Book Review-Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

I’m still in awe. I’m in awe of the organization that was the Lockheed Skunk Works. Ben Rich – who took the helm after Clarence “Kelly” Johnson – mixes personal stories of triumph and frustration into a compelling read in Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. I’ve made no secret of my love for the SR-71 Blackbird. (See my review of The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) However, what I couldn’t fully convey is my appreciation of the organization that created it – and much of the technical wizardry that moved us from late to the game to generations ahead of the competition. What Johnson and Rich accomplished at Skunk Works is simply remarkable by any measure.

Kelly Johnson

The stories of Kelly Johnson are remarkable. He was willing – sometimes too willing – to go toe-to-toe with generals and as quiet as a jet engine about getting what he felt he needed – and only what he needed – to be successful. With credits for the first US Jet fighter, the first super-sonic jet fighter, the U2 Spy plane, and the SR-71 Blackbird, he was the preeminent aerospace engineer and businessman of his era. No one could touch his results – and it’s a good thing, because he needed the results to keep people working with him.

The Skunk Works started without its nickname in a rented circus tent next to a plastics company, whose noxious smell would keep the undedicated but curious away. It was about that time that cartoonist Al Capp named an outdoor still in one of his comics “the Skonk Works.” The cartoon made its way to the tent, and it led to the new name for the secret team working on America’s first jet fighter.

Ben Rich recounts the technical skill of his predecessor and friend. Kelly, it seems, intuitively knew how things would end up. He’d estimate the results of complex calculations that would take Rich or the team hours to do. The world before computers, the calculations were done by hand, and that took time. Armed with his trusty slide rule but rarely bringing it out, Kelly had developed a feel for how things worked. (This is the kind of experience that Gary Klein would discover in fire commanders and other experts. Find out more in Seeing What Others Don’t.)

U-2 (Not the Band)

Before Johnson left the helm in Rich’s capable hands, the U-2 spy plane was already flying. Its advantage as an aerial reconnaissance plane was the fact that it had a service ceiling (maximum flight altitude) of 70,000 feet. None of the airplanes or surface-to-air missiles at the time could reach it at that height. It gave the United States the ability to spy on the activities of Russia with impunity until a fateful day in 1960, when Russia was finally able to down the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers. In the four years since its first flight, the U-2 had revealed the true scope of the Soviet threat and invaluable intelligence on what they were up to.

Shortly after the U-2 entered service, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the Soviets would be able to shoot it down. It was at that time that the push came from Kelly to create an aircraft with an even higher service ceiling and, more importantly, was much faster. Where the U-2 cruised sub-sonic, the aircraft that would eventually become named the Blackbird would travel at three times the speed of sound.

Rich the Technician

While a substantial portion of Skunk Works is dedicated to his time as a leader of the organization, he had to prove his technical chops, and the place where this really shone was in propulsion. In the end, he was able to create the engines and engine control systems that allowed the Blackbird to fly. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, only being 84% fuel efficient – however, that was 10% better than any other design at the time, and it was good enough. The pilots hated the unstarts that happened when the engines stalled, the fuel special to only the Blackbird, and all sorts of the other special requirements, but the engines could maintain Mach 3 at 80,000 feet. It’s something that we’ve never repeated in any other aircraft. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on this amazing aircraft.)

The Age of Stealth

The Blackbird was already a stealthy airplane. Its radar signature was more akin to a Piper Cub than the 140,000-pound, 108-foot behemoth that it was. It was bigger than it looked on radar, but radar could still see it. (Besides, Piper Cubs don’t fly at 80,000 feet!) The next challenge was to make an airplane that was effectively invisible to radar. For that, the Skunk Works got a bit of accidental help from Moscow. Pyotr Ufimtsev, the chief scientist at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering, authored a paper titled “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction.” It held the secrets to stealth with a set of equations that predicted the amount of energy that would be reflected to the source based on the shape of the object.

This was the second time that Russia had helped our efforts. Through much misdirection, the CIA had managed to acquire most of the titanium needed for the Blackbird from Russian suppliers when the US supplier couldn’t produce enough.

These advances in stealth technology were easily as important as the advances that the Blackbird brought to aviation. It would take a great deal of risk, immense courage, and determination, but the results would be worth it.

Hopeless Diamond

Armed with a primitive computer and equations, Denys Overholser would come up with the shape that would be called “the Hopeless Diamond.” It looked nothing like something that would fly, and the fellow engineers at the Skunk Works were quick to point that out. However, in the end, the team knew that stealth would be the name of the game, and they reluctantly agreed to make it work – if the predicted radar signatures could be produced.

In test after test, the design met the radar signature goals. From wooden models on poles making it clear that the poles had a higher radar signature to actual flight tests where radar technicians couldn’t find the aircraft at all – even when they were told where to look – the Hopeless Diamond became the aircraft named “Have Blue” and eventually the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter.

In the end, the stealth work was so effective that the helmet that the pilot wore had a bigger radar signature than the aircraft itself.

Have Blue (F-117)

It was eight years after initial operating capability that the F-117 would prove its worth. It was still an ugly aircraft to most people. Even though Johnson pushed Rich away from the aircraft for some time before finally being convinced, Johnson and the aircraft had something in common. They both delivered results and, in the end, that’s what mattered. It took the Gulf War in 1991 to demonstrate the power of a stealth aircraft with precision bombs.

Until then everyone had to rely on tests and the dead bats in the hangars. That’s right, the bats were running directly into the F-117 and falling dead. The aircraft was difficult to see, even to bats’ echolocation system.

Air Superiority in Baghdad

At the beginning of the war, Baghdad had more protection than Moscow, with some 16,000 missiles and 3,000 antiaircraft emplacements. It was designed to be a fortress. The generals planning for the gulf war had to wonder how long it would take to grind down the air defenses such that the full stage air combat and domination could begin. The planners worried about what the losses of aircraft and personnel would be to acquire the air dominance they needed to win the war. They didn’t have to wait long.

At 3AM local time on January 17, 1991, the power of the F-117 was clear. The first wave of ten F-117 arrived at Baghdad to blind firing of the antiaircraft emplacements. They were blind firing because they knew something was coming, but they couldn’t tell where it was. The second wave of twelve fighters came in an hour later. With the support of a handful of Tomahawk missiles, Iraq was out of the war on the first night. Their communications centers were in rubble, and major strategic targets like power generation were already offline.

Through the entire course of the war not one F-117 aircraft was hit by enemy fire. When you expect to lose 5-10% of your aircraft in the first month, losing none sends a powerful message. The combination of stealth and smart bombs could not only hold their own, they could make it safe for the rest of the air force to fly.

Support

The video of bombs destroying their targets made for great public relations and great television. Small delays might have been required to let the Iraq anti-air defenses to overheat their guns and become vulnerable, but eventually they all did. They all succumbed to the precision bombs that the American public would watch with their evening news. Pilots would brag that commanders could tell them whether they wanted a bomb in the men’s room or the lady’s room, and they’d oblige. Sure, they were confident, but with their success, you couldn’t blame them.

The Challenges of Success

The Skunk Works had done it. They had demonstrated air superiority time and time again. However, this set the stage for some startling losses – not from our enemies overseas but from our own politicians.

It pains me to say that the SR-71 is no longer in operation. It was the victim of politics. Though it was described as too expensive and unnecessary, it filled an operational niche that hasn’t been filled. If you want to get a picture of an enemy position at a specific time of day, you could have it. While satellites provide reconnaissance, they don’t give you the ability to pick the time. You have to wait for the next overpass – and hope that there isn’t a cloud over the one piece of real estate you really care about.

There were other projects that were scuttled because they didn’t seem to make sense. The stealth direction was great, but the move towards unmanned drones continues. Even failed projects like Tagboard, which was designed to use drones to spy on enemies, leave a legacy.

The problem when you build technology so substantially superior to your competitors is that you don’t have anything left to innovate on, so the teams that created such amazing airplanes are forced to look to other ways of keeping in business. The things that make stealth so amazing also don’t help your career if you’re looking for the next star on your lapel. It’s better to command more people and equipment – that you can talk about – than it is to own the program that will allow you to own a war.

Projects like stealthy ships never made it to be a substantial part of the arsenal. Instead of working on the strategically important projects, people at all levels chose projects that would provide some level of advancement while being much more visible. The result is that the operations at the Skunk Works aren’t what they once were. While I’m sure there are classified projects going on at Skunk Works that weren’t discussed in the book, Rich makes an important point that the things that were classified in 1964 probably aren’t worth knowing about in 1994.

The Skunk Works was an amazing place at the time. While I’m sure it’s still great, I can’t help but think that, without challenges to address, it won’t be the same.

The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children

There are as many ways to raise children as there are grains of sand on the beach. Each child is an individual, and each situation is different. Despite these differences, we can apply what we’ve learned from psychology and neurology to inform our opinions about what our parents did right and what they did wrong – so we can make our choices about how we’re going to try to raise our children.

The practical implications of the challenges face parents every day. Should I say yes to that sweet request for some candy before dinner? Where’s the line between helping and enabling, and which side of the line does the act of bringing their forgotten homework to school fall? How does any parent navigate the difficult waters of supporting their children and giving them the right amount of struggle and consequences?

The answers aren’t easy, but there are paths towards less struggle and more success.

Participation Trophies

It’s painful to not win. It’s difficult to accept that we didn’t win. We didn’t get the slot or the trophy. It’s a natural extension, then, to want to – as both a parent and a leader of children – reward participation. After all, didn’t Woody Allen say that 80% of life is just showing up? Shouldn’t we reward that? According to the research, no.

