Book Review-Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Depression is a deeply personal thing. Each person confronts the demon differently. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life is the story of one woman’s journey through suicide, depression, and, particularly, acedia. I got drawn into the story by the distinction between acedia and depression.

I wanted to understand if what we were seeing in our world today was not depression but was instead something called “acedia.” Along the twisting road that Acedia & Me follows, I had to solidify my understanding of depression.

What is Depression?

Depressive disorders get their own section inside of the DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the previous edition, depressive disorders were lumped in with bipolar disorders; but the prevalence and importance warranted additional space, attention, and focus. DSM-5 considers depression a cluster of disorders but says, “The common feature of all of these disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function” (p. 155). A key distinguishing factor for depression isn’t found in the mainline text but is instead buried in a footnote on page 161 – “In distinguishing grief from a major depressive episode (MDE), it is useful to consider that in grief the predominant affect is feelings of emptiness and loss, while in an MDE it is a persistent depressed mood and the inability to anticipate happiness or pleasure.” Depression is the presence of a depressed mood, but, more critically, it’s an inability to feel pleasure.

Here though we see the problem with the diagnosis of depression and the associated definitions. It’s too broad. It includes too much. Someone who feels the need to get out and contribute to the world but simultaneously feels like the weight of doing so is too heavy fits the criteria. So, too, does someone who is sad. The guidelines in DSM-5 calls the duration of the mood two weeks or longer to qualify as depression – with a few exceptions – so there is established a time component to distinguish it from grief, but the qualifications are still needed to be clear.

Depression and Suicide

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers has something important to say about the relation of depression to suicide: “The psychomotor retardation accounts for one of the important clinical features of depressions, which is that severely, profoundly depressed people rarely attempt suicide.” Despite this direct inverse correlation, depression is often associated with suicide.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t an incidence of suicide and depression together – it happens, Acedia & Me explains, as Kathleen Norris discusses her husband’s struggles with a suicide attempt. It’s to say that though depression and suicidal ideation are often assessed together – and indeed DSM-5 calls out suicidal ideation as one of several diagnostic criteria for depression – there seems to be pointers that make depression and suicidal thoughts different.

Choosing Depression

Making things even more complicated is that Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers predicts depression will be the largest medical reason for disability by the year 2020. William Glassier directly warns against the ills of believing in the change of brain chemistry, including the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health. With SSRI effectiveness in the range of 50-60% and placebo effects in the 47-50% range, it’s easy to see why there may not be much effect. This is a part of broader thoughts that some folks need to realize that they can choose something other than their depression as expressed in Choice Theory. This aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, where she explains that a growth (or malleable) mindset is more valuable than a fixed one.

For my own perspective, I accept that there are some people with neurochemical deficiencies in the brain that impact their ability to avoid depression. In those cases, drugs like SSRIs can be helpful. However, the research seems to say that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) should be used. Only if that’s ineffective should SSRIs be added – and only for as long as necessary to allow the CBT to be effective. (See Redirect for more about CBT.) The long-term consequences of SSRIs (and other psychotropic drugs) are still being discovered. Recently a friend was published with a link between dementia and SSRI use.

Whatever you or I might believe about depression, acedia is something different. It’s something that gets swooped up into the broad definition of depression, yet it has a different mark on the person who is afflicted.

How is Acedia Different from Depression?

The definitions for acedia vary but often contain the words “apathy,” “boredom,” and “torpor.” At its Greek root, it means “absence of care.” Acedia & Me spends much of the book trying to precisely define what it is. The problem with the definition is that much of what acedia is has been swallowed up into the idea of depression. Depression has picked up more than sadness or lack of joy but also is diagnosed with “fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.” The criteria for depression may inadvertently be picking up folks afflicted by something different – acedia.

Acedia misses the other symptoms of depression, unless you take a path through burnout.

Bridging through Burnout

In the review of Burnout: The Cost of Caring, I discussed how the classic definitions of burnout include being overwhelmed, cynical, or having a reduced personal efficacy. The outcomes of burnout are quite often depression. A cynical attitude sounds depressing to me. The road to depression from acedia may only have one stop – and that stop is burnout.

However, when defined in the context of a perceived lack of personal efficacy and therefore a lack of ability to control outcomes, we may find that acedia is caused by burnout. After all, if you’re feeling like there’s nothing you can do to control your life or your outcomes, what’s the point in caring about them?

The causality of the arrow isn’t clear. Does burnout cause acedia, or does acedia cause burnout – or neither? What is clear is that there is a relationship between burnout, acedia, and depression. So, while acedia may be something separate, because it is so often followed closely by depression, it makes sense that it might get misdiagnosed that way.

Misdiagnosis aside, how do you avoid the trio of conditions: burnout, acedia, and depression? How do you hold onto that idea that you are effective at moving towards your goals – particularly when you don’t know what your goals are?

Finding Life’s Purpose

In reading Acedia & Me, I was struck by the twists and turns that Norris’ life followed and the quest to find what mattered most to her. Writing was a part of who she was and what she wanted to do, but the stories conveyed that this was just one part of her world, that there remained an inner turmoil which couldn’t quite be tamed. In explaining her fears of having children and her time running the family farm, she exposed the lack of articulated goals. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have a great impact on the world – she has. It wasn’t that she wasn’t learning deeply her faith, something that so few people even try. Instead, there was this yearning for something that was missing or wasn’t quite set right.

Most people wander through life never really pondering the mark they want to make. For some, there are unconscious answers, like having kids and raising them to be “fine upstanding citizens.” They want to teach children to help them be better prepared to contribute to the world. For others, their careers are important. The scientists want to make the next big discovery that will change the course of humankind – even if only slightly.

Few have had the patience and persistence to really understand what they want to leave the world with. Simon Sinek suggests that we Start with Why as we seek to motivate others – and that’s good advice we should accept for ourselves. However, it was the earliest monks who first described acedia. Didn’t they have their big why – to devote their lives to God?

In a sense, yes. They knew whom they were serving, but I suspect they may have had trouble articulating how they were going to make their unique contribution. What good can an individual monk in a monastery make? It turns out quite a lot, if you read the writings of some of the more famous monks. However, it’s hard to articulate a specific goal. It’s easier to answer with the platitude to know more about God or to be more Christ-like.

Perhaps they had their “why”, but they didn’t have Clayton Christensen’s insight to ask, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The question is subtly different, but that subtlety matters. If you ask how you’ll measure your life, you’re asking a question that helps you know if you’re making progress. The monotony of the life of a monk is legendary. If you have nothing to measure your progress with, how will you keep from not caring and simply going through the motions – or not even doing that?

In the end, Acedia & Me seems to draw no firm conclusions. There’s no redemptive end to acedia for Norris (that she shares in the book, at least). There is, however, a chronicle of how she experienced it, lived through it, and learned to persevere. Perhaps that’s all we can ask for. I’d prefer to think that there’s a resilience from burnout and acedia in shaping our perceptions about what we want to do in the world – and how we think we’re doing. (See Hardwiring Happiness for changing our perspective.) Generation X – of which I am a member – was supposed to have lost their faith (see America’s Generations). I, however, continue to hold on to the belief that the world is getting better, and I’m doing my part to change it for the better. I hope to say that I never have to walk such that I feel it’s just Acedia & Me.

Book Review-The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited

There have been references spread out through many of the books that I’ve read to Richard Florida and his estimates of the number of “creatives,” people who work creatively every day. These references come back to the original version of The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited. The original version of the book was published in 2002, and the revision came 10 years later. It’s a classic book in more than just the sense that it’s old. It’s classic in that it transformed the way that business leaders and civic planners thought about industries and economies.

Being creative is important, because the way that you motivate creative people is different (see Drive for more). Creatives impact the economy differently. They’re simply different than the kinds of people that our ancestors were and how they worked, and these differences matter.

We’re All Creative

Before we get too far, it’s important to note that we’re all creative. It’s not like some of us have a creative gene and some do not. Creative Confidence argues that, at some level, we’ve pushed this creativity from ourselves by increasing fear and reducing safety. However, whether driven away or not, it remains as a core part of our being.

The Rise of the Creative Class is neither an anthem about how creative people should rise up and take over the country, nor is it an attempt to define a privileged few who should be given more opportunities, more latitude, or more of anything. Instead, it’s an attempt to understand the social dynamics that come into play in economies. Florida is a student and scholar of economics and sociology. The Rise of the Creative Class is an expression of understanding about how we’re changing as a society and how that impacts economies.

Diversity and Innovation

Fundamental to Florida’s view is that innovation is necessary for today’s economic world. Simply doing the same things that we’ve always done won’t cut it any longer. Innovation allows us to radically change the way that we’re doing things – hopefully for the better. This innovation requires diversity. Here, Florida means more than just diversity in the sense we think of it today. It’s more than just including women or other races. By diversity, he means also inclusiveness and tolerance. That means for those who don’t look like we do, who don’t believe like we do, and who don’t think like we do. The Difference points out that this leads to a greater diversity of thought – and, ultimately, more productive teams. At least, if they can get past the storming phase of team development.

Innovation is the result of the right conditions. Conditions of psychological safety and diversity of thought that allows multiple different perspectives and ideas to combine in new and interesting ways. Innovation isn’t created by diversity, and more than bread is created by flour, eggs, yeast, and sugar. However, unlike bread-making, putting the right ingredients in the right place allows for the emergence of something new.

Material Needs

Life was harsh. While today, we speak of corporate jungles, rat races, and constant pressure, our ancestors had the real struggles. Death was a constant and unwanted companion. Disease lead to death. Accidents lead to death. Starvation was a very real concern for many people.

