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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Britney Spears: A Metaphor for the Fall and Rise of Western Society?

Okay, so this analogy might be a bit of a stretch, but that's the point - it's by testing out extremes that you find the truth, nestled somewhere in the middle.

It's Britney, bitch

I can't say I've spent a lot of time following Britney Spear's career.  My primary impression of her is as something of an icon to a friend of mine, also a pretty blond named Brit from a small-town background but living in the big city. 

Of course, there were the tabloid headlines and pictures jumping out from grocery-store magazine racks, but it was through my Brit's lens that I saw Brit Spears - as a relatable person going through personal challenges under the harsh glare of the public spotlight.  As the drama increased and Spears' life seemed to continue spiraling out of control, I began to feel bad for her, as a human being.  I snapped when I heard "townie" references, but then, I'm from a small city myself. 

While part of me hoped things would turn around, it really looked like the fate of an Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston was what was in store for her.
Yet, Britney Spears apparently never went away.  In fact, despite the family challenges and the health concerns both physical and mental, it looks like she's actually getting better as an artist and performer.  Spears' Wikipedia entry says her dancing on the Circus Tour was the best in years.  Her songs are receiving positive reviews and she's breaking records.  Beyond that, it looks like her life is coming back to a semblance of order. 

Not what you'd expect from someone everyone was waiting to erupt.

Of course, Britney Spears didn't write all her songs.  She purposely claimed no credit for the songs on her latest album, Femme Fatale.  What makes the songs interesting, though, is that they reflect her personal trajectory; Spears' lineage is captured by her lyricists, and it's that narrative that makes for interesting stories.

What brought Spears' to mind today was hearing the song I Wanna Go on the radio.  It took me a second to recognize whose voice I was hearing and in that moment, I was reminded of Tell Me by another female music icon whose life has unfolded in the media fishbowl, Madonna.  Years before, I'd written a short story about drinking wine in Barcelona (written while drinking Cuba Libres in Ljubljana) that referenced Tell Me, with one character describing Madonna as having her microphone on the pulse of the times.

Britney Spears equally continues to endure and, just like Madonna, she continues to adapt.  Neither one can be pigeon-holed to one genre; they evolve with the times, find new forms of expression and yet continue to stay loyal to their core fan base.

So, I Wanna Go stuck in my head.  When I got home I found and watched the video on Youtube.  I expected it would play on Spears' bounce-back from mental health issues, and was right.  There's a bit of a sharp-edged, rage-against-the-machine to the direction, but there was something more.  Much of what I do in politics revolves around reading and understanding behaviour, particularly in those who train hard to control their behavioural tells.  What I got from Spears' physical delivery, the little ticks and actions, is a sense of comfort in her skin.  The kind of comfort that only comes from someone with an adverse challenge that they have learned to accept as part of themselves and use as a tool of empowerment rather than a burden to bare.

Having some familiarity with cognitive function and symptoms of mental illness, I did another search - Britney Spears and Bipolar Disorder. It just made sense. While we look at Bipolar Disorder as a branch of crazy, the thing we miss is that the stigmatic term crazy is an over-generalization pregnant with meaning, but without a clear definition. The brain is biology; just as we're getting to the point where diverse skin colours aren't considered an illness, nor are conditions like asthma or even cancer causes to ostracize an individual, the brain is just another piece of physical hardware that comes wired in different ways. Slowly but surely, we are beginning to change the view about mental fitness.

It would surprise me none at all if Spears one day was labeled with an official Bipolar Disorder diagnosis.  I don't get the impression that would trouble her much - she's been labeled before and has still kept going.  Her particular cognitive wiring is something she has come to understand at some level and is now starting to channel.  Britney Spears will have moods, spells of cortisol-fueled depression and anger, but she will also have times when she is artistically on fire.  As she is conscious of this, she now has greater control over it.

So - what does this have to do with the ongoing, phoenix-like demise and rebirth of Western Society?

