Book Review-Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

It’s not unusual to perceive others as irrational. We can’t make sense of what other people do while assuming that we ourselves are completely rational. However, Dan Ariely points out in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions that, not only are we, too, irrational, we’re predictably irrational. We make the same mistakes repeatedly. We don’t practice rational decision-making, we practice irrational decision-making.

Rational Decision Making

Gary Klein shares his studies of fire captains in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t, and how we internalize how things work and how they fit together. More important, he explains that we can’t articulate what we know about how we make our decisions, because they just seem to come to us. (This fits with knowledge management and the concept of tacit rather than explicit knowledge. See Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)

However, Klein’s work is on how our “gut” and how our intuition works – not how it gets in the way of rational decision-making. He only acknowledges that intuition works before rational decision-making can be engaged. Rational decision-making is an expensive process and one that we try to avoid if we can. In fact, we try to avoid any difficult comparison. We prefer easy, relative comparisons because, well, they’re easy.

Everything is Relative

The actual size of your home or your actual salary is irrelevant – mostly. What matters for your happiness is how your home stacks up to your friend group. If your salary is larger than your sister-in-law’s husband, you’ll probably feel relatively good about your salary – that is, unless your sister-in-law’s husband is a bum and there’s no comparison. Our salary is good when it exceeds others’. Our marriage is good when it seems to show more love.

It turns out that every evaluation is a relative evaluation. We don’t truly evaluate things in absolute terms. Ariely mirrors what Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we get more value from our first dollar of gain than the second – and so on. On the loss side, which we feel more acutely, the first dollar lost is more painful than the second dollar lost. Losing a dollar – or a million – should be the same whether it’s the first or the fifth, but that’s not what happens with humans. We find familiarity less rewarding and less depressing than newness.

From the perspective of trying to be a “choice architect” (in the words of Nudge), this is important because it means that we can encourage people to purchase the product or services that we want them to purchase by offering them a slightly less attractive option that’s easy to compare to the option we want them to buy.

There’s an example about The Economist, where the Internet-only option was priced at $69 per year, the print was priced at $125 per year – and both were priced at the same $125 per year. This made the “both” option an easy sell. However, was it really a better deal than the Internet-only option if the subscriber would never open a single printed issue? No, not from a logical point of view. However, from a choice point of view it was a brilliant way of keeping print alive for a while longer.

Arbitrary Coherence

But who set the price for the subscription in the first place? Somewhere, somehow, all printed magazine subscriptions ended up being the same price. All the subscriptions that you buy tended to be in a range of prices. Most books that you buy tend to be in a relatively small range of prices. We don’t expect to pay more than about $35 for a book. Some mass-market books can be $10 or less but, excepting trade books and textbooks for class, that’s what we expect to pay for a book.

Given that the cost to print a book is somewhere between $1 and $10 depending upon size, quantity, etc., is there a formula to get to the sales price of the book? The answer is no. Pricing is set based on its anticipated demand and the price which will make the publisher and, secondarily, the author the most money.

The price of books is an example of arbitrary coherence. Once we’ve set our expectations with the price of a book, we tend to expect that the pricing will stay relatively the same over time. In the case of books, professional and textbooks are the exception. They’re seen differently and have a different “set point” of expectations.

We might expect to pay $100 or more for a professional book or a technical book. Are the production costs different? Not really. Are the development costs different? Not in most cases. Interestingly, the real difference is in the perceived marketability and longevity. Professional books have a smaller market. Textbooks have a much shorter longevity because of the expectations that they be updated frequently.

We may all grumble at having to pay $100 for a textbook or a professional book – but we still do it, because we’ve been conditioned to expect that this is what we do.

Breaking Coherence

The big implication of coherence is how to break it. The big game is how do you charge $5 for a cup of coffee instead of $1? The answer lies in our ability to distinguish the experiences sufficiently, such that the experience of a $5 coffee doesn’t feel like the same experience as a $1 coffee. By changing how the experience feels and our frame of reference, we break coherence and create a new standard that we’re willing to pay and an experience we desire.

Starbucks is famous for its ability to create an experience that we’re willing to pay $5 for. Is the coffee that much better? That’s certainly debatable. But few would argue that there’s an experience to a coffee house – whether it’s Starbucks or not. We’ll pay once for that experience. And then our neural shortcuts kick in and we’ll do it again.

Because we’re constantly seeking a shortcut, we’re always looking to simplify the problem. When we’re faced with the need for a shot of caffeine in a hot suspension fluid like coffee, we’ll ask ourselves what will work rather than what is most cost-effective. We ask the question where can we get it. We’ll evaluate what we’ve done in the past, and since we’ve tried Starbucks before, it’s an acceptable option.

So luring people in the door for their first cup works because, whether you make money on the first cup or not, a large majority are likely to come back.

Coherence, and breaking it, doesn’t just work in the low-cost world of coffee; it works in the price of priceless jewels. Literally, black pearls had no value before leveraged by an exclusive jeweler and advertising in the swankiest magazines. After that, a relatively valueless black pearl became an expensive option for those who thought that the pearls were the classiest way to distinguish themselves.

Environments, Knowledge, and Subjective Experiences

Starbucks broke our coherence by changing the environment. Instead of drinking from a cheap paper cup, they gave us a cup with texture. The condiments are displayed in nice jars. An atmosphere with wood tables rather than Formica countertops. It was enough to break our coherence on price. However, that’s not the only factor capable of knocking us out of our subconscious patterns. Sometimes what we know – or don’t know – can make all the difference in what we experience.

What if you don’t know anything about the dish that you’re about to taste? You’re in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language. Your guide shares with you that this is a local delicacy and it’s a privilege that your host is willing to honor you by sharing it. You taste it and decide that it is indeed very good. Later your guide shares that what you ate was eel, or monkey brains, cockroaches, bull testicles, or something else that you might squirm a bit to know that you’ve just eaten.

What if you reverse the situation, and your guide tells you what is in the dish before you taste it? It shouldn’t matter to how much you like it – but it does. It shouldn’t change your opinion of the taste – but it does. Our knowledge of the situation – and our preconceived notions of it – can and does change the experience. An astute guide will tell you only that it’s rare and that it’s an honor and neglect the ingredients – until after, when it won’t matter much.

It seems that we’re easily swayed by the environments that we’re in. We’re willing to break our coherence based on the presence of fancy jars and wood counter tops. We’re unable to stop our perceptions from being changed based on our preconceived notions about things – unless we don’t know until after we experience it.

Love the Stuff You’ve Got

Have you ever wondered why parent’s children are – to them – the most precious creatures known to man, while others wonder which would be worse, their children or a kraken? Perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the truth is that parents believe their children are the cutest, smartest creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. That is, at least until they become teenagers, when they believe that and the parents try to correct them.

There’s an affinity to the things that we have. While this affinity doesn’t prevent us from coveting the things that others have, especially if they have status attached to them, it does tend to allow most of us to be happy with what we’ve got. (See Who Am I? for more about status as a motivator.) Of course, if there’s something available for free, we’re going to want that.

Free is Different

I go to a lot of conferences and that means I get the chance to walk a lot of exhibit halls. The booths are interesting; but perhaps more interesting to me are the people. There are those folks that will walk from booth to booth collecting whatever they have available for free. If it’s pens, they’ll scoop up a handful. They’ll do this even if they know they won’t survive the ride home in their bags. Why? Well, it’s not because the conference is in a far-off place, it’s because free is a different place.

While we may not like to make rational decisions, we still do some form of cost-benefit analysis in the back of our heads (way away from our frontal lobes) to decide whether to do something or not. For most of us, however, there’s a short in the system. When someone says the word “free”, we don’t consider any costs – not just the monetary cost.

Most things in life have a non-monetary cost. There’s the cost to have all that space, and the cost to transport whatever we’re getting, and a thousand other ways that “free” may not really be completely free. However, when someone says that it’s free, we fail to consider any of the other costs. So, all we see are the benefits – and then of course we want it. That means things that are free are “purchased” at a substantially higher rate than those that have even a trivial cost.

Social vs. Market Norms

Free isn’t the only way to change the way we view things in a predictable way. Sometimes it’s changing a transaction from market norms to social norms. Consider, for instance, volunteerism. People volunteer their time, energies, and talents with no expectation of compensation every day. I’ll be running audio for services at church on a weekend with no expectation of compensation. An audio engineer might make $80,000 per year and be busy half the time so the services might be worth $80/hr.

If I was offered $80/hr to do audio engineering, I’d turn it down – it’s not a good use of my time. However, I’m happy to serve the church by providing these services. I’d also be happy to take out the trash, cook a meal or anything else. The difference is that I’m operating on a different set of norms. When I’m volunteering, I’m operating on social – not market norms.

Similarly, I’ve said that one of the greatest tests of love is when you’ll do something for someone else that you won’t do for yourself. I don’t like to strip wallpaper, but when my sister-in-law needed help as she moved into a new house, that’s exactly what we went to do.

The lesson here is that if you want to get folks to help for less than what they’re worth, or to do things they won’t do for themselves, engage their desire for social interaction and social agency.

Closing Doors

Our social worlds are filled with opportunities and possibilities. The rest of our lives can seem as if there’s a bit of scarcity. That is, there is a limit to what is available to us. As a result, we resist closing doors. In fact, we’ll waste quite a bit of our energy and resources protecting things that we’ll never use again.

We’ve filled all our closets and storage spaces with clothes and things that we’ll never use again. We are holding on to some of these things for sentimental reasons, but many will have no practical purpose for us ever again. (You might look at your high school year book – but do you ever really expect to do anything with it than wax nostalgic about your youth?)

If you, like the rest of us, aren’t ready to close a door to make your life more simple and less cluttered, perhaps you can open a door by picking up Predictably Irrational.

Book Review-Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That’s the heart of what Seth Godin is talking about with Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Tribes are about how you can get people together with a shared interest and allow them to communicate about their passions. What can happen when you get a small (or not so small) group of people together is amazing. Sometimes tribe leaders break some glass, but in general they get things done.

Creating a Ruckus

Tribes aren’t formed in the status quo. People aren’t passionate about the way things are. People are passionate and engaged in making things different and better. Tribes are made of people who see the status quo leading nowhere and desiring to do something better. When you set about changing the status quo, you’re going to create a ruckus.

Of all the ways that Godin talks about how leaders are disruptive, I like the word “ruckus” most. It’s about making a statement that seems radical given the status quo, but if the leader is successful, it will seem to be normal. The Earth isn’t flat. The Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth. Lighting will strike the same place twice. We do use more than 10% of our brains. You can’t create gold from lead – sorry Isaac Newton.

The prevailing understanding isn’t always right, even if someone says that it’s scientific fact. We’ve disproven hundreds of strongly-held beliefs. We find ever smaller particles even though we once thought that the atom couldn’t be further decomposed.

Each time we have a scientific discovery challenge the status quo, a ruckus is created. Each time a leader takes a stand and unites a tribe, a ruckus is created.

Need for Belonging

Even though we’re talking about tribes who feel like the status quo isn’t the right thing, that doesn’t stop the fundamental human nature for the need for belonging. I mentioned this need for belonging in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving and the need for people to have social relationships. I covered the need for belonging in more detail in my review of The Search for Significance. The short is we all need to feel like we belong somewhere. Brené Brown in Daring Greatly talks about the need for belonging as the need for connection to others.

