This category covers things that I have discussed with my brother Des. He is a couple of years older than me and has a variety of interests, a good memory, and a keen ability to find and share with me things that make my brain go into over-drive. The fact that he is a good listener comes in handy because I have a tendency to use conversation as a way of thinking.
Listening and hearing are not the same thing and they both require a different response. When we are being listened to, it is dignifying and validating and often moves us towards self discovery. When we are being heard, the other person is often gaining insight into our state of mind that we do not yet have.
My brother is very good listener. He has always been good at helping me talk through challenges and arrive at a solution. He rarely tells me what to do, will only occasionally offer his opinion about the specific subject and is more inclined to relate a story about something similar that happened to him than to talk about the specifics of what I said. He knows that very often I think by talking so whatever I say at the beginning is not necessarily going to be what I would say at the end. In fact, how I think at the beginning usually bares no resemblance to what I think at the end. Conversations with him are easy, interesting and usually leave me feeling elated and energized.
My wife Heather is not a very good listener. She is distracted very easily and can be rather impulsive during conversations. She’s amazing to talk to provided I’m willing to go on a ride or if I have a very clear idea of what I’m attempting to communicate. If I know what I want to say, I need to get to it quickly because she doesn’t have the same capacity for listening that my brother does. In fact, if it take longer than 3 or 4 sentences to get out, it’s probably pointless to start it because the whole thing won’t be making it out of my mouth. I usually feel energized after talking to Heather but there will be times when I feel completely frustrated or overwhelmed.
Heather’s limited ability to listen does not have a negative impact on her insightfulness. In fact, she identifies what is occurring very quickly and this is why she stops listening. She’s very busy and has a large list of things that she wants to get to. Every moment spent on something is a moment that isn’t spend on something else. For this reason, she has learned to hear very quickly and basically checks out the moment she has heard what I am saying. This is different from conversations with Des. He doesn’t hear as well or as quickly, I think this stems from the fact that we are very different people and do not run a lot of the same mental code. He can listen very well but cannot hear because he doesn’t have the code that makes hearing me possible. He is capable of both listen and hearing his wife and they communicate very effectively.
Listening and hearing are not the same thing. Both are important, neither one is better than the other. Listening is more superficial. It is a critical component to remaining engaged and connected to someone. The words do not have a big impact on the listeners brain. It is as though there is a filtering process working to allow the essence of what is being said to have an effect on the brain of the listener. Insight and understanding are not required outcomes for a good listening. A good listener may never gain an appreciate of what the other persons experience of reality is like but their actions will help the other person get a better understanding of their experience of reality. By being listened to, the speaker gets the answer to the question “why am I saying what I am saying?”
Hearing is different. Hearing cuts through all of the noise and gets to the root of what what is being said. The words are only a small part of what the communication. Tone, context, idea flow, and word choice are also parts of it. The hearer notices these things as well and factors them into their understanding of what is going on. Hearing answers the question “why is this person saying what they are saying?”
For me, the outcome is very similar. Des allows me to get to it on my own and aims to say as little as possible. Heather gets clarity on what I am saying and, more importantly, why I am saying it much faster and lets me say as little as possible. Talking to Des is for me less frustrating because I don’t get cut off mid-sentence. But it also consumes a lot more of his time because the conversation will last as long as it has to. With Heather, I can get cut off quickly and have the thing explained back to me after a minute. This is more frustrating because if there is an emotional charge that is being burned off by talking the thing out, this process is stopped dead in its tracks. If I’m able to deal with that and when I’m able to let go of the frustration, the insights she offers up can be just as exciting as the insights Des’ listening allow me to reveal.
The biggest challenge with being heard while not being listened to is an internal challenge and it is one about ego. If I’m willing to let her solve my problem or at least reframe my mindset, everything is great. The breakdown occurs when I’m not open enough to hear the reality of what is going on. This can be a tough one to manage, particularly with a significant other. No one wants to feel vulnerable, like someone can read our mind because we know on some level that if someone is able to read our mind we can be taken advantage of or gamed. Being gamed represents an historic shortcoming because those who can predict our next action will be have a survival advantage over us because they can take our limited resources. It is an antiquated fear, but one that has a very long history in our evolutionary past.
It can also be tough to parse out the message from the messenger. When the message is bad and evokes negative emotion, transferring this onto the messenger can be automatic. Maintaining clarity when negative emotions are triggered requires mental effort and skill. When we draw the conclusion on our own, this triggering of negative emotion is suppressed / reduced. Plus, whatever unconscious processes got us to identify the conclusion are also working to influence the emotional response to the conclusion. Having Heather simply state what is going on and why it is happening can be jarring and it requires some time to appropriately process. I will get there, I will just go somewhere else first.
Listening and hearing are not the same thing and they both require a different response. When we are being listened to, it is dignifying and validating and often moves us towards self discovery. When we are being heard, the other person is often gaining insight into our state of mind that we do not yet have. If the hearer continues to let us speak and get to the moments of self discovery, they’ll be able to check-in and validate the conclusion against what they heard; this is the same thing as listening. However, if they preempt this moment of self discovery and state their finding, the outcome becomes potentially problematic and will require extra effort on the part of the speaker to initiate the needed mental processes to assimilate what has been revealed. Often times, at least with me, this can be tough, but it is worth it to take some time and work to respond as opposed to react.
It’s fair to say that when you are talking to someone who hears very quickly, you better be prepared to hear as well. Anything other than hearing isn’t going to be enough to effectively handle the conversation.
… you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.
I really like the sentence “what you see is all there is” because it is implicated in so many of the cognitive errors that people make. I first heard the sentence when I was talking to my brother about how two different people can draw wildly different conclusions based on what appears to be the same information. He replied making two points: it is very unlikely that two people will draw different conclusions if they consume and process the same information and read the book “Thinking – Fast And Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
I’m not certain about the first point, although probably. He was absolutely correct with the second point. The book is a master piece from the very beginning. A heart felt introduction lays the landscape – the book covers the topics of research that two psychologists collaborated on over a number of years. They developed a very close friendship, one that seemed to complement one another in terms of how they engaged and thought about the world. The work they did together has been highly influential and led to Kahneman being awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He maintains that had Amos Tversky not died in 1996 that they would have shared the honour. Unsurprisingly, “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is a heavy and demanding read. It is important and brilliantly revealing as it dissects, in terms of understanding, how and why people are the way they are and why the world is the way it is.
