On Being Human

The global pandemic hit me while I was visiting my spouse’s family in Udine, Italy. At that time we were expecting a baby and we decided to stay put near our family, rather than going back to Vienna, where we used to live, and being on our own for the following months.

In 2020, Italy went for a full lockdown, and some of the restrictions are still in place as of today (November 2021).

In the last two years, I have had a rollercoaster of emotions related to the consequences of a tiny little ball of genetic material coated in gunk, trying to kill us. 

Most of our habits have been impacted and for many people, the most visible change happened in the workplace. To me, it was quite the opposite.

I have been working from home since forever. With the exclusion of a few years in Vienna, all my professional life has been office-free. I never needed to go somewhere in the morning, to get my stuff done.

For the last 8 years, I have been working for Automattic, a fully distributed company that counts almost 2 thousand employees. We all work from wherever we happen to be, living in more than 70 countries. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was already used to leaving the house only for primary necessities. I actually had to push myself and leave the house every now and then to avoid self-isolation.

For this reason, the first part of the lockdown was awkward for me;  I was already fully adapted to working from home, while the people around me were not. 

From that time, I remember my social channels being filled by people recommending the best video conferencing tools, the best chat apps, the best tutorials on Youtube. Welcome to my world, I had been living that way for 25 years already.

Furthermore, my job did not change a bit during the global pandemic. I used to manage a team of engineers across 4 continents long before the virus became part of our life, and I kept doing so during the following life-changing 18 months. We used to make software back then, we make software now, and most probably we’ll keep making software tomorrow. And the day after too.

My friends, instead, as soon as they were forced out of their offices, felt lost. Many of them had little to do, their days grew endless, and they started publishing links to online museums, streaming services, and online yoga classes. To be honest, Youtube was already full of that content before the pandemic, so it was not novel to me. I simply don’t have time for that. I have little to no interest in watching the sourdough rising in the fridge of a random baker in Vermont. 

I’m not impressed, nor interested in such content.

Before the lockdown, I used to work from home, but my home was anywhere in the world where my spouse was. I didn’t have an office, but I had my backpack, filled with all I needed to get my work done. I used to take about 60 flights, spending 200 days traveling every year.

The pandemic put a halt to it, and I’m not sure I want to go back to that traveling schedule. I few things have changed for me in the meanwhile, because life cannot be put on pause.

Regardless of traveling the world on a constant basis or not, I still consider myself a citizen of the world, and I was disheartened by the nationalization of the global crisis. 

Every country went on its own, offering different solutions to its citizens. A few countries went for full lockdowns, others offered free tests for the population but were not pushing enough for getting people vaccines, other countries let the people decide about their destiny, taking little to no responsibility for the outcomes.

Many countries tried to raise the bar against free circulation and put a halt to immigration; in the end, it really didn’t work out. This virus has no passport but moves fast across borders. Actually, there are no borders anymore. There is just one planet, and just one human species.

Being born in a specific country is just the result of the geographic lottery, but being human is something that each of us decides to be every day.

Elevate your appreciation and deliver better feedback

A couple of years ago, my engineering team, which happens to be distributed over four continents and works asynchronously around the clock, was struggling to provide valuable weekly updates.

Most of the updates were too generic, some too specific. A few were too verbose, and others were too superficial.

Shall we write down every single task we get done, or shall we only document larger projects? And to which degree? These were the most common questions during one on ones.

I realized that one engineer was providing excellent reports. They were informative but not too verbose, they were absolutely on point. I wished everyone was publishing with that style, including me!

I sent this message to the team: “Last week, John Smith published a great weekly update. It was informative, concise, and well redacted. I felt very proud about it. If you are looking for a great example, look no further, that is a great model for everyone. Well done!”

Two weeks later, every single update was almost as perfect. In a month, all our updates were on point.

Appreciation is a strong form of feedback and it can be sharpened to achieve extraordinary results.

