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Louie Herr reports on work with creativity, productivity, and other things. Learn more.

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Saturday
Jan112014

PERMA

The following summarizes key concepts from the first chapter of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Dr. Martin Seligman. I've found this book very useful, though Seligman's style can be a little off-putting at times. If you find this post interesting, please purchase Flourish.

PERMA is an acronym relating to a five-element model of well-being advocated by Dr. Martin Seligman, who may be the foremost researcher into well-being. PERMA stands for:

  • Positive Emotion, or what Seligman calls "the pleasant life." Positive emotion relates to feelings like pleasure, ectstacy, warmth, and comfort. Essentially, feeling good is good.

  • Engagement, or flow and connectedness with one's work. I think of this as anti-boredom. Engagement is when you are so interested in an activity that time seems to stop. The more time we spend in this state, the better we feel.

  • Meaning, or service to something greater than oneself. Service to others or to a cause in which one strongly believes can cultivate meaning in one's life. Our work for these causes enhances our sense of well-being.

  • Accomplishment, or excellence for no reason other than excellence. Seligman added this dimension after noting that some people pursue accomplishment for its own sake and not because it results in positive emotion, engagement, meaning, or positive relationships. Running a marathon may be a good example this factor being expressed.

  • Positive Relationships, or friends and loved ones. As Seligman writes, "other people are the best antidote to the downs in life and the single most reliable up." If you think about the times you laugh hardest or experience the strongest feelings of joy or purpose, those are likely shared experiences (Seligman argues). In short, much that is good in life is about good buddies.

Seligman developed PERMA after noting inadequacies in the way that "happiness" was traditionally measured. Upon review, it was found that the measure most often used to self-report life satisfaction is linked more closely to our present mood (70%) than to how we judge our life to be going at any moment (30%). If you're like me, your own experience might confirm this. My self-assessment of my own happiness more-often relates to short-term gains and losses than to my larger goals. That my self-assessment is often negative makes PERMA all the more valuable. By making positive emotion but one component of a five-factor model, PERMA makes well-being available even to those of us who have a tendency to be less "happy" than others seem to be.

The goal of positive psychology is to promote flourishing. Flourishing has been operationalized as displaying each of three core features (positive emotion, engagement/interest, and meaning/purpose) and at least three of six additional features (self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, and positive relationships). Google's definition of the term is more useful short-hand:

flour·ish
verb
1. (of a person, animal, or other living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, esp. as the result of a particularly favorable environment.

When I think of flourishing, I think about reaching one's potential. I have found PERMA and other ideas from positive psychology immensely useful in growing nearer to what it's possible for me to be. I hope that you'll find them useful, too.

Header image by flickr user Derek Bridges, used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Monday
Jan062014

Assumptions

Natasha Kmeto is a talented, up-and-coming electronic musician and a tight social connection. Despite being big fans, we've never invited her to play at Banana Stand. "We don't think it will record well," was our programmed, prejudicial reaction to electronic acts.

However, we knew Natasha would be a perfect match for the Red Bull Sound Select series, and were pumped to book her for the first Banana-Stand-curated Sound Select show last November. Since Banana Stand has also been tapped to record at these events, this also gave us a chance to track Natasha Kmeto live.

The results were excellent. Check out the live recording of her track Take Out, mixed and mastered by our friend Zach Stamler. This shit is hot!

Immediately, we asked ourselves -- why hadn't we recorded Natasha earlier? Our assumptions, which turned out to be in error, may have cost us a major opportunity. We are such dummies!

Heart and Mind: Mastering the Art of Decision Making by Anderson, Hahn, and Teuscher (a follow up to a favored text on which I have written before) suggests that unexamined beliefs can inhibit our ability to find optimal solutions. Heart and Mind goes on to say that we rely on these assumptions to keep ourselves on a comfortable, safe, non-risk-taking path. So, facing these assumptions is scary, and takes courage. But, the rewards are often surprising because assumptions prevent us from seeing creative alternatives that we otherwise might skip over.

Now that I'm hip to decision making strategies, I'm making an effort to note and examine assumptions which underpin my thinking. Doing so has opened up some exciting new options.