“What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) is a way of making reference to the brains tendency to immediately process available sensory or perceptual information and to quickly and automatically make predictions based on ONLY this information. For example, you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.
All you saw was the rain so therefore THAT must have been the reason why people didn’t show up. The truth is actually that people do not pay money to watch boring baseball games.
WYSIATI is the mental process of paying attention to only what is visible or that comes to mind when considering a decision. It is an “in the moment” and automatic phenomena and we are able to overcome it only when we take the time to consider what is not visible, what is not known, or what is known but currently not being brought to mind. Unless we take care to slow things down and work to create a mental placeholder for the things that you cannot see or that do not immediately come to mind, we are going to move forward considering only what is right in front of us; both literally and metaphorically.
This phenomena is likely the underlying cause of many other cognitive biases and its effects can be seen in a variety of different places causing predictable errors with decision making.
A great example of one of these biases is that of the survivor or survivor-ship bias because it has a near one to one relationship with WYSIATI. If you have never heard of the survivor bias consider the saying “history is written by victorious” and allow your brain to build the connection between these two things. You may notice that in your minds eye you begin to see two groups of people, one being the winners of the war and the other being the losers. The winners might even appear as larger, more clear, and in vibrant colour while the losers are smaller, blurry or lacking detail, and in black and white or grey scale. It is obvious from these images who is going to speak with more authority and clarity, and which group is going to have the volume turned down because their opinions are not worth listening to or hearing. The consequence to this is that one group gets to say everything while the other group doesn’t get to say much at all. If these just happened to be the two different sides of a war, it is obvious who gets to write down what happened and who needs to keep their mouths shut, accept their place, and to remain grateful for the fact that they didn’t get killed when their side lost.
Regardless of what gets captured as “history” by the group that has been given a voice, the other group still exists. Their silence, or the censorship of their stories, is not the same thing as them not existing. They remain alive and their version of events lives on in their brains, even if no one ever listens to or hears it. Pure or objective history is a single thing and is a point by point record of what ACTUALLY occurred regardless of the outcome. The text books may not contain any single sentence about it, instead being filled with the writings of the winning side, but this does not change reality at all. However, if you were given a test on the history of this specific event, you would be considered correct if you were to recite what is captured by the text books and would very likely lose marks for mentioning anything that was objective history but which did not match what the winners chose to put to paper.
Looking at this example it is easy to see that even though there is an other side to the story, it is as if there wasn’t because this side has never been shared. WYSIATI because you have never been exposed to anything else IN SPITE of the reality that something else did happen and this fact means that you are almost certainly wrong about history, or at the very least, profoundly ill-informed.
How this example relates to the survivor bias is that the winners are the survivors and the losers are the ones who did not make it. Both groups did exist, but we never hear from the losers because they never get to voice their experiences. If they could tell their tales, they would enrich the narrative and balance things out. This second thing is actually much more important because without their stories, the narrative seems completely balanced. It is only by becoming exposed to these stories that the lopsidedness of the initial history become obvious. But what you see is all there is and since you only get to see the stuff from the people who survived, your “objective” perception of things is completely skewed.
The big example that is used to illustrate the survivor bias is that returning war planes during the second world war. Everyone knew that both sides were losing a lot of planes because they were shot down by enemy pilots or anti-aircraft fire. They also knew that they could probably lower these numbers simply by adding more armour to certain areas of the plane. To this end, they set about collecting data on the damaged planes in hopes that they would uncover a pattern of vulnerability. Their efforts did reveal a lot of interesting things. The outer portions of the wings sustained a lot of damage, as did the rear wings, and the areas behind both engines extending back and across the centre of the aircraft including the fuselage. The initial thoughts were “reinforce these areas, add armour to reduce the chances that the plane would go down from enemy fire.”
This seems to make sense, the planes return with damage to some very distinct areas. Adding armour to these places is going to make the planes safer. It seems like the right thing to do.
What doesn’t come to mind initially are the areas with no damage. Look again at the image, the areas of impact are concentrated, as are the areas of no impact. There are very clear boundaries between them. This may or may not be significant.
Think about the history that the planes would write if they could write it. They’d tell you about getting shot, by the enemy, and of limping home, with holes all over their wings and body. Probably a close call for some of them. but no matter what else happened, the damage sustained was not sufficient enough to take them down. ALL of the ones that made it back made it back. If these planes are used for 100% of the samples in the study, you are only going to learn about damage that was not catastrophic. Putting more armour on these planes might be helpful, but all of them made it back safely without having any extra armour.
What really needed extra armour were the planes that did NOT make it back because their impacts were mission ending. But these planes never got to tell their story or write their history because they did not survive. If 50 planes went out and 25 of them returned, we can conclude that the armour on the 25 that did not make it back was not adequate to handle the impacts from the enemy. We do not know anything about the nature of these hits and we learn nothing about these hits by looking at the planes that returned damaged. This is a case of WYSIATI and the survivor bias.
What we are not seeing and need to see in order to solve the armour question is the damage on the planes that did NOT make it back because the damage was too severe for them to keep going.
Let this sink in if it doesn’t seem right or if you have never before thought about things in this way. Without taking the time to stop and really consider the problem, we make the error of assuming that the survivors DID something that allowed them to survive. But when we take some time to work the problem through again, we begin to open up to the possibility that maybe they survived because something was NOT done to them. This is exactly what was happening to the planes. When you look at the damage patterns of those that survived, you’ll notice a complete lack of damage to the engines, the front of the plane, and the fuselage right at the cockpit. So the planes that returned had working engines, intact forward facing aerodynamic surfaces, and pilots that were still alive.
The story about where armour should go was not logically told by looking at the survivors UNLESS you took the time to consider where the damage was NOT and to think about the consequences of damage to the unharmed areas.
