Book Review-I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”

I’ve read much of Brené Brown’s work, but it wasn’t until I read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” that I made it back to the beginning. I had previously commented in my review of The Gifts of Imperfection that I was reading her work in non-sequential order and how that can sometimes be disorienting. I had already read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (my review is split into part 1 and part 2). Despite having read some of Brown’s later work and some of the references she uses, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) still had things to teach and remind me.

As a sidebar, the book was initially self-published by Brown in 2004 with the title Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths, & Building Connections. It was 2007 when Penguin bought the rights and released it with this title. I’ve taken some of Brown’s work here, put it together with pieces from other resources, and created a shame map:

Shame Researcher

Brown frequently describes herself as a shame researcher; that is, she seeks to understand shame. Along the way, she’s clarified that guilt is someone feeling that they’ve done something bad, and shame is a separate emotion where people believe they are bad. Brown believes that shame separates us from one another, and it’s this separation that makes shame so particularly toxic to our being.

Shame is a self-sealing proposition. As shame disconnects and silences us, our shame becomes a secret, and secrets are where our mental sickness festers. The challenge with shame is the feeling itself makes it unsafe for us to share the shame with others. It erodes our trust in ourselves and others.

Beyond the definition of shame and cataloging experiences of shame she has sought to identify those skills and temperaments that make folks more resistant to shame and there by to live a happier and healthier life.

Connection

Before we can confront shame for what it is, we must acknowledge the truth that life is about connection. We’re inherently social creatures. We’ve been designed to be in community, and we experience psychological pain when we’re isolated and removed from every kind of human connection. Loneliness explains the lack of connection and how it differs from the physical state of being alone. The Dance of Connection speaks about the need for and the way to get connection. Dr. Cloud describes the need for connection – and healthy connection – in The Power of the Other as being core to our human condition.

When we accept that connection is essential to our human condition we can realize that shame has the power to separate us from others through our fear. If we ourselves believe that we’re bad and therefore unworthy of connection, isn’t it realistic to expect that others will believe that we’re not worthy of connecting to? That’s our ultimate fear: that we’ll be excluded from the group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on exclusion.)

Fear

I attribute most of my shame resilience to stealing fear as a basic component from it. It was years and years ago when I decided that I wouldn’t live in fear. I’m not saying that I won’t be afraid, everyone experiences fear from time to time. What I’m saying is that I made a conscious decision to not live in fear. If that meant that I made financial choices so that I wasn’t in debt, and the consequences were a beat-up car, a small house, and modest clothes – then that’s what it meant. I realized that my first concern was going to be not allowing fear to build a stronghold in my life.

Over the years, as people have attempted to shame me, I’ve resisted, in part because I refused to accept the fear of disconnection. I would confront the fears directly and speak with people about what was real and what wasn’t real. I’d use my friends like a GPS system to triangulate my real position. (See Where Are You, Where are You Going, But More Importantly, How Fast Are You Moving? for more on this idea.)

Fear is an essential component for shame, and without it, it’s like starving a fire of oxygen. Eventually, it will go out. Not immediately, not without a fight, but eventually it will yield.

Courage

Courage comes from the Latin root word cor, which is “heart.” In its earliest forms, courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” We’ve lost this definition with our focus on courageous acts, which are framed around charging into burning buildings and taking great personal risk (altruism). However, courage in its purest sense is the ability to work through the fear of being rejected for who you are to defend people or ideals that you hold dear. (Look here if you want to get clear on the distinctions between Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.)

Notice that courage requires fear. You can’t be courageous without vulnerability – and thus some fear. Vulnerability comes in the ability to be hurt. Without vulnerability, there is no fear and no courage.

Vulnerability

Why would anyone want to allow harm to – possibly – come to them? What possible motivation could someone have to become vulnerable? In a word: connection. Without vulnerability, there is no connection. Without our ability to share an unvarnished, unprotected part of ourselves, there’s no way that someone can get close to us. Wearing a suit of impenetrable armor also makes it impossible for someone to touch you – to connect with you.

Vulnerability in our relationships with others isn’t a binary thing. We don’t one day wake up and say to ourselves, “Today is vulnerability day.” Instead, we choose how much we share with others, how much we let them in and let them see us, warts and all. Often, we do this slowly, as we send over little test balloons. He might not like me if he realizes I’m saddled with debt, so maybe I can whine about my car payment and see how he reacts. She thinks that I have my act together. I wonder how she’d react if she knew I’d been in counseling for depression for years. Maybe I can suggest drinks at that bar “right next to the counseling center” and see what happens.

As we are vulnerable and aren’t attacked, we can open up to more to places and ideas that we’ve not yet broached. Each bid for connection – another way of thinking about being vulnerable – that is met with a positive response opens us up for more. (See The Science of Trust for more about bids for connection.)

Vulnerability may have a purpose and a need, but that still doesn’t make it easy. The process of being vulnerable to build trust takes time to build and a moment to lose.

Perceived Safety

In walking around in cities that I don’t know, I’ve probably walked into neighborhoods that I wasn’t really safe in. I probably shouldn’t have been there alone – or there at all. However, in most cases I felt fine. I was being vigilant about my surroundings, and things were fine. The funny thing is that one of the places that I can remember feeling the least safe was in downtown Manhattan. I couldn’t tell you where exactly I was, but I can remember the thing that triggered the feeling. It was the graffiti on the steel, roll-down doors on the shops.

Intellectually, I knew that there were uniformed officers a block away, leisurely chatting. They weren’t actively or intently scanning their environment. They seemed pleased that they had received such an easy assignment. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t safe. I started processing the fact that these shops needed these steel doors. I started to process the bravado required to mark the doors. I had fallen for what Malcom Gladwell described in Blink as “broken windows.”

There are times when we feel safe when we are not – and distinctly, there are times when the opposite is true. When it comes to our willingness to be vulnerable – our willingness to walk into a new neighborhood – it’s our perception of safety that is important. Strangely, our perception of safety may have been shaped years ago in our childhood. How Children Succeed explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, and how if you were exposed to adverse childhood events, you’ll be more cautious and reserved as an adult. You’ll be predisposed to not be vulnerable, because your perception of safety will be lower than most people.

Conversely, people who have a high degree of inner safety – which they had to develop – will take risks that no sane person should. (I may resemble this remark at times.) For these folks, there’s very little reason to spend energy protecting themselves, because they don’t believe they can be harmed – they don’t perceive their safety to be in jeopardy.

Clearly, there’s a balance here. You can’t have your set point for safety set too high, or you’ll step out in front of a beer truck and get flattened; but being so afraid that you can’t leave your home is also dysfunctional. We need to have enough safety to be vulnerable in a world with sympathy suckers.

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

Sympathy is about separation. It’s an acknowledgement that things look bad – for you. The person who throws the blow-out pity party of the year is looking for someone to acknowledge their pain. That’s fine – as long as they, at the same time, don’t insist that you can’t understand. If you want someone to come alongside of you and invest themselves in your experience, you can’t tell them that they’ll never get there or, worse, make it impossible for them to get there.

Sympathy suckers want the energy associated with sympathy and don’t realize that it’s not a connection. It’s pity. The result isn’t two people getting closer together, it’s two people getting farther apart. A healthier approach is to seek and accept empathy. This is a simple expression of “I understand this about you.” It isn’t to say that one person understands everything about the other. It’s simply that there’s an aspect of your experience that I understand. I’ve never lost a child, but I’ve lost a brother, and I can use that tragic event to connect with others who’ve experienced a loss of someone close to them. I can demonstrate my compassion through my attempt to experience my own pain again, so that I can understand more of them and seek to find a way to alleviate their suffering in some small way.

You can find out more about my perspective on Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism in my post.

Bad Labels

The research on labeling, and how the labels that we apply to others and to ourselves shapes our behavior in subtle but persistent ways, is well-replicated. When students are labeled bad by their teacher (or administration), they do more poorly. When people label themselves as stupid, dumb, or incapable, they inevitably become this. (See Mindset for more on labeling.) Whether you believe that you can succeed or that you will surely fail, you’re right. However, you’re right not because of your skill, but rather because of the label that you apply to yourself.

One of the challenges with shame is the possibility that it will clue on to you your worst moments. Somehow your shame defines you by the moment that you were weak or at your worst and fails to recognize that this isn’t the whole picture. We are – none of us – one moment in time or one decision. We’re a series of good – and bad – decisions.

A healthy act of shame resistance is to resist being defined by our worst moments. We can – and should – acknowledge that it happened, that it was bad, make restitution, reform ourselves, and so on. I’m not minimizing the need to address the consequences of the action or inaction. Rather, we should not be defined by that moment. We should refuse to be labeled as a thief (and a no good) because of one incident. We shouldn’t label ourselves as insensitive when we missed the tear in the eye of a loved one. We can be compassionate and have times where we’ve lacked compassion.

Caregiving

It can be absolutely exhausting. Caring for another human being can take its physical toll on you. However, this feeling pales in comparison to the emotional exhaustion that many caregivers experience. The warm glow from the comments of friends fades, as you don’t have time for yourself and can’t make it to see them, because you’re too busy taking care of someone. The feeling of joy for being able to take care of someone when they need it is overtaken by bitterness and resentment, as you realize that you may be saving or helping their lives at the seeming expense of your own.

Slowly, the thought creeps in. What would it be like if this person died? What if I didn’t have to sacrifice my life for theirs any longer? And the thought starts to linger longer and longer. However, the thought itself seems shameful. What kind of a monster am I? What kind of a person would want someone they loved to die just so they can spend more time with friends? Why can’t I just suck it up and accept my fate?

The problem is that this perspective – shame – fails to realize that this is a normal response to exhaustion. The conclusion isn’t the right one, but the path that’s being walked makes sense. It’s a sign that you’re overburdened – not that you’re a monster. However, shame won’t let you see this. You’re supposed to be the perfect father or mother or relative. You’re supposed to be able to handle this on your own. You don’t need tights and a cape, but you’re supposed to be super.

If you’re in this situation, I know it’s tough. The difficult challenge is how to get the support you need to not become exhausted. It’s difficult when your siblings won’t help to take care of your aging parents and refuse to find them care, because it’s too expensive. They want to control the decision making – or influence it – but they’re unwilling to come support you while you’re supporting your parents. The answer – though it’s hard – is to stand your ground and insist that you need to be able to take care of yourself, your family, and your life too.

Peak Perfection

I’m always amazed at how put together other people appear. Whether it’s your favorite musician or the TV star or the celebrity, it seems like their life is right. From the outside looking in, everything seems perfect – until it isn’t. It takes a toll. Projecting the image that you’re perfect when you’re not is hard. You’re always considering what you have to say and where you need to be, what you need to wear, and what you need to drive.

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to believe that you must be put together. It’s hard to hide the gambling addiction or the liver problems caused by drinking too much too often. Preachers hide their marital trouble from the congregation. Politicians hide their financial problems from their constituents. The mayor is worried how long it will be until the town finds out about how much he’s been drinking.

Perfection takes work – and a bit of careful editing. How many takes happen before your favorite action thriller’s scene is done correctly? Two or three? Or thirty? How much work is put into hiding the mistakes and making the best take seem perfect? It’s not reality that anyone’s perfect. No one can be perfect, but in our highly edited society, we believe that it’s possible.

The problem is that no one has that kind of energy. No one can be all things to all people at all times. If we’re unable to allow ourselves to be real and vulnerable, then we’ll end up feeling lonely inside and shame has won. We silently condemn ourselves for not reaching the perfection we seek without consciously realizing that it’s an impossible goal.

