Embrace difficulties to stay mentally fit and happy!

I just came by this old article from Ian Leslie in The Economist magazine, it’s about a thought: embrace difficulties when they arise, they force us to be more creative and bring more satisfaction when we overcome them.

There are two ideas intertwined here: the first one is that when things come too easy, we don’t savor them enough. In French I would say « Il faut de la pluie pour faire le beau temps ».

This article brought up a memory of my childhood: we had the means to eat good meat every day. Yes, you can argue that having meat every day is not healthy, but having been brought up in Argentina, well, meat (of any kind) was mandatory at the menu! The thing is that I remember a period we ate beef tenderloin, that is a very tender cut of beef meat. Obviously, we appreciated that cut, and for a long period, every dish at home containing beef meat was done with that cut.  On the oven, as a steak, or in a wok, it was always tenderloin.

Believe me, you can get tired of it!  After a while, whenever I went for dinner to friends and they had another cut, I really savored it, even if it was not so tender.

What about not having money limitations? Yes, I’m sure I would go for a ravaging shopping for a while… until I’ll end up having more than what I need, more than what I could wear on a season! And what after that?  Shopping will not taste the same ?

It’s the same on other levels. At work, if there is no challenge, we’d lose interest, emotion.

But not only that, here is the second idea: challenges force us to think, guide our imagination and help us to come up with innovative solutions. And after the exercise, we end up with a sense of satisfaction of having solved the problem that we would not have experienced without the problem in the first place. This sense of satisfaction for having stretched our brain muscle is equivalent to the endorphin’s after a physical exercise!

Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level. Robert Bjork, of the University of California, coined the phrase “desirable difficulties” to describe the counter-intuitive notion that learning should be made harder by, for instance, spacing sessions further apart so that students have to make more effort to recall what they learnt last time. Psychologists at Princeton found that students remembered reading material better when it was printed in an ugly font.

So remember next time you encounter a pebble on your way : embrace the opportunity of some brain gymnastic and enjoy life!

Kill your dragons to be creative

Walter Vandervelde did a presentation at Professional Women International on creativity this month. He taught us how to kill our internal dragons to be more creative 😉

  • NONO, the dragon of the criticism, prejudices and conservatism:
    Change your automatic reply from ‘yes but’ to a ‘yes and’. That will stop criticism and you’ll feel the energy rising as you build up collectively a solution and your ideas get wider and wilder.
  • HOHO, the dragon of fear of failure, lack of courage and uncertainty:
    There is a quick solution to this dragon: just do it! “Doing is the new Thinking”. To begin things rolling, use gamification -that is using techniques of games for serious stuff.  As example, Walter suggests to put 2 teams to compete, giving them basic instructions and restrictions to begin with, so that they are not stopped by uncertainty. Be sure to tell everybody that it’s ok to fail.
  • GOGO, the dragon of the stress, time constraints and lack of reflection:
    To kill this dragon do your working place more attractive, an enjoyable experience and less stressful.
  • DODO, the dragon of resignation, habit and lack of curiosity:
    To ovecome this, foster the creative thinking mind, the one that, in front of a question, tries to come up with many other questions instead of just a straight answer. In fact the creative thinker tries to find the best question to describe the problem.

When trying to come up with creative ideas, know how our mind works: after a while it becomes lazy and you cannot find more ideas, but if you allow it to rest just a few minutes and come back to your problem at hand, you ‘ll get more ideas and usually those will be the more creative ones, the first ones being the obvious ones. During the resting time your unconscious mind continues working, incubating your thoughts, finding new relations to the problem.

Some techniques Walter mentioned to open your mind is reverting a question or rephrasing it. You’ll be verbalising other ideas behind your problem : Ask “An examples of a car is…” and people will tend to name brands: “a Mercedes, a Ford, …”. Ask “A car is…” and you’ll get other definitions like the function ” a driving device”, the uses “a device for transportation” and other relations.
give examples of things, imagine new uses, different ways of doing the same thing

Thanks Walter  for an entertaining event.  I learned interesting tips and tricks to be creative, and even some swear words in different languages that I swear not to repeat 😉


Learning how to learn

Learning how to learn

I’m an eternal learner.

