April 25, 2015

Is Meditation Self-Help Bullshit?

A recent article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Time Magazine is excoriating the gradual westernization of mindfulness meditation, demonizing this trend as somehow running counter to the essence of this ancient practice.  I think at the heart of this article is a desire to protect people from self-help snake oil but there is a palpable vibe in the article of an anti-self-help bias that is unfortunate.

As I've discussed before, our attitudes about change influence our ability to change.  So, while I agree with Ms. Heffernan that self-help advice should be evaluated critically, binning the entire self-help movement as bullshit isn't helping anyone either.

In this context, I can't help but reevaluate the purpose of mindfulness meditation (and mindfulness, in general).  Is mindfulness mediation useful? 

As someone who has practiced mindfulness meditation as an attempt to manage stress, I have concluded that meditation is simply a concerted effort to implement a reappraisal of bad thoughts.  Specifically, it has been suggested that rumination, or the endless replay of negative thinking, may contribute to depression.  Cognitive reappraisal is a well-known approach for dealing with a number of negative or disruptive thoughts and meditation is just a practiced form of this.  In the mindfulness meditation style I have tried, namely Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one reappraises negative thoughts as "thoughts", taking a meta-level view of them and partitioning them as something distinct from our experiencing mind.

Personally, this makes sense to me.  Just as I wouldn't accept the self-help advice of some rando, I am not going to trust that my automatic catastrophizing about the world is based on fact.  During mindfulness meditation, I am taking a skeptical stance toward my own worries and recognizing them for what they are: worries, not reality.  Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to the value of mindfulness meditation.  If it helps someone cope with the challenges of life, then great.  We should all be active participants in our own mental health, experimenting with approaches until we get results.

In this way, stress management is like exercise.  Is one form of exercise better than another?  Is meditation better than a book club?  The answer is: it depends.  It depends on who is doing it, whether they enjoy it and whether they stick with it.  If the answer to these questions is "yes", then the long term outcome is likely to be positive.

April 09, 2015

My Stress Portfolio

What's your stress tolerance? (Credit: Mike Richey)
I'm no investor.  Far from it.  I've bought maybe 10 stocks in my lifetime and I recall the best performer losing half it's value.  I'm also no sucker, so I learned from my mistakes and quickly outsourced my meager investment portfolio to the professionals and haven't looked back.

Now, when I talk about "investment professionals", I should clarify.  I really don't trust the stock-picking ability of anyone since the financial markets are complicated and I doubt that anyone can predict how anything that complicated will behave.  Fortunately, I'm not alone in this opinion and a subset of the investment community relies on the principle of diversification of risk as a bedrock strategy for coping with the uncertainty of the markets.  Through diversification, an investor can rely on historical information about the best performing investment types without putting all her eggs in a single proverbial basket.

Now let's shift gears to stress.  Life activities and events are like investments.  We are investing our time and attention in activities that may bring us happiness, pleasure, grief, or stress.  The payouts or losses may be on the timescales of days, to weeks, to years.  As an investor of our time and attention, we must weigh the probabilities of gains with the risks of losses: driving hard at work could bring promotions at the cost of personal relationships, for example.

I propose the concept of a Stress Portfolio as a strategy to balance our activities to allow both personal growth while managing the risks that come with stress, like poor health or burnout.  My Stress Portfolio is a introspective sense of the balance of five components of my reaction to daily life: distress, eustress, flow, relaxation, and boredom.  I think of each of these as representing a decreasing level of stress one might experience.  As events happen in life both within or outside my control, I can reevaluate the distribution of my stress portfolio and "rebalance" my intensity to compensate.

What is the right distribution of stress?  I think the answer to that question will vary by the individual. For example, some people are more resilient than others and may benefit from a greater allocation of activities in the distress or eustress categories.  This is an interesting area for research as proper allocation of stress will determine the degree of success an individual can achieve.  To much stress and a person may crumble and give up.  Too little stress and a person is not challenged and may not rise to their full potential.

As a general rule, I think most of our time should be spent in a state of relaxation or flow with a decent amount of time in a state of eustress (exciting or exhilarating situations). I also don't advocate total avoidance of stressful situations or boredom (the extremes).  These act as high and low intensity activities that can permit personal growth and recovery, respectively.

Until more research is done to determine the right allocation, all we can do is look within and ask ourselves what our portfolio should look like.  Just like an investor must evaluate her risk tolerance, an individual must evaluate her stress tolerance to find the right allocation and maximize performance over time.

Stay happy!

April 01, 2015

Useful Data

But is the information useful, monkey? Is it?!
(source)
In a recent attempt to "cheat" with science while creating a March Madness bracket, I rediscovered the online data-geek candy store FiveThirtyEighty.com, brain child of renowned statistician Nate Silver.  In another incredible display of sexy stats, Silver and Company have assembled a robust statistical model of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, adding evidence to the thesis that the geeks shall inherit the earth.

