March 15th, 2017

Disentangling human projection from artificial intelligence

In a previous video, I talked about how our senses aren’t passively received from the world, but are actively constructed and projected into the world. The world is like a coloring book that we color in with each of our senses, every moment that we’re awake. Now what about our emotions? They’re no less constructed, and they can be projected too. If we’re not careful, we can end up mistaking our own emotions for someone else’s emotions – or some-thing else’s emotions. In this video, I’ll talk about how we can be more mindful of this when we look at artificial intelligence.

Let’s start with a simple example. Let’s say that you see a friend crying and you immediately notice that you feel sad for them. You go over and gently ask them why they’re upset, but your friend turns to you and says “Oh I’m not sad, I’m overcome with joy because I just won a gold medal!”. Now you notice that you feel very happy for them. Both of these feelings – your empathetic sadness and your empathetic happiness – are guesses that are constructed in your mind based on what you’re perceiving at the moment and what you know from before. Your mind projects them onto your friend independent of how your friend actually feels.

Emotions can get projected onto anything. For example, when you first see your friend, you might narrate the scene like this: “The drapes in the room hung heavy and low on either side of my friend, reflecting the somber mood of the room”. And then after you hear your friend’s explanation, you could narrate it this way: “The drapes flanked my friend like a hometown hero, reflecting the jubilant mood of the room.” Same drapes. Same room. Different projections.

Writers use projected language like this all the time of course, because it grabs our attention and draws us into the story. There’s nothing wrong with feeling immersed in a good story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The only problem is when we get so lost in a story – especially the nonfictional ones – that we can’t find a way back to ourself. When we take our projections as gospel truth, instead of the calculated guesses that they always are. When we forget that the only emotions we can feel are our own emotions, and nobody else’s – just like the only senses we can feel are our own senses. A very helpful practice in these situations is to consciously withdraw our projected emotions and observe how they actually arise from within ourselves.

Let me give you another example. Let’s say I take a piece of paper and draw two eyes and a smile on it. If I ask you “how does that piece of paper feel?”, you could easily say that it feels happy. But you know that you’re just playing along with the projection. If I were to cut that paper into pieces, you wouldn’t accuse me of murder. You’re not actually convinced that the paper is sentient. There are two important things going on in your mind here. First, the symbolic perception of “face” gets constructed and projected onto the piece of paper. Second, the emotion of “happiness” gets constructed and projected onto the face that you just recognized. They’re both guesses that are quickly made at an unconscious level, that then surface in your conscious mind as an integrated conclusion. It’s the same machinery at work whether you’re looking at a paper smiley face, a video of a person, or an actual person.

Now let’s bring in artificial intelligence. What AI is doing is helping us expose the limits of this machinery – our machinery – that calculates these guesses and forms these integrated conclusions. For example, if a robot behaves so realistically that it fools us into thinking it’s alive – that says far more about our brain’s limits than it says about the robot. It’s a reminder that we can’t trust the conviction of our projected feelings as a sole arbiter of sentience in something else.

I also think it’s vitally important to respect how much mystery we have regarding sentience. If I ask you “can you feel wonder?” and you answer “yes”, we can only wonder where that “yes” comes from. But if we ask a computer the same question, there is no wonder. We can’t NOT know where the answer comes from, because we’re the ones who invented computers. Until we can invent a computer that we can’t understand, I don’t see how that can change. In contrast to computers, we didn’t invent humans. We don’t yet know how to construct sentient beings from scratch. Until we understand how subjective experience arises, until we know where our wonder comes from, this mystery is still there. We need to pay attention to this chasm between our encyclopedic knowledge of technology and our embryonic knowledge of life.

