Book Review-Great Speeches for Better Speaking

I’m always trying to improve my craft. As it pertains to my keynote and educational speaking, it’s not always easy to find people who can press me to improve. That’s why I took the standup comedy course years ago as I described in my post I am a Comedian. While that was a very indirect path to improving my work as a speaker, the book Great Speeches for Better Speaking
is a much more direct approach.

Components of a Speech

The history of public speaking traces its roots back to ancient Greece. Plato viewed intellectual legitimacy based on three criteria:

  • a craft had to have definable and distinct subject matter
  • whose theoretical principles could be articulated and mastered
  • in service to the public good.

Socrates was concerned about rhetoric and the power of speech because of its ability to create the appearance of expertise where none actually exists. In fact, Socrates believed that rhetoric was primarily concerned with appearance and not about truth or justice.

However, the most powerful case for rhetoric is found in Aristotle’s work On Rhetoric. His position was that we could preserve the working democracy through the training of everyone in the art of oratory. In that way people could use the power for good.

Aristotle believed that the power of public speaking came from three sources:

  • The favorable light of the speaker (ethos)
  • The provocation of emotions (pathos)
  • The force of reason (logos)

The Violence of Speech

Humans are the only species on the planet who have the capability to resolve conflict by force of oratory persuasion rather than the introduction of physical violence. Certainly there are oratory constructs such as yelling and screaming that have more in common with physical violence than impassioned reason, but our ability to resolve the differences in perceptions and values through communication (oral or otherwise) is unique to our species.

Brené Brown speaks of guilt and shame in her book Daring Greatly. These are ways that our words can tear down others. We can name-call. And while “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is an often-repeated phrase, it’s not truth. Our words have the ability to build people – and a society – up or to tear them down. Aristotle wanted to arm everyone with the weapons of good public speaking to deter anyone from seeking to harm another with the violence of their speech.

Persuasive Speech

Of the speeches studied in the book, most fit cleanly into the structure of a persuasive argument. A few, however, have a more subtle goal of persuasion. In the case of Regan’s address following the Challenger explosion, it seems like there is no persuasion present. However, when viewed more broadly, one can quickly realize that the objective of the address is to persuade the American public into the belief that there was meaning in the deaths of the astronauts, and that though we will mourn, it will be OK.

In the case of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, the objective is to persuade Americans to step up and do their part to remake the great country by asking what they can do for their country and for their fellow man rather than asking what they can get. The persuasion isn’t about changing their view on a particular issue but is instead asking the audience (all of America) to change their world view. This is a much loftier goal than most persuasive arguments.

Structure of an Argument

If the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, then the basic structure of persuasion is an important part of any speech. There are three major components of the argument. The first is the premise. The premise is the idea that supports the conclusion. Next is the warrant. The warrant provides additional evidence or provides a connection between the premise and the claim. The final part is the claim. That is, the claim is the logical outcome of the premise plus the warrant or warrants. This structure is a simplified version of the work of Steven Toulmin in The Uses of Argument.

Often persuasive speeches start with a premise with which everyone agrees. Movement proceeds from what everyone agrees with into areas where there may be some disagreement, before proceeding to the point where there is known disagreement and for which the speech is prepared.

Agree Then Disagree

When trying to persuade an audience, you must address all three of Aristotle’s sources of power. First is to create a favorable light for oneself so that the audience will even listen to the rest of the message. This is what we’re doing when we start by stating things with which everyone will agree. However, more than this it’s possible (and recommended) to speak to how you and your audience are similar. That is, why it is that you might have differences but are more alike with them than different. Ted Kennedy focused on his being American and Catholic to his audience at Liberty Baptist College. While his views may have varied substantially from most of his audience, there were aspects of his beliefs and values that they shared, and he wanted to ensure they were aware of it.

By building what The Heart and Soul of Change would call “allegiance”, Kennedy’s message had the possibility of resonating on the hearts of his audience to build his ethos.

Finding the Framing

Randal Terry might not have been the first to utter the words “He who frames the issue wins the debate,” but he was the one who used those words to powerfully drive his agenda of pro-life. Whoever the initial author of the quote, there is truth in the words. The person who is able to successfully frame the issue will win the debate – or in this case, the hearts and minds of the audience. This means that careful work must be done to frame the issue in a way that makes the proposed course of action the logical choice.

The other framing is the use of a structural motif. A structural motif is a repeated word or phrase, like the chorus of a song, that brings everyone back to a common point. Structural motifs provide a rhythm and realignment of the speech and ensures that everyone returns to the common point before venturing off into another area of the argument. By echoing the same phrase, the momentum of the presentation can build.

Who Makes the Connection

In speaking, there’s a question to be answered about whether the speaker should be the one who draws the line between two ideas, or whether that connection should be made by each member of the audience individually. There are numerous techniques and reasons for leaving the audience to fill in the details for themselves, and perhaps equally as many reasons why one would make the connection explicit.

When a topic is distasteful or when the connection is related to the listener’s personal experience, allowing the listener to make the connection is important. You can describe the evils of the world in broad, sweeping terms and encourage the listener to fill in their own personal perception of the evil. This minimizes the negative valence on the speech and frees it up to be inspiring.

The nature of people is that we all have similarities in our experiences but we also have differences. When a speaker is working with an audience where the precise perception of a topic is unknown and the audience’s specific issue may be completely opaque to the orator, then utilizing techniques that allow the listener to create their own connection is a useful way to create the appearance of alignment where there is less alignment really present.

Consider Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which encouraged people to have a dream – their own personal dream that followed the structure of Dr. King’s dream, but was at the same time uniquely personal.

However, utilizing these techniques assumes that the audience is sufficiently motivated to attempt to make the connection, and further that they have the information necessary to make the connection. If they don’t know enough about where the speaker is going or about the subject, they won’t be able to make the leap across the conceptual gap.

It is these times when it’s necessary to walk someone through the specific connections that need to be made between concepts. It’s necessary to be explicit about how two or more concepts are related.

Bringing it Home – Delivery

One of the things that I learned from my work with comedy is that sometimes when a comic takes a drink on stage, it’s not really a drink. They may take in a beverage. They may actually take a drink; however, the timing of the drink isn’t accidental. In fact, the timing of the drink and the body language of the comic may be designed to enhance the power of the joke or punchline. Ron White is a master at this. He’s frequently seen on stage with a glass of hard liquor and a stirring straw that he frequently uses to break or change the cadence of his delivery.

The cadence of delivery can have a profound effect on the impact of the speech. In comedy we spoke of “stepping on the laugh” – that is, starting with the next joke or tagline before the laughter from the previous one had died down. Conversely, there’s letting the laughter die out when you allow too much time before reengaging the audience. “Simple” cadence isn’t so simple, as it requires using techniques which are designed to vary the rhythm and pace of the talk to match how the audience is responding.

Speaking as someone who does both live presentations and recorded video presentations, I have great respect for the skill that Ronald Regan had when delivering his Challenger address, because he had to get his cadence right without the benefit of being able to read the audience for timing. Of course, this is something that a movie actor practices. It is perhaps why, when Regan was asked how an actor could be president, he wonders out loud how a president could not be an actor.

In technical training, one of the frequent mistakes is the delivery of a monotone droning of information. While I see this kind of delivery all the time, it’s not something that’s appealing to the audience. In general, more positive delivery creates a more positive response in the audience; however, not every situation calls for a positive and upbeat delivery. For instance, the Challenger Address isn’t an appropriate time to be “perky.”

The actual delivery of the words can create as dramatic an effect as the words themselves. When I read Great Speeches for Better Speaking, I was reading the words from the page. While some of the speeches I remembered, most I couldn’t recall the delivery in sufficient detail to recognize the artfulness with which the speaker paused for dramatic effect or lowered their voice and slowed their delivery at important points. So when I listened to them in preparation for this post, I was surprised at how the dry words came to life and began to beat in my heart in the way that they were originally intended.


Each speaker prefers to prepare for their moment differently. Some speakers are best making off-the-cuff or impromptu speeches with very little preparation. Some speakers are more comfortable reading their speeches. Others memorize their speeches to prevent the issues with reading. Others, like myself, prefer extemporaneous speaking, which requires an understanding of the material and a rough outline.

In comedy, I learned that many things which appeared on the surface to be off-the-cuff, accidental, or impromptu were well-rehearsed. That is, while it gave the appearance that it wasn’t rehearsed, often times they were. This has created skepticism in my mind when someone appears to be doing a good job with an off-the-cuff speech.

The other comedy trick I learned was the idea of “savers”. That is a technique that a comic uses to pull the audience back when a joke falls flat or they’re not getting the reaction they want. One of my favorite savers is from my buddy Michael Malone who will, when an audience isn’t responding, say to them, “You know this isn’t TV, right? You know I can see you.” This serves two purposes. First, it generates a laugh as the audience realizes that they’re not interacting. Second, it telegraphs his desire to interact with the audience. (I greatly admire Michael’s ability to work with an audience.)

The obvious problem that happens when reading a speech is that there is a tendency to a single-metered rate of delivery and a monotone voice, something that speakers who prefer reading their speeches carefully learn to control. Some orators prefer to memorize their speeches in order to eliminate this problem. There’s something different about recalling a speech from memory compared to reading it that makes it easier to manage the delivery.

Extemporaneous speaking follows the structure but can bend and change, and thereby reduces the challenges associated with monotone delivery, at the risk of making it impossible to hit a time target. The flexibility to read an audience and lean into a topic more because they’re reacting more is great, but only when you can control your timing to a point that you’re able to hit the time constraint or goal that you’ve been given.

There isn’t any one way to prepare for a speech. Each approach has its limitations. The point isn’t that there’s one path up the mountain for preparing for public speaking. Rather, one must find the style that works for them, and then develop skills around mitigating the potential limitations of that preparation style.

The Love of a Good Story

At the National Speakers Association (NSA) convention a few years ago, I saw a curious thing happening. (See my blog post.) I noticed that some of the speakers were telling their stories. Whether it was their rise to fame or triumph over impossible odds, there were the stories that were designed to motivate and propel people. At the same time, I heard the seasoned speakers in their workshops speaking about the techniques to help someone be a better speaker or the option to listen to their story. The moan that went through the crowd as the idea of hearing another story was palpable. It seemed that no one wanted to hear another story that wasn’t theirs and wasn’t something they could use to improve their speaking.

I think this is a special audience of people who, while recognizing the value of stories across time and today, equally recognized that these stories weren’t replicable to them. What they could take away and use were the tool, tricks, and techniques of the craft of public speaking.

We all love a story. We want to be entertained and inspired. However, if your objective is for your audience to leave and be able to actually do something else rather than having an inspirational moment, that requires the sharing of techniques and tools. It requires specific actions to be done.

A counselor and former pastor friend of mine once told me that his business as a marriage counselor picks up dramatically after the church with which he is associated runs a marriage seminar. Ostensibly, the seminar is teaching couples how to have a better marriage. However, in truth, it further exposes the reality of their current relationship, and the work that would need to be done to make it rise to the level of the utopian ideal proposed at the seminar. This is true no matter who is delivering the seminar. The result is that couples become disillusioned with their current relationship and decide that it’s broken and needs fixed. In fact, it needs so much fixing that it’s necessary to engage a professional.