This is what makes leading a tribe both fulfilling at a deep level once it’s going and at the same time intensely isolating when you decide to cause a ruckus and challenge the status quo. Until you’ve found your tribe, you’re off on your own.

Leading with Discomfort

Leading anything is an uncomfortable proposition. Leading something radical is even more so. A leader isn’t a leader without anyone following, and yet the burning fire in your soul won’t let you quit forging a new path. It’s this passion that attracts others to you like a magnet. They learn about your passion and they want some of that.

However, leadership is filled with hard questions, difficult walks, and a lot of uncomfortable self-reflection about who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish in life. Leaders question their passion. They question themselves. Ultimately, they move forward because it’s what seems like the right thing to do rather than some well-thought-out plan or some grand vision that they’re going to make it. It’s a blind faith that this must be done that drives many leaders. (See Extreme Productivity if you want to see more folks who acknowledge that there are no plans in life or leadership.)

Igniting a Passion

Putting a stake in the ground is the first step. Saying to yourself and others that this is the passion that you’re going to follow is a great start; but then what? The second step is to share your passion – to unleash your fire – with others so that they can feel it too.

The primary torch that carries the passion from one person to another isn’t the cool, calculating precision of rationality. Instead, it’s the same torch that we’ve had with us since the dawn of civilization. That is, we spread our passion with stories. We tell stories of the horrors of the status quo. We tell stories of those who’ve reached this cause’s version of nirvana. We tell our personal stories of struggle and discovery that ignited our passion.

Fanning the Flames

Tribes aren’t about stuff – even important, change the world stuff – they’re about connection. They’re about the ability to connect with one another in an important way. The story of a tribe isn’t just one story, it’s the weaving together of a thousand stories.

I remember (but can’t find the reference to) Scott Adams talking about a cartoon that he particularly liked but that didn’t resonate well with the audience. It was about a tiny little IRS man that fit inside the pocket of your shirt. The point was that though Adams, whose insight on what people identify with in corporate America is amazing, liked this one cartoon too much. It too precisely fit his personal tastes and thoughts. His audience, the people that were buying (or enjoying) his cartoons, didn’t see the same enjoyment that he did.

In Adams’ traditional, one-way world, there’s very little opportunity to create a tribe that can tell its own stories into the ethos to fan its own flames. However, today we have dozens of channels and tools that can be used to allow tribe members to feed off of each other and deepen their passion and interest for the tribe in the process.

Willing to Be Wrong

To be the leader of a tribe you must be willing to be wrong. You must be willing to accept failure as an option without accepting you’ll be a failure because of it. Willingness to fail and the conviction to stand when times are tough are that Stockdale paradox that Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great, where you have to have unwavering faith – and a willingness to listen to the market. I’m willing to be wrong, but I think you’ll enjoy Tribes.

Book Review-Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work

Imagine your best day. Imagine the day that you were so in the moment and so ignited, so alive, and then try to make it every day. That’s what Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are trying to teach people how to do in Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Altered states of conscious, and most especially flow, is the name of the game. They’re trying to share the secrets from diverse explorers of the mind and body experience in a way that we can all begin to drink more freely from the fountains of experiences that release us from our normal limitations and push us to ecstasis – the act of stepping beyond oneself.

Fundamentals of Flow

I’m a follower of flow, having read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Finding Flow books. I’ve also read Steven Kotler’s previous work The Rise of Superman that speaks to the extraordinary feats that people who are in flow can accomplish – and the triggers that are useful to get into that state. While Kotler spoke of group flow in The Rise of Superman, it’s really in Stealing Fire that the attention is focused on group flow and getting people to work together. (If you want another reference for group flow, Group Genius also speaks of it.) While the point of Stealing Fire isn’t group flow, there are many groups that are using flow and group flow to deliver results.

Flow is a powerful state, allowing people in the delicate balance of challenge and skill to operate 5 times more efficiently than they might be able to operate in their out-of-flow states. The long-term side effects of flow seem to be creativity and happiness. All in all, flow seems to be the key to unleashing our human potential. Getting groups to operate in flow together can be a visceral experience.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA)

Most of us would acknowledge that the world is moving faster and seems more uncertain than it did a generation – or even a decade – ago. In business, we see industries getting crushed in a heartbeat. We’re seeing the death of the wired telephone, as we call people on their mobile phones instead of places like their house or work. However, these conditions are nothing in comparison to the challenges that the Navy SEALs encounter. Their assignments are often Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) – on an unimaginable scale. They must accomplish a mission when often the way to get that done must be made up on the fly.

It’s not that the SEALs don’t train and plan. They do both extensively. It was Helmuth von Moltke that first noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In the high-stakes world of SEALs, they have to adapt in the moment – and as a unit. SEALs are an expensive machine, perhaps costing $85 million in their training and preparation; but, though expensive, they get results.

SEALs have a reputation for being a hard as nails group, but that reputation doesn’t quite explain the mental toughness that is present in all of them. In fact, it’s mental toughness that is the distinguishing characteristic that makes a good SEAL. Their ability to take on tough challenges and their ability to meld their consciousness into the group is what makes them great. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that are mostly screened for since, despite a wide array of training and technological options, the Navy still can’t train the baseline mental toughness.

So, the SEALs take the raw materials and refine them. They have learned how to train more effectively. They can take the process of learning a new language and get it done in 6 weeks instead of 6 months. They’ve figured out how to flip the switch individually and collectively to help SEALs get into flow – and to stay there. This refinement process is radically different from the festival in the desert where people go to find group flow.

Burning Man

Surviving in an uncertain world isn’t certain. But the uncertainty that most of us face these days isn’t the same kind of life-or-death survival that our ancestors faced. For the most part, our uncertainty is confined to our success. Our Type-A, control everything personality may get its ego bruised, but we’ll ultimately be fine. (See Change or Die for more about our Ego and its Defenses.)

Sometimes the constraints that we have in our daily lives make it difficult – or impossible – to get into flow. Our inner critic is in control, and she’s got no intent of letting go of control, ending up in flow, or getting silenced. By removing all the trappings of traditional society, including the mundane trappings of personal hygiene, it’s sometimes enough to confuse the inner critic into submission. Sometimes stripping away the rules and structures is enough to drop folks into individual or group flow with others, and sometimes it takes some pharmaceutical enhancement, which is relatively easy to access inside at this festival in the desert.

Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved

Drugs and altered states of thinking have a long history. Stealing Fire opens with the Eleusinian Mysteries – a ritual designed to “strip away the standard frames of reference, profoundly alter consciousness, and unlock a heightened level of insight.” This ritual centered around kykeon, a dark liquid that reportedly packed one hell of a punch. Nature has a long history of animals seeking out ways to “get high,” and humans are no exception to the rule. Most of the time this process has worked well with animals seeking out a brief altered state and then returning to their normal lives.

Drug stores used to sell the same pharmaceuticals that are now illegal over the counter. Those drugs certainly weren’t harm-free, but used in moderated doses, they harmed less than they relieved people. In our grand failure of an experiment with depriving Americans of alcohol, we accidentally unleashed a force for suppressing all kinds of drugs. It’s not surprising that the most destructive substance – alcohol – should foreshadow the problems that we’d have when we criminalized other substances. (For more on how we ended up with our current drug enforcement mess, see Chasing the Scream.)

One man, Sasha (Alexander) Shulgin stood in consistent contradiction to the changes happening in his world where more and more substances were becoming “controlled.” As a chemist, he would make compounds and, ultimately, test them on himself, his wife, and close friends. They would record then their experiences. In the end, he and his wife, Ann, wrote two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL, or in expanded forms, “Phenethylamines I have Known and Loved” and “Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.” That is, they cataloged the development and experimentation with two classes of drugs which had mind-altering effects.

These drugs have the capacity to temporarily knock the normal functioning of the brain just a bit out of sync so that the experiences that are normally denied to us are suddenly available. Another way to do that is to trick or allow the body to do that on its own. Sasha and Ann Shulgin mixed their love of chemicals with their love of each other.

The Sexual Revolution

When it comes to biological imperatives, not even the trio of food motivators – salt, sugar, and fat – can compete with the drive for sex. The competition for, and therefore scarcity of, mates makes this reproductive drive intense. Sex can and does create the same kind of transcendent experience as meditation – or medication (drugs) – without all the knee crossing or needles. The chemicals released during sex (and particularly orgasm) are as good as it gets in the neurological world.

In the past, the consequences of unprotected, unrestricted sex meant babies and diseases. Human offspring have the longest period of dependency of any animal, so making a baby is an expensive endeavor from a biological standpoint. That caused the earliest forms of power and control – both the state and particularly the church – to try to control when people could have sex and with whom. (If you’re interested in how the church evolved to support our biology, Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful walk through how our biology and the structures of church have coevolved.)

Though some groups argue that positions on sex (not the kind in the Kama Sutra) are changing very rapidly, it’s taking decades to slowly divorce the stigma from sex that has persisted for centuries. As I mentioned in my review of America’s Generations, sex has moved from something that was a duty for the GI generation to a recreational pastime for millennials of today.

Many churches still teach that sex before marriage is a sin – thereby creating the guilt-control that they need to mitigate the risk of babies and diseases. We’ve long since developed other means to mitigate the outcomes of unwanted pregnancies through contraception and a level of protection from diseases through the effective use of condoms. We’ve also learned that this guilt-control approach is less effective than the use of contraception. (See my review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together for more.)

Another problem is that, in my research of the Greek, I don’t find support for the point of view that sex must be after marriage. (I won’t even try to defend that position in the Old Testament Hebrew, where there are several R-rated passages related to sex.) Even the Amish, as a part of rumspringa, have an allowance for “sharing a bed.” Absolutely, there’s clarity on sex outside of a marital union – when you’re in a marriage.

The problem is that this can confuse the reward systems by mixing in fear and creating either a less-enjoyable experience, or a more intense experience – based on the types of fears and the makeup of the person. There is after all a certain charge out of doing the forbidden.

Absent the guilt imposed by the church or by society, and the performance anxiety of new relationships, sex can be a truly transcendent experience – one way to get beyond ourselves.

Meting Out the Good Stuff

It’s not just the church or the state that keeps us in check and slowly doles out enough transcendent experiences to keep us happy. Certainly they do but others do this as well. In my review of Intimacy Anorexia, I recounted the idea of “starving the dog”. That is, giving the dog just enough food to stay alive, but alive as an angry animal who doesn’t have the energy to break free of his bonds. This is what the institutions do – and what we do to ourselves.

We ourselves have decided that some ways of accelerating our growth and our performance should be out of bounds. We’ve decided that performance-enhancing drugs should be off-limits for those who want to do better. However, the decision about what is inside and outside of the line is random and sometimes schizophrenic.

Protein shakes are OK but steroids are not. We can eat a healthy diet but not take some supplements. We can’t embed technology because somehow that breaks who we are as a person. We’ll ignore people with pacemakers. We’ll side-step those with insulin pumps. We’ll leap past those who have ports to ensure that it’s easy to dispense medications without damaging blood vesicles. Those devices are all to support those who “can’t” reach their full potential – to support life. So, they’re OK in that context.

We’ll allow ourselves to use this medical device – but not that one. We’ll accept this therapy but not another. This is how we keep control of ourselves – like the institutions do.

