Are you focused on the process or the outcome?

I practice handstands everyday. The goal is a 60-second one arm handstand. But I’m less interested in that goal than in practicing towards that goal.

By contrast, I recently lost a big sponsorship for Responsive Conference and it knocked me off of my stride. I felt like a failure for several hours.

These two things appear to be pretty different, but they both depend on practice. I practice handstands, I practice selling Responsive, and I’m always trying to get better.

60-second one arm handstand?

I’ve wanted to do a one arm handstand since before I published my first book, How to do a Fearless Handstand. But I only started training seriously for this goal quite recently.

In my physical practice, I don’t mind having an “off” day. The delight I feel for practicing dwarfs any disappointment for not hitting a personal best.

By contrast, when I lose a sale – especially one worth tens of thousands of dollars – it hits me like a personal affront.

What’s the difference?

Why, in some disciplines, do we feel great about learning, while in others we fixate on the outcome?

I don’t know. But here are some tactics I’m using to adopt a growth mindset in sales.

Enjoy the micro

Fall in love with the moments that make up a practice. The more you enjoy doing the things necessary the faster you’ll learn.

Focus on the small moments of practice that already feel good.

Love comes from practice

It is said that you ought to love what you do, but it has been my experience that you practice a thing until you come to love it.

Practice something until you come to love it.

Show me your calendar and I’ll show your priorities

I’ve structured my life to go to the gym and practice handstands at 2pm because that’s when I’m fresh.

As I did when I was a professional athlete, I have structured my life to go into the gym at least five days a week and practice handstands when my energy is peaking. That’s when I’m able to perform at my best.

Show me your calendar, and I’ll show you your priorities.

The outcome will take care of itself

I am unconcerned if it takes me another two years or another seven to achieve a 60 second one arm handstand. My joy comes from getting my handstand workout in today, and making incremental progress.

With selling Responsive Conference, by contrast, I live in a constant state of tension. A majority of conference attendees purchase in the last week. It can be nerve-racking to not know if the conference will sell out until a day or two before!

I have to remind myself that, as with handstands, if I practice everyday, I will ultimately achieve my goal. If I curate an incredible conference and connect with our global audience in a variety of other ways, we will have a successful event.

Celebrate more/appreciate the journey

I celebrate my handstand practice constantly.

All that celebration means that I always want to practice tomorrow.

With sales, celebration is harder. I struggle with not knowing if a potential sponsor might be a good fit for Responsive Conference. I get attached to specific deal. As a result, I get discouraged and want to practice less.

The more you celebrate, the faster you learn.

Look for areas where you already excel; where you already have a growth mindset. Notice what you do in that discipline, and transfer that flexibility and excitement over to your growth areas.

Robin

Snafu: own your faults

I’ve always loved the story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’s first meeting. Holmes is in the laboratory testing a new technique for testing the age of dried blood, when Dr. Watson is ushered in by a mutual acquaintance. They are each looking for a flatmate.

Holmes begins by listing out his faults. He’s eccentric, moody, and depressive. He plays the violin at all hours. Watson’s own list of faults includes bouts of melancholy and chronic illness. Holmes and Watson each conclude that the other’s faults don’t pose a problem and agree to move in together.

It is useful to share your failings – why someone shouldn’t want what we are offering.

Selling real estate

If you are a realtor and listing a house for sale, it is counterproductive to falsify your listing with all of the benefits of your property and none of its faults.

If the house is in a high traffic location, don’t describe it as “tranquil” because anyone walking through the neighborhood will recognize the lie. Instead, emphasize the convenience and utility that comes from living in a busy area.

When you claim your faults openly, you’ll attract the people who won’t mind or might even appreciate those constraints.

Your authenticity closes deals

When you sell with an unusual degree of authenticity, you’ll make the sale faster and generate goodwill for returning business.

When you share your faults, there won’t ever be a retraction or a rug-pull when the potential buyer steps onto your property and finds that the “tranquility” you advertised in your listing is regularly interrupted by street noise.

Who are you not for?

Declare your faults immediately and up front.

For example, Snafu isn’t for people who don’t want to learn how to sell or change behavior. If you’re uninterested in changing your behavior or don’t believe that selling can be used for good, this newsletter isn’t for you. (You can unsubscribe here.)

Knowing who you don’t serve is at least as important as knowing who you do.

Declare your faults. You’ll weed out mismatches more quickly.

Until next week,
Robin

A few things I know at 38 that I wish I knew at 18

Today’s my birthday. This time last year, I wrote 37 lessons. Instead of trying to come up with another 37+1 lessons, I thought I’d expound on some of my best ideas from the last year.

Fall in love with your craft

I’m on my quest to achieve a one-arm handstand. Someday, I’ll get there and then I’m going to be disappointed.

The one-arm handstand isn’t my real objective. I’m actually obsessed with the pursuit. Once I achieve the goal I’ll have to find a new one.

