Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

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9780385348379: Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity—and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy
 
Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it’s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we’re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory.
 
Managing ambiguity—in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives—is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don’t know where to begin.
 
As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We’re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can’t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.
 
In other words, confusion—that uncomfortable mental place—has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way.

Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories—from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka’s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs—Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions.
 
In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.

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About the Author:

Jamie Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former Research Coordinator at Harvard University in the Department of Economics. He holds an M.I.A. from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Daily Beast.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

NONSENSE
The Power of Not Knowing
by Jamie Holmes
 
Prologue
 
IN 1996, LONDON’S City and Islington College organized a crash course in French for novices and below-average students. Paula, an earnest teenager wearing wire-rim glasses, had never spoken a word of the language before. Darminder, goateed and earringed, was not only new to French, but had also failed his Spanish General Certifi­cate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Abdul had failed his German GCSE. Satvinder and Maria had each flunked their French GCSEs, and Emily’s French teacher was so unimpressed that she advised her to give up on the language entirely. Instead of abandoning all hope, however, the students had signed up for a unique opportunity. For five full days, they’d submit to the eccentric methodology of a lin­guist named Michel Thomas.
 
Gray-haired and wearing a blue blazer, Thomas radiated poise and grace. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he told his new students, “and I’m looking forward to teaching you today, but under better physical conditions, because I don’t think that where you’re sitting is very comfortable. I would like you to feel comfortable, so we’re going to rearrange everything.” In a truck outside, Thomas had stashed some unexpected replacements for the standard classroom furniture: armchairs, pillows, coffee tables, plants, a rug, a fan, and even wicker folding screens. With a little effort, the students completely trans­formed the room. Plush high-backed armchairs formed a half oval, the blue curtains had been drawn, the lights dimmed, and the wicker screens enclosed the armchairs and lent the space an even cozier and more intimate feel.
 
There would be no desks, blackboards, paper, pens, or pencils. Thomas didn’t want the students to read or write anything. He didn’t want them to try to remember anything they studied either, or even review it at the end of the day. If, during class, they couldn’t remem­ber something, he advised, it wasn’t their problem. It was his. Emily looked incredulous. Darminder and Abdul couldn’t contain their impish smiles. But none of the students could hide their genuine cu­riosity about the old man in front of them. Was he serious? Never try to remember anything taught in class?
 
“I want you to relax.”
 
This scene, Thomas’s methods, and the results of those five days appeared in a BBC documentary titled The Language Master. Mar­garet Thompson, head of the French department at the school, was tasked with evaluating Thomas’s results. At the end of the week, she watched as the students—many of whom had never uttered a word of French before—translated full sentences using advanced grammati­cal forms. Emily managed to interpret a phrase that would normally take years to tackle: “I would like to know if you want to go see it with me tonight.” Paula praised Thomas’s strong emphasis on calm and patience. The students felt, they said, as though they’d learned five years’ worth of French in only five days. Rather stunned by the outcome, Thompson bashfully deferred to their self-appraisal.
 
Michel Thomas knew how intimidating it can be to explore a new language. Students face new pronunciations for familiar letters, words with novel meanings, missing parts of speech, and odd gram­matical structures. That’s why the City and Islington students, de­spite the relaxed atmosphere, still exhibited the signs of confusion: nervous laughter, embarrassed smiles, muttered apologies, stutters, hesitations, and perplexed glances. Learning a foreign language re­quires you to journey into unfamiliar terrain. Thomas referred to a new language as the “most alien thing” one can learn. To fend off these “alien” intrusions, the mind instinctively erects barricades, and the teacher’s first and often most difficult challenge is to help students pull these walls down. Thomas was able to transform the atmosphere in that City and Islington classroom from one of stress­ful apprehension to one of calm curiosity. He somehow instilled a greater open-mindedness in the students. Pupils who had habitually dismissed what they didn’t yet grasp suddenly became more likely to venture out into the unknown.
 
At the time of the BBC documentary, which aired in 1997, Thomas was already legendary. He’d learned eleven languages, opened tu­toring centers in Los Angeles and New York, and built something of a cult following thanks to a client list that included Grace Kelly, Bob Dylan, Alfred Hitchcock, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and American Express. Nigel Levy, who studied with Thomas before producing the BBC piece, characterized the lessons as “astonishing.” Emma Thompson described her time with him as “the most extraor­dinary learning experience of my life.” Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations called him “a miracle worker.” And Herbert Morris, a former dean of humanities at UCLA, confided that he’d learned a year’s worth of Spanish in just a few days with Thomas and remembered it nine months later.
 
“The most important thing,” Thomas said, was to “eliminate all kinds of tension and anxiety” that are associated with learning. 
 