If we don’t pay attention to the chasm, and if we don’t recognize our projections for what they are, we can think we’ve created something that’s sentient, when we actually haven’t. For example, let’s say that you smack around a robot to demonstrate its resilience and I blurt out “Hey, don’t do that!”. You ask me why. If I say “you’re hurting the robot”, then I’m asserting that the robot is sentient. You could challenge that assertion with some basic questions. Where are its pain nerves? How would we anesthetize it? I’d have no answer. If I reflected on it some more I could say, “Look, I just feel uncomfortable when I see you hit something that looks like a human”. This is a more mindful answer. Instead of projecting away my discomfort onto the robot, I’d be recognizing it within myself. I could inquire into that feeling cleanly, instead of conflating it with assertions about robot sentience. In general, the more mindful we are, the better we can communicate. We can have more meaningful conversations that respect our knowledge and our values, without disrespecting the mysteries that we also face.

As a society, there are sound reasons why some people might not want to see lifelike androids treated inhumanely. At a very pragmatic level, there could be greater risks with law enforcement. For example, what if you swing an axe at an android that’s the spitting image of your neighbor? A police officer may have to make a split-second judgment call between vandalism and homicide. How much cognitive load is reasonable for cops to handle? And there are cultural factors as well. Some people might feel empowered when they have androids at their beck and call. Some people might cringe in empathetic pain when they see androids being treated like slaves. These are all complex topics, and again, the more mindfully we discuss them, the closer we get to understanding the root causes of conflicts in society and within ourselves.

I think one of the most profound implications of artificial intelligence, well before we construct sentient life, is that it holds up a mirror to our projections. What do we think of as being out in the world, that’s actually within us? And vice versa. It’s a powerful way to explore the boundaries, that may or may not exist, between subjective reality and objective reality. When we recognize projection and respect mystery, our minds are opened to possibilities that we might not otherwise consider. What we learn about consciousness transforms our very way of thinking and being. The more awake we are, the more consciously we can take in these lessons.

November 1st, 2016

What makes our senses different from each other?

What makes a sight a sight, and not a sound? What makes a sound a sound, and not a smell? We don’t have a simple answer. But there are some tools we can use, like analysis and synthesis, that can help us at least think about these questions better.

Let’s take analysis first, where we break things down into simpler parts and compare the differences. For instance, take gold and mercury. Gold is a yellowish solid and mercury is a silvery liquid at room temperature. They’re clearly distinct from each other. But if we break them down far enough, we find that they’re both made up of the exact same building blocks — protons, electrons and neutrons. What makes gold gold is that it has 79 protons per atom, along with 79 electrons and 118 neutrons. What makes mercury mercury is that it has 80 protons per atom, along with 80 electrons and 121 neutrons. Now this tells us a number of things. It tells us how similar their compositions are — they’re next door neighbors on the periodic table. It tells us what direction we need to go if we want to convert one of these elements into the other. It also tells us where other elements might be, even if we haven’t discovered them yet. The existence of gold at 79 and mercury at 80 implies the possibility of Platinum at 78, Hydrogen at 1, Uranium at 92, and others.

Can our senses be analyzed in a similar way? Can we come up with a periodic table for qualia, where we can point to one sense element having one more sense-proton than another? We do know that different parts of the brain are involved with different senses. If your visual cortex is disrupted, you won’t be able to see properly. If your auditory cortex is disrupted, you won’t be able to hear properly. And so on. But the different functional areas of the brain don’t seem to be that chemically different. It’s not like the visual cortex is made up of platinum and the auditory cortex is made up of gold. Perhaps there are some very subtle chemical distinctions that can explain sensory differences. Or, maybe we need to look at a different level of abstraction to get at differences that mean something. Researchers are looking at various ways to analyze activity at different scales to see if we can identify patterns — like with individual neurons and other cells, groups of cells, larger networks, etc.

