Summer time, holiday time – delightful places, fine weather, delicious food, but also queues and noise at ridiculous prices. Holidays come with big chunks of unstructured time, for even the most ambitious hikers and sightseers occasionally get bad weather, or a day when their dear entourage can not be coaxed into any activity… A lot of time is not always a gift in times when only few of us disconnect from the news; the world in which we are hoping to unfold our possibilities is not getting easier to manoeuvre, and it is sometimes challenging to observe things with equanimity. Which is part of human nature, as neurobiology teaches us: everything we perceive has some feelings thrown in – which, among other things, helps us dramatically improve memory.
It is difficult for me not to link the events unfolding in Turkey in the last three years with those in Germany in the 1930s. The parallels, including those in the discourse within Turkey, seem all too obvious. But as Peter Sloterdijk quips: „One must think in longer periods; it might be over in a decade. In the long run, autocracies are structurally too stupid to run a country.“ I find even more solace in bigger perspectives, which is where good books come in, but not all are suitable as holiday reads. For example, one of my favourites, Egon Friedell’s classic „The Cultural History of the Modern Age – the Crisis of the European Soul“ is much better suited for evenings by the fireplace than on the beach.
The books that I recommend here are all authored by exceptional storytellers – inspiring, enjoyable and informative. You will have heard of some of them, especially of Yuval Noah Harari’s books, all NYT bestsellers, and rightfully so. I’ll start with his first book, Sapiens. This is a sweeping history of 70,000 years of human life, almost up to today, where, as he said in a recent IntelligenceSquared-interview, in 2016, we lost our story… – one of many extraordinarily powerful thoughts that I recommend to any reader!
Sapiens had already made me curious when I read the teaser:
FIRE gave us power
GOSSIP helped us cooperate
AGRICULTRE made us hungry for more
MYTHOLOGY maintained law and order
MONEY gave us something we can really trust
CONTRADICTIONS created culture
SCIENCE made us deadly
Sapiens – Brief History of Humankind is an erudite and breathtakingly elegantly written book. It spans no less than the story of our species from hunter-gatherer to the present problematic search for happiness in view of our largely unchanged biochemistry – unputdownable! If these quotes don’t make you curious for more, it probably isn’t the book for you.
- Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion has filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. (p. 12-13)
- Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals – they were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate. (p. 20)
- A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. (p. 25)
- Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. (…) yet none of those things (laws, justice, human rights) exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, money no human rights, laws or justice outside the common imagination of human beings. (p.30-31)
- Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no other animal other than Sapiens engages in it, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust in strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal reserve bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations. (p. 39-40)
If you have a chance to browse Sapiens, do read a few pages in the chapter History’s Biggest Fraud: The Agricultural Revolution. No bookstore in sight? Just email me for a 2-page scan!
Neurobiology is currently a big buzzword – right up there with behavioural economics. Beloved romantic notions like the unconditional free will, regulated by our morality, rightfully got a severe beating, as did the illusion of our ever-increasing happiness that also Harari criticizes. On the other hand, another illusion is often replacing those: that we only need to choose the right nudges, convert them into algorithms, and package them into wearables – and all our troubles (minus perhaps privacy) will end… We should beware of scientific fantasies of omnipotence. Like all others, they can quickly turn totalitarian, even if they only exist in someone’s imagination. The totalitarian acts they then purport to legitimize, by contrast, can be frighteningly real…
Back to neurobiology for coaches, choc-full with shallow and oversimplifying books and seminars… One might think that there was hardly anything that wasn’t revolutionized by neurobiological knowledge. For someone like me who has been interested in neurophysiology since her studies, it is disturbing how recklessly causal connections are postulated where one should speak of correlations instead. Of course, there are undisputed results; so if you are looking for a scientific explanation of what we all suspect – that open space offices are complete nonsense, and unsuitable for concentrated, efficient work, look to neurobiology. There is excellent proof ☺.
