Sunday, November 20, 2011

Levitin - This is your brain on music

Obviously, the title of this book is a take off on the scare-tactic commercials of bygone days of drug prevention. However, this kind of "your brain on..." is scientific, engaging, and, to a musician, a beautiful explanation of why I am so passionate about listening to, understanding, and performing music. For someone not deeply versed in what makes music interesting - pitch, timbre, rhythm, harmony, melody, and dynamics - the early chapters of This is Your Brain on Music are easily understood descriptions of things that we all understand at a general and descriptive level. However, understanding how they work together and how conventional use of each, as well as surprise uses, create the beautiful music that we listen to time and again, will hopefully help everyone enjoy music even more.

The assertion of the book is that music, dating back 50,000 years, may have been a type of vocalization that eventually led to the creation of language. From a neural science point of view, music uses more areas of the brain than any other function yet known. That's why brain-trauma patients who have lost their ability to read, talk, or even move can still sing songs that they learned as children or do something as complex as play the piano.

Music is so much a part of our daily existence that many of us don't even recognize when it is around us. Our taste for music is also shaped by the environments where we live. If we tend to associate with only those like us, we tend to have a narrower appreciation across history and culture. Exposure to broad types of music is particularly important for children because our preferences are established by our late teenage years. That's not to say that we can't learn to appreciate other types of music but, if we want to broaden our interests, it takes intentional effort.

Broadening musical exposure takes us into the culture of others and what is interesting about the cultivation of taste outside of our norm is what Levitin describes as a "U" shape. The "U" shape occurs when a 2-axis graph is created with one axis being complexity and the other appreciation. Initially, simple forms of music are attractive to us and they are the ones to which we resonate. Over time, the simple forms of music may become boring or too familiar a part of what we hear. Thus, we spread out and try new types of music but it is very predictable that the initial listening may require a stretch of comprehension. That's why, when we hear something to which we are initially attracted, we listen to it over and over, becoming more familiar with the new complexity of sound until our appreciation is firmly established.

Because music is so ubiquitous in our world, I see it as a metaphor for many other things, including leadership. So the idea of cultivating interest in diverse music is probably not unlike what it takes to cultivate curiosity and interest in other countries or cultures. Initially, we strike out to explore a culture that is a little bit of a stretch for us. However, as we travel more, or as we are exposed to greater diversity in our experience, we become more comfortable with greater diversity. My experience in Qatar has broadened both my interests in music as well as people. At first I explored cautiously, seeking to encounter difference that was only a slight departure from my own preferences or background. Now the easy stretches are less stimulating; I've grown more comfortable and trusting of greater stretches over time and now enjoy encounters that would have taken me completely outside of my comfort zone just a few years ago. It works in music, in relationships, and leadership.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As I get older...

Cornell West, eminent scholar who has offered essential comment in the discourse of contemporary American questions, has determined to return to his roots at the age of 58. In a statement about West’s decision to return to Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary where he started as an assistant professor in 1977, Rev. Serene Jones, Union’s President said, “As you get older, the more integrated your life is, the healthier it feels and the less time you have to spend waking up deciding who you’re going to be that day.” What a remarkable statement! And, it is the relief of advancing age that each day I wake up I spend less and less time deciding who I’m going to be that day.

West’s statement also indicated that he knew his days of fullest engagement in his work were numbered and thus, he wanted to pursue the work he was called to do on this earth. The joy of being in Qatar is that I fully identify with, and am buoyed each day by, the comfort of knowing who I am and knowing that my work is worthwhile and purposeful. And, I know that there is no place I would rather be than Qatar in a time when higher education is so important to young people around the globe.

One of the topics I’ve struggled to understand of late is the question of working in places like Qatar, and many other emerging economies where expatriates work. There are many benefits to being here but it also requires some sacrifices that can weigh you down. It is being aware of the balancing act of fulfillment in the work against the sacrifices that it takes to be here that requires constant monitoring. Lack of self-awareness on this question can be deadly. Deep awareness, while painful, at least allows me (and perhaps others) to focus attention in ways that maintains a tolerable balance. I hope to explore this more in future posts that are informed by talking to some of the other expatriates and Qatari colleagues with whom I work. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

FAT and Three Idiots

Faithful, available, and teachable – three very simple ideas but profoundly important to leadership and to fostering healthy and successful organizations. My recent post about the book addresses some of this but these three words are a bit more direct and perhaps even easier to understand and remember. I picked up on these words while listening to a speaker talk about how his organization selected and nurtured staff; his point – if you want committed and effective colleagues, be sure to assess if they are faithful, available, and teachable.