Every time we want to acknowledge, motivate, or reinforce good behaviors, we naturally resort to appreciation. 

We say “Well done!” to our toddler who finally puts on their shoes by themselves for the first time, or “Great job!” to our team member who completed an excellent project on time and under budget. But it’s just not enough to have long-term effects.

When people complain they don’t receive enough feedback, they mean that they wonder if anyone notices how hard they are working and if anyone cares about their contribution. They are signaling a lack of appreciation.

However, to obtain extraordinary results, it’s not enough to raise the quantity of recognition, we need to elevate its quality as well. To do so, we can start practicing the “Situation – Behaviour – Impact” framework. This tool is terrific for both beginners and more seasoned managers. Used correctly, it is quite a powerful instrument.

SBI demystified

Every time we want to give a piece of feedback, we follow the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (SBI)  framework to package high-quality, easy to consume, and highly leverageable nuggets of input.

Situation” frames your feedback in time and space. It makes it contextual

  • “Yesterday on our way to school.”
  • “Last week at the team meeting.” 
  • “This morning while having breakfast.”

Behaviour” represents an action that was performed. It’s important to describe it with a verb and to be as factual as possible, ideally like it was recorded by a camera or a microphone, without any judgment or assignment of intent to it:

  • “You thanked your sister for her help.” 
  • “You offered to pick up that project.”
  • “You complimented your grandchild for his new haircut.”

Impact” is a description of the emotional state that this behavior had on you

  • “It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.”
  • “I was impressed by your sense of ownership.”
  • “It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.”

Let’s combine the above examples in order to see them together:

  • Yesterday on our way to school, you thanked your sister for her help. It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.
  • Last week at the team meeting, you offered to pick up that project. I was impressed by your sense of ownership.
  • This morning while having breakfast, you complimented your grandchild for his new haircut. It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.

Now that we know how to produce a powerful nugget of appreciation, let’s lay out the three ways to deliver these nuggets and the purpose behind them.

Appreciation in Private

The most common form of appreciation happens in private. We deliver it directly to the person we want to recognize. It can come in various forms: a private conversation with our child, in the car, on the way to school. It can be part of a one-on-one with one of our team members. It can be handwritten on a holiday card we send overseas to a distant relative.

Appreciation in private is a great way to reinforce personal positive behaviors and provide relished validation.

Appreciation in Public

They say “Criticize in private, praise in public”. Well, this is just that! Appreciation in public is a great way to showcase positive behaviors. It amplifies the validation towards the individual, inspires others, providing good models to follow. It can be a praise to our child in front of their siblings, a compliment to our team member during a meeting, sometimes even comments on social media may do the job.

Appreciation in Absence

I consider this the ultimate form of appreciative feedback. It goes a long way when rewarding high performers. It can be delivered by itself, or in addition to the previous two forms. It happens when the appreciation —packaged in the SBI form — is not delivered to the subject, but rather to an involved third party.

It can be a praise to our child’s best friend who is particularly polite when visiting our house, delivered to their parents in the form of a handwritten note.

It can be an email to the CEO of a partner company, praising their employee who contributed to the success of a recent conference which was organized together.

If we look carefully, we are surrounded by signs of appreciation in absence. Every public monument, statue, or street that is named after a person, is a form of appreciation in absence. Probably a little too much for our purpose, but you got the point, didn’t you?

To elevate our appreciation and to reward positive behaviors, I say this: “appreciate often, appreciate properly, and appreciate with purpose.” 

Trust me, wonders will happen!


Thanks to Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Laila Faisal, Letizia Barbi, Renzo Canepa, Tom White for the review of this essay.

Getting Rid of The Plastic Hairball

It’s a giant hairball made of old cables.

It lives in every household, and it sits in a drawer somewhere. It’s made of old phone chargers, USB cables, a couple of obsolete adaptors, a few rubber bands, a hairpin for sure. I have it, you have it, everyone has it.

