Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Book Review-Made to Stick

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

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

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

Six Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, not Simplistic

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

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

Attracting Attention

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

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

Creating the Demand

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

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

Building the Market

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

Velcro Kind of Sticky

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

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

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

Nonsense and Understanding

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

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

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

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

Understanding Statistics

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

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

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


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

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

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

What Do People Like Me Do?

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Information Management

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

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

Brain Science

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

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

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

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

Myths and Legends

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

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

Forgetting is Your Friend

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

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

Memory as Two Separate Measures

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

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

Desirable Difficulty

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

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

Memory is Context Dependent

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

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

The Importance of Sleep

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

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

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

Trying It Out – Testing as Studying

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

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

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

The Greatest Generation

Book Review-The Greatest Generation

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

Generational Context

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Changing Moral Values

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

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

The Atomic Bomb

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

Launch: An Internet Millionaire's Secret Formula to Sell Almost Anything Online, Build a Business You Love, and Live the Life of Your Dreams

Book Review-Launch: An Internet Millionaire’s Secret Formula to Sell Almost Anything Online, Build a Business You Love, and Live the Life Of Your Dreams

Everyone dreams of it. Sell some product on the internet. Make a million (or a few million) dollars, and retire to some Caribbean island – or, in the case of Jeff Walker, Durango, CO. However, how can you do that? Launch: An Internet Millionaire’s Secret Formula to Sell Almost Anything Online, Build a Business You Love, and Live the Life Of Your Dreams claims to hold the keys to this elusive goal of many people. While Launch may have some pointers, from my point of view, there are some key areas of the map that are obscured or missing. We’ll get to that, but for now: what is the product launch formula?

Product Launch Formula

Jeff Walker started by sharing information about investing and became an internet marketing mogul. He’s well-respected as someone who has found a model for internet marketing that works. His approach is very different than the approach used by typical marketing. It’s not Guerilla Marketing or Duct Tape Marketing. It’s not even The New Rules of Marketing and PR. The strategy is different, in part, because it assumes you’re not starting with a product. It assumes that you’re launching a new product or business. The idea is that you develop an audience (what Seth Godin would call a “tribe” – see Tribes). You get that audience frenzied about the availability to get the product. The process is designed “to get your target market so engaged with your product (or business) that they almost beg you to sell it to them.”

Target Market

The target market is the first of the blurry (or missing) parts of the map. Jeff assumes that you can build your target market. The idea is that you can create content and that content will help to engage prospective customers in a conversation. They’ll help you to create and refine the content, and then you sell it to them. However, what if you can’t engage the market? What if you can’t find your tribe?

Walker quickly skims over this topic and assures you that you’ll find your target market and that they’ll help you refine your offering. I, however, have lived the life of building a tribe and defining a product. For the past ten years in selling The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide, I’ve found great places to connect with the market and equally found times when there seems to be no connection at all. It’s quite easy – and probably correct – to say that I’m doing it wrong, and I’ve missed the market, or that I’ve failed to zig and instead zagged. It is, however, my experience that the tricky part is in finding and connecting with a market to understand what they’ll get engaged about.

Sequences, Stories, and Triggers

The Product Launch Formula is made up of four sequences: Pre-Prelaunch, Prelaunch, Launch, and Post-Launch. Each of these sequences has a series of steps. The steps are designed to tell a story across time instead of overloading someone with one big message. The story is spread across days. (See Wired for Story and Story Genius for more about writing stories.)

The sequences and stories are designed to activate a set of mental triggers in the mind of the recipient that drives them to action. The triggers are:

  • Scarcity – This is a limited-time offer; you’re missing out if you don’t take advantage right now.
  • Authority – You’re the person who has all the answers; they’re a fool if they’re not listening to you.
  • Community – They’ll be left out of the club if they don’t join you.
  • Reciprocity – If I give you something, you’ll want to give me something back.
  • Trust – You should trust me.
  • Anticipation – You can’t have it – yet.
  • Likeability – Making yourself likable to encourage others to want to do business with us.
  • Events and Rituals – People love events and the opportunity to experience something together.
  • Social Proof – Others have had success using this system; the implication of which is that you can, too.

