"Humans are engaged when their mind is challenged, not their mouse."

5 Design Steps for Learner Engagement and Motivations for Humans

30 Day Challenge: Is the Middle Finger Really Bad?


UPDATE: Thanks for all who contributed to my successful kickstarter campaign. Currently, I’m in the process of writing the book. Tentative availability is May, 2017.

30 Day Challenge

30 Day Challenge: Intro

This is an experiment I’ve never done before and I need your help!

Shannon Tipton challenged us out there to join her in a 30 day brainstorm activity. Each and every day, starting July 11th, 2016 I must post something for 30 days in a row. This challenge also coincides with a momentary lapse of reason I had the other day that I should write a book. But then Pokemon GO came…

Anyway, here’s where I need YOUR help: For 30 days, I’m going to post short posts on various thought-droplets that may or may not end up in the neither confirmed nor denied alleged book I might be writing once. A book that answers a question I often get from new instructional designers and eLearning developers:

How did you get where you are today?

This question made me think the other day. Think of all the questions I had to answer throughout my career. Questions that led to decisions. Decisions that led to consequences. Good or bad. Lessons learned. All in all, the path to get where I am today. The working title of the book is: “Is the Middle Finger Really Bad?”


I monitor the page hits. At the end of the 30 days, I will know if there’s enough interest to really glue these thought-droplets under a cohesive umbrella. We’ll see!

Day 1: Is the Middle Finger Really Bad?

“Is the Middle Finger Really Bad?” is a common question lurking on young people’s minds around the age of pre-kindergarten. As an adult, it’s not so easy to answer them. Without understanding its cultural context (which, by the way, may also very), and all the details you don’t really want to get into with a 3 year-old…

On one hand, you don’t want them to flip the bird while walking in the street; yet at the same time, you don’t want them to discriminate against that one finger either. The middle finger can be very useful later on in their life when applied properly in space and time. When they learn how to type, for example.

In some weird way, this situation is what instructional designers face daily. Explaining things to people, on their level of understanding and need without inundating them with irrelevant information. Because, I bet you know exactly what I mean when I mention the never ending fight with the SME’s (subject matter expert) attempt to include the history of famous left-handed people who put their middle finger in proper use in the 19th century rural England topic on slide 89-105.

Of course, we’re not talking about the middle finger here. We’re talking eLearning. Is eLearning really bad? Let’s just settle this for now and ever: eLearning is like the middle finger! It’s not that the finger itself is bad, it’s just that reputation, you know.

How did that happen? What went wrong and where? What can we do about it now? And most importantly, what did the first free, democratic elections behind the Iron Curtain have to do with this? More to come…

Day 2: How does one decide to become an instructional designer?

I didn’t really know what I wanted to be for a long time. What I knew is that growing up in Hungary in the 1970’s, there was an official book of professions. When I reached grade 8, I went through the book and none of the professions really impressed me. Now, this was also the era when the communist government was pushing workers to become the new elite and all the jobs were involved getting really dirty. There was no computer involved in any of the pictures. Meanwhile, I was learning how to code BASIC. I know coding is kind of cool now but imagine learning a language without the following:

  • Internet
  • Computer

The school had two computers, which you can sign up for an hour a day. One of them was for those who played games. The other one is for coding. One hour a day didn’t give you much time to type in and run hundreds of lines of code. The code had to be bug-free by the time we got to the computer. How do you write code and debug without a computer? On paper. I wrote the code down and ran it in my head. Basically, I was the CPU. The fixed and tweaked and (since there was no copy-paste), I copied the new, better code line by line on paper. I’m really sorry for all the trees I killed.

What you learn from this exercise, though is analytical thinking. Debugging is a process of finding out the difference between intention and actual coding. A bug is not a mistake, as Mr. Robot says:

A bug is never a mistake. It represents something bigger. An error of thinking… That makes you who you are.

For an instructional designer (even you don’t eve code), the ability of being able debug, analyze, isolate and resolve complex problems and alleged solution is a HUGE advantage in the field. It teaches you critical thinking and quick troubleshooting. But that’s not why I decided to become an instructional designer. That is why I got of the most important jobs in my life.

Right out of high school, I was hired to orchestrate one of the miracles of Hungarian history: the first free, democratic elections after 40 years. In 1956, the Red Army marched into Hungary and stationed there “temporarily” for like 40 years (not kidding, they had an official name of something like “Soviet Union’s Red Army Temporarily Stationed in Our Country”). Anyway, when I turned 18, and became eligible to vote, we had our first election after 40 years that had more than one person on the ballot. Not sure how nail-biting it was before to choose between one communist candidate, but who knows…

The job I was hired for what sending voting information through the system. At that point, we had like 8 new major political parties on the ballot. Each of them sent a representative to the room where I was working the IBM 386 computer (that nobody was allowed to touch, besides the 18 year old that just hired). I had an IT guy sleeping on the floor, ready to rebuild the computer in case any part would blow up. Including the motherboard. I had a professional data entry person who typed so fast I couldn’t even capture her fingers with a Pokeman fireball. But all in all, all eyes were on me.

My job was to understand what the heck was going on and send the encrypted voting data to the center over the Internet. Nobody. Nobody in the room had the faintest idea what it meant to preformat the hard drive to create a non-DOS-compatible partition in the middle to avoid hacking.

Here’s what I learned that day/night: people don’t pay for the time it takes you to complete a job. People pay for what it would take THEM to complete the job. That’s when I decided to keep working with computers and new technology. Because the faster you learn the new technology, the faster you can figure out the application of it in real life (like learning). Technology is never a solution. It’s a vehicle to support your journey towards your destination.

So I went to college to learn coding and computer technology. One of the early applications of new technology I played with was machine learning and artificial intelligence. Fun times ahead…

Day 3: What's the biggest threat to humanity?

Let me ask this! In the year of 2000, what was the biggest threat to the United States?

No, it’s not Y2K. No, it’s not the fact that the U.S. population tops 282 million. A rise in mad cow disease? Too far… Ian Thorpe? Getting closer… Texas Gov. George W. Bush defeats Vice President Al Gore? The case of the hanging chads? No, something much more dangerous was happening under the radar. And guess what, it has to do with eLearning.

Here’s how the story unfolds: I was a full-time fiance in 2000, living in Cambridge, MA. To get the ball rolling with my citizenship, we started the paperwork at the INS (now it’s Department of Homeland Security). Imagine a giant waiting room, filled with people. Waiting. In the middle of the room, way up in the ceiling, attached to a pillar is a Television. Again, this is year 2000. No Facebook, iPhone, Twitter or any of that nonsense… Pure waiting.

This TV is chained to the pillar. I guess, in case someone would somehow found a ladder or something to climb up, they would be able to steal it or something. Anyway, that’s not what the threat was about. The TV is on, pretty loud. The bottom part of the TV is secured with scotch tape. There’s no remote control anywhere but in case someone finds a way to climb up to the chained TV they would be able to adjust the volume OR… And we’re getting closer to the biggest threat of the country: CHANGE THE CHANNEL!! Imagine what happens if you hand over the control to waiting people to change the channel!

This is a fact. In the year of 2000, the biggest threat that immigrants were posing to the United States was to be able to change the channel.

Now, here comes my question. Conjure the image of this securely chained, scotch-taped, inaccessible TV, blaring in the waiting room all day… What channel do you think it was set to?


I can’t think of a more ironic way of introducing the Land of the Free than showing all the channels you could see IF you had access to the TV. Because in 2000, the channel guide was not the most sexiest thing, believe me.

Of course, we’re not talking about the national threat here. We’re talking about eLearning.

Have you ever had the same feeling while taking an eLearning course? That you are the biggest threat? So, the content has to be securely chained to menu? Where you have no control over what you see and how you proceed? Where you have to wait for the next button show up? But it won’t, until the voice over stops blabbing. Yet, you secretly hope that there’s a bug in the system and you can skip it? That you feel like even just a remote control would at least make you feel a tiny little but more engaged?

Do you think whoever made the decision to chain and scotch-tape that TV had to sit and watch it all day? Same thing happens to eLearning courses. Often times, people in charge make decisions about how and what others will learn. From their perspective, it’s the content that counts. Like showing the channel guide would give the same experience as watching a show? Always think USER EXPERIENCE. Think in ACTIONS, not content. Think what happens BEFORE, DURING and AFTER the course. There’s a difference between guiding the learner through the experience and force feeding through the content.

Next time when leadership complains about employee engagement, and ask you to create a leadership video and slides over slides of blahblah, with a Next button that you have to wait for…

Do this: ask them to go home, chain their TV set, scotch-tape the bottom part, crank up the volume, turn it to the guide, and throw away the batteries from the remote. Then, bring in a random beloved family member to sit there and watch.

Day 4: It's like that. What?

Imagine the time before the search engines. Before YouTube. Before streaming music. People used to buy CDs and tapes to listen to their favorite bands. That was around the time I was about to graduate from college with a degree in English. In order to graduate, I had to complete two teaching practica (or practicums). One in an elementary school, the other in a high school. The elementary school practicum went well. They loved my creativity and enthusiasm. So much that after 25 years one of those students found me on Facebook and told me how my teaching influenced him to become an English major. I actually made a difference in someone’s life. Scary.