Faithful – beginning with the purpose of your organization, strive to identify and nurture faithful colleague who understand the grand vision you seek to fulfill. This faith reflects a conviction, and the willingness to act on it. And, the faithfulness reflects an understanding that the outcome of one’s efforts may not be predictable. Faithfulness to a vision is essential if any of us is to have a ghost of a chance of fulfilling our personal or organizational visions but there is another kind of faith that is equally important – faithfulness in our relationships – building trust, cooperation, and care that allows us all to do our best work.

Available – reflecting not only availability in time and space, a good colleague is available to live in the moment, be present, and attend to relationships and work. Have you ever shared something deeply important to you with someone you felt you could trust, only to feel empty and bewildered once the moment was behind you? In this example, the likelihood is that, regardless of your passion in the moment, the “other” was evidently not available to join you. Compassion, to live as if you are the other, is the kind of availability that really connects us with each other and our aspirations.

Teachable – demonstrating more than a capacity to learn, a person who is teachable is curious and eager to explore new possibilities. Most of us have a lot to learn and in our better moments admit that our understanding of pretty much everything has its limits. However, it is another thing to be a curious learner at every turn, ready to explore, to question, and to engage in order to bring new insights to the surface even when we believed that we were already well informed.

Realizing how powerful the FAT ideas were, I continued to reflect on these words throughout the weekend. To my surprise, a chance encounter with “Three Idiots” brought the FAT paradigm into full reality. “Three Idiots” is a film that I’ve heard about a number of times. It is a Bollywood movie that was recommended by a friend on numerous occasions but I never got around to viewing it until Friday night. I viewed this delightful film without English subscripts yet was able to understand most of the plot without the slightest difficulty. I was mesmerized by the acting, the predicaments, the humor and poignancy and then suddenly realized that I was seeing FAT in action. Three college-bound Indian boys are randomly brought together as roommates and develop a bond that allows them to discover purpose in their own lives that is quite remarkable. While the immediate and explicit purpose of their experience at university is to graduate with engineering degrees, along the way they discover the power of deep friendship, of faith that they will accomplish their goals if they help each other, and availability that brings them to each others’ aid in numerous precarious circumstances. Ultimately, the film demonstrates that not allowing oneself to be forced into boring, didactic, and demeaning learning can result in personal transformation and it can also offer the opportunity to encounter each other in ways that are deeply moving. “Three Idiots” is a beautiful coming of age saga that should not be missed by anyone who cares about education, relationships, and discovering how being faithful, available, and teachable can transform the lives of young people.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oppenheimer - Die Philharmoniker

During our recent visit to Eastern Europe, Diane and I went from one great Imperial architecture example to another. One that was particularly beautiful was in Vienna, where we visited the Belvedere Palace on a sunny summer afternoon. The Belvedere is now being used as an art gallery and it is truly one of the most beautiful palaces of Europe. While the palace was wonderful, there was a surprise neither of us anticipated.

Walking through the galleries without knowing what we would see, I was overwhelmed when I walked into the room where Max Oppenheimer's "Die Philharmoniker" hung against a far wall - the full wall as the painting is a monumental 298 X 432 cm in dimension. Die Philharmoniker is Oppenheimer's life work, although he produced many other pieces. He began the piece in 1926 and finished it in 1952, after shipping it from one studio to another as he sought to escape the persecution of the Nazis in central Europe. Die Philharmoniker includes images of several prominent musicians of the early 20th century, but most important to me, Oppenheimer included Gustav Mahler as the conductor. Although there are several artistic depictions of Mahler, including Rodin's bust, Die Philharmoniker captures the essence of Mahler more than any other. Mahler is at the center of the composition, yet strangely detached from his surroundings. He seems to rise above the orchestra in ways that draw only the best from the musicians but oddly leave him isolated and disconnected from his fellow artists.

Oppenheimer and Mahler were both Jews during very difficult times in Europe and America. Both were tortured and unfulfilled in many ways. And both are drawn together in Oppenheimer's greatest work of art and in a depiction of Mahler at his best - bringing life to music as few conductors have every done before or after his tempestuous years as director of the Vienna Opera Orchestra and Philharmonic.

