We tend to think of the pause as awkward. In speech, pregnant pauses connote uncomfortable silence; we veil silence with fillers. As professional communicators, we’re trained to deliver smooth speech, censoring out “um” and “ah.” This distaste for the pause — and the inverse, seeking an always-on state — is a battle we face at work, at school, and in industry at large.
I propose that we’re too impatient with the pause, and as a result, we’re missing out on a great deal. What would happen if, as communicators and designers, we became more comfortable with the pause? Because it turns out we can add by leaving out. The pause has power.
July 2010 Archives
Too often… what passes for professionalism in the experience of designers, even company CEOs, is but a shadow of what is possible and what is right. When that ignorance is reinforced by what is deemed to be success, it forms an armor that is difficult or impossible to penetrate with any sort of challenge.
To use the analogy from the Plato’s cave allegory, after years of seeming success with compromise and false professionalism, actual professionalism becomes unrecognizable. Having spent a career among those with a similarly stunted perception, stunted rules seem logical and compromise becomes not just common practice, but the coin of the realm…
The difference between professionals and those who understand only the echoes and shadows of professionalism is that the latter evaluate things according to an external, transient standard — to the point that only subjective, situational evaluation becomes useful. When compromise brings what passes for success, compromise becomes indistinguishable from virtue. At that point, shadow becomes reality. Professionals, by contrast, evaluate things according to consistent, uncompromising, internal standards based on individual and professional responsibility; standards that can stand the bright light of day.
Each of us could likely stand to do some periodic, brutal evaluations of our practice to ensure we’ve not wandered into Plato’s cave. Self evaluations, however, are difficult to perform accurately. Sometimes we need an objective view to give us the appropriate kick in the pants. If our first reaction to that kick in the pants is an indignant and defensive position, chances are something has hit pretty close to the mark.
[In] the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and… this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Diminishers tend to hold this belief that there’s only a few smart people out there, and that people will never figure it out without them, which creates a kind of dependency on them. It incents them to be a micromanager.
Multipliers have, really, the opposite belief. They see all sorts of smart people, all types of intelligence, and they hold this belief. It’s almost like a ticker tape that just sort of runs across their mind, and it’s that people are smart and will figure it out.
And so we found that people who just show up to work every day with an assumption that people are smart and are going to figure it out can very quickly start to lead like a multiplier.
|Understanding The Problem|
You have to understand the problem.
What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition?
Is it possible to satisfy the condition? Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation.
Separate the various parts of the condition. Can you write them down?
|Devising A Plan|
Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution.
Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?
Do you know a related problem? Do you know a theorem that could be useful?
Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.
Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you use its result? Could you use its method? Should you introduce some auxiliary element in order to make its use possible? Could you restate the problem? Could you restate it still differently? Go back to definitions.
If you cannot solve the proposed problem, try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem? A more general problem? A more special problem? An analogous problem? Could you solve a part of the problem? Keep only a part of the condition, drop the other part; how far is the unknown then determined, how can it vary? Could you derive something useful from the data? Could you think of other data appropriate to determine the unknown? Could you change the known or the data, or both if necessary, so that the new unknown and the new data are nearer to each other?
Did you use all the data? Did you use the whole condition? Have you taken into account all essential notions involved in the problem?
|Carrying Out The Plan|
Carry out your plan.
Carrying out your plan of the solution, check each step. Can you see clearly that the step is correct? Can you prove that it is correct?
Examine the solution obtained.
Can you check the result? Can you check the argument? Can you derive the result differently? Can you see it at a glance? Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?
Pólya, George (1945). How to Solve It. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08097-6.
The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful… There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result)…
When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.
Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.
Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.
There are very few group interactions with the internet. It’s rare for more than one person to use the same computer and browse a website together. There are obviously times when everyone in your office gathers to watch a cute cat video on YouTube, but you get the idea. This one-to-one relationship has a few important implications:
The site can typically speak directly to a single person rather than an entire organization. Instead treating the visitor like a faceless representative, they are now an individual.
You can start by addressing individual needs, then (if needed) the needs of the visitor’s group. This means that a site could have “You and your team will benefit” as opposed to “Your Company”. This is a subtle change, but as we’ll discuss later, it can pay to appeal to individual ego.
You only have to care about one person at a time. That’s a powerful direction.
In the early twentieth century, before the advent of scientific management, the overriding management philosophy was that of the first-class man (and they were always men). The idea was, for any job, if you can simply find an individual with just that right combination of virtues, talents, and experience, you could safely delegate all decisions to them. Sound familiar? This kind of reasoning is almost impossible to disprove. If you empower someone to make decisions and then something goes horribly wrong, does that disprove the first-class man theory? Probably not; it’s much easier to blame the particular person who made the mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is seen as “proof” of being second-class.
