Taking a Position

I’ve been training in the martial art called Aikido for more than two decades. I hold the rank of Shodan (1st degree black belt), and I’m training/studying for my next rank (Nidan, or 2nd degree).

People unfamiliar with Aikido, but who may have heard something about it, often tell me that they have heard Aikido is about “using the opponent’s energy against them.”  

At the most shallow, mundane level, there is some truth to this. But it misses the point.

I think that all martial arts deal in the same fundamental precepts at some level. But different arts, and different teachers in those arts, and different techniques in those arts, all live on a number of different spectrums — hard vs soft, linear vs circular, direct vs indirect, static vs moving, subtle vs crude, instructional vs practical, even effective vs ineffective.

In general, Aikido is usually on the “softer” side of the spectrum of all martial arts — even though there’s a wide spectrum within the art itself. It’s more subtle, often (but not always) more circular, and (I think) tends to require movement to work. I won’t get into how practical it is, because that depends heavily on what you’re trying to accomplish, and it becomes an almost religious discussion.

Which, ironically, brings me to what I wanted to talk about. 

These days, in politics and social media (can they even be separated?), it has become more and more expected that we “take sides” on almost all issues. Take a position. Defend it. Dig in.  

I think we study this idea in Aikido, even we’re not always aware that we’re studying it.  I find this particularly apparent when I’m in the role of “Sempai” (more senior student), and even more particularly when I’m in the role of “Uke” (the attacker).  In Aikido, we’re almost always doing paired practice. We take turns being the “attacker” (Uke), and the “defender” (Nage, or Tori).  In these roles, it usually ends with Nage executing some technique on Uke. Uke is usually the one who falls.  

Often, as Sempai, I find myself reminding my partner to “relax” in some way. Maybe I’ll gently shake their shoulder or forearm to show how much tension they’re holding. Or I’ll playfully remind them that it’s OK to move their feet.  Or to breathe. You’d be surprised how often we forget to breathe.

Let me be clear — I’m still learning these things, too. Perhaps at a different level, but there’s never an end to the learning. But, as we get more familiar with Aikido, we learn that continuing to be able to move is a sign that we’re getting better. Ideally, we remain more centered and balanced regardless of the attack; always able to move. After all, it’s really not possible to move effectively without being centered and balanced.

“Taking a position” is a dangerous proposition.  

If I “take a position” in Aikido, it implies I need to defend that position. 

Defending a position can look like me trying not to move my feet. It can look like me taking a punch, or simply resisting a movement with my arms.  It can even manifest as a dogged determination to execute a particular technique because that’s what we’re trying to practice, even when it’s clear that the situation calls for something different in the moment. 

If this sounds a little to wishy-washy for you, I might remind you that whatever attack you’re dealing with at the moment isn’t the end of the situation. Aikido, after all, comes from a tradition of “multiple attackers, weapons everywhere.”  To me, this mindset has never been more apropos than today, in our world of 24-hour late-breaking “news” (/opinion) and social media rants. 

So. In Aikido, we’re constantly training ourselves to be physically and mentally (even, dare I say, spiritually) able to remain centered and balanced, but to avoid “taking a position.”  I think this is a lesson that more of us could use in everyday life these days. 

Many of us would agree that the world feels “out of balance” in some respects. As my Taiji teacher says: “When something is out of balance, the answer is never more tension.”

On The Spectrum

I mentioned to someone recently that my daughter is “on the spectrum,” which is shorthand for saying that she’s autistic to some degree. However, the phrase is horribly imprecise, and can lead to some serious misunderstandings.

Autism has a very wide range of symptoms — from people like my daughter who may be somewhat socially awkward, to people who are severely unable to communicate.

I tell people that you’d “never know” my daughter is “autistic” until maybe you’d gotten to know her a little. You’d notice that she’s quite verbal, but she uses words in interesting ways sometimes. She has a great sense of humor, but she doesn’t “get” jokes the same way other people do. She’s very literal, and so doesn’t always pick up on social queues that are, for most of us, obvious.

As a person “on the spectrum,” she’s in very elite company. Dan Akroyd, Elon Musk, and Anthony Hopkins come to mind, for instance.

Anyway, this post isn’t about Autism. It’s about the “spectrum.”

I believe that there is also a spectrum of “open-mindedness.” This isn’t fixed per person, or group. It moves with different issues, different circumstances, audiences.

Nobody likes to be called “closed-minded.” Or, never mind using a broad label like that — nobody even likes the suggestion: “…so, your mind is closed on this subject, correct?”

“What?! NO! My mind isn’t closed! I just know that I’m right about it.”

“So, is there anything I could say that might change your mind?”

“Probably not, no.”

“That sounds like a closed mind — on this subject.”

I think we each have a spectrum of closed- (or open-) mindedness, perhaps in general, and almost assuredly on individual topics. I think we become more close-minded when threatened. Or among people who we feel threatened by (even if they haven’t threatened us). Or in situations in which we feel like we might be threatened.

…and, by “threatened,” I don’t mean physically. I don’t mean being outright insulted. Although those apply, too.