If everyone is going to get a trophy in the end, then why should I even try? Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force for getting things done, but it’s too easy to disturb. By providing everyone with the same or similarly-valued reward, there’s no drive to perform well, to study and strive. It turns out, if we make the decision that everyone gets the same result, we destroy intrinsic motivation. (Learn more in Drive.)

Consider that communism failed not just because of corruption but because of the lack of drive resulting from removing the incentive to do better. If your performance doesn’t impact what you’re going to get, why try?

In raising our children, we should strive to show them results from their hard work – so they’ll want to do more hard work. We don’t want to reward just showing up when our children didn’t really put their all into it.

The Need for Struggle in the Animal Kingdom

It’s an act of kindness to help a chick out of its shell as it struggles to break free from the bonds that protected it for its first few days of life. After all, the shell is now holding back the chick from experiencing the broader world. There’s a problem with this act of kindness, however. In many cases, it dooms the chick to death. The reasons given for the “poor outcomes” (the convenient euphemism for death that is often used) are varied, from failure to allow the chick to properly separate from the egg, to not enough time to absorb nutritional materials, to not developing strong enough muscles. Whatever the cause, interfering with the process of the chick hatching has relatively universal poor outcomes.

Of course, chicks are not children. One might reason that nature made an exception, and it’s normally a good thing to help animals (and children) out of their struggles. The look into the reptile world doesn’t add much hope to this idea. Consider coming across sea turtles hatching on the beach. It seems tragic that the baby sea turtles struggle to find their way to the sea. Shouldn’t you help them? The simple answer is, again, no. Sea turtles have a sophisticated magnetic orientation system that needs to develop. Interfering with their process of getting to the sea as babies somehow disturbs the development of this system. (I’ve not found any coherent explanation of exactly why this is the case.) The result is that the “helped” sea turtles will end up dying as they swim in circles. Their location system doesn’t work, so they can’t figure out where they are – or how to get to where they need to be. (Whether you accept this story or not, stay well clear of sea turtles. They’re a protected species and you should not interfere with them, because the law says you shouldn’t.)

Struggle in Humans

I understand skepticism. I can hear the voice saying that this may be appropriate for the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely it’s not the same for children. To combat this thought, we head to a nursery school associated with Stanford University and the work of Walter Mischel. The experiment wasn’t particularly profound. Tell the children you’re going to walk out of the room while a tempting treat sits in the center of the table. If they leave the treat until you come back, they’ll get that treat plus another. The experiment was designed to test how long the children would wait before consuming the treat.

It wasn’t until years later when the children were enrolled in school and in their careers that the real value of the experiment began to appear. The children who were able to wait until the researcher returned had measurably better lives across several scales. How is it that a simple test about how long someone could wait for a treat could have such profound consequences to their lives?

It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a keystone skill. This skill can be applied to a variety of life situations and improve their outcomes. If this is an important skill, how can we teach it to our children? Would you believe we need to make them struggle – and succeed with it? That’s the central message of The Marshmallow Test – so named because marshmallows were one of the sugary treats that his team offered to the children.

By creating opportunities for children to try to delay gratification – and succeed – we improve their ability not just in delaying gratification but in life as well.

Willpower

The kind of self-control and delayed gratification that some children in Mischel’s experiment were able to demonstrate might also be called willpower. That is, the ability of their wills to overcome their desires. It turns out that willpower is an exhaustible resource, and it’s intensely taxing to the brain. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength make the point that willpower is like a muscle in many ways.

Exercising literally tears down our muscles until they’re incapable of doing the things that they’d normally do. After a day of squats, walking up the stairs might be replaced with an embarrassing but necessary crawl. However, what we know about muscles is that they repair and rebuild themselves in a way that leaves them stronger. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that muscles are Antifragile. That is, the struggle and setbacks make the muscles stronger. Taleb is clear in his warnings that systems need challenges to increase their strength.

Willpower is like muscles in that the more you exercise it, the more capacity you build. It’s not that you ever get past the fact that it has limits. However, with work, you can build your capacity to the point where you rarely see the edge of your capacity.

When we deprive our children of the kinds of challenges that they need to develop their self-control, self-restraint, and willpower, we are necessarily limiting their potential.

The Story of Struggle

If you’re not yet convinced that our children need struggle, let me tell you another story. This story is the story of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s the life’s work of Joseph Campbell, as he researched the hero stories and myths from cultures across the globe. In the end, Campbell discovered an underlying pattern in every hero story. It wasn’t the ability to fly, or magical powers, or strength, or any of the expected results. The pattern was one of struggle, as the hero started from their ordinary world and were compelled to face a challenge. Every hero struggled. Every hero was transformed into their future state through this struggle.

Without the struggle, there was no hero. There was only some lost person who didn’t know their path or their capabilities. The struggle and transformation take two dimensions: the outer dimension and the inner dimension. If you’ve seen the Star Wars movie series, you’ll recognize the struggle and transformation of Luke Skywalker as he wrestles with who he is.

I’m not suggesting that your child needs to be a hero in the classic, mythical sense, but the same forces forge the character of children as create heroes. If we deprive our children of struggle, we make it harder to find themselves.

It’s a Matter of Mindset

I was about eight or ten years old when I stumbled onto a secret of mazes. I loved them. I’d solve books of them. I wasn’t particularly good at them, I just enjoyed them. One day I accidentally solved a maze backwards and I discovered it was so much easier than trying to solve the maze from the front. Over time, I realized that mazes are designed to present their challenges to those approaching from the start. The traps aren’t designed for those coming at the problem from the end to the beginning.

Consider a major problem of a truck stuck under an overpass on a busy road. The traffic is snarled, and experts in the structural engineering of the bridge are brought in to evaluate if would be possible to raise the bridge. The manufacturer of the truck is called to engage the truck’s engineers and see if there is a way to reduce the height without destroying the structure of the truck. In the end, a child stuck in the traffic snarl wonders why they don’t let the air out of the tires. The way we think about problems shapes the kind of solutions we can consider. In Drive, Daniel Pink explains how “functional fixedness” prevents us from seeing things in ways other than the way they are initially framed or we expect.

Our children can become stuck, too. They can believe that they’re good at math or writing or art – or whatever we’ve told them they’re good at. The problem is that this just isn’t so – at least from the perspective of being fixed in time. If they’re good at something and invest more time in purposeful practice, they’ll get better. If they leave the skill alone, it will atrophy. We as humans aren’t really born with skills that make us talented. We may have subtle interests or advantages that cause us to invest more attention, and the compounding of this upward spiral of improvement makes it seem like people have some inborn talent.

Carol Dweck explains in Mindset that we should avoid fixed mindset – thinking that someone is good or bad or something – and instead replace it with a growth mindset, which recognizes that anything that we will become better at anything we work at. This aligns with the work of Anders Ericsson as explained in Peak. It turns out that purposeful practice makes us better. Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman that we’ve all got the potential to do something “superhuman” if we’re willing to work at it enough.

Overcorrection and Opponent Processes

Sometimes the ways that we find greatness is through struggle. Einstein was no “Einstein” in school. He struggled. He ascribes his prominence not to his gifted talents but rather to his persistence. Somehow, in his struggle, he found a way to overcorrect and become very, very good at what he did. In psychological terms, this is called “opponent processes,” and it describes what happens when we apply a pressure on someone.

The key to coaching and mentoring is finding the place where struggles can be created in ways that cause the opponent processes to kick in. We endure a short-term pain to accomplish the long-term goal of gradually improving. In too many cases, we’re unwilling to allow our children to experience pain and too quick to reward them on the other side.

This attempt to provide them some struggle can break down, however, if they don’t feel safe.

Psychological Safety

There’s something special about some rats. Some of them were licked and groomed just a bit more by their mothers – just enough to change the way they responded to the world. As Paul Tough explains in How Children Succeed, the research showed that the rat pups were more adventuresome and appeared to be less stressed.

Children, in order to learn from their stresses and not be crippled by them, need to understand that they are safe. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s a certainty. When children know that failure is OK if they try again, they learn that they can learn – and that changes them permanently. Any change in a person is hard; just ask someone who works with addicts.

Motivational Interviewing

It was an odd collection of folks. Some well-meaning church people, a few addiction recovery folks that work with teens, and some parents concerned that their children, if not yet addicted to anything, seem to be slipping away from them. The children have reached the critical teenage years, and their conflict with their parents is growing.

The traditional ways of thinking about the problem don’t work, according to one of the addiction counselors. He suggests a book called Motivational Interviewing. The short version is to create space for the addict to question their own situation and outcomes and ponder how things might be different. The set of techniques and approaches build psychological safety with the addict, which is a key issue – if not the key issue – with helping an addict understand the damage they’re doing to their lives.

Somewhere deep inside, the addict realizes the painful outcomes they’re creating, and at least a part of them wants to change. That piece needs a chance to surface and expose what the addict already knows with the rest of the consciousness. Motivational Interviewing helps to build the skills necessary to create the psychological safety to change – or attempt change. It does this, in part, by recognizing the value of individuals and helping to even the scales of psychological value.

Psychological Value

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that humans are more focused on negatives than positives. As he relates in Thinking, Fast and Slow, losing $100 is more impactful than a $100 windfall. Understanding this allows people who care to counter the ego’s defenses that want to not admit that you are a slave to something – which is what addiction is. By helping the addict learn how to dwell in the negative outcomes, the scales become a bit more balanced or even shifted, hopefully to help the recovering teen.

Not an Addict

You may be saying that your child isn’t an addict. I hope that’s true. However, the same factors that drive addiction are present in weaker forms in the rest of our lives. We can’t wait to have the new car, so we buy it on credit. We want to get the grade without doing the work, so we cheat the system. Your child isn’t a bad child, but they may be getting caught up in bad patterns. To counter that, we need to accept a few basic principles:

  • Pain and struggle are necessary – It’s not nice to have, but it’s a necessity to grow up properly.
  • Delayed gratification is critical – As a keystone skill, it makes so many other things possible. Where you can, it should be taught and coached into children.
  • Mindset – Children must know that their results are most strongly influenced by the work they put into things.
  • Psychological Safety – Failure is essential and so is trying again. Children must know it’s OK to fail.
  • Psychological Value – Children must be able to see their intrinsic value and understand how to leverage the pain of poor choices to make better choices next time.