I started writing Snafu a year ago because I wanted to hone my craft as a salesman, think more about human behavior, and write more. As I have on a notecard on my desk, “I like who I am when I write.”

Writing is hard. And doesn’t seem to get easier with time. As with water-only fasting or sitting in my cold plunge, the more I write, the harder it gets.

That’s what it is to pick a craft and stick with it. Read more on the pursuit of craft.

Creative habit

When I first read The Creative Habit by legendary modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, I saw in her writing my own desire to create.

My mother is a visual artist. She’s been making visual art for longer than I’ve been alive. My dad is a gardener. Every time I visit, he’s working in a new garden bed.

For twenty years, I’ve studied movement. Whether through jiu-jitsu, surfing, ballet, or handstands, physical practice is my creative habit.

I believe we are all happiest when we are building, making, and creating. Here’s an article on building a creative habit.

How to tell a great story

I started Zander Media in 2019 because I wanted to study storytelling.

I’ve learned a lot about storytelling in five years of telling other people’s stories for a living, but condensed into a single phrase my advise would be this:

Be fascinated by your story and your audience.

Great storytelling requires both enthusiasm and empathy. Here’s an article I wrote on storytelling.

Relentless optimism

I’m pretty happy most of the time. Not because my life is full of rainbows and puppies, but because optimism is a strategic advantage.

I’ve done a number of things that people told me were impossible – learning to do a backflip, joining a pre-professional ballet, opening up a restaurant. When you are relentlessly optimistic, you see opportunities that others don’t.

The best way to practice optimism is to practice celebrating – to actively celebrate things that could otherwise be viewed as setbacks. Here’s what I wrote about celebration.

Let’s reclaim selling

I’m not sure why it was that I initially gravitated towards sales. Maybe it’s because my grandfather sold vacuums door-to-door, but by the time I got to know him he was retired.

Or maybe it’s because my first job was selling homegrown pumpkins for Halloween. I earned $550 at five years old and I felt like I was doing something illegal.

Regardless of why, I’m on a lifelong quest to reclaim selling for the rest of us. Here’s the article on why everything is sales.

Addiction

My grandfather was an alcoholic. My uncle died of alcohol and pills. I’ve been very fortunate to avoid that path.

But whether through 40 hours a week of ballet or an accumulated 45 days of water-only fasting in 2023, I live on a fine line between healthy habits and addiction.

I’m strict in only allowing myself things that are difficult to do, and get increasingly challenging the more you do them – like cold plunging or fasting – and not things like alcohol and sugar that feel good in the moment, but have negative consequences after.

I wrote about the fine line between habit and addiction.

Trust your hunches

For the last 4 months, I have eaten nothing but grass-fed bison, organic zucchini, and quinoa.

I have been dealing with gut information for years and mainstream medicine has been unable to help. (I’ve recently discovered that it is due to a bacterial infection.)

In eating three ingredients for months, I’ve also discovered that sugar is a drug and that most of us don’t eat enough protein. As a result of this three-ingredient diet, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.

Just because what you are attempting is far outside the norm doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Pay attention to yourself.
Trust your hunches.
Experiment from there.

Here’s the backstory.

Be of service

Professor BJ Fogg, PhD of Stanford University once told me to “Help people do things they already want to do.” He gave me this advice in reference to selling, but I actually think it is also a good life philosophy.

It encompasses generosity and empathy, persuasion and influence. You can’t help people do things that they already want to do if you aren’t first paying attention to who they are and what they want.

You have to really know someone, and yourself, before inviting them towards an outcome.

The best way to help people to change is to invite them towards things that they already want to do.

Here’s more on the topic.

Until next week,
Robin

If you don’t ask, the answer isn’t no

There’s a common idea that “If you don’t ask, the answer is no.”

The problem is that when we don’t ask, it doesn’t feel like rejection. The consequence is silence and inactivity, which feels less bad than an actual rejection.

Thus, we are reinforced for not asking.

I’m still nervous when I quote my hourly rate.
I still hesitate before asking a beautiful woman on a date.

But my three profitable businesses of the last decade succeeded only because I was able to overcome my fear of asking.

Here are a few ways to motivate yourself to ask for what you want.

The desire to prove yourself

Every entrepreneur I’ve met is either fueled by a chip on their shoulder or because they are chasing something they love. And, in the beginning, a majority have something something to prove.

When I started Robin’s Cafe, I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to do something everyone told me was impossible. I wanted to prove my parents wrong!

This isn’t what I think of as clean fuel. The desire to prove someone wrong is a great motivator, but it doesn’t leave you feeling good about yourself. It comes with consequences like self-loathing or burnout.

When you are trying to prove yourself, you make the cost of inaction more painful than the risk of being told no.

Away from pain

It is painful to ask for what you want and be rejected. But there is often an even bigger pain that won’t get solved if you don’t ask.

You can also use that impetus to move away from the shame or humiliation of defeat. What you want is what you are moving away from not happening if you don’t ask.

Loss aversion

We are motivated by more potential of loss than by gain. This is loss aversion is – the human bias to prioritize avoiding losing even over achieving the equivalent gains.

