Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – Prison Construction

It seems as if the construction of prisons is all about the bricks, mortar, and iron bars. On the surface, constructing a prison is about preventing break outs. However, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil explains that the real construction of the prison isn’t in the walls and bars. The real construction is in the beliefs.

This is the second in a series of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The first was The Devil Made Me Do It, and the final post in the series will be “Normal Evil“.


“The Rock.” It’s a short name for a tiny island in the middle of San Francisco bay that once served as a maximum-security prison. Even if prisoners escaped their cells, the water currents and relative distance of the shore meant near-certain death to anyone willing to attempt it. It’s not that people didn’t try to escape; however, their bodies were never found. As a result, the record of Alcatraz as an inescapable prison remains.

Alcatraz was a formidable prison. The “Battle for Alcatraz” attempted breakout, however, proved that, even if it was not escapable, it was possible for the prisoners to overpower the guards – at least temporarily. The real walls in the prison weren’t the ones made of concrete. The real walls were the ones that were created in the prisoner’s minds. The most troublesome and notorious prisoners called Alcatraz their temporary home and ultimately succumbed to the power of The Rock, a power that wasn’t expressed in its concrete structures, but instead in its relational power structures.

Power Structures

Lord John Dalberg-Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s the structure of power that makes a prison run. If there are too few controls, limits, expectations, and monitoring, the power of the guards spirals up and the power of the prisoners down. The result is the temporary corruption of the guards into tyrannical monsters.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), as it came to be known, showed how minimal oversight and poor limits on guard behavior caused them to emotionally torment the prisoners. In the Abu Ghraib, the conditions weren’t simulated and the results were real. Much to the military’s disgrace, the conditions established at this and other prisons had guards doing unthinkable things to prisoners.

When the Geneva Conventions were removed by changing the status of the prisoners from prisoners of war to unlawful combatants, the safety valves were shut off, and the power of the guards was allowed to escalate to impossible levels. Add to this mixture of circumstances, poor supervision, and a severe lack of resources, and the power structure became unsustainably out of balance.

Even good men and women who had faithfully served their country began to disengage their morality (see Moral Disengagement) and do unspeakable things. Lord Acton’s statement had become all too real. These guards had been corrupted by the power that they held over other people’s lives.

Not every guard changes at the same rate. Not everyone’s moral beliefs and boundaries are bent, moved, or disengaged so quickly – but, ultimately, it seems that everyone’s beliefs are “adjusted.” Most frequently, the adjustments are in a failure to speak up. They’re not acts of commission, but are instead acts of omission.

Acts of Omission

To understand the power of the group and how hard it is to speak up for what’s right, we have to step back in time to 1955 and the work of Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College. Imagine you’ve been recruited with other volunteers to study perception. The challenge is easy. You’re there to compare the length of lines. One reference line and three possible lines, one of which matches the length of the first. You might expect this to be the sort of visual illusion test that is designed to test how we process visual information and some of the hidden flaws. (See Incognito for more.)

However, of the eight participants in each experiment, only you were a volunteer. The other seven people were confederates of Asch. They were there to see how you could be influenced by your desire for conformity. It turns out that, on a test that expected a very low error rate, 75% of the subjects gave at least one incorrect response when pressured by incorrect answers by the other confederates.

Instead of speaking up and giving the correct answer – one that was easy to identify – they gave an incorrect answer. The repetitions of the experiment, with the aid of fMRI machines, indicate that the areas of activation aren’t about conflict but are in areas of visual perception. This says that, literally, the person’s perception of the line was changed.

How can you express your true perceptions when you no longer have true perceptions – your perceptions are literally changed?

On Your Death Bed

If you listen carefully to the regrets of the dying, you’ll find, as Bonnie Ware did, that number three on the list is “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” She records this in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Everyone wants to know what they’ll regret most. Perhaps more interesting is that another variation of the regret of omission is number one on the list – “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” That is, they regret that they couldn’t be themselves – to express themselves completely more frequently.

Private Prisons

Back in the SPE, even the most morally-strong failed to speak out against the abuses that were happening. The prisoner who was on a hunger strike couldn’t rally the support of the other prisoners. Part of that was due to a lack of communication and rapport building, but at least some of it was tied up in the power of conformity. The Hidden Brain relates the story of the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit, where in August 1995, a woman was brutally beaten while people all around did nothing.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of Kitty Genovese in The Tipping Point. Kitty was stabbed to death. Thirty-eight people ultimately admitted to hearing her screams, and exactly zero called the police.

The morally-conflicted guards disengaged, performed small acts of kindness towards the prisoners, but failed to elevate their concerns either by confronting the aggressors or reporting the concerns through the chain of command at the mock prison.

Prison Building 101

The great lesson from the SPE is that to build a prison you need no walls. You need no bars. You need only those capacities within the human mind to succumb to group pressure and the lack of initiative needed to stand up and fight for what is right. President Franklin Roosevelt said it best: “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind.” Perhaps the real prison is doing nothing to test the walls in our mind. Perhaps doing nothing is The Lucifer Effect.

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – The Devil Made Me Do It

Young children can say things that adults could never get away with. Ask a child why they did something wrong, and one answer you may get is, “The devil made me do it.” The personification of evil, they proclaim, can override their free will and cause them to take one more cookie after they’ve been told no more. We laugh at this childish idea. Of course, no one can make you do something against your will. Hypnotists reportedly can’t get you to do something you don’t want to do. So how silly is it that “the devil made me do it?” The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil tries to help us understand that this may not be as far-fetched as we’d like to believe, but the devil isn’t in the details – the devil is in the system.

This is the first of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The second post will address constructing a prison, and the third about “normal evil“.

Studies at Stanford

The linchpin of The Lucifer Effect is the study that Philip Zimbardo ran at Stanford University. The study randomly assigned healthy students into either a guard or a prisoner role. The situation was structured to create anonymity, deindividualization, and dehumanization. The structure worked too well. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely, because it was spinning out of control, as the mock guards were abusing the mock prisoners. (As a sidebar, Zimbardo has done other things as well, but none more popular than this experiment. One of his other books, The Time Paradox, is one I read years ago.)

Somehow, the reality that this was an experiment was lost and everyone descended into the belief that the prisoners and the guards were real. They started to act like the situation wasn’t contrived but was instead a result of misdeeds by the prisoners. The escape hatches (metaphorically speaking) to get out of the study were easy enough to realize, but, strikingly, no one reached for them, because no one seemed to believe that they could use them.

In this experiment, the power of the situation – or the system – overwhelmed the good senses of the guards and the prisoners and plunged them both into behaviors that weren’t characteristically theirs. Instead, these students’ behavior was shaped, as Kurt Lewin would say, by their environment.


Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist who contributed greatly to our ability to understand how people behave. His famous equation is B[ehavior] = f[unction](P[erson], E[nvironment]). Put simply, the behavior of anyone is a function of both their person – their unique traits and personality – and the environment that they’re placed in. The mathematics of the function itself is unknown. The complexity of the person and the complexity of their environment make it difficult to predict how someone will really behave. (See Leading Successful Change for more discussion on Lewin’s equation.)

Our legal system rests on the notion that people are responsible for their behaviors, and the environment has no impact on our behavior. (See Incognito for more on this foundation.) However, Lewin says that this is incorrect. In Incognito, Eagleman explains how our will is far from free. Kahneman shares similar concerns in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He goes so far as to say that System 1 (automatic or emotional processing) lies to System 2 (higher-order reasoning.) The result of that deception is that we’re not really in control, we just think we are.

This is the dual-control model that Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis about the rational rider and the emotional elephant. Our laws are constructed for the rational rider without the awareness that the rider isn’t really in control. We make only occasional allowances in our system of government for temporary insanity. This is the slightest acknowledgement where there are times that our emotions get the better of us – and would get the better of anyone.

However, the other variable to the equation is more challenging. Defining the environment is about what courts see as extenuating circumstances – even if they don’t exonerate people – that are worth considering. Zimbardo proves the power of the structural influences on the behavior of carefully screened, well-functioning students. However, he’s not alone in raising the alarm about how good people can be made to do bad things.

Shocking Authority

In the post-World War II world, it’s hard to understand how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party could exterminate so many Jewish people. It’s unthinkable – yet it happened. The question was why people would agree to do such awful things. Stanley Milgram, as a Jew himself, was curious as to what people would do when they were told to. How quickly and easily would people bend to the power of authority. The experiment was simple in structure. Two volunteers would be selected and paired so that one was the teacher and the other was the learner. The teacher would be assessing the effect of electric shocks on the ability to improve learning retention.

At least it looked simple. The real assessment was whether normal people would be willing to administer what they believed to be life-threatening shocks to someone hidden from them. The learner was not a volunteer at all. The learner was a conspirator (or agent) of Milgram’s. The teacher would feel a small shock, then the learner and the teacher would be separated and would communicate through audio only. The teacher would administer what they thought were progressively larger and larger voltage to the learner – while he’d scream, indicate concerns for his heart, and generally indicate his displeasure.

In the presence of a researcher who pressured the teacher to press on, over 90% of people administered what they thought to be potentially lethal shocks to someone in another room. Of course, there were no shocks after the test shock the teacher received. However, the actual outcome of the research was that it was all too easy to get people to disengage their morals in the presence of a false authority. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this terrifying research.)

Moral Disengagement

Bandura artfully explains the mechanisms that allow for Moral Disengagement. The tools of moral disengagement are the same tools that Zimbardo used to construct his mock prison experiment. The system setup for the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed – effectively – to disengage normal, healthy people’s moral safeguards. Free of these bonds, they were free to do anything. The study design in effect created a bubble of reality, of society, of culture that was free to evolve separate from the “real world” outside of the walls of the mock prison.