His attention to mood was peculiar, even downright radical. He’d often begin teaching French, for example, by telling his students that French and English share thousands of words. It’s only that they sound a little different. “English is French, badly pronounced,” he once joked. Words ending in -ible, like possible, and -able, like table, all originate from French words, he’d explain. Recasting the unknown as familiar, Thomas provided students, from the outset, with sturdy building blocks. His pupils grafted new knowledge onto existing knowledge, bit by bit, expressing their own thoughts and never re­iterating rote phrases. Thomas taught for autonomy and rarely cor­rected his students directly.
 
By 2004, Thomas’s French, German, Italian, and Spanish in­structional CDs and tapes—recordings of Thomas teaching each subject to two students—were the top-selling language courses in the United Kingdom. But Michel Thomas wasn’t merely a linguist. He was also a war hero. That same year, he was honored at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, where he received the Silver Star. He died in 2005 in New York City, as an American citizen, but he was born in the industrial city of Łódz´, Poland, as Moniek Kros­kof. He’d survived concentration camps, led troops, and worked as a spy and interrogator for the Allies, netting more than two thousand Nazi war criminals after the war. “Michel Thomas” was his fifth false identity and nom de guerre.
 
Thomas’s firsthand experience with totalitarian propaganda and his postwar undercover career are no mere biographical curiosities. His insights into the way our minds snap shut or unlock in the face of ambiguity—the central concern of this book—grew from his ex­periences in Germany. He had witnessed up close how Nazism had fostered a dismissive, even disdainful approach to uncertainty and moral complexity among its most fervent adherents. And he then spent decades developing methods to nurture a diametrically op­posed attitude among language learners. Fifty years before the BBC documentary, in fact, Thomas tested his early ideas in an episode that eerily inverts his pedagogical demonstration at City and Islington.
 
*************
 
IN 1946, RUDOLF Schelkmann—formerly a major in the intel­ligence service of Hitler’s SS—was hiding in Ulm, Germany, co­ordinating a loose network of loyalists hell-bent on reestablishing Nazi rule. That November, Schelkmann and three other former SS officers had been baited into meeting the purported commander of a more powerful and centralized underground neo-Nazi resistance. In reality, they were about to meet Moniek Kroskof, aka Michel Thomas, a Polish-born Jew and undercover agent of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC).
 
Tasked with bringing war criminals to justice, Thomas was on a mission to identify and eventually dismantle Schelkmann’s net­work. Another CIC agent who went by the name of Hans Meyer had been carefully building a rapport with members of the network, but Schelkmann remained reticent. The former SS man had agreed to share contacts and operational details, but only after meeting face-to-face with Meyer’s commander. Thomas had to keep Schelkmann and his men from smelling a rat. Toward that end, he had meticu­lously arranged for the SS conspirators to be run through a tortuous routine in the hours leading up to the big meeting.
 
Earlier that night, the SS men had been waiting, on Meyer’s or­ders, in a “safe house” southwest of Ulm. Without warning, motor­bikes arrived to pick them up. Thomas had deliberately waited for stormy weather; as the conspirators sat on the backs of the bikes, sharp winds pressed at the men’s rain-soaked clothes. Dropped off on a deserted road, the conspirators were blindfolded and hustled into two cars. In the darkness, they heard passwords exchanged as they navigated a series of staged security checks. They were pulled from the cars, marched blindly down a muddy path, and led through deep, icy puddles. They were kept waiting in an unheated corridor and were forbidden to speak. Still blindfolded, they listened to terse commands, scurrying footsteps, and doors opening and closing hur­riedly. By the time Schelkmann and his men were finally led into a lodge hall and were allowed to see, it was past midnight.
 
Thomas—or Frundsberg to the SS men—greeted the conspira­tors from behind a large desk. Wearing civilian clothes except for a brown, military-style shirt, he’d been described to the Nazi loyalists as a former senior officer of the RSHA, an intelligence group once overseen by Himmler. Frundsberg’s hunting lodge, as the faux head­quarters of the underground “Grossorganisation” resistance, was artfully embellished with portraits of Hitler and other Nazi bigwigs and decorated with grenades, machine guns, pistols, flame throwers, and sabotage kits. Stacks of cash sat in an open safe.
 
Thomas nodded curtly, sit, and the men sat. He studied a dossier of unknown contents in silence. Then he made his position clear to Schelkmann: he would not tolerate any splinter resistance groups. Military actions taken outside his command were acts of treason, plain and simple. With seemingly offhand gestures, Thomas belit­tled Schelkmann and his small group, taking frequent phone calls to emphasize his indifference to them. Subordinates came and went with apparently urgent communiqués. Flustered, the Nazi major now offered some of the details that Thomas was after: his background, the backgrounds of the other SS men in the room, the name of his network, its charter, methods, and structure, and how its members were recruited.
 
