Passion, obsession, and the autistic child

As any parent of an autistic child knows, the tendency of our kids to perseverate is a fact of life. Or, at least, it looks like perseveration to us, but it quite possibly could be good old fashioned perseverance.

The distinction between “perseverate” and “persevere” is one that I often wondered about. What I’ve come up with, in a nutshell, is this:

  • perseverate is bad, keeping at something for no real purpose
  • persevere is good, keeping at something in pursuit of a meaningful goal.

Another way to look at it is that someone who perseverates is acting on an obsession, while someone who perseveres is pursuing a passion. In his recent article Passion Versus ObsessionJohn Hagel provides some insight into this distinction as he reconsiders his earlier question, “When does passion become obsession?“:

To say passion becomes obsession is to make a distinction of degree. It implies that obsession is a more passionate form of passion—too much of a good thing. However, I’m now convinced that passion and obsession do not vary in degree, but in kind. In fact, in many ways they are opposite. [original emphasis]

For parents – of autistic or not autistic children – it is a real challenge to tell the difference between an obsession and a passion of our kids. Consider the following, a passage that I wrote comparing two different authors’ views on the effect and value of video games:

To Prensky, video games are a passion that can lead to positive learning and skills…. For the Bruners, video games are an obsession that lead to destroyed lives.

If you read the entire article, you will see that the amazing thing is that both Prensky and the Bruners had basically the same understanding of how games work and draw players in but come to wildly different – opposing – conclusions about what it means. For one, games provided an outlet for passion; for the other, games are a destructive obsession.

So how exactly do you figure out if your kid’s behavior is an obsession – so you can help understand and overcome it – or a passion that you can nurture and encourage?  For many parents, especially of “normal” kids, this can seem pretty straightforward: if your kid is interested in something weird, it is an obsession; if it is something more common, then it is a passion.

But just a few seconds thought, serious thought, and you realize that this is not a very good way to make this distinction. Or, as teenage autistic Luke Jackson asks (in a quote that I’ve used before) with more than a hint of sarcasm:

When is an obsession not an obsession?

When it is about football.

Does your organization need a neurologist?

When addressing the idea of tacit knowledge in respect to knowledge management, most descriptions focus on the tacit knowledge IN organizations – that is, the tacit knowledge of the individual members of the organization – and how to capture and share that tacit knowledge. While I believe it is important to understand this tacit knowledge, I’ve always been more attracted to an understanding of the tacit knowledge OF an organization, what it is the organization as a whole ‘knows.’

As with individuals, organizations operate based on the tacit knowledge they possess and their ability to act on that knowledge when needed. In the human brain it is the connections between neurons – and the ability of the brain to reorganize those connections to meet the situation – that makes up the intelligence and tacit knowledge of the individual. In organizations, it is the connections between people. (see this post of mine from 2006 for a bit more on this.)

Many years ago, in one of my first ever blog posts, I wrote that “KM is the neuroscience of an organization.” After reading Is Enterprise 2.0 the neuro-organization? a couple of days ago, and a brief discussion with Harold Jarche (@hjarche), I was once again curious.

Here’s a start. (Definitions from Wikipedia)

Neurology: a medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Specifically, it deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of disease involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue, such as muscle.  –>OD ?

Neuroscience: the scientific study of the nervous system, the scope of neuroscience has broadened to include different approaches used to study the molecular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational, and medical aspects of the nervous system. –> KM?  IT?

Psychology: the scientific study of human or animal mental functions and behaviors, psychologists attempt to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behavior, while also exploring underlying physiological and neurological processes.  –> OD? Training/Learning?

Psychiatry: the medical specialty devoted to the study and treatment of mental disorders—which include various affective, behavioural, cognitive and perceptual disorders; mental disorders are currently conceptualized as disorders of brain circuits likely caused by developmental processes shaped by a complex interplay of genetics and experience.  –> HR?

Way off base? On the right track?

Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

– – — — —– ——–

For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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An abundance of opportunity (some initial thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus”)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)

The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.

As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.

And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.