Obviously, these triggers are the right things to drive activity. The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch remind us that we are substantially more driven by our emotions (and our fears) than we would like to admit. Reiss claims there are 16 basic motivators of people in Who Am I? and The Normal Personality. His motivators include power, savings, social contact, status, and others, which link up to the triggers Walker shares here. The triggers are right – if you can find someone who’s interested in your offer.

So Now What?

The Product Launch Formula may be the right answer once you’ve figured out your market and your offer – or at least if you’ve got it reasonably close. However, in my experience, the magic happens in figuring out what to sell and finding a market that’s willing to buy it.

Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of “tire kickers,” who will take all your free content and lap up whatever sage advice you have to offer – but for whom there is no budget to be had. There’s nothing they either can or will buy. Of course, the argument is quickly that they either didn’t believe that I had something to offer them of enough value to part with their money, they didn’t believe in me, or they didn’t believe the solution would work for them.

I accept that, for at least some of the people that I have run across, these are true. I missed the mark somewhere in helping them understand the value that I generate. However, at the same time, I have to say that there are some who are just not going to buy.

The most frustrating thing about Launch for me was the fact that it didn’t offer any way to solve the intractable problems. If you know you have a market and you know roughly what you want to offer, it’s a good time to launch into reading Launch.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

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

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

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

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

What is Loneliness?

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

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

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

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

What is Depression?

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

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


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

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

For a Time

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

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

Loneliness Stimulates Stress

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

Is Anyone Listening?

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

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

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

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

Birth of the Social Creature

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

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

Genes that Made It So

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

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

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

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

Genes and Memes

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

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

No Two Alike

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

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

The Consistency Fallacy

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

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

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

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

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

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

More Alike

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

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

Microenvironments and Mutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Investigation

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

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


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

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

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

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

European Orphanages

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

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

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

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

Children Teaching Children

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

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


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

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

Bad Fit Stereotypes

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

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

Battle of Three Systems

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

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

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

Parental Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following, Fluent, Detaching

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

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

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

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

Learning Through Stories

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

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

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

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

It’s in the Cards

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

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

Seeing Again for the First Time

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

Short Stories

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

Business Model Generation

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Nine Building Blocks

The framework is nine building blocks:

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

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

Customer Segments

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

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

Value Propositions

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


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

Customer Relationships

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

Revenue Streams

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

Key Resources

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

Key Activities

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

Key Partnerships

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

Cost Structure

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

All Together

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

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

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – Candidates and Effects

In the previous post, I addressed the foundation of The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris’ challenge to the assumption that how we nurture our children has an impact on their outcomes in life. She has broken the causal arrow from a parent’s nurturing to the child’s outcome. In this post, we walk through some of the candidates for why children turn out so differently and settle on Harris’ idea that it’s the peers that drive children’s growth – and why we can’t do anything about that.

Birth Order

The easiest first guess for how children with similar genetics end up so different is their birth order. That is, the first born is in a different world developmentally than the second, the third, and so on. It’s the difference between the first born – who doesn’t have to share the parent’s attention – and the second – who must contend with an incumbent. However, a careful review of the data by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin concludes that there are no lasting, extrafamilial effects of birth order.

The research that said there was a birth order impact used only parental or self-reported questionnaire. When additional research was done, and teachers were asked to rate children’s personalities, the effects of birth order disappeared. It seems that the roles (or the perceptions of roles) that the child played in the family supported the idea of a birth order personality, but the independent assessment of personality didn’t find any patterns. This leads us back to the work of Kurt Lewin and others that personality – or at least behavior – is situationally dependent. How we behave at home isn’t necessarily how we’ll behave in public.

Situational Personality

Kurt Lewin has a formula for behavior. He says that behavior – what we actually do – is a function of both person and environment. In other words, the situation (the environment) has an unpredictably strong influence on what we do. We really are different people drinking with pals on a Saturday night than we are in church on Sunday morning.

When you couple differences in behavior and an awareness of the environmental impact, it’s easy to see how fundamental attribution error might lead us to trouble. Fundamental attribution error is our tendency to see a person’s behavior as fixed and unchanging despite changes in the environment. So, we’ll reach the wrong conclusion about people – and keep it even as the situations change.

