A great excerpt from a commencement address by Stephen Colbert which nicely articulates one of my favorite personal mottos: Accept All Offers.  In improve comedy, you build a story by saying "yes, and…", basically accepting what is there, and building on it.  It's a great philosophy for life, I think.

You seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in your employers—unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, take it. You can always quit later. Then at least you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage, they provide a theme, no script. You have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other has provided or initiated on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in a cave. That’s the “-and”. And hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through this agreement, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. No script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying yes get you in trouble at times? Will saying yes lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blinder, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. Yes is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.

The full commencement address is definitely worth reading: 2006 Commencement Address to Knox College 

I joined Toastmasters a while ago and after accidentally forgetting about my last couple meetings it looks like I'll be giving my first speech tomorrow morning at 9am.  The basic premise of the organization is that it's very cheap to join ($, is volunteer-run, and is all about stepping you through a series of 10 public speeches, each with a different focus, and receiving immediate peer feedback.  After your ten speeches, you become a CTM (Certified Toastmaster), and can move on to more ambitious advanced toastmaster stations such as bronze, silver, and gold toastmaster.

I found the group I'm going to by searching on this page for clubs in my area.  After trying a couple out, I settled on one that seemed regular enough, and had enough advanced members, to invest in for however long it takes to do 10 speeches (I'm guessing about a year perhaps, though I'm going to try to do them as quickly as possible, signing up for the next one as soon as I complete the previous one).

My first speech is called the "Ice breaker" and is a 5-7 minute speech that's pretty open other than that the speech has to be about myself somehow. I think I'm going to do it on the topic of how my answers to the question of "what I want to be" have changed over the course of my life.  There are a couple reasons why I want to do my speech this way:

  1. It's easy.  I'm much more able to talk about what I want to be than I am about who I actually am.  The first is accessible to my consciousness, the latter is not.  Who I actually am is easier determined by friends, family, and people other than myself… so rather than address this topic directly, I can talk about who I want to be, and let the evaluaters come to their own conclusions about who I actually am.
  2. It's a story.  Who I want to be creates a very colorful, yet simple, narrative of my life.  It's easy to explain what kind of drama and self-realizations had to take place for me to move from bug collector to video game tester, and from video game tester to genetic biologist, and from genetic biologist to painter, etc.  They are easy, but core stories in my personal narrative.
  3. It's informative.  I think about it a lot.  Few things take up more mental energy and time than the daydreams of our ambitions.  Few things have roots so deep that they can inform us on our own personal prejudices, biases, pet peeves, opinions, and ethical behavior than explaining who we want to be and why.

Well, I can say all of this because I haven't actually written out the story yet.  And my last weekend was a complete whilrwind of amazement that has my personal ambitions inflated to the size of giant parade balloons.  I'm going to record the speech and podcast it hopefully.  But first, I have to write it.

Your working memory (some people call it their short-term memory) is one of the weirdest tools of the mind. It is that mental space at the forefront of our minds where we put everything that we want to have available to us but don't yet know if it's important enough to keep in longer term memory. A few characteristics of this mental fanny pack (David Allen calls "psychic RAM") include:

  • Urgent, unfinished: The information is usually attached to some urgent, unfinished, task. Your brain assumes that it will get done soon, so doesn't bother trying to find any more permanent storage for the information.
  • Constantly recalled: This information acts like a rotating merry-go-round of information constantly circling back around to consciousness. This needs to happen or else it will fall out of memory and be lost. As a result, information in your working memory is constantly distracting you.
  • Stressful: Each piece of information carries with it a teaspoon of stress… this stress is the energy that it sends to you in order to give in another ride on the merry-go-round. Without the stress, you would stop caring about the information and it would fall out of memory. With the stress, you give the information a ticket to ride the merry-go-round one more time and hope that next time it comes around you might be more inclined or able to resolve the issue that the information is being saved for.

Realizing the characteristics, limitations, and strengths of your working memory is essential to making sure you use it correctly. For example, because this information literally uses distraction and stress as the mechanism for keeping itself in memory, you should make sure that the information you keep there is not only urgent but also important. Or, if you subscribe to the Getting Things Done model, you should attempt to remove almost all information from your working memory and capture it in ways that do not rely on stress and distraction for their survival. The desire to call your mom for Mother's Day need not make 100 cycles through your mind before you actually do it… just capture that information on a calendar once, make sure that you regularly check this calendar, and make it through the next three days with that much less stress and that much less distraction.