In my case, it fills out a couple of large Samlas, those clear plastic IKEA boxes. Over the years, I kept every single cable that my old appliances did not need anymore. Of course, they did not need them, but I did, maybe someday, so I kept them.

Every time I wanted to get rid of it, severe pain in my stomach made it impossible. What if I need to power up an Epson printer that only works with that specific type of charger? It doesn’t matter if I haven’t had an Epson printer in 15 years, nor do I plan to have one ever again.

The pain of wasting space in my house with that useless plastic hairball is sharp but even more acute is the pain of throwing everything out.

When we need to part ways, we stop thinking logically. As a result, we enter a state called “amygdala hijack,” and we fail to distinguish between consequences that will happen and consequences that might happen, like the possibility of an Epson printer in the house.

We picture our life in the very current state, with a gaping void in it. We ignore what we could gain, and we focus on what we certainly lose. It’s the same loss-aversion fallacy that kept us alive as a species for the last 20,000 years that now makes us hold onto that Nokia phone charger.

There are three valuable hacks they can help us:

Visualization

Instead of dreaming that an old cable will save the day, we better focus our imagination on the positives of getting rid of that mess.
What if I need that mini-USB cable? Just go on Amazon and buy it new.
In the meanwhile, you have more space for your Lego creations, ok?

Celebration

To properly process a loss, we need to find closure. To part ways with your plastic hairball, have a ceremony, a celebration, a sort of a funeral service. It’s about finding a moment to celebrate how every strand of the hairball served its purpose. For example, this charger was my faithful travel buddy for two years. This earpiece kept me connected to my E-TAC phone while I was commuting. Etc.

Delegation

Find a trustworthy friend, invite them over for a snack. Show them the plastic hairball and give them 20 bucks, saying: “I’m leaving the house for 15 minutes. When I’m back, I don’t want to find that thing anymore. I don’t want to know how you do it, and we won’t talk about it ever again in the future. So just do it, and this money is yours.”

Leave the house for 20 minutes. Yes, give it 5 minutes more than necessary, just in case. Voilá! The plastic hairball is gone.

Of course, these are oversimplifications, but the reality is that we need to get rid of the plastic hairball because it occupies space in our houses and our heads. So don’t let it happen. Don’t let the sedimentation of the past engulf your present and limit your future.

Let those cables free, and be free yourself as well.


Thanks to Mujidat Oladeinde for the review.

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

How to ROLL through stressful times

A hundred thousand sharp pieces to pick up. That’s what’s left of that Ikea plate. On top of that, a once delicious sandwich is now bleeding mayonnaise on the tiles, as the final act of a tragedy that started on the countertop and ended too early, on the floor.

Any other day it would be just fine, the plate was just a few bucks, and the sandwich can be replaced by instant ramen. But today, it didn’t just shatter the cheap mass-manufactured porcelain. Instead, our day is a pile-up of shattered plans and mayonnaise-bleeding circumstances.

A never-ending meeting with our boss, a product recall in the middle of a sales campaign, that pain in the lower back that’s not letting us sleep well for a few weeks, and now our lunch is on the floor spread across millions of razor-sharp shards that make it impossible to salvage.

I’m so tempted to take the rest of the day off, but I feel guilty already, just considering it.

So I’ll plow through, trying to stay on top of things as much as I can, looking forward to the end of this eternal day.

Have you noticed how days like these are considered exceptions? In the sense that we don’t have a plan for them. We just do what we can, with what we have, to get what we need.

The key to thriving under pressure is to eliminate exceptions and build systems that work under any circumstances. But instead of building systems that normalize exceptions and deal with them correctly, we design excellent processes that work magnificently under ideal circumstances and then crash against the harsh reality.

Instead of blaming the exceptions, I prefer to design systems to account for them, including my daily routines.

I came up with a system that I named ROLL, and it’s the acronym for Review, Orient, Lead, Learn. 

