Book Review-Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Reading a child rearing book originally written in the late 60s and published in 1970 seems like a departure from my reading list. I don’t typically read child rearing books for good reason. I disagree with quite a bit of what is written. Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, is no exception. However, there’s an important reason for reading it. The reason is because his discussions of active listening underpin motivational interviewing. (For more see my review of Motivational Interviewing.) Though I had been exposed to active listening – as most folks have – I wanted to know more about its roots and to understand it more.

The best lesson from Parent Effectiveness Training for me was that I can deeply respect some views and insights of someone and vehemently disagree with some of their other views. I’ve mentioned some minor disagreements in previous reviews (For instance, see Daring Greatly) but here I’ll share strong feelings for the insight that Dr. Gordon has and my concerns about where I think incorrect conclusions have been reached.


I start not with Dr. Gordon’s beliefs, but with the recognition that the grandfather of parenting books is Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book Baby and Child Care has been the classic handbook of parenting for over 65 years. However, Finding Flow reports that he expressed some concerns that training children to be unfettered individualists may have had unforeseen negative consequences. Spock encouraged parents to allow children to grow at their own pace. However, we’ve seen that public programs like Sesame Street can have substantial positive impacts by helping particularly under-resourced children learn and grow more quickly and reliably – beyond their own pace. (See “G” is for Growing for more about Sesame Street‘s approach and impact.)

Personally, I feel like we’re seeing a wave of entitlement in our children that represents a threat to our culture and productivity. (See America’s Generations for more about the shifts in generational values.) I remain concerned with the need to balance perspectives instead of accepting one single truth. I don’t believe that any author or professional has the answer for every situation. Some have answers that are applicable to more situations than others.

United Fronts

Very early on, Dr. Gordon criticizes the idea that parents should “always be together in their feelings, presenting a united parental front to their children.” He says about it, “this is nonsense.” On this point, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Gordon. I believe that the consistency of getting the same answers from either parent is important to minimize confusion in the mind of the child. (Later, he strongly encourages parental consistency.) I think that the error is in the word “always.” I think the importance is to strive to be on the same page.

This demonstrates to children that the parents work together to reach a consensus approach. I can say from my own marriage and my own children that this isn’t easy, but it is something that the children appreciate. They know that my wife and I generally present a united front about things. What they don’t know is that sometimes I don’t agree with our position. However, I always accept and support it.

Understanding the need of accepting shared decisions and supporting them is something I learned from Dr. Gottman’s work. Dr. Gottman criticizes the suggestion that couples should use active listening when communicating with each other, because it requires a high degree of skill that most couples don’t possess. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s research and perspectives.) Gottman has a very high success rate of predicting the stability of a marriage based on a few minutes of observation of arguments. He’s intimately acquainted with disagreements in couples and the resolutions. I’ve never read in his works that parents shouldn’t attempt to reach consensus because it’s too hard – his work seems to travel in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Gottman together may highlight the one key about presenting a united front that may invalidate the technique. The ability to separate agreement with acceptance isn’t a skill that everyone has. If you can’t accept the united front without necessarily agreeing completely, then don’t try to pull it off. The children will see this as a lack of integrity, and rather than demonstrating consistency, it will cause them to focus on the discrepancy they are seeing but can’t explain.

Ultimately, presenting the united front delivers consistency in the short term and teaches the need to reach consensus and develop acceptance in the absence of agreement – these are all critical social skills that our children need, despite Gordon’s belief that it’s “nonsense”. He has a similar discord with the idea that you can accept the child but not their behaviors.

Accept the Child Not the Behavior

Cloud and Townsend made popular the idea of boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. They identified the need to separate ourselves from things that are not ourselves and to protect ourselves. They defined boundaries as being either “temporary protective” boundaries or “defining” boundaries. Temporary protective boundaries exist to protect ourselves for a time. In Dr. Gordon’s language, he speaks of the impact that one person’s behaviors has on another, and discussing the impacts so that the other person knows how they’re impacting you. This is letting others know what your temporary boundaries are and why you have them.

Here, Dr. Gordon is concerned with the parents’ authenticity. He believes that this idea “prevents parents from being real.” Here, I think that Dr. Gordon has missed the idea of compassion or love. Agape love – love for all – and philos love – love for our group or family – can exist even when we’re not accepting (or allowing) another person’s behaviors. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting and allowing.) I believe the ability to prioritize your compassion and love for your children above your need to accept their behaviors is an advanced skill that Dr. Gordon may have not seen frequently (or at all) in his work.

I firmly believe that you can love the child and accept them as a person while expecting (and requiring) different behaviors from them. I say this with caution out of fear that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you should kick your child out if they develop an addiction. I’m suggesting that you come to them in love to support them as people while preventing the impact of the behaviors from impacting you.

The Need for Privacy

Dr. Gordon believes that checking up on children demonstrates a non-acceptance of children, which he finds to be harmful. He believes that children have the right to privacy. Here, I disagree because of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverbs “doveryai, no proveryai”: that is, “trust, but verify.” In our house, children’s privacy is not a right, but an earned privilege. That is, if they demonstrate their trustworthiness, we offer them trust that they’re utilizing the resources that we provide appropriately. When they violate our trust, or signal to us that they are hiding something, and the privilege of privacy is temporarily rescinded.

In practical terms, we almost never intrude into the lives of our children. We have applied internet monitoring software on their devices to prevent access to inappropriate internet sites. We reserve the right to look at their phones at any time to review what they’ve been looking at or the conversations they’re having with their girlfriends and boyfriends – but we almost never do.

I don’t believe this is about acceptance of them as a person but is about what is an isn’t acceptable uses of the resources that we provide. So here, too, I believe that Gordon’s view isn’t sufficiently nuanced to identify the core concept that is the concern – acceptance of the person. Instead, he uses one situation that can be handled inappropriately and can convey a lack of acceptance, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to.

At this moment one of our children has his hair dyed blue. My wife dyed his hair for him. We accept his need to define his individuality and accept him, though neither of us are interested in turning our own hair blue.

Impact on Us

One area of confusion is when parents believe that their children’s expressions of themselves will become judgements on how good – or poor – they are as parents. They believe that the way the child behaves reflects on the parent’s ability to parent. In some cases, as in the case of the preacher’s kids (PKs), there are certain stresses that exist that don’t exist for most folks. I know several friends who grew up as PKs, and they talk about how they had to learn at a very young age to assess how others might view their behaviors.

In my observation, the larger the family is, the less that the parents see the behaviors of any one of their children as their failings as a parent. Typically, the question becomes, what did we do wrong with this one, and isn’t generalized to being bad parents. However, with nuclear family sizes decreasing, there’s an increasing tendency to see the decisions and failures of children as a reflection on the parents.

Some parents take the opposite view and seek to live their lives vicariously through their children. If they never made it as a track star, they’re going to make sure that their son is. If they weren’t the beauty queen, they’re going to make sure that their daughter is. These are the parents who are at the greatest risk of feeling the impact of their children. They’re accepting responsibility for the good things in their children’s life and blurring the child’s individuality with theirs.

There are three fundamental truths about how our children’s behavior impacts us that we would do well to consider:

  1. Failure isn’t an option, it’s essential and necessary for growth. (See Raise your Line for more.)
  2. We are not our children. They have their own individual lives outside of us. We can neither take credit for their successes nor their faults. (See The Available Parent for more.)
  3. The world is probabilistic. There are no one right set of things to help our children grow up as contributing citizens. We can only influence the outcomes. We can’t control them. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of the world.)

In the end, we can recognize that the child is a separate person full of their own faults and foibles – just like us – but those faults and foibles aren’t the result of our actions or inactions as parents.

Separating the Person and the Action or Belief

When I teach people conflict resolution skills I often teach the clear distinction between the person – who is inherently valuable because they are human – and the action or behavior that they’re exhibiting, which may or may not be something you agree with or even find acceptable. This separates the value the person has from the perspective on what they’re doing.

People can – and sometimes should – rightly disagree with other humans. However, the disagreement should be about the action or belief, and not about the value of the other person. I can disagree with Dr. Gordon about some of his views while at the same time respect him as a person. I can even disagree with some of his beliefs while agreeing with others. I’ve separated the person and the value of the person from how I value the idea. This is all too often missing in conflicts, whether they occur between business people or within a family.

Our ego uses defensive routines to defend us against external threats. (See Change or Die for more on our ego and its defenses, and Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together – Defensive Routines for more on our defensive routines.) However, in many people, this defensive response happens even when the person we’re conversing with isn’t attacking us but is instead is disagreeing with our idea. (See How Children Succeed for more on HPA Axis issues which lead to more active defenses.)

We can observe that our children have dirty dishes in their rooms. That’s an observation and verifiable fact. To say that they’re a slob because they have dirty dishes in their room is a judgement about their character – and a disrespectful one at that. In our conversations with our children, it’s important to distinguish between the behaviors and how we see the child.

Problem Ownership

Key to Dr. Gordon’s approach is the development of an expectation on the part of the child that the problem – whatever it is – is the child’s problem. The parent is there to help, but the child is expected to participate in the problem-solving process. The solutions don’t “come down from on high.” Instead they’re the result of a collaboration between the parent and the child.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to own their own problems. Eventually, the child will be here on this planet and the parents will be gone. While the parent can be a source of support, they cannot be the one with all the answers. (See Our Kids for more about the support that parents can provide.) To manage the long-term results for our children, we must teach them to accept ownership of their problems. We do that through the process of active listening (and facilitated problem solving).

Active Listening

Active listening starts with an attitude. It’s an attitude of interest in the child and their world. While children may not be experts on many things, they are the undisputed experts of their inner world. (What Glassier calls “quality” world in Choice Theory.) When they choose to share their world with parents, they are doing so because they believe the benefits and the trust in the parents exceed the perceived risks. The parents need to accept that the child is bringing something to the table as it relates to the solution to whatever problem they have. They also have to accept that sometimes the “problem” is simply the need to process their world by “talking it out.”

With the belief that the child is bringing something valuable, it’s easier to see that your role is simply to support through acceptance of the child and a desire to be helpful to them. The key here is that the parent isn’t assuming ownership of the problem. They’re in the supporting role.

Sometimes maintaining the perception of the supporting role is very hard – at least for me. Sometimes the problems that my children present are so obvious to me that I just want to tell them the answer and move on. However, I know that this is far too often detrimental to trust, because it signals them that I don’t trust them to take care of their own issues.

It’s much harder to reflect what they’re saying and gently guide them towards a greater awareness of the challenges they’re facing and the resources they need to solve the problem. It takes more time, but it helps them to develop the skill of solving problems on their own. I’ve literally heard our children repeat back their processing on topics we’ve not discussed and recognize the ownership that they took in the problem. With that level of ownership, they didn’t need to come ask for help processing. (Though they did want validation that they had done good work processing it themselves.)

Active listening starts with reflecting back what the child has said. The more advanced active listening attempts to decode the meaning behind the message and reflects that message back to the child, so that it’s apparent to the child that they’re understood not just for the content of their message but the meaning – and typically the feelings – behind it.

One of the greatest fears that children and adults share is whether they are understood and accepted. Often the concern for acceptance is focused around their feelings. They believe that they shouldn’t have the feelings that they do, or that somehow their feelings are wrong or bad.

Feelings are Friendly

It’s important for everyone to understand that feelings aren’t good or bad. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ekman discussed afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. In the end, however, there was an awareness that the emotions that people feel aren’t afflictive or non-afflictive in the moment that they’re felt. They’re afflictive if they are retained for an inappropriate amount of time. Thus, all emotions – all feelings – are acceptable at least in the short term. The important point isn’t that you have a feeling. It’s what you do with the feeling that matters. All feelings are acceptable – and non-afflictive, at least in the short term – but not all behaviors are acceptable.

We are all concerned about how others will view our feelings and emotions, when in reality there’s little need to be concerned whether our feelings are appropriate or not.

Three Methods

Dr. Gordon sees that there are three methods of parenting:

  1. Parent Wins – This authoritative approach has the child always losing and the parent always getting their needs met, sometimes at the expense of the child.
  2. Child Wins – This permissive approach has the child always winning and getting their needs met at the expense of others.
  3. Win-Win – This approach seeks compromise and to understand the deeper needs to create solutions that meet everyone’s true needs instead of just their expressed needs.

Gordon’s assertion is that parents should be using method 3 – Win-Win – and this makes rational sense. While he acknowledges that there may be times – such as the child running in front of a car where method 1 (Parent Wins) is necessary – he explains that this generally means the method 3 conversation that should have happened before the incident didn’t.

He also acknowledges that children raised in method 2 homes find it difficult to adapt at school, because most schools use method 1. (For more about how to run schools differently see Schools Without Failure.) Further, he acknowledges that sometimes raising creative, independent children happens with method 2 homes, but sometimes at the expense of the parents actually liking their children.

I’m all for finding ways to negotiate and find solutions where everyone wins at times, but I think it goes too far to say it should always be used. Sometimes there is just insufficient time to work through the details of negotiation and listening to get to a win-win situation. Unfortunately, there are limits to our time which requires an approach that has quicker results. You can’t use method 1 every time, but using it sometimes makes sense.

And we’re back full-circle to Spock and the reality that we need to encourage our children to be individuals. We need to encourage and support their expression of themselves both in voice and in action – while simultaneously creating an understanding of the world they will live in, where they will have bosses and they will be told how things are going to be from time to time. The objective with Parent Effectiveness Training should be to help expose children to the most advantageous environment – which for me means a blend of Method 1 and Method 3. It’s absolutely worth reading – as long as you’re willing to evaluate what to keep, what to discard, and what to incorporate in part.