If they can get these, then they’re headed down the right path.

Book Review: The Last Lecture

I can’t remember when I first heard about The Last Lecture (as the lecture). It’s been years ago now. However, I do know that it was Jeffrey Barnes’ retelling of a story in Beyond the Wisdom of Walt that brought me back to it. It was one of many simple stories with a meaning. In this case, it was a salt and pepper shaker that Walt Disney World replaced after Randy Pausch and his sister bought, then broke, them.

The Real Last Lecture

It’s a thing in academic circles to prepare a lecture like it’s your last. If you could choose anything, what would you lecture on? It’s an entertaining series that Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) started, but little did they know that fate would intersect with their series. It turns out, for Randy Pausch, it would be his last lecture. His pancreatic cancer was no longer in remission, and this would be the last shot to leave his mark at the university and on the world.

The title of the talk was “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” and it explains how Randy’s life, though cut short, allowed him to achieve many of his childhood dreams. As of this writing, the video has over 19 million views. The popularity of the talk spawned Randy to work with a writer to further capture some of his remaining time.

For the Children

An impending death has a way of focusing your attention on what’s truly important. In Randy’s case, he was leaving behind his wife and young children. He wanted his children to know him as much as would be possible. Certainly, his wife, family, and friends would share his character, but it could never be enough.

I can understand this feeling, because, when we lost my brother, I could not help but weep that my nieces would never get the chance to know him like I knew him. They’d never understand the richness of his character.

It turns out that the talk was a twist. At one level, the talk was designed to inspire students and faculty at CMU just like the series was set up to do. However, if that was the only value to the lecture, it probably wouldn’t have happened. To prepare the lecture, Randy had to make the difficult decision to shift his focus from his wife and children. That’s a decision that would have been impossible to make knowing you had only months to live – except that the lecture was really his legacy for his children. It was a way that he could expose his core beliefs in a way that would be relatively immune to the effects of time and the fading of memories.

So, the lecture was a way of leaving himself for his children, and, as it turns out, so is the book. Captured as conversations between Randy and Jeffrey Zaslow, they took place while Randy was exercising, trying to stay as healthy as possible right up to the end. In a way, Randy found a way to extend his life beyond his life.

Life Lessons from the Dying

Bronnie Ware reported on what she found with her palliative care work in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. However, The Last Lecture doesn’t seek to relay five profound observations about life. The goal is, instead, to save the stories and lessons that Randy held dear in his own life and those he wished to preserve for his children. The result is a series of short stories that shine light on some aspect of his life that was important for him.

Hard Work and Coddling

There are a few statements that recur across the chapters and in ways that punctuate the important to Randy. One of those starts early in the book with, “It saddens me that many kids today are so coddled.” He returns to this point later when explaining that his dad believed “manual labor was beneath no one.” He explains that Coach Graham instilled in him a sense of needing to work hard. He discovered that feedback about how you’re doing means that other people care.

Whether it was Coach Graham or his father, somewhere he found a yearning to work hard. While he admits that, at times, he was a workaholic and didn’t take time to relax, the life he enjoyed came from his not hard work.

Brick Walls

At one time or another, all of us have run into brick walls. Some door slammed in our face right as we arrived there. We’ve tried to be able to do something, and we failed. We’ve pounded our head into the wall until our forehead was flat. Randy believed that brick walls were there for a reason. Brick walls are an opportunity for us to demonstrate how badly we want something.

I’ll agree with the opposite assertion – but not necessarily that we should go charging through brick walls all the time. Randy himself quotes his father providing advice about navigating life, saying, “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean you have to run people over.” In my experience, brick walls are sometimes placed there to help you remember to not run over people.

The opposite, I agree, is true. If you see a brick wall as a signal that you should give up, shut down, and never try again, you’ve missed the message. Brick walls – challenges – aren’t put in your way to cause you to shrink, cower, or give up. They’re there to shape your path. Sometimes, as Randy says, you need to demonstrate how much you want something. Other times, you need to look for other ways to accomplish your goal.

Randy knew this, as he wanted to experience weightlessness – because he wanted to be an astronaut as a child, as I did – but was turned down at the last moment for a ride on NASA’s zero gravity plane. He had created a situation where his students would do an experiment on the aircraft but was told that student advisors weren’t allowed to ride along. It looks like a brick wall. However, the solution was to become the member of the press documenting the trip – which was allowed. You can decide whether he ran through the wall or found a way around it.

Inspiration

Inspiration is a word that is thrown around with abandon today. People seek to inspire their organization, their coworkers, and their children. However, for most, this is an empty statement. They no more know how to inspire others than they know how to build a rocket. However, Randy believed that inspiration was the ultimate tool for doing good. He sought to bring together worlds and inspire students with the possibilities that the new computer technologies were creating.

Everyone who lives a great life must have a purpose, something that they’re trying to accomplish. For Randy, it seems like the answer was giving others the gifts that were given to him, including inspiration.

The Short Cut: Hard Work

Randy offers up a shortcut to life. It’s simply two words: hard work. It may not feel like much of a shortcut, but when you evaluate the alternatives, it can certainly feel that way. For Randy, he simply worked hard, and he attracted his dreams. He prepared, and the opportunities eventually came to him – even if he occasionally had to encourage them.

I Had To

In the end, Randy reports that he didn’t do The Last Lecture because he wanted to. He did it because he had to. I understand the “had to” when it comes to being true to living your life authentically. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers that you need to live as yourself in The Last Lecture.

Book Review-How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain

It’s no secret that I love dogs. I’ve spent most of my adult life with one or more canine companions. For the last 13 years, I’ve owned my own company, and the dogs have their own airlock doggie door system to get into the office. My love for our dogs and the dogs of our friends isn’t a secret. However, Gregory Berns was able to answer a different question. Do dogs love us? How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain walks us through the journey that Berns walked to answer that question.

What is Love?

Before one can embark on a journey to discover if dogs love us back, one first must understand what love is. Or, at least, one must decide what will settle for love, since poets, philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists have been trying to answer this question. Rather than create a large definition of love with its many facets and complications, one of the researchers on the team summed it up with “Love? I’d settle for codependence.” Though, in human relations, codependence has developed a bad rap, it’s a reasonable way to approximate the relationship with dogs.

I decided to look back at the book reviews and posts that I’ve written that included the word “love” in the title or subtitle. The books that jumped to the top were The Art of Loving, The Road Less Traveled, Daring Greatly, and Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. The post Faith, Hope, and Love also surfaced prominently. In the end, the perspective that seemed to be the most relevant was that love is a choice. It’s a decision to sacrifice your needs and desires for the needs and desires of someone else. That’s what dogs seem to do when you ask them to stop chasing a squirrel to return to you – however, do they do this out of fear for the repercussions or based on their true desire to please you? That’s an interesting question that Berns tries to answer.

Ethical Considerations

Dogs have been used in research for a long time. Famously, Ivan Pavlov did research with dogs to learn that he could condition the dogs to salivate when a bell rang. He, according to Berns, however, didn’t have an affinity for dogs, they were just a part of the research. To figure out how dogs loved us, it would require a different approach. Instead of being objects used for the purposes of research, they would be active participants.

Strangely, there wasn’t a solid precedent for how to treat dogs as the primary subjects of the research. There are guidelines for how to perform research on adult humans – and even for getting parental consent for research on children – but no one had ever done an informed consent for dogs. After crossing boundaries for informed consent and animal research, the path was finally cleared to get an informed consent for family pets to be the subject of research.

The Approach

To figure out if dogs love us, the plan was to scan the dog’s brain with a fMRI. This creates an image of what is happening inside a brain by creating an electromagnetic field and then measuring the minute changes in this field that are created by the mind of the person – or, in this case, dog – inside the machine. The machine itself is very sensitive and only works if the subject is positioned correctly and remains completely still. Even for humans, this can be challenging. The machine is loud, and, for many people, it can trigger claustrophobia. Training a dog to go inside of the machine and stay still for the required period of time would prove to be challenging.

The machine itself was calibrated for humans, and a dog’s brain is different. Even getting the machine to process a canine brain was a hidden challenge that needed to be solved – but not until the dog could be trained to get in the machine.

Training

The training of the two dogs used for the initial test proceeded like normal dog training might, using praise, treats, and a clicker. The clicker is just a tool to help the dog know they’ve done something that the owner wants immediately. The dog learns that the click means a treat, so the trainer can signal when the exact behavior desired has been accomplished.

The fMRI machine had two key components that had to be conquered. The first is the tube that sometimes triggers claustrophobia in people, and the second was the “birdcage” where the head goes. As it turns out, dogs have little concern about running through tunnels, so that was the easy part. The difficult part turned out to be getting the dog to place their head in the birdcage in the same place reliably.

After making some molds that shaped to the dog’s head so that they laid their head down in the exact same spot, things became easier, but not before more than a few fMRI images didn’t turn out so well.

Dog Brain Maps

Having gotten the dogs trained well enough to get a consistent location, the images of the canine brain were forthcoming. However, no one had built the kind of comprehensive map for dogs that exists for the human brain. It was necessary to make some guesses about where things were – and to address the elephant in the middle of the brain. Or, rather, to recognize that the olfactory bulb in dogs was substantially larger than in human brains. That makes sense, given that dogs’ noses are substantially more sensitive, but it does mean that there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a human brain map and a canine map.