However we get there, at some point we should be able to answer the question of how we go from one sense to another. For example, what would we have to do to an auditory cortex to transform it into a visual cortex, or an olfactory cortex for that matter? For centuries, there was the the question of whether alchemy was possible with the chemical elements. Today, we know that it is possible with nuclear fission and fusion. Can we do alchemy with sensory elements? We know it doesn’t take anywhere near as much energy as fission or fusion. All it takes to construct and maintain every part of our brain is ordinary food. And there’s already a blueprint for the whole process — the genome. Every cell in our brain shares a common ancestor with every other cell in our brain. As we learn how to read the blueprint better, we should be able to rewind and play back, perhaps even fast-forward the process. We should be able to convert any group of cells into any other type of cells. It’s fascinating to consider what we might learn along the way. What new senses might we bump into that we don’t even know about now? We may well end up building a periodic table of qualia that’s far more complex than the periodic table of elements.

Now let’s shift from analysis to synthesis, where we put things together to form a greater whole, and see what that bigger picture looks like. When we consider all of our senses together, is there something that unifies them? There’s the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, where each person only grasps part of the picture. I wonder if our senses of sight, sound, smell, etc. may be analogous to things like the tusk, trunk, and foot in the story. When we see the elephant as a whole, we immediately realize where the trunk is relative to the foot. Maybe there’s a qualia elephant that connects all of our senses together and makes it immediately obvious where hearing is relative to, say, smelling. This approach is harder to describe than the analytical approach, because it isn’t just a bunch of logical linear steps. Instead, we make intuitive leaps. It’s kind of like looking at a word that has some blank spaces with missing letters. When we solve the puzzle, we get a sudden flash of insight that just gives us the whole word. We don’t consciously go through every possible combination of letters. As we become more aware of how we experience our senses, our intuitions are bound to get better — who knows what elephants we’ll end up seeing!

Now just like analysis has its own limits, synthesis does too. When we analyze too much, we can lose sight of the forest for the trees. On the flip side, when we synthesize too much, we can conjure up imaginary forests on the basis of a leaf that happens to be blowing in the wind. Extrapolating beyond a certain point from the senses that we currently know about may be misleading.

I think the key is to be flexible in using both the logic of analysis and the intuition of synthesis. Each can uncover assumptions made by the other. When we’re willing to inquire into those assumptions, we get a better appreciation for what’s going on. We can use intuition to choose promising starting points for analysis, and we can use analysis to isolate quality data points for synthesis.

What do you think makes our senses different? What do you think about analysis and synthesis, or any other technique for that matter? Feel free to share your thoughts.

August 10th, 2016

Where do our senses happen?

I think it’s fascinating how the brain computes precisely where we should experience each and every sensation that we have. When we open our eyes, everything we see — brightness, color, shapes, depth, motion — all these things are the the result of real-time computation. We don’t receive these qualities from the world, we project them out into the world. When you see a bird flying on television, you know that every pixel on your TV screen is sitting still the whole time. When you see a printed 3D stereogram, you know you’re still looking at a flat sheet of paper. We say the sky is blue because our vision paints it that way. The color that we project on any object isn’t fixed to the wavelengths of light coming from that object. It’s the result of a calculation that includes the wavelengths of light that surround the object, and other things. The photons of light that enter our eyes are public — they can be measured objectively. But our sense of sight is personal — it is of the mind, by the mind, and for the mind.

The same goes for hearing. Our brain analyzes and compares pressure waves that arrive at our ears, and decides what sound we should hear and where we should hear it. It’s like how TV programs can have subtitles that show up right next to the person who’s speaking. Hearing is like projecting really sophisticated subtitles all around us. Also, what we see can change what and where we hear. If you play the sound “ba” while you see someone mouthing the sound “fa” silently, you’ll hear “fa” if your eyes are open, and “ba” if your eyes are closed. And ventriloquists don’t actually throw their voice. Our vision is what projects the sound onto their dummy. Just like we saw with photons and sight, pressure waves are public, but sound is personal.

