CategoryLearning

Ten Observations of Human Behavior and Learning

As a writer, I read a lot of books and articles, listen closely to how people talk, and take notes to capture ideas, lunch orders, and fun phrases. Here are ten observations and quotes from my scribblings with thoughts on how or why I found each to be helpful (or incomplete).

  1. Often, there is a “better” way to do things. It doesn’t really matter if you put your pants on with the leg left first or the right, but it is easier to put your pants on before your shoes. Early in my forestry career, I attended a “total quality management” workshop and Wayne, the instructor, drove home the point that there is often a “best” or “better” way to do a job, no matter your preference. “That’s called a good process. We’ve figured out better ways to use a chainsaw or drive truck, ways that are safer and more productive, so master those.” 
  2. A former Navy officer turned forest industry manager told me “As long as you have a cup of coffee in your hand or are carrying a clipboard, nobody makes you do anything.” In my experience, this reality holds up remarkably, unfortunately well.
  3. The only real security we have is the certainty that we’re equipped to handle whatever happens to us. I made this note after reading “Beyond Survival”, a book I’ve discussed before, by former Vietnam POW Gerald Coffee. This speaks to the importance of competence, self-awareness, and resilience. 
  4. Fill your days with activities that excite you. This is simply good advice. While we all have responsibilities and obligations, we can also have hobbies, friends, service, and work that, for at least part of each day, energize us. And if this is not the case, whose fault is that?
  5. Self-trust is the first secret to success.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The quote speaks to both the power of being comfortable in our own skin and the destructive nature of persistent self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity, which all differ from humility. Having self-awareness and self-trust means you know how to handle yourself in most situations (see #3 above). 
  6. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa.
  7. Avoid leaving good habits to chance. Since we are what we regularly do, we gain by scheduling and ritualizing productive habits, such as sleep, exercise, and date night to help reduce and crowd out less helpful activities, such as scrolling and stewing on social media.
  8. When we deal in specifics, we rarely fail. On the other hand, we rarely succeed when dealing in generalities. As an analyst, writer, and human, I find unsubstantiated, broad-based assertions to be extremely unhelpful.
  9. Learning is spaced repetition. I hold this belief as ironclad: we can get better at anything we practice regularly. However, since becoming a passable juggler and failing (so far) at piano, I observe that, while accurate, the lesson is incomplete. In addition to regular practice, we learn when (1) truly interested and (2) having sufficient understanding to “self-correct” basic errors. Once you learn enough to self-correct, you can become proficient at just about anything.
  10. Many things are more complicated and nuanced than we think. I find it helpful to acknowledge that (1) most decisions are made without certainty and (2) any increase in knowledge can (ironically) further increase uncertainty as it lays bare potential gaps in our understanding. As such, strong emotions, broad generalizations (see #8), and a failure to embrace proven approaches (see #1) can unnecessarily burden decisions. Embrace the idea that we’re doing the best we can with the information we have. Nothing is certain. As new information comes to light, we can adjust. 

How Do You Know What to Do Next?

Seneca wrote, “do not be unhappy before the crisis comes…” Avoid imagined sorrows and anticipated anxieties. Be present. See the big picture. Understand how things work. Control what you can.

Thanks for the fortune cookies, Brooks.

Yeah, I hear you. But I also hear you expecting the worst from the news, medical tests, and return policies. I hear you project stress about returning unwanted calls, choosing from new menus, and hosting in-laws. We seem to have an addiction to expressing our overwhelm and finding reasons to feel flustered.

When untethered, I find relief by intentionally owning my responses and focusing on what I control. In any situation, we rarely have a lot of options, especially if clear about our goals. [If you really want to sleep/exercise/read more, then stop talking to me and go sleep/exercise/read… 🙂 ]

Some practices, such as journaling, help tidy our thoughts and rekindle motivations. We benefit from anything that provides perspective or reinforces a good process for moving forward. 

Context

Seeing others perform well can help us appreciate our own strengths and clarify next moves. As a teenager, I heard a story after the 1986 Major League Baseball All-Star game that stuck. Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets and Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox were the starting pitchers. In that game in Houston, pitchers hit for themselves. Playing in the American League day-to-day, Clemens normally had a “designated hitter,” so this was one of his only at-bats since high school.  

Clemons stepped to the plate. He watched a Gooden fastball blaze by. Shocked by the power of the pitch, Clemons turned to home plate umpire Bruce Froemming and asked, “Do I throw that hard?”

Froemming responded, “Yes, Roger. At least that hard.”

Clemens’ at-bat against Gooden offered invaluable perspective about what batters saw when facing him. It gave him tremendous confidence about what to do next and how to approach his work. Clemens went out and pitched three perfect innings, throwing 21 strikes in 25 pitches, and earned the All-Star MVP. That season, Clemens also won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

Control

Context and perspective, in turn, enable us to focus on what we can control. Tennis great Serena Williams, who spent a collective 319 weeks (six years!) ranked as the #1 women’s singles player in the world, has a real-time process, brief checklists, for correcting parts of her game. 

With groundstrokes, forehands and backhands, Williams knows that if hitting too long, she needs to “cover the ball” by getting under it to add top spin. If hitting balls into the net, she knows she’s “hitting too flat” and finishes higher when following-through, getting her elbow up. If making mistakes, Williams employs her technical and intuitive understanding of how things need to be to systematically self-correct.

