Kin-to-Kid Connection: Responsive or Responsible

This is the first of the parent training sessions we did for the teen care program.  The teens got a similar message but shaped so that they could hear it.  The teen messages weren’t recorded.  We recorded the parent messages as a part of our preparation.  The first one helps with the biggest challenge that parents face with their children.

The choices and behavior of our children can make us feel like we’re responsible, and it can be difficult to deal with feelings of shame and guilt when they don’t always act the way we want. As parents, we need to understand when to be responsible and when to be responsive. In “Responsive or Responsible,” we discuss the ways that we should be responsible for our children and the importance of being responsive to our children, even if we aren’t responsible for their behavior.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

Book Review-Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

It was early in my career, and I was given the opportunity that most people dream about. I got to go to London for work. It was a dream, because it meant that the company was paying for me to travel “across the pond.” I thought of all the things I’d see and all that I’d do. In the end, I spent more than a day of my precious time in a hotel room wondering why I was there and when I could get back home. It was the time of the most profound loneliness I can recall. I had recently split up with my girlfriend, and in this time before Skype and cheap (or free) long-distance, calling my friends at home wasn’t a great option. It was at this point that it would have been good to have read Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

I managed to pull myself from my hotel room one evening to walk around London after dark –no one else with me. I’m not quite aware even now where I was, but I’m sure I shouldn’t have been alone. Walking by a church, I had a man come up to me and ask if I could spare any money to help his family. A hundred or so feet away, I could see a mother and two kids huddled together in the shadows of the church with just a few blankets. It was cold enough that I was wearing my winter coat, which had big pockets. I reached into one and pulled out a fistful of coins and handed them to the man.

I was in a sort of daze. I wasn’t familiar with the coins in the UK at the time, so I just dropped all my change from my excursions in my pocket, figuring I’d sort out later what was what. I honestly don’t know how much I gave the man that night, but I remembered thinking that it was sad that they had no place to go – and good that they had each other.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s not the lack of other people with us or around us or talking to us. Loneliness is a feeling that need not be congruent with our physical experiences. We can feel loneliness when no one is with us – or when there is a crowd.

When my brother died, I was surrounded by people at his visitation. The noise was deafening. It felt like everyone in the small town had come by. Officially, there are 9,000 people in the town, and, unofficially, the count of people at the visitation was 8,000. The line of people wrapped down the hall and out the door. No one would imagine that, being in such a crowd, someone could say they were lonely.

Despite this, I was lonely. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate my family or my wife. I’m saying that the feeling was pervasive and completely disconnected from the objective reality of the situation. While my loneliness was profound, it was greater for his wife. In the years since the event, we’ve shared that the same sense of loneliness descended upon us in the midst of so many people. (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more of what happened.)

Loneliness is a feeling, a mood, a perspective on life. It shapes and colors how we react to others and how we see the world. It is also a natural part of life. We all feel the sting of loneliness at times. While unpleasant, it’s not unexpected. Loneliness isn’t itself a mental disease – at least, not one recognized by DSM V. However, loneliness and depression do a two-step dance that’s hauntingly captivating.

What is Depression?

Depression may be defined by sadness and lack of energy, but the characteristic that’s the most defining and challenging is the power that depression has. It can rob you of your ability to feel joy. It’s like a thief who steals the ability to feel happy. In doing so, it sucks people in and pulls them down like the vortex created by a sinking ship.

Depression is, therefore, separate from loneliness, which is defined by the lack of connection, but it’s loneliness that can be a forebear to depression. It can predict those who are at risk, in no small part because we are designed for connections, and when you can’t make them or tend to them you end up with none – and develop depression.


The sinister scheme of loneliness – as if it could have a scheme – is that it can bias your choices towards relationships. It can make it harder to find and form the very relationships that are capable of lifting you out of the pit of loneliness. Relationships are at the heart of life. We are social creatures, who are designed by evolution to crave connections with others. (See The Blank Slate, The Righteous Mind, and Bowling Alone for more on social connections.) We survived as a species because of our ability to connect and protect one another. Our ability to band together and defend each other as a group allowed us to triumph over our evolutionary rivals and take control of this world.

Relationships are the threads that weave the tapestry of life for social creatures like humans. Despite the belief that Americans are rugged individualists, we left for the West in convoys and wagon trains. We have always huddled together and honestly struggled together. Loneliness prevents us from seeing the tapestry and the threads and, at the same time, seeks to stop us from weaving more.

For a Time

What separates “normal” from “abnormal” loneliness? The answer is in the persistence. We all experience loneliness and rejection. It’s when those feelings linger and grab ahold of us until they become a mood or even a general demeaner. Normal loneliness can be driven away by a conversation with a long-time friend. It can be held at bay by a casual conversation with a coworker. It can be vanquished for a time by an intimate conversation with a trusted colleague. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for how to get to those intimate conversations.)

