Category Archives: self-development

On being successful

If you want to succeed in your career, it’s useful to study what it takes.

Albert-László Barabási’s book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success was published in 2018. The title sounds presumptuous. Can there be laws of success, much less universal ones? It turns out there’s much to learn from this book.

Barabási is a complex-networks researcher. He took his toolkit and applied it to the issue of performance and success, collaborating with others to produce a string of scientific papers. The Formula is a popular account of research on the topic.

To clarify: “success” here refers to careers and is measured by recognition and income, in other words fame and fortune. Success in other ways, for example being a good parent, being honest or helping others behind the scenes, is not covered because it is too hard to study mathematically.

Is this your idea of success?

A fundamental idea behind Barabási’s laws is that individual success derives from the community’s response to an individual’s performance, not from the performance itself. Barabási calls his five laws “universal,” but whether they apply outside the US requires further investigation. In any case, The Formula is fascinating. It is informative and engagingly written, and worth reading even if success in conventional terms is not your personal goal.

Performance and networks

The first law is “Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.” In some fields, for example chess and competitive individual sports, performance can be measured by observing who wins. If you want to succeed in chess, there’s no substitute for becoming a high-level performer.

In most fields, however, performance can’t be measured in a straightforward way. Barabási uses the example of art, giving examples of visual artists who are highly talented yet languish in relative obscurity because they exhibit only in local galleries. Artists who take the initiative to promote their work more widely then have opportunities for being exhibited in higher-profile venues, leading to ever more recognition.

Another example is the Mona Lisa. Did you ever wonder whether its fame is due to its unique artistic merit, or something else? Barabási tells how the Mona Lisa went from obscurity to world recognition.

The implication is that if you’re a very hard worker, willing to put in tens of thousands of hours of dedicated practice at your chosen craft, and willing to wait decades for recognition, then you have a chance in a field where performance can be measured. On the other hand, if you’re keen on networking and don’t want to work quite so hard, then pick a field where measuring performance involves a lot of subjectivity.

Success unbounded

Barabási cites a study of elite classical music competitions. In piano competitions, each player performs difficult works, some assigned, some their own choice. There might be a dozen expert judges, who make their assessments independently. Everything seems fair. However, the trouble is that in classical music performance, the standard is so very high that it’s hard to tell the players apart. The judges might actually choose in part according to who looks like a virtuoso. The differences between elite performers are so small that a break — for example, a competition prize — can launch someone on a solo career, while others of equal calibre are left behind.

            This is an example of Barabási’s second law, which is “Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.” Saying performance is bounded means that top performers, like the pianists, are all so good that it’s hard to tell their performances apart. But if you are the chosen one, getting a few lucky breaks, in particular endorsements from gatekeepers, then your fame and fortune can be enormous. Unbounded success like this comes only to a few, and it’s unfair, in the sense that so much depends on luck.

Think of the Olympic games. The gold medal winner in a popular event can become a household name. The silver medallist might be just a second slower but receives only a fraction of the glory and opportunities.

Success breeds success

Barabási’s third law is that previous success, combined with fitness, predicts future success. The academic term for success breeding success is “preferential attachment.” It has an amazingly strong influence.

One experiment involved people listening to unfamiliar pop songs. Members of one group of subjects gave ratings to each song without knowing what other group members thought of the same songs. In a different group, subjects were able to see the ratings of other listeners. The experimenters were tricky: they seeded the ratings, giving some songs a head start. These songs ended up being the most popular.

The message is that most people go along with the crowd. Their preferences are influenced by what others rate highly.

In academia, this is what’s going on when certain theories and theorists are favoured. If lots of researchers are citing Foucault, then the common assumption is that Foucault’s ideas are more incisive or fruitful — better than those of other theorists. There’s a good article about this sort of favouritism, titled “How to become a dominant French philosopher: the case of Jacques Derrida.”


Michel Foucault: a beneficiary of preferential attachment?

            Preferential attachment is important in business. A start-up known to have received funding is likely to receive more funding. One way to rig the system is to pretend your own money is from someone else, giving the impression of financial endorsement.

Because of preferential attachment, the first public rating of a product, for example a book on Amazon, is more likely to be an indication of its value. Later reviewers are likely to follow the crowd, so when a product has lots of ratings, its final rating deviates more from its fitness. So when you read a book, don’t read the endorsements first — judge it for yourself.


Judge for yourself: is this painting worth $100 million?

The team: who gets the credit for success?

Barabási’s fourth law is that when a team needs diversity and balance to succeed, an individual receives credit for the team’s achievements. Unfair!

Barabási has quite a few suggestions about how to make a team effective. He says, “Trust someone to be in charge and build an expert, diverse support group around him or her.” This is essential for breakthroughs. Top-rate individual team members are not enough, and can actually derail a group. “What matters is that people are offered opportunities to build rapport and contribute in equal measure.”

            There’s an obvious tension here between building a top team and the merit principle in recruitment. In hiring employees, selection is supposed to be on the basis of merit (though there are lots of deviations from this). But choosing on the basis of individual merit isn’t always the best way to develop a productive team, at least one that has autonomy and is expected to be innovative.

Barabási says that credit for teamwork is based on perception, not contribution, and that a single individual receives credit for team success. So if you’re an aspiring newcomer, part of a productive team, at some point you will need to venture out on your own. There are additional biases involved. Studies of academic economists show that men lose nothing by collaborating, but women gain little, and women who collaborate with men gain nothing at all.

Be persistent

Among mathematicians, there is a common belief that to make a great breakthrough, you have to be young. Some famous mathematicians, like Évariste Galois, made their mark when quite young. By age 35, you’re over the hill.


Galois

            Barabási’s fifth law challenges this belief. The law states that with persistence, success can come at any age. The key is persistence. Barabási found that young researchers are more productive: they write more articles each year. However, their articles written at older ages are just as likely to be breakthroughs. They are less likely to make breakthroughs at older ages because they aren’t trying as hard. (Maybe they become jaded or go into administration.)

Making a breakthrough is a matter of luck. You don’t know in advance which idea or project will be highly successful, so you just have to keep trying. For Barabási, this finding is encouraging. He’s getting older but now knows it’s worth persisting.


Albert-László Barabási

Should success be a goal?

For me, reading about Barabási’s “universal laws of success” raises the question of whether the conventional idea of success, as fame and fortune, is an appropriate goal. Who benefits from your success?

Surely you benefit from your own success. That’s obvious enough — or is it? Research shows that acquiring a lot of money is not a particularly promising way to increase happiness; other routes, such as physical activity, relationships, gratitude and optimism are more reliable for promoting happiness. Fame is not a reliable road to happiness, either. It can create some relationships but undermine others.

Some Olympic athletes fall into depression after they achieve their goal of a gold medal. Many athletes, and non-athletes, achieve more satisfaction from striving towards a goal than actually achieving it. As the saying goes, “There is no road to happiness; happiness is the road.”

Do others benefit from your success? That depends quite a lot. You might be very generous in helping and supporting others, using your skills and networks to assist those who are less fortunate. You might be a role model for others. On the other hand, you might have trampled over others in your efforts to get ahead, and become a heartless exploiter, continually on the lookout for challengers who must be crushed. Some business leaders are generous; others are better known for their ruthlessness and bullying.

Developing skills to a high level seems like a good thing. Surely it’s worth becoming an outstanding teacher or violinist. Again, it all depends. Some people with advanced skills, and who achieve success as a result, may be causing more harm than good. A soldier can become a highly skilled at killing. Is that good if it’s the bad guys are being killed or bad if the good guys are the target? A politician can become highly skilled at manipulating public perceptions. It might be for a higher cause or it might be just to obtain power.

The implication is that success alone is not necessarily a worthy goal. It can be better to have worthwhile goals, such as being ethical, enjoying life and helping others. If, in pursuing such goals, you achieve success, that’s just a little added bonus.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Painful routes to happiness

To achieve happiness, can it be useful to pursue pain and discomfort?

            Many people make enormous efforts to avoid stress and strain. They will search for a convenient parking space rather than walk a few hundred meters. When the temperature gets too hot or cold, they turn on the cooling or heating. For headaches, there are analgesics. For emotional pain, therapy or maybe a stiff drink.

While avoiding pain, people often pursue pleasure. This can be comfortable chairs, tasty food, thinking positive thoughts and becoming absorbed in social media. Pleasure is commonly seen as the opposite of pain.

But what if much of this quest is misguided? That is the argument presented by Brock Bastian in his new book The Other Side of Happiness. Bastian, a psychology researcher at the University of Melbourne, reports on studies by himself and others that support a seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion: pain can be a route to true happiness.

Seeking pain

Bastian begins by noting a curious phenomenon. Despite the apparent vanquishing of both physical and emotional pain, levels of anxiety and depression in young people seem to be increasing. I noticed this among students in my classes. Colleagues who deal with student issues tell me the entire university sector is affected. Richard Eckersley has written about the problems affecting young people who, despite reporting high happiness levels, seem to suffer inordinately high levels of psychological distress.

