Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?

 

Deliver Us From Evil

There’s a question that’s been floating around my brain for quite some time, and that is, can we create “good humans” without religion’s fear of a haunting afterlife or using a penal system to punish “bad” behavior by locking people away.  As an educator who pines for a more peaceful and equitable world, you might understand why I ask such a question as I do believe that I can make a positive impact on a human life.

During my high school psychology class, I remember learning about an experiment in which a social scientist, Stanley Milgram asked if the Holocaust could happen again.  In his experiment subjects played a role of the “teacher”, and they were told that the student was about improving memory. If the “student” could not remember something, they were to apply increasing amounts of electric shock to the finger. They could go all the way up to 4blindobediance50 V, and not surprisingly, “students” pleaded and cried to have the shocks stop, fearing that it might be fatal. At which time, the “teachers” were reminded by someone in a lab coat (not a real doctor or professor) that they have a job to perform and this shock treatment was for the “students” own good. With this reminder, the “teachers” continued to provide shocks to the “students”.  This experiment involved over 1000 participants and demonstrated the idea of “blind obedience”, in which people can be easily coaxed into mean and corruptible acts when they believe that the person giving the directive is a respected authority. This same experiment inspired other experiments that explored good people doing bad things; in particular, the most controversial and telling one by Dr. Phil Zimbarbo, who created a  prison simulation whose good kids were turned “evil” by the social situation in which they found themselves. (The experiment was supposed to go for 2 weeks but had to be stopped after 5 days due to the sadistic acts done by the “prison guards” to these mock prisoners.) Ironically, the images of Abu Ghraib in Iraq were eerily similar to the cruelty exhibited by these prison guards done in his experiment. When he was interviewed about the shocking similarities, Dr. Zimbardo came in defense of the soldiers who took on these roles because it was the expectation of the authorities above them:

Most American soliders are good apples and what we have to realize that someone put them in a bad barrel and we have to know who are the “bad” barrel makers are. And this becomes the metaphor: bad apples, what is wrong with the individual vs. bad barrels, which is situational analysis; and of course the system is the bad barrel makers, the people who make those situations and sustain them.

-Dr. Phil Lombardo-

He calls the impetus to do bad the Lucifer Effect, which if you want to know more about, you can watch his TED talk below. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable to learn about.

I postulate that this is true for all people, whether we analyze slavery, Nazis in WW2, gang violence, the genocide in Rwanda, Columbine shootings or the more recent terror attacks done by the Taliban and ISIS.  I think this is the same reason why American police officers have such a bad reputation and why the Black Lives Matter campaign began to humanize people of color so that people of authority can start to see their humanity and stop stereotyping them as criminals.  Never the less, all these people started off as “good apples” who got sucked into a system in which the lure of evil seduced them and they began to follow the orders of people they see as superiors.

 

Christians around the world say “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” And the point is that evil comes in many sizes and many shapes. There is the evil of action, doing bad things, but there is also the evil of inaction, not doing the right thing when you could.  This is the bystander effect. …People around the world do not come to aid of someone in an emergancy who needs their help. It’s so easy to cross the line…..but what about those people who resist the temptation and  power of the group, especially when everyone in the group is doing it. I began to think of them as everyday heros.

-Dr. Phil Zimbardo

 

That’s an interesting perspective and definition of “heroes”-the people who question authority and the system that allows for the dehumanization of people. As someone who was raised with Christianity, I always found Jesus to be a social deviant, caring for lepers and befriending prostitutes. He was an extraordinary and courageous man because he challenged the cultural structures of his time–and you know what that got him?-crucified!   It’s challenging to go against authority but in one of the scriptures,  Jesus tells his apostles that they can do what he does and more, encouraging them to stick their necks out for the greater good.

Dr. Zimbardo explains that small acts of evil can become an unconscious habit of compliance in our system and are compounded unless we make a conscious effort. In Confuciusism, there is a saying that “the small man thinks that small acts of goodness are of no benefit and does not do them; and that small deeds of evil do no harm, and does not refrain from them; hence wickedness becomes so great that it cannot be concealed.”  Dehumanism is the first symptom of going down that slippery slope of evil and happens easily when we begin to label people—perhaps you recognize these some of these labels:

Mexicans, terrorists, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, blacks, women, men, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Politicians, WASPs, Jews, Kooks, Asians, Blonds etc…

helpers

I agree with Fred Rogers, it’s vital to shift our focus toward the people who are helping others. And hopefully, those people are us. Maybe we can stand up or our children who stand up and make a difference.

These are easy to spot and quite obvious, especially when one turns on the news, as it shamelessly glorifies violence and hatred as a form of entertainment.

