School of Philosophy – week 3

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] [Week 1] [Week 2] Week 3 [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

This week I couldn’t make Thursday night, so I went to the Tuesday night class instead. There was a very different group dynamic – the average age of the group seemed a little younger, and the teacher, Jonah, was also a younger hipster, with skinny jeans.

Tonight we discussed the old hole in the sidewalk proverb.

We also talked about the states of consciouness:

  • Fully awake
  • Waking sleep
  • Dream sleep
  • Deep sleep

So far, I don’t think anyone has tried to brainwash me…

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] [Week 1] [Week 2] Week 3 [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

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School of Philosophy – week 2

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] [Week 1] Week 2 [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

Synchronicity. As I sit here writing this, Young Adult is on TV in front of me (yeah, I know, who says men can’t multi-task?) and Charlize Theron’s character, Mavis Gary, is having a conversation with Sandra Freehauf (played by Collette Wolfe) about happiness.

Mavis: It’s really difficult for me to be happy… and then for other people it just seems so simple. They just grow up and they’re so fulfilled.

Sandra:  I don’t feel fulfilled. And frankly, if you don’t feel fulfilled with all the stuff that you have…

Mavis: I need to change, Sandra.

Sandra: No you don’t.

Mavis: What?

Sandra: You’re the only person in Mercury who could write a book, or wear a dress like that.

Mavis: I’m sure there’s plenty of other people who could…

Sandra: Everyone here is fat an dumb.

Mavis: Don’t say that… I mean you think so?

Sandra: Everyone wishes they could be like you. You know, living in the big city, all famous and beautiful and all that.

Mavis: I’m not really famous.

Sandra: Well, you know, special or whatever. Some days when I have a slow shift at work I’ll think about you living in your cool apartment, going out and stuff. It seems really nice.

Mavis: Yeah, but most people here seem so happy with so little. It’s like they don’t even seem to care what happens to them.

Sandra: That’s because it doesn’t matter what happens to them. They’re nothing. Might as well die.

This is the crux of the whole film. Happiness is relative, and Mavis has been looking for it in all the wrong places.

In his novel, Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction,” and this is the essence of Young Adult. By returning home, Mavis is able to confront the event that sent her off the rails, reconnect with her youthful ambitions, and restart her path into adulthood.

Know thyself

So how does this relate to the School of Philosophy?

This week’s theme was self-knowledge. This is a big topic… Much of our experience of life occurs in the zone where ‘self’ meets ‘other’, or where ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ interact. The world stimulates our senses, exerts forces and pressure on us; while we also respond to those stimuli and exert force on the objects, people and ideas around us.

If we only ever focus on what’s going on ‘outside’ in the world around us, and never have any knowledge of self, we’re only seeing half the picture. We imagine the world is always doing things to us, but remain blind to the things we are doing to put ourselves in that situation.

We discussed some ways of getting to know oneself, such as feedback from the environment and internal reflection. But what are we really looking for? To illuminate this question, we discussed some ways we might describe ourselves that might be changing or unchanging:

  • I am tall
  • I am strong
  • I am a mother
  • I am smart
  • I am tired
  • I am happy.

One astute member of the class, Bec, pointed out the part that does not change is ‘I am’.

As in: ‘I am not completely convinced…’ To me this feels like a cute word game, but I’m not sure if it tells us anything useful about the nature of the self. I’m not even 100% certain the self is a robust concept.

Our sense of an enduring individuated consciousness is largely based on our memories linking together moments in time. But those of us who care passionately about growth and personal development will probably agree the version of ‘me’ that exists now is very different from the versions that existed in the past. So what does ‘I am’ really mean?

‘I am’ not sure I’m much closer to having an answer. But the conversation is fun, the other students are a lively, entertaining bunch, and the home made biscuits are delicious.

Let’s see how week 3 goes.

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

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School of Philosophy – introduction

More on the School of Philosophy: Introduction [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

Many years ago a very old and dear friend from the UK came to stay with us for a while. During his stay we shared many excellent experiences and discussions, including one about ‘The School of Philosophy’ which he had attended back home.

