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brain power by Allan Ajifo

One of the lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life was that my thinking often set up my opportunities. At the very least, my thinking sets up how I perceive events. And how I perceive an event will cause me to look at a situation as an opportunity or a setback.

With the new year, try to be more intentional in your thinking. Our thinking drives how we see the world. In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen wrote,

“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armoury of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”

Case in point: look how students respond differently to a tough teacher. Some students see the teacher’s difficulty as a challenge and rise to the occasion. Those students push themselves harder and excel. Others lament the unfairness of the world and wish they had gotten an easier teacher. If anything, they are discouraged; they tend to perform worse, partially because the teacher is more difficult and partially because they don’t apply themselves as much as they would with an easier teacher.

Life is full of unexpected events. We can plan every minute of our day and it all be undone in a second. However, if we are intentional in our thinking, we can respond better to those unexpected events. Also, we can set a direction with which we wish to grow and develop. We formulate a purpose and goals. In this new year, seek to be more intentional in your thinking.

Here’s a poorly kept secret: there’s a lot of systems for personal time management and planning out there, systems like Getting Things Done (GTD), Personal Kanban, Covey’s methods, and the list goes on. All of the “successful systems” start by the participant becoming intentional in his or her thinking and planning. You don’t have to spend money buying a book or taking a class to take this first step.

Cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningIf you took World History in high school, your experience was probably like mine: the course was miles wide and only about an inch deep. This has everything to do with the amount of material that has to be covered, even over the course of an entire academic year. Therefore, I found Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning an excellent read. As the title indicates, this Timothy Snyder work covers one of the worst times in the history of our world.

This is a hard read because it is information dense. I’ve made a note to myself to go back through this book and take more elaborate notes for review and comparison because there’s just that much. However, it is definitely worth the read because Snyder covers so much that isn’t covered in typical history courses nor in most video programs on the Holocaust. For instance, right from the start Snyder traces the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party as a whole. Certain key ideas go all the way back to Germany’s former colonization of Africa and some of the actions of Hitler and Germany mirror actions from that previous time. Another example is an exploration of why Poland should have been Germany’s ally and not the Soviet Union. Snyder then covers the events and differences in the beliefs about the state which led to the opposite, with Stalin initially being Hitler’s ally and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
One of the interesting perspectives reinforced in the early part of the book is how much of Germany’s actions (and Hitler’s thinking) was about land. My old American History instructor used to tie most of America’s actions to a pursuit of more land. It was so common a theme (think Manifest Destiny) that she would often exclaim, “Land!” when discussing motivations. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase was about land. Jefferson struggled with it because he couldn’t find anything in the US Constitution which specifically gave the President the authority to make such an acquisition, but the deal was just too good to pass up! And in reality, the colonization of America in general was about land. Hitler saw a need for the expansion of Germany for more farmland and his ideology was completely fine with the idea of seizing that land from the “lesser race” even if that meant their complete extermination. The parallels to America are not accidental because Hitler saw what the USA did to Native American tribes, both through warfare and by forced exile to west of the Mississippi River, as an example of how Germany should act. And in Hitler’s mind, there was Germany (and possibly England and the USA) and there was everyone else. The everyone else had no rights, not even to life, and definitely no ownership over resources if Germans needed/wanted them.
If I have a complaint, it’s found in the Epilogue (titled Conclusion: Our World). There the author tries to link climate change with a recurrence of events leading up to and including the Holocaust because a leader will be able to spin similar ideology as Hitler did. Logically, this doesn’t follow. That a shortage of resources or perceived need might lead to such a dictator is not only plausible but we’ve seen that played out numerous times in history. However, such a leader doesn’t need Global Warming to generate that lack of resources. One only has to look at situations like Burma/Myanmar or North Korea today to see that. Also, if the concern is about food, there’s that general concern as the population of the planet increases. This is a concern regardless if Global Warming forecasts are correct.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. The complaint aside, there’s a wealth of information found in this one source that goes beyond what most folks know about the history of the Holocaust. There’s that old maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and with something as horrid as the Holocaust, we don’t want to repeat those series of events again. Looking at what led up to the Holocaust allows us to build defenses and warnings for events which might cause us to follow a similar road. Therefore, Snyder’s Black Earth is worth the read.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.

Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

Believe in yourself

“If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?” – Darrelle Revis

Darrelle Revis ESPNWeekend2010-051.jpgDarrelle Revis has had great success, not only on the football field, but also at the negotiating table. ESPN ran a great article on why Revis has achieved his success. That’s where I found this quote. Part of Revis’ success comes from his great belief in himself. Too often, we doubt ourselves. When I was learning about life coaching, one of the first things I came to understand is most people know the answer to their problem. However, they typically lack confidence in themselves. Either they don’t believe they can execute on the answer or they don’t trust its the right answer because they came up with it.

At some point, if you’re going to achieve anything of significance, you have to move past self-doubt. You have to believe in yourself. There’s such a thing as over confidence, but we tend to err on the side of a lack of confidence.

This can be a hard thing for me. However, I learned first hand as a goalkeeper that on the pitch, you pretend confidence, even if you don’t feel it. For instance, the over-aggressive goal keeper can cause an opposing player to make a bad shot, cut off a run, flinch and not complete a header, or simply give up on the ball, even if the keeper can’t actually get to it. When my coach explained this to me, he had me try coming out of the goal like I owned the field and I had exclusive right to the soccer ball. Even experienced players would flinch. Confidence was an edge. Playing with confidence, even if I didn’t feel it, made me a better goalkeeper. I have found this to be true in many areas of life.

