Mike Robbins on Authenticity

I had the good fortune to participate in a Mike Robbins workshop on authenticity a few weeks ago. Mike is a Stanford graduate and a former pro baseball player who injured his pitching arm in his first year in the Kansas City Royals’ farm team. He turned his bad luck into good luck for the rest of us. Now, he’s an author and an inspiring, energizing speaker. His website has loads of resources, including a blog, a podcast, and links to other things like a free meditation audio and a 4-part class on authenticity.


Emotional intelligence and the growth mindset

We all know by now that emotional intelligence is just as important as intellect in determining success. It involves self-awareness and social awareness; the ability to manage relationships with other people.

  • One component is the growth mindset that Carol Dweck identified and wrote about: when faced with a problem or challenge, you are curious and engaged and work hard to figure it out (as opposed to a fixed mindset where you want to get the answer fast, and if it’s hard you assume you just weren’t born with the right abilities). Dweck recently updated her 2006 book on the subject because she found people were misusing the concept; see this Dec. 2016 Atlantic article on the difference between a true growth mindset and praise for effort as a consolation prize.
  • When bad things happen, our first reaction might be to ask “why is this happening to me?” This is a dangerous, insidious question that makes us a victim. Mike says a better question is “why is this happening for me?” which shifts your perspective and gives you more power. In other words, what can I learn from this? How will this make me better and stronger?
  • Accept things the way they are. It’s the first step in having the power to change. When you argue with reality, you lose.
  • Communication is the bedrock of relationships. Each person in a conversation may be having a different kind of conversation. Listening is harder than you think – Mike had us pair up and just listen to each other without interruption or comment or thinking about how we’d respond; it was really difficult. But if you can figure out how to pay attention it makes the other person communicate better – those people who just ramble on are usually doing it because no one is actually listening to them.
    • Be present – the first level is attention to what’s being said, the information. Notice when you check out of the conversation; you’ll be surprised at how often you get distracted and miss part of it. Try admitting it to the other person.
    • Look for and feel underlying emotion with empathy – the second level is listening to what’s not being said, like how the other person is feeling, where they’re coming from. Notice the triggers that get you to stop paying attention.
    • Let go of negative judgments – the third level is noticing your own filters and upgrading them. We all have filters we listen through. To upgrade your filter, deal with the issue directly until it gets resolved, or let it go – really let it go, don’t just act that way.


It takes trust and courage to be authentic. Mike views it as a continuum, from being a complete phony at one end, through honesty in the middle, with authentic at the far end beyond honesty:

honest – self-righteous + vulnerable = authentic

Inauthenticity shows up because of social norms, or when we don’t know or understand something (but we pretend we do), and when we’re having a difficult conversation. Often, what stands between you and authenticity is a 10-minute sweaty palmed conversation. It takes mental gymnastics to be inauthentic, because you have to keep remembering what level of honesty you have with each person.

Self-righteousness is having opinions and knowing you’re right; thinking your opinions are facts. It fundamentally separates you from other people. We react to others’ self-righteousness with defensiveness. You might win the argument, but you damage the relationship. There may be other ways to see things.

A key driver in human relationships is trust, which requires vulnerability. The natural human response to vulnerability is empathy. A growth mindset requires vulnerability: you have to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing. Ask for help! Everyone loves to help, although nobody likes to ask. If you compare yourself to an iceberg, with the greater part hidden from public view, it turns out that the further down you go on the iceberg, the more universal the experience.

Mike said at one point in his life when he was down, one of his mentors told him:

“You live your life like you want to survive it, but nobody ever has.” 

