Mar 122010

A wonderful talk on happiness by a very clear and lucid presenter who is completely new to me, Srikumar Rao. I’m certainly going to check out more of his material. I ran into this on, but the video there was of lower quality so I’ve linked back here to the original. This was apparently from a conference in Denmark, so don’t worry about the foreign language graphics at the beginning, the talk itself is in English.

Mar 032010

I’m recently returned from a week-long conference of study and test-taking in the field of database design (my day-job), and find my mind completely burnt-out by the effort. Rather than wait till I feel especially inspired and creative, I’m going to adapt a lesson from one of my classes.

The class was on “agile” programming. I’ll quickly explain. More “traditional” methods of computer programming developed by such folks as the Department of Defense involved many stages of doing such things as gathering requirements and developing detailed documentation and designs before ever beginning to write programs. To be blunt, this effort to design the perfect program in advance doesn’t work very well. Requirements change. People aren’t sure in advance exactly what they want. And sometimes people don’t read documentation. The result is that a piece of software can take years to develop before everyone realizes that it isn’t really what they want. By then it’s too late.

“Agile” programming methods, in contrast, focus on building a program in small increments, with little documentation – but with immediate feedback from the people who will be using the program. It starts off pretty simple and crude, but at each stage, it gets better. And the people using the program can see how it’s progressing along the way, as their requirements change, or as they realize they didn’t really know what they wanted at the beginning. This results in better computer programs, more quickly, less expensively, and with happier users and programmers.

Perfectionism, in other words, is a trap. It’s not possible to know in advance, or in isolation, what the “perfect” system or solution will be. It’s much better to begin with an “ok” solution and modify it as needed along the way, as real-life situations suggest improvements.

As a junkie of self-development systems, I fall into the trap of perfectionism constantly. Some of you reading know exactly what I mean. Do you try each year to develop the perfect planning system, the perfect filing system, or the perfect diet, instead of simply starting with an “ok” system and making adjustments? Is your library cluttered with books about the latest perfect system for self-development? Is your closet cluttered with the latest exercise gadget?

For me, and I suspect for many others, perfectionism is really an effort-avoidance strategy at some unconscious level. We work at designing the perfect system because we don’t want to engage in the hard work of actually starting. There’s a very interesting book called The War of Art by Steven

 Pressfield that talks about creative blocks. Pressfield teaches that there is actually a psychic force or entity called “Resistance” which is actively engaged in the goal of preventing you from fulfilling your calling or destiny. Perfectionism is among the many tools it uses to keep you from actually achieving your goals.

To overcome resistance we need to discipline ourselves to take action – as if we were literally warriors.  A warrior has no time, in the heat of battle, to wait upon the perfect plan.  Take action today on your goals. Create even if you aren’t feeling creative. Whatever it is you do,  do it. Stop planning endlessly and actually put in some work – even if you aren’t feeling at your best. Mistakes can be corrected. But you can’t correct the work you never even start.

Feb 232010

peg So, I’m at a keynote speech in Las Vegas at a conference about data warehouses. I wasn’t really expecting to find good material for self-improvement here, but Frank Buytendijk, a Dutch management consultant at Oracle, surprised me. The point of his talk was that we Americana have a fear and aversion to “problems” that actually makes them difficult to solve.

You all have heard the sayings – “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”, and my favorite “It’s not a problem, it’s a ‘challenge’”. There are, if you’ll pardon the word, problems with this approach.

When we focus on solutions, we end up focusing on our own little piece of the puzzle. As the old saying goes, to the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What’s missing from this problem-phobia approach is…. communication. We understand our part of the problem, but not everyone else’s. And so we champion the solution that fits our needs, and come into conflict with those who have other issues and problems – problems we are afraid to discuss because of our fear of problems. If we were all open in admitting the issues we are having and bringing them to the table, we might well find that someone sitting across the table has a perfect solution. We may also learn that the solution that meets OUR needs has an unforeseen negative consequence with the person across the table.

Buytendijk suggests a new terminology – if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. If we don’t come together and share our problems, we can’t do a complete job of fixing anything. So let’s admit it. It’s not a challenge. It’s a problem.

