How to play with others

“Most parents do not play with their children,” the book explained, “and all too often the reason is simply that they don’t know how.”

I read this line again, first thinking I’d read it wrong, then rolling my eyes. What do you mean, don’t know how to play?  Who doesn’t know how to play?
But as I read the next 9 pages of Dr Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s The Incredible Years parenting book, I realized I was ‘playing’ with my 3 year old son Hunter all wrong.

The core of her recommendation?  Essentially : watch what your kid is doing or saying, accept it, repeat it back to them, and build on it.  Watch, accept, repeat, build.
I tried out this approach out on my son the next day over some Lego. Previously Hunter would build a car, and I’ll grab some Lego next to him and build another car of my own, and then try to get them to drive around together. Wrong. The advice from the book was to not build my own thing, but instead to just sit and watch what Hunter does, and comment on it out loud, like a sportscaster.
So, awkwardly, I did. Hunter started taking the tires off his Lego motorcycle and then putting the wheels back on, without tires. My instinct was to correct him, to say ‘No, Hunter, that’s not right.’  Uncomfortably, I bit my tongue and just sports-commentated. ‘I see you are putting red wheels on the motorcycle.’
‘Yes,’ he replied excitedly, raising the bare-wheeled Lego up into the sky. ‘It’s a super flying motorcycle!’
I was gobsmacked with how much more awesome his motorcycle was than my ‘correct’ version would have been.  How much my son had to teach me about playing!
We played for a while longer, him taking off wheels and putting them on, only asking for my help from time to time when one got stuck.  He loved playing with me in this way, and I loved it too.  First, it was a lot less work than trying to come up with a super awesome Lego of my own.  And even better, I got to peer into his mind and glimpse, with wonder, how he sees the world.
In the weeks since, our relationship has blossomed. I am 9 months pregnant, due with his little brother any day now.  I had thought he was avoiding me either because of jealousy of the incoming new little brother, or boredom because I’m too tired and immobile to run around with him.
But actually, I realized, he didn’t like to play with me because I didn’t know how.
It’s silly.  In retrospect I have been taught how to play many times in my life: in improvisitional theatre class in college, in ‘active listening’ classes during my MBA, in ‘coaching’ courses at Shell, in articles, in books, on the volleyball court, in the sandbox.  And while they use different words, the approach is always the same : watch, accept, repeat, build.
In Keith Johnstone’s book Impro about improvisational theatre, it’s called ‘accepting offers.’  If an actor during a skit says to you, ‘Doctor, my leg is broken,’ you can instantly kill the scene if you reply with your own idea about what the scene is about, like, ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m your aunt.’  Good improv actors watch attentively to see what story the other person ‘offers’ them, ‘accept’ it and then build on it.  ‘Oh wow,’ you might say instead in your best doctor voice, ‘I see that your leg is horribly broken! Come this way into my operating room!’  The audience (and actors!) now wonder with excitement : what will happen next?
Similarly in ‘active listening’ class, I was taught to ‘park my thoughts’ to help listen better. Say your friend is telling you about a stressful meeting she had with a colleague at work. You think, ‘Wow, I had a similar situation at work with Bob, which I handled by…’ You then zone out, waiting for your friend to pause, so you can tell her about your own meeting with Bob and what you did. All the while, you aren’t really listening to what she’s saying, and miss the fact that she’s upset and seeking comfort and advice. You missed a perfect chance to be a good friend to her, to get some insights into her life at the office, and get to know her better. You’ve missed a perfect chance to play.
To prevent this zoning out, my active listening teacher told me : park your brilliant thought and go back to listening.  I (still) find this hard to do, as I have lots of random thoughts from my life I’d like to share. Yet when I’ve succeeded at doing it, when I’ve just listened, repeated back what the other person they just said, and then asked questions that built on it, I’ve found that my friends and colleagues enjoy those conversations and get a lot of out of them.  And I do too.
There’s one more place I’ve been taught the same lesson in a different guise, which is timely for this season. What should I get him or her for Christmas?
The advice? Watch, accept, repeat and build. Listen for what people say they like and would want.  Accept that they like that.  Repeat it back to them to confirm that is indeed what they’d like (and maybe get some detailed specifications at the same time!). And then either get exactly that thing or something that builds on that concept.
I bought my son some stamps, thinking I’d like him to do more crafty things.  My ever wise husband Oyvind, however, has followed the rules above and bought him the same toy he has a dozen of already, because he loves them so much : a police car.  (‘He’s a collector,’ Oyvind explains with a grin.)  I suspect come Christmas day, he will play for hours with the car, and not at all with the stamps.
So this holiday, I wish you have time and the chance to practice playing with others.  To play with your gifts. To play with your relatives (even those with different political views). To play with your guests who brought food you don’t normally like. To play with your friends going through great times, and with those going through rough times. To play with your kids and to learn how to play from them.
Watch, accept, repeat and build.  And see what super flying motorcycles we can make together.
Happy holidays,