The "Western World" has been globally dominant for quite some time, with the 20th Century being the pinnacle of the American Empire.  The world has changed, though - the US is rapidly losing ground as the world's economic superpower.  In fact, across the board we're in a spiral of brushfires ranging from the Great Recession to the Eurozone Crisis and the broader depression that is likely to follow.  Here in Canada, we have a federal government repeating history's mistakes both internally and externally.  There's lots of wealth at the top, not enough opportunity at the bottom; the growing influence of social media is putting this imbalance front and centre in the consciousness of the masses.  We need release, uncontrollably.

That release is manifesting itself through the Occupy movement, student protests and the rise of intolerance.

Which isn't necessarily inaccurate.  The world we have grown accustomed to can't last - but then, society was never meant to be static.  It's a living, breathing entity, like a person.  It evolves.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about that evolution and, based on what's come before, I think that while oops, we are doing it again, we're going to emerge stronger on the other side.  And a big part of that is going to lie in cognitive flexibility, the capacity to adapt.  Which brings us back again to mental health.

Thanks to social media, the unspoken, internal burdens that have strained our society are all coming to bare.  What we see are political scandals, police scandals, economic scandals.  Always the bad, never the good.  It's not clear to us yet, but that level of scrutiny is liberating - it forces us to come to terms with who we are, as individuals and as a society.  This heightened transparency will set us free.

So there's the connection.  People counted Britney Spears out because of a downward behavioural spiral.  She proved us all wrong; she has tapped her internal flexibility and came back stronger than ever, more confident, less concerned about position and more determined to be herself to the max. 

Western Society is going through the same bust and boom cycle as Britney did.  It's nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, it's a positive - it means that the best is yet to come for all of us. 

See, our society is a bit Bipolar, too.  It's when we really come to terms with that and learn to find balance that we'll consciously start finding success.

Friday 25 May 2012

There's More to Mental Health Than Just Illness

This is What Creative Destruction Looks Like

They really don't know what they're doing here.  They are taking a society with an increasing riot culture and giving them more reason to take to the streets.  Team Harper is paying lip-service to training and innovation, yet is focused on marginalizing increasing numbers of Canadians and forcing them into a reality that discourages value-add.  That's no way to strengthen our economy - instead, it's trying to recreate the Dirty Thirties.  There are other parallels on that front, too - just look at Europe

Why?  Why would they repeat history when the lessons are there to be learned?  It's easy - they're fixated on power and control and think that, because they're in charge, they can defy social gravity.  They are reacting on instinct - not proactively planning.

So, let's look at history and see what else is there to be learned.  The Tories are going to pay for this at the polls, eventually, but in the meantime, with only two viable political parties at the forefront, people are going to be looking elsewhere to see their concerns represented.  This could be a renewed Liberal Party, or it could be a series of somethings new.  I hate to say it, but I would keep an eye out for a party further to the right of the CPC gaining some presence, too.  Where success will emerge, though, is from the Centre

While Team Harper might not have learned the lessons of history, there are others that have.  Society, as a whole, has completely changed from what it was then, in ways that are irrevocable.  Case in point - the Internet.  We are all much more connected, just as we are more urban.  It's hard to get away with marginalizing your neighbours when they are still going to be your neighbours - there's no way governments can get away with labour migrations today.  Now, multiply that worldwide and you'll see where we're at.

Where are the new, progressive political movements going to come from?  The same place they always do - coffee shops, pubs, places where people gather to share ideas.  While Occupy and students are taking to the streets (there's that protest movement, again) civic engagement movements like Why Should I Care or former MP (and visionary thinker) Gerard Kennedy's Democracy Renewal Nights are discussing policy in the context of reality and coming up with tomorrow's social solutions.

These pub nights are supplemented by the growing Social Entrepreneur movement - a term we should all get used to hearing about.  Places like MaRS and the Centre for Social Innovation are nurturing a generation of Conscious Capitalists, society-minded individuals that want to earn a living making the world a better, more inclusive yet diverse place - generating legacy in the progress.  Call it specialized collaboration.  These are the true conservatives, focused on efficiency not just of dollars but of our natural resource use as well.  For them, success is about sustainability.