Feb 182010

Today I bring you a very qualified endorsement for a very popular book – The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Greene is basically a modern-day Machiavelli, and his book is about how to acquire and hold onto power, by any means available. I nearly put the book down after reading the preface, with its sinister defense of deception, mistrust and treachery and cynical condemnation of apparently honesty and goodness as either foolish or manipulative.

But then I started into the book, and found that there is actually some value in it. Some of the laws are simple social graces, such as not being to flagrant in outshining your masters, and, when change is needed, to introduce it gradually and not reform too much at once. Some are basic social wisdom as you might find in biblical proverbs, such as not speaking too freely and persuading people with your actions rather than your arguments. Some are excellent self-development principles, such as acting decisively and constantly re-creating yourself.  But some of the laws are simply evil, such as keeping people in a state of fearful terror and taking credit for the work of others.

I still think the book useful, however. Spiritually-minded people, especially very committed ones, have a reputation for being gullible and lacking in social knowledge. This was true even back in the days of Jesus, who observed that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).

Religions, spiritual systems and the ranks of spiritual teachers down through the ages have been full of clever men using God and enlightenment as tools to acquire power. In fact, one of Greene’s laws (#27) is to play upon people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following. If nothing else, Greene’s book is an excellent education for the spiritual seeker in the methods of manipulation that unscrupulous teachers and organizations may try to use. For that reason alone, it’s worth a read.

And it’s a very entertaining read. For each law, Greene provides fascinating illustrations from the pages of history, from Otto Von Bismark to Nikola Tesla.  Some stories illustrate the laws being followed, and others illustrate those laws being ignored, often with disastrous consequences. Just remember that you’re dealing with an author who is openly praising deceit and misdirection.  Learn from his book, but use your higher judgment.

Below is a video of the author discussing this book.

Feb 172010

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.. (1 Jn 4:18 NKJV)

While fear is less and less a part of my life, there are still several situations that can cause me to panic. One is hypodermic needles. That’s improving. Another is sudden financial problems. The other day I opened my bank account online expecting to find a healthy balance only to find myself severely overdrawn. It turns out that when I had tried to make an online payment for $100.00 I had instead typed in 100,00 (a comma instead of a period). The company had processed a payment for $10,000.00 instead of $100.00 It took a week to straighten out, and my immediate reaction was panic to the point of having trouble breathing.

Fear is an instinctive reaction designed to make us alert and cautious in the presence of danger. This may be a very useful reaction when crossing a savanna teeming with lions. Unfortunately, our modern minds can create the mental experience of danger when there is no real physical threat. In the case of my mangled bank account, the actual situation was a matter of some pixels on a screen. There was no immediate threat or danger. My fear was the result of mental scenarios that my mind began to construct as it tried to process the implications of the error. Unfortunately, the mental reaction of fear was totally unhelpful in this situation. I needed a sense of perspective, clear objective judgment and cool reason. Instead I got tunnel vision and a body prepared to jump up a tree to escape a lion.

The spiritual roots of fear are even more destructive. Our ego, convinced of its separation from everything and everyone else, and conscious of its own mortality, constantly fears its own annihilation. The mind under the dominion of ego lives with a persistent background noise of existential fear. How do we escape it?

Since fear originates in the mind, practice in quieting the mind is a very helpful discipline to control fear. Meditation has many benefits, and this is one of them. A mind disciplined by meditation, like a well-trained horse, will not panic and throw its rider at the first sudden noise. Even if the horse jumps, like my mind did at the first sight of my negative bank balance, it can quickly be brought under control by the steady hand of consciousness. Meditation also shifts our consciousness away from the fearful ego and toward the greater Self, which is immortal, indestructible and beyond the reach of fear.

The passage from 1st John at the beginning of the article also suggests another spiritual practice that can help us. The way to escape the fear that torments us, says the author of John, is through perfect love. The Greek word for love here is “agape”, which is a rather difficult word to translate. It is not a simple human love. It is a divine, selfless openness and acceptance. It is a complete and total lack of resistance to the reality of the present moment, a surrender to the wisdom of God and the universe. It is a pure love for all that is, including the present situation.

