Learning Archives

everything_is_a_test

Photo credit Fe Langdon, available on Flicker under Creative Commons.

 

Today I want to write about a specific mindset. This mindset, once adopted, can help you grow effectively. Let me first tell you how I discovered it.

The importance of a test

I have been a researcher in pattern recognition, which learns from data in an intelligent way. There are many tools available for a successful data analysis. All of them rely on certain assumptions about the data. Each assumption leads to a specific model. In the majority of the cases, however, the validity of the assumptions cannot be checked for complex data (which is often the case for real data).

I know it’s surprising, but it is true.

There are three reasons behind this. These are:

1) Too little data.

There is way too little data available for the number of unknowns in the model to be estimated

2) Algorithmic efficiency.

Even when huge data collections are at hand, a small sample of the data is used to make all the algorithms both fast and feasible for the task.

3) The lack of mathematical approaches.

No models available for in multivariate representations to check whether the given assumption holds or not.

In theory, when the assumptions about the data are true, then the best model (or one of the best) is exactly the one based on the same assumptions.

How do do you think this translates to practice?

Well …

The practice is a different story. There is usually a gap between theory and practice. You have already guessed it, right? 😉

A complex model theoretically tailored to the data distribution may loose with a seemingly irrelevant simple model. Even if this simple model is derived from a completely different assumption, it may still win with the theoretically the best model possible. It doesn’t have to be like that, of course, but it is often the case.

Why?

Because simpler assumptions lead to a few parameters. And fewer parameters can be better estimated (than the many) when there is little data.

It means that a simple model can often provide a better (though rough) fit, then a complex (hence flexible) model whose parameters are poorly estimated. This inadequate estimation often makes the complex model bad for the task.

This is a controversial point so let me paraphrase it as follows.

Imagine that a simple outline of your silhouette (aka, data) is given to a tailor (which is an algorithm). He hasn’t seen you, but he has some data about you – a rough outline of your body.

A simple model would then translate to a basic and plain dress suited around a few measurements. These may be the neck-line, the waist-line, and the chest. The dress, even though not special, will likely fit you as the basic measurements are sufficiently estimated.

A complex model would correspond to a fancy dress with layers, frills and pockets, and an asymmetric line. Many measurements are now required to have it designed well. Since they are based on your outline only, guesses have to be made. The resulting dress may look stunning, but unwearable because it would not fit. Even if beautiful, the dress may either be too narrow or too wide in wrong parts of the body, so that there is no way for you to squeeze in. 

But… If the tailor is well experienced, he is capable on choosing the right complexity based on a few measurements. He will make the right design that would be perfect for you.

The only way to know it, is to test it.

Everything is a test

In practice, when you want to guarantee the best solution for the given data you will do two things. First, you will consider a number of different models, including a variety of data transformation as well. Secondly, you will train and test them extensively on the new data. This is the data which was unused for the parameter estimation (i.e. the unknown parameters of the model) and kept aside for an evaluation.

It is a necessary step.

Without a well-designed testing stage, the primary results are often too optimistic. Moreover, your initial guesses may be totally wrong. Without rigorous testing, no intelligent solution is found. With the extensive testing and adaptation, the solution will work for new data. This is what you want.

This is a powerful learning point which easily applies to my life and your life. Namely,

What I am talking about here is the mindset, not the literal approach to test every single thing in your life. The mindset will have paramount consequences for your conscious growth.

Let me explain why.

First of all, when you approach a new idea or a habit to your life as a test, it is easy to commit when you know it is meant for your first-hand learning experience. Your goal is to see how this idea (say, a specific time management approach, weight loss program or a nutritional protocol) applies to your personal circumstances in a limited time frame. After a specified time period, you are going to evaluate how well this idea works for you.

The mindset of a tester is a mindset of a person who likes to have fun and see what happens without any specific attachment to the results. Why? Because a test is meant to provide you with feedback. When you accept that you have been just testing, it is easy to modify the approach accordingly or truly abandon it if necessary.

Secondly, if you like the newly tested idea, you choose to adopt it as your long-term habit. Even though it is now ingrained in you, after a year or two, you know you are still in a testing stage, though it is now an advanced test ;). The testing never ends. As a result, you are open to either modify it or leave it when the idea stops serving you.

Test everything

The “test everything” mindset is to enjoy running the tests, while being open to adjust them when needed. This mindset will prevent you from blindly following the gurus or getting into dogmatic thinking. A test is always subjected for an evaluation. You simply allow yourself to question both the assumptions and the results.