The most pervasive and insidious situation we might find ourselves in, in which we might feel “threatened” is… (wait for it….) ANY TIME WE MIGHT HAVE TO CHANGE OUR MINDS.

You see the problem? We become more close-minded any time we might have to change our minds. And the more the topic matters, the more close-minded we are apt to get.

Is it any wonder that it’s so hard to have a conversation with someone about anything that matters?


Notice when you feel “threatened,” in the sense that you’re being asked to change your mind.

Notice how this makes you put your guard — how, to some extend, on this topic under these circumstances, your mind is closed. Notice where you are on “the spectrum.” It’s OK — it’s how we’re ALL wired.

Try to get into the habit of changing your mind. Of feeling GOOD about changing your mind. Do that by practicing the art of expressing someone else’s point of view, to THEIR satisfaction.

Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re learning.

The more we practice having our minds changed, the more chance we’ll have to return the favor.

Curiosity Over Clash

I sat down to have some breakfast today and turned on TED to see what I could see, and stumbled onto this talk. I couldn’t have said it better. THIS is an idea worth spreading.

The high points:

  1. Choose curiosity over clash
  2. Expect development of your ideas through discussion
  3. Anchor in common purpose

Scenery along the way:

  1. I never thought it about it exactly that way before. What can you share that can help me see what you see?
  2. The people you are curious about tend to become curious about you.
  3. Think of conversations as a climbing wall.
  4. Make the ideas sharper and the relationships warmer.
  5. If it doesn’t seem worth the bother, re-evaluate the purpose of the conversation: to learn, to listen, to share.
  6. Start with the big picture. Then move on to principles.
  7. It’s easier to share with outsiders than with insiders.
  8. Invite people to inhabit future possibilities.
  9. Take responsibility for reminding people of their shared purpose: caring for people.

… and if you liked that, try this:

AI isn’t AI (yet), but we won’t know it when it is

I arrived at the idea for this post from an article that included the following statement: “[Natural Language Processing] underpins all conversational AI, as ‘you must first understand a request before responding.'” This should sound familiar to people who read this blog.

I’m usually an optimist about technology, because I think of technology as an extension of human nature, and I’m generally an optimist when it comes to human nature. But this idea scares me. A lot.

At this point, I’ll fight my urge to add a colorful storyline to this post, and get right to the punchline.

Point 1:

From the perspective of the use of language, chatting with software like ChatGPT is virtually indistinguishable from chatting with a human. That’s my experience, anyway. ChatGPT is more articulate than the average human. Today.

Point 2:

Most people think of “Artificial Intelligence” as real intelligence coming from a non-biological (artificial) entity (or even life form). It’s not — not yet, anyway. Currently, the word “artificial” in “AI” refers to the intelligence. It’s not real intelligence — it only seems to be real intelligence — and only because of its use of natural language. “GPT,” after all, stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer.” In short, “Artificial Intelligence” isn’t “Actual Intelligence.” Yet.

Point 3:

However… because ChatGPT (for instance) uses language so well, we interact with it as if it is Actually Intelligent… AND… (hold onto your seats)… when, someday soon, it truly evolves to that stage… we won’t know it.


The Road Not Taken, or whatever

I’m a fan of Ozan Varol, author of such books, as “Think Like A Rocket Scientist” and “Awaken Your Genius.”  I just finished the latter, which Varol reads himself. I usually prefer when the author reads their own work.

At one point in the book — maybe in the “Detecting Bullshit” section, or maybe it was in “Look Where Others Don’t” — he makes a strong argument, with numerous examples, of how the majority isn’t always right.  Honestly, it seems to me that anyone is so epitome to “group think” — no matter how enlightened or well-meaning.

For instance, Varol points out how one of the Western world’s most well-recognized and oft-quoted poems is usually completely misunderstood.

You know the line I’m talking about — the one about “the road less traveled.”  It’s often touted as poetic inspiration to walk your own path — to zig when others zag — to be yourself — follow your bliss.  Pick your own woo-woo buzz-phrase. 

The actual lines from the poem go like this:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

But Varol encourages us to dig into the poem a little deeper.  Here’s the whole thing:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

So, the first verse is pretty much fits the common conception of the poem.

The first three lines of the second verse continue along the same lines. But then in the fourth and fifth lines, it takes a turn:

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

Wait. What?  Is he saying that, after is taking that other road, the two paths were worn about the same?  Hmm… The first two lines of the third verse elaborate:

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Seems to be he’s saying that, by morning, both paths looked pretty much untrodden. No difference.

And then, he seems to be second-guessing himself. I Sense regret; doubt.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

And now, with all of that context, we arrive again at the punchline that is most often quoted:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Seems to me now that Frost was being a bit nihilistic— maybe even sarcastic.  He thought he was taking the road less traveled by, but really all roads are about the same.

This little exercise is surely fodder for many a college literary class. I am no literary scholar, and maybe I’m still getting it all wrong.

The point is that maybe most other people are, too.

Are you?

Douglas Adams on Being Wrong

This came to me on Facebook. My thanks to whoever posted it, and my apologies for not remembering who it was or thinking to take note when I saved the clipping. Shame on you, Facebook, for making it so damned hard to find stuff that you once glimpsed but now remember you really want to see again (and for making it so easy to see the same junk over and over again).

