You Can Learn Anything - Including Social Skills

Avunculus Mensa Teaches Friend Dynamics
I recently read an article that described one of the most popular online courses ever offered - a free course called Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.  I’ve been creating online courses for some time, so I’m always eager to learn about the process of learning and how the mind works. I registered immediately.
 
The dirty secret of eLearning is that dropout rates are extremely high (often upwards of 90%).  Without the social pressure of appearing in class, and especially if the course is either free or not required, it’s very easy for more pressing items to permanently bump the class from your schedule.  Despite my professional interest, the same holds true for me.  I drop more courses than an undeclared sophomore on the 7 year plan.
 
But not “Learning How to Learn.”  I incorporated the class into my morning study routine, and I’ve just completed all of the required materials.  I found it so valuable that I’m planning to retake the course,  this time also completing the optional materials. 
 
It’s not particularly fancy - mostly video lectures immediately followed by short quizzes. But the insights presented in the course, and the practical advice that I’ve already implemented into my work and study habits, are extremely powerful.   Some of the topics include focused vs. diffuse mode thinking, dealing with procrastination, the benefits of exercise, how memory works (e.g. better to try recalling material than rereading or highlighting), mental chunk forming, and interleaving study topics.  The recommendations on dealing with procrastination alone are worth the price of admission (although there is technically no price of admission, it does take around 10 hours to complete, and time is always our most valuable asset).
  
In what sounds like a ridiculous lack of focus, in addition to running IsoDynamic,  I’m also taking courses of study in digital marketing, Spanish, drums, and guitar.  But as “Learning How to Learn” makes clear, “interleaving” different types of study material over time is far more effective than cramming the study of one subject or skill into a short time period.  
 
Another golden nugget from the course is to focus on process instead of product.  This may be the single greatest piece of advice I’ve implemented,  since I’m often visited by a rowdy tribe of anger monkeys when I become too focused on accomplishing a specific task.  Especially in the realm of technology, where everything changes - and breaks - constantly, frustration can be my constant companion.  I’ve changed “I’m going to accomplish this item in the next 25 minutes” to “I’m going to learn about this for the next 25 minutes.”  The irony is that this seeming “lack of focus” on results is helping me to accomplish far more, since I’m less frustrated by a seeming lack of progress toward a particular goal.
 
 
Martin Seligman, the influential father of “Positive Psychology,” has a theory of happiness summarized by the acronym PERMA.  He argues that happiness, or more broadly speaking, well-being, has five key elements.  They are:  
 
 
P - Positive Emotion 
E - Engagement 
R - Relationships 
M - Meaning 
A - Accomplishment
 
My recent experience with accelerated learning seems to be driving an increase in my own feelings of well-being. I think this is likely due to an enhanced sense of optimism (P), engagement (E), and accomplishment (A), to use the PERMA model.  Although not specifically framed this way by Seligman, I suspect that effective learning is a powerful driver of several of these well-being elements.
 
So what about the “R” (Relationships) in the PERMA model of well-being?  Can we learn and improve on our abilities in the area of social skills and relationships?  I believe that “soft skills” and “EQ” (Emotional Quotient/Intelligence) are highly underrated in terms of their importance to our lives, as well as the effort required to develop and enhance these skills. 
 
When you think about it, social skills are the “greens fees” for having successful relationships, finding meaningful work, and finding love.  In other words, aspects of life that are central to our happiness, success, and well-being.  And because human relationships involve a virtually infinite variety of social cues and scenarios, it’s an exceptionally complex subject. Most of the learning that is done in this area is passed anecdotally from person to person - we don’t seem to have a great natural toolkit available to make progress in this realm.
 
I can testify to one thing about social skills - ALL my greatest regrets stem from hurting someone due to my own inability to navigate a social situation with sufficient grace and compassion. I frequently imagine how frustrating it would be if my brain were wired in a way that made it more difficult to pick up social cues. Learning how to improve would be doubly challenging. 
 
