You should write a book

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Pink when he spoke at a lunch event here in St. Louis. While we were eating lunch waiting for the main event, my friend Gene said to me, “You should write a book.”  Like many people I know, my initial reaction was along the lines of, “Yeah, sure. What would I write about?” And yet…

Over the weekend I gave the idea a bit more thought. Also like many people, I’ve often thought about maybe writing a book, and Gene’s suggestion got me thinking about it again. There are actually many things I could write about: parenting, autism, leadership, systems engineering, FIRST robotics, trampoline and tumbling.

And then the resistance – my lizard brain – showed up. “But that sure is a lot of hard work.” “You don’t even have 100 subscribers to your blog, who would buy a book by you?” “You think you know enough about these topics, but do you really?” “You’ve indulged the idea, now let it go and let’s get back to what we were doing before.”

By the end of the weekend, I’m sad to admit, the resistance had all but defeated me. All I had were the remnants of a very basic mind map to show I had been thinking about it at all. And then Seth Godin told me why I should write a book:

If you’ve never written a non-fiction book, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to. It organizes your thoughts. It’s a big project worthy of your attention.

…and…

If you want to change people, you must create enough leverage to encourage the change to happen…. A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

A lot of ideas that bounce around in my head, and many of them get published here on the blog. Many more of them are notes and sketches in the many notebooks I’ve accumulated over the years.

Most of these are ideas for change that I want to get across to people, to maybe change their minds about how they view autism and those who are autistic or to show gym owners and team parents how they can run a trampoline and tumbling meet that people will still be talking about years later. I have pages and pages of ideas on how to spread the work and word of FIRST, to get our kids interested in how they can use science, technology, and engineering to change the world for the better.

So, I guess what I’m saying is I’m going to write a book. I’m just not sure yet what I want to write first. Thank goodness for mind maps to help me sort through all the possibilities. Once I have my topic, I’ll set a ship date and get to work.

This is my brain on the web

During a New Year’s Day seminar in which he spoke about some things he would be tracking and doing in 2010, Dan Pink made an offhand comment that “I like lists”. This comment, along with the coming of the new year and the inspiration from the seminar, prompted me to create a new “brain” – using PersonalBrain 5.5 – to collect the lists and other resources that I find useful.

Some of the thoughts in that brain will eventually find their way into a blog post or other writing somewhere, but much of it won’t. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good information, or that it isn’t worth sharing, so I’ve uploaded the brain to WebBrain.com as a way to share. It is very much a work in progress, both in terms of content and visual design, and as I continue to build it I will work on both. Let me know if you have any suggestions or ideas to add.

Here’s a quick look at the brain, and you can see it full size over at WebBrain.com. I may eventually find a permanent place here on my site for the brain, but for now I’ll just keep it there.

A systems approach to food and nutrition – Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

These seven words make up the entirety of the “eater’s manifesto” that is the subtitle of Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Of course, if the “doing” were as easy as the “saying”, Pollan wouldn’t have needed 200+ pages to explain the three rules embodied in these seven words.

At its core, Pollan’s argument is one for a systems view of food and nutrition and against attempts to reduce the complexity of the “food web” into its various components, each considered in isolation from the other. He points to the Western conception of food, especially our current “food science” and “nutrition industry”, as an example of the dangers of the reductionist view point.

As Pollan himself mentions in the introduction, it seemed to me at first to be a little bit strange for someone to be telling me to “eat food”. I mean, what else would I eat? The answer, as it turns out, is that a lot of what I – and quite probably you – eat is actually what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances”.

These food-like substances are, according to Pollan, the result of “nutritionism”, a deliberate effort by food scientists – and the companies that employ them – to break food down into it’s component parts, the macro- and micro-nutrients, so that these nutrients can be efficiently – and profitably – delivered to consumers.

map-in-defense-of-food

The topics on the left side of the mind map above give an idea of how Pollan believes “nutritionism” has led to many of our current health problems, including the epidemic of obesity. He covers these in the first two sections of the book.

The topics on the right side give an idea of  the key points behind the three rules of his eater’s manifesto and how they all work together as a system. He covers this in section 3 of the book.

If you are inclined to systems thinking, Pollan’s argument will make perfect sense. There may be some areas you could nit-pick, but the overall approach is sound. If, on the other hand, you are not a “systems-thinker”, you may very well find yourself a bit confused and uncomfortable. We are, in general, so accustomed to worrying about all the parts of nutrition that it will take a very concerted – and conscious – effort, to “let go” and trust the system.

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The mind map in Mind Manager 6 Pro format.

The evolution of a Mind Manager mind map – T&T parent’s guide

To help me plan out the direction and content for the Tramp and Tumble blog over the next couple of months I created a mind map to collect and sort the various topics that I want to discuss there. One of the things that I love about Mind Manager is that it has such a nice looking, and useful, final product that hides all the effort that actually goes into creating the map. After all, the “customer” doesn’t really want to see the sausage being made, do they?

