Book Review-The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

It’s five AM, and the alarm hasn’t gone off yet. I roll over gently, grab my iPad, and start reading. I’m not checking email or catching up on the latest news. I’m reading. It’s my habit, and this one, powerful habit has allowed me to read a book each week for years now. My wife is sleeping next to me, curled up in one arm as I use the other to hold, highlight, and flip pages in the Kindle app. (Which is a skill in and of itself.) This book is about The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Most of what we do is a habit. It’s beyond the everyday wanderings of our conscious thoughts. Like the number of stoplights that were red when you drove to the grocery store, habits keep our cognitive load down and allow us to function in a world that’s overwhelming. (You’ve got a habit for driving and following traffic rules so few of us can recall the number of red lights we’ve seen.)

Keystone Habits

Duhigg starts by making it clear that we don’t have to change every one of these unconscious routines at one time. We don’t have to radically alter our entire lives in one moment to accomplish great things. In fact, greater success is found by intentionally swapping out just one habit at a time – ideally, the keystone habit.

Like the keystone set in architecture, it’s this habit that the other habits are built on. Changing this one thing starts a ripple effect that can change everything about our lives – assuming, of course, that we can find the keystone habit and alter it. Before we can find a habit, we must understand what habits are. For instance, a habit like smoking can be a keystone habit. Once you eliminate smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, etc., may easily change to healthier options.

Defining Habits

Habits are automatic and unconscious; but what do they do and how do we go about changing them? Habits may be typically unconscious, but they’re malleable. (See Peak for more about how elite performers make habits and make them conscious at times.) We can bring them into our consciousness to see what we’re doing and, with careful inspection, what’s trigging us to start the habit in the first place.

Habits have three basic components. First, there’s the cue. This trigger causes our brains to activate a routine – the next part of the habit. The habit ends in a reward of some sort. It could be getting to work, the sugar spike from that cookie you know you shouldn’t have, but you want, or something else entirely.

The key to changing habits isn’t in using our willpower to resist them. (See Willpower for more on willpower.) The key to changing habits is to find the right lever. Change or Die explains how, in most cases, folks who want to make serious life changes fall back to their old habits. Check the heart attack patient one year later, and you’re likely to find them back behind a plate of bacon and eggs instead of fruit and oatmeal. Substitution is the name of the game, and that is where marshmallows come in.

The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel’s simple test might be construed by his subjects as mental torture. Imagine the pains running through a child’s mind as they’re offered a tasty treat – like a marshmallow – or twice as much if they can wait a few minutes while the researcher is out of the room. For some, this was torture until they ate the treat in the center of the table. For others, they found ways of distracting themselves and allowed the time to pass by, so they could get twice the reward. (For more on this see The Marshmallow Test.) The interesting thing isn’t this torture of preschoolers but rather the techniques employed by those that were successful in waiting – or their success in life years after the simple test. Imagine higher SAT scores and better overall lives based on the ability to wait a few minutes for a marshmallow.

The real secret here is how to teach these young children – and adults – how to distract themselves, to change the focus of their attention, to something else. In doing this, it’s possible to flip the switch on the train tracks and route the habit train down another path – ideally, one that’s much healthier and more productive.

Interrupting the Cue

A cue is simple. It’s something that triggers your attention. It could be that twinge of pain you feel as you leave your vacation heading back to the real world. It can be the smell of chocolate cookies baking in the oven. It can be anything that your external senses can perceive – or any internal cue that your mind can conjure up.

The first choice for interrupting the cue is willpower. Willpower is an exhaustible resource, like a muscle that gets better with exercise – but with limited capacity. In some cases, simply identifying the cue that leads to the habit and being on the lookout is enough. A bit of attention from our reticular activating system (RAS) and a smidge of willpower and we can interrupt the automatic routing into the preexisting routine. (Change or Die has more on the RAS.)

One of the key challenges is that people don’t attempt to leverage their willpower to reroute the cue. Instead they try to suppress it – or they try to stop the routine once it’s already started. For most of us, this doesn’t work. Our willpower isn’t strong enough to suppress a cue. Our biology is wired to repeat messages that are ignored – often more loudly. The more you deny the cue exists, the louder and more insistent it will become, until it our willpower can’t hold it back any longer.

The other approach – to disrupt the routine once it’s started – is similarly ill-fated. Not only are you trying to use your consciousness to interfere with an automatic process, the delay in completion causes the initial cue to be repeated. A good model for thinking about this comes from Johnathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis. The Elephant-Rider-Path model is my favorite mental model of how our mind works – and it says that the elephant (emotions and automatic processing) are in control, not our rational riders. The work of Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow also explains this epic battle of the mind and how challenging it can be to win with our rational thought – since our unconscious mind can lie to us. (See Incognito for more on interesting ways that it lies.)

In other cases, where there’s too much to overcome, another strategy may be required. That’s the strategy of predecision. That is, before something occurs, we decide how we’re going to handle it. In effect, we rewrite the circuitry that routes from the cue to the routine. We can either force it into a non-routine or a routine that’s better. This strategy is fraught with problems, as quite frequently when we encounter the cue, we’ll override our predecisions. That’s what happened to coach Dungee’s Colts when they were “in the big game.” Instead of relying on the habits that Dungee and the coaches had drilled into their heads, they starting trying to think too much and started trying to second-guess their training. It cost them time, and that time cost them the game.

Finding the Cue

Finding the cues that trigger the routines may be the hardest part. Sometimes the cues are easy – like a visit to the family. Other times, the cues are subtle and difficult to find. However, once the cue is clearly defined, it can be “marked” by our conscious brains in a way that allows us to tell ourselves, “Hey, I need to look at that before blindly continuing.”

Finding the cue takes some careful sleuthing and patience. Setting the flag on it – making it available for our consciousness – is the next big challenge. However, once that’s done, you’ve got a critical break in the flow and the opportunity to change the routing from the cue to the routine.

Breaking the Routing

Effectively, the back side of the cue is routing to the routine. Most of the time, this is automatic. Whatever the default routine is gets run automatically. With our flagging the cue – which can sometimes be difficult – we get a chance to make a conscious choice. If we find that a call from our mom causes us to mindlessly start to eat whatever sweets are on the counter, we can look for the call as a cue – and pick a different strategy. Maybe doodling can cure our need to do something else. If we can’t quite go that far, maybe we can change what we eat to be carrots. It may still be a mindless routine in the end – but at least it won’t have the negative effects that eating sweets will.

It’s the routing that is key. We’ve got to keep the flag on the cue, so we can interfere with the routing long enough for a new default to take hold. For that to happen, we’re going to need some positive feedback.


What makes some habits stick and some fade away? That’s the interesting question behind the revival of Hush Puppies. They were introduced in 1958 and were on the verge of being discontinued for lack of sales when something strange happened. In New York City, Hush Puppies became fashionable, and they started showing up in dance clubs and on runways – leading to a revival in the brand. (See The Art of Innovation for more on Hush Puppies revival.)

The answer may lie in the corn fields of Iowa. Everett Rogers worked for Iowa State University, and his work with the farm extension led him to study how innovations were adopted by farmers. He noted five factors for an innovation to spread: relative advantage, compatibility, apparent simplicity (his was complexity, but I’ve flipped it here for consistency), trialability, and observability. (See Diffusion of Innovations for more on his work.)

His final factor is the interesting one, as it indicates that you need to be able to see the difference. When coupled with relative advantage, the ability to see the advantages you get is powerful. Hush Puppies might have become a status symbol (see Who Am I? for more on motivators, including status). However, most of our habits don’t fall into the category of status, unless it’s your morning cup of Starbucks coffee.