Bastian reports on something else: the pursuit of pain. You might ask, who, except for masochists, would voluntarily seek painful experiences? Actually, quite a few do. Running a marathon is gruelling, yet surprising numbers of people see this as a worthwhile goal. Likewise climbing mountains. Eating a hot chilli pepper can be bracing. Some people get a thrill out of scary rides or jumping out of aeroplanes, even though (or because) these cause a huge adrenaline rush.

There are also painful emotional experiences. For some, singing in front of others requires enormous courage, yet this is undertaken voluntarily. Others find it nerve-racking to approach someone they revere.

            How should a psychologist go about doing controlled studies of how people handle pain, both physical and emotional? It’s hardly feasible to have subjects scale mountain cliffs or have an audience with the Queen.

For physical pain, one ingenious method is to ask subjects to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water. This is quite painful but not harmful. Before or after the ice water treatment (or, for controls, some other activity that isn’t painful), subjects then are asked to do other tasks. The way they react to these tasks reveals something about the role of pain.

For example, one experiment used a task that tested generosity, such as donating to a worthy cause. What do you think: would experiencing physical pain make people more or less generous? (The answer: more generous.)

For emotional pain, a clever technique is to simulate ostracism. In a computer game, subjects find they are being left out of the interaction by the other players. So strong is the urge to be included in a group that even in this short simulation being neglected is a distressing experience.

            As well as studies in the lab, psychologists also undertake survey research. For example, one finding is that early stress in a marriage can make it resilient in the face of future challenges, and lead to greater satisfaction.

Based on a wide range of evidence, from lab studies to studies of trauma victims, Bastian concludes that it’s better to encounter some adversity in our lives. It shouldn’t be overwhelming, just enough to build the capacity to overcome it. In this process, we become emotionally stronger. Conversely, hiding from pain gives it extra power to cause distress.

“The key to healthy psychological functioning is exposure. If we want to be happy, we cannot afford to hide from our challenges and surround ourselves in protective layers of comfort. To achieve emotional stability and the capacity to handle challenges when they arise, we may be well advised to occasionally seek out discomfort and to take ourselves outside our proverbial comfort zones more often than we do.” (p. 95)

Bringing people together

In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken away by a dingo. In television interviews, she put on a brave face, hiding her grief. Unfortunately, this was damaging to her credibility, because not showing emotions makes others think you deserve your pain.


Lindy Chamberlain

            On the other hand, expressing your physical or emotional pain triggers support from others. This is observed in the outpouring of generosity after disasters. It is also observed in combat, which bonds fighters together.

Support from people you know or trust makes a difference: it actually reduces the pain. Bastian notes that even a photo of a loved one can have this effect. It is not surprising, then, that experiencing pain encourages people to seek social connections.


Keep a photo of your loved one handy

            There is another fascinating social effect of hardship: studies show it can promote creativity. So perhaps there is some truth in the stereotypical image of the struggling artist. Bastian concludes, “We need to endure the challenge of sometimes stressful, novel and potentially threatening environments to foster true originality.” (p. 125)

This idea might be used to justify unpleasant working conditions, and precarious employment. On the other hand, it could also justify reducing executive salaries and putting political leaders in small, cramped offices.

There’s an important qualification that needs to be emphasised. When discomfort is voluntary, then inhibiting desires can improve performance. An example is uncomfortable yoga postures, which can help train the mind to focus. But involuntary discomfort, for example chronic pain, reduces performance. The implication is that imposed pain should be reduced or relieved, while there should be more opportunities for voluntary discomfort.

Meaning

Bastian cites eye-opening data showing that people in poorer countries report greater meaning in their lives. Perhaps this should not be such a surprise given the number of well-off people who seem to lack purpose, spending time on fleeting pleasures rather than pursuing deeper connections. Note that country comparisons can be misleading and that having a meaningful life is not the same as being happy.

Negative experiences, including being reminded of death, trigger a search for meaning, leading to a greater sense of purpose that isn’t there when there is no suffering. Bastian describes research on an earthquake emergency. People who had thoughts of dying during the earthquake were more likely to shift their priorities from extrinsic to intrinsic ones. This meant, for example, putting less priority on income and possessions and more on relationships and beliefs. Bastian concludes, “The more we consciously engage with our own mortality the more likely we are to focus on things that matter; to seek out things that are ultimately likely to provide more depth in our lives.” (p. 170)

Happiness research

The Other Side of Happiness provides a powerful counter to the usual emphases in society, in which the priority is seeking pleasure and reducing pain. It also puts a somewhat different perspective on happiness research. Happiness researchers have challenged the usual emphasis on possessions, income, good looks and education, saying that, outside of poverty, they have only a limited impact on wellbeing. Instead, changing one’s thoughts and behaviours has greater impact, for example expressing gratitude, being mindful, being optimistic, building relationships and helping others.

However, happiness research gives little attention to the benefits of physical and emotional pain. This is addressed by implication in recommendations for physical activity, building resilience and pursuing a purpose. However, the painful sides to these activities are seldom emphasised, perhaps because it is not easy to sell a recommendation for seeking pain rather than pleasure.


Brock Bastian

            Yet that is exactly Bastian’s recommendation. He says there is a need to recognise that stress, struggle and pain can bring happiness. Examples include intense exercise, having children, working hard and helping others. The key is to recognise the process, namely to see the positive side of negatives.

The takeaway message: seek out calculated risks and challenges, and let your children do the same. Search for discomfort and embrace feelings of sorrow and loss. Recognise that experiencing and valuing unpleasant experiences can be a path to greater satisfaction.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jordan McKenzie for useful comments.

Write, write, write

Researchers need to write as part of their job. It’s remarkable how stressful this can be. There is help at hand, but you have to be willing to change your habits.

Writing is a core part of what is required to be a productive researcher. Over the years, I’ve discovered that for many of my colleagues it’s an agonising process. This usually goes back to habits we learned in school.

Sport, music and writing

Growing up, I shared a room with my brother Bruce. I was an early riser but he wasn’t. But then, in the 10th grade, he joined the track and cross-country teams. Early every morning he would roll out of bed, still groggy, change into his running gear and go for his daily training run. After school he worked out with the team. He went on to become a star runner. At university, while majoring in physics, he obtained a track scholarship.

As well, Bruce learned the French horn and I learned the clarinet. We had private lessons once a week and took our playing seriously, practising on assigned exercises every day. We each led our sections in the high school band.

I also remember writing essays for English class, postponing the work of writing and then putting in hours the night before an essay was due. At university, this pattern became worse. I pulled a few all-nighters. To stay awake, it was the only time in my life I ever drank coffee.

Back then, in the 1960s, if you wanted to become a good athlete, it was accepted that regular training was the way to go. It would have been considered foolish to postpone training until just before an event and then put in long hours. Similarly, it was accepted that if you wanted to become a better instrumentalist, you needed to practise regularly. It was foolish to imagine practising all night before a performance.

Strangely, we never applied this same idea to writing. Leaving an assignment until the night before was common practice. And it was profoundly dysfunctional.

Boice’s studies

Luckily for me, while doing my PhD I started working regularly. On a good day, I would spend up to four hours on my thesis topic. I also started working on a book. Somewhere along the line I began aiming to write 1000 words per day. It was exceedingly hard work and I couldn’t maintain it for week after week.


Robert Boice

In the 1980s, Robert Boice, a psychologist and education researcher, carried out pioneering studies into writing. He observed that most new academics had a hard time meeting the expectations of their job. They typically put most of their energy into teaching and neglected research, and felt highly stressed about their performance. Boice observed a pattern of procrastination and bingeing: the academics would postpone writing until a deadline loomed and then go into an extended period of getting out the words. However, these binges were so painful and exhausting that writing became associated with discomfort, thereby reinforcing the pattern. If writing is traumatic, then procrastination is the order of the day.

Procrastination and bingeing is just what I did in high school and undergraduate study. It’s what most academics did when they were younger, and they never learned a different pattern.

Boice observed that a small number of new academics were more relaxed and more productive. They didn’t binge. Instead, they would work on research or teaching preparation in brief sessions over many days, gradually moving towards a finished product. Boice had the idea that this approach to academic work could be taught, and carried out a number of experiments comparing different approaches to writing. (See his books Professors as Writers and Advice for New Faculty Members.)

In one study, there were three groups of low-productivity academics. Members of one group were instructed to write in their usual way (procrastinating and bingeing). They ended up with an average of 17 pages of new or revised text – in a year. That’s about half an article and far short of what was required to obtain tenure.

Members of the second group were instructed to write daily for short periods. In a year, they produced on average 64 pages of new or revised text. Members of the third group were instructed to write daily for short periods and were closely monitored by Boice. Their average annual total of new or revised text was 157 pages. This was a stunning improvement, though from a low baseline.