Make no mistake about it, the other side was working with this information. In fact, by not having any access to the survivors, they were able to focus all of their attention onto solving the problem of how to destroy more planes by looking at the ones they destroyed and uncovering patterns. It was pretty clear to them, shoot the pilot, shoot the engines, or shoot any leading aerodynamic surface. Shooting the wings in general did not seem to have the devastating effect of hitting these other locations.
There is a good and a bad to the survivor bias and to the phenomena of WYSIATI. The good is that both can be counteracted to varying degrees by taking some time to think about what isn’t visible or what isn’t being said – to essentially give a voice to the vanquished. By asking the questions “what do I not know but is very probable,” “of everything there is to know about this situation, what happened to the stuff that isn’t known,” “what percentage of the totality do I know,” and “to make the best decision, is what you know more valuable or is what you don’t know more valuable?”
Asking these questions about the planes, you’ll get answers like “the planes that didn’t make it back may have been hit in other places,” “those planes crashed,” “50%” assuming that 50 planes left and 25 returned, and “what we do not know is more valuable because those planes got hit in the places that actually need improved armour.
The bad thing about the survivor bias and WYSIATI is that they do not feel like anything OTHER than sound rational decision making and analysis. The only reason you will know they exist is if you have learned about them or are the type of thinker who defaults to knowing there is stuff that is unknown and that this stuff has a big impact on things. Both are learned behaviours and even when we know them, both require effort to cultivate sufficient doubt to move you off of feeling certain and onto the task of figuring things out.
This effort requiring quality means that most human beings will continue to have their thinking impacted by these biases because most people are unwilling to put the effort into thinking about the impossible and the invisible. For most things and most people, the cost of being wrong is not all that high and most often the effort required to do the work to counteract these biases is greater than the work required to maintain an incorrect point of view. It is easier to justify why you are right than it is to put in the work to correct an error.
The brain does not make errors. It is a machine that operates in a purely logical way. When it doesn’t have accurate information or when it doesn’t have sufficient information, the output it generates may not be correct. It can only do what it is programmed to do and it can only do this with what it has access to.
This means that we need to use our attention to make sure we bring in the most accurate information we can, that we take sufficient care to interpret the information accurately while correcting errors quickly, and that we put the effort into surfacing or activating as much of the relevant information as possible. Experientially this is going to feel like work but there is a big pay off. In the short term it will mean improved decision making, and in the long term it will result in enhanced levels of expertise and a boost in cognitive ease.
WYSIATI exists because the brain is not able to bring to mind or activate everything it knows about a topic instantly, nor is it able to activate everything all at once. With enough time it will probably cycle through everything, but each new activation causes something else to fade away. All of it will serve however as input so given enough time, if your brain has the information stored, it will generate output that is correct. When we do not take enough time, we do not supply it with sufficient information to generate the correct answer.
When someone is an expert in a particular area, they are rarely impacted by WYSIATI because the information that they have stored in their brain is very accurate and they have created a new automatic and unconscious process for activating all of the needed information and giving the brain the input it needs.
If I was to say that I think about him every day, it would be a lie. There are days when I don’t think about him at all and there are days when I think about him a lot. I am sure there is a pattern to when I become aware that I am thinking about him but the only real predictor is that I am doing something new or particularly interesting – I am more likely to think about him when I have travelled somewhere for vacation or am at the cottage trying to fix something that he would take care of quickly and almost without thinking about it.
This makes sense given my dads curious nature and drive to figure-out how things work. He first moved out of his parents house and to a different country when he was 16 – London, England – and moved around a fair bit until we moved to Canada when he was in his mid thirties. Having children meant that he needed to put down roots in a place that would offer them the best opportunity to lead a safe, productive, and happy life. Ontario Canada was a great choice. Other than the occasionally brutal cold periods in the winter, this part of the world has a lot going for it.
Canadians are an eclectic bunch. We have a shared identity that is not well defined as most of the people who live here are either immigrants from another country, or are first or second generation of people who were. We all have an idea of what it means to be a Canadian and most of these ideas are slightly different. There is not a strong nationalist aspect to it which is a huge blessing. We’d all rally together to make sure there was a strongly worded letter sent to anyone who was trying to do our country harm, and most of us would apologize for using a tone that was more harsh than what we are known to take. This works well because we do not represent any existential threat to the United States, the only nation that we have on our border. They don’t really think much about us, which is fine for us because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves either.
So my parents made the decision to move to Canada to give my brother and me the opportunity to live the American dream. I believe that my mom would find happiness anywhere she lives, that is her nature. She has a peaceful mind, reasonable wants and needs, and is very low in negative emotion. You do the best you can and then you move forward, or you do the best you can while moving forward. Choose and do the one that works the best. Spend as much of your time paying attention to the things that are important to you, take reasonable steps to avoid harming other people, and be kind to animals. Her world view is not one that would trigger a family of four to move to another country let alone another continent, but it’s a world view that would not say “no” to the request, particularly when the reasons for the move were to help two young people achieve more of their potential. The fact that my dad was able to achieve more of his was likely just an unmentioned or unanticipated bonus.
My dad absolutely LOVED Canada. While this was almost a guarantee, based on the human need for consistency, he would have loved it if he had been born here or if his family had moved here when he was young. It is a comfortable place to be, a place that evokes a peace of mind or sense of security and safety for anyone who sets foot inside its borders. Most people are from somewhere else which gives everyone the ability to kind of blend-in as opposed to stick-out. This fact makes Canada a very interesting place to live. It eliminates the sense of there being a right way and a wrong way to live; the right way being what the average person does and the wrong way being anything else. The fact that there is no such thing as an average Canadian, at least in terms of how they choose to live their life, makes practically any life choice that does no harm to other people the “right way to live.” This means that there is no such thing as “Canadian values” there are only “human values.”