But this post is about the high school. And one of the most powerful restraining methods that exists out in the teaching outer space: motivation.

True story about motivation

Because of our ability, I guess, a colleague and I were hand-picked to go to this disaster high school to teach English with no “friendly” support. I’m not exaggerating. The school was rumored to be closed soon. Teachers were trying to figure out where to go, students couldn’t care less.

Day 1

We learned two important facts on day 1.

1. Teachers go into class as late as they can, and leave as soon as they can.

2. The English teacher (who we were subbing for) has been on “medical leave” for two months, which might have had something to do with the class behavior.

Fact #2 also suggested that kids did not have English classes for two months. Technically, those classes were free time for them. We also got good tips from teachers such as not to turn your back to the class, that’s when they throw things mostly. And I’m not talking about imaginary poke balls.

Week 1

By week 1, I decided that after I graduate, I will not pursue a teaching career (and rather do something with my Engineering Masters degree). I had about 30 kids in a class (that is a huge number itself in Hungary). About 4 of them had clear motivation to learn something, 27 were neutral and 3 were… HELL!! Those three were sitting in the back causing trouble. The 3 Troublemakers. They pretended to be the local hip-hop gang. One of them had blue hair. Not that I would discriminate based on color but it was pretty obvious that they had no intention to pay attention. They were rapping.


Week 2

By week 2, it was clear that just sheer survival needs some kind of truce with those 3 Troublemakers. I pulled them aside and I had, what we call today, a “managing difficult conversations” session with them. I wanted to find out what motivates them enough to make a compromise.

I guess nobody ever asked them this question yet because they were stunned at first. After some hesitation, they all agreed that the hip-hop music they listen to is the best thing ever, and the class interferes with that activity. Rapping that is.

I offered them to build the next English class around their favorite hip-hop song, as long as they hip-hop cooperate. They gave me the title and the name of the band. When I asked them what the song was about,  they screamed/rapped/hipped it and hopped it, somewhat. It was clear they had no idea what they were rapping.


The Turning Point: It’s like that! What?

Well, the song was “It’s like that!” by RUN-DMC. Brings back any memories? Here’s how the rest of the story unfolds:

I enter the class and there is silence. There’s no raucous, no screaming, no running, no rapping around. The 3 Troublemakers are sitting in the front row: equipped with pencils and paper and a huge boombox (that was way before iPods/iPads) ready to roll, or rather, rap.

And that day the 3 Troublemakers learn the lesson of their life. Because, if there was a learning object written on their face, it would be something like: by the end of this lesson, learner will be able to understand what the heck they are rapping.

And the relevant lyrics goes like this:

You should have gone to school, you could’ve learned a trade
But you laid in the bed where the bums have laid
Now all the time you’re crying that you’re underpaid
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is

One thing I know is that life is short
So listen up homeboy, give this a thought
The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is

The expression on their face is priceless. Like learning that Santa is not real. Interestingly enough, the 3 Troublemakers would never bother the class anymore. They also stopped listening to RUN-DMC. It’s like that. What? And that’s the way it is about motivation.

Day 5: What Does the Fox Say?

A quick Google research reveals the answer to the question. What does the fox say?

Now, this might be obvious for you but the fox says ding-ding-ding-ding-dingerigeding. I’m sure someone has already created a one page infographic on this. At college, we had a nightmare subject, robot technics. It was ton of math and graphs about how what the robot arm can do. Luckily, there was on guy in the group who was smart enough to understand AND make good notes. So when the exam came, we all copied his notes and memorized it.

It kind of worked out. Until one day, we fell into the above mentioned “fox research” trap…

The professor comes in with the exam papers and looks around suspiciously. He said everyone passed but someone must explain this mystery: what’s in the robot’s hand? Nobody has a clue what the prof is talking about. He goes, so everyone but one person drew this THING in the robot’s hand that has nothing to do with robot technics. I don’t even know what it is, it looks like a pistol!

And the smart bursts out laughing… Turns out, he was bored during the lesson and drew a pistol in the robot’s hand. We all copied his notes as is, never questioning a pixel on that graph. Now, he knew it didn’t belong there, so he didn’t equip the robot with a pistol, while we all did.

Lesson learned: know your data! Do your research! A single page infographic posted on social media is tempting. Especially, if it makes sense. But make sure you know where it comes from. Check out, for example to bust some of the myths out there. Use Google Scholar and read about the topic. Many times studies that end up on an infographic have been conducted by vendors who sell the very product the results indicate you should have 🙂

We see what we want to see. Here’s an example from LinkedIn. A couple of months ago, someone posted a document that stated that interactivity might be counterproductive when we’re teaching soft skills. They had a study linked to the post, and it seemed like it did stated that interactivity hindered learning. Lots of people chimed in to agree. I looked up the actual paper, and here’s what I found:

  1. In this study they looked the effect of using a video that is not interrupted (no interactivity) explaining how to do magic tricks vs. still images (but wait, wait, wait for it…)
  2. A control group did not see the video. Rather, over a hundred slides showing the same moves screenhot by screenhot. They also included a next button in the course. So, the learner had to click the next button over a 100 times to see these pictures go one by one… And guess what, “interactivity” was defined in the study as clicking the next button.
  3. The second control group had the same giant slideshow, but they did not have to click the next button. It was automatically moving on to the next using a timer.
  4. At the end, no surprise, those who saw the video could recall the steps much better. The second group, with clicking next (hence interacting) probably barely survived the experiment, and did poorly on the test. (In fact, reading through the study one person was ejected for no compliance. Yeah, he probably died.)

So, while in the context of this study, it is true that “interactivity” may cause inefficiency,  the next time someone tries to lure you into clicking next over a 100 times in an eLearning course, just say ding-ding-ding-ding-dingerigeding.

So, what does the fox say, again?

Day 6: How's Your Resilience Muscle?

Today, it’s Saturday. Weekend. So, this will be a sort one. At the ATD ICE conference in May, I heard several times how resilience is so important. The ability for us to spring back, recharge and restart. Resilience is not a bone that is born with us to make us strong. It’s a muscle you exercise daily. Resilience gives us the confidence that we can be creative, innovative because when we fail (it’s not an if), we’ll spring back, assess what we learned and march on.

I learned a lot from my grandparents on resilience. Their generations lived through times that most of us just read about. Like World War II in Europe.

My father’s parents got married young with no money to buy a house, so they decided to build one. If you’ve never seen mud brick buildings, check this out: Technically, what you do all day in your free time is dig up mud, mix it with some straw and maybe sand. Hammered into a brick form and leave it out in the Sun. A couple of days later it dries into a brick. You’ll need a lot of bricks.

So when grandparents had time, they were building mudbricks in the backyard. It had been going on for months. Day by day, they built as many as they could. They continued working on the bricks when World War II was raging. They almost had enough bricks after months of work to start building the house, when one day a bomb hit the backyard…

And with that one single blow, all the mudbricks were gone. All the sweat they invested into the house for months, was gone. I heard this story over and over again from my grandmother. She always paused a sec before the end. That was the resilience pause. Finally, she always said they were lucky. Nobody got hurt. And bricks were just bricks. They eventually started again (ironically, the bomb created a large crater filled with water, so they had a good resource of mud) and built their house.

My grandmother passed away last year, still living in the same mudbrick house she built herself. I don’t know if I will ever have have that strong resilience muscles. But I’m working out. Working out loud. Like by doing this challenge day by day. Thanks to you, who are reading it!

Day 7: Ever heard of the Naked Architect in the Desert Syndrome (NADS)?

Are you suffering from NADS?

The Naked Architect in the Desert Syndrome (NADS) originates from my first college experience, where I studied to be an architect. For three weeks. Technically, one of the weeks was a freshman summer camp, so two weeks. Leaving that college behind was one of the best decisions in my life in retrospect. And the reason I left is because of NADS.

There was a professor who taught us the basics of architecture: how to design. By that in week 1, I mean draw. So, day 1 he told us to be prepared:

An architect is an architect. You’re going to use your head and your hand. Nothing else. If you’re naked in the desert, you will still know what to do, because I’m going to make sure it’s all in your head and hand.

Now, I’m not sure what picture this scene conjures in your mind: a naked architect in the desert using only his head and hand. So, in week 1, I started to wonder. How often do architects end up naked in the desert where they need to design a house without any tools?

That was my first college, so I figured that’s how the cookie crumbles. The professor gave us homework at the end of week 1: draw squares. Fifteen different squares on a piece of paper. They all had to be perfect lines. But here comes the catch: we had to use actual INK to draw the lines and then, PAINT the squares inside with watercolor!

If you ever tried mixing straight lines, ink and watercolor, you know what I’m talking about. If any of the lines got blurred (any of the fifteen squares), you had to start the whole page again. I stopped playing Tetris ever since.

It took me two days to get that done. In week 2, when we submitted our work, the professor randomly put the drawings into two piles. One pile was the “fail” pile. Those people got a 1 (same as F here). The other pile was the “unacceptable” pile. Those people had to redo it.

That’s when I decided to leave this profession behind. But, I learned something from this experience. NADS is an interesting phenomena. People who exhibit NADS symptoms, believe that you must learn and store everything in your head. How often does it happen to you that you need to design or take a course that forces you to memorize things? Do you really need to recall them all at work?

