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Brian’s Blog

This blog has posts and news from various areas that I am interested in including storytelling, music, NLP, hypnosis, therapy, researcheducation, EFLcreativity, Ireland, tai chi, and other bits and pieces.

How to Learn Anything in 20 Hours

This is a fun video by Josh Kaufman. One of my big interests is learning, and of course helping others to learn through teaching. One of the impediments to learning that I’ve often noticed is that people are afraid of looking silly, and without stepping out of our comfort zone, we are never really going to learn anything.

In the talk, Josh addresses this issue well in this video when he says: “The major barrier to skill acquisition is not intellectual – it’s emotional. We are scared because we feel stupid when we are learning something new.” I’ve seen this same block with people trying to learn languages, trying to learn musical instruments, and trying to learn new life skills. It’s getting over that initial emotional fear of looking stupid that is key.

One of my life mottos has always been “it’s better to do it than to worry about it.” Nice to see a more thought-out version of that by Josh. Here’s the video on Youtube. Enjoy! I’ve also jotted down a quick summary below the video that may be useful.

Scientists do this kind of research. When you start something new, it takes you a long time to do it. Once you practice a lot, you need less time for this performance.

In general, we are more interested in how good we are after a certain amount of practice and it looks like this.

How long does it take to go from nothingPretty good

20 hours of focused deliberate practice (that’s about 45 minutes per day for about a month) will get you up that curve really quickly. 

But it’s not just fooling around. You need to practice efficiently with the four steps shown below. 


  1. Deconstruct the skill
    Decide exactly what you want to be able to do and chunk it down into little bits – what are the parts that are most important. Practice those first – then you’ll be able to get really good at them.
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
    Get 3-5 resources – books, Dvds, websites, etc. Don’t use them to procrastinate. Use them to learn just enough so that you can notice when you are making a mistake and then do something different.
  3. Remove barriers to practice
  4. Commit to practicing at least 20 hours
    The frustration barrier makes us feel stupid. By pre-committing to at least 20 hours, you will be able to overcome the initial frustration barrier for long enough to reap the rewards. 
    The major barrier to skill acquisition is not intellectual – it’s emotional. We are scared because we feel stupid when we are learning something new.


The Soothsayer and the Young Man

A young chap decided to visit to a soothsayer to inquire about his future.

Right before his eyes, the soothsayer drew two circles: One in white and the other in black. 

He then put a millipede in-between the circles, saying “if the millipede crawls into the white circle, it connotes your future will be great, but if otherwise, then you are doomed! You’ve lost hope!”

He dropped the insect in-between the circles, and immediately it began crawling towards the white circle. 

This chap was super-excited and was thanking his maker.

But all of a sudden, as it got to the edge of the circle, it turned back and began crawling away from the white circle towards the black one. 

The boy watched in fear as the insect progressively moved farther away from his desire to his doom.

Then, something happened. Just at a point where the insect was about to reach the edge of the black circle, this chap picked it up and quickly but carefully dropped it in the white circle. 

The soothsayer in an abrupt manner, cut in; “why did you do that?”  

The boy answered aggressively and said, “I cannot sit and watch my destiny doomed while I can still do something about it and to change its course. After-all, my destiny is in my hands.”

He got up and left the scene.


Notes: I heard this story from the wonderful hypnotist, Doug O’Brien.

Interview about hypnosis

This article appeared in a Nagoya local paper called Home News recently. It is based on an interview that I did with Koichi Takizawa, a lovely fellow who I enjoyed talking to very much.

The main heading and the main thrust of the interview is that our subconscious patterns are controlling much of our life. Often, these patterns have been running in our unconscious for many years, and they are not necessarily the most useful patterns for creating happiness in our current life. Hypnosis is one useful tool that can be used to address these patterns.  If you are interested in learning more about how you can utilize hypnosis, get in touch because I will be setting up some more hypnosis training workshops soon.

If you click on the photo below, you can read the article in full, assuming that you can read Japanese of course 🙂

A Letter for Teachers in Japan

Dear Teacher,

We hope the semester has been a good one so far. It’s hard to believe it’s over halfway finished.

