Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why Critical Thinking Matters

In this blog, I try to talk a great deal about usable skills that will help you to live a more self-sufficient life, be more independent, and ultimately be ready to weather the bad and thrive during the good.  I'm gearing up for my summer-long festival of talking about skills like gardening, canning, cooking, and needle arts, but today I want to try to articulate a concern that has been growing for me.

As a country, we are losing our ability to think critically.  And this is truly the only skill that really matters when your goal is independence and flexible response.

I work in and around higher education as one of the vertical specialties of my writing, and it is tempting to point at "kids today" and bemoan their lack of preparation to think critically in college.  Changes in college are indeed playing into this trend, as I will note, but I'm not as concerned about my college students.  I'm concerned about their parents and grandparents.

I recently had a great conversation with a client whose consulting business is built on the ability to harness the appropriate data and then analyze it for patterns and implications.  I realized that, more and more, we are seeing business professionals who not only cannot sort through the nearly infinite supply of data we all have at our fingertips every day (hello, internet!), but who don't even understand why this data is important and why they might need to analyze things themselves and call in help if the information gets too specific to wade through.  What they are missing, I think, is critical thinking ability.

Nowhere was this more evident than during the 2012 election.  Now, I have very strong political opinions that I typically don't share in this blog, but I also have a great deal of respect for those with differing opinions who can articulate and support arguments for their perspective.  And boy, I didn't see much of that from either side of the political aisle in the most recent election.

Politics are contentious.  Our soundbite culture tends to boil complex ideas down into over-simplified but memorable phrases.  I get that.  But this time out, I noticed something even scarier.

Although I have always had very definite political opinions, I have also always tried to read news and opinion written by thinkers and organizations with varying political perspectives.  In college, I called this "opposition research."  At least once a semester (back before the internet made reading news and opinion so easy), I would go to the library and curl up with a pile of magazines from the opposite political perspective than mine. What I typically saw was that different people can interpret the same set of facts in different ways, leading to far different conclusions.  It was instructive for me to learn how others reach passionately-held opinions.

I still do the same thing today.  Pretty much every week, I have a roster of both conservative and liberal web sites that I peruse, and what I see scares me.  It appears that people leading the national discussion on a lot of important issue can't even agree on the basic facts of an issue, let alone justify a conclusion.  It is one of the reasons that the "red vs. blue" division in our country is truly growing deeper than just colors on an election night map.  We are talking about completely different realities.  And that is where I think we really need to go back to critical thinking skills.

As a result of my realization, I have started going back to sources that are as objective as possible when I am considering an issue, and then forming my own opinion.  Because of my work writing and analyzing for a living, I am comfortable reading stacks of raw data, piles of academic papers (which aren't always objective, but are often better than mainstream coverage), and tons of primary source documents.  But most of the population isn't.

We are getting into a phase in education in which everything is linked to job readiness.  More and more, if little Johnny thinks he wants to be a widget-maker, he is taught basic widget in junior high, goes to a special-focus high school that has a pre-widget track, and ultimately majors in widgetology in college.  Meanwhile, he and his parents will reject any hint of a non-widget course, saying that he will "never use that anyway."

So here's my plea:  for the sustainability of the country, for your own independence, and for your children's ability to sort through the mountains of crap out there, by all means study widgets.  But also study history and art and psychology and engineering and medicine, etc.  If you aren't in college or don't want to major in these things, by all means don't.  But pick up a book.  Read something outside your comfort zone.  Look at something from a perspective different from your own.

And ask yourself, what facts did these people need to know?  How did they reach a decision?  What do you need to understand to make better decisions and have better opinions in this area?

Look, I know that it is in vogue right now to link everything to a practical use, so maybe my pleas that having a well-rounded formal or informal education will make you enjoy life more may fall on deaf ears.  But let me suggest this:  those who can think critically, who can separate fact from opinion from fiction, who are prepared to confront different kinds of knowledge, are the ones who survive the longest in this world.  They are the ones who know how to grow their own food if they get nervous about the food supply, they are the ones who can darn a sock in an economic downturn, and they are the ones who make intelligent and passionate decisions in the voting booth.  Your ability to change and adapt depends on your critical thinking.

So get out of here and go pick up some information to challenge you.  You won't be sorry.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

5 Ways to Sustain Your Creativity

I work in a creative profession (I'm a writer), and I regularly collaborate with a number of other creatives, not limited to graphic designers and dancers.  So, I know that, contrary to what some may think, creativity is as precious a resource as food or water.

In my work, however, I'm also inundated with articles from people proposing ways to stay creative day after day.  It is certainly a challenge; clients often think creativity can be turned on like a spigot at any time of the day or night, and the stream will never run dry.  I know from experience that this is far from the case.

Most of these articles include tips that probably work great for some creatives, but they usually don't work for me.  So, I offer a few ways that I sustain my creativity so that I can continue to give my best to my work.