After we moved to Canada, my dad didn’t spend much time travelling. There were a few trips back to Ireland to visit, a few family vacations to the US, and a business trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. He enjoyed these, particularly, Washington DC, but he never made any specific mention to them as being quests to find something that was missing. This was nothing like the way he talked about every trip including our emigration from Ireland. Canada was home, it provided all of the opportunities that he needed personally and wanted for his family. Here, he was with his people and it really worked for him. He had been a Canadian his entire life, so he never felt at peace in Northern Ireland, England, or in the Republic of Ireland. His values were mostly aligned with the people who lived in those places, but not entirely, and he knew this on some level. But in Canada there was a complete alignment given that so many of us are from somewhere else.
My dad’s curiosity and desire to make sense of the world did not stop once he realized that he had found where he was and wanted to be from. For the 30 years between our arrival in Canada and his death, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn and figure things out that he had. I believe that he had always gotten a lot out of learning and figuring things out, but began to actually NEED to keep learning and making sense of the world when my brother was born. He is remarkably bright and seems to absorb information effortlessly and almost without having to pay attention to things. He figured out how to walk before most of the children who were his age had mastered crawling, he skipped most of the baby talk going almost directly to speaking in sentences, and he entertained some of the people in the village we lived in by reading them the news paper when he was 3. This worked for my dad because there was someone for him to talk to and teach who was interested in just knowing things, but who learned at a lightening fast pace that forced my dad to keep hitting the books to make sure he kept a few steps ahead. It is kind of funny to think about now because most people know a lot about their jobs and a few other things, but my brother was way too young to bring onto any of the job sites my dad worked at as a carpenter. Most of the lessons took place at home, at the kitchen table or on the sofa in front of the TV. The Internet didn’t exist back then, so my dad would have to go to the library or take courses to learn things to teach. This worked for him because my dad enjoyed learning and got a lot out of teaching the information to others. He took electronics courses, moving over to computer classes when PCs began to find their way into more homes.
When my brother was around 10 or 11 my dad realized that he was fighting a losing battle. There was no denying it any more, the times of him being the smartest person in the room, at least when my brother was also in it, were gone. There was a sort of a reversal of roles when my brother began to teach things to him, but this was never going to last very long. My dad had a strong sense of responsibility to make sure his children had the opportunity to take advantage of whatever gifts or talents they had, his children did not share this sense of responsibility (or much sense for that matter). My brother tried to help him keep up, but it’s a disconcerting dynamic for a child to suddenly find themselves having to contend with. All at once and for no clear reason the teacher had become the student and the student the teacher and the incentives each had while playing these roles were not at all the same. While my dad was teaching out of a sense of responsibility to help his children and a sense to society to make sure someone with a good brain matured to become a contributing member of society and a tax payer, my brother was teaching my dad because my dad was interested in learning. My brother was a student because young people don’t know very much and need to learn in order to escape this state of ignorance. My dad was a student because he was curious about the world and knew that a lot more would be learned when you have to teach someone. However, at some point towards the end of high school, they both figured out that it wasn’t going to continue for much longer. My dad would remain curious and would lean on my brother to teach him things, but it was more of an independent learning approach with my brother in the academic advisor position.
My brother has a lot of intellectual horsepower, which is both amazing and slightly frightening when you notice it in action. If you are not prepared for it, and even when you are, you can be left feeling kind of thick. I’m two years younger than him, so he was always going to be at least couple of years ahead of me in terms of development and knowledge acquisition as we grew-up. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to learn stuff that didn’t interest him that I began to gain an appreciation that we were different, that I wasn’t just a less powerful version of him. My parents always knew this and while they tried to make sure that they didn’t privilege one of us more than the other, they were NOT willing to handicap him. My relationship with my dad was more similar to the father son relationships of my friends and what you might see on TV. My dad was a carpenter, and I took a greater interest in this area of his life than the abstract things my brother found rewarding to consider and spend time on.
I’d like to think that my brother and I were the perfect complement to my dad’s curiosity and sense of parental responsibility to teach your children how to be useful and contributing members of society. Being a carpenter in Ireland is very different than being one in Canada. Their different climates necessitate different building methods and the flip flop in humidity levels plays havoc on wood in a way that the constant moisture in Ireland doesn’t. The early years in Canada put my dad behind the 8 ball in terms of becoming a Canadian carpenter who was able to deliver the high quality results that had become second nature in Ireland. The gap is a large but not insurmountable one, and he had closed it within a few years. I have little doubt that had the gap been larger, things would have turned out a little differently. The truth is that there isn’t enough of a difference between being a carpenter in Ireland and one in Canada to keep it interesting for 30 years and my dad had already grown tired of it a few times BEFORE we moved to Canada. The teaching role that my brother’s brain obligated my dad to play afforded enough of a balance to the carpentry work that he was able to keep at it for a while. The need to learn the rules of being a Canadian carpenter extended this time frame. However, after a while there stopped being enough new stuff for my dad to keep doing it, which was great because it happened to coincide with my brothers need for more information and a deeper understanding of everything. Carpentry was something that my dad loved to leave behind and then learned to love getting back into.
This became the rhythm and cadence to my dads life for the last 25 years. He would move back and forth between dealing with things and dealing with ideas. It didn’t really matter to him which role he was playing, he was capable of both and since there was a lot about the world that he didn’t know, there were opportunities to learn from both sons. I believe that I am more curious about why the world is the way it is and how the world works while my brother is more curious about things that do not yet exist or are on the bleeding edge of what is known. When my dad would find his way back to carpentry, I would spend more time with him and probably spent about a year total working with him on various jobs. When he was sick of carpentry he would begin to pursue something that was in the realm of ideas or vapour and would spend more time learning from my brother.
For example, I have a very clear series of memories in my head of walking in on a conversation between them. The bulk of the conversation had already taken place and they were closing in on the home stretch. It was obvious that my brother had explained a new concept or idea to my dad and my dad was struggling to figure out what to do with it. The look on his face told me that he had understood the essence of it but was not having any luck with answering the “so what” or “what good will that be” questions that tend to accompany new ideas. I’d estimate that this was in 1993 because my brother and I just happened to be home from university at the same time.
“I can’t answer that exactly, insurance, research, education, and communication obviously. No one really knows and that is the cool thing about it, it’s real, it’s here, and it is going to be everywhere soon enough.”
My dad, looking slightly pensive, like a person who is driving a car in heavy fog, “it’s not like I don’t believe you, I’m just not sure I’ll ever understand it.”