Still, with some work, the general areas became apparent, and a picture emerged. The picture first showed that dogs had mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons

We’ve known about mirror neurons since the work in the 1980s and 1990s with macaque monkeys. The monkey’s neurons would fire whether performing an action or watching the action be performed – even when the object of their observation wasn’t of the same species. In other words, they fired whether they were looking at a monkey doing the action or a human. The implications are profound. At some level, watching another animal perform an action causes you to think like they do.

Since the initial research, the awareness of mirror neurons has expanded to encompass mental rehearsal of actions as well as observations of others. Mirror neurons are believed to be at the heart of our ability to simulate what is in other’s minds. This is called theory of mind, and it’s the subject of the book Mindreading. The upshot of what Berns and his colleagues saw was that dogs had theory of mind for the humans that were giving them instructions.

Packs and People

Much about what people think about how to train dogs and relate to them comes from the study of wolves – called lupomorphism. The idea is that dogs and wolves are essentially the same animal separated by a bit of selective breeding. The models for how we came to adopt dogs as our constant companions isn’t clear. Cave paintings don’t show dogs helping us to hunt (apparently the picture of a dog with a duck in its mouth wasn’t painted on any walls they could find). Conversely, it’s unlikely that a wolf could have lived off the scraps that friendly humans might have provided as enticement for them to stay. If they’re not helping in the hunt, it’s unlikely that it would make sense for humans, who struggled for survival, to part with the precious food they needed. The result is an unclear picture of how our relationship with our canine companions really came to be.

However we came together, the prevailing thought is that dogs treat us like pack members. That is, we’re just a part of their pack, and they make no distinction between the humans in their world and other dogs. However, Berns et al.’s research showed something different. When exposed to the scent of dogs they knew and dogs they didn’t plus humans they knew and humans they didn’t, the pattern of neuron firing was different – very different. While the dogs showed they could recognize the difference between familiar and unfamiliar, they made a distinction between the people they knew and the dogs they knew.

Something special is happening in the mind of the dog that’s reserved just for people and speaking personally I know there’s some sort of special affinity for dogs – even if I can’t explain exactly why.

But What About Love?

It depends upon what you mean when you say love. The patterns were certainly there, that they knew what their masters wanted, and they desired to please them. The dogs were reading their masters with a level of interspecies theory of mind that no other animal has yet been discovered to possess. So, in the best approximation for a philosophical question that science can muster, the answer seems to be yes. Of course, you’ll have to make your own decision about How Dogs Love Us. For my part, I don’t need much evidence that my dogs love me – I don’t care if a scanner shows it or not. I can see it in their eyes – and they can see it in mine.

Book Review-Recovery: Freedom from Addictions

Sometimes you stumble into things, and you’re not quite sure how. I used to have book deals sent to my email and occasionally there would be a discount that made the book interesting. That was the case with Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions. I didn’t know the author, but the topic was interesting enough to buy the book and start reading.

As it turns out, the author has some level of fame. Russell Brand was apparently a comedian, big thing on MTV, and married to Katy Perry for a few years. He’s also an addict – now a recovering addict. He writes his version of the twelve steps, his story, and his perspective on the program that he needed – and that changed him.

Backstory

I wrote Why and How 12-Step Groups Work last year as a primer on the program and an attempt to help folks accept that addicts aren’t bad people, and * Anonymous groups aren’t scary. They’re places where people are connected and given the relationships and skills necessary to battle their addictions.

I share that addictions aren’t the problem, they’re the solution. The addiction is a way of coping with life that’s become out of balance and has taken control of the addict. It’s the spiral that, once it gets started, feeds on itself by distorting the world until people can’t see outside of the bubble of addiction.

Brand admits to his own disconnection with reality (and himself). As I explain in How to Be Yourself, figuring out who you are isn’t easy. From my perspective, Brand just landed in the right set of circumstances to get caught up in addiction. Starting in comedy can do that to you. When I did my study of standup comedy (see I am a Comedian for more), my research led me to an understanding of the drugs and sexual adventures of some famous comedians. Even cursory review of the news stories about comedians since that time will make it clear that it’s easy to get connected to addictive things.

What follows here is a mixture of Brand’s thoughts and my own experiences around the program that has helped so many people.

Step 1: Admitted Powerlessness

Brand’s quotes for the steps are much more colorful than mine. However, he adequately explains that the first step is admitting that your life is out of control. Most folks assume that you must admit powerlessness to the addiction, but, in truth, the admission is that what’s going on in your life isn’t working. It doesn’t technically require that you admit you’re an addict.

The idea that your life isn’t working can become a budding awareness that you’re not comfortable in the still quiet of the night. It can be that you recognize you move from one distraction to the next. It can be a faint glimmer of awareness that whatever you’re doing is gaining more control over you, or it’s there to numb some other part of you that hurts too bad to face directly.

However, whatever this thing – or, often, more than one thing – is in your life that was designed to help you cope has become your master. You depend on it to get you through the day, and that isn’t OK.

Step 2: Higher Power

It’s one thing to know you have a problem. It’s quite a different thing to believe that someone or something can “return us to sanity.” That is, there is a solution – it’s just not me. When we are self-centered and require that it’s always our way, we’re bound to have problems.

By giving it up and accepting that we’re not actually the center of the universe, we have the possibility of accepting that we don’t have to have the answers. Sometimes people get caught up on accepting the Christian view of God as their higher power, but it’s not really required. Stories in the program include sponsors telling sponsees that they can have their higher power until they discover their own – and they can make a doorknob their higher power if that makes them feel better. The point is simply that there’s a way out – not necessarily that you subscribe to a particular view. (If you’re struggling here, look at The Book of Joy, where the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss, among other things, their respective faiths.)

Step 3: Turning Over

Still a different decision is the decision to turn things over. Steps 1-3 are a progression that, from the outside, may seem simple, but most folks are used to controlling their lives. As a result, letting go of that control can be hard. So, even after you can acknowledge that you don’t have the answers and someone else does, letting go of your life isn’t easy. Brand says, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in charge of my own destiny.” I can say that he’s not alone. We all want to believe that we’re in control of our lives. (For more, see Compelled to Control.)

Step 4: Moral Inventory

If you want to pick the step that frightens people who are new to the program, it’s going to be step 4. Making a list of the things that you’ve done wrong isn’t easy. There plenty of reasons for that, and, despite the jokes, no one has ever run out of paper. Brand lays out an effective way to get these moral lapses on paper and acknowledges that it isn’t easy. You’ll be tempted to gloss over things, justify others, and often not see the root set of issues that lead to the poor choices.

What isn’t always shared is that this is a part of the process itself. No one gets this right the first time. They don’t figure out everything wrong they’ve done, evaluate every action with clarity, or “ace” the test. That’s because step 4 isn’t a test. It’s a step. It moves you closer to where you want to be.

And, in truth, step 4 isn’t the powerful step. That is step 5.

Step 5: Tell Someone

It’s not enough to just write down the things you’ve done wrong, you’ve got to tell someone. It should be someone safe, and it should be a time when no one is rushed. The key thing that people get out of this is relief. To some degree, we’ve hidden ourselves away from others. We didn’t want other people to know the bad things we’ve done. We didn’t want them to know how evil we can be at our core.

Most of the time, the response to a step 5 with someone who has been in the program for a while isn’t surprise, rejection, or concern. The response to someone doing a step 5 is often, “Is that all?” It’s meant as a prompt to continue, but also an acknowledgement that, whatever the bad things are, they don’t make the person a bad person. In truth, most addicts have a hole in their soul that makes them believe they’re not good enough to be loved or liked. That’s not truth, but it’s the lie they believe, because they’ve never told people the whole truth about who they are.

Step 6: Character Defects

While step 4 was focused on the things that you’ve done, step 6 is focused on the parts of you and your character that caused you to do them. Rather than looking at the top of the problem – the results – step 6 asks you to look for what was going on inside that caused you to want to behave that way.

Step 7: Replace the Defects

With the list made, the addict often finds that some of the things that led them to bad choices are parts about themselves that they like, at least a little. So, step 7 asks you to be ready to let go of what you like for the life that you’ll love. It’s a hard swap, just like moving to a new city in a new home for a “better” new job is amazing – and heart wrenching. You love what you’re going to get, but you hate to let go of what you have.

So, too, our character defects arise from a part of who we believe we are, and letting go isn’t easy.

Step 8: List of Wrongs

Between the 4th and 6th steps there’s been a lot of focus on the negative things that we’ve said or done and why. However, the focus has been on being able to expose to ourselves our true nature and that the true nature isn’t bad – it’s just done some bad things or made some bad choices. We’ve focused on integrating into the human condition and accepting that we’re all broken. Step 8 asks us to focus our thoughts differently. Instead of making it all about us – it’s all about what we’ve done to others.

The list of wrongs is designed to be sorted by person and is about what we’ve done to them – not what they may or may not have done to us. While it’s all too tempting to focus on what they did to provoke us, this step calls for us to own our part in the situation.

Step 9: Make Amends

If you’ve wronged someone, and there is a way to make amends to them in a way that isn’t harmful to them, step 9 calls us towards that action. The sticky part here – beyond the desire to run away and hide rather than apologize and make amends – is the bit about as long it won’t harm them.

There are also cases where it’s no longer possible. Consider someone who has died or someone you’ve lost touch with. In those cases, you can find alternative ways to relieve your burden of the wrong by writing them a letter and burning it, or whatever means you feel like is a way for you to let go. (If you’re struggling with a death take a look at On Death and Dying and Top Five Regrets of the Dying.)

For those whom making an amends would cause harm, you can use the same strategy. You can relieve yourself of the burden for now – and if the time ever comes that you need to address it because the circumstances have changed, you’ll be well prepared.

