Summoning Genius

Positive Psychology is the study of mental health, as opposed to the study of mental illness. Unfortunately it is still somewhat of a fringe discipline– most psychology is still the study of illness and how to cure it, rather than studying health and character strengths and how to develop them. This is the equivalent in conventional Western medicine of being able to heal broken bones and do surgeries, but not seeing the benefit of healthy eating and exercise.

There is now some research and discussion on how to develop psychological health on an individual basis. You can find science-based books on happiness, grit, resilience, optimism, flow, and more. There is a Handbook of Character Strengths and Virtues that catalogs what is known about character strengths, how to tell if someone has them, and what is known about how to increase them.

But little seems to be known about positive psychology and teams – the study of what makes teams psychologically healthy, high performance, fun, and growth-oriented. This is odd to me since teams are a fundamental unit of social organization in the workplace – teams are how work gets done. There are a lot of anecdotes – business magazines lionize successful companies and tell stories about what makes them successful, at least financially successful. Some industries like manufacturing have practices (like Lean Thinking or the Toyota Production System) but what about industries that rely mainly on creative work? Success is more than just financial success, but even on that level can we take what we know about a productive team or company and repeat its success with any level of confidence? Probably not, since exceptional teams and companies are rare.

This is important to us – individually and as a society. Positive psychologist Abraham Maslow said that as individuals, we want to work in a healthy and fun environment that helps us develop as people, meets our personal needs, and contributes back to society. As a society, we have pressing challenges – global warming, ecological problems, resource exhaustion, war, poverty, and the survival of our species, to name a few – and we could use highly effective help solving these problems.

That is why I’m interested in genius-level teams – high-performance teams that perform collectively at the level of a human genius, teams that can tackle and solve the pressing problems facing our world. It’s clear there have been teams like this in the past, and they have accomplished great things. I would also say there are some teams like that operating today. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on teams that performed that way for short periods of time.

How do we do it on command, reliably, repeatably, and often enough to make a significant difference to our world?

As a species and a civilization, we need this ability. We need to summon genius when needed. We can’t wait for it to be born. We can’t wait for the ones that are born to decide to work on the problems we consider important.

When we gain this ability, I am sure there will be many ways to do it. I don’t know them all. But I believe we can find them together. I believe we can learn new greatness-skills, work in healthy ways, have world-changing and world-healing creative breakthroughs, do work that is fulfilling and meaningful, and solve important problems.

To start along that path, I want to write down what I know about this topic as an easy-to-use handbook on how to be an effective team member– the handbook I want for myself. The journey from being an average team to being a high-performing one starts with a single team member. That member can be me. Or you. We don’t have to be a genius ourselves. This transformation can happen if we care, if we’re willing to be vulnerable and take the risk to start to change our aspirations, our viewpoint, our behaviors, our habits. It can happen if we take the risk to grow.

Unusually effective teams – genius-level teams – are also unusually creative. Surmounting hard problems requires hard work, but hard work isn’t enough. So this handbook is also about creativity as an individual and as a team.

Being a team member also means being an effective leader. In great teams, people lead and follow as called for in the moment. That may mean creating safety, modeling vulnerability, taking the initiative, raising controversial issues, or teaching these skills to others, so that the team as a whole is more effective. Leadership is a deep subject, so this book will only scratch the surface, but my hope is that this handbook can be used by people to help themselves and their teams move toward being highly effective. I also hope people will share this knowledge with each other, to improve this handbook, ideas, and skills.

I want this handbook to be based much as possible on science, on what is known to work, with an emphasis on how to do it. I want it to be an open source book that can be improved on over time with help from others, a guide that I can use myself to give me courage and inspiration, and one I can use with my teams to help them grow and accomplish their goals and give back to the world.

So I’m going to try to write it here on this blog and see where it goes. I’m inviting you to join me in exploring this topic together.

Here’s the book: Summoning Genius


Undoing Racism In the Northwest Yoga Community

I’ve said before that an enlightened society would not be a racist society. I’m fortunate to be part of a yoga community, 8 Limbs, that is doing work to understand and talk about racism. They’ve helped me expand my mind and heart in this area.