The Good, The Bad, The Self

In a strange twist of nature, we see ourselves partially by perceiving our world and then identifying the self from that world. John Lilly in 1960s began experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks to eliminate our focus on ourselves and allow our consciousness to expand. When you deprive the brain of the sensory inputs that it needs to distinguish itself from the world, it dials down our sense of self. In general, we think that our sense of self is a good thing. It provides identity – but in doing so, it constricts our ability to think without the inner critic constantly nagging us. In one sense, our self helps us be who we are, and in another sense, constrains us to being who we are. Sensory deprivation tanks, meditation, and drugs can reduce the sense of self – both for good and bad. In these cases, we’re talking about triggering transient (temporary) hypo-frontality (low-frontal). That’s good news if we want to shut up the inner critic.

It’s all about energy exchange. The brain has a fixed maximum amount of glucose (power) that it can consume. If you want to over-engage one part of the brain, another part of the brain must shut down to keep the maximum power consumption in balance. (The Rise of Superman covers this exchange and so does The End of Memory.) If we can focus energy consumption where we want, some other places have to shut down. That’s why we experience STER.

Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness (STER)

With sensory perception narrowed to the important pieces, we’re depriving the brain with sufficient input to map out the true edges of our self. Our internal timing, as it turns out, is calculated by multiple places across the brain, coordinating activity; take one of them offline and you’ve got a clock without a pendulum and the resulting timelessness. With the inner critic silenced – or at least muffled – we don’t see the effort in what we’re doing resulting in effortlessness – even if it’s physically exhausting. With the “default mode” network – the network of inner voices – offline, we’re free to attend to what we’re doing instead of worrying about what the voices are saying.

STER is a way to know that you’re in – or rather, have been in – flow. In the moment with the selflessness, it’s awfully hard to be self-aware enough to realize you’re in flow. But once you drop out of flow, many can feel the euphoria of having been in it – and the loss that you’re not in it any longer.

Getting Lost

Getting beyond ourselves, our world, our lives, necessarily involves some risk. Perhaps not as much risk as those action-adventure athletes that find flow as they’re hurling themselves down a mountain (whether there is snow or not) – but risk nonetheless. Explorers get lost. Some will die. It’s safe(-ish) at home. No one gets lost when they walk inside the edges of their map.

The problem is that the map never gets bigger. We never become more if we’re always inside the lines and the bounds. As explorers are lost – we who remain mourn them. Everyone mourns in their own way. (See On Death and Dying for more on that process.) Some try to create new rules – new stronger barriers – to keep the future explorers inside the map. If they don’t explore past the edges, they can’t become lost. If they can’t become lost, there will be no morning – or so the thinking goes.

The mourning will be the loss of living if not the loss of life. All of us have experienced some level of loss in our lives, some more than others. We’ve seen family members, friends, pets, and people leave us, and it’s painful and wrong and necessary. In the pain of losing our loved ones’ lives, we can’t give up living – truly, fully living. If we do that, we’ve extinguished the fire, rather than having stolen it.

Stealing Fire for a Reason

Prometheus stole fire to give warmth to humans. We look for ways to go beyond ourselves to make ourselves and all of humanity better. There are those who are explorers on this journey, who steal fire to keep it to themselves. Bliss-junkies who want to tune in and drop out. There are those who want to explore ecstasis simply for their own enjoyment and reward. However, having been honored to get to know Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, I can say that they want to give fire to all of us, to ignite in us the fire that has always been burning, the quest to be something better. That all starts with Stealing Fire.

Book Review-How Will You Measure Your Life?

The question is simple enough. It seems like a question that I’ve answered before. However, somehow the meaning question – How Will You Measure Your Life? – is one that I, like others, thought I had answered but somewhere got interrupted. I was in the middle of writing the answer of my life and I got distracted. I’m glad that I got back to looking at the question through the lens of Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon’s work.

Lost Along the Way

It’s hard to believe that our careers and our lives are like boats adrift on the ocean without solid wind to drive our sails. However, many people find themselves drifting off course with little understanding of how to get back to where they need to go. The Halo Effect spoke of the probabilistic nature of our lives. While someone might have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Edison thought differently. Small changes eventually led to the incandescent lightbulb. In Extreme Productivity we spent most of the book hearing about Bob Pozen’s life: how he’s used strategies to get ahead in his life, only to find out at the end that his life is filled with the same random connections and dumb luck that has fueled our own lives.

That isn’t to say that planning a strategy for where we want our lives to go and positioning ourselves in that direction is futile – it’s not. While we may be lousy at predicting what will make us happy (see Stumbling on Happiness), we should try to figure it out – because we’ve still got better odds when we’re shooting for something. In the end our lives, and where we end up, aren’t actually about the destination. It’s about the journey. I mentioned my trip to Mt. Rushmore and the powerful push towards understanding that life is about the journey in my reviews of Changes That Heal and Introducing The Psychology of Success. Sometimes getting a little lost and experiencing the journey isn’t bad – as long as you remember to get back on track at some point.

The Fallacy of Sequencing

Too many people make initial decisions to sequence their life so that they can build a strong foundation for themselves, and then get lost along the way with no clear path about how to get back to what they really want. Do you want to know a secret? I know how much money it will take for you to be happy. It’s roughly twice what you’re making now. I know this because, for all but a handful of people, this is the number that they want.

So as gifted people start their careers to put a financial base underneath themselves, suddenly they find that the stable financial base must be larger and larger. Each time they almost make it, the need for stability gets larger. Adding to that, it’s hard to turn away from people rewarding you with financial incentives if the alternative is less money and higher purpose.

The Fallacy of Planning

If we know that life is about change, probabilities, and that we’ll likely not end up where we intended, why then does it make sense to plan at all? After all, 93 percent of all companies must abandon their original strategy because it proved to not be viable. It would seem that, with these odds, you shouldn’t try for anything at all. However, there is a reason that I learned a long time ago from hunting.

I was learning to shoot with a bow and arrow. I was happy to hit the deer target that had been set up for me. I felt good to be able to hit it at all until my uncle helped me understand the importance of having a narrow target. By having a narrow target (right behind the deer’s shoulder blade) I started to shoot better. Instead of being happy with just hitting the deer, I got specific.

Did I hit my target as often as I hit the deer when that was the target? Nope. However, when I changed my goal and I got specific, I got the ability to use valuable feedback to refine my aim, and as a result I hit the deer more often.

Life is like this. We need to have a specific, narrow target so that we can get realigned. We need feedback from others about what we’re trying to do, so that we can refine it and end up with the right target – for now. So, while you can’t plan out your life, it doesn’t mean that planning is meaningless.

It’s a Job

In How Will You Measure Your Life?, the path wanders through innovation, product marketing, and other topics. One of the interesting stops is learning how people buy products. People buy products to do a job. There’s something that we want and the product – or service – is designed to meet that need. The more we know about the specific need of the person, the more we can design a solution for that problem. The book walks through how to make milkshakes better and recognizes there are two very different needs that milkshakes are hired to do. In the morning, they’re something to keep the commute interesting and provide enough sustenance to prevent mid-morning tummy grumbles. In the afternoons and evenings, it’s something that parents can say yes to after a day of saying no to their child all day.

One product – a milkshake – with two different and, in this case, competing needs. The daily commuter needed a milkshake that they could take their time with and savor during their commute. The parent wanted a milkshake that the child could finish quickly. Two relatively opposite objectives. Finish quicker – or finish slower. This is the challenge with aggregating data. The Black Swan, in conversations about unexpected events, exposes the challenge of averages and their inherent hiding of the details and uniqueness of the data.

Outsourcing Core Competencies

Another sidestep from our measuring our life is the discussion of how some organizations, like Dell, sometimes end up outsourcing so much of what they do that they eventually outsource their core competencies. That is, the thing that made the organization great eventually becomes something that you rely on other organizations to do.

In our personal lives, this has an interesting implication. What are the things in our life that we need to keep because they power our uniqueness, and which do we need to let go because they’re something that someone else can do better, faster, cheaper? An easy question is whether you should do your own lawn maintenance or not. If it’s something that brings you joy or energizes you, the quick answer is keep it.

However, what if you, like me, perceive it to be a chore that must be done? It’s just one more burden of an overburdened life. I can do my lawn maintenance. I am “qualified.” I even have all the tools. However, if I don’t find it enjoyable, should I pay someone to do the work instead of me? Should I outsource this activity so that I can do something else? In my case, the answer is yes. I’d rather write an article a month to cover the cost of doing my lawn maintenance rather than doing it myself.

In the case of lawn maintenance, for me, it’s not a core competency. Writing, on the other hand, is. If I could take a few hours and “crank out” an article and make enough to pay for the lawn maintenance that month, which is a better use of my time? Of course, this assumes that I can get the article assignments.

Breaking the Shell

The chick is struggling to break out of its shell. You can see its struggle. You can imagine yourself in their position. You would want help. Shouldn’t you help the chick break free from its shell? Only if you want to sentence it to death. You see, chicks need the struggle to break out of their shell, just like we as humans need our struggles. (See How Children Succeed for more about our need for challenges.)

It turns out that, if we don’t have challenges, we never develop the toughness that’s necessary for our long-term survival – and for our ability to thrive. If you’ve not been able to struggle, then you’ll grow up believing that others are there to remove all the barriers in your way. It turns out that this self-centered approach to life isn’t good for your contribution to society – or to your happiness.

Happiness Worth Devoting Yourself To

Happiness is hard to come by. Finding lasting joy is a life’s work, and one that many have tried to capture directly or indirectly in their writing. (See Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis for two direct approaches to finding happiness.) Time and time again, studies reveal that people are in relationships are happier. Married people report being happier on average than their non-married friends. That is to say, those in marriages had an intimate connection with another human being. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s work on social connections.) Certainly, some marriages are dysfunctional and doesn’t provide that connectedness, but on the whole, this connection added happiness to both lives.

If we look back at John Gottman’s work, as described in The Science of Trust, we find that he identifies “Make Life Dreams Come True” as one of the key foundations to sound relationships. How Will You Measure Your Life? describes it as “the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, and someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.” One key to how I’ll measure my life is my relationships – with my wife, with my family, and with those who I have the privilege of spending time with. Spiritual Evolution remarks, “Nevertheless, on their deathbeds more people probably rejoice in having raised children than in having achieved precious moments of meditational Nirvana.” The One Thing quotes from The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Second on that list is “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends – too often they failed to give them the time and effort they deserved.”

Jobs for Experiences

When you’re searching for your next opportunity, there are all sorts of variables to consider. You can consider the financial gain you’ll get. The authority that you’ll have. Perhaps it’s stability that you crave and that you’re seeking. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for Reiss’ 16 factor model for understanding peoples’ motivations.) One of the useful and longer-term views is to look at the next opportunity from the lens of whether it will create the experience that you want in your life.

Once you’ve determined what you want in your life, you can start to architect your decisions on the path that is most likely to lead to that goal. You may not become a famous author or a motivational speaker, but if these are your aims, there are steps you can take to get closer. You can join writing workshops to learn the skills necessary to become a better writer. You can take classes to become a better speaker. (Or do something crazy like take a class on stand-up comedy like I discussed in my post I Am a Comedian.)

My Measuring Sticks

For me, I’m not looking to keep score. Somewhere along the line, I missed the class on status being important. I’m quite happy to drive an average car. I’m happy in the home that I share with my family. I’m going to measure my life based on the way that I can positively impact others. My wife, my family, and my friends are the way that I’m going to measure my life.

