For a long time, I've been wondering about formalisms for human stuff.

What do I mean by ‘formalisms’? Well, consider maths. Before we had maths, our ability to reason about abstract things was very limited. We could solve simple problems through ‘common sense’ – if I were to have asked you, “I have some apples in my bag, and if I put another three apples in the bag, I'll have nine apples. How many apples do I have in the bag?”, then you'd have been able to answer quite readily “six apples”. But if I were to have asked you, “I drop this apple from a tower 100 metres high, and as it accelerates towards the ground, its speed increases by 1 metre per second every second. How long until it hits the ground?” – well, that's something it's harder to figure out just by thinking about it.

Luckily, in the realm of numbers, we have extra tools at our disposal, like algebra and calculus. And with such tools, these problems become easy. The formalisms (by which I guess I basically mean ‘systematic ways of working things through’) of maths have allowed us to augment 1 our natural ability in reasoning about quantities, and in doing so have allowed us to tackle massively more complicated and interesting problems.

So then, what do I mean when I say “formalisms for human stuff”?

Looking around me, formalisms seem to have done such amazing things for the world. Formalisms in cable theory have taken us from laying cables across thousands of kilometres of ocean and just hoping they'll work to being able to confidently pump billions of on/off transitions per second through them 2. Formalisms in medicine have taken us from the intuitive-but-incorrect idea of the four humors to doing ridiculous things like curing hemophilia 3. Even on a more day-to-day level: formalisms in cooking, in the form of recipes, allow us to cook stuff that many of us would never have the skill to be able to figure out otherwise.

But all of these have been formalisms for things which are kind of technical. In spite of all this incredible change, I thought to myself, none of it had seemed to make much impact on the thing most relevant to our daily lives: human interaction. To be more specific, it seemed like it had made very little difference to our ability to resolve conflict.

We still argue with each other. We still fight with each other. And we argue and we fight like we did thirty years ago, fifty years ago – maybe even a hundred years ago. It's true that the things we fight about have changed, and that we can at least hope that, in general, we're more accepting of difference than we're used to be. But when we do get into an argument, we still don't have much more to hand than just trying to figure it out as we go along. We have no formalisms for it.

So, I hoped. I hoped that we might be able create formalisms for human stuff, too. I hoped that if we did have such formalisms, then we might be able to make as much progress in resolving conflict as we have in, say, shrinking the size of the transistor – that one day we would be able to say that human interaction is something that we as a species are much better at than a hundred years ago.

I was, therefore, absolutely thrilled to discover – completely accidentally, reading an article on how Asana built their company culture 4 – the possible existence of such a formalism, in ‘Nonviolent Communication’.

I still find Nonviolent Communication hard to summarise, but it's something like: a formalism for structuring both one's own communication and one's understanding of others' communication in times of conflict so as to maximise the probability of both sides actually feeling understood. How many times do we walk away from arguments feeling like the other person “just didn't get it”? How many times do conversations go sour because we don't manage to understand each other before things start to flare up and defensiveness kicks in? Nonviolent Communication offers a framework for how how to go about these kinds of conversations to minimise the chance of that happening. 5

I was absolutely hooked. This was exactly the kind of thing I'd been looking for. Nonviolent Communication became, and continues to be (though I'm still learning) a huge part of my life.

The Talk

Enough background. What does this have to do with Obama?

Ever since coming across a validating example in Nonviolent Communication, this idea of formalisms for human stuff is something I've been wanting to figure out how to spread more.

After having fun speaking at TEDx University of York's mini-conference last year 6, when they announced that a full-scale TEDx conference was going to take place, I decided I wanted to try and talk about some of this. Although I still didn't feel confident enough in my understanding of Nonviolent Communication to talk about it exclusively, it was a great chance to start exploring this concept of formalisms in more depth.

What resulted from this exploration was the following talk, given at TEDxUniversityOfYork's 2016 conference, motivating the discussion with the titular question: what if everyone were Barack Obama?

(A transcript is also included below, for those who prefer reading to watching.)

What if everyone were Barack Obama?

Barack Obama

OK, people have different ideas about the efficacy of his political career; and if everyone were literally the same person, the world would be a very boring place. But what I mean is: politics aside, what if everyone had the kinds of personal qualities that have made Obama so respected in his personal interactions? His maturity; his ability to stay calm under pressure; his patience?

Really, just take a moment to imagine it. What would, say, our workplace look like, if we all had that level of cool? What would our friendships look like? What would our relationships look like? It's difficult to imagine because we don't really have any reference for what that would be like – but it's clear from what we can imagine that the world would be a dramatically different place.

External Change and Internal Change

This idea that change towards the kind of standard set by Obama – that change in ourselves is what's needed for fundamental change on a broader scale – is nothing new. Gandhi wrote all the way back in 1913 that “we but mirror the world…if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”, since paraphrased into the popular quote “we must be the change we wish to see in the world7. 75 years later, Michael Jackson had the same idea, in ‘Man in the Mirror’: “if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change”. It's something we all know.

