I just read about a fascinating new study* that examined 56 people who went on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. Of the 56 people, 24 took a creativity test before they left for the trip. The other 32 took the test out in the wilderness, on the fourth day of the trip...after four days disconnected from the grid.
What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.
There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).
Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).
So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):
- To Artists. Those who share their creative outputs with the world openly and encourage us to see and think differently. Artistry can be aesthetic, part of performance and innovation (says Hilary Austen), and something that Seth Godin believes we all are, when we listen to what is important. Its the writers, performers, teachers, journalists, and engaged audiences that are all part of the creative tapestry around us when they choose to make their art available.
- To those scientists and researchers who spur exploration and share what they learn widely and openly and make the world better through making their work accessible, including supporting open access of scientific knowledge. The world has too many hoarders. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants because they bent down to help us up.
- To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
- To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
- To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
- To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
- To every person that smiles freely and often (and at me!). Smiles are contagious (PDF – example)
- To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
- To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
- To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
- To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
- To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
- To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
- To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.
Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.
What are you grateful for?
Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jonah Lehrer is/was as big as it gets in science writing and two weeks ago proved the adage that the higher one climbs the farther the fall after admitting to some false content in his stories. This is bad news for him, but may be much worse for all of us interested in making science and innovation knowledge accessible for reasons that have as much to do with the audience as it does the message and messenger.
Jonah Lehrer was one of our most prolific and widely read science writers until he admitted fudging some quotes about Bob Dylan in his new book, Imagine, which looks at the process of discovery, creativity and innovation. The discovery by fellow journalist (and fervent Bob Dylan fan) Michael Moynihan set off a wave of reflections and investigations of Lehrer’s work revealing passages in the book (and other pieces) that had been reused from his other writings without proper self-attribution and sparking questions about the integrity of the author’s entire body of work. The “fall of Jonah Lehrer” was big news at a time when the London Olympics were dominating most of the media’s attention.
This case is a testament to the wide appeal that Lehrer’s work had beyond the usual ‘science geeks’ while illustrating the power of the internet to enable the kind of curation and investigation to support on and offline fact checking. But what it spoke to most for me is the role
The Writer and his Craft
Much digital type has been spent on the Lehrer incident. Search Google and you’ll find dozens of commentaries looking at how things transpired and how Lehrer ironically succumbed to the cognitive biases he wrote about.
Roxane Gay, writing in Salon, took a gendered approach to the issue and questioned whether our fascination is less with the science and more about the ‘young male genius’. Lehrer’s youth was something she saw as critical to amplifying the fascination with his work. She writes:
When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.
I agree with her on the point about our desire to over-inflate the accomplishments of youth (as if we are *amazed* that any of them could possibly do anything brilliant, which is as offensive to them and it is to older people), although a careful look at Lehrer’s articles and much of the press around his work suggests that he was much less a focus of the attention than his ideas.
Call it “Gladwellization.” It’s not just lucrative, but powerful: your ideas (or rather, the ideas you’ve turned into compelling anecdotes for a popular audience) can influence everything from editorial choices across the publishing world to corporate management and branding strategies.
But with this comes mounting demands to produce, and to recycle. You have to be prolific, churning out longer pieces that give your insights some ballast, and brilliant, bite-sized items. And yet you can’t be too new either: people want to hear what you’re already famous for. In this cauldron of congratulation and pressure for more and more, it’s not hard to see how standards might erode, how the “ideas” might become more important than doing the necessary due diligence to make sure they sync with reality.
‘Snappy Science’ and Synthesis
Innovation is about ‘new’ and there are good reasons why its a challenge to get the message out that this ‘new’ can be adapted, small, and unsexy and still make a large difference in the long run instead of big, bold and transformative right away. We are in an age of selling “snappy science” and it says more about the media and audiences than the authors and scientists producing the original work.