Review

When things go sour, and I feel stressed, I pause and assess my feelings. I set my devices to Do Not Disturb for a few minutes and let silence into my brain. It’s not meditation. I do nothing else but sit in silence, undisturbed, for 3 or 4 minutes. This amplifies my emotions and surfaces them.

I ask my body and mind how I feel. How’s my heartbeat? Am I scared, angry, hopeless? Or do I feel in control, strong, hopeful? Do my hands shake? Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?

Sometimes I feel nothing at all, and that’s OK too.

Orient

I put all my options on the table. Shall I plow through the day, or shall I take the rest of the day off? Shall I attend all the following meetings and pull myself together, or shall I cancel the optional ones? Shall I call a friend for a chat? Shall I put that bottle of white wine in the fridge for tonight?

All the options are good, but I’ll commit to just one of them.

Lead

Now that I know what to do, it’s just a matter of execution. No regrets, no FOMO, no drama. Especially for those plans that tend to be loaded with guilt. Taking half a day off is not the end of the world most of the time. But it cannot be every time!

For this reason, documenting ROLL is fundamental.

Learn

I take a brief note of all the steps. For example:

I felt overwhelmed, so I considered canceling all the meetings for the day. I decided to cancel only two of them because the other ones were time-critical to the current project. In the end, it was a good decision. #ROLL #YAY

Or

I was exhausted today, but I decided to plow through. The conversation with the client was awful, and probably I contributed to making it more difficult than it had to be. Next time better reschedule. #ROLL #NAY

Keeping solid documentation of ROLL improves the quality of my decisions. It tracks progress over time and refines my ability to cope with changes in plans. It mitigates guilt because when I consider taking a day off, I don’t judge myself on the current feelings, but I know how many days off I took in the last months because of stress. Was it zero? No need to feel guilty. Was it five? Red flag, let’s start looking for a more sustainable solution.

ROLL is a quick atomic routine that helps me make better decisions when the pressure is on. It’s easy to iterate, and when well documented, it boosts my productivity and self-accountability.


Thanks to Letizia Barbi, Fei-Ling Tseng, and Laila Faisal

The Stone of Clarity

When I was a kid, I used to live on a farm with my parents and grandparents. My grandfather worked the fields. Every day he left early in the morning only to come back when the sun was setting.

My grandfather had lived through the hardness of World War II. He had to leave his house in Sicily during the conflict and relocated to the north of Italy, where he worked as a farmhand until he saved up enough money to own his land and moved in with his family.

He was a peaceful man. He never had arguments with others. He never got himself in trouble. The difficulty of the war made him a generous person, always available to open his door to the next one who was asking for food or shelter.

One of our neighbors was quite the opposite. Ha had arguments with pretty much everybody in town. He owned land, but he was not a farmer. He inherited that land from his family, and for a long time, he tried to make money out of it in ways not just about sowing and reaping.

He tried to make his little lot into a trailer park, but the business did not pick up. 

Going against the local regulations, he decided to dig a big hole in the middle of his, and naturally, the hole filled up with water. After that, he planned to make a little sport fishing facility.  

The local government went into litigation, and soon enough, he had to fill up his pond, besides paying hefty fines.

One day, my grandfather came home early, and he was very unsettled. He sat in the kitchen and revealed the cause of his being upset. Our neighbor had stuck a pole five feet into our property with a sign on it.

The sign said that we were stealing his land. He claimed that the ditch was maliciously pushed towards his side over the years. His heroic act of sticking a wooden pole in the ground was a reaction to that.

Now imagine two men in their seventies, arguing around a wooden pole in the ground. It got ugly.

They went from yelling at each other across the fields to sending letters. In their minds, it was probably a more sophisticated form of quarreling, but it was upsetting for everyone nevertheless. They didn’t use regular mail, though. Instead, they started sneaking out of their houses at night, delivering their messages directly to the other one’s mailbox. It was funny if we forget the dramatic consequences of such a situation.

