What is stronger — the Written or the Spoken Word?

While some take written word to be inherently superior to the spoken word others believe that what is communicated verbally is inherently stronger than the written word.

This conflict existed for thousands of years. And different civilizations took different stands on this. But the conflict assumes greater importance in the 21st century, especially when ‘transliteracy’ skill (ability to learn from different media and from diverse sources — not necessarily in the written form or within a limited space or limited time period) is now considered to be a vital skill to survive and thrive in the present age.

How to make sense of this conflict?

May be a good starting point might begin by considering what Thamus, the god-king of Egypt, spoke to god Thoth, when he was congratulating Thamus on having invented the alphabet to produce written documents:

“…. this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

(Source: as quoted in de Santillana, p 348)

Today, we learn not only from books but also from many other sources, which are essentially based on human interactions in varied forms of communication through spoken words – some of which are storytelling, dialogs, discussions, debates, global conferences, workshops, negotiations, narrations, collaboration, sharing ability and evidences, coaching, mentoring etc. The media through which such communication flourishes are varied like, emails, cell phones, various social media platforms, direct experience, teaching …. etc.

Surely the volume of spoken word outweighs the written word in our present bit (binary digit) world where often the spoken word is presented in a written format.

If we look back, even two decades earlier, the memory capacity of our computers were going up by the day facilitating storage of ever increasing volume of data (written words). But the trend is now being reversed. Now we are using smart phone, tablets, audio, video, podcasts and net books, which have just enough memory to work smoothly. Software development is giving way to sharing information over shared platforms through development of specific applications.

And perhaps, when faced with increasing complexity, we are all forced to learn on the go — meaning instantly — in the here and now, with the full awareness that what we learn now might be replaced by new learning in the very next moment. The reason for this is simple — all complex situations are so unique that learning from one complex situation may or may not be directly translated to another complex situation, however similar that might seem to be.

Though the learning environment has become more complex than ever before the simplicity in this situation lies in the fact that we are increasingly relying on learning directly from direct human interactions in the form of varied types of conversations in which we become an intrinsic part of our personal learning experience.

For instance, the open learning culture that is expanding very quickly, fundamentally relies on the spoken word (videos, audios and podcasts) on diverse subjects (e.g. MIT opencourseware, Khan Academy) for learning to take place. Such videos are usually supported by brief notes and not elaborate text books (written word).

As I see it, there would be an exponential increase in learning through conversations that would rely more on the spoken word whereas the size of elaborately written documents would continually decrease and be limited to issues where correct transmission might be endangered.

In today’s world, to learn we must become a part of the process that produces the knowledge applicable to our needs. For that to take place, conversations would occupy the center stage of learning. In that case, spoken word would gradually assume greater importance than sole reliance on written words in form of books and textbooks.

It means that the way we would develop and use our mind-body complex would assume utmost importance in the coming years.

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Learning Quickly & Adapting Rapidly – A Simple View

If I were to make a very simplified understanding of our brain it would be this:

Our brain has three parts, which are: –

1. The Rear Brain

2. The Mid Brain

3. The Frontal Brain

The Rear Brain

The rear part of the brain is an alarm, which sets off as soon as it senses danger that can threaten survival and life. It works on the principle of ‘fear’ (the modern term is stress) that propels us to either fight or run away. When faced with anything new this part of the brain triggers first. Though for city dwellers, tigers and snakes are mostly not around to scare us to death, this ancient part of our brain sets off alarms by sensing anything which is unusual, uncommon, seemingly big for us to handle, new or doesn’t fit our regular routine or schedule. But isn’t learning all about embracing something new? So we have a big problem to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Mid Brain

This part of the brain stores all our sensations and experiences as images including the lessons we learn. It is the memory section. It throws up information as and when we need those. So when faced with something new this part of the brain searches for something similar and prompts us to take note of what is already stored there for us to act. At times, it conjures up new images by combining existing images some of which can be illusory or false, which may create stress or delusion. Under stress, it communicates to the rear brain triggering fight or flight response. When deluded it induces us take actions without thinking of undesirable consequences. Now, these become big problems to learn anything new or different when faced with familiar objects or situations making it difficult for us to pick out something new or different from seemingly familiar patterns. The mid brain would say, “You know that. There is nothing new in the world.” This is because mid brain would force us recognize existing patterns only, which usually prompts routine or scripted behavior as a response. This then poses as a big impediment to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Frontal Brain

This is the new part of the brain that is responsible for learning from any situation and under any condition enabling us to create new solutions and new actions. However, this part of the brain isn’t powered up fully so long the mid brain and the rear brain dominate the show. That appears to be a big problem too for learning quickly and adapting rapidly to changes.

So what is the way out?

The way out of the mess may be summed up in a neat mantra — 3S which stands for Slow, Small and Steady.

Slow:

Slowing down offers many benefits. The most important one is relaxation of the body and mind. Once the body and mind are relatively relaxed, the rear brain, which is usually very alert lets down its guard allowing other parts of the brain to act fully. This facilitates learning something new.