The principles of the school sounded fantastic. My friend told me about an organisation run by volunteers, where teachers are also students, and where all are encouraged to seek greater stillness and self-knowledge by applying techniques learned from various philosophies. I was very interested.

I was also amazed to find the school had a branch here in Perth. I found it odd that anything so cool could be sitting on my own doorstep without me knowing.

I even made some initial attempts to contact the school locally, but nothing came of it and the whole conversation sat dormant…

…many years passed…

…until, last week, I saw an ad for the School’s ‘Introductory Course in Sustainable Happiness’. So I went along. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m going again this week. I’ve been telling people how great it was.

And then I noticed something odd. On the web there are a number of sites, blogs, and discussion boards denouncing the School of Philosophy as a ‘cult’. The School is also hotly debated on Wikipedia. Much as I love Wikipedia, I’ve noticed from direct personal experience it is not a brilliant medium for handling and resolving contested or controversial subjects, and the debate is easily hijacked by a few passionate, misinformed people.

After reading quite a few of these pages, many of the complaints are vague and unsatisfying. They fall into a few main categories.

Circular references

I found lots of posts claiming the School is a cult, from people who have never attended any classes at the School, and who’s opinions are based entirely on comments made by other people on other websites.

Nearly all these comments draw their evidence from a very small number of sources. It’s hard to check these original sources, as most are no longer active on the web, and one is a book, written as an ‘expose’ by a pair of journalists. I could search out a copy of the book, but I’m not sure how reliable it would be.

Vague assertions

I found lots of posts (often anonymous) from people stating they attended some classes and ‘something just didn’t feel quite right’.

This kind of comment is so downright unhelpful, it says more about the person making the comment than about the thing being commented on.


There are a number of what appear to be credible comments from people who identify themselves as former students of the school, saying sometime around the second or third year of study they were asked to perform an ‘initiation’ ceremony, kneeling before a picture of ‘the Shankaracharya’.

However, these may also be circular references, or memes, relating back to a particular quote attributed to someone called Wendy Diekstra. It’s just so easy to ‘copy and paste’ on the internet…

So, while my suspicions have been alerted, I’m not completely convinced. Are these a bunch of nice, well-intentioned people, being treated with suspicion because they’re misunderstood? Or are they loony brain-washers coming for me, my money, and my family?

In the true spirit of philosophy, I will go and find out for myself, and post updates here. I hope to have a definitive, first-hand account soon…

More on the School of Philosophy: Introduction [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

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School of Philosophy – week 1

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] Week 1 [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

So, what was the first week of the course like? It was fun. We went through the main aims of the course, and the relationships between philosophy, wisdom and happiness.

I also enjoyed meeting my fellow students. One lady told me she’d previously started the introductory course and been unable to finish it, partly because the whole School of Philosophy reminded her of a church group. She was referring to a certain dagginess about the interior decor, and the way everyone was dressed.

We discussed the qualities of wisdom, using three very cheesy, well worn examples as a guide: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Ghandi. Yes, these are certainly cool people who’ve achieved amazing things over the course of their lives. But is that really the best we could come up with? It smacks a bit of ‘coffee shop philosophy 101’.

Yes, the Dalai Lama also received a mention.

More to the point, I really know very little about any of these people, and I suspect no one else in the room did either. They exist in the popular imagination as iconic, semi-legendary cultural memes.

The other thing these four have in common is the endurance of extreme physical hardship and/or poverty and/or exile in their dedication to a particular cause. Right now, at this present moment in my life, if I went home to my family and told them I was giving up everything I owned to follow my vocation and change the world, I not sure they would say I was ‘wise’.

What would a wise person do?

Does this matter for the purpose of the exercise? I’m not sure. We did manage to come up with a workable list of attributes of ‘a wise person’. This provided a basis for our first piece of homework: over the course of the week, in every day situations, ask ourselves ‘what would a wise person do?’

