Cut corners as well as go the whole hog with this gem of a booklet.
MIND CONTROL AND STUDY AIDS
1. Pure Concentration
I had a teacher at school who fancied himself a bit of a philosopher. He would come out with all sorts of observations on people, life, nature, the universe and so on, most of them quite trite or self-evident. One of the more profound things I remember him saying was how actions were all about control. Who can deny that? From the earliest age we are taught to and we learn how to control practically all our actions - reading and writing, playing games, riding a bike etc. But have we ever learnt to control our minds? Isn’t thinking, after all, an involuntary process, like walking or sleeping, something that happens naturally and effortlessly? That goes without saying. At the same time, however, we have to admit, any action, any state even, can be improved or perfected - sitting or sleeping, no less, to give two of the most basic examples. Think of the Alexander technique to correct bad posture or custom made beds to relieve back pain, for instance. Think of actors and actresses who tirelessly rehearse gestures the rest of us take for granted. Think of models who, despite their good looks, still see the need to pamper themselves with make-up and undergo other treatments. Our brains, being organs like any other part of the body, are also responsive to conditioning / toning. Effective and efficient thinking is our greatest key to success and happiness. Not only does it improve our performance at school and college, but also in our careers and relationships.
You’ve doubtless heard teachers telling off their pupils for being unable to ‘sit still and concentrate for a minute.’ You may think that a figure of speech but, in fact, total uninterrupted, total unadulterated concentration is one of the hardest things to achieve. Our thoughts, whether consciously or subconsciously, are, by and large, in flux, constantly changing, like the weather. In the middle of a crucial two hour exam, for instance, it’s not uncommon for our thoughts to stray to our family, friends and loved ones, to our hobbies, pastimes or holidays, to give just six out of hundreds of other distractions. As much as 5 or 10 minutes could be wasted time, time that could have gained us a few extra marks or helped us ‘clinch the alpha.’ Over a long period, say six months or a year, you don’t need me to tell you, these interruptions considerably pile up. In today’s hectic, cut-throat world where time is of the essence, we simply cannot afford that luxury!
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Here are some simple exercises to improve our concentration. Though they may initially feel like time-wasters, they are, of course, time-savers, enabling us to become faster, more efficient thinkers by ridding ourselves of outside interferences:
(a) (to promote overall concentration) Shut your eyes or look at a stationary object. Empty your thoughts. Increase the time from 1/2 to 1 to 2 minutes.
(b) (to enhance the free flow of thought) Look at a steadily moving object or objects such as the second hand of a clock / watch or traffic on a busy road. Empty your thoughts. Increase the time from 1/2 to 1 to 2 minutes.
(c) (to disregard wandering thoughts) Look at a stationary object behind an unevenly oscillating object such as a garden fence behind a swaying plant or a rock in an aquarium with fish. Empty your thoughts. Increase the time from 1/2 to 1 to 2 minutes, as per the above.
(d) (the ultimate challenge) Recite any lengthy passage. It could be verses from a holy book, a prayer, an excerpt from a book, a poem, a play - whatever. Try and focus intently on the words and their meaning without allowing your thoughts to stray. If you think that’s easy, then think again! Remember, a couple of minutes of pure and simple concentration is the ideal.
Meditation - I mean transcendental meditation - has earned an unfair reputation as a passive, laid-back state. You’re probably familiar with the stock 60’s image of flower-power hippies sitting cross-legged on station platforms and the like. In reality, it’s one of the most active, dynamic pursuits. For by cutting ourselves off, by becoming impervious to the outside world and its misleading or disorienting influences, we become more receptive to the truth, to the real state of affairs. Buddha, the great mystic, is said to have meditated 40 days under a pilap (an Indian species of) tree before formulating his famous philosophy ‘everything passes away’ and some attendant rules of life, to secure his disciples a better state in the next world. Whether or not you are a believer in an after-life, you have to agree with the basic, underlying thought. Everything does, indeed, pass away. People and things we think of as permanent, inviolable, are only temporary, transient. They become absorbed into the earth, water, air, space. They die, disintegrate, break down into skeletons, rubble or pulp. In fact the bottom line, the one and only real thing we can know about the universe is precisely that. Pretty neat - and sobering!
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I’m not suggesting you adopt the lotus position for hours a day at the expense of your homework / revision, though, doubtless, some students would relish the notion! Only that you ‘give meditation a go’ and reap the rewards. If you find the prospect scary, off-putting or contrary to your religious beliefs, you could try some of the classic Yoga postures such as the ‘tree’ or the ‘sun’ which work on the same principle - namely blocking out wandering thoughts by compelling the practitioner to concentrate intently - exclusively - on his or her balance.
2. Neuro-Transmitters and Hebbian Learning
You’ve probably heard it being said or seen diagrams of how the brain is made up of billions, trillions of interconnected circuits, so-called ‘neuro-transmitters’ which admit of countless more combinations and permutations. It’s really quite staggering. Our thoughts travel along such ‘neural pathways’. Here is a crude, though not inaccurate, reduction:
When a thought travels often enough along a neural pathway it becomes ‘fixated’ or ‘embedded’ in our long-term memory. Think of a footpath in a forest or a country lane that becomes well-trodden, carved out through time. Moreover, a 19th century Austrian psychologist called Adolph Hebbe was able to demonstrate how first impressions were always the strongest and the hardest to erase. Think of a plot of land that’s being dug from different sides and angles. The ‘first furrow’ so to speak, in mind control terms, is the deepest and longest. That is why, during homework / revision, we should never attempt to guess or ‘second guess’ the answer, at the risk of erring. This is especially
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true of modern languages, but equally applicable to all subjects. We should try to ‘get it right the first time’ and not rely on a ‘carpet bombing’ approach, hoping that sooner or later we will hit the mark. Mistakes should be quickly nipped in the bud before they have time to escalate and become embedded along the wrong neural pathways, in ordinary language before they become ‘bad habits.’ Some subjects, notably maths and the sciences, require a precise, step-by- step approach. There’s little room for ‘waffle’ or interpretation as per the arts, though I’m not suggesting you adopt a laissez-faire attitude for the latter. We shouldn’t be content with half understanding or three-quarters understanding a subject or, indeed, with any degree of ignorance. We should always go back to our books, to our teachers and correct ourselves. By a similar token, it’s best to rely on a master set of notes than a variegated hotchpotch that can give us different or conflicting impressions. Our teachers, too, should strive to give us the same or similar directions when going over a topic. If ours don’t, it’s not impolite or unpolitic to ask them to tailor their approach for the better. After all, we’re all in the same boat. Good pupil grades will reflect on their standing as well as ours. You could even show them my booklet - by way of proof - discretely, of course, and with plenty of ‘buttering up.’
3. Reshuffling and Amalgamation
Having extolled the virtues of fixating / embedding, the following paragraph may appear to be ‘back-tracking’ but, in reality, serves as another illustration of the brain’s wonderful versatility. We all like to vary our routine, to have a change of scene, to travel to the same destination via a different route. It’s simply more stimulating. The same applies to our brains. From time to time, the brain likes to make newer connections between existing pathways, a process known as ‘reshuffling,’ rather like a computer updating files. More and varied pathways enable us to create and develop interconnections between disparate thoughts and become even better, even more efficient thinkers. Dreams are a prime example which are often a ‘rehash’ of the day’s or week’s or past events, sometimes in the most incongruous, inexplicable guises. I had a very odd dream, recently, of my grandmother walking like a four-legged sphinx towards my mother. I couldn’t make head or tail of it, until I remembered my mother had bought a statue of a sphinx, several years ago, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My brain had evidently combined these two disparate thoughts into one coherent, surrealist image. The ancient Greeks, who were at the forefront of education, were great believers in reshuffling.