Link: Working Memory [Wikipedia]

Confabulation is what happens when your imagination works with your memory to generate a story, in particular it is the confusion of imagined details with true events. The interesting thing about confabulation is that you cannot avoid it. Imagination and memory are two heads of the same coin. Every time you access a memory, your brain will load it up into the imagination, fill in any missing details, and re-write it back into memory. As a result, stories will change and crystalize over time. In addition to this imagination/memory link, there are a couple other interesting processes at work here:

Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons our one of our brain's greatest inventions. They allow us to learn from other people's successes and failures without having to experience them directly. Your brain stores details about stories heard from others (depending on your level of empathy) in the same way that it stores facts about things you saw and experienced personally. Have you ever told a story that you thought happened to you only to realize later that it had actually happened to someone else and you had in fact related to it to the extent of adopting it as your own, unintentionally?

Choice blindness. We are often not given direct access to the reasons we act the way we do. We will sometimes say something we do not want to say, or choose something based on a "gut feeling" or and impulse. One of the most active portions of our conscious mind is its ability to attach stories to our behavior… to explain it both to ourselves and to others. Choice blindess is a psychology term coined by Petter Johansson to explain the slight confabulation that must occur whenever we attempt to explain why we chose something that we do not know exactly why we chose.

Confabulation is a wonderful thing. Confabulation is nothing to feel guilty about… it's more of a revelation than a confession to realize just how integral our imaginations are in processing and relating stories and experiences in our daily life. Enjoy your own confabulation, and the confabulation of others… it makes life feel a little more playful.

If you're interested in reading more about confabulation:

Did you learn about the three levels of listening in school?  If not, here's a good summary from a book called Co-Active Coaching:

In Level I the listening is internal.  We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us.

Level II is focused listening.  The attention is laser-focused over there: on the other person.

Level III is a global range of listening: hearing that picks up emotion, body language, and the environment itself.

Levels I and II listen primarily for words.  Level III picks up everything else including all of the sensory data as well as mood, pace, energy.  

A pretty simple breakdown that makes easy sense.  However, doesn't everyone know people who only ever listen at Level I?  And aren't there times when we ourselves feel like we're trappen in our own heads and aren't listening very closely to the people we're talking to?  Next time you're talking to a stranger or friend, ask yourself which level you're listening to them on.  Practice listening at Level III, and bring into the conversation information that you're picking up from emotion, body language, and the environment to see how that impacts the conversation.  

Why is it that nobody likes to hear their voice when recorded? Because it sounds strange, as if we were speaking through somebody else's body: our words, their voice. And for some reason the voice usually sounds particularly idiotic, not the articulate, insightful voice that we hear in our own heads.

It's rather jarring, actually. It makes you realize that other people hear you completely different than you hear yourself. The next question to ask is, "Do I want to know what I sound like?" It's a difficult question to answer, actually… because most likely it will involve some kind of dreaded "coming to terms with reality" that is never really a great time a first. But what can be a great time is knowing exactly how you sound around others, especially after you've given it a bit of conscious attention and are a little more happy with it than you originally were. Knowing that you have an accurate picture of yourself is rewarding (not to mention useful).

I meet up with friends once a week to drink and hang out. The last couple weeks I've brought a digital voice recorder and have conducted short friend interviews. They're fun in the sense that you can laugh about the stupid things you were talking about the next day, but they're also useful in the sense that everyone gets to hear how they sound and it's a friendly environment so nobody has to feel too self-conscious or awkward about it. Everyone sounds like a dork. It can actually be a bonding experience.

Even by simply carrying one around with me everywhere, it makes constantly aware of the possibility of having the conversation recorded and also makes me pay a little more attention to the quality, tone, and content of random conversations through the day.

The tone of this writing

April 22, 2006

I find it really difficult to adopt an appropriate tone when talking about mutual improvement, self-improvement, or any of these overly introspective topics. I've become very sensitive (in a negative way) to the tone of most self-help, marketing, and spiritual talk. It's the reason I can't go to a church service, or have a therapist, or really participate in any of these types of conversations that come across as cheesy, or slimy, or touchy-feely. And yet, I still want to talk about the things that are talked about in these tones. So one of my first goals here is to experiment with a couple different tones to see if I can stumble upon one that I feel comfortable with. This is your warning.