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.

June 4th, 2014

Reframing

Here is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


Reframing, studied by neuroscientists formally as cognitive reappraisal, enables us to see the silver lining of a dark cloud, and to recognize that lemons can be turned into lemonade. We don’t deny or hide any of the facts of a situation, we just change our focus of attention and subsequent action. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock presents a key insight from Kevin Ochsner’s research in this area:

As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.” … Ochsner’s research finds that as people reappraise positively, there is increased activation of the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and a corresponding reduction in activation of the limbic system. … It turns out that conscious control over the limbic system is possible, not by suppressing a feeling, but rather by changing the interpretation that creates the feeling in the first place. [emphasis added]

(In the brain, the prefrontal cortex is associated with higher-order activities including prioritizing, decision making and problem-solving, and the limbic system is associated with a vast range of emotional responses and the formation of long-term memories.) Reframing can be enormously, sometimes magically, successful at neutralizing stress and freeing up energy. A minor shift in how we view a situation can make a major difference in how we feel.

Of course, psychologists and philosophers have been telling us this for quite some time. Take a minute to ponder this observation from Carl Jung:

You know, it is sometimes an ideal not to have any kind of convictions or feelings that are not based upon reality. One must even educate people…that their emotions ought to have a real basis, that they cannot swear hell and damnation at somebody on a mere assumption, and that there are absolute reasons why they are not justified in doing such a thing. They really have to learn that their feelings should be based on facts.

But to [develop further] one should unlearn all that. One should even admit that all one’s psychical facts have nothing to do with material facts. For instance, the anger which you feel for somebody or something, no matter how justified it is, is not caused by those external things. It is a phenomenon all by itself. That is what we call taking a thing on its subjective level. …

If you have reached that level…you have succeeded in dissolving the absolute union of material external facts with internal or psychical facts. You begin to consider the game of the world as your game, the people that appear outside as exponents of your psychical condition. Whatever befalls you, whatever experience or adventure you have in the external world, is your own experience.

Every time we re-frame, we break one mental frame and make another one. We undermine that absolute union of material facts with psychical facts. This is what I value most about reframing. It reminds me that situations cannot compel me to feel a certain way. Situations aren’t inalienably “upsetting”, “embarrassing”, “terrifying” or “frustrating”, or for that matter “joyous”, “heartwarming”, “inspiring” or “exciting”. All of those emotional responses are valid, can be empathized with, and can be witnessed and experienced as fully as needed/wanted. But they stem from the mind itself, and are not locked to external circumstances.

The more we practice reframing, the more we become comfortable with holding multiple frames of reference simultaneously. Holding multiple perspectives doesn’t hold us back in any fundamental way from making clear decisions. We just don’t assume that the loudest voice in our head is always the clearest one. We listen for quieter voices that may have important things to say. When we make a decision, it may well be the same (or even more sharply defined) as what we might have otherwise chosen. But there is less of our self-image trapped in the decision. If we end up winning at another’s expense, there is less of a need either to gloat or to feel guilty. And if we see wisdom in an opposing point of view, we can more readily change our mind without needing to save face.

What we gradually lose is the need to prove ourselves as being right, as well as the need to prove the imagined-or-real naysayers wrong. This opens us up to discovering deeper truths about ourselves and others.

March 18th, 2014

ETL at LOPSA-East 2014

I’ll be speaking about Enlightening Technical Leadership at the LOPSA-East Professional IT Community Conference on May 3rd:

http://lopsa-east.org/2014/lopsa-east-14-talks/

March 4th, 2014

ETL at the IEEE/ACM IT Professional Conference

I’ll be speaking about Enlightening Technical Leadership at the IEEE/ACM IT Professional Conference on March 14th:

http://princetonacm.acm.org/tcfpro/

December 11th, 2013

Enlightening Technical Leadership

I’m happy to announce that my first book, Enlightening Technical Leadership, is now available! You can download the ebook for free from my web site, and the paperback is available at amazon.com:

http://kartiksubbarao.com/enlightening-technical-leadership

February 7th, 2013

Open Source Presentation at IEEE Delaware Meeting

UPDATE 2/19/2013: Slides from the talk are now included below.

I’m presenting about Open Source at the IEEE Delaware section meeting on February 18th. Here is the abstract:

Open Source software grew out of the practice of freely and openly sharing source code across academia and industry from the early days of computer programming. It took off along with the rapid growth of the Internet. Nowadays, open source software runs most of the World Wide Web, as well as the majority of smartphones and supercomputers. Companies are increasing their use of open source, developers continue to adopt open source programming languages and techniques, and society as a whole is being transformed by the principles of open source collaboration at a number of levels, from education to government to popular culture.

What makes open source so compelling? How does it work? What are some ways that anyone can benefit from open source, wherever they happen to be? In this presentation, we’ll explore these questions and discuss the opportunities.

November 1st, 2012

Holding the Personality Type Map Lightly

Some lessons that I’ve learned from personality type, as well as thoughts on how we can apply these insights in the world of IT, published in the journal Personality Type in Depth:

http://typeindepth.com/2012/11/the-map-vs-the-territory-of-type/

Many thanks to Carol Shumate and Mark Hunziker for their insights throughout the editorial process!

August 7th, 2012

Fluidinfo backend store for Annotator

Here’s a first pass at a Fluidinfo backend store for the Annotator project:

https://github.com/kartiksubbarao/annotator-fluidinfo

More info is available in these posts:

http://lists.okfn.org/pipermail/annotator-dev/2012-August/000401.html
http://lists.okfn.org/pipermail/annotator-dev/2012-August/000402.html
http://lists.okfn.org/pipermail/annotator-dev/2012-August/000403.html

March 28th, 2012

Personal Development Insights from Open Source

4/16/2012 UPDATE: Slides from the talk are now included below.

I’ll be presenting on this topic at Indiana LinuxFest on April 14th:

http://www.indianalinux.org/cms/schedule2012

If we pay close attention, our interactions with Open Source projects and communities — whether as consumers, contributors, integrators, or enthusiasts — can be catalysts for our own personal development. The insights we gain into ourselves can increase our capacity to handle stressful situations, reframe and expand the way we see our work, increase our leadership capabilities, and make us more effective in general.

In this session, we’ll explore a number of growth areas that we can experience in connection with open source, including:

  • How open source confronts us with an explosion of abundance, where we may be used to scarcity. How we can tap into the flow of giving freely and taking mindfully, shifting our mental model from idea bank to idea mint.
  • How open source helps us unify some of our fragmented identities (such as those we may experience in workplace roles and elsewhere), which improves clarity and makes more energy available to us in all spheres of our life.
  • How open source enables us to progress from dependence, to independence, and then interdependence in our interactions with others. Interdependence is one of the greatest force multipliers of our capabilities.
March 28th, 2012

Collabograte at Indiana LinuxFest

I’ll be presenting on Collabograte at Indiana LinuxFest on April 14th:

http://www.indianalinux.org/cms/schedule2012