Category Archives: Wisdom

Shaping a Generation’s Hopes and Fears: What’s the First Major News Story You Remember?

In this morning’s Eurasia Group newsletter, Signal, there’s this snippet:

Our life experience shapes what we want, what we hope for, what we fear, and what we think. Our generation has different expectations and assumptions about the world than our parents, and a new era gives our children perspectives that are distinctly different from ours. In a political context, it matters that there’s usually a generational divide between leaders and many of those they govern. I was about 7 years old before I first became (dimly) aware of national and global events.

Like Willis Sparks, I was young when I first became aware of national and global events. This reminded me of something that’s been making the rounds – what’s the first major news story you remember from childhood?

One of the first ‘global’ events I can remember is the Gulf War (the first one). In particular, I remember the Superbowl that happened right near the beginning of the war. It wasn’t so much the Superbowl itself (honestly, I had to double-check that it was the Giants who beat the Bills that year), but the festivities just before kickoff – the national anthem.

That year, Whitney Houston performed slayed (can I say that?) the national anthem.

It’s become relatively standard for there to be an honouring of military service members at sports events and frankly, it might have been a “thing” before the 1991 Superbowl, but watching Whitney Houston sing the anthem with patriotic images of officers in uniform and images of the flag… that was a truly memorable moment.

As it happens, I wasn’t the only one moved by the experience. I had no idea that that particular event inspired both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga!

The performance occurred less than 2 weeks after the start of the war and because of the war, the Superbowl was being broadcast for the first time in countries like Australia and Russia, which means that you could probably count this event as one of those times when a significant number of people on the planet were attending to the same thing.

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Returning to Signal:

With that in mind, consider how the following numbers will shape politics in important places.

Russians under 24 won’t remember Russia before Putin, and those under 34 have no memory of the Soviet Union. South Africans younger than 30 won’t have clear memories of apartheid. They know the African National Congress as the party of power, not the party of liberation. Chinese under 35 can’t recall a time when their country was not the world’s rising economic power. Iranians under 45 have no memory of life before the revolution. French, Italians, and Germans younger than 22 have never paid for a meal with francs, lira or Deutsche Marks. Brazilians younger than 39 and Nigerians under 25 have no experience of military rule. Americans under 23 won’t remember the world before 9/11. Those under 34 didn’t experience the Cold War. Those under 53 won’t remember racial segregation. Something to think about when trying to predict what citizens will want from their governments.

There really is something to the idea of how global events shaping our way of thinking about the world. Not only do Italians, the French, and Germans under the age of 25 only know their currency as “the Euro,” North Americans under 25 have only ever known the Euro to be the standard currency of Europe. Might that mean that in 15-25 years when the twentysomethings are in power in these countries, there could be a push to re-establish their own currency? Maybe… but today’s post is not meant to debate monetary policy.

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Consider the idea of institutional memory. In some companies, there’ll be people who have been through a number of organizational changes. For instance, the people who’ve “been there long enough” to remember when “that function was decentralized” and “why we decentralized it.” These people (and this knowledge) is so important, especially if there’s a push to move in a ‘new’ direction that just turns out to be what the company was doing 10 years ago. [Aside: this adds a different flavour of the importance age diversity in work teams.]

Reflecting on how global events can have a cascading effect on generational shifts can make it easier to understand how companies (or countries) can oscillate between extremes.

For some folks, “Mr. Gorbachev — tear down that wall!” is the first thing they remember.

For others, it’s: “Not Guilty!”

As Sparks said above, most people under 25 read about 9/11 in a textbook, rather than watching it panic-stricken on a Tuesday afternoon.