Don’t get me wrong, in an emergency situation, I don’t want people to ask Siri if it’s the blue or the red wire they should cut while diffusing a bomb. But ask this question a lot: how often does this situation happen to you? To your learners?

The problem with NADS is that it’s forcing you to memorize everything. Even if you do remember later, doing that, it gives a false confidence that you can do it, without help, without tools, and nobody can take it away from you. Whatever that “it” is. You become Mr. Robot. Executing the code flawlessly… Until something changes!

Because in reality, NADS takes away your agility to think. You’re not problem solving, you’re not applying knowledge or skills to new situations. You lose the most important competitive advantage of today’s world: adaptability.

As a contrast, in another college, that I actually completed, one of my professors had all his exams open-book. He gave out challenges weekly. He taught us problem solving by providing tools and methodologies.

After 25 years in this profession, I can tell you. The chances that you need to problem solve and adapt your way of thinking is much higher than ending up naked in a desert designing a house with your bare hand. Watch out for the symptoms of NADS!

One practical way of assuring this is telling the “WHY,” not just the how. “Experts” often skip the why because in their mind the decision making is so entrenched that they are not even aware of it anymore. The why is the foundation of adaptability. Like the good foundation of a house. Designed by architects, who may or may not have been naked in the desert.

Day 8: Dude, where's my car?

I have to confess. I hate driving. My limit is probably two hours the most. I don’t like cars either. Yes, they look wonderfully macho in the commercial sliding along the ocean in a closed road where there’s no traffic… But in reality, you pay insurance, you get depressed by the first scratch… I don’t know, it’s just not my thing. But driving game me two A-HA moments in terms of learning.

I didn’t have to drive until I was like 29. In Hungary, getting a driver’s license is like getting a college degree. First, you must go to this mandatory traffic rule course. It lasts weeks. You must learn and pass three tests: one on the rules of the road (and by that I mean things like fifteen cars turning into an intersection when a trolley is signalling left to overtake the bus… who goes first kind of questions), one test on how the engine works, and one test on first aid.

The rules of the road book is as thick as the phone book used to be. So, by the time you get all this done, you pretty much know everything. Except, how to drive.

And that’s why, you must sign up for 50 hours of mandatory hands-on driving with a qualified instructor. Now, you don’t just go out in the street and drive! No, no! First, you must pass the technical exam in a closed course. You must be able to parallel park, back into a tight spot, 180, 360, whatever life might bring on you.

Once, you pass that, THEN you must drive in traffic with the instructor. Both in daylight and at night. This is a very intimate relationship with your instructor. Hours and hours spent together in traffic.

My first A-HA moment was the very moment I met my instructor. He opened the door and told be to sit and drive while he’s sitting on the passenger’s seat. I told him I don’t know how to drive. I’ve never tried. He got frustrated and started to show me every little thing on the dashboard: here’s the gas, mileage, radio, etc. And that’s when my moment happened. To save his speech, I interrupted and told him that I KNOW what these things are, I passed that exam. However, I don’t know HOW to drive.

Now, that made him really mad. He released the handbreak, turned on the ignition and screamed to GO! That moment I realized he has no idea what the difference is between knowledge and skill. I also have to remind you that learning on a 20 year old manual car that “has a soul,” is not the easiest job. If you release the clutch too fast, the engine hops and dies. If you release it too slow, it spins like James Bond. Either case, you’ll get yelled at.

I don’t know why I didn’t change instructors. I think I blamed myself for not being able to drive at the age of 29. Eventually, I did pass the exam and got my driver license.

The second A-HA moment came in the States. I lived in Cambridge for a year when I moved to the States. I had an international driver’s license, so I decided to take the US version of the exam. When I saw the “book” with the rules of the road to memorize, I thought it was a joke. It was thinner than one chapter on turning left in the Hungarian book. Also, half of the book was about what happens when you drive under the influence, not pay the fine, blood levels, not showing up court, etc.

I went to the DMV to take the exam. I saw people coming in, literally asking what they need to do to get a driver’s license, and they just flipping through the book right there. No study. Nothing. So, what can go wrong for me, right? It was 70 dollars for a ten minute quiz! In the Hungarian exam, we had to answer 100 questions. This time I had 20. Piece of cake.

And I failed.

Dude, I got like 8 questions incorrect… That was my A-HA moment #2. I failed the test because I did not study all the crap that can happen to you when you break the law: not paying the fine for the first time, second time, drinking and driving, drugs, driving with suspended license, etc. Meanwhile, this woman turns to me while taking the test asking if there are two yellow lines in the middle of the road can she or not turn left??? She passed.

I never in my life felt more like a loser. I blew 70 dollars, but more importantly, I was angry with the system. A system that is designed not to provide positive feedback on how to do things, rather to test on what happens when you break the law. I did pass the next day.

Think about this next time when you design a course. What are you testing? WHY are you testing?

Day 9: Got an A-HA moment?

WARNING: this post may expose you to lyrics that is NSFW.

Here’s my A-HA moment:

No kidding. It does bring up an A-HA moment of learning. We’ll get there. Bare with me (at 1:07):

And if you don’t see the pattern here yet, here’s my ALL TIME FAVORITE storyteller. Simplicity at its best from Suzanne Vega.

And here’s the A-HA moment a decade later (at 0:10):


I’m talking about sampling and sampling is what I’m talking about. Taking something from the past, repurpusing in new context. Art? Stealing? Laziness? Opportunism? History repeating itself?

I was driving on the highway with my teenage daughter. When you a have a teenage daughter, you’re forced to listen to whatever music they listen to. That’s a rule. In both occasions (years apart), I recognized the original song “sampled”. And said: “that’s A-HA” / “that’s Suzanne Vega” respectively… And I was about to turn into memory lane to tell all the fond memories they songs conjure in my head… But my daughter’s look stopped me. She had no idea about A-HA and Suzanne Vega. She was listening to a new hit.

And being a teenager, she shrugged.

Dad, I’m more into the future than pondering over the past.

That made me think about how we design learning. Are we too much into pondering over the past? Or are we giving the learner something to look forward to? Something new and exciting they can use right there on the job to reach their goals in the future. (Unless your job is digging in the past, of course.) At the same time, it’s up to us, designers, to be creative and reuse, repurpose what worked before by transforming them into something new. A reference that old-timers will recognize? You build instant secret connections. While new kids on the block will have no idea. And they don’t care. If it’s cool, it’s cool.

Good ideas don’t have expiry dates.

Kids movies are filled with references that just fly over the kids’ head. And that is by design. Those are for the adults. Adults, who can now feel that they’re part of a secret club. A joke that only select ones understand. And even if you attempt to explain it to your child that it was from a movie you saw when you were their age…

The truth is, they don’t care. So, go and sample what works today. Look for new ways to integrate it with the future. People loved Pokemons. How about merging them with augmented reality? You do not have to reinvent the wheel all the time. Just be creative how you spin them round.

Day 10: Are you ready for feedback?

Have you ever been in a situation when someone “opened up the floor” to get feedback, so they can improve whatever the just did? But every time you mention something that could be better they have an answer why it didn’t go well? Even defending it?

When you ask for feedback, take it as a gift. Like Aunt Abbey’s birthday sweater. You thank for the gift and that’s it. Whether you’ll use it or not, it depends on you but at that moment, you don’t state that you hate the color red.

And that’s easier said than done. Getting feedback on a piece of work that you are emotionally attached is really hard. I wrote my first screenplay in 2000. I submitted to a competition and I was convinced that I just bought my ticket to Hollywood. Then I received the feedback (that I paid extra $70 for). The judge’s feedback started something like this:

Excellent start. You suck the reader in, right away! The end? With the twist? Absolutely, fantastic… But man, how you have to suffer through your script inbetween… That’s another story.

I stopped writing for a year after this. Then, I realized he was right. Throwing ingredients into a bowl does not make you a cook. Let alone Top Chef. Same goes for gamification: throwing exciting game elements on top of each other won’t cut it. Like adding all colors and transitions on one PowerPoint page.

The next five years I spent on This is a peer-review site for all artist. Whether you write short scripts, songs, poems, whatever. You upload your art and you get feedback on it from others who are in the same boat as you are. Honest, brutal, straightforward feedback. In return, you do the same for them.

Sometimes, people completely misunderstand your writing. But that’s okay. You know what? There’s going to be learners who will completely not get your course. The art of receiving and digesting feedback can be learned only by exposing yourself. In a good way. Today, we call this work out loud.

After years of tweaking my writing, my next screenplay was a finalist in an international writing competition with nearly 1,000 participants. So today, I wanted to thank anyone I’ve ever come across who has given me feedback on anything! Thank you, and please! Keep it coming!

Do not ever assume that people don’t need feedback! Often times, we only comment when we are emotionally charged. A simple but meaningful comment like “Your post helped me do X…” is a tremendous gift.

Day 11: 1 in 4 of 25% is like a quarter?

Today was a long, long day. But a challenge is a challenge. Each and every day. 100%. It’s Thursday. I heard this happens 1 in 7 days. Also heard that 1 in 4 Americans are unaware that the Earth orbits the Sun.

1 in 4 Americans Apparently Unaware the Earth Orbits the Sun

That’s 25%! So, which one sounds more frightening to you? 1 in 4 or 25%? Or quarter of the population?

