Do we stop learning when we leave school?

Do we stop learning when we leave school?

bantersnaps on Unsplash

Do we stop learning when we leave school? 

Of course not. 

True learning only starts after graduation. It’s then that the real world smacks us in the face and we have to engage our street smarts and tough skins to survive and prosper. The formal learning might stop when the cap is thrown in the air, then our life learning begins in earnest. 

And where do we get that learning from? 

Sources of everyday learning

Our parents have already done their best to impart wisdom through our teenage tantrums and our grunts as the highest form of communication. Now they just want us out the door.

We can ask Google or Siri any number of questions. This gets us realistic answers as factoids and snippets of detail that we don’t otherwise know. This works so long as you ask the robots the right questions.

Then there are the online feeds with factual content indistinguishable from the advertisements and opinion of the bullshit artists. 

Most of us still browse a news media site or maybe still watch the news on the TV. Only these outlets are companies for the most part with no obligation to educate us in the things that are important. They decide what is printed, what is investigated, what is picked up from the distributors to fill the column inches. Their bean counters have only the company’s bottom line on their minds. They think of their audience in ratings and do not ask if they should be providing their customers with a service – eyeballs and clicks are all that matter. 

Hold on though, around the world, there are publicly funded and state-run media. Some of those outlets have more latitude to publish content that is educational. And for the most part they do, along with a set of government-sanctioned messages. 

My experience here in Australia is that the public services must increasingly chase that elusive viewer or else lose more of their funding. 

Then there are all those little videos presented by Joe and Jill public. Some are great and some are awful. They all rely on our judgement to decide if they give us any life lessons or wisdom. Remember that the Tic Tocers and Instagrammers are after clicks too.

Alright so we keep learning and the sources of material for us to consume are endless and require us to be vigilant.

Does everyday knowledge matter?  

Are the topics that enter the conversation via the media the most important to humanity?

Here is one answer.

But the horse race that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director, Covering Climate Now.

Climate advocates push that agenda of course and they are right to provoke crisis thinking around this problem. It is a huge deal. As I edit this post Sydney is in the middle of a five-day rain deluge breaking rainfall records only a year out from drought and horrendous bushfires. 

The climate change that we’re experiencing is easily sufficient to cause the next mass extinction, particularly as the effects are accelerated by human land use. 

Recall that four of the five previous mass extinction events were climate-related. The dramatic changes across the planet will affect every single one of us. Not talking about climate change is a criminal omission. 

But this is an advocate talking. Why pay attention to climate over other critical issues? If the climate gets the lion’s share of our eyeballs and worry, what about soil, food security, population, sustainability, not to mention pandemics (yes, there will be more than one)? The list of acute issues is a long one.

This begs the broader question of what is essential learning? And, of course, who decides what is important for us to know. 

Knowable knowledge 

The body of human knowledge is so vast now that no one person can be across all of it. Even a slither is challenging.

In my own discipline of ecology, the number of scientific journals and articles published each year has risen exponentially over the last decades. And since I was a postgraduate student, when it seemed possible to get your head around most of the concepts and the literature that described those concepts, nowadays, it seems impossible to even read the systematic reviews. 

Recently we completed our own version of an evidence review on the wild dog problem in New South Wales. This is dogs that are feral domestic dogs often mixed with dingoes into various levels of purity that occasionally predate livestock in the rural areas. 

Farmers respond to livestock losses negatively as you can imagine. Nobody who grows animals wants to see those animals killed or maimed even in small numbers. 

The literature on the dogs though is quite extensive. A Google scholar search on ‘wild dog Australia’ generates 23 research papers with these words in the title and over a hundred related to the topic since 2017. Keeping up with all of this information in its raw form is difficult. 

The media has an important role to play in presenting information in an objective way, synthesized into bite-sized chunks. What it seems to be doing though is sensationalizing everything in order to get eyeballs. 

I believe the media should be telling us about a whole bunch of issues that currently don’t even get any airplay at all. 