Book Review-The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird

My reading list has been described by many, including my wife, as positively boring. I read about so many topics that most people would use to put themselves to sleep. However, this book is different. This book is about my positively all-time favorite aircraft. It flies (or flew) faster and higher than missiles. Growing up, I’d hear stories of the “Blackbird” and I was in awe. That’s why I read The Complete Book of the SR71 Blackbird – but there was a twist.

The twist was that I needed to verify a comment that I had heard long ago. That comment was that the SR-71 leaked fuel like a sieve while on the ground. There was some discrepancy about whether that was truth or not, so I had to find out for sure. But before I get there, I should explain how the airplane came to be.

Russia and the U-2

It was 1956 and Kelly Johnson’s team at Lockheed had created the most sophisticated reconnaissance plane ever known: the U-2. It flew so high that it was thought that ground-launched missiles wouldn’t be able to reach it – at least for a few years. It was only a few years later (1960) that a U-2 was eventually shot down inside of Soviet airspace. It was quite an incident in Cold War history. However, even before the U-2 was shot down, Kelly Johnson’s team was at work on the successor.

If you know your aviation history, then you know that Kelly Johnson took a team aside and separated them from the main bureaucracy of Lockheed, and ultimately took on the moniker of Skunk Works. This was an adaption from the comic strip Li’l Abner, by Al Capp, where Skunk Works was a dilapidated factory. The advanced development program’s (ADP) initial location was near a malodorous factory, and eventually the combination of the smell and the popularity of the cartoon caused the nickname Skunk Works to stick.

The initial aircraft from which the SR-71 was adapted was the A-12. This was to be the replacement for the U-2. Instead of just staying one step ahead of the enemies, Johnson and the team decided to innovate in multiple areas to give the aircraft the ability to be serviceable for the long term. They did that. The first flight of the SR-71 was December of 1964, and its last military operational flight was in 1997. A 33-year run for a spy plane is beyond impressive: it’s unprecedented.

Higher, Faster, Less Visible

The way that the aircraft managed to be serviceable over such a long period of time was that the innovations drove it in three key areas.

First, the aircraft had a very high operational altitude. In fact, the service ceiling was 85,000 feet. This is well into the stratosphere and the limit for the range of jet-powered aircraft. Missiles had an effective operating ceiling of 60,000 feet. In short, the SR-71 was designed to fly higher than missiles could reach.

Second, the aircraft holds the speed record. Operational maximum cruise was Mach 3.2 (3.2 times the speed of sound). Speeds more than Mach 3.2 were possible by the SR-71; but due to heating of the skin of the SR-71, speeds above Mach 3.2 were rare. Even against the fastest-moving and longest-range contemporary missile, the Soviet R-37, the missile must be fired within 185 km to have the slightest chance of hitting the SR-71. The missile travels a maximum range of 400 km at speeds up to Mach 6. This assumes that the firing aircraft is at the same level of flight and that the SR-71 isn’t over the service envelope of the missile.

Third, the SR-71 pioneered stealth technology. It’s the original way to be less detectable to enemy radar. Its body and coatings gave it 1/10th the radar signature of a F-15 fighter. Even if the missile could get as high as it was flying, and managed to catch up with it, it would have to find the SR-71, which wasn’t going to be an easy task.

These advances made the SR-71 an aircraft that was never shot down by an enemy. Every loss was due to mechanical failures or pilot error. That’s impressive for a fleet of aircraft that logged over 11,000 mission flight hours – and a total of over 53,000 total flight hours.


However, ultimately, the SR-71 was vulnerable. It was vulnerable to politics, budgeting, and the perception that it was cheaper to gather reconnaissance from satellites than from the SR-71. The aircraft that was never shot down ultimately was shut down. In fact, the program was shut down twice. In 1997, the program succumbed to political pressures and funding issues.

Other aircraft and drones were delivering real-time reconnaissance and the SR-71 could not. Its systems were never updated to support real-time transmission of data, and the lag in getting the data back from the aircraft became increasingly untenable in a world where we wanted the information now.

Satellites and drones didn’t risk human life, and they provided quicker access to the intelligence that the military community was now demanding. Besides, the cost of the custom JP-7 fuel was expensive.

Leaking Like a Sieve

To make the SR-71 work, there were numerous challenges; but none more impressive than designing an engine that would work like a jet on takeoff and transition to a ram jet engine in flight. Put simply, a jet uses a fan to compress air and create the literally explosive thrust. Once you exceed a certain speed, this isn’t efficient any longer and it’s not necessary. It’s possible to use aerodynamics to create pressure through the air coming in.

The other interesting aspect of the engine is that it needed a fuel source with a very high ignition point. Flying at Mach 3.2 – no matter how high you are – creates a great deal of friction that will heat the skin of the aircraft. Look at the following figure:

The SR-71 needed a fuel that didn’t have a low flash point. Thus, the development of JP-7, a fuel unique to the SR-71. This higher flash point required an ignition system that leveraged Triethylborane (TEB) which explodes in the contact of air. So in addition to the JP-7, the SR-71 had to have TEB to ignite – or reignite the engines should they stall. In addition, even with JP-7, it was necessary to fill the fuel tank voids with nitrogen to prevent oxygen getting in and creating the opportunity for the JP-7 to ignite.

The net effect of the need for such a high temperature aircraft would mean that there had to be a plan for things to expand during flight, both due to the lack of atmospheric pressure but also due to the heat on the surface of the SR-71. While on the ground, the JP-7 would leak out of many small gaps in the tanks. Thus, the comment that the SR-71 leaked like a sieve on the ground. In the air, these small gaps closed as the materials heated and expanded.

I was looking at my photo for describing the SR-71 in my presentations and realized something very odd that was only apparent to me after seeing other photos in the book. Take a look.

I didn’t initially understand the lighter colorings on the top of the wings, until I realized that this flight, obviously going more slowly so that it could be photographed, was showing the JP-7 getting siphoned out the top of the tanks on the SR-71 by the low air pressure on the top of the wings. The SR-71 leaked like a sieve when it was cold – not just on the ground.

A Dream

I don’t have a prayer of flying an SR-71. Even if the program were still in operation, the people that had the opportunity to fly the SR-71 were the absolute best in the aviation business, bar none. Though it lacked the action that some pilots longed for, it was still an assignment that a select few would be allowed to get. The requirements physically, as a pilot, and psychologically were immense. I have deep respect for those who had the opportunity to fly her.

I’d love to just fly the simulator of the SR-71. While, undoubtedly, I’d not do well, just experiencing what it would be like to be flying in the fastest aircraft ever made would be worth the embarrassment of not doing it well.

The story that I remember most was the one from the reconnaissance mission over Libya after the US had bombed terrorist training camps of Muammar Qaddafi. The SR-71 was piloted by Brian Shul, and it completed its mission despite being fired at by some surface-to-air missiles that we hadn’t knocked out. He literally completed his reconnaissance pass before punching the throttle forward to outrun the missiles. He reported that the aircraft achieved Mach 3.5 while evading the incoming missiles at 80,000 feet.

This story (or the initial reports of it) created dreams of fast flying aircraft that were invulnerable to enemy defenses. It was then that my fascination with the SR-71 Blackbird took hold. It’s 30 years later and I’ve finally read the rest of the story. I’ve finally read The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird. It might have removed the mystery from the aircraft, but it still hasn’t removed the wonder.

Book Review-The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness: How to Live in Freedom, Compassion, and Love

I’ve made it no secret that I am a Christian. I’ve also made it no secret that I’m interested in learning more about other religions and other great thinkers no matter what religion they practice. I picked up The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness: How to Live in Freedom, Compassion, and Love not because of the great title, but in the hope that it would reveal a bit more about the Dalai Lama and his thinking.

It was April 4, 2016 that I posted my review of My Spiritual Journey, which speaks of the Dalai Lama’s history (and thus journey). This came after my review of Emotional Awareness and mention that I had listened to Destructive Emotions. While My Spiritual Journey left me with a sense that the Dalai Lama was a profoundly peaceful man, it didn’t do much to explain his views on happiness. That’s a good place to start here.

Defining Happiness

We all want happiness. We all want a sense of everlasting joy – but how can we find it? The Time Paradox speaks about folks who are hedonistic; that is, seeking pleasure for the moment. This is opposed to a values-based happiness, which is based on alignment of actions and values. Daniel Gilbert describes the challenges of estimating our happiness in Stumbling on Happiness. Johnathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis talks some about how we find happiness, but also helps us to understand our own processing in ways that others haven’t. Rick Hanson’s guidebook Hardwiring Happiness is more focused on teaching skills that can help elevate your thinking to happiness. So it’s no wonder that I appreciated the simplicity and elegance of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts here.

First, many of our troubles are essentially our own creation. That is, the challenges and fears that we have in this world are essentially our own mental creations. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Causes and Cures for Stress for more on our ability to create stress where it doesn’t exist.) The implication in this profoundly simple statement is that, if we’re creating our troubles, we should be able to eliminate them, neutralize them, or prevent them from coming into being. In simple terms, this means that by changing our attitude we can change how we feel. We don’t have to change our circumstances – we just need to change our point of view about our circumstances. Instead of moving the goal post and needing a higher and better achievement, we can learn to accept and even relish in our accomplishments. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how we are continually adjusting our goal posts.)

Second, happiness has very much to do with a calm mind. That is, there is no stress, anxiety, or fear. Happiness is in part the absence of malady. It’s operating without the complication of stress. It’s being present and still in the moment without anxiety. It’s about having appropriate fear about appropriate things.

In the end, happiness is a sense of inner contentment that we have enough and are enough. (See Daring Greatly for more about being enough.)

Developing Happiness

Happiness doesn’t just come. It doesn’t come in the form of a lottery ticket or a change that happens overnight. There are many lottery winners who find out all too soon that they’re broke and as bad off, if not worse, than they were before. Happiness is the result of cultivating the mind towards happiness.

The Dalai Lama, as a Buddhist, believes that the path to happiness runs through compassion for all living things and certainly all people. In the language of Christians, it’s “global” or “God” love, and it’s the Greek word, agape. It’s connecting with the condition of others and accepting where they are – even if that’s not where we want to leave them. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on accepting.)

One way to cultivate compassion is to meditate. That is, to focus on prayers or thoughts that lead you to focus more on the sameness between others and ourselves and less on the differences. Instead of zeroing in on the differences of ethnic origin, religion, or social status, we focus on how we are all humans, mammals, passengers on the planet earth, members of the same ecosystem, etc..

Another component of creating happiness is to reduce the gap between appearance and reality. That is, we educate ourselves to greater levels of understanding of the true nature of the universe. We seek the perspective of others to eliminate our blind spots. (See Incognito for more on our blind spots.) By being more aware of or in harmony with the way things really are, we can have less stress and anxiety.

Karma for Kindness

More than in his previous writings, I got a sense for the Dalai Lama’s innate awareness of karma. This is often simplified into “What goes around, comes around.” It’s the belief that, what you do to others, you will yourself experience in some way. If you’re putting out positive energy to others, that’s what you’ll get in return – and vice-versa.

I get the sense that people believe karma will get sent back in the same form and direction that it was sent out. My understanding is that karma comes back differently than you sent it out. Many years ago, I was doing something for a friend. In my mind, it was something quite small. It didn’t take long to do and it wasn’t much of a strain. However, my friend wisely educated me that it’s not the effort for the person doing it, but the effort required of the person who received the gift to do it themselves. The value of the gift is in the eye of the beholder. That simple conversation has remained with me.

I realize that the way that I get back positive karma is never in the form of computer services because I don’t need that. I receive it in other important ways.

The Dalai Lama speaks about the belief in a God – as in Christianity, Judaism, etc. – is good because it reduces self-ego. In much the same way, I believe that the belief in karma creates an atmosphere of kindness. If you know that you’re going to be subject to the results of what you put out in the universe, you’re more likely to seek to generate positive energy into the universe.

Religious Similarities and Differences

Monotheism – belief in a single god, such as in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – differs from polytheism – belief in multiple gods, such as ancient Roman and Greek cultures had, as well as the Hindu religion has today. So, too, does nihilism –belief in no afterlife, nothing except everyday life – differ from Buddhism, which believes in reincarnation and karma. Certainly, there are differences to be seen in the different religions of the world. However, there are also similarities.

Nearly every religion teaches the importance of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and self-discipline. No matter what the differences, there are some fundamental truths that exist across beliefs. Spiritual Evolution described the interaction of faith and evolution, and how many of the things that we find in religion are quite useful for us to survive as a species. We should know that, whatever each religion gets right or wrong, there are some common truths.

Completing Compassion

Compassion – like love – is an action verb. It’s not simply about sitting by and changing our attitude, but how we must push further into our actions. In order to complete compassion, we’ve got to change our behaviors – or start new ones. The many travelers on the road might have had thoughts of compassion for the injured man, but only the good Samaritan took action. (See Luke 10:25-37.) The actions need not be large to be significant. Even a small change makes an impact.

First, our hearts change to accept more of reality, including our similarities to every other human on the planet. Second, our actions change to demonstrate our heart for our fellow humans and our desire to reduce their suffering. This isn’t that different from what Everett Rogers describes in Diffusion of Innovations, where there’s knowledge (awareness), followed by an attitude change, and finally a personal decision is made to change practices.

I don’t expect that just reading The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness will create the attitude and behavior changes that complete compassion and drive towards happiness – but it’s a good first step.

