Review: Aware, The Science and Practice of Presence

A visual look at the Wheel of Awareness.

This book by Daniel Siegel guided me beyond the popular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace into something different, the “Whole of Awareness.” The idea is to integrate all types of meditation and awareness training practices from focus attention, to open awareness, to connectedness—non-duality.

The core practice involves visualizing a center hub of awareness, a spoke of attention, and a rim which holds all possible focuses. From the 5 senses, body awareness, thoughts/emotions, and feeling connected to other humans, beings, and things.

Dan repeats a phrase over and over to underline why a practice like this leads to improved well-bing: “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

Increase neural integration in the brain, enabling more coordination and balance in both the functional and structural connectivity within the nervous system that facilitates optimal functioning, including self-regulation, problem solving, and adaptive behavior that is at the heart of well-being.

For online resources including narrated meditations (short, medium, and long) visit: Dr. Dan Siegel – Resources – Wheel Of Awareness.

Practical and insightful. Hat tip: Akshay Kapur.


📚 View more of my book reviews on Goodreads.

Clean Room, Clean Mind

Why do I avoid the backlog and overflowing todo list? Why do I shove one more tool into a drawer already full of bits and bobs? Why do I squeeze yet another outfit into an overflowing closet? Because confronting this mess is hard work. It means making tough choices. Most of the time, I’d rather not decide.

To make sense of my environment, my work, my life—I need to confront the mess. Once the clutter is gone I know I’m left with just the essentials. Once the dust is clear, I can get to work.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo explains that while the process of decluttering and cleaning your home is important to your physical wellbeing, the true outcome is happiness and clarity in your mind. The habit gives you the freedom to take responsibility for important decisions.

I learned so much from this book, from awareness and mindfulness to practical tips on folding and hanging clothes. The habit of tidiness is now a mindset for me rather than just a chore to be completed.

The process starts by discarding the inessential items. Tidying up defines what is valuable: learning what I can do without; learning which books, clothes, keepsakes, or kitchen tools give me the most joy.

In applying her principles, my books were the hardest. I had hundreds and many in the category of “I’ll read this someday.” I trimmed it down to 80-90 best of the best — including this one! Hah. Keeping sentimental, must-read again, and books I reference often. The rest I gave as gifts to a new home or donated.

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

A clean home is a perfect metaphor for a clear and organized mind. If my room and desk are clear and tidy I can face the reality of what’s in front of me. “It is by putting one’s own house in order that one’s mindset is changed. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.” Am I scared of what I’ll find?

Because you have continued to identify and dispense with things that you don’t need, you no longer abdicate responsibility for decision making to other people.

Decisions are now easier as I see more clearly the work in front of me. And I enjoy even more the treasures, clothes, and tools I chose to keep.

Review: Dawn of the New Everything

My book review of Dawn of the New Everything, Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier (2017). The book is enjoyable and readable, though I did skip around over the more esoteric bits.

Alternating between a deep autobiographical dive into Lanier’s life and a straightforward account of the history of technology, with an emphasis on virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR). I enjoyed learning about early technologists like Ivan Sutherland, whose 1963 SketchPad presentation was the “greatest demo of all time” to Doug Engelbart’s 1968 productivity software demo than reads like a modern tech stack: file versioning, collaborative editing, and video conferencing.

More eye-opening for me than the history is the honest and thought description of VR from one of the industry’s true pioneers.

A lot of joy in VR remains in just thinking about it.

VR trains us to perceive better… we learn to sense what makes reality real. [Because] human cognition is in motion and will generally outpace progress in VR.

A sense of cognitive momentum, of moment-to-moment anticipation, becomes palpable in VR. Like the chi in tai-chi.

The investigation has no end, since people change under investigation.

The technology of noticing experience itself.

Lanier describes VR as feeling your consciousness in its pure form. “It proves you are real.” The exact opposite of what I’d previously thought of when considering VR—I perceived a “fake” or “out of body” experience. Instead, Lanier emphasizes that it’s meant to be temporary. It’s meant to make you think, not just escape. It’s intended to produce the enjoyment of coming back to your true senses, reborn.


Reading notes: I read the hardcover edition from my local library after seeing a mention in both Wired and The Economist. See on Goodreads.

 

Best Design Books Not Explicitly About Design

Daniel Burka recently created a list of design books that aren’t about design:

I asked a whole bunch of designers what books, which weren’t specifically about digital or graphic design, inspired them.

