Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Thought of the day

Not a bad sentiment (spotted on a bicycle in Copenhagen):

Scenes from Copenhagen.

I’m in the middle of processing the interviews from my trip, and more generally trying to organize all the stuff I gathered, and getting pictures (like this one) together is part of that.

Greetings from Óbidos, Portugal; and reflections on travel and rest

Courtyard of the Pousada da Vila, Óbidos.

I’m in the courtyard of the Pousada da Vila in Óbidos, Portugal.  I’ve been in here at the invitation of FOLIO, an annual literary festival, where I’ve been talking about REST. I also gave a talk at the local technology park, which was an interesting experience— very different kinds of audiences and locations.

Copies of REST sighted in Óbidos.

This is just the beginning of my travels, though. I’m visiting Portugal, Scotland, Denmark, and England (in that order), giving three big talks, doing interviews or field visits at fourteen different places, and staying in eight— count them EIGHT— different hotels. But if I can get as much material gathered as I think I will during this trip, it’ll be worth it, and it’ll mean I can write the next book— or more important, FINISH the next book.

The trip will end with me speaking at the SOMNEX sleep show at the Old Truman Brewery in London on Sep 12-14. If you’re in town and interested in sleep, register here and use the promo code SPK40 at check-out— you’ll get 40% off the regular price.

These kinds of long trips make me think about how to apply deliberate rest to travel, and curious to know what ways others have found to make travel less stressful and harried. I find I can do some of my best thinking on planes, in the evenings after a long day and a walk, and that travel can stir up both useful old memories and generate new ideas.

Scenes from Óbidos.

(This bookstore, for example, reminds me a lot of the open-air book stalls that my dad used to drag me to in Rio in the evenings.)

There are people who have creative breakthroughs while away from home— the English scientist James Lovelock developed his Gaia hypothesis while on a series of visits to Caltech— or who use travel to acquire experiences that they draw upon in their work for years to come— this is why artists still do versions of the Grand Tour of Europe, and why cooks and fashion designers work in other countries.

For me, I’ve found that just as in my daily life, good prep work is essential for having a less stressful, more restful, trip.

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of using Google Calendar to record all my logistical stuff— confirmation numbers, directions about how to get from the airport to the hotel, notes about which bus to take to get to the next appointment, etc. (When I’m traveling on my own, I’m a terrible skinflint. Partly because I hate spending money, but also because I concluded a few years ago that I was essentially spending money to maintain ignorance: a taxi fare is the price of not having to know anything about the bus or subway system. But with Google Maps and apps like Citymapper, I can get direction for public transport most places I go. Likewise, I don’t eat out at restaurants all the time: I take more satisfaction from finding and navigating the local supermarket.)

Having all these directions, numbers, etc. in one place that’s easily accessible reduces the stress of getting around, and makes it a lot easier to retrieve information when I’m on the go.

In sfo, ready to go

Likewise, I’m super-careful about what I pack (though somehow I still managed to forget a couple small iPad accessories on this trip!). I don’t exactly aim to pack really light— for a weeks-long trip where you’re doing serious work and giving talks, that’s just not possible— but I do try to think through just what I need.

That also includes thinking about the things that’ll make me comfortable in multiple different hotels, of uncertain quality and with unknown amenities. For example, I discovered a couple years ago that taking a pair of sweatpants or shorts and a sweatshirt that I would just wear in the hotel improved my quality of life on the road immeasurably: being able to change from my regular clothes into them, declare that I’m done for the day, and spend a comfortable evening, is well worth the extra weight and space in the bag.

On the other hand, I’ve figured out how to travel without a laptop, which makes my bag several pounds lighter. (Thank you, iPad!)

All of this creates more space for rest, by reducing stress and the need to improvise or manage stuff on the road. Once I’m traveling, the key things I’ve discovered are: walk a lot for yourself, and don’t try to do TOO much.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I love taking walks after work (and being an oversized male, I can do that pretty much with impunity in the places I go): they’re great opportunities for both seeing the sights, and for doing some mind-wandering after work. I generally don’t have detailed routes and things I try to see on these walks (though I dislike getting lost), and more generally I don’t pack too much into my days: even in a new place I try to resist the urge to See It All Now, and try to remember that just spending time in a place is often just as rewarding as seeing the three most renowned altarpieces (or whatever) in the city.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I also try to build in some time to stop and gather my impressions. Though since it’s never a burden to stop at a cafe and write, this really isn’t a problem for me to schedule!

This afternoon I leave Portugal and fly to Glasgow, Scotland, where it’s currently about 50 degrees and raining. Any thoughts of Europe being some monolithic cultural and geographical entity go out the window when you go from the edge of the Mediterranean to the border of the North Sea.