Research proves that children behave differently in different situations – whether that behavior is moral or not. The structure of the environment has more impact – good or bad – than we would like to believe. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on the impact of the environment.)

Generalization of Learning

It’s necessary to side-step out of the world of psychology and personality and into the world of learning and teaching. One of the key roles of the parent in the modern society, and behind the nurture assumption, is the idea that the parent is a teacher. Certainly, it’s true that parents teach their children, but there is more to learning than meets the eye.

In learning, particularly adult learning, there’s a great deal of discussion about the facilitation of what is called “far transfer.” That is, how the learning applies outside the context that it was done in – mostly the classroom. Expressed in the context of The Nurture Assumption, the word that Harris uses is the “generalization” of learning. Will something that you teach your children at home be applied to other situations as well? The answer is, disappointingly, that it’s not likely. This is true of all learning – not just those important moral lessons that parents seek to teach their children at home.

Babies, it seems, are very poor at generalizing their learning. Take a mobile with red things hanging from it and allow them to move it by moving their foot, and they’ll reapply the learning that they can control the mobile with their foot. Change the things hanging from the mobile to blue and the baby must relearn the behavior. Move the crib to the living room while keeping the color of the mobile, and the same thing happens: they’re forced to relearn that they can control the mobile with their foot. The good news from the learning world is we know that the more similar the experiences with the same results, the greater the chance that someone will generalize the learning.

Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “showing up is 80% of life.” Strangely, Marcia Bates discovered through her research that as much as 80% of what we know comes from passive, undirected learning – that is, just being aware of our environment. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about Marcia’s work and structuring information. Ambient Findability is another good work about making information easier to experience.) It’s great that we learn even when no one is trying to teach us – either ourselves or others. The bad news is that it’s not possible to really control everything that a child experiences. As a result, we have no idea how they’ll process and learn from the world that they’re experiencing. They may make something big of something small – and completely miss those “big teaching moments” that parents so look forward to (or not).

Outside of Bounds

Interestingly, there seems to be a set of normative bounds for child-rearing, inside of which there may be little impact on how the children turn out, and an out-of-bounds category that can – but won’t necessarily – cause lasting harm. The tragic fact is that some children are abused by the very people that evolution designed to protect them. Some of those children appear to have long-term scars and burdens inflicted by those experiences – beyond what can be explained genetically. (Mainly because the studies use adopted or foster children.)

So it is possible to have a lasting impact as a parent or caregiver – unfortunately in the wrong direction. On the other side of the equation, the evidence is less compelling. Any advantage that a child has by growing up in a home full of books and classical music fades as the child grows into adulthood. It appears that no amount of “baby genius” programs, resources, or materials will turn your child into an amazing intellect when they’re an adult. This is one of the many factors that were tested for lasting impact and for which no meaningful correlation could be found.

Groups and Gangs

Harris’ theory is that we don’t pass along culture and personality from parent to child, but instead we pass these things from group to group. Children obtain their definition in no small part due to the groups of children that they associate with. Parents have often lamented about the kids that their kids are hanging out with. “Hanging out with the wrong crowd” is a common defense for parents whose children have found their way down the “wrong” path.

Groups are a way that children identify themselves. Whether they establish a name for the group or they just identify with the concept of the people that they’re hanging out with, groups have a powerful impact on people. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I described the impact of affinity groups – or identity groups – on adults. Obviously, feeling like you’re a part of a group when you know everyone makes sense. However, that pull is effective, even when you don’t know the rest of the people in the group. I don’t know everyone in the Microsoft MVP program, but I’ll have a certain level of affinity with them should they ask me for something. They belong to the same group, even if I don’t know them personally.

These same powerful forces work on our children. They pick up a positive effect for the group – and from the group – through their self-identification. When the effect is positive, we call it a “group.” When the effect is negative, we use the pejorative term “gang.” It’s the pull of “the gang” that is at the heart of peer pressure.

