Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Book Review-Made to Stick

Honey. Duct Tape. Elmer’s Glue. They’re all made to stick, but they’re not the kind of Made to Stick that Dan and Chip Heath are talking about. They’re talking about those mental viruses that replicate inside your head over and over again until you want relief – and things much less pervasive but sticky nonetheless. What about those songs that get stuck in your head? What about the belief that autism is caused by vaccines? (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for why this isn’t truth.) Some ideas and myths and ideas persist, and others gently fade away into the night.

How is this useful to most of us? How does knowing what makes an idea sticky or not help us in our challenges of living life? The answer may be connected to our desire to change our behaviors. How do we stick with our exercise regimen or stay on our diet? (See Change or Die and Willpower for more.) It’s also connected to our desire to market our goods and services in a way that people can remember.

We’re in an attention economy, and under those conditions, you can either hope that you grab the attention of a buyer at exactly the right time – or you can design your messages to be sticky and hope that your message has remained in your buyer’s mind at the right time. The second option makes hitting the target seem more likely.

Six Principles

The Heath brothers have distilled what they believe are the six principles that lead to stickiness. They are:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories

As they tear each of them apart, I saw connections. Simplicity is the opposite of complexity, which Rogers says is an opposing factor to the Diffusion of Innovations. Unexpectedness draws our initial attention, as is explained in Fascinate, Inside Jokes, Incognito, The Signal and the Noise, and others. Concreteness makes an appearance in learning in works like The Adult Learner, Efficiency in Learning, and How We Learn. Credibility and our ability to appear credible to our audience shows up in marketing books. (See the New Rules of Marketing and PR, Guerilla Marketing, and Duct Tape Marketing.) Emotions are how we make decisions, as the Heath brothers describe in Switch, which they got from Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Stories are powerful, as we learn in Wired for Story.

These six principles are clearly connected to a set of works across disciplines and bring together a diverse set of forces that can help your ideas stick for as long as they need to.

Vowels of Success A-E-I-O-U (or O-I-U-A-E)

While I love the success (SUCCES) acronym, I believe that the Heath brothers missed something. I believe that they missed the “Wow!” factor that leads people to pay attention in the first place. We’re in an attention-based economy, where we need first get people’s attention with some sizzle. We need the wow. I think that we need to represent all the vowels in our acronym – but not in the order they appear in the alphabet. First, I believe, we need them to say “Ohh!” (Our first vowel.)

Next, we need to give them something unexpected. We need to give them something that hooks them more than the initial spark that got their attention. We need to create a sense of Intrigue (our second vowel).

From there, our idea must be Understandable (our third vowel). That means it needs to be both simple and concrete – because that’s the way that we learn things and the way that we can connect them to our other memories. (See How We Learn.)

The fourth vowel is Accepted. That is, the receiver must accept the learning. They’ve got to believe the credibility of the sender – typically through credibility markers. The credibility marker can be a referral from someone the receiver trusts or another form of marker, like a certification or approval.

The final vowel is E for Engaging, which encompasses the Heath brothers’ emotions and stories. This is setting the hook. It’s taking the idea that was noticed, pondered, understood, and accepted and then ensuring that it can be remembered. As humans, we evolved to feel others’ feelings. Mirror neurons literally fire in conjunction with others’ neurons. (See Primal Leadership for more.) As Wired for Story points out, we evolved to be able to learn from others through stories – so stories have a significant sticking power.

Simple, not Simplistic

One of my favorite Einstein quotes is “make everything as simple as possible, not simpler.” Einstein wasn’t trying to “dumb down” relativity. He was trying to get to the core principles of it. He was trying to take the complicated and make it as simple as possible. In the language of the Heath brothers, simplicity is finding the core of the idea. It’s finding the essential and central point to be made. Instead of covering everything, it’s covering only those topics which are core.

Much time is spent making the point that, when you say three things, you’re really saying nothing. If you want a message to stick, you must pick the point to make – and stay with it. This is reminiscent of the Stockdale Paradox from Good to Great, where you must have unwavering faith – and the ability to listen and adapt. On the one hand, you need to listen to what you can do to make the message more compelling and resonate better with the audience, and on the other hand have the fortitude (or perhaps grit – see Grit) to stay the course. (My post Should You be a Fox or a Hedgehog? may shed additional light on the topic of creating simplicity.)

Attracting Attention

In my reviews of Selling to VITO and Traction, I mentioned that we live in an attention economy. If we want to succeed, we must attract attention – the right kind of attention to what we’re offering. We can’t demand attention. We can’t insist that someone read our email or watch our video. We’ve got to engage them in a way that makes them want to engage. This is where unexpectedness helps us. Jokes pack a one-two-switch punch, and when we detect that there was something unexpected, that our pattern matching brains were wrong, we laugh. In short, we get a bit of the pleasure drug dopamine for detecting the error in our thinking – the unexpectedness. (See Inside Jokes for more)

Many of the techniques that you’ll find in marketing books are about doing something unexpected to get – and hopefully keep – attention. The key contrast is in defining the brand message as internally consistent but externally (worldly) inconsistent. (See Brand is a Four Letter Word for more.)