It didn’t surprise me too much. It was the difference between athletes who trained just occasionally, when they felt like it, and athletes who trained daily under the guidance of a coach. It was the difference between musicians who practised when they felt like it and musicians who practised daily on exercises assigned by their private teacher.

Gray and beyond

Decades later, in 2008, I came across Tara Gray’s wonderful book Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. In a brief and engaging style, she took Boice’s approach, extended it and turned it into a twelve-step programme to get away from procrastinating and bingeing. Immediately I tried it out. Instead of taking 90 minutes to write 1000 words, and doing this maybe one week out of three, I aimed at 20 minutes every day, producing perhaps 300 words. It was so easy! And it promised to result in 100,000 words per year, enough for a book or lots of articles.

Gray, adapting advice from Boice, recommends writing from the beginning of a project.  This is different from the usual approach of of reading everything about a topic and only then writing about it. For me, this actually reduces the amount of reading required, because I know far better what I’m looking for. Over the following years, I gradually changed my writing-research practice. Previously, writing an article happened late in a project. Now I write from the beginning, and there is more follow-up work. The follow-up work includes looking up references, doing additional reading, seeking comments on drafts from non-experts and then from experts. It’s much easier and quality is improved.

I introduced this approach to writing to each of my PhD students. Some of them were able to take it up, and for them I could give weekly guidance. I also set up a writing programme for colleagues and PhD students. Through these experiences I learned a lot about what can help researchers to become more productive. An important lesson is that most academics find it extremely difficult to change their writing habits. Many can’t do it at all. Research students seemed better able to change, perhaps because their habits are less entrenched and because they think of themselves as learners.


Tara Gray

With this newfound interest in helping improve research productivity, I looked for other sources of information. There is a lot of advice about how to become a better writer. Our writing programme was based on the work of Boice and Gray, so I looked especially at treatments that would complement their work. Excellent books include Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen’s Write to the Top! It was encouraging that most of these authors’ advice was similar to Boice’s and Gray’s. However, there seems to be very little research to back up the advice. Boice’s is still some of the best, with Gray’s research findings a welcome addition showing the value of regular writing.

Jensen

To these books, I now add Joli Jensen’s superb Write No Matter What, and not just because it has a wonderful title. Jensen, a media studies scholar at the University of Tulsa, draws on her own experience and years of effort helping her colleagues to become more productive. As I read her book, time after time I said to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly my experience.”

“Writing productivity research and advice can be summarized in a single sentence: In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.” (p. xi)      

Jensen excels in her exposition of the psychological barriers that academics experience when trying to write. She approaches this issue — one pioneered by Boice — through a series of myths, fantasies and fears. An example is the “magnum opus myth,” the idea held by many academics that they have to produce a masterpiece. This is profoundly inhibiting, because trying to write a bit of ordinary text feels so inadequate compared to the shining vision of the magnum opus. The way to avoid this discrepancy is to postpone writing, and keep postponing it.

Another damaging idea is that writing will be easier when other bothersome tasks are cleared out of the way. Jensen calls this the “cleared-desk fantasy.” It’s a fantasy because it’s impossible to finish other tasks, and new ones keep arriving: just check your in-box. Jensen says that writing has to take priority, to be done now, irrespective of other tasks that might seem pressing.

Then there is the myth of the perfect first sentence. Some writers spend ages trying to get the first sentence just right, imagining that perfecting it will unleash their energies for the rest of the article. This again is an illusion that stymies writing.

A colleague once told me how she was stuck writing the last sentence of a book review, with her fingers poised over the keyboard for an hour as she imagined what the author of the book she was reviewing would think. This relates to the perfect first sentence problem but also to Jensen’s “hostile reader fear.” Jensen also addresses the imposter syndrome: the fear that colleagues will discover you’re not a real scholar like them. Then there is the problem of comparing your work with others, usually with others who seem to be more productive. Upwards social comparison is a prescription for unhappiness and, in addition, can inhibit researchers. If others are so much better, why bother?


Joli Jensen

Write No Matter What is filled with valuable advice addressing all aspects of the writing process. Jensen offers three “taming techniques” to enable the time, space and energy for doing the craft work of writing. She has all sorts of practical advice to address problems that can arise with research projects, for example when you lose enthusiasm for a topic, when you lose the thread of what you’re trying to do, when your submissions are rejected (and subject to depressingly negative comments), when your project becomes toxic and needs to be dumped, and when you are working on multiple projects.

She says that writing can actually be harder when there’s more unstructured time to do it, something I’ve observed with many colleagues.

“When heading into a much-desired break, let go of the delusion that you will have unlimited time. Let go of vague intentions to write lots every day, or once you’ve cleared the decks, or once you’ve recovered from the semester. Acknowledge that academic writing is sometimes harder when we expect it to be easier, because we aren’t trying to balance it with teaching and service.” (p. 127)

Jensen is open about her own struggles. Indeed, the stories she tells about her challenges, and those of some of her colleagues, make Write No Matter What engaging and authentic. Her personal story is valuable precisely because she has experienced so many of the problems that other academics face.

With my experience of running a writing programme for a decade and helping numerous colleagues and research students with their writing, it is striking how few are willing to consider a new approach, how few are willing to admit they can learn something new and, for those willing to try, how difficult it is to change habits. Boice’s work has been available since the 1980s yet is not widely known. This would be like a successful sporting coach having superior training techniques and yet being ignored for decades.

To me, this testifies to the power of entrenched myths and practices in the academic system. Write No Matter What is a guide to an academic life that is both easier and more productive, but the barriers to shifting to this sort of life remain strong. In the spirit of moderation advocated by Boice, Gray and Jensen, read their books, but only a few pages per day. And write!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Doing your best under pressure

When under pressure, your performance can suffer. There are many proven ways to overcome this problem.

Are you ever nervous at a crucial time? It might be an interview for a job you desperately want. Or a public talk in front of friends or critics. If you play sport, it could be a big game.

Most people have performance anxiety at some times. It is cruel. Not only does it make you feel terrible, but it can harm your performance. Speakers at a big occasion freeze up and can’t remember their lines, or speak in a leaden voice while reading a text. A golfer misses a crucial putt, commonly called choking.

 

I’ve read that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Some famous opera singers are anxious throughout their careers and have to be pushed onto the stage. I’ve talked with academics who never get over their worries about giving lectures. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves.

            Decades ago, I played competition chess, and eventually began to become nervous about making a blunder, a bad move that meant the game was lost. Strangely, after making a blunder I would totally relax, because I knew I didn’t need to worry any more. After several games like this, I stopped playing.

Pressure can also have a more drawn-out effect. I see this among colleagues who have trouble finishing articles and sending them to journals. Their anxiety is caused by thinking their work is not good enough. Some of them fear rejection; others cannot measure up to their own internal critics.

If you suffer performance nerves in any part of your life, I recommend the book Performing under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. It draws on the large amount of research in this area. Best of all, it has a multitude of practical tips.

Pressure

You might imagine that you perform better under pressure. A looming deadline concentrates the mind, enabling you to get the work done. But in many ways pressure can have a negative impact.

You are in the middle of a crucial interview or presentation. To do your best, you need all of your mental capacity directed to the task at hand, with no distractions. However, the pressure of the situation may cause you to worry about making a mistake. You might even start thinking of worst-case scenarios, if you mess up entirely. It doesn’t matter exactly what you’re thinking of: if it’s anything except the task at hand, it saps mental energy and prevents you from doing your best.

For some tasks, you rely entirely on your unconscious mind: you do things without thinking consciously about them. Your breathing is an example. When you learn a skill well, like a golf swing, eventually it becomes automatic, and you don’t need to think consciously about it. Under pressure though, if you start doubting yourself, you may pay attention to what is usually routine. You start thinking about your golf swing rather than where the ball will go. You lose the benefit of unconscious, automatic processing, and your skill level declines. You may end up choking: your stroke is way off!

Solutions

Part 2 of Performing under Pressure describes “pressure solutions.” When you’re under pressure, these are things you can do to perform better. There are 22 of them!

Pressure solution 1 is “befriend the moment”.  The way you think about pressure makes a big difference.

“… individuals who perceive a task or situation not as a threat but instead as a challenge, an opportunity, or fun are far more likely to perform up to the level of their ability, increasing their changes for success.” (p. 112)

Number 13 is “pressure yourself.” When preparing for a high-pressure situation, the idea is to practise what’s involved with pressure. I did this years ago when preparing to play the Weber clarinet concerto #2 with the Wollongong Symphony, a really high-stress occasion for me. I practised the piece for months, of course,  and rehearsed with the orchestra. Then, closer to the concert, I simulated some of the circumstances. At home, I played through the entire concerto without stopping. I played it along with a recording. I dressed up in my performance clothes and played it, imagining being in front of an audience of 500. At the concert, I was very nervous beforehand but relaxed as soon as I walked on stage. I’m sure that pressuring myself in advance made a difference.