Mr. Revis is right: the first step is to believe in yourself. As you do and begin to make things happen, others will begin to believe in you, too.

Every interaction we have, we have the ability to change the other person. I want my interactions to inspire others to be better people. The Christian singer, TobyMac, has a song called Speak Life which is actually based on a quote by Brennan Manning. If you’ve not heard the song, here it is:

I happen to agree with Manning’s words:

“In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange.”

Every interaction we have either builds up or tears down. There isn’t a such a thing as a neutral interaction. I want every one of my interactions to build up. More over, I want to inspire others to be better people, too. What brought this to mind is the anime/manga series, Naruto (Nah-roo-toe). I’m finally into the second anime series, which starts two years after the first series ends.

If you’re not familiar with Naruto, it’s about a fictional world based on Japan’s feudal era (think samurai and ninja) with many modern conveniences. Naruto is a young ninja who, because of circumstances beyond his control, is initially shunned by his ninja village. However, he has a goal to be accepted by everyone and one day rise up to be the village’s leader. He is extremely hyper, tends to react too quickly, prefers brute force solutions to stealth and more traditional ninja methods and ways, but he’s also just as loyal to his friends and his village, he doesn’t give up, and he stands by his word (this is his “ninja way”).

In season one, there is another character, Gaara (Gah-rah), from a different village who actually had a harder upbringing than Naruto. However, the circumstances as to why they are mistreated are the same. But where Naruto endeavors to be accepted by his people and be their leader, Gaara had resigned himself to be the monster that everyone considered him to be. In battling Naruto and then fighting alongside of him, Gaara begins to understand that he can be different than the monster.

Fast forward to series 2. Naruto went away for two years of intensive training. Meanwhile, Gaara was able to change. He became accepted by his village and he became its leader. This is surprising, because Gaara, even when fighting alongside Naruto, was still a hard character to accept who still acts very much the monster. As a means of explaining the change, Gaara is shown having a flashback conversation with his older brother. There he outlines his goal to be accepted by his village and to be their leader. He now values relationships. This naturally surprises his older brother, who has seen Gaara as the monster. Then Gaara says why: because he has come to understand, because of Naruto, that he can make this choice. He doesn’t have to be the monster.

I want to be like Naruto. I want to inspire others to want to be better people. I can’t do that by telling them what they have to do. I can only do that by being a better person myself. And I can’t “fake it” because eventually a false persona will be cracked. I have to be real, so that despite my flaws, folks will still see something in me that will inspire them to try to better themselves.

When faced with a problem or issue, ask yourself, “Do I need to solve it?” This question is important because you don’t need to solve every problem. I have a tendency to want to solve any problem I come across: mine or anyone else’s. Over time I have trained myself not to try and solve every problem. Some problems don’t need solving. Or at least, not every problem needs me.

I was explaining this idea yesterday to a co-worker. We ran into an issue building a server. As you might guess with information technology, the majority of the build process is automated. We’re not consuming up actual resources like wood and metal because we’re talking about information technology. The biggest consumable resource here is time.

He had already spent a good chunk of time trying to solve an issue with what he was building and the typical solutions weren’t working. Troubleshooting the problem further was likely going to take hours. More hours than it would take to simply blow away what he was working on and start over. This raised the question, “Do we need to solve why we’re encountering an issue?” The short answer is, “No.

Think Like a Freak book cover

Think Like a Freak book cover

In Think Like a Freak, the authors talk about knowing when to quit. Basically, does it make sense continuing to try and solve the problem at hand based on the cost? They cite Winston Churchill, famous for his “Never Give In” speech, who was a serial quitter when it came to things like politics. However, there was good reason for quitting each time.

In the case of my co-worker, it didn’t make sense to continue trying to find out what went wrong. There’s a whole host of reasons why we could have experienced the issues. Going down the path of each one was going to take time. The server was in the process of being built, meaning it hadn’t been delivered yet. It was time to quit. The “reward” or “earnings” for solving the problem was more than the effort to solve the issue. This was not a problem that needed solving.

When you are facing a problem, ask yourself that question. Some things have an intangible cost and/or benefit. You can still ask the question. It’s just the consequences or benefits don’t factor down to a money amount. Know what’s valuable to you in those intangible areas. Know what’s important.

I’ve grown my hair out multiple times for donation. It takes some time, as hair grows about 1/2 an inch a month, and the donated hair must be in a ponytail. However, I know that it benefits others, it doesn’t cost me much, and it’s more a matter of biding my time. This is sort of “passive helping” towards others.

The three main hair donation channels I’m aware of are:

Each channel has different requirements and primarily serves a different group of people. Therefore, if you’ll be willing to consider your hair out to donate, check the three and see which one is the best fit for you.

Even if you’re used to short hair, it’s doable. It does require some “grin and bear it” moments as you get used to the longer hair. For instance, I tend to wear a military “high and tight” when I’m not growing my hair out due to my days at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. So if you’ve never donated before, please consider doing so. It takes multiple hair donations to make a single wig.

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