When you don’t ask for what you want, it doesn’t feel like a loss. But it is. You are losing the opportunity that you’d otherwise have had a chance to achieve.

Anytime you don’t ask for what you want you are losing the opportunity.

Towards joy

Joy, delight and enthusiasm are powerful motivators. They are also a cleaner fuel – they don’t come with the negative consequences that a chip on your shoulder does.

When I started Zander Media, I was really curious and excited to learn how to do digital storytelling on the Internet.

That motivation – joyfully pursuit of something you want to accomplish – is an incredible motivator, if you can find it.

Make your purpose clear

Have a clear purpose – a reason that you are attempting something difficult.

I started Zander Media because I wanted to figure out how to do digital storytelling on the Internet.

And I wanted to earn money.
I wanted to do great work for our clients.
Then, as I hired employees, I wanted the company to be a great place to work.

Identify the reason you are tackling a particular challenge. When you know why, you are much more likely to attempt it.

Have a lot of reasons why

Even more than a single clear purpose is having a lot of reasons why.

I started writing Snafu because I wanted to practice writing and improve as a salesman.

Then, as I told friends about the newsletter, I was writing for a handful of other people. Those few people grew into several hundred, and now this newsletter has nine thousand weekly readers!

While not all of you write back to me (you should!), that is nine thousand reasons why I do my best to write a useful newsletter each week.

We say that “If you don’t ask, the answer is no.” But that’s inaccurate. The answer is silence, which feels better than rejection.

Whether because of a chip on your shoulder, chasing joy, or serving a cause greater than yourself, hopefully this article gives you some cues towards action.

Homework

I think a lot about where your motivation comes from. My desire to do handstands, for example, stem from my joy for incremental progress.

Pick an objective you are currently chasing: trying to learn to sell something, persuade someone, or change your own behavior.

Write out five reasons why you want to accomplish that goal.

Then, examine where you draw motivation for that objective.

Are you trying to prove something to yourself or someone else, afraid of losing out, chasing your objective for the joy of it?

Until next week,
Robin

How to Reframe Failure

There are a lot of things about being an entrepreneur that I avoid, but one of the silliest is opening physical mail. When I was starting Robin’s Cafe, I got a lot of mail – plans from the San Francisco planning department, legal documents, food permitting, alcohol permitting, pest control notifications, more.

I was so busy figuring out the day-to-day of running the business that I developed the bad habit of just ignoring mail and leaving the pile to build up on my desk for weeks on end.

When I finally got around to dealing with the pile, there was always a notice that I’d ignored for too long – a vendor I was late to pay, an IRS document I’d missed, etc. As we all do when a task is too big, I came to dread opening my mail.

Failure as discouragement

When you fail at a task, the experience is often one of discouragement, and that discouragement leads to a diminished desire to attempt that same task in the future. As I discussed recently, success is usually tied to positive feelings and the release of dopamine. Negative feelings often have the opposite effect and result in a feedback loop of negativity and failure. For me, that meant avoiding the mail until I discovered late bills, which meant I’d continue to dread opening mail and let it pile up further.

Failure is often a sign that the task you are trying to undertake is too big. A trick, then, is to leverage the cue of the negative feelings of “I can’t do this” into action and try again, but make the next attempt different. One way to do this is to break the task down into smaller parts.

Make the next step smaller

When you are overwhelmed by a new behavior, the easiest way to tackle it is by making the next step smaller.

I don’t need to open and respond to all of my mail on the day it arrives. A small step is to open every envelope, even if I don’t take the mail out right away. This small step moves things forward and makes the next steps – removing the contents, reading them, responding – easier.

Take your large goal and just take one small step in the right direction.

Create positive associations

I have a letter opener that I really love – it is a beautiful folding knife with an olivewood handle. I’ve learned, in the years since Robin’s Cafe, that I derive a particular delight in opening mail with this knife.

Look for ways that you can create positive associations around the edges of the habit you’ve been avoiding. Positive feelings equate to feelings of success.

Play more

Play and self-judgment are antithetical. When we are being playful or curious with a habit, it is impossible to regard an outcome as a “failure.”

The best way I know how to play – especially when I’m not feeling playful – is to get profoundly curious about the task I’m trying to accomplish. Another is to make a game of the process. Personally, I get delighted when I see weeks worth of dealt-with mail pile up in my recycling bin!

Look for a step by step breakdown

You can almost always find a step-by-step breakdown of the task you are trying to accomplish. Google “how to do x” or interview someone better at that thing than you are. If you’ve hit a roadblock and aren’t sure how to make a task more manageable, someone else has likely solved this problem before you. In writing this article, I asked a few friends about how they handled their daily deluge of mail and got some interesting ideas I’ll try in the future!

At Zander Media, I receive 10x less physical mail than I did at the cafe. And while there are still remnants of my avoidant behavior, I’m excited to reframe failure as a cue for novel action. These days, I look for areas of my life where I’ve historically failed and replace the cue of failure with the understanding that I haven’t made that behavior small enough, yet.