Does it make any difference? Mathematically, it’s the same value. However, the perception of value for learners presented with stats could be dramatically different. If the survival rate is 80%, it sounds good. But that also means 2 in 10 people die. You don’t know 80% of people. But when someone says 10 people, you actually think of real people in your life: family, friends, co-workers…

But let’s not close the day on such a sad note. Let’s see a mundane example: you must complete 85% or more to get credit for the course. You’ve probably seen this at the beginning of a quiz in eLearning. Now, if you have 10 questions in the quiz, they are worth the same amount of points. What’s 85%?

It’s 8.5 questions. Which means you must actually pass 9 questions. So, technically, your passing rate is 90%.

If that’s what you mean, use the simplest way of letting the learners know:

You can only miss one question.

Day 12: Can little things make a big difference?

Years ago, I had the pleasure to design a course that was supposed to teach call center agents what kind of payment they take, how and where. Originally, it was an SOP (standards of procedure), a dry data-dump of how customers can pay via credit cards, debit cards, checks, cash, etc.

I thought it would be more engaging if we turned this into a gameful experience. We built a drive-through, where cars pull over at the window and beep. You listen to their scenario, and based on the scenario, you pick two things: what kind of payment you should suggest and where. If the suggestion was correct, you collected money (ring-ring sound effect).

Inside the drive-through, we created an interactive map on the wall, which had a lockbox, payment center, etc. In the office, we had a computer, phone… And each of these locations offered different method of payments like credit, debit, cash, automatic transfer, etc.

Some stakeholders questioned the validity of design. A drive-through is not a realistic scenario for a call center agent. They might not take this seriously, and they might even reject it, since it has nothing to do with being on the phone in the call center.

We decided to pilot (playtest) it. We had a group of call center agents and supervisors going through the course that this eLearning was part of. When they got to the eLearning, we didn’t see any engagement spike. I thought maybe we got this wrong… Until suddenly, all faces lit up. Every person in the pilot paid full attention. It was obvious that participants were fully engaged. When the game was over, they said it was fun and learned a lot!

During the debrief, I learned something why. Little things can make a big difference. The reason why initially all agents were so into the game, is because the horn beep of the car in the drive-through. It was very similar to the tone they hear daily in their headsets whenever a customer calls in. That beep was maybe a second long. Little thing.

Now, to our credit, we tried hundreds of beeps. After a while, they all got annoying. The one we landed on happened to be similar to the tone in their headset. Little thing. Made a big difference.

Day 13: Ever been traumatized by cauliflowers?

Top Chef has been one the few shows my wife and I have been following consistently. Some of it is about our appreciation for great food, good wine and excellent conversations around the table. So, we thought it be a good bonding experience to introduce our teenage daughter to Top Chef and watch it together. Last year we tried. Sophie, our daughter, watched the first episode and she loved it. Until the very last scene.

Yes, the famous line when one of the contestants was sent home:

“Pack you knives and go!”

Sophie said that “the judges were very mean to the cook, who did try really hard, they just didn’t appreciate it. They should have just warned him, and give him a second chance. This show is mean.” She never watched it ever again.

Top Chef is a gamified cooking competition. Seemingly, it is about cooking fast, creatively and efficiently under time pressure. But that’s not what made my daughter like the show in the first place. It was the people in it. Like one of our favorite “characters” from Season 11, Stephanie Cmar.


People and their struggle to succeed is what glues us to the show. It’s the emotional connection we feel (even if the only creative culinary thing you’ve ever tried was a vague attempt at steaming cucumbers). You almost feel like you’re responsible for their career!

Why? Blame it on empathy! We do compete every single day. We know how hard it is to perform under time pressure, in the spotlight with limited resources. Oh, and the mystery ingredients! Project changes, bad bosses, lame managers… And we know what it feels like to face the mean judges. We know what means to lose, time to time.

We Bounce Back

But we bounce back. As someone wiser than me said this once: when you hit the rock bottom, pick up something from the floor that might be useful later and spring back on! Stephanie knows what it means to bounce back as she was sent home way too early in the season before because “her cauliflower soup did not have enough cauliflower in it”.

[…]But, after leaving Las Vegas, it took me literally almost a year to really get over it. I’ve been traumatized by cauliflower ever since. It was one of my favorite vegetables, and now I am just getting back to eating it again.

She returned and did a phenomeal (made up word merging phenomenal and meal) job on Season 11. Our family also gave her the personality of the season badge. Good news! If you’ve been ever traumatized by cauliflowers, there’s hope. Read the interview here.

Gamified Cooking

Top Chef is a gamified cooking competition. Let’s look at 5 gamification “ingredients” that they use to make it exciting:

  1. Core Loop
    A core loop is the heart of every gamified activity. That is the action that you do over and over and over again. It must be simple to understand but complex enough not get bored doing it. In Top Chef, it’s obviously cooking. What changes are the variables: time limit, resources, group or individual, mystery ingredient, location, number of people to cook for, etc.When you design a gamified activity, you MUST get the core loop right! Playtest and tweak until they work smoothly. If it’s too easy, people lose interest. If it’s too complex, they get frustrated. Make it SIMPLE! For learning, your goal is the performance objective! Not the fun factor.
  2. Challenges
    Each episode starts with a quickfire challenge. A quickfire challenge is a fast-paced (I would say crazy fast) challenge to make something for breakfast 🙂 With a twist. How it matters in the overall competition is that you can get immunity from elimination for one round by winning the quickfire. That is a huge advantage, because ONE mistake can send you home. It also sets up some drama among the competitors: when you have immunity, you have nothing to lose. Would you pull 100% in a group activity with your peers who are your competitors if you have nothing to lose?
  3. Elimination Process (feedback loop)
    Each episode brings in the top 3 and bottom 3 contestants. Top 3 are obviously happy. The bottom 3 know that one of them goes home.Look at the chart below. The red (LOW) means the candidate was in the bottom 3. The blue (HIGH) means the candidate was in the top 3. And WIN is the happy camper for one episode. They are ALL OVER THE BOARD! That is what makes the elimination process exciting: the risk. The risk that you make on mistake, and you go home. The risk you take to pull off something grandiose, and may or may not play out.
  4.  Strategy
    In each episode, contestant needs to decide how “creative” they get. How much risk will they take, based on what others are doing. You may play it safe and float around in the middle of the pack. You may be bold and try something new. It’s up to you, as a player how you approach it. (And of course, with super-careful editing, the audience gets the inside scoop of their thinking. And surprise!!! By the way, surprise is another gamification mechanic.)
  5. Collaboration
    While most of the time Top Chef is an individual competition, there are episodes when you work in a team and you must collaborate. You may think it’s not as exciting as a cut-throat competition but there’s a lot instructional designers can learn from collaboration. First of all, collaboration is much likely what people need to do at work. And yet, we don’t include enough collaboration in learning solutions, we’re focusing more on competition.Second of all, you see roles emerging right away when you put people in a team. Google had a fascinating article on this trying to find the perfect way to form teams. Some people take charge right away, some love to organize, some offers support. No matter what, they must believe in their plan and execute it flawlessly. Strategy is crucial here: the balance of creativity and execution. And don’t forget: overall, these people compete against each other. And if you have immunity, you won’t go home not matter how you perform… See where it’s going?

Among these, and other exciting gamification elements, there’s one that sticks out and glues people in front of the TV: people. The contestants, their stories, relationships, arguments, actions and emotions.

You see them taking risks, making meaningful decisions that lead to consequences (good or bad), and while continuously getting feedback (good or bad).

And you wish it was like that at your workplace.


When you design a gamified learning solution, don’t start with gamification elements. Start with people: keep the focus on the player’s experience. That is the glue! Think what risk they may take in real life and let them take it. Show the consequences they see in real life and provide constant feedback (good or bad). Don’t make it too easy. Let them fail. Let them grow. Yes, it might lead to a more emotional experience than reading bullet points and standards of procedures… So what?

The lack of emotions in training is like throwing random, otherwise great, ingredients into a bowl hoping to win a quickfire challenge. And that is very unlikely. Like or not, you do not have immunity. Cauliflowers are traumatizing everywhere! This is going to stop here. And now. With you. Go, pack your knives and show them what’s cooking!

Day 14: Is creativity a gift?

So, you want to be creative? The irony is:

The harder you try to be creative, the less chance it will happen.

For long decades in history, creativity was considered a gift (and even today, you may think some people are just born with it and others just lack the ability), something that you can’t really improve or change. Recent research shifts towards as more of a skill. Here’s an interesting article on creativity.

Creativity as an addiction?

I’ve been “naturally” creative all through my life. In fact, looking back to my school years, creativity was my survival skill. My handwriting has been always awful, and the teachers used to say that I wish they could understand the whole essay because just the part they could figure out was absolutely creative.

For me, creativity is a not gift or skill. It’s an addiction. A constant drive that forces you to be creative, so you get awarded by dopamine in the brain when you accomplish something new and innovative. You have to learn how to live with creativity. If you let it lose, you’ll forget to eat. It also burns up all the fuels like a jet and crashes midway in air.