On Being Deliberate

After some deliberation, I’ve decided to deliberately share my 2018 New Year’s Resolution : to be more deliberate.

Deliberate. It’s an awesome word that has popped up during 2017 and over the past 2 weeks in particular.

Being ‘deliberate’ is the ‘D’ in chapter D of the ABC’s of Learning, a cool book I’ve been reading this Christmas about how we learn (and teach) best. ‘Deliberate practice’, like free throw shooting drills, helps breaks out of the performance plateau that you get if you just play a game of basketball every weekend. You can practice a skill like a foreign language for hours; but deliberately drilling hard things with coaching and feedback — that’s where the real improvement happens.

Being deliberate came up as I watched videos of swim coach Terry Laughlin talk about his ‘total immersion’ technique of swimming: making each stroke deliberate, concentrating on where your body is positioned, putting your hand at a consciously chosen x/y axis point in the water. By being deliberate, you can use teach yourself to use less energy and get more distance each stroke.

Being deliberate has come up as my husband and I organized our kitchen over the Christmas break (yep, we’ve become those people!). We analyzed how we use our kitchen space and realized we had our mugs in a hard-to-reach high shelf while our most accessible shelf was cluttered with useless junk. We spent half an hour deliberately throwing out the junk and moved our mugs to the now freed up lower shelf. It was a cup of tea!

And as usual, I’ve gotten inspiration from my husband, Oyvind, on this too. Being ‘deliberate’ is one of the four values he introduced at his company, Poq. It asks everyone to make conscious choices about what to do to — and not to do — from what clients to take on, to what software to develop next. It works, and his company is thriving.

But what does it really mean to be ‘deliberate’? And how is this a New Year’s Resolution?

According to the dictionary, ‘deliberate’ means ‘done consciously and intentionally.’

I love that definition. To think carefully about what to do. And then to do it with purpose, knowing why you do the thing you are doing. Asking, what are you trying to achieve? And is this the best way to achieve that?

It sounds simple, but it’s a big ask, and one I don’t think I’ll be able to achieve (like most New Year’s resolutions!).

For me, being deliberate in 2018 means thinking consciously and intentionally about how we organize our home (beyond our mugs), where we put our stuff, what we put on the walls, what stuff we have and don’t have. That will require effort on the weekends, with some trash bags, and trips to the charity shop.

It means being deliberate about how I spend my time. Where, with whom, doing what. Both at work and not at work.

It means being deliberate about how I sit, stand, hold my posture, swim.

About what I eat and drink.

About what I read, watch.

What I write, say.

About what I practice.

About what I preach.

About how I listen.

So I’ve shared this with you as an Aabservation, deliberately. To see if it resonates with you and to get feedback.

And to ask you to help me stick to this resolution!

All the best for a happy and healthy 2018,

The 7 Ps

In the past year I’ve had a number of career chats with friends who were considering different job options or paths. Traditionally people frame their job search in terms of industry and job description. But thinking about the three “careers” I’ve had — finance in NYC, consulting in China and now energy in London — I keep finding the ‘industry/job description’ framework both too specific and too limiting.