But if it's so clear what kind of a difference internal change could make, and it's been clear for such a long time, then why do we spend so little time on it, compared to external change? We build ever-higher office buildings to give ourselves more space to work; we put in place systems to make sure we have equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace; and every so often we redecorate our homes. But what time do we spend on deliberate internal change – on deliberately developing those qualities that we each hold as important?

We're great at external change - we can do stuff like build skyscrapers! But what do we do for internal change?

It's clear there's value on both sides – but assuming there's about the same amount to be gained from internal change as from external change, why do we spend a disproportionately small amount of time and energy on it?

The time we spend on internal change is disproportionate to how much we stand to gain from it.

Well, I think the answer is actually not so mysterious: it's because internal change is really, really hard. Not just hard in the sense of something we have to put a lot of effort into, but hard in the sense of, it's often not clear where to start. It's not just hard in the way that building a skyscraper takes hundreds of people and many years; it's hard like it was some 200 years ago when we fundamentally didn't know how to build a skyscraper.

With some stuff we can say, “Oh, I'll practise it”. “I'll practise being more patient”, or “I'll practise reacting with more kindness”. But saying these things are always a bit vague. What does that mean, concretely? What? What are the steps? It seems like the equivalent of just saying, “Oh, building a skyscraper isn't so difficult. I'll just play around with some bricks until it stands up.”

A kid playing with Lego blocks.

Maybe you'll be able to muddle through and get somewhere, but it's going to be a slow process, if it works at all. What we need is something more like a methodology: some kind of a concrete procedure we can follow to get to where we want.

Scepticism and Internal Change

Having had something of an engineering mindset since I was very small – both in interests and, perhaps, in temperament – this gap between our development of external and internal technologies is something I've been wondering about for a long time. Going to school and learning maths and physics, learning to program a computer – it was really satisfying being able to use these kinds of tools to build what I wanted. And in some way, it was also deeply satisfying to see how many problems we as a species had been able to overcome through the use of these tools. But then – I would still fight with my friends. I'd still come home and argue with my mother. And I thought it was funny, because these are the same problems we've been having for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why didn't we have tools for these kinds of problems, too?

But coming to university, I started reading a bit more, talking to people a bit more about this kind of stuff, and I realised that there are actually people working on this. I mean, it's part of what the field of psychology's about, right? There's a whole research centre at Berkeley, for example, the Greater Good Science Center, dedicated to this kind of work. And it's not that it's not being publicised; people are making real efforts to get these things known about. There's Carol Dweck at Stanford, for example, who's written extensively about her group's work on mindset 8; and Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire, who's written several very accessible books compiling this kind of research 9.

But if we're saying that, clearly, what we need for internal change is methodology; and we have all these people working on such methodology; then, why isn't awareness of these efforts more widespread? If we accept that internal change is something important, and we've known for such a long time, then why when people are doing work on it are we not more excited? Well, I think there are a couple things going on here.

The first thing is the mental categorisations we have of such material. Some of it we put under the heading of ‘self-help’, which automatically gives it the connotation that it's only something you go for if there's something wrong with you. Some of it we put under the heading of ‘self-improvement’, which seems to have some of the same kind of connotation to it: there's a certain way that you should be, and this book is going to tell you how to get there. We don't have a category to put stuff in for just…tools. You wanna become more patient? OK, here's the set of steps you follow. You wanna get better at empathy? Alright, here's the practice to make that happen. There's no category for just a directory of different tools for different situations, like there is with, say, maths. So all of this kind of stuff just gets lumped together as self-help or self-improvement and we don't trust it.

The second reason, though, is something I think more fundamental: we don't trust self-help or self-improvement because it doesn't seem to actually work. And there's a very complicated spectrum to this.

At one end of this spectrum there's the stuff which really is rubbish.

At one end of the scale: rubbish.

Stuff which seems plausible but that actual research has shown not to work at all, and in fact sometimes be actively harmful. The whole “visualise yourself where you want to be” thing, for example – Richard Wiseman cites one study where students asked to imagine themselves “getting a grade A on that exam” actually got worse grades than the rest of the group 10.

At the other end of the spectrum is the stuff which really does contain something of value…

At the other end of the scale: actually useful stuff.

…but that doesn't seem to make a difference because it's ultimately not practised. Theory is not enough for internal change – it does take some work to reshape mental habit.

Then somewhere in the middle there's the stuff which is motivational and gives us a temporary boost – and don't get me wrong, there absolutely is a place for that, if that's how it's sold – but which doesn't change anything long term.

In the middle of the scale: stuff which is only motivational.