Bandura affirms that morality is relative to the environment that a person is in. In Paul Ekman’s autobiographical book Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code of My Life’s Pursuit, he shares how a chief’s statement that he would eat Ekman when he died made him a respected man. In this culture, the statement of eating a dead man caused him to achieve respect, while in most cultures, this idea would be repulsive.

Perhaps the greatest surprise wasn’t that morality was relative to culture, it was the speed with which the prison’s culture evolved on its own. It took hours to start to form and days to have a firm hold. By the end of the first week, it was strong enough to have psychologically broken three prisoners and to have shaken Zimbardo’s awareness of his responsibility for controls.

The Devil is the System

Maybe the childish beliefs aren’t so strange. Maybe the devil really did make them do it. However, maybe it’s the systems that we put in place that are the real devil. Maybe it’s the system that is The Lucifer Effect.

Book Review-Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys

Raising all kids today is hard. Since I’ve only attempted to raise kids in today’s environment, I can’t comment about whether it’s harder or easier than previous generations. I can say that the grandparents I talk to tell me that they believe it’s harder. It’s for that reason that every parenting program, resource, and book is a welcome tool to better understand, cope, and succeed in the critical task of parenting. Michael Gurian’s book Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys is one tool.

Gurian plays the conclusions fast and loose, sometimes making leaps that would make Superman afraid of heights. Occasionally, he reaches conclusions directly in contrast with intense research. Despite these challenges, he does have important messages to send, messages that should help all parents understand more about the children they care so much for.

Dominant Gender Paradigm

The starting point for much of Gurian’s perspective is his belief that we, as a society, see men as the dominant gender. We believe that men unfairly earn more than women. We believe that women are denied opportunities that they should get because of their gender. These perspectives echo feelings of racial minorities in the past and today.

In my experience with friends and colleagues, I’m aware that they (both women and minorities) are discriminated against. In technology, where I’ve spent most of my career, women report being undervalued, overlooked, and, worse yet, harassed. I can tell you that the discrimination, both with women and minorities, is real, because I’ve heard the stories – and, in some cases, I’ve been a firsthand witness to it happening.

However, I’ve also seen the reverse happen. I’ve seen groups of people who hire only from within their group. In Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, I learned how different societies value in-family and in-group members to the exclusion of others, and how it negatively impacts their overall economic growth in the long term and limits their ability to grow individual organizations. The needle on the gauge goes both ways. Sometimes the dominant group is excluded too – not as much as minorities or women – but it happens.

The question isn’t whether it happens in either direction. The question is what to do about it. The question is whether employment quotas worked to eliminate the discrimination for minorities. The question is also what is happening that we’re not even aware of. Are we unfairly discriminating against our boys because of the belief that they’ll one day become men?

By the Numbers

If you look at the numbers, men make more than women. However, that’s not the whole story. American boys and men commit suicide at four times the rate of girls and women – despite what we might believe about girls being more emotional and therefore more susceptible to commiting suicide. Boys also account for two-thirds of the Ds and Fs issued in school. (Glasser argues there should be no Fs in Schools Without Failure.) Boys are also four times as likely to be suspended or expelled.

Certainly, there are biases that need to be eliminated. There are inequalities that we need to address; however, it’s not like they’re one-sided. If I gave you these numbers without identifying the gender, you might rightfully claim that there’s a crisis and something must be done. However, because the victims are boys, the concern is ignored.

In most parts of the world, girls are doing better than boys on most health and psychological indicators. Gurin is not advocating that we stop helping girls. He’s advocating that we start helping boys.

In a World Without Fathers

Our Kids speaks to the challenges of kids without fathers active in their lives. At the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, fewer fathers are present. They’re simply missing. As a result, children are being raised by mothers – if they’re being raised by anyone at all. The father’s influence, which might be rough on the edges, is exactly the kind of tumbling that is needed to take the corners and sharp edges off of boys who need a struggle to grow.

It was E.O. Wilson, a biologist, who said, “I have been blessed by brilliant enemies.” This is not to say that fathers are enemies of their boys – far from it. Rather I’m saying that the need for refinement exists in all of us, but particularly in our boys. Fathers are strong sparring partners that allow boys to grow.

Boys will be Boys

To someone with both boys and girls, I can tell you with assurance that they’re different. I recognize that this is not a revolutionary statement for most of you – but I can say with conviction that they are different. However, I can also say that each individual boy and each individual girl are different. Yes, gender does play a role in what children need; however, individual differences exist as well.

Gurian asserts that boys need the rough and tumble life, that life is dangerous for boys and that our overparenting, called “helicopter parenting,” has robbed our children, and particularly our boys, of the growth that they need. By eliminating all possible threats to our boys, we’ve deprived them of the need to overcome.

I’m reminded of the category Balan from the Dyirbal language – the language of the aboriginal people of Australia – that includes fire, women, and dangerous things (which I discovered through Ambient Findability). Boys need to learn about these things with just the right amount of safety.

Growing Up Boys

What happens when boys grow up, but they don’t mature? Are they overgrown man children? Perhaps a man in this case becomes just a tall boy. Aging is assured. Maturing is not. When we deprive our children of stress, challenge, and conflict by depriving them of nothing else, we’ve done them the greatest disservice of all. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, while cautioning against the downside of chronic stress, extolls the value of short-term stressors. We need stress in our lives to help us mature. We need stress to make us better.

Women Need Powerful Men

There’s an unfortunate reality that reports of men raping and dominating women have become commonplace. This is unfortunate, in part, because not all the reports are true. It’s more unfortunate because some of them are. Reports of rape – both accurate and inaccurate are thankfully the exception and not the rule. Most men are no longer overgrown man children.

Women don’t need men to lord over them. They don’t need to be victims. For them to express their life, they need to know that they’re equal partners in life. It’s too easy for any of us, including women and men, to move into victimhood and take up permanent residence. (A good place to start on victimhood is Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting.)

Women don’t need men who are carbon copies of themselves, they need men with character, who are powerful in their ability to support and grow with the women that they care about.

Family Rings

Gurian speaks of three families: the nuclear, the extended, and the community. Robert Putnam speaks of the decline of this social capital in Bowling Alone and the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids. Our social fabric is straining to stay intact. Our mobile world has moved us farther from our extended families and has transplanted us from one community to another several times during the course of our lives. The structure that we have to help raise our children is different than it was.

I can remember being told to go out and have fun. Others I know have told me that their parents told them to go out until the street lights turn on – and then to return for dinner. Children didn’t have cell phones or even wrist watches. There was a natural order to things that we’ve disrupted. Ironically, the fact that we’re more connected makes us more distant. (See Alone Together for how technology is changing our relationships.)

Today, parents who allow their children to walk to the park unsupervised are considered criminals, because they put their children at undue risk. They’re considered neglectful for not walking down the block. The ways that used to work to raise children are no longer trusted. Strangely, the actual number of crimes against children isn’t appreciably increasing; however, our awareness and hysteria about it is.

Providing nuclear family support for the growth of our children (and specifically boys) has become more and more challenging. No longer do we have regular contact with our extended families, and as we pick up that role, we’re also warier of our communities.

Processing and Ruminating

It’s no secret that, stereotypically, men and women process thoughts and emotions differently. What isn’t well known or understood is that the way that boys process information is less about rumination and more about processing for completion. Women turn over ideas like a dryer, continuously tumbling them until they’re dry and then occasionally running them on an anti-wrinkle cycle. Men, on the other hand, process information, decisions, etc., for completion.

Instead of the idea being stuck in an endless anti-wrinkle cycle of being turned over, they’re processed and done. This can free a man’s mind from the tyranny of reconsideration. Processing allows freedom, where rumination is enslaving.

Citizen Science

Gurian encourages everyone to perform what he calls “citizen science.” That is, he’s encouraging experimentation and testing of hypotheses. I consider the idea that you would explore and test your world something to applaud but the idea of calling it “citizen science” deplorable. The problem is in our human nature. We’ve got confirmation bias that tells us we’ll find what we’re looking for. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on biases.)

By applying citizen science without controls and observation, we’re quite likely to reach the wrong conclusion. In the end, I believe some of the gravest errors that Gurian makes are because he’s performed citizen science on too small of sample sizes and his confirmation bias has gotten the better of him.

I do, however, invite you to try your own citizen science and look with a careful eye at Saving Our Sons – you’ll likely find some things you agree with and some that you don’t.

Book Review-The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t (Statistics and Models)

In the first part of this review we spoke of how people make predictions all the time. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail- but Some Don’t has more to offer than some generic input on predictions, it has a path for us to walk about the models and statistics we can use to make better predictions.

All Models are Wrong but Some are Useful

Statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The models that we use to process our world are inherently wrong. Every map inherently leaves out details that shouldn’t be important – but might be. We try to simplify our world in ways that are useful and that our feeble brains can process. Models allow us to simplify our world.

Rules of thumb – or heuristics – allow a simple reduction of a complex problem or system. In this reduction, they are, as Box said, wrong. They do not and cannot account for everything. However, at the same time, they can be useful.

The balance between underfitting and overfitting data is in creating a model that’s more useful and less wrong.

Quantifying Risks

Financial services, including investments and insurance, are tools that humans have designed to make our lives better. The question is, making whose lives better? Insurance provides a service in a world where we’re disconnected and we don’t have a community mentality where we support each other. In Hutterite communities – which is a division of the Anabaptist movement like the Amish and Mennonites – all property is owned in community. In a large enough community, the loss of one barn or one building is absorbed through the community. However, that level of community support doesn’t exist in many places in the modern world.

Insurance provides an alternative relief for catastrophic losses. If you lose a house or a barn or something of high value, insurance can provide a replacement. To do this, insurance providers must assess risk. That is, they must forecast their risk. The good news is that insurance providers can write many insurance policies with an expected risk and see how close they get to calculating the actual risk.