We are writing to you today about a weekend workshop that may be useful to many teachers. The workshop is called “From Burnout to Brilliance.

The focus of this teacher workshop is on personal development, not only in the role of teacher, but also in the many other areas of our lives that affect us as teachers. The workshop takes place in mid-July, the time of year when grading looms, the students are lethargic, teachers are tired, and the temperatures are soaring. Prime burnout season.

Our workshop aims to help teachers to understand the causes of burnout, address the issues, and ultimately provide the tools and techniques that will help them to overcome burnout now and in the future.

To create a really relevant workshop, we have examined the research into burnout and more importantly we have interviewed teachers in Japan about what creates burnout in their career. Based on this and our other work in personal development, we have designed a series of useful activities for this workshop.

The workshop will help teachers to gain new perspectives on their work environment and other aspects of their lives, including their relationships with friends, family and workmates, their experience of living and working in a foreign country, their enjoyment, their finances, and, very importantly, their overall physical and mental health.

Over the course of two days, teachers will gain an in-depth understanding of their own personal triggers for burnout in and outside of the workplace, and learn how to address them in practical ways before burnout has a chance to set in.

If you or the teachers in your group believe that this is a workshop that will benefit you in your personal and professional lives, please join us on July 15th and 16th at Nanzan University for a weekend that may change the way you look at work forever.

If a group of 3 or more teachers from an institution would like to attend the workshop, a discount of 20% is available on the cost. In the past, some participants have used their research or teacher budget to cover the cost of the workshop, and we will work closely with you to provide any documentation you may need to complete your paperwork.

Attached is a flier that we hope you will distribute to any teachers you feel would benefit from this workshop, and do feel free to post it on bulletin boards, or distribute in the mailboxes of any teachers, full or part-time, at your school.

If you have any questions, please contact us with the form below and please have a closer look at the webpage:

Thanks for your time and interest, and we look forward to hearing from you and seeing you very soon.

All the best,

Sarah Mulvey and Brian Cullen

Standing in Spirit Training (SIS Training) and The J’Expat Network

Nagoya, Japan


Yesterday, I had a lovely show out at Misonopia, a retirement home in Seto City. Thanks to Yamashita-san, my old friend and guitar teacher from about 25 years ago, who organized the event as part of his music therapy work at the home.

It was an Irish and American music event and I enjoyed playing some Irish traditional music again with the lovely flute player, Nakane-san.

The American music was played by a very interesting husband and wife duo called Neko-ya, As the name suggests, they are cat fans and the percussion instruments were all hand-made and featured beautiful carvings of cats. They played an interesting range of instruments including nose-flute, uke, harmonica, and kazoo.

When we were leaving, the sun sent a lovely ray over us as we posed for this photo.

My Teacher

I realized it may be hard for some people to believe, but it is said my teacher Dipa Ma could bake a potato in her hand and, even better, make it taste like chocolate…

She could walk through walls… She was known to duplicate her body and demonstrably be in two places at once…

Sometimes, walking through the streets of Rangoon at night, she materialized a companion for herself…

She also spontaneously appeared out of nowhere for appointments with her teacher…

Dipa Ma could read your mind and reveal what you kept hidden in your heart…

One time she looked one month into the future and described the exact content of speech that U THANT the secretary-general of the United Nations, was going to deliver…

She could send her mind to different realms of experience and back thousands of years to hear the Buddha give a talk…

She could do many things we normally consider unbelievable…

Dipa Ma never used these powers for public display, but at times they became one of her teaching tools with people she trusted…

She always used them without fanfare or egotism –rather, like a natural, almost casual offering of a very different perspective on things.

Witnessing such phenomena certainly expanded our notions of the universe and the boundaries of life…

They revealed a far bigger world than I had imagined…

Phenomena such as these psychic powers happen within the laws of nature…

They are considered paranormal only because of our definition of what is normal is very limited…

Even with a slight expansion of our understanding, we push against usual definitions of the laws of nature. We have, for instance, learned to play at the edge of gravity, and thus we routinely fly from place to place and even explore outer space..

