About the Experiment

July 27, 2016

I finished my PhD at the age of 27 with many questions still unanswered, and so I started the 43 year experiment. The aim of the experiment is to spend some time (okay, a considerable amount of time) learning about how people work together, then to pass on that knowledge.

Human behaviour is complicated: why do some of us hit snooze (multiple times) on Monday mornings, yet others bounce out of bed? What drives our decision making? Why are some work teams a joy to work in while others seem to drain everything out of you? All these questions deserve an answer, and thus the idea of a life long experiment: When I turn 70 I should have some answers. Stay tuned (don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted along the way).

I will devote 43 years of my life to this project. I plan to speak to the most influential people I can find and ask them about how they interact with others. My initial questions are (1) What is the best strategy for working with people? (2) What makes an influential leader? (3) How do we become better communicators at work?

I aim to speak to influential leaders, public servants, politicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors…anyone who is a good communicator and is willing to share some strategies on working with others and how to do it better. I hope to learn as much as I can, then share it with you, for free!

On a personal note, somewhere between the ages of 19 and 23 I lost myself. Anxious and uncertain of who I really was caused immense stress and depressive thought patterns. But I got through it. I got out. I found something to hold onto, something to chase after. I found a reason to live.

That reason (and the motivation behind this experiment) is to focus on learning. Discovery and sadness cannot co-exist. We can’t be sad and curious at the same time. And I am fascinated by the minutiae of human behaviour; the subtle things we do that can have a tremendous impact on those we love and those we work with. Sometimes all that’s needed is a tweak in our tone, or the ability to re-phrase a statement. A kind word or an unnecessarily harsh tone can have a huge impact on others, especially our work-mates. Why not choose the former. Kindness is free. However, learning to do these things automatically is the challenging part.

The reason we don’t get better is because we don’t focus on it. We don’t give it the attention it deserves – and as this world becomes more globally connected, learning to get along with our neighbour is no longer an option. It is an imperative. It is salient because humans are social creatures and we are influenced by those around us (and a lot of this is done unconsciously, without our permission). Thus, learning about people is a worthy endeavour, well in my opinion at least, and that’s why I am committing to this experiment. The goal is to share what I’ve learnt with the aim of helping others to apply the knowledge to their own unique situations.

Far too many of us are unhappy at work and struggle to interact with others. I would suggest that learning to master the skill of communication is paramount. Not only is it important to learn how to communicate better with others, but perhaps more importantly, how to communicate with ourselves.

And we CAN learn! If we can learn how to count, or how to tie our shoe-laces, then surely we can learn how to work better with others.

We spend a lot of time at work. I believe if we are unhappy at work, we are unhappy at home. So the 43 year experiment will focus on workplace interaction, starting with a discussion on toxic emotions and how they can be contagious.

If we can enjoy going to work on a Monday morning, then we can start enjoying life, the way it was meant to be. Living life to the full. Appreciating every moment for what it is, not what we wish it was.

If this blog helps one person to see that life is so much more, then it has been a success.

signature

Anthony Grace
Brisbane, Australia

Can you focus for 30 days?

June 2, 2016

focus

Can you stay focused for 30 days? Well, it depends (I hear you ask). True, it depends on what you are trying to focus on. For example, I’ve struggled to stay focused for 3 seconds when I’ve been forced to listen to someone prattle (isn’t that a great word, prattle, it seems to roll off your tongue, now I’m prattling), yet I can stay focused for 3 hours watching Louis Theroux documentaries. But what about running, can I stay focused on training for a half-marathon over the next 30 days?

DAY 1

The Gold Coast marathon will start at 6am on Sunday morning, 30 days from now. My goal – or probably a better word to use is VISION because it sounds more inspiring, and us humans need to be inspired to jog. Eating chocolate and watching TV on the other hand…we don’t need to be inspired to be lazy, but we do need to be inspired to be healthy. How did that get so warped? I blame Philo Farnsworth.

So my vision is to run everyday for thirty days leading up to the half-marathon so on Sunday the 3rd July I actually enjoy the run.

The secret: It’s all about focus.