Starting with a break-even point, the insurance company can then add their desired profit. For those people and organizations that believe there’s good value in the insurance, their assessment of risk or willingness to accept risk is such that they want the insurance buy it. Given that people are more impacted by loss than by reward, it’s no wonder that insurance is a booming business. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on the perceived impact of loss.)

The focus then becomes on the ability of the insurance company to quantify their risk. The more accurately they can do this, and take reasonable returns, the more policies they can sell and the more money they can make. Risk, however, is difficult to quantify, ignoring for the moment black swan events (see The Black Swan for more). You still must first separate the signal from the noise. You must be able to tell what is the rate of naturally-occurring events, and which events are just normal random deviations from this pattern.

Next, the distribution of the randomness must be assessed. What’s the probability that the outcome will fall outside of the model? When referring to the stock markets, John Maynard Keynes said, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” The same applies to insurance: you must be able to weather the impact of a major disaster and still stay solvent. Whether it’s a particularly difficult tornado season or a very bad placement of a hurricane, the perceived degree of randomness matters.

Then you have the black swan events, the events that you’ve never seen before. These are the events that some say should never happen. However, many of the times when this has been used, the risk was well-known and discussed. A hurricane hitting New Orleans was predicted and even at some level prepared for – though admittedly not prepared for well enough. This is not a true black swan, or completely unknown and unpredictable event. It and other purported black swan events were, in fact, predicted in the data.

When predicting risks, you have the known risks and the unknown risks. The black swan idea focuses on the unknown risks, those for which there’s no data that can be used to predict the possibility. However, when we look closely, many of these risks are predictable – we just choose to ignore them, because they’re unpleasant. The known risks – or, more precisely, the knowable risks – are the ones that we accept as a part of the model. The real problem comes in when we believe we’ve got a risk covered, but, in reality, we’ve substantially misrepresented it.

Earthquakes and Terrorist Attacks

Insurance can cover the threat of earthquakes and the threat of terrorist attacks. However, how can we predict the frequency and severity of both? It turns out that both obey a similar pattern. Though most people are familiar with Edward Richter’s scale for earthquake intensity, few realize that it’s an exponential scale. That is, the difference in magnitude between a 4.1 and a 5.1 earthquake isn’t 25% more energy released, it’s 10 times more. Thus, the difference between a magnitude 6.1 and an 8.1 earthquake is 100 times more energy released.

This simple base-10 power rule is an elegant way to describe the release of energy that can be dramatically different. What’s more striking is that there is a line that moves from the frequency of smaller earthquakes to larger ones on this scale. It forecasts several large earthquakes for a given period of time. Of all the energy released in all the earthquakes from 1906 to 2005, just three large earthquakes—the Chilean earthquake of 1960, the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004—accounted for almost half the total energy release of all earthquakes in the world. They don’t happen frequently, but these earthquakes make sense when you look at the forecast along the line of frequency of smaller earthquakes.

Strikingly, terrorist attacks follow the same power law. The severity rises as frequency decreases. The 9/11 attacks are predictable with the larger framework of terrorism in general. There will be, from time to time, larger terrorist attacks. While the specific vector from which an attack will come or the specific fault line will cause an earthquake will be unknown, we know that there’s a deceasing frequency of large events.

Industrial and Computer Revolutions

If you were to try to map the gross domestic product by person, the per-person output would move imperceptibly up over the long history of civilization, right up to the point of the industrial revolution when something changes. Instead of all of us struggling to survive, we started to produce more value each year.

Suddenly, we could harness the power of steam and mechanization to improve our lives and the lives of those we care about. We were no longer reduced to living in one-room houses as large, extended families and began to have a level of escape from the threat of death. (See The Organized Mind for more on the changes in our living conditions.) Suddenly, we had margin in our lives to pursue further timesaving tools and techniques. We invested some of our spare capacity into making our lives in the future better – and it paid off.

Our ability to generate data increased as our prosperity did. We moved from practical, material advances to an advance in our ability to capture and process data with the computer revolution. After a brief dip in overall productivity, we started leveraging our new-found computer tools to create even more value.

Now the problem isn’t capturing data. The Internet of Things (IoT) threatens to create mountains of data. The problem isn’t processing capacity. Moore’s law suggests the processing capacity of an individual microchip doubles roughly every 18 months. While this pattern (it’s more of a pattern and less of a law) is not holding as neatly as it was, processing capacity far outstrips our capacity to leverage it. The problem isn’t data and processing. The problem is our ability to identify and create the right models to process the information with.

Peer Reviewed Paucity

The gold standard for a research article is a peer-reviewed journal. The idea is that if you can get your research published in a peer reviewed journal, then it should be good. The idea is, however, false. John Loannidis published a controversial article “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” which shared how research articles are often wrong. This finding was confirmed by Bayer Laboratories when they discovered they could not replicate two-thirds of the findings.

Speaking as someone who has a published peer-reviewed journal article, the reviews are primarily for specificity and secondarily for clarity. The findings – unless you make an obvious statistical error – can’t be easily verified. While I have done thousands of pages of technical editing over the years where I would verify the author’s work, I could test their statements easily. For the most part, being a technical editor means verifying that what the author is saying isn’t false and making sure that the code they were writing would compile and run.

However, I did make a big error once. We were working on a book that was being converted from Visual Basic to Visual C++. The book was about developing in Visual Basic and how Visual Basic can be used with Office via Visual Basic for Applications. There was a section in the introduction where search and replace done by the author said that there was Visual C++ for Applications. Without anything to verify, and since the book was working on a beta of the software for which limited information was available, I let it go without a thought. The problem is that there is no Visual C++ for Applications. I should have caught it. I should have noticed that it wasn’t something that made sense, but I didn’t.

Because the ability to validate wasn’t easy – I couldn’t just copy code and run a program – I failed to validate the information. Peer-reviewed journals are much the same thing. It’s not easy to replicate experimental conditions. Even if you could replicate experimental conditions, you’re likely to not get exactly the same results. So, consequently, reviewers don’t try to replicate the results, and that means we don’t really know whether the results can be replicated – particularly, using the factors that the researcher specifies.

On Foxes and Hedgehogs

There’s a running debate on whether you should be either a fox – that is, know a little about many things – or a hedgehog – that is know a lot about one thing. Many places like Peak tell of the advantages of focused work on one thing . The Art of Learning follows this pattern in sharing Josh Waitzkin’s rise to both chess and martial arts. However, when we look at books on creativity and innovation like Creative Confidence, The Medici Effect, and The Innovator’s DNA, the answer is the opposite. You’re encouraged to take a bite out of life’s sampler platter – rather than roasting a whole cow.

When it comes to making predictions, foxes with their broad experiences have a definite advantage. They seem to be able to consider multiple approaches to the forecasting problem and look for challenges that the hedgehogs can’t see. I don’t believe that the ability to accurately forecast is a reason to choose one strategy over another – but it’s interesting. Foxes seem to be able to see the world more broadly than the hedgehogs.

The Danger of a Lack of Understanding

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the financial meltdown of 2008. There’s the enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the development of derivatives. (I covered correlation and causation and the impact on the meltdown in my review of The Halo Effect.) The problem that started with some bad home loans ended with bankruptcies as financial services firms created derivatives from the mortgages.

These complicated instruments were validated with ratings agencies, but were sufficiently complex that many of the buyers didn’t understand what they were buying. This is always a bad sign. When you don’t understand what you’re buying, you end up relying on third parties to ensure that your purchase is a good one – and when they fail, the world comes falling down, with you left holding the bag.

The truth is that there is always risk in any prediction. Any attempt to see if there’s going to profit or loss in the future is necessarily filled with risk. We can’t believe anyone that says that there is no risk.

Bayes Theorem

I’m not statistician. However, I can follow a simple, iterative formula to continue to refine my estimates. It’s Bayes theorem, and it can be simplified to:

Prior Probability (Variable) (Value)
Initial estimate of probability X
New Event
Probability of event if yes Y
Probability of event if no Z
Posterior Probability
Revised Estimate XY
xy + z(1-x)

You can use the theorem over and over again as you get more evidence and information. Ultimately, it allows you to refine your estimates as you learn more information. It is, however, important to consider the challenge of anchoring, as discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow and How to Measure Anything.

The Numbers Do Not Speak for Themselves

Despite the popular saying, the numbers do not, and never do, speak for themselves. We’re required to apply meaning to the numbers and to speak for them. Whatever we do, however we react, we need to understand that it’s our insights that we’re applying to the data. If we apply our tools well, we’ll get valuable information. If we apply our tools poorly, we’ll get information without value. Perhaps if you have a chance to read, you’ll be able to separate The Signal and the Noise.

Book Review-The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t (Predictions)

People make predictions all the time. They predict that their team will win the Super Bowl, or they’ll win the lottery. These predictions are based on little more than hope. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail- but Some Don’t seeks to set us on the right path to understanding what we can learn from data, what we can infer from data, and what we can’t. By looking at the power and weaknesses of statistics, including both using the wrong model and supplying bad data, we can see how statistics has the power to improve our lives through productive forecasts and predictions.

In this part of the two-part review, we’ll look at predictions.

Forecasts and Predictions

Sometimes in our rush to be amazed at something, we simplify the questions we ask. We fail to recognize that our brain has simplified the thing that we’re trying to sort out (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on substitution). In the case of looking into the future, what we really want is prediction, and what statistics gives us most frequently is a forecast. Forecasts necessarily have a certain amount of error and involve statistical relationships. Forecasts become predictions when they become specific and precise.

Each day when we look at the weather, what we want is a soothsayer to predict what the weather will be like. However, what they offer us is a forecast based on models that result in a chance of rain somewhere between zero and 100%. We look at economists and seek the answer about whether we’ll make more money next year – or not. We want to know whether a risky investment will be worth it. However, economists and meteorologists are subject to the same rules as any other statistician.