            Pressure solution #15 is to write down your fears. There is a considerable body of research showing the power of writing to reduce the mental effects of traumatic experiences. The technique is simple: spend a few minutes writing down what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This straightforward exercise, spending just 20 minutes writing on three days, has been shown to have lasting benefits. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry report on one study about using writing in advance of a stressful challenge.

For students who didn’t write out their thoughts and feelings, there was a high correlation between test anxiety and performance – the more anxious the student, the worse the performance. In contrast, those students who wrote about their test thoughts and feelings showed no relationship between test anxiety and performance. In fact, the highly anxious students did as well as the less anxious students. (p. 140)

With 22 pressure solutions on offer, you should find it easy to find at least a few that work. It’s a matter of trying them and seeing what difference they make, and recruiting a few friends who can provide an independent assessment of the outcomes.

I think a big obstacle is that many people do not want to talk about their performance anxiety, or even think about it, perhaps with the fear that this will make it worse. Avoidance is easier in the short term. Checking out solutions means confronting what causes anxiety.

The COTE of armour

In part 3, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry take a step back and look at ways for people to become more resistant to performance anxiety and more able to use it to their advantage. They present four generic personality strengths: confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. Each one can be fostered.

Consider optimism. Many people believe that pessimism or optimism are character traits, which is true enough, but also believe that they are unalterable. Actually, though, there ways to change.

Optimism is not just thinking that everything will turn out okay. It involves several features. One is permanence. An optimistic attitude involves assuming that good things will continue but that bad things are temporary. A promotion at work is taken as a sign of continued success, but rejection of a promotion is treated as a short-term setback to be overcome by trying harder.

A second important feature of optimism is pervasiveness. An optimistic attitude treats positives as pervading all parts of life and treating negatives as restricted in relevance. A pessimistic salesperson, having a bad day, might say “I’ll never be any good at anything” whereas an optimistic one might just say “It was a bad day but tomorrow will be different.”

An important part of optimism is looking for positives, even in disastrous situations, and working towards them. The willingness to continue is important.

As well as describing the value of confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry give tips on becoming stronger in each of them. For example, to become more tenacious, they recommend setting meaningful goals, practising focusing, being adaptable enough to look for alternative paths to achieve goals, and thinking of obstacles as opportunities.


Hendrie Weisinger

Putting it into practice

Performing under Pressure is a valuable manual for improving in clutch situations. Following the authors’ suggestions will lead to short-term solutions and long-term improvement. Eventually, pressure that used to cause anxiety will be welcomed as a challenge and as a prod to doing ever better. Too good to be true? For many individuals, the challenge is to just get started.

Based on my observations, many people seem resigned to their current set of skills. Rather than study and practise how to become better under pressure, they are more likely to continue what they’ve always done. To improve requires a willingness to become involved in self-transformation, to think of yourself in a different way, and to put in the effort to achieve the vision.

Ironically, those with the most confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm are most likely to benefit from the authors’ insights and advice. It requires a degree of tenacity to obtain and read a book, think about its relevance and to institute a programme to implement some of its suggestions.

My guess is that the most promising way to improve is to find one or two friends and work together at changing, helping each other. How to proceed is straightforward. The challenge is to begin.


J P Pawliw-Fry

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

To do your best work, focus

To tackle the biggest work challenges, it’s vital to reduce distractions.

In today’s Internet-connected world, it is easier than ever before to spend time without thinking deeply. Texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, web stories: they all serve to attract your attention and keep your mind flitting from one item to another.

For many people, mobile phones have become an addiction, checked at every opportunity. When life becomes just a little boring, out comes the phone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But if your job requires intellectual effort, then it’s vital to be able to focus on the most difficult challenges.

I coordinate a “high-output writing programme” based on research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how to become a productive researcher. The core of the programme is daily writing. I recommend 5 to 20 minutes writing “new words” and then additional time revising previously written text, reading, collecting data and all the other components of research work.

Quite a few participants tell the same story: “If I start work by reading emails and looking at the web, my day is gone. I need to write first, otherwise I get nothing important done.”

Facebook and email can be addictive: “I’ll just check to see if there’s anything important.” One link leads to another, and hours can go by. This undermines the commitment to writing.

Deep Work

In this context, I was attracted to a recent book titled Deep Work. The author, Cal Newport, is a US computer science professor, and a writer. For him, “deep work” refers to intellectual work focused on the most difficult parts of the job. His basic contention is that by devoting more time to deep work, you can dramatically improve your productivity.

Deep Work is aimed at white-collar workers in large US businesses, the workers who are supposed to be contributing to productivity through their ideas. Newport says “Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.” (p. 70) He gives several reasons for this, including that less taxing tasks are more enticing, that looking busy has become more important than achieving goals, and the assumption that everything to do with the Internet must be worthwhile.

You may think, “Well, this book isn’t for me, because I’m not a high-level brain worker in business.” This is a legitimate response, but there’s also a different approach. Rather than judge a book overall, either accepting or rejecting it, instead I often look for useful ideas. Sometimes an author’s work may be flawed, largely irrelevant or just plain annoying, but still there are some valuable things to learn from it.

There are two aspects to increasing the amount of deep work: devoting more time to it, and cutting back time on the more trivial activities, called “shallow work.” Newport tells of some leading figures who cut themselves off from interruptions entirely, for days, weeks or even months at a time. How do they do it? They have assistants who answer messages. This isn’t practical for most people. But it does provide a useful pointer: think of ways to protect yourself from distractions.

Newport points out that great thinkers often work to a routine rather than wait for inspiration. Not coincidentally, this is the basis for the writing programme. Newport quotes journalist Mason Currey, who studied the habits of prominent thinkers such as Charles Darwin:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration – that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where . . . but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. (pp. 118-119)

Newport addresses collaborative work, which has the advantage of sparking ideas. Nevertheless, he recommends separately undertaking individual deep work and, when interacting, for collaborators to push each other towards thinking deeply.

Newport, with young children at home, a demanding job and the self-imposed task of writing books, nevertheless finishes work at 5pm. He advocates working hard when you’re working and then finishing, and being sure to get plenty of rest. For intellectual work, good quality sleep is vital.

Doing deep work

In essence, deep work involves concentrating intensely on addressing an issue or task. It is thinking. Concentrating intensely doesn’t happen automatically. It requires practice to do well. And you can’t do it well, or even practise, if you’re being distracted. Constant distractions, such as reading online posts, make it harder to concentrate even when you have the opportunity. Deep work requires training.

What counts as deep work? If you’re writing a thesis, thinking about the structure and key arguments is deep work whereas attending to emails is not. This much is obvious, but what about other sorts of tasks? Newport provides a useful test: figure out how much training would be required for someone to do the task for you. To prepare someone else to undertake your thesis would probably require years of training, whereas to train someone to sort through your emails, deleting some and selecting others as high priority, might take only a few days or weeks. This criterion can be used when trying to decide whether something you’re doing is high or low priority in your deep-work time.

What about the problem that you have so many demands on your time that you can’t set aside much for thinking deeply? Newport creates more deep-work opportunities by undertaking focused thinking during daily tasks like walking the dog. One of my PhD students, who had a very busy life, used to think through her topic while doing the ironing. Other possible opportunities are while swimming or standing in a queue.

To make full use of such opportunities, it’s necessary to prepare by developing lists of topics to think about, preferably the most challenging ones. Few people do this. My guess is that very few of the people you see checking their phones are thinking deeply about anything.

Newport developed a method for reducing the number of Internet distractions. For any particular service, such as Facebook or Twitter, he says to stop using it for a month, and then to ask two questions.

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)

If answers to both questions are no, then you should quit permanently. Newport says social media are particularly damaging to possibilities for concentrated thinking.

In order to have more time for deep work, it’s important to schedule all your time so it is not frittered away.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. (p. 227)

To schedule every minute might seem constraining. But scheduling is compatible with doing things you find satisfying. When you’re in the moment doing something, you’re not thinking of whether or not it was scheduled.

One of Newport’s counterintuitive recommendations is to schedule your leisure time. Often, leisure opportunities are frittered away in doing what seems easiest at the time, and end up being unsatisfying.


Cal Newport

Satisfaction

When you read about that’s required to engage in plenty of deep work and become highly productive, you might think “Is it really worth all that effort?” Newport has an answer: deep work is satisfying. Engaging in it can involve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” in which you are totally absorbed in exercising a skill at the limit of your ability. More generally, research shows that if you want to be happier, you need to put effort into practices known to improve happiness, such as physical activity, expressing gratitude and being mindful. This clashes with a common belief that happiness simply happens when you do pleasurable things. Having a purpose in life and working towards it brings satisfaction.