Particularly the crisis in the soils. The requirement to grow food and increase production at 2% for 30 years. The notion of the demographic transition, that humanity will peak at a large number of people. And we’ll have to feed that large number for a long period of time before that declines through natural attrition. 

But this is not news in the true sense. It is predictions of the future and news agencies are very wary of such things. The last thing they want is to be shown to get the future wrong, they will say their job is to report the present. They shy away from anything futuristic. 

What about the immediate consequences of longer-term stories? What about the aging farmers or the increased rates of suicides amongst farmers? The debt to equity ratios in rural communities or the number of rural properties operating as businesses that are just not profitable, never have been, never can be. What about the properties that are heading in that direction that were once viable and are now becoming unproductive? 

What about the fact that wild dogs are not really a pest at all? In terms of an economic impact, in the aggregate they are benign. 

What do we know?

I suspect that our desire to learn is a string as ever but I worry we are learning the wrong things and are ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us. We hide in our social feeds that are designed to deliver content that we like. And the youngsters who are trying to live on the edge of their comfort zones are really looking for that early life excitement more than education. 

The thing is when you get to a certain age you realize that education is actually fundamental to what you’ve just been through. And that if you’ve been successful most likely you have gathered about yourself the equivalent of education in various forms even f most of them are informal. 

Then you realize that you should have been doing that purposefully from the beginning. 

And education is not about certificates and grades or being the valedictorian. It is all about building your own capacity, your own level of understanding about yourself and how the world around you works. 

And how you can chart a better course for yourself as part of humanity.


Reposting is fine by me

Slashing the tall poppies

Slashing the tall poppies

Photo by Roma Kaiuk on Unsplash

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern took her global reputation for compassionate leadership that many of us crave and won the New Zealand election in a landslide.

The Labour Party she represents can now form power on its own without any alliance with minor parties. To achieve this in a small country with a proportional representation voting system is remarkable. It seems the majority of people in New Zealand are not only proud of her and what she’s achieved but want her to carry on.

Curiously then we see in the left and right-wing media in Australia articles that are saying “Oh but she’s got so much more to do”; “It’s now when the real difficulty begins”; “She won’t be able to carry on.”

The classic tall poppy slash. A poppy grows up and becomes tall to shine light and beauty on everyone else. And so we have to chop it down.

What is with this? What is wrong with us? Why are we so obsessed with cutting down success in all but our sporting heroes?

Ardern has shown what can be done, what a sense of humanity and empathy can do in a leadership position. And you’re not telling me that a person can rise to lead a political party in the west in modern times without being a fierce politician. She battled away to that position, just like anyone else would have done. I suspect that in the negotiating room, she’s as hard as the next one.

The difference with Jacinta Ardern is that she seems to remember where her humanity lies. There’s a photograph of her taking homemade scones to thank her campaign helpers. The article presents that in the narrative as though it was a cynical thing to be doing. Not at all. I believe that she actually has that level of empathy and understands that it’s people that matter.

And it’s the little things that you do for people that they remember.

It would be truly splendid if many more politicians developed this level of empathy. But more importantly, the skills to show it. Not only to people one-on-one but also to the rest of us who never have the privilege of meeting them.

I think it’s time we called out some of this tall poppy bullshit and gave people the credit they deserve for achieving great things.

The fact that the flower puts itself up above the rest to attract the insects is a risk to the plant. It takes courage and bravery to become a tall poppy.

That should be admirable.

Instead, the slashers come out.

It’s time that we recognized that courage for what it is and to be thankful that there are some people left prepared to show it.

Sense of humour failure

Sense of humour failure

I used to be funny.

The reason I could get a laugh was that I said what most people wouldn’t. What humoured them was the fact that their repressed thoughts could come out of someone else’s mouth.

Presumably, this is one of the rules of comedy.

I used to be able to read the room and figure out what the tension was, the issue or politically correct motivation that was dominating the conversation.