The day we saw Die Philharmoniker was yet to reach another climactic point when we took the street car to Grinsing, a village on the outskirts of Vienna, to visit Mahler's gravesite at dusk. I was worried that we wouldn't make it before dark because I sensed the coming of dusk; luckily, it was only the result of late summer afternoons beginning early and lingering for several hours, as if summer days were meant for relaxation. We arrived in plenty of time and after searching rows and rows of gravesites we ultimately found both Gustav Mahler and Alma Mahler's gravestones. I don't know what I expected in being at the last resting place of a musician who has given me so much joy throughout my life. Although slightly melancholy, it felt more like the fulfillment of a relationship that, although lost in the moment, can be assumed to last forever. Sometimes I feel that I should have been born in the late 19th century so that I could have had a personal relationship with the artists, musicians, and architects of this time. To be able to study, visit, and appreciate Mahler's profound contribution to art was especially meaningful during this trip and I will never forget it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hsieh - Delivering Happiness

Tony Hsieh’s reflections (Delivering happiness: a pathway to profits, passion, and purpose, 2010) on the story of as an international e-business phenomenon are both realistic and inspirational. The most refreshing part of his recollections is that he owns missteps, failures, and success – a mix that is sometimes missing in contemporary business success stories. The missing reflection is the impact of Tony’s educational opportunity. He portrays himself as a less than motivated student who was more interested in starting entrepreneurial businesses than getting good grades. The clincher is that he just happened to have attended Harvard University and relied on the friendships and networks he made from his undergraduate days to create the core of the businesses he started as a 20-something. Neglecting to acknowledge the importance of being a Harvard graduate ignores how powerful privilege (whether economic, political, intellectual, or other) can be in shaping one’s life.

The best lessons from Hsieh’s reflections include the importance of fostering a positive organizational culture, the necessity of taking risks, and focusing on service that brings happiness to both those who purchase your service as well as to those working to make it happen. didn’t establish its company values but instead eventually recognized and documented them after it became obvious that their values were having a profound impact on’s success. The core values that they discovered employees embraced included:

1. Deliver WOW through service
2. Embrace and drive change
3. Create fun and a little weirdness
4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded
5. Pursue growth and learning
6. Build open and honest relationships with communication
7. Build a positive team and family spirit
8. Do more with less
9. Be passionate and determined
10. Be humble

These values allowed to survive economic ups and downs, lay-offs, and eminent bankruptcy. Most importantly, the company values helped the leadership stay focused when there were temptations to compromise on quality and they encouraged passionately risky behavior that took to higher and higher success in business and fulfillment.

Advocating that “your culture is your brand,” Hsieh makes a compelling point that positive organization cultures are the result of seeing the organization’s work as something beyond just the immediate task of product delivery (no matter what that product is). even measures the degree to which its employees see themselves as involved in something bigger than e-business sales of shoes and accessories by periodically asking them if they “believe that the company has a higher purpose beyond just profits,” and asking if “Zappos has a real purpose – is it more than just a job.” Simple questions but how sad it is that many people would not assess their company/organization as having either higher purpose or believe their work environment is more than a job.

Hsieh’s conceptual model of happiness is largely derived from the research of Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi on positive psychology and “flow.” Tying the points of work environment and happiness together, he commented, “I would learn that research from the field of the science of happiness would confirm that the combination of physical synchrony with other humans and being part of something bigger than oneself leads to a greater sense of happiness…” (2010, p. 80)’s lessons are definitely coming from a for-profit perspective. However, reading this story consistently made me think that education, and other not-for-profit initiatives, would do well to adopt these very same perspectives. Organization culture, risk taking and happiness are central to success in any endeavor.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Habsburg Tour - 2011

Diane and I had a wonderful opportunity to take a whirlwind Habsburg Tour during the recent Eid break. We flew to Vienna, then took the train to Prague and Budapest, and back to Vienna for a return to Qatar. We didn't realize it but we were actually taking a tour of the three great Habsburg Empire capitals. These three cities were profoundly influenced by the Habsburg dynasty of almost 700 years that covered much of central and eastern Europe. What is also fascinating is that all three cities are somewhat influenced by the Arab world (or, Ottoman as the history books would say) in architecture, art, and other culture. While the Habsburgs were certainly not egalitarian in their leadership, they made a great deal of difference through their advocacy for education and art.

This picture above is only a teaser for the many other pictures that are in my Habsburg Picassa album ( so be sure to check out the others...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Armstrong - 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) honored Karen Armstrong in 2007 with $100,000 to help her advance her ideas of compassion. Informed by her deep conviction that the world’s religions have more in common than independent truth, she chose to strike out to create an inter-faith human dialogue on what it means to be compassionate and how, as modern beings, we can learn to observe compassion throughout our dealings with each other and the earth itself.

Her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011), tells the story of receiving the TED award and using the money granted to her to begin a series of meetings among religious leaders that would ultimately lead to the “Charter for Compassion.” The drafting process included notable leaders of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism and relied on each tradition’s version of the “golden rule” to formulate a call “upon all men and women 1) to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion; 2) to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; 3) to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures; 4) to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity; and 5) to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.” (p. 7) The charter was launched and began with sixty locations around the world adopting the charter on November 12, 2009. More have followed since 2009 and, perhaps, the charter will begin to have the transforming impact that the authors’ sought as more people hear of the charter throughout the world.