Until next time,
Robin

Unconventional Advice to Improve Your Relationships

What’s the old joke? “Why do my parents push all my buttons? Because they installed them!”

In 2019, at 33 years old, I spent 4 weeks traveling with my mother in Africa. And as much as I love my mother, she also can drive me crazy.

Whether in our personal relationships or at work, here are some lessons learned for having better relationships with people in our lives.

(Want more? Here’s the fully story about that trip.)

Gayle Karen Young Whyte, former head of People and Culture at Wikimedia, on Immediacy and Resilience

My guest today is Gayle Karen Young Whyte, former head of People and Culture at Wikimedia (the parent company behind Wikipedia). These days Gayle is very politically active and consulting with a select group of executives on organizational and culture change.

I’ve known Gayle since she spoke at the first Responsive Conference in San Francisco in 2016, and have followed her work ever since.

In this conversation, recorded in late 2020, we talk about resilience, inquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we can all do to rise to the challenges of these times. Gayle brings wisdom, simplicity, and kindness to the questions of how to continue learning, growing, and thriving as new opportunities arise in our lives.

Memento Mori: Remember Death

How would you live your life differently if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?

We’re all so busy rushing through our lives that we sometimes forget to pause and remember that we have fleeting time on this earth. Watch this short vlog for a reminder to be grateful for what you do have in your life, and the time you do have available now.

Memento Mori. Remember that you will die.

Reflections on Morocco and Culture

Visiting the Sahara by dromedary, Morocco

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I spent five weeks in the spring of 2017 with my family traveling through the Kingdom of Morocco. I have fantasized about visiting Morocco ever since I was introduced to the character T. E. Lawrence through the movie Lawrence of Arabia at eleven years old. I was entranced by Lawrence’s charisma and self-certainty, especially alongside the mysticism of the Berber tribes and the stark ferocity of the desert.

Unsurprisingly, Morocco was rather abruptly different than the images of camel treks across the desert and Atlas Mountain mystics I had envisioned. What I found was even more special.

A brief word on Moroccan History

Morocco is a country dense in history and culture. Frequently called the “Kingdom of Morocco,” it is ruled by a king, who is by all reports benevolent, well-loved, and politically savvy. While not rule of law, it is customary for every establishment in the country to display a photo of the king, and most show him in cinema-perfect wilderness or religious setting. For more than 50 years, Morocco was a French colony, and French is still the language used to conduct government business today.

Morocco is on the North-Western corner of the African continent, with coasts along both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It has always been a export-rich country, through which salt, gold, and other valuables were ported to the coast, and from there shipped to Europe or Asia.

Morocco is a majority (98%) Islamic country, which comes with it’s own history and philosophies. The pervasiveness of the Islamic faith influences every aspect of life, such that those few locals I met who consider themselves religiously atheist, simultaneously are still culturally Islamic. While Morocco is liberal compared to many Middle Eastern countries, a call to prayer echoes around even the smallest of Moroccan towns five times each day. On my first night in Morocco, the call to prayer woke me up in fear at 4am with long drawn-out Arabic chanting that even native speakers may have a hard time deciphering. We eventually came to recognize the most common phrase, “Allah akbah,” which means “God is great.” By the end of 5 weeks, the call to prayer had become such a comfortable ritual that my first morning back in the United States I woke up confused for lack of the pervasive chanting.

The headscarf is a mixed symbol of oppression or free speech depending on one’s perspective. In Morocco, the headscarf is not encouraged by governmental institutions, and generally frowned on by urban middle and upper classes. That said, throughout Morocco, the headscarf is very common. In the city of Fes, for example, I rarely encountered local women with their heads uncovered. To further highlight these complicated socio-political factors, in January 2017 Morocco banned the manufacturing, marketing and sale of the burqa — the full head and face covering which leaves only a woman’s eyes visible. And yet it was not uncommon to see women in full burqas in the inland cities we visited.

Prior to Islam, Morocco was inhabited by three culturally distinct tribes of Berber, which continue to exist as their own integrated-yet-distinct cultures today. In my time in the Dades Gorge, for example, I encountered several groups of locals who spoke not a word of French or Arabic, but only their local flavor of Berber. I had even learned a few words of Berber a few days before, which didn’t translate at all across the several hundred miles we’d traveled since.

Culture isn’t ever black and white

There are some truly beautiful things about Moroccan culture. If you are a guest visiting the house of a neighbor and admire something of theirs, it is customary for the host to offer the admired object to you as the guest. There’s an emphasis on family honor, that it is sacred to each individual, that another is respected and felt welcomed. As a tourist who has traveled in a variety of countries around the world, I have never felt more welcomed and included as I did in Morocco.