Creating the Demand

Sometimes the dance to engage your audience is to tell them what they know – and then expose the gap that they don’t know about. Sometimes you must expose the thing that the audience already knows – but doesn’t know consciously – to get to the gap in their knowledge. You can’t realize that you don’t know what’s between you and your goal until you know what your goal is. You can’t find the path to success when you can’t define what success is. (The ONE Thing leads towards the idea of getting very clear about what your goals are.)

You can’t sell a product or service to someone who doesn’t know they need it. To help them understand their need, you must first help them be concrete about what they want, and then expose to them that they don’t know how to get there.

Building the Market

In my post Building the Market, I speak about the kind of effort that it takes to build a market and how it’s not the best plan for most organizations these days. Unfortunately, the need to create the demand and the realities of modern business are in conflict. Small businesses lack the capital and large organizations, driven by the need for quarterly returns, rarely have the fortitude.

Velcro Kind of Sticky

In How We Learn, we are told that there are two components to memory: storage and retrieval. Storage seems to be the easier of the two components. It’s the retrieval that’s interesting, because the brain carefully prunes away connections that can be used for retrieval to allow us to function. Instead of everything being available at our fingertips, things are only available through a chain of thinking, like navigating down a folder hierarchy.

This pruning of the retrieval system doesn’t mean that we forget about the ideas we’re trying to convey. Instead, it means that the patterns for retrieval of that information become narrower and harder to hit. That’s why, when we craft our message, we craft it in a way that it can be retrieved. We try to ensure that the audience’s brain doesn’t trim those retrieval paths we need.

Velcro is interesting stuff. Designed by nature and copied by humans, there isn’t just one spot that the two pieces will catch together. Instead, any contact between the two pieces will create a level of cohesion. When creating our ideas, we try to craft the message in a way that, even if our intended connection isn’t made, alternative connections may help us hold onto the idea.

Nonsense and Understanding

Much of the challenge of getting ideas to stick is to get them to be understood. Testing our memory is hard, because researchers realized that the different retrieval connections that people have for different ideas keep muddying up the water – until they settled on nonsense words as an approach to testing for retention. The intent was to create things that people couldn’t connect to existing memories.

Even random strings of numbers would connect with people. They would find an old area code inside the middle of a string and suddenly do better on the memory test because of the connection. In fact, the high-performance memory folks use this technique of making the numbers meaningful to them so that they can remember them. (See Peak for more on the memory experts.)

In short, we remember the things we can understand – and we don’t remember the things that we don’t.

We remember those things which are concrete. In fact, we grasp the abstract through means of the concrete. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about this.) The Heath brothers call to concreteness as a tool to allow us to remember the idea.

Understanding Statistics

Most people don’t understand statistics. Ask for an explanation of standard deviation, and you’re just as likely to get blank stares as you are to get answers that are materially correct. However, more importantly, people don’t connect with statistics. Statistics live in the analytical portion of our brains, and, as Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis point out, the analytical portion (the rider) isn’t in control. How to Measure Anything and Thinking, Fast and Slow both point out our inability to conceive of large numbers well. We’re subject to all sorts of biases and inaccuracies as our analytical mind attempts to wrap around the numbers we’re talking about.

To understand statistics, we need to create simplicity. To understand statistics, we must strip the complicated math and make the true value of the statistic – the ratio – stand out. It’s the ratio that makes the pie chart so valuable. Though it’s lousy at comparing year to year, it’s beautiful at showing what percentage of a pie was made up of one part of the total. People get it because they know what it’s like to give up a part of the pie.

It’s said that a million deaths is a statistic. A single death is a tragedy. The emotional aspects of understanding the story behind the one loss is within our capacity as humans. Comprehending the pain of the deaths of a million people exceeds our capacity.


In Pitch Anything, Klaff’s general premise is he who sets the frame controls the sale. If you can control the way that people see the situation, you can control the outcome. While this might be overstated a bit, framing is a powerful force for managing how people perceive anything. Framing sportsmanship as a way to honor the game that you love so much can take an abstract idea like sportsmanship and hang on it the trappings of honor of respect and have a profound effect on how people see their need to participate in games.

A subtle change with school children can be that they be framed as representatives or, even better, ambassadors of their school. As a result, they frame their behavior in terms of whether it will reflect positively on the school.

The frames that people use change with the circumstances they find themselves in. They can identify as child one moment and boy the next. (For more, see No Two Alike) By influencing which frame they use, you can influence how powerful an idea sticks.

What Do People Like Me Do?

In the end, the most powerful frames are the defining ones. They’re the ones that people ask “What do people like me do in circumstances like this?” They look for defining boundaries – the things that people like them do – and don’t do. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on defining boundaries.) So, as it comes to Made to Stick, what do people like you do? Do you read it?