In a post I did earlier, quoting from David Hawkins, I mentioned that this unconditional and universal love and acceptance is the first step to enlightenment. As a side benefit, as you perfect it, fear begins to disappear in your life.

There are other spiritual practices that can help transcend fear. People who have had near-death experiences report that the experience leaves them with a complete lack of fear. While we can’t deliberately have a near-death experience simply to cultivate this benefit, many of the same benefits can occur when we master astral travel, or out-of-body experiences. By having first-hand experience that we are more than just our physical bodies, and that our consciousness transcends our physical life, we lose some of our fear of physical dangers.

For particular phobias, hypnosis and self-hypnosis can also be helpful tools to rearrange our mental wiring.

Have you had good success with a particular method for overcoming fear? Share it with us in the comments.

Feb 122010

heart So, Valentine’s day is upon us and you still need a wonderful gift. Why not try something that shows more personal effort than a card and will be treasured for years? Poetry makes a wonderful gift, it costs only your time and it is deeply appreciated – even if it isn’t very good (trust me on that). But what if you don’t know how to write poetry? Let me walk you through the process. It’s not really hard at all.

Pick a topic – imagine a scene.

You need to pick a general theme for your poem. The trick to good poetry is good imagery. Poetry should paint a picture with words. So first you need to paint a picture in your mind. Think of the person you want to write for and imagine or remember a wonderful situation with them. It might simply be looking at them fondly at their most beautiful (or handsome) . It might be sitting together by a fire, or walking through a meadow. Imagine the scene in vivid detail. Add as much interesting visual detail to your imaginary scene as you can manage. For the example, I’m going to remember a scene of relaxing in a little beach restaurant in Mexico on a vacation I took with my wife. I’m just making this up as I write the post, so don’t expect Dante.

Pick a format

If you like, you can simply write in “free verse”. Simply use your best words to take little pictures of what you see in your mind. Keep the sentences relatively short. Something like this:

I remember that day in Mexico.
Making our way across the sandy beach to that small cantina.
It was so warm and lazy to sit there with you,
Sipping our margaritas in the shade.

You get the idea. For a conclusion, you can comment on why you remember the occasion or why it is meaningful to you. Using my example, it might be something like:

No matter how busy our life has been since,
A part of me will always be there with you,
Enjoying the sun on a perfect day.

Free verse is great if you have only a little time or little talent for poetry. But rhyming poetry isn’t as hard as you think. Make your poem really impressive and use a romantic rhyme scheme. For this example I’m going to write a Shakespearian sonnet. You’ll see that it isn’t as difficult as you think.

Writing a sonnet

The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian sonnet is this: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. I’ll explain. You write three quatrains – groups of four lines where the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. Here’s an example from Shakespear’s Sonnet 54.

O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

“Seem” rhymes with “deem” and “give” with “live”. Easy. And notice the nice images. But don’t worry if you can’t quite equal Shakespeare. The honor of having a sonnet written just for her can overcome a lot of bad style. The sonnet finishes up with a “couplet” of two rhyming lines. In the case of Sonnet 54, they are:

And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.


One more little detail, a Shakespearian sonnet is written in pentameter. That means that if you read the line, it has five “beats”. If you were reading it in time to a drum beat, the drum would beat five times. Like this:

O HOW/ much MORE / doth BEAUty/ BEAUteous/ SEEM/

A common mistake of beginning poets is to mess up the meter, and put more beats on one line than another. But don’t worry too much about it. The effort counts much more than the meter. Just try to keep it in mind.

Choosing rhymes.

Ok, now we come to the part that stumps would-be poets. Finding rhymes. English is a language that doesn’t rhyme very well, and many of our words have no rhymes at all. A common problem beginning poets have is to write a nice line, and then search around desperately for some word to rhyme with the last word of it. Here’s a little secret. Save yourself some grief and pick your rhymes FIRST, and then fit the writing of your line around it.