Peer Pressure

I remember Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. It was targeted at helping teenagers avoid drugs. (For more on the War on Drugs, see Chasing the Scream.) The basic premise was that just saying no when someone offers you drugs is all you need to do. After all, to start an addiction, someone has to offer to let you try it. If you just say no at that point, you can stop the addiction before it starts. It’s not that simplistic. It’s true that there is that moment of truth when you’ll be offered something. However, by that time, you’re likely to want to be a part of the group enough that you won’t want to say no. No matter how many lectures you’ve heard from your parents. No matter of how many of those “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcements you’ve seen. You simply want to be a part of the group.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t teach their children to avoid harmful things, including cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Rather, I’m saying that peer pressure isn’t about the first time your child is offered drugs. Peer pressure is about their internal desires to be a part of their peer group and what capacity they have to be different than their peers.

For me, I had a defining boundary (see Beyond Boundaries and Boundaries for more) that I would not do drugs. It wasn’t like I wasn’t offered any. It helps that I wasn’t in any groups that drugs were a part of their defining characteristics. By setting my defining boundary as not trying them, it made it easy. (See The Success Principles for Canfield’s perspective – 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

Majority Rules

One of the interesting things in group formation is the development of the cultural norms. If you mix equal parts of Type A and Type B, what will the group coalesce around? Of course, A, B, and “something else” are all options. Group dynamics and formation are a major area of research as organizations seek to define their culture and build collaboration inside their ranks. (See Collaboration and Collaborative Intelligence for more on collaboration and Theory U, Organizational Traps, Reinventing Organizations, and The Advantage for more on forming healthy organizational cultures.) Despite the interest in developing the right kind of culture in organizations and an attempt to guide the future, there is little agreement on how to shape the culture. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations speaks of factors that facilitate innovation adoption – rather than a formula for achieving success.

The upshot of this is that trying to determine how a group of teenagers will find their way is near impossibility. While you can move to good neighborhoods, you can’t really control who your teenagers are “running with” or the standards that the group holds. The problem with majority rules is that you don’t know what idea is in the majority until it’s tested, and by then it’s too late.


In a discussion of groups, it’s important to realize that there isn’t one group that anyone feels like they’re a part of. They might situationally be focused on one group, because they’re with other members; but when they attend the next party, they may identify with a totally different group – with different behavioral norms. Children can identify as child, teenager, boy, girl, nerd, jock, or any combination of these. The change in identification between these can be as quick as walking into the next room.

The reality is that our self-identification is fluid and influenced by our environment. This fluidity and transition is one of the reasons that each of us can live in our own microenvironment. We don’t experience the world like the person sitting next to us. Because we transition our identity into different groups during a conversation – and because our perspective is slightly different – we’ll experience the environment slightly different than every other person.

This microenvironment view is one of the explanations for how children who are raised in the same neighborhood and home don’t end up identical. They are – in effect – in their own environment.

Parent-Child Effects

Parents are targeted as the cause of the microenvironments that children inhabit and therefore their differences. The claim is that parents treat their children differently – and they do. However, as Harris points out, it’s because each child is different and needs different parenting. She speaks about how mothers used to be vilified for not spending enough time connecting with their autistic children, thereby causing the illness. We now know that this isn’t the case; the parent is responding to the child’s inability to connect and adapting their behavior.

This is a child-to-parent effect. The child causes a behavior difference in the parent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be bad for a parent to fail to adapt their responses to their child. However, it isn’t an intuitive response. The assumption is that the parent shapes the behavior of the child. Rarely do we consider how children shape us. We worry about whether we’re raising children well – and at the same time worry that we’re worrying enough. We’re concerned that we’re investing enough into our children. We fear that our working, our divorce, or other distractions (including other kids) are depriving our children of what they need. (You can see other impacts of children with our own baggage in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable.)

Working, Death, and Divorce

Many mothers (and fathers) have been concerned about the impact that their working has on their children. Traditional societies (hunter-gather societies) may have had mother-infant bonding all the time from age 0-4 – but after that, very little parental time was spent with the children. In Britain, it was common to send kids off to boarding schools – with obviously very little parental environment. Robert Putnam concludes in Our Kids that there has been little change in the overall time spent with kids after mothers started working.

