2011 April

Tramping in NZ: Gear to bring

Posted by | Travel | One Comment

Something a bit different today – it’s autumn in New Zealand now, and that means that it’s a perfect time to think about heading for the hills. Ok, so it’s always a perfect time. But if you feel like you could use a quick break away from the office, there’s simply no better way to recharge the batteries than an overnight tramp (that’s what we Kiwis call a hike!) in the New Zealand backcountry.

And just if you needed convincing, not only are the mental and physical health benefits of exercise are well known, but the therapeutic benefits of just being in nature are also well established.

So in this article I’ll start a short series about everything you’ll need to know to enjoy the great outdoors in New Zealand. Though really, wherever you live this is all good stuff to know.

In today’s article we’re going to focus on gear. We all know that there’s a trade-off between taking the kitchen sink, because they’re really good for doing dishes, and having to carry the kitchen sink for half a day in your backpack. So what do you really need to take for a short break away in the hills?

Backpack

Let’s start with the obvious – you’re going to need a good backpack. My backpack is 80L, but unless you’re going to be carrying enough food to last you a week, you could easily get by with 70L. Stick to a brand you’ve heard of – it’s pretty hard to go past Macpac. Pack harnesses come in different sizes, so make sure you try the pack on in the store and ask the shop assistant to show you how to adjust the straps.

Sleeping bag

The next most important item is a good sleeping bag. The rule of thumb is that down sleeping bags are generally warmer and smaller, but synthetic materials will stay warmer if you get wet. But unless you’re planning on doing a lot of tenting in the rain, you’ll probably find down bags to be the way to go.

Footwear

Depending on the terrain, a good pair of boots can be a lifesaver. And believe it or not, a good place to go for your first pair of boots is The Warehouse, or another similar budget price store. Obviously the quality is not going to be the same as if you bought some $400 boots from an outdoors store, but unless the trip you’re planning is a mountain ascent, they’re probably going to be good enough and save you a lot of money.

Cooking gear

A lot of people carry way more cooking gear than they need to. You’re only going to need the following:

  • The cheapest gas stove you can find, like this one
  • A gas canister that fits the stove you’ve just acquired
  • A billy and a small (and light!) frying pan
  • Plates (if there’s too many in your group to just to eat out of the frying pan/billy) and cutlery
  • A billy clamp
  • Some steel wool for cleaning up

When you’re packing, bear in mind that most of this will fit inside your billy.

Clothes

Again, most people take way too many clothes – you can still allow for emergencies and keep your pack weight down; the best place for clothing is Kathmandu or an Army store. You will need:

  • A waterproof raincoat
  • Two pairs of socks – one for walking in and one to keep dry for evenings
  • A pair of long johns
  • A tshirt and some shorts for walking in. Don’t wear cotton while you’re walking, as your sweat will make the shirt feel freezing cold – better to go for wool, preferably merino, or something synthetic
  • A thermal top for walking in and one for the hut/tent
  • Another tshirt and a pair of shorts/light trousers for the hut
  • A very warm fleece jersey. And if you’re going to an area that’s not going to have many other trampers, it’s always a good idea to carry another jersey as a spare, just in case.
  • A woolly hat, and gloves if it’s cold out
  • Underwear – one set per day, which you should put on clean when you arrive at the hut/tent site each evening

And that’s it! You may be surprised how small this pile is, but it’s really all you need for a trip of pretty much any duration. You might also like to consider a pair of waterproof leggings, which could also double as your light trousers for the hut.

It’s important to do whatever it takes to keep your hut clothing dry though. Put it in separate plastic bags if you need to.

And everything else…

You should also take:

  • A map and a compass (and know how to use them)
  • A torch with spare batteries
  • A lighter and some matches
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste and toilet paper etc
  • A first aid kit
  • 2 litres’ worth of drink bottles
  • A pack liner – they help keep everything dry, and you can climb inside it for shelter in case of an emergency

Ok, well that’s all for today. Future articles will cover what food to take and what to do with it, and the logistics of organising transport and accommodation. And if you need any extra inspiration, check out this great short film by Andrés Borghi from Argentina! As the blurb on YouTube says:

Working Day was the winner of the Your Big Break competition a global search for the next great filmmaker. Their task was to capture the spirit of New Zealand in a 3 minute short film. Judged by Peter Jackson and produced by multi Academy Award winner Barrie Osborne.

You’re amazing! More creative, too

Posted by | People and Performance, Research | 2 Comments

If you’re an employer (especially if you’re my employer), I want you to go out right now and buy a box of chocolates for your staff. Then while you’re handing them out, why not make a point of letting everyone know just how good they’re looking today?