Book Review-Working Out Loud: for a Better Career and Life

I’ve worked out loud in my career by accident. I started with editing then writing books. I started writing articles (because they required less effort) and I’ve been speaking for years now. In many ways, my life has been what Working Out Loud: For a Better Career and Life suggests – but it was nearly completely by accident. I started my blog in 2005 because the people I knew told me I had to have one. At the same time, I also had content that I wanted to write that no publisher wanted to buy. The blog now has more than 800 posts. However, there’s more for me to learn.

Social Skeptic

In my SharePoint world, there have been many people who have tried to convince me that enterprise social is the next big thing. Lawrence Liu and I used to have the most confusing conversations until he told me that I was doing the kind of social networking that the tools enabled – without the need of the tools. SharePoint implemented Likes, and newsfeeds, and etc. Microsoft acquired Yammer. All of this was noise because, for most organizations, they didn’t know how to share what they were doing. The corporate culture rewarded knowing but not sharing.

In my quest for knowledge management, I realized that the greatest use for the tools wasn’t cataloging the published information, but was instead helping connect people to one another. The knowledge that is made explicit necessarily loses the richness of context, and many times context matters.

So I’ll publically rib enterprise social technologies because they believe that by changing the technology they’ll change the organization’s culture – and the reality is that in the language of systems (see Thinking in Systems) the whole paradigm is wrong. We can’t expect that we can “just add technology” like “just adding water” and expect the organization to share, to work out loud and to help others. It – unfortunately – doesn’t work that way.

Charting Our Path

As I mentioned in my review of The Excellence Habit – none of us really know the course that we’re going to go down. In Analyzing the Social Web, I mentioned that our weak connections are often more important than our tight connections to finding a job (based on the work of Milgram and Granovetter). In short, there’s no way from inside the boat to know where the shoreline is. We need people on the outside to be able to help tell us where we are and help us navigate difficult waters. So we share what we’re working on and allow others to experience it, and look at how it might be helpful to them and how they might be helpful to us.

The key here is that when we work out loud, we create the opportunity for others to share their perspectives with us – to help us know when to adjust our course – and of course we allow them to build off of our work.

Sometimes the barriers to us sharing what we’re doing is based on our fears that what we’re doing might be silly, wrong, or simply that we don’t feel like it’s done yet.

But I’m Not Done Yet

When I started writing articles, I had to accept that they had deadlines, and that meant that I had to get them done for the deadline. I didn’t have an infinite amount of time to get them to be “done.” The benefit of this was that I did get more articles done – particularly when I had a weekly column to fill for TechRepublic. The downside was that I was putting my thoughts out there before they were fully baked in many cases. There was more than one article that people ripped apart because they didn’t feel like it made sense. In some cases, they may have been right. In other cases, I never fully developed the end of my thinking, so the reader didn’t have the opportunity to fully understand what I was saying. (My fault, not theirs.)

An interesting aspect of working out loud that I don’t believe I maintain in my daily life is the idea of narrating my work. I do it sometimes, and that sometimes leads to embarrassments, such as the fact that I never released the governance DVD that I started working on years and years ago. I never felt like the content was good enough, so it sparked me on my journey of learning – but the much-promised DVD never materialized.

Platforms and Platforms

When Michael Hyatt speaks of a platform, he means your followers in the same way that Seth Godin means tribe. (See Michael’s book Platform for more.) When most of my IT friends say platform they mean Windows, Linux, or MacOS in the same way that networking means Ethernet and WiFi. Sometimes we – particularly technology folks – confuse the technology with the human factor connection. We’re wired for connections (see The Dance of Connection for more) and not of the Internet kind, but we all too often forget this important point.

I started this blog on Subversion. I migrated it to SharePoint many, many years ago. More recently, I moved it to WordPress. Certainly I could have decided, somewhere along the way, that it wasn’t easy to blog on Subversion so I should stop. Or I could have gotten frustrated with the SharePoint plugin that allowed for enhanced blogs – but that would have missed the point. Writing the blog isn’t about the challenges of getting the posts applied to the technology. The challenge was and remains to get good content up. That’s something to do whether the technology platform makes it easy or not.

Maker and Manager

It was popular for a while to speak of the idea of whether you’re a maker – someone who is creating something – or a manager – someone who is managing others who make things. For those of us who are entrepreneurs, the answer is almost always “yes” to both questions. Most entrepreneurs start out as the maker who is frustrated with the management they receive, and they just want to be managed in a way that works for the creation process. (See The E-Myth Revisited for more on entrepreneurs being technicians.)

The challenge with being both the maker and the manager is how you divide your time. I’ve spoken about flow repeatedly (Flow, Finding Flow, The Rise of Superman) and how flow takes some time to get into. Even with approaches for kick-starting the process, it really requires dedicated time. The manager, on the other hand, is always being interrupted. Their world is being in the middle of interruptions, so in that model it’s difficult to get dedicated time to create.

This discrepancy is one I often point out between operational infrastructure folks, who are frequently interrupted as they try to keep things running, and developers who are rarely interrupted. The developers create more, but the infrastructure folks are equally necessary to keep things going.

Working out loud requires a certain level of reflection and development of your thoughts. That means uninterrupted, flow-based, dedicated time to create things, and in some environments that is hard to get.

Four Pillars

Working out loud is based on a foundation of four key ideas. These ideas are what I call “pillars” on top of which the working out loud approach is based. They are:

In truth, these pillars describe a way of looking at life. It’s looking at life from the lens of what you can do for others and how they can help you grow in a real way. It’s about a different mindset.

Mindset of Persistence

Carol Dweck’s work is quoted here about how a growth mindset can help children do better. By praising their effort rather than their results, children become more focused on working hard and less on believing that they’re fundamentally good or bad at something. As a result, they try more and fail more – so that they can succeed more too. (See Mindset for more.)

This growth mindset leads us towards more hard work over a longer time. This could protect us from abandoning our dreams before we’ve given them the proper opportunity to grow and thrive. By 2008, 95% of blogs were essentially abandoned. I’ve seen a sharp decline in the number of folks who were reading my blog via their RSS newsreaders – which was the primary way that most people were consuming the blog for a long time. (See my post The Rise and Fall of the Blog for more on my stats.)

As we look at working out loud as an idea, we have to consider how we’re going to have the persistence to keep going, even when it doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere. (See Grit and Willpower for more on being persistent.) We’ll have to figure out how to keep Working Out Loud.

Book Review-Analyzing the Social Web

Sometimes you get an idea that you want to explore and you propose a presentation topic on it – and it gets accepted. Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you but I do it occasionally. It allows me to test what folks are interested in. In this case, I had submitted a session called “Delving into SharePoint Search in the Cloud”. It was designed to cover how the way that we find information is shifting from search to social. It was designed to show how push vs. pull can work.

I realized that, while I had a good understanding of social networks, I didn’t have a great understanding, and I wanted to deepen my thinking before I did a presentation on the topic. Thus I finally settled on Analyzing the Social Web as my primer. It was a good choice.

What is Delve?

In understanding the connection between social web and search, you should first understand what Delve is and how it grew. The short form of the story is that Delve is the visual interface on a social web called the Office Graph. The Office Graph tracks people and objects like Word documents, Excel documents, etc., and it tracks the relationships between people and objects. It does this by watching your actions in the background as you email people and as you store documents in Office 365.

The Office Graph learns about you and the relationships, and can then surface the objects related to you, such as the Word document your colleague just finished working on and the presentation that your president just gave to the organization. In the Delve interface, these are surfaced as a newsfeed so you can discover what is happening around you instead of trying to locate it yourself.

Improving Relevance

Delve and the Office Graph grew up in the land of search. The SharePoint search team, many of whom worked for FAST Search before their acquisition, own the Office Graph and Delve. This ownership makes sense when you consider that having a social awareness of people can help drive relevance of search results as well.

Search, without links, can only get so good. The major leap in search technology was the recognition that the articles that are linked to the most are the ones that are generally the most relevant. This idea has made Google billions of dollars. However, on an intranet, the quantity of content that is cross-linked is very low. It’s not typical to find the kind of linking and density that you’ll find in the public Internet.

Intranet search can substitute relationships for explicit links between content and use that to drive greater relevance of documents. It solves a lot of ancillary problems as well, like the problem of newer content not being surfaced as often because it has fewer links.

Content Curation

Ultimately the result of this new social + search approach may be that our need for content curation is reduced. While I believe we’ll always need information architects to drive the structure for the content, it can be that we’ll need fewer librarians to manage the content into that structure. Between automatic classification tools, search tools, and social networks layered into it, it’s possible that we can reduce our dependence on organizational librarians.

The good news is that we already eliminated the corporate librarians in the 1990s, so we don’t have to let anyone go. Instead, perhaps we’ll decide to hire a few back to help everyone understand how to use the tools and what the value is.

Content curation was done to improve our relevance and to make the right things surface when we needed them. However, it can be that the social graph can take the place of some of that for us.

Graph Basics

One of the starting points for social graphs is to realize the components of the graph. There are nodes: in most cases for a social graph, these are people; but in graphs with multiple objects these could also be documents – as they are in the Office Graph. However, the interesting part of a social graph isn’t the nodes – it is the link between nodes. Links between nodes can have different types, and more importantly the links can have different weights. That is, there are sometimes weak ties and sometimes there are strong ties.

Link Gravity

The amount of connectedness in a link is an area of interest, because people have both strong ties to those like their family and weaker ties to others. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more about relationship strength.) The strength of these ties and their type help you to understand the relevance of one person’s activity to another person. The closer they are, the more likely that the activity is interesting. It’s also more likely that you’ll trust a recommendation from someone when the connections are close.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Most folks have heard of a game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. It works like this. You try to connect any actor with Kevin Bacon. The idea is that you can connect any actor to Kevin Bacon in six movie hops or less. An actor who was in a movie with Kevin Bacon has a Bacon-number of 1. An actor who was in a movie with one of Kevin Bacon’s co-actors in a movie has a Bacon-number of 2 and so on as we go through the various actors that have acted with the people who have acted with Kevin Bacon.

This is a variation on the relation to a prolific mathematician called Paul Erdos, and thus the game was played as the Erdos number – how close based on publications every other mathematician was. However, even further back, this goes to some research that Stanley Milgram did where he sent off letters with instructions for the receiver to try to get to a specific target person. The average number of jumps between people was about six. This is the genesis of the small world paradigm.

Small World

It’s popular to say today that we live in a small world. We can quite literally video chat with someone on the other side of the planet as us – as I do when I get to speak with my friend Paul Culmsee. No longer are our communications time delayed by the need for atoms to be carried across the globe. We have electrons, photons, and radio waves that make communication across large distances both quick and cheap. However, this isn’t the original intent of the small world idea. The original idea isn’t that we can communicate but that we’re connected.

The idea is that we are connected through a relatively small number of connections to nearly every human being on the planet. In 2011, Facebook members were an average distance of 4.74 hops apart. It’s not that our communications are getting faster, cheaper and more accessible – which they are – but instead the point is that people are connecting more frequently than they used to.

Weak Links

Granovetter published his research about how out-of-work men found jobs. It’s no secret that many jobs are never listed anywhere, and that in knowing someone, you can find the job you’re looking for or you need. What wasn’t well understood was that it’s the power of weak connections that are the most valuable. When the ties are strong, the social circles close in, and it’s unlikely that someone in your close social circle knows someone that you don’t – and thus they’re not valuable when you’re seeking a job.

However, folks with whom you have weak ties – people where your worlds intersect but aren’t enmeshed – are the most valuable. Hackman talks about the challenge of teams with tight relationships in Collaborative Intelligence in terms of overbounded teams – that is, they’re difficult to penetrate into and tend to be insular.

When you expand your network and increase the number of weak ties you have, you increase the possibilities. You create your own Medici effect which sparked the Renaissance. (See The Medici Effect for more.) You also create a greater chance of innovation.

Network Analysis

The point of network analysis is to be able to gain some meaningful insights in the data. The point is to be able to help the people in the network connect better, get better information, or for the developer to be able to leverage information. We’ve all used the recommendation engines on Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., when they’ve pushed products or people to us that they believe we want, will like or know.

There are many ways that network analysis can lead to insights.

Forbidden Triads

One of the most basic and interesting social network patterns is identification of “forbidden triads”. This is the name that Granovetter gave the situation when two people should know each other but don’t. In this case, the question becomes why not? In Granovetter’s studies, it may have been because it was a wife and a mistress who, despite both having a close connection with a man, probably shouldn’t meet. (That is unless you’re Jung or Murray – more about that in The Cult of Personality Testing.) In today’s social networking, when a person knows two others closely but they don’t appear to know each other, it’s a good opportunity for a friend suggestion.

The Strength of Relationships

One of the key challenges in building a network is in judging the strength of relationships. There are some mathematical solutions which can be used to mitigate the potential errors in the strength of the relationships. In particular:

  • Jaccard Index – Counts the total number of friends in common and divides that by the total number of friends of either node.
  • Adamic & Adar – Increase the weight of common friends with fewer friends to reduce the influence of celebrities.

These tools allow the network to greater predict the impact of one person on another by more closely modeling the way that humans behave. These are just two published approaches for assessing the relative strength or importance of a relationship. Machine learning approaches are also now being used which lead to – hopefully – even more accurate prediction of behavior based on the information in the graph.

Too Big to Analyze

In truth, the tools for analyzing a social graph are tools for analyzing a portion of the graph. In most cases, we’re establishing an egocentric graph from the overall graph and assessing the network from the point of view of a single professional. That is necessary because processing the entire network to evaluate all the possibilities is greater than is generally feasible. In other words, social networks of any size are too big to be fully processed.

