Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Don't Do Anything Halfhearted

Back to school for A & P. N starts on Thursday. I thought today was an appropriate day to tell the boys about my recent commitment to do things wholeheartedly or not at all. In reviewing what was working well and what was not in my professional life I concluded I needed to eliminate those things I was doing halfheartedly. The boys don't have the luxury of eliminating some of the things they are doing halfheartedly, e.g., some classes, piano practice, but I made the case that if you are forced to do something, you might as well do it wholeheartedly. Why? By giving it your best you often discover that something you thought was boring or uninteresting can actually be fun. You can make it so. Otherwise, you are not giving that activity a chance. Also, when we only devote part of our attention to something and, for example, read or draw something unrelated in a class (or check our email during a meeting) we are actually kidding ourselves into thinking we are making better use of our time. The reality, at least most of the times, is that we are not less bored and don't really accomplish much else. All we are doing is a crappy job at more than one thing at a time!

I know this is easier said than done and it takes some discipline, so some "tricks" might help. For example, suppose you have a lousy teacher, rather than "check out" form the class and daydream or draw, maybe you can have some fun challenging the teacher. The teacher might not like it, and it might even get you in more trouble than just checking out, but you will probably get more out of it - and have a better time.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Being Helpful...

I have a relative, who shall remain nameless, who can't see someone struggling with something without trying to help. That is often a great thing and he does help we he can. But, he sometimes tries to help even we he can't and in so doing makes the situation worse. I'll give an example: I am very tech savvy, he is not. I was struggling to figure out the navigation system of a rented car and he couldn't help himself from trying to do it himself. But rather than helping me, he got in my - trying things that I had already tried or that were simply wrong. I don't mean to say that we should let the "experts" alone and not contribute on matters in which we know less. Sometimes you need to be ignorant about something to view it in a new creative way, My point is that when we see someone struggling, we should fight the frequent urge to try to take over the challenge and address it ourselves - even if we are in no better position (or even a worst one) to do it. What can we do? How about offering specific help, such as "do you want me to hold the manual for you?", or "do you want me to call someone and ask for help?". Or, if you believe you have specific information the person is missing, you could share it politely, e.g., "Have you tried the Red cable on the top instead of the bottom".

Another related issue is when too many people try to help at once. The poor person who is struggling has to deal with a cacophony of voiced giving him contradictory recommendations. This can be particularly bad when the struggle is related to hearing something, which obviously is nos imposible to hear on top of all the advice. Why did I discuss this topic? Yesterday I was trying to put the buggy inside the balsa that takes us across the Cunhau River. It is best to go in reverse to make the exit from the balsa easier. I was struggling with the buggy and couldn't understand what the balseiro was telling me. I knew he wanted me to move the buggy, but I couldn't figure out where to. As I was using all my concentration powers to understand his Portuguese, one of the boys started telling me (rather loudly) to leave the buggy where it was. In so doing he made it harder for me to hear the balseiro and wasn't helpful - even though he obviously had the best of intentions.

I think it is human nature to try to "take over" when someone is struggling with something. Reminds me of the scene in the movie Airplane in which a passenger becomes hysterical and the other passenger start taking turns trying to calm her down - until you see a line of people with ever larger weapons...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Adjusting Plans

One of my favorite features of GPS Navigation systems is the automatic route recalculation they do if you take a wrong turn: "recalculating route". It takes the stress out of making a mistake because the navigation system quickly gives you a new route from your new location. Sure, you might have lost a few minutes, but that is rarely an issue. Humans are not as good at constantly recalculating routes...

Yesterday we were planning for me to take the kite gear to the kite center in the buggy, then return the buggy to its owner, then walk back to the house so that we could all walk to the kite center. At the last minute we decided to have A come with me in case the buggy broke down. We also got delayed so that by the time we were returning the buggy, C and the other boys were already leaving the house and walking to the kite center. It would have then made the most sense for A to stay at the kite center rather than walk back and forth to the house with me, but we had failed to "recalculate" our plan and A had not changed into his bathing suit before leaving the house. Not necessarily a huge deal, A had to walk an extra half hour, but this lack of adjusting plans when I change them at the last moment sometimes gets me in bigger troubles. What made perfect sense before, no longer makes sense after a minor adjustment, and we fail to recognize the need to "recalculate" until it is too late. We take great care in making our plans but then fail to grasp how a last minute change might totally ruin them. Not sure there is an easy answer to this other than being vigilant to the implications of seemingly small changes to our well thought out plans.

Friday, August 19, 2011

You Might be Surprised What You get by Just Asking

We are traveling in the North East of Brazil. Yesterday we rented a beach buggy. Unfortunately the buggy is not quite to the standards of Hertz... We got it with almost no fuel and were at risk of running out (as there is no fuel station in our town). The tide was low so we decided to cross the river to the sandbar to kite a bit before dealing with the fuel situation. On the balsa (barge) across we were joined by another buggy, but this one had a tour guide as a driver. I know that some buggys carry a plastic bottle with a few liters of fuel as reserve so I approached the driver and asked him (in my non existent Portuguese) if he would sell me his reserve. He said he didn't have a fuel reserve but that if we were going to be at the sandbar for a while, he could bring me some fuel on his way back from his tour. Long story short: I gave him 20 Reals and a couple of hours later as we were packing our kiting gear he showed up with a couple of plastic bottles worth of fuel. Lesson for the kids: ask and you might be (pleasantly) surprised with what you get. And if not, not much lost. Corollary: sometime you have to trust people. The driver could have disappeared with my 20 Reals... Which, again, wouldn't have been a huge loss for me.