Well he did come to understand it and found it to be one of the most useful inventions that he ever had the good fortune to be alive for. And this conversation with my brother came to mark the beginning of the final phase of my dads learning, one that lasted nearly a quarter century.
When my brother left I asked my dad what they were talking about and he did his best to teach me. He took the idea, the vapour, that my brother had shared and converted it into a thing that I might be able to understand better. In doing so, he also began to understand it.
“He called it the Internet. It’s a thing that you can connect your computer to and it will let your computer connect to other computers. But it’s not like a phone line that connects your computer to another computer, it’s more like your computer becomes the telephone company and everyone else’s computer becomes the telephone company, so everyone is able to connect with everyone else, all at once, and share information instantly.” I obviously had no idea what he was talking about because, at the time, the Internet was not much of a thing, let alone the thing that it is today. I do however have to give him a solid B+ for the description. The Internet is a thing that is very much like what he described.
If I had to list off some of the things that I am glad my dad got to live through, I would put the creation and spread of the Internet very close to the top of the list. He really took advantage of it in a way that added tremendous value and satisfaction to his time on the planet. It gave him access to mountains of information and knowledge that he always suspected was out there and knew would be better written to his brain. Whatever curiosity he had could be indulged at will, meaning the joy / reward he got from learning became available to him, endlessly, effortlessly, and constantly.
On this day, the eighth anniversary of his death, I am thinking about him a lot. I am grateful for having had him in my life for as long as I did and while I would like to be able to talk to him still, I don’t think I would change much about any of it. It would be nice to say “thank you” for believing in me, for letting me know that it is fine to not be satisfied and that it is right and noble to imagine a future that is better than today, and for modelling the making of great sacrifices to turn that vision into the reality we know as here and now. As time rolls on, many of the lessons he tried to pass along continue to work their way through my brain and find their way to the surface. As one of my first and most influential teachers, his words remain and continue to help shape my understanding of the world. In this way, he is still alive and continues to be an amazing father.
A number of years ago my brother sent me an article called Demystifying Depression – Part I by Name of Feather – Name of Feather is the username under which the article was originally posted in May 2005 . Over the years the article has disappeared and reappeared on a number of occasions as the websites it was hosted on have changed owners or simply just shut down.
The major thesis of the article is that depression is a physical disease and, more specifically, a disease that is the manifestation of an inability to recover for the day to day stress of being alive.
In general, human beings have a finite ability for cellular repair and depending upon the amount of stress, stimulation and tissue damage they experience they will require a specific length of time to fully recover. For example, a person may have the ability to repair 48 units of damage per day, or 2 units per hour. If they have an easy day that causes 12 units of damage, it will take them 6 hours to recover. A much tougher day that causes 48 units of damage, will, assuming no further damage occurs, require a full 24 hours to restore things to normal.
Something that is less than helpful is the nature of recovery. Unused potential simply evaporates and cannot be stored. If it was not used when it was available, it is just no longer available. Which is a problem when we consider the following example: Someone has an exceptionally stressful day and generates 96 units of damage, mandating the need for 2 full days of recovery. Not a problem, so long as the time is taken to recover and allow the body to return to baseline, the individual will be fine – think about someone taking it easy on the weekend or going to bed a few hours earlier for a couple of days. Now what happens when to the recovery queue when, on the day following that 96 units of damage, the person has an average day of 48 units?
96 – 48 + 48 = 96.
After a full day or recovery they remain in an un-recovered state; effectively in the same position there were in when their day ended yesterday. It is this cumulative characteristic that creates the possibility that the recovery queue will grow larger and larger over a period of days and weeks.
The body is generally able to keep going for a while when it is over stressed or overworked. This resilience is a survival trait allowing us to push hard when we need to and recover once the work is done. In fact, our ancestors lived in a time that alternated between scarcity and abundance, which favored individuals who were able to carry-on under suboptimal circumstances. Sooner or later things would improve and the opportunity for recovery would present itself. Baseline functioning would be restored after the required period of time.
Human beings run into problems when the opportunity for recovery is never given or not sufficient enough because our ability to continue to function normally is dependent upon the ability to spend adequate amounts of time in a fully recovered state. When this does not happen there are metabolic and physiological consequences. Initially the negative impact is small – a person might have a more difficult time regulating emotions, maintaining skin health, falling or remaining asleep, concentrating or recovering from physical exercise – but after a short period of time the effects will begin to grow – changes in body composition, personality changes, increased susceptibility to infection, or reduced cognitive functioning – and eventually the body will begin to shut down impairing digestion and immune functioning allowing disease to take hold, which will eventually lead to death.
The article outlines all of this, but most importantly it details how to avoid it from becoming a problem in the first place and how to adjust your behavior in the event it you have dug too big a hole to recover from with a few days of rest, some extra sleep or a couple of weeks vacation.
This to me is the most valuable part of it. So much is known about optimal or normal physiological functioning that it is very easy to miss some of the more critical parts of it. The experience of anxiety and its associated stress response are completely normal and very predictable BUT only as long as the processes that support them have the adequate opportunity to recover. The moment they start to get impacted will mark a change in how the organism will handle any stress. These impairments will have a cascading effect on seemingly unrelated systems, which will cause further negative effects. The example recovery potential of 48 units per day will, once a threshold has been crossed, begin to drop and will not be restored to normal levels until the body has the chance to fully recover. It becomes 47 units, then 46, and it continues to drop until the person consciously takes recovery, breakdown occurs which forces recovery, or the person dies.
The dose is the poison here. The higher the stress, the longer the recovery. The longer one spends in a non-recovered state, the greater the level of physiological impairment and the longer it will take for normal functioning to return. In fact, it is both possible and likely that extended periods of time spend running at a diminished capacity will result in permanent changes to many metabolic functions including the ability to recover from stress.
Consistently receiving nominal amounts are fine, as are occasional periods of time with very large amounts as long as there is the opportunity to completely recover. The potential problems begin when recovery capacity is not able to keep up with the damage and when this damaged state is sustained for periods of time. At this point, the individual will begin to show diminished capacity and this will include their long term resilience.