An abundance of figs, Ifrane

There is a tradition, adopted from the Berber, of mint tea to celebrate every occasion. Moroccan tea is made with a large bunch of fresh mint, Chinese green tea, and an overabundance of sugar. (It is not a coincidence that a preponderance of Moroccans have bad teeth.) If you stop by the house of a local in an city or town throughout the country you will be offered tea, and turning it down can be difficult to do.

Over several days of strolling the souks (open air markets) of Fes, we downed gallons of the extra-sweet mint tea. Every shop we visited had someone ready to run and fetch us a fresh brew, and the longer we stayed in a single location the more pressure to join for yet another tea ceremony.

Fes

Fes is by far the most magical city I’ve ever encountered, and often referred to as the country’s cultural capital. The narrow streets of the Fes El Bali, or old Medina, would be called alleys in any other city, just wide enough for two mules to pass abreast. The walls are of thick mud-brick, 10 feet high, overshadowing the streets. Ever few feet these streets twist and turn, and side streets branch off in a variety of directions. The side streets get smaller and smaller until they dead end to a Hobbit-sized door, which is the entrance to someone’s home.

Chaouwara Tanneries, Fes

The city has several distinct districts, including the UNECO site of tanneries, which have been used as a within-city leather manufacturer for thousands of years.

As tourist walking aimlessly through the city, you will periodically get accosted by a carpet seller and brought into his Dar (Arabic for house), while his wife or cousin runs to bring everyone tea. Dars in Fes consist of a majestic central courtyard, usually open to the sky, with a variety of rooms surrounding it. It is startling to find the majesty of these traditional Dars at the end of the dark, narrow lanes of Fes.

My family stayed in one of the five rooms at Dar Romana on the northern edge of Fes Medina. From our rooftop terrace we had a panoramic view of this mystical city, the old fortified walls of the Medina, and the surrounding countryside.

I quickly befriended Semu, one of the servers at Dar Romana, and he and I spent hours together over the next week. I taught him some of my daily physical routine and he taught me Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, which is Arabic intermingled with the variety of linguistic characteristics unique to Morocco, including French, Spanish, and Berber.

Semu and I would sit and study together for an hour each evening. We began with some basics of the language. “Hello” is “Shalom aleichem” which is from Hebrew and translates as “Peace be upon you.” The proper response is “Aleichem shalom.” I was taught that it is improper not to respond to this greeting.

My friendship with Semu also gave me the opportunity to ask all of the questions that a 30-something male has in a foreign country.

“How do you meet women?”
“What do you think of arranged marriages?”
“Do you believe in God?”

Semu, and other similar friendships I forged throughout the country, provided a brief glimpse into Moroccan culture that went beyond the superficial look allowed by more typical tourist interactions.

Time

When I opened up my cafe, I spent every waking moment for several months taking care of small emergencies. When there weren’t emergencies to solve, I spent my time afraid of the next fire that I would have to put out. I came to resent the amount of time I spent opening the cafe, establishing protocol, and picking up the pieces when things didn’t work out. In juxtaposition, a restaurateur in Fes who spent so much time teaching us how to make Moroccan mint tea to perfection, my friend Semu who taught me the basics of Darija, and the countless carpet salesmen who spent endless hours pulling rugs down from ceil-high stacks to find the perfect fit — these people didn’t attempt to calculate their time in the way I had. Looking back, I wish I had savored the process of opening the cafe, even the most difficult aspects, rather than constantly trying to optimize my time.

Afternoon tea on the rooftop of Dar Romana

While so many of us in the West are constantly set on optimizing every moment of every day, there’s a sense of spaciousness to Moroccan time. It is more important to deeply appreciate your mint tea in this moment then to rush to be on time to whatever appointments you have coming up next.

The Gender Gap

Juxtaposed with these beautiful aspects of the culture, there are many that I find less favorable. I am quite social and befriend new people everywhere I go. As a tourist in Morocco, I befriended dozens of local men. Over the same period I met exactly three local women. Women in Morocco work and socialize mostly in the home, so my experience is understandable, but far outside my day-to-day norm.

While there are no laws forbidding women to work, it would be very strange for a local woman to sit down for cafe noir, a national favorite consisting in equal parts of espresso and sugar, at the men’s-only cafes that exist on almost every street. It would be even more strange for a woman to serve customers at any one of these cafes. Highlighting my own lack of expertise in Moroccan culture, female friends who have had homestays in inland Morocco describe the interior of the home as the women’s domain. All those men, drinking cafe noir and smoking endless cigarettes in street cafes, are reported to have been kicked out of the home by their domineering wives. I don’t know the truth of this gender dynamic, but it is clearly complex and substantially different than my own day-to-day.

My father, looking out at the Sahara

Young People Everywhere

After Fes, and a brief visit through the Sahara Desert, we traveled through the south of Morocco over a stretch known as the 10,000 Ksars. A Ksar is a mud-brick fortified village, usually around a small oasis, and inevitably surrounded by hectares of parched, dusty, desert countryside. Most of these 10,000 villages are abandoned or have fallen into disrepair. However, we discovered one in the town of Tinejdad, that had be repaired and re-inhabited.