However, when loneliness has a strangle hold on you, it’s hard to pick up the phone. Experience in weightlifting isn’t enough to overcome the weight of the phone, dial a number, and lift it to your ear. The muscles don’t necessarily have the strength when the mind and mood aren’t willing. You can find the persistence of loneliness a constant companion, like a dark shadow on a bright day.

Loneliness Stimulates Stress

At its core, loneliness is a compelling character. In our history, to be alone, to be outside of the community, was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that evolution taught us not to like loneliness and encouraged our desire to stay with others. After all, it’s with others that we’re the safest (on average). Loneliness necessarily triggers stressful responses and inhibits our access to the social skills that we need to develop new relationships. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impact of stress.)

Is Anyone Listening?

One of the most interesting learnings for me in quite some time is how difficult it is to receive love. So many people have closed themselves off from the ability to be loved because of an experience in their past or, more specifically, a close betrayal. For these pour souls, no matter how much love others send out to them, they can’t receive it. Loneliness has the effect of reducing our ability to receive the love and connection that others emit towards us. Loneliness drives us to question all our relationships and wonder why other people are in relationships with us – and when they might withdraw their relationships from us.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I hint that love is intimacy. Love is the ability to be connected with someone so completely that there is no need for barriers – not that you’re enmeshed or can’t tell where you end and the other begins, but rather that you are comfortable with those distinctions and see no need to protect them.

Think about it this way. You have lockable doors between your house and the outside world. You ensure those doors are locked at night. This separates the inside from the outside. You have a door to your closet, and it may even have a handle. However, there are no locks between bedrooms and closets, because there doesn’t need to be one. Can we distinguish between the bedroom and the closet? Yes. However, there isn’t a need for protection to protect one side from the other.

Some folks have installed locks on all their doors. It’s like loneliness has caused them to expect monsters in their closets. The locks protect them – and at the same time, isolate them from the connection that can come by interacting with others.

Birth of the Social Creature

If there’s any doubt that we’re social creatures, it’s possible to consider the artifacts that evolution has left with us beyond our gathering together into communities. We can consider how we have pair bonding (male and female together) for the purposes of helping to raise a child. We come together to ensure that our progeny have a good chance at survival, and the best chance seems to be for two parents to pour their resources into children together – rather than leaving the responsibility to the mother alone.

Our massive brains may be a great advantage to us, but it simultaneously means that we must emerge from the womb as dependent creatures who rely on our parents for everything for several years. Our brains are not fully developed and take time before we can be on our own. Consider most of the animal kingdom, where animals are born and walking within minutes, to the year it takes us to take our wobbly first steps.

Genes that Made It So

A great deal has been made about heredity in No Two Alike, The Nurture Assumption, and The Blank Slate. The quick summary is that about half of us is driven by genetics. The other half is, well, anyone’s guess. We chalk it up to environment, because that the only other answer we have. That being said, most people have a misconception of genetics. Darwin is taken too literally, and we believe that survival of the fittest means every creature is competing at every level for their lives.

However, this is not the operating unit of evolution. Evolution works at the group level. It creates greater opportunity for genetic propagation through our ability to work together. Even if I don’t survive, the genes that I carry may survive through one of my relatives – that my death served to protect.

There’s compelling evidence that reciprocal altruism works best for the survival of a gene when that gene is shared by your kin – or, to a lesser extent, the tribe that you’re in. One person can die so that their genes can live on in their children, their siblings, or their extended family.

Evolution selected us to protect others in our group. In doing so, it wired us for the kind of connection necessary to be willing to do this. It made strong us vs. them distinctions and encouraged us to sacrifice – and perform violence – to protect the folks that are “us” at the expense of “them.”

Genes and Memes

Perhaps the greatest irony may be that genes aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to replication. Richard Dawkins was on to something. He coined the term “meme” as a corollary to gene in terms of cultural transmission. For me, this is interesting, because I wonder how many genes have changed during the life of ideas. Whether the idea was correct or incorrect, I wonder whether genes have come and gone inside the space of a meme.

Shared ideas may just outlast genes – and they may be able to connect us together and fight off Loneliness.