Which brings us to the actual problem with stress. We handle it very effectively and for a while, until we don’t, and at that point it is already too late. We have created a lot of damage that we need to recover from, and some of that damage is to the recovery processes and to the processes that create stress resistance. But we are blind about this simply because dealing with stress is so natural and doesn’t have a lot of symptoms.
If you haven’t read the article before give it a read and consider making a copy and saving it on your computer. It is very useful and given its tendency to disappear without warning, there is no guarantee that it will always be available to you when you need it the most.
It never cease to amaze me just how wrong I can get it. So much so that as I get older I make fewer and fewer predictions about how something I have never done is going to make me feel when I do it. There’s just no point in trying to figure it out because I don’t get it right. There are just so many ways it can go, so many emotions to feel that the likelihood that I’ll get it correct is close to zero.
When I started working out again, after I moved on from being an IT manager and began working for GoodLife, I wanted my abs to be visible. Maybe I had been that lean before, but if I had been, it had been years before when I was in high school. So I worked at it. I trained and ate well and projected myself forward into a time when I would have abs conditioned myself to feel amazing about it. And when that day came when I looked in the mirror and saw my abs three things hit me. Initially I had a rush of excitement thinking that I had achieved my goal. After about 15 seconds the excitement was replaced with a feeling of loss. Now what was I going to do? And then came the realization that NOTHING had changed. Big deal, I had a six pack, I was still bitter and unhappy, looking for something that would make me better than what I believed I was.
And that’s the thing about the future. It isn’t going to be much different from the present, particularly if the present is very different from the past. Just because you achieve a goal doesn’t mean the world is any different. It doesn’t mean anything is any different. If you are a 6 out of 10 in happiness you’ll return to being a 6 out of 10 in happiness pretty quickly after you reach your goal.
Human beings are dreadful with affective forecasting. We have no idea what our emotional state is going to be in the future in response to some future event. The best predictors are how we feel right now and how we felt when a similar thing happened; which is probably going to be very similar to how we feel right now.
I’ve known a few people who have had cancer. After the initial shock of being told that they are going to die sooner than expected, their lives went back to normal. I’m inclined to say that the last 6 weeks of my dad’s life were happier than the five years leading up to them. He laughed more, ate whatever he wanted and generally didn’t give a crap about all the stuff that, when we take a real hard look at, doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe my dad was sad, but when I asked him he seemed more concerned about my mom and her future than he did about his upcoming death. He didn’t seem sad, he didn’t really seem to care in a way that I would have imagined he would have cared.
He did remark a few weeks before the end that he was wondering why he wasn’t feeling bad about it, that maybe there was something wrong with him not feeling like there was something wrong. I said maybe he didn’t regard what was happening as anything other than what was always going to happen – rather trite and useless, but my dad was a pragmatist and realized that everyone dies.
For anything other than the most extreme cases – beating cancer, a loved on pulling through a dreadful illness, a child being recovered alive from a kidnapping, etc… – a human beings ability to predict their future emotional state is going to be poor, and this is something that I keep in mind when I am coaching people or talking to them about about training and goals.
I’ve seen it too many times to count, someone believing that the world will be different if they lose weight, gain muscle, do this or that thing, but their world isn’t different. All of them say the same thing after a few months: “I’m glad I did it, but not much has changed.” And this is why, in the fitness industry, there are so many relapses with body transformations – an awful lot of people return to their old habits and regain the lack of health & vitality they worked so hard to shed.
For those who are actually interested in helping their clients, it is best that they take the time to unpack the clients motivation and reframe their expectations in terms of the likely outcome. For example, every person who gains strength will notice that life just gets easier. But very few people seek out the help of a fitness professional to make life easier in the ways increasing strength will make it easier. In fact, most people do not realize the positive impact that a stronger back will have. Picking-up the laundry basket is as hard as it is, until it gets easier, then you will realize how hard it used to be.
Most of the really positive outcomes of improving your fitness are unknown until you improve your fitness. Having low energy is normal until you do the work needed to have high energy. The fog that dulls your thinking is always there until it is gone. The slowness of your digestive system is only noticed after it speeds up when you start eating real food and moving more.
Given that people are poor affective forecasters, to make sticky the changes your client makes, you’ll serve them better by finding-out why and how they ended-up in front of you and by pointing out all the good things they’ll notice that other people have noticed. You’ll help them more by ignoring or speaking very little about the things they believe they’ll enjoy about achieving their goal because they’ve probably got them wrong anyway.
During lunch today my brother talked about code smell. I hadn’t heard of the term before, but have a lot of experience with a similar thing in the fitness industry. “Code smell, in the realm of computer programming, is any symptom in the source code of a program that possibly indicates a deeper problem” – the program works but there is something about the code that isn’t as it should be. Seasoned programmers are able to identify them because they have had enough experience to gain a high level of distinction about what works, what doesn’t and what things actually mean.
In the fitness field, there are what I will call Fitness Professional Smells and they indicate with accuracy when a professional doesn’t really know what they are doing. My list is below and if you find yourself working with someone who displays them, considering checking their references and their back ground because they may not be worth the money they are billing you in-spite of their claims.
Someone making a claim that seems outrageous, unreasonable, or well outside common sense. There is a saying that a line of bullshit is a line of bullshit. When it comes to improving your health and fitness it will require your hard work, your attention to nutrition and your introspection as to why you ended-up in the position of needing to improve your health. Getting out of shape takes time and sustained effort / rituals. Getting into shape isn’t going to take as long, but there’s a very good chance that it will take a year to drop 50 pounds. If you are starting on your first journey to improved your health, it will probably take longer. You’ll get there, but it is going to take YOUR conscious direct and consistence effort.
When emotional selling practices are used or when they try to make you cry so you buy. Unflappable people buy only the things they want to buy because they always remain in control and always think logically. When someone is trying to trigger an emotional response within you to get your compliance, be guarded. Things may not be as they appear. Let the emotion fade and do another check when you are able to process things logically. Very often things will be different, and if they are, engage the person and find out what their objective is. Maybe they just used the wrong tool to get the right outcome when an honest conversation is the way to go but maybe they are just trying to line their wallets and your are their mark.
