The power of yelling

“Excuse me, but I had reserved a minivan because we are five people with suitcases, going camping, and we need a large vehicle. We simply cannot fit in the car you are offering us.”

“I am sorry but this is the largest car we have at the moment at our branch. You will notice that it has a rather large trunk, hence you will possibly find it more comfortable than you imagine. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

“But this is not acceptable. I cannot and do not want to fit in this car. I specifically reserved a van because of my needs.”

“The car we gave you is newer and in better condition. We are actually upgrading you, sir.”

“Well, I don’t think this will work. What if I cannot fit in it?”

“I am sorry but we cannot offer you anything bigger right now. Here are your keys.”

I was confused. I took the keys and headed outside. Our car was waiting for us in the corner. My friends were standing next to it with their large suitcases. They opened their arms towards my direction, asking me what went wrong. They must have noticed the huge question mark floating above my head. As I explained to them the situation, they looked at the car in the corner, rather depressed.

One of them, though, listened to me quietly, remaining unusually calm. She then suddenly grabbed the keys from my hand and ran into the crowded car rental office I had just left.

“Wait here!” she exclaimed, right before she shut the door behind her.

We, the people standing outside, heard a scream. We thought somebody was hurt. Then there was a rather long shout. We could not hear the words, but we could feel the rage. A couple of minutes later, our friend emerged, her face red and stretched. She had the keys to a minivan in her hands. She had cast a spell on the clerks at the store. We had our van.

It is unacceptable in today’s competitive environment for a service company to break its promise. But, I find it even more offensive and infuriating the fact that you end up getting what you deserve when you resort to aggressive behavior. A similar situation occurred when we asked for a refund of a flight that was cancelled. It was our right but the company adamantly resisted, complying only when we (incidentally, with the help of the same friend) called them relentlessly for several days and yelled at them periodically.

No one likes a bully customer. But some companies exploit the nice ones by intensifying their bureaucracy. Such a strategy; resistance until the customer gets really really(!) upset, is not optimal in the long run. The feedback is wicked. It suggests that things get done only when you lose your temper and this is not a sustainable way to consume and/or interact.

Here is a reenactment of my friend at the car rental store. Here is the famous Seinfeld approach.

Slow science

The equilibrium in which academia operates is not optimal. It does not look right. The incentives seem to be wrong.

Academic careers are mainly determined by publications. Most of the time all that matters is the number of papers. An idea is considered good if it is rapidly publishable. In a university, fast and furious research is king, teaching is torture.

This has several repercussions, such as retractions and borderline fraudulent practice. A race for a purely higher number of publications in fields like medicine might have disastrous consequences.

Things could be different.

First of all, teaching could determine a larger portion of one’s future prospects (with respect to what it currently accounts for). And not only the quantity of teaching, but also it’s quality. Instructors would then care deeply about how best to deliver their knowledge. There could be more teaching conferences. In graduate schools, we attend classes like “research methods,” but never “teaching methods.”

Most probably, an average academic has more students than readers of his/her research. Research has a very limited readership and it is highly impersonal. Teaching is contagious. A more balanced approach is needed. Colin Macilwain (Nature) and Paul Basken (The Chronicle of Higher Education) discuss in detail how that balance could be reached or easily disrupted by funding policies.

Finally, research should be slow. It should possibly feature bigger projects with higher impact. It should be high risk, high return. And when there is no return, it shouldn’t matter much. The important thing should be to dive in an issue and catch the biggest fish possible.

The question shouldn’t be “is this publishable?”

It ought to be “is this important?”

Here is an article that discusses the concept in detail. And an eloquent post on slow science (in Turkish).

Inception

“Inception” is not just a film where spies wander around in people’s dreams.

It is real.

The owners of a project have a choice to make. They can force their ideas to people that work with/for them. Or they can make a compromise and share the ownership of the ideas with the workers.

