Argue Like a Teacher

Is is just me? Or are we all just shouting at one another these days?

Writing his BBC Futures column, Mindhacksblog contributor Tom Stafford suggests that a misplaced self-assurance persuades many of us to do the one thing we shouldn't when trying to win someone over to our side of a disagreement - enumerate the many reasons why we're right and they're wrong.

Throw in the easy accessibility of the social media megaphone and a few cherry picked bits of information, and those strongly held views devolve into casus belli. The problem, according to Stafford, is that we often think we understand how something works when in reality, we don't. 

The Best Way to Win an Argument:

Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the "cognitive miser" theory.

It's a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you'll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don't truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other 'I didn't really understand this until I had to teach it'. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: 'I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something'".

Those who can mentally slip into the role of teacher get another benefit. According to research he cites, people who "provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues," which is helpful if thinking afresh is your goal.

There's nothing like being the teacher to demonstrate how little we really know.

But if you're not feeling so charitable, there's something devilishly satisfying about asking one's adversary to explain in some detail how something works - or might work - while patiently listening. Almost inevitably there will be a pause, a wrinkled nose, a pregnant pause.

Let it linger.

Stay curious.


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"By the Book" Rarely Writes a New Chapter

It's no secret that data is big. Decisions are made and projects are quashed because the numbers don't add up.

But can we rely too much on metrics? Bruce Feiler, "United States of Metrics:"

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the statistician and former options trader who wrote the best-selling book “The Black Swan,” about unexpected events, said he believes the current obsession with metrics is a seductive trap.

'The evil here is not having metrics,' he said. 'The problem is that you start trying to maximize every metric you have and reduce everything else.'

Mr. Taleb said he likes knowing how many kilograms of meat he’s buying, but if his meal is measured only by kilograms of meat and calories consumed, then dozens of other uncountable qualities, like the pleasure of the food or the quality of the conversation, go ignored.

Metrics should inform decisions, but for the decision maker they will never, alone, point to the best possible outcome, and certainly not to anything fundamentally new or innovative. That's because what's new and innovative is not fully knowable now. And if an ability to innovate or fundamentally change direction is important to you or your company, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

As a snapshot of the world, metrics by themselves cannot hope to match compression algorithm already in your mind, a mere 3.5 billion years in the making. Throw in an openness to experience, a widely read and well stocked attic and a tolerance for ambiguity, and that first-person thing called conscious thought already encodes for incredible possibility. That's because, unlike the numbers in a spreadsheet or model, the human mind knows the things that it knows. Its "uncountable qualities" add crucial information to the mix.

Rather than a class in statistical regression, perhaps a course in improvisation, theater or stand-up would be beneficial. Why? Like life, creative outcomes are always a work in progress. And that next step will always be a step into the unknown.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, by the way, spoke at the IdeaFestival not long after the publication of The Black Swan.

Stay curious. 


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Your Phone, the Mirror

I'm a sucker for the big picture, so this piece from Prospect grabbed my attention. In it, Jacob Mikanowski reviews three books that wrestle with the transformation happening in our always-on, hyper-connect world, and connects it to a history of the self.

"All the world's an app:"

The search for the origins of the modern self has been one of the great snipe hunts in the history of the humanities. For Jacob Burckhardt it began in the Italian Renaissance; for Norbert Elias in the court of Louis XIV; for Harold Bloom it all started with Shakespeare. But the point is the same—for a long time the self was one way, and then it was another. As Lionel Trilling put it in Sincerity and Authenticity, “in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place.” Medieval people defined themselves as members of groups, and then, suddenly, they became Renaissance “individuals.” The change registers in poetry, in painting, in philosophy. You can hear it in Hamlet’s soliloquies and see it in Italian portraiture—starting around 1500, when these people look at you, they hold something back. They live inside their heads.

But do we anymore?

The irony of course is that we spend more time staring at screens than ever, lost in the promise of further connection.

Recently at the IdeaFestival, an artist debuted a mapping app. When asked for directions the software would deliberately route its users the long way around Louisville, past the Ohio river, around 19th century homes, and into off-the-map eateries before reaching the desired destination. It's that willingness to be productively lost that I think about about when I think about the IdeaFestival, because for humans, answers out of context do not know that things that they know. "Rote innovation" is a contradiction.

The great thing about IdeaFestival is that it offers different contexts for the questions that have always occupied us. If your concern is leadership, the actor or an improvisational comic might have something of use for you. The professor of evolutionary biology might suggest something interesting about the nature of altruism, as University of Louisville Professor Lee Dugatkin did in 2008. Goals matter as leader. Does the knowledge that many thousands of other planets circle other suns - some like our own yellow dwarf, and in orbits that suggest the presence of water on the surface of those worlds - change anything? Is there life elsewhere? The answer, whether yes OR no, ought to re-orient our thinking about the important things.