While it’s true that statistics can predict – as long as we’re using this in a general sense of the word – events that are to happen in the future, there must always be some level of uncertainty as to whether the event will happen – or not. Predictions are just an attempt to refine forecasts into specific, tangible probable outcomes. Sometimes that process is successful but often it is not.

Falsifiable by Prediction

Karl Popper suggested that every forecast should be falsifiable via prediction. To test a model, you needed to be able to make some sort of a prediction with it that then could be proven false. In this way, you could create a test to ensure that your model was accurate and useful. A model that doesn’t forecast appropriately and that you can’t make a prediction from doesn’t do much good.

Everything Regresses to the Mean

One thing about statistics is that it can tell you with relative authority things you want to know with less precision than is useful. Statisticians can forecast the economy but not predict whether you will get a raise or not. The Black Swan artfully points out the challenges of statistics and modeling when the sampling size is insufficient. Until you’ve seen a black swan, you’ve not sampled enough to make the statistical models work. Until you’ve sampled enough, the noise will dramatically pull your results askew.

With large sample sizes, everything regresses to the mean. We no longer see the outlier, even as something that is distinct and that does happen, rather it gets lost in the law of averages. Tragic events like 9/11 are never forecast using the wrong model. They’re not perceived as possible if they’re averaged into the data. It’s like the proverbial statistician drowning in a river that is, on average, only 3 feet deep – all the depth of the data was averaged out.

Right Model, Right Results

Perhaps the most difficult challenge when working with data is not the data collection process. Collecting data is tedious and needs to be done with meticulous attention to detail; however, it’s not necessarily imaginative, creative, or insightful. It’s the work that must be done to get to the magic moment when the right model is uncovered for working with data. Though statisticians have ways of evaluating different models for their ability to predict the data, they must see some inherent signal in the noise.

For a long time, we couldn’t find planets outside of our solar system. One day, someone identified a detection model – that is, they discovered a theory for the strange oscillations in the light frequency from distant stars. The theory proposed that super-massive planets in close orbit were causing the star to move. This created a Doppler effect with the light from the star causing what we perceived as light frequency oscillations. Consensus coalesced, and the scientific community agreed that this was indeed what was happening. We had found the first extra-solar planet. Almost immediately, we found nearly a dozen more.

These super-massive planets were hiding in the data we already had. We had already captured and recorded the data to indicate the presence of other planets, but we didn’t have a model to process the data that we had to allow us to understand it.

There were plenty of ideas, thoughts, theories, and models which were tried to explain the light variations, but it wasn’t until the consideration of a super-massive planet that we settled on a model that was right.

The Failure of Predictions

We got lucky finding extra-solar planets. The right idea at the right time. It was a good fit model. It wasn’t a specific prediction. With predictions, our luck is very, very poor. The old joke goes, “Economists have predicted nine of the last six recessions.” They predicted a recession where none happened. Earthquakes and other disastrous cataclysmic events are predicted with startling frequency. It seems that everyone has some prediction of something. Sometimes the predictions are harmless enough, like whose team will win the super bowl. Sometimes the consequences are much direr.


When you think in systems, delays are a very bad thing. Delays make it harder for the system to react to a change in circumstances. In the case of the SR-71 Blackbird, the delays in a mechanical system made engine unstarts a regular occurrence. Reduce the delay with electronic controls and the unstart problem is dramatically reduced. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more.) In the creation of vaccines, the delay is great. To scale up production and get enough doses for the country, it takes six months.

What makes the vaccination “game” worse is that vaccines are designed to target specific viral strains. If the virus mutates, the hard work of creating the vaccine may be wasted, as it may become ineffective at protecting against the new strain. Each year, the vaccine makers attempt to predict which variations of influenza will be the most challenging. They start cooking up batches of vaccines to combat the most virulent.

What happens, however, when you get noise in the identification of the influenza that will be the most impactful? From 1918 to 1920, swine flu afflicted roughly one-third of humanity and killed over 50 million. So when there was an apparent outbreak of a strain of it at Fort Dix, who can blame President Ford for encouraging the vaccine industry to create a vaccine for it and encouraging every American to do their part in preventing the spread of the disease by getting vaccinated – and hopefully increasing the herd immunity?

It turns out it was all a bad call. Issues with the vaccine caused Guillain–Barré disease in some. The virus strain turned out to not be that virulent. The noise at Fort Dix that had produced the scare wasn’t a result of the virus’s potential but was instead a result of environmental and cultural factors that allowed the disease to spread at Fort Dix but weren’t generalizable to the population.


A classic statistical way of modeling diseases is the SIR model, which is an acronym for susceptible, infected, and recovered. The assumption is made that everyone who is recovered is not susceptible again, and everyone has an equal level of susceptibility. This simplified model works relatively OK for measles, but fails to account for natural variations in susceptibility in humans. More importantly, the model fails to account for the connections that we have with each other. It fails to account for how we interact.

Another classic example of disease was cholera in London, but it didn’t seem to have any connections. There was no discernable pattern – that is, until John Snow discovered a connection in the Broad Street well and removed the pump handle. The disease slowly dissipated, as Snow had correctly identified the root cause. However, his job wasn’t easy, because people who were far away from the pump were getting sick. Those who weren’t close to the Broad Street pump had hidden connections. Sometimes they lived near the pump in the past and still used it for their main water source; in other cases, they had relatives close by. The problem with forecasting diseases is the hidden patterns that make it hard to see the root cause. To correctly forecast, we need to find and then use a correct model.

An Inconvenient Truth

It’s an inconvenient truth that, in the decade when An Inconvenient Truth was released, there was no substantial change in temperatures across the planet – in truth, there was an infinitesimal reduction in temperature from 2001 to 2011. However, Gore wasn’t the first to claim that there were problems. In 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb. It was 1974 when Donella Meadows (who also wrote Thinking in Systems), Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows first published Limits to Growth. (It’s still on my reading list.) These books both sought to predict our future – one with which the authors were most concerned. Of course, population is increasing, but it’s far from a bomb, and we’ve not yet reached the feared limits to growth.

These predictions missed what Everett Rogers discovered when working with innovations. In
Diffusion of Innovations
, he talks about the breakdown of society created by the introduction of steel axe heads in aboriginal tribes in Australia. They missed the counter-balancing forces that cause us to avoid catastrophe. However, presenting a balanced and well-reasoned point of view isn’t sensational, and therefore doesn’t sell books, nor does it make TV exciting. The McLaughlin Group pundits’ forecasts about political elections are not at all well-reasoned, balanced, or even accurate – but that doesn’t stop people from tuning into what amounts to be a circus performance every week.

So the real inconvenient truth is that our predictions fail. That we overestimate, and we ignore competing forces that attempt to bring a system into balance. In fairness to Gore, the global temperature on a much longer trend seems to be climbing at 1.5 degrees centigrade per year. It’s just that there’s so much noise in the signal of temperatures that it’s hard to see – even over the course of a decade. We need to be concerned, but the sky isn’t falling.

Watching the Weather

If you want to find a prediction that’s guaranteed to be wrong, it’s got to be the weather. The oft quoted remark “What job can you be wrong most of the time and still keep your job?” refers to meteorologists. However, in truth, forecasts are substantially better than they were even a decade ago. They’ve done a startlingly good job of eliminating the problems with the mathematical models that generate weather forecasts. Increases in processing power has made it more possible to create more accurate and more precise forecasts. And they’re still frequently wrong. A wise weatherman goes outside and looks at the sky before going on air to share their predictions, because they know that the computer models can be wrong.

The problem isn’t the model. The problem isn’t our ability to model what will happen with the forces of nature. The problem is in our ability to measure precisely the inputs for the model and the inherent dynamic instability of the systems. It was Lorenz that first started the conversation about the butterfly effect. That is, a butterfly in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. That’s a mighty powerful butterfly – or the result of an inherently unstable and dynamic system. A very small change in input has a very large change in output.

As a quick aside, this is where the hash algorithms have their roots. We use hash algorithms to ensure that messages aren’t tampered with. They work by small changes in input resulting in large changes in the output.

The problem with predicting the weather, then, isn’t that we don’t know how to process the signal and arrive at the desired outcome. The problem is that we can’t get a precise enough signal to eliminate all the noise.

Overfitting and Underfitting

In attempts to find the models that perfectly describe the data, we run the risk of two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we can overfit the data and try to account for every variation in the dataset. Or we can look for mathematical purity and simplicity and ignore the outliers – this is “underfitting.”

“Overfitting” mistakes noise for signal. An attempt is made to account for the randomness of noise inside the signal we’re trying to process. The result is that our ultimate predictions try to copy the same randomness that we saw in our sample data. In other words, we’ve mistaken the noise for the signal and could not eliminate it.

Underfitting, on the opposite side of the coin, is the inability to distinguish the signal in the noise. That is, we ignore data that is real signal, because it looks like noise. In a quest for mathematical simplicity, we ignore data that is inconvenient.

Brené Brown speaks of her scientific approach to shame and vulnerability as grounded theory and the need to fit every single piece of data into the framework. (See The Gifts of Imperfection for more.) When I first read this, it stood in stark contrast to what I saw with scientists ignoring data that didn’t fit their model. It seems like too many scientists are willing to ignore the outliers, because their theory doesn’t explain it. In other words, most scientists, in my experience, tend to underfit the data. They are willing to allow data to slip through their fingers for the elegance of a simpler model. Brown and those who follow the grounded theory approach may be making the opposite error in overfitting their data.

Statistical Models

In the next part of this review, we’ll talk about models and statistics.