Think about it. When you have an idea and explain it to other people, there is a better chance that you will face friction than acceptance. The comments will be mostly critical. The more direct you are, the more resistance you’ll receive.

Instead, take it slow. Make it into a conversation. Let the other party come up with and gain ownership of part of the innovation. That will make sure that all the parties have an intrinsic motivation to improve the idea and achieve the best outcome.

Being direct almost never works.

Creative banking

“Hello. I would like to open a second account please.”

“Alright, but please wait there for 10 minutes (…) Now tell me your ID number, birthday, telephone number, address (…) Now sign here, here, here, here, here, here and here (…) I would like to offer you a great deal with our life insurance plan; if you take it now you will have a 20% discount and we will charge you less commission for your operations. If you do not take the plan right now, we will charge you more commission and if you become invalid due to an illness or accident, you will not be able to receive the benefits of our program. You either do it now, or the discount is no more.”

And once again, I have that feeling. Every time I enter the freezing office of a bank, I expect a new experience; totally random and surprisingly creative. Now I am picturing myself ill and injured and miserable. How the hell did we get here?

“No, thanks. Just the account please. But last time I came here, my internet banking account was cancelled by mistake. This time, I will be glad if it stays operational. Could you check now if it works?”

“Yes, it is working. But are you sure about the insurance? Think about it.”

“Well thanks, but I won’t need it at this time. However, I would appreciate if you could confirm that my internet service is active. It is a long way from home, I cannot come back here.”

“Yes. As I said, everything is in order. I will call you again next week and ask you if you want to get the insurance, I will give you some time to think.”

When I got home in the evening, my internet service was down.

It still is.

The separation

There is a red tape, a division. It is between doing something for money and creating something for the pleasure of it. Although this separation can be fuzzy, there has to be some degree of it. One should not completely mix creative hobbies with mandatory tasks that require tedious and consistent productivity. There can be some overlap, but they should never be one.

I read about this subject in great detail in Hugh MacLeod’s book “Ignore Everybody.” He is a cartoonist who started displaying his creations in his blog. Then he issued a manifesto in the same site where he shares his advice on how to be creative.

He talks a lot about the line one has to draw between creative endeavors and routine jobs that have financial rewards. The idea is that creativity is damaged beyond repair when one tries to do things for the non-creative reasons.

The trick is, then, to do some things just because you can! Forget everything else. Then the rest will follow. Or not. If you think about it, it does not matter really.

I guess creating something should be like eating your favorite meal. Nothing more, nothing less.

Great grey ideas

You have a great idea. Perhaps more than one. An innovation. Maybe you had one at some point in your life. I am absolutely sure of this. It can be an artwork, a book, a project, a web page. Something original and exciting. When you think of it, it makes you feel good and content with yourself. You feel unique.

That’s too bad. Because, regardless of where you are, be it a firm or academia, you are stuck.

In business, there aren’t any incentives for your idea to come alive. No extrinsic motivations, such as funds or time, are present. Most probably your idea is not about your work-life at all. Instead it is something related to your life, something that will make things easier or more enjoyable for people around. Even if it is about work, most of the time you are part of a status quo, a constant and established system that cannot be bent.

In academia, you are weird. In that world, new things have to be linked to the existing theories, conjectures. If not, they are inadmissible, unscientific. They do not have a place. Ironically, most of the time it is difficult to publish an innovation.

Your idea is grey. It does not have an immediate commercial value, nor it features a scientific contribution. It has a great potential. I know. It can change lives; the way people think and do things. Unfortunately the market for such ideas does not exist. In order to survive, they have to be transformed into black-and-white; into something that leads to a sizable commercial value or that conforms to the established academic structure.

Alternatively, you will have to realize your ideas by sleeping less, spending your savings, risking rejection and possibly going a little crazy in the process.

Otherwise, they will die with you.