Today, as I write this, I’m on an unstructured vacation in Maine. We don’t know where we’re eating or staying, but thus far it has just worked out OK. We have no real concerns about going hungry. We didn’t pack provisions to ensure that we’d have something to eat. Nor did we worry about packing a tent in case there were no hotel rooms available. Our GPS guides us to our next destination. (We’re up looking at lighthouses.) Our car goes until we refill the tank with gas. Our cell phones are ever-present tools for looking at maps, looking up resources, and connecting with friends.

From a material world, things have changed in the last century or so such that working for our material needs – to stave off the specter of death – has largely disappeared. Social programs and broader opportunity mean that material needs are not a problem for a majority of us today. (For those few that remain, I hope that the future where this is not a struggle finds you soon.)

Replacing the Material Struggle

What has replaced the material struggle has been a psychological struggle. Instead of addressing the lowest levels of needs, we’ve stepped back into the ideals that the founding fathers of America expressed in the declaration of independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though radical for 1776, these are ideas that we accept as basic human rights today. Gradually, we’ve moved from a life filled with toil to survive to a life that is expected to provide us happiness.

We’re moving from a materialistic society, where the material goods are scarce and prized, to one where belonging, self-actualization, and quality are the goal. We’re already seeing how people are seeking experiences over things. Millennials are choosing to delay the status symbols of stability and success such as home ownership and marriage to afford (or finance) experiences.

Organizational Struggle

Large organizations are beginning to realize the need to embrace the changing perspectives of workers. Instead of chasing the latest tax incentive or highway interchange, they’re chasing the people, and the people are chasing experiences that pull them towards natural resources and beauty. Finding talented workers has become the big challenge in organizations today. People drive organizations, and we realize that having the best people – whatever that means – is essential. Without dipping our toes into leadership too far, “the right people” means people who can work together to drive the business forward – whether at the direction of a leader or not.

In the past, finding work was difficult and essential. Unemployment rates hover below 5% – and have for a long period of time. One must wonder how low this rate can get and how long it can stay there. Certainly, there are many components to unemployment and many people who are still looking for meaningful work; however, unemployment rates are changing the way that organizations are hiring. They know that they must attract employees as much as employees must attract employers. That’s a relatively new phenomenon.

Security and Freedom

Employees used to value security. Working for a large organization used to be a golden ticket. You would work for the company, and the company would take care of you. However, the contract changed. (See America’s Generations.) Organizations couldn’t bear the load of all the people on their payrolls and purged. Children growing up during this time became disenfranchised with large organizations and the illusion of safety. Instead, they decided to rely upon themselves – and a greatly improved market in which they could market themselves. Suddenly, security was in what they could do.

The result is what has sometimes been called the “gig economy.” Earning is spread out and diffuse between different employer/customers. The kinds of projects that people do are sometimes diverse as well. Someone might do baby-sitting or house-sitting and drive for Uber or Lyft when things are slow or when they have a few minutes. Somehow, they piece enough money together to make it all work, even if it’s unclear – even to them – how that might happen.

The other side of this change is a new freedom to accept the jobs that you want and to pass on those that you don’t. The transaction between an employer (or really customer) and the worker is transactional and temporary. It’s a “gig.”

Implications to Employers

We could debate the benefits and weaknesses to the employees of this new creative “gig” economy, but there’s another side as well. The employers get more agility, because they can terminate contracts quickly and reduce their burden – something not practically possible with employees. But at what cost? Freelance contractors can move from one organization to another inside of an industry spreading know-how to your competitor. (See Sharing Hidden Know How for more on how this knowledge sharing is supposed to work inside of an organization.)

Similarly, retaining the knowledge of how to do things becomes harder when the employee that knows the critical information isn’t an employee any longer but is instead a contractor. While organizations struggle to keep knowledge from being lost, the use of freelance contractors increases turnover and makes the problem of knowledge management even more challenging. (See Lost Knowledge for some tools on minimizing knowledge loss.)

Collecting the Creative

The problem with a bunch of freedom-loving, diverse-thinking folks is that getting them to see themselves as a cohesive group isn’t easy. Developers and artists don’t perceive themselves to be the same, though their work styles and need for creativity may very well align perfectly. The solo entrepreneurs who work for themselves may or may not be creative – but they’re unlikely to see themselves as part of a broader movement beyond their chosen industry. (See The E-Myth Revisited for more about solo entrepreneurs.)

People don’t unite in their home offices – they’re separated by them. We’ve taken away personal contact on multiple levels. (See Alone Together for more about how we’re using technology as a proxy for real connections.) It takes more than just a home office and a temporary badge to make the “gig” living work – but many are doing just that. Sadly, few are connecting with others even in their own industry.

As a result, it’s unlikely that creatives will find their way into a union or a cooperative. Instead, they’re likely to operate independently in the shared space of the economy. It’s more like an antique shop that has many different vendors who share the burden of the infrastructure but set their own pricing and rules.

Tolerance and Intolerance

Florida says that tolerance of other people and their diverse ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives is critical to economic growth. Ironically, accepting people who believe in living up life may be key to economic growth. Various indicators, including those that account for the number of creatives and the number of gays, predict economic growth. It seems that tolerance of others creates the opportunities for creativity and innovation, and, as a result, economies grow.

There is some intolerance that seems to be helpful still. That is intolerance of mediocrity. Finding a desire to have excellence in whatever you do is a needed component as well. (See Peak for how to become the best and continue pushing to be better.)

So, on the one hand, you must create conditions of tolerance and acceptance of other people (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance), and on the other hand, you must desire to not accept OK as good enough. (See Good to Great on more about how good can be the enemy of great.)

The Anti-Economist View

I’m not an economist. I don’t work for the government trying to plan how to grow the economy. So, for me, the rigor of statistical analysis is lost. Whether it’s Florida’s Bohemian-Gay index or a Global Creativity Index or something else entirely isn’t really that important to me. What’s important is that we’re changing as a society. We’re moving from one corporate job to a creative economy driven by gigs that may not last that long. It’s a view that allows us to become more fully ourselves and to accept greater levels of risk. I don’t believe that we’ll ever see a movement in the creative class – however, I do believe that, if you’re someone who does anything creative, you might want to read The Rise of the Creative Class to understand what’s happening in society and, perhaps more importantly, what’s happening inside your own head.

Book Review-Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement

I like tracking back to the beginning of a topic. I want to know where things started. That’s what I found in Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement. I had previously reviewed some of Christina Maslach’s work – Burnout: The Cost of Caring – but her work started after or near the same time as Herbert Freudenberger. The writing is very different. Freudenberger’s perspective is down in the trenches and real.

As a working therapist – and someone who had personally experienced burnout by trying too hard to save the world without recognizing limitations – Freudenberger’s work is real and, in some places, raw.

Something is Missing

Have you ever struggled with something that was at the far edge of your consciousness? Maybe it’s song lyrics that you just can’t quite place. Maybe it’s a someone you saw, but you can’t remember their name – or where you know them from. Most people have experienced the sensation of knowing that something is there, but they just cannot get to it.

That’s one of the ways that Freudenberger describes his experience. His patients kept looking for that something missing in their world. They felt like their lives would be complete with their next accomplishment. The next rung on the ladder is all they had to reach to make themselves whole. However, the problem is, as Oscar Wilde put it, “In this world there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”

If you do get what you want, then what next? On the other side, not getting what you want leaves you with a longing. That longing, properly modulated, provides the pull forward into the future. However, improperly managed, it can cause stress that you’re not enough – or that you’re never going to make it.

For high achievers, who were Freudenberger’s clients, there’s always that something missing. Those who learned to manage it well found a way to leave his office whole. Those who couldn’t figure out how to modulate that pull continued to struggle.

Not Whole

There are two ways to look at our strivings. First, we’re looking to fill a hole in our soul. It’s that something missing that Freudenberger’s clients struggled with. This is working from the perspective of a deficit that must be redeemed. Second, you can approach the struggle as a way to build upon a firm foundation. You can view the strivings as a “+1” to everyone’s life.

For those who are struggling in the pit of burnout, it’s the first – deficient –perspective that they hold. It’s that things are not enough. It’s that, individually, they are not enough. This is the trap of burnout. You begin to feel like you’re not enough. Instead of your strivings being life-giving, being a way that you can share your light with the world, it becomes more and more proof that you’re not enough.

Like the burnt-out shells of buildings, burned out people feel like they’re empty, hollow, and missing something. They feel as if they’re not whole.

Blindness

In every case of burnout, there’s some element of blindness. There’s a blindness to the person’s truth about themselves, including their completeness as a rational and emotional being, or about the world around them. The blindness results in a misalignment with themselves or the world. This misalignment makes it difficult for someone to function effectively.

Blindness to oneself and your own identity is tragic. It’s like never getting to know the only person you’ll never get away from – yourself. You never find out who the person really is, because you can’t see some aspect of them. This kind of blindness leads us to doing things in ways that deny part of ourselves.

Blindness to the world prevents us from seeing how the world really is. In doing so, we can’t adapt and function in ways that are harmonious. It’s like walking through the dark and constantly stubbing our toes on furniture, because we just don’t know it’s there. It’s much easier to walk across the room safely when you can see where to step – and where not to. You can expect to make it across the room quickly and without injury only when you can see the room completely.

Expectation Management

With blindness, we land in a world where our expectations – of ourselves and our world – are out of whack. This leads us to believe that we’re incapable of our goals – or that our goals are too easy and should be within our grasp too soon.