Newport comments that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.” (p. 263) It’s easier to engage in social media and other shallow activities and uncomfortable to try to achieve your very best, because you might not measure up to your expectations. But it can be satisfying in a deep way.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anne Melano and Holly Tootell for valuable comments.

Stress: how it can be good for you

By changing the way you think, you can deal with stress more effectively and use it to serve your goals.

A friend complains about being stressed: there’s a deadline at work, one of the kids is sick, the car broke down and she had a nasty argument with a neighbour. Stressful indeed. So the usual goal is to reduce stress, to avoid it. This seems like common sense.

However, when it comes to physical activity, the idea of reducing stress has long been discredited. Exercise is good for you, as long as it’s not too much. For athletes, training is designed to provide the amount of stress on muscles to build them up without causing injury.

Lack of physical stress is disastrous for the body. Lying in bed for day after day is a health hazard, with muscle wastage and other adverse consequences.

If the body needs optimal stress for best performance, what about the mind? Are there actually advantages to stress? The answer to these questions, according to Kelly McGonigal, is an emphatic yes, as indicated by the title of her book The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it).

McGonigal spent many years recommending the usual advice to reduce stress. Then she was stimulated to rethink her position and started looking into research on the benefits of stress.

McGonigal writes in an engaging fashion. She draws on her personal experience and tells about research findings in an accessible way, often providing stories about the researchers or about people who have been changed by adopting a different approach to stress.

Think differently

Here’s the most amazing finding. If you think that stress is good for you, it will actually become better for you.

McGonigal cites research by Alia Crum. In one of Crum’s studies, one group of hotel housekeepers was told that the physical work they did on the job was a form of exercise and good for them; the other group was told only that physical exercise was good for health. Then after a period of four weeks, each group’s physiological parameters were measured. The group that thought of work as exercise did better, including losing weight and body fat and reducing blood pressure. Simply thinking about their work differently changed its effect on their bodies.

Another typical experiment goes like this. Two groups of subjects are prepared for a stressful experience, for example giving a talk in front of a large audience. One group is given the usual advice that stress is not good for you and that they should to try to relax. The other group is told that stress is a useful tool. The group thinking positively about stress performs better according to independent judges.

Then there are physiological tests. One group, put into a stressful situation, is told in advance that they’ll feel nervous and should try to relax. The other group is told they’ll feel excited. The group that interprets stress as excitement actually has lower levels of biomarkers for harmful products.

The implication is that fearing and avoiding stress causes harm, whereas accepting and embracing stress can reduce its negative impacts and enable better performance.

Mindsets

These results reflect an important process: the influence of thinking on behaviour, in particular the role of a mindset, which is a framework for understanding the world, or oneself. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset described two ways of thinking about intelligence and performance. One is the fixed mindset, in which an individual sees performance as reflecting an innate capacity. The other is the growth mindset, in which performance is seen as reflecting effort. The growth mindset is far better for long-term improvement. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges where they might fail, because failure might shake their belief about themselves, whereas people with a growth mindset see failure as indicating they need to work harder.

Mindsets about stress are similarly important. The key thing is that they affect behaviour in systematic ways. Believing stress is bad leads to efforts at distraction, getting rid of feelings (rather than addressing their source), drug use and withdrawal. In contrast, when people believe stress is beneficial, they accept the existence of stressful events, strategise, seek information and advice, address the source of stress and make the best of the situation.

Stress responses

McGonigal traces negative attitudes to stress to Hans Selye’s classic studies of the effects of stress on rats. They were highly traumatised, and these findings were interpreted by doctors and the public as indicating that stress should be avoided. This was not Selye’s intention, because there were important differences between the experiences of his rats and those of most people. Selye’s rats were exposed to electric shocks in a situation in which the shocks were unpredictable, unavoidable and meaningless. In contrast, the stresses that most people experience in their daily lives are fairly predictable, sometimes avoidable and often quite meaningful.

“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.” (p. 45)

One of the ways to benefit from stress is to recognise that it provides the resources to deal with situations. Stress commonly causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat and your attention to become focused. The trick is to realise that these responses are helpful for dealing with challenges: your attention is focused on the issue at hand, your senses are heightened, your energy is mobilised. So rather than trying to dampen the stress response by avoidance, it can be used to take action.

A second dimension of the stress response relates to interactions with others. To benefit from stress, the key is to get beyond the fight-or-flight options and instead adopt a “tend and befriend” response. This means to interact with others, to help others, to be sensitive to others’ emotions, and to defend them.

There is a third dimension to the stress response: it can help you learn and grow. The way your body responds to stress can help integrate experiences.

The first half of McGonigal’s book is about understanding stress, covering these three dimensions. The second half is about transforming stress, addressing the same three dimensions, describing ways to learn how to change stress from a negative to a positive. This involves exercises to use anxiety (a stress response) for achieving goals, to respond to stress by caring for others and thus build resilience, and to become stronger as a result of stress.

This last dimension can seem unfair. If you’re subject to traumatic experiences, why should the onus be on you to use this as a way of becoming stronger? McGonigal repeatedly emphasises that trauma is bad news: it has many downsides and should be avoided. But trauma is an inevitable part of most people’s lives, and it is worth knowing that it is possible to gain something from it. This is a matter of recognising the hardship involved but also trying to gain something from the experience.

Making attacks backfire

Over the past twenty years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals who are concerned about being sued for defamation. Some are worried that something they have said would open them to legal action. Others have received letters from lawyers demanding an apology and a payment for damages. A few have received a writ and are facing expensive court proceedings.

Many of them are frightened, even terrified. They are afraid they might be sued and end up losing their house. To say they are stressed is to put it mildly. They often don’t know what to do and, while looking for information, have stumbled across my website.

McGonigal’s approach to stress offers a different way of thinking about legal threats. Rather than fearing them, they sometimes can actually be welcomed because of the opportunity to try to make them counterproductive for the perpetrators. Truda Gray and I have written about how to use publicity and other means to make defamation threats and actions backfire.

In some cases, there is no easy option, but nonetheless there are options and they need to be carefully considered. The stress of being attacked can be used as a resource to generate courage, seek support and think strategically. Rather than cowering in fear, a better attitude is to think “Come and get me (and beware – you may regret it).”

More on mindsets

In some ways, McGonigal’s biggest challenge is people’s deep-seated beliefs that stress is bad. She is fighting an uphill battle, and experimental findings and stories will only go so far. What is really required is a change of mindset, to rethink stress and how to respond to it.


Kelly McGonigal

McGonigal reports quite a few studies of “mindset interventions.” These are typically group sessions lasting 30 minutes to a few hours designed to change the way people think about themselves and the world. Done well, a mindset intervention can lead to lasting changes in behaviour, for example improved academic performance.

This can be hard to believe. Teachers spend hundreds of hours with students trying to help them learn, and can react with scepticism to someone who says a short session can make a lasting difference. There’s another confounding factor: people whose mindsets are transformed don’t even remember the intervention. They think of things differently and do better because that is their new reality. No extra effort is needed.

If you want to change the way you react to stress, you can create your own personal mindset intervention. Get The Upside of Stress and read some of it. Then write down a brief account of how you could react to stress more positively. Then tell someone else about what you’ve read and how they could change their own reactions. That’s it. It’s not much, and can have lasting benefits.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Dalilah Reuben-Shemia for useful comments.

The advantages of negative emotions

Happiness is a good thing, but there are also advantages in other emotional states.

 

Most people would like to be happy, and strive for it in various ways, everything from eating chocolate and taking holidays to helping others. But in the pursuit of happiness, is something being missed? Are there actually some advantages in being unhappy?

From 2009 to 2016, Chris Barker and I coordinated a course on happiness. We assigned weekly readings, most of which were about activities or ways of thinking that research shows increase happiness, for example physical activity, gratitude, mindfulness and optimism. To give a bit of balance to the readings, and encourage students to question the dominant orientation, Chris and I wanted to include a text providing a critique of research on happiness. However, we had a hard time finding a suitable reading. Most of the critiques of positive psychology are written in a technical and difficult-to-understand style and were not suitable for our course, which included students from engineering, science, law, education and other fields, with many international students.

Too late, I discovered the ideal source: The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, published in 2014. The authors are psychologists who have written extensively on wellbeing. They are fully aware and supportive of the goal of being happy and all the things that contribute to improving happiness. However, they became concerned about an emerging obsession with being happy, an obsession that obscures the advantages of other mental states. In short, they think it is important to be aware of, and sometimes embrace, the “dark side” of human emotions.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a pleasure to read: clearly written without jargon, filled with examples and anecdotes, logically organised, thoroughly referenced and provocative throughout. It is a powerful counter to the usual one-sided emphasis on positive emotional states.