However, the antidote to evil is to begin to look at others as humans–people who share the same life struggles as we all do–then it is simple to do more good towards one another. It’s easier to stop and give that “bum” (a common label in society for people who are poor and homeless) a dollar when you act with compassion toward a person, knowing that ANY of us could be in that situation and connect with the thread that binds us all. Currently, the research shows that only 10% of people globally practice “mindful disobedience“–Zimbardo’s term for heroism–these are the whistleblowers and the everyday individuals who take extraordinary actions that defy the norms of the system they find themselves in. Not many people choose to challenge authority because of the negative consequences that they may encounter as a result of their action. For example, the Private who disclosed the abuse at Abu Ghraib had to hide him and his family for 3 years due to the death threats and emotional suffering that he encountered. Not everyone can go into exile like that, which is why so many people shy away from such acts of heroism.

But I do think we can do something about that 10%. 

The first step begins with us as individuals. Awareness and reflecting on our actions and words–are we participating either actively or passively in dehumanizing others, demonstrating agreement with exerting power over individuals that deny them dignity and compassion? C’mon–there’s a 90% chance that we are. Look hard enough and you can find ways that you are contributing to hatred and evil in the world.  Goodness knows that I’m searching my conscious and definitely find ways in which I could improve and be a kinder and more involved human.

And of course, it’s about education. I believe that you can teach children this skill of recognizing our humanity and helping them to develop the courage to stand up for each other, even if it means ridicule from our families, our religious community or other cultural structures that they find themselves in. If we can teach guide dogs for the blind intelligent disobedience  (the dog’s ability to know when not to execute a command it’s given when that command would bring harm to the person), then we can teach kids mindful disobedience as well.

Hopefully, newer generations will feel compelled to take positive action in the face of what may be the status quo of their culture or the system they find themselves in.  This could take the form of telling someone politely that their racist joke is actually quite offensive or disagreeing with your pastor’s advice to vote a certain way, or choosing not to post something on social media that dehumanizes others.  Deviation from these behaviors will hopefully cultivate a “new normal” over time, in which we begin to understand that the rights of others are everyone’s responsibility, regardless of race, religion, gender or beliefs. Respect and acceptance can become commonplace in our political and social systems if we develop awareness in ourselves and our children. I do believe that we can be “delivered from evil”, and I hope that you will take a moment to pause and consider how you might become a better human being as well because it’s simply the RIGHT thing to do.

 

 

Instructions Not Included

I am a parent. Like most parents, my child did not come with any instructions, and, although I am an educator, that doesn’t mean that I know everything about kids. In fact, I feel even more self-conscious since my parenting is probably more judged since I’m supposed to be an expert. Alas, I do my best.

And, I definitely have given it some thought. I know as a parent, I have a ridiculous amount of responsibility for sculpting my child’s disposition and interest.  I am Hannah’s first and her last teacher, like most parents, because my influence is the most enduring. So if I hope to impart some lessons in life that I hope Hannah gets from me, it would be….

  1. That she matters and the world is a bit brighter because of her. Her ideas are important and worthy to be shared.
  2. That there are no problems which are too difficult to solve. We may not have the answers today, but we should never give up on looking.
  3. To say “Yes” to life–take risks and be willing to look foolish. Don’t let the “good opinion” of others stop you from trying something.
  4. No matter what life throws at you, there’s some good in it.  Look for the blessing.
  5. That she is connected to all people–so be friendly. They are all family, God’s children, and we should find what is loveable about them and ways to show that we care.
  6. That she is connected to all life, for that matter–so be a steward to animals and our planet whenever you have the chance.
  7. That she is loved, no matter what and we want to see her to become her best self.

we-talk-to-our-children-parenting-quoteAlvin Price said, ” Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry”.  I feel that is some good advice and I often try to focus on what I love about her.  Hannah is funny and imaginative.  She’s one of coolest people I know and I really enjoy spending time with her.

The other day she invited me into her “world” in Minecraft. Let me tell you, I did NOT want to play Minecraft with her. Really, I didn’t. As a busy adult, I have plenty of stuff to do. But she was really proud of what she created and she wanted me to see it virtually. So I downloaded the app on my iPhone, created a character and added her as a friend. Suddenly I was in her “Love World”. She had made me my own house and she taught me how to fly, tame a horse, feed the pigs and drink invisibility potion. I would never have thought I’d enjoy hanging out with her “virtually”, but it was important to her so I made it important to me.