Once cornered I would point to the elephant or perhaps the pile of steaming dung on the floor and make a few deprecating remarks about how silly it was to be so worried about a fictitious beast that could not possibly be on the 63rd floor of a city office block.

Nervous hilarity usually ensued.

Not so much these days. Maybe the pungency of the dung doesn’t translate on virtual meetings.

I still make my wife laugh, thank goodness.

What a pleasure that is and a true test of a good relationship. I can be myself around her, say crazy things, be a bit wackadoodle and she loves it. Thankfully she is still invested.

For a while now I have struggled along in a very toxic workplace where mediocrity is considered poor form because it might show people up. Everyone is operating way below their capacity thanks to an atmosphere of fear delivering insecurity, all promulgated by the leadership. A nasty situation.

It has sapped my energy and made my normal humour redundant.

Trying to lighten the mood and bring people some levity in their being is vital because most work meetings are not that important after all. Not to say that good governance and its efficient delivery is not important. It is vital to our society. Poor delivery of law and regulation is actually cancer on democracy that will eventually bring it down.

Only without some levity, all sense of proportion is lost.

Nobody knows what really matters or when to be serious or when to make decisions or that it really does not require an hour to decide if we use Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Stress is an extraordinary phenomenon. We are all struggling to cope with a pandemic and ‘that year’ where in Australia, we had drought, heat, wildfire, flood, a pandemic, and runs on toilet rolls.

It’s a challenging time to stay light.

Back in my days in southern Africa, the Zimbabweans always used to say about any grumpy individual that he had a “sense of humour failure”.

I fear a terminal case of that presently.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to regain my sense of humour.

Meditation helps, of course, as does exercise. And yoga would too only seem to have lost the urge for that. So deep has the malaise become the only thing that seems to keep me sane is writing. It helps to put into words some of these difficult and challenging feelings.

There are days when the lightness returns and some humour is possible. I hope that those days will become more frequent as I come to terms with a difficult situation.

So keep your pecker up young man, your chin somewhere towards the sky. And hopefully, that sense of humour and lightness about the world will come back, even in these challenging times.

See, even if you just talk to yourself it can help.


Don’t forget there is always a little giggle to be had from the aphorisms of the The Confused One

Barracking for the best

Barracking for the best

Photo by Shapelined on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I was a Leeds United supporter. They were top of the league at the time, had the best players, the best team, and I loved their funky logo, very 1970’s.

I painted it on my school satchel.

This was a risky thing to do given that I went to school in North London, a spit and a shove from White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur, the team most of my school mates supported. And, of course, Tottenham is up the road from Highbury, the home of Arsenal FC and the enemy in one of the biggest local rivalries in soccer.

In fact, it was a huge shock when my son who was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Australia turned out to be an Arsenal supporter. What was he thinking?

My excuse for not ‘go you Spurs’ was that I had no sense of association with the area having just arrived from two years in the north of England and then prior to that as a young kid in South London. No affinity for North London at all really and so I aligned myself to the club that was doing the best at the time, the one at the top of the league.

I’ve noticed that throughout my life I’ve always latched on to the team or the player who was the best at the time. I admired that ability to become the world’s best or recognized as one of the best players of a particular game.

These days when I must decide between England or Australia during the Ashes tests, baracking for the best is a problem. As a cricket buff it’s kind of fascinating to want the home country to win or the best team to win which invariably in recent years at least has been Australia. Often I will cop out and follow the players who I think are the best out of those two teams, again most often Australian.

My focus is on high quality wherever I see it and not just barrack for those people but to follow them and to recognize them for their skill and artistry.

When somebody stands out from the pack because they’re genuinely good then I recognize that straight away and become a fan. Interesting to understand why that’s the case, why I’m going for the best team at the time.

Leeds United of course has been in the doldrums for decades. After relegation from the first division they struggled in the championship only this year to return to the Premier League. I have no idea who plays for the many more. I know they have a dynamic manager who’s given them a new way of playing and their current success. And I wish them well and I hope that they do well but I don’t follow them in the same way as I did as a kid.