Both litigants had heart conditions, and the arguments that went on for weeks made us all concerned about our old man’s health. Then, finally, his doctor stepped in to make him understand he had to let go, but with little to no success.

We were all tired of the situation, and someone had to intervene. My dad was the man for the job.

He picked up a spade from the barn on a Sunday morning and went to the disputed ditch. He started digging, and two hours later, he had made a hole in the ground so big that he could hide a car in it. At some point, the digging stopped, and he yelled: “found!”

I peeked into the hole, and there he was, my father completely covered in dust, brushing up the top of what looked like a small tombstone. What was he doing? I had no idea.

When the county divided the land after the war and assigned it to farmers, they embedded milestones at every property’s border. It was usually unnecessary to resort to digging them up because there was no actual value in that land that would justify disputes about the boundaries. But two seniors who had spent their weeks yelling at each other was good enough of a reason to give that milestone a breath of air.

A little crowd gathered around the hole and gave a good look at my father’s finding, including the two litigants. Then, they stood in silence for a few minutes, and without even looking at each other, went back inside their houses for Sunday lunch.

A few days later, a new ditch lined up with the milestone, which, by the way, was actually a couple of feet into our neighbor’s not-his-anymore land.

Nightly letters ceased, our neighbor’s requests vanished into thin air, and my grandfather’s concerns too.

There are three elements for a conflict: disagreement, scarcity, and disputed property rights. If any of the three disappears, so does the fighting.

When my father found the milestone and the crowd had a look at it, it removed the third element from the equation: there was no more disputed property right as everyone agreed where the line was rightfully supposed to be.


Thanks to Letizia, Paolo, and Trisha for the review to this essay.

The Belgian Shuffle

In 2012 I was invited to speak at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. The event was held at the European Parliament building and I was honored to run a workshop for a student’s association.

I had never been to Brussels before, so I thought it was a great opportunity to taste Belgian beer and eat fries and mussels too!

I landed on a rainy evening, rushed my way to the taxi line, and jumped on the first yellow cab I could get. We headed straight towards my hotel. It was one of those old school taxis with a sign on the roof and a big meter on top of the driver’s dashboard.

The journey was short. In just fifteen minutes we arrived at the hotel. The meter was showing “11 Euro” so I prepared the cash right before leaving the car in the pouring rain.

However, the driver said: “Twenty twenty-five, ok?” in a strong french accent.

I did not understand so I asked again: “How much?”

“Twenty twenty-five” he repeated.

The meter was still showing a large red eleven on it, and I was confused.

The driver turned my way, and explained: “I give you a receipt for 25 Euro, you pay me 20 Euro.” I timidly offered a twenty Euro bill, getting just a piece of paper in return.

Later that night in the hotel, while I was eating some takeaway fries washing them down with a can of Belgian beer, I tried to wrap my head around what had just happened. 

I was tired and still confused. Then it hit me.

I was wearing a suit, landing at the airport, and headed to a business hotel. During the ride, I had asked the taxi driver if the European Parliament was close enough to walk there in the morning. In the driver’s eyes, I was a politician or part of the entourage of a member of the parliament. In any case, I was traveling at someone else’s expense. 

With his game, he was getting 9 Euros more than the meter was showing, and still, I would “earn” 5 euros by submitting my expense report.

Before that night in Brussels, I was never offered to cheat on my expense reports. The driver was so confident in his offering, making me feel almost too thick for not getting his point at the first shot. He must have played that game so often that it was standard practice to him.

And this is how corruption starts. It all begins with a padded receipt and an individual with low integrity, or just tired enough not to think things through.

How is it possible that people who dedicate their lives to public service are sometimes caught red-handed cheating on taxi receipts, or hotel bookings?

Have you noticed how big cases of corruption often start from a couple of oddballs in the expense reports? Then the tax authorities start investigating, and they uncover a big mess in the books, that leads to people getting jailed for fraud.