Book Review-A Spy’s Guide to Thinking

I never wanted to be a spy. Astronaut, yes. Spy, no. I’m not sure why. Spies are glamorized in the movies (unless it is Spies Like Us), but it wasn’t my thing. When the short book A Spy’s Guide to Thinking came across my path, I thought it was worth looking into. It’s a short book, a quick read, and more of an interesting aside than it is hard-hitting details about how spies think. Still, there are some interesting things from the book to consider.

Side of Paranoia

In my head, being a spy means being at least a little bit paranoid. You’ve got to be on guard for people discovering who you really are and your mission. While this wasn’t an acknowledged component, the book centered around one encounter on a subway – which had nothing to do with being a spy, but could provide insight to how a spy thinks. Generally, the word would be “paranoid.”

The entire encounter kept asking the question about whether the other person knew he was a spy was. Great. He’d rule out that the other person was a spy catcher and then retest that observation over and over again. I suppose that is what makes a good spy. They’re paranoid.

Observe, Orient, Decision, Action

Throughout the book, our spy did a loop: observe (data), orient (analysis), decision, and finally, action. The origin of this loop is John Boyd. He talked about how the most successful pilots can run the loop quicker than their peers. It’s not smarter that matters, it’s quicker through the loops.

Whether you use the word “observe” or “data,” “orient” or “analysis,” the result is the same. You observe the situation, assess or orient to the data you have, and then make a decision and act upon it. The loop – the slightly paranoid loop – was running frighteningly fast.

Zero, Positive, Negative

There are only three types of games we can play. Those that are net positive, those that are net negative, and those that are zero-sum. When we play a net positive game, more is created – it may not be evenly distributed, but more is created through the game. In zero-sum games, one person may win, but the other person loses by the same amount. In net negative games, someone always loses something.

It’s interesting to view life through the lens of a spy, always wondering who knows what. A Spy’s Guide to Thinking really does get you thinking – about whether you could be a spy or not.

Book Review-The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

It was years ago. I was working on a billing system. It was designed to bill based on the amount of time used. It billed in six second increments – 10ths of a minute. It was late, and I noticed something odd. There was a bit of math, but it didn’t add up – or rather it added up a bit too much. It’s typical to have to adjust mathematical errors in code. If someone started and ended in the same tick, you charge them for not zero ticks, as end minus start would imply if they’re the same. Instead, you add one to the math equation to say that there was non-zero utilization. However, the code was written in a way that added this adjustment in twice. As a result, the billing was always two tenths of a minute at minimum.

The problem wasn’t discovering the error, it was the comment that prohibited developers from fixing the bug and an instruction to speak with the manager if there were questions. The double addition could have been an accidental mistake. I remember the math being broken into two places and the correction made in both places. However, the note made it clear that the bug was a known bug. One that was charging people for an extra six seconds for every call. It wasn’t much per transaction. Maybe a few pennies. However, as the story line of Office Space can attest, those pennies add up.

This subtle math “error” is the kind of thing that we encounter all the time, and it’s the subject of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. It’s not about the radical changes in direction that are placed outside our conscious view, but rather the subtle tilting of the scales by placing a finger or two on the final outcome. It’s fundamentally about System 1 lying to System 2, to use Khaneman’s language from Thinking: Fast, and Slow.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Brain

We think that we’re in control. We’re wrong. Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis describes the Elephant-Rider-Path model (which is also covered in Switch). It clearly illustrates that a big elephant (or emotions, System 1, Lizard-brain, or whatever you want to call it) is in charge. The rider gets the illusion of being in control so long as the elephant allows it. Incognito demonstrates through visual illusions and thoughtful stories how much we fool ourselves. It’s spooky how much we believe we understand reality and how much our mind plays tricks on us.

Paul Ekman would undoubtedly, at the very least, have concern about saying that our hidden brain (again, System 1, or whatever you want to call it) lies to our rational brain. In Telling Lies, he clarifies that the liar needs to know that he’s lying. In fact, the stress that lying produces because people know it’s not true is how the polygraph works. (Ekman is perhaps best known for his work in detecting lies or, more accurately, emotions through monitoring involuntary facial muscle movement. You can learn more about his life in Nonverbal Messages.) However, our hidden brain keeps taking shortcuts, tilting the scales, and not letting us in that it’s doing it. It’s lying to us – even if we aren’t conscious of it.

Rules of Thumb

In general, heuristics are great. Heuristics are simplifications. They’re “rules of thumb” that you can use to make complicated things simple enough to be understood. Our brains are great at creating them. It’s hardwired into us to find associations and correlations to see if we can simplify the world. If there were no heuristics, there would be no comedy, as comedy and jokes use heuristics to create the wrong impression. (See Inside Jokes for more on how comedy uses heuristics.) The problem isn’t in using heuristics; they’re a great tool to allow us to comprehend the world around us. The problem is when we use a heuristic that doesn’t apply, or the heuristic hides a bias.

I’m biased to people with straight hair compared to curly– at least, that’s what the Implicit Association Test says. (It’s available at if you want to take it for a spin.) How strong is the bias? I don’t know. The test doesn’t say. It simply says a bias exists. If I were to be interviewing two people for a job, I’d have an ever so small bias to the person with straight hair. I’d be applying a heuristic bias that I like straight-haired people more – and I wouldn’t know I was doing it.

Pervasive Biases

I’m not alone in being biased. You are too. Perhaps not in the same ways, but biased. Consider the work of Dr. Clark who gave white children two different dolls – one of a light skin and one of darker skin – and the children called the dark-skinned doll “dirty” and “bad.” It seems like a clear-cut case of racism. That is, until you realize that the black children he tested next had the same general response. It wasn’t racism per se. It was a generalized bias that permeated culture. It’s wrong, I agree. However, to call it racism would be calling black children racist against their own race. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on these tests.)

On a much lighter note, waitresses who subtly mimicked their customers tended to get larger tips – 140% larger tips. We have a bias towards people that “get us.” We want to be understood, and those that understand us are more valuable to us – both in general and, apparently, monetarily as well. The subtle act of mimicry is interpreted by the hidden brain as understanding and is valued – even if we aren’t informed that the bias is happening.

Competitive or Complementary

Gottman predicted divorce rates at 91% accuracy by watching a short fight. (See The Science of Trust for more.) This was impressive to say the least. He identified factors that he believed signaled intimacy longevity and those that drove couples away from one another. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) However, Abraham Tesser found something else that is different and intriguing. Tesser found that people find joy in others’ success – unless their success was in the same area as they were seeking success. In those areas, if their partner or close friend was successful, they became jealous. Couples that who weren’t emotionally close allowed success in a common field to become the wedge that drove them apart. However, emotionally close couples instinctively found complementary ways of dividing up their tasks.

In essence, they found a way to convert competition into cooperation. Richard Hackman is clear about how to build collaborative teams in Collaborative Intelligence. He explains that systems that create a competitive spirit within the team are corrosive to collaboration. It seems like emotionally close couples sense this and unconsciously move into complementary positions, where they could stay a part of a well-functioning team. Instead of a wedge, it becomes a binding that makes them more dependent upon one another.

Talk is Cheap

William Wundt started a branch of psychology that relied on introspection. The behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner, didn’t like it, because it couldn’t be objectively measured. Even Wundt’s successor William James struggled with introspection not because it couldn’t be objectively measured – that is, it couldn’t be observed. James’ struggle was that one could not hope to be without bias for thoughts and feelings occurring inside themselves.

This is the basis of the hidden brain. Much of what happens in our brains isn’t accessible to our consciousness. Even if it was, it would be distorted to protect our ego. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and Its Defenses.) We can’t directly access our hidden brain through reflection or introspection. We’ve got to get to it another way.

Recently, we’ve begun to discover planets in solar systems other than our own. We’re discovering them not because we can see them. We can only see the effect that they’re having on their stars. Super massive planets in close orbit to their stars cause the star to wobble. This wobble is discovered in a slight shifting of the light spectrum from the star in a repeatable pattern – the Doppler effect on a stellar scale. We can find planets, but only by looking for them indirectly.

We find our hidden beliefs by looking at our self-talk and using tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change that self-talk. We don’t change the hidden brain directly, but rather we train the rider how to better control and regulate the elephant in certain conditions. In general, CBT has been found to be effective. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more on CBT and efficacy.)

Kids Say the Darndest Things

One of Art Linkletter’s gifts to culture is a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” That is, they respond in a “cute” way. Sometimes they didn’t understand the question as an adult would. Sometimes they answered in an honest way that an adult never would. Young children and adults are both guided by the hidden brain, and both have the same biases. The difference is that children will say what their hidden brain thinks where adults have learned to restrain their responses. Responses that in children are “cute” would be appalling from an adult. Often the answers are true – but uncomfortable.

There are plenty of examples of celebrities becoming overwhelmed and saying inappropriate things. There’s even a line of commercials from Snickers talking about people who need a snack. They’ve become other people due to their hunger. Researchers have found that much of this isn’t hunger but low blood sugar. They’ve we able to reduce apparent adult prejudice by simply giving them more sugar.

Carried by Currents

Instinctively, we wait. We wait for some sort of consensus to form. The fire alarm may be ringing. The air raid or tornado siren may be blaring. The overhead announcement may be confirming that we need to evacuate the building. Rather than moving immediately, we’ll instinctively pause, survey the group, and attempt to determine what the consensus is before acting. The larger the group, the longer the delay to reach some semblance of consensus – and the more likely we are to have a problem.

We all think that we’re independently protecting our own self-interests when, in reality, we’re waiting on the herd to move so we can keep from being singled out. Even in non-emergency situations, we by default will go with the flow. We’ll assume that our decisions are ours alone; but if you’re always going with the group, how can you be sure that you’re really making your own decisions? If you’re always swimming with the current, you’ll believe that you’re a better swimmer than you are.