Kin-to-Kid Connection: How to Not Get Sucked In

Last week, we posted the first leader training for a program working with teens.  Everything You Know Might Be Wrong was designed to shake the volunteer’s beliefs that they know the truth to open them up to their need to not get sucked into the story. In ministry, volunteer work, corporate work, and life, it’s too easy to get sucked into a cause and lose yourself. In this video, I’ll talk about compassion, altruism, and boundaries and how they fit together to keep you from getting sucked in.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

Building the Market

One of the often-overlooked challenges with a business is building a market. It’s not about constructing the corner grocery. It’s creating an awareness in the mind of the target buyer that they can’t live with the savings, convenience, or opportunity that your product offers. You can spend a lot of money to build a market only to have your leader position overtaken by some upstart that takes advantage of the market that you’ve built. (See Launch! for more on the “first-to-market” problem of education.)

Personal Digital Assistants

Today the personal digital assistant market has given way to the mobile smartphone market. However, in the beginning, they competed with paper. They competed with binder systems by the likes of Franklin-Covey (or, rather, Franklin planners before the merger). Most folks have long forgotten the ill-fated Apple Newton. Few remember the battles between the Palm Pilot and the Pocket PC. However, these were the battles that forged a market. They poured tons of capital into the market and legitimized the idea that you would keep your schedule and your contacts in a small handheld electronic device.

Blackberrys ruled the fruit electronics world as they brought mobile email to the masses. Way before Wi-Fi was popular at your local coffee shop, oversized pagers allowed quick, thumb-based emails to be sent by busy executives and sales professionals on the go. That would all change in 2006, when Apple released the iPhone and swallowed up both the PDA market and the mobile email market. It turned out that Apple was the worm that was eating the other fruit electronics for breakfast.

Apple’s success with the iPhone is legendary, and the praise lauded upon them is appropriate – but it’s important to not miss the market-priming conditions that allowed Apple to be so successful. They failed. They waited for the market to be developed by competitors, then they swooped in and took the entire market.

Search, Just Like Google

For most consumers today, there wasn’t a search before Google. Google is all they’ve known. However, Google wasn’t the first internet search engine. First there was Yahoo, with its taxonomy of links to all the places on the internet that were worth visiting. Though laughable today because of scale, back in the day, it was the way that people navigated this new, vast, semi-charted space of the internet. It was called the World Wide Web (www) back then to distinguish it from the actual computer network, but that distinction has long sense been lost.

As Yahoo’s approach showed its limitations, other players like Altavista came on the market with a search-based approach. However, the problem was that Altavista had very little way of distinguishing the good sites from the useless sites. The singular innovation that drove Google’s early success is the awareness that people are most interested in the research papers that have been cited most. Larry Page and Sergey Brin applied this idea to websites, and the rest, as they say, is history. Google didn’t create the market for an internet search engine – or the internet for that matter. They created a solution for a market that already existed.

For years, I’ve worked with search providers, from Mondosoft, SurfRay, and Microsoft. I’ve watched as they’ve struggled to create a market for enterprise search. The obvious need – to simplify search inside the organization – still struggles to become a market because the problem is too hard – or no one has been able to create the right market for the enterprise search. (Open source solutions like SOLR and the many commercial companies that build on this core haven’t been successful either.)

Building Takes Time

The problem with building the market is that it takes time. It takes resources. It takes a level of investment that most small companies can’t make – and most large companies no longer have the stomach to make. Motorola bet big with Iridium – and lost. There wasn’t a large enough market for satellite phones – yet. (There were other factors like not being friendly, but they are ancillary to the market not existing.)

If you’ve got an innovation that you’re working, on one of the most important questions you can ask yourself is whether you’ll have to build the market or not. In other words, are you creating a solution for a problem that your customers know they have – one that’s crystal clear in their minds? If not, you’ve got some level of market development to do. How much will that cost? How much time will it take? Do you have the stomach to hold on?

If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to look at Good to Great for the Stockdale Paradox (holding on and being flexible), Grit for how to develop that perseverance, and Willpower for the frailties of our willpower.

Book Review-No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

“Why am I me?” is an important – and unanswered – question that George Dyson asked his father, Freeman Dyson, at age 8. It’s at the heart of Judith Rich Harris’ work in No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. It’s the essence of the tension between our desire to be like others and our need to have status amongst our peers. I’ve read and reviewed Harris’ previous work, The Nurture Assumption (written in 1998), so in many ways her work here builds on her theories, which I’ve previously studied. No Two Alike is a dozen years old as I write this, having been published in 2006. However, many of the observations that she makes and the research she cites still isn’t widely known by parents.

The Consistency Fallacy

We believe that human behavior is a fixed constant. We believe after meeting a person that their behavior is the same whether hanging out with their friends on a Saturday night or in the second row at church on Sunday morning. However, nothing could be further from the truth. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this example.) Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. (See more in my review of Moral Disengagement.) In The Lucifer Effect, we learned, through the Stanford prison experiment, just how powerful the effect of environment can be. We learned how people can behave one way in one environment and completely differently in another.

