Found and Lost

I had so much fun at the Vancouver Story Slam in May that I decided to do it again.

I decided I would be bold and write a sequel to the first story. I could recap the entire plot of the first part, and then develop it with an appropriate arc into a second story, all in under 1000 words. Continue reading

It’s not about you

A while ago a Major Thing happened in the life of a person very close to me. I only found out about it a week or so after it happened — when I called to verify plans we had made, and I learned everything was off due to the Major Thing – which, by the way, was a good thing, not a crisis. I was stunned and, yes, a bit hurt.

When I mentioned it to another friend, she said “Oh, I’m sure it’s not about you.”

I have no idea why I was left out of the loop. It could very well have nothing to do with me. But the more I contemplated that phrase, “It’s not about you,” the more it bothered me. Continue reading

Make me care

521247814_7e13273476_mI mentioned last week that I had somehow gotten through the filters and was accepted as part of the audience for last Friday’s TEDx Lausanne conference. I was really excited, because I am a huge TED fan. I’ve listened to lots of TED talks on the internet, and been very inspired. TED’s motto “Ideas worth sharing,” resonates with me. I’m an idea person.

So there I was, nametag around my neck: Self-Employed. I should have put CEO, Gydle Publishing Empire but I didn’t realize I’d get it on a nametag. Oh well, next time. Other people’s nametags also sported words describing things they cared about: virtual reality, world peace, vegetarianism, Internet of Things. I think it was supposed to be a conversation-starter. Since I’d apparently left this bit blank on the registration form, I just roamed around, not conversing. That was okay, because Nespresso co-sponsored the event and so there was plenty of coffee.

Maybe I set myself up for disappointment. Maybe listening to the best TED talks on the internet didn’t prepare me for this reality: very few people know how to give a good talk. Out of a hundred 15-minute talks, you’re lucky to get about ten good ones. On Friday we were lucky, because a few were relatively decent. But nothing really inspired me.  The organizers of the conference probably will blacklist me for this, but when it was over, oddly enough I felt kind of like the girl in the conference’s homepage image (above): disconnected. What was that we just sped past?

During the breaks, I had some interesting conversations with people who weren’t intimidated by my lack of professional affiliation; and after the talks were over I met some of the speakers and talked with them as well. They’re great people who are quite passionate about their work. It must be scary as hell to give a TEDx talk to an audience secretly hoping to hear somebody like Al Gore or Sir Ken Robinson. (I hope none of them read my blog. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, I think you’re great and keep up the good work…).

I’m not going to deconstruct the talks here, or my conversations with other attendees, even though there were some interesting ideas exchanged in both venues. Instead I’m going to share what I thought about during most of the conference, at least when I wasn’t thinking about what I should have put on my nametag or why none of the speakers was talking about gamification, given that the theme of the conference was ostensibly the future. Which was: What makes for a good TED talk?

At about 3:30 pm, I had an epiphany of sorts: In fact, a good TED talk isn’t about the speaker at all. It’s not about the audience, either. It transcends all those individual egos. A good TED talk is really just a novel form of energy transfer.

In a good talk, the passionate idea in the speaker’s head somehow takes hold of the heads and hearts of the audience. In a good talk, the speaker builds a connection with the audience using words, pictures, laughter and silence, until a kind of mental bridge forms between them and energy flows freely through the room. The audience ends up really, truly caring. If you hooked them up to brain wave monitors, I’m guessing their hippocampi would be lighted up like Christmas trees. The idea is shared. It’s emotional, it’s inspiring and above all, it’s uplifting.

In a good talk, the audience doesn’t have to work to follow the talk or to be inspired. No, quite the contrary: it’s practically impossible for them not to be inspired, not to care, to remain indifferent. Unless, of course, they’re psychopaths. But the likelihood of an audience of psychopaths at a TEDx conference is pretty slim – even in California. Certainly not in Lausanne.

So next time you have to give a talk, I challenge you to think about this energy transfer: Why do you care about your idea? Where is its energy coming from? Dig deep and find the source of your passion, the place where it all starts. Tap into that. That’s the story the audience wants to hear. Look into their eyes, work some magic with words, pictures, jokes and pregnant pauses, and then beam it out there, Scotty.