Need for Learning

The understanding that perfection is an illusion isn’t an opportunity to sit back and do nothing. We need to learn from our mistakes, and we need others who are willing to do the same. We need to find ways to grow that are real. We’re not trying to be perfect, but we’re striving to be better. One of the amazing things about humans, both individually and collectively, is our capacity to become more than what we are.

The best way to do this is to learn from our trials and failures. The more willing we’re able to stare into the places that we haven’t done well and examine what happened, the more we can figure out how to do better. We become the best possible version of ourselves through our learning.

Multifaceted

When you meet someone at work or in a community club or a kid’s activity, you associate them with that one thing that you know them for. However, everyone is more complex than the one view that we see them through. They’re more than the stereotypical soccer mom. They’re more than the corporate executive. Everyone of us has facets to our life that others don’t see. While it’s normal for us to seek to simplify other people into categories, it’s equally frustrating.

People need simple, but I spent my whole life building this complexity. For me, my interests are so diverse that people struggle to put me into a box. They don’t understand embedded systems programming and multithreaded technical detail with an interest in information architecture or psychology or user adoption. These facets of my personality – my me – seem incompatible. It’s frustrating to try to explain the interests and the passions and to have folks not understand.

People wonder how you get anything done with so many diverse interests. The question lingering in the minds of folks is how can both be true? How can all of it be true? I can tell them that the answer is hard work and dedication, but that’s not an answer that they can hear. It’s easier to find a single-dimensional view of others – of me – even if it minimizes others to cardboard cutouts, even if it means that you miss their richness.

Disconnected from Ourselves

The saddest thing about shame is the way that it disconnects us from ourselves. It causes us to focus on one facet of who we are, judge it, and disconnect with others, but we also lose the richness of our understanding of ourselves for the single-faceted focus. It seems like it should be easy to know yourself. It seems like you should be able to just know who you are, what you like, and what will make you happy. However, Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness that we don’t know what will make us happy. Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow point out that we’re not one commander at the helm of the ship of our lives, we’re two. We’re the emotional elephant with pattern recognition and the rational rider trying to justify and explain the decisions made by the elephant. Dan Aisley points out that we’re Predictably Irrational – but we don’t know it’s so. Eagleman shows us how our brains lie to us in Incognito.

All of this is to say that, though understanding ourselves may seem easy on the surface, it’s perhaps the hardest thing we’ll ever do – and the most rewarding.

Strength from Weakness

In the end, the way to conquer shame is to become weak. The path to victory runs through the forest of defeat. The way to connect is to realize that, even though I Thought It was Just Me, it isn’t.

Book Review-Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness

Our human lives are filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We face a variety of threats that we can see and those we cannot. Living in this world can make you aware of your need to become resilient. Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness shows you how to move closer to being undisturbed when the challenges of life come your way – as they invariably will.

This isn’t the first book of Rick Hanson’s that I’ve read. The last time I was introduced to his work was through Hardwiring Happiness. While Hardwiring Happiness was focused on accentuating the good parts of life, the focus in Resilient is how to weather the storms of life. Much like you’d prepare for a storm in the real world, Hanson explains how to weather the emotional and thinking storms that come through life.

Grit

My previous readings on resilience include Angela Duckman’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Martin Meadows’ Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up, and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Thinks that Gain from Disorder. The first two describe grit as a sort of power or characteristic that people leverage towards their goals. The third explains that things can either be reduced or increased because of strain. There is post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth as well.

Certainly, these cover aspects of the same topic that Hanson addresses with Resilient – but there’s a radically different approach. Where there is a force behind grit and being antifragile, there’s a peace behind resilience. Instead of having the strength to overpower the storms as in karate, resilience simply defects the slings and arrows of life. It’s not that you don’t need the skills that are shared in Duckman’s Grit, Meadows’ Grit, and Antifragile, it’s just that they’re not enough. You must know who you are and what you stand for.

Stable Core

I first wrote of centering and the ability to weather storms in my review of Dialogue. I revisited it in a post on How to Be Yourself. However, the topic of having a clear understanding of who you are shows up as the need for an integrated self-image in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control,
Beyond Boundaries, and The Power of Other.

In the inner game of dialogue, this concept is described as centeredness. Dialogue quotes Richard Moon, an aikido master, as saying that it’s not that the great masters of aikido don’t lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover it faster than novices. Resilience flows from this centeredness, from this stable core, like water from a spring.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is often thought of as sitting crossed-legged on a mat, chanting some simple word or sound repeatedly. While this can be mindful, it’s not close to the root of what mindfulness seeks to surface. Mindfulness is being able to tend to what is actually happening here and now, both inside and outside of your body – without unnecessary judgement or reaction. Mindfulness is being present – but exactly what being present is seems elusive.

Most of the time, we’re only peripherally aware of what is happening around us. Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice describes filtering as the basic function of consciousness. We’d never be able to function if we were consciously processing everything happening around us. Being mindful is learning to look at the filter and tune it differently. At any given moment, you’re being bombarded with internal functions like breathing rate, heart rate, temperature regulation, and muscle status. We pay attention only to a small part of these, because to pay attention to everything would be exhausting.

Being mindful is like being able to shine a light into the darkness that we rarely see. It’s a way to illuminate the inner world of ourselves – and the outer world of other.

Reality

Being mindful helps us to accept reality as it is – not as we want it to be. People who are mindful are willing to challenge their assumptions about the world and examine how their expectations of the world and the actual functioning of the world don’t match. Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t how we do mental simulations, and when our mental models’ expectations are violated, how we need to reevaluate them and the decisions we’ve made based on the false expectations.

One of the challenge of resilience is being aware of and accepting reality no matter what it looks like. We may not like reality, particularly when it clashes with our perception, but if our perception and reality differ, it’s our perception that must change. The sooner we can see that our perception doesn’t match reality and accept that it does not, the sooner we can begin to adjust our perception and bring it into alignment with reality.

By being aware and accepting of reality, we are less caught off guard when our perception clashes negatively with reality.

Detachment

One of the concepts in Buddhist tradition is the concept of detachment. That is, one should not get wrapped up in anything too tightly. This is particularly true of our perceptions. If we get too wrapped up in the idea that the way we see the world is the way the world really is, we become blind to the possibility that we’re wrong, with often tragic consequences.

Too often, we become attached to the outcomes. We expect life to react like a formula, where if we do our three steps, we should receive the reward of the outcome we would like. The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t the case. The world is much more probabilistic than we would like to believe. (See The Halo Effect.) We aren’t as great as we would like to believe ourselves to be. There are no guarantees in life. The more we become attached to the outcomes, the harder it is to become resilient. The more we disconnect from the outcomes and accept that we did the best we can regardless of the outcomes, the more resilient we become.

The truth is that we only have control of our behaviors and what we put out in the world. We make the offering, and others must either take or leave that offering based on where they are and what they’re capable of. Sometimes, what we do and what others do plus the influence of non-human actors will result in success – and other times it will end in failure. Where it lands, we don’t control. That’s why we need to be detached from the outcomes.

Second Darts (and Neo)

My favorite movie scene is from The Matrix, when Neo stops the bullets, picks one out of the air, looks at it, and drops it. It’s for me an understanding that others can fire bullets or throw daggers at you, but you don’t have to accept them. Resilient tells the story of two darts from Buddha: “The first dart is unavoidable physical or emotional discomfort and pain: a headache, the cramping of stomach flu, the sadness at losing a friend, the shock at being unfairly attacked in a meeting at work. The second dart is the one we throw ourselves, adding unnecessary reactions to the conditions of life and its occasional first darts.” In other words, the pain that is caused sometimes has as much to do with our reaction as it did with the original pain or discomfort.

With detachment and the ability to stand outside of the situation and watch it happen like it was playing on a movie screen, we get the ability to not inflict pain on ourselves or others just because someone or something is trying to inflict pain on us.

Finding Fear

That’s easy to say when you’re not in fear. It’s easy to say when you don’t feel your pulse quickening and your face flushing with higher blood pressure; but how do you get there? The answer is in the math equation that’s done to determine whether fear is warranted. It’s not math exactly, but there is an evaluation that happens. Is the perceived threat greater than the resources that I have available to deal with the threat? The more resources you perceive yourself to have, the less likely you are to believe that the threat will exceed your capacity, and therefore the less likely you will be in fear.

I mentioned in my reviews of Mindset and Choice Theory the idea that some eastern philosophies understand anger is disappointment directed. Fear is similar – but slightly more complicated – in that it’s the perception of threat as compared to the perception of resources. You can reduce fear by reducing the perceived threat – which is particularly difficult to do – or you can increase your perceived resources.

Resources can come in the form of research and meditation, or it can come in the form of the support system of people that you are in relationship with. You can develop resources through internal work or by getting into more and deeper relationships with other people.

Compassion for Yourself

Ultimately, to be resilient, you may find that you need to build your resources, and the best way to do that is to extend to yourself the same compassion that you would extend to others. You can learn to accept that you’re not perfect. You can learn to have loving kindness for yourself as well as others.

You may find that having compassion for yourself is easier when you extend compassion to others, but having compassion for the suffering of others is often insufficient to allow for compassion for yourself. Resilience isn’t failing to bend when the wind comes, rather resilience is bending without breaking.

One first step towards compassion for yourself might be in finding ways to reduce your fear by resourcing yourself. Reading Resilience will give you a set of resources to avoid fear and have compassion for others as well as yourself.

Book Review-An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

A friend, mentor, and manager of mine once relayed a conversation that he had with the HR manager at our company. The HR manager said that you couldn’t change the stripes on a tiger but – in a sense – this was exactly what my friend was trying to do. He wasn’t content with people where they were. He wanted people to grow and change and become the best possible versions of themselves, even if it was painful, as it often was. He was ahead of his time in trying to carve out his corner of the larger organization and make it deliberately developmental for every team member.

Nancy Dixon and I began a conversation years ago at a KMWorld event. Since then, there has been the passage of time and only a few powerful conversations. When she heard some of the work that I was doing in teaching people how to listen better and how to resolve conflict, she encouraged me to read An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. As I suspected, it was a good book. It helped to bring into focus some of the things that I had been working with clients to create in their organizations.

Too Many Ideas So Little Time

I’ve been making a concerted effort to be more judicious with what I cover in my book reviews. I recognize that reading a 7,000-word post is like reading a half a chapter of a book – so I’ve been breaking them down. This one got broken into a series of posts that have already made it to the blog. The triggering moment for five posts came from An Everyone Culture.

That isn’t to say that all the content in these posts came from An Everyone Culture. It sparked the thoughts and the need for me to capture and relate my experience in a way that others could capture as well.

Weakness Is Strength

There’s an interesting paradox in our weakness. It’s our weakness that gives us strength. It’s our weakness that demonstrates our perceived safety and our ability to grow.

When we were growing up in the proverbial school yard, exposing our weakness was sure to result in being called out for that weakness at some point. We were powerless to avoid harm when the words hurt us as much as the sticks and stones. We learned not to be weak for fear of being harmed.

However, there’s another framework from which we can expose our weaknesses. If we know that, no matter what happens, we’ll not be harmed, there’s no reason to hide our weakness. It’s not really hiding our weaknesses that is our goal. Instead, our goal is to avoid hurt. If you can’t get hurt by someone by them knowing your weakness, why hide it?