Have you heard about the story of a long distance runner who tattooed a ‘+’ sign on his hand. Just above the thumb on that bulbous muscle. He said it forced him to stay positive every time he looked down.

The secret: Focus on the next step, not the finish line.

As I read in a Nike change room: there is no finish line.

So, if I’m going to be out on the road doing a Forest Gump on the crowd, my next question then is won’t I get bored. That’s the real reason people don’t run by the way, their mind starts to complain. It whines about being bored, telling us things like: are we there yet? I’m thirsty! I’m hungry! I’m uncomfortable! Are we there yet? What’s for dinner? I’m hungry! What are you doing wasting this energy on a meaningless jog! Time is money, let’s not waste it on the road! Are we there yet? I’m bored! Etcetera etcetera.

The solution: trick your mind by constantly persuading it to focus on taking small steps.

Running is a great metaphor for the daily grind of our everyday life. We burn calories the same way we burn mental energy. But burning mental energy is a lot easier than putting your sneakers on. My questions is this: is obsessing, and fretting, and sending our mind into over-drive healthy, the same way that running is? Is it possible to waste our mental energy on frivolous thoughts? To answer these questions I did a little research because I think one of the most valuable skills to learn is the ability to harness our mental energy. Focus. That illusive word that we all know what it means (like space & time) but when asked to describe what it means we flounder.

A few months ago I wrote the draft of this blog article after a morning run, this is what I wrote: “At 6am, on my morning beach run, on the first day of the long weekend it occurred to me that I had already focused my mental energy on a dozen things. What a waste! I started with a problem at work that was still yet unresolved. I found my mind churning through the dilemma – calculating and analysing all aspects of the situation. I found my mind running in circles around a problem that in all honesty didn’t need my attention till I returned to the office. And even then, it is still outside of my control. If only our sphere of influence wasn’t so damn small. But anyway, why focus on existential dilemmas anyway (look what happened to Jean Paul Sartre). Why focus on trying to control that which is not in our control.

Why do we do that to ourselves? Probably because we like the feeling of control. Control is Power. It feels good to be in control. However, this pavement of life isn’t always smooth; the terrain is changing constantly. So, should we try to control the terrain, or accept the terrain for what it is. And it is very temporary.

“This too shall pass: Acceptance is the opposite of control”

Some of the best advice I ever received about running was this: when your legs are burning and you’re ready to give up. Change your focus. Stop looking at the horizon – the finish line is till too far away. Instead, look down and focus on the minutiae of the terrain. Focus on the small things, enjoy the small picture at your feet, don’t stress about the big picture. And remember to ask yourself, can I take one more step? The answer will always be yes to that question.

Let’s start asking ourselves better questions.

For example, how can I enjoy my run today?

Focus is key. If we focus our mental energy on one thing, something magical happens. Our perception of that object becomes distorted. Try it. This evening, stare at a light bulb, soon you will see the image distort in your mind’s eye. And if you close your eyes, you will still see the bright image still burning in your mind’s eye. Focus on your vision. Make it bright. Make it compelling. And most of all, MAKE IT FUN & ENJOYABLE. We must learn to start enjoying our time with ourselves, even if we have to go on the occasional run together.

Runnings is fun!

(unless you’re being chased by that bear from the Revenant)

My Apple is Anxious

April 3, 2016

AppleMy Apple iPhone and MacBook Air inspire a sense of consistent anxiety at being ignored. For the past 7 months I have continually asked my Apple to “Remind me Tomorrow” about the impending doom of yet another software update.

Installing the latest software is a constant worry for the Apple device. It’s all consuming. As if the Artificially Intelligent being is incapable of putting it’s feet up and just chilling out.

Relax. No I don’t need to update you today. Please!

But why are Apples so persistently nervous? What happened to the cool, calm, composed and confident Justin Long type personality. “I’m a mac and I’m so much more suave than PC” – but underneath I epitomise the inherent frailty of all human beings: Anxiety. Isolation. The fear of being alone and ignored.

And so they won’t give up – as I write this article, it’s reminding me again to install the next software update. Later! Not now. Please, please, please, just give me 5 minutes to work.

Just turn of the daily reminders, I hear you ask.

You can’t. I’ve asked.