Disclaimer: I am not a public speaking expert. I would probably give a horrible talk, although I’d try hard not to. For some really useful tips on how to give a speech, I do actually know a real public speaking expert, John Zimmer, and he has a blog called Manner of Speaking. I recommend it.

Photo Credit: Ward. via Compfight cc


Last fall, I promised to do a series of posts on cognitive biases. A cognitive bias, in case you’re not familiar with the term, is a kind of built-in mental shortcut that we take when making decisions. Usually, we’re not aware we’re doing it.

Here’s a classic example, the framing bias: You’re sitting in front of a bunch of potential investors. What do you tell them – A: that your product has a 1 in 10 chance of succeeding, or B: that it has a 90% chance of failure?  Doh. 

Here’s another, the anchoring bias. You’re in a store. Everything on the rack is over $200. You see a sweater for $50. What a good deal! Now you’re in another store. Everything on the rack is under $50. You see the exact same sweater, for $50. Not such a good deal after all?

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the subject, and it turns out we’re brimming with biases. We think we’re rational, that we can look objectively at a situation or listen to someone and weigh his or her words impartially, but we can’t. We’re highly illogical creatures bound up in a complex net of emotion and suggestion, living under the illusion that our brains work like computers.

It’s so bad that I’ve totally lost my desire to write about it. If you’d like to get depressed, too, here’s a short reading list:

Part of my disgust stems from my observation that the current political charade that is going on in the US, otherwise known as the Republican Primaries, is a stunning and vivid example of how to exploit most of these biases. Biases like the exposure effect, in which you tend to increasingly prefer something when you are repeatedly exposed to it (like a face or a slogan), and the illusion-of-truth effect, in which you are more likely to believe a statement is true if you have heard it before – whether or not it really is true. That the machine so blatantly exploits our cognitive weaknesses should perhaps not come as a surprise, but I still find it deeply disappointing and disturbing.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve taken away from all this reading is that humans have an innate need to tell a story. We may vary somewhat in our tendency to make irrational decisions, to act on instincts that lie far beneath the surface of our consciousness, but the one thing we all have in common is our need to create a narrative that ties it all together. We do something or make a choice, and then we make up a story to explain why we did the thing or made the choice. Experiment after experiment has shown this to be the case. That’s what most of the billions of neurons inside those big brains of ours are doing: making up stories to rationalize our knee-jerk reactions.

We’re storytelling machines.

I think it’s high time we stopped settling for fairy tales, where everything is nice and simple – good versus evil, rags-to-riches, a stranger came to town – and started insisting on stories that reflect the real complexity of the world we live in. Then I think we might actually have a fighting chance of making decisions that would benefit us and our children in the long run.

Here’s a snippet from a TED talk on the subject by Tyler Cowen. I highly recommend you watch the talk or read the transcript. And then think about the political landscape. Then pass the Prozac.

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they’re the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories.

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like “this” instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.[…]

If the presidential candidates followed this rule, lowering their IQ by 10 points every time they told a good versus evil story, they’d be brain dead by now. Wait. They are! Welcome to the world of zombie politics.

I saw a video the other day on YouTube, classic Newt Gingrich blasting Mick Romney. You know what he saves for last? The ultimate thing that should slam Romney into the ground, make him a laughing stock, un-electable? Hint: he shares it with John Kerry.

You’ll have to see it to believe it.

Now, enough depressing stuff. Here’s the good news: Somehow I got through the quality control filter and snagged a spot in Friday’s TEDx Lausanne audience!  I’m particularly looking forward to a talk by Steve Edge, who describes himself as “Designer, branding guru, dyslexic and madman.” More on that next week.

Image: wingedwolf


Art is what you can get away with. — Andy Warhol

Sometimes, instead of imitating life, art imitates art. This is more commonly known as forgery. If you can get away with it, I suppose you’re an artist of sorts.

Here’s a real-life story of some forgers that didn’t. Continue reading