Step 10: Daily Inventory

Once you’ve gotten thus far, you’ve relieved yourself of the poison that you’ve built up, and now it’s important to create a pattern of living that doesn’t allow the poison to build. There will still be relapses and bad days, but the point of the final three steps – particularly step 10 – is to ensure that these incidents don’t create a change in direction in your life.

The idea is that every day you evaluate your day in the context of the wrongs you’ve done, the character defects that have revealed themselves, and the people to whom you need to make amends. By practicing this daily, there is no need for the massive efforts that took place in steps 4, 6, and 8.

Step 11: Conscious Contact

Whether you call it being centered, connected with nature, a commune with God, or anything else, there’s something to being a part of instead of apart from. Steps 1, 2, and 3 led you to getting connected to a higher power – whatever that is. Step 11 reminds you to stay connected.

Step 12: Take it To the Masses

Step 12 is the give-back step. It’s about helping others who were in the same spot as you to find their way back into connection with others. In the context of Brand’s story, it might be writing a book on Recovery. For others, it may be as simple as offering to help people when they’re struggling with addiction.

Book Review-Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself

I didn’t really intend to spend so much time investigating Buddhism. Mark Epstein was recommended reading for me as I tried to integrate Western thoughts on positive attachment and Buddhist beliefs that attachment is the root of suffering. As I read Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, I began to see how both traditional Western psychotherapy and Buddhism revolve around finding a way to align our thoughts with reality. It’s not that we don’t need ego, and that it should be crushed or destroyed – nor does it mean that we should necessarily inflate it to be bigger than it should be.

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein looks at a few small components of Buddhism centered around the concept that life is suffering. In Advice Not Given he walks, chapter-by-chapter, through the Eightfold Path, introducing the traditional thinking and integrating Western psychology. However, he starts by framing the primary work of the path: our ego.

Our Ego

It’s the one affliction that we all have in common. We all have egos. We’re constantly tending to the size and shape of our ego – or it’s running amuck and causing havoc to us and to others in our lives. Unrestrained, the ego implores us to be bigger, better, stronger, richer, more attractive and more. The result is a constant nagging fear that we won’t be enough. It’s a self-doubt that is hard to shake. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on being enough.)

Conversely, some degenerate the ego and believe that it’s bad. John Dixon in Humilitas says, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” That is, those whose ego is sufficient to operate with conviction are confused with those whose ego is out of control. (See The Wisdom of Not Invented Here for a collected set of ego references.)

Enlightenment

A Hunger for Healing quotes a Zen (Buddhist) saying: “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Advice Not Given repeats this as, “after ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” That is that while the Eightfold Path – and all self-reflection may lead to enlightenment– it doesn’t alleviate our need to be in the world and attend to our material needs and duties. After all, enlightenment (or awaking) doesn’t make the ego disappear, it changes our relationship to it.

The Eightfold Path to enlightenment is:

  • Right View
  • Right Motivation
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Before looking at each component, it’s important to pause and address the use of the word “right.” Epstein makes a point that the word doesn’t have to be translated to right as in “correct.” The original word could also mean “realistic” or “complete.” Epstein shares that he thinks of it as balanced, attuned, or fitting. This is important, because there’s no one “right” way to walk the path. There is a way of walking the path that is balanced or attuned to you, your needs, and the needs of the world around you.

Let’s walk the path as Epstein did.

Right View

Accepting reality as it is – not as we want it to be – is hard. It is, however, necessary to be in harmony with it. The right view has us constantly seeking to accept reality for what it is. The Serenity Prayer includes, “Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it.”

Too often, we see something unpleasant or discomforting, and we turn away from it. We seek to avoid the suffering of this life and only make it double. Right view isn’t eliminating suffering, but it’s changing how we approach it, so that it’s no larger and no smaller than it should be. It’s recognizing that both happiness and suffering – and everything else – is temporary. We don’t need to grasp onto it too tightly.

Right Motivation

We all have unconscious desires that drive us. Right motivation suggests that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our neuroses. By shining light into the dark places of our soul, we can come to know them – and address them in healthier ways. We must, of course, admit that the dark places exist. We must accept that there are parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know and some that we may not like.

Motivation also means a balance between the need to develop wisdom and the need to cultivate compassion. Epstein recounts more than one situation where a hermit was admonished for not living in the world. Buddha made a point of having his monks go out into the community each day to keep them connected to the world and realize that they weren’t above or apart from the rest of the world.

Right Speech

Traditionally, right speech is about refraining from harmful talk, like lying, gossip, and such. However, it can have a deeper meaning about not just the talk that we share outwardly with others but also with the talk whispered under our breath and our self-talk. If people heard what we say to ourselves about ourselves, they would be appalled. We speak to ourselves in such a compassionless and unfair way – and we continue to allow it.

Right speech leads us to pay attention to the space between thought and action to create more space and give us greater opportunity to intervene before harmful words or actions occur. Sometimes that intervention is to prevent us from adding more meaning than is there. (See Choice Theory and Argyris’ Ladder of Inference for more on how we add meaning.) Sometimes that intervention is to assess whether what we’re thinking is just a thought or whether it is reality. Too often, we believe that we know reality, when we’re just making a series of assumptions.

We can create a space where we’re open, accepting, and inquisitive about our inner lives and the inner lives of others. In this space, we can process our thoughts and emotions, comparing them with reality and enabling us to prevent past hurts from being borne out into the future.

Right Action

Right action is about not acting destructively. This means many of the things that make God’s top ten list (also known as the Ten Commandments): killing, stealing, etc. It also includes things like excessive drinking, which didn’t make God’s top ten list but are addressed in the Bible. It’s important to recognize, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, that all religions fundamentally operate in the same direction – towards love. (See The Book of Joy for more.)

Much of right action could be compared to The Marshmallow Test. It’s denying our selfish, immediate needs in the service of greater rewards in the future. It’s difficult to delay our gratification and be willing to confront difficult decisions when they don’t fit with our previously established ideas or vows.

We have to live in the world – even when what is happening to us in the world isn’t what we planned. If our lives aren’t going along the script that we had planned, we have to accept that and only take the actions that we can to move us forward – without an attempt to overcontrol things.

Right Livelihood

Everyone has to make a living –but you don’t have to do it in a way that is deceitful or exploitative. The heart of right livelihood is finding a way to live which enriches your life – and the life of others. Making money is necessary. However, making money while preying on others isn’t.

Right Effort

The middle way – neither living in self-denial or indulgent materialism – is what right effort is about. It reflects the nature of life where both extremes on a continuum are bad. Only a middle path balances discipline and love. Children, as Donald Winnicott noted, need “good enough” parenting that doesn’t over indulge nor neglect the child for them to develop normally. Children need challenges, but, at the same time, they need to know that they’re supported.

Like strings on an instrument that can be too tight or too loose, we need to find the right grip on the things we work at so that we neither over- nor under-control. This delicate balance – the middle way – isn’t easy, but the result of the rightly-tuned string is good music. The result of the rightly-tuned life is happiness.

Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a misnomer. The word used is sati – which means “remembering.” When we’re being mindful, we’re remembering to pay attention to the world – and ourselves. Mindfulness isn’t anything special or additional that must be done. It’s not something that’s done only in the midst of meditation. Mindfulness is a way of viewing things where you keep an eye on your own mental processes.

In the learning and education space, it’s called “metacognitive.” In the Buddhist context, it’s keeping a distant eye on the processing that’s happening, so that we’re more aware of it.

Right Concentration

In terms of teaching, concentration is typically taught before mindfulness, because it’s useful in the process of trying to be mindful. In truth, we’re not taught how to concentrate in our schools or societies. Though concentration is a powerful force – like how focusing light makes a laser that can cut metal – it’s not something that most folks know how to do.

Together

Together, these ideas are the path towards enlightenment. However, even those on the path may find that they are buffeted by the waves of uncertainty and change. If you’re trying to find peace, Advice Not Given counsels, it’s important to remember that the waves are a part of the ocean. They rise, and they descend, but they’re all a part of the ocean.

Perhaps my favorite part of Advice Not Given is the ending. “Our egos do not have to have the last word.” Our egos may keep us from accepting advice, but it can’t stop us from reading Advice Not Given.

Book Review-The Trauma of Everyday Life

Trauma is everywhere. It spares no one. The constant march of time propels it forward without end. It’s The Trauma of Everyday Life that Buddha spoke of when he used the word dukkha. It’s the suffering that we all face. Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life succeeds in helping to explain some fundamentals of our mental worlds as they intersect in Western and Buddhist philosophies.

Suffering

A man was being followed. Every street he turned onto, this figure followed. He ran, and the figure ran, too – as fast as he did. Every step, the figure followed. As he slowed, so did the figure. It was half an hour before the man realized that he was running from his shadow. That’s the experience that we have in life when we seek to avoid suffering. Wherever we go, suffering and trauma is there. We cannot escape it, because it’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Buddha called it dukkha, which is most typically translated as “suffering,” but the literal meaning is closer to “hard to face.” In Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s described that we live in a fallen world. The brokenness, pain, and suffering we experience are – according to the tradition – a result of the original sin. They’re a part of our existence now.

In Buddhist writings, there is a story of a woman carrying her dead baby and looking for a physician to bring the baby back to life. The Buddha told her to bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never known death. Of course, she couldn’t find any family who hadn’t experienced death. In the process, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her suffering and finally let go of her baby.

Suffering is a universal and unfortunate part of our lives, but we can’t run from it; we must accept it as a truth rather than try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s Not Your Fault

Suffering or tragedy is not your fault. It’s not “ye of little faith” that causes the suffering. You didn’t do anything wrong. Even with Buddha’s belief in karma, he believed that perhaps only one in eight bad things that happen to a person is related to their bad karma. That is even the most consequential view. The good or bad you did that was reflected back to you didn’t necessarily lead – in his opinion – to suffering. Suffering is, as was the first noble truth, simply a part of life.