Looking back a big part of this risk taking – wearing a Leeds United scarf to Stamford Bridge in the late 1970’s was reckless – was me going against convention. I wasn’t following in footsteps or the tribe. At least not of tribalism that has to do with why people support their local teams through thick and thin. For me, it’s about a search for excellence and an insecurity in my own ability.

I want to manage my own sense of inadequacy by looking up to people with talent, recognising high quality and becoming a fan of not necessarily the individual or the team, but the qualities that they represent.

That way, I always have something to live up to.

I find this motivation useful in just about everything that I do. Even when I tried woodworking, which I’m dreadful at, and put together tools and the skills to try to have a go at it. I went to the great training ground of YouTube and found incredible individuals who were able to not just demonstrate skill in construction with wood, from the basics through to some complicated solutions, but we’re good at explaining it. They made woodworking accessible and the skills learnable through humour or an ability to take a process and break it down into its constituent parts. After many an hour across multiple channels looking at the woodwork material I now have a reasonable idea of how to do it, at least not to make a complete hash of it, and hopefully keep myself safe.

My problem, as regulars will know from the sort of post on Alloporus, there’s always a challenge in there somewhere. The challenge of seeking excellence is this.

I have lost the ability to find excellence in the workplace.

Many of you will know that I work in the environmental sciences. My role as an ecologist is to try and understand how the natural world works in order to better apply policy and practice.

At the moment the application is to agricultural production systems and balancing agricultural production with other values that we gain from the environment.

I have struggled over the last decade or so to maintain that sense of who should I barrack for? Who can I see that is demonstrating excellence in this process. Who is really across there portfolio and understands the processes and what’s happening.

To be honest with you, I don’t have those people anymore.

As a young academic I found such individuals easily. They were the senior professors and the prolific academic writers who were able to talk with true depth of understanding. Whenever they said something I would think, ‘I didn’t get that, you know, I need to learn more from what this person is saying’ and off I would go to the library. Maybe I put those people on a pedestal a little, but they were extremely helpful in guiding me forward.

One of the reasons that top academics achieve success is because they’re knowledgeable. They read a lot. They spend hours and hours and hours reading up on their discipline and unpacking the information. It’s not about smarts, more about absorbing and putting content into context. And individuals good at this were never short of an answer or a pearl of wisdom. So I tried to be like them. I tried to gather as much information as I could and I think that, over the years, I’ve been reasonably good at that.

Perhaps my weakness is that I am interested in so many different things. I have more breadth than depth. That is not so good if you want to be an academic but perhaps not so bad a thing if you’re trying to be an environmentalist or to create genuine sustainability outcomes.

Breadth distances you from the main players. A shortage of these well read people in the latter part of my career is perhaps understandable. Those individuals I admired have either retired or have passed away. The youngsters coming through are out of my reach now that I’m no longer in the academic world.

In the applied work I now find myself closer to the operations of the environment on the ground. The quality of knowledge is different. People know about their local circumstances. They know about the local situations they’re dealing with and are not lacking in knowledge. But they’re mostly ignorant of the sort of theoretical and structural underpinnings of their subject.

I have local knowledge too from the many years spent trudging around in the field collecting data. But it wasn’t their fields, Mostly it was fields on other continents. And it creates a gap in the sense that they don’t believe that I understand what they’re talking about because I don’t know their local circumstances.

And they don’t know what I’m talking about because they lack that knowledge of the theory and applying the theory to the practice.

I feel at a bit of a loss to be honest, desperate for the workplace equivalent of the best player and the best teams. I can’t find them, nobody available to latch onto and regain a sense of motivation and something to work towards.

Unless of course, they don’t exist. And so we arrive at the nub of it.

Maybe we don’t have these people that understand the bigger picture. At least in the way that I’ve been trying to understand it for the last decade with breadth rather than depth.