The next time you frame your understanding of why a company, country, or even your work team (!) is returning to a policy that was retreated from many years ago, consider the generation of the leaders in charge and some of the global events that may have shaped their understanding of the world.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

The Most Commonly Spoken Languages in Canada, Besides English and French

A couple of years ago, I came across an map that I found fascinating. It showed the most commonly spoken languages in the US (after English and Spanish). Some were fairly intuitive (French in Louisiana, Arabic in Michigan, etc.), but some forced me to think about the history (recent and past!) of a given state. For instance, I wouldn’t have guessed Chinese as the most commonly spoken language after English and Spanish in New York! I probably would have guessed Italian or Polish in thinking about the early immigrants to Ellis Island.

After seeing that post, it made me wonder what the most commonly spoken languages in Canada were (after English and French, of course). Sadly, my Google Fu kept turning up ‘snake eyes.’ It wasn’t until early last year that I saw tweet from Conrad Hackett, a demographer with the Pew Research Center, that linked to the very map I was looking for the year before. However, this map is even better, because it’s interactive!

The US map I linked to above shows the most commonly spoken language (after English/Spanish) by state. The map for Canada allows you to zoom in and look at specific areas within Canada. For instance, instead of grouping all of Ontario into one bucket, you can see some differences, depending upon which part of Ontario you’re viewing. For instance, in the Census Division (er, Census Division in Canada is kind of like “County” in the US) or York and Toronto, the most commonly spoken language after English/French is Chinese. However, in Peel, it’s Punjabi. Having lived in all three of those areas, those would have been my guesses.

However, I’ve also lived in Victoria and I’m not sure what I would have guessed. The answer is Chinese and I suppose that’s somewhat intuitive given that many immigrants from China choose BC (Vancouver or Victoria) as their place to call home). Similarly, right now, I live in Ottawa and I wouldn’t have guessed Chinese, nor would I have guessed Arabic for Gatineau (which is part of the National Capital Region).

One thing that should be immediately striking about the map is how much “Aboriginal” there is. It appears to be the account for the most land size. It’s probably not fair to group all the Aboriginal languages into one, so here’s a note on the methodology from the creators of the map:

We thought about this a lot when creating the map, and the primary reason is that there are simply not enough colours in the visual spectrum to use a distinct colour (and texture) for each language so that the map is actually visually pleasing and comprehensible. The editorial decision was made to combine the Aboriginal languages into a single colour (while retaining the distinctions and language-specific details when hovering). Why do we think this was a good decision? Almost all of the feedback we’ve received has been “Wow, I’m so happy there’s so much purple, it’s so great how much of Canada is dominated by indigenous languages!”. The purple wave is so striking, so visually stunning, and it clearly communicates the strength of the Aboriginal population across much of Canada — this effect would have been lost if we had selected different colours, and it would look just like everyone else. So we believe we struck a good balance.

One other part of the country that stands out is the Northwest Territories (near the top of the map). You probably could have given me a dozen guesses and I wouldn’t have said “Arabic” as the most commonly spoken language after English/French.

 

Read as if You’re Presenting: A Backdoor Argument for Oral Exams

In my experience, the best way to retain the material you’re reading is to be giving a presentation on said material. That might sound a little odd, but consider it for a moment. If you have to present on a topic, when you’re reading about that topic, you (should be) reading just a little bit closer and maybe a little bit harder such that when you’re up in front of a crowd, you’ll be more inclined to remember what you read.

It turns out, this anecdotal experience has been studied:

A recent study in the journal Memory & Cognition showed the effect that reading with intention and purpose can have. Two groups were given the same material to read—one was told they’d have a test at the end, while the others were told they’d have to teach someone the material.

In the end, both groups were given the same test. Surprisingly, the group that was told they’d have to teach the material (rather than be tested on it) performed much better:

When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.

Having a clear question in mind or a topic you’re focusing on can make all the difference in helping you to remember and recall information.

Intuitively, this should make sense. When some folks read “for the test,” they’re not necessarily reading with the intention that they’re going to remember the information after the test. Put differently, they’re almost always not reading the material for an oral exam. This reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago:

Presumably, the students could get through the entire semester and finish with an “A” in the class without having to say anything. I realize that a great deal of communication in today’s world is completed online and through writing, but isn’t our ability to communicating orally important, too? At least, shouldn’t there at least be some time spent on it?