1.  Take a real nap.
Study after study has shown that lack of sleep impedes creativity, not to mention making you difficult to live with.  Yet business articles insist on offering these ludicrous suggestions to take a 10 minute nap sleeping upright in your office chair.  That's preposterous.

I'm all in favor of naps; I take one every day.  But if you are going to take a nap, take a nap.  If you work where you can crash on the couch, actually lie down and cover up with a blanket.  Pull the blinds if you can.  Shut the door behind you.  And stay there for a while.  I recommend 90 minutes -- enough to make it through an entire sleep cycle.  That gives your body enough chance to get a bit of deep, restorative sleep and let you wake refreshed.  After all, if your clients expect you to burn the midnight oil when needed (and all creatives do this frequently), then they should understand that you need to sleep when you can.

Note:  if you are one of my clients reading this:  1)  Yes, I really do take a nap every day.  2)  No, I'm not going to tell you what time.  3)  Don't worry about interrupting me; I'm incredibly good at answering the phone from a deep sleep and coming immediately awake.  If you get voice mail, it is far more likely that I'm talking to another client or working on a deadline than taking a nap.

2.  Make a physical to-do list.
I don't know about you, but sometimes I can almost physically feel the pressure of a great idea straining to get out of my head, but it is blocked by the knowledge that I need to call to get an oil change for the car or refill a prescription.  This is why God invented to-do lists.  Make a list every day of all the mundane things, and every time something like this impedes your work flow, put it on the list and forget about it for the time being.

And make the list a physical, hand-written one.  Electronic notes programs are great, but they are where things to do go to die.  If you have to keep transferring your list in longhand to a new calendar page every day, you are far more likely to take 15 minutes and knock a few things off instead of dealing with them over and over again.

3.  Find your mindless chore.
You know when I write the best?  Early summer.  I do my research for an article or conduct my phone interview, and then I head out into the garden and pull weeds until the article is written in my head.  I don't come in until it is complete, and then I just transcribe what is in my head into a Word document.

The very act of doing something mindless often allows our brains to work better.  Research suggests that doodling during a meeting, far from indicating boredom, might indicate a person's deep immersion in the subject.  I often keep some knitting on my desk for when I have to participate in a conference call; I can keep my hands moving while listening to and participating in the conversation.

Note that this typically only works with physical activities.  Two mental activities will each draw from the same "pool" of attention.  So refrain from turning on the TV if you have an article to write, unless you are a financial writer and have to monitor the market.

4.  Remove distractions.
Email is so easy to use that many clients now do you the "favor" of giving you an in-house email address and access to their email system if you are working on a long-term project.  This has certain advantages, but I recently realized that every day I'm logged into three separate email accounts, plus an instant messaging system, plus Skype.  Most of those "helpfully" indicate to others when I am logged in, so I can be messaged with the expectation of immediate reply.  I started to realize that every time I went to answer a call of nature, it took 10 minutes to return and check every email account, plus Skype, plus Skype's messaging, plus sundry other services.

So, I started logging out of Skype and turning myself "invisible" on my email programs unless I knew someone was expecting me to be in the office at a certain time.  Communication is great, but it is hard to create when you are constantly afraid of virtual interruptions.

5.  Do it your way.
When I was in school, there was a set process for writing a paper.  You picked a topic, found all your sources, conducted your research and wrote all your facts on 3x5 index cards, outlined your paper, wrote a first draft, revised the draft, and wrote the final draft.  Here is a confession for all of my high school teachers:  I never did any of that.  I reverse-engineered the entire project.  I did research, but I made my notes on paper, then wrote the final draft.  I then wrote a substandard "first draft," went through and crossed out a few things and substituted "better" words or construction, and then I made my outline and 3x5 cards.  It was all a total lie.  Sorry about that.

I say this to point out that people in the creative fields are great at telling other people a process to follow, but these processes don't always work for everyone.  I've recently gone back to a paper day planner, even though people have patiently explained to me how much better it would be if I just kept a Google calendar; I'm way more productive with my paper, thank you.  Other swear by different tools or different brands or the latest and greatest technology, yet I know of several famous writers who use vintage word processing programs running on ancient computers.  Keeping up with the cutting edge is great, but tools only work if they fit your style.  You'd never build a deck with a hammer too large or too small for your hand, so stop using tools and processes that don't fit your life.

You're creative.  So create -- no matter what obstacles you have to remove to do so.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Our First Lemon

We have several trees in our micro-orchard:  two apple, one key lime, one Meyer lemon, one olive, one nectarine, and one banana.  The apple trees each gave us an apple this past season, and we have gotten one crop of key limes, but the others have been slow to start producing.

I thought the Meyer lemon was never going to produce, given that it is about three years old and blossoms every year but never sets fruit.  However, when I brought the trees inside last fall, I was shocked to find a good sized green lemon that had escaped my notice.