And so what we end up with from this whole spectrum is this impression of self-whatever at best only working for some people and at worst not working at all. It's left us jaded and distrustful of any of this kind of material.

So OK, the story so far is: internal change is clearly something that would be useful; the problem is that we don't have ready access to methodologies for internal change like we do for external change; and we're actively distrustful of efforts to create or disseminate such methodologies.

Three Examples

But, now, here's where I want to change your mind. So far we've talked a lot about high-level ideas, and what-ifs. But what I want to prove to you is that this idea of methodologies is not fantasy. That not all of what we lump together as self-help and self-improvement is just sanctimonious rubbish. And I want to do that by giving you three examples of methodologies that I've found useful in my life. One example of something for a broad change, one for a narrow change, and one for a more specific change. I want to make it absolutely clear – I'm not suggesting these as three changes I think everyone should make. These are just the things that I've wanted to change in me.


My first example – an example for a broad change – is meditation. Though a lot of the material about meditation is phrased in terms that I, as an engineer, find myself sceptical of, I've come to the conclusion that the underlying idea, the actual method, is actually very simple: you just watch. You watch your breath, or you watch your thoughts – and you watch, without getting involved in anything. You watch like the old guy who just sits on the bench at the park and watches everything go by. And when you notice you have got up off the bench to go and yell at some darn kids, you just gently sit back down, and resume your watching. That's all you do.

Meditation: like an old guy sitting on a bench watching everything go by

And the benefit, it turns out, is something very tangible: it's that, being able to watch, without involvement or interpretation, gives you the ability to step back from yourself. It allows you to realise, “Huh, I'm feeling angry”, without getting caught up in what you're angry about; or to recognise that an anxious thought has gone by, without dwelling on it.

That's not to say it's not difficult. It is difficult. It is difficult in the way that building a skyscraper is hard even when you know how to go about it. But the way to tackle that difficulty, what you actually do, is very concrete. You sit down, and just watch – your thoughts, your emotions, say – telling yourself that you're gonna watch with curiosity, and with acceptance. And sitting down to watch like this regularly, it does have a very definite effect.

So, example one of actual methodologies for internal change: meditation. If the thing that you want to change is getting better at taking a step back from your emotions, then the method is to sit down regularly and, with a sense of curiosity, just watch yourself.

Nonviolent Communication

My second example, an example for a more specific change, comes from a method of communication called ’Nonviolent Communication‘, created by an American psychologist, Marshall Rosenberg, inspired but not directly related to Gandhi's ideas of nonviolence.

One of the ideas in Nonviolent Communication is that what often prevents us from being able to empathise during conflict is moral judgement. As soon as we start thinking in terms of blame, our ability to put ourselves in the other person's shoes completely goes out the window. So, if the thing that you want to change is to be able to stay empathetic in a broader range of situations, it's useful to reduce the amount of moral judgement going on inside your head.

The way you do that is by shifting your focus from what you perceive to be wrong with the other person to what's going on inside yourself. If we're judging someone else as ‘lazy’, then perhaps it's because one of the things we really value is the ability to be productive. Or if we're annoyed with someone for not listening, then perhaps it's that what we're really needing is to be understood. And if we can shift focus like that…

Nonviolent Communication: shifting one's focus from blame of the other person to self-inquiry

…then the sense of blame weakens.

The method for making that shift is, every time you notice yourself making a moral judgement of someone, you stop and ask yourself: “What's going on inside me? What unmet need in me is this judgement reflective of? What value of mine is at the root of this judgement?” You shift focus from blame of the other person to needs in yourself. And again, it is hard in the building-a-skyscraper way. It takes time to weaken the associations between the emotions that precede judgement and judgement itself. But asking yourself these questions consistently, those associations do shift.

So that's example number two. If the thing that you want to change is being able to empathise even in difficult situations, watch out for moral judgements. And when you notice yourself making them, shift focus from fault in the other person to what the unmet need or unmet value is in yourself.

Leaning into the Pain

The third and final example of methodological change I want to share is an example for a much more specific change – the idea of ‘leaning into the pain’. This one comes from Aaron Swartz, one of the co-founders of the social media site Reddit. The idea with this one is: what often stops us from doing the scary things that would expand our comfort zone is the associations we have with the feelings that come up. Those feelings of nervousness, or fear – the associations we often have with them are as something to back away from. There's this almost physical urge to retreat. But if what we want to do requires us to move outside of our comfort zone, we need to change the association we have with those feelings.

Leaning into the pain: our limited comfort zone

So, the idea is: instead of associating these feelings with having gone too far, we re-associate them with having gone far enough. Far enough that we know we are expanding our comfort zone. You change the association from those feelings being something to back away from, to something that tells you you're in the right place – something to feel good about.