While the information on FiveThiryEight is beautifully presented and likely as accurate as one will get, I began to wonder: is this useful? More broadly, what makes information useful?

I don't want to get too hung up on what "useful" means, but for my purposes I'd like to define useful as enabling better performance: greater accuracy, greater speed, or higher success rates in some activity.  What feature of data would make it useful?

Here's my opinion: for information to be useful, it must be actionable.  In other words, for information to enable better performance or higher success rates it must inform what actions should, or should not be performed to improve accuracy.

A great example of this type of information for me has been heart rate data during exercise.  When I run according to my heart rate training plan, I know that I'm working too hard on my easy day when my heart rate goes above some threshold.  This is actionable information.  My heart rate is too high so I change my behavior and slow down.

For the FiveThirtyEighty March Madness predictions, the information is sort of actionable.  The FiveThirtyEight bracket is structured as probabilities of a team winning at each stage of the tournament.  This information is useful if I'm betting on a game (i.e. which team is likely to win) but isn't useful if I'm trying to make a bracket (i.e. which teams are most likely to be in each slot of the bracket).

The lesson here is that the structure of the information should match the decision to be made.  In the example of my hear rate data, my current heart rate is only useful in the context of a threshold.  I must know how my current data point relates to some useful scale.  Only then can I take action to bring my individual measure back into range.

However, generating actionable data is incredibly complicated because it requires a solid understanding of the mechanisms that explain a phenomenon.  In the case of heart rate training, heart rate is a well-established proxy for intensity and systematically modulating intensity is important to balance improvements in fitness against risk for injury.   Creating actionable data is also complicated by the need to understand how it will be used (i.e. betting on a game vs. making a bracket).  For these reasons, generating data without a solid theory to back up action is no better than rock collecting.

A related piece on FiveThirtyEight highlights an interview with White House Chief Data Scientist, Dr. D.J. Patel.   A topic of discussion that caught my attention was that of "Data Products" which Dr. Patel explains as "How do you use data to do something really beneficial?"  The true obstacle to creating powerful data products (the dream of Big Data) isn't access to data or data processing tools as these are now as ubiquitous  as the internet and the personal computer, respectively.  Instead, the obstacle to data products, or "useful data" as I'm calling it, is creating a solid theory about the mechanism driving a phenomenon.  Without this understanding, data remains noise.

For these reasons, while I am as enamored by sexy data as much as the next dork, I am reminded about the need for good scientific theories that allow us to interpret and structure sexy data in a way that makes it useful.  That is the real challenge for data scientists in the age of big data.


December 12, 2014

The Axiom of Awesomeness

Everything is a skill.
Is intelligence something we are born with? Or, can we become more intelligent with hard work?  The answer is certainly a bit of both but a critical variable is our personal opinion on the matter: if you don't think you can get smarter, you won't.

In classroom settings, if students think intelligence is malleable, they are more motivated, exert greater effort, and outperform students who think intelligence is fixed trait (I'm not compensated for that link, BTW).

Unfortunately, I think the broad implications of these observations are not always appreciated.  Often, the message is that a growth mindset - an attitude that self-improvement is possible - is critical for performance by kids and in school.  However, a growth mindset is really about performance by anyone doing anything.  The real take-home message from studies like these is that a general growth mindset is a critical first step before we can become better at life.

To counter this poor messaging, I propose the following Axiom of Awesomeness.  The Axiom outlines a philosophy of growth that we must accept before we can improve.  I'll enumerate the axiom first and then will expand on each tenet.

The Axiom of Awesomeness

1. Everything we do is a skill.  
2. Every skill can be improved by deliberate practice.
3. Skill improvement through deliberate practice takes time and effort.
4. Every moment is an opportunity to practice a life skill.

OK, so that's the Axiom. Hopefully I will be able to convince you that the axiom is on-target and that it's an important cognitive framework to support becoming a rockstar.

1. Everything we do is a skill.  

While most research studying a growth mindset were focused on school performance, school performance is only one part of life.  As I've discussed before, being good at life goes way beyond an SAT score.  However, everything else we do can be considered as much a skill as test taking.  For example, staying focused on a task is a skill.  Controlling our emotions during stress is a skill.  Managing relationships is a skill.  Speaking is a skill.  Writing is a skill (one I'm struggling with right now).   Skills aren't only limited to those things we traditionally might consider skills, like playing the guitar, drawing, or taking tests.

2. Every skill can be improved by deliberate practice.

No one is born playing the guitar or knowing math or being a great public speaker or being a leader.  Even the masters in fields like these spent countless hours focused on getting better: they practiced (for an in depth analysis of this, check out Mastery by Robert Greene).  Dedicated, focused practice is essential for improvement and success.  For more on the focused part of this tenet, see this article by Cal Newport.