Summing up: Ways to practice authenticity

  • When something happens that you don’t like, ask why is this happening for me?
  • Focus on the things you can control (your attitude, perspective, and effort)
  • Give people your undivided attention – don’t multitask
  • Use email, text, etc. for idea/info sharing, not conflict resolution and problem solving
  • Admit when you don’t know something, need help, or make a mistake – be real
  • Ask for support from others in a genuine way
  • Address challenges directly; don’t let things fester
  • Challenge yourself to take yourself out of your comfort zone and take bold action
  • Lower the waterline on your iceberg – allow yourself to be vulnerable to others

A lot of things about this workshop resonated with me, but the one thing I want to make a priority is that idea of self-righteousness. Especially now, after the divisive election season and with everything that’s going on with the new president, I see things several times a day that push my buttons. I intend to do better at examining my own opinions and reactions, and work harder to find common ground with the people who, for one reason or another, see things differently than I do. As Mike put it in a blog post on his website, “The challenge I’m sitting with personally at the moment is how to speak up for what I believe to be true and important, and at the same time do so in a way that brings me closer to those who may disagree with me?”

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.




North Carolina in the Winter

For Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend of 2017, I visited my friends Bob and Lucy, who live in Raleigh now. Lucy and I worked together in Arizona years ago. Our friend Ned, who lives in Idaho now, was at a conference in Washington and took the train down for the weekend, so we had a little reunion.

Beach vacation at Cape Fear

We got up latish on Friday, had breakfast, then packed the van for a road trip to the beach. Bob drove all the way, both ways, intrepid soul that he is.

Our first stop was Bob and Lucy’s son Patrick’s suggestion, the USS North Carolina, which is just across the Fear River from Wilmington. The North Carolina is a World War Two battleship that was in the Pacific during the war – it was the first ship built after a 1923 peace agreement, and construction started in 1937. The battleship was ready in 1941, although it went back to the shipyard in New York for a bit of retrofitting after it first set sail. We think we saw some evidence of the retrofitting, way down in the engine rooms, where two levels are joined by a ladder and a stairway but the ladder is unusable because of the position of the stairs, which we thought must have been put in afterwards.


The ship held over 2,200 enlisted men, officers, and marines. You enter by way of an exhibit hall, which has an introductory film and a few artifacts, including part of the ship’s silver service. Back home in Arizona, the entire silver service from the USS Arizona is on display at the Arizona Capitol Museum. It’s a spectacular display, made possible by the Navy’s practice of taking such nonessentials off a ship that’s in a battle zone – otherwise, it would have sunk with the Arizona on Pearl Harbor Day.

The highlight of the USS North Carolina monument is the self-guided tour of the ship itself. Arrows guide you deep down into the many levels of the ship and up into the bridge, with informative signs explaining what you’re looking at. A nice feature was the “in their own words” pieces on the signs, written by the men who served on the ship, telling their memories of life on the ship – the mess halls, store, laundry, sick bay, etc. – and of significant events like the time they were torpedoed by a Japanese sub and the day they were hit by friendly fire, killing three and wounding many more.

We drove on into Wilmington and had lunch at the Front Street Brewery, then took a horse-drawn trolley tour of a bit of old downtown and a residential neighborhood. The driver told stories, including the story of how cooks had to carry meals from the kitchens – in separate buildings to protect the main house from the risk of fire – to the dining room, and would toss bits of fried dough to fend off the wild dogs that lived in the town, saying “hush, puppies” and giving the snack its name. The horses that pull the trolleys are all rescues. Ours was a Percheron named Pete.

After the tour, we drove down to Carolina Beach and checked into our hotel, the Hampton Inn, where we had reservations for two adjoining ocean front rooms. We settled our things and then went downstairs to have a drink at the patio bar, where we sat around a lovely gas fire pit and watched the moon rise over the ocean. Later, we took a walk down the beach and then over to town and had dinner at Havana’s. Bob said his clam chowder was the best he’d ever had.

We awoke to the sunrise over the ocean,sunrise-caro-beach

and headed over to the Carolina Beach State Park for a walk on the Flytrap Trail to look for carnivorous plants. The Venus Flytrap is native to the area. It’s a tiny, inconspicuous plant, though, and tends to hide beneath other plants, so we didn’t find any. It was a nice walk through the woods, anyway. I was a little nervous about alligators (after seeing warning signs over by the battleship). My friends told me that alligators can move faster than a person can run over short distances, so your best bet is to climb a tree. The trees didn’t look very climbable to me. Luckily, it was a cold day, and there weren’t any alligators out.


