Fooled by stories: Antonym No. 6

The below article is cross–posted from Antonym, my weekly newsletter.

A cold, gold sunset reflected in the windows of the closed–for–COVID The Concorde2 nightclub on Brighton seafront.

“Do you enjoy cautionary tales? Shilly–shallying children eaten by wolves, that stuff?”

“Alice, I am gone on them,” Blossom breathes.

— The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye

Dear Reader

Word of the week is “vaccinable”. Use that in a sentence? I most certainly could, but other than quoting Zurich-based immunologist Andrew Croxford, I’m not sure I often will, so why I don’t just give you the direct source:

As Tweets go, this one is trés elegant, almost poetic. It sang to me because I’d felt something like this for a while. There’s too much focus on what filmmakers call the dailies (the rush footage) when it comes to news and social media while we wait for freedom. Looking at the newest scraps of information won’t do more than give you some amygdala-jolts and some fearful thoughts and some useless gossip to pass on. The trend is clear, the science is clear – we will use vaccines to find our way out of this pandemic and all the panicked and pitiful conspiracy enthusiasts in the world won’t throw it off track. You want to know exactly when? Exactly how? Whether you should have the Pfizer or the Oxford jab? Oh, sod off.

Like Blossom in The Paragon Hotel, we humans are all story–junkies. We eat them up, and they eat us up. They entertain us while we stay safe indoors, and they chip away at our mental health when we get too many of the wrong kind.

The world is more confusing the more stories we tell about it. Because too many of them trick us into thinking we clear. We don’t understand the world through stories as much as enjoy the illusion of feeling like we understand. In that way stories are like hallucinogens – no one ever really found the answer to life, the universe and everything while high on peyote, or LSD or psilocybin, but many people have to feel like they did.

“Systems fool us by presenting themselves—or we fool ourselves by seeing the world—as a series of events. […]

“If the news did a better job of putting events into historical context, we would have better behavior-level understanding, which is deeper than event-level understanding. 

Thinking in Systems, by Donella H. Meadows

Meadows talks about our minds as being all about linearity. We evolved to spot useful instances of cause–and–effect; but once you’ve reprogrammed the human brain several times over with language, and writing, and collaborative knowledge and frameworks for thinking, and then hooked them up to computers – well, those old urges to make everything fit in a story became much less useful.

The revealed complexity of the world and the growing need for humans to understand it runs into its biggest problem when we understand where beliefs come from. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about the discovery that when it comes to moral choices people believe what they instinctively believe and then strain their reasoning to explain their decision.

[In an experiment] it’s obvious that people were making a moral judgment immediately and emotionally. Reasoning was merely the servant of the passions, and when the servant failed to find any good arguments, the master did not change his mind.

(See the Antonym No. 2 section on Polarization for a bit more on this.)

Teach ‘em to fish

This Sifted interview with Tendayi Viki, a strategist and consultant at Strategzer, rang true.

Viki’s big realisation was that you can’t convince people of anything, you can only help them come to a new way of thinking by themselves. It was Buckminster Fuller, the American innovator, architect and writer, who said: “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

He and his team had created an innovation framework for Pearson, which they called the Lean Product Lifecycle. It was widely admired in innovation circles and won two industry awards. But they couldn’t get anyone internally at Pearson to use it.

“When we first met some resistance we thought: ‘We need some senior-level endorsement. We’ll come back with a bigger stick.’ So we got approval from the CFO and the CEO, and we went back with our bigger stick and people still went ‘meh’. Senior-level approval got them to listen to us, because they had to, but it didn’t make them do things differently.” 

Viki has a blog and a new book out which should be worth a look, judging by this interview.

iOS Widgets are getting useful

More apps in iOS 14 are getting widgets now, as developers catch up with the opportunities the new feature gives them. 

As I’m using them more I’ve got a home screen on my phone now that is calmer and more useful than I’ve been able to get before. My phone is the device I will glance at the most during the day and the home screen can be useful as an enabler of good habits (and bad ones). 

Here’s an unnecessarily detailed analysis of what my home screen looks like now and why.

On coping

It’s always a delight to come across good advice about how to cope with the emotional strain of living through the pandemic. Even if it something I’ve heard before, if it’s well put and arrives at the right moment, I’m deeply grateful.

This week I found a few gems worth sharing. One on Twitter, one on Instagram and the other one in a book, so there’s some evidence for a mixed diet of information. The first is about how stress works – and how to deal with it and is a thread from a psychologist and author, Dr Emma Kavanagh, who specialises in dealing with fear in the police and military. Click on the Tweet below to follow the whole thread:Dr Emma Kavanagh @EmmaLKIt is a Wednesday. It is almost half term. I am still homeschooling. I am still in lockdown. I want a holiday so much I could cry. But instead, I’m going to spend a few minutes talking to you about emotional coping.February 10th 2021140 Retweets492 Likes

Another author, Matt Haig, seems to be a one-person support service on matters of mental health. I loved this post he shared on Instagram and shared it with my team at work.  Simple instructions in case you’re not sure how to deal with the lockdown day. mattzhaigA post shared by Matt Haig (@mattzhaig)

Lastly, via good old Readwise, this quote is a good mantra for the moments when the tension gets too much:

“When doing this exercise, it often helps to silently repeat the phrase “Soften, soothe, allow.” This reminds you to accept the feeling as it is, softening any resistance to it, while actively soothing and consoling yourself for any discomfort you feel.” – Kristin Neff, Self Compassion

Quick links

  • This video by BBC reporter Sima Kotecha is great. She tracks down the source of a video her Mum was sent on WhatsApp, making dangerous claims about inhaling steam as a cure / preventative for COVID-19. Since completing this investigation, Kotecha tweeted that children in Birmingham have been admitted to hospital with scalding after inhaling steam – just one example of the harm this kind of misinformation can cause.
  • Brilliant illustrator, Kezia Furni, made this lovely image of my other work home, the Lighthouse building in Brighton’s North Laine. Like any reminder of normal life, it makes me happy-sad – especially as the lights are on in the Lighthouse office and gallery office windows. Can’t wait to visit them when we’re all back in the world.
  • I like Becca Caddy’s pragmatic and open approach to “tech balance” in our lives, noting that everyone is different, for a start. And her rejection of “detox” as a useful metaphor to use in addressing problems that have made.

There are other ways we can describe our tech relationships—as “habits,” for example—that make our screen time feel like an aspect of our lives we can gradually change instead of a toxin that must be expelled. Sudden, radical changes in our tech behaviors run the risk of making us feel even more isolated at a time when a lot of us need more ways to connect.

— MIT Technology Review | How to have a better relationship with your tech

  • The grime poet Debris Stevenson held daily writing workshops on Instagram Live last week and will be doing so all this week. Every day she sets up a theme with a poem, while also sharing some of her experiences of writing and then there is a timed 30 minute exercise. You can see the recordings on her account too, which are fascinating even if you’re not going to write.

That’s all for this week. I hope you found something you liked.


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