Those who are familiar with mind maps know, though, that creating a good map takes a lot of work; planning, mapping, evaluation, re-arranging, etc. In many ways, this is no different than the process for any good writing: ideas, sketch outline, draft, revise, update outline, update draft, revise, etc.  For those less familiar with the process for mind maps, I thought I’d give a little insight into how the process works for me, at least in this case.

tnt-mind-map-notes

I’ve been accumulating the knowledge that went into this map for several years now, since Ian first started competing in 2005. My first step was to create a list of questions that many parents new to the sport have as they start.

(Side note:  Mind Manager does include a “brainstorming” mode, but I have to admit that for things like this I still prefer to use something a bit more “analog”, in this case my handy-dandy notebook and a set of Sharpie pens.)

The image to the right is a scan of my brainstorming list. I jotted down the main ideas, and sub-topics, as they occurred, going back later to mark them up with some ideas on what would make sense chronologically.

Having this list also gave me some ideas on how I could actually structure the topics in order to provide a somewhat consistent delivery of articles that make sense within a given time period; in this case, a week.

tnt-mind-map-draftThe next step was to convert these topics into a draft map. Again, Mind Manager provides excellent support for taking your brainstorming results and converting those into a draft map; again, I still prefer to do this part with good old pen and paper.

Pulling all of my topics and sub-topics together on this map further helped me find the ideas that should be kept together as part of a “weekly package”. The image on the left is (I’m sure you’ve figured out) my first draft.

From this draft I was able to easily create a map in Mind Manager, using the topics/subtopics in the draft as a guide. Once these were in Mind Manager, it was a simple matter to move the main ideas around to come up with the best organization and chronology. Here’s the final map, as posted on the Tramp and Tumble blog:

If you compare the two, you will see that there are many similarities but also some key differences. And just like any project, there are things from the initial idea that are not present and things in the final product that only showed up when the final draft was prepared.

Now all I have to do is fill in the details.

Lessons from mind mapping the cars of the world

A mind map is a great tool, and mind maps should be a key part of any knowledge/concept worker’s tool kit.  To supplement the hand drawn maps that are scattered throughout my notebooks and across whiteboards, I primarily use two pieces of mind mapping software:  MindManager (Pro 6) and Personal Brain (5).  (In the interest of completeness, Inspiration also has a home here in the Miller household, used by the boys for their school work.)

Recently I’ve been working on a mind map of the Cars of the World (personal, not work related). When I first started the map, in Mind Manager, it seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward exercise. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this might not be as straightforward as I originally thought.

My original intent was to simply provide a kind of “quick reference guide” for my son to the makes and models of cars typically seen in the US. I envisioned what would essentially amount to a big poster of cars, and chose MindManager to execute.  My first thought was to have countries as the first sub-topic level, but a quick hand-sketched map convinced me that I should have the continents as the first level with the countries at the second level, and the car make/model falling under that.

Here’s a snapshot of part of that map so far (it is, to put it mildly, a work in progress). Click on the map for full-size image, or here for the MindManager .mmap file:

cotw-snapshot

As seen in the snapshot above, I started out by simply listing the various brands of cars associated with a given country. For the European brands, this worked out OK since no one country has an excessive number of unique car brands.  This is not the case, however, in the United States or Japan where there are many (many) different car brands. Subsequently, the list of brands shown on the map under the U.S. and Japan were quite lengthy. Having lived in the U.S. all my life, it was easy for me to further divide the various U.S. brands into parent companies, I’m sure the same can be done for the Japanese brands.

The snapshots below give an idea of how the two options look on the map.

cotw-north-america-and-asia

Of course, once you start bringing the actual car companies into the discussion the question of how to represent takes a whole new turn.  For example, Chrysler is indeed a US company, but as a result of recent events is now owned by Fiat, and Italian company.  Obviously it doesn’t make sense in the context of this map to move Chrysler and its brands under Italy on the map, any more than moving the Opel (Germany) or Holden (Australia) brands to the U.S. because they are owned by GM (at least, I think GM still owns them).

Mind Manager does have some tools that allow you to connect and establish relationships between individual topics, but I found that to really track and display a large number of relationships and groupings of topics The Personal Brain is a more useful tool.  I threw together a quick brain showing some of the relationships I’ve mentioned, unfortunately my Brain 5 trial has expired and it looks like I’ll have to either reinstall v4.5 or buy 5 before I can export to HTML and post it here.

Like I said at the beginning, mind maps are an effective tool.  As this “simple” project shows, though, you still need to put a little bit of thought into exactly which type of mind map tool you use and how you actually use the tool to come up with your desired product.