Updating PowerApps Screens and Forms Programmatically

PowerApps is a powerful form generation platform –but the data-flows-centric model can be more than a bit quirky to use if you’re used to more programmatic approaches to form generation, whether that’s in InfoPath, Microsoft Access, WinForms in Visual Studio, or some other technology. The expectation is that you can assign a value to a control or to a field in the data source and the screen will automatically update to reflect your changes. However, this doesn’t work in PowerApps. Instead, you must make the updates to the record and then reload the record. Let’s look at how this works.


Forms in PowerApps are the way to connect a part of the screen to a data source explicitly. Forms can be either be a view or an edit form. Strangely, these aren’t different display modes of the same control. Edit forms have different capabilities than display forms, so generally you want to use an edit form if you expect you may ever want to edit some of the data – so that you don’t have to recreate the form.

Forms come with two important design time only properties: DataSource and Item. These properties are design time, because they can only be set in the designer. You cannot – while the form is running – change these values.

DataSource is set to one of the data sources setup for your PowerApp. This defines the structure of the data and helps inform the designer what fields should be available. The second property, Item, is more interesting.

The Item property can be set to the result of a function – such as Lookup() – or it can be set to a variable. Generally, it’s a good idea to set the Item to a variable, so that you can control the behavior of the variable separate from being the result of a static function.


There are two kinds of variables inside your PowerApp. First, there are global variables, which are established with the Set() function. The second are screen-level context variables, which are either passed into the screen through the parameter of the Navigate() function or are established by use of the UpdateContext() function.

Other than the fact that the variables are updated with Set() for global, and UpdateContext() for context variables, either will function just fine to help us update the screen.

Data Cards

Forms are containers for a set of data cards. These data cards are the templates for the display of each of the individual fields from the data source. The wizard prompts you to select which fields you want to have on your form and the general layout. The importance is that each data card is associated to a field in the data source, so when the data field is updated, the display updates.

The problem is that the data card doesn’t have a property that you can set to update the property programmatically – and get that to display on the page. As a result, you have to update the form’s data item and then let the data flow from the record down to the screen.

Text Fields

Before we continue with the discussion of forms, it’s important to note that the approach that we’re explaining here works just fine with regular text fields which are on the screen – even though they aren’t in a form. If you set a text field’s .Text property to the value of a field in an item, this will only be updated when you update the item. If you attempt to programmatically set the .Text property during runtime, your changes won’t be reflected on the screen. However, if you update the variable that the text field is bound to, it will update the text field for you automatically.

To be specific, you must update the record. Updating the individual property in the variable isn’t enough to cause the data flows to fire and update the text field. So, whether we’re doing a form field or a field we want to display on the screen, we need to update the variable and allow that to cause the data flows to fire to update the screen.

Creating Records

Creating a blank record in a PowerApp can be done by calling NewForm() when you have a form; however, doing this doesn’t allow you to set any starting data. In the case where you want to create records that are specific to the customer, but you don’t want the customer number to be in the form, you’re forced to precreate the record, then display it in the form.

Precreating a Record

To create the record, we’re going to use the Patch() function. This takes the data source, the item, and the updates. The data source is easy. It’s the same data source as we’re using for the form. The item is the potentially challenging part. We need to create an item with all the defaults for our data source. To do that, we call Defaults() with the parameter of our data source. This gets an item with all the defaults for the item. To that we add anything that we need to initialize the record. For instance, let’s call our data source “Sample” and assume we need to initialize a field called “Title” to the current date. The code looks like this:

Patch(Sample, Defaults(‘Sample’), { Title: Text(Now(), “[$-en-US]yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss”)})

The call to the Text() function is just to convert the data/time value from the Now() function into a string. Not that we’re calling Patch() with our data source, our item, and what we want to change in the record. Defaults() is used to get a new item with the right defaults.

After this call, we have a new record in our database.

Selecting the Precreated Record

With the new record, we need to get it to display on the form or as a part of the screen. To do this, we update the variable that we have our form set to. In our example, it happens that Patch() returns our updated record, so we can put that inside of a Set() for a global variable or a UpdateContext() for a context variable. If we were to call our variable SampleItem as a global variable, the code would look like:

Set(SampleItem, Patch(Sample, Defaults(‘Sample’), { Title: Text(Now(), “[$-en-US]yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss”)}))

If the variable SampleItem was a context variable, we’d do:

UpdateContext({SampleItem: Patch(Sample, Defaults(‘Sample’), { Title: Text(Now(), “[$-en-US]yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss”)})})

In both cases, the new record will be reflected on the screen whether the fields are in the form or the text field.

Updating Records

That’s fine for new records, but how do you make an update to an existing record? It’s the same process – except instead of specifying the defaults for the patch, you specify the existing variable. It looks like this:

Set(SampleItem, Patch(Sample, SampleItem, { Title: Text(Now(), “[$-en-US]yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss”)}))

That’s a Wrap

It may not be the way you’d typically think about the process in a more traditional form building tool – but it’s effective.

Appropriate Vulnerability

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Appropriate Vulnerability

When we talk about human connections, it often necessarily involves vulnerability. Our most meaningful relationships are the ones in which we make ourselves vulnerable in front of others, because it means we can trust those people. But how vulnerable should we be? How do we balance sharing too little and not forming a connection with sharing too much and potentially harming our loved ones? In this talk, “Appropriate Vulnerability,” we walk you through the importance of trust, how to temper our vulnerability, and how to form the connections we need as humans.