When the request appears in the top right hand corner of my screen it only gives me two options – “now” or “tomorrow” – what happened to “never”. Or “please stop badgering”. Was that ever an option?

And so what if I don’t want to install new software, what are they going to do, sue me? Is my Mac going to disintegrate? Is the sky going to fall down?

Probably none of these, but why are they so persistent?

It’s my Mac after all. It’s my property, I paid a lot of money for it. I should be able to use it as I wish. It’s the same as buying a car. I can drive it however I want. Sure there are rules about speeding, drinking alcohol, text while driving etc., but at the end of the day I am the one in the driver’s seat. I am in control. Not so for Apple though.

My Apple behaves in the same manner as on overly insecure OCD prone teenager. A day doesn’t go by without an icon frantically jump up from the bottom of my screen demanding attention. Like a child bouncing on a jumping castle screaming for love, iTunes screams to be updated.

I’ve had enough. I love Apple products, but not when they’re so….needy.

Speaking of the devil, I’ve literally just been notified that iCloud preferences have changed. A big box appeared in the centre of my screen (without my permission, mind you). So what, honestly, so what. I’m working. I’m sitting in this café, trying to get this article written and I don’t care that the iCloud preferences have changed. On the surface I’m typing away, but internally I’m screaming at Apple.

And no, I don’t want to back-up using iCloud and no, I’m not anxious that my storage is almost running out, and no I don’t want to pay for something I don’t need, no I don’t want to pay more money on a monthly basis for iCloud storage. Apple already have enough of my money.

Why do some people fret over all their digital data – it’s not real, it’s not tangible, it’s not important in the grand scheme of things.

People are important. Not binary code.

Years ago, Apple started to outsell the technological pioneer – Microsoft – because they understood the consumer. And they also gave their brand a personality. They made it human. Maybe too human because they included the anxiety in the design.

At the start they built computers that worked, straight out of the box. It was beautiful. Now they’re infecting us all with their anxiety at not being updated. Apple’s anxiety is infectious. I’m sorry to say but my iPhone, iPad and Macbook Air are more high maintenance than a BMW.

Why Apple, why are you so anxious? Just relax, don’t stress about always being updated and just start to enjoy doing your job. You’re great at what you do. Keep doing it. And remember, your job is to help, not hinder.

P.S. A big thank you to the founders of Apple and the internet for allowing my to type me thoughts and share it with the world! I don’t want to seem ungrateful or anything…

My theory on people @ work

March 23, 2016

SuperStarWhen we start working in a new job, and after all the brouhaha dies down, we soon realise who people really are; there’s nothing quite like a deadline to bring out the worst (or best) in people. Sometimes our first impressions are accurate but sometimes they’re wrong. So how can we really know people’s true colours.

From the moment we step foot into the office, we start gathering information about your fellow workers (also known as judging).

These judgements usually fall into two categories. Is this person friendly? And, is this person going to help me?

Two social neuroscientists (from NYU and Princeton) published a fascinating article on how we perceive others. For example, we think and feel differently about firefighters compared to the elderly. We also tend to subconsciously view the homeless or drug addicts in a de-humanised way. Even more interesting was how the pictures of the different types of people evoked different emotions (pride, envy, disgust). This phenomenon is known as clustering. We don’t have enough time to learn all the facts about a person’s life, or take the time to fully get to know them, and so make snap judgements. We pigeon-hole people.

Sometimes a person just needs to smile for us to think they’re friendly – that’s all it takes, a smile. How easy is that! Check out this great article on smiling more :)

I spoke to a successful University Professor and she said she always makes a point of leaving her office door open. She is there for the people in her team – literally, they just have to ask. By making herself available and promoting an open door policy, she helps to create an environment of psychological safety in her team. People feel comfortable around her because she makes it seem like she is never rushed for time (although in truth she probably has an impressive to-do list).

Putting people first is not always possible though (we are here to work after all!). But what we can do is start to understand how we interact with the people in our office and know that our opinion of them will influence how we feel about them.

Are people friendly, proactive and selfless? Or are people aloof and selfish?

There are four types of people in the office: the super-star, the cruiser, the unreliable, and the blatant-self-promoter.