I hope that I am wrong.

Gender reveal

Gender reveal

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Jill is so excited. She has invited the whole family and her besties around on a sunny sunday afternoon for tea.

On the table is a beautiful cream cake.

Her husband Joe joins his heavily pregnant wife at the table along with their son Billy and he announces that it is time to cut the cake. The gender of the unborn baby revealed to the expectant audience.

What will it be?

The excitement builds, will Billy have a brother to beat up or a sister who will run rings around him before breakfast?

In the mother’s belly, the baby is wondering what all the fuss is about and wishing that its mother would stop stressing and go lie down.

The mother and father hold the knife together just like they did all those years ago and plunge the blade into the cake.

Squeaks of delight from all the single ladies while the mothers clip their little Johnnies around the ear for pigging out on the sausage rolls.

A second cut. It is the moment of truth.

The slice emerges from the creamy camouflage to reveal… beige.

It’s a gender-neutral baby.

OMGs all around, what is going on?

Shock and blank stares and a few chuckles from the early adopters.

Joe rotates the cake and quickly cuts another slice, maybe the reveal is sector-specific. He lifts the next slice and the crowd gasps. It is still beige.

This baby has no gender. It is destined to live life on the outer rim of society never fully accepted by any social group.

At this point Joe’s mother-in-law steps in.

She snatches the knife and begins to hack away at the cake as if her hand will obviously find the blue or the pink bit.

But no. There is no colour.

It is either the wrong cake or the baker forgot to add the food colour. The gender of Billy’s bro or sis is still a mystery.

What happens next says everything about the human condition.

Everyone could all have a laugh and do it all again next week with a coloured cake or…

Jill shouts at her husband, bursts into tears and runs up the stairs bawling with embarrassment. She had spent weeks preparing for this only to have a disaster in front of all of her friends. Her anxiety spikes and suddenly the sky is falling in.

The mother-in-law clubs the husband with the phone as though it is all his fault, then calls the cake shop to give them hell as the worst cake shop in the history of the patisserie, only much less politely.

Joe escapes to the barbecue in the garden where a couple of his mates have stashed the cold beers while the guests are left to mill around and come to their own conclusions.

If I tell you that this scene is played out on a YouTube video, then of course we find that funny. We’ll lol with hilarity that the family goes off at an honest mistake and starts to blame those idiots from the cake shop before they realise it’s their own emotions that are triggered.

The scene is entertaining and it gets millions of views.

What concerns me is that the family reacted that way in the first place. Put that situation in front of all the families in the world and half the time you would get the same result with the family suing the cake shop for damages. The other families would have a good laugh about it for years.

Too many of us have lost the ability to put events into context and how seriously to take them.

The disaster that was 2020 didn’t help.

It is a new year.

Let’s smile at the little mistakes in 2021

Have a great one.

Good riddance 2020

Good riddance 2020

The year 2020 is one that everyone will remember and most people would like to forget.

Here are some of what happened to us in the year.

Drought and fire

Our year of 2020 began towards the end of one of the deepest droughts on record in our region. The bush was bone dry. Not satisfied with a deep drought, to the north and the south of us were two huge bushfires with fronts hundreds of kilometers long. The Gospers Mountain fire to our north burnt through an area more than three times the size of Greater London. By the end of the fire season approximately 18,600,000 hectares (46,000,000 acres) of rural land had burned across Australia with the loss of 33 lives including six firefighters, and causing over $100 billion of damage.

The closest the Gospers firefront came to our home was 10km so we got lucky but the smoke was with us every day and along with the tension and our belongings packed up ready to evacuate. Weeks crept along like months. We were locked down in the house with all the doors and windows, shut and the air purifier going full blast.

There is something acute about living under the constant threat of evacuation and genuine danger. Remember we had fire in our back yard in 2013 so we knew what was possible. The stress hormones are produced naturally and you begin to get this level of constant vigilance that drains everything. All our precious goods, packed and ready to load into the car are still stacked in our spare room a year later. We seem unable to bring ourselves to put most of them back to where they normally live.