This mindset keeps you open for new ideas. It makes you conscious to observe when the ideas you practice have stopped serving you. It usually starts with an insight that something is a bit off track or awkward. You will notice that when your mind is set to the testing stage.

If you, however, accept the idea as an absolute truth because it comes from gurus (advanced research, your beloved one or any other authority – you name it), you may easily continue the practice it until things become so bad for you that you have no other way than connect the dots. A bit too late….

***

A tester’s mind is a versatile and flexible mind. It is a fresh mind, indeed.

As a tester, you give yourself permission to run trials of all kinds, even the ones which lead to negative results. These results are your feedback, which will be intelligently analyzed to tailor the tested approach to your specific condition. 

Choose to be a tester. You will learn a lot, adjust ideas and develop your independent thinking. Such a conscious process will teach you how to make smarter and more effective decisions.

On the top, you will get more fun!

***

 What you are going to test today?

***

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available on Flickr.

You are what you focus on” is the title of a chapter from the “Accidental genius” book by Mark Levy. There are two important points I will be making here, so please pay attention.

Focus

Your focus has defined who you are today. Your focus is now defining whom you are going to become. Clearly, your personality, skills and achievements reflect the areas of life to which you have dedicated your attention. This means effort, work, time or enthusiasm. Certainly, things hardly ever happen overnight. Time and effort are required.

Becoming healthy, developing a skill, working for purpose or having a fulfilling relation is not an event but a process. Maintenance is required too. Whatever resources and gifts you have got, these are yours to put in use.

An easy way to investigate how to put your skills to use is to do it with writing. Writing is a funnel through which thoughts are de-cluttered and organized.Writing is an easy anchor to attach weight to thoughts so that they are born in this space for a possible manifestation. Once thoughts are out of the head and visible on the paper, they can be easily explored.

Clear writing leads to clear thinking.

Conscious mind and subconscious mind

Before we talk more about focus, let us discriminate between the conscious and subconscious minds. Ultimately, there is one mind, but it helps to see it through its different roles. The conscious mind (related to self-consciousness as well) lives in the moment of now and is limited to, what some estimate, 4-10 bits of information per second. It practically means that in any given moment you can focus on a few things only. The subconscious mind, a connected network of cells with specialized tasks and functions, is capable of computing somewhere between 10 and 40 millions of bits per second.

In analogy, the conscious mind is the CEO of a huge company, say of 100 000 employers. The subconscious mind consists of all the workers and organizational levels. There is no way the CEO can be made aware of all details of the business, product development, customer issues, complaints, missed targets and so on. She can’t also be involved in all low-level decisions or tactics. These are being made through systems and managers. Only essential information is filtered out and presented to the CEO for planning, developing strategies and execution. The CEO defines the filter, the kind of information she is interested to receive for evaluation and action.

Selective attention test: how fast can you count?

If you have already encountered one of such tests in your life, just show it to someone else and find out how they perform. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the video below.

Can you accurately count the number of times that the white team passes the ball?

Pay careful attention and find out whether your conscious mind can keep up with the counting.

Ready? Steady? Go!

If this is the first time you see it, you might be surprised with the result, especially if you missed the obvious. On the other hand, it is trivial when you know where to direct your focus, isn’t it?

This test demonstrates that attention is selective. You will only pay attention to what you have decided to focus on. Your subconscious mind will filter out “unimportant” information that your senses report to you so that the conscious mind, the CEO, can do the task. There is no way that your conscious mind can ever keep up with your senses.

The learning point is this.  Focus is discriminative. When you choose to focus on one thing, you have to neglect all others.

Attention alternation test

This test comes from the “Accidental genius” book.

Whenever you are, just look around for 5-10 seconds to spot all red things in your neighborhood. Close your eyes and mentally create a list of all red objects you recall.

How many are there?

Open your eyes and look around again to confirm whether you spotted them all.

Now, let’s make a slight variation. Suppose I offer you 1000 pounds (dollars/EUR) for a list of 100 red objects in your surroundings. Suppose you really need this money. Now, chances are that you will not only list all the obvious red objects, but you will also become creative in rediscovering them behind the veil. For instance, you may mention red lips, red letters on a tag of your jumper, red blood coming from your finger jabbed by a paper clip, a red flashing diode on your mobile or a red-colored strip over the clouds from the sunset. Have you made to 100, yet?

If you have done this exercise you can discover how “hidden” the objects may be even if they sit in your plain view. The difference between these two small tests lies in the precision of your focus (“How many red objects are there?” vs “Find me 100 red objects”) as well as your motivation/willingness to perform the task.

The learning point is this. The quality of your focus (precision plus motivation) influences the quality of your answers.