Now what about touch? Touch is the most tangible sense that we have. And yet, it too is computed and projected. Think about what happens if you cut your finger. Electrochemical signals get sent through nerves in your arm, up the spinal cord, and into your brain. If those signals don’t make it to your brain, you don’t feel pain. If they do, and your brain decides that you should feel pain in your finger, it doesn’t need to send any nerve signals back down to it, like it would if you were to actually move your finger. The sense of pain just gets projected to your finger. When you feel pain in your finger, it isn’t your finger that actually feels pain. This might be hard to believe. But consider this. Many people who have had limbs amputated continue to feel sensations in those limbs, sometimes very painful ones. They’re feeling pain in a part of their body that does not physically exist! This gives us a hint of the kind of license our brain has to calculate how and where we should feel our senses.

Most of the time it uses this license very precisely, which effectively hides the fact that this license even exists. Hold up a hand and snap your fingers. Notice how you see your fingers snapping, hear your fingers snapping, and feel your fingers snapping all at the same place, all at the same time. In order for this to happen, the brain has to do some sophisticated work behind the scenes. It has to coordinate different reference maps for sight, sound and touch, and get them to all line up. As a result, we have a unified sensory experience of the world around us. We don’t notice that this experience is being constantly assembled and integrated.

What are the implications and ramifications of all this? If all of our senses are constructed and projected, what are the limits to what we can construct, and where we can project? We catch a glimpse of this every night when we go to sleep. When we dream, our senses are more free to roam among their possibilities. This is particularly the case with lucid dreaming, where we know that we’re dreaming while we’re dreaming. We can literally dream up any kind of scenario, we can be anything and we can do anything.

But even though we can dream up, say, as much food as we want, it won’t nourish our body. In order to survive, we actually have to eat food, not just feel like we’re eating food. These are two different types of reality — eating food is objective reality, feeling full is subjective reality.

The brain seems to be at that very boundary between subjective reality and objective reality, between us and the world, between inside and outside. How does it get to occupy this privileged position? I mean, it’s all well and good to say that neural networks calculate how and where we should feel. But then how does that calculation actually become a sight or a smell, or any other sensation? How does the public become personal?

All the logistics of creating a particular perception seem to involve a very physical brain, that’s got all sorts of structures and connections. But the effortless perceiving of that perception seems to involve a very subtle mind, that doesn’t seem to be weighed down by any kind of mass.

How can we try to understand this? Is there anything that can help us put this into some kind of context? Well let’s see. Photons don’t have any mass, but they can be absorbed and re-emitted by matter in various ways. Perhaps there are some kind of photons of perception that are being absorbed and re-emitted in different ways by different brain regions. Maybe these brain regions end up being shaped like particularly good antennas that can transmit and receive these signals.

Or perhaps it’s like the relationship between electricity and magnetism. If you run electrical current through a wire, it induces a magnetic field around the wire. And if you wave a magnet across a wire in a circuit, it induces electrical current through the wire. Perhaps certain behaviors of neural networks induce perceptive fields. And vice versa, maybe perceptive fields induce certain behaviors in neural networks. I don’t know.

Science has come a long way, and it will continue to make progress. But we don’t have to use science in isolation. We can also consider things introspectively. Lots of philosophical writings have been devoted to making sense of the relationship between subjective reality and objective reality. One such teaching is that there is a nondual reality that transcends and unifies subject and object. It’s the very foundation of both, and is said to be knowable even if it defies all manner of description. Meditation and other practices are encouraged to facilitate this awareness.

I think that science can help us refine our appreciation of spiritual practices, and also doing these practices can transform our understanding of science. It’s a virtuous circle that can help us converge on better questions and better answers about reality, whatever reality happens to be.

What are your questions? What are your answers? Let me know in the comments.

October 6th, 2015

How Open Source transformed my career

[ This post is also published on opensource.com ]

I was introduced to open source through immersion, when I learned C and Perl in college. Compared to previous programming languages like BASIC and Pascal which I had learned only from textbooks, I learned C and Perl in the context of the Internet. I would ask and answer questions on USENET newsgroups, and got to know many people who were just as enthusiastic about learning and sharing their knowledge. I would download various programming libraries, tools and other programs, build them and try them out. I was a kid in the world’s biggest candy store where all of the candy was free, never ran out, and new types were being made all the time. I also discovered that I could be a confectioner as well.

