front-room filing cabinet.  I was then delighted to be able to take a photo of the page, do an optical character (OCR) scan to easily and quite accurately translate it to editable text, all on my phone!

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Now I already knew about OCR, perhaps better than many because I was part of an OCR experiment at the Royal Blind Society when I worked there in the eighties.

We took one of the first commercially available OCR scanners and hooked it up to an equally novel device called the DECTalk from Digital Equipment Corp, supplier of our VAX minicomputer (shown with cat for scale!)

Combining these two boxes gave us a crude text to voice machine – unheard of in 1985 and with obvious application in the world of the visually impaired, but clunky and hugely expensive.  And now all that functionality is combined into a general-purpose device in the palm of my hand, achievable as a complete by-product of its primary purpose – I stand amazed!

The scanner was based on the work of Ray Kurzweil, the principal inventor of the first omni-font optical character recognition flatbed scanner, who went on to develop a dedicated text to speech device for the blind.  Kurzweil has also built a career as a futurist and latterly Google executive.   For some time he has championed the concept of a technological singularity, which is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. A further digression, but an interesting fit with the idea of Big History referenced in my previous blog ‘The narrative necessity’ – a conjunction which may bear further exploration in this space …

Anyhooo … we have indeed run a long way here! The bottom line is that running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but that time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive.  Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!

The narrative necessity

We are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  

One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event.  There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership.  We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.

In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever.  We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them.  And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.

This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting  “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”

NoDummy

Being smart is no get of jail free card!

If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data.  This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’.  In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.

That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …

 

 

 

 

However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.

He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.  On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.

20170709_084329Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”  That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”

Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.

Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence.  I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe.  However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?

Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!