The CIC’s operation that night wasn’t flawless. Thomas’s elabo­rate fiction required roughly thirty people acting in concert, each with assigned scripts. Small mistakes and inconsistencies in the the­atrical performance were inevitable. Counterintelligence operations turn on such minutiae—on whether the strange hesitation, bizarre response, or involuntary twitch is interpreted as sinister or benign. That’s why a certain Soviet spy, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted, smoked a pipe. It immobilized his facial expres­sions. Buttons whose holes were sewn in a crisscross rather than a parallel pattern could reveal an agent’s nationality and destroy an otherwise perfect operation. In Egypt, a foreign agent was once dis­covered because of his giveaway stance at a public urinal. No detail is insignificant to the intelligence operative, as Thomas knew, and Schelkmann’s background in intelligence was formidable.
 
Schelkmann had two chances to unmask that night’s hoax. His first came when he asked to be appointed Thomas’s head of intel­ligence. “I had not anticipated this,” Thomas later told his biogra­pher, Christopher Robbins. “I could hardly grant the man’s request without bringing him into the organization, which was obviously impossible. I pointed out the weakness in his operation, which in reality I was forced to admire.” Thomas not only had to feign the workings of a fake espionage conspiracy, but also had to disparage a well-managed spy network on cue. Schelkmann didn’t catch on and didn’t protest. The second make-or-break moment of the night—the most dangerous one, according to Thomas—was when Schelkmann unexpectedly asked for orders.
 
“Und was befehlen Sie uns jetzt zu tun?”
 
And what would you command us to do now? Thomas feared, as Rob­bins recounted it, that “his mask had momentarily slipped and that he had stepped out of character.” Yet again, the SS men didn’t notice. Thomas recovered, ordering the Germans to hold off on any pend­ing operations and to prepare for an inspection. His performance was vulnerable twice. But Schelkmann had missed it both times. 
 
Here was the payoff of the gauntlet of blindfolds, switched vehicles, muddy marching, rain-soaked clothing, and humiliating treatment that the conspirators had been forced to endure: clues ignored, tells overlooked. The success of that night’s scheme didn’t depend on its perfect execution. On the contrary, Thomas knew there would inevi­tably be slip-ups that might reveal the charade and force him to ar­rest the Nazis immediately. His talent was to manipulate their mood and undermine their sense of control so that they would be less likely to notice such momentary stumbles.
 
Some months later, when Thomas left his work with the CIC in Germany for America, a new agent took over the task of roping in the diehard Nazi underground. Posing as Frundsberg’s deputy, this replacement arranged a meeting with Schelkmann and his men at a local beer hall. Wives and girlfriends were allowed. This time, when a tense moment came and the undercover agent seemed flustered, the German conspirators sensed that something was off. They ques­tioned him aggressively. The panicking CIC agent pulled a gun, and the other CIC undercover officers tucked elsewhere at the bar—his backup—had no choice but to move in and arrest the men, netting far fewer of the group’s contacts than they’d hoped.
 
Schelkmann himself would serve twelve years in prison. When they were initially charged, he and his men vehemently denied the prosecution’s seemingly incomprehensible claim that Frundsberg, too, had been working for the Americans. Just as Thomas’s students opened their minds, the SS men had closed theirs.
 
*************
 
THIS BOOK LOOKS at how we make sense of the world. It’s about what happens when we’re confused and the path forward isn’t ob­vious. Of course, most of the challenges of daily life are perfectly straightforward. When it’s snowing, we know to put on a jacket be­fore venturing out. When the phone rings, we pick it up. A red stop­light means we should brake. At the other end of the spectrum, vast stores of knowledge completely confound most of us. Stare at Baby­lonian cuneiform or listen to particle physicists debate, and...

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Descrizione libro Crown Publishing Group (NY), United States, 2015. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity--and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory. Managing ambiguity--in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives--is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don t know where to begin. As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective. In other words, confusion--that uncomfortable mental place--has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories--from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs--Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions. In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It s how we deal with what we don t understand. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780385348379

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Descrizione libro Crown Publishing Group (NY), United States, 2015. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity--and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory. Managing ambiguity--in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives--is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don t know where to begin. As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective. In other words, confusion--that uncomfortable mental place--has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories--from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs--Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions. In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It s how we deal with what we don t understand. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780385348379

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Descrizione libro Crown Publishing Group (NY), United States, 2015. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity--and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory. Managing ambiguity--in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives--is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don t know where to begin. As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective. In other words, confusion--that uncomfortable mental place--has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories--from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs--Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions. In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It s how we deal with what we don t understand. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780385348379

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Descrizione libro Crown. Hardcover. Condizione libro: New. Hardcover. 304 pages. Dimensions: 9.2in. x 6.1in. x 0.8in.An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguityand how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether its a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And were continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory. Managing ambiguityin our jobs, our relationships, and daily livesis quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us dont know where to begin. As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. Were hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you cant be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective. In other words, confusionthat uncomfortable mental placehas a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating storiesfrom spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodkas ad campaign and the creation of Mad LibsNonsensepromises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions. In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isnt IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. Its how we deal with what we dont understand. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Hardcover. Codice libro della libreria 9780385348379

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