Consider for a moment the power of a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. The greatest addictive weakness is known to everyone in the group. The check-in practice all but requires it. Simply showing up is a relatively clear indication. Yet this greatest weakness is safe with the rest of the group, because they share the same weakness and therefore can’t harm you with the knowledge. (Though this is not technically true, it feels this way.) The reason that it’s an anonymous group is so that people can’t take the information to people outside the group who might harm you with it. (See Why and How 12-Step Programs Work for more on this powerful tool that addicts – and non-addicts – use to elevate their lives.)

To be able to expose your weaknesses with a broad audience makes you powerful, because it means that your weakness can’t be used to hurt you – or at least it’s hard to use them to hurt you and requires malicious intent, which fortunately most people don’t possess. To get to this point, you must feel safe with the knowledge of sharing.

Safety

Safety is an illusion. We believe that flying in a plane isn’t safe. It’s scary. We believe that driving or riding in cars is safe. The problem is that we have these precisely backwards. Cars kill many more people than airplane accidents, but airplane accidents make the news, and car accidents rarely do. We rely on the What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) and assess that planes are less safe than cars when the opposite is true. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on WYSIATI.)

Consider a move to a perfectly middle-class neighborhood. In this fictitious place of Normalville, everything is at the statistical mean – schools, crime, everything. Whether you consider this place a safe place to raise your family will be assessed against your current situation. Is your current neighborhood a high-safety place or a low-safety place? If you’re used to a gated community with a Barney Fife-type security guard driving around the neighborhood, you’ll find the transition to Normalville very unsafe. Conversely, if your last neighbors were a drug dealer and a pimp, both of whose clientele had a propensity for random and non-random shootings, your move would add amazing perceived safety.

Cultivating the perceived safety in our work environments comes from the development of trust. Trust that our coworkers have our best interests at heart. Trust that we can rely on them when we need help.

Trust

For me, when it comes down to how do you change and grow – whether as a child or as an adult – it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the folks who are trying to help you through the growth and change (even if this is just you)? If you do, there’s a chance for success, and if not, there may be better ways to spend your time. I’ve written extensively about trust, particularly in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.

Changing ourselves is possible. It’s possible to grow and change. Dweck’s work shows that a growth mindset is better than a fixed mindset (see Mindset). Knowing that we can change and trusting that the people around us are the ones to help us make that change aren’t the same thing. Organizations that want to be deliberately developmental must focus on trust as a critical ingredient for that growth, without it a great deal of energy will be spent without much in the way of results.

Burnout

Burnout has been a lifelong companion of mine. Sometimes I’m able to push it away for a week, a month, or a year, but eventually burnout comes back to catch up and remind me it’s there. Burnout is not, however, what most people believe it is. Burnout isn’t overwork. Burnout isn’t trying too hard. Burnout is the result of not feeling like you’re changing anything. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Burnout tells you that nothing ever changes. (Del Amitri has a song that I always hear when I write about burnout titled “Nothing Ever Happens”.)

Burnout can surface in our personal lives – we’re never going to find that perfect person or our children are never going to learn those important lessons. Burnout can happen in our career – endless job opportunities appear to other people but not to us. Burnout can happen in our personal development – we’re making the same poor choices and getting the same poor results in our diets, our exercise routine, and our ability to control our anger and communicate our feelings to others.

The first feelings of burnout show as we start to put forth less energy into the things that we are – or at least were – passionate about. This initial appearance of burnout tentatively tries to take hold of your future – to cause you to change your direction.

Getting out of burnout isn’t always easy, but there are simple exercises – like exercise – that can help make it better. Physical activity is one way to help, as the physiological response is sometimes enough to help us escape a rut. For those, like myself, for whom exercise isn’t a pleasurable experience, there are other approaches as well.

The things that you focus on get bigger. If you focus on where you’re blocked in your growth, those blocks will seem bigger. Conversely, if you’re able to focus some thought on how things may be getting better – even if only slightly – you can help yourself out of the pit of burnout. (See Hardwiring Happiness for some more tips here about instilling happiness which helps relieve burnout.)

If you want to transform your organization into an organization that rejects burnout, perhaps you need to read An Everyone Culture.

Book Review-The Public Library: A Photographic Essay

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for libraries. They’re safe places where you can get lost and eventually become found. That’s why when a deal for purchasing The Public Library: A Photographic Essay crossed my path, I decided to pick it up and explore some diversity in public libraries. After all, even though there’s some consistency in the libraries that Carnegie helped to get started, there is a local flavor and character that can’t be captured by visiting just one or two libraries.

Road Trip

The book is the result of a set of road trips designed to visit and capture libraries in pictures. Much like my wife and I have made a point of touring and capturing lighthouses, this is the capture of libraries. While traveling from town to town with camera at the ready, the authors share the diversity of libraries across the US. From the tiny library boxes that grace neighborhoods – including mine – to the massive central libraries of large cities, The Public Library is a tour of the places that people can go to meet with others and elevate themselves through reading.

Reading

American’s reading time fell by 50 percent between 1925 and 1995. That’s a startling statistic that makes sense when considered in the context of our consumerism society, with radio, TV, and other options competing for our attention. However, the challenge is that a good reader can read at roughly three times the speed of the spoken word. In short, you can learn more in less time by reading than you can by watching even educational programming.

Reading books also combats the challenge of our interrupt-driven, no concentration, lack of deep thinking world that is emerging. Books demand our full attention where other activities rarely do. Libraries are designed to allow us to take full advantage of the ability to concentrate that books train us how to do.

Electrons and Atoms

One of the concerns about the library’s future came as books made the transition from their physical form to electronic form. There was a real concern that people would not come to the library to get a book, and that we’d transition to electronic books only. While electronic books are now outselling printed books – and have been for some time – traditional printed books are far from dead. There are still many people who prefer the feel of a book to the feel of an electronic book on a reader.

Libraries, as they often do, adapted to the change by developing mechanisms of sharing books on electronic readers. This allows patrons to share copies of electronic books like they might check out and use a physical book.

Death

Libraries are threatened with death on multiple fronts, as our entertainment options increase and concerns about continue about the transition to electronic books. Certainly, there are communities where libraries are dying – or are dead. The library hours become so constrained that they no longer adequately support the needs of the community and are eventually scuttled.

Libraries are not destined to die. They die when their communities cannot or will not commit the resources to support them. They die when the community can’t see the value that they provide – or that they’re unable to provide. It’s a sad state of affairs when a community abandons its library, because it can feel like it’s abandoning its most vulnerable population.

Equalizer

Libraries are the great equalizer. You’ll find the richest and the poorest together in one space enjoying the fruits that authors have created. Before the invention of the printing press, owning books was something people didn’t aspire to. The Bible was carefully (and sometimes erroneously) copied by hand. (See Misquoting Jesus for more on transcription errors.) Over time, owning books moved from royalty, to nobles, to the wealthy, and finally to the common man. However, even with books getting substantially cheaper, owning your own collection of books is an expensive proposition.

Interestingly, most people don’t read books more than once. They read the book and capture the story or the idea and then set the book aside forever. There’s little value in maintaining ownership. It’s this relatively low-use time that makes books ideal for sharing and the idea of a library one that makes sense.

Some libraries have extended this idea to tools, DVDs, and other resources that aren’t the traditional space of libraries, but they serve the same purpose. They allow many to receive the benefit of the resources that are owned in a shared collective. They remove the separation between those that can afford the tools – including tools of the mind, books – and those that cannot.

Community

Libraries are one of the last non-commercial and non-religious places available to a community. They provide space for people to meet – and sometimes to just get out of the cold or hot weather. They’re places that create the conditions for community. Whether the library provides space for a Pokémon group, a computer club, or another meetup, it helps to strengthen the roots of the community. If you want to understand the roots of the community, it may be that the way to find it is by looking at the dead trees that occupy the bookshelves. It may be that your next step is into The Public Library in the form of a photographic essay.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Book Review-Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Doubt is a natural and healthy part of the human experience so when Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson crossed my path, I was intrigued. What could I learn about doubt?

The great irony of the book is that it is a history of atheism but one that reaffirmed my faith. Doubt is focused on religious doubt but along the way showed a pattern of even the doubters disagreeing with one another. How can I accept that one of the doubters is right about their doubt if the doubters can’t agree with each other about how or why God doesn’t exist?

What is God?

Humans have been trying to make sense of the world around them and the causes for things since we began to walk upright, if not before. (See Man’s Search for Meaning to see Viktor Frankl’s perspective that meaning is the primary drive of life.) We have been seeking a way to better control our lives and our fates through appeal to powerful beings who could intervene on our behalf. The view of what these powers are has varied culturally, from the polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks to the more modern monotheistic belief in one all-powerful God.

Monotheism finds its roots in Judaism. Once God gave Abraham instruction to kill his son, and before he faithfully carried out God’s command, God intervened. Abraham and his wife then filled the planet with their descendants. (Or so the story goes.) This gave rise to Judaism, which in turn gave rise to Christianity. Jesus put a new spin on the old religion, recasting God as a loving father instead of a vengeful and angry God.

Muslims, too, owe their God to the God of the Jews. Mohammad saw himself as the last in a line of prophets, from Moses to Jesus and finally to him. Of course, today we tend to see Islam as a separate religion, but the roots and heritage are the same.

Not all religions can trace their roots to Judaism. Hinduism has a polytheistic approach like the ancient Greeks, with gods having power over different aspects of life. Buddhism doesn’t have a god as such. The approach here is simply to view the next stage in evolution as a higher place, where we’re disconnected from the encumbrances of our lives.

There are as many views of what God is as there are grains of sand on a beach. However, folks generally fall into the preceding handful of categories. See this pie chart of the various religions:

Disbelief “Proofs”

There have been various ideas of God over the eons of our time on Earth, and so too have there been various ideas about why there cannot be a god or why our conception of God must be wrong. A few of the recurring themes in the history of doubt are:

  • God is the universe/world – This model doesn’t accept that there is a separate entity called “God,” but rather says that there is a universal force in the universe.
  • God logically can’t exist – The proofs offered are different, but they often hinge on the question of who God’s creator is. Since we have no frame of reference for a being that wasn’t created, we assume that this cannot be.
  • God is irrelevant – God is unconcerned with the lives of humans, and the presence or lack of presence of a god is irrelevant to our lives.
  • God is cruel – Why would someone worship a god who has left the world with so much suffering?
  • God was invented to keep people in check – Many of God’s structures seemed be to keep the people in check.

Certainly, there are more variants of the challenges to God’s existence; however, the general idea is that, using our rational thinking and logic, we establish – or fail to establish – a mechanism by which God exists.

Bread and Circuses

The Roman Empire was powerful in its time and strange in its longevity. Some of this is surely due to the times they were in and some to their military presence, but at least some of the reason why the Roman Empire was so successful had to do with how they managed the citizenship. Citizenship was a responsibility. It was something that people could look up to being a part of. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on how membership might change perspectives.)

However, the real genius may have been what has been labeled as “bread and circuses.” The bread component is the ability for everyone to meet their basic needs – including, of course, food. This means that, for most, there was enough to eat to sustain themselves. Having your basic necessities met leads to a lower level of angst. It was thousands of years before we discovered how our basic disposition changes when we’re not well fed. (See The One Thing, Willpower, and Predictably Irrational for more on the impact of low blood sugar on decision-making.) Augustus seemed to know empirically that food was a baseline that must be met.