Both perspectives lead us to burnout. One because we can’t see the path that leads us to success, and the other because we become frustrated and disillusioned that we’re not seeing the results we expect. Reality keeps leaking in around our blindness to make us aware that we’re not achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

Instead of finding ways to adjust our expectations into the appropriate range, we find ourselves disturbed by the experience and looking for escapes. We find ourselves looking to coping skills to ease the pain that our reality doesn’t match our perceptions.

Luxury to Necessity

The path to addiction isn’t one step. One drink of alcohol does not afflict you with alcoholism. The path to disfunction, and addiction, is converting a coping skill from a luxury or occasional indulgence into a necessity. An addiction counselor colleague said that it’s not that the alcoholic wants a drink, it’s that they feel this overwhelming, visceral need to have a drink.

What may have started as a luxury to help them cope in a difficult time has become for them the only way they know how to survive. It’s no different to them than eating, drinking water, or breathing. To use Freudenberger’s words, their luxury had become a necessity.

The burned-out person is susceptible to addiction, because they need the coping strategy to function. Instead of the coping helping them deal with life, they’ve transitioned to the coping being required for life.

Staring into the Darkness

Because burnout is, in Freudenberger’s perspective, somewhat about the blindness, it’s important to find that blindness. Finding the blindness about ourselves and our perspectives on the world is not easy. Our views of the world are deeply held, and our brains work diligently to reinforce their beliefs, so disconfirming data is difficult to see. However, seeing the world as it truly is – seeing past the blind spots for the outside world – is relatively speaking easy.

Looking into the blind spots inside ourselves is substantially harder. It’s harder for people to peer into the darkness of their own soul to see the parts of themselves that they want to deny and ignore. It’s hard to accept that the perfect image they’ve been projecting isn’t the real person.

Finding the blindness inside of oneself is much like staring into the darkness and waiting for the light to emerge. It takes courage to stand and face the darkness for a long period of time. Physiologically, our eyes become more sensitive to light the longer we’re exposed to low levels. Thus, the more that we stare into darkness, the more we can see. However, it’s difficult to be willing to avoid looking at the light for long enough for this to happen.

Psychologically staring into the darkness is similarly difficult and similarly we get more clarity the more we’re willing to stare into the darkness of ourselves the more likely it is that we can cure – or partially cure – the blindness that we have about ourselves as a whole person.

False Cures

The darkness is easy to turn away from with something that’s new and exciting. Taking up SCUBA diving or skydiving gives a momentary thrill that is capable of making someone feel more alive at a time when they’re burned out and empty inside. These kinds of thrills – and thrills like doing illegal things – provide a momentary high that make it appear that everything is alright. It’s possible to feel once again and the feelings are good. However, the suppression of feelings that is caused by burnout returns soon enough.

When Freudenberger wrote his book, self-harm “wasn’t a thing.” However, today it’s a challenge that counselors deal with as children and adults seek to feel something by inflicting pain on themselves. These poor folks, as I understand it, have suppressed their feelings to such a degree that the only way for them to feel is to cut. Sure, it’s pain, but it’s something. They’ve denied feelings to such an extent that nothing else cuts through the blockade. They’ve literally got to find a way to inflict pain to be able to feel anything again. This too is, of course, a false cure. It’s only temporarily relieving the core problem that they have – which is their lack of feeling.

It’s easier to fall into the trap of a false cure rather than stare into the darkness and develop a sensitivity to how we feel and to let those feelings out – no matter how scary that may be initially. By externalizing the solution to the problem, we’re looking outside for relief from the disharmony that exists inside.

Being Content

Freudenberger makes the point that our reality is subjective by saying that one man may be perfectly content making $20,000 per year. (You may need to adjust his numbers, since they’re from a few decades ago.) Another man may be unhappy making $100,000. Our expectations drive our acceptance of our reality, but there’s something more.

There is an aspect of being content. That is, there’s a tension between accepting things as they really are and, at the same time, the desire to make them better. Instead of feeling like it’s broken, incomplete, or not enough, you can feel like it can be improved, that there’s a better answer, and that there’s more that can be done.

Successes Amply Balance Out Failures

Evolution favors the organism that pays attention to their failures. (See Hardwiring Happiness for more.) As a result, we’re predisposed to ruminate more on our failures than to celebrate our accomplishments. Over time, this imbalance of attention leads us to believe that our failures outweigh our successes. We gloss over the accolades that we receive and instead see only the negative feedback – constructive or otherwise.

One of the difficulties that leads to burnout is the belief that we are a failure – or that our failures mean we won’t ultimately be successful in our goals. We believe that we aren’t enough, because we see the ledger with more red ink than black. However, we neglect the fundamental understanding that we are human beings with both faults and function. All of us can do great things – and fail at others.

You Are Not What You Do

High achievers tend to see their value in terms of how they’re able to accomplish things. They’ve grown accustomed to constant reinforcement that they are valuable or interesting or special because of the things that they do. What happens when the accomplishments temporarily falter? It’s like breaking the surface tension of a bubble. The bubble falls apart when a small break occurs in the surface tension.

There will be breaks in the feedback and accolades coming in. The random nature of our world ensures this will be a reality. One of the ways that high achievers can avoid burnout is to avoid building a dependence on these accolades – and perhaps by reading Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement.

Book Review-Burnout: The Cost of Caring

It’s been many years now since I first experienced burnout – and since I have written about it. I was not – and am not – in the kind of professions that Christina Maslach focuses on in her book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, but I experienced burnout just the same. My works were Tips for Identifying Burnout in Yourself and Your Staff (June 23, 2003) and Breaking Out of Burnout Mode at Work (June 30, 2003). They were part of a weekly column I was writing at the time. I expressed a general sense of what burnout is and some useful tips for getting out of it, but I didn’t have the clarity on the topic that I now have. Unfortunately, Burnout: The Cost of Caring doesn’t seem to offer any more clarity than my articles so many years ago. However, there some nuggets to be gained.

Compassion Fatigue

Most people in IT aren’t labeled with compassion fatigue. They’re assumed to have no compassion to begin with. However, in professions such as nursing, psychiatric counseling, and others, the people who start out with a great deal of compassion for others seem to have lost their way and become burdened by that same compassion. What once was the primary gift they wanted to give the world has become the burden that they can’t lift.

To some degree, it can be that no one ever bothered to look to see what compassion really was. It felt good to take care of others and receive that recognition that you were being a good girl or boy. As people grow up, they continue to look for that same recognition and find roles or professions where that is designed to be the case. You can go into nursing, teaching, or counseling to be told what a great job you’re doing with patients – or what a noble cause it is.

However, compassion is the awareness of desire to alleviate the suffering of another human being. (See the post Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion and Altruism for more.) This is not the benefit that people want from compassion-focused professions. They want a result that involves being recognized for their compassion.

Lack of Recognition

The problem with doing compassionate professions in a way that meets expectations is that there is generally no recognition. While working on productions – whether church services or plays – if the technical team did their jobs right, no one noticed. That’s the point. We’d serve in a way that removed the distractions from the performance. When meeting expectations in compassion-based professions, you rarely hear any feedback or praise.

Perhaps it’s because there is so little recognition for a job done well, even if the role is vital, that it has made getting meaningful feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates such a big factor in whether people stay in their jobs or leave. However, the larger issue is not whether they stay with a company but whether they stay happy and engaged.

Burnout Basics

I disagree with Maslach about the basics of burnout and how it functions, more in sequence and severity rather than the observations of its results. Maslach says that burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. However, I believe that the root that allows burnout to grow is perceived inefficacy. That is, observationally in myself and others, I find that burnout has nothing – or little – to do with hard work. Attitude influences whether someone believes that they’re being effective or not – but it’s an influence on the perception of efficacy.

So, while burnout – according to Maslach – seems to have three roots, I believe the real root cause is the belief in personal efficacy.

Nothing Ever Happens

There’s a Del Amitri song titled “Nothing Ever Happens.” It’s about the continual monotony of life and our struggle to make it better. The truth is that life is monotony. Wake up, eat, do some work, and, ultimately, go to sleep again. The cycle repeats endlessly.

There is, however, inside of us a desire to make our world or our society something better. That desire to make things better distorts our expectations such that we expect that each day will be just a little bit brighter, a little bit less work, and a little easier. So, while we repeat the same patterns, we long to make them different – better.

Mind the Gap

Ultimately, our perceived lack of personal efficacy is the gap between what we expect that we can and should do and the results we see. Change or Die explains that we’re all slightly delusional. We all think we’re more powerful than we are. We believe that we’re better than other people, and we ultimately have more control than we do. Consider that depressed people aren’t viewing the world negatively, they’re viewing it realistically. They have more realistic perspectives on their power and capabilities than their non-depressed contemporaries.

So the problem with personal efficacy is to set the bar high enough that we strive to reach it – and not so high that we’re disappointed in ourselves when we don’t reach it. The mental state of flow and the research around it suggests that we should have the right balance between skills and challenge – and that gap might be around 4%. (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

Our ego is a powerful thing capable of bending our perception of reality. (See Incognito for more about how our perceptions are important, not objective reality.) However, at some point, even the ego feels the strain of repeatedly having one expectation and not being able to meet those expectations. Burnout is the perception that things won’t get better – because we’re not seeing the results that we expect.

Perception

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we’re objectively making progress. What does matter is the perception of whether we’re making progress. Given the “What you see is all there is” bias, it’s easy to believe that not seeing immediate progress means there isn’t any progress. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about this bias.)

