Seven (1d6+1) reasons to play D&D with Smart Children

There is a sad misconception that D&D is a refuge for the socially inept. I would say that is probably born of the fact that, as an intensely socially educative game, it enables people who would otherwise fall out of contact to find a framework. You notice them when they are playing D&D when they would normally have scuttled out of sight. That has to be a good thing, liberating and enabling.

I have written before about D&D for kids but since then a few things have occurred to me that have convinced me that everyone who has smart children should play D&D with them...

Some quick generalisations about smart kids. Full of ideas. Easily bored. Challenged by working with others. Tendency to grandstand and demand attention. Outliers from the herd who are challenged to fit in and have a hard time finding peers.

Take a few typical attributes of D&D and see how they can engage and develop your smart child.

  1. It is a team game. When you venture into the catacombs you have an elven wizard (Maria, from your class) at your shoulder, a shaggy barbarian fighter (Joe, who shares your passion for dinosaurs) watching the rear and the stout Dwarven cleric (Luke, Joe's older brother who is very good at math) struggling along behind. Fellow players immediately have common ground and temporarily many shared goals. People who game together develop friendships.
  2. It is a game of the imagination. D&D stimulates and rewards imagination. It presents a living story, a realm of fantasy. Just for once having vivid ideas that do not fit into the day-to-day of school has a payoff. Just for once you can share a world of imagination with others.
  3. It is all about problem-solving.  The goblins are attacking and the mysterious rune-encrusted door will not open. Which of the three gems you have found will fit? How can I swing across the chasm without being shredded by the dire bats? Ideas zip across the table and advice and cunning plans are everywhere. I have never yet run a session where someone did not solve the problems I set them in a way I did not expect.
  4. It demands cooperation. Anyone that has ever played D&D knows that you need each other just as much as the players in any other team game, but with an added twist: each character is different. So each player has a unique contribution, a specific set of skills an capabilities that will not always be fully in play, but which will certainly at some point be utterly crucial. My son plays a rogue, a slight but light-fingered fellow, skilled at opening locks, defusing deadly traps and avoiding danger. The heavily armoured fighter stands between him and the fangs and claws, but waits (far) behind him while he disables the explosive runes on the the door of the treasure room.
  5. It structures communication. D&D has a lot of crucial moments, traps, combat and test of skill in which the whole table of players participates. That means that people have to take turns speaking, listen carefully to what others have said and thing on their feet. It is like being in a meeting with committee rules but without the stifling boredom and frustration. It is highly structured (though chaotic shouting does break out on occasion) and teaches communications skills, brevity and listening. Anyone that does not listen when the dungeon master is speaking may well miss a vital clue, not hear the troll creeping up from behind or the secret door creaking open.
  6. It rewards creativity. It is a game in which almost anything is possible. Though there are rules and limits, (jumping off a high place remains a bad idea... unless you can fly of course..), there is always another way to approach a problem, a wierd, out-of-the-box way of solving it. Creativity is rewarded. The problem-solving part demands creativity, but story-making and world-building do too. You need to flesh out an imaginary character. Imagine how she would talk to the local king, or to the butcher who's wife is a witch. I recently challenged a highly numeric and analytical boy who plays in a game I run to describe what the spell he was casting actually looked like: arrows of fire, luminous serpents? He had to step out of his analytical comfort zone to do it... Similarly, the story-teller at the table often has to concentrate to work out if his character's glittering shurikens actually hit the target.
  7. It is fun. Fun with people who think like you and revel in ideas and cleverness. It is a space in which football, physical coordination and the social pecking order do not count for much, so for the geeky kids it is a heady taste of freedom from conformity.

Webcomics show you people growing....


I read a  lot of webcomics. I have always loved comics, having been brought up with the Sparky and the Beano. Unlike their squashed-tree cousins, webcomics have almost no threshold. You could turn away from reading this, draw something, scan it and have a webcomic up in ten minutes. This means there are hundreds of dud, repetitive, game-themed, puerile comics out there and there are wonderful ones and foolish ones etc etc.