Along with the fires and the smoke was the heat. The hottest day, January 4th, was 45.1 C with several days over 40 C all through the summer.

Rains

Eventually though the fires subsided as the rains came. And in typical Australian fashion, the drought was broken with massive flooding. We had 214.6mm on the 10th February that flooded everything in the basement but we didn’t care. At least it finally put the fires out. Such relief that finally the fires were not only under control from the extraordinary efforts of the firefighters, but that nature chipped in and a little bit more of normality returned. That it took a deluge was just what we expected.

Relieved now that we were heading towards autumn and winter and out of the fire season when of course, we were locked down again. This time the pandemic, a deeper and wider impact than the fires had been and it meant that most people forgot the summer disasters. No matter that for the first time in recorded history a fire season had impacted not just the rural properties, but also many of the coastal properties and indeed delivered smoke and tension to most of the east coast towns and cities.

COVID Pandemic

We’ve all got our COVID stories.

In our case we were very fortunate, no infections and no need to get tested… yet. The ‘work from home’ directive suited us anyway because we do most of our work from home. And, luckily for the extended family, it was really not much different to normal, save for the mask wearing, no hugging, and shortages of toilet rolls.

The uncertainty early on was debilitating. I recall a particular week when at the start of the week golf was fine, everyone could play, on Tuesday nobody could play and on Thursday you could play with restrictions on how you could go about it. First world problems for sure. Overall we got off lightly.

People worked hard to find the best solutions even when nobody knew what was happening. I think that collectively folk coped with it pretty well. At least in the first lockdown the Australian public seemed to be quite comfortable with restrictions that no government would under normal circumstances even hint at doing let alone actually implement. Essentially a house arrest for the entire population, but we did it and, for the most part, people kept to the rules.

In this household we are in the vulnerable category for the virus so we adopted the mask wearing like everyone in Europe was doing. Not so many Australians were keen on the masks idea and so we got some very weird looks in the supermarkets. People didn’t really get it was to protect them more than the wearer; a civic duty rather than a personal duty.

Crises affect people’s understanding of where things are and what things need to be done for the collective benefit. It also creates a disruption to conventional wisdom. This is a huge opportunity given how entrenched and stale some institutions have become. We will have to wait and see if the crisis brings progressive innovations, especially among our political leaders. Many have gathered considerable political capital with their strong responses to the crisis. There is little point in mentioning the leaders who made a complete hash of it.

Closer to home

Once we started getting used to public health restrictions my year continued with a challenging work environment where what science can offer generates antagonism towards the messengers.

I also stopped doing yoga, put weight on, became very stressed at various points in the year, and so, all in all, it’s been one to forget this 2020.

I was able to continue to write and have produced more material than I can cope with on the editing front. So silver lining perhaps.

We also hired some delightful Chinese guys to lay spotted gum flooring throughout the house replacing a carpet that had done a sterling job but was now tired and ready for retirement… just like me.

The new floor is awesome. Timber really is a wondrous resource.

What about 2021?

The interesting part though is what 2021 will look like. Will it be more of the same with natural disasters, health challenges, and shortages of toilet rolls. Already in the north of the state heavy storms have produced beach erosion and local COVID lockdowns are back.

Obviously normal is not what it was but is now a constant state of flux. Changes happening everywhere. Our focus now is to understand change for economic, environmental and social disruption will be part of our stories for 2021 as the pandemic will continue to play out before a new normality is established. Hopefully we will be wise enough to create population immunity through vaccines or exposure with the least disadvantage to the poor. And by population we’re talking about a global population of over eight billion souls. Maybe some of the political capital could be spent in an egalitarian direction for once.