To get there, I’ve got to continue to make money through work, but I’ll do that too from the lens of trying to help others. That, is how I’m going to measure my life. So How Will You Measure Your Life?

Book Review-Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Lights. Camera. Inaction. Wait, that’s not right. Lights. Camera. Action. We all want action. We want to see people extraordinary and ordinary take action, to do something. We want to see the triumph of human achievement. We want to be inspired to take action. All too often, we’re stuck going through the motions. We step forward each day, not realizing the path we’re on or even why we’re on it. That’s what Simon Sinek wants us to do in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. He wants us to question the “why” of our journey so we leap down the path instead of trudge down it.

Building a Cathedral

There’s an old story recounted in Start with Why that bears repeating (and slightly reinterpreting). A man walks up to a mason who is busy with his trowel, and interrupts him with a question whose answer seems obvious: “What are you doing?” The man in a slightly grumbled voice answers, “I’m slaving away, laying one heavy block after another in the scorching hot sun. The work has gone on for as long as I remember, and I see no end in sight.” The stunned interviewer turns to the guy next to him, who is building the same wall, and asks him what he’s doing. The answer was shocking in its simplicity and powerful in its enthusiasm. He said, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Both men were working on the same wall. They endured the same conditions. They likely received similar pay. Everything about the men was the same, except the attitude of the second man was different. He wasn’t struggling to lift each block and place it. He was inspired. He knew what he was creating. He had the power of his why. He got to participate in the building of a cathedral.

The Rebel Within Us

Have you ever wondered how a motorcycle company that had a bad quality record and a lousy delivery record ended up becoming a cultural icon? The answer lies within us. Have you ever wondered how a computer company could ignite a revolution, lose its way, and begin to inspire us again?

At the heart of this power is the need for us to be rebellious. We need the ability to find a way to differentiate ourselves. It’s wired into our DNA as a way of ensuring that we can find a mate and reproduce, thus copying our genes. We need rebellion so that we can stand out from the herd and be found. (See
for more on the motivator of rebellion.) Harley-Davidson motorcycles capitalized on this rebellious nature in their branding, and they became popular motorcycles, in part because it felt like a bit of sanctioned rebellion to own one.

Apple’s ads have routinely attacked the status quo. Whether it’s the classic 1984 super bowl ad or their “I’m a Mac” campaign, they focused on the need to be an individual and stand free from the pack.

Sanctioned Rebellion

It’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s internally inconsistent to say that you’re rebellious within the acceptable boundaries. If rebellion allows us to stand out and be found by a potential mate, why hasn’t society broken down? The problem with rebellion is that it gets you mates – or it gets you fates. That is, those who can be picked out as outliers are often the ones who are separated from the herd and eaten. So how do you be rebellious enough to get a mate but not so much that you’re separated from the herd?

The LA riots following the trial of four officers for beating Rodney King were certainly a period of rebellion. Whether this was a necessary or appropriate response or not, it left 50 people dead, 2,000 injured, and damage to over 1,000 buildings with estimated costs exceeding $1 billion. During this time of rioting, there was arson, looting, beatings, and other forms of lawlessness. However, if you look carefully at the photographs of the riots, you notice something odd. Looters and arsonists parking in between the lines in parking spots in the parking lots. Even at the peak of anger and rebellion, at least some of the looters didn’t want to disregard the social expectation to park between the lines.

We want rebellion, we want change, and in this case the actors wanted to cause harm. However, they weren’t willing to tear down the fabric of their reality and abandon everything they had known. Even in their moments of lawlessness they needed the structure of society.

Why did the riots happen? The perceived injustice at the freeing of four white police officers who beat a black man that was caught on tape. (I agree that it was an injustice but that’s not the point.) For a moment, a small voice in the crowd spoke a “why” to an angry crowd. The “why” was simply “something has to change.” This resonated so clearly that the message spread and the riots were started.

The Secret to Success

The bookshelves are filled with books that purport to have the keys to business success, yet over 80% of businesses will shut their doors within their first five years. It’s not that business owners aren’t reading the books – it’s that there’s no one answer. (Though I’ll say that most business leaders don’t spend enough time trying to learn more about new techniques to make them successful.)

In Search of Excellence and Built to Last both seek to find a formula for making large businesses successful over the long term. The Halo Effect describes the works of Peters and Waterman as well as Collins as better stories. There aren’t secrets here. The companies that In Search of Excellence identifies as “winners” aren’t necessarily winners anymore. The same can be said about the companies identified as “visionary” in Built to Last. Of businesses on the Fortune 500 list in 1955, 88% were gone by 2014. While there are some companies that have survived the test of time, they’re in the very serious minority. Even well-established companies like Barings Bank can come down in an instant when people forget this “why”.

Sinek implies that the secret to success isn’t in what organizations do or even in how they do it, but that they have a central “why” that helps to align the employees around the same mission. It’s like the focusing power of a Fresnel lens on a lighthouse. It keeps all the stray light into the main beam just like having a mission has. But lots of organizations have mission statements – what makes organizations really succeed?

Maybe it’s Lencioni’s observations in The Advantage about the need to overcommunicate. Maybe mission statements for most are, as The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices suggests, simple platitudes.

Mission not Message

Many great leaders are recognized for their great messages (see Great Speeches for Better Speaking). There are numerous books that focus on refining your message and communicating more effectively. (Buy-in, Crucial Conversations, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, Influencer, Infographics, Pitch Anything, Platform, Presentation Zen, Slide:ology, TED Talks, The Art of Explanation, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma are a few.) However, what helps organizations succeed over the long term isn’t the messaging. Manipulations – and messaging – can be effective in the short term, but in the long term they’re not enough to make something last. The problem is that each manipulation leads to the next, just like an addict who needs the next fix to get past the crash from the last one.

When the mission is right – and the people are really aligned with the message – extraordinary things can happen. Heroic Leadership tells the tale of the Jesuits and their insistence on keeping the mission above the people and above the doctrine of the religion. This mission, to bring Christ’s love to others through their words and particularly their deeds, has allowed the organization to continue for over 450 years despite numerous challenges. While the Jesuits might be an extreme case, having a mission makes it much easier to make everyday decisions. By knowing what you believe – your “why” – you have a guide for all the minute decisions that have to be made every day.

Influencing Behavior

Leaders are necessarily purveyors of control. Their goal is to shape the direction of others – to lead them in the direction that the leader chooses. Their tools are sometimes described as manipulation, but sometimes their tools are inspiration. Manipulation (sometimes called motivation to avoid the negative connotations) is the tool of choice for many leaders. It’s the quick fix of a candy bar with none of the sustaining effects of a well-balanced meal.

There are plenty of books and professionals who purvey these quick fixes to your leadership problems. For instance, books like 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money are a list of techniques for motivating employees with ways that don’t need money – and you don’t have to really think about. I’m not discouraging the use of the book. It’s a useful tool, but only as a way to supplement an inspired workforce fed on a well-balanced inspirational meal. Candy is fine as a snack or a treat, but it’s not sustainable.


Manipulation can also take a less positive turn in the form of fear. Fear is without a doubt a powerful motivator. However, fear has a long list of negative consequences, spelled out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
Fear doesn’t have to be the boss screaming at you about how bad you’re doing or how worthless you are – though those are good examples of bad behavior. Sometimes the fear is expressed in the power of a forced exchange.

Too many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck with no reserve for losing their jobs. Depending upon the way you count it, somewhere between 40% and 62% of Americans don’t have the ability to live without their steady paycheck. As a result, leaders can – and sometimes do – threaten folks with their job as a form of manipulation. It’s a forced exchange, money for compliance, and people don’t believe there are any other options for them. This is a form of manipulation rooted in fear – just less overtly.

There are, at the same time, manipulations which are neutral or even positive. We may all have been manipulated into wearing seatbelts – but that’s an OK manipulation because it is for our best interests (see Unsafe at Any Speed). Nudge wouldn’t call this “libertarian paternalism”, because there’s no reasonable choice.

Choices are sometimes hard for folks to make. Despite Glaser’s articulate explanation of Choice Theory, there are still many choices where there are conflicting drives and desires. Motivational Interviewing is one technique for managing these conflicted situations and are in effect a manipulation no more or less than having a chiropractor manipulate your joints.

The problem with manipulation is that there are going to be some people who are hard to control with manipulation. Perhaps they’re resistant to fear tactics. Perhaps they can see the manipulation coming. In any case, not everyone is so easily manipulated and therefore, they make manipulation hard to do.


The heart of inspiration isn’t our rational minds. The heart of inspiration is our heart – or in the language of Jonathan Haidt – our elephant. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Inspiration is an emotional response. It’s something that Demand describes as magnetic. It has emotional appeal. Inspiration is looking forward into the best possible future and placing a stake in the ground that this is the place we want to be.

Gratitude and Humility

One of the most inspiring traits for me are the dual traits of gratitude and humility. Being filled with gratitude is a humbling experience. It reminds you that whatever power you have should be held in service to others. (See Humilitas for this definition of humility.) Robert Greenleaf implored us to be Servant Leaders. And while his advice was great personal advice for being a better leader, it has the effect of inspiring everyone in the organization towards the humility of the leader and the mission they uphold.

If we look back at the Jesuits through the lens of Heroic Leadership, we see that St. Ignatius of Loyla was a leader with such deeply-held convictions and humility that inspired the Jesuits to be better people. The character of the leader is the inspiration that some people follow.

Many years ago, while at a National Speakers Association convention, I heard for the first time a powerful phrase. It was simply “The Privilege of the Platform.” It was said to remind the speakers there that the stage (platform) that they were standing on, and the fact that so many people were generously giving their attention, was a privilege. It was a bit of humility in an otherwise ostentatious group.

Showing Up for Inspiration

When Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, how many people came out for Dr. King? Officially, the number of people who turned up was 250,000. However, how many of them came up for Dr. King? In truth, we don’t know; but what we do know is most the folks who came to hear that speech came for themselves. They wanted to be identified as the kind of people who cared about civil rights, equality, and free speech. Their attendance that day said more about them and what they wanted to do rather than the following of Dr. King.

Herein is a fundamental truth. Leaders inspire people not to their cause but to live out the causes that are already within them and to attract to themselves those who have similar values.

Marketing the What

When you’re reading marketing books, there is a lot of push towards helping people with what you do. (Guerilla Marketing, Duct Tape Marketing, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR are good examples.) They’re all about helping organizations and individuals understand what you can do for them. A good sales process is about helping the prospect understand how you can make their life better. You’re looking for the pain that you can solve. (You can look at The Challenger Sale for more on the sales process.) However, what Sinek is proposing is that this is backwards. He concludes that people need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing before they know what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, so they can decide whether they care, want to pay attention, are similarly motivated as you.

Here Sinek provides some compelling examples of messages that start with why, flow through how, and end up with what you can do for a customer. Certainly, there are places where this makes sense. However, as I pondered his writing with some thought experiments, I wondered “why” a landscaper did what he did – and whether that would resonate with customers. Perhaps he wants to create relaxing spaces for everyone or he wants to be able to work outside. In either case, I don’t know that I care if I’m hiring him to mow my lawn. (Which is the work that most landscapers do because it’s steady and pays the bills.)

