Amanda Biller

Post image for Amanda Biller

by Amanda Biller on November 22, 2016

Riding to Happiness

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I ride a motorcycle all year long.  I have owned cars, I know how to drive stick shift, but when my last car died I decided to let it go and not replace it.

Statistically, when most people own both a car and a motorcycle, they drive the car 99% of the time. If you think about it, it makes sense. You step out the door to go somewhere and make a decision. “I have to go to the grocery store. I’ll need the space.” -Car. “It’s raining, so a roof would be smart.” -Car. “It’s hot, I’d like the air conditioning.” -Car. “It’s cold, I’ll want the heater.” -Car. “It might rain later.” -Car. “It might be cold, or hot, or windy, or I’m in a hurry, or it’s a pain to put on all that motorcycle gear” -Car. “It’s been a while since I rode the motorcycle, I should get a tune-up before I drive it.” -Car.

You can see where this is going. It’s SENSIBLE to take the car. It’s safer. It protects us from the wind, the rain, the heat, the cold, the weather, from inconvenience, from danger.

Why would you even own a motorcycle in the first place? What’s the point?

Well some people who own a bike do take it out on the first beautiful day of spring. They enjoy a calm, easy ride in the gorgeous comfortable weather. These folks ride their bikes once or twice a year when the weather is perfect and the conditions are perfect. They enjoy playing with their toy, and I can’t blame them. But a perfect ride on a perfect day is missing the point.

When I’m on my bike, I can smell the river the road follows. I pay attention to the weather, to the sky, to traffic, to the temperature and the road’s surface and the wind. I pay attention, and I experience the world around me, because the challenge forces me to.

I am naturally lazy. It’s nature. I am a mammal. We are born to conserve energy. If I am given a choice between the easy way and the hard way, I’ll take the easy way. And in this modern world, I am not forced to endure heat, cold, hunger, or to fight for survival. And that’s what we are hard-wired to do. Look after our own survival. This is why, when I tell someone I’ll be riding to work on my bike today, they look at me like I’ve got lobsters crawling out of my ears. They may not consciously know it, but they are wondering what kind of mad person would choose an option that does not prioritize survival.

I am about to tell you a secret, and it will change everything.
It’s the difference between surviving, and experiencing life.

Experiencing life without surviving leads to a very exciting, very brief existence.
Surviving without experiences leads to a very long, very grey, very dull, soul-stealing existence without meaning.

So, I take the bike. My fingers freeze, the wind pushes my body, I smell the grass, the exhaust, the water in the air. And when I get home, I sink into a gloriously warm blanket with a cup of tea, and bask in the lack of tension in my muscles, in taking off my heavy boots, in the comfort and safety of a warm house. I can bask, because I am confronted with the opposite of these things. The human sensory-perception system is keyed to notice change, and to ignore things that stay the same. Having a cup of coffee at home every day does not induce feelings of delight in me. It’s normal. It’s everyday. My system ignores it. Having a cup of hot coffee after driving in the cold is practically euphoric. It’s different. Wildly different. So I notice it.

A motorcycle vs. a car is just one example, but it’s a good one. Living in full color means sometimes you have to prioritize having new experiences over pure survival. To sometimes choose the less-safe option. People will look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears, but when you gloriously skid in with mud on your tires, out of breath, with roses in your cheeks and a twinkle in your eyes they will look at you like you are a rockstar. Because you, my friend, will be living life in full and riotous color.

amanda-bike-1

 

Table Of Contents

Happiness in a Rainstorm

The Invisible Duck

Brain Hacking and the Ikea Effect

Texting Is So Much Faster

Working From Home

 

Happiness In a Rainstorm

Jan 8, 2016

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They say the most powerful story you can tell is from your own experience. So let me tell you what I’ve seen, and what it felt like to be there.

I have a friend with rich parents and a law degree. He walks around every day, terrified of losing it all and becoming poor. I had another friend, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a trust fund, popping pills for depression, anxiety, agoraphobia and claustrophobia until he killed himself.