Our most intimate app has produced sentient, "I-am-here" creatures able to hold out many possible worlds for examination. It's been 3.5 billion years in the making, and, as Mikanowski says in Prospect, has always "required silence to access and space to experience." So if the game of comparison with your Facebook friends leaves you weary, or if the thrill of that next virtual connection is oddly deflating, perhaps, to suggest one response to his expansive review of the books that purport to describe us to ourselves in these crowded days, it's because our devices hold before us mirrors, not windows.

You might like the spoken word video embedded here. I thought at first it might perhaps be a bit overly sentimental until I realized it has amassed 40 million views. I got over my objections.

Stay curious. And keep an eye on this page for more 2014 speakers announcements, coming soon!


IdeaFestival Recruited to Plan for Zombie Apocalypse

In case you were wondering, the United States has an action plan for the zombie apocalypse, according to the Foreign Policy magazine.

Buried on the military's secret computer network is an unclassified document, obtained by Foreign Policy, called 'CONOP 8888.' It's a zombie survival plan, a how-to guide for military planners trying to isolate the threat from a menu of the undead -- from chicken zombies to vegetarian zombies and even "evil magic zombies" -- and destroy them....

Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for Strategic Command, acknowledged the document exists on a 'secure Internet site' but took pains to explain that the zombie survival guide is only a creative endeavor for training purposes. 'The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario,' she wrote in an email. 'This document is not a U.S. Strategic Command plan.'

The IdeaFestival was caught off guard recently when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached out to gauge the festival's interest in becoming a designated civilian training and planning center, tasked, among other duties, with understanding the adaptability and spread of harmful viral and beneficial organisms, and calculating the probabilities for human survival the future undead world. The federal agency, curiously, also asked for our thoughts on Sheldon Cooper's roommate agreement as a model for relationship between antagonistic parties with limited emotional range, a definitive statement on whether John Travolta's role in Battlefield Earth could be called acting and what the prospects for a reunion of the Fantastic Four might be. It was a serious conversation.

The expertise of the IdeaFestival in developing "fictional training scenarios" has also been recognized at the highest levels of the United States government. A joint statement from the White House and Congress said, "because of their unmatched commitment to imagining an alternate future, we find that the IdeaFestival and its attendees are uniquely suited to rebuild and expand economies following the outbreak of this virus. The old rules simply no longer apply. We commend them for having the foresight to draw from business, from the arts and from the sciences to think about what the future may hold," adding, "help us Obi Wan Kanobi, you're our only hope."

All of this is, of course, absolutely true with the exception of the part about cooperation between the White House and Congress, which deny ever working together.

An announcement on the IdeaFestival's training day and time is forthcoming.

Stay Curious.


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Philippe Petit on Creativity: "The Perfect Crime"

Dubbed "the artistic crime of the century," Philippe Petit's smuggling of the equipment needed to string a wire between the two World Trade Towers in 1974, and the long walk in a high place that followed, electrified the world.

Many years later, in one of the more memorable IdeaFestival presentations, Petit eletrified the festival audience, talking about his life, problem solving, fear, how to make mistakes, the art of misdirection and, in the question and answer that followed, posted here, revealing details of a life singularly led.

Here are a few of the quotes from the talk that found their way to Twitter in 2010.

  • 'We should have courses in intuition in university because it is a great force.'
  • 'When I wire walk, I link two things with my wire that could possibly have been enemies and for a time are at peace.' - Brad Bigelow
  • 'It's a joy to solve a problem. When you have a problem, don't look for solution, look at the problem. The answer is behind its face.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'Fear is a lack of knowledge.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'A ladder is two posts that has a festival of holes - think space, not rungs.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'We should not let fear fade the song of our soul.'
  • 'We are born with the impossible in us.'

Reflecting a little more on Petit's forthcoming book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, the "criminal" part of originality, I believe, may be its departure from strict human reason and logic, which can only take the would-be creative so far. Having been to many, many festival presentations, that departure is critically important to the kind of change any of us get, that in some sense creative outcomes, whether they be in the sciences, in the arts or in economic development, depend the willingness to entertain "the impossible in us." Yes, of course there are impossibilities. But sadly, too many of us settle for the certainties; the rules, as is often the case, are self-imposed.

Live a little bit longer with that idea of yours. If it's truly original, no one knows that now.

Stay curious.

You can read a little more about Petit in this NPR piece. His book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, will be available May 15.


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