Instead, I found seven fundamental things that have determined whether my friends and I love our jobs or not. The seven things that matter most, I think, when deciding a job or career. I call them the “7 Ps“:

  1. Place : Where geographically do you want to work? The city/country you are based in and your commute affect how you spend your time, and who you spend your time with, both inside and outside work.
  2. People : Who specifically would you work with on a daily basis? Do you like them? Does your boss care about you and want to see you succeed?
  3. Pay : Does the job or sector pay you enough to live the life you want? If not, will your pay will increase in a few years in this career path? Or, are you happy to change your lifestyle to accommodate a lower salary?
  4. Progression : Will you develop skills, knowledge, a network or a reputation that will help you move forward in your career?
  5. Perception : How do people react when you tell them what you do? Whose opinion do you really care about, and how important is that to you? (Of course perceptions of jobs and industries change over time. As a case in point: almost nobody outside finance had heard of Lehman Brothers when I started there in 2001… )
  6. Purpose : What is the company or organisation trying to achieve, and do you support that? It’s not just millennials that want to work on something they believe in.
  7. Procedures : The last P, the one I always forget but that most traditional job searches start with : what do you actually do in the job? Are you spending your day on the phone, or sitting reading stacks of paper, or crunching Excel, or standing on your feet in front of 25 teenagers? And do you like doing those things?

I don’t know many people who ever get all 7 at once in one job.

And the weighting of the 7 Ps varies over time. Perception and Purpose may matter more while you are starting out, while Pay and Place may matter more when you are starting a family for instance. But all are worth considering at any stage.

Happy to hear your comments on my 7 Ps — and of course, any Qs!


When Hunter turns 18

As baby Hunter nears his first birthday, I have been wondering what the world will look like when he’s 18, in 2033.  Here are my predictions — or really punts — enjoy!

  1. He won’t use cash, ever.  He may, though,  have a ‘cash collection’, the same way I used to have a stamp collection.
  2. Neither he nor his friends will have a drivers’ license. He will either use public transit, bikes, taxis, or self-driving cars.
  3. Neither he nor anyone he knows will smoke cigarettes. There will be fewer cigarettes sold than marijuana joints in the western world.
  4. He will not have any passwords. All his access will be fingerprints or facial recognition.
  5. He won’t need a passport, or any ID.
  6. He will be as practiced in making music and videos as we were in writing essays.  And he’ll use them to express his ideas, both academically, extra-curricularly and socially.
  7. He will apply to university by providing the school a database with every homework assignment, test result, school newspaper blog entry, social media post and music video he’s done. The universities will then run their artificial intelligence algorithm to build a class that optimizes for cultural fit, future potential and diversity.
  8. Flights will be three times as expensive as they are now, and he will travel half as much.
  9. Meat will be three times as expensive as it is now. He will use it as garnish rather than a main part of a meal.
  10. Streets will be quieter, with more public transportation and electric vehicles.
  11. He and all his friends will speak Chinese.
  12. He won’t be able to board an airplane if he’s sick, to stop the spread of some global pandemic. Health scans will replace security scans at the airport.
  13. He will feel safe from crime, as police departments are given more powers and technologies to prevent criminal activity.
  14. He will fear the government, though, which will have expanded its powers to combat an ever more vague definition of terrorism. He will find himself self-censoring what he says online to avoid seeming anti-establishment in the years before applying to university.
  15. 90% of what he learns in school will be fascinating to him, and stick with him. He will be an agent in his own learning, actively exploring topics, pursuing his interests, and connecting with others inside and outside his school that share his joy of learning. His daily curriculum will not be History, English, Math, etc., but some cross-disciplinary, immersive, skills-focused new thing I can’t even imagine.
  16. He will assume almost everything is knowable. Instantly.
  17. He will be addicted to getting the latest information about everything from politics to fashion to friends, and be 100x better at quick analysis than deep analysis.
  18. He will get his grocery deliveries by drone.
  19. Half his friends will live with their parents when they start working; the other half will sleep on lofted beds to save space. He and his 3 friends will live in a 600 square foot flat and pay over 50% of their income doing so. Owning a home in London will be reserved as a ‘post-IPO’ fantasy.
  20. He will not apply for his first job; his employer will select him based on the online reputation he has built for himself in that field.

And things that won’t have changed:

  1. He will be tired and stretched too thin from all the academic, social and extra curricular things he wants to do.
  2. He will celebrate his 18th birthday with a cake, candle and the Happy Birthday song.
  3. He will still get the common cold.  Tylenol/paracetamol and a cup of tea will still be the main treatment.
  4. He will still wear jeans on the weekends, and a button down shirt to important meetings.
  5. He will still develop a crush on the popular girl. And though he makes her the subject of his music videos, she will not know he exists.
  6. And of course, when his first love breaks his heart, or he runs out of money, or fights over dishes in the sink with his flatmates, he will always be welcome home to mom and dad.

