“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.” —Ben Sweetland
My first boss was, he still is, an incredibly talented, smart and knowledgable person.
In my eyes, he knew everything about software development. We worked together for a long time, and we became friends. It was the time of the Internet Bubble, the beginning of this millennium. Life was great for software developers. We worked a lot, most of the time on exciting projects, and we were well paid.
During all those years, he kept teaching. It wasn’t a well-paid job, not compare to software development and, considering the amount of time spent in the office, I couldn’t understand why he was investing so much time in teaching.
When I asked him, he told me that teaching was the better way he knew to learn and improve himself.
I have to admit, I couldn’t really understand his answer at the time. To me, he was already the most competent person in my field.
But this morning, while I was reflecting upon the power of helping others shine, his story came up.
If you are struggling to overcome a tough situation, or you want to grow, but you can’t find your way forward, you can try helping someone else who’s on a similar journey. When you help someone else shine, their light will brighten your path.
Have you ever played golf?
I didn’t, at least not properly. But I tried to shoot some balls twice.
Once in New York at a practice field at the docks. A friend, who’s a player, took me there to had some fun. We got 50 balls, a golf club and we were set. He explained to me the basics, and for 20 minutes, I just tried to hit the ball without hitting anyone. I did my best with poor results, but it was fun.
Years later, while I was exploring the complexity of human emotions and how they influence our behaviours, my perspective on golf changed. I realised that it wasn’t about training the body or learning the movement, not only at least. It was more about training the mind and harnessing emotions to enter the flow state where the stroke just happens.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to hit a few balls at a friend’s house. But this time, I didn’t focus on hitting the ball. I kept my full attention on myself, my body, my sensations and my feelings. I experienced a short moment of peace as if I was within a bubble for a few seconds.
I’d love to say that my throws were great, but they weren’t. Though I hit the ball every time. What I enjoy the most is the experience of being able to create a bubble of intense focus and presence through movement and rituality.
“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” — Anton Chekhov
This morning this few words appeared in my mind while I was doing some stretching to wake up my body; “show, don’t tell”.
It’s an expression used to summarise a writing technique. If you’re writing about something, you can describe what’s going on, providing all the information and details, including feelings and emotions. Or you can paint a picture through which the readers can feel the experience as if they were living it.
In the first case, you’re telling, in the second one you’re showing.
The short excerpt at the opening of this post comes from a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother, and I think it explains the concept perfectly.
Now that we know what “show, don’t tell” means, I’m left with a big question mark and only two minutes to finish this post.
Where is this thought coming from? And what should I do with it?
Maybe it’s related to the experience of last days. I had been talking and coaching with people from different part of the worlds. We used the English language for our conversations even thou, it was not the native language for any of us. And the different styles are just the surface of a more profound richness of cultural nuances.
In those situations, telling doesn’t work.
If I tell how I feel using the words I know, the other person may never really feel the connection. I won’t be able to spark empathy. But if I show how I feel, I can go beyond the boundaries of words and create a real connection.
Abraham Wald was a Hungarian mathematician who lived in the first half of the last century. His main field was statistical analysis but, being a Jew, he never really had the chance to fully apply his skills in Austria, where he graduated, due to Nazis invasion. In 1938 Wald escaped to the states where he was invited to work at the Columbia University. Thanks to his skills he became a member of the Statistical Research Group (SRG). The SRG was a group of scientists and mathematicians dedicated to solving various wartime problems.
Wald was involved in a famous story that is widely used to explain the Survivor Bias. I read this story many times, but only yesterday I learned his name.
These are the words of W. Allen Wallis, another member of the SRG; “The military was inclined to provide protection for those parts that on returning planes showed the most hits. Wald assumed, on good evidence, that hits in combat were uniformly distributed over the planes. It follows that hits on the more vulnerable parts were less likely to be found on returning planes than hits on the less vulnerable parts, since planes receiving hits on the more vulnerable parts were less likely to return to provide data. From these premises, he devised methods for estimating vulnerability of various parts.”
This story explains perfectly the Survivor Bias. Because we have plenty of information on the survivors from a challenge while we have no info about all the others that didn’t survive (the planes that didn’t come back), we tend to model our behaviours only on the winner (survivors) missing valuable information.
I wrote about Wald this morning because, in the period where superheroes bring billions of people to the cinema, I love the story of a hero whose superpowers are very human: numbers, logic and intuition.
The second reason is that the tale as it is usually told doesn’t give full justice to the scientific work behind it.
You can find more at this link.