We spent a single night in Tinejdad. Late that night, after my family had gone to bed, I found myself in a conversation in broken French, English, and Arabic with a couple young men in their early 20s who were working the front counter at our hotel.

Gite Elkhorbat, Tinejdad

The conversation began because, with the four foot thick mud-plaster walls and desert temperatures, I was searching for an extra blanket. I asked how to say “blanket” in Darija, and my hosts, who turned out to be brothers, spent several minutes in friendly bickering about word choice and pronunciation. My new-found friends asked where I had learned Darija, and I explained about my friend Semu and our lessons. I asked questions about the various languages they spoke and they launched into a description of Berber, interspersed with good-natured sibling squabbles.

Half an hour into this conversation, a young woman who also worked for the hotel, joined us. She sat down on the couch next to us and began looking through my notebook. She was clearly well-educated and curious, and flipped through my entire notebook, correcting my spelling, offering pronunciation suggestions, and changing several of my most frequently-used phrases to the local dialect. In return, I taught her words in English that she struggled over as she read my notes on our previous day’s travel.

I sat and watched, intrigued but also a bit stunned, since this was the most familiar interaction I had had with a woman on the entire trip. Looking back at my notebook, I’m also in awe of the amount of diligent correction and adjustment she offered.

So many carpets, Azrou

Our lesson ended when her fiancé called, as translated to me by the two brothers, who had continued their playful bickering throughout. In the midst of my new-found friend’s call with her fiancé, one of my companions turned to me and asked quite frankly, if I was married. I explained that I was not. He nodded in understanding and said that he, too, was “searching for a wife.”

There are so many parts of that evening that stand out in my mind — the openness of the brothers, the familiarity of my tutor and her insatiable curiosity, and that short exchange with another single man. It could have been a conversation with a acquaintance in the San Francisco Bay Area, discussing a recent date. In a country, frequently strange and magical, that was a refreshing reminder that young people are young people everywhere.

Culture is a felt-sense.

Walking paths in the Dades Gorge, which that have seen constant human habitation for 3000 years, or through the narrow alleyways of Fes, which has been lived in for 4000 years, there was a permanence of place unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Throughout so much of our lives, there is a sense of impermanence, the idea that things might change so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice.

Madrasa Ben Youssef, Marrakesh

As much as I might explain about Moroccan culture, words aren’t nearly as important as experiences. You can watch Lawrence of Arabia for images of the Sahara (actually filmed several hundred miles from the Sahara), or Indiana Jones for Marrakech (this time filmed in Hollywood), but none of these compare to the lived experience of a Saturday night in the Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, or a week wandering through the narrow alleys of Fes. There is a depth of lived experience in these places that cannot be fully understood unless experienced.

It seems obvious when I state that you cannot know Morocco without traveling in the country, and I would argue without living there for years. Culture is a felt sense. It has to be experienced to be even partially understood. There was a richness I experienced throughout my time in the Kingdom of Morocco: aspects that I loved, others less so, and many that I will never understand. I’ll always be somewhat haunted by the country and its people, and grateful.

“Florida Priming” and Simple Tools To Trigger Improved Performance

There’s a concept in cognitive psychology called priming. In its most abstract, this means that if we are given a reminder of a stimulus before being presented with that stimulus, we are more likely to behave favorable towards that stimulus. People who are shown pictures of money before being asked to calculate the cost of groceries are more rapid in their calculations and people who are reminded of aging through subtle cue words like “Florida” and “retirement” are more likely to walk slowly immediately afterwards.

Some of these priming examples have unfortunate consequences (like the so-called old-aging “Florida priming” example) but I’d like to look at how we might use these realities to improve our performance, too.

The Pink Elephant in the Room (Photo: Crispy)

Here are two cases studies:

Asian Test priming: asian students who are reminded of their ethnicity prior to tests, perform better than the same students not reminded that of asian-students-make-good-test-takers stereotype. In this case, students are simply being reminded of the biases they themselves might hold. My curiosity then is how else might we use our current beliefs to stimulate behavior in accordance with those beliefs?

Age priming: In the “Florida priming” example, participants in the study walk more slowly due to the reminders of behaviors of the elderly.  In this example, participants are performing according to the dictates of a different stereotyped group. How then could we stimulate performance according to the group different then our own?

I am going to examine both of these cognitive biases from the perspective of learning ballet, but the lessons can be applied across any physical or mental discipline.

Speaking at Ignite San Francisco (And How to Create an Effective Talk)

I recently gave a talk at Ignite San Francisco. The presentation was well received and fun to deliver. Below are my slides from the talk. In this post I’ll break down my process for becoming one of the speakers (hint: just ask!) and how I built my talk.

If you don’t know Ignite, take a look at some of these. I learned about Ignite from my friend Karen Cheng, who had given talk previously. I asked for an introduction to the organizers and asked Karen’s advice on how to get chosen for a position among the speakers.