Russell Square and the creative benefit of a little stability

I’m just back from a couple weeks in England, and while I spent some time in Cambridge (where my wife is a dean in a summer program) and Southampton (where I was doing some work in the Mountbatten papers), I was mainly in London, and staying in Russell Square.

Russell Square

I realized on this trip that I almost always stay in Russell Square, ever since I first visited London as a graduate student in 1989. I was doing my dissertation research, and discovered Goodenough College, a place near Russell Square that hosts international students and visiting scholars. (One of the features of academic life in London is that there are halls or “colleges”– essentially single buildings or groups of buildings– that aren’t connected exclusively to one institution, and so can have people who are studying at SOAS, LSE, etc. It’s like if there were a dorm in New York City that had students who were attending Columbia, NYU, Cooper Union, and CUNY.)

Goodenough College

Back then, it was attractive because it was cheap, though to be honest I barely remember the accommodations; I would get into the Royal Astronomical Society archive at opening time, stay until it closed, then stagger out mentally exhausted.

Royal Astronomical Society

But the habit of staying in Russell Square stuck me with me. It’s on the Piccadilly Line, so if you come in from Heathrow you just get on the Tube and ride it to the Russell Square station; if you need to get to Cambridge, it’s a short ride (or longer walk) to King’s Cross; and of course it’s the home of the British Museum, the Bloomsbury group, and the University of London and its various colleges.

British Museum

The last time I was here, my wife and I stayed in the Hotel Russell, a wonderful Victorian hotel; it’s since become The Prestige and charges 21st-century prices, so we opted for one of the many little places on Bedford Street (all of which are in converted townhouses, and almost all of which seem to be owned by the same company). My last couple nights, I tried something new, and through a service called University Rooms, found College Hall, a dorm that rents rooms to tourists during the summer. It turned out to be a great deal: yes, it’s a dorm so it’s a bit spartan in terms of accommodation, but it’s also literally up the block from the British Museum.

University of London

Staying in the one neighborhood has also proved to be a good strategy because it’s allowed me to get to know the area pretty well, and to know where to go for the cheap lunches, where the supermarket is, etc.. All too often you need up spending enormous amounts of money eating out because it feels like too much trouble to come up with alternatives; I’m very happy to eat and sleep more modestly if it means being able to stay in a place another day, or spend my money on other things (like tickets to the London Hamilton, which my wife and I went to).

Hamilton

There’s a very interesting study of the impact of living abroad on the creativity of fashion houses directors, and it concluded that living abroad can boost long-term creativity, so long as you can spend more of your time studying the local arts, honing your craft, etc., rather than learning the language and navigating the bureaucracy.

I think a similar principle can be applied to trips like these. Simply being in London is stimulating, lets me meet all kinds of cool people, and gets my creative juices flowing; I don’t need to additional cognitive work of figuring out where to get dinner, or trying to get to all the places that the guidebook says are the hottest new restaurants. (Living in the Bay Area helps a lot: if I want world-class [insert name of cuisine here], I can probably bike to it.) Simplifying the logistics of travel makes it easier for me to spend time on the things that will be more valuable.

Caffe Nero

The key to productivity

It seems to me that one of the simplest rules to follow when doing knowledge work (or symbolic analyzing, or being creative) is this: don’t try to work only on little things when your mind is able to do big things; and don’t try to work on big things when your mind is only able to do little things.

This is a simple principle but it’s amazing how easy it is to not follow, and how much better you can use your time if you do.

“A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love”

Amid all the lousy news, a nice New York Times reflection about our relationships with dogs:

A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch.

Belief superiority impedes learning, but at least it boosts confirmation bias

A decade ago, I discovered Phil Tetlock’s terrific book Expert Political Judgment, which was a study of efforts to predict the future of political events. For someone who works as a futurist, the book was (and remains) pretty earth-shaking: Tetlock did a fantastic job of explaining the biases that keep most of us from correctly forecasting, improving the quality of our forecasts, or even recognizing the sources of our error. Most of us are actually a lot better at explaining how we were almost right, and rationalizing our apparently errors (our prediction came true later than we said, or it would have happened but for the 2008 meltdown, or it was just around the corner).

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do good forecasting, or that you can’t improve; indeed, Tetlock has spent the last few years exploring exactly how people can do that.

So I was interested to see that Futurity has an article about new research that examines how “belief superiority”— that is, our confdience that our own knowledge and beliefs are superior to others, because we’re better-educated, better-read, etc.– leads us astray:

Across six studies and several political topics, people who were high in belief superiority thought that they knew a great deal about these topics. However, when comparing this perceived knowledge to how much people actually knew, they found that belief-superior people were consistently overestimating their own knowledge.

