Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cognitive Styles

Researchers have consolidated the cognitive styles research into a coherent, cohesive framework that should be of great interest to both educators and business.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Autism Talk at The Warren Center

On Saturday, my wife and I gave a talk at The Warren Center in Richardson, TX on our family's journey with autism. My son, Daniel, was diagnosed with autism almost a year and a half ago, and in my research on autism, I discovered that I have Asperger's. I am equally convinced that my maternal grandfather had Asperger's as well. Thus, autism seems to run in my family.

The audience at The Warren Center was mostly Spanish-speaking Hispanics, so my wife, who is Hispanic, spoke to the group in Spanish. That meant we few English-speakers needed translators. She told our story, relating a few anecdotes about me and my behaviors that now made sense in light of us understanding I have Asperger's (like my failing to greet people when I am introduced to them). But the audience, after a while, started asking me questions -- they were hungry to learn what's it's like to have autism "from the inside."

All of these people had autistic children, many too young to really tell them what it feels like.

Many of the questions expose a lot of misunderstandings about things we commonly hear about people with autism. For example, the issue with eye contact. It's not that we cannot make eye contact -- more, we can in fact learn to make eye contact -- but that when we do make eye contact, it makes us deeply uncomfortable. So we prefer to not make or maintain eye contact.

Similarly, there is a misunderstanding about our social anxiety. Yes, we will tend to try to avoid social situations as much as possible -- but that does not mean that we don't ever want to be with people or doing things with people we like. I was president of the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists because I was immensely interested in molecular biology. I will go to meetings if they are required for me to accomplish other things I want to accomplish; I do not go to meetings because I like meetings, though.

Engaging in small talk causes me social anxiety, but talking about a subject in which I am interested does not. Of course, in the latter case, I am so focused on the topic that I in a real sense forget that I am surrounded by people. And that was the case at The Warren Center. There was a question about my ability to stand in front of a bunch of people and talk; I pointed out that so long as I was interested in the topic (as I was interested in talking about autism), it didn't matter that there were a large number of people there in front of me. I could forget they were there because I was focused on the topic at hand. So speaking in front of people is in fact pretty easy for me. I do better speaking to an audience than I do being a part of the crowd.

One of the benefits of learning I am autistic is that my life now makes sense; one of the benefits of learning very late in life that I am autistic is that I could not use my autism as a crutch to avoid making changes. People were willing to point out this or that behavior, and I was willing to try to make the changes to the extent I could. This has allowed me to make a great many social adjustments I may not have made otherwise. It has not always been easy, but it has often been possible -- at least to a certain degree.

I think it would benefit a great many people to hear about what it's like to be autistic "from the inside." Because of my experiences, because of what I have learned about autism, because I learned late in life I am autistic, I had the distinct advantage of knowing both what autism looks like from the inside and the outside. I think people need to understand the disconnect between those two things. To audiences interested in learning about autism, I would argue that that is my value added.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Playful Learning

Playful learning is central to business success and prosperity. The piece by Forbes primarily discusses the importance of play for children, but a time for play is important for adults as well.

We too often associate play with wasting time and frivolity, but play is in fact much more serious than that. Johan Huizinga defined play as "a non-serious thing done seriously." By this definition, writing plays and poetry, drawing and painting, engaging in scholarly work, and working as a scientist are all forms of play. One might even argue that any activity that is not directly related to issues of finding food and drink, creating clothes and shelter, and ensuring one has progeny is in fact play. In this sense, we often engage in play -- and very often do so to get those things that are truly serious pursuits.

If you want your employees to be more creative, you need to give them time to play. If you want more creative meetings or more creative groups, give your groups time to play. Get them in the creative mindset by giving them a handful of objects and asking them to come up with 3-4 different things they could do with those objects. Then start the meeting. You never know what new ideas might emerge.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Forbes Piece on Autistic Workers

Forbes has a nice piece on hiring people with autism. In the piece they highlight Specialisterne, a company founded by a man whose son was diagnosed with autism.

People with autism are potentially great employees -- so long as you expect them to work and do not expect them to be social and engage in office politics.

More, people need to realize that when someone with autism fails to engage with people, that does not mean they are not interested in the job, in the situation, or even in getting promoted. It's not that a person with autism doesn't care whether they are there or not, as too often neurotypicals misinterpret the behaviors of those with autism, but rather that they are more engaged in the work than in talking up the work. Neurotypicals understand that you have to talk up your work, because otherwise your work won't speak for itself; those with autism think the quality of their work is self-evident.

The ideal situation for someone with autism is to have a place where they can work without interruption, with someone to bring things back and forth. For someone doing data entry, for example, just let them work and have someone bring the data to them, and you will have a data entry machine. But if the data stops coming, there is a certain probability that your autistic employee won't think to ask for more. They'll mostly just wonder what to do next.

If this sounds like a lot of hand-holding, you might consider the degree to which you have to deal with all of the social needs of your neurotypical employees. You may not recognize the degree to which you have to deal with such things, and the amount of time it takes up, precisely because you, too, are neurotypical, and such hand-holding seems more natural and less forced. But, if you see things from the autistics' standpoint, most social interactions are a bunch of time-wasting nonsense. This, of course, highlights the difficulties between autistics and neurotypicals.