As with the other two examples, there's a very definite method for this re-association. You just watch out for that feeling of wanting to put something off because it's uncomfortable, and you deliberately lean into it. You deliberately, say, think about it for a while – reminding yourself that the discomfort you're feeling is a good thing, because it's through this discomfort that you are expanding your comfort zone. You do this over and over again, whenever you notice that feeling, and again, the association shifts, and these scary things become easier to handle.

So these are my three examples: meditation, Nonviolent Communication, and leaning into the pain. These examples prove that this idea of methods for deliberate internal change isn't just the stuff of dreams. Each of these examples has a very concrete set of steps and just as tangible results. If you are interested any any of these, then please, go and read about them from the original authors, or go and watch TED talks about them 11,5,12, Other people have explained them far better than I can. I've deliberately glossed over a huge amount, because it's not about these three things. The point is, these examples are proof that methods for deliberate internal change are out there. That not all of what we lump together as self-help and self-improvement is just ineffectual gibberish.

A New Category

So here's what I propose. We create a new category for ourselves:


And we look for stuff to put in it. Whenever we see something in, say, a TED talk, or a book, that we think could help us go in the direction we want, we deliberately move it in our minds from ‘self-help’ or ‘self-improvement’ to ‘self-change’. Even if it does have the appearance of or is phrased in terms of self-help and self-improvement, we look past that and just concentrate on the methodology proposed. And finally, for the things we collect in this category, we deliberately plan investment of time and energy in these methods of internal change, just as we do external change.

Spending as much time on internal change as on external change

Because – think about it: what's one personal quality that you value and admire – what's one piece of internal change that's important to you? Consider how much difference that change could make. Not only to your own well-being – but also, to the world around you.

A Different Kind of Future

I'm inviting us to imagine a future. A future with not only self-driving cars, the elimination of disease and perhaps even the end of poverty. But a future where each of us is different. A future where everyone, say, responds to conflict as well as Obama does. A future where each of us do embody the qualities we each hold as valuable.

And looking to that future, it's going to be investment of time and energy in these methodologies – in this systematic process of self-change that will take us there. That will take us from dabbling around with wood and stone to building skyscrapers.

In the future: skyscrapers of internal change

That will enable us to take a look at ourselves, and make a change – to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Thanks to Nathan Jay, Anastasia Roshchupkina, Naomi Gildert, Joel Fergusson, Andy Pomfret, Anna Bellomo, Naella Grew and Lorna Rahtz for helping me refine these ideas and for reading drafts of the talk; to Noor Mansur for the accompanying drawings; to the many friends at the University of York who were willing to give me practice audiences; and to the TEDxUniversityofYork 2016 team for organising the conference.

  1. I'm borrowing this way of putting it – that formalisms augment our ability – from Michael Nielsen's wonderful essay on the related topic of cognitive media, Toward an exploratory medium for mathematics.

  2. For an excellent chronicle of undersea cables, see Wired's article from 1996, Mother Earth Mother Board, in which “The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth”.

  3. MIT Technology Review: Gene Therapy Is Curing Hemophilia

  4. Mindfulāsana: Building mindfulness into the Asana culture

  5. If Nonviolent Communication sounds interesting, I'd recommend checking out the book of the same name, Nonviolent Communication. Reading it the first time, I felt rather sceptical – but ignoring the self-help tone, I found a lot in it.

  6. Getting Better at Doing Scary Things

  7. GandhiTopia: A Gandhi quote

  8. See Dweck's book Mindset, for example. For a shorter summary, see Aaron Swartz's Believe you can change.

  9. See, for example 59 Seconds.

  10. 59 Seconds, p. 84 in the 2009 Kindle edition:

    In one study, conducted by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor at the University of California, a group of students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualizing themselves getting a high grade in an important midterm exam that would take place in a few days' time. They were asked to form a clear image in their mind's eye, and imagine how great it would feel. The study also involved a control group of students who went about their business as usual and were asked not to visualize doing especially well in the exams. The experimenters asked the students in both groups to make a note of the number of hours they studied each day, and monitored their final grades. Even though the daydreaming exercise only lasted a few minutes, it had a significant impact on the students' behaviour, causing them to study less, and obtain lower marks in the exam. The exercise may have made them feel better about themselves, but it did not help them achieve their goals.
    The study cited is From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance.

  11. For a good introduction to what meditation is about, see Andy Puddicombe's TED talk, All it takes is 10 mindful minutes.

    For something more in-depth, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living. It still has the feel of a self-help book, but there have been several formal studies of mindfulness which have used Kabat-Zinn's courses (e.g. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation) and which have apparently observed very definite changes in the participants, so it has some backing to it. The full book is packed with interesting material but is somewhat rambling – so if you're more just interested in how to meditate, you'll probably get 80% of the value of the book from the first ten chapters and the eight-week self-directed meditation course they accompany.

  12. Lean into the pain, also by Aaron Swartz