This is a great example of appreciative enquiry in action. The question presupposes an underlying ability to:

  • imagine a wise course of action
  • recognise the difference between ‘wise’ and ‘unwise’
  • be wise.

If we accept these assumptions and agree we have the capacity for wisdom, it’s hard not to wonder what’s stopping us from being wise all the time?

The Exercise

The second piece of homework was an exercise to focus our attention in the present moment. This exercise is named, rather prosaically, ‘The Exercise’.

The School of Practical Philosophy in (the equally prosaically named) Pleasanton, California has an audio recording of the Exercise on its website.

Our homework is to complete the Exercise twice a day, preferably morning and night. So far that’s been going well. I’ve found it very effective. This is really what I signed up for. In my current situation, running my own business, with multiple projects and demands on my attention, it often seems like my mind is running at a million miles an hour, all the time, and it can be hard to turn it off.

I know I’m not alone. In the course of my working and social life, lots of people have told me they have so much to do, with so little time, they are feeling stretched and they’re losing sleep. I’ve found the Exercise has helped me so far, and I think my family are noticing a positive difference.

So far, I don’t think anyone has tried to brainwash me. Of course, if I have been brainwashed already, I might not know it.

I’ll let you know how week 2 goes.

More on the School of Philosophy: [Introduction] Week 1 [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5] [Week 6] [Week 7] [Week 8] [Week 9] [Week 10]

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Back in the old days, taps used to come in pairs, one hot, one cold, and they used to have washers inside that would wear out every few years, so you’d have to go down to the hardware store, buy a new washer for about 10 cents, and replace it. This was a real drag.

Now we have gleaming chrome mixer taps, designed in Europe, and the boring old washer has been replaced with a ‘braking unit’ that comes as a sealed unit that’s guaranteed for 15 years.

When the braking unit breaks, and your tap starts dripping, you have to order a new unit from the supplier in the Eastern States, who wants a proof of purchase for your 14 year old tap.

More than a week later the part arrives and you follow the instructions to remove the old unit, which is so solidly wedged in place, with a rubber ‘o’-ring, the unit snaps in half, leaving a big chunk of ceramic and plastic stuck in your tap.

You use pliers, monkey grips, bent coat hangers and wire to try to get it out. Nothing works. Eventually you drive screws into the plastic, so you can get a grip with the pliers, and finally you pull it out like a crumbly cork from an old wine bottle.

Then you finish fixing the tap.

And that’s called ‘progress’.

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The only six businesses in the world?

In the ongoing search to understand business and help organisations be more effective, I’m currently researching a framework to describe the fundamental nature of all businesses in the smallest logical number of categories. I’m thinking of this as the ‘periodic table’ of business. If we break all businesses down to their essential, atomic particles, how many different atoms are there? So far I’ve managed to come up with five:

  1. Primary production (agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining)
  2. Secondary production (manufacturing, software development, art, entertainment)
  3. Recruitment (moving people around to put the right people in the right place at the right time to make things happen)
  4. Logistics (moving things around from where they are now to where they are needed)
  5. Arbitrage (taking advantage of perceived differences in value between markets to buy and sell things with a margin for profit)
  6. Economic rent (if you control access to a resource, such as real estate, intellectual property, a factory, money, and you charge someone else to use that resource).

If you know of any similar existing research along these lines, or you can think of any businesses that don’t fit into one of those five categories, please post a comment below or email me.

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Social capital and young people – new research

Social capital and young people

Social capital and young people

Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) has released a research report today, 5 October 2011, looking at measurement of social capital in young people. This may be relevant to anyone working to help youth overcome an inheritance of socio-economic disadvantage.

Some key points:

“High levels of social capital in young people are found to enhance engagement, achievement and participation in education over and above the influences of family background, school type and geographical location, demonstrating that social capital has the potential to counteract the effects of disadvantage to some extent” (page 1).

“LSAY research suggests that young people’s networks have an impact on school transitions. School networks are shown to influence students’ levels of engagement, which in turn are strongly influenced by their connectedness to their schools, the relationships they have with their teachers, and the opportunities the school provides. This translates into elevated aspirations, better academic performance and increased school retention” (page 10).