Even folks for whom the outside measures appear to be going well don’t necessarily feel like they’re making progress – or making enough progress. We can ride over these moments of feeling like we’re not getting anything accomplished if they don’t occur for too long or come too frequently. In effect, we can say, “I know it doesn’t look like we’re making progress now, but overall we are.”

The problem when the impacts come too strongly or too frequently is that we’re not able to smooth over the rough patches, and all we end up with is rough times trying to reach our goals.

Find Your Why

To figure out whether you’re making progress or not, it’s necessary to understand your goals – or not. One of the challenges that face most humans is that they’re not clear about their goals. Their goals are uninspiring and unarticulated like “just to survive another day;” or they’re lofty, poorly-formed, and unrealistic such as “end world hunger.” In both cases, the lack of clarity has a negative impact on the ability to see progress towards the goal.

Simon Sinek wrote Start with Why, which explains that we as humans need to know why we’re doing something before we’ll want to do it. Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon wrote How Will You Measure Your Life? In it, they seek to focus readers on the things that are important to them in the long term. Books like these – and others – encourage self-reflection to understand what we’re doing and why. It’s these “why” questions that focus us on the ways that we measure progress. Whether we know our why or not, we’ll still measure everything on its ability to move us towards that why.

Framework not Foundation

A word of caution about finding your why and articulating it exactly. Robert Pozen shares dozens of life tips in Extreme Productivity, including the expected tips about having a plan and executing against that plan. However, as he closes the book, he admits that the greatest opportunities and successes in his life didn’t come from the well-measured and planned activities. They came from the random things that chance and life brought him.

Most of the great people I’ve known didn’t set out to be exactly who they are. Often times, the contributions that people make to society are in the general field that they intended to be in but not exactly where they left their mark.

How to Measure

Nebulous things like where you want to go in life, your why, are often difficult to nail down. They’re not the kinds of goals that can be defined as SMART. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. The goals of our life aren’t like that. There aren’t any stopping rules. (Which would make them a wicked problem, as defined by Dialogue Mapping.)

Despite their nebulous nature, you can seek to find indicators that help you know you’re making progress along the path. Sometimes you can define specific components of the goal that you can measure. For instance, if you want to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives, you might have a specific goal like: “I’ll receive more written compliments this year than last.” As long as you don’t try to manipulate the system to get more written compliments, this can be a good measure of whether you’re making progress. (If you want to understand how interference may have negative long-term effects, you might look at Thinking in Systems.)

Ultimately, nothing is impossible to get more information about by measurement; it’s just that some measurements are easier than others to make. Some are more accurate – or indicative – than others. Douglas Hubbard explains in How to Measure Anything, well, how to measure anything. If you’re struggling to find a way to measure progress towards your goals, it’s worth a look.

Burnout Doesn’t Require Clarity

Though finding your why and understanding how you’re making progress towards your life goals, it’s important to recognize that whether you can articulate your goals or not, they’re still there. And much like the framework suggested in The ONE Thing, there is generally a why at the heart of each area of your life. Collectively these “whys” make you who you are.

Equally important to recognize is that progress in one area of your life may discourage burnout in another area. If you’re seeing great rewards and progress with your children, you may find it possible to withstand soul-crushing work experiences without the slightest hint of burnout.

Burnout Is Not Your Fault

It used to be that employers expected employees to leave their personal problems at home. They were aware that employees were humans with lives outside of work, but that wasn’t what they were being paid for – so it shouldn’t interfere with work. A part of this attitude included that burnout, whatever it might be, is a personal problem – a defect of character – and shouldn’t enter the workplace. This led burnout to be treated in silence and shame rather than being viewed as a business problem.

Times have changed. The way that businesses run has changed, because they’ve had to. Employees want to bring their whole selves to whatever they do. They expect organizations to accept and embrace the fact that they’ve got personal lives outside of work. Organizations have learned that employee engagement is a problem that’s sucking productivity out of employees. They’ve learned – some begrudgingly – that an employee’s problem is their problem.

Employee assistance programs were developed to allow employees to seek counseling and other services. These kinds of problems were once considered outside of the corporate purview, but the issues addressed by these programs are seen as causing performance problems at work – and thus worthy of employer concern.

So we’ve moved from a place where burnout wasn’t talked about or accepted to a world where burnout is a part of the larger problem of a lack of engagement, and it’s something that organizations want to address – cheaply and easily, of course.

This is good news for the employee who doesn’t have to feel isolated and alone in their experience of burnout. The bad news is that few people still understand its causes and what to do about them.

Personal Efficacy

The heart of burnout is, as stated above, the lack of belief in personal efficacy. However, this is a fine line. There is a level of self-agency that’s required – the belief in the ability to impact the outcomes in your life. However, too much self-agency leads to the belief that you control the outcomes, and therefore when you don’t get the outcomes you want or expect, you’ve somehow failed.

Too little self-agency, and you’ll feel learned helplessness. You’ll feel like what you do doesn’t matter. Too much and you’ll be a narcissist who believes that you can get the outcomes that you want in the face of insurmountable odds.

To manage burnout well, it’s necessary to manage the perception of personal efficacy such that you believe you have influence on the outcome – but not control.

Detachment

Learning to detach from the outcome – that is, to accept that you can only do what you can do, and the outcome will be whatever it is – is critical to mitigating the risk of burnout. When you realize that you don’t control the outcome – that you only influence it – you don’t have to accept that a failure to get the desired result means you’re a failure. (The Happiness Hypothesis has a more detailed conversation about detachment and it’s importance.)

But Wait, There’s More

Through a set of unusual circumstances, we’ve decided to put together a new training program titled “Burnout: Prevention and Recovery.” It picks up where this review leaves off – and where Burnout: The Cost of Caring couldn’t go. If you believe that we’re on the right track with this thinking that builds on the work of others but also converts it into something more tangible, real, and addressable, reach out and let us know, so we can keep you up to date on our progress.

Book Review-Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently

No one is as smart as all of us – sometimes that’s very true and sometimes not. What makes people work together in a way where all their talents are expanded instead of diminished? That’s the idea behind Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently. It’s another tome in the quest to find the best way to work with one another.

[Note: In the short form, the title Collaborative Intelligence collides with another book by Richard Hackman called Collaborative Intelligence. In fairness, Hackman’s book does a better job of helping folks understand collaboration.]

Thinking Differently

At the heart of working with others is the capacity to leverage their strengths to make your weaknesses irrelevant. Much of that is understanding how to identify the best ways to work with others and to leverage their strengths. This is the same kind of idea that Liz Wiseman applies to Multipliers, those managers who bring out the best in others. However, it applies to team members as well as managers.

Much of being effective at working with others is in figuring out how they think differently and how to communicate across the void.

Kinesthetic, Auditory, and Visual

I had challenges with Collaborative Intelligence because much of the “research” that they claimed to have done was either built on myth or not done at all. The fundamentals behind different learning styles – as the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual – come from Edgar Dale’s “cone of experience.” Originally proposed as a framework, it was given some false retention percentages and became dubbed official. However, Dale never put percentages down – everything that’s here is false. (See our white paper “Measuring Learning Effectiveness” for more.)

Even though this breakdown is on such an insecure foundation, there does seem to be some evidence that people do have preferential learning styles. However, it’s unclear whether these are differences in cognitive approaches or if they’re just preferred learning styles.

I found the sorting that Collaborative Intelligence tried to do between these styles not helpful. The questions misidentified me as a kinesthetic thinker, when I’m – in actuality – a very highly visual learner.

Strengths Finders

The second breakdown are what Collaborative Intelligence calls “thinking patterns”. The book admits to adapting the strengths from Gallup’s Strengths Finder and using them in their model. They put in much from Gallup and a bit from a guy named Ned Herrmann.

Generally, I found the Gallup approach to be more clear and useful, but in one way, these thinking patterns were useful. Gallup communicates from strengths and misses – I feel – how these strengths can become liabilities. Collaborative Intelligence makes a point of saying what these strengths look like when viewed as weaknesses.

This is reminiscent of the Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery), in that the Enneagram speaks of levels of effectiveness. You can be wired in a way and be highly functional – or you can be very dysfunctional. Knowing how to identify strengths in yourself and others and then realizing when those strengths aren’t being used effectively is powerful in building relationships.

Diversity of Thought

People who think differently are diverse people. They’re different. While Collaborative Intelligence seeks to create ways to allow people who think differently to work together, The Difference provides a better foundation.

While the subtitle conveys that the book will teach skills to work with people who think differently than you, the reality is that the book stops well and truly short of giving you useful strategies. It does communicate differences, but not what to do about them. Dialogue points to the three languages that people use – power, meaning, feeling – which is practical, because you can choose to communicate in a way that addresses all three of these primary communication needs.

Burn Out

At some level, I’m sure that folks are going to feel like I’m nit-picking with Collaborative Intelligence by mentioning this, but it’s important to me that we use the right terms to speak about things. The book shares the things that positively and negatively influence folks with various thinking styles. Over simplifying – and using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – if you approach a feeling person with thinking or vice-versa, there’s bound to be some friction. That’s negative influence. Conversely, when you encounter others with your thinking style, it’s frequently a very positive experience.

My issue comes from the language. For positive, they use “lights you up,” and for negative, they use “burns you out.” Except it doesn’t burn you out. Burnout is feeling like nothing is ever changing, that your situation won’t improve, and the resistance you’re currently seeing will be the same resistance you’ll get forever. It was 2003 when I wrote the article Tips for identifying burnout in yourself and your staff. The same year, I wrote Talking Shop: Breaking out of burnout mode at work.