In my own case, I know that my “why” for technology is to make the complicated simple. In our healthcare work, we do work to prevent people from being harmed. However, my friend Paul Culmsee would challenge me that these sounds like platitudes. In his book The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, he challenges us to reasonably disagree with a statement as a test to ensure it’s not a platitude. I’ve found some technologists who really do try to make the simple complicated – and I know from our conversations that he has as well, so there I think I’m safe.

The harder one is preventing people from being harmed. The Hippocratic oath is to do no harm. We do occasionally see providers who aren’t working in their patients’ best interests, and instead are performing useless procedures because they’re being paid fee-for-service and therefore making money only when performing services.

Does knowing what drives me cause anyone to work with me more (or less)? I don’t know. It feels like knowing this isn’t a strong motivating factor one way or the other.

Customers and Competitors

One interesting difference between our customers and our competitors is that competitors tend to see the differences between themselves and their competitors. They’re keenly aware of the differences in the offerings and what that means to the customer. This is the curse of knowledge happening. They know so much about the situation that they’re literally disconnected from the view of the customer. (See The Art of Explanation for more on the curse of knowledge.)

Customers are, however, much less sophisticated. They see a solution to their problem, and they tend to underestimate the value of the differences between products, because the differences are too nuanced and subtle for them to really understand.

Similarly, competitors, innovators, and trail blazers can’t ask customers what they want, because they don’t know. Ford is reported to have said that, had he surveyed his customers, they would have said they wanted a faster horse – not an automobile. Clearly an automobile is better than a faster horse, but the customers had no frame of reference for asking for it.

Lifting You Up

The true power of “why” isn’t in whether you can attract more customers or even in being a better leader. The true power of “why” is in giving you the willpower or grit to continue when your day-to-day life is grinding you down. (See Grit for grit and Willpower for willpower.)

I’m getting a clear picture of my “why” – of why I do what I do what I do. I don’t know whether it will help me be more successful or whether it will just bring me more peace. However, I know that I want to Start with Why and let things come as they are going to come.

Book Review-Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

It’s an odd title for a book. Why would a psychologist title a book Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? The answer lies in the belief that drugs are not the answer to all of the mental health problems of the day, and that in truth many – if not all – of the mental health problems that we have today can be traced back to a single source: unhappiness. While happiness itself is hard to define and even harder to find, the lack of happiness seems to manifest problems in our mental states as well as our physical bodies.

Dr. Glaser has written several books including two books that I’ve previously reviewed: Schools Without Failure and Choice Theory. Fundamentally, Dr. Glaser believes that we all have choices to make, and it’s understanding those choices that frees us from the bonds of unhappiness. Here, he extends his views into the ills of psychiatric drugs.


I’ve addressed before the powerful effects of placebos and my belief that they’re driven by hope. (See The Heart and Soul of Change.) Dr. Glaser shares that, in some studies, patients who were getting better immediately relapse when they’re given the news that they’ve been receiving a placebo. It’s too difficult for them to accept that they were getting better based on their beliefs not on an external drug. Placebos work because we believe that what is being done has the capacity to heal us, to make us better, and to make it alright. If we just take the blue pill, we’ll find that we’re alright soon enough.

While ethicists that I know don’t believe that we should always give patients a placebo and tell them it’s an experimental new therapy that might work in their case, I’m not so sure. Perhaps my ethical boundaries get a bit blurry when we’re talking about eliminating human suffering. Perhaps I’m underestimating the damage to trust that it would do to tell someone they’re in an experimental program. However, I’ve got a strong desire to experiment with how effective I could get placebos to be by infusing patients with hope.


Efficacy is interesting in clinical studies. In order to be significant, there needs to be a sufficient difference between the control group receiving the placebo and the study group that’s receiving treatment. Unfortunately for psychiatric drug manufacturers the placebo effect is quite large. This means that drugs have to show a very high degree of efficacy in order to have a significant effect.

Some studies for some drugs have shown these larger effects, but the effects aren’t nearly as large as people would like you to believe. While drug companies can claim that 50-60% of people taking their wonder drug got better, they neglect to mention that 47-50% of people got better on placebo. Basically, there’s a maximum of a 13% difference – and a mean of 6.5%. A lot of money is being spent on small chances at making things better.

Long Term Effects

What is worse is that the long-term effects of these drugs are known to be potentially very bad. For instance, 25% of people treated for five years with schizophrenia medications will develop tardive dyskinesia, which is characterized by repetitive, involuntary, purposeless movements. Stopping medications won’t stop tardive dyskinesia. Once the damage has been done, it can’t be reversed.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are another class of drugs that, while widely-used, have questionable long-term impact and incredibly short (6 weeks!) studies of their efficacy. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about SSRIs.) Some animal studies have shown the prolonged exposure to SSRIs causes the brain to down-regulate the number of serotonin receptors that the brain has.

Study Sources

It gets worse. The studies that we do have to prove marginal effectiveness of these drugs are sponsored in most cases by the very pharmaceutical companies that want to sell the drugs to the market. While this is in some ways to be expected, because they have the financial advantage if it sells well, it also raises the very real concern about undue influence in the study results.

If you don’t believe it can happen, consider the incorrect link assigned between vaccinations and autism. It was an article in The Lancet has since been retracted: the collaborators on the article indicated that they weren’t aware of the lead author’s ties to a group trying to prove that vaccines were harmful. The lead author, Andrew Wakefield, has lost his license to practice medicine and in professional circles has been thoroughly discredited. However, the myth of the correlation between vaccinations and autism persists. Millions of children each year aren’t vaccinated due to one bad author and the one bad study.

Study Issues

Even if you accept honorable intentions, it’s estimated that 40% of peer-reviewed published research articles contain statistical errors. That’s just statistical errors. That doesn’t account for any leakage of information, accidental bias, or other introductions into the study which unduly influenced the results. If you run enough studies over a long enough period of time, you’ll eventually find a way to prove what you want to prove. Some hidden variable will appear in the data and you won’t be able to factor it out. (See The Black Swan for more on unexpected events.)

Having been in and around the publication of a few studies myself, I can say that all too often what is in the study design and what makes it into the paper is a small fraction of the important factors that led to the results. The reason that folks want multiple studies confirming the same thing is that too often studies are proven to be false or insufficient to demonstrate the effect that was expected.

A Better Alternative

So while insurance companies pay for the prescriptions to these psychological drugs for years and years, rarely do they pay for more than a few therapy sessions. While there is support for a limit to the number of sessions for effectiveness, the insurance minimums are often too short to provide any real impact. Instead the insurance company will pay for drugs for years and years.

Again, my proximity has led me to the awareness that insurance companies don’t expect members to be in the plan long enough to take on substantial upfront costs – like counseling – when low-level, long-term costs are sufficient. In short, they’re willing to keep people on drugs that mask the symptoms rather than solve the root cause, because their cost over the time they expect to retain the member is lower. (Talk about disincentives.)

If people could resolve their unhappiness, they wouldn’t need continuous drugs. In fact, George Brooks found that medication wasn’t enough to allow schizophrenic patients to leave the hospital. They needed psychosocial rehabilitation – at the end of which the drugs were no longer needed.

Let’s Get Together, Yea, Yea, Yea

The theme song for The Parent Trap says, “Let’s get together, yea, yea, yea” and it hides a certain truth: that we are social creatures, and that much of our happiness is gained in our relationships with other people, whether it’s understanding the different levels at which people relate as I discussed in High Orbit – Respecting Grieving or The Gifts of Imperfection.

A Science magazine article indicates that isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See The Psychology of Hope for more.) Clearly we have to be in relationship with other people to be healthy physically.

Don’t Worry Be Happy Now

It would be great if it were as easy as deciding to be happy and suddenly you would become happy. It would be amazing to be able to make the decision to transform your life from one of stress and anxiety to one of peace and tranquility. In truth, this is sort of the case. Ultimately it’s a decision to view the world differently and choose different behaviors; however, the process is neither simple nor easy. It’s not as easy to, as Bobby McFerrin says, “don’t worry, be happy now,” but it is possible.

The process sometimes requires the assistance of drugs in the short term to lift someone out of the pit of depression. The drugs provide enough support for someone to do the work to change their perspective. Once sufficiently lifted from the clutches of depression, Dr. Glaser believes in his Choice Theory, which states that it’s our attempt to control others that makes us unhappy.

In short, if we can just allow other people to be separate people, and not try to control them, then we’ll be much happier. Though this is easier said than done, it is something that can be transformational.

Transformational Breakthrough or Emotional Breakdown

Looking from the outside in, it’s quite difficult to distinguish between a transformational breakthrough and an emotional breakdown. The observable behaviors are the same. We see a rapid transformation in someone. Often, there is a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth in both scenarios. It’s not a pleasant experience. However, after a transformational breakthrough, the clouds part and the skies are bright and shiny. With an emotional breakdown, there’s no clearing of the skies, and often the person feels stuck.

It’s very little wonder that a psychiatrist can’t tell the difference between a transformation and a breakdown. In the appendices, Dr. Glaser provides space for some other authors to share their stories. In one of the stories, a professional shares how he was himself on the wrong side of the profession. He was almost committed by his colleagues and spouse into institutions, and he was able to experience what it is really like to be a patient. His only recourse was to voluntarily commit himself so that he could leave on his own.

The triggering event in this case was really about questioning the path to recovery of patients. In questioning the status quo and transforming his thinking, he was considered to have a mental disease. His colleagues and spouse couldn’t see that he was gaining a new level of understanding – perhaps because this would have meant that they were missing something.

Conversion Disorder

Glaser believes that our psychological ills – our unhappiness or lack of mental health – causes our bodies to react in negative ways. This is consistent with the research of Spolsky in Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. His belief is that many – if not all – of the diagnoses in the DSM-V (DSM-IV at the time of his writing) can be explained by the fact that people are unhappy, and the diagnoses in DSM-V are simply manifestations of that unhappiness.

Many of the non-specific cause illnesses he attributes to a lack of mental health. He suggests that, as people learn to be happier, their physical symptoms will eventually subside. While I am certainly not qualified to speak for every physical condition, I can say that I’ve personally seen remarkable changes with people who have become happier. Their physical issues are reduced.

At the heart of these changes and the increased happiness is a connection with others.

Group Think

One of the interesting structural decisions for the book was that it follows the path of a couple who were struggling with their own selfish and controlling needs through their recovery and sharing their discoveries with a group of their friends in a book club. The structure of the book is different than most in that it follows a story arc from the initial awareness of the ideas to how those same ideas apply to others in different situations.

Ultimately the book seeks to create groups – self-supporting, no-fee groups – that speak about Choice Theory and how it can positively transform lives. While I don’t believe this movement ever gained ground, it is a noble idea. The idea that groups – much like the concept of an AA group – could help improve the health of its members and provide them with the connections they need to become healthier is certainly an idea worth trying.

In fact, just reading and pondering on the thoughts inside of Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health is a worthy endeavor as well. After all, difficult or not, you do have a choice to be happy.

Book Review-Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

It’s an artful thing to create the right choices so that people are nudged gently into the behaviors that are best for them. That’s what Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness is all about – helping people make the best choices for themselves. With the idea of libertarian paternalism, choice architects help to shape the way that people choose.

Choice Architects

Inherent in the idea that you can nudge someone is that doing so is subtle and something they barely notice. There is no such thing as a completely neutral design. Simple psychological factors, like the desire to pick the first option, means that choice architects carefully manage whose name is first on a ballot. Choice architects are the ones that are structuring the system such that the choice that is the best for people is the one they get most of the time.