British virologist and molecular biologist Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution provides the background in an area where revolutions have truly happened over the past decades: the role of DNA, and the question of nature vs. nurture in determining our lives (hint: the right answer is “both-and, plus” :)). If only our biology teachers had explained things so well at the time, more of the complex cell biology would have stuck; Carey fills in the blanks, jargon free, and with a clear focus on the essentials. But is this relevant for adults, except for „secondary educational purposes“ – ie overseeing homework of the next generation? See for yourself at pages 2-6 in the preview here!
Wow! Shriver’s Finest!
And now to the most unusual recommendation of these three – I even hesitate how to classify Lionel Shriver’s latest work. The „Economist“ called it a social satire in their recommendation before Christmas. This is certainly true, but for a long stretch the book shows distinctly dystopian features. Shriver’s magnum opus The Mandibles – Story of a Family 2029-2047 is a magnificent, courageous and awfully plausible work. What on earth does the woman want to write next? (yes, this Lionel is a woman!).
You don’t read on vacation?!
Still a pretty recent discovery for me are podcasts –my favourites are conversations between educated, eloquent people. Podcasts are also great during the less enjoyable activities that come with life on vacation: waiting for late connections, trips to airports, ships, queuing at counters. Even better, of course, on long walks, where you can linger on interesting thoughts for a moment. For the podcast tip here I definitely recommend to hit the pause button frequently! ☺
I am often awed by the breadth and depth philosopher, neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris covers in his writings and podcasts. His Waking Up podcast has typically 90 minute in-depth, ad-free conversations with exciting guests from various fields of science and academia, literature and politics. Take a look at his list of guests – which btw includes Yuval Harari on March 19, 2017, and I would like to seriously recommend this interview. If you don’t have 90 minutes, start in the 57th minute! Time very well spent indeed.
There is another reason why I am happy to recommend Sam Harris: he rejects sponsorship and advertising in his media to ensure his independence, and asks supporters of his free podcasts for a voluntary contribution. After a few tasters, I accepted his proposition. You don’t have to.
My issues with professional and personal development
I obviously spend a lot of time on “professional development” to use this uninspiring wording. I constantly receive invitations to high-calibre conferences, workshops, seminars, and most recently, master classes. Some still come in print – those that take place in exclusive locations or with very high-ranking speakers. Yet make no mistake – even they often don’t meet my expectations. Of course this isn’t just my problem – after all, we all already are quite experienced and know what we want … and as our experience grows, our expectations tend to grow as well. But I’m not happy to come away with two good quotes and three business cards, as many people told me they were…
Now I am in the happy position to choose the events I attend, but that doesn’t make things easier! I am interested in a variety of topics but when I chose to be in learning situations with other people, I am looking for insights, not just information; after all, there are better ways for studying facts. More than anything else, I expect perspective, and opportunities to benefit from the experience of others. This requires rich discussions, impulses that raise new questions and refine the ones participants have already. In order to move in a space where things connect, and new ideas are forming, the layout has to allow for this to happen… For me, it doesn’t stop at my expectations about the quality of content and methodology; it extends to the people who present their thoughts. Since everything is said by a concrete person, I want to engage with the observer behind the observation. So when someone attempts some sort of synthesis, and combines almost banal bits of information into something that makes me think or say „how interesting, I’ve never thought about that“ – this is when I truly wake up.
Many events for coaches, consultants and facilitators leave me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I am interested in how they work and want to learn. There are excellent colleagues out there who have amazing concepts. But the mainstream still consists of speakers and facilitators who are very well versed in the content they present, but don’t encourage thinking across boundaries – after all, their primary concern is the content they have to share… And least of all, they encourage deep interaction between participants. Too bad – I am sure I’m not the only person who most enjoys the discussions with other participants, triggered by what has just happened, this is quite often limited to in the break. However, if there is no such a person, and/or no real opportunity to meet and talk during the day, I’ll lose interest.
Sometimes I and a few others in the group find the competence and experience of our colleagues seriously lacking, and inappropriate for moving in the complex realms of change, and individual and team development. This isn’t hubris and self-importance on our part (“we” are better than “them”), but real concern; wearing the “participant hat” helps us connect to the concerns of those involved in change processes who have to take such workshops, with mixed feelings.