It's ironic to the extreme - in trying to obtain ultimate control and establish a Conservative dynasty that will last a thousand years, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are actually serving as social brushfire, burning off the the accrued detritus of past social models and clearing the way for what comes next.  They are playing the role that society has engineered them to.

Welcome to the 21st Century; welcome to the Conscious Society.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Mental Health Crisis, Mental Fitness Opportunity

Lineage and the Human Machine

There's more to the story than that, of course.  We are none of us an island; we're individual machines, but equally gears in larger mechanisms; family, community, jurisdiction, society, the ecosystem, the infinite.  We don't just exist in the now; we are the sum of everything that's come before, biological and social evolution as well as our own personal lineages.

But none of that undermines who are are as individuals; jewels in a crown, each shining separately, each complimenting each other.  We must be conscious of this.

Strong, independent individuals supporting a strong, collaborative society.

That's the way forward.

Where We Stand – and Where We’re Headed

The phenomenon, dubbed “NEET,” which stands for Not in Employment Education or Training, is an area of growing concern to policy-makers around the globe.

Nearly a million young Canadians are out of work and more than half aren’t’ even looking for a job, according to the first study of its kind by Statistics Canada.

Long-term unemployment leads to problems with income, financial well-being and psychological problems.

What does it all mean?  How do these strands all connect?  Where are we going next?

That question, ironically, is where we should draw comfort.  Wherever we have come from, we’re all headed to the same place.  All that’s lacking is leadership to show us the way.

“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Will Stephen Harper Be the Undoing of the Conservative Party of Canada? (UPDATE)

Three quotes that are perhaps interchangeable:

The things he once stood for with vigour have been lost as his focus shifts towards continuance.  Where once he cried "reform" his new motto is "nothing to see here."  Harper should take a lesson from true Free Market Capitalists - growth comes through creative destruction, starting at the top.

Then again - what would the Party he's worked so hard to build and rigidly control be without him?  If and when he steps down, all the radicals that are already starting to chafe under his authoritarian control will push for a leader more in their image, the mold they once thought Harper would represent.  Those MPs who are more traditional Conservatives will be held publicly accountable for what they choose to support - their beliefs, or their Party.

When these two groups with vastly different priorities don't get what they want, the Conservative Party of Canada, held together with duct tape and a common lust for power, will once again fragment.

One has to feel bad for Harper - his own deep-rooted fears and need for control have knee-capped his own ambitions.  If only he'd taken the parents' creed to heart; "if you love them, let them go."

Perhaps he should have thought through his grand vision for a Conservative Canada in greater detail.  Guaranteed, his successors will have to.

UPDATE: The problem is that the list of enemies keeps growing, and as it grows, starts to include more and more of the party's staunchest supporters.


Don Tapscott Thinking Big - Macrowikinomics: Social Sciences and Social Change in the Age of Social Media

Posting this in its entirety.  If you read my blog you know why I'm jazzed about the subject matter.

If you can attend, follow via Twitter, etc, do so!

Don Tapscott

Macrowikinomics: Social Sciences and Social Change in the Age of Social Media

Tuesday, May 29, 19:00 to 20:00
Modern Languages (UW), Theatre of the Arts

In partnership with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

The current global economic crisis is not just cyclical, but rather symptomatic of a deeper secular change. There is growing evidence that we need to rethink and rebuild many of the organizations and institutions that have served us well for decades, but now have come to the end of their life cycle.

At the same time the contours of new enterprises and industries are becoming clear. With the Internet, society has at its disposal the most powerful platform ever for bringing together the people, skills and knowledge we need to ensure growth, social development and a just and sustainable world. And all around the world there is the first generation to “grown up digital” are entering the workforce and becoming citizens. These “digital natives” are a powerful force for change.