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They used to get pupils, for example, to write the same sentence in different grammatical forms:
I am going to school I will go to school
I went to school
I had been to school
and with so-called ‘amalgamations’ and variations of ever increasing complexity (see section 4 on lateral thinking and relegating):
They said I had been taken to school
My teacher told me I should be taken to school
My teacher told me my parents said I should be taken to school
My teacher told me my parents had said I should have been taken to school last Friday
The object of the exercise, though not immediately apparent, nevertheless can be appreciated. Relying excessively or exclusively on continual repetition and fixating / embedding, whilst in itself useful, can make us mentally ‘rigid’, prone to getting into a ‘mental rut.’ Reshuffling offers us greater scope and fluidity. The answer lies in timing and balance. We should only attempt to reshuffle a topic, to ‘mix our notes,’ so to speak, once it’s watertight, once we know it ‘inside out.’ Reshuffling also enables us to concentrate on the main components of the subject in hand, than become sidetracked by any ‘external aids.’ To explain what I mean, let me give you an example from my own piano teaching practice. I usually label right hand fingering in red, left hand fingering in blue and jot down the names of notes on the left hand side of the numbers in green.
Occasionally, however, I will vary the colour of the fingering and write the names of the notes in black. Pupils are bewildered, if not confused, at this sudden change of front. Previously they may have become over-reliant on the reds, blues and greens. Now they are compelled to focus more on the note heads and their pitch which is, after all, the stuff of music.
On that theme, there are plenty of valid, seemingly pointless mental and physical exercises that work on the same reshuffling principle - counting backwards from 100 in 7’s, writing English text from right to left, combing your hair with your left / right hand if you’re right / left handed respectively, walking
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upstairs backwards. I do them at home and, admittedly, am often the object of ridicule. But I can vouch from personal and, I am sure, collective experience they do work. I highly recommend them.
4. Lateral Thinking and Relegation
Edward de Bono, the leading exponent of lateral thinking and a lecture scientist, used to conduct a famous experiment with his audiences. He would ask them to make a mental note of all the red objects in the auditorium. He would then ‘turn the tables’ and ask them to name all the yellow objects. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone could. Their memories had been ‘selective.’ Learning, memorising and revision are largely a matter of selection. So, in order to be prepared for unexpected questions, we need to be receptive to seemingly unrelated thoughts which may lead to relevant connections. The closer a concept to a pre-existing frame, the easier the memorisation. We are building on established, so-called ‘schemata,’ e.g. Park - Trees - Bushes - Footpaths - Playground - Walk - Dog. But the ability to think laterally, to ‘relegate,’ to pick out subsidiary thoughts, can lead to equally significant though, initially, smaller connections. In layman’s terms, we are sending out feelers (viz. the ‘T’ lines)
that can take
BAT CAT EAT FAT HAT
root and flourish. For example:
BED BEND FED FEND LED LEND RED SEND ZED TEND
Through its amazing fluidity, the brain is able to make connections between these subsidiary thoughts (viz. the red lines) or use them as bases for distinct frames (viz. the blue lines)
CUDDLY BEAR TOUCH
MAGIC EXCITING IMPRESSIVE
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Piaget, the great child psychologist, went a step further and quoted memory as being ‘evolutionary’ as well as ‘accretive.’ He cited the example of a child’s concept of love which develops from the love of his / her mother to the love of his / her siblings to the love of his / her school friends to the love of his / her girlfriend / boyfriend to the love of his / her wife / husband. In time the concept is not only built up and reinforced (‘accretive’) but also altered and distinguished (‘evolutionary’). There may well be ‘variations within the variations.’ Each of the kinds of love outlined above, for instance, may be fleeting / transient or lifelong / permanent. Or we may be able to distinguish between human, conditional love and divine, unconditional love.
We need to constantly revise and revisit subjects / topics and find as many links or ‘spin-offs’ between their different parts as possible. We should cross-reference related points or areas in our notes with symbols such as
or or , or perhaps with different colour codes. We should set ourselves questions from different angles on the same subject, so as to be prepared for any eventuality on the day.
5. Over and Above Supernotes
Forty or so years ago, when I was about to sit my Latin ‘O-level’ (present day ‘G.C.S.E.’), I had misplaced my whole set of notes. My sister, who was luckily doing the same course, lent me her teacher’s notes. Though aimed at the year below, the notes were so informative, so comprehensive, that I sailed through the alpha with a mere 30 or so pages’ reading. That experience was a real eye-opener and prompted me to embark on a set of what I called ‘supernotes,’ whereby I tried to pack in as much information, as much detail, as many finishing touches as possible - to be on the safe side. The trouble with most learning is that some, perhaps several, stones are left unturned, stones that can be cruelly thrown back at us. I was taught a salutary lesson in my later music theory practice days. I was coaching an extremely bright young lady for the London College Diploma. One of the set composers was Verdi. As you probably know, he composed almost exclusively opera, so I advised her to concentrate on these alone. On the exam day, however, she was asked to write about the Requiem, one of only two works (the other being a String Quartet) he wrote in a different form. Needless to say, she was floored and, to my profound shame, failed the first time.
We should compile more notes than are necessary. The rationale, quite simply, is that out of every, say, 100 points that need to be remembered, we may
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become rusty on, say at least, 5 or 10. So why not amass, instead, 120 or so points as a precaution, to fill in any potential gaps in our knowledge? It’s better to be over- than under-prepared.
6. Overview, Visualisation, Gestalt, Ursatz and Creativity
Mozart, one of the world’s greatest geniuses, claimed to have been able to see entire works, some lasting for hours, in his mind’s eye prior to their composition. The actual process of committing them to manuscript was but a formality. The ability to have an overview of a subject - albeit on a much smaller scale for us lesser mortals - is a great asset. It enables us to have a blueprint, a template from which to work. Moreover, the spatial awareness of a subject is a feature of the right or creative side of the brain (more on that later). We all need to develop our visualisation skills, unless we are blessed with a photographic memory. We could try memory games such as the one where we are required to remember a variety of objects on a table which are subsequently covered with a cloth, or Mensa top of the range, highly intricate puzzles and mazes. We should try to memorise the part of the book or the part of the page a particular passage comes from. All the above serve to trigger off our photographic memory.
The ability to pick out the part(s) from the whole is known as Gestalt theory and is characteristic of subjects such as Biology or vocabulary acquisition in Modern Languages. On the other hand, the opposite ability, Ursatz, seeing the whole from the part(s), is characteristic of subjects such as Maths and grammar:
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Creativity, in general, requires a fertile imagination and, like Ursatz, making a lot out of a little. Psychologists use abstract diagrams to gauge patients’ response, for example:
An average person might liken that to a flower. A more creative person might imagine it as a wheel with nuts. On a higher level, he or she might reckon it to be moons orbiting a planet or even a ‘lollipop exploding’ (courtesy of the Californian Institute of Psychology). Then there are those black and white abstract drawings (the so-called ‘Rorschach Test’) that can elicit many and varied responses:
A corkscrew, an insect or an angel leaning backwards? It’s anyone’s guess! The picture isn’t really as simple or clear-cut. There is what is known as ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘multiple intelligence,’ both of which depend on character traits. One may, for example, be a creative but, at the same time, pragmatic, down to earth person and come out with ordinary, unimaginative answers to both the above diagrams. Or one may not be academically gifted, but, instead, have a likeable personality, considered, according to the latest research, to be another form of intelligence. Sadly, time and space do not permit me to go into the subject further, but there are some compelling books and websites I would urge everyone to read.
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7. Thorough Preparation
About ten years ago from the time of writing, I went to see an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches in the National Gallery. The detail with which he approached and revered his art was astonishing, unprecedented. He would, for example, make the most accurate, life-like drawings of individual muscles and tendons of individual fingers of individual hands. He would make dozens of drawings of the same subject, ever refining and polishing his previous attempts. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. In his case, it seemed more like 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. And we’re talking here about, arguably, the world’s greatest genius of all time. One doesn’t just sit down (or stand up) and paint the Mona Lisa from scratch without having done all the monumental groundwork, without having mastered all the painstaking bits and pieces, without having put each and every brushstroke ‘under the microscope,’ so to speak. The more outstanding we would like our answers to be, the more care and attention we should take over our preparation, homework and revision. If we find an area or a topic hard to understand, we should break it down into smaller parts. We should resort to simpler key notes, study aids, charts, diagrams - whatever method best suits us. There’s no substitute for good old fashioned hard work and application. What you sow is what you reap.