Armstrong started her life as a Catholic Nun but grew to relish understanding the world’s many religions. While she references many diverse faith perspectives throughout her book, I was most attracted to her references to Islam. She has made a commitment in her speaking (I saw her at Georgetown in Qatar last spring) and writing to provide alternative, and in her estimation more accurate, characterizations of all religions but she has focused much of her energy on Islam. One of the Arab world contrasts she posed was between muruwah (courage and endurance) and hilm (mercy). The tribal and difficult life circumstances of many in the Arab world long ago required muruwah and a relentless commitment to protecting and avenging any aggression, or wrong perpetrated, against one’s family/tribe. By contrast, the Qur’an advocated for patience, forbearing, and merciful conduct that protected the disadvantaged, orphan, widow and destitute. This example was used to demonstrate the first step toward compassion – learning about it.

One of the examples she used to demonstrate humankind’s struggle for empathy was the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus. During the annual festival, all citizens were more or less required to attend public plays during which old myths were reflected in contemporary examples, resulting in a public meditation on key issues of values and ethics. These plays were intended to put suffering onstage so that the audience could begin to empathize with the plight of the “other.” (p. 93) Thus, Dionysus’ role as the god of transformation was formulated as first a journey into self, then beginning to understand others, and eventually being able to see themselves in the circumstance of others. This example was used in the fourth chapter that focused on empathy.

The seventh step, “how little we know,” encouraged curiosity in understanding others as a way to increase compassion. As she explained, so often we have our own pre-determined view of others and, instead of allowing ourselves to absorb new information and insight, we judge others in order to substantiate our own bias. She bemoaned that there is a certain mystery about others’ ways of thinking and living that is turned to sacrilege as we attempt to “pluck out” the point we wish to use to serve our own agenda. (p. 127)

There are many jewels throughout Armstrong’s book. It is short, easy and engaging to read, and hopefully will be read by many.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Autobiography - Gandhi

My friend, Sabirsha, gave me several gifts when Diane and I visited with him in the Kerala region of India in February, 2011. One of those gifts was An Autobiography, by M.K. Gandhi. First published in the Gujarati language in two volumes in 1927 and 1929, the English version was published in 2009. Though a translation, these were Gandhi’s own reflections on his search for truth. He concluded his reflections far before the end of his life because, as he noted, his life became so public after 1921 that numerous sources could be consulted to learn about his experiences after that date.

An Autobiography is an evolutionary story of Gandhi’s discovery of the essentials of life. The concept of satyagraha, or the voluntary simplicity and denial of self in service to others, was not something that came easily. Indeed, as so many other spiritual luminaries over the ages, Gandhi struggled, questioned, and perfected his spiritual calling through many trials and tribulations. Ultimately, his journey, recognizing many flaws along the way, served to break the bonds of discrimination against Indians in South Africa and moved on to confront the mistreatment of “untouchables” in India. Eventually, as we know from history, Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance, the “Velvet Revolution” of the Czech Republic, and perhaps even moments of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 are derived from Gandhi’s philosophy of first showing respect to others and then challenging injustice through non-participation in systems of oppression and exploitation.

There is so much deep wisdom in Gandhi’s reflections that it is impossible to do justice in one blog post. One point that fascinated me most is that satygraha, serving others, embraced those with whom he disagreed. When Gandhi began to realize the depth of the abuse of Indians and other people of color in South Africa, he was asked how he could not be angry with the perpetrators. His reply, “I am only sorry for their ignorance and their narrowness. I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right and proper. I have no reason therefore to be angry with them.” (p. 176) Such a view made way for a compassion that allowed Gandhi, and others who worked with him, to serve and bring justice to even those who opposed him. As an example, during the closing months of WWII, Gandhi actively recruited Indians to serve the British war cause against Germany, even when the record clearly demonstrated long-standing abuse of Indians by their colonizer. Gandhi sincerely believed that, although he disagreed with many of Britain’s actions, it had attempted to bring prosperity to India and therefore deserved the loyalty of British subjects who would defend her against other enemies. His point was that, even though he disagreed with Great Britain on very important issues, he was first committed to understanding their needs and viewpoint and by so doing agree with them as much as possible.

Once the commitment to understand, respect, and serve was established, Gandhi had an unswerving dedication to the causes he undertook to resolve. Through refusing to ride first class on trains when others of his culture were excluded, by creating voluntary living communities, by establishing natural fiber weaving groups and advocating work stoppages, Gandhi demonstrated in all he did that he would always observe “Ek Tek” – keep the pledge. The solidarity he reflected and fostered in others had a power that broke down many conventions that others assumed to be fair and right, or too difficult to challenge. The point was not to tear down the unjust systems but it was, through Ek Tek, not to participate with the oppressor.