Before we left the park, we went over to the marina – very quiet at this time of year – and wandered around a bit, taking pictures.

We had a couple of options for the rest of our time at the beach: a Civil War reenactment and a visit to the aquarium. Both were at Fort Fisher. We’d heard a blast from the reenactment while we were in the woods, and we could see it from the road as we drove by, so we decided that was enough battle for us. We went on in to the Aquarium and spent an enjoyable few hours exploring the exhibits. Albino alligators, jellyfish, seahorses, sharks, and an eagle – the aquarium has it all.

Our beach adventure was at Cape Fear, which I only knew about before from the terrifying movie starring Robert De Niro. An excellent movie, but definitely not one I’d recommend to Lucy. Ned and I’ve both had the experience of finding out movies we liked were too disturbing for our friend, and a running joke over the weekend was, “but would you recommend it to Lucy?”

Back home in Raleigh

Raleigh’s only two hours from the coast, so we got back in time for the Chinese Lantern festival on Saturday night. A big grassy area was transformed with what must have been hundreds of beautiful silk lanterns representing everything from bicycling pandas and roaring lions to an enormous Chinese dragon that seemed to be floating in a lake. It was the festival’s second annual holiday season visit to Cary, NC.


On Sunday, we visited the spectacular Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. The first thing you see when you enter is a huge glass wall, behind which are the stacks where the books are kept. A robot called the bookbot retrieves and shelves the books, and you can see a demo: the robot rushes down the aisle, raises or lowers an arm to the correct level, and pulls out a drawer full of books. It takes the whole drawer away – maybe to a human librarian who selects the correct volume and hands it over to the user.

The library has hundreds of seats of all different kinds, so you’re bound to find a comfortable place to read and study. Some are configured in conversational formations, and for more demanding study group needs, there are rooms where the walls are lined with whiteboards, complete with flat screens to hook your laptop up to. There are even music rooms on the top floor, with keyboards and headphones.

And for serendipity of discovery, there are a few places with shelves of actual books. Patrick found a Mishio Kaku book on the physics of the future that Lucy checked out for him with her faculty card. Pat’s twelve and in 7th grade, but he was fascinated by the book and had read a quarter of it by the end of the day. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future himself.

Bob and Patrick are train enthusiasts, and are active in the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club. We stopped in to tour their terrific new clubhouse and chat with the other members who were there.

Finally, we visited the natural science museum in downtown Raleigh. We had lunch at the museum cafe and then looked around at a few exhibits while waiting for the monarch migration movie to start. We would certainly have stayed longer and seen more, and gone for a hike in the afternoon, but I’d managed to pick up a cold somewhere along the way and I was fading fast. My friends graciously cut their own adventures short to take me back to Bob and Lucy’s cozy house.

I spent the last day and a half of my visit sleeping or bundled up in front of the fire, reading, working on a jigsaw puzzle with Lucy, and watching movies on tv.


January might not seem like the best time to visit North Carolina, but except for getting sick, it was a wonderful time with lots of interesting sights and good conversations with old friends.







The great banjo quiz

Used to be, I was a little sponge. Tell me something and I’d remember it. Teach me to spell a word (we used the See It, Say It, Spell It method at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto) and I pretty much had it nailed. And it was fast and easy to retrieve, too.

Those days are gone. I don’t know if it’s the crowd of stuff in my brain, or maybe constant distractions interrupting the process of transitioning something into long term memory, or what. But nowadays, memorizing is a real challenge. And there’s a lot of memorization and retrieval involved in learning the banjo. Things like where all the A notes are or which string in a particular chord is the root note.

I wondered what other people have said about the best way to learn things.

The Knowledge of London

Anyone who wants to be a licensed cabbie in London has to take written and oral tests to prove they know 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and points of interest, along with the shortest legal route for 320 sample runs and a quarter-mile circle at each end of the runs. It takes years to master the knowledge. For example, one native Londoner spent 5 years on it, and according to this National Geographic article, every day he would recite at least 30 of the 320 sample runs, working his way all the way up through the list and then starting over. “Knowledge boys and girls” – people who are learning The Knowledge – ride around London on scooters with maps attached, as shown in the introductory video on this official website.

