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The man my great-uncle didn’t kill

Posted by on Jul 6, 2014 in career

Everyone demonstrates correspondence bias (pdf) to some extent. We look at the action and assume it’s the character. Even when we know there are extenuating circumstances we do it. The defense lawyer, doing his duty to provide the best defense possible, is seen as supporting crime. The debate student, assigned to defend a certain position, is seen as believing it. No matter the usefulness of the role or the purity of intent, every devil’s advocate runs the risk of being seen as devilish. In the workplace this can create misunderstandings, usually small but sometimes project-killing or even career-destroying.

It’s a problem because the only way to overcome correspondence bias and not commit the fundamental attribution error is to constantly question your assumptions and opinions, looking for the larger context. Since we’re all story-driven creatures, sometimes an anecdote can help. This is a story of a time a life was on the line, and it’s the best example of correspondence bias I know.

My mother’s uncle was a man named Jara. He was my grandmother’s brother, an artist when he could be (I saw beautiful sculptures and drawings in his widow’s home). His best friend, whose name I don’t know, was a professional artist.

A watercolor portrait of Jara by his friend, faded but still showing great talent.
Portrait of Uncle Jara as a young man

During Hitler’s occupation of Prague, Jara and his best friend were sent to a labor camp. At the camp worked another man whose name I don’t know. Let’s call him Karel. Karel worked as an overseer, managing his fellow citizens for the Nazis. Karel was hated. He treated everyone “like a dog,” Jara said, swearing at them and driving them mercilessly, generally making the labor camp experience every bit as awful as you imagine it to be.

Watching Karel’s behavior, day in, day out, Jara and his friend realized Karel could not be allowed to live. Karel was a traitor, a collaborator with the enemy, and responsible for much misery. They were young, and passionate about their country. They made a pact together, that if all three of them survived the war, Jara and his friend would hunt down Karel and kill him. They viewed it as an execution.

Here’s a photo of Jara talking to my grandfather at the labor camp. Family could occasionally visit; this was not a death camp. Both these normally happy men have a lot on their minds.
Jara and my grandfather at the labor camp

The war ended, the labor camp closed, and life continued for all three men. Jara and his friend discreetly found out where Karel lived. They obtained a gun, and one day they set out to his home.

Karel lived in a somewhat rural area. His wife was outside, hanging laundry, and when they arrived and said they’d known Karel at the labor camp, she smiled and invited them in, calling to Karel that friends from the camp had arrived. They followed her to the kitchen, where they found Karel.

He was wearing rolled-up pants, suspenders, and a collarless, button shirt, the kind you could put different collars under a jacket. He was sitting by the table with his feet in a large tub of water and baking soda, soaking. He greeted them with a broad smile, immediately calling them by name and introducing them to his wife. Jara said Karel was so happy, he had tears in his eyes. He asked his wife to give them coffee, and she brought out pastries, and all sat down to talk about old times.

Jara and his friend were dumbfounded, but did not show it. During the conversation they realized that Karel had not thought of himself as collaborating with the Nazis, but as mitigating their presence. He was stepping in so no one worse could. His harshness was protective; the Germans could not easily accuse the workers of under-producing when Karel pushed his fellow Czechs so hard.

They stayed several hours with Karel and his wife, reminiscing, then took their leave. On the way back they threw the gun into a pond. Jara went on to work at the Barrandov film studios, where he met his wife, Alena (she was an accountant). They married, lived a long life, and were happy more often than not.

Alena and Jara with their dog (yet another in the long list of names I don’t know).
Jara and Alena and a canine friend

Jara was transformed by this experience. Never again would he take any person’s actions as the sum of their character. And I do my best to see things in context and not judge, in part because of the man my great-uncle didn’t kill.

Habitual creativity: The writer’s vow of chastity

Posted by on Mar 12, 2014 in inspiration

At SXSW I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Barr’s and Sarada Peri’s 37 Practical Tips to Help Your Write & Speak Better. Much of these focused on simplicity of grammar and content, and reminded me of the writer’s vow of chastity my husband conceived back in 2007. Since then, my first drafts attempt to follow the below rules as much as possible. Only then do I go back and add anything more, trying to restrain myself to choices that add clarity.

So here it is.


 

Just as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the film maker’s vow of chastity (also know as Dogme 95), so Bart has proposed a writer’s vow of chastity.

A draft of the rules as of August 4, 2007:

The writer’s vow of chastity

The writer will use no modifiers.

  • No adverbs.
  • No adjectives.

The writer should act as a behaviorist.

  • No words describing emotion.
  • The writer will not make the reader directly privy to a character’s thoughts (no interior dialogue or interior monologue).

The writer may break these rules only when it is unavoidable.

The above may be summarized as, “Not doing the reader’s work for them*.”

 

*The summary references advice from C.S. Lewis to his students:

Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do the job for me.”


Habitual creativity provides concrete, immediately applicable tips for stimulating the creative process, learned and earned over several decades. See where they take you!

Habitual creativity: Turn around

Posted by on Mar 8, 2014 in inspiration

For a little over two years, I left work and went to a particular bus stop on Elliott & Western in Seattle. So I spent a little time every day looking at this building, near the base of a hill leading up to the Queen Anne Hill area.

building-across-busstop

One day, for whatever reason, I turned around and looked behind me. Due to an accident of unusual angles (hills, buildings, streets), suddenly I could see everything the building was hiding from me, including the Space Needle:

building-behind-busstop

The beauty of turning around is that it changes your perspective. Sometimes it even shows you the forest for the trees—or in this case, the neighborhood for the buildings.

So how do you turn around, metaphorically speaking? Here are some straightforward and a couple less obvious methods:

  • Try the other person’s perspective on for size. You may not end up agreeing with it, but you’ll understand it better, and this process frequently provides insight into design challenges. You UX people are used to this one. 
  • Are you looking from the outside in, or UI first? Try flipping it. Do the mental exercise of imagining your web application from the back end out – network to content buckets to databases to identifying the right content to surfacing, navigating, and consuming it. Getting a better understanding of the building blocks will let you do more with your Lego.
  • Set yourself challenges that push you beyond your normal boundaries to see the point of view inside someone else’s. For example, find a song you like in all the music genres you can think of.
  • Like sitting alone? Join a group. Like groups? Try taking some time away from them.
  • Reverse the flow. (No, not that flow.) Does your taxonomy go from broad to specific? Why not try specific to broad? Or, put everything on the same level and make it flat. The meaningful concepts will float to the top.

Habitual creativity provides concrete, immediately applicable tips for stimulating the creative process, learned and earned over several decades. See where they take you!

Aldrich on educational engagement

Posted by on Jan 29, 2014 in inspiration

Simulations are powerful when students need to be engaged more than they are. Clearly, this is an area in which distributed classrooms have suffered, as death by PowerPoint has not just been refined in many programs but almost weaponized to military specifications.

— Clark Aldrich