When you accept that suffering – or “trauma,” the word Mark Epstein uses – is a fundamental part of our world, you can let go of the shame and guilt that you’re receiving suffering as the consequences for your living. You can address only the suffering and not the feelings that the suffering brings up.

The Path Through Suffering

Many people believe that the way to happiness and joy is to avoid suffering. This is like the idea that mental health is the absence of mental illness. (See Flourish.) Both are fallacies. Joy isn’t the absence of pain and suffering. Joy is something else.

In fact, the path to joy isn’t in the opposite direction of suffering – it’s through it. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama speak of the path to joy – and to how their joy led them both through struggles. If we stop short of joy at inner peace, we find that it too takes a path through suffering – not around it.

We can’t avoid suffering, we can’t run in fear that we may be hurt. Instead, we walk through it, not minimizing the suffering but acknowledging it as impermanent – only temporary. When we choose to run away from the possibility of suffering, we cheat ourselves out of a whole life and spend our time running from our own shadow, pretending that we can get away from suffering.

A View of Suffering

The pain we feel from something that goes wrong, misses our expectations, or harms us is only the first thing. What is more challenging – and longer lasting – is the harm that we cause ourselves by the perspective we take to the suffering.

Consider a beautiful vase in a store that you see crash to the ground. Though it is bad, you’re likely to not feel much. When the same vase is in your home and it’s a prized possession, because you bought it on your last vacation with your mother before she died, it will likely bring more suffering. The vase itself is the same. The meaning that we assign to it – and the perspective on the loss – is different. It’s that difference that causes the pain.

Another point of view is the old story about two Buddhist monks who had taken a vow to never touch a woman. Seeing a woman struggling and in need of assistance across a river, one carries her to the other side. He continues for the rest of the day with his companion, who finally explodes, “How could you carry that woman? You took a vow.” The first monk responds, “I only carried her across the river; you’ve carried her all day.” In one perspective, the monk was responding to the greater need for compassion than the limitation of his vow, and, in the second, the broken vow was unforgivable.

The first monk presumably suffered with the conflict between his vow to not touch a woman and his commitment to cultivating his compassion. This conflict was suffering – but briefly held as he moved on. The other monk presumably felt the same conflict but carried the suffering as his companion carried the woman.

Suffering is less about the objective pain or discomfort that we feel and more about how we view that pain – as having meaning or being pointless. (For more, see The Hope Circuit.) The way that we process the pain is substantially more important than the pain itself. (See Flourish for the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth.)

Basic Buddhist Meditation

There are many kinds of meditative practices and perspectives on those practices. However, the most basic meditative practices in Buddhism are about watching your breath or body. The idea is not that you’re trying to change anything. Instead, you simply watch your thoughts and gently guide them back to your breath.

Not only is there no condemnation if your mind wanders, there is an expectation that it will wander. Even the most practiced meditators find that their mind wanders from time to time, and they simply lead it back gently and firmly, like you would a child.

Embedded in this practice is a paradox. People often come to meditation to change their life, to make pains disappear, or to feel less anxiety. The meditation itself isn’t trying to change anything. People change through these practices while they’re not trying to change anything.

Impermanence

One of the things about our breath is that it is constantly changing. Each breath is slightly different from the last, like snowflakes gently drifting down into our consciousness before melting away. All of life is like these snowflakes, which are here for the moment and then gone or changed the next. Our perspective that things are permanent is an illusion.

Scientists typically prefer to picture time as being laid out along a line and that we are simply moving along that line. Everything that will happen has – in essence – already happened. While this challenges our belief in our free will, it helps us visualize impermanence. We don’t expect that our home will exist in the same way that it does forever – or that we’ll even own it. Instead, we can recognize that everything that we feel is permanent really isn’t.

Absolute-isms

We like to believe that the world is much more cause-and-effect than it really is. We like to forget that there are probabilities in everything. We believe that we’re going to drive to the store safely – even though there is a small chance of an accident. These absolute-isms that things are going to be OK are what allow us to function. (See Change or Die for more on this.) Trauma can take these absolute-isms from us and force us to deal with our world in a more realistic way.

For me, losing my brother to an airplane accident was probably my singularly worst moment. In addition to losing a brother and a friend, I had to confront that even the best pilot and mechanic could have a set of things happen that he couldn’t compensate for. I had to come face to face with knowing that, no matter how good a pilot he was, it wasn’t enough.

Emotions

The mistaken impression of most is that Buddha transcended emotion. He eradicated it from his life and from the things that burdened his spirit. However, in truth, it’s more accurate to say that he learned how to come to terms with his emotions. He didn’t fear that they would overtake him and run amuck. Nor did he berate himself for negative (or afflictive) thoughts. He learned to simply allow his emotions to pass by as he saw them.

So many people want relief from the pressures of their emotions. The result is they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other maladaptive coping strategies to allow them to numb themselves from their unpleasant emotions. This approach is different than the approach of learning to work with your emotions.

The Problem of Attachment

Buddha was surrounded by those who thought that the path to enlightenment was found through denying oneself and through inducing more suffering. However, as Buddha articulated, life is suffering. There is then no reason to try to add to it. There is enough suffering. Conversely, there were those who believed that there was no reason to suffer, that they should live life to its fullest and be materialistic in their desires. This too, he thought was wrong. Thus, he developed a middle way, which acknowledges life for what it is and still seeks to make it better.

In the middle way, Buddha realized that there is nothing wrong with pleasure. The problems that most people ascribed to pleasure were really problems with attachment to the outcomes, objects, and people that are necessarily impermanent.

Integrated Self Image

Epstein speaks of Buddha’s dreams and how he learned how to accept himself fully. He didn’t trouble himself with second-guessing. He accepted his bad parts – and his good parts – as one integrated person. He isn’t the result of one decision, one thought, or one action. He’s one collective whole. This is a concept that I’ve written about before in my reviews of Rising Strong, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Clearly, it’s a recurring concept and important to me personally. I believe that developing an integrated self-image is key to surviving The Trauma of Everyday Life. What do you think?

Book Review-The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

There aren’t many members in the moral leaders club. For that reason alone, when two moral leaders – The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – gather to share deep discussions of morality and, in this case, joy, it’s worth investigating. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World both chronicles the meeting and walks through the agreements and disagreements of these two great leaders.

What is Joy?

I’ve written about my journey to find happiness with many reviews (Stumbling on Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, Flourish, etc.). I’ve considered the difference between hedonistic happiness and value-based happiness in my reading and reviews of The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis. Joy is something different.

The Archbishop says, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” The Dalai Lama echoes this in the inverse by saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Joy, then, is a conscious choice to respond to our circumstances in a positive and fulfilling way. We cannot change our circumstances, but we can change how we respond.

Everyone Has Pain

The Archbishop comments, “I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness, because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness. We would probably have said ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.” The Dalai Lama has certainly known pain. It isn’t in spite of the pain that he’s become the great man he is today but rather because of it. It’s because of the way that he’s been able to work through his pain and choose his response that he is revered – even by other leaders – for his serenity, calm, and joyfulness.

The research says that if you “help” hatching sea turtles to get to the ocean, you’ll disrupt their sense of bearing and ultimately kill them. If you “help” a chick to escape the egg shell, you’ll condemn it to death. Even our stem cells need biological stress to cause them to become the specific cells we need. Pain, stress, hardship, challenge, or whatever you call it is the power that drives us to be better.

The challenge, as we learned in The Hope Circuit, is to find meaning in the pain. Without meaning to our pain, we see no sense to it nor control, and we develop the state of learned helplessness – or, rather, we fail to develop a sense of control that enables us to persevere. So, it’s not in spite of hardship that we develop joy but through it.

Dejection

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master, wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” It is key for joy to not be sucked in by destructive emotions like dejection. Shantideva is saying that, on both sides of the coin, dejection is not useful. If nothing can be done, then your dejection will do nothing but further zap your energy. If something can be done, then why wallow in a dejected state – why not just go do it?

Ultimately, the feeling of dejection arises when you don’t believe that you can do anything about your situation – that you have no control. This may be the literal truth, but being dejected does nothing to change that fact. In fact, it reduces your capacity to do other things. By accepting that you can’t do anything and moving on, you’re better off.

Destructive Emotions

Dejection is only one form of destructive emotion. Other destructive emotions like envy literally block a person’s ability to feel love, empathy, and compassion, and, as a result, they prevent joy. Destructive Emotions is the subject of a book by Daniel Goleman and The Dalai Lama. It came from a set of meetings between spiritual leaders and scientists. The conversation centered on the Buddhist belief that emotions can be either afflictive or non-afflictive. In other words, they can be either destructive or not.

The problem with destructive emotions is that they block the path to joy. Anger that is maintained for too long becomes afflictive (destructive) and keeps someone from reaching joy. The path to joy, in this case, is through forgiveness or letting go of the anger. Consider a man who was imprisoned for 30 years, who was asked how he could forgive those who jailed him. His response was, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”

Despite the encouragement to release destructive emotions, both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop acknowledge that destructive emotions come to everyone, and there should be no shame in them occurring. They should simply be set aside.

Emotional Control

One of the areas that the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama disagree is the degree to which people have control of their emotions. The Archbishop feels like people have little influence on their emotions, and the Dalai Lama feels that we have more. How Emotions Are Made argues that emotions are entirely constructed in our mind – and therefore we should be able to control our emotions. While I think that this goes too far, to say that we have significant influence on our emotions isn’t an understatement.

