My wife turns to me and says…

My wife turns to me and says, “The world has gone crazy.  Why can’t people just let other people live.”  So, I turn to her and say,  “This isn’t new. It’s gone on forever. I’ve thought a lot about it and believe it or not, I finally figured out why.”

Now I’ve got her attention.  I know at this point my answer better be good.  She’s looking right at me.

I continue, “You see, it all started when we were very young and our parents told us the story about this wonderful world we all live in and why we are here, as if they knew why we are here. But they don’t. It’s just a story they made up so kids wouldn’t be scared by the truth.”

She is still looking right at me, so I continue.  

“And the truth is– the thing nobody wants to talk about even after they grow up– the real elephant in the room every moment of everyone’s life—is the fact that none of us know why the hell we are here.  So, we grow up, and gradually figure out the truth and then we run around with this feeling all bottled up inside until one moment when we’re sitting in a crowd somewhere and without realizing it we get up and walk across the room and slap someone who doesn’t deserve it.   Or, if we happen to have a little power, we invade our neighbor’s country. The fact is we don’t know what we are doing, and either we are going to kill some one or not.”

Now, at this point I have my wife laughing. So that’s a good thing. 

Later I come downstairs and she’s talking to the dog.   She tells the dog, “I know you are upset because we left you down here all alone for too long.”  You see, our dog who is twelve years old has never been able to kick his separation anxiety.  When we leave him alone for more than an hour he starts to drool over everything in the house.  Or he tips over the garbage can and spreads the garbage all through the house.  I look at my wife as she comforts the dog and think to myself, “the dog doesn’t know why he is here either.”

Our dog

So, what should we do? I’ve heard that figuring out the root of a problem is half-way to the solution.  I found an 8-minute video on the internet by Elon Musk and sent it to my kids and wife.  In the video Musk says, “Life can’t be just about solving problems. There has to be things people find inspiring that make life worth living.” 

Musk also says in the video you have to work super hard, like 100 hours a week. My daughter replied that she found the video thought provoking and inspiring and it made her smile. I expected that because she works 100 hours a week like me.  My son replied saying Elon has some pretty revolutionary ideas for the next few decades and that it should be an interesting ride if he hits his goals.  

So, what’s the answer?  I wish I could tell you that.  But if I did you probably would think it’s just another story like the one your parents told you.  You have to figure out the answer for yourself. Musk ends his talk by telling a graduating class that now is the time to take risks, and do something bold because it’s going to get tougher when you get older.

I don’t know about that. The older I get the bolder I get.  But I hope I don’t get to the point where I find myself slapping someone across the face whether they deserve it or not.  But you better watch out for us old people.  We don’t have as much to lose.

On thinking better

What does it mean to think better?  When I first began my career as a software developer at a company in upstate New York way back in 1973, my first greybeard mentor gave me some advice.  He told me to learn the things that never change because it will give me more time to spend on the new and interesting things when they come along.  That advice stuck with me.

When you think about how much things have changed in the last 50 years with advances in technology and medical research it’s easy to start feeling like what you learned when you were young is completely outdated.   But that isn’t necessarily so.

In my “Quiet Little Town” story, Fred is working on a secret research project  aimed at helping kids think better and make better decisions by placing them in a virtual world where they face difficult, but common life situations.

Today, many high-tech companies are spending hundred’s of millions of dollars on an idea known as the Internet of Things (IOT).  IOT is the modern world of interconnected humans and software-controlled devices intended, along with artificial intelligence, to make our lives easier in the future by helping us solve common everyday problems.

So, a natural question this leads to is:  Will these huge investments in technology and medical research help our future kids think better and ultimately achieve the goal of Fred’s secret project?

Well, as usual, I don’t want to give away what happens in my “Quiet Little Town” story, but let me share a true story that might give you a hint.

In his bestselling book, “Zero to One”, Peter Theil co-founder of PayPal, tells the story of one of Google’s supercomputers that received great reviews back in 2012 when it was able to recognize a cat with 75% accuracy when scanning millions of Youtube videos.  Peter tells us in his book that this technological advance sounds impressive until you step back and think about the fact that a four-year old can do it flawlessly 100% of the time.

The point is that today’s faster computers and artificial intelligence are great at finding patterns in large masses of data, but they can’t hold a candle to a human when it comes to drawing insights from patterns and the ability to think.

The most valuable lesson my old greybeard mentor taught me almost 50 years ago didn’t have anything to do with computer technology or artificial intelligence.  It was how to use my natural human ability to think about a problem in a logical way leading to an innovative solution given a challenging situation.