Another concern has been about the increase in the divorce rate and the impact it has on children. Neither Harris nor Putnam believe this to be a significant factor. Harris, in fact, goes further to acknowledge that, in traditional societies, death of mothers due to mortality during childbirth or fathers due to wars and accidents was as much or greater than the number of children without parents today. While we bemoan the number of children living in single-family homes, over the long history of civilization, the rate seems to fluctuate but is generally moving in a positive direction with children receiving the benefits of two parents more frequently than not.

We’ve moved away from the tight communities that we used to have and the idea that children belong to the community and have a more parental focus than in the past; so there may be a greater need for the parent to support children – but, overall, things are no worse for children than they used to be.

Sidebar: Public Figures

One of the interesting aspects that raised its head but wasn’t directly related to the core topic is the awareness of the public vs. private perception of “celebrities.” Margaret Mead is well-known for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” The use of this quote elevates Margaret Mead. She’s a luminary. She speaks with authority. Except that, when you read the works of others, you find her work tended to be filled with biases. She found what she expected to find. Some degree of this is normal for all researchers; however, Harris points a few places where the tendency rather high. Ekman, in his book Nonverbal Messages, points out similar concerns with Mead’s work.

Another figure who is featured in The Nurture Assumption – but indirectly – is Albert Bandura. Bandura is famous for his research on television violence. Harris debunks the myth that television violence causes violence – no matter what the Bobo doll says. (In truth, the research was on observing an adult attack the Bobo doll, not about children watching it on a TV.) In my review of Moral Disengagement, I shared that I didn’t agree with Bandura’s cases. It seems like my concerns about how he makes some of his cases are consistent with others’ concerns.

Circuitous Routes

Harris admits that, of her two children, one took a more or less straight path, and the other took a much more circuitous route. (That’s a parent’s way of saying that they were worried for their children for a long time.) In my – admittedly incomplete – experience with children, I can say that I understand the circuitous route. Some of our children know their path and follow it. Some don’t know their path, but work diligently to move forward to be ready when their path is revealed. Others drift, not yet sure of where they want to latch on or that they even want to walk forward.

The reality is that I can only support and nurture without any control of the outcomes. The outcome of our children isn’t ours to control – it’s theirs. I am not willing to give up on nurturing. Not because of The Nurture Assumption or because I believe that I can control the outcome of their life. Ultimately, it’s because it’s the person I want to be. Whether you make The Nurture Assumption or not is up to you – just be the person you want to be.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – The Basics

When you look at another family (probably on Facebook) and think “they’ve got it together,” do you think that they “come from good stock,” or are you impressed with the matriarch and patriarch’s ability to nurture their children? Would it surprise you to know that the ability to change our children through nurturance is a widely-held but frequently disproved assumption? In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris, with a bit of help from Steven Pinker, explores the impact that parents can have on their children – or not.

This review is broken into two parts, the first that speaks of the assumption and the basics, and the second that speaks of the candidates and the effects.

The Grandma from New Jersey

It was Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate (see my review on the basics and the implications), that pointed me to The Nurture Assumption. Pinker spends a great deal of time in the book trying to explain how humans are formed and how we become ourselves. He describes the flap that happened when Harris published an article and her book. They called her the “grandmother from New Jersey.” This was a true statement intended to prejudice people against her.

To me, however, it was a statement of conviction. Without a university affiliation and “only” a master’s degree, Harris published a controversial article in a peer-reviewed journal. People wanted to know about this mysterious woman who came from outside academia to challenge their beliefs. What they found was surprising and disconcerting. She was a citizen scientist. She was a scholar who dedicated her scholarship across disciplines. She sought for truth no matter where it led her. (See Antifragile, Saving Our Sons and Bold for more on citizen scientists.)

As a mother and grandmother, Harris had a particularly practical point of view on the process of rearing children; she had done it. She had the battle scars to prove it. So, while writing a textbook on child development, she came across a crisis. Suddenly, the answers that were being taught – including in the textbooks that she had authored – no longer made sense. The research didn’t seem, to her, to say what the authors claimed. She saw that some of the research was hopelessly flawed. There was no way to say that the claims being made were valid, because the structure didn’t support the conclusions.

What do you do when your beliefs come crashing down on you? If you’re this grandmother from New Jersey, you dig in and dig out.