Paul Ekman has been working with the Dalai Lama since Daniel Goleman introduced him back at the conference that led to the Destructive Emotions book. In fact, Ekman and the Dalai Lama have authored a book titled Emotional Awareness. Ekman is known for his work in developing the facial action coding system (FACS) or, more colloquially, in his ability to train people to detect lies. (See Telling Lies for more.) Ekman believes that, in addition to the ability to shape your emotions, there’s a gap between feeling the emotion and responding, and that this gap can be cultivated. However, he cautions that this isn’t easy, because evolution designed emotions and their responses to happen quickly.

Shifting Perceptions

Jinpa (who is the Dalai Lama’s primary English interpreter) mentions that it’s much easier to change perceptions than it is to change your emotions. I find this to be very true. To change perception simply requires examining the perception and others’ perceptions. However, telling someone that they shouldn’t be angry denies and invalidates them. (See Motivational Interviewing for more)

Once perceptions are changed, it’s possible to get folks to re-evaluate their emotions in the context of new information. Sometimes they are so moved that they will adjust their emotion to match the facts – but often not without internal difficulty. I often encounter people saying that they know that they shouldn’t be angry, frustrated, sad, etc., but they still are. The feelings, however, tend to fade with time.

Multiple Brain Circuits

What we may be experiencing is the same sort of tug of war that we saw in The Hope Circuit, where the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is able to dampen the response of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). It takes time (and training) for one part of the brain to attenuate the function of another. The more we research the brain, the more we realize that there are separate, sometimes redundant, pathways. Richard Davidson, for instance, discovered there are four separate brain “circuits” involved in joy. There are one each for maintaining positive states, recovering from negative states, generating focus and anti-mind-wandering, and generosity. It’s amazing that we have four separate circuits that are converged on the ability to help us find joy.

The fact that nature designed so much into the possibility of joy gives us hope that we can each find our own joy – irrespective of our circumstances.

Cultivating Joy

In the end, it’s possible to cultivate joy by cultivating our compassion and focusing our thoughts towards more compassionate directions. Further, we can cultivate joy by forming and maintaining intimate relationships with other humans. The more connected we become to others in a meaningful way, the more joy we find.

Breaking Traditions

There are traditions in each religion. For Christians – particularly Catholics – it’s traditional to only offer the Eucharist to other Christians. It’s the symbolic body of Jesus and his blood. The thinking goes that you would want to only offer this special rite to those who would honor it. For the Dalai Lama, he made a vow not to dance. Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama broke their tradition (or vow) during the course of their meeting. The Archbishop by offering the Dalai Lama the Eucharist and the Dalai Lama by indulging in a bit of a dance to follow the Archbishop’s irrepressible boogie.

To some this may seem like a major transgression; to me, it seems like an awareness that the customs, conventions, and vows are designed to direct us towards the goal of our religion – which both men would describe as love. In context, love most likely equates to the Greek word agape, and thus is essentially the same as compassion. I was impressed, when I read Heroic Leadership, to find that the Jesuits focused on the essentials of their beliefs and bent those traditions that inhibited their ability to become a part of other communities. I see these leaders’ acts as attempts to close the gaps between differing religious views and to unify us all in our acceptance of everyone.

We open ourselves up to joy when we realize that we’re all a part of one large community of humans, and we desire to be in relationships with others. The Book of Joy is written with space for all our names. We just need to seek to be in community with all of our brothers and sisters across the planet Earth.

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Most folks don’t describe Christianity with the adjective “mere.” However, C.S. Lewis isn’t most folks – rather, he’s a common man with an uncommon view. Mere Christianity is the written record of what started as a series of BBC broadcasts to help explain what Christians believed. He didn’t speak as an authoritative source who had dedicated his life to the scholarly study and application of ancient texts in Christianity. He came as a man who could see to the heart of Christianity and who could speak so eloquently that anyone could understand what he saw in it.

The One Denomination to Rule Them All

Lewis quickly dispensed with the internal conflict that pits Christian against Christian and divides the one brotherhood into many different factions. He describes a great hall off of which each of the denominations has a room. He invites us to stand in the hall, accepting the rules of the house – the rules all Christians believe – but also to move into a room where we can be comfortable and fed.

To Lewis, it seems, all of Christianity receives the benefits of the house, no matter which room you’re in. He has no quarrel with someone who believes in Christ but believes slightly differently about things that matter little.

Pathfinding

Finding our individual paths isn’t easy. There are times when we’ll end up off track. Lewis has a way of conveying the fundamental truths about finding your path that is both practical and direct. Whether it’s reminding us that going farther in the wrong direction doesn’t bring us closer to our goal or that progress isn’t just changing, it’s changing for the better, Lewis is gently reminding us that, in whatever journey we’re on, we must keep the end in mind.

With understanding Christianity, our goal is to understand how to behave more like Christ would behave. Before this, however, we must think through how we have come to believe this goal. We must move through the theological and ideological challenges that have been laid at the feet of Christianity and be able to explain them to ourselves with reasonable satisfaction.

It’s only then that we can start on the path forward to find where walking in Christ’s footsteps will lead us.

Other Religions

It’s not like Christianity is the only game in town when it comes to religion. However, there are some distinct differences. Christianity is the only religion where your sins have already been paid for – you’ve been redeemed. Sometimes, however, other religions are more appealing. They provide the same comfort of believing in a benevolent power greater than yourselves with none of the guilt.

Still, Lewis remains open to Christians to considering other religions and believing that they may have some hint of truth. After all, when you’re dealing with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being that created the universe, it’s possible that we may not be able to fully comprehend him.

Free Will

Injecting common sense into a difficult argument, Lewis points out that free will opens the door to evil in the world. However, at the same time, the only way to truly express love, goodness, or joy is to do it freely. Free will is an expensive tool that makes it possible to see into the hearts of men and illuminate meaning and intent in ways that perfunctory words could not.

The God of the Material

The Christian (and therefore Jewish and Muslim as well) God is said to be a jealous God. We’re to make no god before him. However, what does that mean? Certainly, the Bible is clear about making golden calves, but few people would do that today. It doesn’t need to be taken in the completely literal sense. Having a god before God can be anything that takes the place of importance.

Some worship at the shrine of football. Others worship at the shopping mall. Others worship their beauty. The idols that we have today aren’t explicitly called out as other gods, yet we insist that they must come before everything else.

God is Love

If God is love, then a discussion of Christianity should include a conversation about love. Lewis makes the point that love is a relationship between two. If God is love, then who is he loving? The short answer is us. Lewis spends his time in Mere Christianity focused on those things that are important. It seems like if more people modeled God’s love with others, we wouldn’t just call it Mere Christianity.

Why and How 12-Step Groups Work

Alcoholics Anonymous and other “recovery” groups still suffer from a stigma in popular culture.  Much like going to a counselor does – or did – demonstrate that you didn’t have everything together, 12-step “recovery” groups are seen as a demonstration of weakness; however, I can tell you that I find them to be the places where I have seen the greatest strengths of character and where I see the most authentic people.

The first challenge in the opportunity to speak about this is to help people understand that I believe everyone can benefit from the core tenets of a 12-step program.  I don’t mean that as a prescriptive follow the steps as written.  I mean that, when you take a step back and you look at the process of building safety, fearlessly looking into our own souls with the help of others, and doing acts of service, you find a path where everyone can grow and become greater than themselves.

Building Safety

There are several tenets built into the 12-step program that are designed to increase the perception of safety.  (You may want to look at my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on why I describe safety as a perception.)  Alcoholics Anonymous’ name is the start – anonymous.  You’re not going to be identified, labeled, or judged on the street, because no one is going to know you were there.

The check-in process helps to build connection, even in this anonymous world.  We get other people’s first names so that we can start the process of connecting with them.  “Hi, my name is Rob” is a simple start to connection, which conveys a name – and gives others an opportunity to hear the tone and tenor of my voice to know, to some degree, where my heart is.  You don’t have to have Dr. Ekman’s FACS training to know what I’m feeling.  (See Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code: My Life’s Pursuit for more on FACS and Dr. Ekman’s work.)  The opportunity to connect activates our understanding of safety that comes with being “a part of.”  (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on our need for connection.)

Many groups are facilitated by those who’ve been “working their program” for a long time.  Those who have been with the process for a long time have developed a wisdom for how to gently nudge a group into healthy trust and safety enhancing directions.  The process they share with the rest of the group isn’t a command or an instruction.  They’re simply sharing what worked for them while acknowledging others’ paths may be different.  Most also have a compassion for those who come to a group for the first time.  They remember how intensely frightening and confusing the first few meetings could be.

Community

Attendees eventually come to understand and accept the rhythm of the group and the supportive approach that the group takes towards one another.  While there may be, at times, pointed conversations about how folks are deluding themselves or minimizing their dysfunction, there’s a clear undercurrent carrying the conversations.  That undercurrent is concern for the wellbeing of the others who are there.

We used to have small communities of people who worked together to conquer nature and defend the hamlet against the ravages of Mother Nature and the outside world.  This stance was seen in the wagon trains that conquered the American West as they “circled the wagons” so that the community could defend itself from the forces on the outside.

Somehow, a culture emerges in the 12-step group that places everyone inside the group as a part of the brotherhood (or sisterhood).  There’s a shared experience in whatever addiction brought them to the group.  The bonds of the community are an important part of building trust and separating the old habits.

The friendships and bonds which are forged in these communities are strong.  They provide a network of strength when the inevitable storms come.  Instead of turning to a substance, communities can turn to each other to support and hold each other up.

Accountability Partners

Sometimes, people will emerge from the community who are willing and able to hold you accountable.  The trust builds to a level that you know these people – in particular – are willing to speak truth into your life, with the grace that informs you they’re not judging.  These are people that come beside you when you’re struggling and help you keep moving forward when it’s difficult.  They encourage you to keep up the fight.