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

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Book Review-How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Our ability to learn ranks right up there with our ability to coordinate our activities as the chief weapon that we’ve used to become the dominant species on the planet. As anthropologists John Tooby and Irven DeVore have commented, we carve out the “cognitive niche”. Despite our cognitive capacity being so essential to our survival that it literally drives us to be born before we’re fully prepared to take on the world, relatively little is understood in science about how we learn — and substantially less of what we have learned has become common knowledge. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens is designed to change the public’s awareness of what little we do know about learning. (If you want more on our ability to coordinate and its importance, you can see The Righteous Mind or Mindreading.)


While learning is essential to our current world, much of what we think about as learning is new from an evolutionary sense. Even reading, writing, and arithmetic are relatively new creations. Consider that before the invention of the printing press, literacy meant the ability to write your own name — and there weren’t that many people that were literate. Today, we view literacy differently: it’s the ability to read and write in our native language.

We expect — rightly or wrongly — that our children should be able to have basic fluency in their native language by the time they’re ten. We expect even more from them as they progress through schools. Where calculus was the domain of specialized mathematics only a few decades ago, it’s an assumption for most professions today. You’re expected to understand the basics of a branch of mathematics that was until recently a speciality — and much, much more.


In evolutionary terms, the human being we know is a newcomer. Written history extends back a few thousand years, and fossil evidence goes back ten thousand years or so. That’s a blink in evolutionary time. We evolved from hunter-gatherers to the masters of agriculture, and with that we developed a caloric surplus, which allowed us to start to pursue more abstract thoughts than worrying about the next meal and avoiding becoming one.

During this rapid conversion from a nomadic existence following berries and buffalo to one with deep roots in agriculture and our subsequent adaption into a sedentary and highly intellectual experience, we’ve moved faster than our genes can keep up. We’ve moved into a world where our shared knowledge is so much more than we as humans have ever encountered.

Some have estimated that we experience in a single year more information and data than our grandparents experienced in their lifetimes. That’s an increase in information of 50-100 to 1 in just the last 100 years, and it’s getting faster.

Information Management

When I speak to audiences about information management, I share how the advances in our ability to share knowledge is growing at a breathtaking pace. Until Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450, if you wanted something copied, you gave it to a scribe or a monk. Gutenberg made it possible to take important texts and make copies efficiently, thereby reducing the barriers to having books. In 1870, we got typewriters. This allowed us to standardize the appearance of text and to provide a standard structure. In 1959, Xerox created the xerographic process for photocopying content. Suddenly, the bar for replication was dramatically lowered. In the 1970s, computers made the processing and replication of data easier. In the 1980s, computers became personal, and suddenly everyone was able to store and share their information. In the 1990s, computers were networked, so sharing between people became automatic. By the 2000s, we shared images as well. In the 2010s, we started delivering video.

The upshot of this is that it took us thousands of years to get to writing and then a few thousand to get to the ability to replicate content. Now we’re looking at innovations in our ability to share information about every decade. How can you possibly keep up with all the knowledge being created? The answer is that you can’t — however, to even keep up with a portion of what we need to know, we need to be efficient and effective with our learning. Unfortunately, our learning innovations haven’t kept up.

Brain Science

There are two distinct branches of science that study how the brain works. One branch is psychology, which is largely concerned with the proper functioning of our minds as it relates to the behavioral outcomes. The other branch is neurology, which is focused on understanding how our brains perform the wonders that they do.

I’ve shared in my reviews of The Cult of Personality Testing, Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Health, The Heart and Soul of Change : Delivering What Works in Therapy, and other books how little we actually know about psychology. In truth, the correlations of outcomes for the counseled and uncounseled states are horrifyingly similar. There’s great arguments in this field about what is and isn’t effective. Psychoactive drugs are prolifically prescribed, and yet seem to have very little effect.

On the neurology front, we’ve got some knowledge about the regions that are active for various thinking and behaviors, but there’s more that we don’t know than we do know. We’re looking into an opaque gray matter hoping to tease out how the magic works — and we’ve been largely unsuccessful. (See Incognito, The Rise of Superman, The End of Memory and Emotional Intelligence for some on neurology.)

Along the way, we’ve found some answers from brave and insightful (and sometimes lucky) scientists who stared at a result and scratched their heads until they could come up with plausible hypothesis about what is going on inside our heads. These answers have not been adopted by those who lead the charge for better education for everyone – they’re marching the same old beat to the same old drum. (See Helping Children Succeed and Schools without Failure for alternative views.)

Myths and Legends

Old myths about how we learn that were garnered from limited experience and observation sometimes run directly counter to the research generated by prestigious universities. Good science is saying some of the things that we’re doing aren’t the right things. We’re not optimizing the learning experience. What we thought we knew about how to teach and learn is being turned on its head — and some is being validated as fundamentally correct.