Many of the bad things that happen in organizations are a function of impulsive behavior. People very seldomly plan to exaggerate profits, steal money from the till, or abuse power for selfish ends. Instead, an opportunity presents itself, and people with low impulse control just indulge in it.

Integrity, which is not only a personal virtue but also an organizational strength, is highly dependent on self-regulation, which is like a persistent inner conversation that frees us from being stuck in our feelings.

That night in Brussels I received a padded receipt and two lessons for life.

Lesson one: do not indulge in fries and Belgian beer for dinner if you are supposed to hold a 4-hour workshop in the morning.

Lesson two: when you are self-employed, make sure taxi drivers don’t think you are on corporate expenses. Those yellow-cab drivers speak with a forked tongue!

On Using Pronouns

When I was asked for the first time about my pronouns, I was confused.

English is not my first language, so I thought this was one of those subtle things they don’t teach in school, just like the correct use of “actually” or “literally.”

I am a white/cis/male. I grew up in Italy during the ‘80s and ’90s. No one ever questioned my identity, I never felt unheard, and before my 30s, no one ever took the time to introduce me to the concept of privilege.

I know now I was raised as a privileged person, and there is so much I don’t know I don’t know (yet).

This explains my confusion about declaring my pronouns.

<< Aren’t my pronouns clear? My developed facial hair says it all; why should I bother? >>

10-years-ago me

Dear 10-years-ago me, let me tell you why you should bother.

First and foremost, assuming the gender of another person based on appearance or name isn’t always correct. The act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message — that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.

Not every person who wears facial hair identifies as “He.” I know you have been raised thinking this way, but it’s just wrong.

<< What do you mean wrong? I’ve also been raised respecting others; was that wrong too? >>

10-years-ago me

No, the intention of respecting others is fine, but actions are more impactful than intentions. So all I’m saying is that culture evolves, and some of the things we thought were right, we now know they were not. But if your premise is to respect others, we are already on the same page.

The way to respect a person is to respect the language they use to refer to themselves. Transgender people, in particular, have been forced to find new ways in the language to make space for their very existence. Some choose new names for themselves; these aren’t “false,” “nicknames,” “aliases,” or “preferred” names—they are their real names even if they don’t have the resources or ability to make them their legal names.

A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, female, or non-binary. For example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers, a female person could use they/them/theirs, and a non-binary person could use he/him/his.

Also, there are more than two, three, four, or five genders in the world. Therefore, there are more than two, three, four, or five pronouns. All are equally valid. Some people don’t use any pronouns at all.

<< Do you think that changing the language is enough to achieve equality? >>

10-years-ago me

No. But it’s a part of it.

When we, as a society, did realize that cars had a terrible social cost in terms of injuries and deaths, we started to roll out programs with the intent to make cars safer. Seatbelts that now we take for granted were seen as a terrible idea. 

The Wisconsin State Journal in 1957 argued the value of seat belts had yet to be proved, especially in cases of keeping people from “being thrown out of the car.” They argued that door latches could accomplish this without preventing speedy escape from an auto going into a stream or catching fire, which used to be not infrequent events.

As a result, some car owners cut the seat belts out of their cars.

In 1957, did anyone really think that seatbelts would make cars completely safe, eliminating the risk of injury or death? Not at all.

However, with the systematic introduction of safety features, in 20 years (from 2001 to 2020) in Europe, the death rate in car crashes was reduced by 63.40%. (source)

Moving away from a binary perspective on gender will take some effort and our language impacts how we think.

Adding your pronouns in the signature of your emails, to your online profiles, on your business cards is not the definitive solution for inclusion. Still, it signals respect, dignity, and alliance towards those who have to fight for their existence.

Sincerely,
Luca Sartoni (he/him)


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling TsengLetizia BarbiLivia Iacolare, Simone Silverstein.

The living room effect: virtual togetherness

<< Dead? What do you mean dead? >>

Herbert was no more. A phone call broke the news, on a cold Sunday morning.

