Friday, October 30, 2009

What defines the "culture" of a place?

The sum of its parts.

Have you ever noticed that certain countries seem to have different "personalities"? Have you noticed how different the personalities of people in France and Germany seem to be? What about Iceland and Mexico? How about with companies? Is the corporate "culture" at Goldman Sachs different than the one at Walmart? How about with schools? Is the collective personality of the University of Texas at Austin different than the one at Stanford?

So, what accounts for these personality/culture differences if each of the groups in the categories mentioned (countries, schools, companies) seem to have similar demographics - people, gender, age, educational backgrounds, etc. ?

Personality or "culture" is actually defined by the sum of its component parts (its individuals) - from the personality of a single individual, to that of a Club with 10 members, to that of a Company with 100 employees, to that of a University with 10,000 students, to that of a country with 10 million people.

When people talk about joining a group and seeking some sort of culture fit, they are actually onto something. Belonging to a group that matches your own personality and aspirations is a very positive experience. Belonging to a group that does not, is not very fun. The problem is that it takes time to get to know a group's culture. You cannot define what it is from a one day visit, or a day of interviews, or a 2 day vacation.

So, look around you. How do the cultures/personalities of the groups and subgroups that you are part of match your own? Are they a good fit? Are the groups influencing your own personality/culture in a positive or negative way? Do you need to fix or change something? If so, start today.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Is kissing an automatic invitation for more?

Absolutely not.

Have you noticed how the media (movies, TV, etc.) always shows a bedroom scene immediately after two people decide to kiss?

It is understandable how, for the sake of ratings and an interesting plot, you would follow that approach in a movie. However, this relentless portrayal of a simple act of kissing as an immediate, and implied, invitation to go all the way is spilling into real life. Why?

If going all the way is the utmost expression of love, then it is logical to think that in order to get there, you need to dedicate a lot of time to get to know the other person (including a lot of long and innocuous kissing sessions) before taking the next step. Right?

Monday, October 26, 2009

What is the best way to learn another language?

Full immersion.

Have you ever wondered why all those years of foreign language instruction seem to evaporate every time you want to use them? Languages are a remarkably complex undertaking (just like music) that require constant and prolonged practice.

Our brains are designed to learn based on trial and error and repetition/practice. The only way to eventually hard wire something as complex as a new language into our brains is to live it and experience it with everything we have. This means, we need to speak, think, write, dream, and hear it every minute of the day for a few months. Learning languages in a classroom only create temporary connections in our brain that tend to dissolve quickly if not constantly "experienced".

I personally can attest that I learned more in the first 2 months of full immersion that in 9 years of classroom instruction. I suspect that some of the theory and knowledge acquired during those 9 years, helped make the immersion process more efficient, but not until immersion was I able to understand and speak a foreign language fluently.

So, stop struggling. Make immersion (6 months minimum) part of your plan for truly learning a new language.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is the best way to make difficult decisions?

With a cool head.

Have you heard the expression that "whoever gets angry first, loses"? Have you ever made a decision in the heat of the moment that seems crazy the next day once you have calmed down?

Anger and decision-making are an explosive combination.

So, when you feel that you are in a situation where you can feel yourself getting angry (e.g., somebody is saying something about you that is not true, somebody is criticizing your work, your intelligence, your body, your habits, your family, or your friends), immediately think about something else - disconnect yourself - do not let yourself be dragged into the trap. Do not be forced into making a decision or reacting when you are angry.

So how do you deal with it?

Once you have successfully detached yourself from being a participant and successfully become more of an observer, then you could try some of these examples that I have used in the past to buy myself some time:
1. "Let me think about what you just said and I will get back to you"
2. "Interesting perspective, how can I help"
3. "Let me find out what happened and I will let you know"

And, my favorite one ...
4. "So now that we are all in agreement that I screwed up, can we move on?"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How do you not let the news bring you down?

Ignore it.

Have you ever wondered why most of the things we hear or read in the news are about bad things? More importantly, why do people want to get a regular dose of that stuff? What happens to all the good things that are also happening in the world every day?

All this negativity can easily induce a sort of paralyzing paranoia.

The reality is that if you were to pay attention to these things and try to protect yourself to prevent any of this stuff from happening to you, you might as well stay home, close the door, and never leave.

So what is there to do?

First of all, stop the flow of bad things into your head - nobody needs that. The world out there is an amazing place waiting to be experienced and discovered first hand - not through the news. You will realize that people are good by nature and this realization alone will open up the possibilities ... just think about all the people you interacted with this week. Any murderers?

If I would have paid attention to the people that have told me not to go here or not to do that because of the news, I would have never ridden my motorcycle to places like Colombia, Vietnam, Morocco, or Nicaragua. I would have never had the opportunity to have dinner with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and discuss Indian rights with them, or be in a political demonstration with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or meet Fidel Castro in Cuba, or meet with the paramilitares in Colombia, or discuss recent events between China and Vietnam at their border.

If I would have listened to the news, I would have missed meeting some of the most interesting people in the world, seeing some of the most amazing places, and confirm that people all over the world are basically the same - we all want to live in peace, to love, to take care of our children and feed our families, to live with dignity, and to help others. It is just human nature.

So what if the news tell you that there is murder, rape, and violence? Are you going to spend your life worrying about how these things are going to eventually get you ..... or, are you going to step out, experience the world head on, and enjoy every minute of it?

I know what I prefer : )

Monday, October 5, 2009

How do you avoid developing a food obsession?

Limit the time you spend thinking about food.

The goal should be to only think about food 3 times a day - i.e., whenever you are sitting at a table having a well balanced/varied, regularly scheduled, and well proportioned meal.

Any other time, you should be busy doing other things: playing, studying, working, helping others, writing a book, enjoying friends, kissing somebody, or whatever.

Times in between meals should not be for thinking about food, or for snacking, or for worrying about diets, or for thinking about what is in what you already ate or what you will be eating next.

So, what about if you get hungry in between meals?......Just wait! Nobody dies from being hungry for an hour or so. Just finish what you are doing and eat a well balanced meal at its proper time. And, when you are finally eating a meal, try to stop thinking about what is in what you are eating or whether it is "good or bad for you". How about just enjoying it?

So, chill, live life, and forget about food a little.....it is way overrated.

How can countries best achieve sustained development?

Focus on assets and capabilities.

When countries align their efforts to take advantage of their strengths and capabilities (what they know how to do and what they do well) and their assets (what they already have), fast and sustained progress is possible.

Germany has applied their best-in-class engineering capabilities to become the manufacturer of choice for the most complex machines out there. Japan has applied their cultural affinity with quality to everything they do. The US takes advantage of its diversity and its ability to organize to create highly efficient and complex systems (e.g., capital markets, energy, etc.). China applies its great national pride and sense of history. India is applying its education system to create a workable knowledge economy. Mexico exploits its natural beauty to be one of the top 10 players in tourism in the world. Switzerland exploits its stability and neutrality in areas that favor those attributes like banking. The United Arab Emirates have exploited their oil revenues to create a true oasis in the dessert. Costa Rica recognized that their rain forests with their great biological diversity could be a source for development.

You would think that it should be simple for countries to go through a simple strategic planning process like this one and identify what they should focus on. The problem is that all this requires one key component that is often hard to find: Leadership.