Some of the myths like having to “keep your nose to the grindstone” are being dispelled by compelling evidence that taking a break can increase retention and free up the cognitive resources necessary to generate the innovations to drive the next generation of business leaders forward.

Forgetting is Your Friend

The nemesis of learning has been the forgetting curve. Ebbinghaus precisely documented the decay of memory using nonsense — in an exacting way. The forgetting curve has long been the enemy of professional trainers and teachers. It’s seen as failure of learning. However, it might be the result of an active process where our brain is trying to cope with the onslaught of information that it wasn’t ever designed to handle. It could be that our mental systems that were designed to consolidate memories trimmed them from our consciousness, so we could focus on things that are more urgent and more relevant.

Losing memories – forgetting – is a painful experience for all of us. It’s frustrating to forget a name or a word when we feel like we need it most. However, this process isn’t one measure but is instead two. Moments after we “need” the information, we may find that we suddenly rediscover what we lost in an annoying but normal aspect of how our memories work.

Memory as Two Separate Measures

One way to consider memory is that it can be measured by two separate attributes. The first measure is the measure of storage. Did we encode the memory and keep it in our brains? Even if we did manage to keep it in our brains, that says relatively little about our ability to recall the information at will. There are things that I know, that when prompted I can recall but for which there are few paths in my brain to be able to recall.

This model for memory is the brainchild of Robert Bjork of UCLA and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork. Their hypothesis is that we evolved with systems that allow us to forget as a natural part of the process. If we had too much in the front of our mind — that is, with high retrieval — we’d never be able to get anything done. The thoughts would constantly be competing with one another. The retrieval paths for some of our memories are trimmed so that they can only be recalled with very specific stimulus.

Desirable Difficulty

Some research points to a desirable difficulty in learning that causes the brain to more intensely link a memory, and this seems to happen with things that were learned once, then “forgotten” or dramatically unlinked for retrieval and relinked. They are so hard to find that our brain seems to not want to make the same mistake of unlinking again. As a result, ideas that are difficult to learn — or relearn — are given special priority for relinking.

In a strange way, forgetting isn’t the enemy of learning; it may be the tool that our brains use to ensure that we’re able to retrieve the right memories at the right times, even if it doesn’t always guess correctly.

Memory is Context Dependent

Have you ever heard that if you study drunk, you should take the test drunk? As crazy as this sounds, it may be correct. Studies with marijuana proved that when someone studied something while under the influence, their performance was better on a test if they were also under the influence. It seems like, somehow, the state of the person got encoded along with the information and the retrieval was linked to that state.

It’s a well-established fact that behavior is a function of both the person and the environment (see Leading Successful Change for more on Lewin’s function). It’s further a researched fact that people’s opinions are related to where they’re asked questions. If you put them in an environment that feels like home, they’ll give more accurate answers about their home life than if they’re placed in an office or at a college. (See Loneliness for more.) It seems that the web of neural connections is shaped by where we are.

The Importance of Sleep

Historically, sleep was viewed as wasted time. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, we find that most animals sleep at times and lengths that serve them. Koalas survive on a very low-calorie diet of eucalyptus leaves and sleep 20 hours a day. The brown bat similarly sleeps all day but during dusk and dawn, when their adaptation of echolocation is most powerful at allowing them to feed on mosquitos, and they are least likely to be struck down by predatory birds. So, too, there must be an evolutionary reason for our sleep cycle. Some of the evidence seems to be repair of our bodies; but more interestingly, it’s essential for the development of long-term memories and learning.

There has been a great deal of research on sleep now, but it wasn’t always that way. In December 1951, Armond, the son of a young graduate student, Eugene Aserinsky, was hooked up to the predecessor of the EEG, and REM sleep was observed for the first time. Aserinsky thought it was a fluke, but test after test confirmed high levels of brain activity during specific periods of sleep – and more than was expected all the time.

Since then, research has progressed. We now know there are various stages of sleep, and these different phases of sleep seem to be performing different kinds of maintenance. Stage 2 is all about motor memory, stages 3 and 4 are for building retention, and REM helps us build pattern recognition. (If you want more on the research into sleep, see The Rise of Superman.)

Trying It Out – Testing as Studying

One of the challenging things about assessing the efficacy of training (see Efficiency in Learning) is that each assessment changes the learning. Assessing retention after a day increases the probability that someone will remember more when tested two weeks later. The finding is relatively easy to explain. They see a greater relevance in the information, because they’ve been tested on it. (See The Adult Learner for more on the importance of relevance.) What’s harder to explain is how, after two weeks, the average performance will climb when compared to the test just one day later. Even without additional studying, performing an assessment will cause the student to retain more than they remember at the first assessment.

There’s not clear consensus on exactly how or why this happens – but it does happen. We don’t know whether the assessment creates desirable difficulty in the learning process, it increases awareness and therefore elevates memories of related topics that can be used to navigate back to the original idea, or whether sleep continues to reintegrate old memories. Whatever the cause, we learn, in part, based on the way that we’re tested. The more that we’re tested on simple recall, the more that we’ll remember things that require simple recall. The more we provide complexity in our testing, the more likely we are to encourage complex storage of facts.