8. Chunking, Formulisation and Hooking
There are three special thought processes particularly useful in mind control. ‘Chunking’ refers to the breaking down of larger information into smaller pieces or ‘chunks’, rather like the ‘3’ and ‘4’ grouping of English land line numbers (‘2’ + ‘2’ + ‘3’ on the continent). How does one remember a long, featureless Sri-Lankan name such as ANANTANARYAN? One becomes mesmerised simply by looking at it! By breaking it down into AN ANT (as per the insect) and AN ARYAN (as per the ethnic group). I once managed to remember a very unusual name, AYOTALUNAR, by reversing the order of the ‘O’ and the ‘A’ and imagining an upside down AYATOLLAH (an Iranian religious leader) on the moon (LUNAR). On another occasion, I managed to remember a difficult phone number 747 1492 by imagining Christopher Columbus (who discovered America in 1492) aboard a jumbo jet (Boeing 747) though, of course, anachronistic. On yet another occasion, I saw a number on a moving van I wanted to remember instantly: 321 7252. I had only a few seconds to memorise it before the van drove off, so I thought of walking backwards (321) to a neighbour’s house (whose number happens to end in the same four
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digits). I had managed to condense 7 distinct numbers into just two ‘chunks’ of information.
‘Formulisation’ refers to the devising of a working rule or rules to help us understand or memorise a topic, for instance the English maxim ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c.’ My old French teacher was a great one at that. He used to draw all sorts of charts and diagrams to help us in our grammar, such as a picture of a donkey with the caption ‘Oh You Ass’ to illustrate the use of the cedilla (before ‘o’, ‘u’ and ‘a’)
e.g. ça va? reçu
but Citroen cerise
Pronouns were marshalled like a football team: le
eny la les
Some mind control practitioners (myself included) maintain that the more unusual or implausible the image / analogy, the easier the memorisation. We would be forging newer connections, rather than re-routing a concept along pre-existing pathways. For example, in my music theory practice, I have come across two different rhymes for remembering the order of sharps in music:
Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket and Fat Cat Got Drowned At Ealing Baths
The second rhyme is easier to remember than the first as the concept of a swimming, fat cat is less credible than that of Father Christmas (though they’re both, of course, pure fantasy). Moreover, Ealing Baths, though extant in my time as a boy, have now been demolished, enabling the younger musician to forge a new link. It’s no co-incidence that some of the most memorable
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rhymes are also some of the silliest. ‘Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements. When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch.’ Not only do we have to contend with talking bells, but also with grocery items and money-making, quite inapplicable to inanimate objects. It’s also no surprise that one of the best known English poems, in practically every child’s repertoire, Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat,’ is one big nonsense from start to finish.
‘Hooking’ refers to attaching a new piece or new pieces of information to existing frames. It is akin to ‘relegating’ (see section 4 on Lateral Thinking) but differs from more obvious, natural accretions in that ‘hooks’ are artificial, man- made. It is a much more effective process than relegating as we can keep on and on inventing, depending on our resourcefulness. All the bestsellers on improving memory are based, predominantly, on that technique. I’ll set you a little puzzle. Try and remember a list of seven sea fish within the space of a minute:
Yellow Rim Gold Rim Blenny
Angel Fish Coral Beauty Damsel Fish Spotted Brunt
You could imagine the battle of Blenheim (Blenny) as a setting. In the background is an angelic choir (Angel Fish, C(h)oral Beauty) holding glasses with yellow and gold rims (Yellow Rim, Gold Rim). In the foreground a damsel (Damsel Fish) is driving a spotted pig (Spotted Brunt [Grunt]). The analogies are rudimentary and often stilted, as is often the case in memory aid, but, as you can see, seven bits of information have been condensed into three composite images. Take another, much harder, much more subtle ‘seven’ series with a kind of ‘Chinese’ flavour:
Li Lin Ling Lung Long Lang Leng
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Mr. Li is not in the mood (Lin) to ring (Ling) the bell. His lungs (Lung) are not functioning well due to a chronic disease and, after a long (Long) wait, he is rushed to Accident and Emergency (Lang, Leng). The sequential, pictorial nature of the hooks, together with the emotional content, are both great memory aids.
9. Bullet Notes
A ballet teacher I have worked for, whom I hold in the highest personal and professional esteem, is in the habit of mixing the order of dances (‘reshuffling’) and asks her classes to assume the starting positions of the dances in question. This last technique prompts the girls’ remembering of the rest of the steps, a process known as ‘bullet notes’ in written work. You can keep condensing notes into more basic forms, you can jot down key words or phrases that, like the conscientious teacher alluded to above, trigger off the rest of a topic. A split second spark can often ignite a fire.
10. Reviewing to Avoid Deleting
The more tenuous or unrelated a concept is to its frame, the more the risk there is of it being deleted from our long term memory. To use a park analogy again, consider this:
PARK - WALK - FOOTPATH - DOG - CHILDREN PLAYING FOOTBALL - PEOPLE FLYING KITES
The last two concepts are, progressively, less common occurrences in parks and, hence, less likely to be remembered. To ensure their fixation requires more constant repetition. To remember peripheral, ‘fringe’ points, we need to keep revising a subject, churning it over and over - which brings us full circle to section 2. We may need to adopt an actor or actress’ type of mentality and ‘learn our lines off by heart.’ There really is no easy way out.
11. Transferable Skills and Related Subjects
I made one interesting discovery in my career as a music teacher, namely that cricketers and basketball players turned out to be good piano players, though not necessarily blessed with a natural musical sense. Five years ago from the time of writing, I happened to watch the Christmas Eve final of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (a British show) where sportsmen were paired with professional
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female dancers. The cricketer swept the stakes with top marks across the board. By contrast, other sports fared badly. The reason suddenly dawned on me, one day. Both cricket and dancing, together with piano playing, require a good judgment of distance (in piano playing it’s the spacing between notes, whilst in dancing it’s the spacing of steps on the dance floor) and precision (in cricket it’s fielding the ball so it hits the wicket, whilst in piano playing it’s centring the fingers on the notes). Ditto to basketball players and, I presume, golfers (though I have yet to prove the last). I seriously recommend you take up one of those sports. Think of it as time saved, rather than time wasted (by honing your mind control skills). In revision terms, distance translates into the ability to remember which page from which book a particular point or passage comes from, whereas precision is remembering the actual contents of that point or passage. Both are, needless to say, highly prized skills.
Every subject - or almost every subject - I reckon has some other closely related subject(s). The two or three may be effectively combined to give us double or even triple strength. Maths is akin to Music Theory, in that they both require an accurate, step by step approach. Music and French go well together, French being a highly musical language with soft, rounded sounds and so- called ‘liaisons,’ resembling musical ‘slurs.’ Philosophy is a good companion to R.E. (Religious Education), as both subjects deal with abstract, mystical concepts. Cooking, Aromatherapy and Musical Orchestration all involve mixing ingredients in varying proportions and having a nose or ear for the end product / result. You will find interesting analogies if you look hard enough. There is a particularly difficult aural test in Music where pupils are required to sing back individual notes of chord clusters (several notes sounding together). Separating the strands can be a problem. I ask them to pronounce long, often artificial words packed with double and treble consonants the tongue has to struggle to get round - real or mock Aztec names, for example, such as Quextzocoactl or Ahalucuampactl. Not easy!
Seventy or so years ago, psychologists believed the brain was like a highly complex computer. Apart from instinctive behaviour and genetic predisposition which have become hard-wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution, we are born as what is known as a ‘tabula rasa,’ a ‘clean slate,’ on which are inscribed our life’s subsequent influences. They believed that no person could exceed the sum total of his or her experiences. Looking at the matter from another side, they believed some day a supercomputer could be built to rival
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the human brain in all its capacity, including language and creativity, the highest manifestations of human thought. They coined a term to describe the way our brains work through billions and trillions of interconnected circuits to produce thoughts - ‘servomechanisms’ or mechanisms designed to serve our own ends.