These to core concepts – agreeing/engaging as much as possible with those who oppose you and staying true to your pledge – are found in many leadership texts. They are likely universal principles that help when negotiating the more difficult landscapes of leadership – a gift from one of the most often recognized great leaders when you ask “Who do you look up to when you think of great leadership?”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

America's message to the Middle East

I usually avoid overt political comment but my experience watching President Obama's Thursday, 19 May, 2011, speech directed to the Middle East was a bit of an awakening. I viewed it while winding down from my daily workout in the Clubhouse. There were two TVs going - one on sports and the other on CNN. As the time for the broadcast approached, I asked my friend, Raymond, to turn up the sound so that I could hear better. I also thought that some of the other dozen or so people from various cultural and national backgrounds might be interested. I watched and listened carefully while the rest of the room went on about their workouts, talking, laughing, and attending to each other - hmmh? What's the message?

President Obama's remarks addressed a broad spectrum of issues in the Middle East and northern Africa - revolutions, economics, unstable governments and their treatment of their citizens, and finally the Israel and Palestine question. Unfortunately, as I've grown to understand this area of the world, the question of Israel and Palestine should have been at the beginning, not the end. The reason that people didn't listen was because the West has repeatedly been unwilling to recognize this fact. While President Obama is the first U.S.A. President to ever utter the words "return to pre-1967 territorial lines," Isreal's response of "no way," coupled with the other issues of access to Jerusalem and the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland, loom as dark clouds on the horizon.

Countries in the Middle East and northern Africa are struggling to birth new governments. If they end up being democracies, they quite possibly will be Islamic republics. How will the U.S.A. respond if this comes to fruition? What I hope is that Americans will understand that the vast majority of Muslims are reasonable people and there is nothing wrong with a government declaring a state religion. Afterall, what have Italy, France, Great Britain, and many other countries done and quite comfortably as well? The declaration of a specific religion does not mean that those of other religions cannot worship - I attend a Christian fellowship in Qatar and it is not, and never has been, a problem. But the U.S.A. has to understand the risk that, should it not find a way to deal with the Isreal versus Palestine question, it opens the door for Islamic conservatives to wield greater power in these new Islamic-influenced governments, thus resulting in governments that will be difficult for the U.S.A. to embrace.

Sadly enough, President Obama's hands are tied by the politics of America; he offered a moderate position designed not to alienate pro-Israeli supporters too much. Considering Israel's immediate response, imagine what would have happened had Presidennt Obama asked for more. And how will the American public come to understand that the history of U.S.A. and other western interventions on Isreal's behalf, all the time ignoring the occupation of land and choking it out of existence, is at the core of it all? I am saddened that Obama's options are so limited and I am saddened that those in the gym on Thursday evening had grown so skeptical that they didn't even take the time to listen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gladwell - What the dog saw

“He held it in the air as if he were holding a Tiffany vase,” (Gladwell, 2011, xx) – quote and clue to the bottom line of Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, What the dog saw (2011). His others (the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers) were written as books while What the dog saw is a collection of articles he published in the New Yorker. The chapters were written separately without the intention to publish them together, yet they are woven together in ways that reflect Gladwell’s customary and unique insight.

The purpose of the title, What the dog saw, remained a mystery through six chapters, eventually emerging to make the point that bad dogs are not really as bad as we think. “Bad dogs” are really only victims of bad masters, or non-masters as the case may be. Cesar Millan, the trainer profiled in the story, was the one who exasperated owners called when their dogs were so far gone that they feared having to get rid of them. What Cesar did upon encountering these animals was to separate them from their owners, establish boundaries for what was expected of them, and then he began to teach them the comfort of expectation while freeing them to be good, obedient, and loving animals. Gladwell didn’t only describe Cesar’s discipline in dog training but also his dance (figurative) of symmetry, expression, and balance. Thus, “what the dog saw” was a metaphor for how relationships with dogs, as well as humans, need to be artistic, purposeful, and authentic. Working with dogs requires a frame of discipline that establishes the human as the master, the one in control, both in terms of setting expectation but also in providing loving reward when the dog behaves in reasonable and affectionate ways – just like the “man’s best friend” view that we visualize but fail to actualize when the balance of discipline is absent.

The other chapters convey many stories about how perceptions cloud our vision of reality. Whether it was “Million Dollar Murray,” a story of how solving the problem of homelessness in America may be simpler than we think, or the story of how Enron was a mystery rather than a puzzle, Gladwell nudges his readers to examine the quality of their thinking so that more accurate judgments are possible. In a very contemporary example, Gladwell proposed that the decade-long mystery of finding Osama bin Laden was no mystery at all. Osama bin Laden was “hiding” in the open, obscured only by missing pieces of information that would eventually solve the puzzle of his whereabouts. Gladwell’s point is that mysteries are situations where there is no real answer and to continue to seek more information is useless. On the other hand, puzzles are solved by identifying the right information that fits the gap in the knowledge-base; the need is not more information but higher quality information and the discernment to recognize it.