Good Samaritans

The good Samaritan story is relatively well known. A stranger, a Samaritan, saves a man on the road by taking him to an inn and agreeing to pay the fee for keeping them there. (I spoke of this in Book Revisited-Theory U, Organizational Traps, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.) The funny thing is that the research shows you’re better off having one Samaritan come by rather than two. It turns out people are more willing to help out when they’re the only one. Whether it’s picking up pencils or something more serious, the more people there are, the lower the expectation of individual intervention.

Similarly, giving to support a single person is easy. Giving to a cause that would save dozens is harder. Somehow our compassion is easily overwhelmed by a dozen when helping one seems easy. It’s almost as if there’s an internal governor that wants to make sure that our efforts are enough to save a “reasonable” portion of the total. If we can’t get to the belief that we’ll make a substantial difference, we’ll do nothing.

Psycho Suicide Bombers

We assume that anyone that is willing to be a suicide bomber must be mentally unstable. How else could we explain their strange and unthinkable behavior? The answer is that they’re living in an alternative universe of their making. They interact with people who focus them in a direction and they’re teleported along a path until their beliefs and behaviors seem unthinkable to the general public.

It doesn’t take religion to perform this conversion. It doesn’t take mental illness. All it takes to create a suicide warrior is to separate them from the rest of reality and slowly move them to a new reality. Terrorists aren’t recruited by terrorist groups. They volunteer because their ideas have become so distorted that the terrorist group seems like the best option.

Groups of people get together and insulate themselves from the outside world while creating a tight mesh of their reality. The band of brothers is formed through shared experiences. One man marries the sister of his good friend. This happens over and over again until the network of people mostly interacts with itself and not with the outside world – the “real” world. Progressively, their attitudes adjust in ways that don’t make sense to most of us.

In the case of suicide bombers, they come to believe that they’re part of something, that their life will have meaning, that they’ll make a difference. While the terrorists rarely come from humiliation itself, they often empathize with persecuted groups and want to make their humiliation and pain go away. They see their role as minimizing or eliminating those inhumanities.

Don’t Drink the Grape Kool-Aid

Certainly, cults show the same tunnel behavior and cut off ties to the outside world. One tragic example is The People’s Temple religious group, whose leader, Jim Jones, warped reality such that parents killed their children and themselves with cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid, because they believed that they were going to be captured and tortured. Their struggle was over.

They’re not alone. The Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves March 25th, 1997 believing that they would be picked up by an alien space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of us believe that this is an odd way to get aboard a space ship, but the shaping of their belief system was so complete that 39 members of the cult followed orders and killed themselves.

Assault on Ourselves

Too often, our hidden brain ignores the statistics, the logic, and the rational in its pursuit of simplicity. Too often, we do things that statistically make no sense. We’ll drive instead of fly, because we perceive it to be safer when it, in actuality, is much less safe. We purchase guns to defend ourselves when the statistics say that our risk of death is much higher when we have guns in the house. It turns out suicide is a much bigger problem than murder – but our hidden brains are assuaged.

We continue to march on, following the orders of our hidden brain. Perhaps if we learn more about The Hidden Brain, we’ll be able to make better decisions both morally and logically.

Book Review-Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius

Somewhere deep in the recesses of our mind are the recesses from our grade school. Buried by decades of cruft, these memories and others call us back to the state that we had back then when we knew we were creative. It’s a time that we knew we were creative, before we got tied up with how others view us and before the need to be productive and rational. This is the place of Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius.

Claude Baudelaire wrote once, “Genius is the capacity to retrieve childhood at will.” Perhaps that’s why it’s no wonder that Einstein considered his genius the result of remaining childlike into his adult life.

Information Processing

Children learn differently than adults. That’s the primary premise of The Adult Learner. It’s not just that adults have more complex mental models (see The Art of Explanation), adults fundamentally learn differently. The neurology of our brain has changed, and we’re not forming the number of new neural connections that we did as a child. However, more importantly, we’ve developed a usefulness filter for what we learn.

Somewhere along the line, we got exposed to so much information that a switch flipped, and we started filtering what we learned. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on the information overload world we live in today.) The switch that flipped made us more discerning consumers of information. Instead of learning everything, we learned that there were things that we didn’t need to know. We didn’t need to know the number of atoms in a liter of gas at standard pressure. We’d look it up when we needed it – or, in today’s terms, we’d just google it.

So, quite literally, we filter everything coming into our brain for awareness – to fight information overload – and for retention to see if we need to reserve precious brain space for the information, or if we can look up the information again when we need it next. That’s different than what we did as children when everything was interesting.

I can remember playing with paper clips and rubber bands just to see how they work – well, in truth, just to be fiddling with something. It’s been a long time since those days. Now, it seems like everything that I’m working on has some productive or at least semi-productive reason for being.


Too many people have books which are screaming to get out. Too many people want to be more than they are today. Edgar Lee Masters, a poet, laments, “Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances. Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.” (See Start with Why and How Will You Measure Your Life? for more on finding purpose.) The problem with ambition, with the desire to be greater, is that, if you try, you’ll know for sure if you can make it – or not.

In How to Be Yourself, I shared the awareness that it’s easier to project a false image than to be real. Being real means that when you’re rejected you’re really rejected. Ambition is the same thing. You don’t have to face your ego if you don’t try. Try and fail, and there’s a reconciliation that must happen with the ego to figure out why you didn’t achieve your goals. But if you don’t try, there’s no hard conversations to have with yourself. (See Change or Die for more on your ego.)

Masters concludes, “To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, but life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire – it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

Corporate Creativity

There’s a crisis in boardrooms across the country. The crisis isn’t capital. The crisis isn’t communication. The crisis is creativity. Following the rules, being in fear of the next layoff has driven creativity out of the corporate culture, and it may be exactly the thing that organizations need to survive. (See Drivers for Conformity and Originality for more.)

IBM chief executives found that they believed the critical activities for the future included taking balanced risks, considering unheard-of ways, comfort with ambiguity, courage, and different assumptions. These skills are the heart of creativity, and they’re missing.

Creativity springs from safety, as Creative Confidence
compellingly explains. The rounds of cutbacks. The layoffs and restructurings in corporate America have left employees shell-shocked in their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder that has them walking from meeting to meeting like zombies awaiting the zombie apocalypse.

Creating Creativity

Beyond creating safety to try and fail, there are other tools that you can use to encourage creativity. If you’re willing to do the things that you least like to do – in service of important goals or responsibilities – you’ll put your brain on tilt and typically generate unique ideas.

Originals explains that it’s quantity that produces quality. That the best works of artists have come in the periods of their greatest productivity. We can get more creativity by creating more opportunities to produce – without pressing so hard that there is stress on the deadline.

Creativity comes from curiosity. It comes from “can I do that?”, “how did they do that?”, and “what’s making that happen?” If you can instill a sense of curiosity in yourself, you’ll find that you’ve recaptured a bit of your childhood and have opened the door to creativity.


Standing strong against the winds of conformity requires strength. It’s a strength of character that’s rare. When confronted with someone who exhibits character, most people generate respect for that person – even when that person has diametrically opposing views. You can appreciate the conviction of someone’s beliefs whether you agree or not. In fact, this respect is the way that things used to be done.

Before the digital age, when we’re fascinated with the latest tweet about a ham sandwich, the latest Instagram picture of the ham sandwich, and the Facebook post about how you had a ham sandwich two years ago, we used to watch behaviors over a long time. We’d see how people acted when people weren’t watching and use this to judge their character. Now we can see people become popular because of one post. We don’t assume that people aren’t watching, because we know they always are.

We used to have to have conviction to develop a reputation. Today, it is all too easy to manipulate the news stream to capitalize on a meme, someone else’s post, or some passing fad. We don’t build respect that same way that we used to.

The people that we used to learn to respect had one thing on their heart. It was something that they cared deeply for and for which they were willing to toil and sacrifice for. No more.

Lines of Varying Lengths

It was Solomon Asch who was curious about conformity and why people would give up their perceptions for the perceptions of others. In an ingenious experiment, he filled a room with test subjects and collaborators. When the collaborators answered truthfully about the length of line that matched the length of line they were still seeing as a reference, the subjects answered truthfully. As he added collaborators that spoke the wrong answer, he found that his subjects would report the wrong answer like the others had given. This progressed from some of the time to over 75 percent conformity at least once with three collaborators or more answering incorrectly.

It wasn’t that the subjects couldn’t literally see the right answer. It was that they literally couldn’t see the right answer. That is, visually, they saw the same information as before, but the image in their mind’s eye was manipulated to match what the collaborators had said. (See Incognito for more about our mind’s eye.)

Closing in on Creativity

I have no way of knowing what is blocking your creativity. For me, I know there’s a part of it that’s the logical sequential thinking that was the start of my career as a developer. Allowing free thinking isn’t always easy for me. Being unproductive feels like a waste. However, sometimes I need to Unthink. Maybe you do too.

Book Review-Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

It was 7th grade. My science teacher wasn’t interested in science. It was where he got assigned to teach. It was his first year. He would read a chapter or two ahead of the class so that he could teach us. He was a good man but was in a bad spot. One day, he was teaching about how heat was an invisible liquid. I – quite untactfully – told him he was wrong. I told him what I knew that heat was the kinetic energy of molecules bumping into one another. He responded well, but honestly, what can you do when you’re embarrassed in front of the class?

Well, in this case, you offer the student the opportunity to play with radioactive materials in the teacher’s work area in the science department. You hand them a Geiger counter and say, “Go have fun.” The radioactive materials were very low-grade materials (as one would expect in a junior high school) so I wasn’t in any danger. However, I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from that teacher. I learned that learning was fun. It was more fun than I knew to that point.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World isn’t about the people who get sent out of the class by their teachers. It’s about how people decide to be original and why the “originals” are so desperately needed.