Circuses is a proxy for entertainment. There were grand spectacles that kept people connected to the magic of the empire. They had their basic needs met, and they got regular entertainment. What else could anyone want? It turns out the answer might be fulfillment.

In Drive, Daniel Pink explains what motivates us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Richard Florida makes a point that, today, we’re seeing the rise of a creative class, where these motivators are strengthened. However, the drivers have always been there behind the scenes, pulling us towards a different way of motivation. Once our basic needs are met, the next thing we want to do is to meet these higher needs. Strangely, in the times of the Roman Empire, we may have found that folks had a great degree of autonomy and felt a great degree of mastery. The missing component was purpose.

If your life is an endless struggle for survival, and each season seems like the next, you’ll start looking for purpose. (See When – also by Daniel Pink – to understand how we created the concept of time to break the monotony.) We’re hardwired as humans to try to make sense of our surroundings. (See Incognito for more on the way we’re wired to make sense of things.)

Religion is a way to make sense out of our world. It’s a way to ascribe meaning to the things that happen to us, even when some of those meanings are painful for us.

Crime and Punishment

One view of God is that He’s just, and therefore anyone who is suffering deserves it. That is, they’re being punished for something they did – or didn’t – do. This is an awful burden to place upon someone who has fallen victim to misfortune. If you lose a brother, it must be because you did something wrong. If you’re sick, you must not have said your prayers. Or perhaps you had too little faith.

This view of God is inconsistent with the literal meaning contained in the Bible – but that doesn’t matter when you’re unable to read. See Faith, Hope, and Love for more on what these really mean – and why it doesn’t mean that you’ve done wrong.

One view is that God was created to keep those who are less fortunate shrouded in shame. In this way, they can be perpetually kept down. (See Daring Greatly for more on shame and its power.)

Karma and Castes

Transitioning from Christianity to Hinduism, there are signs pointing to the fact that the idea of karma was designed to keep the caste system in place. The caste system places people into different strata in society. The idea is that you have a station in life that you should keep.

Karma holds the system in place by helping to explain that you are responsible for your “lot in life.” That is, you must have done something bad in a past life if you find yourself in a lower caste, or something good if you happen to find yourself in a higher caste. Suddenly, there’s an explanation for your bad – or good – luck in life, and it’s you.

It’s not hard to see how one could hold the position that religion is created by the ruling class to keep the working classes down.

Lenin Read a Book of Marx

Marx, a famous atheist, believed that religion was “the opiate of the masses.” That is, it served to dull the pain of a life of struggle. Instead of being to control, Marx believed it served to mollify people. It’s the answer to what bread and circuses couldn’t do. In a great sense of irony, Marxism took on many of the characteristics of a religion. Instead of a religion that had a god, Marxism had a belief that there was no god and no reason to worship anyone. He began an attack on religion.

Lenin liked Marxism but disagreed about religion being bad. Lenin saw no need to immediately remove religion. It was serving a purpose. In his grand plan, religion wouldn’t be necessary any longer; but until the fruition of the plan, there was little reason to rock the boat. Once peoples’ lives were better, they would no longer need the support of religion.

In a ironic twist, most religions have components of helping out your fellow man. What Marx and Lenin wanted to do was have the community or the state do what most religions said they were supposed to be doing.

Morality and the Afterlife

The start of religion concerned itself only with what was going on in this life. It was some time before the idea of an afterlife came into wide acceptance. Many of the “doubters” were concerned not with whether they believed in a god as most religions defined them, but rather what would happen in the absence of the concept of a god. How would individual power of kings and leaders be limited if there wasn’t a higher authority to which people could appeal their case?

Morality is a tricky topic. Haidt seems to have isolated six foundations of morality, as he describes in The Righteous Mind. Bandura speaks volumes about how morality can be disengaged in Moral Disengagement. Milgram’s experiments showed that, with very tiny nudges, most people – good, decent people – could be encouraged to give what they believed were lethal shocks. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more.) It’s no surprise that early philosophers were concerned what would happen if they “killed God” in the service of reason. What happens to morality when you remove its moorings?

With the introduction of an idea that there was something beyond this life, comfort was offered to those losing loved ones, people were more likely to sacrifice themselves for others, and there was a place and time for consequences – both positive and negative – for the decisions made now. The afterlife – or what happens after life – was a good addition to religion, both in terms of easing suffering and in terms of increasing the hold of morality.

The Narrow Gate and the Middle Way

Buddha recommended the Middle Way between self-indulgence and abnegation. Jesus explained, “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13). For Buddha’s part, he said that it was as narrow as a razor’s edge – one must be vigilant against the seductions of either tendency. Jesus’ call was for others to follow him, and in this call is the complexity of what to do is answered by the question now found on bracelets: “What Would Jesus Do?” – or, simply, WWJD. Both calls are about finding the path where indulgence doesn’t rule, but there’s no self-harm through denial of basic needs.

In many cases, organized religion has attempted to simplify the message to a set of rules that can be followed rather than a set of guiding principles. We know from leadership research into excellence that getting everyone aligned around guiding principles is substantially more effective than legislating every action and thought that every person should have.

Even the army recognizes that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. It may be useful to do the planning exercise, but “commander’s intent” is now included with orders. (See Made to Stick for more on this.) Religion may have run aground on the sandbar of rules instead of being guided by purpose.

Failures of Religion

It doesn’t take a scholar to find where religions have failed us. It doesn’t require much work to find priests and ministers having “inappropriate relationships.” It’s not hard to overhear a Jew and a Catholic having a competition about which religion is better at inflicting shame and guilt on its members. At every level, there are places where religion – as a human institution – has failed. I’ve been too close to churches who have shunned the spiritually wounded. I’ve been in the splash zone as people were shamed for their behaviors and their identity.

It seems pointless to enumerate the failures because they are so many. However, it’s these failures that the doubters latch on to. “If there is a god, how can they let this happen?” is a common cry of both believers and those filled with doubt. It’s a hard question that none of the proposed answers seem to satisfy.

Monopoly on Truth

Doubters – like religions – must have some degree of believing that they’ve got a monopoly on the truth. There’s a belief that you’ve figured it out, and the “others” got it wrong. At one level, this is our ego protecting us and our decisions. (See Change or Die.) However, understanding how we come by our belief that we’ve got the only right answer doesn’t make the consequences any less tragic.

The things that have been done in the name of religion are gruesome. Consider how the Protestants were massacred by a king to prevent a revolt – and how the Catholic Parisians extended the carnage to their fellow townsmen. Here, you have two religious groups who believe that Jesus came to save everyone from their sins. They disagreed with some of the church doctrine layered on Jesus’ teaching, but in most ways, they believed the same things. And in the end, three thousand were dead, because they didn’t believe in the church doctrine.

This is hardly an isolated occurrence in any religion. When we become convinced that we – and only we – know the answers, we become vulnerable to irrational rationalizations about how we’re right and others aren’t. For me, it’s important to realize that we all go through a growth process, from following the ideas of others, to being fluent in our understanding of them, and, finally, to detaching and recognizing that there are other views that should be considered as well. (See Following, Fluent, Detaching in Story Genius for more.)

Successes of Religion

Most of the philanthropy done is done in the name of religion. Certainly, religion harms people, but it gathers people together and rallies them for the common good – and a lot of good is done. Religion connects us to one another and helps us to align to a common set of goals. The pursuit of righteousness with God has shaped the moral fiber of many people. So even in its current imperfect state, the religions of the world seem to serve more than they take away from the experience of life.

Religion also comes with a set of rhythms and rituals that help bind us together. They help us to be better at that trick of mindreading (see Mindreading).

Wanting and Lacking

Among the doubters are those who have found the way. They learned how to not want anything – and therefore not feel as if they’re lacking anything. They realized that a change in their fundamental attitude was “all” it took to change their outlook on life. They realized, rather than comparing themselves to others through material things, that they could look at the world as owing them nothing. They could accept the blessings of the things that they had and not long for more – or different.

When you don’t want anything, then you don’t want for anything. When you don’t feel like you need things, then you don’t lack them. Certainly, there’s a need for basic necessities, but once you’re beyond those, what is it that you lack that you need? The answer is typically nothing.

The Fear of Pain

There’s a power to anticipation. While we may discount future gains when comparing them to current losses, we amplify the potential losses. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this asymmetry.) This evolutionary trick may have been helpful when the fears could result in death, but today, most of our pains are not fatal. Yet, there are a great many pains that we face that never really happen. They’re imaginations in our mind. They’re projections of stress that may never come to be. (For more on stress, see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He knew that there were far more worries in his head than things actually happening that were life threatening – or even truly troublesome. Tucked inside doubt is the awareness that sometimes the healthiest thing is to face fear and pain and move through it.

Consider a storm rolling across the plains. Some animals stand firm in their spot. They hunker down. Other animals move away from the rain and continue as it overtakes them. Other animals charge headlong into the turbulent weather. Which group of animals experiences the least amount of rain? Those animals who are willing (and able) to move into the storm are those who experience the least of it.

Great Awakening

Many doubters consider themselves to have had a great awakening. They believe that they figured out the great mystery of religion. Zen Buddhists believe “Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening.” That is, to really understand the world, you must have great doubt, great curiosity about what is real as opposed to the lie that our eyes and our brain tell us. (See Incognito for more on the lies our brain tells us.)

This mirrors trust. Our ability to truly trust is exposed when others are trustworthy. That is when our trust has been tested. Similarly, we can feel convinced of our great resolve of our faith only after we’ve been tested. It is for this reason that I believe that reading books like Doubt and Misquoting Jesus can help us to become more resolute in our faith.

God Is Love

It’s only fair that I share my beliefs about God and religion. Personally, I believe that every religion gets God wrong. I believe that it’s not possible for our finite and limited human condition to fully comprehend the wonder and majesty that is God. I do not believe in a disinterested God who does not care about us. Nor do I believe that he would like to know our latest tweets.

Many of the great doubters have held out the idea that there may be a god that is the universe. I believe this in that I believe that God is connected to all living things. I believe that God is love. God is the love the binds our human condition to each other. Love – or social cooperation – is what allowed us to succeed in a competitive environment where we have few assets. If you doubt me, perhaps you can develop faith through reading Doubt.

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

Book Review-The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

It was a wintery night, and I found myself in the emergency room with my son. I was madder than I remember ever being. I felt like someone who was supposed to protect him had failed him. They had failed to do what they knew would keep him safe and were forcing to him to endure needless pain. The battle for control in my mind was palpable. On the one hand, I wanted to yell, scream, and much worse, and on the other, I realized that I had to not do this, because releasing my frustration would only cause my son more – admittedly psychological – pain. My solution was odd – to say the least. To occupy my mind, to keep my executive function firmly engaged, I designed a home security system based on Raspberry Pi devices. I never intended to build it for real, but it was a sufficiently rich and complex puzzle that my executive function could remain fully engaged. I credit this exercise with my ability to – relatively speaking – retain my cool in an awful situation.

Miles away and years ago, Walter Mischel evaluated how children could hold out for two treats instead of the one that was visible to them. His test became known as the “marshmallow test” (since marshmallows were sometimes used as treats). Investigating the factors and strategies employed that would lead to gratification was interesting research – until it became instructive. Following up on the children, he discovered the paths of the children who delayed vs. those who couldn’t wait were radically different. This simple test had predictive powers for SAT scores and wages years downstream. Explaining the background, the findings, and what to do about them is what The Marshmallow Test is all about.