Thankfully, I don’t have nearly as many things to memorize. How does this Herculean effort apply to playing the banjo?

  • Reciting and repetition – Daily review of the facts I’m trying to memorize, and going back over them later on, will help with retention and ability to retrieve the information.
  • Hands-on experience – Applying the facts in the real world of the physical banjo, like the Knowledge students on scooters, will make them more meaningful and useful.
  • Testing and retesting – Testing myself on paper and in person (trying to play a new piece from musical notation or guitar chords) will show what I still need to work on.


This Lifehacker article explains a bit about how the brain reacts to learning. You’re aiming to increase the number and strength of connections between neurons, and to build myelin that speeds up the signals. To achieve this:

  • Productive failure – Force yourself to learn without help (finally, my beloved trial and error approach is vindicated!). This is the principle followed by Project Euler (see this Atlantic article about it), which gives you progressively harder problems that you figure out how to solve using math and computer programming. Confusion and struggle help you learn better, because you’re doing more thinking, processing more deeply, and maybe invoking those emotions that make things stick. You end up remembering what you learned better, and being able to apply it more flexibly to new problems. On the banjo, I can apply this by figuring out a song on my own. Right now I’m learning The Sound of Silence from a guitar book, figuring out how to use the chords as a structure, find and play the notes, and add banjo type embellishments.
  • Distributed practice – This is that reciting and repetition idea from the cabbies. Spread it out over time, don’t try to cram it all into one concentrated session. Mix it up (this editorial explains it). For banjo, this means even if I feel like I know where all the D chords are and am working on the A notes, I should mix D chords into my practice sessions.
  • Sleep –  Solidify what you learn: have a nap after your practice, or practice right before bed. Here’s a very cool infographic about how to nap, if (like me) you aren’t naturally a napper.
  • Retrieval practice – Testing, in other words. If you practice retrieving information, it will be more accessible, and you can use it when you need it.

Deliberate practice

At first I thought this didn’t fit here – it seems more relevant to learning to play better than to memorizing facts. But experiential learning, where you learn by doing, through deliberate practice – applying your skills – connects what you’re learning to real world tasks and puts it in context, which forms bonds in your brain so you learn better.

I wrote about this idea in June 2016 (Practicing better). There’s lots more information out there, like this violinist’s article that is eerily precise in its description of how I’ve usually learned to play new songs (play it through to figure out the fingering and chords, maybe taking some notes, and then playing little chunks over and over and over till muscle memory takes over).

The violinist recommends:

  • Limit practice time so you can stay focused. Could be 10 minutes, could be 60.
  • Practice at your best times of day (Cal Newport says twice a day is best).
  • Use a notebook to plan practice, keep track of goals, and record discoveries.
  • Stop and think of other approaches when something isn’t working.
  • Use a problem-solving model to stay on task (define problem, analyze it, generate and test solutions, implement and monitor). It’s easy to slip back into rote mode.

The Piano Practice Assistant provides some concrete advice about this:

  • Use explicit, specific goals, like “play this passage without stumbling.”
  • Practice at a speed where you’re just barely not making mistakes.
  • Monitor with recordings to find ways to improve.

And finally, a USC study says to mix up your practice routine, so you’re solving the problem anew every time and thus processing it more deeply than if you just keep repeating the same movement. This also has the advantage of fighting boredom. Metro Music Makers suggests five things to do:

  • Branch out and try something new, like a different music genre.
  • Practice with a backing track to accompany you.
  • Learn a different instrument’s part.
  • Get out of your usual practice space.
  • Go back to the classics, the first things you learned, and try to improve.