In those articles I lay out what burnout is, how to identify it, and what to do about it. It frustrates me when there’s a whole language (a non-trivial amount of the content) that is delivered with language that isn’t consistent with the message they’re trying to send.

Connecting Communication

By now, it’s probably clear that Collaborative Intelligence wasn’t my favorite book. There are too many places where it’s sloppy, built on poor foundation, or uses the wrong terminology. However, there is one hidden gem that I think everyone needs to know about. That is, you should choose a communication strategy that addresses the needs of everyone in the room. I often find myself doing one to two sentences in my responses that are targeted at different people in the room – to ensure to them that I did hear them, and I appreciate their concerns.

So while I can’t necessarily recommend that people read Collaborative Intelligence, there are many places where I believe the concepts are the right concepts to think about – they’re just not always delivered “right.”

Book Review-The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition

Just how does cooperation evolve? If you followed Darwin’s survival of the fittest, cooperation doesn’t make sense. How do you benefit from sacrificing for someone else? That’s the problem that game theory sets out to solve. Along the way, they found an emergence of cooperation as a normal form of evolving to win in a competitive environment. The Evolution of Cooperation walks through the models and competitions that lead to a better understanding of how we evolved to cooperate.

Scientific Computer Programming

It was my junior year of high school, and I got into a class named Scientific Computer Programming. It was so named, I was told, because the science department wanted to teach it, and there was some conversation about whether the math department should be allowed to teach it. The man who taught it was also my physics teacher. He was a tall man and a gentle but imposing force to be reckoned with. Somewhere along the way, he prepared us to write a competitive game.

I didn’t know then, but I do know now, that it was a variant of the game that Robert Axelrod ran. It was called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The basic construct was two prisoners are caught and separated. Each is given a deal. They can rat out their co-conspirator – to defect — for a lesser sentence. If both defect, they both end up with long sentences. If they both cooperate (don’t defect), both prisoners end up with shorter sentences. If one defects and the other doesn’t, the defector gets the best possible deal, while the person who didn’t defect gets the worst possible result – even worse than if both had defected.

There are some more rules, like non-communication between the two prisoners (competing programs) and so forth, but the one interesting thing is that you can record what happened in prior moves. In our class, I remember I took the average of every prior move that the opponent had made and used that to predict what they would do next.

In our case, as in the second edition of Alexrod’s competition, there was no way for the program to know when the last round would be played – there was a small probability that each round was the last. This prevents the strategy of always defecting on the last move, since there’s no better alternative.

Game Theory

I didn’t realize back then that I was learning about game theory. It was just another assignment in the class – which, though I liked it, was still a class. I got a reintroduction to it in Gottman’s The Science of Trust. In a book on relationships, it seemed like a stretch. That being said, it had an important lesson, one that Axelrod’s competitions played out. There are two equilibriums possible. The first is the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium, where everyone looks out only for their best interests. The second is the Nash equilibrium, where people look out for the overall good – not just their own good.

Axelrod showed through the simulations how independent programs – or organisms – could collectively develop towards the Nash equilibrium, even using something as simple as an eye for an eye.

Tit for Tat

As it turns out, my program was beat rather handily by some others in the competition, but it was fun anyway. What I didn’t expect was that Axelrod’s competition, which drew entries from scholars in many different disciplines, was beat by a very simple program. The simple program that won his competition was Tit for Tat. It cooperates on the first move, and then every move after that, it simply does what the other program did. Thus, if the other program defected, Tit for Tat would defect. It’s very simple, but its simplicity got great results.

While Tit for Tat didn’t ever get the highest score, it always got a good score. Whether it was competing with itself or other strategies, overall, Tit for Tat was the winner.

Characteristics for Cooperation

Axelrod took his findings from running these competitions with many different programs and generalized a set of principles that defined the winners for the competition he established. He asserts that, to win this game, the programs needed to be:

  • Nice – The nice programs won over not-so-nice programs
  • Provokable – The program needed to respond quickly when the opponent would defect.
  • Forgiving – Once the other program started to cooperate, the program should start to cooperate too.
  • Clear – The program should make its behavior clear enough that the opponent would be able to understand the behavior and learn to work towards mutual benefit.

Tit for Tat was an ideal approach based on these rules. It started with cooperation, and after a single defection, it would defect to penalize the opposing program. Once the opposing program started responding with cooperation, it would respond in kind. Its logic and approach was neither complex nor cloaked. The other program could easily anticipate how Tit for Tat would respond after only a few rounds.

Barriers to Cooperation

Tit for Tat, you may recall, never got the highest score – it couldn’t. However, it did consistently get good scores. Tit for Tat avoided some of the barriers that other entrants had, like:

  • Being Envious – By being worried about your opponent in the current challenge, programs were less effective.
  • First to Defect – Programs that were the first to defect tended to do less well.
  • Failure to Reciprocate – Whether it’s niceness or not-so-niceness, programs that gained long-term cooperation tended to reciprocate.
  • Being Clever – Programs that were too clever didn’t allow a condition to occur where the other program could predict its responses.

All in all, these barriers to cooperation are largely opposites of the kinds of characteristics that drive cooperation.

Additional Learnings

Some interesting learnings show up if you randomize the different programs and run a sort of evolutionary game with them. The programs that get the most points collectively every few rounds get to replicate, and those who lose consistently die out. The result is that the programs that weren’t nice may have won for a while when there were “sucker” programs, but when the suckers died out, the not-nice programs eventually became extinct as well.

There were some challenges, however. Once an environment became All D (short for “all defects”), it was impossible for any strategy – including Tit for Tat – to gain a foothold. However, if you introduced new programs in clusters, so that at least some of their interactions would be with like programs, it was possible for programs like Tit for Tat to not only get a foothold, but also to start to eradicate All D. This works, because the benefits of both programs collaborating far outweigh the benefits for both programs defecting. Tit for Tat does so much better against itself that it ends up with a point surplus, even if it has to give up one move to All D. (The first round, All D will defect, and Tit for Tat will cooperate, giving it a disadvantage – however, a round with two Tit for Tat programs handily makes up for this small difference.)

Applicability to Live

Perhaps my greatest concern with the exercise and the learnings is their applicability to our lives as humans. I don’t intend to discount what we’ve learned but rather, I want to make clear the narrow space where this works.

Cooperative Ratios

One of the key driving factors for this game is that the cooperative payoff is collectively larger than one defection and one cooperation or both sides defecting. Effectively, this is a built-in bias that cooperation is the winning move – when you can get both parties to agree. The good news is that, on this front, I expect we’re in relatively safe footing. In most cases in life, we’re better off cooperating versus competing or attempting to take advantage of one another.

Will We Meet Again

The second concern is that the game presumes that the participants will meet again. In fact, retaining the probability that the participants will meet again is absolutely key to the system working. When you remove the chance that you’ll meet again, the best strategy is to defect. As mentioned earlier, this caused Axelrod to modify the game to not have a fixed endpoint, since knowing the end caused defections at the end.

In our world today, it’s unclear to me how much we expect that we’ll meet with others again. It’s unclear how much our reputations precede us and how much our behaviors impact our future interactions. I know that they should. I know that, for the system to remain stable, we must believe we’ll meet again, because otherwise there’s no point in working with someone. There are better payoffs to take advantage of them.

As we move from smaller communities to larger towns, and we have higher mobility, I’m concerned that this critical condition may be lost.

Value of the Future

Another inherent requirement is that the future not be discounted too much. It’s important that we believe that giving up some level of benefit today is worth the future benefits of cooperation. This obviously goes down when we don’t think we’ll meet again – thus we can’t assume cooperation. However, more than that we learned in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we discount things in the future more than we should. Whatever true value we get in the future has to outweigh our cognitive bias against it.

Lack of Escalation

In most things in life, there’s a compounding that happens. Compounding of interest at a modest 12% causes money to double in six years. The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow spoke about how a 4% improvement each year in skill can lead to performances that seem impossible today. Fundamental to The Prisoner’s Dilemma game is a lack of escalation. This leads to the future not being seen as more valuable – and that can be problematic.

Variation and Non-Zero Sum

Most of life isn’t zero sum – and The Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates this to some degree. However, the stability of the outcomes for each round isn’t what we see in life. Some interactions are more important than others. They’re worth more. In effect, there’s a relatively large degree of variation in real life in terms of the rewards (or punishments), but these aren’t captured. In real life, someone can die – or exit the game – if they’re hurt too badly. However, this is explicitly prevented by the rules in The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Ultimatums

There’s been a human behavior that has fascinated economists. As I mentioned in my review of Drive, there’s a strange human behavior in The Ultimatum Game. In short, two people play with a fixed amount of money (say $10) that the first person decides how to split. The second person gets to decide whether both get the split – or neither. From an economist’s point of view, the second person should always take the split, because they’ll be better off. However, that’s not what happens.

If the split gets too unbalanced – say $7-$3 or $8-$2 – the second person starts to prevent either person from getting money. Seen in the context of The Evolution of Cooperation, this makes sense. It’s necessary for someone to punish the other when their behavior exceeds acceptable boundaries.

Social Loafing

An area of concern that Collaboration raised was the issue of “social loafing:” people not pulling their own weight and relying on others to do all the work. Accountability is the proposed solution. We see this in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, where it’s important for misbehaving programs – or people – to be punished. We also see that when all the “suckers” are weeded out, those living off of those “suckers” also die out. So evolution has primed us to weed out those folks who are social loafers.