Setting the Stage

As was discussed at length in The Blank Slate, roughly 50% of our “selves” comes from our genes. There may be 10% of what we become that comes from what we typically think of as environment, and the remainder is unexplainable using the typical definition of “environment.” In the context of a parent rearing children, this is disappointing news. After the roll of the genetic dice, there’s very little we can point to that has a real impact on the outcomes and personalities for our children.

This doesn’t stop advice-givers from telling parents what they should and should not do to help raise healthy “well adjusted” children. In fact, I’ve reviewed a few of these books, including Parent Effectiveness Training, Saving Our Sons, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Stepparenting, The Gift of Failure, How Children Succeed, Helping Children Succeed and The Available Parent. This doesn’t include those books that include advice for parents as a sideline to their main message. Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly caries the subtitle of “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” The Cult of Personality Testing carries the subtitle of “How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.” Clearly, there is a lot of advice out there.

The market for writing the instruction manual that parents never get when they have a child is big business. There is always someone that has a different take. Some of those takes are misguided or discovered to have their own challenges that show up later. Dr. Benjamin Spock is reported to have lamented about the outcomes of the advice he gave parents in his book Baby and Child Care as a more elderly and wiser man.

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

There is a lot we have learned about human development. As was discussed at length in Mindreading, the human ability to read the intentions of others – to do mind reading – is a skill that is nearly unique to humans. (Harris points out that dogs can read human intention to some degree.) We have the ability – by age 3 or 4 – to understand that not everyone knows the same things. Further, we realize that the object of communication is to interact with other people and their understanding of the world. Sometimes that’s conveying our intent, and other times it’s inquiring on the intent of others.

The problem is that, as much as we know through careful study of the fundamentals of our mind’s functioning and research on development, there’s still a great deal we don’t really know. There aren’t simple easy answers on how to “best” raise a child – much less multiple children.

Guilt and Shame

One could easily ask the question, what’s the harm in the advice that causes parents to seek better ways to care for their children? Certainly, that is a positive position. Parents are more attentive to the practices they use, and they’re more conscious of how they impact their children. However, what are the negative impacts? There are some that describe Millennials as self-absorbed and under-developed due to the “helicopter parenting” that Generation X used to protect their children. (See more about my thoughts on this in my review of America’s Generations.)

However, the more insidious harm comes to the parents themselves when their children aren’t perfect. If they’re children aren’t perfect, then they must have done something wrong. If you assume that you ultimately have the power to nurture children, then you must feel some guilt that you didn’t. In the assumption that you can nurture your child into anything that you or they want to be is the problem of believing you’re at fault for not nurturing your child to success.

The problem is that, for all the advice-givers, none of them has the 12-step program to your child’s success and happiness – at least not one that everyone agrees upon. Scholars have been working on research to lead us towards this goal, and they’re no closer to understanding what factors in the environment of a child are the important factors to help them live a fully-fulfilled life. In fact, it’s hard to define exactly what it is that we really want for our children outside the context of our culture.


What few realize is that what we believe about parenting is very culturally driven. Should children sleep alone or with their mothers? It turns out that the perspective is driven by culture. If you’re in a traditional society, a baby is rarely away from its mother. Some traditional societies would consider the idea of a baby sleeping separately to be cruel.

It’s important that I add a quick sidebar here. There are many tragic deaths where a parent (both mothers and fathers) accidentally smother a baby while sleeping with them. While I accept that traditional societies don’t believe that children should be left alone to sleep, I’d still encourage that they be left in their own bassinet (or crib) with no items in them. I can’t imagine the horror of having to live knowing that you accidentally suffocated your precious child to death.

Harris shares that she and her peer group of mothers didn’t believe in children in the parents’ beds, they believed in bedtimes, and that “an occasional smack, administered at the right time and in the right spirit, might do a kid a bit of good.” She’s quick to point out that she’s not condoning beating children, just that an occasional correction might be warranted. For Harris and her group, these are the norms. There are groups who don’t believe in bedtimes, or that physical punishment isn’t acceptable. There are some who, despite the evidence of unnecessary deaths, believe it’s OK for children – even babies – to sleep in the parent’s bed.