“He held it in the air as if he were holding a Tiffany vase” reflects the fascination for simple things that teach lessons for life. Simple things that most of the rest of us miss! In this particular collection of stories, Gladwell identifies people who have profoundly impacted our lives but who are people of minor genius. They are minor because they don’t inhabit the upper echelons of organizations but, instead, inhabit the middle places. They are the ones who actually do the work. They are free of the restraint of high-level leaders who are encumbered by the need to protect their positions and privilege. The middle people are the people who create and market things like the “Dial-O-Matic” vegetable slicer, or who challenge our idea of mustard with “Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?“ or they coin a phrase like “Does she or doesn’t she?” in order to take hair-coloring from the salon into everyone’s bathroom. Imagination, creativity, and initiative come from seeing things in a different way – a way that others neglected to take the time to see.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Amit Sood's Training your brain...

Carla Paonessa, a LeaderShape Board member and co-Lead in years past, recommended Amit Sood's (2009) Train your brain, engage your heart, transform your life on several occassions. I finally got it and read it over the last several weeks. Carla has attended training programs by Dr. Sood at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was instrumental in inviting him to speak to the LeaderShape Lead training in 2011.

Train your brain... proposes that the reason much in our lives doesn't go well is 1) our inability to pay attention and ) frequent misinterpretation of our experiences. On the first assumption, inability to pay attention, he uses the analogy of a computer that has too many active programs up and running, thus resulting in diffuse and partial attention (I've commented on CPA or "continuous partial attention" in a previous blog post). The freightening part of this inattention is that Sood cites research indicating that, when our minds flow to distractions that are negative and stressful, it forms a habit of going there, thus resulting in an overworked and over-stressed world that we create in the way we think. The second assumption, misinterpretation of our experiences, encourages the reconsideration of life's events within a principle-based or altruistic perspective rather than what is for many of us more of an ego-centered, competitive, "first-class on the Titanic" approach. The principle-based approach focuses on cultivating a habit of interpreting what we encounter throughout our days in a spirit of gratitude, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Attention and refined interpretation - sounds easy enough! Writing this post reminds me how far I drifted from these two simple points just in the couple of weeks I've been away from the book. One has to ask if the approach is faulty in some way or is it my practice and discipline? Unfortunately, the likelihood is that the problem is my practice. Turning to what could refine my practice of sharper attention and refined understanding of what is going on around me, Sood suggests that the focus should be on reducing the number of thoughts and improving the quality of my thinking about them. In a four-quadrant model (p. 168), he proposes that a) few thoughts with a negative focus results in depression and apathy, b) few thoughts with a positive focus results in attention, mindful and heartful awakening, c) many thoughts with a negative focus results in anxiety and anger, and d) many thoughts with a positive focus result in excitement, energy, and animation. You can choose for yourself where you would like to be but my preference is for "b" a good part of the time and "d" some of the time.

If a few thoughts with a positive focus is the goal, what does it take? Sood proposes that the best way to live this kind of life is to seek, and then commit to, finding meaning and purpose in all that we do. This is not a new revelation as this admonition can be found in most of the world's religious writings and it can also be found in the writings of contemporary sages such as Parker Palmer, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Otto Scharmer, and others. Fewer and more positive thoughts (and actions) are the result of more reflection, attentive care in all our encounters, and maintaining a higher purpose, even when there are obstacles and distractions. Pursuing higher purpose is not easy because deeply grounded and passionate commitments are often at odds with those around us. It appears to be the path in pursuing these passions that makes it all worthwhile because if it is only the end on which we are focused, we will surely faulter in the pursuit of what we value most...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reza Aslan - Tablet and Pen

I've learned a great deal from Reza Aslan's writing. Particularly as I transitioned to living in the Arabian Gulf, his No God but God was profoundly important to me in beginning to understand Islam, its history and potential future.

It was my past experience with Reza's writing that drew me to ask for Tablet and Pen (2011) as a family gift. Upon receiving it, I was a little disappointed that, instead of being Reza's work, it was a collection of other modern Arab world authors that Reza had compiled. Tablet and Pen demonstrated that Arab authors have been quite active over the last hundred years and that they have been taking great artistic and political risk through their writing. As I read a couple of the stories, I knew that the explicit images might give conservatives from a variety of backgrounds pause. I read on...