The Power of Self-Control

Imagine for a moment that I told you a simple genetic test could tell you what your weight would be like as an adult. Better yet, what if I could tell you how happy you would be as an adult? Would you be interested in taking the test – or having the test done for your children? Ignoring the concern for getting bad results, who wouldn’t want to be able to get a reasonably accurate idea of where our children will end up? Most of us would. That’s what the marshmallow test tells us. It points towards whether we’ll have a healthy, well-adapted life or a maladaptive one.

It’s important to say that the marshmallow test – or genetic tests for that matter – are indicative of a probable path. They’re predictive, not prescriptive. If you fail the marshmallow test, you’re not doomed. There are things that can be done to shape your future no matter what the test says – but we’ll get to that later.

It turns out that much of what we see as success in life is the result of good self-control. Our ability to appropriately manage our weight is numerous decisions about the right foods and the right amount of exercise. Our SAT score reflects our effort more than any inherent intelligence. (See Mindset for more.) The outcomes that the marshmallow test predicts are the outcomes from our ability to control our self and plan for the long term results we want for our life. Often this self-control is called willpower. (See Willpower for more on this view of self-control.)

The Influence of Trust

The invisible presence in the room that silently tipped the scales from right now into the future was trust. The more that the children trusted they would get the extra treat, the more they would be willing to wait. Their trust influenced their ability to wait – but what influenced their trust?

Some of the protocols for the tests were intentionally designed to create trust. Creating the opportunity for the child to call the researcher back in at any time was a simple indication that they would keep their word. However, the primary factors for whether or not they would trust the researcher reached well beyond the room. Fundamentally, children had different perspectives on trust. Those from one home – with both parents – might find that their world is filled with adults that keep their commitments. Those from single-parent homes have too much experience with adults who don’t keep their word to just blindly accept that adults will keep their word.

Trust – which leads to perceived safety – is what it takes to be vulnerable, but it is also what it takes to make a long-term bet, even if the long-term bet is 15 minutes. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) Trust and the way that it is expressed has substantial impact on organizations, cultures, and societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) It’s not that surprising that it might have a profound impact on children facing tough decisions about what to do about their sugary pleasures and how they viewed them.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

In the age of digital cameras, the idea of shaking a Polaroid picture is just ancient history for most. In the world of instant gratification, the Polaroid camera had the market locked in for pictures. The photo lab in a box was the staple when the pictures were needed right now – until digital cameras far outstripped them in ease of use, lower costs, and better image quality. While most people didn’t frame their polaroid pictures, changing a frame of reference can be powerful when you’re a child.

One of the powerful strategies used by children to allow them to delay their gratification was to think of the treat in front of them like it was only a picture of a treat. As one study child so aptly put it, “You can’t eat a picture.” The cognitive reframing from a treat that can be devoured to a simple abstract representation of what you’ll get was enough to cool their jets and help them wait it out until the researcher came back with their reward.

Changing the way of thinking about something – changing the frame – is enough to dramatically change the outcomes. Just as Milgram found in his experiments using adults to administer seemingly lethal shocks, small changes in the framing or power dynamics can change whether people are willing to seemingly kill someone they don’t know – or not. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more on Milgram’s work.) One way to control the framing is to ask yourself: what would someone else do?

What Would Jesus Do?

In the 1990s, bracelets and other items started popping up with the initials WWJD on them. It was a sort of inside joke and club handshake that Christians had. Without explanation, the WWJD bracelets looked like membership in a secret cult. With explanation, it was a simple – and effective – way to change behavior. WWJD was the reminder of the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” If there were a Bible story about this specific point in my life, how would Jesus respond? The idea is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then you should do the same behavior. If he’s the moral compass by which you evaluate your decisions, then why not make it more direct and just ask what would he do?

As a tool, it’s effective. You remove the emotional component, and you simply make a pre-decision about how you’ll respond. In this case, you’ll do whatever Jesus would do. However, pre-decisions can be more than just a decision to follow what someone else would do. They can be about how you want to respond and how you identify yourself.

Pre-Decisions

The battle that rages between our basial brain and our neocortex is one that is described by Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Johnathan Haidt explains it as the battle of wills between a rider and an elephant in The Happiness Hypothesis. Many people have been caught up in what has been termed “temporary insanity,” as their emotional brain grabs ahold of the controls and causes them to do things that they normally wouldn’t. (For more in the ethical and legal tangling of this idea check out The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

One powerful way to head the fight off at the pass is to make a commitment to a course of action before you’re in the heat of the moment. It’s a pre-decision. It’s a standard response to an if-then decision. It’s a way to get the emotional brain that’s effective at pattern matching to blindly connect the pattern to the if-then decision and execute that decision without a second thought. The result is that you’re not stuck in the moment of struggle trying to decide the right course of action, because the decision has already been made.

Who Am I?

Another way to short circuit the decision-making process is to decide what people like me do when they’re confronted with the choice. Made to Stick encourages us that people can make good decisions when they view the decision from the context of how people like them decide. If people like them are the ones who make the good long-term decision, then that’s what they’ll likely do. If, instead, they’re likely to live for the moment, their decision will be decidedly more focused on the current.

Helping to shape a self-image that is consistent with long-term values and high degrees of self-control will cause more decisions to be made in that way. An important corollary here is that who we are, our identity, is malleable. Dweck points out in Mindset that our way of thinking can lead us to understanding that we can fundamentally grow and change – or to decide that we’re not able to escape the orbit of our family, our environment, and our genetics. The research is clear that we can change the way we see ourselves and what we’re capable of.

Genes and Environments

The battle has raged on for century as to whether we are controlled by our genes or our environment. Judith Harris Rich exhaustively searched through the research to develop her theories about how much of what we are is from our genetics and how much is from our environment. Citing dozens of studies in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, she settles on the conclusion that roughly 50% is genes and roughly 50% is non-genetic. She teases out issues with what would traditionally be called environment, recognizing that there is too much to environment to neatly fit categories. Small differences in opportunity may yield vastly different people. Glasser speaks of inner, quality worlds, and how they shape how people see their world. Argyris uses a ladder metaphor, with the lowest rung of the ladder being how we choose what data we see with the implication that this filtering changes everything else about our experiences. (See Choice Theory for more on Glasser’s perspective and for more on Argyris’ ladder of inference.)

We’ve discovered that the environment can activate and deactivate our genes. While we may have a predisposition to something, it can be that this tendency never gets activated in our environment.

Tabula Rasa

It was philosopher John Locke who proposed that we’re a blank slate, and it’s only our environment that shapes us. His radical idea pushed the pendulum into a more middle state today than it was in his time, when people believed that folks were determined by their heritage. (This was before genes were discovered and understood.) This idea has been the basis for many things, including the book by Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It’s at the heart of the questions that Judith Harris Rich asks in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

In reality, what we’ve discovered is that the slate is far from blank, but rather, to use Mischel’s words, it’s “encrypted” in a way that we don’t understand. My computer science background takes slight issue with his choice of words, because though we share most of the same genes as a mouse, we are quite different. Small differences making large ones, to me, is compression – not encryption. The understanding is no less opaque between encryption and compression, but it’s compression that yields a large change in output.

Combining the compressed genetic triggers with an environment that’s necessarily personal and nuanced explains why people become such unique adults. Each adult has the things that they’re interested in and their own triggers.

Triggers

Everyone has their own “hot buttons.” These are the things that will set them off, get them angry, or cause them emotional harm. For some people, it’s a negative comment about their appearance; for others, they’re particularly sensitive about feeling stupid. Others still are triggered by feeling like they’re not being heard. These triggers cause an emotional reaction that can generally be felt by anyone in the room. What Mischel’s research on self-control teaches us is that sometimes we can – and need to – put covers over our triggers so they’re harder to get to.

We’ve all seen the movie with the self-destruct button that’s covered by clear plastic, that the hero (or villain) must lift before they can slam their fist into the button itself. In old airplane dogfight movies, there are the switches that must first be flipped up before they can be activated. These are the kinds of covers we install over our emotional triggers as well.

Instead of the button sitting out in the open where anyone can hit it, the cover provides some buffer. Perhaps we’ll only react to comments about our appearance from our family or only respond to being made to feel stupid with our friends. We can contextualize our sensitivities and provide that extra layer of protection to being triggered. We need this to protect us from the often poor results that come from our poor decisions.

Consequences

To have self-control, we must know and internalize the idea that there are consequences for our choices. This is the lesson that we teach and reinforce to children to help them become productive members of society. We help them first build an understanding that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to their choices in certain realms, and then we help them generalize this concept, so they know that every choice they make has consequences.

Without this solid awareness of consequences, they cannot make decisions now that lead to better outcomes in the future. It’s consequences that provides the bridge from today to tomorrow.

Our Need for Control

We all have a desire to control. We want to control the things that we get in our life. We want to say that we did this, or we created that. Most people want to control other people while simultaneously not wanting to be controlled. We are obsessed with our need to be causal in our outcomes. Our need for the illusion of control blinds us to the fact that we’re never in control of the outcomes, we’re only in control of the conditions we can create that lead to the outcome. (See Compelled to Control for more on the topic of control.)

Change or Die acknowledges our psychological need to believe we have more control than we do just to avoid the thought that all our hard work can be wiped out in an instant. We can’t think about the fact that we may be crushed by an asteroid tomorrow, or we’ll never get any work done today. We must believe that our control is greater than it is. We must believe that, where we only have influence, we actually have control.

Most people recognize that they can’t force a plant to grow. You can’t say that, if I give it soil, air, and sunlight, it must grow. Instead, we create the conditions that influence a plant to grow in the right way, and we hope that the plant will grow. We don’t control the plant into growing. By creating the right conditions for growth, we influence the outcome.

This is the advanced lesson for consequences. What we do only sometimes has the consequences we expect. Because we don’t have control, sometimes the consequences don’t come as we would expect – positive or negative.

The Value of Optimism

It’s not that depressed people see the world in a distorted negative way. It’s that people with depression see the world more accurately. Instead of sugar-coating their capabilities and resources, they view the world as it actually is – and that’s a bad thing. It’s no secret that the world we have in our heads isn’t the actual world. It’s a construction that our minds have made up based on the data it has – and a whole lot of assumptions. (See Incognito for more one how our minds make things up.)

Generally speaking, the advice is to see things as they really are and to accept reality instead of denying its truth. This may be one exception, however. The presence of optimism makes us more creative, more innovative, more able to cope with life – while at the same time distorting our view of the world. Optimism is layered on our awareness that we don’t have control to help us believe that we’ll have enough influence to be OK.

Patience and Perseverance

What optimism gives you is the ability to be patient. Patience is at the heart of the marshmallow test. Can I be patient enough to wait for the good things to come? Even when trust is low and when we don’t know for sure, optimism allows us to hold out hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.) Over time, we learn that, though we don’t have control, eventually if you try enough, things will work. We live in a probabilistic world, where we influence the probability of success – not guarantee it. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic world in which we live.)

Being persistently patient, persevering in our attempts to make our lives better, eventually means they’ll become that way. Grit is the way Angela Duckworth describes a set of skills that work together towards our eventual success. Optimism helps fuel the engine that allows us to stay afloat long enough to persevere, even when things aren’t going our way.

Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude

Jimmy Buffet sings a song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – but I think he has it backwards. Moving down to warmer climates may allow you to change your attitude easier – but you can change your attitude no matter where you are. The heart of changing the results in the marshmallow test – and in life – is to change your attitude. Changing your attitude from the world being a cruel place that you must fight and claw at and take what’s available now to a world of reliability and ultimate success can make all the difference in whether you’re willing to make investments in your future.