The other day I was at my part time job that pays less than some, more than others, in a field, wiring up some pyrotechnics for the show they’d make during a training exercise. It started to rain, so I put plastic on everything and hopped back in the truck, thinking I’d wait it out. A bit damp, but I dried my face off with my handkerchief and put my feet up, watching the rain pour so hard I could barely see three feet in front of the hood. The wind came up, and started to flirt with the plastic I’d put down. I knew all my work would be ruined if I let the equipment get sopping wet. So I pulled up the hood on my raincoat, tucked my jeans into my boots, and hopped out of the truck, running to save the special effects and the electronics. At some point during my run, my phone vibrated in my back pocket. So I quickly tucked the tarps in, and jogged back to the truck, laying a dry sweatshirt down on the seat before I hopped in, hoping to keep the drivers seat from getting totally soaked. The phone call was my boss, telling me not to get struck by lightning. At some point that afternoon, I realized I was wet as I was going to get, and I might as well just get on with it. And so I found myself, with the rain pouring down, in the middle of a field, wiring electronics with pruny fingers, in jeans that couldn’t have been wetter if I’d thrown them in the lake after putting rocks in my pockets. I started to smile. How many people can tell a story like this one? In the middle of the experience, I was grinning to have a job where I get to use wire strippers, where I’m trusted to wire up the electronics, where you can be sure that the trainees are going to jump when the special effects go off, just like I planned it. Yes, there are creatures that have lived their entire lives at the bottom of the ocean who are not as wet as I was that day, but I was grinning like a fool when I walked back inside, job done, leaving watery footprints the whole way.

There is a right amount of stress for a person to be under. It’s what makes rollercoasters fun, drives people to play paintball, laser tag, video games with zombies and evil ninjas. We crave it so much that when we don’t get it, we suffer, get sick, and die. I don’t need rollercoasters, because I get that excitement in my daily life. The fact that I wasn’t worried about my job security, or my interoffice relationships, the fact that I knew I’d succeed as long as I didn’t get washed away, was what made it fun. It was exciting, rather than terrifying, exhilarating, rather than freezing. A cool story to tell rather than a terrible day to cry to my husband about.

There may come a day when science can tell us what made me grin rather than cry, but I can tell you from personal experience, it feels like it’s about that balance. When I have a job with an insane boss and griping co-workers, I am not interested in taking ANY risks. I don’t have it in me to walk to the mailbox in the rain, much less spend my afternoon out there. I know when I have too much stress, and I do anything I can to reduce it, and I refuse to add any more.  But when my boss is supportive, my co-workers are awesome, and I don’t have extraneous stress, my job becomes a place where I can get excited, push my limits, and have fun doing it. Because I know I’m not going to come inside dripping wet, having used up every iota of my energy, and then get yelled or griped at. I can find my own stress balance by pushing my limits, learning, growing, and becoming more awesome.

When I came inside, I walked into the classroom and sat down on the floor in a room full of high-powered professionals, who were here that day to train their team work, to find joy at work. They all sat on padded chairs, dry and clean, with a drink close to hand in a well lit room. But when I sat down on the carpet, which quickly became a puddle, with a big grin on my face, and told them I love my job, it made them think. Maybe it’s not about the money, the prestige, the number of vacation days. Maybe it’s just about finding that balance, and being free to push yourself and become better, that makes a girl grin, kneeling in a field, in a rainstorm.

 

Wet Amanda Cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Invisible Duck  

 
September 18, 2015

      