The stories told in the marriage seminars are great stories. They’re stories of couples staying together after infidelity. They’re stories of couples who’ve spent their entire lives together and who die within minutes of each other. However, these stories are the exception and are not the norm. While we need stories to inspire us, we need tools and techniques to help us deliver on the promise that the inspiration leads us to.

Eliciting Emotion

In Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis, I learned of the Rider-Elephant-Path model for considering how people are motivated to change. In this model, if you want to create meaningful lasting change, you need to talk to the emotional elephant because it is the powerhouse of the psyche. It’s the elephant that gets things done.

Great speeches engage the elephant and create in the audience an emotional response (pathos). Emotions can be created by recalling the pieces of our identity or history that we’ve lost. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for the impact of loss.) Emotions can be created by the creation of a grand unifying vision such as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or Kennedy’s call to land an American on the moon and return them safely.

Powerful speeches aren’t only well-reasoned pleas to the rational rider to take the reins and steer the elephant towards a path: they directly engage the elephant and the rider to lead them in unison to the desired goal.

The Speeches

The speeches used to illustrate great oratory in the book are as follows:

While I encourage you to listen to the speeches, I believe that understanding the structure of them and having a guide to what is happening in the speeches make it well worth reading Great Speeches for Better Speaking.


Book Review-Servant Leadership

I meet monthly with a group of organizational development folks. Some of them are professors. Some are consultants. Others are practitioners in their organizations. I love the meetings because they challenge me to learn and grow. Several of the participants are connected to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. It’s through this connection that I came to read Servant Leadership.

As one of the guys, Jeff, said, Greenleaf isn’t a cheap date. That is, the material in Servant Leadership isn’t an easy read. You’ve got to stay focused, work at it, mull it over, and generally put more work into it. However, it’s worth it.

What is a Servant?

When I’m thinking about what it is to be a servant, I instantly think of Heroic Leadership and the example of the Jesuits. I think of folks who put the rules and their ego behind them to serve others. The essence of humility, as was explained in Humilitas, is power held in service to others. So a servant is quite simply one who serves others. It’s because of that service to others that other characteristics, such as humility, surface.

Great leaders are servant leaders, whether you look towards Jesus’ contributions (which nearly every religion recognizes as a great man, even if denying that he was the Messiah) or you look at present day servants such as the Dali Lama (see My Spiritual Journey for more on the Dali Lama).

What is Leadership?

The heart of leadership is the ability to lead or guide others. While there’s some belief in natural skill in the ability to lead, most scholars agree it takes some level of study to become a great leader. While leadership is often confused with management, which is coordination of objectives and managing outcomes, it’s a separate discipline which requires the ability to motivate people, and also the ability to “see the big picture” and devise a meaningful place to go. Leaders observe the current reality and create a vision for a new world that their followers would like to be in, and then set out upon the journey with them.

Modeling Servant Leadership

The challenge of leadership is the drifting away from the mission of leading people and falling victim to an ever-increasing ego, where the leadership becomes more about the power of the leader and less about how the leader is serving the needs of the followers. This is akin to the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Leaders must have a constant vigilance to ensure that their leadership doesn’t become about them and remains about the people that they’re leading – and serving.

For this, Greenleaf has a model. The model is primus inter pares – “first among equals”. That is, the organization should have a set of leaders who are peers. They hold no position over one another, but are instead a collection of similarly motivated people who care about the organization and the people it touches, both internally and externally. This equality forms the basis of limiting ego. As they hold no position of power over one another, it’s difficult for their ego to grow out of control.

The balance to this, however, is the need for someone to be able to drive the group to a decision. While the utopian idea that everyone is a peer is useful for controlling egos, it’s awful at helping the organization get things done. As a result, you need the ability for there to be a leader whose role it is to ensure that things continue to move forward. At effective law and accounting firms this might be the managing partner. That is, a partner who, for a time, is responsible for driving the discussions forward. (Admittedly, I’ve seen very few of these effective firms or effective managing partners.)

Connecting with the Cosmos

Many of the books that I read are structural guides. They talk about ideas and frameworks. They tell you to tweak this or do that and stop doing this other thing in order to get the results you want. This is the structure that I expect from a book. However, there are times, like for Servant Leadership and in cases like Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future, where the structure is accompanied by a bit of mysticism. I do not mean this in a pejorative sort of way, I mean that there’s a connectedness or wholeness – a sense that the author expects that you can’t fully understand what the house will look like by just the structure. Strangely, I found more mysticism in Servant Leadership than in religious books like My Spiritual Journey and Spiritual Evolution.

A few dozen miles from my house is a place called Camp Chesterfield. It’s the home for the Indiana Association of Spiritualists. While there has historically been some controversy around the idea of mediums practicing on the camp property, the place has an overall sense of peace to it. I don’t believe in healing crystals or many of the other beliefs that some of the residents of Camp Chesterfield hold. If you asked me to describe the grounds to you, I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to convey the same peace to you. Somehow, everything comes together in a way that works.

Greenleaf believed that religion at its root means “to rebind”, as in to rebind humans to the cosmos. That is, there is something about connecting ourselves to the world that can’t be explained. He describes the general ways of operating in various types of organizations. These are more like, as the Jesuits might say, a compass instead of a map. That is, they don’t tell you exactly how to get from one place to another, but instead give you a general direction.

Having had the honor of working with organizations that really understood how to work together – and those who do not – I can tell you that from the outside they look very similar. However, there’s a certain atmosphere in some organizations that make them different.

Organizations for Development’s Sake

Every organization has a purpose. Commercial organizations are designed to make money. Non-profit organizations are designed to improve humanity through their output. Educational institutions are designed to help educate us towards a better world. Religious institutions are designed to connect us with the religion’s god. However, is their stated purpose their only purpose?

For Greenleaf the answer is no. However, to understand why, you have to realize that he believed organizations are designed for the betterment of everyone that they touch. That is, every person internal or external to the organization should be made better by it.

Educational institutions shouldn’t “burn up” professors in the service of the students. Religious organizations shouldn’t persecute others in the service of their beliefs. Commercial organizations shouldn’t pressure their vendors to the point where their vendors aren’t able to grow and thrive.

In other words, the age-old debate of whether the ends justify the means is put to bed with a clear answer of no. You can’t do “anything necessary” to achieve the purposes of the organization, because the organization’s real goal should be the betterment of everyone involved.

Wholehearted Leaders

Brené Brown calls the kinds of people who are capable of interacting in healthy ways throughout their lives “wholehearted people” (see Rising Strong Part 1 and Part 2). Dr. Wayne Dyer calls these people “No Erroneous Zone” people (see Your Erroneous Zones). Whatever you call these people, you’ll find that they know who they are. They’re not looking outside themselves for validation. They’re not bending to the latest winds of change.

There’s no map here for how to become the kind of wholehearted leader that believes they’re a servant. There are not five easy steps to building your character as a person and as a leader. However, there are more clues to the organizational structure, and more importantly the aspirations for organizations, which lead to the kind of growth that allows someone to become a servant leader.

Becoming a servant leader may not be a straight or easy path – but it’s one that is worth it, so you may want to go read Servant Leadership.


The Solar-Powered, Motion Detecting, Light-Emitting Mini-Barn

In suburbia nearly every yard, it seems, has a mini-barn. It’s the place where the lawn maintenance equipment is kept along with the other things that don’t quite fit in the house any longer. These last bastions of hope for sheltering your tools and other belongings stand against the elements. However, mini-barns by their nature generally have no electrical service. This generally isn’t a problem unless you need to get something at night or you need to jump the lawn mower battery.

Having a need for a random project that has a clear physical return, I decided to purchase a set of solar panels, a charger, some 12V lights, and a battery. As it turns out Harbor Freight has a relatively inexpensive kit that includes everything you need, except for the battery, for less than $200. It’s only a 45w kit so it doesn’t have a lot of power available, but it’s more than enough for the basics.

Solar Power

In my yard, there’s a relatively complete tree canopy. There isn’t a ton of sunlight that makes it down to where the mini-barn is but I did find a small patch of ground that the mini-barn could sit on that would have some sunlight most of the day. I know that I’m not generating a lot of power from that spot but, again, it’s enough.

The three panels in the kit I got are 15w a piece. A high performance panel can deliver 100w from a single panel but, again, that’s more than I need. So I’m using the panels that came in the kit for my power source.

Power Uses

Once you’ve collected some power, the question is what to do with it. The lighting for inside the mini-barn was a given, as was an inverter to allow me to plug in things that expect household 110V AC power instead of the 12V DC power that the solar panels create and the battery stores. However, there were two other uses which became interesting.


Most mini-barns have an odor somewhere between sweaty socks and underarms – mixed with gasoline. The collection of chemicals and gasoline-powered equipment generally makes the air inside the mini-barn just short of toxic. My solution to this problem was to add a set of fans to the mini-barn to pull air through once the temperature reached a certain point. Conventional computer fans are 12V, have a long duty cycle, and have a relatively low power consumption.

In deploying the fans to the mini-barn, the thinking was that if the temperature was high, then there would be sunlight on the panels, and running two fans to pull air through the mini-barn would be OK.

This mostly worked except for the days when it was so warm outside but cloudy. It turns out that the batteries would be depleted after a few days because I was consuming too much power with just the fans. Now I plug them in when I’m going to be working out there to clear the air and unplug them when I’m not going to be there. Eventually, I hope to find the time to finish the design of a cut-out/cut-in circuit that will effectively engage the fans only when there is excess energy that can’t be stored in the batteries – but that’s a project for another day.


Motion detector lights on your house are relatively standard these days. They are an effective way to provide lighting when you come home and to deter burglars from wandering on your property. Having security lights on your home can impact the perception of your security if not the actual security itself.

We have several of these lights on the house. The areas around the house can be lit up fairly well. However, in the back of the yard where the mini-barn sits, there’s no way to get the house security lights to reach. So I outfitted the mini-barn with motion detectors and LED lights so that, should an animal or a person end up in the back of the yard, the mini-barn will light up.

At some level this seems crazy (and it is), but in another way it’s great: when the dogs tear off into the back yard after some unknown creature, I know that I’ll automatically get light on the situation soon enough.


So if you want to put together something similar, what will it cost? Well, the solar panel kit was $200 as I mentioned. You can figure $100 for a battery. The inverter cost varies based on the wattage you want, but you can pick one up for under $50. The computer fans are roughly $10/ea – I used two of them. The motion detecting lights ended up being about $10/ea for the light, $10/ea for the motion detector, and $10/ea for the box and miscellaneous hardware. In truth, I’ve got less than $400 in my solar-panel-driven mini-barn electrical project. Certainly not cheap but also not expensive for what it is either.


Book Review-The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There

It was working my way back through Brené Brown’s work that led me here ( See Rising Strong (Part 1 & Part 2), Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection). In The Gifts of Imperfection, she referenced Snyder’s work in The Psychology of Hope to explain how hope is not an emotion, but is instead a thought process. This was a different perspective and ultimately led me to wanting to know more. I’m glad that I dug in deeper.