On Binaryism

Before having baby Hunter, I would subconsciously score each experience on a graduated scale from 0 to 100.  A dinner out would get maximum points for great conversation, food and ambiance. A walk through a park would get bonus points for having roses in bloom and the sun streaming through poofy white clouds.

But now, I score my life on a binary scale : 0 or 1. Did I go to dinner or the park, or not?
The other day, I was two hours late to dinner with some friends, as my 8 month old baby wasn’t settling easily down to bed. The food was good but not mind blowing, and some people couldn’t make it.  But instead I just thought : I made it out to dinner! Check!  1 point!
For someone who cared a great deal about the difference between an A and an A minus as a student, it feels counter-intuitive that this ‘pass/fail’ system would be so rewarding, and so liberating.
But it is.
And it takes so much of the pressure off of being a new parent.
Take ‘baby cinema’ as an example. On a Monday at 11 am, parents and their babies go to a theatre to watch a movie. Pre-baby Hunter, I might score the experience as less than half as good as seeing a movie without the baby. After all, I missed the beginning waiting for the baby to wake from his nap, the key moment while I was in the bathroom changing his nappy, half the dialogue thanks to the other 30 babies crying and half the plot due to my own sleep deprivation.
But under binary thinking, I thought : who hooo!  I made it to a movie!
Binary thinking is essentially a shortcut for optimism: seeing the glass as half full, rounding up.  And it’s made me appreciate much more of the past 8 months of maternity leave.
I admit, it’s a strange time to become a “binaryist”. The internet has made micro-optimization ever easier, whether it’s planning your route, finding a phone plan, or meeting new people. My generation, and especially the ones after mine, will come to expect everything to be optimal, always.
So perhaps then it’s the right time.  As despite the advances in technology and civilization, not everything is always as good as you might have hoped. Binaryism gives us an easy way to handle times when it isn’t.  And to enjoy each experience for what it is : itself.

On becoming a mother

It hit me that I am now a mom the way that rain drops make you wet : one drop at a time. Our son, Hunter Aab Henriksen was born Thu Dec 3rd at 10:20am, 3.62 kg (8 lbs), without complications at University College Hospital in London. My husband Oyvind and I are very much in love with the little man.

The slow process of becoming a ‘mom’ started when I found out that I was pregnant. It got a little more real after our 12 week ultrasound when we saw the bambino for the first time, dancing to each heart beat. It got more real still when I started telling people I was pregnant, and as my bump became visible. Even feeling him kick was gradual — was that a kick or just gas? At 20 weeks we saw on the scan that he was a boy, and it hit me a little harder : we weren’t giving birth to a baby, but to a person, a boy who one day would go through puberty and become a man.

By the last two months, as I sported my ‘Baby on board’ pin to get much needed seats on the Tube and bus, I was very ready to be a mom. Or at least to not be pregnant anymore!

Then came the big day. I’ve heard some women say they feel an instant surge of relief or joy the moment their baby is born. For me, it took a few days. The first few hours in the hospital, I was just too physically spent to really process anything. Having just had nearly three days and sleepless nights of contractions and 9 hours of labor, my new mom thought process was more like, ‘what on earth just happened?’

When Oyvind and I were alone with our son for the first time in the hospital recovery room, it started to sink in. And there was a moment, when little Hunter looked up at me for the first time. He’s so cool.

So drop by drop it has become more real these past 5 weeks, as the exhaustion and aches of labor have faded, and a new routine of being a parent begins. It will continue to dawn on me that I’m a mother now, little by little : each time I fill out ‘mother’ on a form, or see my parents sing their grandson ‘rockaby baby on the tree’ the same way I was sung to.

5 weeks down in learning to become a mom. The rest of my life to go.


On married hugs

My dear friend Jo asked me to prepare a blessing for her wedding this past weekend, about something important in a marriage. Here it is (insert a perfect New Hampshire mountain backdrop and a perfect couple!):

On the blessing of married hugs

Jo, Scott, You will have many blessings in your marriage. One of the best is married hugs.

Hugs are the best.  There is no easier or more effective way to love and to feel loved than a hug, both in times of celebration and in rough times.

While the kiss is the highlight of the wedding, the hug is the highlight of marriage.

What is a married hug? The word, hug, comes from the Norwegian word hugga, meaning to comfort. So it’s something comforting. And something about holding someone in your arms.