Even the most advanced Cybernetics, arguably the most complicated branch of science, predicting future trends or events by inputting tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of variables in incredibly complex computer simulations, are based on that principle. However, since the advent of quantum physics, scientists and biologists have adopted a much broader view.
The origins of quantum were an attempt by scientists to answer some of the hardest ‘why’ questions we all take for granted: why should chemicals react in the first place? Why are some crystals arranged in patterned lattices whilst others are unpatterned? Why should the heavenly bodies be spherical and the orbits of planets elliptical? Through the most sensitive, sophisticated instruments they were able to demonstrate that the behaviour of one atom in an object could directly influence the behaviour of another atom on the other side of that same object. It was as if the atoms had some sort of ‘consciousness’ and were communicating with each other.
The most surprising fact was that the speed of response was faster than the speed of light, at which time stands still. Scientists did not know what to make of these findings, as they seemed to overturn the hitherto accepted laws of physics. But they are, in reality, nothing new.
As far back as ancient times, some mystics believed in ‘pantheism,’ an all- pervasive consciousness, a divine spark in everything, in both animate and inanimate objects, albeit in varying degrees. Spiritualists and clairvoyants maintain that our thoughts - each and every one of our thoughts, however trite or trivial, TRAVERSES THE UNIVERSE INSTANTLY IN ANOTHER DIMENSION BEYOND THAT OF OUR OWN SPACE / TIME! N.D.E. (Near Death Experience) patients as well as practitioners of astral projection whose spirits, in both cases, temporarily leave or become ‘dissociated’ from their bodies (to use the correct technical term), report being able to be at any particular place, however far, say Jupiter or a distant star, THE INSTANT THEY THINK ABOUT IT. In addition, spirits are receptive to any thought, whether it be free flowing or inherent in another creature / object.
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The implications for mind control are truly stupendous - breathtaking: INASMUCH AS WE ARE BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT, WE ARE INSTANTLY RECEPTIVE TO EXTERNAL THOUGHTS, BOTH FREE FLOWING AND INHERENT IN OTHER CREATURES / OBJECTS AS WELL AS OUR OWN INTERNAL THOUGHTS. Our internal input, so to speak, is but a drop in the ocean. To tap that vast, limitless resource is, indeed, to make a ‘quantum leap.’
In mind control terms, we should not be over-reliant on rigid plans or frameworks but always leave some room for quantum. You may be aware how, in a group of high - fliers, you tend to think, to respond better. Thoughts, in a real sense, ‘bounce off’ one another. You may also have noticed how your best thoughts often come at ‘filling in moments’ at the ends of paragraphs / questions or in the few minutes before ‘time’s up’ during exams. A lot of modern learning is far too formalised. I’ve seen assignments, for instance, where pupils have to fill in separate sections or boxes outlining their aims, intentions and objectives which, after all, essentially mean the same thing. That kills off any creative spark. Socrates, reputedly the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, was highly critical of that kind of approach, comparing it to tying a cockroach (one of the fastest and noisiest of insects) to a piece of string, severely restricting its movement, in effect ‘imprisoning’ it. I’m not suggesting you do away with plans, frameworks, bullet notes or whatever. Structures are necessary and do serve their purpose. But don’t stick slavishly to the script and always leave some room for inspiration or improvisation through external stimuli.
13. Body - Mind - Soul
In the 70’s the Californian Institute of Psychology conducted a series of exhaustive and carefully controlled experiments with two group of students. One group was taught a distance learning correspondence course whilst the other was taught exactly the same subject in a classroom environment. The classroom students performed significantly better in tests. The emotional, human contact provided a greater stimulus to learning. The students could associate the information gleaned, for example, with a particularly pleasant or unpleasant lesson, a lesson where there was an interruption, a joke cracked or whatever. Subconsciously they could conjure up the unique atmosphere of some, if not all the lessons. This brings us to an obvious but far-reaching conclusion: the greater the stimulus, the easier the memorisation. We are all used to shutting ourselves in our rooms doing endless hours of revision, but this is not the most conducive means of learning. We need to take a break, to have a change of scene, perhaps, for each subject, to create an ambience
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with different room fragrances, say, according to the ‘feel’ of each subject. As far as human contact goes, we could pair up with a friend or team up with a group of friends. Like a series of batteries, the collective experience of a group of minds can be brought to bear on any particular subject. However intelligent or hard-working we may be, our memories are, by nature, selective. There are bound to be things we haven’t picked up another person has. So join forces!
14. Right Side of the Brain
The right side of the brain, as well as being responsible for spatial awareness, is also the seat of emotions and feelings but tends to be disused and atrophy in modern learning which relies, predominantly, on the left, intellectual side. We should develop it through emotional, spatial pursuits such as drama, music or dance. All our thoughts originate in the right side of the brain before being processed in the left side. Think of the difference between a blurry image and its sharp focus or between ‘moans and groans’, so to speak, initial thought processes and subsequently refined, coherent words, phrases and sentences.
The Swedes, one of the most progressive of nations, were the first to practise anger management. As well as the controlling of one’s temper, they had company policies enabling employees to vent out their anger and frustration on employers at designated times and places with impunity. So, for example, incredible as it may sound, on Friday afternoons, say, after work, employers could adjourn to the C.E.O.’s office and call him or her by whatever names or swear words they liked, without any prospect of being fired. The letting out of anger or angst or bitterness or resentment, far from being a destructive, is actually a cathartic (purging) experience. On the other hand, keeping anger and frustration bottled up is damaging not only to one’s emotional, but also to one’s physical health. Surveys have shown how many cancers are linked to that personality trait. In a classroom, exam or work environment, we may be afraid to voice particular ideas, for fear of incurring ridicule or even the slightest disapproval. Brilliant thoughts may be left on the shelf. In a somewhat different context of supermodels who keep themselves to themselves, we may cite Max Factor’s famous quote ‘what good is a Rolls Royce in the showroom?’ We should not be afraid to come out and display our ‘better wares.’
There is also the difference between the ‘manner’ and the ‘matter’ approach, between the ‘qualitative’ and the ‘quantitative.’ I happened to work in an English
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solicitor’s firm who were obsessed with niceties of expression. Quite often I would have letters corrected with the most pernickety, ‘archaic’ amendments: things like ‘save’ instead of ‘except’; ‘I am given to understand’ rather than ‘I think.’ Quite frankly, they were all unnecessary verbiage, real time wasters. I then did a stint at an American law firm. The Americans have a much more direct, hands-on approach which may not be as linguistically polished, but is sufficiently elevated above everyday, colloquial speech to lend it the right gravitas. I had no trouble drafting briefs, affidavits or whatever as I could, by and large, be myself, unconstrained by all the above, unnecessary etiquette. I believe, as with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, we don’t want to write or say the first thing that comes to mind in a crude, unrefined form at the risk of sounding like ‘child’s play’. On the other hand, we ought not to aim for a Shakesperean or Queen’s English ideal of expression, to the extent we sacrifice vital ideas or bits of information. Having said that, there is always room for improving our word power. I suggest, for example, reading and re-reading any good Thesaurus, not only to build up our vocabulary, but also our response, the speed with which we remember les mots justes - the appropriate words needed. Reading any good newspaper, watching any good television programme or making pleasant, stimulating conversation all have the same effect.
16. Time Management and Cakes
I once had an extremely bright, hard working pupil who always strived to be top of the form at school. The piano practice would, inevitably, be pushed to the side. I confronted him one week he had evidently done no practice whatsoever. His mother explained to me how he had been asked at school to write a project on Ancient Egypt and how he had to look up four encyclopaedias in two libraries! I argued that was excessive; there were plenty of shorter books and articles, the internet even, to do the job just as well. After all, Ancient Egypt is one of the most popular topics, widely taught in schools across the country and, I imagine, worldwide. My pupil was using up valuable time, time that could have been spent on another subject, if not his piano practice.