But I think that social skills CAN be learned, and relationships can improve as a result.  As Dr. Sejnowski points out in Learning How to Learn, social skills are housed in the prefrontal cortex.  This part of the brain is also responsible for capabilities like complex analysis, decision making, and planning - all of which take significantly longer to develop (usually well into adulthood) than skills housed in other areas of the brain.  So patience is key. The brain is also MUCH more elastic than previously believed1.  Even though we may never become a master at something that we begin at a later age (I will never be a master level drummer - and my neighbors will back me up on this), or where our brain is wired a bit differently, we can still IMPROVE greatly.  And that’s what really counts. Improvement, not perfection.
 
I think Deliberate Practice2 is the methodology we should use to learn social and relationship skills - the same sort of approach used by experts in activities as varied as basketball, foreign languages, and playing the violin.  Deliberate Practice is about breaking tasks down into smaller chunks, practicing the most difficult material every day, interleaving skills, and spacing repetition out over weeks, months, and years -  instead of trying to cram it all into a small number of sessions.  Like running the 4 minute mile, the biggest barrier may be simply a belief in the human ability to improve social skills through practice.  We need someone to show us how.
 
Who might that be?  
 
I recently had an opportunity to ask an expert on the topic.  In April, I attended Meeting of The Minds - Neurodiversity Where We Live Work and Play, a benefit sponsored by the incredible Temple Grandin School in Boulder.  The onstage panel featured Temple Grandin, Steve Silberman (author of NeuroTribes), and John Elder Robison.  I’d never heard of Mr. Robison prior to the event, but that was about to change.  
 
Robison is a 60 year old man who did not discover he was autistic until the age of 40.  Although he dropped out of high school in 10th grade, he is now an author (Look Me in The Eye, Running With Scissors, Be Different, Raising Cubby, Switched On), photographer, auto technician, entrepreneur, guitar designer, audio technician (for KISS and others), toy designer (Milton Bradley), and autism advocate.  
 
He spoke so eloquently and persuasively that chills ran up and down my spine as he described the challenges he has faced in his life, his desire to see his autistic brothers and sisters treated humanely and compassionately, and to let the world know how much this community has to offer our world.  I have no idea if Mr. Robison understood the effect he had on me - it’s hard to imagine he did. I struggled to choke back tears numerous times as he cast a spell over the entire audience with his stories and wisdom - all delivered in his unique and stunningly effective vocal cadence.  As moderator Jason Lynch described to me during a subsequent conversation, it was like observing a new civil rights movement being born before our very eyes. 
 
At the conclusion of the event, I sheepishly approached John Elder Robison to buy one of his books.  But I also had a burning question I needed to ask. “As a person who has faced social challenges,” I said, “have you come to the point where you’re not only skilled at interacting with others, but where you actually enjoy it?”
 
This amazing, unique, accomplished person looked me straight in the eyes and said “Yes. I do enjoy it.”
 
Chills.
 
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Houston’s Harvey Heroes

Houston Harvey Aftermath

 

I live in League City, a near suburb Southeast of Houston, and well within the incredible swath of devastation that Harvey wreaked upon the area.  I’m so grateful that due to good engineering - and good luck - the vast majority of homes in my neighborhood escaped flood damage.  Despite the fact that 50 inches of rain was dumped on us over the course of just a few days.
 
But many tens of thousands around here were not so lucky.  Although the flood waters South of Houston receded within a day or two, I’ve now seen firsthand what they can do to a home - even if it doesn’t wrench the house from its moorings.  Black and green mold begins growing on every baseboard and piece of furniture touched by water. Drywall acts like a sponge, drawing up filthy wetness like a vampire drinking tainted blood.  
 
Houston will take years to recover. My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones, and to the many who may never recover from the financial disaster that stems from losing your home and possessions. 
 
One of the things I was fortunate enough to witness during this tragedy is the heroic nature that lurks just beneath the surface of so many people.  Our local middle school was transformed into a shelter before the rain even stopped falling, and the volunteer slots filled so quickly that I had to  hustle in order to get on the list.  I worked with several crews of volunteers to help out homeowners hit by flood, ripping up flooring, vacuuming water, washing contaminated dishes, and hauling mountains of trash to the curb.
 
And of course the most high profile example of heroism was The Cajun Navy, who rushed in from neighboring Louisiana.  A loose collection of good samaritan boat owners, ready to risk life and limb to pluck strangers from the raging flood waters. 
 