Looking at the list I noted I’ve read four of the twelve books: 4, 7, 10, 12. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is one where I’ve purchased extra copies and given them to friends, especially those who say “I’m not visual” or “I’m not really a designer.” It’s a fun format, different from most other books I generally come across.

(Understanding Comics also appeared on my reading list for “craft” at ThemeConf a few years ago.)

My takeaway from this book list is that it reinforces the fact that design isn’t just about visual and graphics. Design is thinking. Design is systems. Design is life.

A Higher Standard

Last week I shared Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which includes “insist on the highest standards.” Modeling the higher standard myself, and expecting it in others I work with. The concept of leaders training new leaders is on my mind a lot lately, because it’s central to my role at Automattic and in the WordPress community.

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When looking for new models to refresh my inputs and broaden my understanding, one logical source of inspiring leader is the military.

My introduction to military leadership started with One Mission by Chris Fussell, which led to Team of Teams by General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal — see my notes here.

Now I’m pleased to discover A Higher Standard by General (Ret.) Ann Dunwoody (Goodreads), the life story and lessons from the first woman promoted to four-star general in US military history. Hat tip: Matt.

The book follows Gen. Dunwoody’s wonderful and amazing life journey through career, family, and life. She grounds the narrative with lessons and principles. Guideposts.

Here are a few guideposts that resonated with me.

Whatever you believe about the nature of leadership, true leaders never stop learning, refining, growing, and adapting—and that’s the primary focus of this book.

On setting a high standard:

Meeting the standard is the expectation, but those who strive to exceed the standard send a signal about their character and their competence.

After managing nearly sixty-nine thousand employees, one thing is clear to me: there is a higher standard that provides the foundation upon which every effective leadership journey is built. It’s the difference between the leaders who excel and the leaders who fail. It’s their thought process, attention to detail, and execution that enables them to inspire and motivate their workforce to create and sustain high-performing, successful organizations.

If you take nothing else from this book—never walk by a mistake, or you just set a new lower standard!

Putting this high standard into practice means not walking by a mistake without correcting it — at Automattic we call this “trash pickup.”

He taught me to never walk by a mistake. Far too often we let little things slide. But just turn on the news and listen as the anchors lament an auto-part defect leading to deaths and multibillion-dollar recalls or a small leak in a gas pipeline causing an explosion that endangers wildlife. Recognizing when something is wrong, big or small, and holding people accountable can save industries billions and citizens their lives. Sergeant Bowen instilled in me instantly that if you do walk by a mistake, then you just set a new, lower standard.

In my world I also think this task falls to people acting as “chief quality officers” for products and services — see my recent post on the topic of product leadership.

On energy and balance; see also my recent thoughts, On Self-Management and Energy:

…working longer hours doesn’t necessarily equal better performance. Working harder doesn’t mean working smarter. Longer hours mean less sleep, fatigue, ulcers, compromised decisions, and a lack of balance in one’s life.

On developing other leaders — what I would call “training the trainer” — finding your successor is another essential aspect of leadership.

The job of senior leaders is to develop other leaders. It requires senior leaders to weigh in on key decisions. Leaders who don’t weigh in lose their vote.

One of most important jobs a senior leader has is to develop leaders or to “build the bench.”

When leaders help subordinates overcome weaknesses or mistakes, they help the subordinate, they help the organization, and they help themselves become better leaders.

…as a lifelong skill, I have worked on developing the skill of giving people chances to improve their performance after a failure.

On diversity and inclusion:

Although the power of diversity is sometimes hard to quantify, Childs definitely got my attention. His success revealed a few points: (1) diversity wasn’t about numbers or quotas—having one of these and one of those—it was about diversity of thought, and not just anyone’s thought but the best-of-the-best thoughts; and (2) these folks had to have a platform from which their ideas could be heard and implemented.

I believe the strength in diversity comes from being able to leverage diversity of thought.

View the A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General book on Amazon and Goodreads.

2017 Daily Reads: Dalio and Drucker

Two books made a big impact on my year in 2017, transforming my thinking. One for a massive amount of new insights and the other for improving my thought patterns.

Both books I’d buy again and give away—both are now open on my reading table each morning.

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A photo of two books that became a daily ritual in 2017.


The Daily Drucker by Peter Drucker (2004)

(Edited by Joseph Maciariello—note: Drucker died in 2005, soon after this book came out.)

Here’s an example of a daily insight I wrote about: A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope.

This book is now a “daily devotional” for me; less holy scripture and more mindset for effectiveness in business, life, relationships. The improvement on my thought patterns was immediate: I noticed the ideas and principles coming up in daily work and life conversations, the mindset for effective time tracking and outward focus on contributions accelerated my career growth, and I deepened my understanding of business and how best to run an organization.