Sometimes those investments are waiting a few minutes as a researcher leaves the room. Sometimes those investments are hours spent studying. Sometimes those investments are more traditional, like a 401k. However, you make the investments, you’ll want to make them, so you can pass the test of life. You might just get some help along the way by looking at this cheat sheet to improving your score on The Marshmallow Test.

Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide

Book Review-Treating the Tough Adolescent

Not that counseling is ever an easy job, but some times are harder than others. Sure, you can help find folks find their calling or cope with death and divorce. You can handle the couple who are struggling to hold their marriage together. A good counselor can even help parents learn how to parent with authority and love. However, what happens when the children aren’t easy to get along with? What happens when they’re adolescent – and they’re tough? That’s where Treating the Tough Adolescent is.

Dr. Scott Sells wrote the book as a guide to help professionals know what to do in the uncharted territory of the difficult child. I’ve already reviewed his consumer/parent facing work, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love. While there is substantial overlap between these two titles, the different audiences mean there is still more to glean from Treating the Tough Adolescent.

Before I get there, I need to remind you dear reader, I’m not a professional counselor. I’m a parent and volunteer who continues to seek to make the road easier for parents who are struggling with their teenagers, either because the teens are in trouble themselves, or because they’re trying to take over the family.

Family Systems

Every family operates together as a system. Sometimes the influences that one member of the family has on another are very large, and other times, not so much. However, families operate in relationship to one another. They’re like planets orbiting in a solar system with two (or more) stars. As one person moves and changes, so do the others. Everyone in a family system reacts to the gravitational pull of the other members of the system.

Family systems are particularly important when considering the impacts of a tough adolescent, because they were created somehow. It’s interesting to consider what the root causes are that created the tough adolescent in the first place. Was it dad’s addiction? Was it the mother’s mental illness? While there’s no point in assigning blame, looking for the root cause can sometimes melt the ice-cold heart of the struggling adolescent, whose only way of changing the system is to become “tough.”

No matter who or what caused the hurt, the teenager – and everyone in the family – must take responsibility for healing themselves. If the root cause hasn’t worked itself out and still lingers or is still a painful secret, then somewhere during the treatment of the adolescent, it will become necessary to address that root cause making it hard to recover.

Inversion of Control

One of the common dynamics that Sells identifies is that the adolescent has grabbed the reigns and is running the family. While this may seem impossible, it is the case all too often. Mom and dad may decide which house and which car, but the teenager controls the schedule and the emotional tenor of the house. They’re pulling the puppet strings of the parents, who feel powerless to resist the pull of their troubled and tough teen.

One of the continuous themes is the reestablishment of parental authority over the adolescent. This comes in two basic forms. The first form is obvious – that is, to take control back from the adolescent and control more aspects of the home. The second form is subtler and more subversively influences the system. By the time that an adolescent has been labeled as “tough” or “troubled,” it’s likely that they’ve already engaged other professionals, who left the parents less powerful than when they started. This, too, must be corrected.

When Helping Hurts

When you reach out for help in an out-of-control situation, you expect to find competent help that will help you put your problems behind you. However, as I’ve brought up a few times, clinical psychology isn’t always doing its best work. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering what Works in Therapy, and The Cult of Personality Testing for more on some of the challenges in the profession.) The result of the engagement of external parties, whether it’s professional counselors, church, community, or law enforcement, wasn’t that the problem was stopped. Though for some, perhaps even many, these resources are able to halt the progression towards being a tough adolescent, in other cases, it isn’t enough.

It’s scary. Instead of worrying about the temper tantrums of a two year old, you’re worrying about oppositional defiance disorder and what harm the adolescent may inflict on themselves or on others. It’s no wonder that parents are desperate to get the help they need.

However, too often, the deferral to a professional causes the parent to lose ground in the eyes of the adolescent, because they are able to manipulate the professional into backing parents off from their stance, or the adolescent recognizes that the parent or parents aren’t able to manage them without help. If they can separate the parent from the help, they can win. It’s these cases where “helping” creates greater issues down the road.

This isn’t to say that parents shouldn’t seek help – they should. They should interview the helper and ensure they’re on the same page as the parents. If they can’t support the parents – both in their growth and in their ability to regain control – then they’re not the right fit.

Enforcing Rules

Anyone who has had an adolescent – tough or not – knows that they’re really good at bending the rules, negotiating, and trying to “pull one over” on mom and dad. It’s a part of the way that things are supposed to be. Adolescents are supposed to try to see what they can get away with – to test their boundaries – and parents are supposed to be there to help them be aware that the boundaries still exist.

Many times, tough teenagers didn’t have parents who could maintain these rules and enforce them. The cause – whether it’s a struggling marriage, a personal problem, or financial difficulties – is immaterial. The results are the same. Adolescents don’t know where the rules are. Without a clear definition of the rules and the consequences, there is no roadmap for how to behave, and testing the boundaries gets wilder and wilder.

Sells recommends a written contract with an adolescent so that they’re clear on what the rules are, how they’ll be interpreted, and what the consequences for violation are. His process includes a troubleshooting step specifically designed to help locate the loopholes that adolescents will undoubtedly attempt to try to wiggle through.

Marshmallow Malfunction

Walter Mischel tortured children with the thought of a marshmallow in the middle of the table. They were told to wait until the researcher returned without eating the marshmallow, and they’d be rewarded with two marshmallows. A pretty good return on the sweet tooth investment of a pre-kindergarten child. Some took the bait and ate the marshmallow before the researcher returned. Others didn’t. Those that ate it just couldn’t fight the feeling. They couldn’t muster the willpower. (See Willpower for more.) That’s not the interesting bit. Self-control is hard to come by whether you are two, ten, or fifty. The interesting part was the follow up. Those children who got two marshmallows were better off in life.

Tough adolescents are described as living the hedonistic life. They live for today and not for tomorrow. They can’t wait for tomorrow if they want it today.

Relapse and Follow Up

One important point that Dr. Sells is able to reinforce is that even if tough adolescents can be brought back into control – and their behaviors kept to acceptable social norms for a while – there is a high probability of relapse. That is, the old behaviors will not want to be extinguished quickly. They may come up once in a while to see if the environment has changed and whether they can stick around. The recurrence of old, undesirable behaviors isn’t an indication of failure. It’s a normal situation, even if it’s not one that is welcomed.

Because of the potential for relapse (or the expectation of relapse), Sells recommends follow up to make sure that the hard-fought new interactions stick.

Consequences

Sells’ work is more prescriptive than most books. He provides many excellent ideas for consequences that are both unexpected and potentially quite effective. There are bathroom lock-ins for those children who run away. For those who are absent or tardy at school, Sells provides a model for the parent attending school with the child. These creative consequences work, because they strike at the heart of the things that are important to the adolescent.

If your tough adolescent is important to you – or to one of your clients – perhaps the answer is to read Treating the Tough Adolescent.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Book Review-How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Anyone who has a teenager knows that they speak a different language. In fact, they often seem like they’re a different species all together. They don’t seem to act like their younger versions of themselves – and you wonder how they’ll survive to be older with the coping strategies they’re using. However, these same teenagers were once precious babies. So how is it that the transformation happened, and how do you develop some rapport so that you can keep the lines of communication open to this alien race? That’s the question that How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk seeks to answer.

In the Cards

Before I get into the meat of the book, I need to pause and say that Terri and I believe in conversation. We believe in hard conversations (see Crucial Conversations). We believe in happy conversations. One of the things that she saw was parents (or guardians) and children in a hospital not talking to one another. That’s why we created the Kin-to-Kid Connection Child Safety Cards. It was our way of encouraging conversations by creating opportunities to play games together. We moved from there to trying to help prevent kids from ending up in the hospital in the first place; however, the genesis was the need for conversations between parents and kids.

Plethora of Poor Responses

We’ve all had a bad day and tried to share with a friend, only to be shutdown or rejected. At least to us, their response felt like a rejection. They didn’t seem to want to accept our world as our world. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.) There are, according to How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, eight different categories of responses, seven of which are bad:

  • Denial of Feelings – Essentially, you don’t or shouldn’t feel what you feel. The response leaves you deflated and feeling that even your feelings are wrong. (Hint: feelings aren’t wrong, only actions can be.)
  • Philosophical Response – “Life can be like that.” The empty response does nothing to connect with the other person and trivializes their having brought it up.
  • Advice – “You know what I think you should do?” can turn people off. They may have been coming only to connect, and advice attempts to solve their problem. Even for those seeking a resolution, a simple answer can seem trite or like they’re stupid for not thinking about the solution. (See Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus for more on empathetic listening vs. problem solving.)
  • [Judgmental] Questions – “Why did you do that?” While questions can be a valuable tool for validating and improving understanding, they can also be a weapon of shame and judgement. (See Parent Effectiveness Training and Motivational Interviewing for ways to effectively use questions and His Needs, Her Needs for disrespectful judgement.) The book describes these as only questions, but the examples are all examples of judgmental questions.
  • Defense of the Other Person – It’s as if the person you’re talking to, the person you shared with, instantly starts taking the other person’s side of the story. They say that they can’t identify with you – but rather identify with the other person in your story. Here, they’ve actively rejected your bid for connection and instead have seemingly gone to side with the other person. (See The Science of Trust for more on bids for connection.)
  • Pity – “Oh you poor thing.” No one wants to be pitied. People want connection and understanding, not pity. By pitying someone, you’re saying that they’re somehow less than you are.
  • Amateur Psychoanalysis – This is a sleight of hand trick. The response encourages the person to question their feelings – but by suggesting that they might be projecting their feelings about one person onto another. The problem is the response can lead the person sharing to feel as if they’ve been tricked.
  • An Empathetic Response – The response creates a connection and says, “I understand this about you.” Even if the response isn’t exactly correct, the person seeking connection will typically correct and adjust the understanding. Out of the eight types of responses, this is the only one that builds connection and affirms the relationship.

In a book about talking to your children, why is understanding these eight responses so important? In our parent-child, relationship the one-up/one-down power differential is appropriate and necessary, but it also creates the tendency to use more forceful approaches in conversations. It takes more work to ensure that we are not just directing our children but are trying to connect with them as well. Too often we fall into a quick and convenient trap that we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to really talk things through with our children, and that can lead to challenges.

Teaching About Feelings

Certainly, parents are expected to educate their children. They’re expected to help them be prepared to enter kindergarten and help them learn in school. The explicit knowledge they gain through their childhood is designed to give them the foundation for study in their chosen career. However, there’s more to teaching and learning than multiplication tables. There are many things that require tacit knowledge – having experienced something – rather than just having learned it. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)

Understanding oneself is perhaps the greatest gift that any parent can help their child to achieving. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on what an integrated self-image is.) Developing this integrated image is, in part, recognizing our internal incongruencies – our good and evil natures that are both within us. In part, an integrated self-image is an awareness and acceptance of our feelings. Here, the book suggests four things:

  1. Listen with Full Attention – In our hectic world, it’s too easy to be watching TV or playing on our phones while listening. This sends a subtle message that what the person is talking about isn’t worth our whole attention – and by extension, neither are they.
  2. Acknowledge Their Feelings in a Word – While sharing, we as humans use a great deal of resources to measure the response of the person we’re sharing with. Simple, one-word responses (or utterances) helps the other person understand that we’re still “with them.” (See Mindreading for more on how we assess other people’s mental state.)
  3. Give Their Feelings a Name – I’ve purchased a collection of literally tens of thousands of feeling words. It’s a rich collection of every word in the English language used to describe how someone feels. However, all too frequently, we settle for the fast food version of feeling words: happy, sad, or angry. By giving feelings names, a person can start to identify when they feel the same – or similar – feelings the next time.
  4. Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy – It’s hard to believe that just the idea of having something you want can fulfil the need. However, because of the Zeigarnik effect, incomplete thoughts are held more strongly. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Zeigarnik effect.) By allowing people the opportunity to fully experience their wish – only as a fantasy – you relieve the pressure to maintain that thought.