Conformity and Originality

There are, according to Grant, two paths to achievement. The first is conformity, and the second is originality. Conformity is the easy way. We’re wired with the need for social connection. We’re wired for conformity. Being different – being original – is risky. If you were original, you ran the risk of being run out of the community; historically, that was a death sentence. As much as we would like to believe that we’re independent today, as humans we’ve always been social – and we continue to need that social connection.

Changing Systems

Steve Jobs came back to Apple to save the organization he started from the failure of his NeXT project, which wasn’t exactly a roaring success. The campaign that he and his team created to revitalize the company was “Think Different.” That’s what originals do: they think different. But there’s more to it than that. A reasonable man recognizes that his views are incompatible with the world and changes them. An original sees that the world is incompatible with his views and sets out to change the world. Jobs described this as putting his “ding” on the universe.

Originals realize that the world is a series of systems, and if you can find the right lever, you can move the world. This is a reference to Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Originals look for the systems in things – beyond the mechanical world as Archimedes understood it – and seek to make the right changes in the system to get the resulting changes they want. (See Thinking in Systems for how systems work.)

Vuja De

There’s a running joke around my house that my neighborhood has the fastest home builders. On our walks, my wife is constantly talking about all the new houses that are being built in the neighborhood. Ours is an established neighborhood that finished any meaningful construction over 40 years ago. However, as we’re walking and talking and exploring new ideas, she’s seeing the neighborhood with new eyes and seeing houses differently. These “new” houses aren’t new construction but are a new construction – or awareness – in her mind. She’s literally seeing the same things differently.

We’ve all heard of déjà vu, where we experience something like it happened before; but originals experience “vuja de,” where they experience the same thing differently. It might be a walk in the park, a warm cup of coffee, a Monday morning staff meeting, or some other mundane, trivial experience that we all have. However, they experience it differently.

Bearer of Risk

I’ve been in business (this time around) for over a dozen years. By now, it’s become just what I do. It’s the only world I’ve known for most of my career. Frequently, when I talk to someone, particularly someone in a large corporate job, they say, “I could never do that. There’s too much risk.” I get a similar response when I explain that I took a standup comedy course. (See I Am a Comedian.) The thing is, I don’t perceive my world to be particularly risky.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by economist Richard Cantillon. It literally means “bearer of risk.” An entrepreneur literally bears the risk for some endeavor. The degree to which they and others, like investors, bear the risk may be up for debate, but inherently entrepreneurs bear risk.

The funny thing is that all the entrepreneurs I know are risk-avoidant. They’ve got it coming out their ears and they’re sick of it. The guys and gals I know work very hard to systematically reduce, eliminate, and mitigate risk. Entrepreneurs may be the bearers of risk, but they’re willing to get rid of it at a moment’s notice if they can.

Idea Selection

There’s a popular myth that original people, or creative people, have better ideas. I’d say that this is false. What originals have is more ideas, or, more properly, they have more ideas they allow to flow and be shared. Originals don’t self-censor themselves out of the ideas in their head. They share them, adapt them, and build upon them.

Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., shares how at Pixar all movies suck to start. It’s not that the mastery of Toy Story comes fully-formed out of the mental womb. The process that Pixar uses is designed to refine and improve the story until it’s good. Other organizations employ filtering mechanisms to reduce the abundance of good ideas into a set that can be considered for implementation.

Truly original people can have a dozen ideas that they share while sitting at breakfast. Two things separate the successful entrepreneur original from the rest. First, they let the ideas flow. Second, they select the few best ideas and they execute on them.

Entrenched in Our Ideas

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, explains the Stockdale paradox. It is unwavering faith and the willingness to listen. On the one hand, remaining committed to the original idea; on the other hand, being aware of the absolute need for other people’s perspectives, so that we can inform our direction and our actions.

The problem with all of us is that, as we become experts, we build schemas in our minds – mental models – of how the world works. (See The Art of Explanation for more on our schemas.) More experience means a richer model. The problem is that our models are necessarily incomplete and in some places incorrect. However, the more time that we spend building our model of how the world works, the less likely we are to change it.

Whether it’s the model that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the world is flat, or something more mundane, our view of the world can make it hard to see it as it really is. It means that experts have a hard time contributing anything new to their disciplines after the first few years. Einstein said that if someone hadn’t contributed to science by the age of 30, they never will. While this is potentially outdated and over stated, the point remains that it’s very difficult to shake up the establishment when you are a part of it.

Playing the Portfolio

How do originals avoid the risk and avoid getting entrenched in ideas? The answer is that they intentionally pull in ideas from multiple disciplines. Edison brought in experts in gas lighting, metallurgy, and dozens of other areas of expertise to create his light bulb. He wanted this diversity of thought both externally in the case of experts, but also internally as he sought to build expertise in multiple domains.

By building expertise in multiple domains, he could allow the mental models of the established professions to gently – and sometimes violently – collide and disrupt the idea that there was one right way of viewing the world.

Originals frequently put down multiple bets on the table to spread their risk around.

Playing the Field

Imagine for a moment a roulette wheel like none you’ll ever find in Las Vegas. A roulette wheel can have 38 positions that the ball can fall into (in the US). What if you were guaranteed to get a 70:1 return on your bets? The problem is you can only bet on 10 positions at a time. What would you do?

A typical safe-bet-type person wouldn’t play. They’d look at their odds and say, “I have only a 10:38 (or 1:3.8) chance of winning – those aren’t good odds. I don’t want to risk it.” An original says, “As long as I’m willing to stay at the table for six or eight turns, I’ll come out ahead – way ahead.” The odds are substantially in their favor that, over the long run, they’ll more than double their money. An entrepreneur makes the 10 bets each time. For each square, they place 1:60th of what they’re willing to lose.

Odds are that, within the first four games, they’ll have received their payout. Entrepreneurs use this to change how much they bet.

Pitch Imperfect

Colonel Sanders, the founder and icon of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is said to have heard “no” to his pitch for a chicken franchise 1,009 times before he heard a “yes.” He is said to have pitched his chicken restaurant franchising concept more than 1,000 times before he got the pitch right. (See Pitch Anything if you want more to learn more about pitching.) What did he learn the first thousand times? Like Edison, he learned what didn’t work. Through purposeful practice and deliberate attempts, he eventually found an approach that worked. (See Peak for more on deliberate practice.)

Colonel Sanders was an original not in his idea of franchising. He wasn’t an original in his spices – though they were original. He was an original because he was willing to work hard to execute on his one idea.


In general, procrastination is viewed negatively. We believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and other clichés that have been around since Ben Franklin’s time. However, what if procrastination had a purpose? There is anecdotal evidence and research that, in some cases, procrastination may be a better option if you’re looking for creativity.

It’s important to point out that it’s a specific kind of procrastination. It’s procrastination which is not trying to force a solution before it’s right. It’s starting to process the work to be done and allowing the fact that your solution is incomplete to trigger the Zeigarnik effect. That is, things that are left incomplete and undone have a greater impact in our brains. Our subconscious continues to mull over the problem looking for a solution, even while our conscious processing is otherwise occupied. Our subconscious looks for that bit of dopamine we’ll get when we solve the puzzle.

The Secret to Success is Timing

The argument could be made that Colonel Sanders didn’t improve his pitch. The argument could be made that it was just the right time. When you accept that life isn’t deterministic but is instead probabilistic, as explained in The Halo Effect, you consider that sometimes there’s just a right time for things. You throw the dice and hope for the right results, sure. However, you’ve also got to wonder whether some of what’s happening is just based on timing.

Many of the entrepreneurs I know will admit to a degree of luck and probabilistic determination that allowed them to succeed. A few more recognize that there are times when ideas will work and when they won’t. For instance, when gas prices are low, we can consider transportation optimization solutions. Organizations in general have available funds to make investments. However, the oil and gas industry shuts down all elective projects, because they don’t have the available capital to invest in optimizations.

Friends and Frenemies

We may have been told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, but what happens when you can’t tell one from the other? The research points to increased anxiety. When our friends seem to randomly betray us, the result is stress. If we know someone is not to be trusted, that’s easy. We may not like it, but we understand where we stand. However, when someone acts like Brutus and stabs us in the back while pretending to be our friend, our anxieties are raised.

If we want to lower the stress in our world, it is through escaping (or jettisoning) the so-called “friends” who can’t consistently be real with us by supporting us when appropriate and challenging us appropriately when necessary.

The Gilded Frame

When trying to get buy-in for an original idea, sometimes the direct approach is not the best approach. (See Buy-In for more ideas on how to get buy in for your ideas.) Sometimes we need to package our idea in a way that helps others see that achieving our goals is a way of achieving theirs. People are more likely to support us when they believe that it serves their own needs and values.

Sometimes our ideas are so “out there” that we must create a bridge from where we want to go to where people are now. That bridge can be their goals; it can also be moderating the original idea to the point where it becomes more palatable with the expectation that we’ll be able to reveal more of the idea as things happen. This makes the “crazy” original idea easier to accept and allows people to start walking the path to understand where things should lead – not just how different and scary the world might look.

The Logic of Appropriateness

If one were to use the logic of consequences, no one would ever do anything original. It’s simple. Conformity isn’t risky. Originality is. Conformity is the only choice if you’re evaluating from the lens of consequences. However, that is not the only perspective. Another perspective that breathes life into those who would be called “original” is the lens of appropriateness. From this perspective, we have the option of looking not at the risk of the situation but the need for impact, the need to change the world to make it more appropriate.

Originals look for appropriateness over consequence. They choose to stand out and stand up when it’s appropriate (and necessary) to make the world a better place.

Order of Originality

Just as age impacts our beliefs over time, so to do things like birth order. If you want to make someone care more about relationships, tell them they have only a few years to live, either through a specific communication like the diagnosis of a mortal illness or through the constant subtle reminder of their age. The result is a greater emphasis on relationships and a deemphasis on things. That isn’t to say that the natural biases built up over a lifetime are wiped from the slate, it’s just that a bias is introduced.