The funny thing about creativity is that there’s no magic behind it, and at the same time there is. Anyone can do it who has brain. All you do is see connections between things nobody has seen. To do that, you must look at the world differently. You must look at the world from different angles and perspectives. Creativity is about problem solving. But it’s not using computers, spreadsheets and math… It’s using the ability of your brain to surprise you! And that is such a crucial element of the process. Creativity is like a conversation you and parts of your brain you can’t really control. But you can ask for help. It’s like trying to remember where you put your car keys. The harder you try, the less chance you’ll remember. Creative thinking is letting the brain do the work.

If you’re into brain stuff, read David Rock’s book: Your Brain at Work.


Relax! You are Super Creative! Every Day!

And guess what, you do this too! Every single night when you dream, you are the most creative person in the world! Doesn’t it surprise you sometime what crazy things you dream? The connections between two things were so clear in your dream, yet when you wake up, it does not make a sense… It’s just that most of the time you don’t remember a thing in the morning…

Apparently, first trait of creative people is that they believe they are creative. They have the confidence that they can come up with something innovative. And this is very true! Once someone makes them question their own creativity, it’s gone.  Once you’re under time pressure for example, or stakeholder’s scrutiny, who has not idea what they want but they want you to be creative, the natural reaction is to force creativity. To try to remember where those keys are! The harder you try to be creative, the less chance it will happen.

Did I really dream the winning lottery numbers?

Long time ago, I participated in a Silva Mind Control workshop. It is basically a form of practical meditation, deep reflection where you reach the same alpha brain waves as in your sleep. Anyway, part of it was about creativity and dreams. After the first day, I decided that I’m going to start a dream journal. That night, I woke up and scribbled down my dream in a piece of paper half asleep.

The next morning I looked at my horrible handwriting. Now, the fact that you scribble anything down, apparently improves dream recall tremendously. So, my dream was very simple: “I’m sitting in a train-kind-of-place, next to me two young girls. They are reading the same book. They are French.” And that’s it. That was the dream. No significance. Nothing like winning lottery numbers.

Off I went to the second day of the workshop. Every hour, we had a break and the rule was to sit somewhere else (NEW PERSPECTIVE?). I kind of forgot about my dream. After the last break I sit down: check my notes and stuff. And I look left. Two girls are sitting next to me with their books. They are glued to the books. Same book. They notice my stare. I ask them what they are reading. They say they’re high school students and there’s a French exam coming up.

I was floored. I had to explain that I’m not a weirdo, and  if it wouldn’t sound like a bad guy luring girls into a dorm room, I would show them the piece of paper on my table…


Now, you can obviously have explanations like I subconsciously was looking for two girls to be able to sit next all day with the hope that they would magically read the same book in French. Maybe. My intention is not to convince anyone but inspire you to try it on your own:

  1. Start a dream journal. Scribble things down right before you wake up, or in the middle of the night. Whatever you remember. The point is to scribble something. Your brain will actually tell you to do later but you will forget it, I guarantee.
  2. Do this every day. Every single day. For 30 days.
  3. You will notice three things:
    a) You will remember more and more. It’s like saying your brain that you’re paying attention now.
    b) You will recognize patterns in your dream. Some dream themes are recurring. Days may go by without coming up again but you’ll see it in the journal. If your brain wants to tell you something, it will. More and more aggressively. If you don’t listen, it will raise the tensity. That’s how you end up with nightmares.
    c) You will see the world in a different way in your awake state.

Day 15: Gingerbread Stress: Constant fear of being eaten alive?

What are you afraid of? Spiders? Dogs? Height? Water? Exams? Is it stressful for you to speak in front of a crowd? Or being shut in a tiny elevator? Are afraid of being eaten alive?

[…]Recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour.

Stress impairs memory retrieval. No wonder gingerbread man learns nothing from his previous experience. Students who otherwise knowledgeable can totally blow the exam. So, naturally, you don’t want to introduce more stress than necessary in your learning design. However, here’s a fascinating study on the implication of stress on learning. It is much more complex than you would think. Time will tell if we are right.

[..]To summarise, stress affects memory in a time-dependent manner, often enhancing memory formation around the time of the stressful encounter but impairing memory retrieval and the acquisition of information encoded long after the stressful event.

And that is my a-ha moment for you today!

Day 16: What's a burn down chart?

Traditionally, you report how many hours you work a day. Maybe it’s a timesheet or something. As an instructional designer, your deliverable may be a design document, storyboard or similar. You work on the task for a week and and at the end of the week, you report your hours.

Here’s a problem with that approach. I had these contractors once working on the roof. They provided an estimate how long it takes to get it done: 4 weeks. I saw them working full days for a week. After a week, I asked them how it’s going. They reported 40 hours on the job. Two weeks later I asked them again. They said they ran into issues, so it looks like another 3 weeks.

As a business owner, I care about when the job is done. The number of hours spent on the task won’t tell me how long it takes.

That’s why in the agile world, you don’t report how many hours you spent on a task today but how many hours you estimate you have left on the task. That’s the burn down chart. The graph is supposed to go down, as you have less and less to work. But time to time, something might come up (like reviews getting longer, waiting for voice over, etc.). The daily burn down chart shows you visually if there’s something wrong with the pace.

Day 17: Remember your dover sole moments?

About 15 years ago we lived in Cambridge, MA. Both my wife and I always loved good food, great wine and good conversations. I had been in the States only for a couple of months. Since my home country (Hungary) is landlocked, I decided that I love Seafood, therefore I started eating anything that came from the Sea (in retrospect, some things should stay in the water). One night we went to this French restaurant (Hammerly’s Bistro) in Boston, and  I ordered a Dover sole.

While we were waiting, my wife pointed out a person at the table next to us. She said that person could be the President of the United States one day. That person was John Kerry. And guess what, he ordered a Dover sole as well! I instantly knew that my future in this country would be bright. This Dover sole thing just couldn’t be a coincidence.

But my story is not about John Kerry, it’s about the waiter. As my Dover sole arrived, it came with two waiters. A younger, visibly shaken waiter and an older one standing right behind him. Now, serving a Dover sole in classic French way is an art. Words do not describe the precision and moves you need to perform under strict time constrained and eyes of scrutiny.

Here’s what it takes if you haven’t tried it yet:

The older waiter explained that this fish was the very first one for the young waiter. They asked for our permission. I believe everyone should get a chance, so I gave the green light. The young waiter started the operation. His hands were shaky a little, he was focusing hard on every move. He would not make eye contact with us. The older water gave him encouraging looks and instant feedback. At the end of the operation the young waiter had a moment of relief and they retreated to the kitchen. I guarantee he had a shot of tequila right there.

John Kerry (who, by the way, did not become President but United States Secretary of State) did not have the same experience by the way. His waiter did the whole procedure probably twice as fast as my first timer and I had the feeling that in case the power went out, that guy could’ve finished the operation in the dark with his eyes closed. He was a pro.

Dover Sole Moment

This happened 15 years ago. The reason I suddenly remembered is because yesterday on a business trip to Atlanta, I was checking in at a hotel when…

The receptionist, Valeria, greeted me politely and warmly. Then she looked down and frantically typed. A gentleman was standing behind her, whispering and pointing. It was clear Valeria was having a “dover sole” moment. I was one of her very first customers. We went through the process step by step. Slowly and gradually. It took maybe twice as long as usual. Time to time, the gentleman behind her intervened. Valeria did a good job not freaking out while typing and talking at the same time.

At the end, they thanked me for my patience. I told Valeria she did a great job. And I said you know what, in two weeks, you’re going to do this with your eyes closed. They laughed. No tequila shots ensued.

And that brings me to today’s a-ha moment. We often forget about our “dover sole” moments. The very first time you tried something that requires skill. The feeling that you know what to do but your brain is freaking out processing all the stimuli bombarding you from the environment. We often take things granted. We do things with our eyes closed. Remember the first time you tied your shoe? Biked? Drove? Next time you design learning, recall a “dover sole” moment you had before. Remember how hard it was to focus, how important it was to get instant positive feedback. To get encouragement from someone you trust.

Not every dover sole moment ends well! But remember! Even if anything goes wrong during your dover sole moment, you are still in a better position than the fish!

Day 18: Walking in my shoes?

Watching history in the making today: Hillary Clinton accepting the nomination. As I watched some of the speakers talking about hard work, I remembered the stories my grandmother used to told us. They were not fairy tales but real stories from the past. We’ve come a long way since then.

My grandmother was one of 12 siblings. As she was growing up. they had one pair of shoes to share. Whoever had a job earned the privilege to wear the shoes. By age of 16, my grandmother worked in the field. As she told me, there was only one rule out there. If you show up in the field before sunrise, you have a job for the day. You get paid. If you miss sunrise, just by a minute, you don’t. You don’t eat that day. And they did not provide transportation to the field, of course… Honestly, I don’t know how they did it.

I learned something from my grandmother and this is the a-ha moment for the day: work hard, be nice and never forget to have fun.

Day 19: Should I stay or should I go?

When you’re a teenager, you don’t really question whether you should stay or you should go. You do what you feel like. And by that, I mean whether you should continue doing something just because it’s fun even if you’re not really good at it. As we grow up, we tend to do things that either make money or we’re good at it because we don’t want to waste our precious free time on failures.

I don’t want to be Roger!