Getting started is simple. Continuing, updating regularly with new episodes, is a tremendous challenge. It requires an investment of time, creative energy and technical skill that commands respect. If you follow a webcomic for any period of time you will see the creator's ups and downs, family crises, bursts of inspiration and periods of despairing blankness. Of course, given that all the sustained webcomics have huge archives, you can follow someone's entire artistic history from beginning to end in the course of a couple of hours of clicking your mouse.

There is no other medium I can think of where you can so easily and precisely trace the growth of someone's skills and creativity.  It is an arc that is otherwise only visible to the expert who can gather an artists timeline in his mind's eye or by visiting a skillfully-crafted exhibition. I get a kick out of seeing skills build. It is a validation of my cherished belief in growth through enduring effort.


Time of change

I have not posted in my blog for quite a while, which is strange because I enjoy writing.  I did some thinking and realized that though I still use GTD and coach others about it, I have little need to blog about it: any more than I would blog about cleaning my teeth. I still have insights and make mistakes of course and I shall bring those here, but I shall be moving this blog gently in a more personal direction. I feel the need for a journal...

Given that I live and breathe personal development there will be plenty of that in my journal. But I may also just talk about my kids and my job.

I may also post a few cartoons and illustrations: I have a creative side that needs to get out and play occasionally. I hope that there will be things for you to use and relish.

One of the things that has got my attention now is happiness. How can it be achieved and why are people not often focussed on achieving it!? I get a lot of insights into this from The Happiness Project.


Personal effectiveness does not mean you suck...

Now if you are going to disagree with someone to make a point, you need to pick someone who's opinion is worth considering. So I am going to pick on the thoughtful and helpful Merlin Mann.

Now I have been gettingt lots of useful information about how to get yourself moving on things, how to handle forgetfulness and distraction, from 43 folders, but an alarm bell went off when Merlin started saying that we all "suck at something". I just hate the focus on weaknesses. Well of course he is right. I am pretty solid at GTD these days, I love and work hard at facilitation, coaching and clarifying communications but.... I am kind of terrible at short-term, common-sense logistics. The kind of stuff my way smarter wife effortlessly juggles when we need to shop, drop the car off at the garage, get someone a haircut, take a kid to a play-date and truck another one to a swimming lesson in one afternoon.

But it is certainly not just Merlin.

Lots of the personal effectiveness stuff I read is focussed on dealing with common human weaknesses like that. The only trouble is that spending all your time working on your weaknesses is rather depressing. I have been reading about focussing on strengths recently and the basic wisdom there is that you should spend most of your time investing in the things you do well and just do minimal "damage control" on the weaknesses that really hamper you.

For every hour of effort and attention put into handling something you are not good at you can get ten times the results by extending and deepening an existing strength. The time you focus on weaknesses is when they fundamentally prevent you from deploying a strength, given the context you are in, the work you are doing.

They way Getting Things Done fits into this for me is that it is an "enabler". It allows me to get clear of the anxiety that I am not sufficiently in control, missing something important and leaves me room for creativity, for fun. It clears my head, so I do feel more able to use my skills. It is a catalyst. My personal strengths lie in first contact with new people, communication, finetuning, and connectedness. Feeling in control helps me have the confidence to lean into these strengths and apply them.

So I am still still dedicated to self-improvement and any and all methods that let me achieve that. The kicker is that you need to make sure that your self-improvement effort is focussed on your strengths, no your weaknesses


The Dance, and Book, of Joy


A few years back I had the great, good fortune to work in a team of people who had both great skills and great capacity for joy, one of whom came back from an assignment with a plastic, dancing cow that played the Mexican Hat song. It was immediately named "Hendrik" and promoted to "Vice President of Joy" (our employer had very many VPs). This lead to us developing, to the bemusement of our manager (though he did join in) the "Dance of Joy". The Dance of Joy would happen every time some good thing, some success, new-baby, big new project or a sale, happend. The Vice President of Joy would be put in the middle of the floor, turned on and we would all prance around it, dancing to the music like happy maniacs, waving our arms in the air.

Good times....

What should you take away from this? I wish and hope for you, that you can find room in your life and work the for occasional Dance of Joy. Let your hair down and express your joyous feelings, let your guard down. Moments like these are literally the spice of life, they are more valuable and memorable than any quantity of off-site inspirational meetings. They also create and strengthen bonds and connections between you and those around you: you may find more people dance along than you expected...