People everywhere are collaborating like never before. From education, science and the humanities to new approaches to citizen engagement and democracy, sparkling new initiatives are underway, embracing a new set of principles for the 21st century — collaboration, openness, sharing, interdependence and integrity.

Don Tapscott, for 3 decades arguably the world’s leading thinker about the impact of the digital revolution on business and society, argues that this is an age of participation where the humanities and social sciences have a central role to play.

Why Mitt Romney Should Listen to Colin Powell (But Won't)

Colin Powell is a brilliant military strategist - the Sun-tzu kind that sees conflict as costly and inefficient.  For him, success isn't defined as being the last man standing, but rather in terms of security, stability, economic growth and quality of life.

Powell does a brilliant presentation on leadership that should be mandatory reading for anyone who aspires to lead others.  He gets this command stuff, which is why it behooves folks like Mitt Romney to listen.

So why doesn't he?

Romney's track record suggests he defines success as quashing everyone he sees as different from himself.  His business history of slashing and burning teams - the people he theoretically led - fits within the same hawkish approach he's taking to foreign policy.  Romney's not about leadership - he's about dominance.  He probably embraces the "with us or against us" mentality.  For him, America isn't defined by what it stands for so much as what it stands against.

So, the Soviet Union, er sorry, Russia - is the black hat to the US' crusading gunslinger.  Gay marriage isn't just another way of building a family - it's a threat to decency.  It goes on and on.  Leadership is proactive - Romney is reactive.

I'm not so much about winning as I am about success.  I'd love to see a decent competitor for Obama, because that's how you generate new, well thought-out ideas - not by attempting to eliminate competition, but by challenging yourself to do better.  Romney decidedly fails to meet that standard.

We're all better off when we raise the bar - not lower it, as Romney seems determined to do.  Just think what the tenure would be if the match-up was Powell vs. Obama.  We'd all be benefit from genuine police discussion that would result from that race.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Mental Fitness - Support your Talent for Success

React to This

What these folk have in common is that they have all gotten in trouble for just doing what came to mind.  They may have rationalized their action (or inaction) but never did they consider that part of their noggin was leading them to engage in activities that were long-term detrimental for them.  Their minds already had a model in place - additional facts were irrelevant.  If they thought about consequences at all, the train probably went something like this - be aggressive or righeteous enough, or just ignore what challenges you, and things will carry on.
All people have an inclination to react positively to what agrees with them, negatively to what doesn't and to completely ignore what doesn't appear to be relevant.  If you don't have kids, do you spend much time thinking about how stroller/wheelchair accessible buildings are?  When was the last time you thought about where, exactly, your produce comes from?  You see my point.

These inclinations are inherited instincts that have been developed over countless generations of evolution.  We all learn to control ourselves to some degree, too - not eating that extra dessert, for instance, or putting in the extra effort on a project or at the gym.  This ability to self-regulate, to pause the "react" function and think things through is an essential social tool.

This executive function is equally rooted in our biology; it's the newer part of our brain, that which sets us apart from other animals, that allows us to pause on reaction until we have thought things through.  The part of the brain that houses this funciton also allows us to connect dots - if I do A and the other person responds B, then C will result.  This conscious thought lets us plan ahead, but it also lets us create; ie, if I take this product and find a way to combine it with that service, I'll have a new offering to market.

Everyone has both pieces in their cognitive matrix - the reactive and proactive ones.  Confidence is supported by one; mental competence, the other.  Ideally, you want a mix of both - to acheive a mental balance between action and thought, a state of mental fitness called mushin in bushido.

What we have to ask ourselves is, what influences this mental fitness?  Part of it is biological; just as people have high or low metabolisms and varying degrees of pigmentation that impact sensitivity to light, some people are naturally more reactive than others.  They might be anxious, excitable; they might get depressed easily.  Some folk are readily creative, others need stimulation.  Some of it is external; diet, environment, our day-to-day interactions.  Just as someone smoking every day has a greater succeptibity to lung cancer or someone typing all day will be prone to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, soldiers, police officers, ERT and teachers are more likely to develop traumatic stress disorders than others.