After I graduated from college, I started working at Hewlett-Packard, where I found myself quickly solving problems with open source resources. Open Source would play a transformational role in my 16.5 year career at HP, time and time again. I championed the migration of HP’s Enterprise Directory platform to Linux and would later migrate the software itself to OpenLDAP (with HP funding substantial contributions to the codebase). In 2004, I became the founding Global Lead for HP’s Open Source and Linux Profession (OSLP), a community of practice that would grow to thousands of technologists in the company. OSLP members increased HP’s use of and contribution to open source significantly. In 2005, I gave a keynote presentation at OSCON on Enterprise IT as an Open Source Powerhouse. At HP’s Open Source Advisory Council events in 2007 and 2008, I invited industry luminaries to inspire and educate some of HP’s biggest customers on the power and potential of open source. Open Source became my strongest value proposition to HP and its customers.

In 2009, I decided to leave HP and become an independent consultant. I presented at the inaugural LinuxCon on “Transforming Your Company with Open Source”. Over time, my engagement with open source became more introspective. I wanted to integrate its lessons more fully into the personal development lessons that I was learning through my ongoing studies of psychology and spirituality. I thought back to the kid in the candy store. What open source was doing was connecting (and confronting!) me with the energy of abundance. This is the kind of energy that encourages positive action while loosening attachment to the fruits of that action, increasing self-awareness in the process. I wrote about this in a 2011 article on opensource.com, and expanded on it further in Chapter 3 of my book Enlightening Technical Leadership in 2013.

Through this process of personal growth, my attitude towards open source has evolved to a more discriminating, holistic approach that embraces paradox. I can more fully explore the value of both open” and “closed” perspectives alike, and when I do, I find that these worlds aren’t as separate as I may have once thought. There are subtle aspects of closed within open, as well as of open within closed. Even though I still have a preference for open source, it’s less compulsive in nature and flows more naturally.

I’ll close with a quote from my book:

As I mentioned before, open source confronts us with abundance. In this role, it’s not just a placid lake of crystalline turquoise water. It’s a river of whitewater that plunges through towering waterfalls. Open codebases, knowledge repositories and streams of communication are created and expanded every day. We are splashed by the recognition that we can’t possibly consume it all, let alone claim it for ourselves. Perhaps this alarms us, even throws us into existential crisis. But after sitting with it for some time, we break out into a knowing smile. We start to laugh at ourselves, at how zealously we sometimes pursue the acquisition of knowledge, skills and capabilities. We pay closer attention to the lessons in self-knowledge that arise in these external pursuits, and discover abundant wholeness. We choose activities that further reveal and express this wholeness, and allow attachments and aversions to dissipate. We see the wisdom in Rumi’s quote “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.

July 26th, 2015

Spiritual Development and the Polarities of Type

Here is an extended slideset for my presentation at APTi 2015.

Abstract: The lessons of meditation and psychological type theory reinforce each other in fundamental ways. Meditation can be thought of as an exercise in expanding awareness. When we notice that our mind has taken on the narrow form of a train of thought, we gently reach out beyond that form, reconnecting to the intention with which we began our meditation. As we practice reaching out again and again, our available mental space expands. In our daily activities, we become able to embrace the polarities of type more fully. If we feel stuck in the perspective of a particular cognitive function, we can reach out beyond its boundaries to one of its opposing functions and reconnect with a broader whole. Even if some polarities are more challenging than others, the net effect of this mental crosstraining is to maintain both spaciousness and groundedness, from which we can act more clearly and to which we can surrender more deeply.