For each of us, there’s a line between “social loafing” and being able to contribute our fair share to the community. Finding that line seems to be one of the things that happens in The Evolution of Cooperation.

Book Review-De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less

There’s an angry person standing in front of you, and you want to help them with their problem – but you can’t. You can’t not because you’re incapable of solving their problem, but instead because they won’t let you. They can’t get past their anger to let you work with them to solve the problem. This is the heart of the problem that De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less discusses. There are plenty of conflict resolution approaches that seek to understand the problem and create a collaborative approach to creating solutions. What De-Escalate addresses is the critical first step of diffusing the emotions.

Emotional Invalidation

We all just want to be understood. Our basic human need for connection cannot be overstated. (See The Dance of Connection if you want to know more about this need.) As much as a person who is emotionally agitated wants their agitation to go away, the thing they need more urgently is to feel like they’re understood. Unfortunately, we often start working with an emotionally-agitated individual by telling them – in effect – their emotions are wrong.

We confront the angry person and tell them there’s no need to be angry. This is telling them that we don’t understand them, and they’re “wrong.” As a result, we increase their agitation, because they’re not understood. Now they’re angry at us, because we’re telling them that their feelings are wrong.

All Feelings are OK

One of the things that’s important to understand about other people’s feelings – and our own – is that all feelings are OK (See Parent Effectiveness Training for more on feelings being OK). While not all actions are acceptable, all feelings are. Our feelings are a part of us. There is something that we’ve experienced that triggered the feelings either in the moment or through a combination of things in our past and the current situation that has come together to make our feelings.

Buddhists believe that feelings aren’t good or bad. They describe feelings – or emotions – as either afflictive or non-afflictive. That is, the feelings either harm you, or they do not. It might interest you to know that anger is not necessarily an afflictive emotion. It’s certainly a powerful emotion, but, when harnessed correctly, it can be a powerful force for change (see Emotional Awareness for more on afflictive/non-afflictive emotions).

Emotional Validation

At the heart of the process that Doug Noll lays out in the De-Escalate book is the process of affect labeling. Affect labeling is telling the other person what they’re feeling. Noll is critical of the advice that many of us have been given to use “I” statements not “you” statements in a heated discussion. (See Crucial Conversations for other ideas for how to handle difficult conversations.) In follow-up correspondence with Noll, I believe that he’s making strong statements in the book to cause people to project their desire to understand the other person and not water down things so much that the other person can’t see you’re attempting to identify their emotions.

Noll quotes some research by Dr. Lieberman, whose research, he says, indicates that labeling the other person’s emotion causes them to have a lower amygdala response and better prefrontal cortex control (PFC). The problem is that Dr. Lieberman’s research doesn’t say this. In reading it, the research says that, if a subject can label what they’re seeing, they themselves will have better PFC control. The research says nothing of the person being labeled. (In the research, they were labeling emotions they saw in pictures.) Normally, this would cause me to discount an author completely, because I hate it when authors draw conclusions that the research doesn’t support. However, in this case, I think there’s middle ground.

First, I recognize that we’re all emotionally-driven, no matter how much we want to believe that we’re rational. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Predictably Irrational for more.) I know that the techniques we use for non-emotionally-charged conflict resolution and problem solving are fundamentally based on creating understanding – and thereby connection. Active listening is a skill designed to ensure that what is being heard is what the speaker means. (See Motivational Interviewing, Parent Effectiveness Training, and A Way of Being for more on active listening.) So it only makes sense that reflecting – and clarifying – emotion should have the same effect on emotionally-charged individuals.

Second, I played with it. I tried some situations that I could normally work through, but I tried it by reflecting and validating the emotion – before or in addition to the content of the message. The result was quicker resolution than other techniques that don’t acknowledge the emotion first. Motivational Interviewing describes an approach of open questions, affirming, reflection, and summarization. This technique is normally focused on the content of the conversation – but it works well when focused on the emotional context as well.

I and You

Ultimately, as I was experimenting with the technique, I found that I needed to not be blunt about what I thought the other person was feeling. Instead of “you are feeling angry,” I’d say something like, “It seems like you’re angry.” This way, they should feel free to correct me – and I wasn’t telling them that I knew what they were feeling better than they did. The result was having the other person correct me – not always gently. That was great, because it helped me to understand the emotional context and allowed them to feel like I was really listening.

With a few of the folks that I experimented with, I realized that I was helping them to articulate how they were feeling. They were able to evaluate my statement and acknowledge that this was their feeling – even if they couldn’t put a word to it.

Emotional Intelligence

In reviewing the situation, it seems like folks who have lower emotional intelligence – and particularly self-awareness – were more open to me labeling them, and I could be more direct. However, people like myself, who are more highly aware, bristled if I got too direct. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about what emotional intelligence is.) Over the years, I’ve had to say to some others that I get to feel my feelings – they don’t. I can feel annoyed – but they can’t tell me that I feel annoyed if I don’t.

In the end, the key is sensitivity to communicating your perception of the other person’s feelings – and giving them an open door to tell you that you’re wrong. You can be wrong as long as the other person feels like you’re listening.

Just Stop Listening

Noll also includes advice to not listen to the words the other person is speaking. Only listen to the emotions they’re conveying. While I wholeheartedly understand the factors that Noll is concerned with, I believe that the approach is sort of like “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Noll’s concerns are that you’ll be overwhelmed with processing the words and the emotion and that you’ll get triggered. Both are valid concerns – but, in my opinion not sufficient to stop listening.

Overloading Processing

There’s a fixed capacity for our brain to consume glucose and process information. (See The Rise of Superman for more.) Much of what our brain is designed to do is filter and simplify information. (See The Paradox of Choice and Predictably Irrational.) However, despite these truths, the idea that you shouldn’t listen to the words that people are saying because you’ll be overloaded processing that and the emotion doesn’t hold true to the neurology. The Tell-Tale Brain walks through the verbal processing centers of the brain and how language is processed in the brain. However, emotional context is – almost exclusively – processed in other areas of the brain.

One of the observations about people in the mental state of flow is that there are areas of their brain that are more or less shut down to enable higher capacity in the areas that are demanded by flow. (See Finding Flow and Flow for more.) However, people rarely enter flow when engaged in a conversation. It’s not hard to understand why when you see the need for a small gap between capacity and current skill to drive the growth that flow provides – and the fact that our brains process somewhere between 450-600 words per minute and the spoken word is generally spoken in the 150 words per minute range.

In short, when someone else is talking, we’ve got plenty of capacity to process what they’re saying – and do other things. The key when someone else is speaking isn’t getting enough processing done. The key is staying focused on the right thing and not getting distracted by our own insecurities or triggered into emotional flooding ourselves.

Not Getting Triggered

It’s much easier to say “don’t get triggered” than to live it out. Hurting people hurt people. When faced with an agitated person, you’re facing someone who is psychologically hurting. They’re likely to say mean and awful things about you. They may be true, partially true, or complete fiction. No matter what they are, you must keep from becoming wrapped up in the emotions that these verbal barbs might trigger.

Noll’s suggestion is good in the sense that, if you can’t hear the words, then you can’t process them and get triggered. However, there’s a lot of neuroscience that says that what’s happening consciously and what is happening unconsciously can be – and often are – two different things. Just because you’re consciously ignoring the words doesn’t mean that your unconscious is. Unfortunately, it’s the unconscious that triggers the emotional response. Being triggered is all about emotions.

I believe that the key issue is the perception of safety. If you feel like you’re safe – both physically and emotionally/psychologically – then you’re not likely to react to even vile language hurled at you. (To understand safety, I’d suggest Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order and my post Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.) So, for me, the issue of not getting triggered is less about ignoring the words and more about putting them in the proper context. If you can evaluate the context of the words and whether they’re really threatening to your safety, you have a better chance of staying centered.

Staying Centered

Unless you’ve studied martial arts, you’re likely to not know what “staying centered” means. After all, how can you stay centered emotionally? The answer relies on the idea of balance and of interacting with the world. When your body is physically centered (or rooted), it takes quite a bit to knock you off balance. When you’re aware of the center of gravity of your body and where your limbs are, you don’t need to be so concerned with whether an attack will knock you down. In many martial arts forms, the ability to remain centered allows you to deflect or transform an attacker’s energy in a way that prevents that energy from harming you.

This is the same perspective on emotional centeredness. The verbal attacks don’t disrupt your perspective of yourself, the situation, or the person launching the attack. You can attend to it in a detached kind of way, knowing that you’re relatively safe no matter what happens.

This is the key to de-escalating a conflict. You can’t pour your gasoline on a fire that you’re trying to put out.

The Truth in the Conflict

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this review explaining where I disagree with Noll (and supporting that with references). However, the truth is that my disagreements with Noll are a matter of degree. De-Escalate is a solid framework for de-escalating conflict, so that you can move forward to improving understanding, finding options, and, finally, solving the problem at the core of the conflict. While I disagree on the precise approaches he outlines in the book, I agree with the concerns and the concepts. As I followed up with him via email, I realized that there is a subtlety and an understanding of the need to adapt his hard-fast rules into something usable for every day. We disagree less about objectives and factors – we disagree about precisely how to accomplish them.

It’s a fitting thing for two folks that preach conflict resolution. We understand each other and can accept where the other person has a valid point – even without accepting it as ours. Hopefully you can De-Escalate conflict and build understanding with everyone you encounter.

Book Review-Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

Why is it that some people seem to reach their goals and do great things while others languish in obscurity, not sure what to focus their time on or whether they should watch TV or go to a movie? We all want success – though we may define it differently – and the path to success is, we believe, productivity. In Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, Charles Duhigg seeks to illuminate the path.