Like physical exercise and accomodation, it isn't until we understand how these cognitive kinetics work that we can really learn how to harness the full potential of our thoughts and mitigate the things that negatively stress our brains.  Just as physical health requires us to pay attention to external factors - light and humidity levels, traffic, repetitive injury, traffic - mental fitness requires the same level of awareness and management of our external worlds. 

Chicken and Egg

Now think about this on the grand scale for a second.  A heightened focus on reacting to things that go beyond our mental models leads to stigma.  Stigma can have grave consequences, but much more common are the subtle accumulated stresses that build up leaving us with the cognitive (and social) equivalents of arthritis.  Which can be a real problem in promoting productivity in the workplace.  Which might just have something to do with the mess our global economy is in.

I couldn't begin to tell you the number of leaders I know who fall into the "we are smart, they are dumb" trap.  Experience of disagreement and a poor understanding of motivation leads to this sort of mentality, time and again - stagnating connect-the-dots opportunities and instead closing one's perspective off behind cognitive firewalls.

So, leaders, I ask you - what really comes first, poor results from employees or poor management?

Colin Powell puts it best:

The Train has Left the Station

Now, the decision-makers who read this will probably chuckle, pity my naivite and go back to their traditional top-down model of engagement.  To them, I offer a reminder of the names at the top.  Thanks to social media, economic woes and a young generation that grew up watching their parents have opportunities they themselves are going to have less acccess to, every Vikileak, every Goldman Sachs, every Scott Thompson can and will come to light.

Business as usual is already at it's end; the question is, how consciously are you going to be prepared for what comes next?

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Canada's Youth - Unemployed Today, Leading Tomorrow

This is a troubling article, to be sure.  More broadly; not only are youth giving up on the job search, but they are turning against social insitutions they feel are repressing them.

For anyone who's looking, though, there's also an incredible opportunity waiting to be seized.

Governments don't have the money to do this.  Many small businesses are cash-strapped as it is.  More to the point, a lot of young people are disenfranchised with work and employment in its current model.

It's not that they don't want to work - it's that they want to be respected and have ownership of their work.  They want to build something for themselves, not for a generation from whom they feel increasingly disconnected.  The thought that settled baby-boomers are going to tell them to pick up and move across the country to drive a cab, because that's what's available, is deeply offensive to them.

The solution to this?  Entrepreneurship

Those at the top with the financial resources need to start connecting their funding with start-up capital and mentorship opportunities.  Governments starved for new policy directions and ideas would do well to foster these connections.

Places like the MaRS discovery District and the Centre for Social Innovation are leading the way on this front.  In terms of social participation, civic engagement projects like Samara and Why Should I Care are helping to connect young people with those in power and provide them with a voice that gets heard.

And there are ideas out there - practical, sustainable, affordable ones that, with the right nurturing, can change the world for the better.

If you want to know more, drop me a line -

Don't Let It Happen Again

This picture jumped out at me from this morning's Toronto Star, sending a shiver up my spine.  Perhaps not the context, but the image itself struck an uncomfortable cord.  Then I dug around and came across this.

As economic tensions rise because there are those within the system who refuse to engage in a conscious, respectful manner, the list of groups and individuals feeling disenfranchised grows longer.  Tolerance is on the decline, with antagonism and isolationism increasing all around the world.  The Western World is far from immune. 

Because there are no bad people; only ignorance and fear keeps us from meeting our full potential, as one richly diverse global population.  Because the world is too small.  Because the consequences are so dire.  Most importantly, it's because conflict is so inefficient.

I still believe things are going to get worse before they get better; that we are once again going to have to skirt perilously close to the unfathomable before we regain our sense and remember the simple logic;

Monday 21 May 2012

Premier McGuinty: The Best Consultants Are Yet to be Tapped

There was more meaning to the Drummond Report than just doom and gloom.