Most of the time when we’re consumers, we have no idea what work has gone into the choice architecture. We don’t know that we’re subtly being engaged in ways that help us – or help the organization that we’re shopping with. However, these subtle influences are there, as we find impulse items on the end of the shelves in grocery stores and drive past stores that are having going out of business sales – continuously.

As architects of choices we rarely consider all the factors that might go into someone selecting a particular choice. Instead, we create a list of choices quickly and move on. Rarely do we think about the order that the choices occur in or what the default answer should be.

Nudge insists that there is no neutral choice design. So whatever we do, whether by intent or by design, will shift the results – at least slightly.

Libertarian Paternalism

Paternalism is thinking about the consumer as a child who cannot make good decisions. Authoritarian or dictatorial paternalism restricts the choices that consumers have, and only gives them the solution that they must “choose” because someone – a choice architect – said this is the only solution for them. Most of us would resist this attempt to enforce a choice on us. It’s what we expect out of communist dictators, and, certainly in the United States, we’re not going to stand for it.

Libertarian paternalism has the same basis but instead of preventing what the choice architect sees as sub-optimal solutions, the choices are allowed, but they’re deemphasized. The degree to which you must go out of your way to pick a different choice is a measure of how truly libertarian it is. If it’s easy to choose, it’s libertarian. If it’s hard to choose, it’s more authoritarian – disguised as a real choice.

The authors believe that libertarian paternalism is OK, or even a moral obligation where authoritarian paternalism is wrong, but admit that the line between these two extremes isn’t always the easiest to distinguish.

The goal is to balance the number of people getting the perceived optimal solution while maintaining their ability to make choices for themselves.

The Paradox of Choice

The first step is to ensure that the person has as many options available as makes sense. The challenge with this is knowing how many options make sense. In an ideal world, every option would be available to the chooser, but in a practical world, choices promote inaction, and inaction is frequently (if not always) not the best option.

The Paradox of Choice skillfully points out that we like our choices less the more options we have – and we make fewer decisions. In short, more options are the enemy to actions. If we want someone to make a choice, we need to manage the number of options.

Forced Choice

Brené Brown is careful when confronted with forced choices – “either-or dilemmas,” as she calls them. She wonders in Rising Strong who has something to gain by forcing the choice. In the case of our nudges, the hope is that the person making the choice is benefited. With an ethical choice architect, the forced choice causes the person to steer their own course. With luck, the choice architect created the situation to keep most of the people off the rocks most of the time.

The forced choice is a tool of the choice architect. They get to make someone choose between A or B, and in the process cause the person to indicate what they think is better. The problem with the forced choice, in addition to whether it really serves the person making the choice, is that too few people take action, even when faced with a straightforward choice, and what is to be done with the folks that fail to make a choice.

The Power of Default

The next tool in the choice architect’s toolbox is the power of the default option. If you do nothing, you’ll get option C. This option is often very powerful in terms of the number of people that fall into it. The option is typically one which isn’t particularly risky, because no one wants to inflict undue risk on someone just because they didn’t decide; so the choice architect creates a safer, but less rewarding, option to be the default.

We learned that the default answer is the one which is taken when neither the rider nor the elephant are paying attention to what’s happening. (See Rider-Elephant-Path in The Happiness Hypothesis for more on how powerful the defaults are.) The default is all too often the most popular answer, because people making the decisions are neither experts nor sufficiently engaged to research the correct result.


Without insisting that the default is a specific action, most consumers fall victim to the “status quo bias.” That is, they expect that things are going relatively OK now, so why would they change? In fact, while we sometimes describe people as change adverse, it’s not that they’re change adverse at all, they just see no point in it.

John Kotter’s work in The Heart of Change and Leading Change includes a model, in which first step is to break this inertia by creating a sense of urgency. This is sometimes called a “burning platform” from which people must jump. While this is an aggressive strategy, it’s often needed to fight the strong pull of the status quo bias.

Controlled by Experts

Too often, consumers find themselves in a foreign land. The foreign land isn’t on any map that you find, but is instead demarcated by the front door of the store they walk into. Whether it’s buying a new TV or shopping for wine for a special evening, the consumer is rarely as educated as the store workers. In this scenario, it’s relatively easy for the salesperson to overwhelm you with technical jargon and features and to nudge you into purchasing what they want you to buy.

In retail, particularly electronics, it’s common for manufacturers to run contests for store employees based on their ability to sell that manufacturer’s products – sometimes even a single product. In these cases, the manufacturers are intentionally tipping the scales in their direction through nudging the sales folks.

Nudging and Shoving

The distance between a nudge and a shove are often too close to call. Nudges aren’t forced: they are, after all, libertarian paternalism. But even in the spirit of not removing options, sometimes the influence of the “expert” salesperson can drive people to a product in a way that feels more like a shove than a nudge.

The focus of the book is on nudges, though it’s clear that, by knowing what is a nudge and not a shove, there’s an inherent risk that some people will use shoves instead of nudges – because in the short term, they’re often more effective.

Mistakes in Choosing

Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow and Hubbard in How to Measure Anything speak volumes about how our ability to make guesses, the right choices, and decisions can be systemically flawed. The rules of thumb that we use to make our decisions are sometimes grossly distorted in their applicability or effectiveness. I have a deck that isn’t square on the house, because the person I hired used the rule of thumb – based on the Pythagorean theorem – of a side length of 3 feet and a side length of 4 feet should have a diagonal of 5 feet. That’s easy enough when the deck is small, but when it’s a 20′ by 40′ deck, the amount of measurement error is substantial.

It’s because people make so many mistakes in choosing that it’s important that choice architects exist to disrupt the incorrect application of rules of thumb or other knowledge in domains where it’s not helpful.

Unintended Consequences

It used to be that Christmas clubs were great ways for banks to make money. People deposited money on a regular basis in an account that accrued little or no interest. They could withdraw these funds to purchase gifts for Christmas. It was an ingenious idea for the banks and, at a level, helped consumers. No one wanted to be caught short at Christmas and be unable to buy toys for their children. So the banks really won, and the consumers who weren’t capable of saving throughout the year with normal options were given a solution.

However, another choice opened. That is, the ability to charge things on credit. So now, even if you didn’t have the money to pay for the toys that you wanted to get your children, you could borrow that money on a credit card and pay a substantially higher interest rate on the money that you borrowed – making the banks more money.

This is a case where the choices got away from the choice architects but in a way that further favored the banks. No one would have necessarily predicted that credit cards would virtually eliminate Christmas clubs, but that’s what they did. (See Diffusion of Innovations for more on unintended consequences – even on well-intended interventions.)

Social Nudges

While I’ve shared about structural nudges – those relying on the architecture of the situation – they are not necessarily the most powerful. As is revealed in Influencer, there are many ways to influence a person, some of which are social. Social nudges have accomplices who sway the decisions of others. Whether the accomplices are knowing accomplices being paid, or are instead just caught up in the system themselves and decide to amplify the message to capture others through social media, they are accomplices nonetheless.

The researcher Solomon Asch demonstrated that if you asked someone a simple question, you could get 100% right answers – unless the subject heard someone else give the wrong answer. In those cases, even though the questions were easy, the subjects gave incorrect answers as much as 1/3rd of the time.


So powerful are social nudges that they can sometimes create a panic. In Seattle in 1954, there was an epidemic of windshield pitting – that never actually was. Someone noticed pitting on their windshield and shared this with their friends, who also noticed the pitting. They got together to wonder what was causing this damage to their cars and proceeded to drag more people and media in. That is, until it was finally concluded that pitting was a normal effect of driving a car. The pits had been with the cars all along, but someone noticed them, and concern for folks’ precious cars continued to feed more energy into the epidemic.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It happens all the time where something has been going on “forever”, gets discovered, and becomes some conspiracy plot that must be addressed.


Epidemics are facilitated through a concept called “priming”. That is, we’re more likely to follow a train of thought once it has been laid down. This is at the heart of social hacking. Social hacking is the art of gaining access to systems, equipment, or information by use of social, rather than technical, means. In simple terms, just getting someone to say yes a few times before they answer a question they should tell you no to increases the likelihood that they’ll say yes. (See my book review of Social Hacking for more.)

By creating the expectation that there is something going on or a preferred choice, we sensitize our reticular activating system (RAS) and become more aware. The RAS is important for our wake-sleep cycle, but also pays a critical role in what we look for – and what we look for, we’ll find. (See Change or Die for more on the RAS.)

Checklist for the Choice Architect

As choice architects, we should consider how to create effective nudges, and here’s a book-provided mnemonic for that:

  • iNcentives
  • Understand mappings
  • Defaults
  • Give feedback
  • Expect error
  • Structure complex choices

You may not get your nudges exactly right but maybe this review is just the nudge you need to read Nudges.

Book Review-Coachbook: A Guide to Organizational Coaching Strategies and Practices

After years of study on organizational change, the need for coaching and how organizations are changed through coaching, Coachbook: A Guide to Organizational Coaching Strategies and Practices was a very welcome framework which I can now use to view the various coaching activities that I and others pursue. It provides a language for understanding how all coaching isn’t created the same.

The Need for Coaching

Coaching is the integration of counseling – which is focused on the heart or emotions of a person – and consulting – which is focused on the head and logic of a person. Coaching recognizes that these are not two disconnected systems which operate in isolation, but are instead a set of systems that interact with one another. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on System 1, emotions, and System 2, reason.) Research has shown that this kind of assistance is frequently useful to the bottom line with positive returns on the investment.

It’s no wonder that the coaching process works. It helps people understand how to work with other people. Despite our more technologically-connected world, most employees “live in solitude, working in emotional isolation as performers, decision-makers, and people who must relate their own personal values with those of their organization.” In short, we’re simultaneously more connected and in touch with one another, while at the same time being more relationally disconnected. (See Alone Together for more about the impact of technology on our ability to connect with one another.)

Positive Not Negative

A differentiating factor for coaching is that its use is less about resolving performance problems and is more frequently used to improve performance. Where counseling is frequently focused on addressing problems and mental illness, coaching is about moving towards healthier behaviors, decisions, and aspirations.

In coaching professional athletes, the professional coach is removing performance barriers – like the famous four-minute mile in running. (You can read more about the four-minute mile in The Rise of Superman.) Professional coaches are rarely remediating poor performers. More frequently, they’re enhancing the performance of professionals that are already successful but want to be more successful. (See Peak for more on the use of coaches to improve performance.)

Coaches of professional athletes typically have an appreciation for those they are coaching because they themselves tried to perform in the sport, and either could only do so for a time or never reached the level of performance that their coachee is reaching. As a result, there is a genuine appreciation for the skill that the coachee has developed. A renowned psychologist Carl Rogers (see A Way of Being for a summary of his lifelong work) suggested that people are more likely to change when they have received positive regard, or appreciation.