In management jobs related to operations — that is, the people tasked with actually making and distributing physical products — this kind of thinking is now considered ludicrous, thanks to a century of progress. Our modern philosophy of management has this core belief (taken straight from scientific management) at its heart: that the performance of companies is determined by the systems they create, not just the people they hire. No amount of individual superstardom can overcome a badly organized factory, because the weight of the system eventually overwhelms any well-intentioned but poorly organized resistance.
Entrepreneurs always need to be reminded that it’s not the job of their customers to know what they don’t know. In other words, your customers have a tough enough time doing their jobs. They don’t spend time trying to reinvent their industries or how their jobs are performed. Sure, every now and then you come across an exception. But you can’t bet the company on your finding that person at one of your customers.
Instead, part of every entrepreneurs job is to invent the future…
Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made [happy]. Listen to them. Make them happy. But they won’t create the future roadmap for your product or service. That’s your job.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Words that should always be part of your product or service planning.
Most people are bad at dreaming up actual product feature sets. Most people cannot reliably predict what they will do in different circumstances than the one they are in right now. That is why they’re your customers and not a member of your design team.
When asking people, you have to be aware that people make confident but false predictions about their future behavior, especially when presented with a new and unfamiliar design. There’s a huge difference between imagining using something and actually using it. In addition, human preferences are rather unstable.
That’s not to say you should quit listening to your customers. But make sure you know what to ask and how to interpret the answers.
Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
[Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] measured… volunteers’ intentions to start and stick to a fitness regimen. And in this real-world scenario, he got [this] basic result: those primed with the interrogative phrase “Will I?” expressed a much greater commitment to exercise regularly than did those primed with the declarative phrase “I will.”
What’s more, when the volunteers were questioned about why they felt they would be newly motivated to get to the gym more often, those primed with the question said things like: “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with “I will” offered strikingly different explanations, such as: “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.”
This last finding is crucial. It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. They were looking for a positive inspiration from within, rather than attempting to hold themselves to a rigid standard. Those asserting will lacked this internal inspiration, which explains in part their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery and self-improvement in general, those who were asserting their willpower were in effect closing their minds and narrowing their view of their future. Those who were questioning and wondering were open-minded—and therefore willing to see new possibilities for the days ahead.
The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum. This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other people you will notice that people who are use to getting there way will start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request. If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be spectacular, enjoy! If it’s short lived, it will be over as quick as it started and you can feel good that you haven’t encouraged it. The best way to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst (walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with your attention as soon as the person stops.
What is a TED talk?
Quite apart from anything else, it’s short. Each speaker has just 18 minutes to sum up their life’s work or their big idea and even if your talk is about how you intend to create artificial life within five years (as I heard Craig Venter do in 2005 and which he did, bang on target, in 2010), you have 18 minutes and not a minute more.
The genius of this, according to Bruno Giussani, European director of TED, is that “it’s too short for an academic to do their standard 45-minute presentation and too long to improvise. You have to prepare and have to take a fresh approach. It really puts pressure on them.”
The story comes to mind of an engineer who was to be executed by guillotine. The guillotine was stuck, and custom required that if the blade didn’t drop, the condemned man was set free. Before this could happen, the engineer pointed with excitement to a rusty pulley, and told the executioner to apply some oil there. Off went his head.
We got to our current state as a consequence of many of us taking actions focused on our own companies’ next milestones. An example: Five years ago, a friend joined a large VC firm as a partner. His responsibility was to make sure that all the startups they funded had a “China strategy,” meaning a plan to move what jobs they could to China. He was going around with an oil can, applying drops to the guillotine in case it was stuck. We should put away our oil cans.
People will never know how you feel unless you tell them. Your boss? Yeah, he doesn’t know you’re hoping for a promotion because you haven’t told him yet. That cute girl you haven’t talked to because you’re too shy? Yeah, you guessed it; she hasn’t given you the time of day simply because you haven’t given her the time of day either. In life, you have to communicate with others. And often, you have to open your vocal chords and speak the first words. You have to tell people what you’re thinking. It’s as simple as that.
A talent is irrelevant if a person is not motivated to use it. Motivation may be external (for example, social approval) or internal (satisfaction from a job well-done, for instance). External sources tend to be transient, while internal sources tend to produce more consistent performance.
The mind is a fickle thing. I’ve found that the brain does not like to be told when to be creative. If you tell it to think, it won’t. But if you’re doing a small task that doesn’t require much thinking, you can bet your mind is working overtime, and it’s working on something completely different than what is in front of you...
The trick is planning for times when your mind can wonder. It’s during these times that you’ll be the most creative. While you exercise, driving, household chores, taking a walk, at the beach… this is when you’ll find creativity oozing out of your brain. Odds are you may not even notice that you’re being really creative and productive. If you can become aware of that and always have something close by to write your ideas down on, you’re set.
A wandering mind can be a very, very good thing. You just have to be ready for it.
Schedule creative time blocks. You can't be on top of you're creative game with endless interruptions. Personally, my best chapters, posts and strategic plans need about three hour time chunks for me to roll around in them and tie together the best parts. Undivided attention is the best time-bender there is.