The desire to be heroic exists within all of us.  To put yourself to the test for a higher purpose.  To risk life and limb for the tribe.  It’s a shame that it takes a crisis to bring that out of humanity.  I think our senses are less attuned to recognize the slow-moving disasters of hunger, poverty, isolation, long-term unemployment, opiate addiction, etc. etc. etc.  And our world is so big it just doesn’t feel like we’re all passengers on the same boat.
 
As an entrepreneur, I’m reflecting on how to make a small contribution towards changing that feeling of isolation from others.  To make us feel a part of the same tribe, and to unleash the hero that lies within. For all their noble attempts, I’m afraid that Twitter and Facebook may actually be exacerbating the problem.
 
Not an easy task.  The Affinity is just a first attempt - more to come.
 
 
 
 

Your Mind Has Been Hacked

Your Mind Has Been HackedIf you are reading this sentence, your mind has almost certainly been hacked.  Lest you think I’m wagging a digital finger at you, mine has been as well.
 
I am becoming increasingly, and I think justifiably, paranoid.  With my rusty degree in Computer Science, it’s incredibly difficult to stay abreast of the numerous hacks that are occurring in the Wild West that is the Internet.  Just understanding how hackers are breaching systems, much less defending oneself against such attacks, has become virtually impossible.  If you appreciate a good scare, just visit security expert Brian Krebs’ site at https://krebsonsecurity.com.  In his post called “Krebs’s Immutable Truths About Data Breaches” he outlines a frightening set of realities such as “If what you put on the internet has value, someone will invest time and effort to steal it.”
 
Yet most of us don’t even realize that what we’ve “put on the internet” is a collection of our greatest assets — our time, our thoughts, our energy, our attention. In other words, our minds.  And those minds have been hacked as surely as a database of Ashley Madison users. 
 
The popular adage says “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and I think a corollary to that axiom is “There’s no such thing as a free app.”  That “free app” has been carefully engineered to steal your time and attention, which is in turn sold to advertisers.  As Andrew Lewis said, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” 
 
This concept is not new — radio and television companies have sold our attention to advertisers for ages.  But the level of cognitive disruption delivered by mobile devices makes vegging out in front of the TV seem positively quaint.  I’ve yet to see anyone sidle up next to me at an airport urinal with a 55” flat screen.  (To you women out there, I’m not kidding.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve had some highly dexterous bloke beside me who has conducted his business, independently, in each hand.  I consider it an absolutely breathtaking breach of etiquette, and desperately wish I could conjure flatus-on-demand to provide some much needed auditory “context” to the unsuspecting recipient of the urinal-talker’s call.  I gaze wistfully upon the high carb days of yesteryear.)
 
While developing The Affinity (our new online adventure game designed to help kids make a friend in the real world at www.TheAffinityGame.com, sign up NOW to become a Beta tester!), I read a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products by Nir Eyal.  I understand this book has become a bible for app developers who want to create products that utterly engage their user base.  In the book Eyal lays out a four step model for building apps that will keep customers returning via a cycle of reinforcement that creates a powerful habit.  
 
The third step of the model is called Variable Reward, where he describes the power of variable reinforcement to drive behavior.  He terms one of the three reward types as “The Tribe,” which I think shares many similarities to a form of hacking called social engineering. Social engineering is an act of psychological manipulation that preys upon our need to belong, to connect, and to please, in order for the hacker to gain access to a system he or she is not authorized to enter.  In this context, that “system” is our minds.
 
The result is applications that ping, boink, buzz, nudge, and cajole you to return to them — constantly.  You hear a Ding! And you think “Somebody out there likes me!”  Or even if they dislike you, they’re at least paying attention.
 
Eyal devotes an entire section to the morality of employing such a powerful approach.  He is to be applauded for a fair dive into the implications of following his Jedi Mind Tricks, but I would suggest the vast majority of app creators are able to rationalize away the mental havoc they cause. Especially when ignoring the collective impact of every app on every device taking the same path.
 
Apps also hack our minds because they prey upon human responses which evolved long ago.  To ensure the survival of our species, infants were selected based on their ability to have their needs met.  And they can have those needs met almost instantly by crying out.  Any responsible parent will run to make sure their baby's needs are met NOW - the survival of the species depends on it.  So like a crying baby, the app calls out to hold me, check me, soothe me.  I recently downloaded a weather app that somehow circumvented the Do Not Disturb rules on my phone and rattled me awake at midnight to warn of a Dense Fog situation.  Danger Will Robinson!  A saber-toothed tiger is going to eat you! 
 