If you are looking to get unstuck, improve an aspect of your life or find a solution, an important idea or a resource may be hidden in your plain view without your active and dedicated effort. In other words, as with internet searches, the context, the right question, defines what you will find.

Conclusion

The tests above clearly demonstrate the importance of the right focus. What you focus on will determine how you lead your life. If you choose to pay attention to grumpy people, annoying situations, self pity and miseries, surely you will encounter them in your life. Your lenses of focus define what you see. If, on other hand, you choose to concentrate on happy moments, kindness or smiles, you will experience them in your life.You are the one with the power to alternate your attention.

Both sides, sadness and joy, ups and downs, difficulty and solution, have always been there. Why? Because the pendulum of life swings between the polarities. It is what you choose to see, hear and experience will color your life happy or not.

This is all great, but …

Where does freewriting come into the picture?

Freewriting has a special role. Under time limit and through continuous writing, you can reach your vast inner space beneath your daily chatter-box or critic. This is the space where creative solutions happily live in.

A good and precise question is your point of focus. Your practice of freewriting is a way to dig deep and discover what matters to you. When made actionable, the discoveries will lead you to success.

Final exercise

If your life vision is buried under the tasks of the daily routines, use freewriting to elaborate on this. Set the timer for 20minutes. Ask the question:

“What is necessary for me to have a fantastic life?”.

Write continuously, without editing, to answer this question. Include all the criteria, and the three aspects of “being”, “doing” and “having”.

Choose  one item from this exploration list. Take an action in the next few hours.

***

 

freewriting_problem_solving

Automatic writing for problem solving

Freewriting, also called automatic writing, is a fantastic tool for problem solving. Even more than that, it is a wonderful tool for generating creative ideas, organizing chaos in your head and getting unstuck. I’ve got really hooked to this practice when I read “Accidental genius” by Mark Levy.

I consider this book a must-read, especially for visual learners, who want to become effective in their problem solving. The book is full of valuable exercises and methods for generating ideas painlessly and having them well organized. Although it reads as a workbook, it can certainly be appreciated without making the exercises step by step. You can  jump into freewriting directly. Even though the book is geared towards a business world, the concepts are directly applicable to these who want to use their brains creatively. Be prepared, though, that it is a dry or cynical read, at times.

The idea of automatic writing is to define your problem first, set a timer to say 15min ans start writing continuously and as fast as possible until the timer beep. The fast paces forces your mind to reach for its internal resources and partial solutions, hidden from the plain view.

According to the author, there are six secrets for a solution-focused freewriting.

1. Try Easy.

“A relaxed 90% is more efficient than a vein-bulging 100% effort.”

Just relax and start scribbling. When you do automatic writing, your goal is not to produce a breath-taking piece of prose, but to jot your ideas down on the paper, instead. That’s it. You are to collect your ideas, as if you are collecting leaves, flowers or conkers with your kid for some home-make projects.

Before you start freewriting, it’s good to have a small ritual where you remember to be easy with yourself and stay centered during writing. When you allow yourself to relax, your mind will set itself free. It will maneuver through the maze of thoughts the way it likes.

2. Write fast and continuously.

When you write fast you actually ask your mind to operate closer to the speed of your thoughts than to the internal critic or perfectionist inside you. By uncensored writing you put the editor on hold so
that the creative part of you can have a better possibility to emerge through the process. If you don’t know what to write just keep repeating the last word.

With experience, your mind will know that you will not stop writing so it will relax on opening the gate to half-baked or inappropriate ideas. These are your golden eggs as such ideas are usually brutally honest and in-depth insights, observations, or knowings.

The goal of the continuous writing is to have a brain-storming session with yourself with the exception that you don’t hold the judgement. The judgemnt will only come later when your writing time is off and when you can inspect your thoughts, and refine them when needed.

Your best ideas, similarly as the most beautiful diamonds, will show up in rough, unpolished stones.

3. Work against a time limit.

“The timer enforces a self-imposed behavioral contract”.

In brief, the time limit makes you more resourceful. The analogy is to sprinting. If you are to sprint over a short distance, you can certainly commit to it. However, if you only know that you are supposed to sprint for some distance between 1 and 20 miles (km), you will have a hard time to keep your focus on. The goal is too vague and too demanding. In contrary, the limitation, the deadline or the barrier will challenge you to think outside the box and explore unknown paths.

4. Write the way you think.

This is a good one, because your imperative is to get the raw thoughts.  These will later become your material for creating the solution. When you write the way you speak, thoughts have already been polished or digested. The novelty is hidden behind the horizon.