There are many types of married hugs:

  • The casual ‘just got home’ hug;
  • The ‘bone crushing’ squeeze hug;
  • The ‘Netflix on the sofa’ hug;
  • Various private hugs; and
  • Various public hugs, including one you’ll use today called the ‘don’t mess up my hair’ hug;
  • And perhaps one day the awkward but awesome ‘pregnant hug’,
  • Which prepares you for the inevitable future ‘beer belly’ hug.

Of course, you’ve hugged and been hugged since the day you were born. So what’s new and so special about married hugs?

Starting today, you are now each others’ go-to hugger, more than any other relationship you’ve had. You’ve both lived and traveled far from family and friends. But while you will still spend time apart from each other, your marriage will feel most complete when you are back in hug radius.

And for those times you are apart, look at your hands, at the wedding rings you are exchanging today. There are many things that a wedding ring symbolizes, of course, but I like to think they symbolize a permanent hug.

Jo, Scott, may you enjoy the many blessings of married hugs, as you promise to not just have — but to have and to hold — each other from this day forth.

Liz Aab

Pearly memories

What matters most when we remember our lives is what we’ve said about our experiences to other people.

Think about it:  aren’t your most vivid memories the stories you’ve told again and again? About how some random doctor on the wintry Trans-Siberian Railroad injected you with some unknown serum, or how your husband lit up the living room with every tea-light Waitrose had the night he proposed?

If you want to have lived a beautiful life, tell beautiful stories about it.

“How was your day?” is the most important question we get asked : an opportunity for you to shape your own history, several times a day.  So do you answer “Ugh, the train was so packed I couldn’t even open my newspaper?”  Or do you take a few seconds longer to seek a nicer memory, like how your colleague brought in chocolate from Italy?

The “peak-end rule” says you judge an experience as an average of the best (or worst) moment and the last moment.  So when you are asked “how was your day,” it’s natural to think of the last thing you did, like that horrible packed train.  If you then tell this to someone when you get home, it reinforces that memory. Since our journeys to and from work are often what we’ve done just before someone asks us “how are you?”, they take an out-sized place in our memories.

Solution?  Optimize your commute. Or talk about something else!

This link, between sharing your story and remembering it yourself, probably goes way back to cave man days. Surely those things you bother to tell others, like what plants are poisonous, are the most important things to remember?

Researchers have done some experiments exploring this link between speaking and memory. One study reasons that we don’t have early childhood memories, for instance, because we didn’t have the vocabulary to describe them at the time!(

I wonder if students would learn better if they spent a few minutes at the end of class telling their neighbor what they learned. And if the cliche question parents ask their kids, “what did you learn today in school?”, isn’t their most important contribution to their kids’ long term academic success?

Don’t believe me?  Try an experiment now on yourself :  when next forwarding an article (or Aabservation), don’t just copy the link. Write two sentences saying what you thought was interesting in it, and see what you still remember in a week.

Indeed, telling each other things about our lives is important, both for learning, and for having lived a beautiful life.  Our life is a sandy beach which we walk along, picking up grains to touch and admire as we go.  Each time we handle them, we have a choice:  to coat them with the black grime of criticism and kvetching, or to build them up as shiny pearls of delight and wonder.

Chose pearls. It’s a nice way to end a story.

On love

One of the best parts of being engaged is getting to gush about how in love you are. So with less than two weeks to go before we get married, I figured I’d share some of my favorite things about my relationship with my fiance Øyvind Henriksen.

(1) Saying thank you.

It’s probably the thing I like most : Øyvind and I say thank you all the time. Even for expected everyday things, like making breakfast, paying for dinner, taking out the trash, buying groceries, or washing the dishes, we both say (actually say) thank you.

Looking for opportunities to say thank you makes me notice more when he does something nice; it becomes clear just how many warm, generous things Øyvind does everyday. Saying thank you also feels good, like making a donation to a cause you believe in. And getting a thank you feels great, like your work is appreciated. Thanks Øyvind!

(2) Accepting offers.

In the theater art of Improvisation, there’s a concept of “accepting all offers” : if a fellow actor turns to you to say “Hello Doctor!” you should then step into the role of a doctor (e.g. “How’s your headache now?”) rather than blocking the offer (e.g. “No, I’m not a doctor”). Accepting an offer allows the scene to build on itself, and go to interesting places (“My head is terrible! I wish you would just cut it off!”… “Ok, let’s go to the guillotine!”). Blocking results in tension between the players, and a scene that’s dead in the water (“uh, sorry, uh.”).