Recently there was an incident that occurred at the Northwest Yoga Conference that is making waves in the yoga community in Seattle:

On February 22 at the Northwest Yoga Conference (NWYC), a problematic interaction transpired involving an Indian woman and a white woman who also happens to be the director of the conference. Savitri Palkhivala was interrupted, asked to stop speaking and immediately leave the room, and ultimately the conference, by the conference director Melissa Hagedorn-Phillips. This elder, who has been practicing meditation for 35 years, was silenced while speaking about the emergence of female power in yoga as well as the aspects of the modern yoga culture that troubled her. This was an act of both racism and Cultural Appropriation.

8 Limbs made a statement about this incident. It’s well-considered and worth reading if you are interested in yoga and creating a more equitable society.

This statement from Laura Humpf of Rainier Beach Yoga about the incident is also thoughtful and great. Laura points out that it’s not about blaming Melissa for what happened– we need to look at ourselves and work together to better dismantle racism in a large way in our community.


An Account of the Land of Witches

In the Land of Witches there is, every year, a Festival of the Dreaming, during which all the witches dream the same dream together. The dream may be very simple. Last year they dreamt they were taking a pumpkin cake out of the oven. Everyone awoke in tears.

The Dream Science obliterates distance as well as time.

“Let me help you,” Verken said.

At that I snatched my wrist out of her grasp. She was a witch, a musician, and a free woman, and I was not; but there were some things that I knew better than she. On the subject of offers of help, I was something of an expert. In my home city, my mother’s cousin had offered to help her in her poverty by taking her youngest girl child off her hands. He sold me to my first mistress, whose son, a university student, helped me by teaching me my letters…

From the great short story In the Land of the Witches by the amazing Sofia Samatar.


Beautiful Mitochondria

Via AskReddit, a beautiful description about how cells came to use mitochondria for energy:

Back in the old times, when all life was single celled… photosynthesis was invented by the cyanobacteria. This released a poisonous, toxic gas into the atmosphere that killed almost all life: oxygen.

mitochondrion

There were few ways to survive. Most of the survivors were the cells that lived in places oxygen couldn’t reach. The bottom of the ocean or other extreme environments for example. Therse were the extremophiles: the archaea, the anaerobic bacteria. Many remained there and still exist today. Not to be found on earth’s oxygen rich surface.

Others though, were more clever. They survived by inventing chemical reactions that used up the oxygen. If the oxygen were used, it could not kill them, and they could continue to live on the earth’s surface and away from extreme environments. These too, still remain today. Some became the modern day aerobic bacteria. Others, we now know by another name.

The third way to survive the threat of oxygen was the most ingenious… rather than invent your own chemistry to use up the oxygen… hold someone hostage who HAD found a way, and use their chemistry for your own selfish purpose. These cells engulfed some of those who had the chemistry to survive. They captured them. Made them live internally… almost as if they had become organs of their hosts. The cells who had learned to survive oxygen still continued to live though… they went generations and generations inside these host cells. The DNA of the two became intertwined and interdependent. over time.. none could live without the other. They were now one cell: the animal cell. A cell which could survive the oxygen plague because of its internal hostages which used to be free roaming beings of their own: what we now call the mitochondria.

A beautiful description about how cells came to use mitochondria for energy (AskReddit)

(Image of mitochondrion via ThoughtCo)


Undoing Institutional Racism

I’m new to talking about racism. But undoing racism is one of my interests. And I want to be courageous, and I want live in a kinder, more tolerant, fair society. It’s clear to me that an enlightened society would not be a racist society. So here goes…

On Thursday and Friday I attended a workshop on Undoing Institutional Racism put on by the People’s Institute Northwest (PINW). PINW is affiliated with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. PISAB is headquartered in New Orleans has been around for more than 35 years teaching anti-racist organizing skills all over the country.

