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Seeing Value

In the past year, I met a goal I had set about something trivial. I have a point to this story… you’ll have to be a bit patient, though, to get to it.

I wanted to be the top-ranked Facebook Scrabble player in my peer group, in all 3 categories of highest ranking, highest word score, and highest number of 7+ letter words, all at one time. I did it by taking an approach to the game that most people have never tried, as far as I can tell.

The key to doing well at Scrabble when you break it down, I figured, is to get more point value out of your letters than your opponents do.

If you were to take a superficial look at the value of Scrabble letters, you would probably say that the 5 most valuable letters are the Q and the Z (worth 10 points), the X and the J (worth 8 points), and the K (worth 5 points).

The way I play the game, the most valuable letters are S, R, E, I, and D, in roughly that order. Why? Well, I figure that since players get 50 bonus points for using all 7 of their tiles at once, the best way to get the most out of your letters would be to get the most 7 letter words. And, the way to do that would be to use word-extenders (plurals, suffixes, prefixes). And so, the letters that show up most often in plurals, suffixes, and prefixes would be letters to hold onto, in order to get the most out of them. S is the letter most used for plurals. -er and -ed, -ier and -ied are common suffixes. re- and de- and dis- are common prefixes. There are other letter combinations I consider after that, but you get the idea. In addition, if you add an s or an e or an r onto many existing words, you get a new word or version of the existing word, providing a connection point for your word placement.

So when I play, it’s more about the letters that I don’t use in a turn than the letters I put down. I will often sacrifice the opportunity to score more points on one turn, taking the chance that by holding onto my more ‘valuable’ letters I can score a ‘bingo’ bonus for using all 7 of my tiles in a turn to come, depending partly on luck to do so.

I reasoned that, while many other players may have a larger vocabulary than I do, and while some players (not likely in my peer group, but among ‘random’ opponents that may be chosen for me) may be tempted to purchase the ‘Teacher’ app on Facebook Scrabble (which shows you the highest possible scoring word from the previous turn), if I was willing to play in an unorthodox way I could potentially win games by giving myself more opportunities to score large numbers of points.

And, long story short, it worked. I had a theory, based on reasoning; I applied my theory; I met my goal. The reason it worked was that I was able to see value where others did not, and was willing to take chances that others were not willing to take.

There are applications here. Sometimes we may be tempted to take the easily measured values of our society – amount of money, titles and status, letters behind names – as gospel for how we ought to measure the value of people. But all people have contributions to make in our lives and in society, and maybe what really needs to happen is that we need to take a different point of view in order to see the value that is being overlooked. Maybe if we can work as a community, we can all extend our abilities in order to add up to more than any of us as individuals can achieve alone.

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Living With A Non-Linear Mind; Making Yourself Useful (Final Segment)

You are walking down a pathway on a sunny day. Suddenly, someone bursts out of some bushes beside you, bumps into you, stops long enough to say “I saw a bird over there”, and continues walking.

That is how linear thinkers often experience non-linear thinkers. This is not to say that non-linear thinkers have to completely conform to the world around them… but a certain amount of compromise will be required in order to foster the sense of community, acceptance, trust, and teamwork to make it possible for anyone to even be willing to listen to the kind of unusual ideas that tend to emerge from non-linear minds. We have to make ourselves useful – to establish that we can and do contribute to our societies, and do not merely disrupt and disturb the calm progress of our friends and neighbours.

Part of communicating effectively means organizing your thoughts in presentation to others, whatever form that presentation may take, so that they can follow along with what you are trying to express and see the purpose in it. The fact that thoughts do not come to a non-linear thinker in a ‘pre-organized’ fashion does not in any way create license for those thoughts to be presented as they come, vomited out in a massive unsorted stream. Other people should not be required to do the work of sorting through a non-linear thinker’s ideas and figuring out what to do with them, and they won’t.

It took me until I was in university to learn that I could write an organized essay – just not by following an outline. I would read a lot, take many notes, write down many ideas, being careful to take note of all the necessary information about my sources so that I could quickly reference them later on. I would frequently refer back to the main topic, to make sure that I wasn’t getting too far off track and working super hard on something I hadn’t actually been asked to do. Then, having gathered a critical mass of material, I would lay it all out on an enormous table, and cut it into pieces. I would lay out the pieces in the way that they made the most sense, numbering them.