Øyvind and I have had great adventures together these past three and half years thanks to his tremendous openness to new experiences and ideas. His willingness to “go with it” comes out in our conversations, leading to the creation of the famous “zeppapult” (a combination of zeppelin and catapult to solve urban transport problems, of course); in his incredible success in envisioning, launching and leading his mobile app tech startup Poq Studio; in his eagerness to try new restaurants, travel destinations, and fashions; and his genuine interest in people from all walks of life.

So when he offered his hand in marriage, it was easy to accept!

(3) Acting out of love, not rights or power.

In Negotiations class in business school, we learned that there are three levels of negotiations: those based on incentives, rights or power. Basing everyday interactions on incentives is the best, as it allows you to find the best outcome for all parties — I don’t have to lug the smelly trash down four flights of stairs, and Øyvind doesn’t have to wear rubber gloves and scrub frying pans.

But once you start going into the second level of “negotiations” — relying on the concept of rights — it quickly becomes messy. “Rights” based negotiations are those that focus on equity, laws, justice: “I did 10 minutes of housework there it’s only right that you do 10 minutes of housework”. Once there, you quickly break down further into power negotiations which are usually quite unhappy : “you can’t make me take out the trash!”.

Thanks to this framework, I no longer keep a tally of what I’ve contributed to our household or relationship and compare it what Øyvind has done : it just doesn’t matter. Instead, we both try to do what we can to make the other person happy. The result? We both do lots of things that make the other person happy.

(4) Having read Mens are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Yes, I rolled my eyes too. But it opened my eyes to false assumptions I was making about the opposite sex. For instance :

  • Points: Men and women calculate “points” differently : men assume that if they do something really romantic they earn 50 points and then can take the next two weeks off; women give men 1 point for everything they do, regardless of how big or small, and want their man earning a point a day.
  • Cave time: Men need some cave time, alone (or with a PlayStation), regardless of how much they love their partner.
  • Probing: When women are sad or need help, they want someone to notice and start probing to find out what’s wrong. Men, however, want to retreat into their cave. They can see caring questions like “what’s wrong honey” as undermining their manly competence to deal with their own problems. When they want help, they’ll ask.
  • Will v Can: Men don’t like being asked “can you take out the trash” and prefer “will you take out the trash,” as it gives them the option to say no, and doesn’t challenge their competence. I had thought that “will” and “can” sounded the same, until the author pointed out that “will you marry me?” has a very different tone from “can you marry me?” :)

(5) Never taking anything too seriously.

My 99 year old aunt, when asked what contributed to her longevity, said : “never taking anything too seriously.” I love Øyvind’s playfulness, and often feel like I’m on a really great playdate from the happiest days of my childhood. His office (and our home) is decked with cute things, and he doesn’t shirk silliness — just ask his little nephews who love ‘Onkel Monster’ very much.

(6) Being really similar.

We like the same things : picnics in the park, exploring new places, drinking black Americanos, dancing, doing challenging but fascinating jobs, going out for dinners and date nights, and having friends over for dinner parties.

If you had told me that a girl from Manhattan would meet a guy from a 50,000-person town north of arctic circle, and that we’d be so similar, I’d never have believed you. And if you had told me that my next language after Chinese would be Norwegian — a language spoken by less than 5 million people who also speak excellent English — I’d have laughed. Jeg ler ikke nå.

So maybe I also should write to future Liz and Øyvind as well : may you continue to accept all offers, do things out of love rather than justice or power, share interests, and not take anything too seriously. And if this Aabservation proves helpful during the tough times of your marriage in the many years to come, you can thank me.

Happily yours

Blob people and Line people

It started, like this note, with a blob. A canary yellow smudge of paint in the middle of the white canvas pallet. A few more strokes of the instructor’s brush, and two circles emerged, one balancing precariously on top of the other… But what is it?, my 7 year old self wondered. After another few strokes, suddenly it was clear:  the yellow head and body of a baby chicken. When the instructor then drew a dark black line around the bird, my life was changed forever: until then, I never knew you could paint by filling in the middle before drawing the lines.