Egocentric views of the graph give us a way to restrict the processing in ways that allow for problems that can be solved inside the limits of the computational resources we have available.

Building A Graph

If it’s not become apparent yet, building a graph of relationships between people can be a time-consuming process. People spend years collecting Facebook friends and even longer cultivating LinkedIn connections. This is a non-trivial amount of effort that people will do only when they can see the value. The challenge in this case is to build a graph that quickly develops meaning to its users.

While some public sites have reached saturation – like Facebook and LinkedIn – many more have failed to get enough people putting in enough data to make the social engine start to run effectively. So, it’s important as designers are building new social networks that they make the process of connecting as frictionless as possible.

Frictionless Sharing

Mark Zuckerberg described the process that Facebook uses to power its graph as “frictionless sharing”. It’s more like frictionless signaling. When a user reads a post, that’s a signal. When a user likes a post, that’s a stronger signal. When they share a post, that’s an even stronger signal. These signals indicate the level to which a user likes the content of another.

So, the more action that the user must take, the stronger the signal; however, most of the actions in the network are of the frictionless variety. They are recorded without the user taking a specific action.

Ultimately these signals are converted into relationships – or links. The process for converting signals to links is proprietary but very powerful.

Please Rob Me

Not every use for social networking is a positive one. Building on the Foursquare application’s ability to post to Twitter, and the belief that Twitter account owners could be identified to their house or location, the site Please Rob Me offered information about anyone who wasn’t home so that thieves could burglarize their place. There aren’t documented situations where the site was used for this purpose – but it did create awareness of concern for what we’re sharing.

Many photos taken by cell phones have the GPS data embedded in them – data that can be used to either identify a home address if the person was taking a picture of their new flowers, or that they’re away from home as they take a picture in a scenic national park. The potential to use this data for nefarious activities is a very real risk to the growing sophistication of social networks.

Picture This

One of my favorite things that has now been turned off is a feature that allowed you to map your LinkedIn connections. He’s what my network looked like back in 2012. This visualization allowed me to put clusters into groups and I got to see how my groups overlapped. When this was created, I was already more than 10 years into SharePoint so that part of my network is large. It’s not surprising that Microsoft (the maker of SharePoint) is another large block of people. The other groups represent clients or other areas that I spent a lot of time.

One could quite successfully argue that this doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t change any behavior (the marker I use with clients for key performance indicators). I will say that when I created it, I was surprised to see that the SharePoint cloud was larger than pretty much all the others. Similarly, I was surprised at how many disconnected people were connected between the groups.

Hopefully, as our experience with social graphs improves, we’ll find better ways to find insight out of these graphs, and more importantly better ways to go about Analyzing the Social Web.

Book Review-The Excellence Habit: How Small Changes in Our Mindset Can Make a Big Difference in Our Lives for All Who Feel Stuck

Most folks would say that they would like excellence in their lives. However, understanding what excellence is and how to get more of it seem to be a challenge. In The Excellence Habit: How Small Changes in Our Mindset Can Make a Big Difference in Our Lives for All Who Feel Stuck, Vlad Zachary shares how he sees the struggle to not just desire more excellence but to actually develop it.

Excellence Redux

This is not, by far, the first time excellence has come up in my reading list. It is, in fact, a common topic across all sorts of books. In my review of The Fred Factor, I mentioned that my friends describe my world as being filled with excellence – even though I often don’t recognize it. Sometimes excellence gets another name, as it does in Peak. Other times it pops out of unlikely places, like creativity. (See Creativity, Inc.) It shows up in people trying to better themselves, as in The Art of Learning and The Rise of Superman.

However, Zachary has a slightly different perspective on excellence and how to achieve it. It’s fueled by getting outside our comfort zone and recognizing that we have the mistaken belief that we should be able to be comfortable as adults. However, if we can develop and express our genius, we have to pretty consistently dwell outside of our comfort zones. (See Extraordinary Minds, Daring Greatly and Group Genius for more on dwelling outside our comfort zones.)

Mind the Gap

Most people have two lives. The inner life of their fantasy where they’ve achieved all of the fame and fortune they would like – and the second life of our day-to-day existence. The gap between these two lives will pull us to close them. We’ll want to reduce our expectations or elevate our current situation. Unfortunately, all too often, we compromise. All too often, we defer to prudence and we convince ourselves that we need to be realistic. These are the forces that move the imagined life towards our current reality.

The Excellence Habit is the opposite of this. It is moving our current life closer to our fantasy. It transforms our fantasy into our new reality. It moves us from the someday to the today. As we experience life, we must mind the gap between our two worlds and recognize which side of the gap we want to move to get them closer.

Facing Difficulty

Your character is what you do when doing it is difficult. If you look for the character of a man, you don’t look for what he does when it’s easy. You look for what he does when it seems like it’s impossible for people to do that. That’s great when you get there, but how do you develop this character? Developing character happens as you make individual decisions over a long time. It’s about making hard choices every day.

We want to be known as people of character but often forget that the way to develop character is to do the hard things. In Daring Greatly, we learn to lean into the pain. We learn that often it’s painful before it’s peaceful. We have to go through the difficult to get to the easy. Compelled to Control reminds us to see pain as a signal, not necessarily as a warning.

Sometimes our fear of failure (see Find Your Courage for more on the fear of failure) will block us from the difficult. However, the power of hope is restored when we can see our success through difficult things. (See The Psychology of Hope for more.)

Meritocracy’s Menace

I don’t suppose it was easy to live in a world of caste systems, where one knew their lot in life. They had no belief that they could become something special or elevate their world beyond that of their social rung. That world is past. We now believe that anyone who has a great idea can become a billionaire. We lionize the likes of Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, etc., who have created their own fortune and defined their own worlds. (See Bold for more on some of the people who’ve boldly changed the world.)

The positive potentials of a meritocracy are great. You can have the world on a string. However, there’s a darker side to meritocracy. The darker side is accepting that you are responsible for your own situation in life. No longer can you blame the establishment, history, your parents, the tooth fairy, or anyone else. In a meritocracy, you’re responsible for your own situation. There is no more victimhood. (See more about victimhood in my post Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting.)

What happens when you lose your job? If you believe in the meritocracy, you must admit that you didn’t do good enough. The problem this causes is a natural fear of what will happen if you’re not enough. If you weren’t enough for this situation, what if you’re not enough for the next? What if you get to see the other side of a strict meritocracy, and you die homeless, hungry, and alone?

For those of my Christian friends, the book God Loves You offers some solace that God loves you. For my non-Christian friends, it’s important to remember that this world contains a great deal of randomness and is full of probabilities. It’s not formulaic.

Randomness Reminder

We were taught formula. We were taught that A+B=C – all the time. We’ve been told that insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Halo Effect spoke of the fact that this world is not deterministic. Instead it’s probabilistic. We roll the dice. Sometimes it comes up boxcars and sometimes snake eyes. However, much more frequently, it comes somewhere in the middle. This is important in the concept of a meritocracy because even the most noble system of meritocracy will require randomness to connect people to the place where their unique personality, experiences, and skills are the perfect match – where they merit the great rewards for their high performance.

Most of the time we’re floating through our lives and careers without a single clear direction as to where we need to move to be in the best possible spot. Even Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity admits that he didn’t have a master course for his life. He was pulled along by the winds of change and happened to end up where he landed.

The Iceberg Principle

In truth, much of what guides us on our paths isn’t the stuff that we see on the surface. It’s not the big, well-known things, but instead are the smaller passions that seem to support our larger development and help chart our course. I started my path towards SharePoint semi-accidentally. I was doing custom development and a customer needed someone to help with a SharePoint initiative. I walked away from it for a few years, then got pulled back in when another few clients needed help and no one else in my sphere knew anything about it.

Risk, adversity, and patience are the characteristics that Zachary describes at the heart of the iceberg principle. We’ll never know the risks that people took, the adversity they overcame, or the patience that it required. I mentioned in my review of Seeing David in the Stone that James MacDonald, who is now a popular pastor, mentioned that he worked for very little compensation for many years just to reach out and serve. Brené Brown mentions in Rising Strong that we do a disservice to others by “gold-plating grit” – that is, minimizing the pain, anguish, and struggle to get to where we are. It’s this grit – the struggle – that people on the outside can’t see. They can only see the result of the struggle.

Wide and Narrow Focus

We have historically lauded those who were at the pinnacle of their respective areas. We’ve looked up to the person who has mastered their one and only area of interest. Sometimes we’ll hold up people who have managed to connect various fields of science and art together, but much more rarely. We hold up Mozart or Einstein more frequently than folks like Edison, who brought together many fields of science to develop his commercially-viable incandescent light. (See Extraordinary Minds for different types of expertise, The Medici Effect for the impact of cross-pollination of ideas, and Beyond Genius for some Renaissance men.)

The reality is that some of the most interesting and practically-useful discoveries don’t come at the pinnacle of an area of science. The most useful discoveries come from the intersection of different fields of science. Edison’s discovery wasn’t about electricity. It was the application of heating materials through electricity to create light. It was the intersection of many different areas of science to get to a commercially-viable light bulb.

It is not bad to be focused on a single area or to seek excellence in that area. However, neither is it bad to have many divergent interests, which pull together to create new and interesting combinations.


As I’m writing this, my post of The Heretics Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity just went up, so I’m getting a healthy dose of discussions about ambiguity. That’s probably why a quote about Dr. Kerry Healey, who is, as I write this, the president of Babson college, lit up for me:

“Dr. Healey said that her ability to deal with ambiguity for very long periods of time is probably more important than self-discipline.”

I realized that the wisdom in this statement is that we all have ambiguity in our lives. By accepting that we don’t know what’s around the corner – but it will be OK and potentially even amazing – we live our lives to the fullest. Believing that we have to have our lives all planned out and we have to have it all figured out leads to a lot of anxiety – particularly when we’re getting outside of our comfort zones.

Inner Game

Where there is excellence, there is also an inner game of peace. It’s not that those who are excellent never have disruption in their lives and are never off balance, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover quicker. (To slightly paraphrase my quote of Richard Moon, see more in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue.) Developing excellence as a habit is less about what people see on the outside and more about what people see on the inside. It’s less about visibility and more about internal stability.

How we frame or reframe our lives has a substantial output on our trajectory in the long run. Our internal state having “broken windows” or other areas of minor concern can have a major impact on how we turn out overall. (See The Tipping Point for more on the broken windows theory of crime.)

Despite the value of a solid inner game, sometimes the only attribute we need is simply the persistence to wait it out and a bit of dumb luck.

Long Enough to Get Lucky

In my conversations with business leaders, I often hear encouragement to just keep going. They share their stories of struggles and how they overcame them to remind me that sometimes the only way to get ahead in business is simply to be in business for a long time. That’s why the quote from Taffy Williams, CEO and author, is so perfect: “Part of the game is being able to stay functional long enough to allow for your lucky break to come. I personally believe that luck is part of every success story. Talent is important, but if you are at the wrong time, at the wrong place, things won’t happen.”

The trick to becoming successful in business is luck. Luck is not completely random. It, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared. You create the opportunity for luck by being prepared. You are prepared by practicing – intently and intelligently. (See Peak for more on purposeful practice.) Sometimes you have to just plug along trying new methods to find something that will be successful for you.

Until your ship comes in, maybe you just need to practice The Excellence Habit.

Book Review-Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change

While working on a community project to help teens who are struggling with life, I had the pleasure of talking to some real professionals who work with teens every day, and one of them shared one of his techniques for having dialogues with teens in trouble. That technique was motivational interviewing. I picked it up and started reading Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, and realized that it addressed some of the challenges that I’ve seen in my work with my children as well as conversations with other adults.

Spirit and Attitude

In many therapeutic relationships, there’s an expectation. The expectation is that the person being consulted has the answers to the questions that are plaguing the seeker. The idea is that the expert in the situation is the one with more training, more degrees, more experience, etc.. However, this expectation directly faces the reality that every human is unique, different, and special. The seeker is the one who knows their life best. They may be missing the knowledge or support to improve their life, but they are the undisputed experts in their own life – and in their condition.

This is the fundamental shift in perspective that sits at the heart of motivational interviewing – that is that the relationship is not a one-up/one-down, where the one being consulted is the expert and the seeker is the novice. (See Compelled to Control for more on one-up/one-down.) Instead, there are two people who are coming alongside one another for the betterment of both. The seeker is looking for specific growth and the one being consulted can be enriched by the seeker’s experience in their own life.

The Heart and Soul of Change cited therapist alliance to be the most powerful factor that influenced outcomes. This is the idea that both the therapist and the patient have the same goal. This is the spirit of motivational interviewing – that the seeker (patient) has the same perspective as the therapist (consulted). Drawing on this powerful truth, motivational interviewing can move people from places of resistance, ambivalence, and into a place of willing change.

Change Models

When you’re focused on changing people, whether to get them to stop a bad habit or start a healthy one – or ideally both – there are several different models that can be used. There is Kurt Lewin’s model of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing, as well as the stages of change model, which speaks of precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Precontemplation maps to Lewin’s unfreezing – that is, becoming ready to consider change. Lewin’s change is broken into contemplation, preparation, and action in stages of change. Maintenance maps to refreezing in Lewin’s model.

Of course, there are other models, like John Kotter’s model for organizational change. (See Leading Change and The Heart of Change
for more on Kotter’s model.) There are other approaches, like the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, that you may find helpful. (You can see my post Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions for more.) Motivational interviewing follows the stages of change model and recognizes that people are in different places in their walk towards change.