Herbert and I went to high school together. We used to ride our bikes along the shoreline, and we spent long afternoons together at the arcades. After graduation, we drifted off. I left my hometown, but we kept in touch, mainly on Facebook. We often sent memes to each other on Messenger.

I could not believe it. I had spoken to him just a few days before, or was it the previous week?

I picked up my phone and went through the chats. Our last message was 17 months old.

He didn’t even know I had a son. I forgot to tell him.

There are friends I can spend time with exploring a new city, hiking the mountains, or diving in the sea, or just sitting in the same room in silence for eight hours staring at our laptops. And for us, the level of intimacy is the same, regardless of which activity we chose for the day.

I call it “the living room effect”. As long as we have proximity, we are together.

In the most recent years, due to the permanent connected status, the same feeling extended from the physical to the virtual space; my list of friends started to give me that living room effect as well. But this time, the gaps are wider. I don’t actually know where my friends are, or what they are really doing. My brain fills those gaps, taking information from the edges, those chat statuses, and applying it to the less tangible parts of our relationships.

In neuroscience, there is an image called the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion. It is a rectangular field of gray divided in half by a shaded middle border. The area to the left of the border appears brighter than that to the right. In reality, the brighter and darker regions exist only at the edge—the surrounding areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness. The illusion causes the brain to apply the brightness and darkness it sees at the border to the left and right areas.

Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion – The areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness.

The Cornsweet illusion is an example of edge induction—taking information from the edge of an object and applying it to the rest of the object. It demonstrates that much of what you perceive is actually a construction in your brain, and is not accurate.

Just like our brain falls for the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion, I fall for the living room effect when it comes to my friends: it feels like people are in my same room just because I see them logged in the chats.

They show online, and I feel they are close to me. Our conversations never end. We don’t feel the gaps; we exchange a continuous stream of messages,  the same way we don’t feel the distance between our bodies. I can text from an airport in southeast Asia while they are shopping at CVS in Redondo Beach. Not even time zones matter anymore.

<< This is ridiculous, >> she said.

My mother, raised in the 60s, doesn’t get it. 

<< How can it be the same? How reading a message on a tiny screen is the same as touching skin, hearing voices, and laughing together? >>

She needs to listen to my voice to know I’m doing well, so we talk on the phone. We exchange messages, but with her, it’s not the same. She is from a generation that requires more bandwidth in their relationships.

Does that mean that older generations are less inclined to fill the gaps in their perceptions when emotions are involved? Quite the opposite.

If my mother finds it impossible to feel the living room effect via text messages, people in her generation are inclined to other types of virtual togetherness.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand discovered that a robot companion could benefit senior adults similar to that of a living animal.

They concluded that a robot companion had benefits for older people in nursing home care and it was a positive addition to this environment. The robotic pet may address some of the unmet needs of older people that a resident animal may not, particularly relating to loneliness.

Since Herbert passed, I started reflecting more on avoiding the dark side of the living room effect. Relational laziness can keep us apart even if we feel close to each other. For this reason, I resumed a few chats buried in my apps, and I now call people on the phone more often.

I can’t beat the living room effect, but I can refurbish the living room so the chairs face one another and make it easier to have more frequent conversations.


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling Tseng, Florian MaganzaLetizia BarbiPaolo Belcastro, Stephen Samuel.

From Good to Great: the One Piece of Advice on Public Speaking by Carmine Gallo

Carmine Gallo is a three-time Wall Street Journal bestselling author, internationally popular keynote speaker, Harvard instructor, and leadership advisor for the world’s most admired brands. Carmine Gallo’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

At the beginning of 2011, I was in San Francisco to speak at a tech conference, and after the exchange of a couple of messages on Twitter, he agreed to meet me at his office in Pleasanton. I could not believe it. I was messaging one of my favorite authors, and not only was he replied, but he also offered to meet up!