4 types

The super-star is the person who get’s things done and is a pleasure to work with. Not only are they engaging, inspirational and influential, but they somehow manage to make great decisions consistently. Super-stars are the people you want on your team. They give more than they take and they do more than they talk. They also do all of this with style! Friendliness is free.

The cruiser is so happy just to be cruising along. As if they are literally on the Sea Princess cruising around New Zealand. They usually keep to themselves and rarely give up there time (except for a chat by the water cooler) but when you actually need something done, they delay. I haven’t quite figured out this category, I don’t know whether to be frustrated or impressed by the Cruiser. They fly under the radar and seem to talk the talk very well. But when it comes to delivering the goods, the cruiser is no-where to be found. The cruiser is not a team player.

The third category is the Unreliable. They always seem to be willing to help out but almost always fail to deliver. The Unreliables over-promise and under-deliver. However, they are different from the Cruiser because they give a lot of their time and energy to others. So don’t give up on them. All they need might be a helping hand, or perhaps for someone to give them a helping-hand. Or perhaps an encouraging word at the right time to spark some motivation. Remember, they are unreliable for a reason, we just have to find out why.

Finally, the Blatant-Self-Promoter (BSP) is self-centred. They are focused entirely on their own welfare. The BSPs talk the most in meetings (usually about themselves and how good they are). Talkers instead of doers, the BSP will always take more than they give. The BSP is also a ladder-climber, in other words they can be proactive, just as long as it benefits them. They are focused on the goal, and in that sense, I guess they deserve a little credit. But when the goal of the individual supersedes the goal of the team, that’s when cracks begin to occur. A selfish team member can infuse toxicity, subtle at first, but the effects can be disastrous. The BSP is happy to step over people to get to the top.

So which are you? Or maybe you know some BSPs or some Cruisers?

Take a look now at the underlying emotions you feel for people in these categories.

4 emotions

 

 

Keep this in mind next time you talk with this person – and perhaps remember that if people see you as a blatant-self-promoter you may pick up a hint of anger in their tone.

Let’s strive to be a Super-Star, that is if we want to be admired and respected  @ Work.

Yours sincerely

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Anthony Grace

 

Notes & References
1. Image courtesy of FreePik. Thank-you. ‘http://www.freepik.com/free-vector/stamped-star-icons_786216.htm‘>Designed by Freepik

2. Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2009). Social neuroscience evidence for dehumanised perception. European review of social psychology, 20(1), 192-231.
3. Jonas Ellison (2015) Want to save the world? Smile more. 

About

March 14, 2016

I finished my PhD at the age of 27 with many questions still unanswered, and so I started the 43 year experiment. The aim of the experiment is to spend some time (okay, a considerable amount of time) learning about how people work together, then to pass on that knowledge.

Human behaviour is complicated: why do some of us hit snooze (multiple times) on Monday mornings, yet others bounce out of bed? What drives our decision making? Why are some work teams a joy to work in while others seem to drain everything out of you? All these questions deserve an answer, and thus the idea of a life long experiment: When I turn 70 I should have some answers. Stay tuned (don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted along the way).

I will devote 43 years of my life to this project. I plan to speak to the most influential people I can find and ask them about how they interact with others. My initial questions are (1) What is the best strategy for working with people? (2) What makes an influential leader? (3) How do we become better communicators at work?

I aim to speak to influential leaders, public servants, politicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors…anyone who is a good communicator and is willing to share some strategies on working with others and how to do it better. I hope to learn as much as I can, then share it with you, for free!

On a personal note, somewhere between the ages of 19 and 23 I lost myself. Anxious and uncertain of who I really was caused immense stress and depressive thought patterns. But I got through it. I got out. I found something to hold onto, something to chase after. I found a reason to live.

That reason (and the motivation behind this experiment) is to focus on learning. Discovery and sadness cannot co-exist. We can’t be sad and curious at the same time. And I am fascinated by the minutiae of human behaviour; the subtle things we do that can have a tremendous impact on those we love and those we work with. Sometimes all that’s needed is a tweak in our tone, or the ability to re-phrase a statement. A kind word or an unnecessarily harsh tone can have a huge impact on others, especially our work-mates. Why not choose the former. Kindness is free. However, learning to do these things automatically is the challenging part.