Johnathan Haidt explains how our behaviors are driven by a rider, an elephant, and a path. Our behaviors are rationally, emotionally, and environmentally based. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) It would seem silly to believe that people behave consistently when there are so many levels to the way that we make decisions, most of which aren’t available to our consciousness.

Maybe we’re fooled by the belief that others are consistent, because we know how hard it is to change our own behaviors. (See Change or Die and Willpower.) Whatever the reason, we believe that we’ll behave consistently across time and circumstances despite the evidence to the contrary.

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

One of the challenges of our human brains is that we stop questioning things when we forget where we learned them. One of the reasons for the extensive notes I take – and the extensive effort I put into writing these blogs – is to preserve the knowledge of where I found things. Over the years, I’ve found a few errors in citations. It was defective steel in the Brooklyn Bridge that required additional winding – not the Golden Gate Bridge, as was reported in one source. Nor does “Indiana” mean a headman and advisor to the king in Zulu – as was reported in Dialogue. (This turned out to be a simple transcription error.)

The problem is that people assumed that the environment made a difference, that parents made a difference, that bad kids were the responsibility of parents, and that they deserved some blame for their children not turning out to be model citizens. That assumption is something that Harris challenges.

More Alike

With at least 50% of the genetics between them and a home environment that is completely the same, one would expect siblings to turn out substantially more alike than they do. Anyone with two or a few children quickly realizes that they’re not the same. But the question is why? If 50% of our makeup is hereditary, then what is the other 50% made of? Surely it must be the environment – but The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike both systemically eliminate many of the theories for why people are different.

Birth order – perhaps because of the popularity of the book Born to Rebel – is given considerable time as a potential actor in the play of differing personalities, but its effects are tiny – if they exist at all. Otherwise, the environment that siblings are raised in seems to be relatively identical.

Microenvironments and Mutations

Identical twins are – at least genetically – identical at the time of their separation. It’s one egg and sperm that separates into two people. However, sometimes genetic differences – very small differences – occur due to random mutations. These random mutations can make very small changes in twins, which can sometimes drive them apart.

We know that some genes are environmentally triggered. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers speaks of Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD) – and how these aren’t generically triggered per se. Rather, they are genetic responses to environmental stressors. Two twins sitting side by side – or quite literally attached to one another, as in conjoined twins – may still experience life, just slightly differently, and those slight differences may make all the difference.

Imagine a peg board like the one in the TV show The Price is Right. The Plinko board allows for a token to be dropped at the top, and the token bounces its way down through the pegs to its final resting place. Small differences can cause a token to go left or right at each peg. This is also known as the Butterfly Effect, after the 1972 article by Edward Lorenz titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The short is that, in a chaotic system like weather, we have no hope of capturing enough data to predict everything.

The same seems true of how our children’s personalities will develop. There are so many factors that we’ll never be able to accurately predict – or effectively shape – our children’s personalities. Each child lives in their own microenvironment, one unique just to them.

I vividly remember the day my son discovered that there were people who would steal. We were at the Indianapolis Zoo, and my wife and I had split up so I could look for something for my brother and his Fiancée’s wedding. She had our son and a wagon that we brought for him to ride in. She called me on the radios we bought to ask if I had taken the wagon. She had left it outside an exhibit. When she came back it was not to be found. I was already outside putting the gift in the car and began looking through the parking lot to see if I could find the person who had taken the wagon. Soon after, they joined me, and I eventually found the person who had taken the wagon and positively identified it, because my jacket was still in it. That was the day that my son learned about theft.

I couldn’t have shaped those events. I couldn’t have decided when he learned of theft. I had to respond to it when it came. The microenvironment of his life taught him a lesson that day – whether I was ready for it or not.

Academic Investigation

Rich is an interesting person, sitting outside the traditional academic world and focused on integrating disciplines instead of advancing a single discipline. Instead of being an expert in sociology or neurology, she artfully weaves the findings from each into a tapestry of ideas that point the way towards explanations for why children raised in the same household turn out so differently.

She’s like the chief detective in a murder-mystery book, who looks for the inconsistencies in one story and for other ways to understand or explain what is happening. This is exciting for me, because it resonates with my desire to connect thoughts from disparate disciplines and connect them or point out inconsistencies.


Often the term “amateurs” is used as a derogatory term by established elite, who believe that amateurs aren’t capable of the kind of progress that professionals – and particularly academic professionals – are. However, used as a pejorative term, it’s a weak one. Just months before this post, Smithsonian magazine posted “Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?” It shares a few of the recent discoveries that amateurs participated in – and expectations that more discoveries will come from amateurs.