Though we all seek validation in many ways, there is probably no greater area where we seek validation than in our feelings. When someone is sharing their feelings, they’ve being vulnerable and are trying to connect. When we validate those feelings, we create a deeper connection.

Understanding, Accepting, and Agreeing

An important aspect of any part of relating to your children is to help them understand the difference between understanding, accepting, and agreeing. This distinction isn’t hard for me, but for many of our children, it has been. Understanding is awareness of the other person’s perspective and values and how they came to them. Accepting is acknowledging the other person’s point of view is OK – at least for them. Agreement is agreeing with those perspectives and values.

Children wrongly assume – wrongly – that you must agree with each other. What is needed and required is understanding, not necessarily agreement. When you have understanding and can accept the other person’s point of view, you can talk through conflicts and reach resolutions.

Accepting the world as it is – and understanding that we can’t change other people – makes interactions easier, because there are fewer attempts at coercive control. (See Choice Theory and Compelled to Control for more on control.)

Play

A multi-purpose tool in the toolbox of talking and listening is play. Play is a necessary evolutionary tool for teaching important life skills. (See Play for more.) Humor and jokes create important social connections. (See Inside Jokes for more.) Play – or humor – can lighten the mood and remove the tone of seriousness that can sometimes pervade a conversation. This can often serve as a lubricant to make difficult conversations easier. (See Crucial Conversations for more on difficult conversations.)

Creating Separation and Autonomy

Job #1 for every parent is to help their children to be independent. The job is to encourage their autonomy and, ultimately, help them to separate from the parent. (See Drive for more on the power and necessity of autonomy.) While this may be painful to some people, it’s a necessary part of life – just like dying is a part of life. We don’t have to like death, but we do have to accept that it’s a part of the package. Here the book suggests six strategies:

  1. Let children make choices – Rather than saying you must do X then Y, you offer the choice between X or Y first. This may seem like giving the child power, but in truth, they’re still going to do everything, it’s just a matter of order.
  2. Show respect for a child’s struggle – As parents, we have the curse of knowledge; we already know the answers. However, children need the struggle to be able to learn. (See The Art of Explanation for the curse of knowledge and How We Learn for necessary difficulty – i.e. the need to struggle.)
  3. Don’t ask too many questions – By asking too many questions, we disrupt and minimize the learning process and can negatively impact emotion. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on too many questions.)
  4. Don’t rush to answer questions – Feedback is a curious thing in education. Feedback is nearly essential for learning. Feedback that occurs too fast prevents learning. Learning to give feedback and answer questions when necessary (and not before) is a powerful tool for helping children learn.
  5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home – Knowing how to find answers and work through problems is key. If every answer comes from the fount of mom or dad, they’ll never learn how to learn on their own.
  6. Don’t take away hope – I firmly believe that hope is the most powerful thing in the universe. Without hope, there’s no reason to try. You have learned helplessness. Hope is the engine that allows us to continue forward (see The Psychology of Hope for more).

Whether we’re talking about a child that we’re trying to help grow or the person who has an unhealthy attachment to us, these are good techniques to create separation.

Parents and Kids or Person to Person

In the end, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is as much about how any two people should relate as it is about parents and children. It’s solid practical advice for the things to do in your relationship with your children to help put them on positive footing for life. So won’t you learn How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk?

Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

Book Review-Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

We’ve all seen the video. It’s a dog that has a toy he won’t let go of. He’s flinging his head back and forth trying to wring the life out of the lifeless toy in his mouth. At some level, we’ve all felt like the toy. We’re being tossed around with no control of our fate. We’ve felt helpless and broken.

And we’ve seen the video where someone does the seemingly impossible. They make the perfect shot. They leap to the top of the heap with apparent effortlessness. The ratio between the number – not the depth – of these two experiences defines our positive to negative ratio, and it’s the heart of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.

The Power of Positive

Our positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an unseen and powerful impact on our lives. It changes the way we see the world in subtle and abstract ways. Positive feelings expand our world view. We look to the corners of our consciousness and we look for larger patterns in life. Positive thinking quite literally expands our view – where negative thoughts have us focusing on the narrow and on our ability to survive.

Creative Confidence doesn’t directly state that positive thoughts lead to greater creativity, but the implication was there. The safer you feel, the more creative you become, and those thoughts are positive, life-giving thoughts. Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman all describe the psychological state of flow as a genuinely positive state – one that is both productive and engaging. There is exhaustion at the end, but the lingering positive effects of having spent time in flow can last for days.

Positive thoughts and feelings need not be larger than life to give life. They need only occur with relative frequency. They need not be a positive feeling like the birth of a child to matter in your overall mental – and physical – health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the physical impacts of mental health.)

The Need for Negativity

If positive thoughts are good for us, then surely, we should eliminate negative thoughts. Surely negative takes the wind out of our positive sails. However, this does not seem to be the case. If we only have positive thoughts, we can’t see the world as it really is. We can’t see things accurately. Negative thoughts are like the keel on a boat, keeping things steady and grounded. The keel is what allows the boat’s sail (positivity) to catch the wind and propel the boat forward.

Negativity isn’t something that you can abolish from your life. Every life must have negativity to stay connected, grounded and rooted. The goal isn’t to eliminate negativity but to eliminate needless negativity that further disconnects us from reality and other people.

Needless Negativity

We’ve all been to the pity party of the century. We feel not good enough. We feel like we can’t get anything right. The end result is our negativity dredging up every bad thing that we’ve done in our entire lives and trying to heap it up on the counter of today.

Certainly, we must accept negativity as a part of life. However, we need not ruminate and turn over our faults, making them bigger than they really are. The closer you get to something, the larger it appears. However large problems may seem, they’re rarely fatal and rarely consistent all the time. Instead we, like all other humans, make mistakes. We shouldn’t magnify them to be larger than they really are if we want to flourish.

How to Flourish

What’s the big deal with managing our positive emotions and our negative emotions? In short, those of us who can achieve higher honest ratios of positive to negative emotions are more likely to flourish. That is, our positivity helps to drive our success in life. We begin to feel better, then do better, and then get better.

Seligman in Flourish talks about the power of positive psychology to transform your life – and Fredrickson’s work on finding the ratio of 3 to 1 where the magic happens. Drive speaks of discontinuities, places where on one side the results are almost nothing, and on the other side the results are incredible. When it comes to positive to negative ratios, that number is 3:1

Flourishing is that magical state of being more than you think you could be. It’s the enjoyment of nearly every aspect of life and a positive energy that radiates through you. It is, at its core, a change in perspective.

Perspective

Have you ever wondered how someone could like something? Perhaps it’s a food that you don’t like, but others “would die for.” Perhaps it’s the pain you feel in your legs and the racing of your heart when thinking about sky diving, and your best friend does everything they can to get in just one more jump.

That’s perspective. It’s the ability to see things differently, and we all have our perspective. Getting to positivity – or flourishing – is all about subtly changing our perspective. It’s about amplifying our opportunity for positive experiences and dampening down the chances for negative experiences.

Few people would say that getting stuck at an airport is a positive experience. Few would say that they would love to be sitting in Ronald Regan Airport for eight hours just to get home. I can’t say that either; however, I can say that I had a positive experience while stranded. That was the day I picked up and read Stumbling on Happiness. I didn’t want to be there, and at some level, it was a negative experience, but my perspective on the situation allowed me to get a positive out of it.

To some degree, we all can shape our experiences, whether they’re positive or negative. We get to choose how we perceive things, what our perspective is, and then respond accordingly.

Projecting Positivity

We’ve all met that person. It feels like they’ve had so much Botox that their face is permanently in a smiling situation. They look like the criminal Joker from Batman. There’s no telling how they really feel, because their face doesn’t show it. Surely these people, the permanent smile people, should be positive and happy. They should be living the benefits of a positive life.

Well, unfortunately, their bodies know the difference between projecting an image and being something. You can’t be positive all the time. 100% positive isn’t real, and maintaining the illusion is exhausting. In my post How to Be Yourself, I speak of the effort necessary to hold a gallon of milk to your side – and how exhausting it can be. People who are permanently positive aren’t real. The stress of projecting this illusion eventually catches up with them. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress on the body.)

Meditation

Changing our perspective isn’t something that is typically done directly. We can’t will ourselves into positive thinking. That sort of attempt to control our emotions generally backfires and leads to the projection of falsehood that creates stress. One of the time-honored ways of reducing stress and becoming more at peace with ourselves and our situation is meditation.

This powerful practice is used by different religions and different cultures to bring about mindfulness, awareness, and acceptance. This awareness, in turn, creates a greater gratitude for the world and levitates us out of the pit of negativity and positions us in a better place to be positive.

Loving Kindness

If you were to ask a Buddhist about meditation, it’s likely they would talk about their meditation on loving kindness in their desire to cultivate these feelings. These meditations are designed not just to broaden our mindfulness but to bring about positive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion for other living beings. This taps into more positive emotions and allows us to abide in these feelings. By soaking them in, we create the opportunity to radiate them later.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to meditate – with or without the focus of loving kindness – to be positive. I don’t routinely meditate. For me, the still-quiet space is reading, reflecting, and writing about what I’ve read and experienced. This isn’t what most people would consider meditation, but it works for me. I enter flow, and the results are similar to meditation.

Positively Social

On the one hand, meditation is an intensely individual and isolated exercise. Its definition means that you’re not interacting with others, you’re being mindful of yourself and your own inner states. While this is one tool to become more positive, it’s not the only tool. In fact, a better lift for positivity may be interacting with others.

Much of our negativity is about our fear of being disconnected from others. Much of what is positive is in our assurance that we belong, that others care, and that we’re a part of a group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.) Making deep connections with other people can create positive experiences and perspectives.

Positive Portfolio

Not all positive emotions are created the same. Each of us has our own mixture of how we perceive the world positively. One way for us to see our positive – and reinforce it – is to create a positive portfolio. Like an artist, we create mini-portfolios of each style or medium and we assemble those into the master portfolio of our work on being positive. Positivity suggests these categories for our positive portfolio:

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

More Love

It’s important to dwell on love for a moment. Love is such a powerful amplifier of each of the other foundations for positivity that it’s important to realize its ability to transform people and experiences into positive experiences. Many boyfriends and husbands will watch a “chick flick” and enjoy it because the woman that they love is there. More than trying to score, they may genuinely enjoy sharing the reaction of their significant other. Similarly, girlfriends and wives may not choose to watch a baseball game on their own, but in doing so with the person they love, they might find it exhilarating to share the experience and find it positive (or they may not).

Whether you’re generally happy and thriving, or stuck in a negative loop, you can probably use a bit more Positivity in your life. In my opinion, what the world needs is more love and ultimately more Positivity – for all our sakes.