A few further thoughts occurred to me on the topic of assumptions:

  • Someone else's perspective can be valuable when questioning your assumptions. So, this is another good opportunity for creative conversation.

  • Don't assume that all criteria can't be satisfied! Think optimistically, positively, creatively, and patiently.

  • Don't assume that things can't be fixed. Natasha is a friend, so hopefully Banana Stand will still have a chance to do a record for her before she blows up. (Please?)

  • It probably won't hurt to ask.

And, two questions:

  • What assumptions are you leaving unexamined?

  • What might be better in your life if you found out those assumptions were in error?

Huge thanks to my friend Dan Hahn for the advance copy of Heart and Mind. You're the best!

Header photo: Natasha Kmeto performing at Doug Fir Lounge on November 5th, 2013. Photo by Aaron Rogosin. Used courtesy of Red Bull Sound Select.

Friday
Dec272013

Working on Happiness

Below is an excerpt from a personal statement I wrote for a graduate application. I've wanted to write on this topic for a long time, and hope posting this will encourage me to do so.

I was unhappy for a long time. I was an unhappy high school student and an unhappy college student. I was prescribed several anti-depressants, and participated in talk therapy. Despite these interventions, I was more unhappy in college than I had been in high school. Eventually, I graduated and found a good job. But I remained unfulfilled, and moved to Portland with the hope I would be happy here. Of course, I was not.

In Portland, I took up running. I cofounded a unique, volunteer-run record label, and in it found a cause I believe in, people about whom I care deeply, engagement in exciting new work, a feeling of achievement, and great enjoyment. Later, I furthered my education, and was pleased to find that work in topics like research methods fostered a sense of engagement and accomplishment I have rarely found elsewhere. Benefiting from self-efficacy I lacked earlier in my academic career, I excelled in my return to college. Through these efforts, I began to feel better.

My improvements in well-being should come as no surprise. Moderate exercise may prevent moderate to severe depression, and the benefits I have experienced as a result of my record label, study at PSU, and running align with the five-dimension PERMA model of well-being proposed by Dr. Martin Seligman.

I wish I had known this earlier in life. Today, I consider myself happy. I was not made so by drugs or therapy. Instead, my happiness is a result of behaviors available to anyone.

As I reread this, I realize that my effort at productivity has actually been effort at happiness (or something similar to it). I haven't written about that effort because of reasons. But, maybe it's time I started.

Header image by flickr user Mike Krzeszak, used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Sunday
Oct062013

GRE Postmortem

My pal Scott Tridle, an electrical engineer who took the GRE a couple weeks after I did, contributed to this post. Thanks, Scott! You're swell.

In my last post, I went over some resources that helped me prepare for the GRE. This post covers some other resources you may want to investigate, some tips for test day, and some final thoughts on my GRE experience. Hope it's helpful! Please contact me if you'd to talk more about it.

Alternative Preparation

GRE Preparation Courses - Scott's prep for the GRE differed from mine in one huge way: he took GRE preparation class offered by the UC San Diego Exension. The course met on four consecutive Saturdays for four hours each, and was offered for free by his university.

Scott indicated a positive view of the course, and credited it with helping push him to study. He also said that his instructor provided many useful question-solving strategies and other tips. Scott thought that these pointers helped him with the verbal section of the GRE in particular (as an electrical engineer, Scott had a strong quantitative acumen already).

Vocabulary Mnemonics - Rather than a GRE Vocab App, Scott purchased a book called GRE Vocab Capacity: Over 1000 Powerful Memory Tricks and Mnemonics to Widen your Lexicon to work on his vocabulary. He liked the way the mnemonics provided in the book helpd him learn new words. Scott did express that he wished he had practiced more vocabulary prior to the test. However, this desire was more related to his time investment rather than the quality of his vocabulary resource. Still, it did seem from my conversation with him that Scott would attest that improving one's vocabulary is a good general strategy for the GRE.

When asked about other GRE preparation resources, Scott mentioned that online practice exams he'd taken were very helpful in solidifying the strategies taught in his class. I strongly recommend the online practice sets as well. See my previous post on GRE preparation for more on these.