Believing the Lie

Productivity starts with believing a lie. It starts by believing that we’re in control of our destiny. If we look deeply into anyone’s success, we will find that luck and circumstances played a huge role in their success. Yet for ourselves we must believe that our self-agency, our ability to control our destiny, is limitless.

Carol Dweck’s research proves that people do better in life if they believe in a growth mindset. (See Mindset for more.) The heart of the growth mindset is a belief in self-agency, or what is sometimes called an “internal locus of control.” To encourage a growth mindset, we praise the work and not the results. We help people understand that their effort drives their results, not their inherent skill.

Change or Die explains that if we were to truly look at our weaknesses, we’d never be able to function. A life-threatening asteroid may strike the planet tomorrow – but the odds are against it. Taleb might argue that The Black Swan event is always around the corner, but if we’re hypervigilant in this way on everything, we’ll get nothing done.

The Halo Effect reminds us that, though we love the world of certainty, we live in a probabilistic world. We need to accept that there is a certain amount of chance in our daily doings. While we have some important impact on our lives, our level of influence isn’t limitless. In Extreme Productivity, Robert Pozen spends most of the book explaining his techniques for productivity before admitting in the end that his life has not followed the path of a straight arrow. He’s followed the twists and turns of fate – or luck.

Success, it seems, isn’t dependent completely on luck or work. As Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared.” It’s possible that your number will come up on the roulette wheel when you have a small bet or a large bet. The payoffs are much larger when the bet is larger. Working hard – on the right things – allows you to make those larger bets.

A Thousand Steps

An old proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Developing productivity is like this. The Rise of Superman talks about how extraordinary things are accomplished by mere mortals and how those feats are typically the results of a very small improvement followed by another and another. Like the compounding of interest, our capabilities grow slowly as we invest in them. If we continue to make small incremental improvements over time, we can do amazing things.

Sometimes people are discouraged when they realize the large gap between where they are today and where they want to go. They don’t know how to break large goals into smaller goals. One man who figured out how to get big things done through small steps was Walt Disney. As I mentioned in my review of Primal Leadership, despite his setbacks, Disney learned to try things in small scale before trying larger projects. He made short movies before feature-length movies. He built a path to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though shorts and other tests to ensure that he could produce a full-length animated movie.

Connecting Steps to Journeys

The real magic of Disney may not be in the parks but in his ability to connect long-term objectives to the step-by-step progression of smaller tasks. One of the challenges is that many people become overwhelmed when faced with large goals. They feel lost because they don’t know how to get to the end goal. The trick isn’t to know how to reach the goal. The trick is in knowing how to get closer. As The Psychology of Hope points out, what we think of as willpower – the ability to keep moving forward – contains two components: what we’ve traditionally called “willpower” and a second component called “way power.” Way power is an awareness of how to move forward.

This is one of the great learnings of agile methodologies. You just move things forward a little and then reassess to see if you can figure out what the next small step should be. You don’t have to reach the end in one giant leap. You move forward, learn, adapt, and then move forward again. Eventually you learn how things work – for real – and you’re able to make larger and larger leaps.

Models

Gary Klein recognizes that fire commanders had built models in their head about how fires were supposed to behave. (See Sources of Power.) They learned and fine-tuned these models in their experience. They had stumbled across the capacity to think in systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) It became possible for them to see everything as connected, and when this happened, they could simulate in their heads what was going to happen. When it happened, they knew they were on the right track; and when it didn’t, they knew they had to adjust their thinking and their response.

One of the funny things is that these fire commanders weren’t always the person with the most experience. They were sometimes just the people who could build the models faster and better than the others. It’s the ability to think in systems that made them good at what they did. Highly productive people, it turns out, generate lots and lots of theories and start to use their systems thinking to model them – and eventually to know which things to test.

Thinking in systems doesn’t come with a cursory interest. It takes commitment.

It’s All About Commitment

In Freemont, California, they’ve witnessed a change. A plant that made cars so poorly that GM had to close it down became a shining star in a partnership with Toyota. The plant is the stuff of legend. Many books have been written about it and reference it. It’s heralded as the quintessential reason why Japanese cars are so much better than American cars – even when the cars are made by largely the same workers.

In the GM command and control model, you didn’t dare stop the production line, because you had been told repeatedly how much that costs the company. In the Toyota model, if you needed to stop the line to do something right, you did. It’s simple, but the transfer of accountability and responsibility is enough to do something magical: create commitment.

When you’re committed to your goal, job, career, or company, you’ll volunteer to work harder. You want to do more than the minimum, because the minimum isn’t great. When you want to take a leap forward, sometimes it means slowing things down to get it right and learn more.

Random Connections

The most innovative people you meet aren’t the people in the science lab learning to stop all vibration of an atom. The most innovative people are the people who take discoveries like that one and combine it with other ideas to create something great. The truly innovative research that has been done, the greatest ideas that have been created, are a result of merging diverse fields. Whether it’s The Medici Effect that set off the Renaissance period by bringing together different artists and inventors or it’s Edison’s lab that brought metallurgy and gas lighting experts together to create the incandescent light, breakthrough innovations are more about combining the thoughts of others than doing your own detailed, tiny, but ground-breaking research.

For me, these random connections are Discovered Truths. Like the periodic table of elements, when you can see the order in the chaos, you can tame it and ride it to the end – rather than trying to grind it out. In the end, Smarter Faster Better is the way we all want to be.

Book Review-The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

Life is chaos. It’s the million-billion random connections that make life interesting. All art and all science seek to understand us. We try to understand the connections in our own minds that make us, well, us. By understanding ourselves, we will have completed a quest that is as old as humanity and gained access to the keys that unlock productivity and happiness. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human is less of a solution and more of a treasure map, leading us to landmarks that help us understand who we are.

Making the Invisible Visible

It was the early 1800s, before we understood about space travel, computers, internal combustion, or even incandescent lighting. Magnets were strange things, but no one really understood how they worked, until a man by the name of Michael Faraday dropped iron filings onto a sheet of paper over a magnet, and the filings aligned themselves into beautiful arcs. He wasn’t the traditional, well-educated gentleman. He was self-educated man whose work underlies much of what we take for granted today.

His discovery can be simplified to that simple demonstration of a paper, a magnet, and some iron filings. However, the genius in this is that something utterly inexplicable became “knowable” for the first time. Like how organizing the elements into the periodic table increased awareness of the inherent order in chemistry, so, too, did Faraday’s simple experiment explain electromagnetism.

All exploration, whether it’s into space or into the mind, is designed to illuminate the dark corners where we cannot see. In our sight – in our understanding – we can view the world and ourselves differently and can improve. V.S. Ramachandran’s work in The Tell-Tale Brain seeks to illuminate the darkness of how we think.

Hacking and Engineering

Francis Crick is quoted as once saying, “God is a hacker, not an engineer.” No matter where your faith lies, one cannot deny the evidence that the things that make us human evolved. Ears came from jaw bones. Our brain itself evolved by starting with basic functions and the ability to find food to its current capacity. These functions were eventually adapted to other purposes.

The more we understand about our physiology and neurology, the more we recognize that we are adapted from earlier animals. Our stress responses trace back to the Serengeti and avoiding lions, even if we’ve adapted how we experience stress. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) We have become successful because of our high-brain power position, which has allowed us to develop the social adaption. (See Flourish for our adaptation and Mindreading for how this works.) That has only worked because we were able to get the number of calories we needed. Our brain today consumes 20-30% of all our energy with only 2-3% of our body mass. The hummingbird developed a hyper metabolism, and we developed hyper intellect.

Vision

If you want to see, you obviously need eyes. However, in truth, little of what we consider to be vision happens with our eyes. Our brains progressively build a model based on the information that we have streaming in from our eyes. It’s the model that we see, not literally what our eyes are taking in. The exercise in Incognito proves this concretely. Our eyes contain a blind spot, where the retina attaches to the optic nerve – yet even with only one eye open, we perceive no blind spot. Our brain quietly makes up the missing information to give us the complete picture – whether it’s truth or simply fiction.

Our brain uses many different cues to try to figure out what the eyes are telling it. By carefully shading objects, it’s possible to make them appear to be raised – or lowered. This is the brain considering the heuristics of what an object should look like when it’s a solid color and is then raised or lowered.

Bending Back to Oneself

Mirror neurons allow us to simulate and sense what another person or animal is likely thinking. This socialization mechanism may have allowed us to coordinate better and therefore become the dominant animal on the planet. (The Righteous Mind calls this capacity “shared intentionality.”) However, it may be possible that the increased capacity of mirror neurons may have allowed our consciousness to emerge by bending back on ourselves. Introspection is trying to peer through the veils held by the unconscious to understand what we ourselves are thinking. It’s not too wild an idea that this is possible only through our enhanced mirror neurons. In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer speaks of consciously bending the beam of observation back onto oneself.

The strange twist is found in patients with amputations who have phantom limbs.

Phantom Limbs and Our Skin

What do you do if you’ve got an itch you just can’t scratch? In fact, no one can scratch it. The itch is on a phantom limb. After an amputation, some patients find themselves with pain or sensations in the limb that was amputated. From a purely physical point of view, this can’t be the case; but try telling someone they don’t feel something they do and see how far that gets you.

What if someone placed another arm in your field of view such that your eyes – and brain – could perceive it as yours and someone scratched it? There’s absolutely no reason why this should stop the itch on a phantom limb – but it does. What if you optically shrunk an image that you could believe was your phantom limb? It shouldn’t make the pain smaller – but it does.