The real test is the test of life. What will you retain from How We Learn – and why?


Should You Be the Fox or the Hedgehog?

Many folks that read Jim Collins’ wildly popular Good to Great book believe that they need to become a hedgehog. They believe Collins’ call to reduce the world into a set of simple – hedgehog – ideas. However, the problem is that this has often been misconstrued as a call to be singularly focused on one thing to the exclusion of others. The Stockdale Paradox in Collins’ words: “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” It’s this quote that gives pause to the singular focus of the hedgehog. It provides a counterbalancing thought to always being a hedgehog.

The Ancestry

Before getting into the heart of the matter, it’s important to realize that The Hedgehog and the Fox is an Isaiah Berlin essay on Leo Tolstoy; but the idea came from a Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” Berlin was later quoted as saying, “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.” His essay had very little discussion about the fox and the hedgehog. The essay rarely mentioned the topic past the title and introduction.

The bulk of the essay focused on Tolstoy’s struggle. On the one hand, he’s described as an exacting researcher who looks for order and reason in all things, shunning mysticism and spirituality. On the other hand, he was more than willing to diverge from the literal reality of the events and dip into a story. Story, it seems, trumps accuracy in Tolstoy’s world.


Tolstoy’s view of history, according to Berlin, was that it was necessarily biased. It cherry-picked the events that were deemed to be the most relevant. History as we saw it was not the turbulent sea of today but was the postcard version with clear skies and rolling waves. All of the “noise” was removed from the experience, and therefore, necessarily, some errors would be made in what was – and was not – relevant to the course that history has charted.

It’s not surprising then that he felt justified in making his own decisions in his novel War and Peace. Who was to say – except for him and perhaps his critics – what the right answers were about what to tell and what to conveniently forget?

However, Berlin assesses that this fundamental struggle between rigorous investigation and accuracy and literary license left Tolstoy in agony at the end of his life.

One Useful Thing

The Greek idea was that the hedgehog knew one “useful” thing. That is, there was something that the hedgehog knew that was more useful than the many things the fox knew. This is the true rub with the forced dichotomy between the hedgehog and the fox. (Brené Brown has something to say about forced dichotomies in Daring Greatly.) How does one know when they seek to become an expert in something that what they are becoming an expert in is useful? Defining utility is based primarily on the market’s willingness to buy your skill – or your ability to leverage the skill towards survival.

Plenty of people have developed mastery in skills that aren’t valued any longer. Wagon wheel construction doesn’t have the same market appeal as it once did. Telephone operator isn’t the same. Riverboat captain is no longer a booming skill.

Survival of the Fittest

The implication of Collins’ version of the story is that hedgehogs – those that focus on one thing – are more successful than their competitive foxes. However, The Signal and the Noise points out that those who are focused on one single area have trouble with predictions. Their guesses are only better than random chance. However, the foxes – with their propensity to see things from multiple dimensions – have demonstrated predictive powers. Instead of getting stuck with the anchoring effect, they seem to be able to use multiple models to generate their own internal diversity of thought. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on anchoring and The Wisdom of Crowds and The Difference for the value of diversity of thought.)

The Halo Effect, echoing nature, is must crueler in its explanation that there are things outside of our control. Sometimes the fittest doesn’t survive. Sometimes the best man is struck down by a random event, and sometimes even the man with the right answer is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Learning from Great Minds

The renaissance was ignited by the Medici family. (See The Medici Effect for more.) Their action that started the fire wasn’t to develop singular experts in one thing. Instead, they got experts in different disciplines (i.e. hedgehogs) together to share and learn from each other (i.e. become foxes). They created a situation where experts in one area could learn from others. They could each simplify, focus, and communicate their areas of expertise to the other members of the group, so that everyone could benefit from their hedgehog knowledge.

The Foxy Hedgehog

In the end, the reason why there is debate about the fox and the hedgehog may be that you need both. You need the internal struggle like Tolstoy’s to propel you forward. Berlin’s final analysis was that Tolstoy was both fox and hedgehog. He knew a great number of things (like the fox) and knew one thing really well, writing novels.

In business, the great leaders are foxes first. We learn in many different areas. We explore what interests us to seek out that one skill that will define us. We have beautiful fonts in our modern operating systems, because Steve Jobs dropped into a calligraphy course. It wasn’t until years later that this “useful” knowledge would surface and cause the Macintosh to be loved by graphics designers.

Hedgehogs simplify. They make the world more understandable for others through expertise. In doing so, the hedgehog themselves become like the great sculptors, who are done with their pieces not when they have formed the perfect statue, but instead when they have removed all that is not the statue.

Understanding Shame and Guilt

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Understanding Shame and Guilt

We’ve been motivated throughout our lives with shame and guilt but too few of us have looked into the heart of what they are — or the scars they leave on our hearts.  Sometimes, we can even get caught up in feelings without really knowing where they come from or what to do about them. In “Understanding Shame and Guilt,” we discuss guilt, shame, judgement, and blame and how these concepts tie together.