Just so long as your staff weren’t expecting it, you’d most likely see that their work was significantly better today – that they seemed more attentive and focused, and could come up with more creative solutions than usual. Pretty cool, huh?

Isen’s study

That’s what Alice Isen from Cornell University showed in a study of how positive affect (or emotion) influences clinical problem solving (Isen, Rosenzweig & Young, 1991). In the study, two groups of third year medical students were taken through a diagnosis problem where they had to decide which one of six hypothetical patients was most likely to be suffering from lung cancer. However, positive affect had been induced in one group first by telling them that they had successfully solved an anagram problem.

What Isen found was that even though both groups reached the same conclusions, the happy group reached their conclusions significantly more quickly than the control group. And the only difference between the two groups was their state of mind!

So what was going on?

The importance of dopamine

When you receive an unexpected reward, several different parts of your brain start releasing a chemical called dopamine, which is renowned for its many effects on how we think and feel. In fact, many drugs like cocaine, and to a lesser extent nicotine and alcohol, work largely by flooding the brain with dopamine. But as Ashby, Isen and Turken (1999) discuss, dopamine also has a very positive influence on our ability to think creatively and solve problems.

Dopamine facilitates the stimulation of individual neurons in the brain, and this makes it easier for the brain to do all sorts of things, from moving muscles to learning new languages. As Stefan Klein puts it in his book The Science of Happiness:

…once in the brain, [dopamine] has seemingly miraculous powers. It helps control our alertness and attention. It stimulates curiosity, the ability to learn, imagination, creativity and sexual drive… Under its influence we feel motivated, optimistic, and full of self-confidence.

So when Isen’s happy group tackled the diagnosis problem, all the dopamine that had been released into their brains was giving their problem solving skills and creativity a natural supercharge. How about that!

Implications

The implications of Isen’s study are huge. Imagine what it would be like to radically lift the energy and problem solving abilities of your staff, friends or family just through giving small unexpected gifts? Wouldn’t you want to work or live in an environment where everyone’s glad to be there, and firing on all cylinders?

I guess the only caveat is that is this example, the gift needs to be unexpected for the effect to work – so you wouldn’t expect this to keep working if you tried it every day for a week.

But I’m not expecting anything this afternoon.

So why not head out to the store now and buy those chocolates, tell your staff how amazing they are, make them feel great, and as a result see them work more productively, efficiently and creatively!

References

Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106, 529-550.

Isen, A. M., Rosenzweig, A. S., & Young, M. J. (1991). The influence of positive affect on clinical problem solving. Medical Decision Making, 11, 221-227.

Klein, S. (2006). The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy-and What We Can Do to Get Happier. Marlow & Company, New York.

Today’s video is a brief explanation of the functions of dopamine:

5 top tips for powerful public speaking

Posted by | People and Performance | 2 Comments

We’ve all been there – staring forlornly at the carpet on the floor, or gazing blankly out the window at the wind in the trees – and wondering when on earth that speaker is going to sit down and shut up.

But it doesn’t have to be like that!

Effective public speaking is a skill that can be learned by almost anyone, and can revolutionise your sales or corporate presentations.

In this article, we’ll give you 5 top tips for making sure that all of your presentations are as engaging, enjoyable and informative as possible.

1. Be well prepared

This one might sound like a given, but unless you put enough time into this initial information gathering phase, then both you are doomed to failure and your audience is doomed to hoping that the carpet has an intricate pattern. You must know your subject as well as you can, given the amount of preparation time that you have available.

A good rule of thumb is to spend about 1 hour of preparation for every minute of presentation; this might sound like a lot, but there’s simply no shortcut to developing mastery over a subject. And if you know your subject well, you’re going to feel way more confident, and deliver something much more valuable to your listeners.

It’s also important to spend some time thinking about who your audience is going to be – there’s no point in speaking to a room full of academics in the same way that you would speak to a room full of high school students, and vice versa. What sort of demographic is your audience? What sort of language will convey your message best? How familiar is your audience with your topic? Will there be a range of ages and backgrounds in your audience?

First try and put yourself into the shoes of your listeners, and then you’ll be much better placed to plan both the style and the structure of your talk.

2. Have a point

Again this might sound a little obvious, but I estimate that about 90% of speakers don’t do this well at all – and trust me, I’ve heard a lot of speakers. So listen carefully. Nobody is going to know what you’re trying to convey in your presentation unless…

  • You know exactly what it is that you’re trying to convey yourself
  • You tell your audience, in as many words, and several times, exactly what it is that you want them to take away from your talk

Get used to using phrases like “The point of today’s presentation is…” or “What you’re going to take away from this presentation is…”. Also get used to repeating these phrases at regular intervals throughout your talk; make it as easy as possible for your audience to get the point.