It’s usual to start with the, say, softer cream or chocolate topping to a cake and then move on to the harder middle. When doing homework or revision we could change tack, starting with the harder, then moving on to the easier bits. I sometimes use the analogy of a ‘mille feuille,’ a type of cake with several, wafer- thin layers of puff pastry at the top and bottom and a softer, middle filling. We
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could, first, sample the not-so-many and not-so-hard ‘pastries stage’ before moving on to the ‘softer core’ of a subject. In instrumental playing terms, it’s a highly effective process known as ‘passagework’ - singling out the hardest parts of pieces and practising them several times, more so than the rest of the piece, to achieve the final polish.
17. Diet and Cleanliness
It’s a fact all the world’s great civilisations sprung up along rivers and coastal areas. The reason - a plentiful supply of fish and seafood containing ample quantities of vitamins and minerals, especially phosphorus and omega-3 oil, the supreme brain foods. Other foods that boost mental performance are blueberries and ginkgo biloba. You can purchase them from most health food shops. I’m no nutrition expert, so it’s worth consulting a good book or surfing the internet on the subject. I can, however, vouch for bitter chocolate, one of my favourites and one of the best sources of serotonin (the opposite of dopamine), a hormone that has a calming effect. Relaxed states promote so-called ‘alpha rhythms,’ characteristic of the right, creative side of the brain. Exercise, as well as improving the circulation, including blood flow to the brain, is de- stressing as it releases endorphins (‘feel good’ hormones). Good digestion, absorption and elimination have a knock on effect by diverting energy away from the visceral (digestive) organs to other parts of the body, including the brain, where it is most needed. There are useful tips you can pick up such as not combining proteins and starches. The stock breakfast of cereal with milk can grate uncomfortably in the gut and lead to ‘acidosis’ (heartburn). Instead we should try an apple or blackcurrant juice topping, for example, or go for an alternative choice like bananas on toast or plain / fruit yoghurt. Too many dairy products, apart from yoghurt and cream which are neutral in pH, can cause mucus in the gut, impeding our circulation. Cut down. Gluten, in bread and wheat products, can be difficult to digest. Best avoid. On the other hand, certain foods are beneficial for particular organs. Artichokes and pineapple, for instance, are a liver tonic, whilst melons and lettuce (containing bromine and serotonin respectively) are good for calming the nerves. A small, daily glass of high grade alcohol, if you’re over-age, (red wine, whisky or brandy) has a warming, stimulating effect. Above all, combat stress, the real ‘killer.’ It constricts the blood vessels, depriving the body of vital oxygen and nutrients. The most casual, negative thoughts can have a dampening effect. Try so- called ‘affirmations’, continually repeated positive words or sentences such as ‘I AM GOOD’; ‘I CAN DO IT’; ‘I WILL GET GOOD GRADES’. Keep looking at the other side of the coin, especially in the lead-up to exams or interviews
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when you may be prone to ‘butterflies in the stomach.’ The above-mentioned affirmations may sound banal or wishful, but they do work and are routinely used by psychiatrists to treat the most depressed, hopeless patients.
Ensure your room is clean, well-ventilated and odour-free. Too much clutter and / or stench, or even a moderate amount of untidiness can have an oppressive, retarding effect. Far be it for me to dictate your housekeeping, but it’s common knowledge, I’m sure you’d agree.
You’re probably familiar with the saying ‘all you need is love.’ It’s one of those hackneyed expressions like ‘money makes the world go round.’ But it couldn’t be more true. Love is, indeed, the prime ingredient in mind control, enabling us to absorb and memorise large, potentially complicated subjects. It’s mostly to do with fixation / embedding. The more we love a subject, the more we go over it in our minds, whether consciously or subconsciously. Other extreme emotions have the same effect - fear, for instance. A science teacher, in a school I was formerly teaching at, told me how his father purposely learnt the clarinet from scratch to a sufficiently high standard to be recruited in the BBC radio orchestra, so as to dodge the Second World War draft - in the space of three months. Eagerness, too: witness the superhuman feats princes and heroes are asked to perform, dragon slaying, treasure hunting and the like, to win the hand of the beautiful princess - or lesser mortals, for that matter, who want to win the affection of their sweethearts! Desperation, no less: there is a fascinating film, ‘Lorenzo’s Oil,’ about a little boy who contracts a degenerative and, up to that time, incurable disease. His parents, albeit lay persons, out of sheer frustration, immerse themselves in the most intense, top level medical research and actually discover an effective treatment which had eluded all the leading consultants in that field, a treatment which miraculously saves their son’s life.
Ideally we should ‘fall in love’ with our subjects and see their broader, altruistic applications beyond their narrower material gains: things like public health and safety (for Medicine), care for the environment / saving the world (for Geography) or helping people become more cultured and refined (for English Literature, Modern Languages, Music and the like). We can always find some nobler cause for any subject or activity. A sound technician, to pick an off the cuff example out of thousands, could develop a microphone or loudspeaker to
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enhance the audience’s appreciation in higher definition and with less external noise. That way, by going beyond the immediate or conventional applications of our subjects, we will come across as concerned parties in our conversation, written or practical work, and not as mere regurgitators of facts or empty point scorers. Yehudi Menuhin, the great violin virtuoso, was a great believer in the above. He encouraged musicians to develop not only their technical and musical skills, but also what he called their ‘aspirations.’ He would get them, for example, to imagine being on stage, appreciated or worshipped by the public. Or to imagine having reached the peak of their career and attained celebrity status. He would get teenagers (who are feeling the first flushes of love) to show off and play romantic or showy pieces to each other. You could follow suit and do your homework / revision with a family member, a friend or a pet by your side. Psychologists tell us how if we are not loved, if we are not physically touched or, at the very least, pampered, our emotional development can be severely retarded. So it’s vital to be in a loving home environment or to create a loving ambience, if you do not have the above privilege.
As a believer, should have come ‘first and foremost’ rather than ‘last of all,’ but I am being careful not to ‘tread on anyone’s toes.’ An unpopular, often controversial subject, especially for the atheist or agnostic, but, at the same time, a subject that cannot be overlooked, to complete the picture. For the believer, the creator of the universe, the fount of all knowledge, is eminently capable of instilling in us all the right thoughts, words, phrases and sentences ‘for the occasion.’ God is the supreme source we should all tap into. Why not try Him out, albeit by way of a ‘blind faith’ or an ‘experiment,’ if you like? In a famous passage from the New Testament, Jesus encourages His disciples who may be taken to task on account of their faith, not to worry about how to respond, as the Holy Spirit would instill in them the right words at the right time (Luke 12, 12). We, too, whatever our faith or creed, should be encouraged by that truth, and pray accordingly in our own particular way to our own particular deity, prior to each of our tests, exams, meetings or interviews.
It’s difficult to round off such a large subject in a few words, so I’ll leave you with one parting thought. The world is becoming an increasingly competitive, an increasingly cut-throat place. There may be dozens, scores, hundreds of
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students, of graduates all chasing after the same place(s), the same job(s). Being the best is not merely a luxury, it has now become a necessity. I know a headteacher who tells his sixth formers, quite realistically with a striking analogy, how employers can ‘put their hands in a barrel and pick out prospective employees with straight A’s, prizes and college firsts.’ So how are we going to stand out from the crowd? How are we going to get the edge on our peers? By simply adopting every kind of help at our disposal, every kind of aid, every prop, every crutch - including my booklet, of course. Used consistently and wisely, you will reap the rewards, you will achieve your personal best. I wish you every success and happiness at school and college, at home and work and, no less, in all your personal and professional relationships.
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INTERVIEWS AND MEETING SKILLS
Congratulations, you’ve passed the test or crossed a bridge en route and been invited for interview or asked to attend an important meeting. What now? You’re about to come up against a hurdle, perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in your career. For it’s now your tutors / present or prospective employers or colleagues will be able to see you face to face, rather than in mere writing. It’s now they will be able to compare you with other hopeful applicants / colleagues. It’s now they will make you an offer, rejection, promotion, or simply reassess their opinion of you, as the case may be. You cannot afford to mess up on that one! Let’s hope your interview / meeting will be a formality - plain sailing, requiring no great thought and effort on your part. As with any successful practice, however, there are useful tips that can be observed, mostly the product of common sense but which may, through disuse, have been relegated to the back of your mind and, perhaps, need some eliciting. So here’s a potted, ‘distilled’ version from one who’s done his homework, from one who’s ‘hit the big books,’ so to speak, enabling you to ride over the competition comfortably, capitally, and not make the slightest ‘bleep.’