Hope is woven as a binding thread through numerous thoughts. The thread obviously holds a prominent place in happiness. (See Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness for more on happiness.) However, hope is more than happiness. Hope is a critical component of living. It shows up as the placebo effect in medicine. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for the relationship between the placebo effect and hope.) In my post Faith, Hope, and Love I mentioned that, when I’ve experienced the greatest losses of hope, my body reacts by shutting down my digestive system.

It impacts people’s belief in their ability to change, as Dweck explains in her book Mindset. Hope is all around us, but who takes the time to consider it in detail? As it turns out, a professor at the University of Kansas does.

Two Parts

In his study, Snyder discovered that hope is made up of two primary components. There’s willpower and “waypower”. Willpower is the driving force. It’s the internal fuel that moves people forward. (I read and reviewed a whole book on the topic called, aptly, Willpower.) Waypower is “a mental capacity we can call on to find one or more effective ways to reach our goals.” Said differently, it’s our ability to create a path between our current situation and where we want to be.

Control and Self-Direction

Control has gotten a bad reputation. Everyone wants to control – and no one wants to be controlled. As we learned from Compelled to Control, some control is appropriate. So when I say that hopeful people tend to believe they have more control of their world, I can say that this is a healthy belief in control – or perhaps more appropriately influence – over their world. It’s not that they don’t understand that their circumstances are real. Hopeful people are realistic in understanding where they are. They just happen to believe that they’re not stuck where they are now.

In truth, high-hope people tend to know they’re not stuck where they are. High-hope people know that they have improved (or at least changed) things in the past, so it’s not unreasonable that they’ll be able to change their world again.

Fundamentally, hopeful people have a growth mindset. (See Mindset for more on growth mindset.) They know that they’re able to grow personally and to use their influence to change the world around them.

Rose-Colored Glasses

Incognito discussed at length how we don’t really experience reality perfectly well. We’ve got literal blind spots in our vision (where the optic nerve connects) and a host of other biases that our brains quietly ignore as they build up the belief systems that we live by. So we all have biases. Sometimes we win the cortical lottery and get rose-colored glasses. (The Happiness Hypothesis is where the idea of the cortical lottery comes from.) The idea is that we have a predisposition – a bias – towards seeing the world positively.

As it turns out, this is one of the characteristics of high-hope people. They tend to see the world with rose-colored glasses. They accept and acknowledge the distortion of things in a positive direction because they want to live with the expectation that the world is such a place.

Stockdale Paradox

It was Jim Collins in Good to Great that introduced me to the idea of the Stockdale Paradox. That is, the need to have unwavering faith in what you’re doing, and simultaneous acceptance of what others are saying, so that you can adapt and modify what you’re doing. In essence, a self-confidence about the approach you’re taking, and a vulnerability about the fact that you may be wrong.

In the language of The Psychology of Hope, this is the willpower to make your dreams happen and the waypower to adapt to the problems that get in your way. As an entrepreneur, I know that both are necessary – and that they’re related in a confusing way. If there’s not much willpower in what I’m doing (some would say purpose or motivation) then I’ll expend relatively little energy finding my way around the barriers that get in my way. I need both to hold on when the going gets rough and to find a way around the problems.


There are books that advocate having a single goal. Being focused on one thing and one thing only. (The most notable is The ONE Thing.) However, Snyder points out that most high-hope people have multiple goals. They appear to have multiple goals to help them cope with the inevitable failure to reach every goal that they set. Their flexibility in their goals helps them maintain their positive outlook and their desire to move forward. To Snyder, it appears flexibility in goals is a form of waypower. If one goal becomes unobtainable for some reason, it’s easy to pour more effort into other goals.

I voiced my concerns with The ONE Thing book when I reviewed it. One of those concerns was that it ultimately advocated for one thing in each area of your life. The beauty of this approach is that it gave you the ability to have multiple areas of focus. The danger is that the categories were drawn so widely that you could have one goal for your marriage and one for your business; if your marriage wasn’t going well you could pour yourself into your business goal. Launch! made the important observation that in life we’re always juggling. Some of the balls that we’re juggling are rubber (or super) balls. If we drop them they’ll bounce back. Other balls, like our relationships and health, are glass balls. Once we’ve dropped them, they’re difficult if not impossible to get back.

Gaming the System

My entire life, I’ve somehow managed to figure out how to “game the system”. That is, I’d figure out what the rules, limits, guidelines, and procedures would allow me to do without getting in trouble – or to get a reward. In high school, there was a little more than a year of an open attendance policy. I took advantage of it and didn’t go to many of my classes. I studied on my own. Sometimes I’d be in the school library. Other times, due to the open campus policy which meant I could leave school grounds, I’d do my work at home. As long as my grades were good, no one really bothered me that much. The principal and I spoke reasonably often – I remember her telling me which days counted for state funding, and she’d ask that I attend all of my classes, which I did. The net effect? One semester, I missed 156 half-days of school.

For technical certifications, I learned how the questions were written. I learned what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. This allowed me to evaluate the questions and the answers to see which ones fit inside the rules and this information allowed me to pass exams that I barely studied for.

The point isn’t so much the results that I was able to obtain from gaming the system. The point is that I was having fun with it. I was having fun with figuring out what I could get away with and still stay inside the lines.

One of my favorite movies is Real Genius. In it, a super genius named Lazlo Hollyfeld submits an untold number of sweepstakes entries. When asked if he feels like that’s cheating, Lazlo responds that “they made the rules.” After all, he figured out he has certain material needs. The character had a certain levity to adhering to the rules.

This is what hopeful people do. They bring levity to life. They’ll enjoy life as a game. It’s fun to see what they can do and accomplish.

Philanthropy and the Psychological Roots

Philanthropy is a good thing: taking what you have and reaching a hand out to others to help them be successful and accomplish things. However, where is the root of this behavior? If you believe the social research, this is something that increases our likelihood of survival as a species. (See Spiritual Evolution for research on Baboons and higher social networks predicting higher survival.) However, from a more personal psychological perspective, higher-hope people are more philanthropic.

One might wonder why this is the case, and I speculate that this because the higher-hope people believe in the random kindness of strangers. Perhaps they were a recipient of it, or perhaps it’s just the way they chose to see the world. In my estimation, high-hope people are philanthropic people because they have to be. They have to live out their belief that the universe and other people are ultimately good and are out there to help people, not to punish or hold them back.

Hope for a Lifetime

We’ve all met people whose fire of hope has all but been extinguished. They’ve developed a kind of learned helplessness that perpetually holds back their ability to be hopeful. (See Mindset and The Paradox of Choice
for more on learned helplessness.) At the same time, we find people living in their 80s and 90s who are spry and full of hope. It seems that hope, once established, seems to be relatively stable over a lifetime. It seems that, despite the normal fluctuations of good and bad fortunes, hope itself seems to remain relatively stable across time.

It turns out that hope is like a tetherball. It can move around some sort of invisible post. It seems, according to Snyder’s research, that the concrete that this is poured into is set around 20. That is that past the age of about 20, folks’ general belief about the hopefulness of life doesn’t change much. Admittedly, I’d love to see research on how people are able to infuse hope into those who are older than 20.

The Nitty Gritty of Hope

How Children Succeed spoke of grit. Others use the word “persistence” or “resilience” to speak about the ability of children to develop a capacity to continue to work for goals in the presence of barriers. This grit is the waypower to develop hope later in life.

Snyder recommends that toddlers who have barriers between them and what they want should be joined in their problem rather than having it solved for them. He’s suggesting what “G” is for Growing
calls “down on the floor” moms and dads. They’re the parents who aren’t afraid to lower themselves to the level of their children.

These are the same parents who are willing to nudge and hint the direction that will allow the child to solve their own problem – rather than solving it for them.

Hope Is the Rope from the Past to the Future

It’s no secret to me or those who know me that I’m a future-oriented person. (See The Time Paradox for more about perspectives on time.) I replaced large mulch beds on my property with rock because the rock won’t need replaced or refreshed as often. The lap siding on the house is made of concrete board because it won’t need replaced, or even painted, for a long, long time. I’m always preparing for the future.

This propensity for long-term doesn’t limit itself just to the maintenance of our home. Instead, it’s a general philosophy. How can I make investments today that will yield payoffs in the future which will get me to my goals? There are the obvious examples of saving for retirement; but more than that, how do I make investments in myself, in other people, and in life that will – or at least may – yield the results I’m looking for?

For my self-investment, I read and write these blog posts each week to expand my understanding of the world and to build perspective for me. I connect things between different books to form a web that will capture my future thoughts, and keep them from falling fallow to the ground. For others, we (my wife and I) pour love into our children so that they will develop the kind of secure attachment that seems to be beneficial in life.

What does this have to do with hope? As it turns out, quite a lot. I don’t know that the investments I make today will definitely produce results in the future. I don’t know that what I’m doing will help me reach my goals. What I do know is that I hope that my investments today will lead to the future results that I want.

My hope is the rope that guides me from my distant past through the present and on to the future.

Confidants and Connections

The more I read, the more I find evidence that we all need connections and confidants. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes connections as the reason why we’re here. In my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving, I shared Robin Dunbar’s research on stable social connections. In Change or Die, Alan Deutschman shared that most of our health care costs are driven by behavioral issues; more importantly, he shared that the successes in getting folks to actually change is often the formation of a tight-knit community. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explained that innovations diffuse along a “knowledge-attitudes-practices” path, where mass media can change knowledge, community or group members can shift attitudes, and it takes a personal decision to change practices.

The need for connection is punctuated by Emotional Intelligence’s quoting of a Science article, indicating that isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” We need others to be alive. More importantly, we need people with whom we can share our deepest and innermost thoughts.

Snyder echoes these sentiments indicating that those who’ve gone through a divorce score lower on hope scales. One percent increases in unemployment rates increases first-time mental health services use by four percent. (Think about how much of your social interaction is driven through your work.) Of those with low hope scores, frequently their families don’t communicate their support. In effect, they’re not forming the supportive network that people need to grow.

Living by Labels

Another common thread which exists in the literature is the importance – both positive and negative – of labels. Labels are meant to define us, albeit in a narrow way. They can define our struggle, or they can define our strength. I’ve advocated before for an integrated self-image which includes all of the aspects or facets of who we are. (See Beyond Boundaries, Compelled to Control, and Schools without Failure for more on an integrated self-image.) Each of these facets needs a name so that the perspective can be clear.

The danger of labels is that we’ll use them to limit us and what we believe we’re capable of. We use the labels to take on the stance of a victim. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more thoughts on victimhood.) Snyder was similarly concerned that, while labeling behavior helped to release the natural ego tendencies towards denial, they sometimes formed the basis for an excuse for poor performance. To the point that one of his colleagues noted an increase in social drinkers’ consumption of alcohol prior to performing an action where alcohol may be a good excuse for poor performance.

So, on the one hand, we need to be able to combat our ego’s defenses by labeling behavior and calling it out for what it is – and on the other hand, we need to exercise care to prevent the unintentional creation of a fixed mindset of victimhood. (See Mindset for more on a fixed mindset.)

Pandora’s Box

As I dig to find answers I keep coming back to the one thing which survived in Pandora’s Box. Against all of the evils of the world, hope was able to stand its ground and survive – though admittedly not without being battered. The more I look at happiness and joy in our lives the more I realize that we rely on The Psychology of Hope.