Someone is making a promise on behalf of another person. Some gyms / personal training companies sell training packages and subcontract trainers to service the sessions. I am not a fan of this for a few reasons: First, the trainer does not get paid as much as they should, or the trainer gets paid what they are worth and are not of a high caliber. Next, when someone is selling something that they are not servicing, they cannot be held to account for the promises they make. Finally, training is about building a relationship with your trainer. Just because you like the person who sells you the package doesn’t mean that you are going to connect with the trainer they find for you. Pay the trainer directly and if that isn’t possible, talk to the trainer BEFORE you buy anything and find out why they are having someone else sell for them.
Someone who doesn’t have YOU as the engine of action and behaviors that will create change. If you want different results you are going to need to do things that are outside of your baseline, and you are probably going to need to do them consistently and for a fairly long time. When selling personal training, some people will neglect to tell you this because it can crush optimism and create a sense of hopelessness. But the truth is that YOU have created the very life that you feel you deserve; every action has moved you to become exactly what you are today. Becoming something different is simply a matter of deciding what that is and taking the actions needed to create it. You’ve been doing it all along.
Anyone who is selling a short cut. There are no shortcuts and you cannot hack the approach. There’s a very good chance that you already know what you should be doing in order to get what you want – hard work and mindful action. Anyone suggesting that there is a different way is selling something to you, plain and simple. It’s fine if you buy from them but you are never going to get what you want without the hard work and mindful action. It will always be there for you to do after the shortcut takes you somewhere different.
Anyone who doesn’t consume the product or service they are selling. I cannot reconcile a fitness professional who doesn’t workout. It isn’t just their lack of integrity that I struggle with, it’s the fact that being in great shape just feels really good – why WOULDN’T they make doing what they are selling a priority in their life before everything else?
Being asked to do anything overly complicated and for which there is no simple reason why it needs to be done. There should be a reason for everything you do in the gym or while being trained. If there isn’t a good reason, there’s a good chance that the trainer hasn’t thought much about it and is just selecting exercises that they’ve seen before or that they know how to coach. While better than doing nothing at all, it’s a poor substitute for well thought out program design that builds upon the movements you have become good at performing.
When you get the creeps from someone or the feeling that something doesn’t add-up. Almost all of our mental functioning is unconscious and very often we are not aware of the outcome of a process. But there will be times when we get a gut feeling about something; this represents the outcome of a process. These feelings are the result of a pattern matching some past similar experience. It is best to pay attention to your gut when you have one of these moments because there is critical information being revealed; a flag is being raised. Take a timeout and reengage the situation only when you figure out the source of the feeling. Invite someone with more experience into the situation to get a second opinion on what is going on.
Someone is suggesting you do programs that are for someone who is more advanced. High performance or advanced athletes are not the same as us normal folk simply because they have done so much work that their bodies adapt very quickly. In a lot of cases, your body would adapt just as quickly if you had done the same things they have done. But you haven’t, so your gains and adaptation are going to take a lot longer. Programming for the untrained doesn’t need to be complicated and you will progress a lot faster if you are given the time needed to adapt to the movements. A one week micro cycle may be what an Olympic weight lifter needs to pull a new personal best, but it isn’t going to do very much for most people. Programs should change a little bit over time, not all at once every 3 weeks.
So there you have it, a list of things that to me indicate that a fitness professional may not be exactly what they are presenting themselves to be. Fitness Professional Smells that you can use to figure out if you need to ask more questions or find someone else to work with.
Entropy is defined as a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.
A humans life is the perfect example of entropy. We are born with 100% of our potential available to be actualized; all that we can do and everything we can achieve exists only during the first few years of life. Our bodies and brains are primed to be shaped by the environment, to learn how to exist within it in a symbiotic, fulfilling and life-sustaining way. This period of time is not impacted by our intellect as we do not have a high level of consciousness.
Our perfectly developed bodies move naturally, through a full range of motion, uninhibited by overuse, dysfunction or injury.
We are in a state of maximum order and this state can be maintained easily with deliberate action of thought and movement. Entropy, while unavoidable, can be postponed if the individual does the things that sustain order.
Very few people do these things. Most tend to float through life passively, doing what is easy, what feels good and what takes them off course, guided by impulse and repulsion into an unplanned future. Their body and brain become broken-down systems advancing ever faster to the final state of chaos (death).
The essential role of fitness professionals is to help the individual delay entropy. At the root of their practice is the wisdom that people are born perfect and learn to behave in ways that expedite the consequences of increasing disorder. They know, or should know, that they facilitate the clients realignment but that they are not a critical or unique catalyst; their intervention is to shape the actions of the client but the client is in control of everything.
It has been my experience that most of the people who are involved in the fitness industry do not understand or accept their role. It is humbling maybe for an expert to see themselves as a servant to those who do not possess their knowledge but humility is a key characteristic for anyone who is attempting to alter the course of someones life without creating a relationship of dependency.
And these may be the biggest problems with the fitness industry; the egos of those experts and their perceived need to create long term clients.
NOTE: I started writing this about 3 years ago. It came out of a conversation with Des over lunch. It doesn’t represent 3 years of direct work. It reflects the results of 3 years of passively fostering a feeling that there is a truth in an idea into a more complete understanding as to why it is a truth. This past weekend it all came together for me, not just how I think about the way the brain functions, but how I think about nervous energy being the power of EVERY process that exists within the body.
Sometimes when I’m having trouble thinking about consciousness I try to simplify it by comparing it to a computer.
Consciousness is a process that is running in the background and is one of many processes that are running. Each process requires a certain amount of resources to function correctly. If it does not get what it needs, it will begin to malfunction and eventually shut down. Some processes run in the background working as much as the available resources allow e.g. the process of scouring the memories searching for patterns and relationships – these would be like the indexing for faster search type process with an operating system. Most of the other processes are called when needed and the amount of cognitive effort they take up is usually a product of how long they are being used. E.g. you are singing a song so you need to use you voice, creative and memory processes, much like a computer playing an audio file using the sound card and media player,
If you are in a flow or meditative state or if you are sleeping, your consciousness is going to require the least amount of cognitive resources. The freed up resources go towards some other brain activity. I call this the base line because the brain is effectively running with no input from your active conscious mind.