This snappy, bite-sized science might sell books and make for great TED talks, but it is a misrepresentation of what we actually know and do as scientists. Rarely does a single finding lead to a solution, rather it is an amalgam of discoveries small and large brought together that gets us to closer to answers. Synthesis is the driver of change and synthesis is what journalists do particularly well. Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson and Jonah Lehrer are among the best synthesizers out there and I would imagine (no pun intended) that they contribute to more to public and professional understanding of social innovation than all of the original-sourced scientific knowledge on the subject combined.
When I hear Malcolm Gladwell cited as an original source in serious discussions with colleagues on scientific matters, I realize we have a problem…and an opportunity. Gladwell’s writings popularized the concept of tipping points, but his work is based on a wealth of scientific data on complex systems. They are not his original ideas, but they are his syntheses and (sometimes) his interpretations. This is important work and I am not taking anything from anyone who makes science data digestible and accessible, but it is not the original science.
That Jonah Lehrer is as well known as he is tells me that there is an appetite for science and I’ll freely admit to using his work (and that of the other authors I’ve mentioned) to inform what I do in a general sense. It is good work, however I also acknowledge that I have the scientific training to know how to go beyond the initial articles to critically appraise the information, place it in context, and I have the resources to go to the original sources in academic journals. Most people (professionals and lay people) do not. This access is going to decrease as resources shrink.
It is for this reason that synthetic work is so important. My Twitter feed often is filled with references to such synthetic work, rather than original works of research because I aim to fill role that is somewhere between journalism and the science of design, systems and psychology. I am not a pure science blogger, nor am I speaking to the lay public, but rather other professionals seeking to enrich their knowledge base. That is a role I’ve created for myself, largely because there is a high demand and low supply.
We have a need for synthesis and a demand for it, but little acknowledgement of the value of this role in professional scientific circles. Yet, when we leave journalists to do the work for us, we allow a different system to take charge. John McQuaid ended his article with this caution:
Book publishers don’t do fact-checks, so there’s no fail-safe, just the conscience of the writer. Reach that point, and all is lost.
Filling the gap, meeting a need and shooting the messenger
Journalists like Johnson, Gladwell and Lehrer fill a gap, which is why I am saddened by the loss of one of them and angry at what has transpired. While there is no doubt that Lehrer made mistakes, they were of a rather minor nature in the grand scheme of things. Synthetic work is designed to provide a big picture overview, not guide microscopic decisions. I would like people to read Lehrer and learn about the creative process and the role of neuroscience in making our lives better, to appreciate systems thinking and decision making because of Malcolm Gladwell, and see innovation, emergence and discovery in new ways because of writers like Steven Johnson.
Yet, when we seek more and more from these authors, we might get less and less. This is what happened to Jonah Lehrer. As more people found themselves drawn to his work, the pressure grew for doing more, faster and getting that ‘snappy science’ out the door. GOOD magazine in the ‘tyranny of the big idea‘ goes further:
The problem is that it’s unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.
But the demand for them doesn’t abate. That’s why you see so many science writers talking about the same handful of studies (the Stanford prison experiment, the rubber hand illusion, Dunbar’s number, the marshmallow test) over and over. That’s why you see pop economists who should know better creating flimsy and irresponsible contrarian arguments about climate change for shock value. That’s why you get influential bloggers confessing they’re only 30 percent convinced of their own arguments but “you gotta write something.” That’s why the#slatepitches meme hits home.
Search Censemaking and you’ll find many of these topics not just because they are punchy, but because they are useful.
I hope we haven’t lost Jonah Lehrer as a voice just as I hope more people stop putting writers like him on a pedestal, where they don’t belong (nor do the scientists who produce the research). Synthesis is about bringing ideas together to produce innovative insights that often lead to bigger conversations about how to socially innovate. Synthesis is bigger than science, but dependent on it. It means paying attention to parts and wholes together and is the epitome of systems thinking in knowledge work.