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


Article: Training Resources for Microsoft Content Services

SharePoint – including SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online as a part of Office 365 – is the most widely-deployed content services platform.  In fact, 85% of the Fortune 500 is using Office 365.  This creates enormous opportunities to learn from a thriving community of people in commercial and community events.

I had the opportunity to be a guest blogger on the SharePoint Community blog. Click here to read the full post.

The Greatest Generation

Book Review-The Greatest Generation

I’ve heard the stories – or rather I’ve heard the sensationalized stories – about how World War II came to be and how it ended. However, somewhere in the reduction done for history books, I missed the importance of the event. I don’t mean the importance to the world. I mean the importance to the men and women, to the families of those that served in the war. The Greatest Generation is Tom Brokaw’s tribute to a generation that openly faced some of the hardest challenges that our nation has ever seen. Coming out of the Great Depression and into the fire of war, this generation demonstrated what Americans could do.

Generational Context

I was introduced to The Greatest Generation in Chuck Underwood’s book, America’s Generations. It was there that I realized that the challenges faced by my generation and my children’s generation are nothing compared to the struggles that were faced by previous generations. It’s also where I realized that every generation – to be great – must have a test that helps to define them and demonstrates their ability to triumph.

Through story after story – some of them personal – Brokaw paints a picture of the values, commitment, and grit wielded by this great generation. Stories of mothers and daughters swapping roles between caring for young children and working outside of the home. Stories of entire families working to pool enough money to survive. Story after story of people helping each other to survive the harshness of the world.


Personal responsibility and accountability are at the top of the list of the values that were held by this great generation. They didn’t blame others for their success or failures. They didn’t whine that they didn’t have control. Certainly not everyone had the values and personal fortitude of the people that Brokaw interviewed; however, time and again, these great Americans would speak of how they didn’t earn medals, but rather they accepted them on behalf of others. This kind of humility wasn’t an outlier. It was woven into the very heart of how these servant citizens operated.

They were honest when it was difficult and hardworking. There was a sense of being connected to one another through our shared struggles. There was a common enemy so there was less fighting amongst ourselves. Consider the impact of the 2001 terrorist attacks. For a moment, there weren’t any Democrats or Republicans. There were just Americans. The greatest generation were Americans for their lives.


Today, we expect that we’ll be prosperous. This is a new expectation. It’s not one that the greatest generation held. They couldn’t imagine real prosperity. Having come through the Great Depression, they had seen suffering and want. They didn’t believe that they could avoid it. They worked hard to make sure that their basic needs were met.

Imagine choosing your career not because you liked it or it was interesting, but instead because it gave you an opportunity to help support the family. Retrospectively becoming a nurse may look like a conscious choice to be compassionate to the common man, but in the moment – at least in some cases – it was an opportunity to make much needed money for the family. We expect that employment is an option to us, but those who lived through the Great Depression were grateful for any work that they could get.


One of the darkest hours in the history of this great nation was when Executive Order 9066 was signed. It stole Japanese-Americans from their homes and interned them in camps. Families who were appalled by the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor were uprooted from their communities. This was a time of deep divides in American consciousness. In the South, African Americans were treated like second class citizens – but at least they weren’t interned in camps far away from their lives.

However, across the ocean, men fought together as men rather than against each other over their ancestry. No matter what your race or social group, when someone shoots at you, you’re all American. Such is the functioning of the human heart. When the bonds forged in the fires of war came back to the states, they weren’t enough to completely thaw the hearts of those who thought they were superior to others; but the seeds of equality may have been sown on those fields so far away.

Changing Moral Values

Perhaps the most challenging issue faced by returning veterans wasn’t readjusting to a normal life. By all accounts, the men (and women) who came back from the war became the leaders that our communities needed. They became businessmen, community leaders, fathers, and friends. Many wouldn’t trade the lessons learned in war – nor would they give you anything to do it again.

The real challenge was when the morals of the country became more divided. Divorce became more common – and they didn’t know how to cope with it. They supported the services, but struggled with the war in Vietnam. They struggle at the lack of discipline with children these days.

The Atomic Bomb

There’s no way to talk about World War II without talking about the impact of the atomic bomb. One might wonder how a moral and ethical generation would process the use of two atomic bombs. The answer is surprisingly straightforward. They simply consider how many lives were saved – instead of the tragedy of the lives that were lost. That’s a fitting response from The Greatest Generation.

Gas pumps

Innovation Fuel

Creativity and innovation are taunting large corporate CEOs today. You’ve undoubtedly heard dozens of stories of large corporations getting ripped apart due to market forces created by tiny startups because of their creativity and innovation. Everyone lusts after that new idea that will make the business easier and bring in profit by the truckload. The desire to create an organization or even just a department that has the magic elixir of creativity that can unlock the innovation inside the organization.

Causes and Conditions

The answer to the great elixir of creative corporate life may not be found in the rigid, rule-bound approaches that most organizations leverage for operational excellence. Instead of having a clear path of causal events from start to finish, creativity flows from random connections and half-baked ideas that slam into each other and create something unexpected.