In High School I got a nickname: Maestro. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous. When I worked for the Peace Corps in Hungary, the US corporate leadership immediately thought of the Seinfeld episode and wanted to never bring up my nickname. But somehow, unofficially, this nickname stuck with me through college. How I got named Maestro actually had something to do learning.

In High School, we had to pick an name for ourselves for the English class. Actually, the teacher picked the names. She reminded me of the soup nazi from another Seinfeld episode. Anyway, she wanted to call me Roger. Now, I don’t know how many Rogers you know but for me there was Roger the Rabbit and Roger Moore… Neither too exciting. Roger that. I wasn’t a fan of Roger. I had one week to figure it out.

Almost Famous

This was at the same time I decided to become a famous musician. Note, not just a musician but a famous one! We had an old Russian keyboard at home. No, not an electronic one. It sounded like a vacuum cleaner as its motor was pumping air through the keys. It was a terrible way to learn how to play an instrument. I spent a summer, 8 hours a day, working on separating my left and right hand. I mean, they were separate but I just couldn’t play different things with the left and right at the same time. It’s not as easy as it sounds! Especially, on a Russian vacuum cleaner. But… By the end of the summer, I could play base and chords with the left while the right was doing something completely different.

That lead to the obvious. We created a band. A band we called Imitater Kongs. Don’t even ask! With a band, comes some challenges. Someone needed to write songs. Since I was the only one who at least attempted to learn an instrument, I took on the job. I wrote songs. Never in my life anyone told me how to write a song. And that was before the Internet, so you couldn’t even search for kitty cats online…

Imitater Kongs

Here’s a “mock concert” of theImitater Kongs from the late 80’s, with a song I wrote (and played). Nobody was really good at singing either, that’s why you hear three people singing at the same time. We figure there’s a bigger chance to hit the right key if you triple them.

Back to my original question: was I really good at playing the keyboard and writing songs? No, I was horrible. But it was fun. And weirdest thing was, people who had been learning instruments for years, asked me how I did it. How I came up with songs. They could play much, much better. They could read sheets. They could even sing. Yet, they could not come up with a song. Mystery. So, that’s how the class named me Maestro after all. I am so glad Roger forced me into making and writing (pseudo) music.

Make something!

And the point is, you don’t compare yourself to the top of the chart. And when you create something new, it doesn’t matter how bad it is. You know why? Because the worst thing you ever created is still much better than the most perfect one you never tried. Go, and create something! Use a new tool! An instrument! Code! Make a game! Write a blog! Start your YouTube channel! Snapchat! Whatever! Have fun! And by the way, you should stay!

Day 20: How to fix grandma?

Today’s entry has nothing to do with grandma. It’s about the connection between the mystery of motivation, to do lists, and a chemical called dopamine.

This little visual note was one of my first attempts to use TruScribe to create a memorable clip summarizing my thoughts on the Games and Gamification Online Summit I attended in May, 2016. (The whole recap took me about 10 minutes to make.)

The reason I brought this piece of memory back is simple. The glyphs (doodles) you see in the clip are not random crix-crax doodles just to compensate my accent. They serve two main purposes: motion and meaning. Our brain is wired to pay attention to motion. That’s why all those [beep] ads are moving on the screen all the time.

The other purpose is delivering meaning. How they deliver the message is the topic of today’s brainstorming: dopamine. This is a chemical your brain releases when you accomplish something like running a marathon, winning a game, capturing a Pokemon. This accomplishment does not have to be physical. Remembering where you keys are, making a decision, etc. They are all accomplishments.

So is recognizing patterns. In whiteboard videos, a hand is drawing something. Your brain pays attention trying hard to figure out the pattern. The moment the drawing is complete, you feel accomplished. Then suddenly, another dose of excitement comes: making the association between the drawing and the meaning in the context of the clip.

That’s why it’s crucial to support your words by images that highlights the meaning, not just the words themselves. It’s an art of building a good presentation to make it engaging, you must use various ways to make association between visuals and meaning.

Here’s an example:



On one level, your brain recognizes the drawing (based on cultural filters). Then you realize the meaning: “As Shakira says, hips and numbers don’t lie“.

For a long time, I thought dopamine was the pleasure drug. I thought its purpose was to reward us for accomplishments. Then, I read some articles and researched some studies and it turns out, this might be a little more complicated than that. So, I actually wrote a separate blog to explore here.

Day 21: Which US President forced me to sleep at a railway station soaking wet?

It was the summer of 1989. As the iron curtain was falling down with the first democratic elections looming over the communist party, I just graduated from High School. When the news came that the President Bush is stopping by in Budapest as first “free country” leader to say hi to the birth of a new generation. I knew I had to be there.

The Kossuth square in Budapest, Hungary was packed hours before the designated time for his speech. We all were young, energetic and enthusiastic. The crowd that politicians thrive on. President Bush was late. And things got really worse after…

A summer storm appeared from nowhere. The crowd was inside the security parameters, nowhere to go. We got drenched. Everyone was soaking wet. But we didn’t care. There’s always a silver lining. I got the front row, right at the stage.

Finally, President Bush arrived. Some drizzling rain was still hesitantly falling, so I guess a PR person told President Bush that maybe he should ditch the umbrella, as everyone in the audience was soaking wet. He did. We cheered.

Then, completely unexpected (?), he said something like he’s going to tear his speech apart and speak from the heart. Now, that got a lot of cheers. Not from the translator. She was struggling to keep up from that moment.

It was a good speech. I don’t remember a thing but I think it was very promising. What happened after was a disaster.

Since the President was late, I missed the train that I was supposed to take home. Also, to get to the train station, first you had to take the subway. Have you ever tried going down there against that draft when you’re soaking wet? I was freezing.

Then another bad news. The train that’s left is not going home straight. I have to change at Kisujszallas. Yes, it’s bad as it sounds. On the train, I was freezing. Until, I found some newspapers and put them inbetween my clothes and my body. So, warm! Love newspapers ever since.

Back to Kisujszallas. I got off the train, it was pitch dark with not a soul around. I woke up a clerk inside and ask when my next connection was. 5am.

I looked around, grabbed some chairs in an empty waiting room and lied down for the next excruciatingly long 5 hours. Me, my newspaper and the chairs. Every time someone moved, coughed, mumbled I woke up. Remember, this was before cellphones and internet.

In retrospect, I can say that President Bush’s first move in Hungary was to force me to sleep in the Kisujszallas train station, on three chairs, soaking wet but filled with hope for a better future. Little I knew that soon I would be a US citizen, voting in an election that brings the first African American President into the White House.

So far, President Obama has not forced me to sleep at a railway station.

What’s the moral of the story?

Always look at the bright side of life! – says Brian.

Day 22: Follow the leader?

Here we go! Follow the leader!

I’ll give you a couple of minutes to recover…

Follow the Leader is a children’s game. One person, the Leader, is in front of the line. Everyone else lines up behind. Each follower has to do (mimic) whatever the Leader does in front. If someone can’t follow a move, they are out. The last person standing behind the Leader wins, and becomes the Leader for the next game.

Fun game, isn’t?

Now, if you’re the first person in the line, your view is clear. Everyone else has an obstructed view. The further away you’re standing from the leader, the more distorted your view gets. In fact, you might not even see the leader. You see one or maybe two people in front. And those people might not even see the leader either. You see the pattern here? You’re not even mimicking the leader! You’re mimicking people in front you, who are mimicking people in front of them…

But again, this is a children’s game and the point is for the Leader to make funky moves that nobody can’t mimic.

Are you leader or follower?

One can argue that social media has changed the definition of “follow” and “lead” in the last decade. You can follow and unfollow anyone you want on Twitter, for example. You’re not lining up somewhere in the back of the row anymore with an obstructed view. You can follow the leader directly. Also, followers are not blindly mimicking leaders anymore. In fact, many people follow each other! Nowadays following often means sharing. Sharing ideas, tools, processes, best practices, vision, etc. Following means you get exposure to relevance. In today’s digital world, the power is not in hording and distributing information. When a simple search returns billions of bits of info, the power has shifted in finding relevancy: information you need. And that’s why you need to follow people you trust. But don’t stop there! Follow some of the people they follow.

Your goal of following people might and should be different case by case. Some people you follow because their vision is so far ahead you know what’s coming in the next 5 years. Clear view of the landscape! Some people you follow to keep your skillset and tools in shape. They are maybe a year ahead of you. And some people you follow because they’re just ahead of you. What tools are they using? What processes are they following? What works today?

And don’t stop there! You should also follow some of the people who are following you. Why? Because leader is not a title, it’s a status you earn from followers.

That kid, in front of the line, who does whatever to lose everyone behind and never turns back to look, that is not a leader. It’s just a person in the front the line. Unfortunately, we see those people at many companies in leadership position.

So, next time you see someone in front of the line who acts like “mimick me or you’re out,” remember:

That person is not a leader. That person is just a person in front of the line.

Who to follow?

Here’s a list of L&D professionals Brian Washburn put together to start with. Not sure if social media is for L&D at all? Read Shannon Tipton’s blog.  Are into workplace learning? Start with these 101 people Jane Heart put together for you. And of course, follow me if you’re into “Engage the WORL&D.”

What’s next?

As for me, my next goal is to participate more in chats. Now, I also have a life, and right now, it’s challenging to juggle other things, but #lrnchat and #guildchat are on my to do list.