In that post, I was suggesting that there be a rebalance from written exams to oral exams — in part — because in my experience, there’s a deficit in the oratory skills of students in university. Even if we ignore the epidemic of fear of public speaking, most students don’t get nearly as much time practicing their oratory skills as they do their writing skills.

As luck (?) would have it, should there be this shift from written exams to oral exams, not only would the education system be strengthening people’s ability to communicate, but there would also be an effect in having people better remember some of the things that they’re learning.

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To be honest, when I sat down to write this post, I had no idea that I was going to be strengthening my argument for having more oral exams in university and that’s — in part — one of the arguments from the article I initially referenced:

Association is a peg upon which you hang a new idea, fact, or figure. When you know where the peg is located, it’s a lot easier to find what you’ve hung upon it. As you read and come across new ideas and thoughts, you’ll want to connect and associate these with familiar memories as a means of creating a bond between old and new. There are many different ways to create associations in your mind, from pairing new thoughts with familiar objects, to creating acronyms.

So, next time you sit down to read your saved article on Pocket, catch up on a book on your Kindle, or read the Sunday Times, consider that the best way to retain some of the things you’re about to read might be if you were to pretend you were going to be giving a presentation on the material.

Reflections from the Fast Lane: Let in the Silence

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a “fast” person. When I’m walking down a city sidewalk of a major street, there’s a 99% chance that I will have to walk around at least one person. More than that, if I can, sometimes I’ll jog to where I have to go — instead of walking quickly — because it’s a more efficient use of time. I prefer to pack as much into my time as I possibly can (in most cases).

So, it was a bit ironic a couple of weekends ago when I found myself sitting on a park bench, watching my son interact with some of the other children in the park (and some of the other parents in the park). In particular, I was listening to the conversation that some of the other parents were having and I noticed that they were from “outside of they city,” and so there was an urgency to their actions. That is, they had somewhere else that they needed to be, so that effected the way they interacted with their children (and other children, it seemed).

At this point, I should probably clarify: as much as I possibly can, I try not to have any “obligations” when it comes to doing things with my son. Trying to explain the concept of time to someone who’s only been alive for less than 30 months and who can barely even say his own name seems like a bridge too far. Don’t get me wrong, I still do try to explain concepts that might seem a little out there (for instance: this past winter, we learned about friction, but there was a very tangible reason — ice — anyways, I digress), but when it comes to time, I’ve found that it’s best for me (and for him) if I don’t have any “fixed schedule” to keep. In this way, he’s able to play for as long as he wants (within reason) and there isn’t some sort of power struggle when I think it’s time we stop playing. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that this is a luxury I am afforded. For some parents, the idea of not having a fixed schedule is an impossibility.

Anyways, let’s get back to the parents in the park.

So, there was a parent who was interacting with their kid who was interacting with my kid. It appeared as though the other kid (let’s just call him John) wanted my son to fill up the dump truck with sand. Maybe it’s important to note at this point that this is simply a perception that outsiders may have projected onto the situation. We can’t actually know that that’s what John wanted (as John didn’t say anything). Instead, John’s mom interpreted this as John’s desire and then proceeded to ask my son a question related to filling the dump truck. The problem, however, was that she then asked him another question… and then another question.

Maybe it’s just a quirk I’ve noticed about my son (I’m all for the interpretation that everyone’s different!), but I’ve learned that if I ask my son a question and I wait for an answer, way more times than not, he will eventually answer. My interpretation here is that he has to reflect/think/cogitate before he can answer, both because he’s not sure what the answer is and then because he needs to figure out how to verbalize that answer.

In thinking about this interaction, it made me think about the way I am in just about all instances (except when interacting with my son) — fast. This mom was certainly in “go-go-go” mode, as she was thinking about the appointments that her family needed to keep and then she brought that same attitude to the interaction.