This morning, I saw something odd.
It was a busy country intersection, with cars waiting at stop signs in several directions. A car moved into the intersection, then awkwardly slowed and stopped askew, right in the center of the intersection, blocking all the other cars. It was there for a few beats until the car behind honked angrily at him, and he awkwardly moved forward a few feet, stopped again, and then inched out of the intersection along one corner before speeding away.
The woman who had honked turned the corner in a hurry and drove off, obviously miffed.
I looked back at the intersection, and with some cars cleared out of the way, was able to see a lovely middle aged woman walk out into the street and shoo the duck that had wandered into the intersection off the road.
It got me wondering how often I’ve decided someone is being a jerk, when really they’re actually being incredibly kind… just not to me. I mean, the world has got to be FULL of invisible ducks. My husband didn’t get to the dishes last night because he was late coming home, having stayed behind at work to take over a coworker’s project who’s at the hospital with his pregnant wife. The driver who pulled out in front of me and drove like a freaking maniac because his little girl was in the back seat having a seizure. The guy with the beat up car who honked at me for no apparent reason who was still shaken and full of adrenaline from hitting a deer a mile back.
We all have cognitive biases, and this one is pretty obvious. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a scientific way of saying we assume when someone makes a mistake it’s because they are flawed, rather than that the situation called for unusual action. We think it’s all about us. The idea that someone is driving in a thoughtless way is more accurately stated by saying “He’s not thinking about me and my safety when he drives” This might be something to be worried about if it’s your husband driving a van full of you and your kids, but really, why should the stranger three cars up be thinking about you? Isn’t it more likely that he’s thinking about his own experiences he’s having Right Now? His head is just FULL of invisible ducks, causing him to act in unpredictable ways which you can’t calculate for.
Now, here’s the really tricky part. If it had just been the lovely middle aged woman crossing the road, we could have expected that she would have crossed in a way which was easy to calculate for. A predictable path, a predictable speed, and relatively easy to see with her upright posture and flowered blouse.
A duck doesn’t obey traffic laws, doesn’t walk in a straight line, doesn’t walk at a measured pace, and is small and hard to see, and hardly ever wears flowered blouses. The invisible (to us) duck is a small thing which causes a big consequence. A nonlinear event.
When small things have small consequences (a moth momentarily distracts you), and big things have big consequences (a giant meteor strike kills the dinosaurs and most of life on earth) our brains have no problem calculating this. But in nonlinear systems, in which big things have almost no effect, and small things can have GIGANTIC consequences, our brains crap out on us, insisting that the data must be wrong. That guy is driving like a madman because he’s an idiot, a jerk, doesn’t know how to drive, etc. Despite the fact that in our own experiences, if we were driving that way, it would be because a bee got into the car.
So now when someone does something annoying and unexpected, I have to ask myself- what is happening here that I can’t see?
Now I’m looking for the invisible duck.
It’s something to ponder.


 

 

 

Brain Hacking and The Ikea Effect
November 23, 2014
 
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

-Aristotle

 

First, for those new to the idea, let’s define the Ikea Effect. Put simply, it is the tendency to value more highly that which you put effort into making yourself. Interestingly, this is not just a personal affection for that lopsided coffee mug you made in middle school art class, but also a tendency to equate the value of a product you made yourself with one made by an expert, and to expect others to share that opinion. I call that the “Look mom! I made it myself!” effect ; )

 

This is such a powerful psychological phenomenon that it’s effects are far-reaching. For example, this tendency also causes something called the Ben Franklin Effect. That is to say, if you do a favor for another person, you will like that person more. This effect is even stronger than the change in your opinion were that person to do a favor for you!

 

This entire observation suggests that our brains calculate value backwards. That is to say, your brain looks at how much work you are putting into something, and based on your actions, decides how much you value it. This is the Exact Opposite of what one would expect- that you decide how to act based on the foreknowledge of how much you value things and people.

 

Why do we give our loved ones gifts? Why, so we’ll like them more, of course!

Why do we work so hard for our paychecks? So we’ll value the paycheck more!

What is the best tactic to get an enemy to like you? Ask them for a favor- according to Ben

Franklin.

 

This is a pretty cool little trick our brain plays on us, but it’s also important for understanding the needs and values of the people we interact with if we don’t want to be forever walking around with foot firmly implanted in mouth.

 

For example, there are many sales-people out there doing it backwards. “But it’s so easy to sign up! And it’s free!” In taking away the work your customer does to achieve the goal, you are taking away the most pressing reason to value having it.

 

This effect, in practice, has been known about for a long time. We just didn’t realize why we were doing it. Consider the idea of having “ownership” of a project. Or giving someone “creative control”. We thought that these things were important because they made people feel important. Wrong. What we were doing is making people feel like what they were doing was creating something. Because then what they created became something important.

 

“This is an important project for our company’s survival”

vs.