Developing the ultimate quiz

I made myself a set of flash cards a while ago. Here’s what I covered:

  • Major chords. What notes are in them (1, 3, 5 based on the naming note’s scale), where the root note is, the distance between each shape as you go up the neck (3 frets from bar to F shape, 4 to D shape, and 5 back to the next bar shape), and then for each of the 8 major chords, where they are and which note is on which string for the first 3 inversions. An inversion is a fancy name for other versions of the same chord.
  • Minor chords. The same stuff, plus how you get from a major chord to a minor chord (you flatten the #3 note, which results in different shapes depending on what major chord shape you’re working with).
  • Scales. What notes are in the major (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step) and minor (W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W) scales for the 8 named notes.
  • Seventh chords. Same stuff as for minor chords.

And then I made special flash cards for certain songs that had weird chords, like F# dim, and for certain practice routines, like 3-finger grabs up the neck of G-C-D or G-Em-C-D. I can think of other things I could make flash cards for, like picking patterns, musical notes, other types of chords, and little licks and embellishments.

Since I already have those cards, I’m going to use them, along with some of the principles summarized above, to develop the Great Banjo Quiz:

  • Schedule two daily 10-minute sessions for working on memorization
  • Divide the flash cards into groups
  • Study and quiz with one group at a time, and stick with that group until I seem to have it down. Read the cards, read them out loud, test by only looking at the cue side, and play the associated chord or whatever on the actual banjo.
  • Put the mastered cards into a separate deck. Shuffle the deck at the beginning of each session, and after every third card of the current group (the new stuff I haven’t nailed yet) pull a mastered card.
  • Log the daily plan, practice, and results. Modify the plan as needed. If it’s working, go ahead and make those other cards and work them into the plan.

How about you? Do you have any effective strategies for memorizing and retrieving? Please share them in the comments below.






New Year, New Goals

Well, 2016 was not my favorite year.

It reminded me of another year that lives in infamy in my memory: 1968. At the beginning of 1968, I was halfway through my first year as a boarding student at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, still adjusting to the change from Cedar City Junior High. The classes were harder, the other kids were smarter, the world was bigger and more present in our lives, and it was our job to make the world better, more peaceful, and more just. But then… Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and riots followed in cities across the country. Bobby Kennedy offered new hope, but he was assassinated in June. There was chaos everywhere, with violent police clashing with protestors in Chicago, student protests in France, and the war on tv every day. With body counts. And don’t get me started on George Wallace’s third party presidential campaign: the politics of rage weren’t invented in 2016. On the positive side, I became an aunt in November of that year when my amazing nephew Joey was born. Even so, I was glad when the year was over.

365 Day Writing Challenge

This year, I’ve signed up for a challenge and committed to write every day. My goal is 1,000 words a day, and I plan to accomplish that through a mix of:

  • Editing the novel I finally finished last year. It’s a mystery of the amateur sleuth variety. It’s way too long. It’s lumpy. I wrote part of it during NaNoWriMo or in word sprints with writer friends, so there are scenes in there whose only function is to bump up my word count, not to mention things like unnecessary dialogue tags (“he said”). I’ve been getting feedback on it from my critique group a few pages at a time, and I’ve sent it to my two nephews who volunteered to try to read the whole thing. I figure I can write 1,000 words an hour if I’m not trying to make them good, so I’m going to count an hour of editing as meeting my daily goal.
  • Blog posts. I want to finish my self-imposed task of taking notes on Brandon Sanderson’s BYU class and writing them up here. My granddaughter Lorisa pointed out that I don’t have many blog posts that aren’t writing related, so once I’m finished with the Sanderson class I might write a bit more about learning to play the banjo, traveling, and other stuff. One idea I’ve had is to try to compile a one-stop place to find out about all the live theatre that’s happening in the Phoenix area on any given day, with links to the different theatre companies and links to newspaper reviews.
  • New stories. In Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, he described his approach to writing when he was young. He’d write a new story on Monday, revise and polish through the week, and by the end of the week he’d have sent it off. Elsewhere I’ve read that he recommended writing a story a week because it’s impossible to write 52 bad stories a year – it’s bound to improve your writing. I have a couple of books that I’ll use to help me generate ideas.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that if I don’t write every day, it’s harder to write. I lose the thread of the plot, I forget who the characters are, I don’t know where I’m going. Rachel Aaron‘s first step in going to 10,000 words a day (!!!) was to know what she’s writing before she starts, and you can’t do that if you don’t write every day. At least I can’t.