Interview: Jeffrey Barnes

After reading The Wisdom of Walt, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the author Jeff Barnes about Walt, teaching, and his next project. The conversation created new distinctions and answered the question for me – what’s left to talk about.

Not Knowing Walt

My first question was “What do you think that most people don’t know about Walt that they should?” The answer led to inspiration. Living in southern California and having students from the area, Jeff shared that most students take Disneyland for granted. From their perspective, it’s always been there. It’s as much a part of their landscape as anything else. As a result of taking the park for granted, they take the man Walt Disney for granted. Jeff starts his classes on Disneyland with a lesson titled “The Walt Disney of Disneyland” to dispel the belief that Walt had no troubles in his life.

Most people aren’t aware he was born poor, that he had a difficult childhood including a strained relationship with his father, that he filed bankruptcy. They believe that Walt was always successful. When viewed from the lens of today, it’s not hard to see that his successes have stood the test of time and his failures were forgotten.

What most people miss, according to Jeff, is the grittiness and the sense of adversity in his life. In missing this there’s power. It’s the power to inspire others and to motivate them to overcome their adversity.

Jeff points out that Walt was a master story teller. Originally, many of the rides in the park omitted the main character and people complained. It wasn’t until 1983 that the main characters were added to many of the popular rides. However, the problem is that this misses the point. Walt wanted you to be the hero of the story. He wanted you to be a part of the story instead of just hearing it. When you’re a part of the story, you’re the hero and you’re going to overcome your struggles.

Why the Book?

When I asked Jeff why he wrote the book – and what he’d add now, he told me the story about the book. It was 1991 when he got the idea. Despite not liking Disneyland on his first visit, (at least not like he likes it today) he continued to go to the park. After one particular visit he decided he wanted to write a book about Disney. His initial thoughts weren’t about applying Walt’s principles to business: there were plenty of those already. He wanted to apply Walt’s wisdom to life.

It was a walk with his wife Nikki when she helped him realize that he didn’t see the park – or Walt – like anyone else. There’s a set of stories that he had with the park. There are life lessons that were lost on others. As a reader it seems like there’s an attention to the details that Walt embedded into the park that Jeff sees and most of us don’t.

As an author I know that writing a book is hard work. It’s difficult to find the time to write. As a college administrator, instructor, husband, and father of two young kids, his schedule was tight. So tight that he joked that he was writing between naps. However, a more realistic answer is time management – the hallmark of anyone who has written a book.

Jeff related that Tomorrowland initially had clocks for many time zones across the globe. For him, that fact helped his awareness of the importance of time management.

What’s next? The answer is “Beyond the Wisdom of Walt” which will include content that didn’t make the first book –in particular it will focus on the legacy that Walt left when he passed away. It’s about how his impact continued through the Imagineers that followed him.

Family and Corporate

One of the things that I shared with Jeff was the admiration for the Disney Family Museum. When I brought the place up, Jeff shared that he moved around a lot during his life but that he considers the Bay area (San Francisco, CA) his “home” as much as any place. He remembers the Presidio when it was a military institution, its transformation, and the addition of the Disney Family Museum. It’s a beautiful location. He noted about Diane’s Silverado Winery that’s also in the Bay area, and how the museum came to be placed near her rather than in Southern California with the park or the studios.

It’s all too easy to draw the lines too tightly between the Disney company and the man Walt Disney. The family wanted to honor the man – not the company. As a result the museum is with the family. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been described to me as a love letter from a daughter to her father.

The museum is so well done. We discussed the pathway – which has a striking view of the golden gate bridge. (Take a look below) The pathway leads from the experience as a movie mogul to Walt branching out into theme parks.

Both Jeff and I commented about how we marveled at the model of Disneyland at the museum. Jeff noted that the model wasn’t a fixed point in time. It wasn’t the Disneyland as it opened, nor was it a precise replica of the park today; it’s a sort of idealized view of the park, as can only exist when looking across time. It captures both the spirit of the park and some of the history at the same time.

Live Each Day

By now our conversation was electric – and time for a close. There are so many amazing things about Walt that we could discuss including what was in the book and experiences that just didn’t make it. For now, we had to agree that we could remain inspired if we could only live each day like it’s a day at Disneyland.

As I thanked Jeff for his time, I couldn’t help but wonder how far the institution that Walt created would lead into the future, and how long we’d be able to remember The Wisdom of Walt.


Book Review-The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth

My first visit to Walt Disney World was when I was about eight or nine. I can’t remember my exact age but from the pictures and my memories I know that I wasn’t too much older than that. I can remember arriving when the park opened and leaving when the park closed (with my sister doing cartwheels in the parking lot on the way out.) Since then I’ve been blessed to visit Walt Disney World several more times and I’ve even been able to visit Disneyland.

While those visits are magical experiences and something that I recommend to everyone whether they are young or old, with children or without – there’s another part of the story that remains hidden to most people. There’s the man that was Walt Disney and his legacy in leadership and how he left the world better than he found it despite the struggles. That’s what The Wisdom of Walt is all about – how he shared his wisdom with the world.

Love Letters

In my review of Primal Leadership I mentioned that a friend of mine described the Walt Disney Family Museum as a love letter from a daughter to her father. In reading The Wisdom of Walt I felt a similar thing, which is a deep admiration for a man who struggled and fought and ultimately won – the hearts and minds of the nation and the world. I won’t claim to be any sort of an aficionado on Walt or his life. Like most folks I’ve picked up snippets along the way and I’ve been curious about a man who made the animated film industry and remade the amusement park industry.

What I sensed in Jeffrey Barnes’s writings was that deep sense of awe when you get to meet your hero. While not having literally met Walt Disney, I think by studying so deeply and having such a keen interest in the things that drove Walt, he got to touch a bit of that greatness.

Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall

Most folks when they think of Walt, think of the movies and the theme parks. They don’t know that everyone thought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would fail (it was the first full length animated movie.) No one remembers that everyone thought Disneyland was never going to make it. Most don’t know about the bankruptcy of Laugh-O-Gram Studios. They haven’t heard of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit or how the character came to be stolen from Walt.

Brene Brown calls it gold plating grit when we fail to acknowledge the struggles that we have and instead rush to the happy ending. While Walt seemed ever the optimist, he wasn’t without his struggles and his mistakes. Walt’s own mother died because of a faulty furnace in a house he bought for his parents. It wasn’t that Walt didn’t struggle to sell his dreams, it was really that he never quit. While speaking about working with the banks on the financing of Disneyland he mentioned that “dreams offer too little collateral.”

It seems fitting to share that Walt – like all of us – struggled. He wasn’t immune to the human condition but perhaps he was conditioned to the desire to make the human condition better. He wasn’t trying to entertain the critics – he was trying to entertain the public and make their lives a little brighter in the process.


Nostalgia is a powerful force. Whether you’re a past-positive or past-negative time focused person – or neither – nostalgia holds a powerful draw. (See The Time Paradox for more on time perspectives.) I’ve also mentioned before that time has the tendency to wash away the negatives and leave behind positive memories of colleagues that you’ve worked with in the past. Somehow even though you might have fought with them before the fact that they were in the same situation as you bonds you to them.

Main Street USA, the entryway to the parks, is designed to elicit and leverage nostalgia. The street is roughly reminiscent of the downtown streets that our parents grew up with. Little shops where people sold things and where community was formed — one soda and one haircut at a time.

Park Before the Park

Walt knew about creating experiences. To him the pre-show was as important as the show. That’s why the parking lot was like an “outer lobby” to him. He knew that the guest experience starts the moment they arrive. He wanted to set the stage for wonder and amazement much like having comedians before the main act warms up the crowds. (See I am a Comedian for more.)

People don’t want an amusement park. They want a way to step into a fantasy world where they can’t see, hear, or feel the problems that plague them in the real world. The process of stepping into that fantasy starts not at the moment of the front gate where their ticket is taken or money is exchanged. Instead, the fantasy starts at the first moment that it can. In the case of Disneyland it was the parking lot.

At Disney World the step into the fantasy starts while still miles away. Grand signs welcome visitors to Disney World while they’re driving in. These signs move the guests one step closer to the fantasy that they want as an escape from reality.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

There’s no doubt that Walt was a dreamer. He brought his dreams to life. He was constantly creating. His dreams formed in his head but they came to life through perseverance. (See How Children Succeed for more on grit and perseverance.)

When setting goals, it’s easy to become fixated on incremental improvements. We’ll increase our revenue by 10%. We’ll reduce waste by 6%. It’s dreams, however, that provide the destination for a goal which isn’t incremental. Dreams serve as a malleable end point where people want to go. Dreams by their nature are ephemeral and therefore subject to revision as they are cast out into the light of day.

The power of dreams is less that they’re a fixed anchor with perfect vision, but instead that they have the ability to be a distant signpost that’s almost unrecognizable amidst the fires of daily life.

Passion and Persistence

If dreams are the endpoint goals – the place of our desires – then it’s passion that’s the fuel to get us there. There are plenty of improvements that we could seek in our life from the proverbial “make a better mouse trap” to more complex endeavors like reducing our energy costs. These potential goals are – for most people – just minor annoyances. We suffer with existing mousetraps and we sign the checks for our energy bills and move on. However, there are some desires that arouse in us a deep and burning desire to conquer.

When we find an annoyance, a vision, or a dream that captures our attention we’ve found a passion. Passions are the things that we’re interested in just because we are interested in them. Our elephants are intrigued. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the Rider-Elephant-Path model of our psyche.)

If you’ve ever seen a movie explosion you’ve seen what happens when a fuel (typically gasoline) isn’t put to use in an engine. Passion though filled with energy doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll accomplish our goals. The truly impressive goals are a long way away. Whether they are perceived to be right next door or very distant – they are typically within reach but further away than you expect. While mirrors may be printed with “Images are closer than they appear” goals should be printed with “Further away than they appear, but reachable.”

So while it’s passion that’s the fuel for meeting our goals, it’s persistence that is the engine that the passion goes into. If you look at any book on success you’ll find a component of persistence. In The Success Principles it’s “Practice Persistence.” In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, it’s The Law of the Big Mo (Momentum).

The problem with persistence is that you never know when it’s the right thing to do and when it isn’t. No matter how much persistence you have working to develop a system of canals to transport goods it isn’t likely to be successful. Since the railroads, it’s not been the most efficient way to transport goods. So despite all the hype just being persistent isn’t enough. You have to be persistent at the right things.

For me, the thing that I shouldn’t be persistent with is the development of DVD based video content. I started this idea on the tail end of DVDs being popular and while we still sell them, we don’t market them because these days everyone expects that video will be available via the Internet. The idea that you would ship a DVD seems as foreign as having to be home at a specific time to see a network television program. The time for this has past.

However, at the same time, I have a passion for delivering compelling video education. I want people to be able to learn at any time without having to travel to training. That has meant constant work on my video studio. (See My Video Studio 2.1 for more on the studio.) I’ve been persistent in my desire to improve the quality of the video content that I’m creating on both the technical production front as well as the content delivery front. This includes learning new techniques. (See I am a Comedian
for how I took comedy classes to improve my speaking.) It also includes research on how adults learn. (See The Adult Learner, Efficiency in Learning, Job Aids and Performance Support, The Art of Learning, and The Art of Explanation
for a few of the resources I’ve used to learn more.)