Amateurs hold a special place. They’re not bound by the assumptions of the profession. They don’t have to do things the same way that everyone else does them. They’re free to innovate and find their own way. (See The Medici Effect and Diffusion of Innovations.)

Consider that the research says that most therapies – whether talk-based or pharmacological – don’t work. They have marginal, if any, improvement for the patients. What does matter is a relationship – called therapeutic alliance – though it’s not clear that your bartender couldn’t give you that. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Warning Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health.)

In fact, much of the entire field of psychology rests on pillars of salt. The psychological tests that many use have been repeatedly debunked but continue to be used in settings where their accuracy doesn’t approach any level of reliability. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

European Orphanages

For the most part, it seems that if you do a reasonable job with raising your children and don’t veer off course beyond the boundaries of what society expects, children are not permanently harmed by their childhoods, no matter what the psychologist of the week wants to make them believe. It’s easier to make someone believe that their unhappiness is their parents’ fault than it is to get someone to face the fact that they’re responsible for their own lives.

However, there are some cases – particularly, cases where children were deprived of stable social relationships – that do have lasting impacts. Orphanages in Eastern Europe denied children access to loving relationships and provided them with only the necessities of life. As a result, some of the adults rescued from this environment showed a host of psychological issues.

I had the opportunity to meet one such adult who had been in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. After several years with loving parents from the United States, she was overly friendly with the men she would meet – and several took advantage of that friendliness. She’s still seeking to heal the wounds left with her from her time in the orphanage. She’s still trying to learn how to be an adult and understand her intrinsic value.

Most children who are raised don’t have the social deficits that these children have and will grow up with personalities that, while not always pleasant for the parents, are in a normal range.

Children Teaching Children

Often parents today worry whether they’re spending enough time with their children. They’re concerned that they aren’t enriching their lives enough. However, Harris points out that, in most traditional societies, parents don’t interact with children much. Instead, children are raised by older children. A child is separated from their mother’s warm embrace at the time of the next child – typically after three or four years of age. After that, the older children of the group would look after the younger children.

Depending upon the size of the group, it may stay together or split along age lines, and eventually on age and gender lines. Smaller groups have one large group of children, and larger groups have age-specific groups. The self-categorization that happens in the children causes them to sort into groupings that are the most like them when the groups get large enough.


There are many words that could be used to describe me. Father. Son. Brother. Entrepreneur. Developer. Technologist. Pilot. The list goes on and on. No word fully expresses all my personality, but each can describe a facet of it. More importantly, I can switch between which facet of my personality I identify with as easy as crossing a room. All adults and children do this as well. One moment they identify with some aspect of themselves or a group to which they belong – and they can quickly change to another identification.

This is important, because each of the categorizations leads to a different set of behaviors. As a father, I take on an authoritarian (or authoritative) stance, helping my children to realize that I’m not their peer. As a son, I take an opposite attitude. The category that I leave myself in the most frequently begins to have dominance in how I behave and how others perceive me.

Bad Fit Stereotypes

Harris explains that she’s no good at fitting into stereotypes. I’m proud to say that I’m no good at it either. Use the developer stereotype, and you’ll find yourself thinking of someone who is so shy, they stare at people’s shoes when others talk to them. Use the entrepreneur stereotype, and you’ll expect me to hurl myself down mountains and surf the big waves in Hawaii. No matter what stereotype you attempt to use… I just don’t fit in.

Accepting this fact, that I don’t fit in, has taken many years. Children are – quite rightfully – disturbed by the lack of “fitting in,” which, in some sense, means fitting in with stereotypes.

Battle of Three Systems

Harris explains her theory that there are three different systems in operation in the human brain at the same time. There’s the relationship system that works to maintain favorable relationships with people. The second system is the socialization system that makes people want to fit in with a group. The third, and latest to develop system, is the status system that makes humans want to be better than one’s rivals. The status system gets much of its input from the mind reading systems in the brain – which, though functional at age four, needs some time to get good at its job. (See Mindreading.)

The personality we see from our children is the result of this epic battle. At one level, they want to make close friends, except when that means they don’t fit into a group – however they chose to define that group. More challenging, however, is how someone can be both a member of the group and above it in status at the same time.

As people move from group identification, where stereotypes live, to individual relationships, different mental processing systems are in use. As a result, Al Campanis can believe that Jackie Robinson is a great player and at the same time believe that blacks shouldn’t be managers. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this example.)

Parental Influence

At the end of the day, do or don’t parents have impact on their children? They clearly have impact on their children, but most of it is indirect. The people that they move their child near and the groups that are formed by children dramatically influence a child’s personality and “lot in life.” Between random events and microenvironments, it’s impossible to really shape a child’s personality.