Ask For Help

Which brings me to the first things I learned from this experience: Ask for help! Even if you don’t need it, but especially if you can use it – ask people you respect for their thoughts and opinions. When possible, ask from a place of excitement rather than desperation. I’ve been on both sides and know that asking from desperation or being asked from a desperate person are both no fun. Karen gave me two pieces of advice. The first was an introduction to the organizers. The second, which I would never have thought to do myself, was submit three talk requests to be considered. I don’t know which of these made a bigger difference, but together they worked.

Introductions Matter

This idea is tossed around a lot but my experience of speaking at Ignite reinforced the idea. Having a friend on the inside, of course, means I’ll be more likely considered for a speaking position. This isn’t biased and unfair treatment, it just makes sense that the organizers are busy, have limited time, and are more likely to choose someone who is, by affiliation, not crazy, than someone they don’t know.

Scratching For An Idea

I take the word “scratching” from Twyla Tharp, who discusses scratching as a part of the creation process in The Creative Habit. My scratching looked like this:

How to Give an Effective Speech

I have given a lot of talks in the last couple of years. I’ve used the same set of public speaking skills to give presentations ranging from autism to how to learn handstands and how not to stretch. I am currently attending a course on public speaking and group facilitation at the Option Institute in Sheffield, MA and decided to put down some of these tools in writing.

For starters, here is a 3-minute talk on my recent mastery of the Gymnastics Giant.

What’s Your Purpose

Most of the time when I give a short speech I have two goals:

The Content

For many introductory talks I am the content. Even when giving a talk on advanced topics what makes the content stick is my personal stories. The content is only relevant to the extent an audience can connect with the speaker. Throughout my life I get many of the same questions. Probably most people do. “What do you do for work?” And for me: “What did you do in the circus?!” A short presentation designed to share a story from my life is a chance to share the answers to a lot of those basic questions so that I can rapidly move relationships on to some more advanced topics and areas of play. I’m happy to talk about my dance company or a workshop I am putting on. And if I can get the basics out of the way in a group it saves us time for more juicy topics later.

The Ask

The ask is a bit more complicated and depends on the audience and the context of my talk. Almost always when I’m giving a talk, though, I have a clear purpose behind the situation, something that I’d like to get, teach or contribute. When I have a clear ask I usually save it for the end to give my audience something clear to remember when they think of my talk.

Recall is heavily weighted towards the combination of the beginning and end. Thus, I like to start out my talks with something pretty hard-hitting about myself (when that’s the topic of the talk) and end with a clear ask (when I have one). What comes in between established authority or context for my talk, tells the story.

How to Overcome the Fear of Humiliation – Using Daily Documentation to Learn Porteño Spanish

My taxi driver was gesticulating wildly, swerving in and out of traffic, as he impressed upon me his opinions of Argentine politicians. I was very silent in the back seat.

I have been warned to avoid discussing politics with Argentinians, but I was silent for a completely different reason: I was too scared to talk. Growing up in California I was exposed to a lot of Spanish and have a good ear for the language.  So long as we are speaking slow and in the present tense, I have about the capacity for conversation of a precocious 4-year-old. The reason I was silent in that back of that taxi was that I was more scared of speaking poorly then I had interest in engaging in the conversation.

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in this post I’ll share my fears of language learning and the newly launched Start-Up 100, which I’ll be using to overcome that fear.

Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience and Humanity

On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt.  While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue).  As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American,  National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others.  He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application.  As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application.  Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic.  In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks.   (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer.  In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.)  However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… .  What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs?
Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience.  I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology.   It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience.  Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners.  The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva.  My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned.  I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.

In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news.  I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish.  And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say.   I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.

As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:

This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.

CNS (Central Nervous System is Sexy)

A couple of clarifying notes as relate to my most recent post on Neurons and Excitability…

Often, when one hears Central Nervous System the inclination is to think of the brain.  This is accurate but not a complete picture.  The CNS also includes a region of the spine down to about the waist line – the spinal cord.  It is important to note that the spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column.

Sensory information may arrive at a wide variety of points along the spinal cord or reach the brain itself.  Information that is processed along the spinal cord without reaching the brain results in what we call reflexes.  This is why reflexive actions occur so quickly: they need not travel the length of the spine and into the brain.

Muscle Fibers and Nerve Excitability

I have spent a great deal of time dissecting cadavers this year.  This has been an amazing opportunity to learn in person about human anatomy and physiology and is deeply informative for my continuing work with clients seeking to overcome pain.  In examining these bodies, generously donated to UCSF/SFSU, I have spent a great deal of time isolating muscles as well as bony landmarks and nerve bundles.  A muscle cell, technically called a muscle fiber, is composed of interconnected proteins which contract and release.  The first part of my revelation was that each of these fibers is the full length of the muscle of which it is part.  This means that a fiber (remember, that means a muscle cell) which makes up a small part of the Rectus Femoris (the outermost of the quadriceps muscles, it runs from the pelvis down to the knee cap) also runs the full length from the pelvis to the knee.  My second breakthrough was in connecting this fact to a similar detail about nerve cells.  A nerve cell is called a neuron and the aspect of the cell responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the body of the cell to the outputting ends is called the axon.   Note the axon of the neuron below, covered in a myelin sheath.