I watched it grow and slowly yellow until last week, when we plucked it.  When we cut it open, the scent filled the entire kitchen.  It was incredibly juicy for its size, and we juiced it right away and scraped the pulp into a glass along with the juice.  With the addition of some carbonated water and a bit of sugar, we had half a glass of lemonade to share.  It was easily the best lemonade I've ever tasted.

So now, we have have a craving for homemade lemonade and not a lemon blossom in sight yet.  Organic lemons sell for $0.99 each at our local store, so I don't know whether our harvest saved us a buck or kicked off a really expensive lemonade habit.

Whatever.  It is still totally worth it.
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Friday, February 14, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: January 2014

January starts off as it always does:  a flurry of seed catalogs and a blanket of snow on the ground, which means my "microfarm" garden starts off running a deficit for seeds and soil.  This year, I'm spreading the seed-buying love around a little more, with orders from Burpee, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, and Cook's Garden.  I can't wait to see what some of the new varieties bring.  I spent more on seeds and supplies this year than last, which I attribute to somewhat higher prices, plus the fact that I had to order a few more plants than normal to accommodate a seedling-season vacation that will prevent me from growing everything I might want to grow from seed.  However, I feel the "professionally" grown plants perform better for me, especially the tomatoes, so I'm not sorry.

Unlike last year, this year's garden also started the year with some harvests!  I harvested some fresh rosemary and a few ounces of fresh organically-grown greens.  I checked the organic greens price in my local store, and I was surprised by how much it has increased since my last price check.  With organic greens now running $0.88 an ounce, it makes more sense than ever to grow as much of my own as possible.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 4 
Pounds: 0.25

Total Value of Harvest: $3.38
Expenditures: -195.31
Total: -$191.93 
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pesto Cream Sauce for Tortelloni

I'm one of those writers who really only has so many words in me to write each day.  I'm also one of those writers who depends on my writing for my income, so I tend to prioritize things by how much they pay rather than how interested I am in them.  That's the long way of saying that I'm sorry I haven't blogged in a week, but I had to prioritize some other gigs.  I think the fog has cleared for a bit and I can get back to more regular blogging.

However, I have had time to play with a recipe for a Pesto Cream Sauce.  I made this sauce and put it on store-bought spinach and cheese tortelloni, then topped it with shredded Parmesan cheese.  The sauce is fairly liquid-y and would have covered a couple of boxes of pasta, so plan accordingly or half the recipe.

Pesto Cream Sauce
1 c. stock (I used homemade; it was primarily chicken-based, but you can use whatever you like.)
1/2 c. organic whipping cream
4 oz. frozen pesto
sea salt and ground pepper to taste

In a large saute pan, thaw and cook pesto in the stock until blended.  Add sea salt to taste.  (I don't freeze my pesto with salt, so I put in quite a bit -- you will have to adjust for your pesto's saltiness.)  Allow this to cook down so the flavors will blend, at least 15 minutes or so.  (But you can definitely let it cook for longer if you are busy.)

Just before serving, add whipping cream and blend.  If you desire a thicker sauce, add a bit of cornstarch and cook until thickened.  

Add prepared tortelloni and cook until pasta is well-coated.  Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

The Analysis
Fast:  A basic sauce like this comes together quickly, although the longer you cook, the thicker it is and the more blended the flavors are.  However, you can definitely achieve a respectable sauce in the time it takes to boil the tortelloni and set the table.

Cheap:  I used homemade stock and home-grown basil pesto, so I was really only out the money for a half cup of organic whipping cream.

Good:  As I mentioned, this can be a fairly thin sauce which you can thicken by cooking it more and adding some corn starch.  However, it is a wonderful accompaniment to pasta and reheats very well.

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Asian-Inspired Veggies on Wilted Greens

Although I like to get the majority of our produce from our garden, there comes a point every year when we have to branch out from what we canned, pickled, and frozen.  Luckily, one of our favorite local stores has a selection of organic produce that is just wonderful.

Lately, we've been captivated by making this stir-fry, full of veggies and nuts and very low on carbs.  Feel free to substitute veggie broth if you are going vegan, and take the vegetables I list as a suggestion more than a mandate.  This recipe is very flexible to accommodate whatever you can get your hands on that looks fresh and yummy!

Asian-Inspired Veggie Stir Fry on Wilted Greens
1 c. stock (I used homemade mixed stock, primarily chicken)
2-3 T. soy sauce to taste
2 t. corn starch

1 small package (about 12 oz) baby San Marzano tomatoes, cut in half
1 organic carrot, cut into rounds
3-4 heads of broccoli, cut so just the florets are left (That's the way I like it, but you can leave the stems intact if you prefer)
3/4 c. cashews
2 big handfuls organic greens (we like a spinach-kale-arugula mix)

In a sautee pan, heat stock and cook carrots until soft.  Add soy sauce, tomatoes, broccoli, and cashews and cook until heated, about 5 additional minutes.  Add corn starch to thicken the broth and let sit to "set up" a bit.

Meanwhile, wash one large handful of greens per person.  Top with stir fry mix and let the greens wilt.  Enjoy.

Serves 2
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