The ability to see the impact of what you’re doing is feedback, and it shows up everywhere as a key factor. Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman all speak of the need for feedback to enter the highly effective mental state of flow. Ericsson speaks of the need for feedback – often candid feedback – in the development of peak performers in his book Peak. One of the key challenges that marketing programs face is the difficulty of getting good feedback to make informed decisions. Thinking in Systems (and to a lesser extent The Fifth Discipline) reminds us that delays in feedback can cause systems to be unstable. Effective and nearly immediate feedback has changed the way pictures are taken. Digital cameras provide instant feedback and therefore the ability to take pictures again – and learn from mistakes.

In learning, feedback is essential to anchoring the learning into the system. Immediate feedback – not during a test – can make learners dependent on that feedback and can prevent learning. However, in most cases, feedback is a critical component to effective learning. By depriving learners of effective and timely feedback, you can depress or even suppress learning. (See Measuring Learning Effectiveness for more.)

Effective feedback lies at the heart of improvement on many levels. Multipliers use feedback to help employees improve, while diminishers provide little or poor feedback, and as a result deprive people from growing. (See Multipliers for more.)

How Feedback and Rewards Differ

Duhigg calls the end of the cue-routine-reward cycle “reward”; however, the researchers he cites for his work use words like error, bias, and, more importantly, feedback. I’m willing to go out on a limb to shift away from Duhigg’s language, because his language doesn’t accommodate negative feedback. We can change behaviors by attaching tangible, short-term, negative feedback to a behavior. Feedback is a more encompassing word than reward that can take in the complexity of our brain’s decision-making. When we see the cue, we want to pick the behavior that has the best chance of the best reward.

Additionally, reward is an implied singular thing. Feedback can contain multitudes. There can be some positive and some negative feedback. We can net that out in the same way that we can consider all gravity to be concentrated at the center of an object. This center of gravity for feedback – the center of feedback – can shape whether it is more or less likely for a cue to route to a routine or not.

In my work and the work of others whom I trust, shifting the routing from cue to routine is THE key to making change.

Creating the Craving

Duhigg explains that we can get into a situation where we have a neurological craving for something. In this case, we can receive a shot of dopamine before we get the reward. Dopamine, though described as the pleasure drug, is beginning to lose its moniker. As we learn more about dopamine, we realize that it’s not the be-all and end-all of pleasure after all. It plays a role in pleasure and in learning, though the role isn’t as clear-cut as we once thought it was.

Duhigg speaks of Wolfgang Schultz’ work, and how neural activity spikes occur before the reward. However, it’s not clear what these spikes in activity mean. It’s possible that these are the result of mental models being built and run. In correspondence with Dr. Schultz, he indicates that the dopamine receptors may be getting information from the models about outcomes – though this is still unclear. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models.)

We do know that cravings are real. While addictions aren’t primarily based on chemical addiction, there is a neural processing component that drives the continued behavior. It’s not clear whether this is a neurochemically-based problem (a hardware problem) or a thinking problem (a software problem). There are some genetic markers for addiction susceptibility, but the gene doesn’t indicate that you will become an addict, just that it’s more likely. (See Chasing the Scream for more about addiction and No Two Alike for more about the role of genes and environmental interaction.)

Cravings, Duhigg explains, drives the cycle back from reward to cue again. Here, too, I disagree.

Open Loop

Duhigg draws the cue-routine-reward as a closed circle. I disagree with this representation, because the arrows don’t mean the same thing. The arrow from cue to routine could be described as “leads to” – so, too, could the arrow from routine to reward. However, it’s difficult to assign “leads to” to the arrow between reward and cue. I believe that this is because the real diagram is from cue to multiple routines – with connecting lines of varying thicknesses. The step after the cue, the routing, selects the best fit routine – which is the one with the strongest connection. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more on connection strengths.)

The issue is, I think, that Duhigg doesn’t have a representation of a routing component – the critical component – in his model. This is where the action happens and where changes both do and need to occur.


If you want a model of changing habits, a good place to look is 12-step programs, though they occasionally come under fire for a lack of demonstratable efficacy – and because they will allow people to exit on their own. However, arguably no other program or approach has helped as many people overcome their addictions. Why and How 12-Step Groups Work is the subject of a separate post.


If you want someone to stick to a decision – to a change in behavior – how do you do it? In short, tell someone. Once you’ve told someone about a decision, it makes it less changeable. Once your friends, family, and community have been told of your intent and expect that you’ll follow through, the odds are that you will.

Our social drivers will not want to wade through the disappointment and the continual conversations of having to face everyone with the lack of change. In effect, we change the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that others tell about us. (See Redirect for more on the impact of stories on change.) It will often provide a firm push into the direction of making things happen.

Making It Visible

Telling someone of your intent is just one expression of the fundamental concept of making your changes visible. 12-step programs say that you’re only as sick as your secrets. The more you can make your thinking visible, the more likely you are to make the change. However, there’s another important role to visibility. By simply making things visible, you make it possible to evaluate things that you never realized might be happening.

Food journaling is an effective way to change eating behavior – because it makes it impossible to ignore the reality of how much food is being consumed. It is no longer possible for our memories to get intentionally fuzzy about that extra helping or the second cookie. It takes what our brains want to be invisible and makes it visible.

The Value of Failure

Failure, when it’s used to teach, can be valuable. Addicts often fail to “remain clean” their first time. They fall back into old habits. They get disconnected from their new support systems. However, successful recovering addicts learn what the trigger was, or what their hubris was, or what “got” them. They put barriers in place to prevent the same thing from happening again. Ultimately, this creates a situation where there are too few gaps for their old habits to sneak through.

Failure is only failure when you give up. Failure can be a powerful teacher as long as you don’t let the failure become fatal. We have to expect that, when we’re changing habits, we’re going to have some failures.


The most powerful force in the universe is hope. It’s what fuels our ability to get up after a failure. It’s what allows us to believe that we can make a change when no one else has. Hope broke the four-minute mile. Hope got us to the moon. Hope returned Apollo 13 home. The greatest thing that allows you to change a habit is the hope that you’ll be successful. That’s why 12-step programs are so important and powerful. They instill hope that you can change, because someone else has already done it.

It’s my hope for you that, if you’re trying to change your habits, you’ll find the answers in The Power of Habit.

Book Revisited-Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge, and Organisational Effectiveness

The first time I reviewed Organising Knowledge was 2007. The book was new then. However, Organising Knowledge has become a book that seems to have a lot to say – even 11 years later. When I wrote my last review, I was just beginning with knowledge management, information architecture, and organizational effectiveness. Since then, I’ve done many projects and read many books. In preparation for a new information architecture course I’m preparing, I wanted to go back and revisit the book to make sure that I didn’t miss any of Patrick Lambe’s insights. This time I read it on Kindle – which means I’ve got more extensive notes – and my writing style has changed quite a bit in the last 11 years.

The Six Pack

Terrifying. That’s the word that most new pilots use to describe their first solo landing experience. Practice makes perfect, they say. (Though Ericsson has some other requirements in Peak). When you strap yourself into an airplane for the first time and look at the dashboard, you see a collection of vaguely familiar instruments that convey what you need to know about the plane and what’s happening, but which instruments do you need to really focus on?

Pilots are taught to scan six key instruments: attitude indicator (sometimes called artificial horizon), turn-bank indicator, directional gyro, altitude, vertical speed indicator, and airspeed. Collectively, these instruments tell you most of what you need to know about flying the aircraft – and provide a double check should an instrument fail during flight.

The first time with the instructor in the plane that I was landing, I can remember all the variables I was trying to compute. Airspeed, altitude, rate of descent, pitch, engine throttle position, flap position, radio calls, and maneuvering were just some of the thoughts running through my head. Over time, some of these things became automatic. I didn’t have to think about them. Experience had taught me how to “feel” the aircraft and when I could ignore some of the data coming at me – and when I needed to pay attention. Gary Klein would say that I started to build a model of the airplane (see Sources of Power). It wasn’t an academic model, it was a tacit model that I could call upon to simplify what my explicit, rational mind had to process.