Frequently, I would find that some transition was required. I would ask W5 and How about each sentence, to see if terms needed to be defined or if I had skipped explanations that reflected a logical sequence of thought, and write the transitional paragraphs necessary to fill the gaps. I would number the new paragraphs, with letters, to fill in spaces (for instance, if the paragraphs fit between piece 6 and piece 7, I would number the paragraphs 6a, 6b, etc.). Then I would tape pieces back together in order, and type out the essay. That was how I got my best marks.

Now, with the proliferation of computers, it is technically possible to eliminate the scissors and tape. However, a single screen might be insufficient to look over all of the necessary information and bear it in mind simultaneously, so it may still be worth doing such a task in the ‘old-fashioned’ way.

My point is that, even if a thinking process is non-linear, the final product of any kind of project or presentation will need to make sense to people and will need to be properly thought through. Only organized work is likely to receive the acceptance and approval of a majority of stakeholders, and may be the only way that all those great ideas ever see the light of day. It will take work, but as I used to say to my high school students, “The question is not “Is it difficult”, but “Is it worth it?” – and I believe it is.

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Living With A Non-Linear Mind, Part 3; Getting Going

There are 2 possible outcomes when I am given a task to do.

The first and preferred outcome is that it sparks a ton of ideas, and I immediately get going on producing a lot of creative material quickly, and then get it organized (next week’s topic).

The second outcome is the deer-in-the-headlights look; not even knowing where to begin.

Simply put, the world does not wait for a non-linear thinker to acquire inspiration. People need other people to do some work in a timely manner, or else there are competitors who can get the work done. And usually, although brilliantly creative work may be preferred, any kind of output is preferable to the sound of crickets in the moonlight when something really needs to get done.

This is why a non-linear thinker needs to come up with a creative process. I have some examples that work for me.

First, writing about a given topic –

It never hurts to get together some information; figure out some possible keywords regarding the topic, and do some research.

The research itself should at least spark some questions. Even if you find what you read or hear about a given topic entirely unconvincing, you should be ready to question it. Questions have an almost magical quality to them for our brains; they somehow drive us to seek answers. But if answers aren’t what you are finding, then generate more questions. And luckily, the basic possible questions are already developed; W5 (who, what, where, when, and why) and How? Then build more questions out of those questions, and eventually your mind will begin to work.

Combine a questioning approach with a sensory approach; how would a person experience the topic you need to address? Smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound; fragrances, colours and shapes, textures and hardness, bitter/salty/sweet/spicy, loud/soft/buzzy/ringing… you get the idea.

When working with music, my composition professor (himself a composer) Allan Bell suggested generating a number of musical lines, and then inverting/expanding/diminishing/elaborating/reversing/mirroring etc. those lines until you came up with something that really appealed to your ear.

The bottom line is, if you have a process to engage in, you have a way to approach a task. If I was tasked to do creative writing – wide open topic – on a particular day, I would look around me, I would think about what I had experienced in the past day or week – anything to get some information to work with. Because if you can get started, you can get something done… and the earlier you get started, the more likely that you will give your mind the processing time required to really work with the information that you gather, and the better your chances of really doing something spectacular and utterly unique.

If you start with developing your own process – even, or perhaps especially, when there is no urgent need for it, you can set the parameters to accomplish something unique because you will be starting with a unique process right from the get-go. Whatever it is that you need to do, a process that you have developed for your own reasons and which takes into account your own experience and capabilities will at the very least give you a sense of possibility and hope, a feeling of competence and confidence to take on the task set before you. You can do it! You just need a way to get started, and to gather some kind of input that will guide you and keep you learning and fresh.

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Living With a Non-Linear Mind, Part 2; Empowered by Structure

At school, I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t a bad student either, but filling in worksheets or doing math problems to demonstrate my ability to get the right answer was not at all motivating for me. I didn’t even care very much about my marks. We had a grammar fill-in-the-blank booklet to fill out in grade 10, and I treated it like ‘MadLibs’ – rather than filling in the right answers (which I knew), I wrote in words that amused me. There was a point when I tried to get kicked out of the library for a different reason every day (not vandalism or anything like that – just creative activities that no one else would have thought of, which would nonetheless be equal parts irritating and amusing so that the librarian would ask me to leave).

But I did enjoy being at school, most of the time. I liked school so much that, after high school was over, I went and did another 3 degrees worth of school, one of my degrees having a double major. It wasn’t even about getting a degree most of the time – I just took courses at college and university that I enjoyed.