If you end up getting stuck in a loop you begin to drain the reserves.
Provided the you do not get stuck in a loop you will return the energies to the underlying processes and return to the base line once you stop thinking.
We are usually unaware of the other underlying processes that require cognitive energies but we can see the consequences when we try to use them under adverse conditions such as driving in snow, giving a presentation when you are really nervous or trying to find the perfect line while skiing when your still thinking about the work you need to do.
There are countless unconscious thought processes that get impaired when we engage in conscious thought or get stuck in a cognitive loop. It can be an obvious process like the one that renders words to speak at the presentation or it can be one you’ll never be aware of like the one that compares the visual input to memories searching for patterns. The consequence is the same in both cases, if they do not get their share of the cognitive energy impairment will begin and they will eventually shut down.
The cumulative effect of excessive calling of cognitive processes is stress and the outcome is degraded or incomplete processing.
In no particular order and with credit given whenever it can be.
“You don’t have a lot of time” – Sean Sullivan. This lesson was given in 2011, almost as soon as I told him that my dad had a brain tumor. Sean lost his father to cancer and he witnessed the rapid decline associated with this disease. I didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said it, but I took his advice and did everything I could to make the best of the time that was remaining. The family ate, talked, and enjoyed each others company and spend little time spend dwelling on what was about to happen. I understand what “you don’t have a lot of time” means now and I understand that it doesn’t just apply to dying relatives, it applies to everything in life.
“Life is meaningless and empty so you’re free to create whatever purpose you like” – LandMark Education – March 25, 2012. I find this very empowering because I spontaneously do right by most people. Given this, setting out to make life be about what I want is a lot easier and gratifying than searching for some universal meaning.
“So, how is life going to be better than before?” – Heather Arthur – May 4, 2012. It was our first date and Heather was doing what Heather does, rattling things to see if they stand-up to the challenge. My answer, after a lot of squirming, was to say that I didn’t have a plan to make them better, but that I wouldn’t be repeating any of the same mistakes so life was going to be different, and that meant the possibility for better. I had never felt so vulnerable and alive.
“Teaching is not like other jobs, teachers have a much bigger impact on the world than almost every other profession” – Des McKinney – December 18, 2012. We had been talking about the rotating teachers strikes in Ontario and I was struggling to understand the teachers position. Once Des laid this one on me I gave-up any notion that they have an unreasonable sense of entitlement. Let’s face it, teachers have shaped every single person I talk to each day and my ability to earn a living is the result of a lot of their intervention. Teachers are kind of important.
Language alters the context which impacts how we view the world – Heather Arthur – May 4, 2012. During our first date, we were talking about the fact that we were both single. I commented that all of my past relationships had failed. Heather gave me the sour face and said “change the context, try saying that you have had great experiences with some amazing people and now you are all growing forward with life.” So I said it and immediately felt my past unfold into something more palatable. I’ve done this with a bunch of other things and have used this technique with some of my clients with similar success.
“Thoughts created feelings which create actions, change the thoughts and notice how the feelings and actions change” – Leigh Moore – February 20, 2012. After my dad died I was having some struggles piecing certain things together. Leigh gave me some therapy and focused on one thing that was going to change my state very quickly. She noticed that some of the things I was saying weren’t based on an objective reality and were based on an internal narrative that wasn’t working for me. Her coaching created the possibility that things were not how I thought they were and as soon as I introduced a different possibility I started to feel differently.
How you think you’ll feel about things in the future is different from how you will feel about them – Life – anytime in 2012. I knew my dad was going to die for 6 weeks before he actually passed. But when it happened, how I felt about it wasn’t anything like how I thought I would feel about it. I was sad, but there were moments of gratitude, joy, and nothing at all. The lesson I’m taking out of it is to just accept that things are going to happen and that I am going to feel something when they do, but not to spend much time thinking about what the feelings will be because I’m going to get it wrong.
“How you feel right after something happens is not the same as how you will feel in 3 months, but how you feel about it in 3 months is usually how you will feel about it in a year” – Des McKinney January 30, 2012. The day after my dad died I asked Des how he felt. Instead of answering the question I asked he decided to change my life and reveal the answer to a more existential question. Right after something happens or as it happens we’ll feel very strongly about it. That probably won’t last.
This is part one. Last year presented me with some amazing growth opportunities that I dived into.
“You have a tendency to act emotionally at times like this. Just don’t do anything until you know what you feel. To me there’s nothing going on but maybe there is. If it doesn’t hurt to wait, wait. What is actually occurring will become obvious quickly.”
I was on the phone with my brother having asked him for advice, and that is close to what he said.
I thanked him, hung-up and felt better.
One of the many things I admire about my brother is his ability to not respond emotionally to anything. Des and I have chatted in length about it and he’s very clear that it is a skill he has worked hard at and one that is still working to perfect as there are times when he finds himself beginning to feel stuff that isn’t based on the immediate reality.
It’s based on the past, and in particular, an old way of responding to a stimuli or situation that is similar. Some of these things will trigger reflexive responses that are years old and learned from a single event. As is the case with relatively young people, unfamiliar events may only have happened when we were incapable determining a logical response. Rage, anger and destruction based on fear may have been the conditioned response to stimuli and the unconscious expression of this behavior is what flows our when faced with a situation that seems to match.
This way of being is unworkable and Des knows that I have a tendency to act without much rational thought when faced with these moments.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what to do, which is why I called him. I felt a particular way, but couldn’t find a reason for it. By taking the time to think the thing through, it became very apparent what was going on and I was able to see a past action being triggered. It wasn’t right or wrong, it was just outdated and unworkable. Taking the time to realize what was happening created a clearing and the possibility for logical action.
The up-side is that the new logical behavior will begin to become the new response to that particular stimuli. Which is what you need to happen in order to learn and advance your life. Without creating new behaviors, we’ll continue to be exactly what we were in the past.