That’s the way I feel about the process of building taxonomies and organizing knowledge. I can see all the variables, but I’ve learned which ones I need to pay attention to and which ones are the most important. It’s in that context that I approach this revisit. With the experience, I’ve learned some of the things that I can ignore.

Planning for Failure

There are three very disconcerting things when you’re flying. First, when your engine quits, you start sweating. The propeller is more than the big fan in the front to cool you off. If you lose your engine in a single-engine aircraft, you’re going to be coming down. The good news is that essentially the plane is a powered glider. Unless you’re in a critical phase of flight (takeoff or landing) losing an engine isn’t that big a deal.

The second disconcerting time is when you’re in clouds, and your brain is telling you one thing, and the instruments are telling you another. Many pilots have been killed by spatial disorientation and failing to listen to their instruments. Perhaps the most famous is John F. Kennedy, Jr. The good news is if you learn that your brain will lie to you, and, collectively, the instruments won’t, you’ll consciously override your feelings and fly by the instruments. (See Incognito for more on how our brain makes up things.)

The final disconcerting time is when an instrument fails. You are mid-flight, and, without warning, one of your instruments starts “drifting” from the correct answer. Whether it’s the attitude indicator starting to indicate a gentle turn to the left, or you notice that your directional gyro starts to spin like you’re in the Bermuda triangle, it’s sure to get your attention. Luckily, any single instrument failure can be identified and eliminated from your scan by cross-checking other instruments. Planning for failure is designed into aircraft. That’s why losing an instrument is just disconcerting.

Facets serve this purpose in organizing your content. Though we think of filing away our information in a single large hierarchical tree, with one level followed by the next, invariably creators and consumers will get stuck and be unable to properly file or find content in its correct spot. Using facets allows users to file and find content, because when one facet fails, generally others are effective.

Finding Facets

Ideally when you’re looking for facets, you’ll find a set that are mutually exclusive (said differently, orthogonal), unambiguous, and complete. That is, it would be great if the facets you find can help you accurately and completely define the content that you hope to file and find.

Defining Dimensions

Before getting into how to define effective facets, it’s important to understand what they are. In practical terms, facets are aspects of the information to be organized. Each characteristic of the item can be said to belong to the set of values in the facet. For each facet, then, an item has a value – a metadata value. Organising Knowledge defines metadata (plural) as “a collection of structured information about a document or piece of content.”

Taken in singular form, this means that a piece of metadata is structured information about the document – structured along facets. To create organization along facets, you’ll necessarily be capturing this structured data. Almost universally this is done as a column or field stored with the document having the field name similar or identical to the definition of the facet. The values of the metadata field or column can either be fixed – as in a controlled vocabulary – or open. For instance, a facet that describes color may be a set of fixed set of colors – like those in a coloring box. An open facet might be one like weight or height that is a continuum of responses that don’t have a fixed set of values.

Facets are an important boundary-spanning object, because they can be used for “big data”-type analysis of content and other analytical techniques beyond the simple retrieval of information.

Following Footsteps

The first part of the path is easy. You can follow the footsteps of others who have walked the path before you. You can start by the father of faceted categorization, S.R. Ranganathan. A librarian in India, he proposed that the existing classification systems, like the venerable Dewey Decimal System, were insufficient. His ideas were a footnote in the annals of library science until electrons ruled and atoms were ancient. It’s a different world to organize digital information, where copies are easy to make, and findability is the key issue. In a traditional book library, you organize one literal thing; in the electronic world, everything is substantially more fluid.

Ranganathan’s facets were personality, matter, energy, space and time. He proposed that these facets would allow you to describe most things – and for them to be findable. Lambe expresses these plus the addition of subject matter – which agrees with Morville and Rosenfeld in the classic Polar Bear book (Information Architecture for the World Wide Web). Morville and Rosenfeld also include price – which makes sense when you consider the eCommerce perspective of their work. Richard Saul Wurman – the father of the term information architecture – adds alphabet and hierarchy (or scale.)

In aggregate, these give you a great place to start.

Standard Steps

Lambe provides a helpful table (2.1) that relates practical examples of ways of breaking down hierarchies, which I’ve reproduced here:


Superordinate Term

Subordinate term

Relationship term

Military rank General Colonel Power/authority
Biology Genus Species Common Evolutionary history
Family Parent Child Genealogical
Vehicles Car Steering Wheel Whole: part
History 1960s Assassination of JFK Period: event
Geography United States Alaska Whole: part
Landscape Mountain Everest General: specific
Terrorism Al Qaeda Osama Bin Laden Group: member
Disease control Infection Symptoms Causality, sequence

This table provides several relationships that you can walk in the top-level facets to get to more detailed areas of the tree.

Stepping Out

Unfortunately, after these good solid starting points, it’s necessary to get specific to the content that you’re organizing. That requires tuning into an inherent capacity that humans have for breaking information into meaningful chunks. Take a baby and show them a set of dots traveling together, and then have one of the dots fly off out of formation from the others, and the baby will indicate their confusion. Even small children can convert groups of objects into a single object for consideration.

To further the development of the facets, we must look towards the natural groupings that people – particularly the consumers of the proposed facet – are likely already creating. While these categories are rarely perfect when encountered, they often form a solid but flexible framework on which a taxonomy can be created.


Organising Knowledge defines a taxonomy with three characteristics:

  • Classification Scheme – It needs to be a way that we organize our world.
  • Semantic – Meaningful and transparent to the end users
  • Knowledge Map – While a map is not a territory, it represents the territory, and so, too, a taxonomy should represent the knowledge territory.

In this context, each facet is a taxonomy. It’s a way of viewing the information much the way that you can organize ideas in a book by chapter and have a separate organization of ideas in alphabetic order in the back of the book – called an index. In many ways, the index at the back of a book is like a thesaurus for the taxonomy. A thesaurus is simply a taxonomy organized alphabetically rather than by subject, as is ideal for taxonomies.


One would think that a rule-following person might be great at taxonomic work. After all, they’re good with rules. Unfortunately, building taxonomy is an odd blend of skills that requires the rigor of looking at the details and sometimes stepping back to see the forest – it makes it a cognitively difficult feat. Further, taxonomies are necessarily fraught with compromise. Consider the number of items that should be at a single level.

Hick’s law says that, when the chooser knows the order, having all the items in one list is the most efficient way of organizing information. Contrast that with the work of Barry Swartz in the Paradox of Choice, which explains the fact that anxiety increases with the number of items being chosen from. This ignores the primary practical issue with Hick’s law, which is that it relies on a central condition – the users know the order.

This is a semantic slope that’s easy to miss. Is the category for automobile called automobile, car, ride, vehicle, or transportation? Without a complete knowledge of the list, it’s impossible to know which term is used in every case. This is particularly true when we’re considering that, most of the time, the users of our taxonomies today don’t know whether the information they’re looking for exists – much less what the “correct” terms are.

Conversely, if you create a set of subcategories, you necessarily make some items difficult to find based on their difficulty of being categorized along the facet. Where do you put the color blue-green – under blue or under green? If you have a category for furniture, will the user understand that they need to look there for rugs or lamps?

Additionally, even knowing the number of subcategories under a given category can be challenging. While much research here points towards The Magic Number 7, that research has been clarified to not mean what people think it does. We do know as the number increases, anxiety increases, but too narrow of choices produces a very deep click tree, which causes people to become frustrated and abandon their attempted navigation. The deeper the trees go, the more people you’ll lose before they get to the bottom.