First and foremost, what may sound obvious but is of the utmost importance - be natural, be yourself. As part of my research, I attended some high-level advocacy (barrister-in-law) exams. One foreign student was evidently trying hard to please the ‘mock court.’ He was wearing a tight-fitting, ‘power’ suit and coming out with the most turgid English imaginable, long words and convoluted expressions for their mere sake - a most artificial ‘ton of bricks.’ The acting judge, much against the standard procedure, interrupted him in mid-flow and urged him to lighten up, as if talking to friends. Immediately his whole body language changed. He became much more approachable, much more endearing. You, too, should try to befriend your tutors / employers using everyday rather than stilted language without, of course, compromising your academic stance or appearing to be ‘over-familiar.’ A certain distance and seriousness, bien sûr, are called for. You should be pleasantly relaxed, leaning ‘a few degrees’ in your tutors’ / employers’ direction, beaming with enthusiasm without gawping or over-reacting; you’re not a five-year-old promised sweets! It’s very much a question of balance which, needless to say, comes naturally to most but, all the same, can do with occasional brushing up. Think of actors and actresses, right up to the top film stars, who have to rehearse ordinary roles for perfection, everyday activities the rest of us take
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for granted - brushing our hair or getting into a car and the like. Avoid defence mechanisms such as clasping the hands or shrugging the shoulders and any signs of nervousness or tics - um-ing, ehr-ing, stuttering, fidgeting with the fingers or shaking the head. ‘Stand tall’ and open your chest to create more space and counteract any tension. Some judicious gesturing may be effective, provided it’s sparingly done, for instance indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with the respective nod or sideways motion of the head, or raising your hand to emphasise particular points. There may be some involuntary reactions - a certain trembling or tongue-tied-ness, for example, you just have to ignore. These are inevitable. Always think positive and, in turn, your positive thoughts will be transferred into positive actions. Above all, talk slowly and confidently with frequent pauses and accents, to highlight important words or sentences. Practise in front of the mirror regularly. You’ll be surprised at the difference, perhaps even shocked at some of your unexpected mannerisms! Far be it from me to dictate fashion but, coming back to the acting analogy, why not exploit your natural image? If you’re a ‘professor’ type, for instance, you could go for the round spectacles or the collar and tie look. If, on the other hand, you’re a ‘princess,’ you could flaunt your attractiveness by, for example, wearing a long dress with short sleeves. That way you’ll be faithful to your true self and avoid a ‘donkey masquerading as a dog’ type of scenario, as per the well- known Aesop fable.
As for the contents of the interview / meeting, like any good general you need to have a strategy. Rehearse answers to different kinds of questions but do not be too rigid, should you be asked the same questions from different angles or unexpected questions altogether. Answers that appear to be ‘regurgitated’ out of a script, more often than not, sound contrived. Tutors / employers are experienced enough to be able to see through any fascade. The secret is to be articulate and adaptable, able to deal with any question as it comes without being ‘knocked off your perch.’ As I’ve just mentioned, it’s best not to rely on any ‘set’ answers, but rather to turn over different kinds of answers in your head which can subsequently be recalled and recombined - a sort of mental soup with ‘scoopable’ bits. You may even be able to refine your answers, on the spur of the moment, under pressure. Think of the analogy of a grist mill, churning gravel into ever finer particles - the finished product. No doubt you can remember situations where you’ve rehearsed words for specific occasions and the outcome was quite different. Interviews / meetings are a prime example.
Reverting to the military analogy, you need to be aware of the odds. By that, 26 u Flashing Diamonds - Harry Aslan
I mean you should be aware of your tutors’ / employers’ likes and dislikes, their respective ‘ethics,’ their preconceptions of the ideal student / employee. That way you can tailor your answers accordingly - if not to please, at least to ‘fit the bill.’ I’m not suggesting you change your personality (something well- nigh impossible), merely your disposition, something teachers (along with other professionals) are used to doing every day, depending on the form / age group and so on they are dealing with. I also recommend finding out about your tutors’ / employers’ ‘pet subjects’ and, conversely, their ‘sore points.’ We all like others to agree with us, to have similar points of view, to be on the same wavelength. You may well find your tutors / employers broach or touch upon their ‘specialities.’ You’ll certainly earn many more plus points for striking the right chord(s). Why not approach present students / employees, older alumni / alumnae / retired personnel or other third parties? There must be some detective work you can do through the grapevine.
There’s no harm, even, in getting off to a head start. For example, in the year or term preceding your college interview, you could write to your admissions tutor as follows:
I am a (mention your subject) student from (mention your school) and I would very much like to apply to (mention your prospective college / uni.) with a view to reading (mention your chosen course).
I wonder if you could spare a few minutes of your valuable time to have a brief meeting and answer some questions of mine / clarify some points before submitting my application form.
I would be extremely grateful for your attention. Yours Sincerely,
or some such like. Tutors and academics, in general, live in a rarefied atmosphere with a small circle of like-minded colleagues / peers. So they’d doubtless welcome the attention from the outside world. What’s more, you’ll be sowing seeds in their mind, so their impression of you at the second, decisive interview would be doubly reinforced.
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Diplomacy wins the day, they say. You can ask anything good of anyone, provided you’re skilful and adroit enough, provided you get on their right side (the meaning of the second word). How’s this, for instance, to urge your employer to give you a pay rise?
The good Book says we should await our turn and not ask for a higher seat at table. However, everyone would agree, there is another side to the coin - ‘ask not, get not.’
I’m aware this is the time of year you consider promotions / pay rises and I wonder if I could be worthy enough to be counted or, at least, considered in that number.
(You could, then, write a tactful paragraph of valid reasons).
I await your decision with some anticipation and a good deal more trepidation, if I’ve been ‘over-rash.’
Assuring you of my best of services, I remain, Yours Sincerely,
I won’t go into the psychology of the letter, at the risk of talking down to you as educated readers, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate its effectiveness.
If you’re lucky enough, your interview will be an ordinary, straightforward ‘question and answer’ affair. In all likelihood, however, you may be asked challenging or controversial questions to ascertain your point of view and / or to test your reactions, questions beyond the scope of your ability / knowledge, questions to which there is no immediate answer or even no answer at all (that is to say the answer is ‘no’ or ‘none’). We’ve all heard it before. You may well be stuck or put on the spot. Whatever the case, golden rule number 1 - never display any signs of weakness. Never appear to be hesitating, faltering or backing down in the slightest. There are six effective strategies you can adopt for troubleshooting, for wriggling out of difficult situations, you should consider, rehearse and, who knows, perhaps even be able to put to the teat.
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1. The absolute stance: ‘I don’t believe in X,’ full stop. This may be enough to stop the tutors / employers in their tracks. You will certainly appear strong and they will definitely admire your outspokenness far more than a timid ‘pass.’ Better still, you can justify your answer with polite little phraselets: ‘With respect, I’ve looked into Y... It’s a long story... I can’t explain how... but I’m convinced it’s Z... It’s a gut reaction, if I may say... I know it’s a radical / unique view, but that’s what I’ve come to adopt.’ If you’re pressed further, ‘put the lid on it:’ ‘With respect, I really cannot say any more about X for the reason(s) I’ve given.’ If your present or prospective tutors or employers keep persisting, like clingy reporters, keep playing back your ‘mantra’ ever more forcefully until they tire of the game. An unlikely event, however.