Nerve

When I bump my toe everything happens so fast that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on.  The sensory neurons in my toe send a signal to my spinal cord or my brain for processing, which then facilitates either a reflex or a processed reaction to the stimulus.  Perhaps, I withdraw my toe and cradle it in pain.  The signal, as it travels in both directions, is traveling from neuron to neuron or along the axon of many neurons, from extremity to the central nervous system (CNS, see following post for further discussion of this system) and back out again.  Some of the axons responsible for conducting the impulse to and from the toe are the length of the distance from toe to CNS!  Once the signal reaches the injured extremity it excites muscles fibers which contract (too late) to bring the toe out of harm’s way.  In these contractions, remember, fibers the length of the muscle are contracting.

Given two facts – that muscle fibers run the length of a muscle and that axons may run the distance between an extremity and the central nervous system – we can begin to understand why we can experience pain in parts of the body distant from a specific injury.  Neurons begin to respond when other neurons in their vicinity are excited.  Thus a wave of signals traveling away from the CNS may excite offshoots and facilitate muscle contraction in an area not directly impacted by the original stimulus.  As part of the healing process, this interconnectivity may be utilized by subtly adjusting areas peripheral to the site of injury.

I was recently working with a client, a professional dancer, who suffered injury to his ankle some years ago.  Since that time his career has been successful but he reports always having noticed less mobility at the site of injury.  He had seen physical therapists and massage practitioners about the issue with little or no success.  He reported that these practitioners had spent considerable time working directly on his foot and ankle and wondered aloud why I was dedicating so much attention elsewhere on his body.  But consider: if muscle fibers systematically run the length of a muscle and the axons of nerves may run from an extremity to the CNS, what impact might working elsewhere i.e. on the same leg have on the point of injury?  Muscle cells that directly connect to the area may be as far away as the knee.  Neurons that directly relate the the area may end as far as the upper spine or head.  Conceivably – just given these two facts – we could have worked on his head and seen results in his foot.  Certainly, my clients saw results!

That muscle fibers and neurons can be the lengths discussed should not be taken to completely explain interconnection throughout the body.  How neurons communicate is a very active field of research.  How axons come to be a certain length is not thoroughly understood.  Nor should the story of my client be an incentive to start poking at a friend’s head in hopes of provoking a response in her foot.  It probably will only serve to get you a good swift kick.  Of course, none of this changes the two tenants of the discussion.

Next time you stub your toe, consider: where did your responses originate?

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of A Biology Watcher

The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas does not contain of the exclusive scientific vocabulary one might expect from a Doctor of Medicine who was professor, chairman, and dean at some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical universities in the United States. Thomas writes not as a scientist but as a scientifically-minded poet.  The book is a slim volume which covers a great deal of territory: each of the ten chapters takes a different perspective on issues relating to micro-biology, human evolution, the natural world, the pursuit of science.  The consistent humor and delicacy with which Thomas delves into difficult issues is a primary connection between the essays’ diverse topics.

Before properly beginning the book properly I turned to a random page and read:

Watching television, you’d think we lived at bay, in total jeopardy, surrounded on all sides by human-seeking germs, shielded against infection and death only by a chemical technology that enables us to keep killing them off.

These descriptions of our fearful actions continue for a lengthy paragraph and it is only at the end of the page that Thomas begins an outright discussion of the chapter’s topics of disease and the micro-organisms held responsible.  He sheds light on human behavior as relates to germs, behavior based not on knowledge of the cells themselves but rather on our own immune responses.  Thomas elaborates on several cases in which changing our approach could achieve more productive outcomes.

Lives of a Cell covers much more than just a discussion of micro-biology, even as relates to human behavior.  In “Some Biomythology” Thomas seriously discusses mythical beasts from a diversity of cultures and casually compares what these have to teach us about the animal kingdom with what recently-discovered micro-organisms can reveal of biology to the public.

In “Ceti” Thomas discusses Tau Ceti – a nearby start which resembles our sun, the CETI (Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the logistics of communicating with intelligent life beyond our solar system.  He revels in the potential miscommunication. What of ourselves would we choose to share with newly-found intelligent life if the beginning of our conversation spanned hundreds of years?  Our recent discoveries in science would be an embarrassment 300 years later.  He draws the reader into the realization of how quickly human society is changing, and proposes that perhaps music – Thomas favors Bach, specifically – could be our greatest ally.

Lewis Thomas’ prose are not what one might expect from the highest echelons of academia.  He is far too human and humble in his stringing together of abstract ideas; too good at reaching a broad audience.  I cannot wait to get my hands on his earlier book The Medusa and the Snail, on his many published articles, maybe even articles published by his colleagues, to discover whether the beauty of his thoughts and writing extend beyond these pages.  I hope they do.