Archive for November, 2008

November 29, 2008

dealing with the Curse of Knowledge

I have to stop myself from quoting Ben Parker’s famous line about power and responsibility, but I can’t stop thinking about the frightening change, and its consenquences, happening in my head after reading a certain book or two.

There is nothing special about my case. The same could happen to you. The same will happen to you, after you read a certain book or two.

In my case, it happened with Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Gladwell examines why social change can happen so suddenly (crime in New York in the 90s dropping suddenly, why teens smoke more and more, how an unknown book became a huge hit etc.), and the Heath brothers explore what makes an idea stick in our heads (whether it’s from advertising, education, humanitarian work etc.) and how we can shape an idea that will be as sticky as possible.

After reading these two books, I’ve had one of those moments where you’ve just been given loads of amazing data, connected in an extremely meaningful way, along with several insights which challenge you, no, force you  to both change your oppinions and form new ones about important things and issues you didn’t even know existed or didn’t deem important. You basically can’t stop yourself, once you read these two books in a two day period, so that it’s all bundled up really tightly. You can feel all that knowledge being integrated into the way you perceive the world, make decisions and act them out. And, there’s that ever growing thirst for more. Because now you’re even more keenly aware of how much you really don’t know how this world and you in it works.

The reason I mentioned Uncle Ben there in the beginning is because once you’ve read those books, you gain a big insight into how easily we humans can be influenced. Seemingly irrelevant things can significantly change our behavior, things that we would never in a million years accept could influence us so much; and once you know what some of those things are, you also realize that you have a new responsibility – you know how to use those things, and you know what effect they have on people. You also know that often you’re safe from consequences because they’ll rationalize it all away, since we all believe that we’re completely in charge of our choices and our destiny (even though so many people are into astrology… you know, just in case).

So, once you know all this, you have to really (re)define your ethical values and boundries, especially when you want to do something which will influence a lot of other people, and especially when you know that they’ll think that it was their idea to do what you said all along. Before, you sort of dimly accepted that it was fair, because you thought everyone more or less knows the rules of the game. Now, you know you’ve learned some new rules which a lot of people don’t know about. So what becomes fair now?

In addition to all of this, as I said I’m now keenly (not to say desperately) interested in finding out what other things are influencing my behavior. I think that once you know them, you can adjust your strategy in dealing with them, and reclaim a bit more ground in your internal struggle for control over your actions and your life. As Steven Pressfield quotes Dalai Lama in his excellent War of Art (which I’ll also write about) “The enemy is a very good teacher”.

In closing, a big thank you to Jonathan Davis from Combat Consulting and Ryan Holiday for recomending these books on their blogs.

November 13, 2008

an experiment in simple solutions

Before every exam period since I’ve been a student of the Philological Faculty, I would see the same scene: A very long queue for buying the exam application paper. Here’s what it looks like


From what older students tell me, it’s been like this for years. And what’s causing it? The fact that you can only purchase the application paper at that one spot. It’s relatively cheap (less than half a euro per application), but you still have to pay for it, because the faculty wants as much money as possible. This process of giving money and the clerk printing the fiscal receipt and giving you the application takes some 15-20 seconds or so per person, but because of the number of people who need the application, it means you end up waiting over an hour in order to buy a piece of paper.

The problem doesn’t really affect the professors and the working of the faculty, if we take out the fact that every 3 months people will be frustrated by having to stand in long queues. Oh, it also degrades our image as an institution, but that’s nothing new to us. In any case, none of the professors is interested in solving this situation, since it doesn’t really affect them in any way (apart from having to walk through the crowd when they enter the faculty building, because that’s where the place for buying the applications is).

But, here’s something which makes the whole situation even more bizzare. You can buy that piece of paper all year long! That’s right, during most of the year when there are no queues whatsoever, you can go and buy that very same piece of paper! This means that for every person that buys the application form before the exam period means that there will be one less person in the queue during the exam period; or maybe there won’t be, gasp, any queue at all!

Everyone knows that you can buy these forms throughout the year. So why don’t they?

They forget.

So, let me try to sum up: every 3 months, every year, without fail, you have the same problem. Possibly the simplest solution, excluding trying to fix it through systematic changes (as this would be met by huge resistance of the very numerous and influential change-is-risky crowd), is glaringly obviousget the people to buy the forms before the exam period. As I said, this is at most a 20 second procedure, so in the small every day queue of at most half a dozen people, you’d get the forms in 2-3 minutes.

How can you get the people to buy the forms before the exam period? Well, let’s say you could suggest to them that they buy the forms before the exam period (yes, I’m repeating myself on purpose. I’m still dumbfounded by this whole thing). For instance, with this:


This is the English translation of the draft version of a poster which I did in less than 3 minutes in Photoshop. I took the pictures during one of the exam periods, because the idea was in my head for some time now. I’ll do a nicer version of the poster, but honestly, I’m thinking that this is enough.

The management unanimosly approved and praised my idea –  an idea for which all that was needed was 3 minutes of Photoshop, a couple of Euros for printing and a few minutes of putting the posters up at several key places in the faculty.