Reza punctuated the poetry, essays, and short stories with brief commentary introducing the pieces in each section. Overall, the entire book was a march through the 20th century up to 2010, granting the reader the opportunity to see both the anguish and resignation of Arab world authors whose lives have been shaped by colonialism, border disputes, and being driven from their ancestors' lands. Some of the stories convey hope while others cannot be understood in any other way than expressions of utter desolation. I read on...

As an example of both hope and desolation, Abu Salma offered a poetic critique on Palestine in his "My Country on Partition Day." Salma brought a poignancy to the post-WWII boundaries established by Western powers while proclaiming the eventual return of its native people:
We'll return some day while generations listen
to the echoes of our feet.
We'll return with raging storms,
holy lightning and fire,
winged hope and sounds,
soaring eagles,
the dawn smiling on the deserts.
Some morning we'll return riding the crest of the tide,
our bloodied banners fluttering
above the glitter of spears.

One of the essays included in Aslan's collection is that of Jalal Al-E Ahmad titled, "Gharbzadegi" (page 389). This particular piece (written in 1962) posed one of the more salient questions of the day - how much Westernization is required or acceptable in order for the East to make peace with the world and itself? The word used in the title, "Gharbzadegi," was invented by Jalal to mean "Westoxification" or "Weststruckness." Jalal defined West as the "industrialized nations, or any country able to bring raw materials to a state of refinement with the aid of machines and put them on the market as merchandise." East he defined as "nonindustrialized nations, or that group of countries who are consumers of products manufactured in the West, products whose raw materials... come from the same part of the world, meaning from countries in the process of growing." His point was that not only is the East "Weststruck" in terms of products but it is also in danger of losing even its own mythology, belief systems, music, and deep sense of culture. I read on...

It strikes me that those involved with U.S. Representative (R) Peter King's recent hearings on Muslim radicalization might benefit from reading Tablet and Pen. If Representative King wants to understand the dynamics underway, he might start by studying some history, by examining the evidence of Western and Eastern writers who have commented over the years about "the East," and by asking Muslim Americans how they feel about being American, what they have contributed and how they have benefitted or suffered as American citizens. I can't predict whether Aslan's book will make it onto Representative King's or any other politician's reading list. If it does, it will be tough reading and it will cause considerable discomfort. As King himself is quoted as saying, "These hearings are absolutely essential. I am facing reality. My critics are not." ( - updated 3/8/2011 2:16:04 PM ET 2011-03-08T19:16:04) The reality is that precious few Americans have done any reading about Islam and the Middle East and the number who sought out their Muslim colleagues and neighbors to understand their beliefs is even fewer. Maybe these encounters are where real solutions to radicalization of all sorts could be found.

Aslan's collection of contemporary Arab authors will likely be of greatest direct interest to Arab and Muslim world readers because it is a repository of important thought and writing on issues for them. As someone shaped by the West, but growing in my appreciation for the East, Tablet and Pen opened new windows of understanding to which I know I will return. The first reading was difficult because I didn't have the historical and experiential awareness to understood all I read. I read and will continue to read on...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Incredible India

There is a great tourism advertisment that runs on CNN every once in a while titled "Incredible India." It shows a young back-packer who travels by himself through various locations in India. There is much color and excitement. Most important of all, the traveler is seen making friends, being embraced in exotic cultural experiences, and getting caught up in the everyday life of the people of India.

That's what Diane and I experienced when we traveled to see our cherished friend, Sabirsha. After my failed attempt to visit him in November, 2010, Diane and I visited Sha in the Kerala region from 10-20 February, 2011. Select pictures ( from our journey offer only a glimpse of our "Incredible India" experience.

There are so many revelations from our travel - economic, political, religious, and cultural. Economically, Kerala is less densely populated than other areas of India and it has always had substantial natural resources. The lower density and high resources created positive trade opportunities which enhanced educational opportunity and should have created broad employment opportunity. The problem with the current employment picture is political. The people of Kerala have little faith in their government and see many of their politicians as corrupt. The proof of ineffectual government is that the economy of Kerala has not grown to a level that its workers have opportunities to match their education - many are underemployed or they work abroad. That's how I came to know Sha in the first place; after graduating from university, he didn't have good opportunities in Kerala so chose to work in the Arabian Gulf, a pattern followed by many workers who have come from Kerala to the Gulf and other areas for generations.