Thoughts are super fast and your goal is to use writing to record yourself thinking. Use your own slung or strong language, words abbreviation or whatever words come to your mind. Your ideas are flowing in your head and they need to flow easily on the paper too.

 5. Go with the thought.

Write your thought down and extend it. Don’t edit, don’t contradict yourself to disagree with the idea. Even when your thought is provocative or crazy, go with it. When a thought is written down, accept is as it is and continue to explore it further down. Your task is to explore the path where the thought leads to, to exhaust all the possibilities that show up in your mind. If A is true then B comes next. If B is there then C must happen etc.

If you can happen to explore on line of thinking in depth in the given time, just set the timer for an additional 5 min and ask yourself where another path lead. “What is a different direction I can take for an effective solution?”

6. Redirect your attention.

In automatic writing, your objective is to explore the problem  and the solution at depth and at width. The later means that you want to travel as many thoughts as possible (within the time limits). When When you feel that you may become bewildered on not knowing what to write next, redirect your attention.

A good focus-changer is an open question related to what you have just written. It may challenge you to explain this particular point of view differently, or to look for holes in your thinking. This redirection oftentimes comes in the forms of an open question such as “How else can I say that?”, “What am I missing here?”, “How can I describe this situation to X?” (where X becomes kids, a friend, the boss, a bookshop seller, a sportsmen, a Disney character etc), “What is the best case scenario?“, “How can I implement it fast?”, and so on.

When you feel you have explored a direction, just ask an open question to start a new conversation with yourself.

Thinking without anchor is poorly utilized

As explained in the previous post, thinking needs a physical anchor to make it a laser-concentrated focus towards a solution. Paper or a computer screen provide a powerful focusing force. Without the physical outlet, prolonged thinking often gets circular, or degenerates into daydreaming.

The process of freezing your thoughts onto paper is invaluable because:

  1. it helps you to create order from chaos
  2. it centers and grounds you
  3. it provides perspective and context
  4. it enables you to understand (over time and practice) of whom you are becoming
  5. it pushes you beyond your comfortable thoughts
  6. you access knowledge you have forgotten and consult inner knowing you were not aware you had
  7. it allows you to track the associative line of thinking back to its origins
  8. and  give you a solid, raw material to explore, expand and create from

Make freewriting a daily habit. Your genius is waiting to be consulted 😉

***

Photo copyright by Ian Sane, available on Flickr under the Creative Commons.

 

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what_are_problems

Do you love your problems?

It would be helpful, really 🙂

Problems are … difficulties, possibilities, opportunities

A problem is a perceived gap between the actual state and a desired state. This may present itself as either a difficulty you face in life, or a question, puzzle or dilemma to be answered or solved (including homework tasks or math or engineering questions).

I love the definition above because it touches the core of what a problem is. It says about perception and the gap. A problem is therefore in the eye of the beholder. It is personal. Hence, problem solving is personal too and requires an action to close the gap.
 
We will focus here the first type of the problems.

Life difficulties

Some problems are natural and easy challenges in fact. They are the next step on your development path. These are usually small variations of the obstacles that you successfully overcome in the past. They require a stretch but within your possibilities.

Some problems are real difficulties that you have not yet learned to handle well. They may lie far outside your comfort zone and/or require either a personal change or a change of circumstances (family, home or work). Solving these types of problems is a key to life mastery indeed.

Some problems strike hard. These are usually the sudden and unexpected blows or turns in life. They can become a sudden illness, death, reallocation or loss. They may evoke fear, panic or terror. Your heart may feel squashed and you may feel contracted. You are terrified, overwhelmed and lost.

Ultimately you will go through the dark hours and let the emotions flow freely. In doing so, you are down to your true power and perseverance. Only when the emotions are released, you can approach the problems at hand.

Some problems (read: areas of growth) are your good “friends”. They have been with you for years but you avoided to take the responsibility for a change to happen. Your challenge is to become ready first. Ready, to arrive at a breakthrough moment in which you cannot handle the problems any more.

This is usually a moment of Self-realization in which you discover that the path you are on is not the one you would like to follow or when the when the consequences of the given behavior (say, from the lack of change) are more profound than the value of this behavior.

Such an inspiration may go about small things.

It can be an email from a friend telling you how much he appreciated your sound advice that makes you decide to quit your job and start a consulting business.

It can be a time when kids are particularly cheeky when you simply feel it’s enough for you to be a stay-at-home mum.

It can be a brief look into a mirror to realize how bad your posture is in order to subscribe to the regime of posture correcting exercises (BTW: the Egoscue’s health trough motion ones are super good indeed).

Whatever.