2. The half-way house stance: ‘I seem to remember reading about X in Y, but I can’t put my finger on it.’ Some would say that is a ‘cop-out,’ but, let’s face it, imperfect knowledge is far better than total ignorance. You could go a step further and portray your knowledge as sketchy but able to be assembled, like pieces out of a jigsaw: ‘I seem to remember reading about A, B and C with regard to X in Y, but I can’t piece the facts together. You could top that with a ‘I do know where to look for an answer’ (mention the relevant textbooks / articles / reports). Information is, more often than not, ‘digested’ rather than ‘assimilated,’ but it’s always good to know your sources.
3. Admit ignorance without any shame-facedness whatsoever. Be like those defiant politicians who ‘put their foot down:’ ‘I’m afraid I can’t answer that’ or ‘I’m not in a position to answer that.’ Like a ball game, you’re throwing the question back at the tutors / employers which, it has to be said, could well rebound more vigorously in your direction! If you’re afraid of any negative fallout, you could weave in polite little rejoinders: ‘With respect I can’t answer that’ or ‘At the risk of offending, I’ll have to pass on that one.’ “Even Homer nods,” the expression goes. We can’t be expected to know everything - though don’t make a habit of it, at the risk of appearing incompetent and / or unprepared.
4. Future research An admission of ignorance can be redeemed by an undertaking to research or to look into a subject. It shows a willingness to learn and fill the gaps in one’s knowledge - pre-requisites of any good student or employee. ‘I haven’t been able to glean much on that subject, but I promise to set the record straight / to mug up on it’ or some such like. A highly recommended strategy. Go for it!
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5. Humour You could throw in some humour, especially in reply to awkward or unrelated questions. I was once asked how stars revolved round the sky at night in the middle of a Philosophy tutorial, about as far removed from the subject as you could get. Upon enquiring the purpose of the question, my tutor, who was the politest of gentlemen, replied that there was absolutely no connection but that astronomy was one of his favourite subjects and that he was merely curious to see if I happened to know the answer and could enlighten him. ‘May I be allowed some thinking space?’ or ‘I’ll have to put my thinking cap on’ would enable you to play for time. ‘Shall I stick my neck out?’ or ‘Shall I risk making a fool of myself?’ may appear defeatist but is, in reality, a modest, self-effacing tactic, playing upon the tutors’ / employers’ feelings of superiority. Let’s be honest, though you may come across some shy violets, being in that position is an ego-trip. There may even, in isolated cases, be an element of unkindness, not to mention a sadistic streak, in relishing the ability of lording it over poor, unsuspecting ‘victims’ and giving them a grilling. There is also the notion that some courses / ventures are like an elite, self- perpetuating gentlemen’s (or ladies’) club, admitting members ‘by invitation only.’ It takes a lot of courage and ‘swallowing of pride,’ but take my word for it and play on that psychology - subtly - with a ‘You’ve really floored me on that one’ or ‘You’ve knocked me for six’ or ‘I don’t know what to say’ or even ‘I give up.’ Best of all, you could play two trump cards: (i) ‘I’m afraid I can’t press the buzzer this time.’ As in any quiz, nobody, not even the winner, can be expected to know all the answers. A shrewd, diplomatic move that’s sure to be a knockout; (ii) ‘I quit. You win,’ a sort of passing the buck onto the tutors / employers by conceding defeat and appearing to be (though not, of course, being) the worsted party.
We all like to laugh. Little touches of humour won’t make you appear facile or facetious, provided, of course, you don’t play the comedian or the clown. The tutors / employers will admire your presence of mind in being able to rise above your nerves and lighten the atmosphere. They will invariably be won over and may well follow suit with easier questions.
6. Deflect the question a much beloved tactic of politicians who specialise in giving vague, unrelated answers. Needless to say, the closer the answer to the question the better. Cheese and pickle rather than chalk and cheese. As a technique, very much a last resort but can be refreshingly ‘different’ as part of the repertoire, especially when coupled with an admission: ‘I realise I may be off the track / on a tangent, but I can’t honestly think of any better answer. That’s the best I can do’ or some such like. Honesty is the best
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policy. Have you heard the Dutch fairy tale of Hans, a sort of Mother Hubbard figure, who is asked to run a series of errands he gets hopelessly wrong? Instead of a loaf of bread, he fetches a pincushion and so on. In the end he marries the beautiful miller’s daughter who admires his honesty. Moral - a bad answer may well be in our favour, provided we’re honest about it. There’s also what’s known as 6b Branching, deflecting the answer whilst, ultimately, coming back to the root question. Coming back to the political analogy, let’s assume a high-profile MP, in the media limelight, is being questioned over his or her exorbitant expenses. He or she could try and divert the public’s attention by appealing to and focusing on his or her sound policies or, say, his or her charitable deeds. At the end of that digression, which could take up the majority of the time, he or she could freely admit his or her expenses but, at the same time, undertake to pay them back or to redress the balance some other way. Saving face or damage limitation is no bad thing!
From time to time, you should make it clear that your answers are your own opinion and, hence, subjective. Most academics (and, by virtue, most tutors and employers) pride themselves on their objectivity, their ability to see both sides of an argument, to reconcile opposite facts and be impartial. Quite often, they give their students / employees conflicting books and articles to read and make head or tail of which, speaking from personal experience, can be more confusing than enlightening. Very rarely is there such a thing as an absolute answer, only different points of view. Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, is reputed to have told his students the only answer to some questions was aporia, a state of doubt. He is also famous for his ‘deep’ quote ‘I know one thing, that I know nothing.’ We should learn from those lessons and qualify our answers with little catch phrases: ‘In my opinion’, ‘I think / feel,’ ‘I would argue,’ ‘Some would argue,’ ‘I hope I’m not sounding too prejudiced,’ ‘I hope you agree with me,’ and so on.
On the other hand, it’s not good always to dilute your answers. You’ll sound like a milksop. You need to have some strong, set views and, if possible, some original views. It shows you’ve read widely round a subject, that you have convictions, something new to offer, something the tutors / employers may find interesting, perhaps even learn from. Don’t feel you have to go out of your way, however, and demolish every argument under the sun. Tutors / employers are certainly not all-out radicals. Moreover, what’s worse, an over- inquisitive, begging-to-differ attitude may, in their minds, presage a stubborn, unco-operative type, a character who likes to do things his or her own way,
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without complying or, at least, ‘toe-ing the line’ - not the most attractive proposition, it goes without saying.
You may be asked more personal questions such as to outline your strengths and weaknesses. You should mention one or two of the latter - we’re all human, after all, and fallible. To paint an absolutely rosy picture just wouldn’t ring true. But you can turn the bad into good. You can make your weaknesses appear to be strengths. You could, for instance, say ‘I am a perfectionist. I like to take time over my work. I’ve missed the odd deadline, but I believe the end justifies the means;’ or ‘I don’t mix / make friends easily, but those I do have I’m always loyal to’ - any such answer geared to the kind of person you wish to portray yourself as.
You may be asked the reasons for being attracted to or applying to your chosen college or firm. A student and tutor’s relationship with their college, an employer’s and employee’s relationship with their company, is something quite personal, quite special. Avoid saying you applied to X merely for what you can get out of it, such as the fact it is big, small, top of the league, sporting, academic, offers good contacts / networking abilities or whatever. Rather, you should say you applied to X for its own sake, for its own intrinsic worth. A suggested reply could be: ‘I read the various prospectuses / brochures and visited X, Y, Z (mention some names). I was particularly attracted to X’ or ‘I was really drawn to X. It’s hard to describe. It’s a personality thing.’ Of course, you should then bring in the distinctive, ‘material’ advantages to show you’ve done your homework. You could follow up your answer with a ‘then I discovered it’s top of the league / small / large / (whatever else) which is a bonus.’ ‘I particularly like its.......atmosphere, its emphasis on......., the pleasantness of the surroundings, its quiet / busy location, its cosmopolitan intake’ - some such like.