The following day I drove one hour east of San Francisco and showed up at his desk. We spent the day together, and over the years, we had the chance to connect and become friends. Some of the pictures in his book covers come from my camera lenses, and every time I swing by the west coast of the United States, I try to arrange a quick visit. 

Carmine Gallo in Livermore (California)

During one of my visits, we were hanging out at his favorite winery, which happens to be next to a golf course. We enjoyed our glass of California Cab, and I asked him how to step up my public speaking, which I felt had reached a plateau. Carmine finished his glass and pointed at the green grass around us.

He said: “It’s just like golf: you learn the basics, and then practice is the only way to proficiency.”

Looking at Carmine’s body of work, you can find this advice pretty much everywhere.

In his book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” he writes:

“Steve Jobs is a master showman, working the stage with precision. Every move, demo, image, and slide is in sync. He appears comfortable, confident, and remarkably effortless. At least, it looks effortless to the audience. Here’s his presentation secret: Jobs rehearses for hours. To be more precise: many, many hours over many, many days”.

Also:

Evangelist said Jobs rehearsed for two full days before the presentation, asking for feedback from the product managers in the room. Jobs spends a lot of time on slides, personally writing and designing much of the content, along with some help from the design team. “On the day before showtime, things get much more structured, with at least one and sometimes two complete dress rehearsals.

In his book “Talk like TED,” Carmine dissects the presentation techniques of the most remarkable TED speakers. He points out:

“If your goal is to deliver a memorable presentation that will leave your audience in awe, then you have to practice. During your practice sessions, you must pay attention to how you sound (verbal delivery) and how you look (body language).”

More recently, in his book “10 Simple Secrets of the World’s Greatest Business Communicators,” he writes:

Practice relentlessly and internalize the content so you can deliver it as comfortably as having a conversation with a friend.

Carmine Gallo rehearsing a presentation

Carmine Gallo does not just invite his readers to practice more; he often teaches how to practice effectively.

In his article “Avoid This Common Mistake Most Speakers Make in Virtual Meetings,” for example, we find:

“Start a new meeting with no audience, look into your webcam, and record your presentation. Watch the recording. You might catch yourself breaking eye contact more often than you think. Once you do, you’ll know what to fix in the next practice session.”

And it’s not just about meetings. You can improve virtual presentations too. For example, in the article “This Astronaut Training Strategy Can Help You Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking,” he writes: 

“If you have an upcoming virtual presentation, dress up and deliver your presentation in the same room and with the same computer equipment that you will use on the day of the event. Record it and play it back. How do you come across? Are you fidgeting excessively or looking away from the webcam? You can even invite a peer or family member to watch it live to increase the stress of the real event.”

Carmine Gallo taking notes
Carmine Gallo working on his notes

You’ve probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in the book “Outliers.” The rule goes like this: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency in complex skills, like playing the piano or getting as good as Tiger Woods at driving golf balls into the holes.

Regarding public speaking, Carmine strongly supports this theory. For example, in his book “Talk like TED”:

“I strongly believe it […the 10000 hours rule…] applies to the skill of public speaking, too. A lot of people tell me they’ll never be as polished as Steve Jobs or other great business speakers because they’re simply “not good at it.” Well, neither was Steve Jobs at one point. He worked at it.”

If I look at my journey as a public speaker, I cannot agree more. Over the years, I accepted that the only way to feel at ease when stepping on stage is to have solid preparation behind. So many hours invested repeating the exact same words over and over until they flow smoothly, delivering my key messages.

Next time you have a presentation, dedicate two to four hours to proper rehearsals. 

It will feel awkward if rehearsing is new to you. Over time, you’ll find the process that works best for you, but you’ll notice that most of the time spent obsessing around slide design can be redirected to rehearsing. Give it a try. 

The results will surprise you.


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Artur Piszek, Danny Naz, Karyn Flynn, Letizia Barbi, Paolo Belcastro, Simone Silverstein.