The religious heritage of Kerala is beyond fascinating. In fact, I would assert that it is an exemplary model for establishing religious appreciation across disparate faith communities. Jainism and Buddhism were dominant centuries ago. Hinduism replaced Buddhism as the primary religion of the people but Christians also established permanent communities in Kerala as early as first century AD. Jews followed the Christians and then Islam came to Kerala soon after the Prophet Mohammed PBHN established its base in Medina and Mecca (6th century AD). These religions came to Kerala as a result of the active spice trade that brought ships from Egypt (1,500 BC), Arabs and Phoenicia (3rd century BC), and Europe (1st century BC) to its shores. The trade and economic opportunities in effect became fused with religious pluralism and respect - charters and land ownership were established with all these groups as the Kings of Kerala recognized that all religious groups required legitimacy if trade were to thrive. The necessity of religious tolerance to trade vitality has created an amazing array of temples, churches, and mosques. The density of one type or the other varies by the region but it is not unusual to see places of worship comfortably placed beside each other throughout Kerala.

The documentation of the culture of Kerala, and its historic emergence, contains many gaps and contradictions. A book given to me by Sha, Kerala's History (Menon, 1967/2007/2008), helped me a great deal. This particular book traces archaeological records, documents, and art objects over many centuries to conclude that the culture of the people of Kerala has almost always been one of engagement with others, respect, and hospitality. Whether the openness to others was driven by climate (two monsoon seasons per year), topography (shielded by the Ghat Mountains to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west), trade (spice, herbs, and pearls), or by bounteous food supply (rice, fruit, and fish), the unmistakable fact is that today's Kerala is rich with welcoming and hospitable people. Perhaps greeting others of different backgrounds throughout the centuries was the cause. Maybe it is a nuturing environment cultivated through sharing natual resources. Or, perhaps it's the influence of the many mothers, wives, and sisters who remain at home to raise families while their sons, husbands, and brothers are forced to leave Kerala to pursue earnings that will bring prosperity to their families.

Diane and I were the beneficiaries of a Kerala that has a vibrant natural environment, an open culture, and extremely hospitable people. Sha, his family, and friends entertained us with deep and amazing care, demonstrating nothing but giving and generosity (evidence of which is in the picture to the right of our welcoming feast). Sha’s view of the world is truly one of abundance, and he demonstrates it with numerous acts each day when he gives all he has, expecting nothing in return. And, once he has given, others take care of him in ways that are truly profound. This is what I’ve grown to understand as love – the selfless, sacrificial, and unquestioning giving of oneself to family and friends.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I've used the term "civility" for many years but it has new meaning today. It has new meaning as a result of many of my experiences in Qatar as well as the tragedy that occurred in Arizona. President Obama's remarks, concluding with "Have we shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to people in our lives?" pretty much makes the case. Although no one wishes for tragedy, it is amazing how we are sometimes brought to deeper understanding after being shocked by the impact of the exaggeration of behaviors we observe on a regular basis. Does divisive rhetoric (incivility) potentially lead to such things as the Arizona shootings? Does disrespect (incivility) shown to others in our daily interactions drive wedges between us in ways that prohibit progress toward a more peaceful, compassionate, and prosperous world?

Unfortunately, some of my recent experiences in Qatar have demonstrated impatience, intolerance, and disrespect. Not from Qatari nationals but from visiting expatriate workers. As the media is now portraying (after granting Qatar the 2022 World Cup), Qatar is an amazing country with grand aspirations and a breath-taking pace of change. The kind of change underway here is more rapid and profound than almost any in history. And, this pace of change has bumps - mistakes, miscalculations, and times when the systems are not ready to match the challenge. I've grown to understand my role, when things don't work quite as I would have liked, as being one of appreciating the work that was done, respectfully critiquing for the sake of improvement, and doing what I can to take care of my own responsibilities. There are sometimes those who, instead of demonstrating appreciation and respect, choose to acuse, criticize, and worst of all, generalize from one experience to another indiscriminately.

Burgess and Burgess' (1997) essay on "The Meaning of Civility" proposed that understanding civility in conventional ways (i.e. being polite or courteous) has severe limitations in the diverse global community in which we live. Instead, they propose a number of methods to resolve difference. They say that true civility today, "entails an obligation to seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by opponents and to carefully try to explain and justify one's own position to one's opponents and others." Civility is two way - expressing respect and appreciation and stating one's own position in ways that does not denigrate, attribute ill-purpose, or diminish the value of others' views. More importantly, being civil is to express oneself in ways that does not devalue the other person.

Whether it is a stereotyping joke about the "other." Whether it is criticism that questions the purpose of the "other." Whether it is silencing (through whatever means) the voices of those with whom we disagree. These are all forms of incivility and, in all likelihood, they form a continuum of incivility that escalates as the rhetoric becomes more strident. There are lots of reasons why we, as human beings, might disagree with others - politics, culture, religion, socioeconomics... and these forms of difference are only increasing. The question is if we can find another way of demonstrating civility that leads to respect of difference, pleasure in our interactions, and improved conditions for all rather than accusation and marginalization that leaves us standing alone in frightened defense of our own sacred views?