Benefits of the dark side

You might imagine that being unhappy, pessimistic, mindless and manipulative are things to be avoided. It depends, though, on the circumstances. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener cite lots of research showing the advantages of these apparently negative states. Consider, for example, whether it’s better to be happy when on the job. If the task requires close concentration and attention to detail, then happiness can hinder performance. Air traffic controllers, for example, need to be alert and always aware of possible danger. A happy atmosphere would undermine their job performance and put lives at stake.

More generally, it is valuable to be aware of negative emotions, because they provide information that can give courage, stimulate alertness to dangers, and enable creativity. Being positive all the time can hide the information available in negative emotions, and for example lead to poor choices. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advocate embracing negative states (not wallowing in them) as part of the skill of emotional agility, meaning the capacity to use a variety of emotions as tools chosen for their value in specific situations.

Mindfulness, which involves being aware of your own situation, including your own emotions, is rightly touted at a route to deep satisfaction and a counter to cascades of intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness enables maintaining a distance from negative feelings like anger and anxiety, so they cause less damage.

            Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are well aware of the benefits of mindfulness, but they also point to the benefits of mindlessness. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool if used the right way. For example, in making a difficult decision when multiple factors are involved, for example choosing where to live or what job to take, studies have shown that making a decision based on intuition can be better than one based on a careful, conscious consideration of all the information. Furthermore, it may be best to first make a careful study of the options, then to be distracted (mindless) for a period before making a quick, intuitive decision. The point is to harness both the mindful and mindless capacities of the mind.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say there are times when it is possible to take advantage of anger, Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy. Psychopaths, who are characterised as having no empathy, do not have a good reputation, often being put in the same category as serial killers. However, many psychopathic traits are functional in specific situations. For example, you probably want your brain surgeon to be focused entirely on the delicate task and not disturbed by feelings of empathy. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener also cite research showing that in some situations when a person needs help, psychopaths are more helpful than others.

            Similarly, narcissistic personality disorder – having grandiose ideas of personal importance and intense anger at being criticised – is not attractive. Yet there are some positive aspects to narcissism, for example a drive to achieve so as to measure up to self-evaluations and to attract praise from others.

Other dark sides

Looking at the benefits of anger, manipulation and other supposedly negative aspects of human personality and behaviour raises the question of whether there are any “dark sides” that should be totally avoided, such as hatred, sadism, greed and envy. Certainly they can cause severe damage, as documented by Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice.

Consider greed, the desire for more, especially for more than others have. “Greed is good” has become the mantra of winners in the neoliberal economy, so in this context greed might be necessary for success. But what about individuals who desire a more egalitarian society? Are there still circumstances in which individual greed is part of reaching one’s full potential? Or is it simply greedy to pursue self-interest at the expense of others?

Envy is another dark emotion. It has a positive aspect: it can stimulate efforts to emulate the person who is envied. The more destructive side of envy is revealed in efforts to denigrate, undermine or even destroy the envied person. Envy is thus assuaged not by personal achievement but by tearing down envied others. Even so, this potentially has a positive function. In a highly unequal society, in which those who are privileged exploit the underclass, envy can contribute to revolutionary change.

            Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase happiness. Research shows that thinking of a few things you are thankful for just once a week can lead to significant improvements in happiness. This is certainly far easier than doubling your income. Yet might there be occasions when it is better to be ungrateful? Perhaps when someone is showering you with favours, you suspect they are trying to manipulate you. Withholding gratitude might make you more alert to scams.

Then there is physical activity, shown to be one of the most reliable mood-boosters available. Too much exercise can be damaging, to be sure, but what about the opposite of exercise: laziness? Are there occasions when laziness is beneficial? Anyone who exercises regularly needs to recover, and being lazy is an opportunity to do this. But what is the benefit of laziness for couch potatoes who avoid activity at all costs?

Forgiveness – better thought of as emotionally letting go rather than sanctioning another’s actions – enables a person to escape damaging thought patterns. However, the pursuit of justice is sometimes served by remaining vengeful for years or even decades.


Todd Kashdan

The whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable antidote to the one-sided glorification of positive states like happiness, altruism and mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say that a person who is “whole” is able to take advantage of negative as well as positive states. The subtitle of their book states this: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

            They are careful to say that in most circumstances, maybe about 80% of the time, the “good” states are desirable; for the remaining 20%, using your “dark side” can be advantageous to both you and others. By referring to 80% and 20%, they are really saying to draw on negative emotions just occasionally. They also note that “negative” states like anger and selfishness shouldn’t be faked. To obtain full benefits, they need to be genuine, just kept on a leash.


Robert Biswas-Diener

The whole community?

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, like most figures in the field of positive psychology, focus on the individual. They give little sense of how emotions are linked to social arrangements. In part this reflects their US orientation and the fact that most psychological research is carried out in affluent countries, often with university students.

Research indicates that narcissism has been increasing in the US for decades: surveys of university students reveal that personal goals are now more commonly to make money and become individually successful rather than to serve broader community goals. In this context of competitive individualism, linked to the rise of neoliberalism, displaying narcissistic traits can be useful for the individual, and those who are too altruistic can be easily exploited. But in a different sort of society, drawing on negative personality traits may not be so advantageous, or may be required less often.

            Looking at the social function of emotions and behaviours brings up the challenging issue of how best to bring about positive social change. If the goal is a more caring society, with greater equality and support for those who are most vulnerable, what is the role of anger, manipulation and unhappiness? There are no easy answers.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable treatment because it raises questions about things taken for granted. It can lead to a philosophy of moderation or balance. If I were again teaching a happiness course, I would assign one or two extracts from The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then hope to learn more from the response of the students.

“Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of the self will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.” (p. 213)

Brian Martin
mailto:bmartin@uow.edu.au

Daily data: be sceptical

Be careful about data you encounter every day, especially in the news.

 beavis-butthead-and-numbers

If you watch the news, you are exposed to all sorts of numbers, intended to provide information. Some might be reliable, such as football scores, but with others it’s harder to know, for example the number of people killed in a bomb attack in Syria, the percentage of voters supporting a policy, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, or the increase in the average global temperature.

Should you trust the figures or be sceptical? If you want to probe further, what should you ask?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to understand statistics. Taking a course or reading a textbook is one approach, but that will mainly give you the mathematical side. To develop a practical understanding, there are various articles and books aimed at the general reader. Demystifying Social Statistics gives a left-wing perspective, a tradition continued by the Radstats Group. Joel Best has written several books, for example Damned Lies and Statistics, providing valuable examinations of statistics about contested policy issues. The classic treatment is the 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics.

Most recently, I’ve read the recently published book Everydata by John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck. It’s engaging, informative and ideal for readers who want a practical understanding without encountering any formulas. It is filled with examples, mostly from the US.

everydata

            You might have heard about US states being labelled red or blue. Red states are where people vote Republican and blue states are where people vote Democrat. Johnson and Gluck use this example to illustrate aggregated data and how it can be misleading. Just because Massachusetts is a blue state doesn’t mean no one there votes Republican. In fact, quite a lot of people in Massachusetts vote Republican, just not a majority. Johnson and Gluck show pictures of the US with the data broken down by county rather than by state, and a very different picture emerges.

red_state_blue_state-svg
R
ed, blue and in-between states

            In Australia, aggregated data is commonly used in figures for economic growth. Typically, a figure is given for gross domestic product or GDP, which might have grown by 2 per cent in the past year. But this figure hides all sorts of variation. The economy in different states can grow at different rates, and different industries grow at different rates, and indeed some industries contract. When the economy grows, this doesn’t mean everyone benefits. In recent decades, most of the increased income goes to the wealthiest 1% and many in the 99% are no better off, or go backwards.

The lesson here is that when you hear a figure, think about what it applies to and whether there is underlying variation.

In the Australian real estate market, figures are published for the median price of houses sold. The median is the middle figure. If three houses were sold in a suburb, for $400,000, $1 million and $10 million, the median is $1 million: one house sold for less and one for more. The average, calculated as total sales prices divided by the number of sales, is far greater: it is $3.8 million, namely $0.4m + $1m + $10m divided by 3.

The median price is a reasonable first stab at the cost of housing, but it can be misleading in several ways. What if most of those selling are the low-priced or the high-priced houses? If just three houses sold, how reliable is the median? If the second house sold for $2 million rather than $1 million, the median would become $2 million, quite a jump.

sydney-houses sydney-house-expensive
Is the average or median house price misleading?

            In working on Everydata, Johnson and Gluck contacted many experts and have used quotes from them to good effect. For example, they quote Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong, saying “I think the biggest issue we all face is over-interpreting anecdotal evidence” and “It is difficult to force yourself to ignore these anecdotes – or, at a minimum, treat them as just one data point – and draw conclusions from data instead.” (p. 6)

Everydata addresses sampling, averages, correlations and much else, indeed too much to summarise here. If Johnson and Gluck have a central message, it is to be sceptical of data and, if necessary, investigate in more depth. This applies especially to data encountered in the mass media. For example, the authors comment, “We’ve seen many cases in which a finding is reported in the news as causation, even though the underlying study notes that it is only correlation.” (p. 46) Few readers ever check the original research papers to see whether the findings have been reported accurately. Johnson and Gluck note that data coming from scientific papers can also be dodgy, especially when vested interests are involved.