What I didn’t realize until recently, was that part of what made school such a comfortable place for me was the structure. Classes began and ended at particular times, and I didn’t have to think about where I was going next. Meanwhile, my mind could roam, picking up information that was interesting and fun to work with and ignoring the stuff that didn’t matter to me. It was, really, a pretty self-centered way to go about life.

So that worked for me for a long time. During College and University I worked at summer camps a lot (a place with a lot of scheduled routine). After University, I had a number of driving jobs (schedules pre-made, routes) and other jobs that were either relatively simple or relatively structured, or both. Again, I often relied on external structures or cues for direction.

When I was working at becoming a teacher, things got more complex. Now, I wasn’t just relying on an external structure in order to have a basic direction myself, but I was trying to provide direction in a meaningful way to other people.

I did really well at the written work and research that were part of my studies as a teacher. However, when it came to lesson planning, I failed. In fact, it was only with the Dean’s permission that I was allowed to continue my studies in Education, and with the proviso that I audit a Graduate level course in Instructional Design (a part of the Bachelor of Education program that had been dropped, mostly due to budgetary constraints). That Instructional Design course made a big difference – but the reason it made a big positive difference for me was that the course allowed me to figure out what sort of Instructional Design would work best for me. Essentially, what I was forced to do was to create a process for myself to follow, which would then allow me to create processes and structures that would work for my students. This process had constant self-reflection and assessment built in, so that I could keep working on making it better.

It was only after I’d had to work hard at developing structure for my own thinking that I was able to really experience success in more complex work environments, and to contribute in a significant way to other people’s lives at a level more in line with my potential.

So my conclusion, out of my experience, is that non-linear thinkers need structure in their lives so that they have the sense of security and comfort necessary to do their most significant thinking, rather than just wander around feeling lost most of the time.

As a teacher, I tried to help my students by providing external cues, like written and electronic visual reminders of due dates, checklists and schedules for what needed to happen in their projects, personal reminders and cues to help them get going on their work, group work with specific roles so that students would cue each other, and of course choices (whenever possible) so that they could work on a kind of project or related area that was most interesting to them. Also, I tried to help them develop their own mental structures or processes, so that they would be able to think through doing particular intellectual tasks in a way that worked for each of them. This is not the same as imposing an ‘essay outline’ – something that never worked for me, since I could not say what I was going to write ahead of time – that only emerged after I had done some research and taken some notes.

Of course, my success in doing this for and with my students was mixed, and changed as my level of experience increased. But, ultimately, I had a nearly decade-long teaching career, and I did serve as a co-learning leader for a year of that time.

Now, as a stay-at-home dad, I work at providing a nurturing and catalytic environment for my own children, and that too is a complex vocation. But my children are a lot like me in some ways, and it’s fun to be part of their lives, to see what they are coming up with, and to be part of the empowering structure that allows them the security and freedom to thrive.

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Living With A Non-Linear Mind, Part 1; The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am what you might call a ‘non-linear thinker’, or, if there is a linear to non-linear thinking continuum, I would be relatively far onto the non-linear side. That means that I tend not to think ‘in a straight line’, and have difficulty with processes that are step-by-step sequential in nature. Although this is seen as a creative advantage, in a certain amount of my life experience it has been something of a handicap.

The difficulty I have is that I find it very challenging to think about one thing at a time, or to organize my thoughts in a particular sequential way. When I was a student and teachers would ask me to create an outline for an essay, I felt completely lost. I had no idea how I would organize what I was going to say before I was actually saying it.

Instead, it seems that all sorts of thoughts about many different subjects all rattle around inside my head at the same time. What ends up happening in the meantime is that the important tasks that I need to focus on, and important steps that I have to take, often get forgotten.

It’s not a conscious thing for me. I’m not trying to think about everything at the same time, it just happens. And it’s not even something I can articulate while it is happening. I go through periods of time when I feel kind of lost. If I have something in my hand, I might keep carrying it around wherever I am going while I’m thinking about something else. Or, alternatively, I may put it down wherever I see a space in that moment. For example, I once put the sugar bowl ‘away’ in the microwave. Fortunately nobody turned on the microwave without looking inside.

But this has been a fact of life for me for so long, that I have learned to problem-solve rather quickly at times. When I have forgotten something, or when I forgot to do my homework when I was younger, I have at times been able to find novel solutions to the problem that I inadvertently created. And, sometimes, I find connections between various disparate ideas and events which I likely would not have made if I had gone out deliberately looking for them.