The results of all of this work are still forthcoming. While I’m seeing some value from the investments I’ve been making they’re still not returning the value that I’m putting into them but I’m not giving up. I’m continuing to make investments on every front to be able to deliver the best experiences technically, with the best content, and with the best delivery. I won’t get the chance to bring joy to people’s lives like Walt did, I do hope that I can help them learn quicker. For that I’ll be persistent at perfecting my craft.

Things are Not as They Appear

When we’re talking about authenticity, trust, vulnerability, and being real (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy) the creation of an image that isn’t real is a bad thing. On the other hand, when discussing marketing topics and the desire to create a brand that people want you absolutely must create an image. (See Guerrilla Marketing and Duct Tape Marketing) In Walt’s world where story is king, there is a need to ensure that everything is consistent with the story. He even had berms built around Disneyland to prevent the outside images from entering the park. He wanted to control the experience and that meant controlling the appearances.

Whether it’s main street’s narrowing as it gets closer to the castle, the castle and the stores on main street’s progressively smaller floors, Walt was creating a perspective – a forced perspective – of his world.

Small Cathedrals

I don’t believe that Walt would have envisioned Mythbusters. Somehow a man who built a world of story and imagination doesn’t seem like a fit with a show designed to bring forth the truth about the world in which we live and debunk the myths that people have about their daily life. However, despite this there’s a similarity in the approach between what Walt did and what Mythbusters did. Most compelling similarity is the path of testing in small scale before testing in large scale.

Walt did this with short movies before feature length. He did this by creating and testing technologies before he needed to rely on them. He was always tinkering with things until he had them good enough to move them into a larger scale. Mythbusters did this through small scale experiments which became the genesis for the larger and much more spectacular tests.

One of the discussions I remember from Mythbusters is an on-camera discussion about how big to make the small scale model. It’s an interesting conversation because it’s the kind of question that leaders struggle with. How big a bet do you put down on the table to test a belief? How “all in” do you go? The best wisdom about serial entrepreneurs is that you shouldn’t “bet the farm” on your first try but the unanswered question is when do you bet the farm? There were things like Disneyland and Snow White where Walt “bet the farm” but many, many other things where he simply made investments and tested things. Like Thomas Edison he was seeking to learn more so that he could take those bold steps forward.


It was all built on the back of a mouse. That – or some variant there of – is something Walt is frequently quoted as saying. He was grand in his visions and dreams but yet rooted, grounded, and humble to remember that the entire organization was built on the back of the mouse he drew coming back from New York. Despite his great reach and his ability to entertain people everywhere, he never lost sight of the fact that he came from humble beginnings. That he had his share both of bad luck and good.

My favorite definition of humility is the one from Humilitas – “Power held in service to others.” Walt used his power of storytelling to create for us a better world and to teach us how to grow our own leadership. Perhaps that is the true Wisdom of Walt.

Pretty black woman looking very sick after having eating too much

I’ll Have Some Emotional Stuffing with That

Occasionally, I’m afflicted by the curse of knowledge and I’ll use a term without really defining it well. One of those words is – apparently – “stuffing”. That isn’t the kind of thing that goes in a pillow or even the kind of side at a turkey dinner. Stuffing is short for “emotional stuffing”, or denying our emotions. This is an attempt to explain what it is and why it’s bad. However, before I get there, it might be good to start with a helpful, related technique called “compartmentalization”.


Some call it focus. It’s the ability to block everything else out of your mind – for a time. It’s a natural reaction once you can get into the state of flow. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the changes the brain goes through in the state of flow and Flow and Finding Flow for more on the state.) Men are – appropriately – called out for their obliviousness. They’ll walk over the dead body in the living room as they make their way to the kitchen if they’re involved in something. Some women would say that they’ll overlook the filth of the house just because they don’t want to help clean it up. While this may be true of some men, the ability to focus and compartmentalize is a real function of the way men’s brains evolved.

Compartmentalization is simply the ability to keep things out of our mind for a while. I can remember finishing up an engagement in New York the day I found out my grandmother had died. This particular client wasn’t one I knew well. I was in to do some “surgical work”, where I’d know them for a few days then likely not talk to them again. It was just the afternoon of the last day and I was leaving at 4PM for the airport. Through a great deal of work, I was able to compartmentalize the death until I could process it later that evening when I returned home.

We see this in the movies when one character calls out to another that there will be time to mourn the dead later. When they say this, in effect, they are saying that there is a reality that they can’t fully process at that time. This is a useful and evolutionary necessity. Losing your friend Bob to a lion attack is impactful but at that moment survival depended upon being able to fight off the lion or run away. (This reminds me of a bad joke about how I don’t have to run faster than the bear. I just have to run faster than the person I’m with.)

The ability to focus allowed us to gather up all our resources to focus on one thing. We could use every ounce of our willpower to hunt and kill an animal so we had food. Conversely, women were conditioned to be ever-vigilant to threats to the family and themselves, and as a result got wiring towards not compartmentalizing things into neat little buckets.

Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn speak of another analogy in their book For Men Only. It speaks of a women’s thought process like sitting in front of a computer with multiple windows, each vying for attention. They’re always popping up and interrupting about going to the dry cleaners, or planning the meal for tomorrow, or one of a hundred other things that are randomly competing for attention. Men, on the other hand, can be like the old DOS operating system where there is only one thing running – or like a modal dialog that captures the attention of the entire screen.

I tend to think of compartmentalization like pressing pause on an old VHS video cassette recorder (VCR). There would be lines of interference and then ultimately the VCR would shut down to protect from wearing through the tape. In the VCR, there’s a physical process where the head is literally rubbing against the tape when paused, and if it were left on too long the head would quite literally wear through the tape. In other words, compartmentalization is good when you need it, but isn’t something that is designed to be sustained forever.

Ripping Stuffing Apart

The problem with stuffing is that it relies upon the same evolutionarily useful tool of compartmentalization, but it presses (or stands on) the pause button. It’s taking compartmentalization and allowing it to happen for too long. It’s refusing to acknowledge the feeling exists, or it’s saying that the emotion isn’t important, or that I don’t have time to deal with it right now.

In the Rider-Elephant-Path model (See The Happiness Hypothesis), the rational rider only has control while he’s active – when attention wanes, the elephant does what he wants. That’s the easy part. However, what’s harder is the understanding that the rider is never in control. The rider has the illusion of control as long as the elephant allows it. When you deny the elephant what it needs – processing of the emotion – eventually it will stop listening to the rider. Eventually the relationship between the rider and the elephant will become so strained that there’s an all-out battle happening. We have the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The schism that splits the person is going to come out somewhere.

All too often medical doctors are the ones that find it. There are strange and elusive auto-immune diseases that no one can pinpoint, or chronic pain without a defined cause. Sometimes it’s standard illnesses like the common cold at a rate that’s abnormally high. We believe that our brain and bodies aren’t linked, but the reality is that our bodies need the control functions of the brain. When the brain isn’t functioning right because it’s been asked to do something unnatural, like stuffing emotions, bad things happen to the body.

Safe Processing

One of the key reasons why people stuff their emotions is because they never feel safe enough to be vulnerable. (See my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy.) They never perceive that anyone would accept them, including their weaknesses and frailties. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) Whether this is true or the result of adverse childhood events (ACE) doesn’t matter; the reality is that the perceived safety is missing. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.)

On Death and Dying described an emotional framework for the changes that people go through as they learn that they are dying. What is remarkable about the work is the acknowledgement that people need the space to process through things on their own terms. There’s no specific timing for going through each phase. There’s no one way of grieving. There’s only the acceptance that the struggle exists and being willing to walk through it with folks.

Passing on the Stuffing

There are so many random, unexplainable things that happen when you’re not able to be true to yourself and process your feelings in a healthy way, that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to do emotional stuffing. That is, unless the idea of stuffing your emotions was passed down to you. Many of us have members of our family for whom emotions aren’t safe things. Because they’re not safe, they’ve passed along the idea of stuffing to us.

It’s time to take a pass on stuffing and find a way to process all of the emotions that life has to offer.


Book Review-On Dialogue

What does a physicist have to say about dialogue? It turns out, if that physicist is David Bohm, a lot. Bohm’s work has been referenced from six of the books that I’ve already reviewed (Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology,  Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, My Spiritual Journey, Theory U, Sharing Hidden Know-How, and The Fifth Discipline). So despite the relative difficulty to unfold what Bohm has said, On Dialogue has a lot to say.


When it comes to being aligned – or coherent – there is a lot of room for improvement. I often use the illustration of what happens when you start with a lantern that can generate light for maybe 30 yards. From there, we as a human race created lighthouses with their Fresnel lenses which focused light along the horizon. Lighthouses could push light out 26 nautical miles. Admittedly there was more power in the light –not proportionally more power, but some more power. Today we have lasers that we can use to bounce light off the moon – substantially further than 26 nautical miles – but with less power than in a typical lighthouse light. It’s all a matter of coherence, the degree to which things are aligned. The more aligned things are; the less power is needed to do the same thing.

The problem is that incoherence is the default of the universe. Chaos is the cosmic currency. Coherence happens but it’s not easy. This is where dialogue comes in. Dialogue is the mechanism by which we seek to introduce coherence in our relationships with others. By neither wielding power nor cowering behind our need for safety, we can find a balance where we’re able to more clearly understand perspectives and values that are not our own.

Thought Illusions

A mirage is just a shimmering image of falsehood but it’s one that we believe. Incognito went to great lengths to explain the ways which our own brain deceives us. All the way down to the very root of perception, what we believe is a fiction created in our minds. While we’ve got the most complex and sophisticated set of neurological pathways that Mother Nature has ever created, it’s all built on a fundamental set of lies that we are seeing reality correctly. Even properly formed expectations from those perceptions can be – and often are – wrong.

Gary Klein spoke of “recognition primed decisions” in Sources of Power in the context of fire commanders making decisions about how to fight a fire, but we use the same mechanisms when we’re interacting with other people. We build models of the people that we’re interacting with (like one based on Reiss’ work in Who Am I?). These models lead us to assumptions about what other peoples’ concerns are and how they’ll behave based on those concerns.

Assessing Assumptions

The challenge is that the models that we use are never complete enough to perfectly predict the behavior of another person. We may not know that they have a “soft spot” for baseball and will choose to support a baseball related suggestion even if it doesn’t make any sense objectively. Similarly, we may not understand their values and beliefs well enough to know how they’ll respond when multiple values or belief systems are in conflict. (See Who am I? for more on multiple values.)

The key is to assess your assumptions. The trick with assessing assumptions is that you don’t know that you have them. They’re transparent like panes of glass that we bump into from time to time. Instead of looking for these assumptions we need to develop a habit of assessing our assumptions indirectly. It might mean spraying water ahead of us and seeing if it gathers on something unseen to us.

If you’re concerned about running into something in the dark, you’ll reach out and tentatively test the environment with your arm before proceeding. This delicate dance is what we must do in our relationship with other people. We must gingerly reach out to see if our assumptions and reality align. We do this by reflecting back what we believe the other person is saying – and its meaning to us. Sometimes we’ll be right – or more accurately close enough – and other times we’ll be rather far off the mark.