The pragmatist tries to find a balance between these competing factors. They also find ways to “cheat.”


One of the solutions to the taxonomic problem of which category something belongs in is to leverage polyhierarchies – that is, to associate a single term to multiple parent terms. Tomato can be associated both with fruit and vegetable. (See The Accidental Taxonomist for more.) However, this is an impure solution that breaks the neat and orderly progression of a traditional hierarchy. It’s decisions like these that make it difficult for rule followers to make the hard calls to break the rules.

Journey Not Destination

In the end, you’ve got to live with the consequences of those places where you break the rules. Organization isn’t a one-time thing. The things that you’re organizing change – and grow. That means that organization is a shifting sand that you must continually adjust to. One way to start the journey is to learn more about Organising Knowledge by reading.

Book Review-Email Marketing Demystified: Build a Massive Mailing List, Write Copy that Converts and Generate More Sales

It’s been several years ago now. I had a technology client that was a marketing firm. In a conversation with the president, we were talking about getting responses to an advertising campaign. He said to me, “I can guarantee you a number of responses, I just can’t guarantee you it will be cost effective.” That stuck with me as a fundamental truth of marketing. I had always thought that you might not get enough responses, but, in truth, if you’re willing to spend enough money, you can always generate the responses – it’s a matter of whether that will be cost effective or not.

That’s why people turn to email marketing. In general, it’s cost effective. The Direct Marketing Association says that, on average, for every $1 spent in email marketing, the business gets $43 in sales. That’s a huge return. However, how do you get those kinds of returns? That’s what Email Marketing Demystified: Build a Massive Mailing List, Write Copy that Converts, and Generate More Sales seeks to help you do.

The Point of It All

Before getting into the details of the how, it’s important to focus on the why. (See Start with Why.) You do email marketing to market something – but what is that something? In some cases, it can be consulting services. In others, it’s product sales. However, product sales to whom, and what is the product being sold?

For me, we sell The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users to corporate customers, who buy it for everyone in their organization. We sell courses to individual corporate buyers who are looking to learn more about SharePoint themselves. We want these products in the hands of more people.

One of the insights from Email Marketing Demystified is that if you continue to pitch the same products to the same audiences, you’ll see diminishing returns. The business question becomes how much time do you spend marketing, and how much time do you spend creating new products? There is – of course – no answer to this question. You can build lists and write great copy, but if you’re not selling products, eventually the whole system will fly apart.

Copy Writing

The heart of getting conversions on your emails – moving someone from reading to responding – is copywriting. On the surface, this is an easy task. Everyone learned to write in grade school. However, the subtle arts of copywriting aren’t as easy as they seem. The difference between a 1% and a 2% conversion rate aren’t impressive until you realize that this doubled your effectiveness – or can move you from one hundred purchases to two hundred.

Simple tips like keeping your headlines and subjects to five to ten words that will fit on a single line of text flow throughout the book. The copy on a button can dramatically change how many people click and respond. (“Sign Up Now (Free)” is the recommended copy for a button.)

List Building

In the category of list building, Email Marketing Demystified isn’t silent – but it’s definitely not verbose. Effectively you’re directed to Traction and to for finding ways to build your list. There is the tongue in cheek response that you just build great content for years and years until it starts to work. Of course, no one wants to hear this – but to some extent, it’s true. The Halo Effect focuses us on the truth that the world is filled with probabilities, not certainties. You can increase your chances – the probability – that your list will grow, but there’s no certainty in its growth.

A good friend of mine who teaches marketing once told me that all marketing is “throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks.” I can tell you that in my experience this is true. There are some things that I thought were going to be great for list building that did nothing. Other things that I didn’t expect much from have been very useful to me.

In short, if you’re looking for solid techniques for actually building your list, you may need to look elsewhere.

SPAM Shift

Before completely leaving the topic of list building, I should say that there has been a shift from purchased lists and mass mailings to smaller numbers of people who are more actively engaged in your content. While it’s still a valid list building technique to get someone else to pitch your offer to their list, rarely does acquiring a list work these days. Lists todays have to be built.

The tools that exist to help users protect themselves from SPAM have becoming increasingly more effective, and this may have something to do with the shift. Major mail systems are prioritizing the emails that you interact with, and, as a result, the massive number of emails that are being sent – and delivered – aren’t being seen by the users.

List building isn’t like the old days, where you could build your list by acquiring it.

Frequency and Timing

One of the considerations when you have a list is how frequently you should be emailing your list. The guidelines are interesting… No more than once a day, and not less than once a week. Of course, if you look at books like Launch, they’ll tell you to send reminders on your launch day so you may end up above the once a day rule – but at least it’s not every day.

My own results have been mixed. I believe that, between product launches, there is a place on your refresh list for emails to be sent out once a month. Basically, these are people who are interested in you and what you’re doing, but there’s nothing that they need to buy right now. You don’t want to inundate them – but at the same time you don’t want them to forget you. I still send a monthly newsletter to people who are interested.

In addition to that, I send people email campaigns when they want them. We offer 30 Office Tips (delivered every other weekday) and a set of SharePoint Secrets that are delivered every three days. It’s possible that we’ll be emailing folks more than once a day – but only if they’ve asked us for that frequency of contact.

The other dimension is how long do you hold onto a lead? The recommendation from Email Marketing Demystified is to have autoresponder sequences that last three to five months. This feels long to me, but who knows? They also recommend that if someone hasn’t interacted with you in six months you should remove them from your list.


I don’t know that I’d say that Email Marketing Demystified lives up to its title. It feels more like a set of clues to find your own path than a secret decoder ring. However, if you’ve been doing email marketing for a while, you probably realize there is no such thing as Email Marketing Demystified – the best you can hope for is some useful clues that make you a bit more productive.

Book Review-Getting Results the Agile Way

JD Meier and I know and have worked with the same people. We had exchanged a few emails and were casually acquainted. Over a year ago, I was trying to start a series of articles on developer productivity, and I reached out to him for sage advice. I discovered that he had written a book about personal productivity – Getting Results the Agile Way – and so I wanted to see what he would say about how to be productive in life. True to form, he didn’t disappoint.

Despite this, my review of Getting Results the Agile Way has been stuck for over a year.

Thinking Differently

Just because you respect someone doesn’t mean that you process information the way that they do. I think that is why this review has been on pause for so long. Everything for JD is a list. For me, I make lists up on the fly and then change them as needed. The frameworks that I build are more like willow trees, bending and changing shape to let the wind move past them. JD’s approaches are mechanical and consistent.

I’ve encountered other books that are very checklist oriented – like Michael Hyatt’s Platform. For me, it was hollow. I could see that when I read it. However, with Getting Results the Agile Way there was something more. JD really understands the concepts and perspectives behind the agile movement and at the same time distills them into practical steps that can be used by anyone – whether or not they comprehend the core tenets.

In the end, what caused me to be able to finish this review was the twin awareness of our differences in thinking and recognizing that his audience wasn’t me. His audience is the millions of folks who are trying to get more productive, more enjoyment, and more joy out of their lives, and they want to do it with a recipe book – rather than learning chemistry and physiology – so they can understand how to make a good meal. You can get good at cooking if you understand chemistry and how our bodies respond to food, but it’s the long way around if you just want to cook some good meals.