It also means taking responsibility as knowledge producers and consumers and be wary of shooting the messengers while asking more from the messages they deliver.
Unless we are prepared to give people time to search, appraise and synthesize research on their own — and train them to make informed choices — the role of synthesizers – professional, journalistic, or otherwise – will become more important than ever.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and is used under licence.
Cigarette smoking remains among the most significant and pernicious global public health challenges. On World No Tobacco Day it’s time to consider re-designing our approach to public health and tobacco control in the hopes of meeting this challenge and others like it more effectively.
Today is World No Tobacco Day and offers us an opportunity to take a pause and think about the ways in which we approach tobacco control as an example for public health.
Marketing funnyman Rory Sutherland, and smoker, makes a terrific observation about smoking and its power to promote quiet contemplation in one of his recent TED talks (which is well worth watching for many reasons, only some related to tobacco use):
“Ever since they banned smoking in the UK in public places I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. The reason… is when you go to a drinks party and you hold up a glass of red wine and you stand up and talk endlessly to people sometimes you don’t actually want to spend the whole time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand their silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window.
Now the problem is now that you can’t smoke, if you stand there and stare out of the window on your own you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot.
If you stand there and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.”
In this tongue-in-cheek presentation, Sutherland inadvertently hits on a powerful reason to smoke, but not for the reason you might first imagine. It is less about social perspective, but internal perspectives of the self and the opportunity to better acquaint oneself with them.
Sutherland speaks to the perception of others in this talk, but I am more interested in what this act of contemplation — the ‘fucking philosopher’ aspect of smoking for some and why public health sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to tobacco control, but could get it right with mental health with the right design.
Over the past year I’ve made a concerted effort to better understand the motivations and habits of cigarette smokers from the perspective of a designer, not a public health researcher. In doing so I have sought to pay greater attention — as Rory Sutherland does — to the actual experience of smoking. And what I have noticed is the powerful contemplative effect it has on many smokers.
By no means is this a by product of cigarettes, and I certainly cannot endorse their use on health grounds, but one positive by-product of the act of smoking is greater attention to the self in the moment. Sutherland speaks to how a cigarette gives him the license to take time out of a busy party and contemplate, reflect, and gain some perspective that might seem odd or “antisocial” without the prop created by a cigarette.
Strange that we seem unable to develop the same habits and social acceptance of everyday contemplative acts in public, yet fully recognize this as legitmate with smokers even if we question the device used to precipitate the “time out”.
Smokers take breaks throughout the day to engage their cigarettes. Even in cold weather, they will go outside and sit or stand for 10 minutes just to indulge their habit, compulsion or pleasure, sometimes in small groups. This act of smoking provides a sense of community (with other smokers), contemplative space, and a pause from the everyday rush of life. Indeed, as they engage in activities that threaten their physical health they also engage in an activity that is very healthy for their mental well-being.
This is potentially another area that requires further investigation both from a positive standpoint (designing healthy space for contemplative inquiry or reflection) and looking at negative impacts of our well-intentioned efforts to curb tobacco use. While the loss of potential smoking peers has been examined, I could not find any research that examines the loss of contemplative time and its impact on smokers who quit. Doing so firstly acknowledges that cigarette use has benefits, which is problematic for many in public health. It also means getting into a zone of complexity whereby we need to consider how something that is so demonstrably toxic to the human body and others around the smoker can have potentially positive effects in other ways.
From a design perspective, how might we apply the lessons from cigarette use to mental health promotion? How might we design programs, spaces, places, and social conventions that promote the quiet contemplative acts that smokers gain from taking that cigarette break and offer potentially great value to tobacco users without creating harmful effects for others? How can we promote the quitting of smoking without the loss of the contemplative benefits that come with the act of lighting up?
Engaging design, complexity and imagining the systems that influence them both might yield considerable insight into how we manage other public health problems and how we might better promote mental health in the protection of physical well-being.