August 18th, 2014

Evaluating Leadership Advice

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


Leadership advice comes in a lot of flavors – from the soothing stories of a grandmother, to the salty screed of a hardened skipper, to the bland babbling of a bureaucrat, and many others. But when we digest them, we see how they break down into the same set of underlying components. Let’s take a look at some popular nuggets of leadership advice, with an eye towards putting things into larger contexts.

“Embrace failure” is a perspective that encourages us to let go of our attachment to success. When we become attached to success, we become hypersensitive to the pain of failure. As a result, we may impose limits on our activities out of fear of experiencing that pain. Embracing failure allows us to be more present with failure, without being overwhelmed by it. We can pick up additional details about what went right and what went wrong, details that would otherwise be masked by our reaction to our pain. We can subsequently approach more situations with less fear.

If we start to embrace failure as an end in itself though, we start to lose sight of what success means to us. Further down this path, we become like the compulsive stock trader who tolerates failure so much that he neglects to take profits regularly. Addiction to risk is not a healthy substitute for aversion to risk.

A broader perspective is to embrace the continuum of success and failure as a whole. Both have many lessons to teach us. Take these two sharply contrasting pieces of advice: “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough” and “failure is not an option”. There are times when one of these speaks more powerfully to our growth than the other, as well as times when neither feels relevant. At their core, they are actually not different. Both derive their energy from the polarities that span success and failure, like two arcs of lightning from the same cloud. To assert one is to imply the existence of the other, via the existence of the continuum to which they both belong.

Whatever advice on success or failure that we start with, we end up redrawing the same continuum. Any part inevitably implies the whole. The more we are aware of the whole, the more clearly we can appreciate the value of any particular piece of advice.

With that in mind, let’s look at examples of other contrasting pairs of advice, along with the polarities that generate their energy:

  • “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” and “not everything that counts can be counted” – polarity of Quantitativeness and Qualitativeness
  • “stay hungry, stay foolish” and “know how to take yes for an answer” – polarity of Seeking and Finding
  • “what got you here won’t get you there” and “remember what got you here in the first place” – polarity of Changeability and Consistency

In all of these cases, our perspective is expanded by looking at the polarity as a whole. Again, it’s not that any of these pieces of advice are wrong; they’re just partial.

With greater mental space, we have less of a need to short-circuit the polarity by declaring a victor or by imposing a devitalizing compromise between the two sides. Instead, we become increasingly able to contain the polarity like a plasma globe. We can point to a variety of locations on the sphere to direct its energy, or we can let go of the polarity as a whole. The deeper calling of every piece of advice we receive is to lead us here.

July 25th, 2014

Influence

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


When we want to influence others, it helps to be aware of what is influencing us. When you want to influence someone to do something, or to think or feel a certain way, first ask yourself a simple question: why do you want to influence this person? Spend some time with your response. Carefully observe the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise. Then, ask yourself if you can accept not having control of the outcome. If your answer is no, then you are being controlled (by your drives), and have far less freedom to influence others. If your answer is yes, then you’re less likely to get in your own way.

One of the ways I like to visualize influence is with the following analogy. Your influence is like a flashlight that can selectively emit different wavelengths of light at different levels of brightness. Each wavelength corresponds to a perspective that you can take. The more you have refined a given perspective, the brighter you can emit that wavelength. The more perspectives you can take, the more wavelengths you can emit. When you influence someone, you metaphorically stand next to them and invite them to envision their surroundings, including yourself and even themselves, as illuminated by your flashlight.

The impact of the brightness setting is unmistakable. When an expert illuminates a topic to a degree we’ve never seen before, our very way of thinking can be influenced. But influencing someone, of course, isn’t just a matter of turning up the brightness as high and as fast as possible. If you light up too much of the scene, the person can lose focus. They’re given too much content without enough context. The practice here is to center the light on a well known area, and expand accordingly from there. If you light up a scene too quickly, this can temporarily blind them. They may turn away in discomfort from something that they might otherwise find useful. To relate to that, think about a situation where you had a misconception about something and someone pounced on that, firing off a barrage of explanations of just how wrong you were. The practice here is to raise the level of lighting at a pace that the person can handle.

