How to Make Great Discoveries

We increasingly incorporate technology into our work lives; LinkedIn, iPhones, MS Outlook all help us get more done, more quickly. As computers and the Internet help us manage more of our daily living, we think about what makes us essentially different from all the silicon.

So we were heartened to read that Svante Pääbo, a prominent German evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is dedicating his life’s work to finding out what makes us essentially human. His approach? Sequencing the entire genome of the Neanderthal.

The human genome was sequenced in 2000, a significant feat in the history of biology. Still, Craig Venter and company had a lot of material to work with; humans are everywhere. Pääbo, however, is working with small fragments dating back 30,000 years. And that’s if the chip of bone or speck of skin is recent.

Amazingly, Pääbo is halfway through mapping the Neanderthal genome. Once it’s done, he’ll compare it bit by bit with the human genome, and see where the two diverge. It’s estimated that the two genomes vary by 4%; Pääbo is hot on the heels of that small, yet significant, percentage!

Yet he may have never progressed this far had he listened to some of his former colleagues. Indeed his career path is intriguing, as reported in a recent New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert:

When [Pääbo] was a teenager, his mother took him to visit the Pyramids, and he was entranced…

“I really wanted to discover mummies like Indiana Jones,” he said…

In the early nineteen-eighties, Pääbo was doing doctoral research on viruses when he once again began fantasizing about mummies. At least as far as he could tell, no one had ever tried to obtain DNA from an ancient corpse. It occurred to him that if this was possible, then a whole new way of studying history would open up.

Suspecting that his dissertation adviser would find the idea silly (or worse), Pääbo conducted his mummy research in secret, at night.

 The results of his work were a hit! Read more

Crazy Good Leadership

We could also call this post “Come Out at Work: With Depression, Part 2″ as we uncover more about the positive attributes of mental illness at work, now as it relates to leadership.

Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness (Penguin Press, 2011), wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal about the benefits of mental illness, namely depression, for people in leadership roles. He writes:

In business, for instance, the sanest of CEOs may be just right during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future. But during a period of change, a different kind of leader—quirky, odd, even mentally ill—is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine.

Ghaemi sheds light on the nature of depression, in particular, relative to leadership greatness:

Depression has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores… Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.

He then looks at the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who attempted suicide in his adolescence and experienced severe depressive episodes as an adult:

Nonviolent resistance, King believed, was psychiatry for the American soul; it was a psychological cure for racism, not just a political program. And the active ingredient was empathy.

As a society, we can help ourselves by removing the taboo associated with having depression. And as an individual, if you’re in a leadership role and live with depression,  it’s sounding increasingly wise not to spend energy hiding it. Rather, determine how to overcome any embarrassment about being depressed so you can leverage what’s natural in you and become a better leader.

What gets in your way of coming out as depressed at work?

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Come Out at Work: As Atheist [video]

Religion is a touchy subject; just reading this post’s title makes us go “eek!” inside.

In many organizations, executives promote a message that people of all faiths are welcome, and that no one religion is espoused. Then they close on Christmas, which suggests that the Christian persuasion indeed is most valued.

So in a work environment where having a religious identity is expected, what can we do if we’re atheist?

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, increasingly the go-to spokesperson for atheists, has an answer: come out as such.  The author of The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976 and 2006) was recently featured in the New York Times, and he spoke about his upbringing, his beliefs about the world, and of course, his work. Michael Powell relates several facets of Dr. Dawkins, including:

His impatience with religion is palpable, almost wriggling alive inside him. Belief in the supernatural strikes him as incurious, which is perhaps the worst insult he can imagine.

On working in Britain:

It is a measure of Britain’s more resolutely secular culture that Professor Dawkins can pursue his atheism and probing, provocative views of Islam and Christianity in several prime-time television documentaries.

On perceptions of him by his peers:

Critics grow impatient with Professor Dawkins’s atheism. They accuse him of avoiding the great theological debates that enrich religion and philosophy, and so simplifying the complex.

And finally, his thoughts on the future:

He talks of the possibility that we might co-evolve with computers, a silicon destiny.

We ponder that too!

In revealing his philosophical beliefs as they connect with his research and areas of expertise, Richard Dawkins models coming out at work as an atheist. Which would seem scary, and yet he looks very comfortable.

Watch the video below, in which he talks about “coming out” as an atheist.

If you identify as atheist, are you out at work?

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The Cost of “Staying In” at Work

National Coming Out Day is approaching, which makes us think about coming out at work. At Whole Wide Work we explore this idea many days of the year, yet it’s nice to be reminded every October about the complexities of coming out.

But you know what’s more difficult than coming out?  Staying in.