***

The real difficulty problems are the ones to tackle. 

Why?

Because if you know how to solve them, all other types of problems will ultimately arrive at this phase and can be tackled as well.

The problems aka real difficulties

These problems are caused by perceptions from your Conscious Self dwelling outside your Operational point of Action (or Power). If you perceive a problem, it means you are living with a situation without holding an intention or possibility of taking the action in the Now to tackle it.

The real difficulty problems arise because you

  1. don’t sufficiently understand the issues
  2. don’t accept the facts and/or the change to happen
  3. don’t take the right decision
  4. don’t take the right actions

When a problem occurs, resistance usually hits with a full blow.

Why?

Because you are confused, overwhelmed, insecure or simply afraid at the presence of Unknown. Ultimately, one of the three scenarios is usually there:

1) You don’t understand the issues and don’t know what to do (or how to do it). You are often paralyzed by uncertainty and afraid of the unknown. As a result, you avoid taking action.

2) You don’t know what to do but you keep taking arbitrary actions for the sake of feeling that we are doing something to maintain the illusion of progress (instead of being still).

3) You know what to do but you don’t like the actions involved (the lack of decision) and are afraid of the consequences of these actions (the lack of will to proceed).

Whatever the scenario, you can move past your doubts or inaction. You need to use strategic problem solving approaches. As these form a necessary skill of any intelligent person, learning them will only bring you benefits. Anybody can master the related process, I believe.

***

Love your problems

Do you love your problems? This would be helpful, indeed.

In the end your problems, are yours. This means they are a part of who you are and whom you are becoming. When you accept to love your problems, they are not enemies neither alien creatures anymore. They will start to work in your favor, and, as a result,  you will focus on the solutions with breeze.

There are two great approaches to solve your personal problems. And what is best, they are highly effective, once you know how to use the techniques well.

I will write about them in the next post 😉

 ***

Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under Creative Commons on Flickr.

***

 

simplicity_complexity

Simplicity vs complexity

Simplicity originates from seeing the Essence.

Whether something is considered as simple or complex depends on the level of consciousness. The complex becomes simple when your understanding grows.

The key to understand a problem, a concept or an event in a simple way is to get to the essence of things and see how they fit together as well as how they fit into a bigger picture.

A complex phenomenon can be made simple through (a smart) organization. When intelligently organized, its representation usually yields more effectiveness and efficiency than when the opposite holds.

Such a smart organization it is being practiced in art, math or science by the use or an extension of modularity. Modularity is achieved by building blocks of nested complexity such that simple operations are needed to relate or combine these blocks in a meaningful way.

An example

Let’s consider an example in math of a sum and an integral. First we need to define numbers (natural, integers, rational and real), then a sum of two elements. This is further extended to a sum of multiple elements. Knowing what a sum is, we define a more complex structure which is a series, that is an infinite sum. This can be understood through a limit of partial sums. In order to arrive at a finite number, the series has to be convergent.

The structure of a series is now the basis to define an integral. Having a structure of integral, we can define simple operations and make calculations on the level of integrals forgetting these are infinite summations. And so, we can estimate area or probability by using these high level concepts.

The development of technology, such as app-oriented programming, click-touch-and-connect devices, identification or recognition systems, feeds on such modular organizing principle, similarly as natural languages do.

Complexity and the level of details

This brings us to the view that perhaps all problems can be perceived as problems of complexity. If we don’t now how to approach them, this happens because their formulation escapes our current way of organization, be it thoughts, models, techniques or tools.

Simplicity looks at similarity. We need the similarity in order to find commonalities.
Complexity looks at the differences. We need the differences in order to discriminate. 
A solution which is simple is still an interplay between similarity and difference, yet in the right proportions.

Unnecessary complexity arises when you are on the level of too many details. Details account for variability, individuality, exceptions, forms, partial views and shadows. They make life surely interesting, yet when in abundance, they clutter the view and hide the Essence.

There is no way for you to see the emerging behavior of ants if you with your eyes are on their level. It is hard to solve problems if you dwell in them. It is hard to make a breakthrough if you constantly keep thinking and exploring the views, angles, positions and details.

As you need your 3D perspective to recognize the patterns of ants, you need a different level of consciousness to find your solutions. This comes naturally when you detach and begin to ask the questions that matter.

The simplest choices can make you happy.
The simplest strategies can lead to success.
The simplest solutions can solve the most complex problems.

***

Truth originates from basic foundations.
Truth is simple. If it isn’t, then it’s being formulated in a complex way.
Your challenge is to simplify it.

 ***

The photo above comes from a museum in Cardiff, made some time ago.

 

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