However, let's keep in mind the first tenet of the Axiom: everything we do is a skill.  For example, let's say I'm bad at following through on projects (something most people struggle with, I'm sure).  Well, following-through-on-projects is a skill.  That's the first tenet of the Axiom.  The second tenet of the axiom is that practice improves skills.  Thus, I need to come up with some way to practice this skill.  In my example of "following through on projects", I might select one, small project as a "fail at no cost" test-case which will allow me to work on my issue without getting discouraged.  Once I succeed at the test-case, I can set my sights on something more challenging.

3. Skill improvement through practice takes time and effort.

Ahh, but here is the tricky part: getting better takes real work!  Sorry, I know we all want someone to tell us the secret to being amazing (like this book claims).  But that's not reality and we all know it.  Improvement takes focused effort over long periods of time.  Until one has practiced something for decades one can't assume it's an impossible task.  My homunculus likes to say to me: "Stop whining like a little baby, put your big boy pants on, and get to work".

4. Every moment is an opportunity to practice a life skill.

The good news is that getting smarter, more intelligent, or better at life can happen at any moment.  We don't need to concoct some arbitrary self-improvement program that goes on our calendar.  Every moment of living is a practice opportunity.  Why?  Because life isn't easy and we aren't perfect which is a guarantee that we will always screw something up.  With the Axiom of Awesomeness in mind, these challenges morph from "this sucks and I suck" to chances to get better at life.

Here is a perfect example: preparing for a presentation.  Making and giving a presentation is an opportunity to resist the urge to procrastinate (a skill), focus on a single task (a skill), manage our anxiety (a skill), communicate to a group (a skill), and bounce back if it doesn't go well (a skill).  Every step of preparing for this presentation is a practice opportunity.  My favorites in the list are: managing our anxiety and bouncing back if it doesn't go well.  These are skills that most often trip us up because they are so hard to define and aren't viewed as skills at all.  Frequently, these skills are chalked up to "that's just the way I am."  Wrong.  We must remember the first tenet: everything is a skill.  Next time can be better but we have to keep practicing.

In Summary

Perhaps this is obvious, but a belief that improvement is possible will determine if we improve.  However, a growth mindset is only part of the equation.  As I argue with the above Axiom, a growth mindset must be supplemented by three additional elements: 1) a broad definition of skill to include anything humans do, 2) a willingness to put focused effort into improvement, and 3) an attitude that life's challenges are opportunities to get better at living.  In combination, these four assumptions will not only permit improvement but will also be motivating during periods of difficulty when our resolve is tested.

Stay happy!

November 29, 2014

Intelligence in the information age

I know kung fu.
"I know kung fu." And with that, the download is complete: a martial art has been converted to tacit knowledge with little more than a USB cord connected to the cerebellum. Although a fanciful concept portrayed in the movie The Matrix and one that, as depicted, is far from reality, the information age is certainly changing the landscape of knowledge and expertise.  While an instant download to the brain isn't possible, anyone with a smart phone or cheap laptop has instant access to all of humanity's knowledge.

What are the implications of this access for our concepts of intelligence and education? For one, the goal of education can no longer be viewed as acquiring information.  Information is free and easily obtained.  Instead, from my humble perspective, the speed at which one can process this information is one critical skill needed.  A second is an ability to distill larger patterns from the information available.

The Matrix offers additional useful analogies here.  The protagonist, Neo, quickly learns that his enemies have access to all the same knowledge as he does: everyone knows kung fu.  It's only when Neo transcends this knowledge and begins to manipulate the matrix itself that he is able to conquer his enemies.  In other words, he goes meta.  Instead of mastering specific knowledge, Neo identifies that nature of knowledge itself and can manipulate it as he needs.

The same may be said of us in the information age.  Everyone knows kung fu because we all have access to all the same information.  In this situation the ability to process that information at a higher level becomes essential.  Meta-knowledge skills will separate the effective from the ineffective.  Examples of these skills include finding, filtering, creating, and communicating knowledge.  When everyone has access to the same facts, effectiveness will be measured at this higher level of abstraction.

The Matrix has another sobering lesson to offer us in this time of the information age.  Even after Neo masters the matrix, transcending it, the Matrix isn't the real world.  The Matrix is a construct that clouds the mind of humanity, preventing access to reality.  The same could be said for the internet and information technology.  At the end of the day, knowledge workers and information technology must create real world value.  People must eat and sleep, be sheltered and clothed.  Information can do none of those things but can enable them if applied well.  Like Neo, none of us can be considered effective (and by extension, intelligent) if we are unable to apply the information available to us to problems in the real world.  In this way, applying information to reality is the ultimate transcendent skill and, simultaneously, the hardest to master.