My all-time favorite — now well-worn and bookmarked — is September 4, “Practices of Effective Executives.” A distilled summary from his bestselling book of the same name.

The September 4 “Daily Drucker” reading details the five practices for effectiveness: 1) know where your time goes 2) focus on outward contributions 3) build on strengths 4) concentrate on superior performance and 5) make effective decisions.

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A photo of the Daily Drucker reading for Sept. 4th, with a handwritten card I used to hold the spot.

Which ties perfectly into Ray Dalio’s masterpiece where decision making is a key theme.


Principles by Ray Dalio (2017)

See a brief example of the insights I gained: Synthesis: Navigating Levels Effectively.

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A photo of the Principles book open to page 336; talking about meaningful work and relationships.

As I said in the beginning, this book hit me with a wall of new insights. I’m still processing it after 3 reads! Hat tip, Matt.

Top highlights of the book for me:

A winning formula: meaningful work + meaningful relationships + making a living. This ties in well with the freedom and mission that WordPress and Automattic stand for—a livelihood for anyone in the world with a website, blog, or shop.

Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality.

Beware ego block by remembering that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

Use pain to trigger quality reflections, learn what causes your pain and what you can do about it. This is the most effective habit Ray developed over 40 years.

Practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time, and think about your and others’ believability when deciding what to do. Find the most believable people possible who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning.

Ideas versus decisions. Meritocracy is for hearing everyone’s voice — not for everyone making the decision.

You’ll find much, much more in the book; see also the book’s website: principles.com and social media. On LinkedIn Ray’s been sharing the most popular principles as readers give him feedback — with short audio clips.

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A screenshot of Ray Dalio sharing a top insight from his book, on LinkedIn.

I suggest buying both electronic and the hard copy. In 2018 I’ll share more thoughts and insights from the book, plus share experiences and learnings from putting the principles into practice.

What were your top books from 2017? Did anything become a must-read or daily habit?

A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope

A decision is only a hope until carrying it out has become somebody’s work assignment and responsibility, with a deadline.

Who has to know of the decision? What action has to be taken? Who has to take the action? Make sure the people who have to take the action are able to do so.

Note—the people who have to take the action are rarely the people who have made the decision.

Source: The Daily Drucker, quoting The Effective Executive. I’m loving this daily dive into the management and leadership motherlode—highly recommended.

Be a Yardstick of Quality

Inspiration from Steve Jobs, in 1987. This is my milepost for 2017.

People judge you by your performance, so focus on the outcome. Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.

From I, Steve edited by George Beahm (2011).

 

Smarter, Faster, Better

A few findings from reading Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Goodreads).

On self-motivation: Ask yourself, why am I doing what I’m doing? If you are doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, you’re not going to care.

Envisioning the day: Make a habit of picturing how things will go, what goals you have from meetings or tasks—it can make you much more productive.

Distractions: We can trick our brain to ignore things by spending time visualizing what we want to occur, like going to the store for only lasagna and ignoring the special display of holiday cookies.

Tests, finances, decisions: Slow down to make better choices, called “disfluency.” Also helps with overload of data; it’s easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything. Fight it by slowing the information down, make it stickier.

Internalize new ideas: Tell someone about it, interact with the idea, and it’ll stick with you better. For example, telling a colleague about a book you’re reading, not to educate them, but to lock in the ideas.

Financial life: Force yourself to interact with the data, even if it seems inefficient. Sit down regularly and see what you spent money on—is it expected? Do you need to change habits? Not only look, but write it down.

Editorial note: I published this with the WordPress desktop app, a superbly focused and native experience to write posts and manage your blog settings.

Design for Real Life

Real life is complicated.

Even after we’ve tested all the important user flows and polished the edges in our app or site, people still stumble. Why? Because we’re humans, and because our products still have:

  1. Broken flows: transition points or interactions, like a form on a site, that aren’t working correctly.
  2. Content gaps: someone needs a specific piece of content, but you don’t have it—or it’s not in the right place at the right time.
  3. Pain points: people get hung up and are likely to abandon the site or app.

Making digital products friendly isn’t enough to make them feel human.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Design for Real Life from A Book Apart; the ebook is only $11.

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Instead of treating stress situations as edge cases, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations—to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward.

The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Order Design for Real Life from abookapart.com. See also the WordPress.org Flow glossary for terms inspired by this book that we use in testing WordPress.