Don’t mourn for them

The HBO film Temple Grandin, which I wrote about back when it first aired, recently won 7 Emmy awards, including Outstanding Made for TV Movie. Here’s what I had to say about the movie back then:

I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

This sentiment was flowing in full force at the televised ceremony last Sunday. It is one small step, but what a powerful example Grandin’s life is of what is possible. Even if you can’t imagine it ever being possible.

From her website:

Dr. Grandin didn’t talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping, and humming. In 1950, she was diagnosed with autism and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. She tells her story of “groping her way from the far side of darkness” in her bookEmergence: Labeled Autistic, a book which stunned the world because, until its publication, most professionals and parents assumed that an autism diagnosis was virtually a death sentence to achievement or productivity in life.

Dr. Grandin has become a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism because “I have read enough to know that there are still many parents, and yes, professionals too, who believe that ‘once autistic, always autistic.’ This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people, it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. However, I feel strongly that I am living proof that they can” (from Emergence: Labeled Autistic).

All of this has brought back to mind what I – and many – consider one of the most important essays about autism by an autistic person, Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn for Us:

Some amount of grief is natural as parents adjust to the fact that an event and a relationship they’ve been looking forward to isn’t going to materialize. But this grief over a fantasized normal child needs to be separated from the parents’ perceptions of the child they do have: the autistic child who needs the support of adult caretakers and who can form very meaningful relationships with those caretakers if given the opportunity.

Continuing focus on the child’s autism as a source of grief is damaging for both the parents and the child, and precludes the development of an accepting and authentic relationship between them. For their own sake and for the sake of their children, I urge parents to make radical changes in their perceptions of what autism means.

Please take a few moments and read the entire essay. You’ll be glad you did.

Explaining Twitter

There are many ways to use Twitter, and at least as many ways to (try to) explain Twitter to people who haven’t yet given it a try. The one I’m most often faced with is from an “average Joe / Jane” that isn’t interested in knowing what someone is having for lunch or that they are changing a really nasty diaper. This is what I’ve come up with for them:

Twitter is a way to meet people. That’s it. What you do with it beyond that is entirely up to you.

Of course, this simple answer rarely convinces anyone, so I continue with something like this.

Think about the last time you went to a party, or out to a club. Chances are you went with a friend, or a group of friends, and didn’t know everyone there. But by the end of the night, you knew more people than before and maybe even made a connection on a personal or professional level with someone. Twitter is exactly the same, only different.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will get to see the conversations I’m involved in, and you can join in whenever you want. If you decide that the other person in the conversation is interesting enough to talk to without me around, you can follow them. You will then see who they talk to and what they talk about, and I guarantee that you will find someone that shares your deep interest in something.

The more conversations you get involved in, and the more you follow, the more you will see the different ways that you can use Twitter for whatever you want to use it for.

This is pretty much how my own use of Twitter has evolved. There are a gazillion ways to use it, and there are some uses that hold no interest for me. (I also don’t care to hear about that nasty diaper on Twitter – that’s what Facebook is for.) But I’ve found ways to use it that work for me, so can you.

You just have to start.

Friends loosely

What is a friend?

Seems a simple enough question, but in this age of FaceBook, Twitter, and all the rest, the word itself is getting a lot of use. Use that some people say is not appropriate.

I got started thinking down this line a couple of weeks ago when I heard a reporter on NPR refer to a group of people as “friends, loosely“. I forget the exact context, but basically it was a face-to-face gathering of people from around the country who only “knew” (the reporter’s quotes, not mine) each other online. The implication, and obvious bias, from the reporter was that these people weren’t really friends.

I mean, think about it. How could they possibly be friends if they had never actually met, in person?

Never mind that these people shared a common passion, that they knew as much about each other as they did any other “real” friend, that they communicated with each other on an almost constant basis. They congratulate each other on anniversaries and birthdays, weddings and the birth of children and grandchildren. And when someone in the group needs help, or just someone to talk to, the rest of the group is there.

More recently I’ve heard the terms e-friend and i-friend. Do we really need those distinctions? Maybe they are useful, like college-friend or childhood-friend, to provide a little bit of context. In the end, though, I don’t think it matters where you met, or how you got to know each other.

A friend is a friend.