Many of the brilliant, bold ideas that will take us through our current challenges won't come from top-dollar consultants.  They'll come from an increasingly engaged populace and an amazing group of emerging social entrepreneurs.  A heightened focus on breaking down service silos and reducing duplication, gaps and overlaps is essential.  This means culture change, always a challenge, but facilitated by people not of the system who still believe in its value.

If Premier McGuinty is really looking for new solutions to some of our most challenging problems, I would suggest he send out staff to attend Why Should I Care events (next one's on Monday May 28 at the Duke of York, starting 6:30pm) to hear some interesting conversations around what hasn't worked and what's being considered by officialdom, with lots of fresh ideas from the floor about how to make our system work.  Organizer Terri Chu always has interesting, sometimes provocative line-up of speakers that touch on their subjects in direct, powerful ways.

The Premier himself should bend the ear of Tonya Surman at the Centre for Social Innovation.  The team of social entrepreneurs who have collected there are pursuing a wealth of interesting new initiatives ranging from new training tools for employees, the use of microfluidics to make anything to do with liquid (ie, blood samples) easier, or simple stuff like turning store waste into energy and creating new aggregate models for services.  Then, there's the growing link between health care costs, mental health and productivity, say nothing of quality-of-life.  Looking at mental health proactively, rather than reactively, is going to change much of everything.

Tomorrow's solutions won't be cultivated at the top; they're being formulated right now by the social entrepreneurs working their way up from the bottom.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Response to Comments on Tammy Hart and Diversity

As a woman in poliltics, Tammy Hart should be proud of what she's done.  There was a time where women were far more marginalized in society than they are today (though we still have a long way to go).  It would be nice to see her equally support other groups in her community that have been marginalized.

It is nice to hear that Tammy is making the time to learn French!   As she makes progress, she’s going to find that speaking a second language in no way threatens her original tongue.  It’s the same thing with New Canadians; an influx of new ideas and new traditions doesn’t diminish what came before, but enhances the mix.  Call it social genetics.

While there’s some value in representing the fears of one’s community, politicians have an obligation to balance those concerns with building the local tools needed for success in the future.  That’s why I’m glad to see Jim Brownell’s name raised here, as this is something he was a champion of.

During his time as MPP, Jim Brownell was challenged to support an important cause on behalf of a minority of Canadians – the deaf and hard of hearing – by James Borer (I know this because I was Jim’s Executive Assistant at the time).  Thanks to James’ work and Jim’s commitment, Ontario now funds cochlear implants for both ears deaf kids in Ontario, as well as providing support services.

Now, this is all at the taxpayer’s cost.  You and I, whether we’re deaf or not, are helping deaf kids to hear.  This assistance allows for kids who would otherwise exist at the margins of society to be teachers, athletes, fully-contributing members of our society.  Watch this video to see what a powerful difference your tax dollars are making:   

As traditional manufacturing jobs leave for emerging economies like Brazil and China; places who don’t accommodate their citizens (to growing civil unrest) and the Stephen Harper government is focusing on other parts of the country to be our economic drivers, it’s up to local politicians to think big and find new ways to strengthen our communities. 

Tammy’s view of keeping diversity at bay, reducing centralized government and focusing on owning land over developing skills is not the answer.  What good is it to have no French in your community, no support for New Canadians, own a big plot of land but have to fly to Alberta every week for work?

SDSG’s growing level of diversity is what will give it an edge, if politicians like Tammy can think outside their traditional box and seize the opportunities of the emerging Knowledge Economy.  There are huge markets out there in the world that speak French.  What opportunities are they looking for?  What online services can we develop and sell to them?  Beyond that, what other emerging global opportunities can solutions be designed for right in the United Counties?

As Tammy really drills down into French, she’ll find herself blessed with not only a new way of expressing herself, but an additional world view.  This is a powerful tool to have.  Diversity, as evolution shows us, is what will keep us moving forward.