The result is devices that constantly break our focus from what we’re doing, including socializing with the warts-and-all humans that stand in front of us. It’s not just reducing our productivity, it’s compromising our humanity.  Our minds have been expertly hacked, and I think the consequences are only beginning to play out.
 
It’s time to hack back against the Rise of The Apps.  Here are a few actions that might help to begin the process of freeing your mind:
 
  • Turn off all push notifications from every app and just check when you think it’s appropriate.  I find this is more easily done from the desktop versions of many apps, since it’s often impossible to find the notification settings in the mobile app.  Don’t worry, everyone will still be there when you return.  
     
  • Reduce the frequency of email checking in your email app settings.  Some have advocated checking email only twice daily in reserved blocks.  
     
  • Turn off alerts that appear in the upper notification bar of  your device.
     
  • Use the breaks you are currently taking to reflexively check email/apps, and instead take a walk, talk to people, and engage with something in the non-digital world. 
 
I’ve begun the process of taking my own mind back by starting with the above steps.  The survival of my species depends on it.

The IsoDynamic 5 Minute MBA™

The IsoDynamic 5 Minute MBA

Designed as a value added to small businesses who'd like a little free advice on a variety of marketing topics. This a summary of my 19 years of running IsoDynamic, eight years in marketing at the Quaker Oats company (now Pepsico), a summer internship with General Motors, four summers as a Kemper Scholar intern with Kemper Insurance, and two years at the University of Chicago (now Booth) School of Business. This stuff has been stolen from literally dozens of exorbitantly priced consultants, blue ribbon task forces, university professors, and marketing books. Repackaged to look like mine. Also includes a few original ideas.

 
 
  • Time is money. The most profound concept in business. Discounted cash flow and essentially all of finance flow from this.
     
  • Buy low, sell high. Can't lose.  BTW Portfolio balancing also ensures this happens.
     
  • Up is good, down is bad. Some people violate this one by eloquently reporting to upper management that down is really good in this circumstance, and that while up would be nice, 
  • down is really all that can be expected given the context of the situation, and there are so many signals pointing upwards at this point that the good and the up is clearly inevitable. Then they get promoted. Don't be like this.
     
  • The 80/20 rule (Pareto optimality), which says the 80% of results come with 20% of effort and the last 20% of results take 80% of the effort. I think forecasting is a good area in which to practice this. Many companies spend enormous amounts of time forecasting demand with no scientific methods and no real performance tracking. My advice: as a marketer, spend your time understanding and delivering to your consumer. Hire a consultant to develop a quantitative forecasting methodology, or just get a dartboard, make that forecast using the 80/20 rule, and move on to something where you can make an impact. Companies in the know have changed their manufacturing to produce to demand anyway.
     
  • Correlation is not causation. The most underrated and least widely known principle in business. Look it up on Wikipedia and implement.
     
  • Assholes wreak havoc.  I think that mental illness is actually rampant within corporations, and it's amazing to me that people (especially managers) can get away with treating people badly for years before it catches up to them.  I've noticed that everyone seems to know who the problem people are except for upper management.  Just ask the underlings and you'll find out quickly who the stinkers are.
     
  • Dogs are overpaid and stars are underpaid.  Most corporations have such tight rules around compensation that the differential between these two groups is not nearly what it should be.  It's always tough to tell people they're not doing a good job - most people think they're just terrific.
     
  • Debit on the left, credit on the right. Pull this one out just to show the accountants you're not going to take any guff.
     

Congratulations! I now confer upon you all the benefits and privileges associated with achieving an MBA from our rigorous program at IsoDynamic. Don't forget to update your resume. 

 

Who is Kraig?

  • Kraig Robson
    • Founder of IsoDynamic, Inc.
    • Bald as a cue ball
    • Opinions? Yuppers.
  • Professional
    • eLearning
    • Custom technology development
    • Marketing
  • Amateur
    • Health and nutrition
    • Music (keyboards, bad drumming, even worse guitar)
    • Tennis, strength training, and yoga
 
 
 

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