Still, if you want employees who are powerful bottom-up, analytical thinkers with strong pattern recognition skills and attention to detail, you can't do better than someone with autism.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Creating a Work Environment Conducive to Creativity

Cubicles are not conducive to creativity. Bare, white walls are not conducive to creativity. Florescent lights are not conducive to creativity. In other words, the typical office environment is not conducive to creativity.

At the other extreme, you don't want our office to be too busy -- whether that be the wall paper, human activity, choice of background music, etc.

It's about balance. Interesting pictures, bright colors, natural light create an environment more conducive to creativity. Real plants and flowers feed into our biophilia and make us more comfortable, relaxed, and mentally active. Animals, too, contribute -- fish tanks are known to make people more relaxed. And more relaxed, less tense employees are happier, more productive employees.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Creativity and Innovation in the Workplace

Having creative employees is not enough. You also have to have managers who can recognize that creativity and foster it and turn it into something -- to translate it into innovation.

When are people most creative? When they are given the opportunity to be creative. Some people are creative under pressure; some are creative only when the pressure is off. But in either case, you need the time and freedom to be creative.

Google gives employees Fridays to work on personally interesting projects. If you think you cannot afford to give a full day every week to letting employees "goof off," let me ask you one simple question: are you as profitable as Google? If not, perhaps some lessons could be learned.

Businesses today need to be creative and innovate more than perhaps ever before. The world is moving faster and faster. And that means you need more creative people. Those creative people may already be in your company. But perhaps you need to think more creatively about who you hire. Consider hiring more creative people -- people in the arts, in philosophy, in the humanities. Oftentimes these people will have ideas they have no idea how to implement. Yet, you will have people there who are fully capable of implementing their ideas, but rarely are all that creative on their own. These are the people you need to pair up.

Which gets us back to the importance of having good managers, who can recognize when two or more employees need to get together and work on something. Your managers need to be people-connectors. They need to see the potential inherent in an idea, in two people getting together to create and innovate. It's not about egos -- it's about benefitting the company first and foremost. Those are the kinds of managers you need.

With an environment of creativity and innovation, your company will continue to grow and be healthy. But you have to create that environment. You have to take the risk of making it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

You Learn to Write by Writing, Not by Typing

In the age of computers, most of our writing is done on computers. But typing on computer keyboards may be one of the very things preventing us from writing well.

When we write with pen on paper and make the shapes of letters and words, we are more directly helping to build up the reading/writing portion of our brains (developed by adapting portions of the face-recognition and shape-recognition portions) through which all reading and writing must pass on its way either to or from the language processor. There is a big difference between mere recognition of shapes on a keyboard (or, worse, once you memorize where the letters are, mere finger movement/positions) and the movements needed to write and thus create letters, and to make those letters into words, those words into sentences.

We learn to write by writing, not by typing, sentences.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Passing the Writing Buck

Where does the buck stop when it comes to students learning how to write? Nowhere, it seems. Every university department complains students don't know how to write, but nobody wants to teach anyone how to do so. Businesses need people to write well, but universities are too busy passing blame to teach anyone how to write. So don't count on universities or community colleges doing the job of teaching writing. They are using methods that have proven over and over not to work unless you already know how to write well.

Writing is a skill that must be developed over time. And it has to be consistently developed, and developed in conjunction with what is being read.

Businesses that want employees who can write will have to take it upon themselves to hire people to come in and teach those employees how to write. It's not going to be a quick fix. Learning any new skill is never quick. But it can be done with enough devotion and dedication.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Advice from Stephen King

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King

It really is as simple as that. If you don't read, you cannot write. Writing programs around the U.S. have things exactly backwards. If you want people to learn how to write well, they have to read more. And they have to read well-written works.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Movies Synchronize Brains

If there is something you want all of your employees to do or think the same, make a film and have them watch that film together. As it turns out movies synchronize brains. What that means is you can get all of your employees thinking and feeling the same things at the same time. An empathetic character can move your employees to feeling and thinking the same way. And since all of your employees will be synchronized through the film, those same employees will feel more unified. The more unified employees are in regards to the goals of the company, the more productive they will be, and the more prosperous the company will be.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Advice for Autism Awareness Month

Since this is Autism Awareness Month, I thought I would give some advice regarding those with autism: you should hire them.

Here are all the reasons you should hire people with autism:

  1. They are great workers; they will obsessively do their jobs.
  2. They will not play office politics; they don't care what others think or do, so long as they are allowed to do their work.
  3. They are loyal.
  4. They do not lie, even to save people's feelings.
Of course, this isn't to say that there aren't problems:
  1. They do not play office politics; they don't care what others think.
  2. They do not lie, even to save people's feelings.
  3. They tend to take anything you say literally.
  4. They need the "big picture" explained to them.
If you want employees who play social games and backstab each other, don't hire people with autism. That is my advice. But if you want people who will be loyal and who will do their jobs and do it well, who are very analytical and tend to have high I.Q.'s, then you might consider hiring some autistic employees.

Just don't let their honesty throw you off.