But even if you do not have a dancing cow in your cupboard, you can have the Book of Joy. Don't click away... I am not going totally Pollyanna on you and I am not founding a cult. I am merely suggesting you take a few moments, regularly, to compile a journal of successes. I started mine a while ago, when I was trying to work out how to get the most fun possible out of my work and deciding whether my current work was truly right for me.

All you need to do is, write down every occasion you can think of when you were truly happy with what you were doing and highly engaged with it. Turn off the modesty for a little while and describe the situation as well as you can and how you contributed. Carefully note what role you had (problem solver, manager, facilitator, negotiator, quality-watcher etc) and specifically which of your own special skills and attributes came into play: deep analysis, patience, empathy, enthusiasm, painstaking persistance and so on... As you go on, you will find some skills and roles coming back regularly, a picture will emerge. Naturally it is best to record a success as soon as possible, while your impressions are fresh, but there is nothing wrong with roaming through your entire history and childhood. You can record any situation where you had a really good feeling.

When I did this I was astounded by how many things I found and by the fact that I had forgotten a whole bunch of them when I read it six months later. I also became inspired to use my strengths in my work. More about that in another post...


It's all really Peter Drukker

Having read that Peter Drukker was a major influence for aspects of GTD and having come across more Drukker-isms in the work of Steven Covey I decided a while ago to read "The Effective Executive" for myself. It is now forty years old and not in the least bit out of date. His examples refer to, now historical, figures but the situations he describes and the advice he provides is still cutting edge. I regularly see yet another "new insight" pop up in management and effectiveness forums that sends me off to my battered paperback copy to find the half-page he devoted to make precisely that point, forty year ago.

That is not to degrade the thinking of now. Mr Drucker is just a very, very hard act to follow and there is much valuable work to be done in getting those insights actually implemented in current behaviours and with recent technology. The latest case of this phenomenon is working from your strengths. The premise is simple and, for me, convincing: people spend much too much time trying to eliminate weaknesses when they should be leveraging their strengths. The "fully rounded" person who can handle every aspect of the job with ease is a myth. If someone looks like that they are almost certainly under-challenged. I have some strong and some weak suits. I use some behaviours, including GTD, to compensate for the weaknesses and put my coaching, facilitating and analytical skills into play at every opportunity. I cannot do everything well, but I can certainly arrange my situation so that everything is well done.


Being inspired

Sometimes I write things on this blog that am almost ashamed to admit it took me years to realise. I find that the great revelations for me appear not as a flash of light but a slap on the forehead. The corollory of that is that I also hesitate to tell you guys what I learned because...well.... you probably all worked it out long ago....


Ask the dumb question...

Every now and then something goes past in a meeting that I do not understand. When that happens I ask for an explanation, for help. I had to train myself to do that even when I was afraid of looking dumb. Please ask the question. I have had so very, very many experiences in which I said “forgive my limited knowledge, but what is that actually” and it added value.

  1. Sometimes I discovered that I was behind the curve and needed to educate myself about content others took for granted.
  2. Much,much more often I discovered that at least two other people were mystified too. Then it becomes efficient to inform all of us. It also prevents…
  3. On a number of occasions I got conflicting responses from different corners of the meeting. That is a situation which gives you an opportunity to increase quality and eliminate misunderstandings downstream.

How well is your presentation going?

Birmingham University in the UK used to have something called a "lecture cube" for gauging the speed or uptake of a lecture. It was red on two sides, white on two more and green on the remaining two.

Depending on how the students placed them on their desks, the lecturer would see a field of colour in the audience that would let him know if he was too fast/obscure (red) or too slow (white). Green meant just right...

This sounds like a device that would be useful in big meetings. Looking around the room and seeing a lot of red would mean you have wandered off topic.


There are no coincidences...

I have suddenly found myself involved with two completely independent GTD departmental roll-outs at the moment. Both of them are cases where a senior manager got big benefits from using the method on his own workflow and then naturally wanted to obtain the same effectiveness hike across his whole department. Read more...