Developers are Whole People

Both JD and I grew up as developers. In our quest to become better at our craft, we stumbled across and embraced agile methodologies for software development, but JD recognized the applicability to some of the core concepts to other areas of your life. In fact, he identifies the following areas of life, which he calls “hot spots”:

  • Mind
  • Body
  • Emotions
  • Career
  • Financial
  • Relationships
  • Fun

He takes the agile lens and applies it to these areas of his life. (The ONE Thing has a similar set of areas that are areas of focus.) One of the traps that many people struggle with is that life is so complicated that it’s difficult to get your hands on how to move it forward. (And, as Extreme Productivity explains, sometimes even your best made plans aren’t where you’ll end up.) Getting Results the Agile Way is effective at breaking the problem down into different dimensions so that you can make small but measurable progress in one area of your life, then turn your focus to the next area of your life. By processing in sequence, you don’t get overwhelmed, and, over time, you can make progress.

What’s Different About Agile

Imagine that you’re back in the late 1800s, and you hear about two competing groups that are trying to build the first powered flying machine. The first is a well-funded and respected professor out of Chicago named Langley. The second is a pair of brothers who run a bicycle shop in Dayton, OH. They have no background. They have no research support. However, somehow the Wright brothers manage to fly before Langley. How is that?

Much has been made of the publicity surrounding Langley and the fact that he couldn’t fail – but then again, they would say similar things about the Titanic a little more than a decade later. The difference was that the Wright brothers failed over and over again, learning from each attempt. They built wind tunnels and tried to solve what would now be called “engineering problems” even when they couldn’t test full-scale machines. We now know that the Wright brothers were successful – but the reasons why they were successful have as much to do with agile thinking as Langley’s approach was like waterfall development.

When the Agile Manifesto was first introduced, it was a radical departure in software development. Waterfall meant long planning cycles and monolithic projects that did one big delivery and were, for the most part, done. While this was never the intention of the waterfall software development lifecycle, bringing in project managers who were only experienced with developing projects in the physical world necessarily made it difficult to iterate. Agile software development didn’t just turn over the idea of a single release towards a model of continuous release, it challenged several other ideas as well.

Trying became a first-class citizen. Failure wasn’t just an option; it was a certainty. Instead of denying that failure was real, it was embraced and accepted. Failure was recognized as a step in learning, growing, and becoming better. Agile approaches do view problems differently while acknowledging that a more accurate view of reality is important.

JD summarizes the differences as:

  • Fresh Start. If you fall off the horse, you can get back on. You get a fresh start each day, each week, each month, each year.
  • Test Your Results. Have a bias for action. Rather than do a bunch of analysis and commit to a big plan up front, start taking action and testing your results.
  • Fix Time, Flex Scope. By fixing time, you set yourself up for success. The main thing is to set a fixed time for eating, sleeping, and working out.
  • Boundaries. Boundaries are simply minimums and maximums. Setting boundaries is a key to success.
  • Tests for Success. Your tests for success answer the question, “What will good look like?”
  • Approach over Results. How you accomplish your results is more important than the results themselves in the long run.
  • The Rhythm of Results. Iterate on your results. Version your results over time. The rhythm of results is your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly results.
  • Time, Energy, and Technique. You don’t want to just throw more time at problems. You also don’t want to burn yourself out by just throwing your energy into things. Your results are a combination of time, energy, and technique.
  • Strengths over Weaknesses. Rather than spend all your time improving your weaknesses, spend your time playing to your strengths.
  • System over Ad Hoc. When you have routines for how you produce results, you can learn and improve.
  • Continuous Learning. The world’s not static. Skills aren’t static. You’re not static. Learning is a first-class citizen.

Throughout the book, he summarizes key points and makes lists for you to return to when you’re struggling to see the world in a helpful way.

Worst Things First

Long ago I learned a skill that’s been with me. I learned it from project management and think of it as managing my risks; but in JD’s language, it’s doing the worst things first. That is, whatever is risky or dangerous or might not work gets done first, as do the things that you don’t want to do.

This is frustrating from a startup perspective, because it means that you’re slaying all the dragons and you’re not getting to experience the thrill of the countryside. However, in my experience, lives and projects go off track when you wait until the very end to try to do the hardest parts. By then, interest and energy wane, and sometimes it’s not enough to get things done.

Energy Management

JD’s right on target as he speaks about the challenges of energy management. Recognizing when you’re the most powerful and have the most energy is an important first step. Recognizing what things bring you energy and help build you up is a solid second step. Time is the one commodity that we have a fixed amount of. Energy can be cultivated, and it’s the energy to get things done that makes time valuable.

Agile resets the energy clock at each cycle. Each day, week, month, year makes a new cycle of energy available to you – if you know to look for it. Constantly seeking energy and learning how to cultivate it in yourself and can give you what you need to get results.

The Wright brothers celebrated each of their small successes, recognizing they’d have another the next day – but at the same time, they had one less problem to solve.

Maintaining Motivation

One of the secrets to getting results is staying motivated long enough to get them. It’s one part productivity and efficiency and another part persistence – keeping your shoulder to the work until it’s done. (See Willpower for more on the components of willpower.) Maintaining motivation requires an understanding that everyone can expand themselves through work. We aren’t born with a skill, and if we try and fail, we’ll never be able to do something. (See Mindset for more on our ability to grow and expand ourselves.) The truth is that we live in a probabilistic world, where the ability to do something relies on more than the situation and our capabilities. There’s a certain amount of randomness to life that we have to accept. (See The Halo Effect for more on our probabilistic world.)

Perhaps the biggest risk in not finding the motivation to continue is accidentally and unintentionally teaching ourselves helplessness. Learned helplessness is the state we can get into when we believe that there is nothing that we can do to improve our situation. Like the elephant tied in place with a strong chain as a child won’t pull on the tiny rope that holds him back as an adult, we can be held back by our limiting beliefs that we’re helpless. It’s obvious that the tiny rope doesn’t hold back the large elephant – the elephant is held back by his learned helplessness. (Find more on learned helplessness in The Paradox of Choice.)

The Rule of Three

One of the rules that I struggle with most is the rule of three. That is, I should only have three things that I’m working on in any given period. That isn’t to say that you can only do three things a day. Rather, it’s that you shouldn’t have more than three areas of focus. Here I feel challenged for the same reasons I mentioned while reviewing The ONE Thing – there are more than three areas. How can I focus on only three areas when there are so many areas to focus on?

The answer seems to be that there are things you’re just keeping going, and there are things you’re actively developing. We’ve got projects around here that we occasionally put a bit of energy into. They are not, however, areas of focus. The goal of the rule of three isn’t to limit you. It’s to allow you to focus enough energy into a single direction so that you can see progress. (See Predictably Irrational for more on our aversion to letting things go and focusing.)

Fix Time, not Scope

One of the things that I learned in the development of books and educational materials is that they’re never perfect. There’s always the ability to get another review, do some fixups on the content, or do something that would make the content better. The challenge that the lean philosophy addresses is not making investments that the customer doesn’t find value in. Lean relentlessly removes waste and parts of the system that don’t add value. In the book development process, the number of editors has been steadily scaled back over the last 20 years. We used to have half a dozen people crawling over content to make it better. Now, that number is probably half that.

The tricky part is knowing when the effort is important and necessary. Having friends in the publishing industry, I know that there are books that absolutely took more to produce because they required precise layout, color prints, etc. But these books also stood out from the crowd because of their quality, and thus they sold well. The quandary is how much energy and time should you put into a book – or any project – to make it right?

By fixing time you can dodge the question. You can say that, while scope may be hard to figure out, you can time box and deliver what you have when the timer expires. This is at the heart of agile thinking. When the sprint ends, whatever you can add to the delivery is what you have. Whether it’s enough for the customer or not is for them to decide.

In the physical world, when you’re finished with something, it’s often hard to modify. However, in relationships and in other ethereal contexts, sometimes you just must define how much time you can invest in the project.