Perhaps, one of the best things we can teach our kids today is how to use their natural human ability to think critically in common everyday situations.

How to think critically when faced with today’s common everyday challenges is no different than it was 50 years ago, and probably will not be any different 50 years from now.  Thinking critically is how you think better, and it is one of those gifts you can take with you for a lifetime.

On the memories within our lives

Did you ever stop and think about the small incidents within your life that ended up affecting you in ways you never could have imagined at the time?

I am not referring to incidents you would expect to influence you, such as a discussion with a school guidance counselor, but rather something that happened “out of the blue” that you didn’t even think much about at the time.  But then–years later– you find yourself recalling the incident again and again realizing the impact it had on your life.

When I started writing my first fictional book, “A Quiet Little Town” my idea wasn’t to just make up a story, but rather to start with real incidents and real people who have influenced my life. From there I wanted to let my imagination go, but not in a pointless way.

I started the book over twenty years ago, but then set it aside when I got too busy with work.  This past year, as I have been “winding down” my business, I decided to pick the book up again and finish it.

When I re-read it I realized I had a number of these small incidents in the story that occurred in my own life, but I had no idea why I had included many of these incidents in the story.

Then I read a tip that Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author, gave in one of his masterclasses on writing. He said the mistake many authors make is spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to start the story, but not enough time thinking about how to end it.  He said that if you write the ending first, it will make writing the rest of the story easy.

His tip hit home with me. By forcing myself to write the ending, it also forced me to figure out exactly what I was trying to say in this book and which of those small incidents belonged in the book to support my message.

I don’t want to give away the story in this blog, but I will tell you that when I started the book my children were young and I was concerned how my own behavior might influence them because I know how much my own parents influenced me.   Children are going to remember things that might seem inconsequential to a grown-up.  Perhaps we all should  be a little more aware of the little things we do when around children (or grandchildren) because you never know when a seemingly small incident will affect them in ways you never could have imagined.

Is daydreaming really so bad for us?

When I was young, and I suspect it is still true for many kids today, I was frequently scolded for not paying attention in school. Often that happened when my mind wandered which it seemed to frequently do.   But is daydreaming really so bad for us?

In my fictional “Quiet Little Town” story the character named Patrick often falls into daydreaming. When he is young he crawls between the racks of clothes in the department store where his parents shop, losing himself in his own private make-believe world.  When he is older there are many scenes in the book where the boy falls into daydreaming to escape the stresses in his life.

The character Patrick in the story is very different from my own son who also happens to be named Patrick.   I created the character in the book from my imagination based on real incidents I observed happening to my son as he was growing up, as well as incidents that happened to myself as I was growing up.

The Patrick in the story is an imagined character that struggles with self-confidence especially when faced with stressful situations.  In the story, and in real life, daydreaming is a mechanism used to momentarily escape the stresses of daily living. Unfortunately, daydreaming is not viewed positively in many companies today.  But there are some exceptions.

Take, for example,   In a recent interview Jeff Bezos, the CEO, said that he can’t take credit for the day-to-day success at Amazon because he spends most of his time daydreaming about what the company will look like years into the future.  To further support this positive perspective on daydreaming, according to research published in the Creativity Research Journal daydreaming has been associated with greater creativity in people.

So, this leads to a question:

Is there a way to determine when daydreaming is good for us and when it isn’t?

David B. Feldman, PHD, tells us in an article entitled “Why daydreaming is good for us” appearing in Psychology Today, that one key could be the amount of realism in the daydream.

Feldman says,

“Fantasy-based daydreams can lead to disappointment, emphasizing how we wish our lives would be, but aren’t. Realistic daydreams, on the other hand, show us what might actually be possible for our lives. They give us mental practice pursuing important goals before we have to invest any real time or effort.”

When I read this article it struck home with me.  My motivation for taking up science fiction writing wasn’t to create stories that are unrealistic.  But rather to create stories that are on the edge of being possible in the very near future.

In the story when Patrick’s father, Fred, tells his son,

“You can think of your life as a practice run. A chance to try life out before you go for real,” it isn’t just a fantasy. As the story unfolds it becomes evident this is the realization of Fred’s lifetime dream.

For me, writing science fiction is a natural extension of my own daydreaming that has been part of my life as long as I can remember.  It is not a way to escape, but a way to envision, and hopefully influence, the world we will all find ourselves living in tomorrow.

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