In my experience, an awareness of the journey of change is something that distinguishes motivational interviewing. Instead of just blindly assuming once someone has the knowledge of what to do that they’ll magically make it happen, motivational interviewing recognizes the complexity of the change process.

The process of personal change is much like the process for adopting an innovation. Diffusion of Innovations shared that there is a hierarchy to adopting an innovation (or change):

  • Knowledge – Awareness of the innovation or change which can be gained from mass media
  • Attitude – A change in perspective about the innovation or change typically garnered from close associates or friends.
  • Practices – Making the change is a personal decision.

This is the same process; you can hardly make a change until you’re aware of it and until you accept that the idea is a good one. If you want to address recidivism rates, you must get past the inmate understanding the law – in most cases they do. You must get to the heart of their attitudes about the law, being law-abiding, or how their status would be impacted by doing the right thing. This precedes the decision to make the change.

The Motivational Interviewing Process

Motivational interviewing relies on a set of skills that are important to cultivate (which I’ll address later in this review) but there’s a process for doing motivational interviewing. However, this isn’t a strict process, but is instead a flow, like waves that are continuously lapping the shoreline of the relationship. Some of these waves are large and take a long time to return to the ocean and others barely make a mark. The process isn’t intended to be a strict linear process with achievements at each step like they’re levels in a game. Instead they’re pieces of an overall process to lead people to the lives they want to have. It’s recursive and reflexive, happening repeatedly.

The four components of the motivational interviewing process are:

  • Engaging – Developing a rapport, or what The Heart and Soul of Change would call a therapeutic alliance. More simply, building a relationship.
  • Focusing – Guiding towards a specific, achievable goal.
  • Evoking – Fanning the flames of desire to make the change.
  • Planning – Developing the set of specific action steps.

Let’s look each of these components in the following sections.

Engaging in the Relationship

In any work, the first step is to build into the relationship with the other person. Sometimes that work is quick and easy, because the other person needs only to perform a transaction with you; but when you’re helping them shape, change, or redirect their lives, the need to build a relationship is key. So while a McDonald’s worker may solidify their relationship with you with the simple phrase, “What can I get you today?”, someone who is intent on helping another human grow needs to do more to build trust and safety. (See my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.)

It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Until they know that you care about them as a person, they don’t care about your degrees, experience, techniques, or tools. They care when they know that you have their best interests at heart.

There are many pitfalls on the way to building relationships. Some of these traps were covered specifically.

The Traps

Despite the best intentions to hold to the spirit of peers in a discovery process to help the seeker, there are traps laid out which can derail the conversation into the authoritarian, one-up/one-down situation, where the situation is no longer collaborative.

  • The Assessment Trap – The belief that we need to know a lot of information before we can begin to help (and add value).
  • The Expert Trap – The expert, professional, or volunteer knows the right answers and they need to impart it on the client.
  • The Premature Focus Trap – Beginning to work on a problem before you develop a relationship or understanding of perspective.
  • The Labeling Trap – Assigning a label to someone and assuming they are that label – not that it is an aspect of them – or maybe it’s wrong and it’s not even that.
  • The Blaming Trap – Falling into the game of finding the fault and assigning the blame to someone – either the client or someone in their world.
  • The Chat Trap – Instead of working through a guiding process, just talking with no direction or intent.

The good news is that escaping the traps is nearly as simple as being aware of the traps’ existence – in the moment – and acknowledging it. In this way, it’s like the boxes from The Anatomy of Peace but easier. Boxes are hard to recognize that you’re in — but these traps are easier to see.


Listening to another person might seem to be an obvious and easy thing that one can do to build relationships, but in truth most people are crummy at listening. We’re distracted by our devices, we don’t make enough eye contact, and we are generally distracted by our own thoughts, instead of giving the person that we’re listening to our full attention.

The basics of listening seem obvious. We remove the distractions that prevent us from paying full attention to the other person. The way that we communicate that we’re paying full attention to them is by making and maintaining eye contact. It’s not necessary to maintain 100% eye contact – in fact, the other person is unlikely to let you. However, giving the other person the opportunity for a large amount of eye contact is important. They then can take – or leave – as much eye contact as they feel comfortable with.

There are techniques for reflective listening, including simple and complex reflections, as well as strategies to lead the conversation so that the person will elaborate on how they feel and you have ways to check your understanding. I’ll discuss that later, but in the elicitation stage, there’s a more important set of constraints that can make or break the relationship.


The first constraint is that your listening should be non-reactive. That isn’t to say that if the seeker asked if you’re, excited you can’t respond with a yes, or that you should appear to be only barely conscious. Instead, it means that when people share something vulnerable with you, that you shouldn’t indicate a great deal of surprise as if your opinion of them has changed. For folks to build trust in you and to become vulnerable with you, they must feel safe. (See my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on building trust.)


The second constraint is related. You cannot appear judgmental in your responses. This leads to the one-up/one-down perspective or The Expert Trap – both mentioned above. But more importantly, it reduces the feeling of safety necessary for someone to move further into the relationship. If you respond in a judgmental manner, the seeker will learn that they need to defend themselves. They’ll perceive that you’re not a safe person and that isn’t a good way to develop a relationship.

Finding Focus

Sometimes the context of the interaction will drive the focus for the engagement. Say the seeker approaches the consulted party in the context of therapy for addiction. Sometimes the context won’t help to focus the interaction at all. Now consider a seeker walking into the office of the pastor of a church. In this case, the context doesn’t prescribe the kind of focus that the conversation will have. Even in the first case, knowing that someone has an addiction doesn’t indicate their desire to change their behavior – as the seeker may be fulfilling the requirement of a third party, like a spouse or a judge.

Whether there is a clear focus at the start or not, in order to be intentionally helpful, it’s necessary to understand what the objective is for the interaction. This is the reason that there is a focusing phase to motivational interviewing to develop and agree to a common objective.

Planning Possibilities

The seeker entering the arena of the consulted can come with four basic situations:

  • Clear Direction – The seeker knows exactly (or nearly exactly) what they want to accomplish in their lives and is looking for the consulted to help guide them toward that path.
  • Multiple Choices – The seeker sees multiple options for how they could proceed to fix one area of their life; but it’s unclear exactly which change they should make, and are first looking for the consulted to help them determine which they should work on first.
  • No Clear Direction – In many non-acute settings, the seeker doesn’t have a clear vision of what they want to improve in their life, nor clear directions they could take to improve it. In these cases, the consulted and the seeker need to collaboratively define what the options even are before seeking to focus on one.
  • No Therapeutic Direction – The fourth case, which is a variant of no clear direction, is where there is no clear direction and the consulted doesn’t see a therapeutic direction. There’s no reason to encourage one behavior or another. In these cases, the consulted need not advocate any direction.

When the seeker has a clear direction, the planning process is very short. Essentially planning becomes a simple confirmation. With those with multiple choices, the planning process is relatively short, as one of the options is selected from the list. Planning gets longer when there aren’t a predefined set of options for direction, and even longer still when the consulted person has no specific therapeutic direction to provide.

In those cases, where one needs to determine directions or identify potential directions to be selected from, sometimes the best thing for the person being consulted to do is to practice a bit of selective reflection.

Evoking the Desire for Change

It’s 1955 and we’re listening as Dr. Raphael Level, the founder of the Global Medicine Forum, speaks. His words are as startling then as they are now: “A relatively small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of the health care budget for diseases that are very well known and, by and large, behavioral.” He continues, “Many articles demonstrated that eighty percent of the health care budget was consumed by five behavioral issues.” He didn’t name the issues, but too much smoking, drinking, eating, stress, and too little exercise are the presumed list. (Much of this story comes from Change or Die.)

The funny thing is that he could have been speaking last week. In the over sixty years between his speech and today, little has changed. Perhaps we could shuffle the five and maybe swap out smoking and drinking for addictions in general – but fundamentally the situation hasn’t changed. The greatest challenges that we have in medicine isn’t medicine. The greatest issues we have in medicine are human behavior.

If you want to scare yourself, go look at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) reports on global handwashing rates in acute care settings. No one is missing the knowledge that handwashing prevents infections since Ignaz Semmelweis made his discovery. Yet global handwashing compliance in acute care is at a 20% level. In the US, you might get between 50%-80%. We’re not talking about a lack of soap. (See Diffusion of Innovations if you want an interesting story about how the availability of soap changed outcomes.) However, we’re not talking about an availability problem. We’re talking about a behavior problem.

How then does motivational interviewing accomplish the sorts of behavior changes that we’ve been unable to accomplish as a society? The answer is that, rather than demanding change, it relies on gently guiding the seeker into their desire to change through increasing engagement and reducing disengagement.

Increasing Engagement

In a formal debate the parties are assigned their sides and they square off. Everything that one party says, the other side refutes. That’s the way the debate works. You seek to minimize what the other party says and maximize the impact of your statements, even to the point of hyperbole. This is the way the situation is structured. Unfortunately, even if we don’t formally get assigned sides, the roles of the seeker and the consulted in traditional therapy would square off, with one suggesting change and the other suggesting status quo. The first tool to encourage a change is selected reflection of what the seeker is saying.

Selective Reflection

Motivational interviewing grew out of Carl Roger’s work, and he commented that he didn’t direct his patients. However, upon review of his work, one of his students could demonstrate that, while he didn’t overtly provide direction, he was differentially reflecting certain comments and allowing others to pass by. By selectively reflecting comments, Rogers influenced the thinking of his patients without directly expressing his opinion on what they should do.

Choosing what to reflect and how to reflect what the patient – or seeker – is saying can provide them significant support in pursuing the direction that the therapist – or consulted – believes is best. By simply choosing to provide affirming reflections around certain paths and not making comments on others, it’s possible to subtly shift the path of the seeker without them even realizing it’s happening.

Righting Reflex

It’s more common for the consulted to desire to set the seeker straight. That is, to tell them how they’re wrong or what they “must” do. This invites the seeker to defend their position. Because we learn about our perspectives by the way we talk, we’re unintentionally creating additional resistance as we ask folks to defend their position. Therefore, those being consulted need to carefully ask for permission before providing information (or judgement) on the seekers’ situation. The consulted party isn’t imbued with unrestricted power to inflict their thinking on the seeker. Instead, they’re granted the opportunity to petition to get their thoughts into the mind of the seeker.

Staying Behind the Person

My friend Bill Caskey taught me a long time ago to stay behind the prospect when selling. The idea is that if the client says that the solution you’re proposing is great, respond slightly behind them. The idea is that they’ll try to continue selling you that your solution is great. Obviously, this is a skill that needs a bit of finesse; however, done well, it further reinforces the buyer’s perception of your product or solution.

In motivational interviewing, staying behind the seeker causes them to talk more about the reasons for the change. The more they talk about the change, the more likely they are to do the change because we learn our beliefs as we talk them out. Specifically, we become more aware of our desire as we start to discuss it.

Change Talk

The kind of talking that a seeker does exposes their interest in the change process and ultimately their chances for success. As seekers can articulate their reasons for changing, including its importance and what they expect to get, they are more likely to be successful in changing their world. Specifically, there are five factors that can influence the probability of success:

  • Desires or Goals – Being able to articulate the objective is important because, as the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going than any road will take you.”
  • Importance – Understanding why the change is important or essential provides the energy to compel the seeker into action.
  • Positivity – Generally, experiencing the change process in a more positive way will support continuing effort at the changed. If the seeker sees hunger as a signal rather than a pain, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Expectations – Knowing how to set realistic expectations and knowing what you expect helps to remove barriers to the change.
  • Hope – The seeker’s sense of hopefulness about the change can carry them through when setbacks occur. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.)

Obviously, the objective is to encourage the seeker to have more of these positive factors for change. However, sometimes it’s not entirely possible.

Addressing Ambivalence

Ambivalence is the not the land where there is no motivation in either direction. Ambivalence is the land where there’s not compelling pull towards or away from the behavior change. This is the place where either the forces are both low – or they’re both high and are tugging at the heart strings of the seeker. It’s like brackish water, water between the ocean and freshwater sources: the currents can be strong or they can be nearly non-existent.

Ambivalence occurs when there’s insufficient energy in the psychodynamic system to have “stay the same” displace “change”, or vice-versa. In my review of Inside Jokes, I mentioned that jokes work because of a conflict of ideas, which isn’t quietly filed way but is instead either cooperatively or more frequently uncooperatively resolved. That is, the ideas either become aligned because of new insight or one forces the other out. Getting out of ambivalence requires the energy to have one idea force the other idea out – ideally for good.

Building strength in the argument for change so that it can overwhelm the status quo is the point of motivational interviewing, but increasing the force of the change argument isn’t enough. Often it’s necessary to dissolve the disengagement (reduce the resistance).

Dissolving Disengagement

It can be that the person feels caught between two worlds. They are trapped in their current thinking and destructive behaviors, unable to climb out of the pit. In this view, the person needs the “waypower” component of hope (see The Psychology of Hope) to know how to accomplish the change. This is every consulted person’s dream. All they must do is impart the knowledge of how to do the change and it will happen. Except, as we have discussed, this isn’t the state that most people arrive in. Most seekers come with a fair amount of disengagement and resistance to the process – sometimes to seeking (they’ve been told to come), and frequently with the situation itself.

We know that egos have defensive techniques that allow us to walk through our days instead of curling up in a ball in fear of the impending asteroid that’s hurling towards the planet. (See Change or Die for more about our ego.) It’s these defenses that we’re seeking to reduce. We’re trying to prevent the minimization of the damage caused to ourselves and others by our existing behaviors and responses. We’re trying to hold up the mirror to ensure that people can see themselves more clearly. (See Incognito for more on how we deceive ourselves.)