Small:

When we notice small and subtle things; think in small pieces and connect those; and take small actions – the rear brain doesn’t interfere since it doesn’t consider small things to pose any danger to survival. Likewise, when we see, think and do small things the mid brain doesn’t quite interfere with the new experience either since it usually fails to conjure up an existing pattern to match the small experiences other than trying to judge by giving it a name and form . So, once we suspend our judgement while experiencing something new the possibility of new learning grows exponentially. However, once the small things are done the mid brain would faithfully store the lessons for better adaptation and survival in the future.

Steady:

So what happens when, over a time, we steadily exchange value through small actions? Obviously, the small actions accumulate, coalesce, combine and recombine in self organizing way to produce new learning, which usually grows wide and deep enough to allow us learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

Go Slow. See Small. Engage Slowly, Think Small. Act Small. Go Steady.

That is perhaps the easiest way to learn new things quickly and adapt rapidly to changes promoting resilience and sustainability for organizations, groups, communities and individuals.

Note: This is a part of a forthcoming book — “Sleeping with a Stranger” — a new book belonging to the Nemetics series.

Strange habits of Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass, novelist, artist, Nobel laureate and all-round agitator, died on April 13th, aged 87.

While writing, he had some strange habits such as:

1. It was important for him to say the words aloud while he wrote.

2. The writing of his long dense books was slow, punctuated by coffee and by drawing and sculpting in which he was not only gifted but also trained.

3. Many of his drawings appeared in the books and on their jackets often replacing texts when words failed him.

4. He spoke his mind as he wrote, chewing over the sentences with the same reflective relish he might devote to potato pancakes, roast goose or liver sausage.

My questions are:

1. Why did he do so?

2. Did such habits help him to do better at what he did?

3. What insights we may gain from the habits of Gunter Grass?

Reference:

The Economist, April 18th – 24th 2015, Obituary Gunter Grass — The beat of the drum, page 78.

The Role of Intuition in High Performance

Garry Kasparov was the world’s top chess player for twenty years. Later he became a mentor to young players.

He has this to say about computer assisted learning:

“Everybody has access to the same computers. So I think the brute force of calculation isn’t enough – human intuition is an integral part of successful decision making too. Young players need to hear the greats of the past explain the nature of the game, the rationale of the openings, the ideas behind the moves. They can’t learn by just looking at the screen.”  [Ref: Life’s Work | Harvard Business Review South Asia | April 2015 | page 104]

I completely agree with him. While coaching or mentoring engineers and engineering managers I have seen serious mistakes being made while taking decisions based on established rules. The chance of making such mistakes increases while tackling complex situations and problems.

This is because solving complex problems and taking the right decisions in complex situations needs both reason and intuition. These combine to form right contextual knowledge of a complex situation. Worthwhile to remember that reason forms rules based on existing knowledge, which are, so to say, “Google able”. Whereas, intuition creates new knowledge by making unusual connections, which is commonly known as “out of the box thinking” or “creative thinking.”

Computer aided learning might help develop reason. But how do we develop intuition?

Kasparov offers advice on how to develop intuition.

What might be the other ways, if any?

Leadership Organizational Change & Complexity

Following is a splendid piece of insight coming from my friend and colleague, Michael Josefowicz, on honing leadership skills in a complex environment.

Quote

For economic development, entrepreneurs and organisational change it’s all the same.

1. Create leaders.
Make them believe they can manage complexity by showing them they can.

2. Create high performance teams.
One person always has a limited view. Often right, sometimes very wrong. Without a high performance team in place that can disagree within a context of trust the chances of getting it very wrong increase radically.

3. Choose a problem that is both solvable and worth solving. Focus on the problem and the constraints of time and money. Leadership and high performance team practice can be learned with any problem.

After that it’s all simple and self sustaining.

Unquote

What is most interesting is the direct relationship between leadership skills and problem solving. It would involve developing a wide range of human skills to operate at the level of “unconscious competence” in a complex environment.

3 Best Gifts

Three best gifts a human being may give to another are:

1. Gift of material resources (physical – the R wave)

Without basic material resources to support life no human being can ever hope do something worthwhile to develop himself/herself. No music would be created. No poems would be written. No paintings would be made. No inventions would come about. No talent would blossom. It is about providing long term sustenance since honing of any talent needs years of persistent practice in good health.

2. Gift of Knowledge (mental – G wave)

Gifting knowledge to someone helps a person to navigate through complexity of life so as not to get swamped by it. It is an invaluable gift. Without basic knowledge and skill to navigate in complexity, even the best amongst us, would soon lose their way, get distracted, depressed and be left in a state of utter despair. It provides the wherewithal to stay the tough course of life by understanding oneself and others. In other words, it provides the wisdom to live life without much of mental sufferings and afflictions.