Stranger still, take a normal person and anesthetize their brachial plexus, which connects the nerves in the arm to the spinal cord, then rub the arm of an accomplice set up in a way to make the patient believe it’s their own arm. The patient will feel whatever is done to the accomplice’s arm. It’s like the mirror neurons see the action and expect the result. Normally the “vote” from the arm itself would veto the mirror neurons’ perception of what’s happening – but without the input from the arm, the result is the perception of touch when there is none.

In effect, it’s only the fact that our skin transmits a more powerful message than our mirror neurons that we don’t feel what is happening to other people. This might explain why we wince when we see others get harmed.

Learning the Language

Take a pidgin – a sort of partial language that’s secondary to two peoples who don’t share a common language. It’s useful only for rudimentary communication. However, if you let children be raised in an environment where there is a pidgin, they will spontaneously start speaking a creole – a language that is a blend of the original language but may conform to its own grammatical rules. In a single generation, the children will learn enough to build a solid underpinning of a fully-fledged language. This is an amazing feat that seems to indicate that our brains are intrinsically wired to work with language.

It’s more than something we’re capable of doing. It seems that our unique adaptations make language particularly easy for us to acquire – and to use with our mirror neurons to coordinate.

Art and Aesthetics

How can a caricature of someone look more like them than their original picture? The answer is buried in our processing and surfaces through art. We identify people by the characteristics that differentiate them from the rest of the population. If we exaggerate these features in a caricature, then we make someone look even more like how we imagine them to be than they are in real life.

This is an example of one of Ramachandran’s nine laws of aesthetics, “peak shifting.” The nine laws, Ramachandran believes, drives our interest in art. The complete list is:

  • Grouping – The grouping of individual features into a whole. This may have been created to help us defeat camouflage.
  • Peak shift – The potential for a higher degree of response from an exaggerated differentiating feature.
  • Contrast – The degree of difference in luminance or hue.
  • Isolation – Downplay of distracting elements leaving the intended message clearer.
  • Peekaboo
    Principle – Making something more attractive by making it less visible or obscuring some parts.
  • Abhorrence of coincidences – Our brains try to find plausible alternates, generic interpretations to avoid coincidence.
  • Orderliness – The expectations of how things should be.
  • Symmetry – A marker or flag of good health which is a proxy for desirability.
  • Metaphor – The inclusion of one object that is related metaphorically to another to convey a combined message.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the list is how each has a rational explanation of how it’s possible that evolution might have created us to be biased towards these factors. It turns out that our tastes and beliefs may not be as much ours as we think.

Meta Meets Physics

Metaphysics is dismissed as mumbo-jumbo by traditional scientists. There have been charlatans and fakes who have taken advantage of people looking for answers that Western medicine can’t provide. Eastern medicine has demonstrated its efficacy in some cases – even when there’s no explanation for how it’s working. There’s a spooky quality to some of the metaphysical and Eastern medicine. Metaphysical concepts in particular seem to indicate that we’re all connected.

What’s strange is scientists are beginning to find that we may be. Bohm spoke of our connectedness to one another – and across time – in On Dialogue. But spookier is the world of quarks, where things are literally connected. Quarks and subatomic particles are literally able to connect across space in ways that we don’t understand. Maybe that’s why there are no clear answers in The Tell-Tale Brain – and maybe it’s why you should look for answers there anyway.

Book Review-Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities

I’ve been a part of or have led many groups in my time. Each one had a unique “feel.” Some were hyper focused, and others generally organized around a topic. Some were high technology and others decidedly not so. Developing communities has always been interesting, since some communities flourish and others languish. Understanding how communities are formed – particularly communities that exist, at least in part, in the ethereal space of our digital age – is what Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities is all about.

The Way Back Machine

Before getting to the content, it’s necessary to explain that this isn’t a new book. It was published in 2009. I was first introduced to it through a book by Michael Sampson called User Adoption Strategies, which I read all the way back in 2011. Back at that time, my note-taking was substantially more primitive. I wasn’t writing reviews on a regular basis. I was working on some user adoption content for a client and stumbled across the reference – and the desire to revisit some of the sources that shaped my thinking about user adoption strategies.

Reviewing a 9-year-old technology book feels like dusting off dinosaur bones in the space of communities and digital collaboration – but though many of the examples cited in the book have been lost to the sands of time, the underlying principles of how communities come together and stay together haven’t changed. While myspace lost to Facebook, and some of the thriving communities from 10 years ago are all but gone, the need for humans to connect hasn’t changed in a few thousand years.

Alone and Together

Alone Together takes a negative view of how technology is driving us further from one another. Bowling Alone speaks of our continued abandonment of physical communities. There is a certain component of destruction in new creation. Digital Habitats is focused on the creation part of the process. It speaks of how communities are drawn together – whether in person or online – and how technologies can enable and support that process.

While it’s possible to create technologies that isolate us from one another, it’s equally possible to create connections.

Rhythms and Interactions

Digital Habitats speaks of our connection with others in communities in two parts. First, there are the rhythms – that is, the patterns of being together and apart. Second is interactions, which is described as participation and rectification. Rectification means “making into object.” In this context, I’d adjust this to say that it’s consensus building – whether written and formalized or not.

Rhythms of connection – and disconnection – are important. They form the basis of our ability to merge with the group identity and separate to regain our own standalone identity – or merge ourselves into other groups. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on the identification process.)

Interactions are the part of communities that most of us consider when thinking of the community – but from the narrow perspective of the episodes of interactions rather than the outcome of those interactions. Interactions can divide; but more frequently within a community, they build our understanding and create consensus. We learn about different perspectives and nuances about the thing that we’re in the community to learn about. Sometimes members of communities convert the consensus into an artifact that can be leveraged by others to speed their learning about the topic. (For instance, take a look at my posts about the Indy CIO Network and my summary of those conversations, like Marketing Information Technology to the Organization or Effective IT Steering Committees.)

At an individual level, we gain knowledge through our communities. At an aggregate level, the artifacts created from the interactions of those passionate about a topic – whether expert or not – creates value to the world as those artifacts are available to others.

Orientations

Digital Habitats asserts that there are different orientations to every community, and those orientations shape the needs of the community. The orientations and their key needs are listed here:

  • Meetings – Emphasis on regularly scheduled meetings
  • Open-ended conversations – Emphasis is on the ability to reach out and connect in a conversation at a time
  • Projects – The desire to work together to complete specific projects
  • Content – The desire to create content
    • Library – Providing an organized set of documents
    • Structured self-publishing – A forum for participants to publish information using a consistent format and metadata
    • Open self-publishing – Participants contribute but in a format and structure that suits them
    • Content integration – Participants build a network of links that connect information available publicly into a consumable structure
  • Access to expertise – The community forms so that the members can have access to expertise that they don’t possess
    • Access via questions and requests – Questions are broadcast in a way that experts can respond
    • Direct access to explicitly designated experts – Specific folks are identified as the experts that others seek to get access to
    • Shared problem solving – Group members help individuals solve problems
    • Knowledge validation – Artifacts are routed to members until they’re fully vetted
    • Apprenticeship and mentoring – Learning of the individual takes place through the mentorship of a skilled practitioner
  • Relationships – Connecting with other people on a common interest
    • Connecting – Networking with people who are likely to be useful
    • Knowing about people – Getting to know others at a professional and personal level
    • Interacting informally – Interacting one-on-one and in small groups
  • Individual participation – Creating opportunities for individuals to engage
    • Varying and selective participation – Various forms of participation are offered as ways to engage
    • Personalization – Members can individualize their experience of the community
    • Individual development – The community helps the development of individual members
    • Multimembership – Coordinating access across multiple communities
  • Community cultivation – Focused on the creation of the community itself – or the broader community
    • Democratic governance – Self-governing structures of self-management
    • Strong core group – A caring group of people take a nurturing role in the community
    • Internal coordination – A small group takes the role of coordinating the community
    • External facilitation – An external facilitator who is typically not a subject matter expert is responsible for managing the community
  • Serving a context – Orientation to the member’s point of view
    • Organization as context – The community is seen in its relationship to the host organization
    • Cross-organizational context – The community as seen as serving multiple organizations in a larger community
    • Constellation of related communities – The community sees itself in terms of the related communities that it serves
    • Public mission – The community sees itself in terms of the public mission it’s moving forward

While the ability to distinguish between multiple goals of different communities is important, I find this taxonomy unwieldy. Because this is a multiple selection-type organization, every community falls within every category to some degree or another, making it difficult to put your finger on exactly what the goals are.

More troubling than that, it seems as if, rather than being one set of categories, what we have are a few dimensions. I’d propose that there are a set of dimensions for communities as follows:

  • Context – Self-serving or other serving
  • Organizational approach – Completely democratic and free-form to completely bureaucratic
  • Expected Participation – From the “lurker” who never posts to the highly engaged
  • Relational – Is the objective casual professional talk or deep relationships that transfer outside of the group as well?
  • Intent – Meetings (ritualized gatherings), open-ended conversations, access to expertise, projects, and content creation

Technology Stewards

Ultimately, Digital Habitats seeks to empower technology stewards. That is, to take the caretaker for the habitat and enable them to make intelligent technology decisions to help the membership to get out of the group what they desire. In this, the book explains some categorizations and selection criteria that didn’t survive the test of time very well but provides a focus on the needs of the community, which will always be relevant.

Every digital habitat needs a caretaker, someone who will look after their Digital Habitats.