Framing your life

I just listened to a Tedx Conference video by Rory Sutherland that harked on something I believe in strongly.  Sutherland is an advertiser but his talk was about how our perceptions frame our reality.  In 18 short minutes he is able to entertain, make you laugh and make you think about things.  His basic premise is summarized (probably badly by me) in these two sentences:

  • Things are not what they are; they are what we think they are
  • Things are what we compare them to

His idea is this: depending on how we frame things, our perceptions really change the thing.  In his words “our impressions have an insane impact on how we see and think…”  So we put context (or framing) into everyday situations all of the time.  And that context can be really good for us.  Or really bad.  Most importantly, if we can be aware of our framing, we can alter the “reality” that we have created.

The challenge in everyday life becomes balancing the technology, the economics and the psychology of a situation.  All three might play a part, but too often we only rely on one or two of them.  For instance, he notes that most business decisions are made with a ROI or profit or financial implication.  But rarely are the psychological impacts considered.  That is why the Law of Unintended Consequences is so powerful and omnipresent.  For a positive example, he uses the London subway adding LCD screens that tell you how long it will be until a train will arrive.  From a purely economic perspective, there is no “financial value” to the signs.  But from a psychological point of view, there is immense value.  Knowing that a train will arrive in “7 minutes” is very comforting to us compared to “having no idea when a train will arrive, even if it is only 4 minutes away”.  The “not knowing” is very disconcerting to us.  Our frame of reference is very negative in the second case (maybe the train will never arrive, I will be late, I will miss my connection).  But in the former, we know it will only be a few minutes, thus allowing us to relax.

This video came along at the same time as I am starting to read a book called “The Law of Divine Compensation” by Marianne Williamson.  They fit together.  While Ms. Williamson’s style is a little over the top for me, her ideas are interesting.  She believes that the universe is set up to work on our behalf.  How we wish to think about our lives is up to us.  We can be negative – and expect negative things to happen.  Or we can be positive and open – and we will generally find happiness. She says “No matter what is happening in our lives, we choose how we wish to think about it.”  She goes on to say “how we think releases an infinite number of possibilities that could have not occurred had we not believed that they were possible. Such is the power of our thoughts to attract as well as deflect miraculous breakthroughs.” (so the “miraculous breakthroughs” may be a bit much).

We have all been around people who are negative – and things never work out for them.  I guarantee all of us have NOT done something because of fear – pursue that new job, pursue that person, try something new.  We were not open to the positive possibilities.  On the other hand, perhaps you have done something you never thought you could do (run a certain distance, or lose weight or find a spouse) because you were OPEN to the possibilities.

“With every thought we think we either summon or block a miracle”

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Sherlock Holmes

I have been reading the entire collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes over the past six months.  I really love the Holmes stories and the way Conan Doyle develops his characters.  I’ve learned a lot about Holmes and Watson during this reading.  I did not realize beforehand that Holmes does not solve every case.  Some cases are left open by Doyle or he will say that the nemesis “disappeared”.  I really like this.  It shows that Holmes is not perfect, he doesn’t solve every crime.  It provides a bit of a human side to him.

I also have begun to appreciate the role of John Watson much better.  Holmes does not really need Watson to help him solve crimes – Holmes is typically way ahead of everyone.  And he really does not need Watson for protection.  Even though Holmes often asks Watson if he “has his gun” with him, I cannot think of a time where Watson actually used his gun.  Holmes is well-known for his lack of social skills, so he really does not have Watson around as a “friend” in the sense that most of consider friends.  But their bond is very tight.  Holmes needs Watson, but the specific nature of that “need” is never overtly stated. That adds a layer of interest to the stories for me.  Certainly Watson is the scribe, the chronicler of Holmes adventures.  Without him, Holmes is not written about.  I guess Watson’s presence in his life gives Holmes a bit of humanity – it makes him more human to the reader.  Holmes has no enduring relationships in his life, which could make him robotic.  But the addition of Watson provides a different edge.  For me, that complexity adds a lot to the stories beyond “crime solving.”  I heartily recommend reading the complete works.

On another point . . .

Each of the last three years, the BBC has produced a 3-part series of Sherlock stories for TV.  That is about the only show I watch on TV other than sports.  The stories portray Holmes and Watson in modern times.  Differences abound – Watson writes a blog about their adventures.  Holmes’ mind is portrayed on the tv screen as almost like a computer.  Cell phones are used all the time to text information.  But the stories have tried to stay true to the characters.  The first two years were very good, which had me looking forward to year three.  But like so many of the other modern renditions of Holmes (for instance, the Robert Downey, Jr. movie) this one took a turn for the worse this year.  Rather than focusing on Holmes’ extraordinary capacity to sift through clues, the stories became much more focused on relationships.  I was very disappointed.  The final episode sent me over the edge. In it, Holmes actually carries on a relationship with a female (although it was for business reasons).  And Holmes murders the bad guy at the end of the show.  He shoots him in cold blood.  These are totally against the Holmes that Conan Doyle created.  In all of the stories I have read, these are two circumstances that would never happen – Holmes with a lady and Holmes murdering someone.  So I am disappointed in the show – they are basically using the Holmes brand to promote a detective story unlike Holmes.  As the British would say “Rubbish”.