“Whereas more humble participants sometimes even underestimated their knowledge, the belief superior tended to think they knew a lot more than they actually did,” says Michael Hall, a psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author.

Not only that, but belief superiority didn’t lead to more rigorous self-examination, or more thorough research and revision of one’s beliefs. Researchers “presented participants with news articles about a political topic and asked them to select which ones they would like to read. Half of the articles supported the participants’ own point of view, whereas the other half challenged their position.”

What happened?

Belief-superior people were significantly more likely than their modest peers to choose information that supported their beliefs. Furthermore, they were aware that they were seeking out biased information: when the researchers asked them what type of articles they had chosen, they readily admitted their bias for articles that supported their own beliefs.

So what’s going on?

all of us feel good when the beliefs we think are important are confirmed.

In other words, when a belief is strongly held, is tied to one’s identity or values, or is held with a sense of moral conviction, people are more likely to distance themselves from information and people that challenge their belief.

This suggests that one of the things you should look for in a futurist with lots of self-awareness, and an ability to handle uncomfortable situations and truths– particularly about their own abilities.

“Trump’s definition of an attack on the U.S. is when his lawyer’s home is raided by the FBI, not when Russia attacks our elections”

Sarah Kenzidor is always worth reading:

Trump’s definition of an attack on the U.S. is when his lawyer’s home is raided by the FBI, not when Russia attacks our elections and infrastructure. As president, his main goals have been building a kleptocracy and dodging criminal prosecution, and any war– particularly when it involves Russia–will be enacted with those twin aims in mind. If Trump distracts the public from his own misdeeds, and financially benefits and consolidates power through war, it will not matter to him how many lives are lost–including the lives of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen. His callousness toward U.S. troops places him in stark contrast to any predecessor.

There’s also an interesting article about her in the Columbia Journalism Review..

The world is flat, episode #20,331

This New Yorker piece about Chinese clothing and apparel manufacturers working in Italy is awesome. Apparently Chinese workers started coming to Italy in the 1990s, then started setting up their own workshops. Now they’re

manufacturers for Gucci, Prada, and other luxury-fashion houses, which use often inexpensive Chinese-immigrant labor to create accessories and expensive handbags that bear the coveted “Made in Italy” label. Many of them are then sold to prosperous consumers in Shanghai and Beijing.

Finally a parenting style I can get behind

When my kids were younger, I set a basic parenting standard for myself. I decided that if they were not serial killers, child soldiers, or felled by an easily-preventable disease, I had succeeded.

This wasn’t a high standard. Definitely not tiger mom-like behavior. More like lion dad, assuming that the lion spends most of his time lying around and napping.

Turns out I was ahead of the curve. Today’s Washington Post has a piece making “The compelling case for being an ‘intentionally lazy’ parent:”

Educators are being taught strategies and interventions to incorporate the skills in their classrooms: posting schedules, making to-do lists and providing outlines or organization checks and rubrics that detail assignment requirements. This is a crucial step — but parents need a framework to reinforce these skills at home.

That framework is what I call “Intentional Laziness Parenting.” Essentially, it means to deliberately be disengaged. This may sound counterintuitive, but it gives children the independence to try, do, and maybe even fail a little, on their own.

I think I only got the executive skills things down when I was out of graduate school, but if you can master it before then, awesome.

And intentional laziness parenting is not actually lazy at all. It’s difficult and requires both mental and physical determination from the parent.

Oh well.

“The Power of Rest:” My new Calm masterclass

IMG_E1689

A couple weeks ago I wrote about spending the day in San Francisco, and being the “talent” on a new project. Well, it’s now out:

It’s a new masterclass on “The Power of Rest” from Calm, the company that brought you 2017’s Apple App of the Year.

In the masterclass, I talk about the key insights from my book REST: why rest is important, what kinds of rest help promote creativity and recovery, how famous people have incorporated rest in their daily schedules to enhance their ability to solve problems. I also provide a teaser from the paperback edition of REST, building on the foreword that Arianna Huffington so kindly wrote for the book.

I have to confess, it was a terrific experience working with Calm and the film crew, and they did a FABULOUS job making me look good in this trailer (and on their app, too), but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing video of myself. Maybe this is a generational thing, and my kids and their peers are so accustomed to selfies and videos that they will never have this experience, but I still find hearing myself on answering machines (or more realistically, voicemail or podcasts) kind of odd, and watching myself onscreen is really strange. I wonder how actors do it?

Anyway, don’t mind all that. Check out the class, and get some rest!

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