The level of psychic powers that Dipa Ma demonstrated result from the mastery of concentration…

In Buddhism, concentration is considered to be the path of power, because as we concentrate, all of our usually scattered energy comes together into wholeness…

The more we concentrate, the more energy returns to us, and this energy empowers us…

With highly developed concentration, it is possible to experience that moment or pivotal point where conventions of time and space, matter and solidity first arise.

At that point, the world is very malleable…

However, because psychic phenomena happen through power of mind rather than through wisdom, they are not considered ultimately freeing.

This is why students are encouraged not to be seduced by them…

Munindra taught these practices to Dipa Ma because she had a natural concentration, and because they are ancient practices he wished to revive…

Most important, he taught them to Dipa Ma because he knew her purity of heart, and that she wouldn’t misuse them…

All the while he was guiding her in developing these powers, he held their attainment in clear perspective, saying “These powers are not important.

Enlightenment is important.

These powers can bring one’s downfall if used wrongly, if used with ego, thinking that ‘you’ are the one that is powerful…

These powers are little things…

It is fun, like magic…

It is not important…

Wisdom is important”…

While these powers may seem remarkable and highly advanced, the path of concentration does not necessarily purify our view of the nature of life, our vision of the truth…

Concentration may not clarify our sense of who we are and what lives are about…

It’s through the development of wisdom the we discover the true nature of our minds, of our thoughts and feelings…

Paying very careful attention, we see that the body and mind, which have seemed solid and defined entities, are actually a bubbling, dancing, constantly changing flow of events…

We see that this mind and body, while distinguishable, are also inseparable and interdependent…

We see how the body affects the mind and the mind affects the body, in a great interplay of being…

We see the laws of interdependence in the world around us and realize we are joined to all in this immeasurable flow we called life…

Recognition of our interdependence brings forth unfabricated loving kindness…

Through mastery of concentration, we might find the natural world more vast than we have supposed it to be, we might be able to play in the world in an extraordinary way, but that is not the freedom our practice intends…

Upandita’s translator, struggling to express these concepts in English, once said, “One can have all these powers and do all those amazing things and still be a … um, um, …. a loser”…

True freedom is the fulfillment of wisdom and boundless compassion…

Our ability to see clearly and love fully are the greatest of powers…

Dipa Ma was adept in both the path of power and the path of wisdom…

And even though she had such extraordinary psychic powers, whenever I think about her, what I recall as most remarkable is that she was empty of self, and the most loving person I have ever met…

– Sharon Salzerb / The Practice of Transformation

– A Heart as wide as the World

(日本語) Goodnight to Jukebox Paradise

Wow, that was fun.

Over 50 people involved – amazing group of people – all doing it for a love of theatre and fun and life. Thank you to you all for getting involved in a little idea that started in the head of a much younger me in Dublin way back in 1989.

The cast did an amazing job of bringing the songs and the story to life.

Ah the songs and the music of Jukebox Paradise. As musical director for Jukebox Paradise, and the writer of the songs, these little songs have been my obsession for the last 12 months and long before. Writing, composing, arranging, performing, editing, reshaping, rewriting, adjusting to fit the cast, adjusting to fit the flow of the story… these songs have flowed in and out of so many people’s lives and yet are still hanging out in my head.

On our cast mailing list and in personal conversations, people are telling me how the songs are still going around and around their heads. I know, I know! That was what I set out to do – to create little song viruses that get stuck in people’s heads. Of course, I caught the virus myself and the songs are on constant play in my head. It’s at night when the internal jukebox in my head turns on loudest and it has kept me awake too many nights since the show successfully closed on the evening of December 4. Kids who came to the show and hardly understood a word are singing the chorus of these songs and driving their parents mad. Mission completed 😉

Coindrop62 were the band that created the sound of the Jukebox. And what a band.
The final night was a completely full house. The Saturday evenings were full. And all of the other shows had a great turnout.
More importantly, the feedback from the audience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“That was hard work. You made me cry three times, and then made me laugh three times.”

The messages and themes of the show got through to many people, too.
“ … “

Goodnight and thank you, Jukebox Paradise. We sure have had fun together and I look forward to seeing you on other stages in the future. In the meantime, there are other fun projects ahead.