Go to a site like (a rhyming dictionary). Now think back to the scene you are describing and think of some simple words that you might use. For example, in my Mexico scene I won’t pick the word Mexico. But some simple words like sand, sun, breeze, day,  sea, blue. Type them into the rhyming dictionary and see which ones have lots of rhymes, and put those on your list to use. You can always use words like love, heart, sweet and similar romance words also. For example, if I type in “blue”, I get a huge list of words. Many of them aren’t going to be useful, but scanning the list, I find such words as: clue, drew, due, few, flew, grew, hue, knew, through, two, true, you, who.

You need to pick out seven nice pairs of rhymes (two for each quatrain and one for the couplet at the end). I’ll pick blue and you, day and way,  sand and stand, sun and done, sea and free, breeze and ease, heart and part, and finally sweet and complete.

Writing the quatrains

Ok, let’s pick two set of rhymes, remember our theme and images, and see what we can come up with. For my first quatrain, I’ll pick day and way, sand and stand.

How beautiful you looked that autumn day
In Mexico, while walking through the sand
Of Mazatlan, collecting on our way
A carving of a saint, kept close at hand

As I wrote, I made a few adjustments. I decided on “hand” instead of stand for a rhyme. I’ve re-scanned the lines to make sure they all have five beats. Notice how I’ve continued the thoughts onto the next l ine. There’s nothing that says you have to end your thought at the end of a line. But don’t use periods.

Moving along, I work another quatrain

We strolled into a cafe by the sea
Escaping from the swelter of the heat
That table seemed a paradise to me
Your lovely presence making it complete.

A couple more changes. I decided on “me” instead of “free” to rhyme with “sea”. That’s why it’s important to pick words with lots of rhymes. It gives you more flexibility. I started off with “escaping from the swelter of the sun” for the second line, but had trouble working in “done” to the last. I finally picked an whole new set and went with “heat” and “complete”.

Another quatrain to go…

The sea was such a perfect crystal blue
The flavors from the meal so rich and sweet
That only through the sharing it with you
Could any happiness be more complete

Ah, that one worked out well. No changes and it flowed nicely. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Writing the couplet

Now we get to the hard part. At least for me. The bottom two lines should rhyme, and they should sum up the theme of the poem. That gives you a little less latitude with the words you choose. I usually save my best rhyming words for the couplet. Here goes…

The day passed on, we needed to depart
And yet it lives forever in my heart

Ended up switching “depart” for part. Not completely happy with the couplet, but I rarely am. Still, It’s not terrible.

Now write it up on some nice paper with your best penmanship, put on a nice dedication, and you have a thoughtful gift. Even if you just went with the “free verse” option, I’ll wager you’ll do well with it.

If any of you try my idea, let me know how you do with it. Or post your poems here (if they aren’t too personal).

Feb 092010

Today I wanted to inaugurate a new section of – our video theater. I have previously used video links in various sections and book reviews when available. Now I thought I’d devote a new section to inspiring video messages, beginning with this “Ted” talk by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard on the Habits of Happiness

Feb 072010

The Soulmate Secret by Arielle Ford. As I am coming up on my 28th wedding anniversary, I wasn’t particularly in the market for a book on attracting a soulmate. But I saw this book in the “New” section of the library and thought it would be worth reviewing for the benefit of the many people who ARE focused on finding a soulmate. I’m glad I did, because the ideas and techniques are an excellent roundup of ways to manifest anything at all. They are tailored for finding a partner, but they are also good basic manifestational practices.

The author has been closely involved with many people in the “manifestational” movement, including working on “The Secret”, so its hardly surprising that the book reads like a workbook for “Secret” readers. But the additional detail and examples make it well worth reading.

Arielle deals with techniques like a treasure-map (or vision board), The “List”,  Feng Shui, mandalas, and exercises, activities and visualizations for preparing yourself, releashing old attachments, “feathering your nest”, forgiving yourself, releasing your desires to the universe, and enjoying the waiting time. She illustrates all these points with wonderful stories and quotations along the way. Some of the stories are quite remarkable, such as the man who, in the course of trying to attract his soulmate, woke up from a dream with a phone number running through his head. He sent a text message to that number, and the back and forth conversations with the woman on the other end led to a meeting and falling in love. And lest we think she’s only an armchair expert, she shares the story of how she used her own methods to attract her soulmate and husband Brian.