Behavior-Values Gap

We talk the talk but can we walk the walk? We can have espoused beliefs that sound good but aren’t how we act. This is less episodic and subtler than the boxes that The Anatomy of Peace was speaking about. In that case, we’re situationally triggered towards behaving inconsistent with our ideas. The gap between our values and our behaviors is much more persistent than that. (See The Fifth Discipline, The Happiness Hypothesis and Dialogue for more on the gap between our espoused beliefs and what we do.)

The gap is a natural artifact in human beings. Even students in seminary school will miss the proverbial Good Samaritan test, as demonstrated by Darley and Batson in their research study, “From Jerusalem to Jericho” published in 1973. Students pressed for time were substantially less likely to help someone who they perceived needed their help.

Milgram demonstrated the startling ease with which most people could be manipulated into delivering what they believed were lethal shocks. (See Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) for more.) It’s not that there was a question about whether the subjects valued human life – the question is what psychological pressure they were willing to confront to protect those values.

Closing the Gap

The simple – too simple – answer for closing the behavior-values gap is to hold a mirror to the face of the seeker. To show them how their espoused values and their behaviors are in conflict. The Outward Mindset told a story where Ivan’s father saw his own violent behavior when Ivan copied it, thereby revealing his own behaviors and causing an immediate and permanent change. While holding the mirror up for someone to see can be an effective and permanent way of creating a change, it’s also risky, as the response of breaking the proverbial mirror or running away are very real responses.

The confrontational style isn’t what motivational interviewing is about. It’s about allowing the seeker themselves to hold up their own mirror and hopefully not be so scared by what they see that they drop it. Getting folks to raise the mirror and turn it towards themselves is the beauty of motivational interviewing done well.


By the time you reach the planning phase of motivational interviewing, the hard work is done. The planning exercise is important so that your hard work in the previous phases doesn’t get undone because of poor planning.

Way Power

Planning is specifically developing waypower in the mind of the seeker. That is, you’re helping them discover that they do have the capacity, ability, and skills necessary to make the change. You’re helping them feel safe in their decision to change, because they will be successful through their capabilities and the capabilities of the relationships around them, including their close relationships as well as the communities that they are a part of. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more about circles of influence.)

Baby Steps

The easiest way to make any change is to convert large, seemingly insurmountable challenges into a set of small steps. The more you can create a set of reasonable steps that a person can take to reach a goal, the less daunting and therefore more doable it becomes. Every change should be wrapped in the cloak of actionability.

If someone needs to exercise more, you don’t start with exercising five days a week for an hour at a time. The first step might be to get running shoes and workout clothes. The next might be selecting a gym to become a member of. The next step might be a 30-minute workout once a week. Each step moves you towards the goal – but isn’t so large that it’s not manageable. I wanted to start eating healthier. I switched from white to wheat bread. It was a small change and it was something that I can do.

Interpersonal Influence

Before sharing some of the specific techniques and approaches that are discussed in motivational interviewing, it’s worth pausing and talking about governing principles for the use of these skills. Here, motivational interviewing defers to Principles of Biomedical Ethics in four broad categories:

  • Nonmaleficence – Not inflicting intentional harm.
  • Beneficence – The desire and belief of doing good
  • Autonomy – The belief in human freedom and dignity
  • Justice – Genuine respect for people

These ethics are necessary since the approach can be powerful and can easily be abused to coerce people without their knowledge.


I pause here to talk briefly about manipulation, because as a word it’s gotten a negative connotation. However, if I were to tell you that all of us have been manipulated, you might passionately argue the point that you’re beyond manipulation. However, nearly everyone wears seatbelts in cars. One could argue against the practice, but the truth is we’ve all been manipulated into this behavior based on laws.

This – but not all – manipulation is a good thing. It saves countless lives each year as injuries and death due to automobile accidents are lowered. Manipulation in and of itself is not a bad thing – manipulation which places the benefits of the person doing the manipulation above the benefits of the person who is being manipulated can be a bad thing.


There are some practical techniques and approaches which are indicators that motivational interviewing is being used, and the assessment of these techniques can reveal whether the practitioner is following the guidelines that motivational interviewing sets forward. Here are some of the key techniques in the system.

Reflective and Active Listening

Motivational interviewing uses the language of reflective listening rather than the more popular active listening. It does so in part because there’s a distinction that’s raised even inside of reflective listening. There are simple reflections, those which don’t provide much interpretation of what the seeker said. There are also more complex reflections, which process the information to try to make sense of it. These reflections are termed as being more complex.

There are good examples of reflective listening which is at the heart of motivational interviewing, but perhaps my favorite quote for reflective listening, which I discovered in Emotional Intelligence, comes from Haim Ginott: “When you did X, it made me feel Y, and I’d rather you did Z instead.” I change the language a bit to, “When you did X, I felt Y, and I’d rather you did Z instead,” because I don’t believe that others can make us feel anything – I think we choose our own feelings. (See Choice Theory for more.)


DARN is a way of viewing the seeker’s chances for making a successful change. This is their preparatory talk to ready themselves for the change. The more that you can get a seeker to verbalize in these four categories, the more likely they are to ultimately be successful with their change effort.

  • Desire – The root is obviously the desire to make the change in the first place. Without desire, nothing happens.
  • Ability – The seeker needs to believe they can make the change. This may be very practical in terms of the specific behaviors or more generally in their belief of their ability to stick to the change.
  • Reasons – Having clear reasons for the change, not just broad ideals, will make them more likely to stick with the change when there are setbacks.
  • Need – The urgent reason to get started. The specific impetus for change now.

These are the kinds of language that you need to hear from someone as they are preparing for the change. However, it’s the CATs language that will help sustain them through the change itself.


CATs are the language of commitment. They’re the language when the decision has been made that there are no more questions about a course of action. The CATs are:

  • Commitment – This is the signal of the likelihood of action. The change is now.
  • Activation – Signals of a willingness – but not commitment – to act.
  • Taking Steps – Actual behaviors that demonstrate progress in a direction. These aren’t crossing the goal, only moving in that direction.

This language is the language on the other side of the hill from motivating the person to do the change.


OARS are what drives the boat of motivational interviewing forward. They are the core techniques that help the seekers respond in a way consistent with their desires.

  • Open Questions – Questions that are designed to elicit long responses rather than short ones begin the process of getting the person talking and getting the ball rolling.
  • Affirming – Affirming the person helps to build positive affect and allows for the development of a relationship through safe and trusted interactions.
  • Reflecting – We all seek to be understood, and reflective listening allows the seeker to know that at some level they were understood. If they aren’t understood well enough they can refine that understanding.
  • Summarizing – Putting things all together helps to tie a bow around the package of the conversation or part of the conversation. It affirms that you understand not just the individual statements but the overall picture as well.

These tend to become a rhythm for folks who are providing therapy, like the steady beat of hooves on a path when a horse is walking. Still, in this there’s no room for addition of information – that’s what the elicit-provide-elicit technique does.


If everything is reflective listening, then there’s no opportunity for the consulted to share their experience with the seeker. This is obviously not the point. Neither is it right for the consulted to download their view of the world on the seeker. The elicit-provide-elicit sequence was designed to create a safe structure for sharing that doesn’t cause the seeker to feel unsafe (and therefore defend themselves).

The sequence starts by the consulted asking the seeker’s permission to share. This is the first elicit. It’s very rare for the seeker to say no unless there is serious damage to the relationship; so while it may feel as if you’re asking to get told no, you’re asking to increase the willingness of the seeker to accept your feedback.

During the provide step, the consulted provides a little bit of information, just enough to get the point across, and then stops and launches into the final elicit step, which is checking to see if the seeker is still OK or needs additional information. This final elicit step.

By packaging the information you provide in this sequence, you reduce the chances that someone will resist the information.

Getting Motivated

While not everyone is in a counseling situation, all of us interact with others who are stuck, confused as to which direction to go in, and conflicted. Maybe we can pick up some skills for Motivational Interviewing
and help someone else find their way – or maybe we can find out more about ourselves.

Book Review-Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Causes and Cures for Stress

In this final installment of my three-part review of Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers we walk through the causes of stress and what we can do to “cure” stress by minimizing its impact on us. We started this review with The Physical Impacts of Stress and followed that up with The Psychological and Neurological Impact of Stress.

It’s good to understand the impacts of stress on our bodies and on our minds, but what do we do about it? How do we avoid stress and deal with it when it does come? Partial answers to these questions are what makes Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers so useful.

Lack of Control

Humans have evolved rapidly from creatures totally dependent upon dumb luck to survive. We’ve created agriculture (which ironically created its own stress-related problems). We’ve put men on the moon and brought them back home. We’ve learned so much about our bodies and our worlds. We like to believe that we’re in control. We enjoy the illusion, but it’s just that. It’s an illusion. (See Compelled to Control for more on control.)

Why would someone voluntarily work half time – 12 hours a day, every day – for very little, if any pay, a large degree of risk, and the associated health risks of higher stress? The answers vary, but the label for all of them is the same – entrepreneur. What do entrepreneurs believe that they get with their decision to “be their own boss”? Some argue that there’s a financial upside (and there is). Others argue that there’s no one telling them what to do (which isn’t true – they’ve got customers who are the ultimate bosses). One real answer is the freedom. Yes, you can and perhaps too often do work 12 hour days – but you get to pick which 12 hours. The freedom to choose when you work and what you work on mitigates the stress that you might feel from the other factors.

Studies have proven that when you give animals the perception of control of – or influence on – their situation, their stress levels are lower. Perhaps that’s why we have so many religions and superstitions. Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Perhaps our superstitions are our way of trying to make ourselves believe that we have control of our world.

Frustration Outlets

Even if we can’t get control, we experience less stress when we have an outlet for our frustration. When we have something – anything – that we can do, it makes it better. You probably know people – perhaps when looking in the mirror – who obsessively clean when they’re stressed. In truth, this helps them feel better along multiple vectors. First, the exercise itself will increase blood flow and will generally lighten someone’s mood. Secondarily, and more importantly, the belief that you’re doing “something” will help.

If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic waiting on other people to get out of your way, you’ve experienced that lack of control. Many people will choose routes which take longer if they are able to travel at a reasonable speed, because they don’t experience the helplessness of being caught in traffic. We’ve also seen those folks who constantly switch lanes as they try to relieve their frustration.

Giving Ulcers

Have you ever considered what you want someone to say at your funeral, or what you would want on your tombstone (and not the pizza kind)? While it may be morbid to think about, consider the guy whose answer was, “He didn’t get ulcers, he gave them.” There are some folks who follow their animal kingdom ancestors and inflict random terror on others in their lives. While this isn’t a helpful technique for the receiver, the sender gets the benefit of a frustration outlet. So, in giving ulcers, he avoids getting them himself. (Obviously, this isn’t literally true.)

Unfortunately, the animal kingdom speaks to the hierarchies of domination and the undeserved infliction of pain that travels down the social hierarchy. There are also intergenerational impacts of the competition for social status and being able to continue your genes in the next generation.


Darwin stumbled across the idea of survival of the fittest. Since then, we’ve come to realize that the genetic mutations that are favorable get the chance to reproduce, and those that aren’t advantageous don’t get a chance to replicate. Thus, those genes which are the most suitable to the situation get copied. This has created a set of behaviors in the animal kingdom where new social leaders will exterminate the offspring of previous leaders and even harass the pregnant females to the point where they’ll abort pregnancies that are in progress.

If you’re looking to get your genes to replicate into the next generation, killing off the offspring of the previous social leader means that your children won’t have to compete with that lineage. Terminating the pregnancies increases the number of wombs available for creating your progeny. Obviously, this emphasizes the genes which can take control of the social order at the expense of those who are not. However, strangely, genetics aren’t the only way that behaviors and patterns are replicated.

Fetal Origins of Adult Disease

Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) was a study that indicated the downstream impacts of a set of adverse events on children. The number of these events could predict, years into the future, the health and longevity of the children being studied. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.) However, this study focuses on what happens after the child was born. David Barker, in a study called “Fetal Origins of Adult Disease” (or FOAD), studied the impacts of stresses before birth.

Prenatal care is well known to be important. How a baby starts out life is a strong predictor of many health measures in childhood; however, what David Barker found was that it’s a strong marker for long-term health issues as well. For instance, a low birth weight predicts an increased risk of diabetes and hypertension. The presence of a high number of glucocorticoids during the fetus’ development – because the mother is stressed – seems to program the child for a stressful world.

Strangely, the change in the glucocorticoid levels for the child remain high even when they’re an adult, so it’s possible for the mother to expose their child to the same high levels of glucocorticoids that they were exposed to intrauterine – thus replicating a cycle of stress without the benefits of gene replication.

The relationship we have with our environment is sometimes spooky. A famine can replicate impacts across generations just by changing the environmental factors in the first generation’s mother’s body.


While factors like FOAD and ACE do have an impact on our worlds as adults, those effects aren’t a destiny. We’re shaped by our past – including our distant past – but we’re also shaped by our here and now. Once you get past the necessities of food, water, and shelter, a huge predictor of your life expectancy is the relationships you have. The fewer the relationships, the shorter the lifespan. (See my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.)

It’s not just any relationship that matters: you need not go out and collect the most Facebook friends, Twitter followers or connections on LinkedIn. The kinds of relationships that matter most are those relationships that are intimate – people with which you can share, on whom you are not just projecting some sort of an image. (See High Orbit-Respecting Grieving for more on types of relationships.)