I love going out to Gifu. It’s less than 30 minutes from Nagoya, but it feels like a different world out there. First, I went to an interesting Gifu JALT presentation by Phil McCasland. Phil talked about developing an entrepreneurial mindset through narrative and gave lots of interesting examples from his own classes as well as extracts from a government paper showing the official perspective.

As this article on the dearth of entrepreneurship in Japan concludes:

“Japanese often need to be persuaded that entrepreneurship is another possible path to success, and not just a path that entails risk and shame. Unfortunately, an overhaul of the social and educational structure in Japan might be needed before it can happen.”

In the book, GOAL, that I authored with Ben Backwell, we follow the same kind of thinking. We aimed to have students think more creatively and to show more initiative. There is no simple answer to counter the low level of entrepreneurship and independent thinking, but it is clear that something needs to change in Japan in order for the economy to get fresh energy from young people who have the courage and ability to start new businesses.

After the JALT presentation, I went out to play at a gig In KJs Yanagase, one of my favourite places to play.


What can managers do to promote trust in the workplace?

In a good article on the neural basis of trust, Paul J. Zak examines how managers (and everyone else) can help to foster trust in the people around them. People all around the world, regardless of culture or language, are naturally inclined towards trusting other humans. It makes sense that it would be an evolutionary trait because if you imagine a human society of 30,000 years ago, the other humans nearby were much more likely to help than any other creatures who were roaming around.

Over many years of research, first with rats and then with humans, Zak has shown that trust is connected to the chemical oxytocin.  The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old and  the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature.

But of course, anyone who has ever worked in a company or any other large organization knows that trust is not necessarily all that common. Poor communication within companies is a big drain on the potential growth of the company and this poor communication is usually a result of insufficient trust.

Having trust in the workplace is useful. In fact, Zak’s research reports that companies who are in the top quartile of trust ratings have a relative productivity boost of 50%. That is a lot of extra productivity, but how can managers create this trust. See the Harvard Business Review article for more benefits of trust in the workplace.

In Zak’s experiments, the researchers injected people with artificial oxytocin to increase trust levels. That is all very well in a laboratory but probably less practical in the average company where workers have rights and don’t necessarily want to be injected with a day’s worth of trust chemical when they clock in at 9am.

So, managers need to somehow create trust through everyday workplace behaviours, the way that it has been done for at least the last 30,000 years.

Recognize excellence

When something is good, let the person know. People like to be acknowledged. False praise is unsustainable and unbelievable in the long term, so choose the aspects of performance that are genuinely high quality.

Induce “challenge stress”

Give workers challenging but achievable tasks. Push people to their limits but not too far beyond! To me, this is reminiscent of the concept of Flow put forward by the psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Wikipedia offers the following definition of flow:

flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Give people discretion in how they do their work

Set a clear goal, but let people find their own ways to do that. People need to feel agency.

Enable job crafting

Job crafting essentially means trusting your employees deeply and allowing employees to develop and craft their own jobs over time. After all, an employee probably is the expert on whatever their job is, so presumably they know how it can be improved. Job crafting can be tricky and may definitely cause issues in traditional or hierarchical workplaces.

Share information broadly

It’s easy to share information now by putting it on the internal network. While being careful not to cause information overload, people become more trusting of the company when they are allowed access more information.

Intentionally build relationships

Of course, the task is important. At work, we want to get something done. But if we really want to get something done by a group of people, it is a whole lot easier and quicker to get it done when they are getting along well with each other. Managers should take the time to build relationships with employees and between employees.

Facilitate whole-person growth

The assembly line is still alive in some parts of the world, but most managers now recognize that Taylorism is not a perfect model (Taylor was the guy who created the theory and practical model of the conveyor belt assembly belt where every piece of work was measured and timed.) People are not just cogs in a machine. They need to be treated as whole people, and doing so creates trust.

Show vulnerability

Finally, show your own humanity by occasionally being vulnerable. You don’t need to cry and hug all your employees, but opening up just a little to them about your own doubts and worries can make them remember that no-one is perfect. More importantly, it leads to more trust.



Scared by his Shadow

This is a great little Taoist story which relates to the concept of Wu Wei or “non-action”. I first heard a version of the story on an audio book version of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, a wonderful book that is well worth checking out.