On Test Day

"It's Just Five Paragraphs." - The evening before I took the GRE, I expressed to Scott that the part of the test I was most worried about was the written section. His response was, paraphrasing, "Why? It's just five paragraphs."

This helped immensely. Instead of agonizing over the written section as I had been, on test day I just took a deep breath and wrote five paragraphs. Simplifying the task helped me worry less about the details, and actually get the thing done.

This could be a helpful frame for the GRE. The GRE is just two essays and five question sets. You'll do fine.

The Testing Room - Paraphrasing Scott again, the test center "doesn't [mess] around." You can't take anything in with you. They go so far as to have you turn out your pockets and undergo scanning with a metal detector before entering. It's serious business.

Scott remarked that he would have brought chewing gum if he had known this, as he was prohibited from bringing in water and got pretty thirsty during the exam. Thirst was not an issue for me. Quite the opposite, in fact. You are on the clock when taking the GRE, and you only get a break at the test's mid-point. So, I can advise against drinking too much fluid prior to taking the GRE, as this can cause it's own discomforts.

Mini Breaks - Strictly speaking, you are not on the clock the whole time. No timer runs during the instruction screens which precede each timed section. I asked one of the GRE personnel/enforcers, and she indicated that it was OK for me to use these screens as an opportunity to stretch my hands. Scott also indicated that he used these screens to take "mini breaks" from the exam. These screens seem like a great opportunity to take a breather between each section, so consider using them as such.

The Actual Break - You get a 10-minute break in the middle of the exam. During this time, you are allowed to have a snack and, you know, do your business. I would strongly encourage bringing a light snack to eat during this time. Caffeine may be a good idea as well. I felt fatigue near the end of the exam. When I asked Scott whether he had felt similarly, he indicated that it hadnt been an issue and credited an energy drink downed during the break with replenishing his reserves. You definitely don't want to overdo it to the point that you become jittery, but a Red Bull could be a really good secret weapon on test day.

Bill Conti - While preparing for the GRE, I joked to myself that I would play the theme from Rocky in my head to get myself pumped up for the test. When I walked into the testing room, my brain automatically started playing the song. It was pretty awesome. It actually helped me get psyched up for the test. You may want to try something similar.

Final Thoughts

Reliability - Something that struck me following the GRE is it's apparent reliability as an assessment tool (at least based on my experience with practice exams). I took a Kaplan computer-scored practice test two days prior to taking the actual GRE. My raw verbal score on test day differed from my practice test score by just one point. My raw quantitative score on test day was actually exactly the same as what I had scored on the practice test. Either this is an incredible coincidence, or Kaplan's practice test are an impressively reliable predictor of performance on the actual GRE. For those who have used Kaplan's online GRE practice tests, have you had a similar experience?

In contrast, Scott took a practice exam after his first GRE prep class. Following the class's conclusion, Scott scored five points higher on the GRE's verbal section and six points higher on its quantitative section. As he summarized, "[The GRE prep class] seems worth it, even if it only helped to stop procrastinating." Scott said that he would recommend the GRE prep course to others, especially for the price he paid.

If I Took The Test Again - Scott indicated that, if he had to take the GRE again, he would bring gum and would prepare more for the exam's essay section. He also reiterated that he'd have studied more vocabulary. If I took the GRE again, I would probably bring an energy drink with me to consume during the break. I also would have drank a little less coffee the morning before the exam. I think Scott's gum recommendation is a good one as well.

I was quite happy with my relatively cheap preparation for the GRE. Based on my experience, I would recommend cheap prep over a GRE prep class. However, Scott endorsed the GRE class he took, so you may find similar value in one. Either way, good luck to you when it's time to take the exam! Chat me up, I would love to speak with you about your experience afterwards.

Header image by flickr user albertogp123, used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Tuesday
Sep102013

Affordable Preparation for the GRE

I took the GRE on August 23rd. Instead of enrolling in a pricey GRE-preparation class, I opted to use fairly inexpensive resources when studying for the test. Despite going cheap, I was pretty happy with my levels of comfort and performance on test day. In this post, I'll go over the texts that I studied to get ready for the GRE. In the post to follow, I'll tell you a bit about what I learned on test day. I hope this information is useful to you! If it is, please let me know in comments.