However, the good news is that this lets parents off the hook. They don’t have to be ashamed if their child doesn’t turn out perfect. They can – and should – still do what they can to support their children just like our ancestors did. However, we need not worry that we’re “doing parenting right,” because there is no one recipe when there are No Two Alike.

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Everything You Know MIGHT Be Wrong

It was last year and Terri and I were being asked about helping with a church-based program to help teens and their parents who were struggling.  It was a program that had run for a while and was dormant because it wasn’t working.  In the restart everyone wanted to provide a bit of support to the volunteers.  This is the first of two training sessions that we did with volunteers to help them realize that what the teens might tell them might not be the only truth.

We’re all convinced that we have the right answers and our perceptions are the right ones – however, what we really know is that our perceptions aren’t always right.  What do you think you know that ain’t so? (Paraphrasing Mark Twain.)

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

Book Review-Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel

If you had a burning passion to write a novel, how would you do it? Starting from scratch and never having done it before, what steps would you take? The answer may lie inside of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. This is the second of Lisa Cron’s books that I’ve read. The first was Wired for Story, which connected research from neurology and psychology to create a vision for the things that make a story powerful. However, in that book, there wasn’t much in the way of the specific activities to take. Story Genius is different; it’s a roadmap designed to help you write your novel.

As was the case with Wired for Story, I’m not reading because I want to write the next book, whose story propels me to celebrity status. I’m reading to learn how to make the mini-stories that I use in training, speaking, and life more interesting and impactful. For that, I need not just understanding of the goals, but also how to get there.

Following, Fluent, Detaching

There’s a sort of irony in a book that provides a framework for how to write a novel to criticize another popular framework; however, that’s what Cron does with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey from A Hero with a Thousand Faces. She criticizes it as creating predictable stories. Campbell’s work researched the hero stories and found patterns across cultures. The hero’s journey is a set of steps that all hero stories seem to follow. In that sense, I suppose that it is predictable. I can also accept that the framework in the wrong hands could be crude – just like a hammer and nail in the hands of a child doesn’t make a great birdhouse.

However, I can say that I find the model incredibly helpful. It allows me to order and sequence the information that I share. It is also good for me, because the worksheet I created for using the framework has spots for both the internal state and the external situations that impact the story. I find this reminds me to focus on the internal struggle of the protagonist more than just what happened.

I believe, whether you’re using Cron’s Story Genius approach or a Hero’s Journey approach, there is much to be said about the skill with which you’re able to execute the model. I see this as the normal progression from following to fluent and, finally, detaching. Following are those who are novices and need the structure. This is where the apprentice starts. Once you’ve followed something for a while, you can become fluent at it. This is the stage of the journeyman. As you become fluent in the approach, you recognize the limitations of the model, and either use a different model in those situations – or you improvise. In the detaching stage, you’re not married to the model, you’re married to the results. You’ve become the master.

With any model, until you’re skillful with it, it’s going to feel rough. However, it is rough before it gets better. (For more see The Art of Learning.)

Learning Through Stories

People learn through means of the concrete – and they can (but won’t necessarily) apply this to the abstract. Cron argues that evolution devised us to love stories, because we could leverage the experience of other humans. This means that we would personally not need to take as much risk and would be able to extract roughly the same knowledge.

I’ve been educating people for decades now. I’ve learned that adult learners need to be taught differently (see The Adult Learner for more about how adults learn), and that knowledge isn’t always explicit knowledge. Sometimes there’s a tacit knowledge that is stubbornly hard to teach. (See Lost Knowledge, The New Edge in Knowledge, and Sharing Hidden Know-How for more on knowledge management and tacit knowledge.) I’ve seen the research that indicates that, if you have someone write out why they chose a poster, they’ll like it less in the future. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on this research.)

The power of stories may be in the fact that, when we’re engaged in a story, our brain reacts as if we are the central character rather than a passenger in the car. We’re not developing explicit knowledge about how to navigate a love triangle or ward off an alien attack. We’re developing tacit knowledge about how it feels to be in that situation. That learning, which happens at a tacit level, can dramatically impact your learning and retention.

How many times have you worked your way backwards to an idea that was just beyond your reach through where you were, who you were with, and other emotionally-connected clues? Stories also provide us with a shared context and lexicon for communicating. If two people have heard the same story, it’s possible to use an analogy or metaphor to convey complex ideas very quickly. If you speak of MacGyver (an old TV television show) you may find people talking about ingenious solutions to improbable problems.