Multiple Meanings

One of the challenges with our language – not just English but all languages – is that it’s imprecise. That is words don’t mean exactly the same thing to every person. Words are not “meaning” no matter how much we might wish them to be. This is at the root of the problem with search engines. They have no idea what meaning you’re searching for when you search with a word that has multiple meanings.

Consider the word staff. Am I speaking of a wooden rod that’s carried by a person? Am I speaking of the employees of an organization? Or am I speaking of a particular type of infection?

As we interact, we infer the meaning of the word being used from the context clues. Sometimes those meanings are correctly assessed – and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the best we can do is just guess and hope that we’re right.

Painful Precision

There are times in any dialogue when there is a need for precision. We need to get to exactly the same understanding between all of the parties. This is like the handoff procedure for an aircraft or a three-phase commit cycle used to commit changes to a database. While in general a single source of understanding is a good thing, the effort necessary to get there may not be worth the return.

Sometimes it’s important that we accept the fact that we won’t necessarily know exactly what someone else is thinking. Instead, we have to accept that we understand their general perspective and direction, and elect to go back and learn more about an aspect of their perspective later. Neurologically we do this – when we leverage this in our interactions with others, we balance understanding and effort.

Helpful Heuristics

Our brains are not up to the job. While evolution has served us reasonably well, it moves far too slowly to allow us to match the explosion of information, data, and people on the planet today. As a result, tricks were developed to allow us to function in a world that is more complex than our minds can reasonably process. Positively they’re known as heuristics. They’re ways of simplifying problems enough so that we have the capacity to follow them. They’re rules of thumb and guidelines which we use rather blindly to allow us to function. We see one thing and we assume a bunch of unseen things.

Heuristics are the underlying mechanisms which drive stereotypes. Stereotypes are a heuristic applied to a group of people – usually not our own. While heuristics can be valuable in allowing us to function, stereotypes reveal the hidden problem. When we fail to be willing to dig into heuristics in a deeper way, we’re subject to the errors that we make because of them.

Mirror of the Mind

Most of the time the thoughts in our head flow by at a blinding pace. It’s like trying to single out people streaming out of a rock concert. There are so many people going by you at any one time it’s difficult to identify individuals, and harder still to find the one friend that you got separated from. In this melee of thoughts, it’s no wonder that we can’t identify what we’re really thinking or the root from which our thoughts come from. It’s only by apprehending our thoughts and suspending them in time that we can seek our true motives and find what hidden sources are driving them.

It’s a great gift to be able to do what Freud didn’t think was possible – that is objective introspection. Perhaps perfect objective introspection isn’t possible; but we can, if we learn to hold on to a thought and examine where it came from and what influenced it, set up a mirror in our mind to reveal those hidden motivations that we didn’t even know were there ourselves.

By apprehending and suspending our thoughts we can test what factors might have led to that thought and work backwards to the positive and negative memories that led to it. It’s more than chasing rainbows.

Runaway Rainbows

If you ask a child what a rainbow is you’re likely to get an answer that involves multiple colors arcing in the sky. If you ask an adult, you might get a more technical answer about light refracting at different rates through raindrops and causing the arc of multiple colors the children were speaking about. However, what happens if you ask a physicist? The answer is nothing. The physicist doesn’t believe in rainbows. Rainbows don’t, in fact, exist. You can look for the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow and you’ll never find him – not just because he doesn’t exist but also because rainbows don’t exist.

In the strictest literal sense, rainbows don’t exist. They have no mass. They emit no light. They really aren’t anything themselves. They’re an optical effect (or illusion, if you prefer). So when you’re chasing rainbows you’re chasing nothing.

As we’re looking into the mirror of our mind, as we’re apprehending thoughts, we have to realize the dichotomy that thoughts exist in one sense and don’t in another. Thoughts can say that they did nothing to shape us or our opinions, but equally they did – each thought layers on top of the other until we’ve developed a patchwork quilt of our lives.

One Wholeness

I’ve spoken repeatedly of the idea of an integrated self-image and the need to see things as wholes rather than as pieces. (See my review Rising Strong Part 2 for a starting point on having or developing an integrated self-image). While breaking things down into their component parts allows us to see individual things clearly and to understand how they work, it hits a limit as there are emergent properties of wholeness that aren’t present in the individual parts.

Often times we attempt to break down and isolate things to a degree that prevents us from seeing the whole. If you were to dissect a cow and evaluate the individual kinds of meat that are available from the cow, you might have a smorgasbord of options for dinner, but none of those options will reveal to you what the cow is or how a cow works. The pieces are not the whole. In conversations, we have the capacity to evaluate the individual words, the perspectives, and the positions of the parties, but it takes work to step back and see the whole symphony unfolding before us.

Hold On Rightly

Jim Collins in Good to Great speaks of the Stockdale paradox of being unwavering in your beliefs and simultaneously adjusting to input. This is the heart of dialogue. It’s holding on tightly enough to your beliefs so that they’re not lost, and at the same time loosely enough that you’re willing to test them. It’s the blind man who holds onto his walking stick loose enough to feel the objects it touches but not so loose that he drops it.

Learning the balance of detachment – not considering the stick to be a part of you by holding on too tightly and simultaneously not holding on so loosely as to drop it – is learning how to be in dialogue best.

Converting Conversations to Dialogue

While I’d recommend reading On Dialogue
to provide context and wisdom around the process of creating dialogue, in the end Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together is a better roadmap to getting towards dialogue and understanding how it can become misrouted. On Dialogue is more helpful when you’re confronted with a situation that isn’t neatly explained and you need a deeper understanding of the philosophy which supports dialogue.


Book Review-The Power of the Other

When I found out that Dr. Cloud was releasing a new book, The Power of the Other, I put it at the top of my reading stack. Why? Well, I’ve been a big fan of his work. Having read and reviewed Boundaries, and Changes that Heal, I appreciate Dr. Cloud’s ability to distill complex topics. His work here on explaining how we relate to others and how to generate better connections with others is no exception.

Connection is Core

In order to understand the framework that Dr. Cloud lays out, we have to accept that connection is essential for humans. We have to accept that we’ve been hard-wired through our DNA to need connection to others just as much as we need air, water, and food. Though connection is not as high a priority as air, it appears in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right after safety. Spiritual Evolution introduced me to the study of baboons, whose offspring were more likely to succeed based on the social network of the mother. Others, like Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly assert the same importance of connection.

Dr. Cloud relates that in his studies he hit an inflection point. As a student of psychology, he eagerly sought the tool, technique, framework, or approach that would help him alleviate the pain and suffering of his clients. His instructor informed him that the key factor in the efficacy of psychological assistance was simply the relationship between the therapist and the patient – something that The Heart and Soul of Change called “alliance”. How could it be, given all the great minds that had been trying to learn how to improve folks’ lives, that the answer was as simple as a relationship?

Dr. Cloud wondered whether his professor was saying, “my fraternity is basically a treatment center.” Um, yep. That’s the way we’re created. We want to find someone who will understand us and who will connect with us. Somewhere buried deep within our DNA is the bias toward staying connected so that we can protect and support each other.

Limits, The Mind, and The Invisible

Elephants at the circus are tied to a stake with a large rope or chain when they’re young. As they grow, the rope that they’re tied with gets smaller. That’s because the elephants have learned that the rope isn’t something they can move, so no matter how small the rope becomes, they won’t try to break it. This results in the elephant equivalent of “the Bannister effect”, where the limits are psychological and aren’t physical limits. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the Bannister effect.) Whether it’s a high-performance athletic trick or running a sub-four-minute mile, we sometimes psych ourselves out and create the false belief that we can’t do something personally – or as a human – that we really can.

All of us face limits in our life. Some of them are real, hard boundaries. They’re true limits to what we can and cannot do. However, more frequently, the limits that we have are the result of mental constructs and false limiting beliefs. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models/constructs and The Success Principles for more on limiting beliefs.) The relationship between our mind and our well-being is well accepted but not well understood. (See Change or Die and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our mind and body interact.)

The difficulty in our understanding of this phenomenon may be due in part to our limited psychological knowledge. While psychology isn’t a new discipline, it hasn’t had the benefit of the scientific rigor that other areas of science have had. As a result, we may know quite a bit about the neurology of the brain, but relatively little about the psychology. Think of it this way: we understand the hardware of the brain but we don’t understand the software. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about the limits of our knowledge in psychology.)

The problem with psychology (and software) is that it’s invisible. We can typically only measure the effects, behaviors, and outcomes. While we can inspect software source code line-by-line, we can’t do the same with psychology. While we have potentially helpful models of viewing people, (See The Normal Personality
and Personality Types: Using The Enneagram for Self-Discovery) we’ve also had more than a few unhelpful models. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Self and Others

The self-help movement has been around since the publishing of The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 – or since Benjamin Franklin depending upon your point of view. No matter where you believe it started, it’s become big business. It’s defined by the “self” term. That’s appropriate in that we’re only really in control of our own lives. We can’t truly change other people – they have to decide to change themselves. If you look at Everett Roger’s work in Diffusion of Innovations, we see that people change their knowledge through mass media, their attitudes through close relationships, and their behavior through personal choice. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal choice, what we do. It’s our self-agency. (See Change or Die for more on how infrequently people change, even under the pressure of overwhelming evidence.)

However, along the way we’ve lost our ability to see beyond the self. We’ve lost the ability to see that the formula for behavior includes what Kurt Lewin called “person and environment”. The environment is less about the physical trappings that surround us, and is more about the influence of other people. Consider the Holocaust, which was a tragedy, and the part that people played in it. (See Man’s Search for Meaning for more on the Holocaust and the psychology of it.) What’s more disturbing was Milgram’s research, that showed that most humans can be coerced into doing immoral and harmful things. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on this disturbing research.)

We have forgotten that, while we have to be ultimately responsible for who we are and the actions that we take, we equally must accept that the others around us influence our behavior very strongly. Malcom Gladwell made this point in his books The Tipping Point and Blink. We react to broken windows. We make snap decisions about the situation based on the context.

That’s what The Power of Other is all about. It’s about the environment that we find ourselves in as individuals, and how we can be attentive to our relationships to improve happiness.

Four Corners

If you accept that we’re here for connections, then there are four potential places you can find yourself in relative to connecting to others – something that Dr. Cloud calls the “four corners”. They are:

  1. Disconnected – This is the state of trying to be alone. We’ve basically concluded through adverse childhood events (ACE) that connections are bad, much like some people struggle with the life-giving need for food. (See How Children Succeed for more about ACE).
  2. Bad Connection – This is the state of being harmed. We’re connected, but the connection is life-draining rather than life-giving as it should be. This is like exposure to carbon monoxide, which prevents us from taking in life-giving oxygen.
  3. Pseudo-Good Connection – This is the state of being worshipped. While the relationship seems to build us up, it’s all positive and no (or little) reality. We all need others to reinforce reality since we have blind spots and only our own perspective. (See Incognito for more blind spots.) The Pseudo-Good connection means that someone will eventually yell that the emperor has no clothes.
  4. True Connection – This is the state of being real. Real connections are ultimately positive, but don’t avoid the negative when it’s necessary to help both of the parties grow. True connections are difficult because of the need for communication skills and internal integrity, but it’s the kind of connection that we’re all designed to make.