Types of Coaching

There are three basic types of coaching, each with their own sub-specialties:

  • Behavioral Coaching – Focused on immediate behavior, behavioral coaching solves a specific behavioral problem.
    • Engagement – Helping prepare for a difficult or important interaction
    • Empowerment – Preparation for a difficult and important situation
    • Opportunity – Preparation for a major event in one’s life
  • Decisional Coaching – Focusing on a specific decision to be addressed, decisional coaching helps the coachee to understand the various aspects of the decision and the options – including options that might not have been visible.
    • Reflective – Deliberations about opinions, assumptions, and beliefs
    • Instrumented – Learning about one’s preferences and strengths through validated instruments
    • Observational – Greater awareness of one’s actions and their impacts
  • Aspirational Coaching – Focusing on key beliefs and bringing them more to life in daily actions, aspirational coaching focuses on improvements rather than removing barriers.
    • Spiritual – Connecting with spiritual thinking and becoming more aware of this often-suppressed component of personality
    • Philosophical – Critical evaluation of frames of reference and perspectives, including how these may be self-limiting
    • Ethical – Evaluation of the values and ethics of oneself and others around
    • Career – Specific career coaching about where one’s career could go

Types of Challenges

Part of applying coaching effectively is to match the kind of coaching to the kind of challenge being faced. Applying aspirational coaching to a puzzle results in a mismatch.

  • Puzzles – Everyday issues with solvable answers that often come in a single form. There is a “right” answer.
  • Problems – Multiple perspectives generate multiple potential solutions – many of which may work with varying degrees of effectiveness.
  • Dilemmas – These types are impervious to a definitive solution. This level typically meets the minimum definition of what Horst Riddle would call “wicked” problems. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)
  • Mysteries – These types of challenges are too complex to understand and are ultimately unknowable. That is, they are particularly thorny wicked problems.

Each of these different types of challenges requires a different kind of coaching strategy to solve. You can’t pretend that every challenge that a coachee is facing is the same, or that the same coaching techniques can move them closer to a solution.

Different Values and Perspectives

One of the general objectives of coaching is to help people appreciate others with different values and perspectives than theirs. In every organization, there are many different people, each of them with their own unique set of values and perspectives. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for Reiss’ 16-factor model of values as an example.) By teaching about the differing values and perspectives that others can have, it’s possible to enhance performance.

In my work, I often hear, “I just can’t understand what they were thinking.” Of course, one possible answer is that they weren’t thinking. (See the Rider-Elephant-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis for more about what happens when we “don’t think.”) The more frequent answer is that the person doesn’t understand that others hold differing values. For instance, I am not a person that highly values status, and thus I don’t drive a fancy car. This is unthinkable to someone who is high on status. (This value has a risk of “must-be-seen-as,” which I covered in my review of The Anatomy of Peace.)

Coaching Skills

Coaching isn’t a single skill or even discipline. Coaching is a collection of interrelated skills that allow someone to enhance the performance of another. There are five key skills that Coachbook identifies:

  • Freeing Communication – This is active listening as discussed in Parent Effectiveness Training and Motivational Interviewing.
  • Contextual Knowing – Helping match the theory and model of operation to the situation. (See the implications of context on knowledge in review of The New Edge in Knowledge.)
  • Feeling through Action – Helping the coachee act on their feelings.
  • Reflective Inquiry – Reviewing the inferences that the client has made to reach their perspective. (See Chris Argyris’ Ladder of inference in my review of Choice Theory.)
  • Coaching Leadership – The keys are for the coach themselves to always be learning, to walk with the coachee through their risks, and remember that coaches are servants. (See Servant Leadership for more on being a servant leader.)

While these aren’t an exhaustive set of skills that a coach should have, it’s a good start. If you’re interested in more skills, consider that the skills match for a therapist is very high, so you may find skills like those discussed in The Heart and Soul of Change.

Performance – Alone and Together

We often use training to enhance performance. In fact, most performance enhancement groups inside of organizations are called training departments. However, there are really two radically different kinds of training that these organizations deliver.

The first individual, performance-focused training is technical training. That is, it’s training that helps individual contributors be more effective at their jobs. This training is essential for individual contributors who need to develop sufficient skill to complete their work. However, this individual technical training isn’t enough when it’s necessary to coordinate activities between multiple people.

When working on the performance problems of teams, the solution isn’t technical training. The solution is communication and collaboration training. The performance of teams is highly dependent on the ability of the team to work efficiently with one another – and that requires a different kind of training.

Coaches provide communication and collaboration assistance – if not direct training – in the service of improving overall group performance.

Lifecycle of a Team

There’s a classic model for the progression of teams which goes like this:

  • Forming – When the team is established and people are learning what the team is about.
  • Storming – The phase where the team develops its customs and norms.
  • Norming – Stabilization and deepening of relationships as the group begins to know what to expect from one another.
  • Performing – The output phase of the group where productivity is at its peak.
  • Adjourning – The phase where the group is disbanding and returning to their other roles or moving on to the next team.

Coaches can help organizations develop effective teams by helping the teams to get set up on the right path from the very beginning. After all, Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence estimates that 60 percent of a group’s ultimate performance is established in the preparation and forming of the group.

Meeting Types

There are, according to Coachbook, four kinds of meetings:

  • Information Dissemination Meetings – Meetings designed to inform and only lightly accept feedback.
  • Conflict Management Meetings – Opportunities to “clear the air” and allow everyone to be heard and share their respective positions to diffuse potentially explosive conflict.
  • Problem Solving Meetings – Focused on the resolution of some sort of challenge, these meetings have a specific goal of solving a specific problem.
  • Decision Making Meetings – When a decision must be made, often decision-making meetings are called so that everyone can participate in the decision process – and can commit to executing the decision after the meeting.

No matter what kind of meeting you’re holding, The Four Disciplines of Execution has approaches to be effective.


One of the most powerful things that a coach can do is to help a coachee to reframe their situation. As Epictetus said, “it’s not the things themselves which trouble us, but the opinions that we have about these things.” That is, much of what we make of something is how we walk up Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference. It’s about how we interpret things more than what the things themselves are.

We all suffer from the fundamental attribution error – that is, we tend to see our negative behavior as the result of our circumstances, and other people’s negative behavior as a result of their character. (See The Advantage for more on fundamental attribution error.) A coach can help the situation by creating an awareness that it may not be the character of the person that is the problem, it may be their circumstances. In doing so, it’s possible to develop empathy and reduce anger or frustration. The result is often a more productive and healthy relationship.

Dualism and Relativism

Often, we hear that people are concrete thinkers or that they believe only in black or white. We hear that they miss the subtly of gray. This is an expression of dualism – that is, either-or thinking. Dualism may be sometimes portrayed as a bad thing; in truth, the clarity of dualism makes decisions easier and promotes action – but it does so at the expense of understanding the nuances of the situation.

Relativism allows us to float above the fray and answer with, “it depends.” This may improve interpersonal relations and reduce conflict in the short term; however, it has its own set of drawbacks. Folks who are focused on relativism tend to be unable to move things forward. They spend so much time in the nuances that they forget what they were initially working on.

The trick in coaching isn’t to rely on one or the other strategy – to push folks one way or the other. Instead, the goal should be to balance dualism with its rapid action and relativism with its desire to seek into the nuances.

You Are Unique, but Not Alone

In the end, good coaching reassures you that you’re not alone. It reassures you that you’re like others while simultaneously helping you to recognize your own unique value. It’s possible to get this point on your own, like Carl Rogers expresses in A Way of Being; however, it’s easier and better with a coach.

If you’ve looked for a good coach and couldn’t find what you were looking for – or you are a coach and you’re confused when your coaching clients don’t get the value out of your services – you’re not alone. Perhaps it’s time to add Coachbook to your repertoire so you know how to hire the coach you need – or, as a coach, how to better help your clients.

Book Review-A Way of Being

I started 2017 off with my review of Motivational Interviewing, which serves as a structure for how to communicate with those who are struggling to help them be more successful. It’s foundationally based on active listening, which is attributed to Thomas Gordon in Parent Effectiveness Training. The other foundation of motivational interviewing is the work of Carl Rogers, so I decided to look into A Way of Being, one of his final works. It wasn’t a single-threaded thought expressed across the pages of a book. Instead it was a collection of essays, presentations, and papers that together form a sense for this great psychologist who urged us to listen and truly hear people as they speak.

Psychology the Profession

I have both a deep respect for psychology and an uneasiness about how it’s been used over the years. I’ve seen, through the works of others and personally, how it can be misused. (See House of Cards, The Cult of Psychology Testing, and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for some of the underbelly of this profession.) Rogers was present at the formation of psychology as a profession. He was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1947 and was also aware of the problems with creating any profession.

Rogers acknowledged that credentials didn’t completely separate the good psychologists from the bad ones – or those who shouldn’t be licensed. He recognized that non-credentialed laypersons were doing more good than some of the credentialed psychologists of his day. He also acknowledged that the key challenge with codifying something into a profession is the fact that in doing so you necessarily retard the growth of the practice of the profession. Credentialing relies upon agreement on the skills and beliefs that a credentialed person should have, and that necessarily must lag the exploration at the edges of the profession.

However, the perspective is one of awareness, as he could see the mind-expanding properties of education and the mind-shrinking properties of traditional therapy. Education expanded the boundaries of the mind, where therapy typically shrank the number of options.

Really Listening

It was in the 1970s when Gordon wrote Parent Effectiveness Training and spoke of active listening. As radical as this was for its time, Rogers had been gradually refining an approach of person-centered therapy, where listening to what the client was really saying was core. He had realized that when someone was in a crisis what they often needed most was for someone to understand them. They needed someone to connect with them through language and words. They needed to be heard.

This is the core of active listening – reflecting what the other person says in a way that helps them know that they were heard and understood. It’s in that way that you connect with them and help them know that they’re not alone.


In person-centered therapy, you intentionally connect with someone to understand their world without accepting it as your own. By allowing the other person to have their opinions without trying to persuade them of something different, you both recognize where they are as well as accept that their answer is not the only answer. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on allowing.) There is both acceptance of the other person and boundaries between their reality and your reality. (See Boundaries for more on boundaries, and Choice Theory for more on inner world realities.) Rogers deeply believed in the right for others to have their views – even if they contradicted his own.

Outside Looking In

One of the comments that caught my attention was, “In my younger years, although I was not a hero-worshiper, I definitely looked up to a number of men whom I felt were ‘real psychologists,’ whereas I existed on a poorly accepted fringe.” I think the reason this comment was so interesting was because I believe that we all have experienced this belief that we’re on the outside, or that we’re not doing the “real work” of the profession. It’s refreshing to know that some of the men who defined their professions have felt like they too were on the outside once.

It’s comforting that everyone feels like they’re on the outside looking in at what others are doing, which seems to be more impactful or more relevant to the profession. For me, it was learning to do software development and considering those professionals creating compilers and new languages. I felt like I didn’t understand. Later in my career, it was those folks who were doing agile development or learning patterns before I had time to learn and use these techniques.

As I spent more time in the industry, I realized that there is an ugliness that doesn’t show from the outside. I’ve seen how projects that were trumpeted as winners never accomplished their goals. However, the press coverage was good.

Wanting but Not Expecting

Rogers continues later: “Writing is my way of communicating with a world to which, in a very real sense, I feel I do not quite belong. I wish very much to be understood, but I don’t expect to be,” after relating that psychologists aren’t interested in new ideas – in ideas that challenge the status quo. It’s easier to accept that we have the answers rather than question whether we do or don’t.

Inherent in people – including Rogers, you, and I – is that we want to be understood. As the father of person-centered therapy, he knew this completely. He desired to be fully understood and at some level knew, because of his intelligence and his different view of the world, that he wouldn’t be. He chose to write his ideas, to give him time to optimize their clarity and to articulate the dimensions of his thoughts.