“This is your project”

 

Which one of the above statements do you instinctively feel is more convincing?

 

What we value shapes how we react to our environment. But our own actions shape those values.

I know that having learned this, in the future I will be more conscious of my actions, because now I know that what I chose to do is shaping who I am in the most direct brain-hacking sort of way. I am going to like the pet more that I fed from a dropper bottle when he was ill. I am going to value the kitchen more that I renovated myself. And I am going to give myself the best ever Christmas present this year, because I want to be the kind of person who values herself.

 

-Amanda Biller

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Texting Is So Much Faster

October 17, 2014

I was talking to a friend the other day, and she said “I just HATE it when people call me. Why can’t they just text? It’s so much faster!”

I got to thinking about that point of view, and it gave me pause. She’s a smart young woman, she can’t possibly think that typing words onto that tiny screen is faster than just talking with your mouth. What did she Mean?

We all know that new technology has an impact on our lives, and that younger people, who have grown up considering the effect of that technology “normal”, are going to have a different perspective than older folks who perceive the effect of (for example) the internet, as a qualitative change in their existence.

A 24 year old in the workforce today was born in 1990. Their world has always included the internet in (basically) it’s present form. Online multiplayer gaming has been de-rigueur their whole life, and text, email, and chat were (and are!) instantaneous and ubiquitous. To a person of this age, NOT being connected to one’s entire circle of friends and acquaintances is a rare situation one has to work to create. (Going camping and leaving the phone at home, for example.) Information on any subject is easily and instantly accessible via the web, Google is a verb, and a “smart phone” is now just a “phone”.

To a 50 year old born in 1964, these are changes from a time when the word “research” mandated a trip to the library or at least cracking open a hard-bound encyclopedia, multiplayer gaming meant getting some friends together to play a board game, and the phone was just for talking to a single person at a time, and if they weren’t home, you’d have to leave a message on their answering machine, and hope they’d call you back. This generation can remember when communication was face-to-face, or verbal (via phone), or by paper letter.

Like the confusion between my friend and I when she said “It’s so much faster”, is it possible that when a boss talks about “teamwork” to a 50 year old employee, that they are hearing something completely different than their 24 year old counterpart upon being given the same speech?

To a twenty-something today, keeping up with a reasonably sized circle of contacts means more communication than one person is going to be able to do, if approached with the perspective that you can only talk (at a distance) with one person at a time. However, using text, Facebook, email, etc. she can keep her finger on the pulse of what’s happening with Hundreds of friends, acquaintances, and business contacts with information streaming by all the time. A river of data, if you will. If my friend had to make a phone call every time she wanted to comment on a Facebook post, she wouldn’t have enough time to tie her shoes in the morning!

So, I’d like to propose a theory. When the boss says “teamwork” to the 50 year old, they think of getting people together in the same room, talking face-to-face, and keeping up with the other team members via regular phone calls. To someone less than half their age, however, phone calls seem archaically time-consuming. Teamwork, to the 24 year old worker, means a shared goal, with shared rewards, giving everybody permissions to leave comments on the shared project online, and keeping up with the team via chat, email, and text, with as little time-wasting face-to-face meeting as possible, and NO phone calls.

I am not here to make a value judgment on whether “then” or “now” is the better way. However, if we don’t know that different people are hearing different things when we, as bosses, use the same words, we will become frustrated when the same speech creates completely different behavior patterns in the different parts of our workforce. After a teamwork speech, a young person goes to their desk, turns off their phone, and focuses solely on the online communication styles in which she can talk to the most people at the same time. It LOOKS like she’s shutting down to the 50 year old eye, who, when given a speech about teamwork, stops in at their neighbor’s cubicle to talk about the project, schedules a meeting, and picks up the phone.

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Working From Home – Pros and Cons

Dec 20, 2012

 

Hello, my name is Amanda, and I work from home.

My friends, when I tell them what I do, say things like “how can I get that job?” or “That’s amazing! How did you find that?” as if my job is some kind of rare and delicious chocolate, and you just need to know where to shop to have some.

Working from home is awesome. This is a well-known fact. Except that everybody who knows this fact doesn’t work from home. In fact, they probably don’t even Know anyone who works from home. Why is this?