Should a child be physically corrected? Most societies, and most of America, believe that the right correction at the right time is helpful. There’s some research that supports this notion. However, there are other perspectives as well. In fact, there’s a correlation between physical punishment and poorer outcomes for children. However, things aren’t as they seem. To understand that, we first must understand at least one way to categorize parental behavior.

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

The year is 1967, and Diana Baumrind has defined three contrasting styles of parenting. They’re named authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Harris finds these labels too confusing, as do I, and calls them simply too hard, too soft, and just right.

The authoritarian parents dominate their children – they’re presumably too hard on their children. The permissive let their children dominate them – they’re presumably too soft on their children. The authoritative parent is firm but flexible and interacts with their children in ways that the children feel heard but still understand the power structure.

The correlation between parents using a too-hard approach on their children having greater problems with those children exists – but only if you select the right data. It’s true that, in lower income homes of generic American and European descent, the too-hard parents tend to have more unruly children. The problem occurs if you include Asian parents in this mixture. Their style would be considered too hard – but their children are frequently model students and citizens. Their too-hard parenting style is what their culture expects, and their children seem to be no worse for the pattern.

Much of the research that is designed to show that too-hard parenting is bad for children falls victim to our old nemesis – the confusion of correlation and causation.

Correlation and Causation

One of the persistent issues in science, research, and life is confusing correlation and causation. It seems to come up time and time again. (The last time was in Antifragile.) The problem is that we see some level of statistically-significant correlation, and we assume that the correlation is real – and that one of the variables causes the other. Time and time again, this mistake is made in research – and outside of the confines of peer-reviewed research. Yet we continue to miss it. We continue to miss that we potentially leap to the wrong conclusions in our desire to understand and dominate our world.

Much of Harris’ work in The Nurture Assumption is working through dozens of faulty studies and explaining what must be done to ensure that the results are reliable – and indicative. For a finding to be useful for parenting children, there must not just be a correlation between two factors. We must know first that it’s not a spurious correlation (one expected by random chance) and second which – if either – of the two correlated factors is causal to the other. While this would seem to be an easy proposition, it’s far from it.

Environment and Nurture

Before proceeding, we must address one confusion that exists. That confusion is lumping all the environmental factors that can influence someone into the emotionally-loaded word of “nurture.” Nurturance is about taking care of someone, as a parent does to a child. However, once we clear the correlations in behavior due to genes, we must move to a more emotionally neutral word of “environment.” Nurture would imply a limited scope of the things that a parent does to further their child’s development, but much of what happens to a child happens beyond the direct control of a parent.

We must realize that the world that a child lives in is much broader than just a set of parents. It includes siblings, extended families, communities, and the nations in which they live. Even if we can find the causes of personality differences, they may not be caused by parents at all. They may be a result of the environment that children are in.

Robert Putnam did a study of children and their communities in his book Our Kids. He seems to disagree with Harris about the degree to which parents matter in a child’s life – however, he does offer support, in that he believes that there’s a great deal of richness in the environment that matters beyond the parents themselves.

The Studies

It’s important to explore for a moment the kinds of studies that sociologists and psychologists use to tease out which environmental factors are important to improving a child’s success in life. The favorite choice is identical twins. They’re the favorite, because the genetic factors can be held constant. Identical twins are – at least from a genetic standpoint – identical. So whatever makes them different must be based on something else – something environmental, something experiential, and perhaps a bit of the random zigs and zags of development. These studies find identical twins raised in different homes and measure their differences.

Another favorite of researchers is adoptive families. The similarities at the end of the day can’t be assumed to be genetic, because the genetics are different. The similarities must be driven by the environment in which the children were raised.

Of course, regular families are important too, since a family with very many kids is bound to produce some radically different individuals. It becomes interesting, because roughly half of their behavior should be driven by genetics, but the children turn out to be so different. I can attest to this in the six of seven children that share the same genetics. They’re very different people despite the similarity of genetics. The question to be answered is what makes them so different? Is it something as simple as birth order?

Who and What?

If parenting has less of an influence on a child than we have first thought, then where do we look to for answers? Now that I’ve covered the basics, part 2 of my review will discuss some candidates for why children may turn out differently.