 The report can be downloaded here:
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Risk management: Part 3

Look back at earlier posts on risk management: [Part 1] [Part 2] Part 3

Risk management vs risk avoidance

In some circles, especially in non-commercial sectors, ‘risk management’ is commonly confused with ‘risk avoidance’. And you don’t have to be a genius to realise avoidance and management are not same thing. In fact, avoidance is pretty much the opposite of management.

Why is this a problem?

In these situations, any sort of risk is seen as a valid reason to slow an activity down or stop it completely. Of course all activities involve some level of risk, so organisations that allow this sort of behaviour don’t tend to do much.

What to do about it

If you hear someone using ‘risk management’ as a reason to sit on their hands and avoid taking any action, why not throw in a management buzzword of your own: ‘opportunity cost’.

Opportunity cost is the risk associated with not doing something. It’s the risk of missing the boat. It is the sound of the train leaving the station, and you’re not on it.

This is a great way to separate the genuinely risk averse from the just plain lazy.

Look back at earlier posts on risk management: [Part 1] [Part 2] Part 3
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Risk management: Part 2

More on risk management: [Part 1] Part 2 [Part 3]

Risk management plan

One common approach to risk management is to create a risk management plan. The process of creating such a plan can be fun, as a whole bunch of subject matter experts meet together in a room for several hours and continuously ask themselves the question ‘what can go wrong?’

The next step is to categorise the risks, commonly in terms to the likelihood of such an event occurring and the magnitude of the consequences.

After the meeting, someone types up the results in a ‘risk register’. Fantastic, we now have a list of risks. Sometimes someone might take this a step further, and write up some details about how these various risks might be mitigated, and this is likely to be referred to as the ‘risk management plan’.

Why is this a problem?

There are at least two reasons this process tends to deliver sub-optimal results.

Consigned to the planning graveyard

Ahh, yes, file the ‘risk management plan’ right next to the ‘strategic plan’ from three years ago, that no one’s looked at since, and get them both out and repeat the process in another couple of years. That’s bound to work.

The Black Swan

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Black Swan events

Even a casual glance over recent history suggests human beings are good at making policies and laws and penalties to mitigate events that have already happened (especially in the very recent past), and bad at anticipating unknown risks that may occur in the future.

For example, we passed laws to tighten up control of customs checks, finance and oil wells immediately after September 11, the GFC, and the BP Gulf disaster. This is commonly known as ‘shutting the gate after the horse has bolted’.

The corollary to this is we did a very poor job of anticipating or taking any relevant action before these events occurred. So have all those laws prevented us from being blind-sided by another big, unexpected event?

This phenomenon is the subject of a fascinating book, called The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which will be the subject of another post, in due course.

What to do about it

Just because there will always be seemingly random, surprising, game-changing events lurking around the corner, this does not mean we can’t plan for the future. We just have to plan for the unexpected.

For example, when we plan our strategy, do we run ‘best case’, ‘worst case’, and ‘middle case’ scenarios? Make contingency plans. Adopt a strategy that’s flexible enough to work under a range of unexpected conditions. Or build more flexibility into the strategy.

Or, even better than trying to predict and plan for the future, why not be the future? Why not be the next black swan event? What better way to position yourself for the future than by redefining your business category?

Next instalment: Risk management vs risk avoidance

Read on for more on risk management: [Part 1] Part 2 [Part 3]
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Risk management: Part 1

Risk management and other buzzwords

‘Risk management’ has joined the growing lexicon of management terms being bandied around to make the speaker sound impressive and knowledgeable, while the original meaning has been steadily eroded.

When people start latching on to words or phrases and just throw them in sentences randomly to sound smart, if the practice gains enough momentum, the meanings of those words become warped by common usage, making real communication just that bit more difficult.

Read on to discover the two most popular ways to mangle the phrase ‘risk management,’ why they don’t work, and how to avoid them:

Read on for more on risk management: Part 1 [Part 2] [Part 3]
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