I think it’s fitting to refer to Douglas Adams with a story about being wrong. When I read “Hitchhiker’s Guide” long ago, I remember being captivated by Adams’ whimsical, conversational writing style, and the way he was able to make completely “out of this world” characters and concepts seem not only believable, but mundane. Come to think of it, he also made the mundane, extraordinary. And if you don’t know what I mean because you haven’t read the book, then you truly don’t yet know where your towel is. Trust me.

Anyway, here’s the clip. You read it, then I’ll tell you why it thought it worth clipping. You can read my comments, or not. Come to think of it, you can read the clip, or not. But then, you’ve already read this far, so you might as well…

I guess what struck me here is something similar to what struck me the first time I saw Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk “On being wrong.” At one point she led the audience through an exercise that makes it clear that being wrong about something always feels exactly like being right.

So I ask myself… what story do I tell repeatedly for which I might just be missing the punchline?

Out loud and in public

Scott Perry at creativeonpurpose.com once told me that, at some point, I had to speak my message “out loud and in public.” In part, that statement planted the seed in my mind for this website.

I understand this statement to mean that thoughts we have in our heads are little good to anyone until they are shared. To be truly valuable, they must generate action of some sort.

But “out loud and in public” also might feel overly arrogant or demonstrative for the more introverted of us. For those of us, it helps to keep in mind that “out loud and in public” doesn’t have to mean shouting at the top of your lungs in a crowd. In fact, that describes much of social media, and that’s not working out as well as we’d hoped…

“Out loud and in public” can also mean in small groups, or one-on-one. In fact, that’s often a better context in which to make a real connection.

I was reminded of this by a comic posted on Twitter by Susan David, author of “Emotional Agility” and one of the most popular TED Talks out there: “The Power of Emotional Courage.”

Of course, this means learning how to truly disagree, which means understanding who and what you’re disagreeing with.

A line from one of my songs: “Don’t mistake my silence for approval or complaince…” (Ranting in the Fray)

Conversation as Art

As a musician, I’m mostly a solo artist. I like it that way because I get to be in full control. I conceive of the songs, I write them, and I perform them. It’s one of the few parts of my world in which I focus on “my own voice” — literally and metaphorically.

I like song circles, in which people share songs. Usually people in the “circle” take turns singing their song, one at a time, and then listen attentively to the next person’s song.  Sometimes there is a little bit of collaboration, where someone might sing an impromptu harmony, or play an accompaniment or take a lead during a break. But it’s still mainly one person “speaking” at a time, and the others listen.

“Jam sessions,” on the other hand, scare the shit outa me.  I’m a pretty good guitar player, but I’ve never learned what to do when someone looks at me during a musical break and says “take it, Mike.”  I’m like Tommy Smothers in the old skit: I say “Take it back.”

A song circle is like a conversation. It’s an exchange of ideas.

But a “Jam” is also a conversation. In fact, it’s a more intimate kind of conversation, in a way. It doesn’t work if play in different keys, or even if they’re out of tune with each other, or they’re not keeping up with each other during the changes, or they’re not in rhythm with each other… 

When a jam goes well, the exchange of ideas is live, collaborative, supportive of each other. There’s a “groove.”  You hit the “pocket.”

A verbal conversation is like this — it’s an exchange of ideas between people.

This is in contrast to an argument, in which people intend to impart conflicting ideas upon each other. In musical terms, this is often called a “train wreck.”

If you think of a conversation as a song circle, or even as a single “jam,” it makes sense.  It also makes sense than an “argument” (in the usual sense) simply would not work as a piece of music. Nobody would want to listen to something where the people in the jam (the “band”) are out of tune, out of sync, or simply playing different pieces of music.

Imagine a simple duet on stage. Two guitars, two voices. One is playing “Hotel California,” and the other is playing “The City of New Orleans.”  Even in the same keys this would likely sound like crap. 

Most of what we read on social media is not conversation — it’s argument. Who (or more) different people playing different pieces of music, in different keys at the same time. 

To have a real conversation, you have to think of it as a piece of art. A collaboration.  What are you going to create, in the end?

Podcast Episode #1

I have not yet done the homework to learn how to launch an official podcast. But I did just finish a first draft of my first episode.

This is a conversation with two friends of mine, both of whom I know from practicing Aikido. We got together over beer to discuss how to have better conversations.

I haven’t launched the actual podcast yet (probably on Apple Music), and there will be some additional editing. But this will give you an idea what’s in store.

Things we discussed:

  • Conversations versus arguments
  • There is a market for conflict
  • The conditions necessary for disagreement
  • Talking stick
  • Understanding the nature of the conflict
  • How practicing Aikido is like practicing conversations
  • Maslow’s hierarchy — the process of being attacked
  • Ability to interact is a skill, and it can atrophy
  • Alone time, and how important it is
  • The “I,” the “You,” and the “We.”
  • Understanding ourselves is a key to better conversations

Just for fun… here’s a screen shot of the labels I added to the recorded conversation before I edited 2+ hours down to 1h 10m.