Focus on Results

In the end, whatever you do is only measured by the results that you get. JD provides a useful structure for evaluating results:

Hot Spot Description
Action How you take action and manage your activities towards results.
Efficiency and Effectiveness How you manage the cost and speed of your results, as well as how you manage the quality of your results.
Energy Management How you manage your energy in terms of thinking, feeling, and doing, as well as how you take care of your eating, sleeping, and working out.
Expectations How you set and reset expectations with yourself and others.
Focus How you focus your time, energy, and attention.
Goals and Objectives How you set meaningful goals and objectives for your results.
Information Management How you organize and manage information, as well as avoid information overload.
Learning How you find the lessons, improve, and correct course.
Mindsets and Motivation How you get your head in the game.
Planning How you map out the work to be done.
Prioritizing How you choose what’s more important.
Self-Awareness How to improve your knowledge about yourself in terms of achieving results.
Self-Discipline How you correct your behavior.
Task Management How you manage your tasks and action items.
Time Management How you manage and schedule your time.

The First Step

JD offers up dozens of other tips, lists, keys, and ways to convert the relatively loose framework of agile thinking into something that you can use to improve not just your software development but your life as well. To do that, you’ll have to read Getting Results the Agile Way.

Book Review-Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

It might seem odd that one of the forefathers of information architecture would proclaim that everything is intertwingled and thus hard to force down into specific categories, but that’s what Peter Morville is saying. You can’t separate the parts from the whole. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything is the start of a journey in realizing that, no matter how hard you try to cut apart, partition, chunk, and dissect, most things can’t be broken down without losing something. That won’t stop us from doing it, because we need to do it to simplify our world. However, it may change the way that we approach the process.

Thinking in Systems

The vehicle in our journey is the ability to see everything as a system. There’s an old Tootsie Roll commercial where a jingle is played that ends with “Tootsie Rolls are all I see.” It’s a catchy tune that was designed to get people thinking about Tootsie Rolls, so they couldn’t forget about them. However, there’s some truth in life to this commercial. Once you see something, you can’t un-see it. It’s impossible to not know what a hippopotamus looks like after you’ve seen one. If you’ve learned to see things in systems, it’s hard to un-see them.

For Morville – and for me – everything is a system. It’s a system that can be manipulated, changed, and adapted often with unintended and inexplicable outcomes. Whether you realize that steel axe heads degenerated some aboriginal societies (as in Diffusion of Innovations), you got caught up in Peter Singe’s wildly popular The Fifth Discipline, or you stumbled across the posthumously published book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, once you’ve been infected with the awareness that everything is a system of stocks and flows (inbound and outbound), it’s hard to not see it any longer.

However, just because you can see things in systems doesn’t mean you can predict outcomes. Gary Klein recognized that fire commanders build mental models of the fire where they could predict what is happening. Their Sources of Power may not have been consciously known to them, but they did know when one of their expectations generated by the model was violated, and it was time to go back to the drawing board and try to learn how the system was really functioning.

Fire commanders were strikingly good at predicting how the fires they were used to would behave. Their mental models worked. However, knowing how fires worked made them no better at predictions in other areas of their life. They didn’t even realize that they were seeing the fire as a system and simulating its facets – they were blind to the fact that they were even seeing the fire as a system. (Seeing What Others Don’t is another work by Klein which helps to explain how we develop the insights that fuel our mental models.)

Wireframes and Storyboards

Wireframes are a stock tool of a user experience designer and of the information architect. These wireframes form the boxes. They’re the pictures of what’s being built. However, what Morville and others have discovered is that it’s what happens between the boxes that is truly interesting. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains that the story in a comic book happens in the gutter between the frames. In effect, it’s the arrows between the boxes that gives the story its power. It’s what the user fills in themselves that helps the most.

Story is about connecting one frame with the next. That’s why storyboards are an even more powerful tool for designers than the venerable wire frame. Storyboards, which are often used in designing feature films (see Creativity, Inc.), connect the dots and reveal what’s hidden in plain sight in the way of the wireframes.

Rewinding to Agility

One of the criticisms laid at the steps of information architecture is that it reeks of “big design up front.” This is just the sort of waterfall-based logic that agile development teams launch scud missiles at. The problem is that too few practitioners of agile have read the Agile Manifesto or understand what information architecture is. They argue against documentation when the original founders of the agile movement were more concerned with ceremony and eliminating the waste caused by it. They didn’t want to eliminate documentation. They were focused on building and adapting instead of unnecessary documentation and unnecessary rigidity. However, there’s nothing in agile that argues against understanding what you’re doing. In fact, agile is focused on learning and understanding. The argument that agile levels against traditional waterfall (one-iteration) approaches is in believing in the planning fallacy – that you can plan through things ahead of time. (See How Will You Measure Your Life? for more.)

In fact, agile aligns perfectly with systems thinking, where you do something, observe the results, and then do something else. Sometimes you reverse (or try to reverse) the latest change. Sometimes you head off in a different direction. Ultimately, you’re always making small changes to see how things react, then adapting.

Information architecture – like software development – can take on characteristics of agile or traditional waterfall development. It all depends upon whose hands the tools are wielding the tools. There are some activities that require the development of non-intervention understanding. However, this is not always the case. Good information architecture recognizes that you won’t get it right the first time – or at one time. The needs of users to access content shift as attitudes and options change.


Our memories are fickle things. Our memories aren’t like video recorders accurately storing what happened. Instead, the memories become encoded and reduced into fragments and concepts that we can rearrange when we try to retrieve them. (See Science in Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology for more on the fallacy of our memories.) Our memories don’t encode words. Instead, we encode concepts and ideas. When we retrieve the memory, we reconstruct the concepts using the words that we have in our current vocabulary.

If you don’t believe me, try to recall a conversation that you had when you were 8-10 years old. Recite the dialogue as you remember it into a recorder. Then go back and review the recording. You’re likely to find that your words weren’t words that you had in your vocabulary back then. Your memories were reconstructed with the help of your current vocabulary.

This simple trick reveals one of the ways that our brain tries to fool us. (For more on the way that our brain fools us see Incognito.)


Even though we don’t remember words directly, words are deeply embedded into the way that we think. If you feed people negative experiences, you’ll get back negative words. One of the favorite parlor tricks of pop psychology is to listen for the Freudian slip. That is, when the truthful thing slips out from underneath the weight of polite society. Chris Argyris has an exercise of left and right columns, where the right column is what was actually said, and the left column is what was thought or felt. This exercise exposes how the words we use aren’t the words that we mean, and how these words can lead us down unproductive paths. (See Organizational Traps for more on the two-column method.)

Words are the way that we create the mental framing that we use for a problem. That’s why the words we use in our taxonomies are so important. They can conjure up the right ideas or ones that don’t connect with our audiences.

Maps and Territories

They’re called the badlands. Technically, this is a geological term referring to the erosion of clay-rich soil and softer sedentary rocks. However, the connotations of the term “bad” subtly influence millions of people to avoid these beautiful geological features. In this way, labeling an area as “badlands” on a map influences the visitors at Badlands National Park. The hidden connotations of the words we use shape how people see what we’re talking about, for better or for worse.

If I define a category for furniture, I’ll shape the way that people think about the category. They’ll picture in their mind what furniture means. They’ll see a chair, a couch, or a table. (At least 90% of the groups I do this exercise with say these three items.) If I’m looking for a rug, I won’t automatically look in furniture. Similarly, I’ll have a problem looking for a lamp. Is it in electrical or furniture? It has both properties.

So in one sense, a map isn’t a territory – but in another sense, it is, because it shapes that way that we think about the territory.


There is an information architecture problem caused when the categorization labels make it difficult for consumers to decide which path they should follow. One approach to solving this is to use polyhierarchy – having one category included in multiple places in the hierarchy – said differently, having two parent categories for the same category.

