Monthly Archives: February 2014

Impressions of Dubai

dubai

I spent a few days there recently. Some generous hosts had me give a couple talks; thanks to them for having me. Some quick impressions of the city:

  • Add “largest/tallest/biggest in the world” in front of any basic landmark in Dubai and there’s a decent shot it’ll be true. Everything in excess.
  • The winter months, when I was there, are quite pleasant weather-wise. Perfect, actually. I hear summer is unbearable.
  • The infrastructure is super advanced and the overall feel is cosmopolitan — 80% of the people are expats. But so long as the internet is censored, as it is in Dubai, it won’t quite feel 21st century.
  • Two days is probably all you need for basic tourism. A day in the city; half day to lounge around; half day for a safari in the desert. Worth seeing it all.
  • The entrepreneurs and businesspeople I met tell me that the transience of the population makes it hard to retain talent for very long. Few people are “from” Dubai. Makes sense. Dubai seems like an amazing place to post up for a few years and use as a Middle East hub, or even a gateway to Asia and Africa, but maybe not a long term place to build a life.
  • The real estate bubble is back, folks. Very, very back. The reason? Expo 2020. I’m not joking. Everyone I talked to talked about Expo 2020, and when I asked two smart people, separately, what was fueling the run up in real estate prices, their answer was the same: Expo 2020. It’s become the catch-all rationale to build build build.
  • Despite the opulence of the city, Dubai airport is not over the top. Some parts of the airport even feel just average, which is unlike the rest of the city. And Dubai/Emirates Airlines, while amazing in so many ways, loses out to Hong Kong/Cathay Pacific in terms of overall experience.

What To Do If You Worry Too Much

Some tips from Ad Kerkhof, a Dutch pyschologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. I found them in the book Time Warped and quote below from the book.

  • Deliberately imagine the worst-case scenario concerning your worry, followed by the best possible scenario. The real outcome probably lies somewhere in between.
  • If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on.
  • Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

Teamwork Wins in Real World, But School Teaches the Opposite

Imagine if your high school diploma listed not just your name in big italic font but also the names of the specific classmates you allied with to achieve academic success.

Unfortunately, it’s a far-out scenario, because we have an education system that rewards individualistic achievement and teacher-pleasing, not teambuilding and broad collaboration—essential skills in almost every professional field.

In school, there’s only one relationship that matters: the one between you and the all-mighty teacher.

Accordingly, it pays to be a teacher’s pet. Raise your hand constantly in class. Ask for extra work. Tell the other students to quiet down when the teacher enters the classroom. These things might cause classmates to sneer behind your back, but they don’t decide whether you get an A+. You might have no one to sit with at lunch, but you’ll be laughing all the way to the Valedictorian seat at graduation.

In the real world, however, if your officemates sneer at you behind your back, you’ll be falling all the way to the bottom of the company org chart. At work, you only get ahead by completing projects that require more than one person; the most important projects are always group efforts. Teamwork rules. You produce impressive accomplishments by collaborating with others, by forming alliances, by mastering the politics of the office.

In Ender’s Game (one of my favorite books growing up), there’s a bracing example of the military commanders testing Ender’s ability to be a leader. When Ender arrives at Battle School, the head commander praises him relentlessly in front of his peers. By exalting Ender as a true genius out in the open, the commander intentionally makes Ender’s ultra-competitive peers resent the special attention, thereby making it more difficult for Ender to form alliances. The commanders test Ender in a way that school never does: Can he negotiate rivalries and partner with his peers to build a team and accomplish something great?

Now, while it’s true that at work you usually have a single manager who determines your bonus or promotion, that manager’s perception of you is shaped by many sources.

This is not the case at school; there’s little opportunity for a fellow student to sabotage your reputation with your teacher. Did you ever sit around with your teacher in high school and BS about how your classmates are doing academically?

At work, though, this happens all the time. Those you work with whisper quietly to your boss.

Boss: “By the way, how’s it going on that project for the big client?”

Your colleague: “Oh it’s going fine. Yeah, you know, [Your Name]’s working hard, though I’m not sure he’s really a natural at this kind of work. The client has told me it can be hard to work with him at times. But it’s not a big deal, and overall, things are going well, thanks for asking.”

When I meet with really successful professionals, they frequently reflect on this disconnect: in school they thought it was an individual game, in life they realize it’s a team game, and team games require skills they never developed in school.

For example, I had dinner the other week with an accomplished doctor in his 60’s. He told me that in the first half of his career he thought what mattered for standing out in his field was possessing superior knowledge. If he memorized more than the next guy, he thought, he’d get ahead. Today, he realizes what matters is his ability to persuade others—to convince other researchers to partner with him projects, to convince hospitals to adopt his ideas, to convince students in residency to follow his leadership, etc.

And it turns out, memorizing organic chemistry formulas was a whole lot easier than learning to read a room, interpreting human motivations, and building teams who will follow you.

When reflecting on how the education system does or does not prepare students, we should pay special attention not just to areas where school under-prepares students for the real world (more statistics! more engineering!), but where school actively misprepares. Where an entire framework of “how to be successful” has to be unlearned and replaced by something else. These are the most consequential breakage points in formal schooling.

[This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.]

What I’ve Been Reading

Books in brief.

1. Netherland: A Novel by Joseph O’Neill. A post 9/11 novel about all sorts of things, using cricket as central metaphor. A very competently written book (highly praised by the critics) with many interesting musings on life. I was engaged through to the end. My three favorite paragraphs below.