Boring

I opened my eyes at the sound of a cell phone, which was ringing with a distorted hip-hop tune. I think it was Beyonce. While the distraction sitting in front of me was trying to locate the phone in his back pack, I made the effort to quickly compose myself. I was at a psychology seminar. It was late afternoon and the talk was about a study on happiness. I remember that the title was promising and I am sure the content is too, but the presentation forced my eyes closed. Half of the audience was daydreaming possibly about what they will eat tonight with still half an hour to go.

Same is generally true for most lectures. Being a lifelong student, it was really painful to deal with boredom induced hypersomnia for many years, except for a few instances when the class was truly engaging and enlightening. I can recall only a few teachers who created an environment where the audience appreciated taking part in the lecture. The problem is that these people taught well mostly as a result of an intrinsic motivation. It seems that the incentives for better teaching are not set correctly. In universities, for instance, better teaching does not improve scholars’ financial or social statuses as much as a fraction of their research activities. Shame really.

Along with outdated and strict curricula, the lack of an appropriate incentive mechanism for better teaching causes everybody to yawn, including the teachers themselves. Here is a great presentation about the education system at fault.

http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

Pain & pain

I was in the air, tumbling. I did not want to be in this situation, I wasn’t sure where exactly the floor was and frankly, I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to land.

It was painful. But it was apparently all my fault. In aikido, the more power you exert on your opponent, the harsher you will be beaten. That is the law. It is the art of using others’ forces against them. It does not matter if one is a small built person or even a child. The harder the opponent attacks, the faster s/he will kiss the floor. It is impressive.

What’s more impressive was the teaching. Around twenty kohai (students) were practicing at the same time and there was no sound except for the noise made by people falling on the mat. There was no talking, no explaining, no dialogue. The senpai (teacher/mentor) of this dojo learned from his mentors that aikido is to be learned by doing, and doing only. When he wishes to show a move, he claps a few times and everybody sits down in a circle. Then he points to a poor soul, beats him with the move several times, shows it from different angles and invites everyone to try it on the person next to them.

Thinking about it, there is little logic behind trying to explain a person, for example, how strong s/he should attack. You just do it, and then calibrate things according to how much pain you can endure. Same is with learning the moves. It turns out when you get beaten with a move twenty times; you quickly learn how to do it well in the process.

The interesting thing was that this mentality left the students a space to shape their own education. It did not force them to do things in a certain way. People were able to have their own approach to the process and learn different things from it. It was a kind teaching environment where everybody intrinsically pushed their own limits and suffered/enjoyed the consequences accordingly.

In short, the system recognized that each person was unique.

Can I please?

Yesterday after lunch, while sipping my “café con leche, muy caliente” and thinking about nothing in particular, I saw a family of three come in the restaurant and sit by the window. The 10-year-old child immediately started running around as if he was chasing someone. The father asked him to calm down. The boy actually listened to him, but demanded his toys in return. The answer was “NO”.

The boy started crying. I should say he literally exploded. He jumped and screamed and threw himself to the ground. Father’s reaction was stronger. He got up and put the boy on the seat, sighing continuously during the process. The boy switched to crying silently, making noises, looking at his parents with sorrowful eyes.

Does it really help to cry when you want something? I wonder. Especially for a child? People claim that, if it wasn’t working then they would not do it. I am not sure but there has to be a better way.

Interestingly, most NGOs ask for donations in a similar way. They either show you a crying, desperate child/animal/situation, or a smiling and happy one. Their goal, I guess, is to get the toys they want by appealing to peoples’ emotions.

While doing research for an NGO, I did an experiment which suggested that people actually do not care much for happy or sad pictures when they decide on donations. However, they seem to like when the NGO shows them a picture of a child, an animal or say, a tree being helped. They reward the “action”.

Maybe the boy should have at least pretended to eat his meal. After a few bites a simple statement starting with “please” would probably have gotten him his toys back and he might have actually liked the meal he was chewing.

I must say, the food was delicious.