The Unwinding

I just finished a book, “The Unwinding” by George Packer.  This was one of the more unconventional works of non-fiction I have ever read.  Mr. Packer portrays the stories of half a dozen Americans over the past few years. The stories are frustrating and sad.  You see the problems the people get themselves into.  You cringe when their ideas for success are clearly not going to work.  But you also get frustrated when you see the barriers and traps our society sets up for these unfortunates.  It portrays an America that is not the “Land of Opportunity” but rather a land mine.

One long paragraph from the book really hit me.   It says:

“He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths.  Some nights he sat up late on the front porch with a glass of Jack Daniels and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of living chickens to the slaughterhouse – always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking-chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk -and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat. . . and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would gwor obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public and Mr. Dean would see them riding around the Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like the hormone-fed chickens.”

That does describe a lot of America.  It is not a pretty picture.

The “unconventional” part of the book is that Mr. Packer does not give you a premise and then go about proving his thinking.  He leaves it all up to you.  This book was both interesting and frustrating.  Interesting in the way it pulled together so many themes.  His stories were ones that we are all probably aware of but perhaps do not take the time to consider.  He does provide a very provocative premise about the future of our country.  It asks of us to look at a picture of different part of our society and say to ourselves if we believe this is the America we see.

But the book was frustrating in that he never pulls it all together.  He makes the reader put it all together – much like that paragraph above does.  Bad decisions by American citizens, companies (like Wal-Mart) that exploit the masses, Americans ignorance of the implications of so many bad decisions and a government incapable (or unwilling) to protect its citzens.  That I believe is the unwinding – the American Dream is not available to most Americans because of a combination of ignorance, indifference and special interests.  The American Dream – that the next generation will be better off than the prior one – has been unwound from American society.  That is a provocative and disturbing thinking.

It has been an interesting winter

This has been quite an interesting winter so far.  In the Dayton area, we are closing in on being in the top five most amount of snow in a year.  It seems like we have had snow on the ground since the start of the year (although I don’t think that is true).  But we have had a lot of days with some amount of snow coming down.  Unlike a lot of other years, we have not had a prolonged spell of warmer weather to tease us.

If the weather report is correct, we will record our sixth day with temperatures below zero on Tuesday.  Average for Dayton is about four days below zero per year.  We have missed nine days of school this year because of weather.  Every one of those days was legitimate, the weather was really bad.  Most of the schools around here have been closed nearly that many days also, so it is not just the “rural” schools.

Considering that the last two winters have been relatively mild, this has been quite a shock.  How can I say they were “relatively mild”?  Well, two years ago, we had no calamity days at school.  Last year we had one. So it has been a lot worse this year.

What does this all mean?  Is it global warming in action?  I don’t know.  My guess is that this is the typical vagaries of weather.  For whatever reasons the Farmer’s Almanac and the wooly worms were right last fall – we are having a more harsh winter than normal.  But when is the weather ever “normal” for a long period of time?

Luckily for me there have been enough days to get out and run, so I am not going crazy.  And the days off from school? Sure, I will take them.  Rose says this cold weather will kill more bugs, making for a better spring and summer.  Okay.  But I think I understand better why some people head south for part of the winter. 

The Greatest Country?

Many Americans call the USA “The Greatest Country in the World”.  For many, this is the land of opportunity.  Where else might a high school grad from a broken home become a multimillionaire athlete?  Where else are opportunities to make it big available?  Anyone with ingenuity, drive and passion has a chance to overcome obstacles and achieve success.   That is not arguable.

But are we really that “Great”?  And even if we are great, why can’t we strive to get better?  I can’t stand it that people say our country is great and settle for whatever it has become.  I don’t mean this post to be a populist screed, but if you are not getting better, you are not advancing.

Are we great?  The numbers might not say so.

I just read that these countries, among others, have a higher literacy rate than the USA: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Estonia, Ukraine.  Anybody think those countries are Great?

It is well documented that our high school students’ science and math scores are ranked in the low teens or early 20s when compared against the rest of the world.  Does that sound like a great country?

We have a much higher rate of death by gunshot than any other country  in the world. (But many would argue that we are “great” because we have freedom to bear weapons).

We have consistently had a poverty rate near 20% for the past 50 years, despite the fact that we “declared war” on it.  You could argue that poverty is caused by many things, among them people’s laziness and government incompetence.  For sake of argument, let’s say that those are the primary reasons for poverty.  But how come the “Greatest Country” can’t overcome that?

Our political system is a mess.  Approval rates are at historically low rates.  We are really not much better than Russia, for example, where the winner is already known before the election occurs.  Are we any different?  Nearly 90% of incumbent senators and congressman that run win elections every year.  That is great?

Health care is so screwed up it is impossible to imagine a system like that.  Over 35% of the people in the USA do not have health care.  That is a “great country”? Again, “lazy people” is an argument often used.  But what about the children of those lazy people?

I am not looking to put America down.  Nor am I saying I want us to emulate some other country.  But it is so easy to say “we are the greatest country in the world”.  People are uncomfortable arguing against that point.  But I challenge the notion that because we say we are great, we are.  We can do better.  Maybe the next time you here “this is the greatest country”. you will think about it.