One night I went out with Appleby to a bar on the Lower East Side, anxious to talk about Rivera’s fate and scheme in his favor. Appleby, however, had arranged to meet up with friends. He passed the evening telling them jokes I couldn’t quite hear or get, and from time to time they stepped out onto the sidewalk to smoke cigarettes and make calls to carousers elsewhere in the city, returning with reports of parties in Williamsburg and SoHo and, as the night whirled away, leaving me on the rim of things. I drank up and left them to it.

No, it was simply that I was uninterested in making, as I saw it, a Xerox of some old emotional state. I was in my mid-thirties, with a marriage more or less behind me. I was no longer vulnerable to curiosity’s enormous momentum. I had nothing new to murmur to another on the subject of myself and not the smallest eagerness about being briefed on Danielle’s supposedly unique trajectory—a curve described under the action, one could safely guess, of the usual material and maternal and soulful longings, a few thwarting tics of character, and luck good and bad. A life seemed like an old story.

There came a moment, not long after the Danielle episode and in the first stimuli of spring, when I was taken by lightheaded yearning for an interlude of togetherness, a time-out, as it were, during which my still-wife and I might lie together in a Four Seasons suite, say, and work idly through a complimentary fruit basket and fuck at leisure and, most important, have hours-long, disinterested, beans-spilling, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may conversations in which we’d examine each other’s unknown nooks and crannies in the best of humor and faith.

2. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. A fine, if not especially revelatory, examination of how we perceive the nature of time. A great topic but doesn’t quite support a whole book. Some good nuggets, though.

Even memories of unique, personally momentous events can fade. Most of what we do is forgotten. When we talk about the study of memory, really it should be the study of forgetting. Every day we experience hundreds of moments that we simply forget

Once again William James summed it up for us, ‘In general time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back. On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short.’

The days are full of new experiences and while their parents rush them to school they want to take every opportunity to explore the world. They will stop and stare at workers digging up the road; they will pause to pat a dog; they will notice anything that’s different; they will try new things. Why walk along the pavement when you can hopscotch along avoiding the cracks in the paving stones or pick your way up and down the crenellations on a wall? This means that overall, despite a few slow hours where they’re forced to do something boring, on the whole days for children, just like ours on holiday, are all-absorbing, and packed with new memories which, looking back retrospectively, makes the months and years seem to stretch out.

If you feel you are someone who takes on too much (and this might not apply to you – I’m not saying everybody should turn down every request), then before you commit to an event later in the year, imagine it is happening next week. If it seems out of the question that you could fit it in, then ask yourself what steps you would need to take to be free to do it in six months’ time, remembering once again that you are unlikely to have more free time. By imagining it is next week you are more likely to consider the practical feasibility of the whole event,

Research has found that anticipation is associated with stronger emotions than remembering the past, so if we want to improve our well-being maybe we should pay less attention to the pleasures of nostalgia and more to anticipating positive events in the future.

‘Time rushes towards us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.’ Tennessee Williams

3. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Couldn’t make it far in this one. I enjoy random Alan Watts quotes but apparently couldn’t get into him in full length. My favorite paragraph of the little that I read:

This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain. By remembering the past we can plan for the future. But the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the “ability” to dread pain and to fear the unknown.

4. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. The premise of this book is captivating: when confronted with a life threatening situation, 90% of people freeze up and make horrible decisions (leading to death), 10% stay calm and survive. What do the 10% do exactly, and can we learn to do the same if we one day find ourselves in peril? Gonzales doesn’t deliver on the potential of this question, and it may not be his fault. What the 10% do is hard to concretely figure out (beyond obvious lessons like “Be decisive”), let alone really learn for yourself. The storytelling here is pretty good (and frequently tragic in nature). I read about half of the book before deciding to move on. Recommended for outdoorsmen or folks who find themselves braving the great outdoors regularly; for the lay reader it’s probably not worth it.

5. Empire Falls by Richard Russo. A modern classic. It’s a novel, though written 15 years ago, that resonates strongly in 2014 — it reveals how a small manufacturing town in America fares in an economy that no longer supports small manufacturing towns. Amidst a backdrop of economic malaise and a flight of the town’s best talent, Russo creates rich characters and a compelling social dynamic between them.

Max unzipped there and reflected that a good, long, soul-cleansing pee was something many men his age were incapable of. Once they turned seventy, they became leaky faucets with slow, incessant drips.

In the deepest sense, he hadn’t loved her. Not the way he’d intended to. Not as he’d sworn he would before God and family and friends, and this simple truth embarrassed him too deeply to allow for anything like analysis. No, he hadn’t loved her, and he didn’t know why. He also didn’t know what to call whatever it was that would’ve prevented him from telling her, even if he had known. If you didn’t call it love, what did you call the kind of affection that makes you want to protect someone from hurt? What was the name of the feeling that threatened to swamp him now, that made him want to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be all right. If not love, then what?

but you were clever enough to avoid what you feared most, which was a poor crippled young woman, who was suicidally in love with you and whose pitiful devotion would’ve made your life one long, hellish exercise in moral virtue.”

My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’s heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.

There’d still be a good television and one shitty one. The only difference was that what people had thought of as the good big one now would become the shitty little one. Worse, the quickest way to beget a new desire, Bea knew, was to satisfy an old one, and each new desire had a way of becoming more expensive than the last.

6. China Airborne by James Fallows. A brisk, fun report on the state of aviation in China, and what it says about China more generally. For airplane junkies only.

7. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Some interesting nuggets here about how artists organize their day–when they wake up, how they work, when they take breaks, etc. It doesn’t take long before you re-learn that everyone is different. No, you don’t have to be a morning person to be an artist (thank God!). I didn’t feel like I needed to finish it. I liked this nugget:

“He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”