These are the places that we can be in relationship with others. The reality is that we’re not in a single relationship with others. We have multiple situations and those situations can result in different kinds of connections. At work we can be in a bad relationship (i.e. we need to change our job), while at home we’re in a fourth-corner, or true connection, relationship with our spouse. We can – and do – have places in our life where we’re not interested or able to connect.

In How to Be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo implores us to not get more than 25% of our nurturance from any one partner. He encourages us to seek out multiple connections so that we’re able to grow more fully through the true connections with others. Gary Keller, in The One Thing, tries to focus us in on the one thing that we can do in each area of our lives. In other words, we need multiple fourth-corner connections to become the person we’re capable of becoming.

Corner One: Disconnected

It’s easiest to think about the disconnected person as the hermit sitting in a cave or on some solitary ranch in Wyoming. However, the truth is that being disconnected has very little to do with the presence of other people. In today’s world, the remotest areas of the planet can be reached with emails, voice conversations, and even video chat. I routinely chat with my friend Paul Culmsee in Perth, Australia – just about as close to the opposite side of the planet as you can get from me. Disconnected is an internal state, not a representation of the physical world.

There are folks that have trouble connecting with others in a meaningful way. This is most painfully expressed in marriage relationships as what Doug Weiss calls Intimacy Anorexia. This illustrates the point that the problem is an inner condition and not an outer observable one. From the outside point of view, one could assume that a married person isn’t in Corner One (Disconnected), but Weiss’ work with clients indicates that this external perspective isn’t right.

I mentioned in my post High Orbit- Respecting Grieving that we’re flooded with Facebook friends that aren’t really friends at all. They’re people that we’re watching like voyeurs. While we’re wired for connection, we have a maximum number of ports, and that maximum number isn’t the thousands of Facebook friends that some have. Facebook, and other technologies, have actually made it much easier to appear to be connected, when in reality we’re quite disconnected on the inside. (See Alone Together for more.)

Corner Two: Bad Connection

Why would you be in a relationship that is bad for you? Well, there are two reasons. First, you don’t realize that it’s bad for you. Second, you are getting some good things from it, and you believe that you’re getting more from it than you’re losing.

It’s like drinking salt water from the ocean when you’re at sea. You know you need the water but don’t realize that you’re getting so much salt that it’s doing more harm than good. Or it’s like eating candy – and only candy – all day long. Your brain rewards you with dopamine because it recognizes the calorie content in the sugar. However, what your reward system doesn’t realize is that the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc., are also all essential to your survival. You seek out the candy because of the sugar – but at the same time too much of it will create long-term problems.

Ultimately, Dr. Cloud’s previous work on Boundaries and his co-author John Townsend’s Beyond Boundaries is about removing these bad connections from your world – or causing the connections to heal and become good (Corner Four) connections. While I personally don’t have many bad connections left in my life (though there are always some), and my bad connections tend to not be of the extreme variety, I do come in contact with others who are in relationships which are bad for them. They’re relationships that I call “toxic”, because the longer the person is in them, the worse the person is.

Corner Three: Pseudo-Good Connection

We all need friends who are willing to pick us up and help us realize that things are going to be alright. Dr. Cloud describes a bad business decision where his mentor called him and told him that, “We’ve all been there.” This normalized the situation and lifted up Dr. Cloud into the brotherhood of humans who occasionally make mistakes. We absolutely need our relationships to try to build us up and to help us become the best people that we can be. However, sometimes building someone up means giving them hard feedback. This is precisely what the Pseudo-Good third-corner connection doesn’t do. They’re too afraid of damage to the relationship, the way the other person will feel, or are wrapped up in their own insecurities to the degree that they’re unwilling or unable to have the hard conversations.

Anyone who has had the privilege of the platform – that is, anyone who has done public speaking – has had to develop an approach to these sorts of would-be connections. It’s still strange to me that people have “groupies”, but I’ll admit to having a few myself. The challenge with making space for these relationships is recognizing that they’re relational candy. They’re nice occasionally but they can’t be my steady diet of relationships.

Corner Four: True Connection

Being in corner four connections – true connections – is hard work. It requires balancing grace and truth. It requires being forthright with your feelings, perspectives, and awareness, while tempering that with your love for the other person. Love in this context is more akin to the Buddhist belief of compassion or the Greek word agape than anything else. When you can do that, you can be right with your intent for the relationship and the other person, and provide them the feedback they need to grow. Just as importantly, they’ve got the strength of character to do the same for you.

For me, the prerequisite to be in a true connection is a stable core. I wrote about this in my post How to Be Yourself. It’s about knowing who you are and having a stable and integrated self-image which can survive the outside world. (You can find more about my thoughts for integrated self-images in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)

Corner four connections can powerfully propel you to becoming a greater person, but they’re very difficult to find.


How do you get corner four connections? It starts with trust. For me, trust is the path that leads to our ability to be vulnerable, and this leads to the opportunity to be intimate with one another. In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy I lay out this path along with references for the various concepts.

Trust exists exclusively in corner four (true) connections. In corner one, you trust no one. In corner two, you can’t trust the person who is harming you. In corner three, you can’t trust that you’ll hear honest answers, and your connection can’t trust how you’ll respond if they’re honest and real. It’s only in corner four – where trust exists – that we can choose to be honest and caring to the level necessary to form truly intimate, and therefore powerful, relationships.

Bermuda Triangles

The Bermuda Triangle is where strange things happen. Ships disappear. Planes disappear. In general, there’s just a wackiness that can’t be explained. This same situation can occur when a relationship which is designed for two people expands to three people. Instead of people having hard, but life-giving corner four relationships, the triangle drains energy from all.

The triangle works like this. There’s a victim – let’s call him Victor. A victim feels like there is someone out to get them, to persecute him. Let’s called the persecutor Paul. (If you’re up on your Old Testament Saul would be better, but it’s not an alliteration.) So Victor, rather than talking to Paul, talks to Robbie the rescuer. The problem with this drama triangle is that Robbie isn’t even involved in whatever supposed affront that Victor (the victim) feels. Instead, he’s getting a one-sided view of the story and begins to think negatively of Paul (the persecutor) when Paul may have done nothing wrong.

This triangle creates drama and heartache where there is none to start with. It maligns Paul (the persecutor) unfairly. It may be that he was persecuting Victor (the victim), but it’s still not fair because Paul’s voice can’t be heard – he’s not a part of the conversation.

Triangles happen all the time, even when well-meaning people are involved. It starts out as seeking advice on how to handle a situation and turns into an opportunity to extract sympathy and rescuing. The net effect is the destruction of trust and the erosion of connections, so a hard line needs to be taken to prevent the triangles from forming. This means outlawing gossip and encouraging direct and candid conversations.

Growing to Connect

Ultimately, the power of others to influence our lives is driven by our ability to interact with them in positive, life-giving ways. That means first seeking out connections. You can’t have healthy relationships if you don’t have any relationships at all. Second, it means limiting the number of bad connections you make and/or limiting your interactions inside of those relationships. Third, it means moving past the mutual appreciation club to a point where you can candidly support and provide candid feedback. All of this takes growth on our part to be the kind of person that not only recognizes the qualities of ourselves but also the qualities of our relationships.

If we want to transform the power of others in our lives, we have to transform ourselves so that we can be the best connection possible for them as well as for ourselves. The irony is that, by working on ourselves, we’ll transform the power of others in our lives. If you want to have better relationships and a happier existence, it’s time to transform The Power of the Other.


Book Review-The Normal Personality

It was back in 2013 when I read Steven Reiss’ book Who Am I?. Reiss, a professor emeritus of Ohio State, proposed that there were 16 motivations that can be used to describe a person and how they’ll react. Shortly after reading Who Am I?, I picked up The Normal Personality – another of his books. However, it sat in my virtual bookshelf as my curiosity (one of his characteristics) led me in other directions. However, after finishing The Cult of Personality Testing and Science and Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology, I felt like I needed to get back to Reiss’ work on personality testing and more importantly motivations.

Compared to the other models that I’ve looked at, there are numerous aspects of the Reiss model which seem to be able to more accurately predict how people will behave and the normal predispositions that they’ll have. While the model is still a difficult model to internalize for daily use, it is a good framework for understanding others.

Defining Abnormal

Much was made in The Cult of Personality Testing about the tendency for some tests, particularly Rorschach, to over pathologize people. In other words, there is a bias towards saying that there is something wrong with people. Given the context of that test—and others – for use of screening for mental defects, I suppose that this is a reasonable conclusion. However, it makes the tests far less useful when you’re trying to define what normal people look like, what motivates them, and how to engage them fully.

It seems that most personality tests – perhaps with the exception of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – are designed to tell you what’s wrong with someone, not how they function well under normal circumstances. I’ve mentioned that I tend to build a MBTI in my head unconsciously for the folks I’m interacting with. I’m trying to understand how to interact with them in the best possible way. Reiss believes the MBTI to be a useful – but narrow – instrument. This makes sense. Where the MBTI uses four dimensions, Reiss model is based on 16 factors. The level of precision capable when you have more dimensions is noticeably broader. Additionally, MBTI tends to define people as either-or and makes no attempt to identify which factors are more important to the person’s personality.

The tricky part with defining normal is that it’s not one thing. You can define a mental disease or defect with relatively specific precision about what constitutes the disorder, however, normal is the mass of possibilities in the middle and is therefore difficult to pin down.

Reiss even states at one point that it’s unlikely that someone has a mental health problem because most (but not all) people with mental health problems are unhappy. So even the rules that you could possibly use to define normal have boundary conditions.

Prioritizing Motivations

When you fail to predict the behaviors of another person whom you believe you know well, the normal reaction is to be surprised and stunned. Most of the time the reason for the failed prediction is that the person has a competing value system that was in play – and was more important at that moment. When values are in conflict it’s difficult to know which value will be the most important. Consider a scenario where a person who is highly motivated by Family but also intensely motivated in Power or Status. When the question comes up about whether to stay at work late – the answer might be that family wins out and they come home – getting online later instead of going to bed. However, when a prestigious opportunity comes up which requires substantially more travel, it may be that the family loses their parent to work and to the road. (See Our Kids for an interesting note about how parents are denying themselves for their children.)

When multiple value systems align into a single behavior they can sometimes – and do sometimes – overpower a single stronger motivation. In Reiss’ model the motivations aren’t viewed in a vacuum. They don’t exist without any outside circumstances. Kurt Lewin says that behavior is a function of both person and environment. It’s wrong to say that a person isn’t influenced by their environment both in micro and macro ways. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt speaks to the power that the path has in his rider-elephant-path model. We cannot exclude the environment in terms of culture or pressing needs when evaluating how others will behave.

Motivations exist in a world of competing forces. Each motivation seeking to reach its point of equilibrium.

Personality Equilibrium

No one wants chaos – or the complete loss of control. However, a motivation for order will tell just how far we’re willing to get out on the limb of lack of control. Some folks need everything in neat little boxes. Some folks need to have a large degree of order in their lives. They need neat and tidy to feel OK with who they are and where they are. Others are willing to live seemingly without any order. They don’t bother to book hotel rooms in advance. They tend to play the worst case scenario game – and win. They decide that the worst case scenario is they’ll sleep in their car.