Sometimes all those notions that have been jumbling about in my head like laundry in a washer come together and crystallize into something new and innovative, all at once. When that happens, it’s kind of a buzz- which makes me want for it to happen more, to expect it. And that expectation leads for me to a real sense of dissatisfaction and frustration when I just get back to the lost and confused feeling that I have at other times.

It’s not that the connections I find are necessarily manufactured or contrived (and I do try to check and test them). It is just that life is actually an interconnected whole – not a set of compartmentalized experiences, but an integrated experience which is often perceived as sectioned or disconnected.

Meanwhile, though, it is necessary for me to function. People count on me, as they do on each other, to be reasonably predictable, to show up to events at times when I have made a commitment to be there, and to play my role when I am included in a group plan.

Although I have at times failed to meet my commitments, or even to remember them, for the most part I have learned little ‘life-hacks’ to help me function reasonably well within the context of my family, community, and society. Over the next few weeks, I want to take the opportunity through this blog to tell about how I have learned to deal with my personal weaknesses and build on my strengths. There are other people in the world who experience similar struggles to my own, and my hope is that in my blog over the next few Fridays I can prove to be of assistance in helping them push past their obstacles as well.

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The Importance of Strength Training

Yesterday, the pain in my left knee had me limping along at a snail’s pace, hardly able to accomplish anything. It wasn’t because of a particular recent injury, or anything I did. It was because of what I haven’t been doing so much lately, and got back to doing today; strength training.

Things have changed since my youth. In my youth, my attitude was that pain was merely an obstacle, and that if I put in enough effort and gumption I could accomplish anything. When I played sports, I didn’t play well – but I did play hard. I threw myself around recklessly, without regard for my body or anyone else’s.

That style of ‘play’ did take its toll on my body in the long run, and a few years ago while digging window wells for our house I got to that ‘last straw’ and hurt my back.

For a while there, my back and my knees were so stiff and sore and weak that it slowed me down a lot. Only 1 thing has gotten me moving again, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox manner; strength training.

Check out this article; http://www.nursetogether.com/importance-strength-training . Everything it says is true.

Starting last March, I began strapping on ankle weights and put additional weights in a backpack (wrapped in towels & taped up to avoid bruising my back) while I walked the dog. Over time, I added more weights, additionally putting on wrist weights and eventually strapping a set of ankle weights to my arms as well (the wrist weights that are available are very light). It was like a personal renaissance. I got stronger, and the walk meant a kind of cardio workout for me as well. Granted, it exposed my quirkiness to my neighbourhood, but the benefits to my overall fitness and even clarity of thought outweighed any concerns I might have had about public perception. Additionally, as I got stronger, the pain in my joints diminished. My theory had been, in line with what a physiotherapist once told me, that building up muscle around my joints would hold them in tension and therefore ultimately put less strain/rubbing on the joints, so that my now basically non-existent cartilage didn’t have to be there. It seemed to be working. And as the pain in my joints diminished, I was able to do every task more quickly, having greater flexibility. I could run with my boys a bit, throw a ball around, without difficulty.

In the last few weeks, however, the weather got really cold around here. The ground froze and got slippery. I strapped on the weights on fewer and fewer days, even taking the dog on fewer walks, since the weather added to the difficulty of getting my workout while getting out dog treats for necessary training and while picking up after the dog.

And now, my knee hurts again, a lot. I guess I’ll have to work out separately from walking the dog, and it will take time. But really, I don’t have a choice. It has to be done. In the short term, while I exercise, my knee will still hurt – but it won’t get better unless I work out. (*This is true for my situation; please consult with a doctor regarding your own physical ailments). I either sit around in pain, or I take a bit more time to be healthy and accomplish more in the end.

Numerous studies have recently linked regular exercise to a reduction in the risks for, and enhanced recovery from, symptoms and diseases as varied as stroke, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s (seriously – google it). Regular exercise also helps reduce the negative effects associated with ADD and other nervous system anomalies. It has been said that exercise is “the closest thing to a superdrug available to us today.”

So based on my past year’s experience, if I am going to make any resolutions for the upcoming new year, they will have to include integrating an appropriate level of exercise into my life. I can’t do my work any better, or support my family’s needs better, if I am unable to move at an optimal level of performance – so regardless of the endeavor, it will all have to start with exercise.

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