Why hasn’t anyone thought of such a simple solution? Out of the tens of thousands of students who have over the years sat in the faculty cafes and complained about the queues, out of all the people in the administration whose job it is to make this faculty work, out of the numerous student activists who had set out to improve this faculty and who went through the same problems, why hasn’t there been one other person who thought of something like this? Why is it so difficult to fix a problem even when both the problem and its solution are so obvious?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of problems, but what’s striking here is the combination of factors – the regularity of the problem, the huge number of people affected and, most of all, the simplicity of the solution. This goes to show so many things, worst of which is what Tolstoy’s talking about: If the current situation isn’t completely unbearable, people won’t change it.

One of my projects in the next several months will try to challenge and change the current mentality towards problems, their solutions and being a more (pro)active student in general. This poster is one of those attempts. I’ll write more about this project in the next few days, and I’ll post an update on how effective the poster was. The exam period queues start in a month and the poster’s going up on Monday, so we’ll see how much effect it will have.Even if it doesn’t produce the desired effect, it will have been useful, because it will be another indicator of what the situation on my faculty is really like. It will also plunge me into an even deeper state of zen needed to live with the fact that I’m trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves, but who am I to complain to life’s little lessons?

November 10, 2008

isolation experiment – the aftermath

So it’s been a few weeks since my isolation experiment, and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the experiment, to observe myself after it etc.

When I came back to Belgrade, I quickly slipped into my usual routine of time-wasting in front of the screen. It’s amazing, sitting there, looking at the screen, telling yourself “Look, you’re clearly not doing anything productive right now.” and then simply clicking on the next link. And the next one. And the next one.

Fortunately, this only lasted for a week or so, as this time, I was armed with the experience from Split. Remembering that I read a book every day even though my concentration was bad (because of the flu), the strong motivation and the good feeling that came from such clearly defined goals and a lack of distractions… all of those things motivated me to set some clear goals which I really want to accomplish, and I know that in pursuing and reaching them the idling in front of the screen will simply cease to feel necessary, or even good.

I’ve also become even more antagonistic towards Facebook, MSN and internet in general. I fully agree that they are incredibly useful when used properly. However, they have a way of becoming a part of the daily routine which then influences people’s behavior negatively: spending an hour or so every day on Facebook,  chatting and doing quizzes, may seem like nothing much, simply because the negative effects are not that apparent. However, there are negative effects.

People in general have a problem with sticking to moderation in their behavior (“Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation” St. Augustine), and with the internet it’s easier than ever to go down the “just one more” path, whether it’s a link, a Facebook quiz or whatever. But I think that this sort of behavior is more easily remedied by doing something productive, instead of constantly forcing yourself not to do it – the reason you’re waisting time in front of the screen is because you are, say, bored and you have a need; a need which is currently fulfiled by Facebook. Do something more productive, fulfilling etc. and that need will be satisfied, and you simply won’t feel like spending so much time online. Also, the benefits from whatever you’re doing are way better than that hour in front of the screen.

that’s it for the isolation experiment. Of course, if you have any questions concerning any aspect of the experiment, or my thoughts on Facebook, internet etc. feel free to ask.

November 2, 2008

isolation experiment pt. 1

I’ve successfully completed my isolation experiment. It lasted 9 days, from Sunday to Monday. It had many positive effects on me, but first the preliminary details:

The isolation consisted of:

– no contact of any kind with almost anyone from my life in Serbia (no cell-phone, email, Facebook, MSN).

There were two planned exceptions: my family (you sort of have to tell them you’re alive every now and then) and a colleague with whom I’m doing a very important project which couldn’t bear the isolation (I opened a new email account just for this correspondence with him).
An unexpected exception was Sunday 19th, because I realized that Google’s big idea project had a deadline for Monday, so I had to urgently contact my friend from Serbia with whom I completed the application.

– no unnecessary websurfing, watching TV etc.

This rule came about spontaneously during my isolation. Basically, no youtube, webcomics (which I read a lot) or anything fun and interesting on the web, TV etc. internet was used only for getting information I needed for my work. I made a few small exceptions, but in general I stuck to it throughout the isolation.

As fir the reasons why I decided to isolate myself: I had a LOT of work to get done, while on a visit to my family for some personal matters which required my attention, so the isolation was as much an experiment as it was a necessity to get things done.

So, the impressions:

Since I spend at the very least an hour a day online not doing anything useful, sitting in front of the computer and just working was in the beginning a strange sensation. There’s like this itch in your head telling you to open 7 more windows, check your email, visit Facebook… several times I would open a new window and start typing in an address and I would become aware of it only a moment before hitting enter (my friend calls this the “ctrl-t ctrl-t ctrl-t” syndrome, ctrl-t being the Firefox shortcut for opening a new tab).

However, apart from these moments in front of the screen, the rest of the day I was much more productive. Knowing that I simply have no method of wasting time, my motivation for getting things done was a lot higher. I read several books, wrote the first half of a compilation of tips for youth activism, made a strategic plan for one big project, sent the application for the google idea thing… and even the stupid flu didn’t stop me from working.

This isolation also gave me the time to reflect on some personal issues in my life and, in a way, regroup for the coming semester. I have a lot of work ahead of me and I needed something like this to plan out at least a rough outline of what I should do.
In the second part I’ll write more about the thoughts and feelings that came out after this experiment, concerning isolation, motivation, Facebook, internet in general, how they influence us  etc.