The reason we don’t get better is because we don’t focus on it. We don’t give it the attention it deserves – and as this world becomes more globally connected, learning to get along with our neighbour is no longer an option. Humans are social creatures and we are influenced by those around us (and a lot of this is done unconsciously, without our permission).

Learning about people is a worthy endeavour, well in my opinion at least, and that’s why I am committing to this experiment. The goal is to share what I’ve learnt with the aim of helping others to apply the knowledge to their own unique situations.

Far too many of us are unhappy at work and struggle to interact with others. I would suggest that learning to master the skill of communication is paramount. Not only is it important to learn how to communicate better with others, but perhaps more importantly, how to communicate with ourselves.

And we CAN learn! If we can learn how to count, or how to tie our shoe-laces, then surely we can learn how to work better with others.

We spend a lot of time at work. I believe if we are unhappy at work, we are unhappy at home. So the 43 year experiment will focus on workplace interaction, starting with a discussion on toxic emotions and how they can be contagious.

If we can enjoy going to work on a Monday morning, then we can start enjoying life, the way it was meant to be. Living life to the full. Appreciating every moment for what it is, not what we wish it was.

If this blog helps one person to see that life is so much more, then it has been a success.

signature

Anthony Grace
Brisbane, Australia

Contagious Emotions

A few months ago I had a bad day at the office, starting out with an altercation in the parking lot with the security guard (resulting in a $200 fine) and then a political play by a fellow colleague that I didn’t expect.

I was a mess for the rest of the day, all that night, and the next few days. It suddenly occurred to me that I might just as well have been sick with the flu – as if I had picked up a nasty virus. And that was my mini-eureka moment: if we can catch the common cold from other people, maybe we can catch toxic emotions from other people. A type of emotional infection.

Can emotions be toxic? Ever felt so nervous that you felt sick in your gut? Maybe emotions have a larger impact on us then we give them credit for.

Fear, anxiety, an unrealistic urge for omnipotent control (micro-managing), helplessness, disgust, uncertainty, anger, and slander can all be toxic. And perhaps more worrying is these toxic emotions can be transferred unconsciously.

We like to think of ourselves as emotionally intelligent – but unfortunately all of us have an inbuilt flaw: emotion is contagious and we can be infected unconsciously. In the fascinating book Emotional Contagion (1994), Elaine Hatfield tells the story of how for years she was infected unconsciously with anxiety from another colleague. Every time she met with him she came away feeling as if she had said something stupid or had bored him. But during one particularly heated discussion she realised that she was only paying attention to how she felt; her own feelings instead of his.

So she stopped focusing on herself and began to analyse his state. It occurred to her that even though he was successful, popular and intimidating, at the core he was acutely anxious. The signs were subtle: brief twitches, a slightly elevated pitch in his voice, shifting weight from one foot to another. The next time they met, instead of worrying about her own emotional state, she focused on sending reassuring signals to her anxious friend. It worked; they both settled down.

This incident shows how sensitive we are to the pervasiveness of others’ emotions. Even though we may think we are emotionally intelligent – and perhaps some of us are emotionally aware – when it comes to contagious emotions that we pick up unconsciously (like a virus or the common cold) we are in the dark.

Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute (responsible for deciding the recipients of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine), has developed countless experiments focusing on the influence of emotion, especially fear. After all, fear can be useful. In a dangerous environment, fear can help keep us alive.

Scientists have identified four types of fear: (1) fear of death, (2) fear of animals, (3) agoraphobic fears – distress caused by confined spaces, or large crowds, or places where there is no escape such as bridges, tunnels or trains – and (4) social fear.

Social fear manifests in social interactions where there is a fear of criticism, conflict, rejection, or aggression. Social fear is a genuine fear, but is it useful? Arne Öhman’s experiments measured people’s heart rate, skin temperature, and various other physiological responses while showing pictures of snakes and angry faces. But the images were disguised. The snakes and angry faces were only shown for 30 milliseconds before pictures of flowers appeared. In other words, the snake was too quick to see.