The Facebook Effect

Interestingly, the number of Facebook friends we have can reduce our health instead of improve it. The factors at play are the same ones that led Sapolsky to conclude that one of the most harmful things that we may have done is come up with agriculture.

The problem seems to come back to our social rank. It seems like we’ve got an engine for comparing our status with those around us. If our neighbors have a new car and we don’t, then we’re not as high up in the social status as they are. Though we may live in a big house and drive a nice car, we don’t have as nice of a car. We evolved not to assess whether we have enough food, but whether we get the pick of the best food. We assess our socioeconomic status (SES) not by an absolute measure, but rather through a subjective or relative measure – a subjective SES.

Our relative perception of our SES drives our long-term health. If you remove or reduce the supports of SES such as education, income, or occupational position, a person’s overall health declines. So, what is Facebook’s role?

In the past, we didn’t get to see all the fun activities that people are doing all the time. We didn’t get to see their new car or the fact that their child just got accepted to a prestigious school. Once a year, we’d get a Christmas letter from them, and wonder whether you were still on the list so they could brag or if they really did value their relationship with you.

With the barrier of postage and a printed card removed, we’ve become Facebook friends with people that we’d never send Christmas cards to in real life. We now get to see their travel, their excursions with their presumably loving family, and their new purchases. Now we get nearly constant reminders that our SES is lower than that of our “friends.”

To me this is sad on multiple levels. First, we’ve got more consumer debt and more spending of money we don’t really have than at any other time in history. We’ve mortgaged our futures to pay for our perceived economic status today. Second, most of what we’re talking about here is fleeting. The car will eventually break down. The child who got into the prestigious school may get kicked out. Third, who cares? Obviously most people care. We’re wired to care, but should we? If you knew that you were never going to truly need anything you wouldn’t have, would you still be worried about what everyone else has? The kinds of things that really matter in life aren’t the kinds of things that can be posted on Facebook. The thing that really matters is your ability to love other people.

Love and Tenderness

If you want to reduce stress, pet a dog. (Unless you’re allergic to them.) Quite literally, the neurochemicals that are released when you pet a dog help to calm you and reduce stress. You may have seen pet therapy pets in hospitals. Having friendly domesticated animals is just one form of love that can reduce stress.

I’ve mentioned several times before that the ancient Greek language had three words for what we today in English simplify into one word: “love”. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships.) What the Buddhists would call “compassion”, the Greeks would call “agape”. There’s a tenderness to this concept. There’s an acceptance of where people are and accepting their faults. When you practice compassion, you accept others’ faults – and in doing so, you make your own faults and limitations easier to accept in yourself.

Perhaps the best way to reduce stress is to learn to love. Sapolsky mentions an interview where he has a fabulous marriage. I can tell you from my experience that it’s a great way to reduce your stress. Having someone who will take care of you – and you know you’ll take care of them – is the pinnacle of love and tenderness, but any relationship that is close and mutual can reduce stress.

For our children, they know they’ll never have to worry about starving and they’ll always have a place to stay. These commitments are a part of the safety net that we put underneath them to help them understand that they will be OK. Their stress is reduced by the knowledge that they don’t have to fear and by the simple fact that they are loved. Our children are for the most part lucky; they’ve won the cortical lottery.

Cortical Lottery

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt spoke of a set, internal point for happiness, and how some folks have a higher happiness “default” than others. In effect, these lucky people have won the cortical lottery. They get to be happier than their peers – even in the same circumstances with the same coping strategies. They’re just happier by their makeup.

While one can’t change their “default” happiness point, nor can they change their basic biological responses to stress, they can choose to change their mindset on how they approach stress and how they cope with it.


Carol Dweck’s work Mindset exposes two fundamental mindsets about a person. The first mindset, a fixed mindset, is that what the person is capable of is fixed. The second is a growth mindset, that they can change and grow. A similar split exists between approaches to stress.

One can view stress from the entirely emotional point of view, with threats to survival creating the stress; or they can view stress from the lens as a biological response driven by basal, neurological processes without the benefit of higher-order reasoning. In the language of the Rider-Elephant-Path from The Happiness Hypothesis, the emotional elephant can be left to his own devices, or the rider can hop down from his position on top of the elephant, always trying to reign him in and gently patting the elephant’s shoulder, letting him know that it will be alright.

The most practical example of this is a game called “worst-case scenario.” Some people play this game and they somehow connect the trivial to the end-of-the-world. However, others work through this game with a reasonability filter applied. For instance, in doing this blog post I could assume that the worst-case scenario is that Robert Sapolsky will have great issue with what I’ve written and sue me for libel or something like that. Is that possible? Probably not. He’s much more likely to send me a note correcting me or asking me to take the posts down than suing me. So I can take the view that he’ll sue me – and be totally under the control of my elephant – or I can apply the reasonability filter and say, he’s substantially more likely to ask me to correct something or take the posts down. When you play worst-case scenario with the reasonability filter applied (sometimes you may need help from a friend with this), then you can decrease your stress.

The opposite view, which is appropriate when you’re willing to entertain the worst case, is the “best-case scenario.” Here, too, reasonability should be applied. The unreasonable response might be to get an invitation to spend the weekend with Sapolsky and his wife at their house. A reasonable response might be that he and I get to start a conversation that leads to a friendship.

If you do worst-case scenario first and best-case scenario at the end, you’re likely to think more positively about whatever stressful situation you might be considering.


Sapolsky’s end to the book includes references to his beliefs about God – or the lack thereof. He cites evidence from recognized researchers that praying for someone when they don’t know about it doesn’t improve outcomes – though praying when the person knows about it may. This seems like it might be our old friend hope reaching in to lend a hand. (See The Psychology of Hope.) It could be that we evolved to believe in God because it gave us greater belief of our control – through our ability to petition God. (See Spiritual Evolution for more.)

While Sapolsky says that he recognizes that belief in God improves health outcomes, he cannot himself believe in God. This for me is sad. I believe in God because it leads me to be and become the best person I can be. I care very little whether my belief is validated or disproved in the future. The truth of the matter is that my belief helps shape who I want to become. If I’m wrong about my belief, it’s still been helpful to me. Perhaps it is my own placebo. But I’ll take it because it helps me not be stressed. Maybe zebras believe in God and that’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Book Review-Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Psychology and Neurology of Stress

In this three-part review of Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, we walk through the psychological and neurological differences between humans and zebras – at least some of the ones that are important. We started this review with The Physical Impacts of Stress and we’ll finish up with The Causes and Cures for Stress.

There are numerous physiological impacts of stress, but none of them are nearly as interesting as the relationship between stress and the brain. It’s interesting because prolonged stress can kill neurons, and in some cases the neurons that stress destroys are the same ones that are necessary to prevent the additional release of the glucocorticoids that caused some of the problems in the first place.

Preprogrammed Die Offs

Salmon are known for their journey back up rivers from the ocean to the place that they were born. They will swim upstream and go to great lengths just to return to spawn. What is less well-known is that, after spawning, their bodies initiate a sort of self-destruct where their endocrine system dumps large amounts of glucocorticoids into their system and very effectively kills off the salmon. Salmon aren’t alone in this approach to preprogrammed die-offs. In other species as well, when it comes to killing an organism fast, nature’s method seems to be to elevate glucocorticoids.

It turns out that the control the brain has to regulate the production of the glucocorticoids – the main actor in the play of stress – is powerful. Sometimes it’s powerful enough to put people in an emotional hole that they can’t get out of.


It’s estimated that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability on Earth. It’s more than just “being blue.” While everyone has times that they don’t feel up to it, depression is marked by the inability to feel happiness or joy. While the loss of a loved one can trigger depression, the sadness that we feel after their loss is not in and of itself depression.

People with depression seem to overgeneralize and amplify negative events. They develop a pessimism about the world – particularly as it relates to their abilities in it. (See The Psychology of Hope.) They develop a learned helplessness. (See Mindset and The Paradox of Choice for more on learned helplessness.) The neurophysiology of depression is real. Not only is there the physiological component of higher than normal glucocorticoids, indicating the stress that the depressed person is feeling – between the person they want to be and how they actually feel. However, what’s more interesting is that their reactivity to antidepressants is different than how folks without depression react. In a normal brain, reactivity to the antidepressants occurs within hours – within the mind of a depressed person it can take weeks.

It’s worth mentioning here that there are no easy answers. Glassier spoke about depression in Choice Theory and described it as “choosing to depress.” Certainly, in my experience there are those that give the appearance of wanting to be depressed. The awareness of the psychological components, like over-generalizing negative events, certainly point to the psychological (and therefore influence-able or controllable) nature of depression but the research showing different chemical reactivity of anti-depressant drugs seems to indicate that it’s a chemical problem beyond the control of most people.

One of the concerns for anyone with depression is the tendency for depression to coexist with the risk for suicide. The good news – if there is any when you’re discussing such painful and debilitating topics – is that the natural tendency to do nothing – psychomotor retardation – tends to reduce the occurrence of suicide attempts in people with depression. Despite this, there are still over 800,000 deaths due to suicide each year, so clearly the effect isn’t large enough. Suffering people still believe the only way out of their pain is to end their own lives.


Of all the useful feelings that we get in our body, pain isn’t likely our favorite. Pain is a warning that you’re damaging (or potentially damaging) your body. It’s a warning signal that something bad is or could happen. It’s an evolutionary tool that motivates us to take steps to protect ourselves. It also happens to be a signal that triggers a stress response.

Pain is, however, a very subjective experience. It’s well-documented that stress can suppress the feeling of pain. Soldiers walk in presenting gunshot wounds with little or no awareness of the problem. Two different people can experience the same event totally differently. How is this, given that the neurology of pain is relatively consistent across humans?

The answer seems to be not that there are radically-varying intensities of pain receptor firing – though there is some of that – but instead, the dramatic difference appears to be the way that the brain processes and responds to pain. Some people at some times can deemphasize the impact of the pain and make it appear smaller.

One of the most powerful drugs known to man is the placebo. Nearly every study controls for its impact, and in most cases its effect size is much larger than that of the actual drug or procedure being tested. (See The Psychology of Hope and The Heart and Soul of Change for more on the placebo effect.) However, the power of the placebo isn’t powerful enough to change brain chemistry.

Are You Down with ACC?

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that is most responsible for how you feel about pain. It’s not regulating or mediating the actual pain but is instead responsible for the emotions surrounding the pain. Unfortunately, when the ACC is involved, it’s mostly about negative emotions. So ACC activation seems to make people feel worse about the pain. As a result, this is an area that is consistently identified with depression and folks struggling with pain management.

It isn’t, however, the only region of the brain that impacts our emotional state. Negative emotions may be centered in the ACC, but the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is all about moods with a distinct split. The left side of the PFC is associated with positive moods, and the right side of the PFC is associated with negative moods.

Hypothalamus-Pituitary Connection

While the ACC and PFC may be centrally concerned with our emotional experience of pain, the hypothalamus is driving the endocrine bus. It’s responsible for triggering the release of glucocorticoids – in a Rube Goldberg, indirect kind of way. The hypothalamus has a closed-circuit circulatory system that allows it to chemically signal the pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which in turn triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) – which is also called corticotropin (thus CRH’s name). Ultimately, the release of ACTH causes the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids.

These back up the epinephrine and norepinephrine whose release was triggered by the amygdala. These two (along with dopamine) are called catecholamine and have a relatively short lifecycle in the blood stream. They provide the body with an initial burst of power until the body can release corticoids, which can then sustain the stress response for minutes – or even hours.


Have you ever wondered why people like watching scary movies? Who likes being scared? Judging by the popularity of this movie genre, quite a few people. The reason seems to be that they’re wrapped up in the story and that their brains can’t tell the difference between the story that they’re watching and the vulnerability of the actors in the story and themselves. Our brains release the same endocrine wash as if we ourselves were experiencing stress.

Our brains are capable of applying the stress response to both real threats against ourselves and future events that may – or may not – happen. They are, however, seemingly incapable of distinguishing between our real worlds and our fantasy worlds. Perhaps because all of our worlds are at some level a fantasy world. (See Incognito for more.) So whether the threat is real or imagined, today or tomorrow, we can and often do experience stress the same. However, strangely, we don’t look at stress in the past the same way that we look at stress in the current or the future.

Recalling Stress

Have you ever wondered why a mother would want to go through the pain of pregnancy and childbirth again? Consider the pain and stress for nine months punctuating the pregnancy and childbirth process, and continuing as a lack of sleep through the first few months of life of the child. Certainly there are immense positives of having children – but if you were just to consider the stress of childbirth, one would expect that no one would want to do it again. However, mothers have, since the beginning of humanity, voluntarily decided to be pregnant again. Even if you exclude the time when they may not have fully understood how it worked, we’ve got a long history of voluntarily becoming pregnant again and again.

It turns out that we don’t recall stress with the same veracity that we experience it in the present or project it in the future. Maybe it’s rationalization, and maybe it’s just the realization that you made it through, so it couldn’t have been that bad. Perhaps it’s just the lack of sleep that prevented us from properly converting our memories of the stress into long-term memories.


Most people believe that sleep time is wasted time. The assumption is that you can’t be doing anything productive if you’re sleeping. However, it appears that this isn’t the truth. It seems like sleep is particularly necessary for the formation of long-term memories and for rejuvenating the brain.