The value of a university education

For decades, I’ve read stories about the benefits of a university education. Of course there can be many sorts of benefits, for example acquiring knowledge and skills, but the stories often present a figure for increased earnings through a graduate’s lifetime.

money-education

            This is an example of aggregated data. Not everyone benefits financially from having a degree. If you’re already retired, there’s no benefit.

There’s definitely a cost involved, both fees and income forgone: you could be out earning a salary instead. So for a degree to help financially, you forgo income while studying and hope to earn more afterwards.

The big problem with calculations about benefits is that they don’t compare like with like. They compare the lifetime earnings of those who obtained degrees to the lifetime earnings of those who didn’t, but these groups aren’t drawn randomly from a sample. Compared to those who don’t go to university, those who do are systematically different: they tend to come from well-off backgrounds, to have had higher performance in high school and to have a greater capacity for studying and deferred gratification.

Where’s the study of groups with identical attributes, for example identical twins, comparing the options of careers in the same field with and without a degree? Then there’s another problem. For some occupations, it is difficult or impossible to enter or advance without a degree. How many doctors or engineers do you know without degrees? It’s hardly fair to calculate the economic benefits of university education when occupational barriers are present. A fair comparison would look only at occupations where degrees are not important for entry or advancement, and only performance counts.

A final example

For those who want to go straight to takeaway messages, Johnson and Gluck provide convenient summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. However, there is much to savour in the text, with many revealing examples helping to make the ideas come alive. The following is one of my favourites (footnotes omitted).

 hamburger

Americans are bad at math. Like, really bad. In one study, the U.S. ranked 21st out of 23 countries. Perhaps that explains why A&W Restaurants’ burger was a flop.

As reported in the New York Times Magazine, back in the early 1980s, the A&W restaurant chain wanted to compete with McDonald’s and its famous Quarter Pounder. So A&W decided to come out with the Third Pounder. Customers thought it tasted better, but it just wasn’t selling. Apparently people thought a quarter pound (1/4) was bigger than a third of a pound (1/3).

Why would they think 1/4 is bigger than 1/3? Because 4 is bigger than 3.

Yes, seriously.

People misinterpreted the size of a burger because they couldn’t understand fractions. (p. 101)

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John H. Johnson

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Mike Gluck

John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck, Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day (Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Learning from failure

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Imagine you are a teacher and you decide to try an innovative teaching technique. However, it goes horribly wrong. The technique didn’t work the way you expected, and furthermore numerous students make complaints to your supervisor. Luckily, your supervisor is sympathetic to your efforts and your job is secure.

What do you do next?

  1. Avoid innovative techniques: they’re too risky.
  2. Keep innovating, but be much more careful.
  3. Tell a few close colleagues so they can learn from your experience.
  4. Write an article for other teachers telling what went wrong, so they can learn from your experience.
  5. Invite some independent investigators to analyse what went wrong and to write a report for others to learn from.

The scenario of innovative teaching gone wrong has happened to me several times in my decades of teaching undergraduates. Each time, through no particular fault of my own, what I attempted ended up disastrously. It even happened one time when I designed a course that worked brilliantly one year but failed miserably the next.

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So what did I do? Mainly options 2 and 3: I kept innovating, more carefully, and told a few colleagues. I never imagined writing about these teaching disasters, even using a pseudonym, much less inviting others to investigate and publish a report. It would be humiliating, might invite additional unwanted scrutiny, and might even make innovation more difficult in the future.

Aviation: a learning culture

These thoughts came to mind as a result of reading Matthew Syed’s new book Black Box Thinking. The title refers to the flight recorders in commercial aircraft, called black boxes, that record data about the flight, including conversations among the pilots. When there is a crash or a near miss, these boxes are vital for learning from the failure. Rather than automatically blaming the pilots, an independent team of experts investigates accidents and incidents and publishes its findings so the whole industry can learn from what happened.

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Some of the greatest improvements in aircraft safety have resulted from studies of disasters. The improvement might be redesigning instruments so confusion is less likely or changing protocols for interactions between pilots. One important lesson from disasters is that the flight engineer and co-pilot need to be more assertive to prevent the pilot from losing perspective during tense situations. The investigations using black-box information occasionally end up blaming pilots, for example when they are drunk, but usually the cause of errors is not solely individual failure, but a combination of human, procedural and technical factors.

Cover-up cultures: medicine and criminal justice

Syed contrasts this learning culture in aviation with a culture of cover-up in medicine. There is a high rate of failure in hospitals, and indeed medical error is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths. But, as the saying goes, surgeons bury their mistakes. Errors are seldom treated as opportunities for learning. In a blame culture, everyone seeks to protect their jobs and reputations, so the same sorts of errors recur.

Syed tells about some hospitals in which efforts are made to change the culture so that errors are routinely reported, without blame attached. This can quickly lead to fixing sources of error, for example by differently labelling drugs or by using checklists. In these hospitals, reported error rates greatly increase because cover-up is reduced, while actual harm due to errors drops dramatically: fewer patients are harmed. Furthermore, costs due to patient legal actions also drop, saving money.

medical-error

So why don’t more hospitals follow the same path? And why don’t more occupations follow the example of aviation? Syed addresses several factors: cultures of blame, excess power at the top of organisations, and belief systems resistant to testing.

In the criminal justice system, one of the most egregious errors is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Police and prosecutors sometimes decide that a particular suspect is the guilty party and ignore evidence to the contrary, or don’t bother to find any additional evidence. Miscarriages of justice are all too common, yet police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to admit it.

In some cases, after a person has been convicted and spent years in jail, DNA evidence emerges showing the person’s innocence. Yet in quite a few cases, the police involved in the original investigation refuse to change their minds, going through incredible intellectual contortions to explain how the person they charged could actually be guilty. Syed comments, “DNA evidence is indeed strong, but not as strong as the desire to protect one’s self-esteem.” (p. 89)

Black boxes

When I heard about Black Box Thinking, I decided to buy it because I had read Matthew Syed’s previous book Bounce, about which I wrote a comment. Syed was the British table tennis champion for many years and became a media commentator. Bounce is a popularisation of work on expert performance, and is highly engaging. In Black Box Thinking, Syed has tackled a related and broader subject: how to achieve high performance in collective endeavours.

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Matthew Syed

The title had me confused at first, because in other disciplines a black box refers to a system whose internal mechanisms are hidden: only inputs and outputs can be observed. In contrast, flight recorders in aircraft, which actually are coloured orange, not black, are sources of information.

Syed’s book might have been titled “Learning from failure,” because this is the theme throughout his book. He presents stories from medicine, aviation, business, criminal justice, sport and social policy, all to make the point that failures should be treated as opportunities for learning rather than assigning blame. Individuals can heed Syed’s important message, but bringing about change in systems is another matter.

Another theme in the book is the importance of seeking marginal gains, namely small improvements. Syed tells about Formula One racing in which tiny changes here and there led to superior performance. Another example is when the company Unilever was manufacturing soap powder – laundry detergent – and wanted to make the powder come out of the nozzle more consistently.

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Unilever’s initial nozzle

Unilever hired a group of mathematicians, experts in fluid dynamics and high pressure systems, to come up with an answer, but they failed. Unilever then hired a group of biologists – yes, biologists – who used a process modelled on evolution. They tried a variety of designs and determined which one worked best. Then they took the best performing design and tested slight modifications of it. Applying this iterative process repeatedly led to a design that worked well but never could have been imagined in advance.

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Unilever’s final nozzle, after 45 trial-and-error iterations

Learning from mistakes in science

Syed presents science as a model for learning from error, seeing the experimental method as a great advance over adherence to dogma. Science certainly has led to revolutionary changes to human understanding and, in tandem with technology, to dramatic improvements in human welfare, as well as to unprecedented threats to human life (nuclear weapons and climate change). However, Syed notes that science students mainly study the latest ideas, with little or no time examining “failed” theories such as aether or astrology: “By looking only at the theories that have survived, we don’t notice the failures that made them possible.” (p. 52).

Even so, overall Syed’s view of science is an idealistic image of how research is supposed to work by continually trying to falsify hypotheses. Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most research is problem-solving within a framework of unquestioned assumptions called a paradigm. Rather than trying to falsify fundamental assumptions, scientists treat them as dogma. Sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science is governed by a set of norms, one of which is “organised scepticism.” However, the relevance of these norms has been challenged. Ian Mitroff, based on his studies, proposed that science is equally well described by a corresponding set of counter-norms, one of which is “organised dogmatism.”

bauer-dogmatism

Although science is incredibly dynamic due to theoretical innovation and experimental testing, it is also resistant to change in some ways, and can be shaped by various interests, including corporate funding, government imperatives and the self-interest of elite scientists.