It’s not that either of these perspectives – orderly and planned or spontaneous – is right or wrong. It’s just different. However, there is a normal range. That is a range where people can sometimes be orderly – or sometimes accept uncertainty. Those who struggle with uncertainty are closer to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which I often tease that they call CDO – so the letters are in their “correct” alphabetical order. On the other end of the spectrum might be a homeless by choice person who likes not knowing where their next meal will come from or where they’ll spend the night.

The reality is that people will seek to obtain their natural equilibrium where their level for a motivating factor has been achieved. When placed in a chaotic situation we’ll almost all try to impose some order. When placed in highly rule bound and defined places we’ll seek to create levity and deflect the perception of too much order.

Recipe for Underachievement

Some kids get along just fine in school and some do not. When viewed from the lens of motivational psychology there are some patterns that emerge for those who don’t do well in school:

  1. Low Curiosity – The kids just literally aren’t that interested in things.
  2. Low Ambition – They have no need to become anything. They’re happy with the status quo.
  3. High Vengeance – Folks with high vengeance are looking for opportunities for their vengeance to be satisfied. That is, they’re looking for trouble.
  4. High Acceptance – If you want others to like you too much (high acceptance) then failure becomes an untenable option. You avoid doing something because then people can’t demonstrate that you failed at it.
  5. Low Honor – Those with low honor are expedient. They’ll do whatever just to get to an answer and if being honorable takes too much effort, they’ll take the shortcut.
  6. Low Order – Spontaneous people can be the life of the party but when it comes to planning the party spontaneity isn’t the best strategy. Kids with low order didn’t seem to do as well as their high (or moderate) order colleagues

Some of my best friends weren’t overachievers in high school. They made their way through but not without their challenges. In life they drifted until they found a home that for them is what they needed. Just because someone isn’t doing well in school doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It can mean that their skills and talents aren’t matched to academic learning.

Normal Range

The trick as we seek to maximize our happiness and the happiness of others we love isn’t to create copycat clones of ourselves. (See Multipliers for more on the negative consequences of creating clones.) The trick is to help build skills that allow us to operate in the “normal” range. You don’t have to take your artist and turn them into an accountant (or vice versa.) However, everyone needs a way to function in this world. They may not need to know how to balance a checkbook any longer. However, everyone needs enough awareness to be able to be aware of their financial health. Similarly, everyone should be able to appreciate aesthetic beauty. Whether you’re an accountant or a coal miner, your happiness is influenced by your ability to appreciate beauty in the world.

As we’re coaching underachieving adolescents we need to remember that they don’t have to become the best at things they’re not currently good at. They need only get sufficient levels of skills to ensure that they’re not being held back by those lack of skills. They don’t have to be motivated by curiosity. However, they need to create enough curiosity inside of themselves to ensure their long-term success, survival, and thrival. (Thrival is the ability to thrive.)

Recipe for a Cheater

I was sitting at a church meeting. This was a special meeting in that it was designed to help struggling people get more peace with their life and align it more with their purpose. I was sitting across from a guy I’ll call Bill who was describing how he was currently having sexual relationships with 12 other women – besides his wife. After setting aside the moral concerns and letting go of any judgement, which is a part of this group that functions more like a 12 step program than a traditional church function, I was confused.

I was confused like I am with the idea of polygamy. I love my wife – but I can’t imagine having the emotional energy of managing that sort of an intimate relationship with multiple wives. Bill explained to me that they weren’t relationships that they were just sex. I still don’t understand it really but at least I understood that to him the women were a way of satisfying his desire for romance. His motivation for honor and family were very low. I don’t know how things worked out with Bill, I never really saw him after a few meetings, however, I know that when you mix a person with high romance and low honor, you have a recipe for a cheater.

Someone with low honor is often described as expedient. That is, they’ll do the honorable thing if it’s easy but they won’t go much (if any) out of their way to do the honorable thing.

Morals and Values

One of the topics delicately avoided in the normal personality was whether particular motivations are moral. That is whether motivations are good or bad. It’s more accurate to say that the motivations themselves aren’t good or bad – it’s what we do with them that makes them good or bad. A high desire for power isn’t bad. However, when it creates Nazi Germany which seeks to exterminate an entire race of people, most folks would call that bad. The relative ease with which people can be motivated to behave outside of what they would say their standards are, is frightening. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me))

Buddhists describe emotions as afflictive (causing harm) or non-afflictive. (See Destructive Emotions and Emotional Awareness for more about Buddhist beliefs about emotions.) The relatively quirky point of view here is that the emotion may or may not be afflictive. It’s appropriate, for instance, to be angry at times. Anger is disappointment directed. There are times when disappointment is the right feeling. The key is whether this causes harm to yourself or others.

Spiritual Evolution walked through the connection between what we value and evolution. There are certain evolutionary advantages of caring and socialization. There are some advantages of high trust societies (See Building Trust in Politics, Relationships and Life for more on the economic impact of trust.) Morals are beneficial to society. They become the framework on which laws and positions can be based.

In general, morals and values and the laws that are passed to provide structure to them are designed to protect society. They delineate between the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of motivations as measured by societal norms or legal consequences.

For instance, in the United States, alcohol is relatively universally available to adults at 21 years of age. The age for voting and other “adult-ness” is typically 18. Whether someone is an adult at 18 or 21 is relatively arbitrary, however, it’s this standard that has worked its way into law – in an inconsistent way. Is it “right” for someone who is driven by eating to have a glass of wine with dinner? Morally and legally the question is ambiguous. In the United States, if the person is under 21, the answer is no. If we cross the border to the north if the person is 18, 19, or 20 they’re OK. In Europe where there’s no established minimum alcohol consumption age, the person of any age will be legally OK but perhaps not morally. (I’m not recommending including wine in a baby’s bottle.)

Largely morals and values operate outside of motivations. It’s only when strong motivations drive a person to behave in a way outside of the established norms and laws that problems arise.

Sex in the City

While viewed from a short term perspective it may seem like morals are fixed. However, when you start to look at the way that morals have changed over time you begin to realize that they’re really a shared experience more than they are fixed and unchanging. For instance, in the early days of television, married co-stars (both in real life and on screen) were shown sleeping in separate twin beds. Words like sex and pregnant were considered too sensitive to appear on air. When you evaluate TV of the 50s and TV of today – even broadcast TV to say nothing of cable – it becomes clear that the moral standards at least as they are expressed through public eyes is very different.

The Marketing of Evil seemed intent on describing a sinister plot to these changes, however, observationally, these changes seem to reflect naturally occurring responses to changes in society. There were movements that made birth control more acceptable to speak of in the 1920s and beyond but it was the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1950s that changed the consequences of sex.

With condoms (which have been available for substantially longer) combined with an oral contraceptive the effective pregnancy rate is very, very low. Add to this the controversial – even today — Roe v. Wade decision making abortions legal and the result is an even lower unwanted birth rate. (See Freakonomics for more on how abortions changed crime rates.) Thus the social consequences for sex – an unplanned child which would need to be supported – were reduced to such a small rate that they no longer represented a societal problem. Even the teen pregnancy rates which skyrocketed in the late 1980s to four times that of most western countries fell 52% from 1991 to 2012 as a response to aggressive campaigns to reduce this societal concern. (See Defensive Routines for more on the causes.)

Ultimately our views of unwed sex have changed. Gallup in their post titled “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues” demonstrates how over time the values of the people they’re polling continue to move towards the direction of what some might call moral decline. I’m more inclined to call it moral shift. For instance, in 2001 only 53% thought it was morally acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to have sex. In 2015 that number is 68%. In the space of the relatively short 14 years our attitudes shifted 15%. While not every metric moves that fast, it’s an indication that our moral fiber isn’t as rigid as we’d like to believe.

Made in Marriage

John Gray in his book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus asserts that men and women are different. Reiss is able to support this assertion from his data but cannot say whether these are nature or nurture – whether they are programmed into our biology or are a result of our culture.

These differences it seems can be persistent thorns in our sides. That’s why sites like and other profile matching sites can be helpful. Reiss says that many divorces are the results of bad matches and not necessarily character defects in either party. Gottman says that 69 percent of marital conflicts are persistent – without a solution. (See The Science of Trust for more of Gottman’s work.) Reiss asserts that it’s better to find the right person than pay for therapy to try to make a bad match work.

Low Curiosity and Intimacy Anorexia

One of the stories Reiss relates in The Normal Personality is of a wife who isn’t interested in talking with her husband. This is assigned to a low curiosity. I wonder, however, if this particular example may cross over from the normal needing to regulate how deep and how frequent conversations should be to reach a satisfying state or whether this example represents Intimacy Anorexia. It’s hard to know where the line is sometimes between healthy – but on the edge – behavior and abnormal or errant behavior.

In Emotional Intelligence, Goleman quotes a report in Science which describes isolation as “as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” In short, isolation or separation from others is a serious health risk. Reiss makes the point that his perspective of motivational psychology and a desire to avoid over diagnosing people isn’t without the awareness that mental illnesses are real and do exist.

Perhaps the wife is perfectly fine being emotionally intimate with her girlfriends, family, and others just not her husband. While this is a marker for more serious problems in the relationship it may not be a clinical condition. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy and the path to it.)

Biology and Psychology

Virtually everyone knows about Darwin’s survival of the fittest perspective on evolution and genetics. We’ve advanced in our understanding to be able to educate parents on the probabilities of having a baby with a genetic defect. The counseling provides an awareness of what might happen so that folks can be prepared but ultimately have no control on what genes are passed on.

However, with our frontal lobes we have another factor where survival of the fittest comes into play. That is the idea of memes. Memes are like viruses imprinting on others the same idea through communication, conversation, and thought.

Ways of thinking – memes – necessarily lead us towards some approaches and away from others. Consider that in English we put the modifier (adjectives) before the noun which they modify. In French and other languages, the modifiers come after the noun which they modify. It’s not that one is right or wrong. What’s important is that we necessarily think differently based on this change in language.

Our success in getting close to another person – in order to do reproduction – is now based at least in part by the ideas that we hold. We tend to connect better with those people who hold similar ways of thinking and processing as us.

Like More Alike

Reiss shares that sociology has definitively settled on the idea that we are attracted to those who are more like us and repelled by those who are different. It’s on this basis that you’re likely to have friends who are similar to you. You’re likely to have a spouse that is similar to you.

The quick rebuttal is often that your wife is very different than you. Competitors in a market tend to focus on the differences between their products and the competition where customers tend to focus on the similarities. (See The Challenger Sale for more.) My point isn’t to say that you and your wife are competitors – rather my point is to say that because of your extremely close proximity you’re more apt to see the relatively minor differences that people at a distance wouldn’t see.

As mentioned earlier, finding a mate that is more similar to you makes the maintenance of a marriage easier.

Know Thyself

The best platitude advice ever given is Socrates “Know thyself.” It’s impossibly hard to do and deceptively simple. We all believe we know ourselves but the more we look the more we realize that we don’t know ourselves very well. There are so many dimensions and depths to our psyche that we can spend a lifetime attempting to discover them and still not have scratched the surface. However, perhaps that’s what it’s like to have a The Normal Personality – a continual striving to know ourselves better.