There are two types of people: blob people and line people.  Blob people explore life like the yellow canary painting: putting color down first, and seeing what emerges. They wander across the pages of their lives, and when they find something shiny, stop, and let the ink in their pen saturate that part of their story. You know them: the guys who picked their major in college based on what department they happened to have the most courses in.  Or that friend who moved to a foreign country because they were curious. If you ask them to identify a good investment, they’ll probably cock their heads to a side, remember a cool article and exhibit they saw about 3D printing, and suggest looking there.

Line people, by contrast, are the planners, who draw the black line first, and then fill the rest in according to their outline. They have their act together. Line people figure the exact combination of courses and hours they need to get into medical schools, or how to hit all of Rome’s best tourist spots in 12 hours. Ask them to identify a good investment, and they’ll structure you a spreadsheet of recommendations, with weightings for risk appetite and investment horizon. You know them too.

A mix of these personalities can achieve incredible (and fun) things. And indeed, many people that have defined history are blob people who figured out how to draw a line around what they were working on:  the men that drafted the sentiments of the rebellious colonies into the US Constitution; business leaders who took intuition about market trends built railroads; religious prophets that used memorable parables to define good and evil in ways that resonated across the world for centuries; scientists who captured observed curiosities in universe in simple equations; writers who defined the subtle sensations of the human experience in words that affect how we see the world ourselves.

To finish this Aabservation, I suppose I should draw a final clear black line around the idea that emerged over the past paragraphs.  Namely, this post postulated personalities of three types of people: (a) Blob people, (b) Line people, and (c) Blob people who draw lines.


Pigeons are stunning creatures.

Trust me. I also once thought pigeons were vermin: dirty, stupid rats with wings. No longer.

The turning point for me came at Everest Base Camp. I had schlepped there from Lhasa, Tibet: three days of off-road driving at increasing altitudes. When I arrived at the (bottom of the) top of the world, there they were. How could my city-slicker birds also survive in the Himalayan heights?

The more I looked into pigeons, the more incredible these birds became. Pigeons are a type of dove whose native home is a rocky cliff, which is why they feel so comfortable in Manhattan window sills.

They are by some accounts the smartest bird in the world, able to recognize themselves in the mirror and even recognize letters.

They are homing birds, instinctively able to return home from anywhere — and at up to 100 miles per hour for many hours on end. There’s a culture of racing these birds by putting them into an enclosed van, and releasing them hundreds of miles from their homes. Scientists suspect magnetic elements in their nose and their exceptional eye sight lets them find their way home, even over oceans. Their eye sight works better when their eyes are stationary which is why they try to hold their heads in the same place when they walk.

This homing ability earned them war medals. During World War I, there were thousands of pigeon handlers, who managed communications with the front lines by tying messages to pigeons’ feet and letting them fly home. Some pigeons heroically flew through mortar fire to get the message home and safe their human comrades.

This homing ability is probably why we see pigeons everywhere; mankind’s armies have been using pigeons as carrier birds for thousands of years, and so they have become as domesticated as dogs, horses and cats. They’ve adapted to eat our food, ignore our crowds and cars, and find homes in our buildings (and on our statutes).

And they even resemble us socially. Like humans, they tend to mate for life. That pigeon couple you pass on your way to Starbucks has likely been together for years, having made a home in a window near you.

Watch the younger ones in a park while listening to club music on your headsets, and you’ll see more social similarities: the males puff up and dance in circles while the lady in question will look demur and continue to peck at the ground. If a person throws out a handful of pizza crusts nearby, the guy will interrupt his wooing to get some grub. (Typical.)

Pigeons even kiss. The first time I saw it happen was, ironically, on the death wall of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. They smooched for a minute, he popped up on the back of her to do his thing, then jumped off just as fast, fluffed his feathers, and flew off.

And of course, pigeons also poo on things. So, the last few decades, we’ve come to think of them as stupid.

But watch them more closely, and admire them: their intimate human-like relationships, their intimate relations with humans, their incredible adaptability, and their strength, endurance, intelligence, and skill. Perhaps you’ll come to see, as I did in the thin air of Everest, how beautiful ordinary life becomes when you find pigeons beautiful.


If you want more pigeon info check out and Pigeons, by Andrew D. Blechman.

Yes, there’s a book about pigeons. And yes, it’s good. And, yes, of course I read it.