There are so many interesting things that time is precious, so when I came accross this MOOC I couldn’t but enroll and check it out.  Anything that helps learning stuff while reducing the needed studying time really appeals to me!

I’m talking about the online course from Coursera called Learning how to learn, by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, created by the University of California.  I cannot but recommend it to everyone, there are plenty of good tips to make the process of learning easier. Here are my take-aways:

  • Create the habit of doing timeboxing work, using for example the “pomodoro technique”(*) where you set intervals of 25 minutes of working time, following by 5 minutes’ break (or by a longer break after 4 consecutives working slots).  Concentrating in the process (it’s time for my 25 minutes of work)  will make it easier to avoid procrastination.
    And don’t forget to gratify yourself after a focussed  interval of time spent working (a coffee, a piece of chocolate, or wandering on your garden to enjoy a sunny day as today 😉
  • Program the toughest things first, we have more energy to tackle our resistance during the morning.
  • Add time of relaxation and physical exercise to let the studied material ‘sink in’ and get connected in your brain, it’s part of the learning process!
  • The best way to fix the studied material is not to read it over and over, but to recall the information, and space the recalling over time. My son’s favorite method is using flash cards.
  • Test yourself, do exercises in different contexts, so that you make more connections to retrieve the chunks of material.
  • Prepare today your TO DO list for tomorrow, it will have time to be absorbed and tomorrow it will not occupy one slot of your working memory.

I’m sure there are many other tips I didn’t mention that may appeal to you, if you decide to follow the course drop me a line to let me know your peaks 🙂

*: The pomodoro technique has 5 fundamental stages : planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing. In the planning phase, tasks are prioritized by recording them in a “To Do Today” list. This enables us to estimate the effort that is required for the tasks. As pomodoros are completed, they are recorded, adding a sense of accomplishment and providing raw data for subsequent self-observation and improvements. At the end of the day, you get a concrete feedback on your estimates, if there are still tasks on the list… you are like me, too optimistic! 😉

The value of Reflection in Learning


I just read Stephen M. Fleming‘s article “The Power of Reflection” in the Scientific American Mind.  It talks about  the importance of metacognition, that is the ability of knowing our own thoughts and capacities.

This skill that allows us to evaluate our level of competence on a particular domain is totally independent of our effective competence in that specific domain. We can be bad at evaluating one particular skill,and still be good at it.  We can also know we don’t know anything about a specific subject but that doesn’t make us know more about it.  Though, knowing our lack of knowledge is very important! It allow us to evaluate correctly the situation and act properly accordingly. In this last mentioned case the proper action would be to look for help in that domain 🙂  A very typical action we take based on our knowledge of ourselves is writing lists when we tend to forget things, I fully recognize myself here, do you?

Having a good insight on our internal thoughts and processes is very important, it can even be more important than the knowledge itself because it drives our actions. Not being aware of the reality, as they point out in the article, can be very damaging not only for us but for our social relationships and family. Not knowing that we have a particular medical condition, thus not taking the medication, can make it impossible to live unattended, even if the condition itself is not so impairing.

It plays  particular role in learning, and the article mentions a study where they tried to boost this ability among students:

[…] Thomas O. Nelson and his student John Dunlosky, then at the University of Washington, reported an intriguing effect. When volunteers were asked to reflect on how well they had learned a list of word pairs after a short delay, they were more self-aware than if asked immediately.  Many studies have since replicated this finding.  Encouraging a student to take a break before deciding how well he or she has studied for an upcoming test could aid learning in a simple but effective way.

Learners could also trigger better insight by coming up with their own subject keywords. Educational psychologist Keith Thiede of Boise State University and his colleagues found that asking students to generate a few words summarizing a particular topic led to greater metacognitive accuracy.  The students then allocated their study time better by focusing on material that was less well understood.

This method of studying should be taught at school thus teaching this meta-skill to learn more effectively.