The wavelength setting is more complex. The perception of the person you are communicating with is shaped by their inner lenses. Some wavelengths may be amplified positively, others may be amplified negatively, and still others may be dampened, modified, or not even seen. When you communicate on a wavelength that resonates with them, influence is natural. When you don’t, things feel out of sync. What can you do in the latter case, if you can’t find a workable wavelength? What about a scenario where your brightest wavelengths seem to be unfavorably perceived by them, and you can’t generate the wavelength that seems to dominate their decision making process?

One thing you can do is to reflect on the dominant wavelength of the other person. Observe how your inner lenses/layers are filtering that wavelength. See if you can surface any unconscious reactions and withdraw any projections. As you do this, you will find that your flashlight can start to generate that wavelength. When it reaches a utilitarian level of brightness, you will be able to articulate that perspective within a neutral context, without feeling threatened or forcing a value judgment on it.

Now, you can make an informed decision on a key question – is their dominant perspective an important growth area for you, at the current time? If it is, you can take the time to actively develop that wavelength to a higher level of brightness that will resonate more strongly. If it isn’t, you can more confidently channel your energy into areas that are important to your growth. The utilitarian level of brightness you have developed with this wavelength will help keep you from being blindsided, even as you focus on other wavelengths. You’ll gain a better sense of where to assert your influence, and where not to actively intervene.

July 15th, 2014

Performance Feedback

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


Whenever we get feedback, whether it’s formally at an annual performance review, or informally during the course of our work, we have an excellent opportunity to observe our identifications. What do we feel proud about? What do we get defensive about? Sorting out our triggers helps us on the one hand not to fixate on the feedback, and on the other hand not to blithely dismiss it. We can put it into context and consider it thoughtfully. In this way, feedback moves from being an assertion that we have to accept or reject wholesale, to a springboard from which we can launch an exploration of our mental space, and where our eventual response falls out like one of many solutions to an equation.

Whenever we feel perturbed by negative feedback, whether it’s criticism of our strengths or weaknesses, we can engage this kind of mindful exploration. What sort of polarity is involved? What are we attached to as our “I”, what opposites are we not acknowledging, and how are we projecting that unacknowledged content onto others?

One of the most satisfying experiences in technology work is solving a core problem that in turn resolves several other outstanding issues that we didn’t realize were all connected. Resolving our projections at their origins has the same effect. Other problems go away without us having to even think about them. For example, we breathe more naturally, our tone of voice is calmer, our body language is more relaxed, we listen more attentively, and so on. Even if we aren’t able to fully withdraw some of our projections, the more transparent they are to us, the less energy we invest in sustaining them. We know at some level that they’re illusions, so our reactions are somewhat dampened – which may be all that we need to interrupt some of our unhealthy habitual patterns.

Over time, we can become savvier consumers of feedback, which is essentially a collection of stories about us. Some of them are myths, others are tragedies, and there’s always an element of comedy. Sometimes we’re cast as the hero, other times as the villain; sometimes the wizard, other times the fool. If we don’t get too caught up in the archetypes (projection), we can learn much about the storytellers. From what people say (and don’t say), we can glean insights into their priorities, values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. We can unlock remarkable significance in offhanded remarks, discount even solemn statements that are suspicious, and take more comments at face value. Feedback becomes a powerful ally in understanding ourselves and working effectively with others.