The Expression Revolution

So you are sitting there, with a cup of tea in hand looking out into the future nebulous dust clouds of human progress. With the warm waters of the 20th century receding from the shore, the novelty of electricity, automobiles, financial innovation, telecommunications and globalization are waning. What, you ponder as your cuppa cools, will be the big next thing?

And then you realize, maybe it’ll be the same thing that has driven human history since history began: new and better means of expressing ideas.

Take a look through the tunnel of human evolution to see what I mean. First, watch us humans grunt and point. Then speak. Then draw on cave walls. We developed writing. Craft. Jewelry. Theater, music and dance. The printing press, the personal computer and Word Processor, TV and recorded music. Photographs. YouTube. At each step, our ability to express ideas advanced, and so have we.

Web 1.0 and 2.0 connected us better to each other. I expect the next wave of technical innovations will allow us to express ourselves to those connections better.

Good expression does three things: it lets us develop our ideas (like using a pencil to solve a math problem), share those ideas, and develop ideas together.

The Expression Revolution will cover all three. For instance, imagine what the following ideas could do:

  • Stretchable Paper. Often you take notes or draw a picture and want to tuck in an extra item or bullet point. Imagine if you could just stretch the paper and create that space, like writing on pizza dough? Or if you run out of room at the bottom, just pull and there would be more writing surface. Limitless imagination!
  • Scrolls. Perhaps the quickest way to fix the problem of the constraints of the letter-size sheet is to go back to the original: a scroll. If we printed on scrolls, we would be unconstrained (in one dimension at least) without having to worry about pages breaking across tables for instance. The “story” aspect of our tales would be more intuitive and memorable. Scrolls have a natural flow to them that a stack of pages lacks.
  • Infinite Paper. The screen you are reading this email on is inherently limiting. How often have you had to artificially split up an Excel table or a PowerPoint slide or 360 view just to fit it on a page? Projection technologies will no doubt become more popular in the coming years, which allow us to fill whatever surface we have information.
  • Excel for Anyone. Dear Microsoft: Excel is a programming language, not a communication language. Trying to read someone else’s financial model in Excel (or anything actually) is like trying to surf the web by reading pages of HTML code. Think about it: how often have you received an email with an Excel attachment that you glanced, opened, and then shut quickly before actually looking through it? One reason I think Excel is so horribly unreadable is that each data point really should show 3 things: the name (e.g. Revenue in 2011), the value ($100), and how it was calculated (=5 items x $20/item). Instead it just shows one and asks you to perform small acrobatics of looking up cell B47 to figure out where it came from. Worse: if you copy and paste an Excel into a presentation or print it out, all you usually see is the value of a cell and maybe a row/column heading with a short name so it fits in the character-limited column width. The logic of the calculations is completely hidden. If you could design a display method that makes those calculations and the numbers they generate easy to read and understand, you could significantly increase the number of people who could catch problems, collaborate on developing hypotheses and inputs, and evaluate the results. Could a better Excel have prevented the financial crisis? I wonder…
  • Autofill Pictures. You want to draw something but your artistic skills are, er, limited. This technology would let you indicate what you want to draw and draw it better than you could, the way that architects or police investigation sketchers do.
  • Easy Animation. So much meaning is conveyed by the order in which ideas are expressed, as anyone who has played Pictionary knows. How much better to send a file that easily plays for you, for instance drawing a picture live, filling in an Excel sheet line by line, or adding text? Many have tried, but the winning solution still awaits (I’m looking at you, Adobe).
  • Danceable Music. We dance to music; what if it flipped, and music were created by how we danced, maybe via XBox Kinect? Dance Dance Revolution indeed.
  • Drawing Class. And while such assistive technologies are helpful, another way to improve expression is through skills: going to school. I wished they taught us how to draw in my MBA: how to sketch realistic-seeming objects, that made things clearly understood, and looking good… Being able to draw a powerful picture is worth a thousand words. And no, PowerPoint SmartArt isn’t drawing.
  • And many more…

Stanford just published an article about how the Humanities are reasserting themselves at a school known so much for tech startups. I wouldn’t worry so much, Stanford: humanities-based starts up will soon have their day too, as we look to get better at dancing, drawing, writing, translating, arguing, and acting out our ideas.

If this Aabservation didn’t strike a chord with you, I’m not concerned. In a few years, I’ll use these new tools to rewrite it as a song, and bet that’ll help you sing along.

Until then, all the best, via Arial 10 pt font,