Incidentally, another important tip is keep your point as simple as possible; if possible, just stick to one point per talk, and then keep it as simple as you reasonably can. Remember, your aim here is to make everything as easy as possible for your listeners. They can’t read your mind.

3. Build rapport

Ok, so you’ve researched your subject, identified your audience, and refined your point. But even the best prepared talk can still fall painfully flat without this most vital of ingredients. Remember our example at the start: even though the content might have been great, you were still looking out the window at the trees, weren’t you?

When it comes to public speaking, rapport is king.

Rapport is defined as a relationship where all the parties feel that they understand each other’s feelings and concerns well. In a nutshell, if you have rapport with your audience then they will actually care about what you have to say. What you need to convey to your audience is that you actually care about what they think and feel too.

So how are you going to build rapport with your listeners? Your secret weapon here is eye contact, and I cannot stress this enough. Follow these tips:

  • Do not just write out your speech word for word and read your notes. This is the ultimate death knell to engaging presentation. If you can, try and keep your notes to short bullet points to jog your memory. And if you really want to score top points, then don’t use notes at all – look at your audience the entire time. That’s right, don’t ever look down – not even for a second – and watch as the energy levels of your audience start to soar.
  • Look directly at individual people for an entire 6 seconds before moving onto the next person. 6 seems to be the magic number here – even in a room full of people, everyone will feel like you’re talking with them. And most people really like being talked with.

This tip may just be the most challenging on the list, and it certainly takes more than a little bravery and a lot of preparation to be able to spend an entire presentation looking deeply into the eyes of your audience. But do you want to do well or don’t you?

If you can really pull this one off, and build some strong rapport with your listeners, then I guarantee that you’ll learn just how rewarding and enjoyable giving a presentation can be.

4. Be brief

On the other hand, if you ever want to whittle away all of your hard-earned rapport to comfortably less than nothing, then speaking too long may just be for you.

Seriously, we’ve all heard talks that just seemed to go on and on to the point where you’ve forgotten what they were talking about in the first place anyway. Even if you were interested at the start of the talk, there always comes a point at which you just can’t wait for it to end.

So don’t be that speaker! Plan to keep your talk to a little bit less than the amount of time available for you. People want to hear quality, not quantity – say something valuable clearly, and then sit down.

5. Practice, practice, practice!

Firstly, practice your talk as much as you can before you give it. This one’s a no-brainer, especially if you don’t want to speak too long and if you want to maintain good eye contact with your audience.

But secondly, remember that unless you’ve got real talent, everything might not go perfectly the first time. What does?

Remember – almost everything in life that’s worth doing doesn’t come easily, and thank goodness it doesn’t. So don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t always go to plan. And whether your presentation goes well or not, always try to learn something new that you can use to make your next presentation even better.

Summary

So there you have it: be well prepared, have a simple point, build rapport, don’t speak too long and remember to practice. Obviously this list is far from exhaustive, but trust me – if you can master just these 5 skills, then you’re well on your way to becoming an accomplished and admired speaker. No one need ever look at the carpet again.

Good luck!

For more information about how to build rapport with your audience, here’s a book we love.

Would you take the marshmallow?

Posted by | Research | No Comments

Think about this carefully: if you could eat one marshmallow right now, or two marshmallows after waiting 15 minutes, which one would you pick?

I hate to break it to you, but if you happen to be from 4-6 years old (phew, you’re saying!) it seems that an excellent predictor of life success boils down to whether or not you decided to wait for the two marshmallows. Or at least, that’s what Walter Mischel from Stanford University found in a landmark study of delayed gratification.

In the study, the researchers led children aged from 4-6 into a room with a marshmallow placed on a table, and then gave them a choice: they could either eat the one marshmallow, or wait for 15 minutes and then eat two. The researchers then left the room, and watched what happened next.

Of the 600 participants, only about 200 were able to wait the 15 minutes to claim the two marshmallows. Interesting enough in its own right, but where things really started to get fascinating was over a decade later when Mischel started sending out surveys to the original participants to see how they were getting on in high school.

He found that those who were able to wait for the second marshmallow were much more likely to be well-behaved in school, and that their SAT scores were significantly higher. What’s more, Scientific American reports another study following 1000 children for 30 years which found that those with greater self-control turned out to be healthier, more financially secure and had lower crime rates. Pretty impressive!

The reason is that self control helps us to work towards desirable longer term goals that might not be appealing in the short term, and conversely to avoid appealing actions in the short term that might lead to undesirable outcomes in the long term. Which are quite important skills, if you want to do well in college, or eat healthily, or stay out of trouble with the police.

So the question is – how well can you control your impulses? Would you take the marshmallow?

For a more detailed description of Mischel’s original experiment, see this article from The New Yorker. Also, check out another version of Mischel’s study here:

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