Working from home has some obvious up-sides that everyone who’s never done it will tell you all about. No commute, no dress code, no annoying cubicle neighbors, in fact no cubicle at all. You can make lunch in your own kitchen, sit on the porch with your morning cup of coffee, and play tetris or Halo with no boss looking over your shoulder to scold you. Where could the down-side possibly be?

The down side is that all the benefits of working from home are the parts where you’re not working. Actually WORKING from home means you have to get stuff done, you’re not just playing out the clock. And you’re sitting in your house, where your dirty dishes, your family, and a world of other distractions live.

I don’t get stuck in traffic on my morning commute. However, that also means I don’t have the commute time in the morning to get my head in the game, nor do I have that time after work to reset to home mode. It means I don’t spend time listening to music or the radio or an audiobook in the car or on the subway five days a week. I have to find other ways to tell my mind and my body that I’m going to work, working, or stopping work.

Another stereotypical bonus to working from home that gets brought up a lot when I mention my job… you can wear whatever you want. This is true. If I want to skip the shower and hang out at my desk in my bathrobe, I can. But I never do. Know why? That’s what I do when I’m comfortably relaxing on, say, a lazy Sunday morning. If I were to wear my relaxing clothes while I worked, they would quickly associate themselves with work, and no longer feel cozy and relaxing to wear. It would be just another type of uniform.

Working from home has the benefit of convenience, but there are two sides to every coin, and the other side to convenience is that when you work out of your home, you are always at work. There is no “Ahh, it’s 5:00 and I can stop thinking about work.” automatic mental separation.

I have put together a handy list of pros and cons to working from home, you might notice that for every pro, there is an associated con.

Pros:

No commute

Convenient to work at home

Can wear what you like

Can work what hours you like

Nobody at your office building that you have to deal with, only the people who live with you.

 

Cons:

No separation between being “at work” and not being at work. No time in the morning to get into work mode, no time in the afternoon to detox.

Whatever you wear to work in becomes your work clothes, and you no longer associate it with relaxation. Even robe and slippers can feel like a uniform, and you can long to get it off.

You still have to work those hours. A tough job done at three in the morning is just as tough, sometimes even more so.  Also, depending on the task, you may not be able to choose which hours you work. I can only call people at work during their normal business hours, for example, and I can only ask my boss questions when he’s awake and available to talk.

While you don’t have to deal with that rude guy in the cubicle next to you who picks his teeth, you now exchange that frustration for the noises and distractions inherent in whatever home you live in. Is the dryer running? Will it make it hard for the person I just called to hear me? My husband just flushed the toilet, will that sound be picked up by the mic on the phone? Jehovah’s Witnesses are knocking on the front door during a conference call. And don’t even get me started on children and pets.

 

But here is the kicker concerning the pros and cons of working from home. Motivation.

When I worked a regular nine to five job, I went to work, put in my eight hours, and then went home. The satisfaction of a day completed came from “being at work” for those eight hours.

In my current position I may work for an hour and knock several tasks out of the park, or I might be in the trenches  all day and night with a particularly sticky problem. The number of hours I work is somewhat irrelevant. This means I have to find my sense of satisfaction from tasks completed, rather than number of hours worked. I don’t get the unspoken “atta boy” that comes with driving home after completing my regular shift.

This all means that if you’re the type of person that gets satisfaction from knowing the impact you had on the world today, working from home will be meaningful and rewarding for you. On the other hand, if you get satisfaction from being told you did a good job, and knowing you did what you were supposed to do- working from home will be pretty meaningless for you. There’s nobody to pat you on the head but yourself. Nobody to tell you when you’re done but you. Nobody is watching, which means you can do things your way. But nobody is watching, so they can’t be the arbiter of how well you’re doing. You are, for all intents and purposes, your own supervisor.

None of the downsides to working from home have made me dislike doing it, and it’s an unmentioned up side to be constantly told by everyone how cool your job is (it IS pretty cool). I’m just saying, it takes a particular kind of person to enjoy taking on the onus of putting your head in the game, rewarding yourself, and separating work and home life.

All that said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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