Health and fitness personal challenge 

The Monday before Christmas, I started Weight Watchers with my friend Lois. You could call the timing insane, but I call it brilliant. I lost almost two pounds during the week of Christmas, which I figure is equivalent to losing seven based on my past history of gaining five every year.  I succeeded on their program 22 years ago, but gradually crept up to where I started. I calculate that if the same pattern holds, I’ll be over 85 by the time I see that number on the scale again. I love the new Weight Watchers program, which encourages healthy eating by making all fruits and most vegetables zero points and encourages healthy activity by setting a weekly goal. If I stay on the program, I’ll be where I want to be way before the end of 2017.

Two years ago, I started walking my dogs every day. I’ve only missed a few days since July 2015. In July 2016, I added yoga twice a week at Floating Lotus, and I still work out once a week with Jeremy at Funktional Fitness. In 2017, I plan to add another workout to the weekly mix. I’m going to start by trying out some other yoga classes, and I’ll probably drop in occasionally at the Biltmore Studio, the hot yoga studio Lois goes to. I went with her to a hot barre class last week. Or while it’s still cool out, I can play racquetball and climb A Mountain and hike South Mountain. I’m going to keep that fourth workout flexible to start with, but if I find I’m not keeping up with it, I’ll make a firmer schedule.

I’m also going to continue trying to get more sleep. There’s a great iPhone app called Positivity that’s a great help in getting to sleep some nights, and I’ll keep using the Bedtime app that comes with the latest operating system.

Happiness Project

I’m continuing my goals from last year to follow some of the advice in Gretchen Rubin’s book. In addition to the ones that overlap with my health and fitness goals, she recommends:

  • Good marriage practices like adjusting your own attitude and expectations and managing your own behavior, which is really all you can control. This is still a work in progress after 24 years.
  • Keep happy memories alive by doing things like looking at pictures, telling stories, and keeping up traditions.
  • Master a new skill like photography or bookbinding. Or writing! I think I’ve written before that I somehow came out of school with the mistaken idea that because I read fiction, I could write it without consciously studying it. Boy, was I wrong.
  • Emulate people I admire. I think this is going to be more than ever important in the coming years. Courage and the willingness to stand up for what’s right, take action against what’s wrong, and defend people and the environment. I don’t need to be Gandhi but if I can be a little more like my friends Kim, Ned, and Lucy, the world will be a little bit better.
  • Make time for friends.

Goals around the house and so on

Another goal that overlaps with the Happiness Project recommendations is tackling a nagging task. Last month I finally cleared some boxes out of my home office – these were boxes of papers and things that have been sitting there since my mom died in 2012. Even though I didn’t finish the task, I got a tremendous boost from making progress on something that’s been hanging over my head for years. 2017 is going to be the year I get that office into shape.

In 2017, I’m going to design and adopt a daily routine. I retired in 2013, removing the structure of having to be somewhere every day within defined hours. It’s been nice having the freedom to schedule travel whenever I want, stay up late and sleep in, and spend whole days reading the new Stephen King. But now it’s time to develop my own structure, so I can accomplish all the things I want to do. My mornings tend to get away from me because I don’t have to go to the office – I used to get up at 5:30 so I’d have a couple of hours to read the paper, read my book, do the Sudoku, maybe have a hot bath before I had to leave. Now, I don’t have that natural end point, and there’s really no reason I have to do those things early to set my mood for the day.

I don’t think I need to set a goal to keep tracking the books I read and the movies I see – it’s finally a habit I can count on. I am going to tweak my journal to track my banjo practice more effectively and a couple of other things, though.

I think that’s about it. Do you write goals or resolutions? Tell me about them in the comments if you dare.  Happy New Year!