While this is a necessary strategy for providing solutions to platypus-type problems (which don’t fit neatly in any one category), it can be an unnecessary crutch used because of poor category selection. Like other tools in the information architecture toolbox, it’s important to know when to use it – and when not to.

The best strategy for managing the problem of things that fall within multiple categories of an existing taxonomy is to use multiple taxonomies. That is, instead of creating one and only one hierarchy of terms, multiple taxonomies are used, each with its own set of terms that can be selected when appropriate – and omitted when not necessary.


With all we know about how the mind works and how we categorize, we still don’t know enough, and we still can’t see enough. Breaking things down into their components so that we can learn about them is a good strategy. (See Efficiency in Learning and The Art of Explanation for more on learning approaches.) However, it’s not a good strategy if we fail to learn how those pieces fit together, how they work together, and how they break the rules when they’re connected to one another. That’s what makes things Intertwingled. They become that way because, when you put the pieces back together, you don’t always get exactly what you would expect. If you’re ready to start your own journey, perhaps it’s time to learn to see the world Intertwingled.

Book Review-How to Make Sense of Any Mess

When I explain my passion for information architecture to folks, they often wonder what I’m talking about. They understand intuitively that I’m not talking about designing buildings, but how can you design information? A better way of explaining information architecture is to say it is How to Make Sense of Any Mess. Abby Covert nailed the colloquial definition. In her book, she takes a practical tone to an often academic topic and explains how to make sense of our messes.

Fuzzy Lines of Information and Knowledge

The first thing that we’ve got to get out of the way is that all information is relative. What we know is true for our beliefs and our circumstances but not necessarily true to everyone or in all circumstances. The depths of the problem aren’t new to me. I’ve spent time exploring choice theory, where explaining your choices makes you less likely to like them. (See The Paradox of Choice.) I’ve peered under the covers of knowledge management to realize that not everything we know can be explained explicitly. Somethings are tacit – we just know them, and we can’t take them out of context. (See Lost Knowledge.)

I’ve addressed the fuzziness with which our words convey our meaning. Though we have powerful mind-reading skills that allow us to work together, these skills are not perfect (see Mindreading). A single word can have opposite meanings. Words with multiple, different meanings are called homographs. They’re particularly insidious to communication when they have opposite meanings. Consider dust – which can either refer to the act of removing dust or the dust itself. Consider “weather,” which can either mean to withstand a storm or to be worn away.

I know, too, that the way we arrange options can make us what Nudge calls “choice architects.” We can shape the choices that people take by their arrangement. However, the rules for this rely upon the murky depths of subtle cues that we use to make or decisions without knowing we’re making decisions.

To What End

The ultimate question for any information architecture effort is “To what end?” That is, who is going to use the information you’re organizing? What are their goals? What is it that you would like them to learn – without knowing it? By answering these questions, you can use the tools you have to create organizations that make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for.

However, the current users aren’t the only people to be considered when designing the information architecture. Future potential users count, too – particularly when the existing user base is small and you’re trying to make it larger. So, too, do those people who are involved in the outcome of the structure that you’re using – like investors or managers of the departments.

Make It Visual

Organizing information isn’t an easy proposition. It’s a process designed to reduce the cognitive load necessary to learn. (See Efficiency in Learning for more on cognitive load.) One might argue that, if we’re speaking about organizing and making sense of messes, what does learning have to do with this seemingly unrelated topic? The answer is that we’re learning to navigate the information jungle to find what we’re looking for. We’re learning how to organize our thinking into more effective patterns. Thus, we’re always learning. Marcia Bates estimates that we absorb 80% of what we know not through formal learning. We just “get” it by experiencing life.

Our brains are inherently visual. We’re not wired to process information in the collection of ordered symbols called letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs. While we adapt in the direction of being able to process this information, we still make sense of pictures and diagrams easier. That’s why “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Abby Covert walks us through several diagram types including block diagrams, flow diagrams, Gantt charts, quadrant diagrams, Venn diagrams, swim lanes, hierarchies, mind maps, schematics, and journey maps. Each of these visualizations has different benefits. In software requirements gathering, I use these types of diagrams as well as entity relationship diagrams, activity diagrams, state diagrams, data flow diagrams, and ecosystem maps. The idea is that each type of visualization can quickly relate an aspect of the relationship between entities in ways that the others – and certainly words – cannot.

Technically Right, Practically Useless

In designing a taxonomy, there are sometimes some hard choices to be made. In some cases, the users routinely categorize something “incorrectly.” While there’s no right or wrong way to organize things, once you’ve accepted a taxonomy, every item should have its place. A classic example is the tomato. Technically, it’s a fruit, but it’s important to know not to put it in a fruit salad. Most folks recognize that it has vegetable-type qualities when used in cooking. When classifying products in a grocery store, where would you put the tomato? In the technically correct location – where few people would find it initially – or in the incorrect location where it’s findable?

The answer depends on your goals. In the case of a grocery store, the answer may be that you file it with vegetables, because cashiers and shoppers who use self-serve lines expect to find it there. If you’re a college library on botany ,where would you place it, then? Because there’s a different objective, teaching the “correct” locations, you might be inclined to place it in the category of fruit. Of course, people still won’t be able to find it, but then they can be admonished by a professor for not realizing that the tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

Ambiguity and Exactitude

On the surface, exactitude would be our goal in organizing any mess. After all, if everything has a place, and everything is in its place, then all is right with the universe. However, exactitude costs us flexibility. We can’t put cooking scissors in a drawer labeled spices and expect anyone will find them. Spices is a specific and –relatively speaking – exact label. It means that we don’t have the flexibility to add scissors into the same container. Of course, the ambiguity of “kitchen stuff” is probably broad.

“Kitchen stuff” could be almost anything even – quite literally – the kitchen sink. Cooking stuff may be an alternate category label that restricts the contents some, but not by much. The flexibility offered by ambiguity increases the level of abstraction and reduces navigability.

There’s no answer to how to create the right balance of being ambiguous enough to be accommodating to unexpected events and at the same time exact enough to be clear and valuable. When you err in one direction, you move away from the other.

Everything is a Mess

In the context of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, everything is a mess. At some level, something designed by someone else won’t make perfect sense for us. Things designed by others will at least seem messy to us. Even things that seem like they’re organized today won’t feel organized tomorrow. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the mess. Bit by bit, we can make sense of our messes – and try to move things forward. Even if we don’t expect to ever learn how to make sense of our messes, it’s worth learning How to Make Sense of Any Mess.

Book Review-The Accidental Taxonomist

There are dozens of things that I do each day that I didn’t set out to do. I do accounting and billing work without a desire or intent to do it. I do sales and marketing – and neither are at the top of my list of things to do. I accidentally picked these things up when I decided to be an entrepreneur and run my own company well over a decade ago. Working with taxonomies – and becoming a taxonomist – can happen by accident too. That’s why The Accidental Taxonomist is appropriate for someone looking to learn how to create taxonomies. I’ve never heard a child say, “I want to grow up to be a taxonomist.” Despite this, there are those who have taxonomy as a part of their job – whether they intended it to be or not.

Long, Long Road

Before I get to the heart of the matter, it’s appropriate to tell you that I didn’t read the book in one sitting. I didn’t read it in a week, a month, or even a year. I started the process of reading The Accidental Taxonomist about half a dozen years ago. It was as I was putting the final touches on my Pluralsight course The Art and Practice of Information Architecture. I got the course done and never finished the book.

In just getting back to it, I felt a bit like some of my clients that struggle to get their taxonomy projects off the ground. Or, rather, my clients that needed to get something accomplished and realized they needed a taxonomy to accomplish their goals. The taxonomy was started, the goals were achieved, and the taxonomy sat aside for a while – sometimes a long while. Before we get too far, we should explain what a taxonomy is.