If finding a soulmate is a big need in your life, I’d highly recommend this book. Anyone who wants to manifest anything at all would also find it a good summary of manifestational methods.

Below is an interview with Arielle about her book.

Feb 042010

Nutureshock: New Thinking about Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I’ve been listening to this one on CD for the last week, and it’s been eye-opening. I already shared a little from the book in my post titled Never Tell Kids They’re Smart.

Basically the book re-examines what we THOUGHT we knew about parenting from the perspective of the latest research. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong. For example: praising children isn’t always a good idea. Lying can be a sign of maturity. Children are naturally racist. Expressing gratitude can be bad for teenagers. Empathy in children isn’t always a good thing.

I’m teasing you a bit here. The authors are all in favor of praise, honesty, inclusion, gratitude and empathy. But there are some tricks and twists to teaching these and other virtues to children that aren’t quite what you expect.

There are two main errors that have blinded researchers in the past, say the authors. First of all, researchers can unconsciously assume that what is good for adults is equally good in the same way for children. The second is to assume that POSITIVE traits insulate and protect children from NEGATIVE traits.

As an example of the first error, take gratitude. Studies demonstrated that when college students kept a gratitude journal, it improved their mental well being. But when teens were assigned to keep a gratitude journal, some of them actually felt WORSE. Why? Because a critical part of mental health for a teen is to develop autonomy and independence. By being forced to remember, day after day, how much they relied on parents, teachers and others  – the teens felt powerless and less independent.

As an example of the second, take empathy. Parents want their children to learn to be gracious, kind and empathetic in dealing with other children. They want their children to develop positive social skills because they assume that will protect them from being cruel or manipulative.  But researchers found that often kindness and cruelty were developed equally well at the same time by the most socially successful students. These kids would alternate between kindness and cruelty to get what they wanted, and were very good at it. So parents of popular children need to be on guard against the more negative aspects of popularity.

Anyone raising a child today would be wise to check out this book. Bronson and Merryman are very obviously concerned parents themselves, and the point of their analysis of the research is to be of practical help to parents.  Wise parents would do well to listen to them.

Below is a brief video introducing the book.

Jan 292010

I’ve been listening to a new audio book on child psychology, Nurtureshock. I hope to give a full review shortly, but each chapter is absolutely fascinating, and I thought I’d share a few of the insights along the way. Right out of the gate, the book’s research contradicts the established “wisdom” of the last few decades, by questioning the effectiveness of praising our children’s intelligence.

For quite some time, we’ve been told that children’s self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of their personality – a predictor of confidence and future success. And we’ve been told that the best way to build that self-esteem is by constantly praising them, especially their intelligence. And this seems to make perfect sense. After all, aren’t our own expectations of ourselves a critical factor in our performance?

And the research shows that praise IS important to children. But it matters a lot what KIND of praise. And it turns out that praising children’s intelligence actually has a negative effect. In one study, for example, children are given a simple puzzle test. One group of children is praised for their intelligence at doing well in the test. The other group of children was praised for their EFFORT. Interesting things happened to the two groups. The children praised for their intelligence became cautious. They were afraid of looking bad on subsequent tests. They played it safe. Deep down, they didn’t think that intelligence was something they could control, and so they worried about looking bad. The children praised for their effort became interested in harder challenges and did better on subsequent tests. They felt that their performance was under their control. By working hard, they could do well.

This pattern showed up in study after study, and when you think about it, it makes a read deal of sense. I was a smart kid myself, and was often told so. But sticking to a task and putting in effort was something I wasn’t good at – perhaps BECAUSE I was praised for my intelligence. Children who are praised for their smarts have a harder time sticking to their efforts when things get tough. If a subject isn’t something they are immediately good at, they tend to lose interest. They come to believe that success lies in finding their natural gifts, and don’t realize that they can achieve success in many other areas with a bit of effort.

Praise children for the efforts they make. Let them know that by practice, and work, they can actually change their brains and become smarter. This is similar to the message of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, which I reviewed earlier. Thousands of hours of practice at a skill can make a master out of virtually anyone.

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