So, too, can birth order subtly shift perceptions and lead towards, but not to, different outcomes. Later in birth order, children grow up with fewer rules than their older siblings. In fact, it may be that older siblings are providing some of the child-rearing and in doing so tend to be more lenient.

The impact of these differences in their upbringing seems to be that they are more original. It seems that children who are later in the birth sequence tend to be more original than their older siblings. It’s not that all first-born children are not original or that all later-in-birth-sequence children are original, it’s just that they trend in that direction.

Character Praise, Skill Praise

Carol Dweck’s work on mindset cautions us about instilling a fixed mindset into our children by complementing them for their achievements. (See Mindset for more.) However, the growth mindset that we seek to instill is primarily focused on the ability to help children know that their results can be changed with hard work, and that it’s not some inherent capability that they can’t change.

However, there are some places where introducing some fixed qualities around character can be valuable. Even Dweck recommends praising children for their hard work. This is really to say that we’re praising the child’s character by saying they’re a hard worker. We can similarly praise their courage in being a non-conformist. We can encourage their honor by recognizing their honorable actions and pointing to their character.

Establishing a high moral bar takes advantage of the fact that children tend to rise to the level to which they’ve been labeled. If they’re labeled as a good student, they live that label until they’re challenged. If they’re labeled as a hard worker, they can carry that forward forever.

Cohesion, Collaboration, and Conformity

Richard Hackman talks about challenging intelligence community-based collaboration in Collaborative Intelligence. He speaks of the need for teams to be cohesive and have direction and a level of permeability. He suggests that there needs to be the right level of discomfort in the group coupled with a great deal of trust and respect.

There has been some discussion about how close a group should get with one another for the risk that Irving Janis’ groupthink would show up – however, Hackman doesn’t see it this way. He sees the need for diversity of thought, and that a group would eventually start to think alike not because they got too friendly, but because they had the same experiences.

The idea that groups can become too collegial and unwilling to push back on each other has been refuted, but it’s important to recognize that Hackman’s suggestion for regular small changes to bring in fresh perspectives is important.

Thoughtful Disagreements

“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” says Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, “is the inability for people to have thoughtful disagreements about what’s true.” I’d encourage you to pick up Originals and develop a disagreement about what’s true.

Book Review-The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – Facebook Friends

In the first part of the review of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, I addressed the direct impact of information overload (it’s here). However, there were many lose ends in the book as it pertains to relationships and how we live with others that bears addressing. We’re not isolated individuals living in bubbles that never intersect. We’re social creatures, and information overload is changing how we relate.

Friends and Facebook Friends

I’ve spoken before about friends. I’ve spoken of the analysis of friends in my review of Analyzing the Social Web, of how technology changes our friendships in my review of Alone Together, and of Robin Dunbar’s work on mapping the need for social connections in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving to name just a few places. Friendship has a fuzzy boundary. What differentiates an acquaintance from a friend from a Facebook friend?

Reason, Season, or a Lifetime

The answer is more contextual and nuanced than we might like to believe. It has been said that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.

Most of us can speak fondly of ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends not because of a lingering longing for them, but because we are acutely aware of how they helped us grow, change, and become better people. In short, they were in our lives for a reason.

All of us can share stories of friends that we had in elementary school who we’re no longer in touch with. In fact, this is the natural state. We’ve culled them from our current friend roster not because we don’t value the bond we had, but simply because our lives have been pulled apart. For some of these friends, we could resume where we left off if they were to suddenly move back into our lives – and for some, we wouldn’t.

There are a few friendships that have stood the test of time that we can truly say are with us for a lifetime. We’ve got old teachers and elementary friends that, though we may not speak with daily, still remain active in the roster of people we would call “friends.”


As I explained in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, even our “enemies” become our friends with shared history. We find the nostalgia of our shared past a way to connect, and in doing so, we make friends of the very people that we would have never associated with.

Friendships, then, aren’t about some single vision of what a friend should be, but are instead a rough understanding of people who have a concern for us. The degree to which they share a concern for our well-being and our assessment of this fact mediates the veracity with which we’ll claim they are a friend.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is the sonnet “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, as a part of the effort to raise money for the pedestal for the statue. The second stanza is:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In determining friendship, we consider how far away from others we are, how far from home we are, and how tired and poor we are. The more alone we feel, the more disconnected, the more likely we are to call someone a friend. We don’t hold one standard for what defines a friend, we have a vague sense of this permeable group. The closest we can get to criteria seems to be intimacy.


Ideally, friends are people with whom you can share a level of intimacy. However, intimacy doesn’t mean the same thing it used to – and doesn’t mean the same things that it means in other cultures. Remember that, historically, we’ve spent 99% of our time as Homo sapiens scraping just to get by. It’s been in the last 1% of our time on the planet that we’ve heard the language from the declaration of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The idea that we had the opportunity to pursue liberty or happiness was a new discovery in the 18th century. (See The Righteous Mind for more about liberty as a moral foundation.)

Happiness, which is the focus of great attention, wasn’t something that most folks aspired to. They were happy with survival. They couldn’t think of what it would be like to be happy. Perhaps that’s why intimacy wasn’t the same thing that it is now. We know that “the presence of a satisfying intimate relationship is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional well-being that has ever been measured.” If intimacy leads to happiness and we had no ability to get to happiness, it’s no wonder that intimacy was different – and is still different in some cultures.

Personally, I believe that intimacy makes more a difference to my life than anything else. I cherish my close friendships and my relationship with my wife and our children. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more on what it means to not have intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy on how to develop it.)

Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

While there’s room for argument, the most powerful advancement in the whole of human history is the concept of time. It is connected to everything we do – though quite covertly. Consider Sapolsky’s work, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which describes our ability to simulate potential future events as the root of our challenges with sustained stress. We all have our own perspectives on time, as The Time Paradox explains. The Rise of Superman explains how flow shuts down parts of our brain, disrupting our sense of time. Time may be the singularly most powerful advancement of humans.

Over the years, we’ve refined time. Railroad accidents caused us to reach a more precise sense of time. We realized that having each local community establishing “time” wasn’t going to work, so we unified our sense of time. We’ve further refined time to allow us to position ourselves anywhere on the earth. At the heart of the GPS system is a very precise time signal, with which, using some math for measuring the propagation delay and multiple signals, we can locate our nearly exact position on the Earth. Our understanding of and fascination with time was what allowed us to make extraordinary discoveries.

However, our sense of time has a more personal impact. It allows us to consider the consequences of our actions and exercise impulse control. (See Willpower for more.) We’re able to see the possible consequences and thereby prevent ourselves from going down that path.

It also allows us to set aside benefits in the present for better benefits in the future. We’re able to pass the marshmallow test. We’ll leave one marshmallow alone for now to get to two marshmallows in the future. This delayed gratification is what allows us to work together to build amazing things. It’s what allows us to work on projects that will pay dividends in the future – even when it’s toil today.

Information Architecture

It’s been years since I started my work on information architecture and how to organize things. Back in 2011, I posted Information Architecture Resources and Questions, which summarized some of the work I was doing on information architecture and the six books that I had read to that point on information architecture. Over the years, a few more might make the list (for instance, The Information Diet). When I started reading The Organized Mind, I expected that I’d find more information about information architecture. I expected to get tips and tricks for organizing information, but I really didn’t get much to help with how to categorize information.

Neurology of Sleep

Sleep seems, on the surface, to be a complete waste of time. After all, nothing happens when you’re sleeping, right? Well, not so fast. Our brains need a way to rehearse what happened during the day and to build links to the things that we learned. Sleep is the critical key to making sure that we don’t lose the experience we gained during the day. Perhaps it’s wasteful to spend a day learning and not sleep.

One of the sad but true facts about structured adult learning is that there’s a “forgetting” curve. That is, you’ll forget some of what you’ve learned over time. There are techniques to minimize the loss of learning, but some loss is inevitable. The hard fact is that after 2 weeks, you’ll have lost about 80% of what you learned – unless you have some reinforcement. That’s assuming you get a decent night’s sleep.

Our brains have been described as a computer, with our memory operating like a hard drive. While there are plenty of holes in this analogy – not the least of which is that our memories are changed and rewritten – but the analogy does hold some value. Our brains are vast warehouses of encoded information. The problem isn’t storage of information. The problem is a retrieval problem. The problem is how do you access those memories that you need when you need them?

Why can a scent remind you of your grandmother’s closet with her mothballs or cedar-lined walls? Why can’t you remember the name of the first girl (or guy) that you ever kissed? What happened to those memories of teachers who inspired you? The answer isn’t that the memories are gone. The problem is that the memories aren’t findable. The threads that lead you from one thought to the next don’t lead to those memories like they used to. The good news is that, during sleep, our brains rehearse and connect the thoughts of the day to other thoughts. Links are built for colors, smells, similar ideas, etc. It’s these links that ensure that we’ll be able to get back to the memories.

The particularly interesting note from The Organized Mind is that each day’s experiences are integrated over a series of nights. It’s not just that first night that is important. It’s important to get good sleep over the next few days. I’ve noticed conference fatigue. By the third or fourth day of the conference, everyone is dragging. It’s like they’re in a bit of a haze. That makes sense if their brains are trying to integrate their learning from the week. If they’re not used to that much learning, then they’re probably exceeding their learning capacity. Said differently, they’re likely to be exceeding the ability of their sleep to integrate their learning.

More Failures to Succeed

Like many other books, The Organized Mind talks about highly successful people as being persistent. However, there’s an important twist. There’s a recognition that you must try many things to see how to become successful. I am reminded that Edison’s first patent was a commercial failure. I’m reminded how many different approaches that my successful colleagues tried before they became successful. Maybe you can start by reading The Organized Mind – it might be just what you need to be able to get more organized and become more effective in your life.