What is a Taxonomy, Anyway?

Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that filtering is one of the basic functions of consciousness. What he doesn’t cover is that so is organization. We’re hardwired to make sense out of our world, and, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, that comes through simplification until we have a model that we can run in our heads. Taxonomies allow us to organize our thoughts and information.

We’re all familiar – willingly or not – with the hierarchical biological taxonomy of zoology. That is to say that we learned Carl Linnaeus’ organization of all animals. We learned Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species as a way for differentiating one animal from another and identifying their nearest cousins.

We also learned, but most of us promptly forgot, how Melvin Dewey organized his library. The system of organization held a brilliant discovery for extension. He figured out that he could make his system flexible and allow for increasing levels of detail through the use of a numbering system.

We probably never learned about S.R. Ranganathan’s different approach to classification. He was frustrated that things could only be placed in one spot. There was in effect one “right” way to find things. His insight was to introduce facets. Instead of trying to capture the uniqueness of any given item in a single hierarchical dimension, he proposed that items be classified in several different categories, or facets, and the combination of these facets would be how the item was classified. This approach was called colon classification, because he chose the colon to separate the various facets.

I include Ranganathan’s system to point out that taxonomies are about organization. They’re not about hierarchy, though that is often the way they’re executed. They’re not about books or animals. Taxonomies are, at their core, about how we make sense of this world that is far too complex for our minds to process.

What’s a Thesaurus?

I remember first “discovering” the thesaurus in grade school. You could make your writing sound more impressive by looking up words that no one knew. I could take a simple, common, everyday word and replace it with something more profound and meaningful. (Perhaps I even looked up the word profound.) To me at the time, thesaurus only meant synonyms. I could find words with similar definitions. Eventually, I found the antonyms. However, for the better part of 30 years, that’s all they were.

When I started diving into information architecture and how we organize information in ways designed to make them easier to access, I realized that my old friend the thesaurus was more powerful than I had given her credit for. More than just synonyms and antonyms, the thesaurus contained the relationships between words. Where a dictionary can tell you what meanings are associated with a word, it’s the thesaurus that can put the word on the map in relationship to other words.

Understanding which words had broader and narrower meanings allows you to respond with precision words that encapsulate the exact scope that you wish to cover. There can be alternative spellings to help you understand how there might be multiple different ways to spell a word – such as color and colour. The thesaurus had more to offer than I had anticipated.

What’s an Organization’s Thesaurus?

The role of a thesaurus in an organization is even more powerful. Inside the context of an organization, a thesaurus can identify preferred terms over terms that are less preferred. They can share common misspellings. They can define terms across languages. They can translate the scientific to the everyday – and vice versa.

An organization’s taxonomy provides a map of the terms that are used in the organization and notes about how those terms are used – or are intended to be used. They provide the basic relationships between the terms. When the relationships get more complex, then we’ve moved from the world of thesaurus into the world of ontology.

Ontology’s Relationships

In a thesaurus, the focus is on words. They make up the tent poles on which the relationships are hung. However, ontologies focus much more on the relationships between words and the nuances of these relationships than the words themselves. Instead of being focused on the tent, ontologies are focused on the net that keeps circus workers safe. It’s not the individual ropes – or words – that keep performers safe. It’s the relationship and connection between the words that keep performers from falling.

Ontologies are a way of understanding a field of study or knowledge. Ontologies provide a rich map of how things in the field are connected to one another. The relationships are richer than simply one term being broader or narrower than another.

What is a Taxonomist?

If an organization organizes their content through a taxonomy in the form of a thesaurus and a set of ontologies, why do we call the role a taxonomist? At the root, it’s the development of an organizational structure – irrespective of which tools are used – that defines the core behaviors of a taxonomist. Their role is to organize and make easier to access information. The tools they use are just the tools of the trade.

The funny thing is that many taxonomists – but not all – aren’t in full-time roles. Few taxonomists have it in their title, though some have it in their job description. It’s more common to have taxonomy development as a prerequisite for something the role requires, so often the taxonomist isn’t a person who spends all day organizing structures. Most of the time, the taxonomist is someone who has a job to do that is made better by taxonomic development.

Special Skills

If categorization and organization is a part of the basic functioning of consciousness, then shouldn’t everyone be considered a taxonomist? At some level, yes. However, what differentiates every man from the taxonomist is in the tools that they’ve developed for clarifying, codifying, and communicating what the structure of organization is. By learning what humanity knows about psychology, neurology, and the organization of large information, taxonomists can distinguish their capabilities.

While these aren’t likely enough for a taxonomist to feel truly confident in every situation, this knowledge and these skills are useful.

Taxonomy Purpose

A taxonomy’s purpose is to help organize content, that’s easy. However, taxonomies provide structure and framing that shapes the way that people think. As a result, taxonomies are more than just a way to browse to the information you want. Taxonomies can be helpful in shifting the way the organization works.

Sometimes this is through the inclusion of detailed terms in a hierarchy to encourage users to be more specific about what they mean. Other times, it might be through the use of preferred terms. Preferred terms in the taxonomy can shift the thinking from package delivery to package assurance. It’s a subtle shift that focuses the corporate consciousness on assuring shippers and recipients that their package will make it to their destination.


Atoms have a challenge that they can only exist in one place at a time. However, in our electronic taxonomies, we can put things into more than one place in the taxonomic tree. Consider a color taxonomy that starts with a level of red, blue, and green. Where does the second-level color blue-green belong? Blue sure, but green as well. This is a polyhierarchy, where an item has multiple parents. While logically this seems like the exception, polyhierarchies are more common than most would like to admit.

The truth is that taxonomy projects are messy. It’s only a matter of time before you’re going to run across the digital equivalent of a platypus. The platypus has a mixture of reptilian, avian, and mammalian genes. It’s a classic challenge for the zoological taxonomy that splits reptiles, birds, and mammals all the way at the top. With a polyhierarchy, the platypus can find its place in all three taxonomies.


Being a taxonomist solves only one part of the puzzle. Taxonomists create the structures, but it’s often up to others to tag the content to fit into the taxonomy. This split means that, in many cases, the taxonomist must make a point to sit with those who are actually doing the categorization to understand what is and isn’t working. Similarly, they should sit with users who are actually trying to find the information.

The key challenge in taxonomic development isn’t in designing the taxonomy. The key challenge is getting the users – who are often not dedicated indexers – to enter the metadata necessary to make the taxonomy work. Too many taxonomy projects are abandoned before the work really gets started, because the people indexing the content refuse to do it.

Pre and Post Coordination

There are tricks that can be used to improve results. Search can aggregate terms by leveraging synonyms even if the users aren’t always using the preferred term. Facets can go a long way to simplifying the search process, and full-text indexing makes some level of taxonomic identification unnecessary. Automatic classifiers – whether rules or machine learning-based – can help the content get the correct metadata with minimal help from the indexers.

With all this mess, it’s hard to keep track of when the metadata is known and to judge its reliability. Whether it’s entered at or near the time of creation in the form of pre-coordination or it’s managed through the searching process, getting it right is hard. Maybe you find that you’re not getting the findability that you want, so to fix the problem, you’re going to become The Accidental Taxonomist. Perhaps a quick read can give you tips that will make the process easier and less painful.

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

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

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

Shame Researcher

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Perceived Safety

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

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

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

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

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

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

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

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

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

Bad Labels

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Peak Perfection

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

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

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

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

Need for Learning

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

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


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

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

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

Disconnected from Ourselves

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

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

Strength from Weakness

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

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

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

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


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

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

Stable Core

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Second Darts (and Neo)

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

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

Finding Fear

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

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

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

Compassion for Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Ideas So Little Time

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

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

Weakness Is Strength

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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