There was a man who was so scared by the sight of his own shadow and so worried by his own footsteps, that he decided to try to get rid of them.

So he got up and ran and tried to leave his shadow and his footprints behind.

But every time he put his foot down, he found that there was another step, and his shadow kept up with him without any difficulty at all, no matter how fast he ran.

He thought he was failing because he wasn’t running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally fell down dead.

The man had failed to understand something like simple. You see, if you just step into the shade, your shadow will vanish, and if you sit down and stay still, there will be no more footsteps.

The Weather Forecaster

Once upon a time there was a king who wanted to go fishing. He called the royal weather forecaster and inquired as to the weather forecast for the next few hours. The weatherman assured him that there was no chance of rain in the coming days.

So the king went fishing with his wife, the queen. On the way he met a farmer on his donkey.
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Storytelling in Business

One of my favourite hypnotists and storytellers is the New York based Doug O’Brien. He has a beautiful voice and a great way with words. He is also a musician and that may be one of his secrets. In one of his recent newsletters, he gave a great list of quotes about stories in business. Thanks Doug!

1.  “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around …”
Terry Pratchett, novelist

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The Trump Addiction

This is not a completely serious post, yet it is a little serious 😉

I have recognised a new addiction within myself – the Trump addiction – and it appears that I am not alone. Donald Trump is not only the top news item in the world. It is also way ahead of any other news item that is read or searched for on Google. Each morning, I find myself almost hoping that there is a new Trump-ism for me to read. An outrageous tweet is best. It can provoke half the country (and delight Trump’s base) or strongly criticize a large section of society (e.g. the Media, the Judiciary).
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Motivation is not constant

There is an interesting piece of research that shows just how much motivation varies even over a short period of time. Dr Julia Dietrich of Friedrich Schiller University investigated students’ motivations in 10 lessons. In each lesson, they recorded their level of motivation at that particular moment using smart phones (or paper).

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Indra and the Monster

There is a wonderful story in one of the Upanishads about the god Indra. Now, it happened at this time that a great monster had enclosed all the waters of the earth, so there was a terrible drought, and the world was in a very bad condition. It took Indra quite a while to realize that he had a box of thunderbolts and that all he had to do was drop a thunderbolt on the monster and blow him up. When he did that, the waters flowed, and the world was refreshed, and Indra said, “What a great boy am I.”

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The Zeiganik Effect and Stress Management

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist and involved in the Vygotsky Circle. I’ve always been interested in the social learning theories of Vygotsky, and his work was quite influential on language teaching for a while way back. So I was interested when Zeigarnik’s work arose in the context of a hypnosis training that I was taking under the instructorship of Dr. Richard Harte in the United States. I was reminded of the Zeigarnik effect recently when Dr. Harte sadly passed away.

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The Age of Learning

We have reached an amazing point with technology where for the first time in history, anyone who really wants to learn pretty much anything has the resources to do so. Recently, I’ve been improving my piano skills with a wonderful course from Udemy. I had never even heard of Udemy until about a month ago when a friend mentioned the site to me, and now I am enrolled in several courses, having a whole lot of fun learning useful stuff.

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Preparing for Saint Patricks Day

I got back into playing Irish music for the first time in ages last night. I did a show at the Shamrock Irish pub in Fushimi. Thanks to Frank for the photograph. Lovely crowd and it’s nice to play for an audience who are fairly familiar with the genre. Last year, music was all about Jukebox Paradise and rock and roll. This year, I’m looking forward to playing a bit more Irish music and getting back to my roots.

Farewell to Dr. Richard Harte, NGH Hypnosis Trainer

I just heard the sad news that Dr. Richard Harte has passed away from a heart attack. I have fond memories of Dr. Harte training us in our Train the Trainer course at the NGH (National Guild of Hypnotists) near Boston two years ago. Dr. Harte was one of the most experienced hypnotists and psychologists that I ever had the honour of meeting, and his lessons were a great mix of technique, stories of his own experiences, and fun adventures. We had a lovely evening at the NGH convention where I pulled out my little mini travel ukelele and Dr. Harte got way into singing along with all the songs. Continue Reading…