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My point in sharing this anecdote today is to remind you (and me!) to take the time to sloooow dooooown — at least a little bit — to bring a bit more intention to our interactions and even our way of being.

I’ve written plenty about meditation, but I’m not even talking about that in this instance. Sure, meditation can certainly help one slow down, but what I’m talking about specifically is taking some time to let the silence show you there’s music. If the “music” is always on, we don’t necessarily know that there is music (as we don’t know what it sounds like without music).

So go ahead, let the silence into your interactions and way of being.

The Complications of Spoken Confidence

Sometime last year, I came across a speech from the 2015 Toastmasters World Champion, Mohammed Qahtani. If you have a few minutes, I really suggest you take the time to watch it. OK, let’s say you only have a couple of minutes: just watch the introduction.

**SPOILERS BELOW**

While I’m not a fan of Qahtani’s parenting style (either option), I’m going to skip over that for now, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post. I’m also going to skip over the stereotypical portrayal of scientists, again, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post (but I will say that I’ve never meant a scientist who confirms that ‘stereotypical portrayal’). The main reason for writing this post is the first few minutes of the video. The startling anecdote that Qahtani shares about smoking and diabetes. Be honest — did you believe him when he said, “the amount of people dying from diabetes is three times as many dying from smoking?” Based on the audience’s response, I suspect that there are probably — at least — some of you who didn’t know this. To be clear, it’s not my aim to make you feel bad about this. If this isn’t a piece of data you’ve been exposed to at some point in your life, you probably have little reason to know. (Unfortunately, smoking is part of my family history, so I knew Qahtani was up to something when I heard him make that statement. Oh, and if you’re curious, WHO posits that smoking is the leading cause of death where 1 in 10 adults worldwide [!] die as a result of it, whereas diabetes is ‘only’ the 7th leading cause of death in the US.)

Circling back to the video… conviction. Did you notice the conviction with which Qahtani parroted the statistics about diabetes and smoking? He said it so assuredly that it almost makes you want to believe him (or at a minimum, question whether what you thought you knew about those two pieces of statistics was true or not). When I saw him do this, it reminded me of the hundreds of articles you see published each year that advise people on how to sell themselves or their company. The infamous elevator pitch.

Invariably, when you read articles (or books!) about how to give a good elevator pitch, you’re going to find that it’s very common that one of the most important things you can do in that elevator pitch is to be confident (or passionate or some other synonym that fits nicely into the author’s acronym). Don’t get me wrong, confidence is certainly important when it comes to making your elevator pitch, but in seeing Qahtani express himself with an air of confidence, it made me wonder about the human fallibility, with regard to elevator pitches.

Sure, I suspect that for people who’s job it is to listen to elevator pitches on a constant basis will tell you that they have a finely tuned BS-detector, but what about the rest of us who haven’t spent 10,000 hours listening to elevator pitches? I bet you’re thinking that you don’t have to worry about that when it comes to your field because you’re an expert. OK. Let’s accept for a moment that you are — what about all the other fields that you haven’t achieved “expert” status in — what do you do there? Well, I suppose you/we could perfect y/our BS-detector, but I suppose there’s still the possibility that you might make a type I/II error (depending upon your perspective). That is, there’s still the possibility that you might miss the BS for what it is and it’s also possible that you might incorrectly assess something as BS when it’s actually gold!

On that note, I want to leave you with the powerful words of Dr. Maya Angelou, on words:

Famous People Alive at the Same Time — Visualized!

One of the things that I’m passionate about when I compose new posts on here is offering some sort of new perspective or a fresh perspective. Naturally, these are my two most often used tags (perspective = 66, fresh perspective = 71). This means that, of the nearly 600 posts I’ve written, in 66 of them, one of the most apt words for describing the post is perspective. Similarly, for 71 of the posts, fresh perspective is one of the most apt phrases. Also:

The primary focus of this site is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a ‘tusk’ or a ‘leg.’ Some of the topics include: psychology, business, technology, education, politics, philosophy, and even history.

In today’s post, let’s focus on that last word — history.

