Sunday, May 27, 2012

What you can learn if you just look and listen

The wisest people I know got that way by learning at least something from everything they do and see along the path of life.  I use the path analogy because they don’t just learn from the things we are “supposed” to learn from, like work and school.  They learn just as much from the random things they see around them.  This morning I was walking down the street on the way to my usual Sunday morning volunteering and I learned more than I usually do in a day of work. I thought I would share:
  • In an NPR interview, a famous journalist told a story about 3rd grade.  She said that her teacher was evaluating a story she had turned in and that she was really proud of.  The teacher's comment was "You start way too many sentences with 'then'."  She was crushed.  Another teacher who happened to overhear asked if she could read it.  This teacher gave encouraging feedback.  Her career in journalism was saved.  Lessons:
    • be careful when giving negative criticism, especially to the vulnerable.
    • a kind word can change the world.
  • There are some incredible economic indicators you can learn walking down the street:
    • What kind of trash is being tossed on the side of the road?  Generic or cheaper stuff could be negative.  Stuff that is not even used up could indicate consumer confidence.
    • How many garage/yard sales are there?  How busy are they?  If you can see the prices, that could also tell you a lot.
    • If you see waste that needs a special pickup (big hunks of steel that fell off a car) that has been there for several weeks indicates the local government is cutting back on basic maintenance.
  • In another NPR interview (on the way home now), a famous neurobiologist said that hypotheses are a dangerous thing.  Facts are even worse.  His meaning rung very true.  When you think you know something, it focuses how you design an experiment, how you collect data, and how you interpret it.  Cognitive science tells us that our unconscious is really good at manipulating all of these so that we find exactly what we hoped to find.   The scientific method is not as good as its proponents think.  Instead, or at least in addition, we need a little more creative discovery.
  • In a BookTV podcast, the authors of "The President's Club" were discussing how former US Presidents communicate, network, and mentor each other during their political afterlives.  For example, Clinton relied often and deeply on advice from Nixon during the impeachment process.  Clinton and Bush II have become close business partners.  At first, you might think I learned that political rhetoric is hypocritical.  Just because the two parties fight tooth and nail and call each other names during an election season doesn't mean they believe any of it.  But I already knew that.  What I learned is how fantastically powerful a network like that can be, even if it is kept largely under the table.  According to the authors, when a president's term ends, all of the living former presidents share the rules.  And despite having no formal reason to follow them, they all do.  Except for Carter to some extent.
And all of this just while walking down the street, looking around, and listing to podcasts.