GRE Preparation Texts

I primarily relied on Kaplan's GRE prep texts to get ready for the GRE. I started with the general GRE Premier 2014 practice guide. When it became clear that I needed more work on certain verbal tasks, I picked up the Kaplan New GRE Verbal Workbook. Finally, I picked up the Kaplan New GRE Math Workbook about two weeks before the exam.

I waited to study Math content because my early practice sets indicated that I needed less work on quantitative tasks. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent a bit more time studying the quantitative tasks, however. The additional time I spent studying verbal tasks resulted in a higher verbal score. If I'd spent more time on math studies, my results may have been more balanced.

One feature of the Kaplan texts I initially overlooked is the library of online practice sets and tests they make available. I wish I had thought to use these online question sets earlier in my studies. They were incredibly useful. All questions in these sets are provided in the format in which they will appear on the GRE. This made me very comfortable on test day, since I'd seen it all before. Also, Kaplan's system maintains a record of your correct and incorrect answers and provides detailed information on the Kaplan-recommended approach to solving each question. This can help you determine which subject areas you need the most work with.

I strongly recommend these Kaplan GRE prep materials, especially the the $18.71 GRE Premier 2014 general guide (each of the other two texts are $14.48). GRE questions have their own logic, and these guides can help you better understand how to think like those that craft these tests. The guides also suggest methods of working through problems which you may not have previously considered. I found both of these kinds of learning highly valuable, and am certain that my GRE scores benefited from the use of these texts.

GRE Essay Practice

One free resource proved very valuable during GRE preparation. The Issue Essay was the section of the GRE with which I was least comfortable. I needed more practice prompts than the general GRE Premier 2014 contains, so I searched online. I was rewarded. Amazingly, the entire pools of Argument Topics and Issue Topics for the GRE are published online. So, when I had a free half hour to study, I could select a topic at random from either site and bang out an essay. I think the extra practice these additional essay prompts provided really increased my comfort with this section of the exam. Check them out if you're uncomfortable with either of the exams essays.

GRE Vocabulary Practice

A large vocabulary can be a significant asset to you when you go to take the GRE. Though Kaplan's texts provide several vocab-building tools, I spent most of my vocabulary study time with the simple-but-wonderful GRE Vocab Genius ($9.99) for iOS. This app is great. A++, five-stars, would purchase again.

I love flashcards. My brain just seems to like to learn that way. So, this app suits my preferred learning habits. What makes this app really special is the way it adds information by asking you to rate your knowledge of each virtual card you see on a one to five scale. These ratings then influence how often each card is shown to you. This worked really well in my experience. This app may seem a little pricey, but I also strongly recommend it for those looking towards the GRE. It won't teach you every obscure word you'll encounter on the actual exam, but it will give you a great head start.

The Damage

All told, I spent under $56 on prep materials (Vocab Genius was $7.99 when I bought it). I did spend quite a bit of time with these materials, however. On the days I studied, I probably averaged around 60 minutes of studying, or around 20-30 minutes each on vocabulary, practice sets, and a practice essay. I scheduled my GRE Test on June 2nd and took the test on August 23rd. Wolfram Alpha indicates that, based on this, I had around 82 days to study. I was relatively dedicated, and estimate I spent time studying on 80% of the available days. With this amount of practice, I felt pretty comfortable on test day.

I recently spoke with a friend who was able to take a GRE prep course from his university for free. If this is an option available to you, it seems worth trying. He sounds to be fairly confident as he looks toward his exam date in early-September. IIRC, his preparation course met for four hours per day on four consecutive Saturdays. Though I am not sure what prep he is doing outside of this class, it sounds as though the class has helped him prepare in a more time efficient manner than I have been able to with the Kaplan guides.

However, if your university does not provide this kind of support, Kaplan's test prep classes could run you up to $500 or more. If this has you looking for a more frugal option, consider the resources above. They may require a bit more work than a proctored class, but they're what I relied on and I am relatively happy with my results.

Header image by flickr user albertogp123, used under the CC BY 2.0 license.