I heard in an interview with John Crowley, the man portrayed in the movie Extraordinary Measures, the details of his search for a cure for his kids’ Pompe disease. It is an amazing story. He founded a biotech company in order to “buy some time” with his daughter and one of his sons. In fact, he and his wife have 3 children, 2 of which has this debilitating Pompe disease which makes them wheelchair bound and the other child has Asperberger’s disease. Can you imagine that?–all 3 children are special needs! And the man had such great humility, I was astonished. In it, he spoke about his daughter, Meaghan, and how she has “raised him”, not necessarily the other way around. But it’s true–children do help raise us into the adults we wish to be. Because our example is so significant to them and our love for our children are so great, we strive to be more and do more good.

For kids, instructions weren’t included either, and yet they figure us parents out too. I suppose that is the power of unconditional love: it gives us strength, patience, and joy as we endure our failings and uplift one another.  Now, who can really write a manual on that?

What lasting lessons do you want your children to have?

What do you think your children are teaching you?

2017: Awesome and Wonderful?!

I miss the admonishments of my British friends for my overuse of the word ‘awesome’, claiming that applying it incessantly to everyday circumstances diminished its meaning. But what if 2017 is the year of the AWESOME (and Marvelous, darling)?

So, if that indeed is my intention, then how I am going to cultivate a genuine Awe for my life? How can my life be more Wonder-Full? Before I go forward in any argument towards marveling at the mundane, what are the indicators of it? I mean, how should I define it so I can catch it? As I reflect on this, these are some characteristics that I think can signal that something is awesome:

  • It leaves us surprised and curious.
  • It puts us in the NOW.
  • It touches the heart and penetrates our soul.
  • It puts us in any anticipatory state, in which you feel the joy in advance of the experience.
  • It overwhelms us with beauty and attunes us to the divine.
  • The experience is uncontainable and must be shared.
  • You feel privileged to have had the experience.

Also, I think the easy yet difficult part is to CHOOSE it–choose to put my antennae up and tune into it.  I know that miracles happen every day so why wouldn’t today be the day? Of course it’s possible! I have to be disciplined enough to take personal responsibility for my joy, and not be satisfied with my day until I find something that was utterly remarkable about the day. Seek and ye shall find. 

Of course there are big things that I wish to accomplish. I love this idea and inspiration from Ray Edwards:

“In the next twelve months, what must I become or do so that I grow in every area of life—and how can I enjoy the process?” ‘What do I most want to be thankful for one year from now?’ I write the answer down, and it becomes a focus for the new year.”

So, as I look at that quote, it summons within me a desire to do things differently in the year to come. “Enjoy the process!?-since when do we humans enjoy change, you say??- this is why so many people quit their resolutions!”

Perhaps, but...

a-mans-bewilderment-is-the-measure-of-his-wisdom-quote-1I think cultivating a habit of relishing in the mundane in pursuit of beauty and the divine is a resolution that is worthy of devotion. I wonder if my dedication will wane but I am curious about the result if I were to make consistent steps towards this goal. What if extraordinary things would ensue just by virtue of my openness to the possibility that something amazing could happen today?

And at the end of the day, I’d rather say that I bore witness to something utterly astonishing, that my eyes and ears were open to the extraordinary around me, and I could experience it as awesome, standing agape at the marvels of my life. To be in that state of expectancy I imagine would bring about a peace and fascination with life that I have yet to know yet in my life. So, in this year–2017–I am now hitherto for christening it as the year of the AWESOME. It is my wish for you too, dear friend, to experience more moments of profound gratitude and joy in the year to come:

May you be happy.

May you be at ease.

May you be free from danger.

May you be loved.

 

The Empty Boat

If your mission in life is to make a positive difference and not to prove how smart you are and right you can be, then you will appreciate the message of the Empty Boat.

 

 

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

-Chuang Tzu, a Chinese Taoist philosopher

 

I love this reminder–that no one is intentionally acting maliciously toward us. Just as an empty boat that rams into us isn’t aspiring to injure us, so too people who act unkindly are unconsciously acting out of their own desires. It’s nothing personal. We are not victims of circumstance and until we realize this, we will remain imprisoned by this offense. However if we can shift our focus,  assuming innocence and not attaching to it responsibility-quotes-you-must-take-personal-responsibility-quotesemotionally, then we can experience greater freedom and joy in our lives.

So, as we sit in our boats, we are always at choice as we traverse the rivers of life. So what can we choose?

Well, as I see it, there are 3 directions that I can cast my gaze when reflecting upon how I engage in life:

  1. Looking inward: my thoughts and judgements of myself.
  2. Looking outward: my thoughts and actions towards people.
  3. Looking at the environment: my response to the changes which I have no control over.

I know that I have to take personal responsibility for the emotions I feel, and I am at choice to greet these “empty boats” with anger or amusement.  It’s a habit that I wish to cultivate, in which I can view these aspects of my life with non-attachment and acceptance.