It’s in the Cards

Cron’s model includes a series of steps that are designed to tease out the real story behind the story. As I mentioned in the post on Wired for Story, the real heart of the story is the internal struggle – and transformation – of the protagonist. However, that’s not the plot, and it’s not natively the set of scenes that, when woven together, will form the story. Questions like what if, who, why, what next, and when start the process of discovery about your protagonist, their background, and the fundamental problem that they have to struggle with and ultimately overcome.

Beyond the “twenty questions,” there’s a guide for putting together the individual scenes that will become the markers in the story. They’re the stars that form the constellations in the sky. Without anchoring scenes, the whole story will unravel. In the scene cards, Cron walks the author through the cause and effect of both internal and external factors with the structure of a scene card. Each card is a separate scene that may have a specific spot in the plot from the start or may simply be one of the bases that need to be checked off so that the score of the game makes sense.

Seeing Again for the First Time

Stories bring the protagonist full circle to see what they saw at the beginning of their journey with new eyes – with new understanding. They’re changed. Heraclitus is credited with saying that “A man never steps in the same river twice.” He’s not the same man, and it’s not the same river. This is fundamental to the process of the story. How does the protagonist’s view change because of coming to grips with his core struggle?

Short Stories

What Story Genius taught me was that my short stories must define the internal struggle more than the outer one – since that’s the one that people can connect with more readily – and that I need to help the audience understand how the perspective changed, not the circumstances. Stories about circumstance changes aren’t things that people can identify with – they don’t have control of external circumstances. However, what everyone has the ability to at least influence is their perspective. If you want to become a story genius, you’ll look for how you can change your perspective and the perspective of others through putting yourself and your story through a reading of Story Genius.

Sparks Talk: Enough Scarcity

What do you know about scarcity?  Do you know what it feels like?  More importantly, do you know how to escape scarcity? Maybe you’ve had enough of scarcity, I know I have.  In this talk, I explain what it’s like, and how to get free of it.


Article: The Actors in Training Development: Learning Manager

When looking at a clock, it is easy to become mesmerized by the gears turning. When marveling at the precision and beauty of the meshing of gears, it can be easy to overlook the box that the gears are in. Yes, the gears drive the hands of a clock, but they can’t do it without the structure provided by their case. The learning manager provides the structure for a learning delivery team. When things are running smoothly, no one really notices the value he or she brings.

Part of the series, The Actors of Training Development. Read more…

Book Review-Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers and Challengers

It’s the spark that ignites a fire. It’s that initial fragment of an idea that finds other fragments and eventually assembles itself like a jigsaw puzzle into the next big thing. Each component of the core offering comes together bit by bit and piece by piece. As they do, you realize that you’ll need a business model to support the idea, to provide the engine that can take the fuel of your passionate idea and convert it into something that will transform the world – at least in some small way. It’s this process that Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challenges seeks to enable.


Whether you’re leading a group to a review of their existing business model or standing at the precipice of change, there’s an element of facilitation necessary to get from the current state to the future state – and before that, even defining what the future state is.

In my experience with facilitation, there are two ways that we start: too few ideas, and too many. In the too few category, people know that their organization or, more commonly, industry is threatened, but they’re paralyzed by the way that they’ve always done things. The result is that no one seems to have a vision for where the organization should go. The other extreme is too many ideas. The threat is the same, but the proposed solutions aren’t. Everyone has their own ideas of how to survive the wave or change – and they don’t agree.

If you don’t have ideas, you need a push to get to a state where you can consider alternatives and create a set of possible paths. Now that you have too many ideas, it’s time to review the benefits and weaknesses of each idea and see which one is the best idea to move forward with. (An ideal way to do this is with Dialogue Mapping.)

This is the facilitation process, creating possibilities, then refining the possibilities to the one course of action to be taken. The point of Business Model Generation is to provide a process that can serve as a substitute for a skilled facilitator. While this isn’t an even trade – you won’t get same impact from a book that you will from a skilled facilitator – if you’re just starting out, it may be enough to break your inertia.


At the heart of the facilitation process is a set of exercises that the group does. The exercise can be a physical exercise, such as bridge-building to help solidify the team before beginning. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more about setting the stage.) The exercise might also be a writing exercise at a table, where each person sits and quietly reflects on their thoughts about the organization, the industry, or a more specific topic. Somewhere between these two is the shared experience of working with flip charts, Post-It Notes, or a whiteboard – and sometimes all three of these. The structure of these exercises provides both a framework for discovery of some essential truth that has remained hidden from the group and a way for moving forward.

When I’m looking for an exercise to do with a group, and none of my “standard” exercises work, I flip through Innovation Games. It’s a great book with 12 premade games (or exercises). If that doesn’t work, I’ll head over to or The Thiagi Group ( and look at their games. Sometimes I’ll find that I combine and adjust ideas to get to specific goals with the facilitation and with the session.