Day 23: Instructional Designer, is your job in danger?

Never heard of a Bűvös kocka? No wonder it didn’t take off under its original Hungarian name. Ever heard of Rubik’s Cube? Same thing. Magic Cube, as it was originally called, in Hungarian is Bűvös kocka. Ernő Rubik invented it around 1975. Hence the name, Rubik’s Cube.


When I was 10, it was decided by the communist regime that we must collect toys and send them to Nicaragua to show our solidarity. No explanation. No nothing. Bring your favorite toys kids, and send them away. We were children but not stupid. This was no way volunteerism or solidarity. We were voluntold to bring in a toy to send to a country we had no clue about. Anyway, I brought in a Rubik’s Cube. I figured this would be a really good fit for a country in the middle of a civil war.


And here and now, I officially beg for forgiveness! If you were the child who received my Rubik’s Cube (although, I doubt that the communists actually shipped the toys) desperately trying to solve it, you were doomed. In my momentary lapse of reason and frustration as a child to give away his toy, I confess that took it apart, and put it together deliberately so that it cannot be solved. And for that, I am truly sorry!

Have you ever taken a Rubik’s Cube apart? Tons of tiny little pieces. Every little cube is actually a moving piece around the core, which is in the middle. Fascinating structure. What does it have to do with workplace learning?

Mr. Rubik didn’t set out there to invent a toy. He worked at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. He had a business problem to solve:

solving the structural problem of moving the parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart.

Rubik’s Cube solved the business problem while created one of the world’s best selling toys ever. But the point is, we should NEVER forget about the business goal.

Instructional Designers should not focus on designing courses and even curating content. We should focus on resolving problems. Sometimes, that means we design a solution that allows people to grow their knowledge or skills, which they apply to resolve the problem. BUT! Sometimes it means, we should directly work with the business and resolve the problems by offering solutions that is nothing to do with training. And sometimes it is about motivating people who already know what and how to do. If you’re in Instructional Designer and all you do is coloring the outside of the Rubik’s Cube, no matter how your coloring skills are, your job is in danger. That my friend, can be done by robots.

Remember Rubik’s Cube! We’re not in the business of making toys, we’re problem solvers!

Day 24: Are you suffering from PD? How bizarre?

Someone much smarter said this once: if the only time you brush your teeth when you go to your annual dentist visit, soon, you’re going to have as many teeth as friends.

How bizarre?

Professional development is similar. If the only thing you do to care for your professional development is going to a conference or a training once a year, you’re going to have as many cavities in your head as holes in your theoretical thinking.

On the flipside, if you’re working out loud, sharing your work, learning new tools and reading studies on the subject (basically doing PD 24/7), you may hurt yourself! Seriously!

I’ll say this only once!

I had a project management training once, because it is good to have project management knowledge for everyone, right? Right. Except, putting people in one room, where some of them think that the critical path leads to the ER, while others have been using the Monte Carlo simulation for risk assessment frequently, you know what will happen. Bizarre things will happen.

The Facilitator for that workshop was a particular individual exhibiting all symptoms of the classic ego-boosted blunt force trauma. He literally said: “Now, I want you to grab your pens and write this down. This is very, very important. I’ll say it only once. And it’s very important. And guess what, it’s not in the book!”

And I was like: “Excuse, me! So, we either hired the gatekeeper of all PM secrets here, or whoever made this book forgot to include the most important thing? How bizarre?”

He also insisted that I should underline certain words. If I don’t underline them, I won’t remember them, he said. WOW! Could that be the bizarrest secrets of all? I’ve been typing everything underlined ever since.

Another botched professional development attempt lasted weeks. I don’t like Mondays ever since.

But with all seriousness, is it the problem of the PD content? Delivery? Vendor? Us, who “read ahead in the book?” Should we just not learn things until it comes packaged in a PD training course like everyone else?

PD can be a huge motivator in the workplace (and I’m not even evoking the M word for a generation), but only if it’s a good match with what workers actually want. I repeat: from the worker’s perspective. Not from a leadership’s checkbox perspective.

But, unless you work with elephants, acrobats, lions and monkeys, I would still suggest going full steam ahead! How bizarre?

Day 25: A game of chess?

In sixth grade, I won the chess championship at school. Actually, it was a tie, but as I vaguely remember, according to the teachers, the decisive factor was our composition. As in the other guy was probably cursing or laughing at the losers? Not sure. Thing is I never liked chess.

What I actually used the chess pieces was making up stories between two rival gangs (naturally black and white). Kind of game of thrones.

If you know me, you know I’m a big proponent of Game Thinking (gamification and game-based learning) for learning. I grew up playing games. There was a tradition in our family to buy a different board game every year, and play it during the holidays.

Playing cards with friends and extended family was hours of entertainment. If you’ve ever played Robber’s Rummy with 4-5 people, you know it’s a mind gym. You must be able to play hundreds of moves in your head, while watching others playing in case they screw up your plan. In college, we would pull all nighters playing Risk. Speaking of Risk.

With this tradition running in my family it seemed a natural move to get a board game when my fiance’s family was visiting us in Hungary for the first time. What risk? I mean, what can go wrong, right? My parents, me and my fiance, her brother and my would-be in laws bonding over a board game.

I searched on Amazon to get something really good and exciting. Based on raving reviews, we landed on Axis and Allies. Axis and Allies is a second world war strategy board game. Perfect for family bonding.



The first hour I spent on breaking out all the damn soldiers, tanks, aircraft and you name it from the plastic mold. But then the fun began. We all gathered around the table and picked a country. I opened the 12 page booklet, titled Rules, and started reading it to educate everyone. Now, there was no pictures in the Rules book, just text. Solid 12 pages. By the time I got to page 3, confusion ensued around the table. Somehow the rules I was reading didn’t make any sense.

Someone suggested just making up our own rules and play. Others voted this suggestion down. Arguments took over the initial enthusiasm about this idea. Looking around the table I started to understand why WW II broke out. After an hour of struggling with the 12 page rules, we decided not to play after all.

Lessons learned, sometimes over complicating an experience is no the best idea. Some games do a great job introducing you gradually to the fun via four phases: discovery (wow, this looks cool!), onboarding (okay, what I am doing here?), scaffolding (what’s the best strategy to win?), endgame (how to beat everyone?).

Each phase, your needs and skills are different. Settlers of Catan is a great example. When you play it for the first time, you may just set the board as it comes by default, and play one game. As you get the hang of it, you can now build a strategy (go for longest route or invent?). If you’re really good at it, there are extensions to make the gameplay more challenging (ships, market, etc.). We’ve found Catan the best board game to play with friends.

And by the way, back to my story with Axis and Allies. After everyone left, I started putting back everything to the box when I saw something at the bottom…

It was the Rules. Now I got confused. Rules? What were we reading then for 12 pages? I looked at the 12 page document again and I realized what it was: Clarification to the Rules.

Keep it simple, folks! Just keep it simple!

Day 26: How to break into Instructional Design?

I attended the ATD ICE in May conference this year, not as a speaker but a “normal” attendee. Although, I couldn’t resist sneaking in some grass root gamification and created a scavenger hunt/trivia mobile game called JAMES BOUND.


One of the tasks was actually to go to a location (Hard Rock Cafe) to get points. The app was using a GPS locator to track your position. Little I knew that Pokemon Go would steal my idea two months later 🙂

But that’s not the point of the post. Through that little gamification project, I met lots of people. Some were gamification and game design gurus, L&D thought leaders, etc. But I also had the pleasure to talk to a lot of people who are new to Instructional Design. They all had the same question, how to break into this field. Most importantly, how to break the catch 22 of portfolio dilemma: I need a portfolio to get a job. I need a job to build my portfolio.

Here’s my two cents:

Build Your PPT!

No, that’s not PowerPoint. Here’s three action items I recommend:

    Network. In my previous post on Day 22, I dove into this in more details. Follow people and see what they see. Find a local chapter. Talk shop! Do not just rely on infographics floating around. Join a community like Articulate eLearning heroes. It’s not about the tool, it’s about connecting with people, learning from people and sharing with people.
    Learn more about 4 processes: ADDIE, Agile, SAM and Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping. Be familiar with gamfication and microlearning. At least at a cocktail bar conversation level. You’ll find that a lot of companies are using some variation of these. If you’re looking for a strategic advantage in the field, buld your people skills as much as process skills. Learn about negotiation, risk management, project management. While today you may see Instructional Designer working with “content” most of the time, in the future (IMHO), you’ll have to be much more business focused. And that means dealing with people.
  3. TOOLS
    Download the trials: Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, Lectora. Again, you will probably run into one of these any place you go. Downloading the trial is not enough. Build interactions. You don’t need to build a whole course! Show in your portfolio that you can SOLVE BUSINESS PROBLEMS!Nobody cares about the tools. Hiring managers care about your ability to work with others and quickly produce results. Business results. Not learning objectives.

In your portfolio, summarize what the business problem is and then show how your solution addresses it that!

Day 27: Why would anyone want to read this?


Are stepping out of your comfort zone?

Stepping out of your comfort zone is like venturing into the dark. It has this distinguishable feeling of fear. It’s even painful. But it’s the pain of growing, you’re literally stretching your head. It happens when you’re doing something new that feels uncomfortable.