Sleep – particularly slow-wave sleep – is an opportunity for the body to prepare the brain for the active work of the next day. It’s when the trash is swept away and the storehouses of glucose are restored. Interrupting sleep has all sorts of bad effects on the body, including increased stress – it seems like the stress response is shut down during sleep. Things like shift work make it difficult for people to get into a sleep rhythm, and therefore to sleep deeply.

There’s another important aspect to sleep that shouldn’t be ignored. That is the process of integrating memories, or converting them from short-term memories to long-term memories. The rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep is when the brain sorts through the memories of the day and makes the decision on where (or if) to file them. If you’ve awoken with the experience of some whacky dreams with just hints of the prior day’s activities, you’ve experienced REM sleep and dreaming.

Sometimes these dreams can clue us into our feelings that we didn’t realize we had.

Repressing Emotion

As a society, we’re more anxious than we’ve ever been. Whether it’s a greater instability in the world and in our lives – or just the perception of greater instability – we are living in anxious times. Anxiety is rooted in a diffuse fear – one that has no clear specific cause. In many cases, our anxiety is because we failed to accept and recognize our emotions. (To understand more, look for the Rider-Elephant-Path in The Happiness Hypothesis.)

Repressing our emotions – or more specifically actively continuing to repress our emotions – leads to stress in the same way that trying to project a different self-image requires a great deal of energy. (See How to Be Yourself for more.) The strain of holding back the emotion has the impact of creating a stress response. Sometimes the stress of holding back our emotions bubbles up in the form of an addiction.


As I mentioned in my review of Chasing the Scream, addictions are really the result of some form of hurt bubbling up to the surface in the form of a self-soothing attempt that takes on a life of its own. Instead of learning how to address the pain, we lose ourselves in an addiction.

The research supports this idea. Stress a rat before giving it an opportunity to self-administer drugs and it will become addicted. Don’t stress the rat and it won’t become addicted. That’s not to say that all drug addiction is the result of stress. However, it seems like the stress of these hurts seems to make some folks more susceptible to becoming addicted.

Causes and Cures

Having worked our way through both the physical and mental components of the impacts and actors in stress, it’s time to turn our focus to the causes and the cures for stress, in the next and final post in the series.

Book Review-Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Physical Impact of Stress

It seems like an odd thing to want to know. Why don’t zebras get ulcers? Is there something magical about zebras like unicorns that protect them from ulcers? As it turns out, it’s more than just zebras that don’t get ulcers: most of the animal kingdom doesn’t get them. The reason why they don’t is a combination of factors; the most critical, to the book’s point of view, is stress.

I started seeing pointers to Sapolsky’s work across multiple books. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and his name kept showing up. How Children Succeed mentioned the book directly and others like Grit mentioned Sapolsky’s work on stress and its impacts. Ultimately, it was The End of Memory and my quest to understand more about Alzheimer’s that pushed me to reading about zebras now.

This review will be broken into three pieces. This component, which covers the importance of the impacts of stress and why we’re different than zebras, is subtitled The Physical Impact of Stress. The next portion of the review will cover The Psychological and Neurological Impacts of Stress. The final part of the review will cover The Causes and Cures for Stress.

Let’s get started with the physical impacts.

Mind Over Matter

The starting point when looking at the relationship between stress and the body is to realize that, though there are physiological processes in operation, they are mediated by three factors. The first factor is our genetics – our equivalent of hardware. That is, genes drive our susceptibility and reactivity to stress. The second factor is our experiences. That is, what stressors we were exposed to in utero and after our birth. Surprisingly, stresses during our gestation can influence our outcomes much later in life. The final factor is how our brain manages stress. In essence, this is our software; how we cope with our situation. These three factors each influence our susceptibility to ulcers and other long-term effects of stress. There’s no one factor that can rule out the others. They work together to determine our risk.

With definitive thinking, we assume that if we have one factor, like genetics, then we must accept the outcome. However, as The Halo Effect points out, we live in a probabilistic, not a deterministic, world. We all roll the dice and hope that we get the outcome we want. We don’t directly influence the outcome. We only influence the factors.

However, in this case, one of the major factors is the software, how we process stress. Many years ago, the Intel Pentium processors had a defect in its floating point division. The Pentium FDIV bug was a hardware problem, but one for which software workarounds were devised and used. Software was being used to work around what was a known hardware problem. In much the same way, our brains have the capacity to mediate the impacts of the biology that drives our stress responses and potentially mediate some of the negative effects.

What Stress?

If you’re a zebra on the plains and you see a lion, you’ve got a short time to get away before becoming lunch. The stress response leads you to “flight or fight”; given your odds against a lion it’s pretty much always flight as a zebra. The body mobilizes all of the energy it can to allow you to run faster. This means shutting down anything that is long-term and consumes resources, and it also means taking the biological equivalent of high-interest payday loans to get glucose (cash) into the system – NOW.

It’s a nice piece of evolution. Keep long-term processes running except for the few times that you need immediate results, and in that case shut everything down that you don’t need and borrow against future needs to make sure you have a future.

Humans Can Simulate

This elegant set of evolutionary programming gets disrupted when you add the primate – and particularly human – ability to simulate events and to plan. Instead of the stress response being activated for the eminent attack from a lion, the response is activated when we aren’t sure how we’ll pay the mortgage next month. On the surface, the extra energy seems like a good thing – and it can be – but as you look deeper you realize that all the enhanced performance while in the stressful state must be paid for at some point in the future.

By activating the stress response when we’re thinking about how we’re going to pay the mortgage, we can focus attention on it and plan a course of action. However, at the same time, we’re potentially over-activating our stress response – particularly if we’re constantly worried about how we’re going to pay the mortgage.

Thus, we as humans subsumed a process designed for short-term improvements in performance and have started to engage it for longer-term stressors. The problem is that at some point the debts accrued while being physiologically stressed must be paid for. These “debts” sometimes cannot be repaid, as they’ve already done permanent damage in some cases and created challenges that will recover only if tended to over the long term.

Human Ulcers

The chief criminal in the case of human ulcers isn’t stress. The chief criminal is Helicobacter pylori. Despite decades of scientific belief that stress – and stress alone – caused ulcers, it was discovered that a stomach-surviving bacteria called H. pylori was the root cause. This discovery didn’t come easy when the Australian pathologist named Robert Warren wasn’t believed when he made the discovery. It took him literally ingesting H. pylori and showing that he developed ulcers shortly after this to get the scientific community’s attention and eventually acceptance.

To understand the relationship between ulcers and H. pylori, we first should understand that it can survive in the stomach. Despite the acidic environment, it protects itself with a layer of bicarbonate. With its protective armor on it can live relatively peacefully in the stomach. Where things get troublesome for you and I is when our stomach breaks down just a bit and H. pylori decides that the stomach itself is for lunch.

Our stomachs expend massive amounts of energy protecting themselves from the acidic environment that they create. Our stress response does a relatively rapid shutdown of the energy that’s routed for digestion. Sometimes that rapid shutdown can leave the stomach less protected than it should be. When the stress abates for a bit and power is restored to the digestive system, it starts pumping out acid – sometimes before the protective linings have been fully restored. Some of the stomach is killed by the acid and H. pylori starts its attack.


In most cases, H. pylori and the stomach are in a state of homeostasis. There’s enough going on in the stomach to keep the amount of H. pylori in check. In fact, in our bodies, there are numerous bacteria that are kept in check. Our immune system doesn’t attempt to totally eradicate them, nor does it allow them to overwhelm the system. They’re kept in a sense of balance. Our digestive tract needs some of these bacteria to function properly. If our immune system were to kill off everything foreign, it finds it would kill off some of the bacteria that we need to survive. If you don’t believe me check out fecal microbiota transplant.

The problem with H. pylori and the ulcers that it causes aren’t the presence of the bacteria – it’s the fact that the systems are out of homeostasis. The problem is that the stress response caused disruption in the balance and started turning the knobs of the immune system response.

Immune System Response

It’s no secret that when you’re stressed your immune response is lowered – except that isn’t the case. In fact, the immune system sculpts its response differently, both in terms of time and in terms of how it’s going to address invaders. Consistent with the idea that it will take payday loans that will ultimately have a high payback cost, it changes in a way that has the highest probability of short-term success at the expense of long-term success.

To understand the impact on the immune system, it’s important to understand there are three kinds of immune response cells. There are the T-cells, which are killer cells that seek out and kill. These are the ninja assassin of the group for short-term quick response. There are B-cells, which are created in the long-term to address specific kinds of invaders. They are the antibodies. The last type, the NK-cells, address tumors and viral invaders. These cells are called Lymphocytes collectively. (-cyte means cell, so these are lymphatic cells.) Shortly after an immediate threat, the T-cells are activated and are engaged to address the problem. This is the short-term spike in the immune response.

However, after a sustained release of the glucocorticoids (which are the main actor in stress, described in detail in a moment), they will start to kill the lymphocytes. It appears that this first affects the older lymphocytes, which presumably are able to destroy the invader. If the condition causes a stress response then it’s probably important enough to let the newer, younger cells handle the job. So, there are less lymphocytes circulating, but the ones that are left should be those most capable of subduing the threat.

Glucocorticoids also encourage the return of the lymphocytes into the lymph nodes, which are the store houses of the immune system. In other words, there are fewer guards out on patrol in the circulatory system to identify and confront invaders quickly.

It turns out that it’s the glucocorticoids that are the main actor in the endocrine system. They’re what happens when we get stressed.


Most of the time when we’re talking about the fight or flight response, we’re talking about adrenaline. (Adrenaline is the British name; in American terms, we’re speaking of epinephrine.) This is the initial “hit” that we get from our adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is triggered to produce epinephrine (and cortisol) through Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is released from the anterior pituitary gland – which was triggered by the hypothalamus. For something that happens very, very quickly, there is a long chain of things that must happen. However, epinephrine is a fast-acting chemical. It gives a short burst of energy that is backed up by the glucocorticoids.

These are steroids that are important in the regulation of glucose – the sugar that powers our biology. The glucocorticoids are what allows us to sustain a heightened rate over minutes or hours. It’s also the glucocorticoids that leave us with the most lingering effects of stress. Because they linger in the body and they have so many effects across our physiology, they have the greatest potential for long-term damage. The most prominent damage isn’t from ulcers – the most prominent damage is a vascular system problem called atherosclerosis.


Our body’s circulatory system runs through the thousands upon thousands of blood vessels traversing our bodies. These are the streets of our circulatory system, and they’re designed to accommodate the normal blood flow that we need. However, there are numerous things that can impact the flow of blood. Inflammation temporarily reduces the carrying capacity of the blood vessels, while plaque buildup more permanently restricts the flow of blood. As it turns out, glucocorticoids play a role in encouraging the naturally-occurring crud floating in the blood stream to accumulate on the walls of the blood vessels. The result is the plaque that causes circulatory problems.

Circulatory problems can be their own issue by reducing the flow of blood to the body, or triggering the body to respond with higher blood pressures – to get the same volume of blood needed through the blood vessels that are smaller than they’d normally be without the plaque. This increased blood pressure causes additional stress on the blood vessels and on the pump at the heart of the system – the heart.

Heart disease can be caused directly because of atherosclerosis, or indirectly through the development of diabetes.


Diabetes is a disease with two basic types which indicate problems with processing glucose in the blood. The first type is when the cells in the pancreas, which produce insulin, are destroyed by the immune system. The second type of diabetes, which is far more common, is where the body develops a resistance to the insulin that is being produced.

Insulin is critical to the absorption of glucose. If there’s not enough insulin in the body – or if the cells resist its effect – then the cells get less energy, causing the body’s response to increase the glucose level in the blood. By increasing the concentration of glucose in the blood, even a smaller fractional percentage of the absorption feeds the cells adequately. This seems like a very useful adaptation – and it is – except that it creates a secondary set of problems.

Excess glucose in the blood makes it sticky, like honey or maple syrup. Thus, the blood is harder to pump through the blood vessels, and it has more “crud” floating in it. This drives atherosclerosis and directly increases the strain on the heart.

Glucocorticoids’ name comes from the combination of glucose + cortex + steroid. The effect of glucocorticoids over the long term seems to be the development of insulin resistance, which drives the body into increasing the glucose in the blood. However, there’s more to the glucose problem than just the direct effect of the glucocorticoids in the blood: there’s also how it changes our habits.

Stress Eating

Dieting is big business. Our natural glucose imperative drives a great deal of our behavior. As an evolutionary mechanism, we are rewarded whenever the brain detects something with high calories. A little shot of dopamine rewards finding the sweet, and therefore sustaining, food. This system works great when food supplies are low and you’re creating a system biased towards finding the least expensive fuel possible. However, in today’s world, most of us are not starving, and don’t need to hunt out sweets – but we still do.

Fighting this urge towards sweetness might be the greatest test of willpower that we’ve ever faced. (See Willpower for more about this fight.) Even folks who have a great deal of willpower in most situations will find that dieting and avoiding sweets will be difficult. One of the times that people struggle with making healthy food choices – as opposed to caloric ones – is when their blood sugar is low. In effect, our prefrontal cortex receives less energy and is partially suppressed – giving the amygdala and hypothalamus nearly uninhibited access to scarf down large quantities of glucose.

The other challenge is something called stress eating – or emotional eating. That is, when we’re emotional – or stressed – we tend to eat more caloric items and in higher quantities than normal – even if we’re not hungry. In short, when we’re stressed, the urge to self-soothe and get little squirts of dopamine is powerful.

Of course, eating more calories than we consume means the body stores those extra calories as fat, and fat further increases insulin resistance.

Heading to the Brain

There are many more impacts of stress on the body, but the next part of the review is about its impact on the brain.