Conclusion

Instead of worrying about bad outcomes, about things that may never come to pass, embrace a process for staying on track. Remember and enjoy your strengths. Understand how things work. Develop a plan with context. Focus on what you control.

Three Reasons to Pick Up a Pen and Write

Introduction

Deciding to leverage your lived moments into wisdom, insight, and appreciation rather than choosing the passive habit of regurgitating op-eds or puffery means engaging directly with people and ideas. Forwarding a link or liking a post differs from thinking and creating. An active, original mind stitches together a swatch of learning here with our lived experience there to grow and serve.

When it comes to capturing, conceptualizing, and thinking through ideas, few approaches compete with the act of writing. Just as the wisest people I know read a lot, the most creative and thoughtful people I know write regularly as part of their professional or personal lives. In this post, I encourage you to take up the pen and write.

Three Reasons to Write

First, writing cultivates a fertile mind. For example, the simple act of journaling collects thoughts and observations and, when you close the pages for the day, allows them to mix and mingle while you trundle off to conduct your daily affairs. Then, when decisions arise, the wisdom and experiences captured in the journal have a way of synthesizing our experiences. The act of writing lets those ideas simmer, helping us gain wisdom distilled from our own lives.

This blog and my essays are exercises to refine thoughts and capture best practices. They force me to cull the nonessential and reflect on what works and makes sense with the goal of receiving and sharing insights. In this way, writing is a dialogue; it seeks a response.

Second, writing relieves the mind. At times, we get trapped in mental mousetraps, addictively griping over minor grievances, or stubbornly ruminating on things outside of our control. The writing process offers powerful medicine for thinking through a problem in a practical way without perseverating.

The physicality of typing or writing by hand warms ideas and mines the subconscious. It also provides a form of self-administered relief. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a practice of “morning pages,” which are “three pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand morning writing” that help us clear the mental detritus before taking on the day. Cameron notes that:

“…The morning pages…must be experienced in order to be explained, just as reading a book about jogging is not the same as putting on your Nikes and heading out…”

Third, writing armors you for battle. Regular writing sharpens your language and strengthens your communication skills. Great leaders and orators, from Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr built their philosophies and communication skills through reading and writing. Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, said:

“If I went back to college again, I’d concentrate on two areas: learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively.”

Conclusion

Write stuff down. If journaling or letter writing are not your thing, at least carry a pen and notebook for meetings, calls, work conferences, and events at your kids’ schools.  Write down ideas, lessons, and things you want to do. The writing process organizes ideas, identifies questions, and exposes holes. Your value as a thinker, regardless your field, will improve. 

In sum, put pen to paper and build the writing muscle. You will use more of what you write, verbatim, than you ever could realize.

Know What Matters: Baseball, Boundaries and the Astonishing Beauty of Things

The poet Robinson Jeffers[1] worried that people increasingly failed to engage with the world or to appreciate nature, that we had become blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” around us. When I read Jeffers or Wendell Berry, or watch a baseball game or observe my wife and daughters tease each other or gossip or laugh together, I think about the importance of being present and aware in all phases of life. 

In a practical sense, this idea speaks to the benefits of knowing what matters more and what matters less when making decisions about what to do, where to look and how to enjoy the day.

Tools and Toilet Paper

Baseball helped organize my life. Growing up, when my family moved to a new town, my parents would sign us up for local baseball, basketball or soccer leagues to keep us active and help us meet other kids. Sports taught me discipline, the power of practice and importance of teams. In college at MIT, I played baseball with a group of guys that were especially attuned to and interested in what it took to be successful on the diamond.[2]

Professional baseball scouts often grade and profile players based on five “tools” central to success: the abilities to hit for average, hit for power, run (speed), throw (arm strength) and field. The elusive “five-tool players” are the superstars, the household names of each era such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout.

That means the application of expertise also requires knowing where to look. As a forest industry researcher, I sometimes support due diligence, when one firm looks to buy another, in whole or part. When touring manufacturing facilities in the past, I always looked in the bathrooms to see if they stocked toilet paper, if the hot water worked, if the floor was clean. Cleanliness in the bathroom, and in the shop, indicated that management cared about its employees and increased the likelihood that the facility was well run.

Understanding what matters also involves awareness of context. As Larry Schiamberg[3] wrote in the preface of his textbook Human Development, thinking about our situations and relationships “requires attention to the progressive interaction and mutual adaptation of human beings…throughout the life span.” Consider the example of a young couple working to develop its “own family structure” over time. Key stresses include sex, finances, and parental interference. 

In the end, them’s the basics: your bed, your bank account and your boundaries. And when something unplanned, unwanted or unexpected affects them, it destroys trust and erodes relationships. 

Conclusion

Each field and phase of life has its pain points and astonishing realizations. Elevating awareness and appreciation of the moment enhances gratitude, encourages simpler approaches, and diminishes the need to be at the center of things. In fact, knowing what matters, where to look and what to ignore puts our attentions towards relationships and taking joy in how things work.


[1] Jeffers sometimes gets quoted in articles related to my research in forestry; he was active in the environmental movement in the 1940s and 50s. 

[2] This led to me writing a book – Beaverball – about my experience on the team and one of our (few) winning seasons.

[3] Retired Michigan State University professor and my father-in-law. Yo, Pops, what’s up? 🙂

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.