So we can expect 2021 to be challenging. Best to prepare for difference rather than stability and return to what was normal because it’s not just the virus. We haven’t even touched on the crises that are about to hit us. Here are a few…

  • concentration of wealth
  • peak soil nutrients
  • global food production
  • water use and abuse
  • waste
  • climate change adaptation

These are Alloporus’s favorites, but there are a host of issues that are already huge for the planet is in a state of flux, we really have to get our heads around that reality.

On the bright side

It is best to start the year on a bright note, which of course everybody wants to do as they set their resolutions and get themselves geared up for a fresh start.

There is much to be optimistic about, not least the opportunity created by change. Where one thing falls away there’s a chance for another solution that is better, more efficient, more resilient and dare we say, more sustainable to take its place.

The motto of my alma mater is ‘do different’ and change is a wonderful time to be different, optimistic even.

In 2021 let’s ‘do different’ and try alternatives, embrace change as an opportunity, rather than lamenting the loss of what went before.

I hope you survived 2020 relatively unscathed. We all feel differently now than we did at the start of last year. But let’s hope that we can embrace change and look at opportunity. And engage amongst ourselves to build a fantastic 2021.

Thank you for reading the ‘Alloporus healthy thinking’ blog in 2020. I hope you will stick with me for 2021.

Go well.

Disturbing dream that might help

Disturbing dream that might help

Photo by Gabriel McCallin on Unsplash

I don’t know whether it’s COVID or Trump or time of life or stressful work conditions or all of the above but I’ve been having the weirdest dreams lately.

For a long time, I would have only one dream. The theme was that I had a lot of luggage and a plane to catch. The problem was getting to the airport with all that baggage and getting it on the plane without outrageous excess charges.

Only in the dream I rarely made it to the airport. First-year psychology students could figure out the meaning of that one.

Last night I had a different, rather disturbing dream.

I was in a written exam, something I haven’t done for four decades and the subject, English. The questions on the exam paper were difficult to find and impossible to put into the correct sequence.

It was the weirdest experience as the questions were on different kinds of paper and the words were hard to read. What the questions were actually asking seemed obscure.

I tried and I tried and I tried and in the end, failed to complete the examination.

Me, the ultimate nerd, failing to complete an academic task. It felt like the most incredulous thing ever. After some time deciding whether or not I did actually complete the exam or if I did enough to pass the test, maybe I could reset the examination later on, maybe the next year… After all of that trying to recover from disaster, it was clear that I had failed the examination and would have to deal with it.

Part of the psychology around all this would be that in the real world I have been pushing myself to do more writing and thinking, maybe, I should go back to my educational roots.

The obvious explanation is such a change is frightening. There is something about receiving a comfortable salary that influences your way of being even if you don’t enjoy the work that you’re paid to do.

But it got me thinking about our general state of mind.

Especially how easy it is for people to become unsettled. And there’s no doubt that the COVID crisis is extremely unsettling. Anyone with an eye to global politics or with even a passing interest in American politics has just gone through a terrible and settling period and it’s still going.

Anyone who cares or concerns themselves with equality and egalitarianism is easily in strife because of the continuing racism, misogyny and concentration of wealth that we talk about often.

Given all these stresses on top of the many immediate ones that are part of daily life, there is no doubt that mental health is new cancer. It will affect everybody when they least expect. And, if we were smart at all, then we would be building capacity to help people through such times.

We are helping each other a little. If you go on social media feeds and let the algorithm do its work, having chosen a few inspiring quotes and videos, you can see there are a lot of people engaged with positive messages and this is very powerful. Such grassroots, bottom-up approaches are essential. Empowering the positive messages, maybe with a share or two, is an easy way to help.

Then there is the harder work to make sure that politics can catch up. Maybe something like what Margaret Thatcher did in the first episode of the latest season of the Crown. When she was hounded by the old school, stupid white men, she got rid of them all, replacing them with young white men. So she got halfway there, at least.

Sidenote though, the Johnson cabinet is young, inexperienced and widely considered to be totally incompetent.