I really recommend attending this workshop. I found it to be hard and uncomfortable, and also very helpful and inspiring. You have to register about 3 months in advance to go because they fill up, and it costs $350, but the planning and cost are definitely worth it. It would be even more effective to go as a group from the same organization, to have the same language and talk with each other about it.

The program’s focus is not individual bigotry or how to talk with people about racism, but instead focuses on institutional racism – racism that’s perpetuated by systems, our society, culture, rules, laws, organizations, government, and corporations. I found this valuable when looking at the Shambhala Buddhist community that I am part of. It’s a mostly white liberal community – and would like to be more welcoming to people of color, but there are few people of color presently. The training made it clear that is a result of our systems and culture, it’s not by chance; and that to replace what exists now, it’s vital that we take a systems view and an organizing view (working together with many others).

The training had a focus on this view, which is PISAB’s view – I found it to be very aligned with the mahayana path: individual liberation from racism can’t happen without working on the social systems of racism. You have to work on both together.

PISAB takes an organizing perspective. From this perspective, at the Shambhala Center of Seattle we have a group of people who consider themselves anti-racist – both people of color and white people who are actively working on undoing racism. The trainers provided a framework for thinking about how we, this group, can help the community we love wake up little by little and undo our institution’s racism little by little. And how we can help our larger society.

One of the main things I took away from the workshop was that we are not alone. There are other people and groups working on undoing racism in ourselves as individuals and in our organizations and society, and there are these communities in Seattle – including other faith-based anti-racist communities. And they want to know us, be friends with us, and want us to join together to help each other.

Another valuable thing I got from the workshop was simply to meet other anti-racist whites in our city who are thinking about the same things and working on themselves and their organizations. I also learned about two organizations that I’m going to look into:

  • CARW – the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites – a group of white people in the Seattle area working to undo institutional racism and white privilege through education and organizing in white communities and active support of anti-racist, people of color-led organizations.
  • European Dissent – persons of European descent who “dissent” from the racist institutions and values designed to benefit them (no website) – associated with PINW and PISAB and use their organizing principles, there is a Seattle chapter

As a meditation instructor, I tell frequently tell others that it is ok to be uncomfortable. Being with ourselves when we are uncomfortable is how we learn to be kind to ourselves and to others.

It’s uncomfortable talking about race and racism. It’s uncomfortable working to undo racism in myself and the organizations I am part of. But as the trainers said, if we want a better world, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I was glad to spend time with people who were willing to do that for our society.

(People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshops in the US)


Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died a few days ago. She was a hero of mine – someone I looked up to my whole life. I read her books as a child and as an adult. They expanded my mind and heart, helped make me an optimistic person, and made me interested in kindness. Jo Walton, author of Among Others, one of my beloved books, writes of Le Guin,

She widened the space of science fiction with what she wrote. She got in there with a crowbar and expanded the field and made it a better field…
Le Guin expanded the possibilities for all of us, and then she kept on doing that. She didn’t repeat herself. She kept doing new things. She was so good. I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was.

I’ve returned to A Wizard of Earthsea so many times in my life. Ged’s struggle with his shadow, releasing it, the havoc it wreaks on his life, and then his quest to heal the wound really speaks to me and inspired me to heal myself. Her other books influenced me in similar ways. Like Walton, I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin says,

And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man who, knowing his whole true self, can never be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. In the creation of Éa, the oldest song, it is sung,

“Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”

Bless you Ursula, you made the world a better place.

(Le Guin’s review of Among Others)