You should, at some or other stage, albeit unprompted, stress your determination to respect your tutors / bosses and to do well in your course / job. Though it’s very much ‘stating the obvious,’ stop and think for a moment. The promise of a high-flying employee will conjure up visions of pounds, dollars, yen, whatever other kind of currency in the employer’s mind. The promise of a motivated, hard-working, student / employee who listens to authority, doesn’t drop out or ‘throw it all to the winds’ could well be your open ticket. The promise of a potential high earner and, who knows, a potential future benefactor - people often ‘think ahead’ - could well add the decoration to the icing to the cake. Faced with an even choice, a dilemma of making an
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offer to an unappreciative, ‘premier’ genius or to an appreciative ‘first division’ intellectual, I can tell you straightaway whom I’d choose. It’s only human nature to reward dedication / devotion, n’est-ce-pas? Get in there and sell yourselves at an opportune moment ‘when the iron is hot!’ But, then again, remember the golden mean and don’t overdo it. You should never sound arrogant or ‘puffed up’, for one, which is a vice.
You’re doubtless familiar with ‘question time’ at the ends of interviews, meetings or debates. It’s a chance for the floor to have their say, for the audience to voice any queries, misgivings or points of interest they may have. You probably feel, or you’ve probably been told, you shouldn’t ‘dry up.’ Silence, however, is no bad thing. It’s a mark of familiarity, no less, in much the same way as family members often sit together on the sofa or in the car, for instance, without exchanging a single word. They are quite comfortable, perfectly at ease in each others’ presence. You could pause briefly, for no more than 5 or 10 seconds, to convey that impression. Then why be a sheep? Why not adopt a different tack?: ‘I can’t think of any questions, but I’d like to go back to what I said about......and amend / add to my answer.’ That way, you’re showing the tutors / employers you’re a conscientious student / employee, determined to revise his or her answers and get them ‘as good as they can.’ You could finish with the crowning glory, what I call the ‘sceptre’ and the ‘diadem’: ‘I can’t think of anything else. You’ve said all you have to say. I mean that in a good sense.’ ‘You can’t improve on perfection!’ (with a feint smile to underscore the somewhat tongue-in-cheek flattery). Follow that up with the ‘diadem’ part at the end: ‘It’s been a pleasure and honour meeting you, come what may’ (for one-offs) and / or ‘I hope we meet again in some or other shape or form.’ That way, as well as showing your appreciation, you’re giving the impression you’re tough and resilient, you’re man and woman enough to be able to take the knocks students and employees are prone to (boyfriend / girlfriend trouble, more demanding academic work, a downturn in profits, a spate of redundancies or whatever) and, what’s more important, be able to bounce back. Also, by implication, by not cringing, or to use a colloquial term, ‘sucking up,’ that you’re the one doing them a favour rather than the other way round - a position of strength that works well in almost all contexts. The reason I’m being somewhat ‘guarded,’ by the use of the word ‘almost,’ is that you have to gauge the ‘emotional temperature’ of the interview / meeting. If your interlocutors, for example, dress conservatively and play hard to get, it may not be a good idea to ‘stick your neck out’ too much. They may well wish to keep a calculated distance or to put deliberate obstacles in your path. You may well get funny looks or snide remarks, if
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you attempt to engage with them too much. The same principle, of course, applies to any human relationship, particularly to courting or married couples who need to be especially in tune with each other.
At the very end of the interview / meeting, you ought to express your gratitude, it goes without saying. I recommend a one-up ‘thank you, I really appreciated it.’ It will set you apart from the crowd of mere ‘thank you’s’ and ‘good bye’s.’ Avoid ‘when do I hear from you / the results / the next step?’ as it adds a somewhat self-centred parting note. It’s good to follow up the interview / meeting with a short letter thanking the tutors / employers for the pleasure and privilege of interviewing / meeting you and awaiting their reply. You could pop a brief ‘two liner’ in the post, the same or the following day, a paragraph perhaps on a topical post-card such as a picture of the firm or college, or some other ‘sober’ image. Many students / employees are reluctant to do so for fear of appearing ‘toadyish.’ Discretely, demurely and deferentially done, it can do no harm and could well ‘tilt the balance.’
Three things to finish with. First and foremost, love yourself. Believe in yourself and in your ability. We’re all negative from time to time. We all put ourselves down. It’s a sort of defence mechanism, priming ourselves for any potential failures or rejections. But negative thoughts give off negative vibes which can repel our interlocutors. On the other hand, positive thoughts give off positive vibes which will attract the tutors / employers, irrespective of the content of our answers. In the days, weeks or even months preceding the interview / meeting, ‘psych yourself up.’ Think positive and affirm to yourself your ability. Imagine yourself befriending your tutors / employers rather than cowering before them like inquisitor type of figures holding your destiny in their hands. Much as they might like to knock you, they are no ‘bogeymen’ or ‘women!’ Like any good actor or actress, be relaxed, project yourself and establish a rapport with your ‘audience.’ Imagine yourself standing out of the crowd, being picked out of all the tough competition. Imagine yourself being eminently worthy of selection / promotion / having your views heard and implemented. Imagine yourself excelling in your course or job. You will ‘beam up’ those positive images to the tutors / employers through your body language, tone of voice, choice of words and general demeanour.
Secondly, an off-the-cuff though important piece of advice: use imagery or colourful words such as my ‘masquerading’ or ‘regurgitating’ rather than plain language: ‘I can’t put my finger on it’ or ‘I’d like to get to the top of the tree.’
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Other suggested phraselets are: ‘I’ve scoured round colleges / firms’ (viz. your decision to apply to X), ‘I’ve always set my sights on’ (your course / career), ‘I’ve had to push to the side’ (due to lack of time), ‘I’m torn between’.....(two courses of action). Think of a few others to have up your sleeve -- there’s another! Of course, you have to be careful your language doesn’t become too flowery or poetic which would be quite out of place in a straight-faced interview / meeting context. A ‘memorable sprinkling’ is best. Our thoughts are essentially pictorial, images we create or which are suggested to us. The more stimulating the images we present to the tutors / employers, the more our interview / meeting will be remembered and contrast with our drabber, more mundane peers. It’s logical, really, and a technique much used by the media. Listen to how news reporters on the TV spice up their spiel.
Last, but not least, avoid tension. It may be easier said than done but tension is, by far, our worst enemy. It can impede the flow of our thoughts and responses and have a downward spiralling effect. If you are unable to relax naturally, get a helping hand. Listen to soothing or rousing music (to wind down or perk up, respectively), take a herbal or an aromatherapy bath the day before to relieve anxiety, find some distraction to take your mind off the interview / meeting in the preceding hour(s). You could adjourn to a cafe, read a book on an unrelated subject, do some meditation, whatever. Don’t look down on professional help, if need be -- actors, actresses, image consultants, psychologists, hypnotherapists and the like. An extra pair of shoulders can only serve to lighten the load. As per 19 of section I, don’t overlook the supreme fount of all knowledge. God may be an unpopular subject, a turn-off for some, but for those who believe in Him, He does work wonders. Why not tap into Him by saying a few ‘target prayers’, albeit by way of a ‘bind faith’ or an ‘experiment’ for the agnostic?
If I could give you one blanket tip, one working rule in a nutshell, it would be this catch phrase: ‘pleasure and benefit.’ It’s a truly unbeatable, magic formula that can be applied to any - well, almost any - situation. For example, you could tell your prospective tutors / employers that you are an optimistic, lively person with a good sense of humour and would be a ‘breath of fresh air’ to the college / workplace (the ‘pleasure’ part). You could follow that up with a promise to work hard and help boost the college’s ratings in the league tables / the firm’s productivity (the ‘benefit’ part). I’ll leave you to think of your own variations to the theme. Make sure you have enough ammunition for the ‘pleasure’ part, which tends to be neglected.
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Get some interview / corporate training practice and some valuable professional feedback. Be self-critical without, at the same time, being discouraged. Above all, be open to change or simply ‘improving your act.’ The competition, nowadays, is phenomenal with potentially hundreds of applicants chasing after the same place or the same job / perks. But take my book to heart and you will reap the rewards. You will achieve your personal best, I promise.
GOOD LUCK. YOU’RE WORTH IT!
Exercises to enhance concentration
Techniques for improving memory recall
External aids for more effective studying
Body language and general deportment in interviews Trouble-shooting for difficult situations
Psychological strategies to impress on the day