Therefore, while there is much to learn from the power of the scientific method, there is also quite a bit that scientists can learn from aviation and other fields that learn systematically from error. It would be possible to examine occasions when scientists were resistant to new ideas that were later accepted as correct, for example continental drift, mad cow disease or the cause of ulcers, and spell out the lessons for researchers. But it is hard to find any analyses of these apparent collective failures that are well known to scientists. Similarly, there are many cases in which dissident scientists have had great difficulty in challenging views backed by commercial interests, for example the scandals involving the pharmaceutical drugs thalidomide and Vioxx. There is much to learn from these failures, but again the lessons, whatever they may be, have not led to any systematic changes in the way science is carried out. If anything, the subordination of science to powerful groups with vested interests is increasing, so there is little incentive to institutionalise learning from disasters.

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Failure: still a dirty word

Although Syed is enthusiastic about the prospects of learning from failure, he is very aware of the obstacles. Although he lauds aviation for its safety culture, in one chapter he describes how the drive to attribute blame took over and a conscientious pilot was pilloried. Blaming seems to be the default mode in most walks of life. In politics, assigning blame has become an art form: opposition politicians and vulnerable groups are regularly blamed for society’s problems, and it is a brave politician indeed who would own up to mistakes as a tool for collective learning. In fact, political dynamics seem to operate with a different form of learning, namely on how to be ever more effective in blaming others for problems.

blaming

I regularly hear from whistleblowers in all sorts of occupations: teachers, police, public servants, corporate employees and others. In nearly every case, there is something going wrong in a workplace, a failure if you want to call it that, and hence a potential opportunity to learn. However, organisational learning seems to be the least likely thing going on. Instead, many whistleblowers are subject to reprisals, sending a message to their co-workers that speaking out about problems is career suicide. Opportunities for learning are regularly squandered. Of course, I’m seeing a one-sided perspective: in workplaces where failure does not automatically lead to blame or cover-up, there is little need for whistleblowing. When those who speak out about problems are encouraged or even rewarded, no one is likely to contact me for advice. Even so, it would seem that such workplaces are the exception rather than the rule.

The more controversial the issue, the more difficult it can be to escape blaming as a mode of operation. On issues such as abortion, climate change, fluoridation and vaccination, partisans on either side of the debate are reluctant to admit any weakness in their views because opponents will seize on it as an avenue for attack. Each side becomes defensive, never admitting error while continually seeking to expose the other side’s shortcomings, including pathologies in reasoning and links to groups with vested interests. These sorts of confrontations seem designed to prevent learning from failure. Therefore it is predictable that such debates will continue largely unchanged.

Although the obstacles to learning from failures might seem insurmountable, there is hope. Black Box Thinking is a powerful antidote to complacency, showing what is possible and identifying the key obstacles to change. The book deserves to be read and its lessons taken to heart. A few courageous readers may decide to take a risk and attempt to resist the stampede to blame and instead foster a learning culture.

black-box-thinking

“The basic proposition of this book is that we have an allergic attitude to failure. We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it from our lives. We have looked at cognitive dissonance, the careful use of euphemisms, anything to divorce us from the pain we feel when we are confronted with the realisation that we have underperformed.” (p. 196)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Older body, youthful mind

For those who are getting old, there are ways to keep youthful mentally.

Senior lady concentrated

Is mental decline in old age inevitable? Are there habits that can help in maintaining mental acuity in later years? The older I get, the more these questions interest me, and so I keep on the lookout for discussions of relevant research that can be put to practical use. I’ve just read Staying Sharp, one of the most useful contributions in this area.

Academics and the life of the mind

I work as a researcher, among academics who depend on their minds to do their work. Most of my colleagues are over 40. Yet, despite mental capacity being crucial to scholarly performance, relatively few pay a lot of attention to nourishing their brain – “nourishing” interpreted in a variety of senses.

Whatever their views about the mind, many scholars behave as if it doesn’t matter all that much how they treat their bodies, because the mind is this separate entity that can be cultivated autonomously. Some damage their brains through excessive alcohol. More common is a neglect of physical exercise, even though there is ample evidence that exercise benefits mental functioning in multiple ways, including reducing anxiety and depression. Poor diet is also common.

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The behaviour of intellectuals who neglect their bodies might be related to a status difference between white and blue-collar workers. To distinguish themselves from manual labourers, intellectuals may avoid physical exertion. Or perhaps the status comes from having sufficient income to afford a nice car and drive to work rather than walking or cycling.

Staying sharp

The book Staying Sharp is written by two US health practitioners who seek to combine ideas from scientific research with holistic approaches. Henry Emmons is a psychiatrist with a background in conventional medicine who now includes natural therapies in his practice; David Alter is a psychologist with a PhD who practises in a centre for holistic health. Their book is subtitled 9 keys for a youthful brain through modern science and ageless wisdom. Their focus is on older people, who they euphemistically refer to as being in the “second half of life,” roughly the 40s and beyond.

staying-sharp

After a few introductory chapters, Staying Sharp has 9 chapters addressing each of the 9 keys in the subtitle. The authors have categorised the vast body of relevant research and practice into a convenient package for the non-specialist reader.

Of the 9 keys, three are more overtly about the body: exercise, sleep and diet. If the brain is thought of as a biological organ, then it makes sense that exercise is beneficial: it stimulates the flow of blood throughout the body, including the brain, providing nourishment and removing waste products. A good diet ensures the nourishment is of the highest quality. Sleep allows the brain to recover from inputs during wakefulness, while also performing functions such as consolidating memories.

Emmons and Alter’s other six keys are about mental orientations: curiosity, flexibility, optimism, empathy, relationships and authenticity. It seems plausible that greater curiosity can aid the mind, because it involves becoming exposed to new ideas, developing new connections and brain cells. Many people remain stuck in the same sets of ideas for years or decades, and this can lead to stagnation. I perceive this in myself in my daily writing. When I’m writing about a topic I’ve written about before, the words flow easily, but if I tackle a new topic, it becomes more of a struggle, which might be a sign of greater effort that mobilises less frequently used brain circuits. It is more comfortable to stick with familiar topics. Tackling new topics, as a result of curiosity, is analogous to exercise that pushes the body a bit beyond its comfort zone.

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Emmons and Alter go well beyond this sort of intuitive assessment. They cite all sorts of scientific studies about curiosity, provide an evolutionary rationale for the advantages of curiosity (but not too much of it), give the case for experiencing boredom (to a certain degree), and provide all sorts of suggestions for fostering curiosity.

For each of the chapters on the 9 keys, Emmons and Alter provide a summary of key concepts, a rationale for the activity, evidence of effectiveness, and practical guidance for engaging in the activity. For example, concerning sleep they report on the prevalence of sleep deprivation in the US, tell about changes in sleep patterns as people get older, describe at some length the benefits of sleep (improved mood, clearing of the mind, repairing the body), give the biological rationale for the importance of sleep (including detoxification), and then pages of details about how to develop habits that promote good sleep.

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Henry Emmons

Of writing for the general reader on the mental side of ageing well, Staying Sharp is the most comprehensive treatment I’ve seen. It draws on a wide range of scientific literature and covers both physical and psychological dimensions. The authors provide detailed practical steps in each area they address.

Out of the vast body of research and writing about the mind and ageing, to highlight 9 areas is a matter of convenience. In practice, all sorts of practices make a difference, but trying to make sense of all the information available is overwhelming. Readers who have been following research in areas covered in Staying Sharp will have their own ideas about priorities. This is only to be expected, because no prescription for productive ageing is ideal for every individual.

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David Alter

Reservations

Staying Sharp is oriented to affluent people and to life in the US. For those living in poverty or in a different culture, some of the keys would be different. To stay sharp, sometimes the first priority is to stay alive.

The book is written for individuals, even though some of the recommendations are about building connections with others. Individualism is higher in the US than anywhere else, and is probably greater among those who are well off. As a result, Staying Sharp has little about collective solutions for ageing well. For example, towns can be designed so that exercise by walking and cycling is part of daily life, and workplaces can be designed to foster greater optimism and stronger relationships. These involve social change, will be resisted by groups with vested interests, and are unlikely to make a big difference in the short term.

It’s possible to imagine a future in which the insights from Staying Sharp, and the experiences and studies on which it is based, are used to build communities that encourage mind-strengthening throughout life. Until then, a possible substitute is to devote efforts towards moving towards such a future. The efforts will help others and, by following Emmons and Alter’s advice, can contribute to staying sharp throughout one’s own life.

Read the book and visit the Staying Sharp website, https://stayingsharp.aarp.org

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Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Jody Watts for helpful comments.