Thatcher’s motivations were not pure but that ‘getting rid of the old school’ is something that is imperative in our political systems. We need young imaginative ideas. And it’s time to get those. They’re there, all we have to do is empower them.

But back to my slumbers. Bad dreams are part of life and they send subliminal messages.

Throughout my career, I’ve tried many different obscure paths, and the odd blind alley, only to end up in a very traditional workplace. So in a way, I’m challenging my own response to being innovative and to support the changes that we have to make. Dreams have the uncanny knack of pointing it out with a poke around in the dark corners in the closet of life.

Obviously, to learn is the key.

And in this instance, I think the dream is giving me the courage to pursue this return to education. And to try and pass on some of my experience to the next generations so that they can forge their own paths with a little more confidence.

And obviously to ban all forms of academic examination as they really don’t help.


Thanks for getting this far, a share would be fantastic.

Bravery or courage

Bravery or courage

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.

Only I think they lack courage.

Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.

Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote

A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous

The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.

This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.

Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.

This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.

This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.

Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.

More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.

What does this look like for a society?

The brave souls

The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.

Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.

And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.

No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.

The courageous souls

Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.

What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.

The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.

A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.

A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.

More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.

There really is something noble in that.

Brave but not courageous

Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.

We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.

They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.

We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.

We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.

And, and, and….

So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.

Who has the right to impinge on my personal development?

Who has the right to impinge on my personal development?

I have been doing what I do for a very long time. Some of my colleagues even think I’m quite good at it.

I managed teams, run businesses, write and, in the day job, provide scientific advice.

Not everyone understands science.

Alloporus has talked about this before, that many people don’t even think numerically even though they might be as trained in the technical aspects of the work that they do. Thinking numerically is an art. Thinking logically is an art. Few people are comfortable with so much ‘nude on a chair’ and not everybody does the whole art criticism thing that well either.

So my skillset of numerical logic and deep understanding of the scientific method should be really useful and, for the most part, it has been. However, it is not the easiest of career choices as people find it very hard to accept what is being said when they don’t understand where it comes from.

I meet with resistance, uncertainty, insecurity, and all the usual patterns of behaviour that flow with those negative vibes. This happens every day in one form or another.

I need to be resilient to the negative emotions shunted in my direction. It is rarely personal but it does happen often enough for it to drain my energy at an alarming rate.

So I need plenty of coping mechanisms. Here are a few of them

  • I play golf
  • I just bought myself an electronic drum kit
  • I enjoy a beer and a drama on Netflix
  • I meditate
  • I have read any number of books on Self Development and the spiritual self
  • I love the Toltec four agreements and try to implement them
  • I even lie on a Shakti mat pretty much every day

Currently, my day job involves working for a large organisation that has taken upon itself the task of educating its management staff in pretty much all of the above — well actually the kindergarten version of the above.

What should I do?

I already do all of what they’re suggesting and then some. Ironically it’s really annoying to be told how to do it all over again from the beginning.

Should I just smile — also a key tactic for resilience — or switch off.

Should the workplace impose itself on my personal life?

This is actually a much bigger question. And at this time in our history when our leaders are useless and morally bankrupt and we are faced with real crises of the material and monetary kind, it is a vital one to answer.

I don’t believe it should.

I don’t think the workplace and the organisation behind it have the moral right to my spirituality even if they claim it will enhance their bottom line.

In fact, I think this leakage across people’s lives makes it very hard for them to understand boundaries.

And most of the time it is the breakdown of the boundaries that causes stress for individuals and inefficiency for the organisations. If people kept their uncertainties and insecurities in check, I would be less stressed when I’m trying to explain to them the intricacies of science.

So my contention is that the workplace should just butt out. Keep the spiritual personal development stuff personal.

Just a thought.

Post comments to the contrary or in support, curious to know if it’s just a me thing.

How opinions become facts

How opinions become facts

Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.

Partrick King

If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.

If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.

When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.

Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.

Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.

It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.

Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.

Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.

Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.

As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.

There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.

This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.

If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.

The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.

As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.

Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.