The exercises in Business Model Generation are of the sit and write sort – so they don’t require group participation. They also focus on developing a business model that can be tested, refined, and accepted or abandoned. The exercises fit within a framework of nine building blocks. Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur believe that these nine building blocks are the core of what you need to know to have an organization.

The Nine Building Blocks

The framework is nine building blocks:

  • Customer Segments – The people the organization serves
  • Value Propositions – What the organization does to generate value to the customer
  • Channels – The mechanism through which the value proposition is delivered
  • Customer Relationships – How the organization builds relationships with customers
  • Revenue Streams – How the organization makes money
  • Key Resources – The assets and resources (people) necessary to deliver the value
  • Key Activities – The key activities that create the value that the customer wants
  • Key Partnerships – The key non-customer relationships necessary to create the value
  • Cost Structure – The costs associated with creating the value

A worksheet to work through these nine building blocks is available on the website – but it looks something like this:

Customer Segments

In the marketing world, customer segments might be called “personas.” That is, they are the distinct groups of users that have different needs, habits, and behaviors. We think in terms of personas to simplify the range of potential customers into groups that make sense. (See The New Rules of Marketing and PR for more on creating personas.)

There are some business models where there is really only one customer; however, in most cases there’s more than one type of customer. For instance, for the Shepherd’s Guide, we market differently to IT people than we market to end users and differently still to HR folks who look to implement organizational change. So it’s one product with a corporate customer but a few different customer segments and personas.

Value Propositions

Simon Sinek suggests that we should Start With Why, and that’s what the value propositions are. They’re the “why” people would bother to care about what we’re creating. It’s how what we create positively impacts their life. It can be practical or entirely intangible. The value propositions may be risk avoidance, pain avoidance, or creating new opportunities that didn’t exist before.


It’s great that you know the value you have to offer and the customers who would be interested, but that doesn’t instantly create sales. You need channels to communicate the value propositions to the customers. Without a channel, the customer will never know your value. Channels bridge the gap between the customer and the value. Channels have an impact on how you are able to communicate because of the inherent limitations. Some channels are one-way. Other channels are two-way. Some channels are one-to-one, others one-to-many. Some are instant, and others take time. Listing the channels – both direct and indirect – to communicate with the customer can expose key limitations in how you’ll get the message out.

Customer Relationships

What kind of relationships are you going to have with your customers? Even for a fully-automated, self-service website, where the customer can complete their transaction without a human in your organization touching the transaction, there is still a relationship between the customer and the organization. How are you going to handle problems? What does customer support look like? What will you do to reengage with customers after the sale? These are all aspects of the customer relationship. The kind of relationships that you desire to have with your customers will drive the experience that they receive – and your costs.

Revenue Streams

Even in philanthropy, the money must come from somewhere. Every organization needs to understand how it will get revenue. Governments get money through taxes. Non-profit organizations get money through donations. The models for for-profit businesses are far more varied. Some make money through advertising. Others accept money from organizations on behalf of its employees. Of course, many organizations accept fees directly from the consumer. Whatever sources of revenue are available, they need to exceed the costs of doing business and producing the goods or services.

Key Resources

Key resources may be the physical assets that most people assume at the mention of resources. However, they may also be intellectual property or intellectual capital. It could be that you can do something that no one else can do. They may be the wealth of tacit experience that a team member has that simply can’t be replaced. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.) In some cases, the resources may be financial. The ability to give more favorable terms may be a key part of your overall business model.

Key Activities

Often – but not always – the key activities that you perform are production. Sometimes the key to the business is the masterful use of the channels to the customer. Another key may be your ability to solve problems or even the ability to leverage a network of connections.

Key Partnerships

Partners exist to help you be more successful. They can be as mundane as your relationship with your bank or investors that allow you access to capital to support growth. Partners can allow you access to techniques for risk reduction as well as the economies of scale. Further, they may allow you to work together to create a larger scope of service for a customer than would be possible alone.

Cost Structure

At the end of the day, it comes down to how much you charge each of the customers – or partners – in the solution. This might be a cost-plus model, where there’s a fixed markup. It might be a value-driven model, where the customer pays based on the performance that you have with them. It might be time and materials or fixed bid. However, costs are established, and it’s obviously essential that they’re able to support the financial needs of the business.

All Together

Altogether, Business Model Generation gives us a map that allows us to evaluate whether we can be successful with the model we’re interested in. Here’s my mind map of the content:

With luck, you’ll find an idea that you can use the Business Model Generation framework to convert into a business.