Within the last 6 months, I came across a post that made me think, “Yes — thank you for doing this!” The post is found on a website that is absolutely brilliant in its aim — Wait But Why. The title of the post — Horizontal History. A short excerpt:

Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.

And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about. 

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

What an innovative way to look at history, right? If you take the time to head over to the post, you’ll see that the author has a number of helpful graphics. I’m hesitant to include any in this post because I want to make sure you take the time to patronize that website. Just to take a moment to describe some of the more important ones: on the left side, you’ll find the year and then to the right, the author has charted the births/deaths of plenty of famous people throughout history. In this way, you’re able to see when certain famous people were alive at the same time.

After the author has done that, they’ve pulled out a number of “smaller” versions of these bigger graphics to talk a bit about some examples. For instance, there’s here’s a quick example:

Every time I look at the lifespan diagram, a new interesting horizontal pops out to me. Here’s one more: People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869). These guys were all in their primes at the same time. So was Lincoln. . .

I’ve spent at least a couple of different occasions looking through this graphic trying to place who was alive together. One of the interesting things I found was that much of Johann Sebastian Bach (certainly one of my favourite composers) and Benjamin Franklin’s lifespan overlapped and that Adam Smith’s (economics) lifespan is almost wholly contained within Benjamin Franklin’s (save for two months at the end of Smith’s life). In the philosophy world at this time, John Locke died when Bach was a teenager, Voltaire’s life mostly overlaps with Bach’s, and Kant was in his 20’s when Bach died. Oh, let’s not forget that Isaac Newton was in his 40’s when Bach was born and lived for about another 40 more years. And since I’ve started with Bach, I might as well tell you that Pachelbel was born about 30 years before Bach and Vivaldi was born before Bach by about 20 years.

The Importance of Literacy in Science

A few weeks ago, I heard a parent attempting to describe to their little one what time it was in a different time zone.  I don’t precisely remember how the parent described the difference, but it got me to think about things of this nature and how we go about explaining them to our little ones. Further to that, it made me consider the importance of literacy in science.

My thought on this is that if a parent is better able to explain the science behind some things to their kids, it might make it easier for the kids to remember the concepts (or understand why things happen). The scientific explanation would replace the, “Oh that’s just the way it is,” or “Just because,” answer that kids might often hear from their parents.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if when kids ask parents why the sky is blue, parents are able to coolly and calmly explain Rayleigh scattering? Or when when kids ask parents about the sun always rising in the East and setting in the West, parents can explain the Earth’s rotation? Or what about when kids ask parents about things always falling to the ground and parents can explain the basics of gravity?

I suspect that if parents are able to offer kids a scientific explanation for why things happen, it could give kids a better rooted understanding of the natural world around them. More than that, I suspect that if it becomes the “norm” that parents (and people) have a basic understanding of scientific concepts, it might change the way we look at Science (or STEM!).

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Now, I’m not saying that parents need to go out and get PhD’s in biology, chemistry, or physics, but having a basic understanding of some of the more popular questions could go a long way towards normalizing an understanding of the world around us. Think back to when you were a kid — right in the thick of that period when you asked your parents questions about everything. No doubt, your parents were able to answer some of your questions and give you reasonable explanations, but I suspect that up to a point, the explanation probably began to fell apart. That’s not for lack of trying on the parent’s part — you can only explain so much when it comes to things you don’t understand. But I wonder if your mom/dad were able to give you the best explanation (that is, what science seems to tell us is the most current theory for why something happens), would that have maybe motivated you to test that theory?

For instance, let’s say you were asking your parents about gravity and your mom/dad explained the difference between gravity on the Earth and gravity on the moon. Might that motivate you to consider what the gravity is like on other planets or what the gravity is like in space or what the gravity is like in something that even I can’t consider at this moment? Kids are full of imagination and creativity, and I think if we foster that imagination through some of humanity’s best understand of the world around us, we just might encourage our little ones to change the way we think about the world.