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The Late Movies: Merlin Mann's Greatest Hits

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If you don't know Merlin Mann, you're in for a treat. In the most recent edition of his Bulk Bag Newsletter, Merlin ran down five of his favorite talks, all available in handy online video format. I have rearranged the videos in chronological order (Merlin put them in order of awesomeness), so you can get a better sense of Merlin's public progression from "tips and tricks guy" through "realizing the entire internet has somehow become a tips and tricks guy" to his current position of "heart-on-his-sleeve brilliant rambler."

Merlin is a polarizing figure in nerd circles -- people tend to love him or hate him, and I think a lot of people (probably on both sides) misunderstand him. He's best known for his Inbox Zero talk (which is widely misunderstood to be about having zero emails in your inbox), and the majority of his deep thinking is about the problems of creative work, though many who follow him are not themselves in creative careers. Merlin has a tendency to ramble and riff -- which you may find charming or infuriating, depending on whether you get the jokes and like the guy. One of his most compelling (and/or confusing) traits is an increasing tendency to make meaning out of meaningless words and jokes (like "blue-sky solutioneering"), occupying an existentially and linguistically awkward space in which it's up to the listener to determine what, if anything, a given statement means -- some jokes are jokes, some jokes are sincere statements. It's an exercise for the reader to discern the difference. I think this is great; your mileage may vary. Watching the videos below, you can see this clear progression: he starts with a fully prepared, "professional" talk that's light on digressions, but as time passes he wings it more and more, showing more emotion as he goes.

I think Merlin is the single most interesting Internet Person I've run across. He is incredibly vulnerable, and he shares that vulnerability in a way that demonstrates fortitude. He's also a terrific singer and guitarist, but you wouldn't know it. Check out these videos, and beware the sporadic f-bombs.

Inbox Zero, 2007

Creating a distinction between "checking your email" and "processing your email." In retrospect, this talk is Merlin at his most practical and systematic -- he's talking about managing a particular technology (email) with a particular system (Inbox Zero). If your inbox doesn't represent a pain point for you, this talk probably won't matter much for you. But if, like me, you get hundreds of emails a day and live in an indetermine "world of pain" when surveying that influx of crap, this is a way to deal with it.

Worst Website Ever - 'FlockdUp,' 2008

In this talk from SxSW 2008, Merlin shares his "worst website ever" concept: FlockedUp™. It is a beautiful six-minute riff of meaninglessness, using the terminology of bizdev BS. For example: "FlockdUp™ is really uniquely positioned at this juncture to suck all of the oxygen out of this vertical. [A full two minutes of corpdork pseudowords continue.]" Featuring FlockBux™: "Like Money, but Monetized.©"

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now), 2009

Slightly NSFW (for language) at the beginning, somewhat rambling, and super-honest. On internet-based lists: "Little nacho chips of information that are really addicting." In general, this is a discussion about self-help, "life hacks," what real help is, why "knowledge work" is hard and encourages a particular form of help/hack-consumption, and (wait for it) old butchers.

Time & Attention, 2010

I'll let Merlin explain:

One afternoon in New Jersey, I was anxious, and screwed, and under a lot of pressure.

First, the gig started really late because of three different grave technical problems. But, I had to get up there and Do My Thing. Unfortunately, my slides wouldn’t work, the mood in the room fell somewhere between total death and roiling hostility, and, so, I had to wing it. For 90 minutes. Lotta winging here.

This is basically where Merlin talks about the underlying issues (time and attention) that were the underlayment for most or all of his previous work.

Scared Sh*tless, 2011

At Webstock last year, Merlin gave a highly emotional talk about being scared. Note that this came shortly before the apparent collapse of an Inbox Zero book deal that had been occupying him more than full-time for years. (While discussing Springsteen's Born to Run saga: "Why is this meaningful to me? Ask me in a few weeks." Ahem.) Also, that mic is really not fitting in his ear properly. I just want to warn you again, this is really emotional and might make you cry if you watch for long enough.