Not revealing our whole self at work can involve concealing the truth. Hiding typically takes the form of withholding information, or presenting an altered version of who we are. The big problem is, presenting less-true aspects of our selves demands a wide array of resources! Scientific American Mind–one of our favorite periodicals–in the current issue breaks down the specifics of how taxing it is to fib:

To start, you need to invent a story, and you also have to monitor that tale constantly so it is plausible and consistent with the known facts. That task takes a lot of mental effort that innocent truth tellers do not have to spend. You also need to actively remember the details of the story you’ve fabricated so that you don’t contradict yourself at any point… Because you’re worried about your credibility, you’re most likely trying to control your demeanor, and “looking honest” also saps mental energy…  Like an actor, you have the mental demands of staying in character. And finally, you have to suppress the truth so that you don’t let some damning fact slip out—another drain on your mind’s limited supply of fuel. In short, the truth is automatic and effortless, and lying is the opposite of that. It is intentional, deliberate and exhausting.

Now imagine the wherewithal it takes to get job-related tasks done amidst the additional burden of stifling your self. It seems a waste of precious resources–your personal energy–to be sure.

Are you “staying in” at work? How much work does it take?

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Come Out at Work: With Dyslexia, Part II

We’ve covered the subject of revealing your dyslexic nature at work before, yet a book full of new supporting evidence is prompting us to get excited about it all over again. Doctors Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide have written The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain (Hudson Street Press, 2011). Mm… the title basically says it.

To dive right into the good stuff, a review in Scientific American Mind relates:

[People with dyslexia] can excel at “big picture” thinking. [They] frequently prefer thinking in narrative form, a proclivity that makes them natural storytellers, and they tend to have exceptional spatial navigation skills, visualizing 3-D structures with ease.

Turns out that in addition to film and TV star Whoopi Goldberg, novelist Anne Rice, actor Danny Glover and entrepreneur Richard Branson live and work with the strengths that dyslexia brings. The Doctors Eide offer that:

It is time to stop classifying dyslexia as a learning disability and start appreciating that different brain-wiring patterns allow people to process information in unique ways. When it comes to learning, they argue, there is no good or bad, right or wrong, only a difference in style, which should be fostered rather than corrected.

Right on! The folks we’ve referenced in this post have flourished not in spite of their learning style, but because of it. Again from the Scientific American Mind article, you see:

Being dyslexic allowed them to break from conventional ways of thinking to dream of fantastic new worlds and create alternative solutions to vexing problems.

We’re not going to call dyslexia a “learning disability” again. It’s a learning difference, a learning style.

Do you have dyslexia? National Coming Out Day will soon be here. What are you waiting for?

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The New Currency?

Money plays a primary role at work. Whether in dram, dollars, yen or euros, cash is the unit in which profits are measured, and how employees are compensated.

It’s also significant in our career counseling practice. We persistently encourage individual clients to link their achievements to the bottom line of the organizations where they work. This way they fortify their resumes, or LinkedIn profiles, or their vocabulary when describing themselves in an interview.

This may change.

Star of the TV show Roseanne’s Nuts, Roseanne Barr is prompting us to reconsider our understanding of money as currency. Having initially endeared herself to us in this scene from Roseanne

(Roseanne and Dan [John Goodman] are in the kitchen, with a man lying motionless on the floor. Roseanne checks his pulse.)

Roseanne:  He’s dead.

Dan:  Are you sure? Check again.

Roseanne:  I can count to zero!

–we were enamored again, in a recent interview with the Village Voice‘s Michael Musto, wherein Barr pontificated on the economics of living. She says:

It keeps you smart to remember that things don’t come from money, they come from seeds.

It’s interesting to think about, no? At an essential level, so much of what sustains our daily life comes not from money, but first from seeds:  fruit, vegetables, wood, medicine, grains, to name a few.  Seeds are so crucial to life on earth that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been created near the North Pole. It’s a bank with 2.25 billion assets under management. Should any doomsday scenarios hit, nations may be able to make withdrawals — of seeds, not cash. Seeds may indeed be the new currency; we can’t eat cash!

So as we examine the essence of what’s within us in order to reveal and engage our whole selves at work, perhaps it’s time we start looking at what’s essential around us, too.

How connected to seeds is your work?

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Come Out at Work: As the Child Within [video]

Don’t scoff! We all were children once, so we hold within us that young kid, or inner child, who wonders about the big world, plays readily, and is excited to figure out what makes things work.

The problem is, so many of us bury that kid deep inside, as if she has no relevance to the adult world in which we live.

Except Eric Schadt, pioneering biologist and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Listen to how he describes his work environment, starting at about 0:45.

Did you catch that? He describes where he works as a “sandbox.” More specifically, in discussing why he made the move to Mount Sinai, he states:

The simplicity of Mount Sinai is you have a CEO who runs both the hospital and the medical center, and sort of reduce bureaucracy, embed yourself in all of that, and see if in that kind of sandbox you could revolutionize the way this kind of information could impact decision making in the clinic.

Metaphorically speaking, this superstar scientist sees himself as playing in a sandbox during the workday. It suggests he’s exploring, working with his hands, collaborating with others, and having a fun time all the while. As a bonus, playtime is leading him to make all kinds of breakthroughs.

So, do you play at work? If no, how can you find the sandbox in your workplace?

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