June 25th, 2014

Identity Labels

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


As we participate in open source projects or open learning communities like Wikipedia, Quora, Stack Exchange and others, we frequently encounter people from different countries who work at different companies. It’s not unusual to see people change organizational affiliations while working on the same project, or change projects while working at the same organization. Independent of any of the labels next to our names, we continue to increase the amount of innovative capability and insightful knowledge freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

This perspective reminds us that countries, companies and communities are all inner layers that we can check and uncheck. Holding these mental constructs lightly, we can recognize our affinities for them without turning them into identity millstones. We can keep our eye on a vision that transcends boundaries, wherever we happen to be. Whether we’re helping a company provide greater value to its customers, or helping a community provide greater value to its audience, we’re open to solutions that tap our connections and capabilities beyond our roles as employees or community members.

June 12th, 2014

Letting Go of Mental Models

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


What I particularly like about GIS mapping programs like Google Earth is that it’s just as easy to add a layer and take on a new perspective as it is to uncheck a layer and let go of my current perspective. If I bring up a satellite map of North America with the usual layer delineating countries and states, and then uncheck that layer, what happens? The differentiated concepts of country and state disappear. I see with new eyes as I rediscover an underlying substrate that is more continuous. I scroll through the jagged peaks of mountain ranges stretching across thousands of miles. I marvel at the unbroken expanse of flatlands. I drink in capacious inland bodies of water…

But what’s that right in between two of the biggest lakes? I can’t deny it. Michigan, like the claws of a wolverine, drags my jailbird mind back into the world of nations and states. I notice Florida as well, its peninsula as iconic to me as the ears of Mickey Mouse. Still, there is something different to this experience. These places, as distinct as they are, are more connected here than they were in the delineated map – they’re more like parts of the same whole. The more I stay present with this map free of external layers, the more I become aware of the internal layers which supply my continued impressions of “Florida”, “Michigan”, and other such things. Even if I can’t quite un-see them, their nature as constructs projected from my mind becomes more apparent and transparent.

The promise held out by this exercise is that we can gain more awareness of these inner layers/lenses that color and shape our perceptions, which we would otherwise see as the color and shape of the outside world.

To truly and freely let go of mental models, we need plenty of mental space. Without an abundance of mental space, and without a tolerance for its emptiness, we tend to fill the space vacated by one model with an equally cramped alternative. It’s like a corollary of Einstein’s observation that we can’t solve problems from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. We can’t properly let go of mental models from the same bubbles of mental space in which we constructed them.

Take the well-known anecdote about the belief that the earth rests on a giant turtle. When challenged by the question of what that turtle stands on, the person with this belief responds “it’s turtles all the way down!” I find this particularly humorous, because it’s exactly what I do. When one of my turtle-models is undermined and I can’t tolerate letting go of the turtle, I rush to add more turtles – or elephants, or giraffes, or unicorns for that matter. Whereas when I have more mental space, the turtle doesn’t loom so large in my worldview. I welcome the opportunity to let it go, which enables me to be present with the question at a more im-mediate, essential level – both as conceived and as perceived.

One of the best ways I know to gain mental space is through meditation. There are various types of meditation techniques, such as the mental repetition of a sound (mantra); focusing on the breath or some other object; monitoring thoughts/feelings/sensations with equanimity; and others. All of these share a fundamental principle: the expansion of self-awareness. In meditation, when you become distracted by a thought, feeling or sensation, you gently return your attention back to the intention with which you started the meditation. Every such act of reaching beyond your current distraction is a micro-expansion of self-awareness.

The gentle aspect of this is important. Meditation is like shifting your car into neutral. When you realize that you have become distracted, it’s like discovering that your right foot is back on the gas pedal and your car is in gear. At that moment, forcefully suppressing the distraction is like putting your left foot on the brake. That creates more friction, and takes you away from meditation. Instead, the idea is to just let up on the gas pedal and shift back into neutral. The car may keep moving, but you’re not intentionally involved with that movement.

In meditation, you uncover many pressed gas pedals and brakes which you can release. All of this reduces internal friction and frees up mental space, which carries over into day-to-day experience. You find greater patience to listen to another person with an open mind, and to sit with a problem without the limitations imposed by a particular mental model. You can allow a holistically informed response/solution to naturally emerge.