More Mann

Check out the excellent podcast Back to Work.

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Are Smart People More Likely to Believe Stereotypes?
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A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General finds that people who score higher on one type of intelligence test are more likely to buy into stereotypes. Fortunately, they’re also more likely to discard them.

There are many different kinds of intelligence, each reliant on its own set of skills and abilities. One such ability is pattern recognition, without which we’d have trouble recognizing faces, learning languages, or reading other people’s emotions. Because it’s so central to our cognitive and social functioning, pattern recognition is sometimes used by researchers as a shorthand for overall intelligence.

Researchers at New York University wondered if there was any downside to this kind of intelligence—if a person’s ability to make quick associations could make them more susceptible to harmful generalizations and stereotypes.

To find out, they designed a series of six online experiments to compare more than 1200 participants’ pattern recognition skills with how easily they bought into stereotypes.

In one experiment, the researchers showed participants a collection of men’s faces, along with a description of something each man had done in the past. Some of the men’s actions were good, like sending flowers to someone who was sick. Others were unpleasant.

What the participants didn’t realize was that the researchers had rigged the setup so that one facial feature, either a wide nose or a narrow one, was paired more frequently with bad behavior, essentially inventing a negative stereotype.

After this subconscious introduction, participants were invited to play a trust game with a virtual partner (actually a research bot). The “partner” avatars had subtle differences in the shape and size of their noses.

Sure enough, participants who aced the pattern recognition test were more distrustful of participants with the “bad” kind of nose, whichever type that happened to be. Their ability to jump quickly to conclusions seemed to lead them right into the stereotype trap.

“Superior cognitive abilities are often associated with positive outcomes, such as academic achievement and social mobility,” lead author David Lick said in a statement. “However, our work shows that some cognitive abilities can have negative consequences.”

The news wasn’t all bad. Another experiment tested people’s ability to let go of harmful existing stereotypes—in this case, relating to gender. The researchers subtly exposed participants to information that challenged their beliefs, showing women behaving assertively, for example, or men stepping aside to let others lead.

As it turned out, participants who scored higher on the pattern recognition test were also better at taking in this new information and letting it change their minds. After exposure, they were less likely to buy into harmful gender stereotypes.

“Finding that higher pattern detection ability puts people at greater risk to detect and apply stereotypes, but also to reverse them, implicates this ability as a cognitive mechanism underlying stereotyping,” co-author Jonathan Freeman said in the statement.

“Our findings may help pave the way for future research that leverages pattern detection or other cognitive abilities for reducing social biases.”

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Experts Say Trying to Force Yourself to Be Happy Doesn't Work
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A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that people who accept their difficult emotions are better off in the long run than those who try to force their way into a better mood.

Many psychologists and meditation teachers endorse a practice called radical acceptance. The basic idea is that when something bad happens—say, a dear friend moves away—you have two options. You can either deny or fight that reality, or you can accept it, deal with the loss, and move on. Or, to put it a different way: Pain is inevitable, but suffering, like the kind caused by denial, is optional.

Radical acceptance works because it teaches practitioners to accept reality and hard situations. Could the same framework help with hard emotions like anger, sadness, and grief? 

To find out, psychologists conducted three separate studies. The first was an online survey, in which 1003 people described how they related to their emotions. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling."

The second study took place in the lab and was framed as a mock job interview. The researchers told 156 people that they would be giving a speech extolling their job skills and qualifications. They were told the taped speech would be shown to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application. Then they were given two minutes to prepare. 

The last study invited 222 people to spend two months journaling about tough moments in their lives. Six months later, the researchers surveyed these people to see how they were feeling.

All three experiments yielded the same basic result: People who let themselves feel their feelings were, on average, less stressed, anxious, and depressed than those who tried to avoid or control them. 

"We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," senior author Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley said in a statement. 

"Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," Mauss said. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

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