However, no matter how much he crafted his prose, he never expected to be fully understood. He longed for people of his era to understand his message and simultaneously didn’t expect that this was possible. At some level, this feels like a lonely place. He’s the misunderstood artist. He’s the genius that no one gets.

The people that I respect the most are people who feel a bit like misfits. They have a message burning inside of them, but they feel as if they may not be able to get the message through to a world that needs it. I feel this way at times. I identify with the thought that there are parts of my experience that are difficult, if not impossible, to relate to others.

We Have a Choice

The debates of Roger’s day reverberated through social consciousness and are still felt today. Skinner and some of his colleagues believed that man has no choices, that humans are a result of their genetics and environments, and therefore don’t have the choice in how they act. Everything is preprogrammed and running like a large clock down until the end. This, however, denies free will and the ability for us to make our own choices and alter the course of our lives. If you’re driven by the desire to help people, thinking that you’re helpless to influence your goal isn’t motivating.

The repercussions of the disagreement between Skinner and Rogers can be felt today. Dweck had to study and write about the idea of a fixed vs. a growth mindset. (See Mindset for more.) We read of the different ways that people see time in The Time Paradox. Depending upon your frame of reference, we’re either prisoners traveling in the train of time, or we’re conductors of the train guiding our own destinies. Glasser struggles for acceptance of his Choice Theory because we’re so caught up in controlling others by controlling their experiences.

Ultimately, the growth of Motivational Interviewing and other techniques that can be helpful to others are proof that we do have a choice in how we act and react. I suppose the counter-argument is that it’s hard, as evidenced by John Kotter’s often-quoted responses about most organizational change initiatives failing.

Quenching of Desires

Maslow wasn’t wrong when he expressed his hierarchy of needs, but he wasn’t entirely right either. We all have basic needs that we need met. We start with physiological needs like air, water, and food, and move up the hierarchy to self-actualization. Where he wasn’t quite right is that we don’t work on the lower level to the exclusion of the higher level. He said that we work on it to sufficiency before proceeding, but that misses the fundamental element of time. We satiate or quench our desires, but we never fully put them out.

When hunger rears its head, it can block or delay higher pursuits; but sometimes we can delay our hunger to obtain our higher-level goals. We quench our thirst for water for a while. It takes mental energy to pursue higher goals while our lower needs are not fully met, while at the same time we know that our lower-level needs may never be completely met.

Degeneration and Generation

Entropy says that the universe is a clock that is slowly winding down. The complex order of things is being disrupted by the continual decline and deterioration of things. However, on the opposite side of the fence, we know that stars convert less complex atoms into more complex – or at least heavier – atoms. We know that there are forces that are converting single-celled organisms into multi-celled organisms. There is generation as well as degeneration happening at the same time.

Bohm (see On Dialogue) described the growth of a tree from an acorn as the emergence of the tree through the aperture of the acorn. It would be silly to say that the tree was inside the acorn. The tree is much more voluminous and has a much higher mass. However, when considered as the opening through which the tree emerges, one can see that the tree isn’t inside the acorn – but the acorn is the way the tree comes into being.

The constant ebb and flow of generation and deterioration means that there is change. People can and do change. They have the capacity to tear down old patterns of behavior and create new ones where the old ones were, like a forest that sprouts up new life where a fire has occurred.

The Demands on the Therapist

Another one of Roger’s quotes that is intriguing is, “As I have considered this evidence and also my own experience in the training of therapists, I come to the somewhat uncomfortable conclusion that the more psychologically mature and integrated the therapist is, the more helpful is the relationship that he or she provides. This puts a heavy demand on the therapist as a person.” In other words, one has to be very centered and mentally healthy themselves to withstand the buffeting by those that they seek to support. They must be open to the inner turmoil that exists in the worlds of their patients while not losing themselves.

I often think about the scene from The Matrix where Nero no longer dodges the bullets. He stops them, investigates one, then drops it. This is powerful. The ability to see the “slings and arrows” fired your way while not reacting to them is something Buddhists train extensively for.

While neither you nor I are likely to be therapists, A Way of Being can help us understand what it is like to be a fellow, supportive human being.

Book Review-Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture and Organizational Design

The first quote from the book in my notes is, “Anyone who has spent time in an organization knows that dysfunctional behavior abounds. Conflict is frequently avoided or pushed underground rather than dealt with openly.” This is the heart of why I knew I needed to read Chris Argyris’ book, Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, and Organizational Design. I knew of his work through other authors, including Peter Singe’s The Fifth Discipline, Jeff Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping, and William Isaacs Dialogue. I’ve used his ladder of inference in my presentations before. It was finally time to get around to reading how he saw organizational traps.

In Organizational Traps, Argyris walks us through the traps that organizations find themselves in and to a lesser extent what to do about it.

Double Binds

Chinese finger traps are fun to play with once you know how they work. Until then, it can be an infuriating situation to have your fingers caught in a device that gets tighter the harder that you pull. This is the nature at the root of organizational problems. It’s a trap that prevents you from moving forward – or backwards. It’s a set of circumstances that are hard to get out of by their nature. The system is set up such that problems occur.

Systems thinking is the idea that the structure of the system can drive outcomes in sometimes unpredictable ways. (See The Fifth Discipline and Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) Organizations create double binds unintentionally: they’re the side effect of incompatible and conflicting instructions.

I mentioned that I took a stand-up comedy course some time ago in my post I Am a Comedian. What I didn’t mention was the double bind that we were put in as students. On the one hand, we were encouraged to learn a famous comedian’s material and be able to deliver it. On the other hand, we were nudged on the issues around plagiarism and told not to be too rigid on the stage. Necessarily to deliver someone else’s material requires that you maintain their posture and timing – which means you can’t be relaxed. I pointed this out to the instructors and they dropped the recommendation to learn someone else’s material and there by eliminated the double bind.

Defensive Routines

While working on my review for Dialogue, I wrote an entire post on defensive routines. These unconscious responses trigger us to defend our position. We experience diffuse physiological activation (DPA) and have our thinking compromised. (See The Science of Trust for more on DPA.) These defensive routines are in operation by default, because our brain functions mostly on what Kahnman calls “System 1”. That is, the automatic, pattern-matching, threat monitoring, low-power lizard parts of our brain, not the System 2 executive function that is the heart of our consciousness (see Thinking, Fast and Slow).

The Difference Between Saying and Doing

The largest gap on the planet earth isn’t the Mariana Trench or the Grand Canyon. The largest gap is between saying and doing. The largest gap exists between what people say they do and what they actually do. There are three reasons why people don’t say what they do:

  1. They forget
  2. They are unavoidably prevented
  3. They don’t do the hard work.

This gap between saying and doing – the fortitude to do what you say you’ll do – is a bedrock foundation upon which defenses against organizational traps sits. (See my post The Largest Gap in the World.)

Espoused Beliefs

There’s another reason why people don’t do what they say they’re going to do. In short, they don’t realize that they’re not doing it. They believe that they’ll do the right thing, whether it comes to finding a lost item, or making a decision to help an elderly lady cross the street – but too often they don’t. An old study was performed with seminary students and an accomplice. The study had the students head across campus to an important interview. Between them and their goal was a person, the accomplice,ho was seemingly in distress. This should have seemed like a perfect example of the Good Samaritan story from the Bible. Despite this, few students stopped to help the person who was seemingly struggling.

When we’re aware of our gap between statement and action, it’s one thing. It’s quite another to observe people who are behaving in a way inconsistent with their espoused beliefs. Sometimes it’s these gaps between what we say we believe and what we actually do that become undiscussable in an organization, because it’s uncomfortable to be shown how you’re not behaving in ways which are consistent with what you say you believe.

Discussing the Undiscussable

There’s a saying in recovery circles that “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” This is an admonishment at a personal level that it’s important to communicate with others and share your burden – not so much as a solution than as an invitation for others to share your space. At an organizational level, the same principles apply. The organization’s sicknesses are revealed in the undiscussable items in the organization.

Just as the healthiest people are those who are capable about speaking of their weaknesses, so too the healthiest organizations have few undiscussable or taboo items. Instead of running and hiding from the hard parts of the organization, they expose them to the light of day, so that their true size is exposed. The result is quite often that the taboo topic wasn’t as big and scary as it seemed.

Slay the Sacred Cows

Every organization has sacred cows. Those things that “must” be. However, when organizations define themselves by things that must remain the same, they often die as the world changes around them. The Pony Express might have been a great company, but defining themselves as the “Pony Express” rather than accepting their role as communications delivery, they died when the railroad could transport mail faster.

If National Cash Register (NCR) was still exclusively in the business of cash registers, they would not have survived. While not thriving today, they’ve had a pretty good run as an organization. They survived – and at points in their history thrived – because they were willing to slay their sacred cows and say that cash registers aren’t going to be their core business or their only business.

When an organization is ready to slay its sacred cows and the market is not, the market will help the organization stay true to its roots. When Netflix wanted to split into two brands, the market told them that this wasn’t the right move, and they went back to a company that used mail delivery for DVDs and one that delivered videos via streaming. Ironically, Netflix’s name reflects the true desire of the leadership, who were adapting with mail delivery until their vision could become a reality. They’re raising their sacred cow – that someday to survive they’ll have to slay.

Confronting Conflict

The challenge with slaying sacred cows is that it invariably means conflict, and many of us are conflict adverse. We don’t like it, and so it’s hard to stay “in the fight” when you don’t like fights in the first place. In the workplace, the challenges around failing to have what Vital Smarts calls Crucial Conversations leads to a lack of transparency and trust that ultimately lead to the downward spiral of an organization.

Confronting conflict, while difficult to do, is the best way of disrupting the organizational traps and diffusing them. By refusing to “play the game” you’re uncovering and disarming the traps so that no one can step in them. Too few organizations value the need for appropriate, natural, and healthy conflict inside the organization.


The move to being able to have crucial conversations isn’t a one step process. Developing the capacity in the organization to have those hard conversations requires more than a fair degree of trust. When your family’s welfare is on the line, you’ve got to trust – really trust—that the organization won’t get rid of you just because you’re having the hard conversations. Most people who have been in business for a while have seen people who were the “trouble makers” get separated from the company. You can’t be a disruptor if your livelihood depends upon the organization and you simply can’t risk being let go.

Trust flows in both directions though. Leadership in the organization needs to trust that your motives for discussing an issue aren’t self-serving or designed to make the leadership look bad. They have to develop a trust that the reason for talking about things is to help the organization become better.

Eventually when enough trust develops it’s possible to start the journey towards dialogue.


If organizational traps are in the breakdown of communication, then dialogue is the daily vitamin that helps prevent the illness. Rather than repeat a discussion on this topic here, I’ll refer you to my three-part review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together
and my post Discussion and Dialogue for Learning. Dialogue is the antidote to many of the organizational traps that Argyris shares.

Self-Fueling and Self Sealing – The Power of Traps

The problem with Organizational Traps are that they’re self-fueling and self-sealing. They’re a system that has its own positive feedback loops, making them self-fueling. Once you stop talking about one sacred cow, it’s easy to ignore the herd that follows. The self-sealing nature of the pain associated with cleaning up the mess of having not dialogued about items makes it harder to start the conversation. In this way, organizational traps function because they load themselves and spread throughout the organization. That is, unless you have someone or a group of people who intentionally set out to disarm organizational traps to help the organization be its best.

I wouldn’t expect that reading Organizational Traps will prevent your organization from having organizational traps – but it may just help you disarm them.