Instead of looking for the cause of creativity that can be plugged into an organization like a gear in a complex machine, creativity comes from a set of conditions from which it can emerge. We’re not used to creating conditions and waiting for something to start. In business, there should be defined activities and predictable results, except that’s not what happens.

The model for creativity is much more like the growth of a tree from a seed. (You can find more in my review of Dialogue.) We can’t control the growth of the tree – or whether one will grow or not. We can create the conditions from which a tree can emerge from the seed by providing it soil, water, and light. Creativity needs a set of conditions to enable the possibility of growth. For creativity, there’s a master condition from which the other conditions flow.

The One Condition to Rule Them All: Safety

The crazy, silly, outrageous ideas are the ones we want. The ideas that have no boundaries, no boxes, no constraints, and no predecessors are the ones that can change the world. The only way to say something that may make you look stupid among your peers is to feel safe to look stupid. This perceived safety unlocks and enables the possibility for creativity and innovation.

Safety isn’t true safety any more than getting in a car and driving across the continent is safe. Safety is a perception. It’s a belief that you can venture out and expand. It’s the belief that, no matter what, you’ll be OK.

When safety is low in my adult children, we play a modified version of “worst-case-scenario.” In this version of the game, there’s no room for scenarios where the earth is crushed by an asteroid – because we can’t do anything about that anyway. In this version of the game, we play what’s the worst thing that you think could happen – and then we talk about the fact that they’ll still be OK. We take away the fear by ensuring that, if something bad happens, we’ll know what to do.

Safety in this case is internally generated. In a corporate environment, who are the most creative people? Can you find that one distinguishing mark that will allow you to locate them in a crowd? What if I told you that the most likely condition is the condition that they didn’t need to be there? Maybe their father died and left them a small fortune, or maybe they’ve amassed enough money that when they get tired of the job, they’ll just quit. Whatever the cause, the people who are the most creative tend to be those who believe that they have the least to lose. Consequently, these same people tend to be the hardest to manage – and all too often are encouraged out of the organization.

There’s little that can be done to foster this kind of internal safety – though making a conscientious effort to retain those that exhibit internal safety can help. For most organizations, generating safety means creating scenarios where it’s ok to fail. It’s ok to look bad. It’s ok to be different.

When you attack the stupid idea, you stomp on the wings of creativity. When you make it clear that the only ones who are promoted are those that think like you, you bind up innovation. When people don’t feel like they’re a part of the group any longer, they’re neurologically wired to play it safe.


The irony is that playing it safe isn’t playing at all. Playing is a necessarily risky business and one that evolution protected because of its inherent value. The value of playing is that it expands our very being. We learn and grow because we’re taking calculated risks to try something new. Doesn’t it sound like play is exactly the thing that we want with creativity and innovation?

We want creativity, so we can explore new things. We want to become, as an organization, something we’ve never been before. It’s no wonder why the most creative and innovative companies have playful cultures. They are very committed to getting things done – and at the same time, they play with doing it.

In most corporate cultures that I’ve visited over the last 20 years, there’s a lot of seriousness and analytics – and not much fun. They’re making progress, but much of that progress feels like a death march. (See my review of Play for more on how play is valuable.)


Simon Sinek has a favorite question inspired by a small child. The master question is “why?” Why do we do what we do? What is our purpose, and why is that? Why do we want to change the world? He explains that “what” without “why” is meaningless – and I agree. Too many people (and organizations) are plodding along in their lives (and industries) without a clear sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing. (See Start with Why for more on Sinek’s views on the ever important question.)

People will say that they’re working for a paycheck. How boring is that? Wouldn’t it be better to work for something you’re passionate about and for the company to pay you for that passion? Isn’t pay better when it’s the second (or third or fourth) consideration rather than the first? Even jobs that are seemingly not connected can be positions of importance.

Consider the sanitation worker at a Disney park. They’re sweeping up garbage and at the same time helping guests have their memorable vacation. The brick layer can either be toiling away in the sun or building a cathedral. One is working for money. The other is working for a purpose.

Creative and innovative teams have a passion for doing something important. They have a unifying purpose that drives them toward challenging the status quo and trying to make a difference. That passion makes them believe that the risks are worth it – lowering their need for safety.


Passion is often seen as the fuel behind innovation – and it is. However, fuel doesn’t always lead to the right results. Gasoline in an internal combustion engine creates thousands of micro-explosions per minute. The same fuel used in an uncontrolled way just creates an explosion. By ensuring that everyone in your organization can feel safe, you allow for the controlled and constructive release of their passion.

Passion may be the innovation fuel, but the real trick is allowing it to accomplish something useful in your organization.

How Do You See God?

Kin-to-Kid Connection: How Do You See God?

Parents of teens often don’t see how their faith or lack of faith shapes what their children see.  Nor do they recognize some of the hidden messages they picked up as children.  How you see God can shape how you and your children interact. In this talk, “How Do You See God?”, we take a look at the biblical definitions of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, so you can see God for what he is.

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