Our daughter was about 9 months old when we had to make the ultimate decision. Move her to her own crib to sleep. If you’re a parent, you know what it means. There are hundreds of books on this subject: the 4, 5, and 7 step crib-training approaches. One more painful than the other. I read them all. To my daughter to see if she likes any of them. Not really.

Then we got a tip from one of our friends: the wine method. Here are the steps of the wine method:

  1. You grab a glass, big glass of wine of your choice.
  2. You take that glass to the room where you put your child in the crib.
  3. You establish a good night routine and firmly say good night.
  4. You stay in the room with the child. And drink. Why? Because that child will scream and shake the gates of hell out of the crib. It will last about 20-30 minutes. (I actually brought a whole bottle of wine.)
  5. Once the child is out, you can leave.
  6. Next day, you repeat the same procedure. Including the wine.
    However, the fights gets shorter, like 15 minutes.
    In a week, the child will simply go to sleep in the crib.

In a couple of days it did happen. I was sitting there with my big glass of wine and my daughter just went to sleep. Now what? I finished the wine.

A month later she knew the routine much better than we did and slept in the crib with no problem. Funny thing is, even a year later, I had my wine with my just in case 🙂

Both us parents and our daughter had to step out from the comfort zone and try something new and scary. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it.

How’s your comfort zone?

Let’s face it, at least one time in your life you felt the urge to write a blog, make a video and post it on YouTube, post an article, author a book, or just ask something smart in an meeting, whatever. Then you heard this voice in your head:

Why would anyone be interested in this?

Suddenly, you see a nightmare scenario unfold in your imagination: your high school teacher pointing out your grammar mistakes, your first ex boyfriend/girlfriend laughing at you while you’re pretending to be cool, a coworker who always knows a better way to do things, Kim Kardashian smirking at your outfit. You start having nightmares of standing naked in front of a silent crowd under the spotlight realizing you’re supposed to sing the national anthem. And of course, you remember neither the words nor the tune.

As you postpone your creative actions, you feel good. For the moment, you’re proud that you even thought about stepping out of your comfort zone. But come tomorrow…

And you’re right! Exposing yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone could lead a complete disaster and humiliation. Or not? Thing is, you will never know.

But based on stats, it’s more likely that there’s someone out there who would be interested in your thoughts vs. you standing naked in front of a crowd singing the national anthem.


How to start a blog mentally?

So, here’s a 5-step process of stepping out of your comfort zone to start (v)blogging:

  1. Grab your favorite inspirational drink. Big glass.
  2. Write something you’re passionate about. Not what you think people want to know! Here’s a simple way to decide that: if someone reading/watching your post want to know more, would you be happy to chat with the person about the topic, and exchange ideas? If yes, go for it.
  3. Did I say to drink at #1? No. I said grab it!! Get ready. Here’s #4:
  4. Ask someone who you trust to read it first. Ask them to give a thumbs up or down for publishing. Why? A friend’s feedback is always extremely biased. They will give you the thumbs up. (If not, you do need to tweak it anyway. Drink!) So, what’s the point then? You have just shared your thoughts. You are a blogger! Congrats! Drink!
  5. Find your voice! Use your voice and listen to the echo. Write. Repeat.

And if all of this still haven’t convinced that there is an audience for every school of thought, watch this:

Day 28: How to think creatively?

Moment of Insight

A year ago I put together a creative, two minute animation for learning about Variables, Triggers and Conditions in Storyline 2. A year later, it has the reached the milestone of 1,000 views. Many people asked about the process of coming up with creative ideas like that. I didn’t really have a good answer until I read David Rock’s book, Your Brain At Work.

The ARIA Model

In his book, David Rock walks you through the ARIA model (Awareness, Reflection, Insight, Action). This is exactly how it feels when you come up with a creative idea. Here are the brief phases (read the book more details):


This is the phase where you state the problem and activate the prefrontal cortex of your brain. Simplify the problem with a short statement: I want to explain variables, conditions and triggers in a simple way.

And here comes the hard part. Do NOT try to solve this problem. That would not result in a new, creative approach. Let it “sink”.


This phase is about reflecting on your thoughts. Again, it’s not about resolving the issue or getting down to the details. Think high level. Way above the details to activate an unfocused state of mind with the power of regions in the right hemisphere. Ideas can emerge freely here. Do not discard anything. There is a time for constructive criticism, but not now.


This phase is fascinating. A burst of gamma band waves hit the brain with the fastest brain waves you can get. Neurons are firing in union back and forth. It’s a brief moment with an energetic punch. This is the “A-HA” moment.


This is your chance to harness the energy and creative burst from the Insight phase. It’s powerful but short-lived. You must grab the moment and make it happen!

Try this next time when you need to brainstorm!

Day 29: How's your 780 page masterpiece going?

It was during my college years when I dabbled with theater for a little. In an English language drama club we were putting the Lady of Larkspur Lotion by Tennessee Williams on stage. I played the role of a writer of some sort. It’s a play about reality (cockroaches and rent) vs. dreams, the land of what could have been. This writer character is supposedly working on a 780 page masterpiece, often waiting for the muse to show up at the bottom of liqueur bottles. The play is about life, illusions and power of resilience.

This is not me but you can get a sense of the doom and gloom here.

Long story short, I had a long-long emotional outburst in the play, which I concluded drinking half of the flask I happened to find in my robe’s pocket. We practiced for weeks. Of course, not drinking whiskey. We found some tea that looked like somewhat of a whiskey color. Everything went well, my emotional dialog, drinking, drama.

Until performance day. About half an hour before start, someone knocked the bottle of “whiskey” down and it broke into pieces. I was already wearing my robe and looked like a real bummed could’ve been… We had no time to waste. I ran to the nearest grocery (store in my robe) and looked for something that looks like whiskey. Now, this was in Hungary, where you can actually buy not only beer or wine but hard liqueur in stores as well. I bought a bottle of this:

If you look closely, you see it’s 36% alcohol. I poured out some right before the play to be more realistic (no hard core drinker carries a fill bottle). And off we went…

By the time I got to my emotional outburst on stage, I completely forgot about this incident. After shouting and screaming and scaring the landlord away in the play, I pulled the “tea” out and, as we practiced for weeks, I started drinking. By the time I realized it’s the 36% alcohol that is going down, it was too late. You can’t get out of character on stage. No way.

After gulping down half the bottle I COULD NOT SPEAK. Literally, only hot air came through my throat. It was about a good 10 seconds silence before I could continue and finish the play.

Funny thing is, after the play, some of the people in the audience said how effective that pause was. Little they knew how. 36% effective.

How does this relate to L&D?

  1. Do not ever write anything that is 780 page long. Neither reality, nor in fantasy. An unwritten, never finished blog of 780 pages is as good as two birds in the bush tweeting over spilled milk.
  2. If you’re just getting into L&D, maybe freelancing, here’s a piece of advice: don’t think that you’ll be always judged based on your knowledge, skills and background. Technology comes and goes. Theory is only sexy for L&D, the business does not care about it.You’ll be more likely judged by your resilience and adaptability. Based on how fast you react, and how effective you are at solving problems. Things happen all the time. Resilience is key!
  3. When things happen, do not get out of character! Not at the moment. Finish your mission first, then make a note. Lessons learned, recoveries survived are gold!
  4. Don’t forget to share your gold!


Day 30: 7 seconds of fame?

Well, thank for reading the last 29 days! Or some of them! Now that we’ve covered some stories from the past, on the last day, I wanted to leave you with the future.

Did you notice how time changes? Or better say, the perception of time changes? If you watch an old (?) movie, don’t you have the feeling that you somehow you remembered it much more action-packed and exciting? Even cartoons from 10 years go feel like time has just sped up tremendously ever since.

This is the norm now:

A couple of months ago, my teenage daughter experienced the first exposure to sending a snail mail. She found it fascinating how you write the address and locate the proper place for the stamp on the envelope. Then, she took it to mail it. As she was mailing it, she snapped a picture and posted it on instagram. Yes, to the person she was sending the letter to, telling that the snail mail is on its way…

These are vine loops, by the way created by my daughter. Fascinating! She saved up her own money for the video editing software and spent long hours on tutorials and other people’s examples posted online. She mastered a complex video editing software on her own. Learning for a purpose. No ILT, vILT and WBT was involved in the application training. It was fueled by three things:

  1. Interest (big anime fan)
  2. Instant access to video-based tutorials (YouTube)
  3. Instant social feedback (Vine, Twitter, Snapchat)

Kids can do amazing things when motivated. When learning has a point. Instant applicability. Hands on. Social feedback. Status. Accomplishment. Internal motivation.

I’m saying this because I often see Knowles’ adult learning theory posts contrasting how adults vs. kids learn. I’m not saying those principles do not apply to adults, but since they’re called “adult” learning principles, they kind of assume that that’s what differentiate learning between adults and kids.

And that is based on the assumption that kids require external motivation and an authoritative figure to pay attention. They don’t care whether what they learn has any relevance to what their goals are. I’m just not sure today’s kids have read these principles yet.

And that concludes the 30 day challenge! Tomorrow, when I’m suffering from PCSD (post challenging syndrome disease), I’ll post a final reflection on the experience.