The results were fascinating – even though the subjects couldn’t see the snakes and the angry faces, they felt them. And their body was quick at preparing to defend themselves. Their heart rates went up and they showed increased skin conductance responses. It was as if their body was preparing for fight or flight without asking for permission.

Joseph LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, says “our brain is basically an unconscious machine.” This machine is capable of processing much more than we give it credit for, as exemplified in fear of a threat to our safety: the speed of emotional processing seems to bypass conscious thought. This has been described as an “inescapable emotional response” or an “automatic mechanism” independent of cognition. In other words, our intuition. Arne Öhman believes that a considerable amount of emotional activity is constantly (and automatically) monitoring the world around us, independent from our conscious thought.

But should we trust this emotional activity? Should we trust our gut feeling? Or perhaps an even better question is: how much of an influence do our emotions have on our every day decisions?

The answer is found in the work of Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese born professor of Neuroscience who speaks with a calm demeanour and wears circular spectacles (in the same vintage style as John Lennon). He has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the subject of consciousness and developed an influential theory known as the Somatic Marker hypothesis. It is based on the remarkable survival story of Phineas Gage who was working on Vermont’s railroad expansion in 1848. An accident involving dynamite sent an iron rod through Gage’s left cheek and out through the top of his skull. The strike seemed deadly, but he survived. Months later, the attending physician was recorded as saying, ‘I dressed him, God healed him.’

Even though Gage survived, he walked away with a new personality: a destructive demeanour that was not consistent with the successful (and friendly) Gage prior to the accident. He was no longer himself, despite his miraculous survival. He began to make unreasonable decisions which made him unemployable, he tried working on horse farms but was prone to quit or was fired for lack of effort. He died from an epileptic convulsion thirteen years after the accident, at the age of thirty-eight.

Today, his skull (and the tamping iron that caused the injury) are on permanent display at the Warren Anatomical Museum of Harvard University.

Gage’s story suggests there is a section of the brain that is responsible for deciphering emotion and social interaction. Just as there are certain sections that are responsible for language and motor skills. Our ability to function in social settings (such as the work environment), as well as our ability to take pride in our work, act ethically, and obey social conventions, all seem to occur in the section of our brain known as the Ventromedial region in the pre-frontal cortex. Like Gage, many patients who have suffered damage in this area seem to be hindered in their daily decision making and social interaction. There lives seems to fall apart because of poor decisions.

Damasio’s conclusion: decisions were no longer informed by emotion. Impaired decision making was the result of the legion that disrupted neural pathways between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and emotional responses). Emotional feedback plays a crucial role in decision making.

Therefore, if some emotions are contagious and emotions play a crucial role in our decision making, the people we surround ourselves with do have an influence on us. Our colleagues, or team-mates, or family members emotional state does affect us. We know this because we can receive an e-mail or have a conversation with someone and be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Like that day a few months ago, I let the security guard and my colleague get under my skin. I allowed them to infect me with their own anxiety and insecurities. “Toughen up” I can hear my grandfather shouting at me, and don’t get me wrong the world doesn’t owe us any favours. But if we are working with others on a daily basis, toxic emotions can start to fester. The solution:  we need to build up our own immunity and  realise the power we have at infecting others with our toxic emotions.

And now for the good news, if we can infect other people with our emotions, why not choose to make a person’s day, instead of ruining it.

 

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become reality.” – Earl Nightingale

 

Notes & References

1. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T, & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional Contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2. Öhman, A., Flykt, A., & Esteves, F. (2001). Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 130(3), 466.
3. Scientists have identified four types of fear – see: Arrindell, W. A., Pickersgill, M. J., Merckelbach, H., Ardon, A. M., & Cornet, F. C. (1991). Phobic dimensions: III. Factor analytic approaches to the study of common phobic fears; an updated review of findings obtained with adult subjects. Advances in behaviour research and therapy, 13(2), 73-130.
4. Joseph LeDoux
5. Ohman, A., & Wiens, S. (2001). To think and to feel: nonconscious emotional activation and consciousness. Ed. Kaszniak, A. Emotions, Qualia and Consciousness. World Scientific, Singapore, 235-246.
6. Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ Error. New York: Random House.