The Art of Innovation

Book Review-The Art of Innovation

One of the quirky things about the way that I dig into topics is that sometimes it’s like reading a book from the back to the front. I read the most recent things first before getting back to more foundational works. That’s absolutely the case with The Art of Innovation. I have previously reviewed Tom and David Kelley’s book, Creative Confidence, which made mention to this earlier work. It was also referenced in The Medici Effect and The Innovator’s DNA. Getting back to this classic book was just a matter of time, given the respect that other authors have for Tom Kelley and the team at IDEO.

Product Development

IDEO is a product design company. It’s known for its innovative solutions to the challenges of everyday life and the world. Tom Kelley starts the book explaining how IDEO became so innovative by first explaining their “research” on why organizations outsource their product development activities. It broke down to four categories: raw capacity, speed, specific expertise, and innovation. He mentioned that this final category, innovation, has become more and more important.

Though the book carries a copyright of 2001, the statement has continued to be true. Organizations today are still trying to find innovative solutions – perhaps even more than they were in 2001.

Human Centered Design

Kelley describes the IDEO process for creating in five steps: understanding, observing, visualizing, evaluating and refining, and implementing. This has evolved over the years into human-centered design and a three-part process: hear, create, deliver. (This is from IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit.) Each of these parts has several steps.

At the core of the process is tapping into the frustrations, barriers, and challenges of the people for whom the solution is being created. It can be getting inside the head of the busy mom trying to navigate the isles of the store with a grocery cart whose last major revision was half a century ago or finding the hidden frustration of the mouse user whose hand is always uncomfortable after working with the mouse.

Liberal Education

The debate between core STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and a more liberal education in the arts rages. There’s a heightened focus on ensuring that we are competitive in our core skills. There are initiatives to ensure that minorities and women aren’t left behind. However, somewhere in the focus on STEM, we may have lost our focus on a broader education and its benefits.

When Kelley describes the skills that are necessary for innovation, he says, “Like an Olympic decathlon, the object is to achieve true excellence in a few areas, and strength in many.” The importance in this statement is understated. The underlying assumption is that, to achieve innovation, you must have a set of skills – not just one or two. An Olympic decathlon athlete demonstrates their achievement by demonstrating “good” in many categories and “great” in only a few – one or two.

A great deal of focus in business is spent speaking about how you must build your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. There’s certainly some truth to not focusing on your weaknesses, but it’s a different thing entirely to work on your weaknesses. Consider that Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that the highest performers are those who use purposeful practice to improve specific aspects of their performance. In How We Learn, Carey explains how varied practice leads to better outcomes.

We get better when we consider our weaknesses and find solutions to working around them. Once we reach competency, we may find it hard to maintain flow, and therefore become truly excellent, if we aren’t interested. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on the need for balance in challenge and skill in flow.) However, there’s no reason why we can’t become at least good at all the skills of innovation – and great at a few.

This need to have diversity is the heart of liberal education. It’s the diversity in what is being learned that makes a difference. (See The Difference for more on the power of diversity.) Kelley explains how IDEO uses a box of random things to spark creativity and innovation. In Creative Confidence, Tom and Dan Kelley come together to speak about how they encourage the kind of creativity that is the spark that ignites innovation.

I believe in an education that, in a broad set of disciplines, creates the kind of neural pathways that allow people to make huge insightful leaps. It was Steve Jobs’ interest in calligraphy that famously led to the focus on fonts for the Macintosh. There wasn’t a master plan when he stepped into the class. I’m sure there were many more classes that he stepped into that weren’t helpful at all. The point of innovation is to draw from as much as you can. So, too, does liberal education seek to give students a wide variety of things to pull from.

Work Should be Play

Good-hearted, practical jokes and play are the heart of creating an innovative team. In Play, Stuart Brown explains that there must be an evolutionary imperative for play. It’s too ingrained in too many species. He claims that it’s useful to teaching animals the skills they need for survival. In humans, our primary survival skill is the ability to connect with and care for each other. As a result, our creative, innovative teams should be ones where play is supported and expected. (See The Art of Loving for more on our need to be connected, and Mindreading and The Righteous Mind for the mechanisms that maintain our ability to work together.)

Things as Verbs

Is it a noun or a verb? Things that we truly love become verbs. Things that are active in solving our problems and fulfilling our desires are verbs. They’re not constrained to a static thing frozen in time. Instead, they’re there for a purpose. When working to innovate, it’s important to see the reason for the thing – rather than just seeing the thing as a static item. It’s not a hammer, it’s used for hammering. How are the things we create going to work to make the lives of people easier or better in some way?

Safety is Required

How Children Succeed speaks of the mother rats and their propensity to lick and groom their pups. The greater the licking and grooming, the greater the adventurousness of the pups. The more that they know they’re safe, the more willing they are to take chances. Teams are the same way. In my post on Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I explain how trust creates the safety needed for vulnerability and ultimately leads to the intimacy that makes life worthwhile. Intimacy in a team means that the team can be themselves. This means that they’re not spending time worried about protecting themselves, they’re spending all their energy trying to work for the good of the team. (See How to Be Yourself for more.)

Would you rather have the team worried about how their team members will protect them or how they can solve the challenge put in front of them? Clearly the problem put in front of them; but all too often, organizations make decisions that erode trust and make it difficult for teams to trust each other – or the organization – and end up diverting some of their precious energy and creativity away from the task at hand.

Eight Characters

Kelley describes eight characters that make for good innovative teams (which he calls “hot groups”):

  • The Visionary – Sees the future vision and seeks to paint that picture.
  • The Troubleshooter – Solves problems and cuts to the chase.
  • The Iconoclast – Challenger of the status quo.
  • The Pulse Taker – Always trying to check in and assess the team and the situation.
  • The Craftsman – The person who will convert the idea into the actual.
  • The Technologist – The deepest knowledge from all the most unusual sources.
  • The Entrepreneur – Keeper of the question, “How is this going to be converted into a viable product?”
  • The Cross-Dresser – The person who has a thirst for learning and whose passion and intensity shifted from their formal learning.

In my opinion, these are more prototypical perspectives than they are necessarily individual contributors. Good innovators see themselves as multiple characters. For instance, I’m always digging back to the root source, which would identify me as a technologist. However, I’ve spent more than a dozen years as a small business owner, which necessitates a focus on how things will be profitable. I’m a cross-dresser, in that I started my career in information technology but spend most of my time today helping organizations be more effective.

Continuous Improvement

Kelley tells a story how he and his brother Dan were building snow forts in Ohio. They kept upgrading their practices until they had the mother of all snow forts. They continued to refine their practices until they came up with what was the best snow fort construction technique that they could muster at the time. Somewhere in my childhood, I had a similar experience in Indiana. I started gathering snow and kept trying new ideas to increase efficiency. By the time I was done, I discovered that sliding square trashcans across the ground would capture and transport snow in greater volumes and at greater speed than any other method.

It’s not that snow fort building is a technique that I use in my daily work. It’s that I use the continuous refinement to try to discover the best way to do anything. I prototype on paper and in sketching tools. I rough screens together to show them to clients before I have everything working.

Office Spaces

I’ve never seen an office space that is a snow fort, but I’ve seen plenty of interest in creating office spaces that foster innovation and creativity. The problem is that most of these efforts are done for design aesthetics without a deep awareness of how people work. In Joy, Inc., Richard Sheridan speaks of their open concept for developers. I cringed when I read it, because I know that developers need ways to get into flow, and that requires uninterrupted space. (See Flow for the effects of flow and Peopleware for the need for flow in developers.) Kelley explains that Chiat/Day (an advertising agency) created a space that The New York Times praised as “a remarkable work of art” – but more importantly, workers felt lost. It wasn’t practical for the ways that they worked, and a few short years later, the design was replaced with a much more practical design.

While I believe in the power of a space to enable creation and innovation, I equally believe that most people don’t understand how to create spaces that really help. Take our office, for instance. We have an indoor pergola. It is complete with 36 fairy light green ball jars and three plants that are being grown indoors on it (see below). I had a custom conference table made years ago that looks like the trunk of a tree with a glass top. That and 27 linear feet of windows helps us feel like we’re working outside. I’ve also got a stoplight that hangs from the pergola as an ever-present reminder that what we can do is a yellow light. What we should do is green – and what we shouldn’t do is red. It’s a way that we use the visual environment to cue us into the right thoughts – and behaviors.

Seeking Status

Quick. Pour through the new office space and stake out your office. How do you place your mark on the best office? It could be position, or it could be size. But for size, how do you know exactly how big an office is? If you’re good at the game, you count the ceiling tiles. You can get a good sense for the size of the office just by getting a quick count of the tiles. This is exactly what some people did when they were allowed to place their mark on an office in the new space. That’s great, but what does it say?

The actual size (in square feet) was not material to their happiness. Heck, some larger offices may not be as functional due to the shape. However, that wasn’t the point. The person with the largest office won the status game. Contrast this with people being focused on their contributions to the team and to the overall success. The difference is between cooperation or collaboration and competition. Competition – internally – isn’t good for business or innovation. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more.)

Societal Norms

Humans as a group are a funny lot. There are some things that we cling to that isn’t necessary, but we can’t help ourselves. In American homes, ketchup normally goes in the refrigerator even though we find it sitting unrefrigerated on the tables in restaurants – and in most European homes. Heinz even states that their ketchup is shelf-stable (meaning it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) but advises refrigeration. How’s that for hedging your bets and trying to keep from being on the wrong side of public ire?

One of the most difficult challenges that any innovation must face is the societal norms that it violates. More challenging still is that it’s often hard to predict which societal norms will stick and which ones won’t. Cell phones don’t emit a dial tone, and people seem to have adapted just fine. Answering machines were once considered rude, and now they’re considered old-fashioned. We’ve moved on to voicemail.

However, contrast this with wine corks. Our belief is that wine with corks is better and more expensive. Only cheaper brands use alternatives. However, the fact of the matter is that we’ve got better ways to protect wine today, but we can’t sell them, because the perception is that it cheapens the wine. Imagine how hard it would be to innovate when you end up on the wrong side of a societal norm.

In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains how innovation may be hampered by social or societal norms and how the innovation may disrupt the social order, as was done innocently when steel axe heads were introduced to an aboriginal tribe.

Experiences

Today, even more than when The Art of Innovation was written, we’re in an experience-driven world. People aren’t buying brands. They’re buying the promise of brands. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups.) A large part of the promise of the brand is the experience. Whether that is the in-store experience, like legendary customer service, or it is the amazing out-of-the-box experiences, consumers are buying the experience as much as they’re buying the product.

After all, we know that the newness wears off, and we’ll find we need a new product to lift our spirits again. We should get the added lift of the experience if we can. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our happiness fades.) Disney is a master of experience. The attraction begins before the ride, with things designed to interest, intrigue, and engage guests before they even get on the ride. (See The Wisdom of Walt for more.)

Noble Failures

It seems strange that anyone would claim that the heart of innovation is failure. However, when you consider the importance of prototypes and the realization that they’ll have to be refined continuously, you can begin to see why the first one is never right. Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. explains that even Pixar’s first drafts of stories for movies sucked. It’s the process that makes the stories not suck.

The unfortunate reality of innovation is that you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. Innovation is hard work. It may be financially and personally rewarding, but you never know which ideas will succeed and which ones will fail. Venture capitalists have a blended portfolio, expecting that many of their investments will fail – but that the investments that make it will have such an amazing return that it won’t matter. In short, innovation means failure – with a few successes.

Will your first work be a success or a failure when you try to practice The Art of Innovation? Who is to know?