Category Archives: Soapbox

Experiencing silence

Here is the second in a series of reprints while I am on vacation.  This one is from five years ago. It was published on August 9th 2017 under the title ‘Blinded by the light‘.

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in a way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

Still relevant after ten years

I am on vacation for the next month so I will not be writing new posts. Instead I have decided to delve into my back catalogue of more than 500 posts [see ‘500th post‘ on February 2nd, 2022] and republish posts from ten, five and one year ago. The short post below was published on September 15th, 2012 under the title ‘Innovation jobs‘. It seems as relevant today as it was in 2012.

Yesterday, I listened to an interesting talk by Dr Liang-Gee Chen, President of the National Applied Research Laboratories of Taiwan at the UK-Taiwan Academic-Industry & Technology Transfer Collaboration Forum organised by the British Council.  He presented some statistics from the Kaufmann Foundation, which demonstrated that nearly all new jobs in the USA are generated by new companies.  When you combine this with my conclusion in my posting on ‘Population crunch’, that we need a higher level of innovation in engineering, then we need to review the education programmes provided for our engineers to ensure that they include innovation and entrepreneurship.  These need to be integrated in engineering education programmes [see Handscombe et al, 2009].  We seem to have lost the plot in the UK and retreated to teaching engineering science, design and management orientated towards the employers with the loudest voice, i.e. multi-nationals, who are not likely to be the source of innovation jobs that will pull us out of the global recession.

Handscombe, R.D., Rodriguez-Falcon, E., Patterson, E.A., 2009, ‘Embedding enterprise in engineering’, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, 37(4):263-274.

Space between the words

I am an habitual user of a fountain pen.  It is the only writing implement that I carry with me since I enjoy writing with a fountain pen and because I can keep track of one pen but no more than one.  I have used it, and its predecessors, to make notes in a series of forty notebooks that stretch back to when I started as a research assistant forty years ago.  I used to record laboratory results in my notebooks but nowadays I have a research team who perform all of the work in the laboratory.  I still use my pen and notebook to record meetings, ideas and notes on papers.  I find the process of writing notes by hand to be conducive to both remembering detail and connecting fragments of information into new thoughts and ideas.  I am not alone in having these experiences.  Researchers have found that taking notes by hand improves the performance of students in answering conceptual questions compared to students who use a laptop to take notes.  When you write on a laptop, it is easy to delete words and re-start a sentence, whereas to create a coherent set of notes in a book you need to craft a sentence prior to committing pen to paper.  Perhaps the latter process allows a more persistent assembly of neurons to be formed in your brain [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020]; or maybe it is just the irregular spacing between handwritten words which creates a more distinct pattern that can be more readily recalled than the repetitive single spaces in typed text.  I certainly feel there is a connection between recalling the image of a page from my notebook and remembering the content even though I cannot usually read the words in my mental image.

Crumb RM, Hildebrandt R & Sutton TM, The value of handwritten notes: a failure to find state-dependent effects when using a laptop to notes and complete a quiz, Teaching of Psychology, 49(1):7-13, 2022.

Unrecognised brilliance of shy and fearless leaders

Red tulips in a window boxAre you a quiet person? Perhaps shy would be an appropriate description. Do you have a clear vision of where you would like to lead your organisation but perhaps you are hesitant about stepping forward into a leadership position because you think that successful leaders are bold, self-confident, large-than-life and enjoy the limelight. You should think again. Research by Jim Collins and his team, published in the Harvard Business Review, has shown that the most powerfully transformative leaders have a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional resolve. They found that companies were transformed from a merely good performance to a sustained great performance in terms of their stock value only when led by a CEO who was both self-effacing and fearless. They called these class of people, level 5 leaders. They are ambitious for their organisation not themselves, assign credit for successes to others while accepting the blame for failures and have an unwavering resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best long-term results despite the obstacles. So, if you worry that you lack the charisma to inspire your team then pause and consider whether you might be a level 5 leader with the rare combination of modesty and willfulness that, Jim Collins has suggested, are required to transform the performance of your organisation. Unfortunately, if you think you possess these characteristics then you almost certainly are not a level 5 leader because your humility would never allow you to entertain the thought!

Reference:

Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review, January 2001.