Gourd Day

gourdAbout gourds, one thing they say in Blue Ridge is, “It takes a fool to grow a gourd,” and they notice how I always get a good crop. The other thing they say is that you have to hard-cuss gourd seed as you put them in the ground. To get their attention before they’ll even consider coming up. Gourds are stubborn-stubborn. In the mystical poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi gourds are a metaphor for human beings, and their rattling speech. If we make our noises against enclosure long and hard enough, we’ll break out and have some chance to germinate. This is the process: planted in mid-May, a gourd vine becomes a wildly growing thing through July. I have clocked one tendril on a wet and sunny summer afternoon at one and a half inches every two hours. The entire vine grows seven yards a week. Of the kinds I know, one flowers white, opening in the evening, the other yellow, opening in the morning. Where the flowers drop off, fruit nubs appear and swell and streak and fill with rain. In the middle of September you bring these heavy young-uns in and lay them side by side on newspapers on the daybed, where they can rot. When they get good and mildew-black with fur, you take them to the picnic table and wash them in white vinegar, scraping off the scum with your fingernails, leaving designs. After another month they’ll fuzz up again. Take them back to the table with the vinegar and hold and wash and caress them like babies. Then do it again. You’ll have dirty fingernails and hands that smell vinegary and some fine hardshell gourds. People, of course, make marten houses and soup ladles and fancy African instruments out of gourds. Some friends brought me a Balinese penis-sheath that is a long-handled dipper gourd cut off where the handlepart enters the womb cavity. Me, I shake them to loosen the seeds from the clump inside and give them away whole on Gourd Day. Why can’t a person make up a holiday and a way to celebrate it? It is December 17th, around sunset, with the sky deep winter red, that I secretly tie gourds to my friends door knockers and message nails. They call me the gourd fairy. No cards or words go with them. Shelled-in, foolish, and hard to get started, gourds don’t mean anything.

Coleman Barks, Gourd Seed


Lifetimes

I was at my Buddhist center tonight and a friend asked me, “Adam, how are you doing?” And genuinely wanted an answer. I found myself saying, I am feeling grief. It comes in waves. Often I don’t even know what I’m crying about now – often there’s no story anymore. It is contact with sorrow that goes beyond me, beyond my lifetime, sorrow that’s connected to something larger.

Naomi Shihab Nye says,

You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

I have been trying to welcome the grief in, like Rumi says to. I have been praying for it to transform me. Tonight I realized this is one way that it has.


What’s a Mathematician To Do?

Great answer on Math Overflow by mathematician Bill Thurston (1946-2012) to the question, “What’s a mathematician to do?”:
Bill Thurston

It’s not mathematics that you need to contribute to. It’s deeper than that: how might you contribute to humanity, and even deeper, to the well-being of the world, by pursuing mathematics? Such a question is not possible to answer in a purely intellectual way, because the effects of our actions go far beyond our understanding. We are deeply social and deeply instinctual animals, so much that our well-being depends on many things we do that are hard to explain in an intellectual way. That is why you do well to follow your heart and your passion. Bare reason is likely to lead you astray. None of us are smart and wise enough to figure it out intellectually.

The product of mathematics is clarity and understanding. Not theorems, by themselves. Is there, for example any real reason that even such famous results as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or the Poincaré conjecture, really matter? Their real importance is not in their specific statements, but their role in challenging our understanding, presenting challenges that led to mathematical developments that increased our understanding.

The world does not suffer from an oversupply of clarity and understanding (to put it mildly). How and whether specific mathematics might lead to improving the world (whatever that means) is usually impossible to tease out, but mathematics collectively is extremely important…

In short, mathematics only exists in a living community of mathematicians that spreads understanding and breaths life into ideas both old and new. The real satisfaction from mathematics is in learning from others and sharing with others. All of us have clear understanding of a few things and murky concepts of many more. There is no way to run out of ideas in need of clarification. The question of who is the first person to ever set foot on some square meter of land is really secondary. Revolutionary change does matter, but revolutions are few, and they are not self-sustaining — they depend very heavily on the community of mathematicians.

(via Hacker News)


Recipe For a Good Human Society

My friend JoAnn gave me this recipe card today:

Recipe For a Good Human Society

  1. Start with one View of basic self-worth — apply liberally and marinate continuously.
  2. Add high quality principles. Cook’s note: I suggest generosity, patience, compassion, kindness, and intelligence. Be careful not to cross-contaminate ingredients with doubt.
  3. Stir well, then let rest — this allows confidence to arise.
  4. Infuse essence of mixture into daily conduct, particularly situations that break the heart.
  5. Yields one good human society.

Serves: Limitless numbers of beings
Level of difficulty: Simple, but not easy