Many facilitator trainings are covering the basics for people for who training and facilitation is a second career, quite outside their original expertise and skill sets. It is easy to see why – in the crammed space of a few days at the time, there is no room for more depth. Lots of trainers come from previous careers in marketing, lots of coaches from HR positions, and only a fraction of them have experience managing teams of anywhere near the complexity of the people they now have as participants… Similarly, participants easily outshine their experience, knowledge and interest in leadership, power, formal and informal structures in firms, and effective influencing skills. I find it most irritating when there is no awareness of the blind spots such gaps generate (I don’t know what I don’t know is not a problem limited to Trump). Depending on the assignment, it can endanger the purpose of the entire process, and do serious damage.
In the last four months, I experienced a Neuroscience seminar for coaches that was nice, if far too basic, then at the end of June the Economist Innovation Summit in Berlin, which only scratched the surface and left every opportunity for critical classification of new buzzwords untouched. A waste of time and money, and above all a missed opportunity: having such a distinguished crowd in one place, and then puzzling them to a degree that they just stand around in confusion in the breaks… To close, a three-day open-space workshop in July also left a bad aftertaste. At least, I met a very inspiring colleague there. But that’s quite an investment for just one person! Yet learning, inspiration and inspiration is a need that is inextricably linked to my profession, and I am always looking for opportunities to complement and develop my ideas together with others. So what is the solution? Become more conservative and listen to recommendations from my environment? This limits the risk, but on the other hand also caps my possibilities for discovery. If you have an inspiring event to recommend, don’t hesitate – since the premature death of one of my Cambridge mentors, John Shotter, my beloved summer schools no longer happen, which leaves a real gap.
Preview: Ria Verlinden in Prague
My disappointing experiences also generated a positive impulse: I am very happy to announce that one of my sources of inspiration, Belgian facilitator and coach Ria Verlinden, accepted my invitation to Prague for a 2-day workshop on the weekend of November 4-5, where participants will be looking a little deeper into the dynamics on how they function in teams – an amazing experience. The title: Your First Team.
I don’t intend to enter the market of workshop organizers; rather, I see this opportunity as an add-on for my coaching clients; at the same time, the format offers space for a dozen more participants, which is why I open the event to anyone interested in the topic and/or Ria. At 6.000 Kc +VAT, this workshop is attractive also for self-payers who work in a team, or own a company…
Bringing it all together…
You probably know the exhilarating feeling that a real exchange of ideas generates – when one question leads to another, new ideas emerge, issues appear in a different light, which gives you fresh and useful insights – and brings strands of thought together in a completely new way. You will agree that this is an extremely stimulating experience. It is what „flow“ states are about. Unfortunately though, it is very rare indeed – unless it is actively created.
It is already worthwhile when this state is triggered by a 20-minute keynote on a topic you are interested in. But it gets really exciting when you throw several hours on the topics that you need to seriously shift…
This is what I do for a living – a role that I have played in the lives of many entrepreneurs and top managers over the past 17 years, and one that still gets me excited. My clients appreciate how much clarity they achieve in half a day, which allows them to work with renewed energy until we meet again – sometimes in a month, sometimes even half a year later. Clients have often advised me to find a different name for my services, because they see more in our work than “just coaching”. Yet the real issue is the dilution of the term in recent years, and not that I do something that is beyond what professional coaches do. Interestingly, most of my business owner clients had never even looked for a coach when we started working together – which may be part of the reason why they believe this can’t be coaching :).
If you have never experienced coaching that feels this personal, why not get a taste of it this summer? I’d like to challenge you here: for the price of a one-day workshop or exclusive event, spend half a day with me that zeros in on your interests – including an excellent lunch. And you’ll even get a few high profile business cards thrown in: in early September, I’ll host a cocktail for my clients in Prague, to which you’d also be welcome.
This offer is available in Hamburg, Berlin and Prague; It applies to appointments scheduled before end September. If you are considering whether your topic is suitable for a half day, please give me a call or send me an e-mail – that’s definitely something we can clarify!
I look forward to your comments or questions, and wish you a lovely summer,