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Posts Tagged ‘mindset’

“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)

One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.

Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)

The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the worldPeople definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide:Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?

The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”

Happy Mattieu Ricard

Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…

Possible option

Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simplecomparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates).  As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.

Less is more

On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.”  I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?

Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.

What makes you happy?

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A logical presentation of arguments, be it a business or personal plan or a scientific lecture, usually contains responses to “why,” “what,” “how,” and possibly “who” and “when”. The most thought provoking idea I got from the webinar on analytics for driving performance (hosted by the Pharmaceutical Executive ), suggested by Charlotte Sibley, was to consider that “what” could actually come in three flavors: “what,” “so what,” “now what.” 

Indeed, I could immediately relate each of these “what”-s not only with different time frames (past, present, and future), but also with a different tendency, intent, and capability needed to answer it, possibly along the lines: 

  • What have/are we doing?” The question is related to a preference to be introspective and the correct answer relies on the capacity to be analytical
  • So what if we did it this way??” (Shouldn’t we continue to do it the same way?), Asking and answering the follow-up question requires an added willingness to judiciously pursue exploring the answer to the initial “what”
  •  “Now what should we do next???” (Could we do it better?) Asking this question requires the willingness to be objective about the findings and to entertain new ideas and ways to accomplish them.

From experience, the first “what” is the one most frequently asked and pursued, and most science and business operations have good capabilities or at least a pretty good idea about how they could obtain the answers. Asking the second and third questions requires courage especially in a larger organization. Being able to answer the “now what” question requires vision and leadership, and actualizing it is the hardest. This is probably why many either “don’t get it” or prefer to not even ask such question. While all three questions are needed, answering the third one is how innovation is born

So, which “what” is your organization’s biggest challenge?

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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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eclipse and twitter

Thinking Twitter? Bird perching on the statue of late Chairman Mao Zedong is silhouetted against a partial solar eclipse in Wuhan, Hubei province July 22, 2009. Reuters

I know… I used to be skeptical about using Twitter too. “Who has the time?” right? Also, I did not think it would be interesting to “tweet” about myself; however, I finally pulled myself from my inertia and gave it a try. I even succeed to beat Oprah to joining Twitter by almost… a day! I am now tweeting for My Lab Your Lab and for Amplinovia.

I do not yet feel pressed to tweet all the time. I tweet for two main reasons:

  • to communicate news and thoughts about science, scientists and about innovation in general, which I feel might be of interest to others. For me, tweeting is an interesting mental exercise. Twitter forces users to distill whatever they want to say in 140 characters or less (including spaces and included URLs). Many times I find it to be a challenge for me to write a message that it is both clear and interesting; however, the direct style of communication is right down my alley and I had already used Twitter as a paradigm of the times to challenge speakers on an innovation panel I recently organized for BIO to convey their main message in one minute or less (hey, I was much more “generous” with words than Twitter! 😉
  • to connect with like-minded people. In spite of its virtual nature, I can attest that Twitter brings together diverse people in real life. For instance, I might have never met Amira, an undergraduate student from U of MD, if it wasn’t for Twitter. Due to our Twitter connection, Amira became a member of My Lab Your Lab, our growing online scientific community, and later she asked me to become a mentor to help with her upcoming major career decisions.

I also use Twitter to gather knowledge and information. I follow people and news outfits that have something relevant to say. I try to encourage yet hesitant people by telling them that one can actually filter the staggering amount of intersecting chatter in the… Twittosphere (?). I would list as main reasons for which I recommend reading others tweets the following:

  • Twitter news are… well up-to-date! Twitter spreads news fast, these can originate either from a phone (e.g., as sms) or from a computer.  Compared to most websites that usually require some techno-savvy people to update content, Twitter updates in real time, as demonstrated by the news immediately spread during the recent events in Iran. I understand that a lot of professional  journalists use it now to get their leads for information.
  • Twitter is also “democratizing” the news and breaking down “walls” and “boxes” – i.e., anybody from anywhere can create or spread the news, no journalistic credentials required! Of course, access to technology (cell phone or computer) is needed… The Twitter crowd is innovating the way we create and  gather our news.
  • Twitter expresses the mood and interests of its global community =“crowd-feeling”? For those seeking patterns and global trends, the column that appears on the right of the Twitter’s homepage shows what the top topics people communicate about at any given time are. Most times I find that the topics are not what I would consider interesting… I think the main problem is that many people who might have something enlightening or interesting to say are not on Twitter yet (!) For instance, at the 2009 Experimental Biology  meeting, attracting 14,000 highly educated and smart registrants, it was pretty shocking to discovera as result of a poll that I was the only attendee using Twitter at a session specifically dedicated to employing Internet 2.0 tools to connect science, health, and the public… As shown by a recent articlein the “Journal of Happiness Studies” (yes, there is a legitimate journal that uses scientific methods to analyze and measure moods in a variety of contexts) the global online written expressions such as those from blogs and on Twitter (in fact a form of “microblogging”) can now be mined and analyzed. I can think of many public health, educational, and business reasons for which this exercise might be helpful.
  • Twitter allows the wide sharing of personal wisdom, knowledge and wit. I think great Twitterers (?) are philosophers and poets of current times. Is an educational collection of the best crafted, deepest, most inspirational messages on Twitter available yet?

In case you are intrigued, Twitter has put on line a very simple to follow “101 course” on how to use it for a variety of “serious” reasons, complete with business case studies. Btw, I have no conflicts of interest… Hey, Tweet me @amplinovia let me know what you think!

P.S. If all this talk about relevant and timely messages did not convince you to try Twitter yet, you might want to check if you favorite places now accept “to go orders” placed on Twitter…

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I want to submit that attitude may currently be the main barrier to innovation. Plenty of inside or outside innovation might be unleashed by a simple “Yes!” that would allow an initiative to proceed.

Did you ever enthusiastically approach your superior(s) with what you thought was a brilliant solution to a major problem the organization was experiencing? Were you flatly turned down even when you already had an action plan that could have made it happen if only s/he had said ‘yes’? Why are people not saying ‘yes’ more often? A few years back, I got a vivid illustration of the likely reason which I would like to share.

I had just moved to the South East from New England. I found Southerners to be extremely friendly, but I soon discovered that occasionally I had a very hard time understanding some of their heavy local accent (and some of them had trouble understanding me). One day I was working in my new office after hours. The lady who was cleaning my office came in, introduced herself, and started chatting with me. At some point I could tell by the tone of her voice that she asked a question and was expecting an answer from me, but I could not understand what she was saying. This was something that had never happened to me before: even if occasionally I would not understand an isolated word, I could always get the gist of the sentence. This time, I had no idea of what she had just asked me! We went through a couple of rounds at my polite request to please repeat the question, only to realize that she was just replicating the sounds, only louder each time. I finally understood that there was no point in continuing the exercise. I quickly reasoned: “the answer to this question might be quite elaborate, but I assume any answer could be summarized by: ‘yes’ or “no”, a ‘maybe’ might work…” Faced with the need to take a clear cut decision, I reasoned further: “if I say ‘yes’ I will likely need to do something as a result, and I am not sure what that is. Let’s try instead…” I turned to her and gave full attention to her last attempt at shouting the question at me, then firmly replied: “NO!” I was not sure how appropriate my answer was for her question, but what came next was astonishing: she looked me in the eye and replied “Agh, OK then!” then turned around, and off she went. While I had just deflected an uncomfortable situation, I was left baffled, still wondering to this day what her question was!!!

The episode itself became, however, very illuminating later when it dawned on me that a similar scenario was likely responsible to the many “NOs” that I had received myself throughout the years when presenting my higher-ups with a challenging idea or one that was simply very novel. Their gut response (and easiest) answer was “No!” Maybe I had not been able to convey my ideas well enough, or they were unable to understand the value of my proposals; in any case, the immediate negative answer insured that they did not have to do a follow-up, eliminating any potential commitment. There is always risk related to supporting or even allowing a new initiative to proceed. The risk is very easily eliminated by simply quashing it at first sight, and the cost of turning down such initiatives is usually very hard to identify, while a high-profile failure is hard to miss.

Many corporations punish the failures that are inevitably related to risk taking, but how many out there actually keep track of what could have been? At performance review time, is anybody keeping track of how many potential innovations have been annihilated by any specific manager/leader?

Obama recently demonstrated the mass appeal and the ultimate power of the operative word “YES” (we can). It will be interesting to see if the “yes” and “can do” attitude will spread to also penetrate and inspire the corporate world. I believe it would be the single most important step toward unleashing the innovation US desperately needs…

Addendum: See an independent video illustrating this barrier to innovation that was posted meanwhile on YouTube….

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