3. Gift of Assurance (emotional – B wave)

With this gift one gets the much needed confidence to do better in what one does well. This gift helps one to develop a sense of belonging, a state of peace, happiness and equanimity enabling one to reach one’s highest potential. In that way, the world automatically become a better place to live. Mere presence, an approving nod, a kind word, a smile, sharing love, showing respect, sharing the good word are some of the subtle but powerful forms of this gift. It unleashes the most powerful transforming force in an individual and society at large.

A baffling problem

Last week I was invited to engage with a baffling problem. It left engineers and managers of the power plant baffled for the last four months.

Instead of writing the technical details of the problem, which might not be of much interest to non-technical people I would instead write about my approach to solving baffling problems along with the principles involved. This is because we often wrongly interpret problems as technical, non technical, financial, social, etc. Essentially all problems are problems of the human mind. Invariably they always originate and live in the human mind. However, problems, as a rule, are always solved or resolved through enlightened (understanding, wisdom) consciousness.

The process, which I intend to highlight below, may be used to successfully solve both personal and professional problems or quickly adapt when a baffling problem (or a black swan) strikes.

The seven steps of the integrated process are as follows:

1. Look at the event as perceived in the present and the events that went before it.

Principles:
a) See all, sit still, breathe deep, care for the ill.
b) When drinking water think of its source.

2. Examine the responses of human beings to a problem. Spot the responses that emanated from stored memories (usually collective).

Principles:
a) Buddha is a toilet stick.
b) The gateway is found only after a long search and the long search is a spiral going inward.

3. Check implementation of the responses for assumptions, acceptance of imperfections, ignorance of facts and avoidance of details.

Principles:
a) See the whole universe in a glass of wine.
b) Can you see the cloud in the book?

4. Scan the various perspectives people have about a problem, i.e. how individuals feel about the problem. Identify the blind spots.

Principles:
a) No question; no answer
b) Cut the grass; pull the roots. 
c) Pine cones look at different directions but do they?

5. Listen intently to what they say and what they don’t say about the issue.

Principles:
a) Noise of the unsayable, unspeakable and unsaid is music.
b) Go up the mountain to meet the sage, know that it is you, come down to mix with the lakes and rivers.
c) A ruler and a worthy person who don’t connect, a musician and a listener who don’t find each other, or two potential friends who never meet; all lose.

6. Gain deep insight about the problem.

Principles:
a) Don’t catch the snake by its tail.                          
b) Birds are not afraid of directions.
c) Question, test and use every sense you have and believe that dawn would come.
d) Imaginary lines between stars guide us to new harbors.

7. Form understanding of the problem. Formulate viable solutions for minimal intervention. Exchange the understanding in the simplest possible terms as logically as possible to change collective consciousness. Leave it there.                                         

Principles:
a) No question; no answer.
b) Spirit is wrapped in reason and reason is wrapped in spirit.
c) One raindrop creates thousand ripples.
d) Don’t wish for spring; spring gives life to wish.

Chances are that baffling problems would no longer appear baffling and would soon be solved/resolved by people.

RGB waves in Real Life

The first pillar of Nemetics, as described in my earlier post 5 Pillars of Nemetics, is the RGB Waves, whose description is as follows:

“It helps us understand any phenomenon happening around us in the material world.

R wave represents ‘events’ that take place around us.

G wave represents the ‘behavior(s)’ of human beings and of systems that initiate any event.

B wave stands for ‘intentions’ and ‘beliefs’ that lead to particular behaviors which precipitate ‘events.'”

Here is an example of how the principle of RGB waves works in life. It is taken from an experimental work on psychology.

In this experiment, researchers examined the effect of two beliefs that run in society on personal behavior and results.

Belief 1: Women are not very good at math.

Belief 2: Asian students are good in math.

These social beliefs are the B waves that direct personal behavior to produce subsequent events or results. Let us see how.

In their experiment, psychologists Margaret Shih, Todd Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady took two groups of female Asian students to take a math test.

But before taking the test the two groups of female students were primed differently to modulate their behaviors (G wave) to see whether holding on to beliefs produced different test scores (R wave).

For one group, the female students, who would be holding on to their identity of “Asians,” were primed by asking questions like — “Is there anyone in their extended families who spoke languages other than English?”

For the other group, who would be holding on to their identity as “woman,” the female students were primed by asking questions such as “whether they lived in a coed dorm?”

After being ‘primed’ both groups took the test. The primed B waves produced dramatically different results (R wave).

The scores (R wave) plunged for the group whose B wave was ‘Women are not very good at math.’

However, the scores (R wave) soared for the group whose B wave was “Asian students are good in math.”

I consider this as a good example, where a particular B wave directs behavior and performance (G wave) to produce different results (R wave).

It also informs me that if performance or results are to be improved it might simply be wise to pay attention to the B wave and modulate it to produce desired results. However, most often educator, leaders, politicians focus on results and behaviors and get busy changing or correcting those instead of paying attention to strongly held beliefs and intentions of individuals and groups, which generates complex behavior patterns and results.

Ref:

1. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

2. Winning Anywhere – the Power of SEE

3. Workshops