Accountability partners are sometimes semi-formal in that you ask someone to help hold you accountable, and sometimes they just evolve as people decide to speak truth into your life and as a result have become close friends.  It’s the truth being spoken into your life that begins to give you space to see where you’re hurt and broken.  As they speak trust into your life, frequently you’re given permission to speak truth into theirs.  The perspective is that no one recovers alone.  There’s no “I” in recovery, only “We.”

Sponsors

Sponsorship in a 12-step group is an opportunity for someone ahead of you to help guide you.  Sometimes the people who are ahead of you aren’t ahead by much – but they’re there to not just hold you accountable but to lead you.  Accountability partners sometimes become sponsors, but sponsorship inside of a 12-step group is a more structured arrangement.  More than just trying to hold you accountable to the standards that you set for yourself, sponsors are committed to walking with you through the 12-steps.

Sponsors don’t have it all figured out themselves, but they trust in the community and the process to lead them.  Sponsors themselves have sponsors.  The acceptance that the process of having someone there to lead you when you may lead yourself astray is a necessary part of facing an addiction.  It’s important to understand that sponsors share their experience and path, which may be quite different than the path of the sponsee.  I’ve found that having others to share when they believe you are headed astray is a helpful approach to going through life.

Taking a Step

Step 1 may be the “hardest” step – up to that point.  Admitting that our lives have become unmanageable may be more than what most people are willing to admit.  After all, we have jobs, cars, houses, and the modern conveniences that most people expect.  Our lives aren’t unmanageable in the same way that an addict’s life is – and at this stage, few are willing to admit their addictions.

However, most of us would admit that managing our lives is exhausting.  Wouldn’t it be good to get a break from the need to manage our lives?  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an opportunity to allow our lives to become unmanageable for a little while?  Somewhere deep inside, we know that our control is an illusion.  We know that we can’t control our lives any more than we can control the weather.  We know that we influence and direct our lives, but still far too much is ruled by chance.  (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.)

Step 2 and step 3 acknowledge the presence of a higher power and release the management of our lives into their control.  In short, it’s a break, a rest from having to have it all figured out and getting it right all the time.  The first three steps of a 12-step program are all about releasing the burden of trying to have our lives all figured out.  Instead, we’re given the opportunity to place our trust in a higher power that can carry the load that we can’t – or that we don’t always want to – carry.

Non-Addictive Escapes

An addict is someone who has lost control of a coping skill until it gradually begins to control them.  Addictive behaviors are either compulsive – they “must” be done – or they’re risky – they can cause great harm.  Addicts started just like us.  They had a pain in life or their soul that they were coping with.  They grabbed that drink, that drug, or that food, and they used it to soothe their pain.  The difference between an addict and a non-addict often isn’t the coping strategy that they used – it’s that the coping strategy didn’t take over the non-addict.  The coping strategy didn’t make it into the category of a means of survival.

For the addict, new coping skills are needed.  They can’t turn back to the skills that gained control of them for fear that they may gain control once again.  For many, the new life in community and the ability to connect with others is able to support them during the same lows that they might have turned to their addiction to in the past.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should never use coping strategies to help soothe ourselves.  Having coping strategies is healthy.  Allowing the coping strategy to take control of us isn’t.  All of us use coping strategies when we recognize that we aren’t going to get what we want and, ultimately, that we’re not in control.

The point of accepting a higher power is to realize that, even though we don’t have control, someone does.  We don’t have to be in control if our advocate, our trusted friend, is the one who is in control.  Developing an acceptance of the higher power to build trust and safety that everything will be OK is one of the key areas of growth that new “steppers” find themselves in.

Ultimately, the tenor of the 12-step community is designed to create trust and develop a sense of safety that you can stand on to accomplish the difficult work of looking deeply into who you are.

Fearlessly Looking

Fearless is not the way that most people describe the process of looking inside of themselves.  In fact, I’ve never met anyone who would describe the process of truly looking at what they believe and who they are as fearless.  Instead, people describe the process of learning to slip past the ego and its defenses into the inner sanctum of our most cherished beliefs about the world and ourselves as an intensely frightening activity.  (See Change or Die for more on the ego and its defenses.)  In fact, I’ve personally seen dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have started the journey only to turn back.

Why, then, should I call it fearless?  Because those who do it fear less than those who don’t make it.  The fulcrum of personal growth and development is the capacity to stare deeply into our own personal darkness and not turn our gaze.  Our fear causes us to turn away from the very activities that have the greatest promise for making us happy and changing the trajectory of our lives.

The point of building such a high tower of trust and safety in the beginning is to create the opportunity to peer into those deep recesses of ourselves in a way that, if not fearless, is at least safe.

Courageous

If fear is still present when we seek to slip past our own defenses to see – and challenge – our core beliefs, then how do we move forward?  The answer is courage.  Most people believe that courage is the absence of fear.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Courage requires fear.  Courage is movement in the presence of fear.  Courage is overcoming fear.  (See Find Your Courage for more on how to find courage.)

So, while it’s important to fear less, it’s equally important to have the courage to move forward through whatever fear remains.  The community that 12-step programs build create a sense of safety that makes it more possible for people to proceed courageously.

Warped Perspectives

Walking through a carnival funhouse, one moment you’re tall and skinny, and the next moment you’re short and fat.  You’re the same person.  You didn’t change in the two steps you took.  The only change was the perspective that the mirror provided.  It’s these bad mirrors that the process of fearlessly looking is designed to eliminate.

We all have distorted versions of ourselves.  That’s a part of our human nature.  In fact, those poor souls who have depression have a more accurate view of themselves than those of us who are “normal.”  In our normalcy, we believe we’re better than average.  We believe that we’re the best students, teachers, leaders, friends, and spouses – even in the face of evidence that says this can’t be possible.

Through some poor conditions while growing, some people have developed a view of the world as a hostile and competitive place, where you must scratch and claw your way up from the bottom.  (See How Children Succeed for more on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and the impacts.)  It’s possible that this is an accurate view of your world, but, ultimately, a different perspective may be more helpful to your growth and happiness.  Viewing the world as a helpful place rather than one that is hostile yields lower stress and that means longer life.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Physical Impact of Stress for more.)

The more clearly we can see where our perspectives are warped, evaluate by how much, and seek to lean upon other views and other trusted people for a better overall picture, the greater we can eliminate those pains that continue to haunt us and work on ourselves in ways that bring about our ability to grow and thrive.

Painful Before It’s Peaceful

A splinter isn’t something anyone would ask for.  Underneath your skin, the sliver of wood will eventually create an infection.  It will create a stronghold for infection before our immune system can send out its troops in the war for our survival.  The splinter hurts a bit when it first enters.  Left alone, it will continue to have a low level of pain until it becomes a problem.  That is, unless we’re willing to accept the additional pain of its removal.

Done well, removing a splinter doesn’t hurt that much more than just leaving it in.  Even done poorly, splinter removal yields a rapid decrease in pain.  So, splinter removal starts with a greater pain and results in less pain – in peace.  Our psychological splinters are the same.  Left alone, they fester and become infected; identified and removed, they lose their power over us.

Feeling our Feelings

Our feelings will demand to make themselves known.  No matter how hard we try to stamp them down, avoid them, run away, ignore, or subvert them, feelings want to be known.  The 12-Step group creates a safe space for us to experience our feelings and to have those feelings validated by others.  Someone can say that they felt something, and you can acknowledge that you too have felt that, or the reverse may happen.

Often, we forget that feelings aren’t good or bad.  We forget that everyone has feelings.  By making feelings safe again 12-Step groups create less need for the out-of-control coping skill.

Marshmallows

One of the greatest predictors of how someone will do in their life can be found in a simple decision.  One marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes.  This test, given to pre-school-age children was illustrative of how well a child would do in the future.  If they were able to delay their gratification and wait for the two marshmallows, they would find themselves better off in life in nearly every measure.  However, what is going on?  How can a humble marshmallow have such predictive powers?

The answer isn’t in the sugary fluff.  The answer is in the skills that the children who were able to delay their gratification found.  These skills allowed them to make better long-term decisions over the course of a lifetime.  In short, they were willing to endure some level of pain today for the relief that it brings in the future.  (For more, see The Marshmallow Test.)

Trusting in the Future

There have been many studies and discussions about Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment – including his own and those of his contemporaries.  Interesting correlations seemed to show up.  When you position children in environments that are less stable – including fatherless homes and those with lower socio-economic status – the ability to delay gratification is lower.  That is, the less you trust the person promising you a better future result, the less willing you are to forgo the treat or relief today.

An important part of 12-steps groups is the ability to see those who have succeeded in building their lives, recovering from their addictions, and learning how to thrive.  If you trust the people – and you trust the outcomes – you’ve got a foundation to delay gratification, whether that gratification comes in the form of an addiction or not.

12-Step programs are often quick to focus the degree of trust to the near term.  They’re talking about living one day at a time.  It’s not a question about how you’ll survive a year or ten years.  Instead, it’s a question of tomorrow and then the day after that.  This substantially narrows the need for trust and helps move things forward without worrying about whether the goal can be achieved.

Good is the Enemy of Great

Jim Collin’s Good to Great explains that we get to “good enough” and never come back to get to great.  It’s not that our patterns aren’t good – they can be.  It’s that our patterns aren’t great.  They aren’t allowing us to move towards that maximum expression of ourselves in business, our family, our relationships, or ourselves.  We must expose the places where our perspectives and patterns are just ok, might be good, but aren’t great.

We’ve only got so much emotional energy to expend each day.  The more that we fret over something that’s already good, the less energy we have left over to deal with other things – including those things that may not be good.

Constructive Destruction

Sometimes you’ve got to break the good to get to the great.  Sometimes you’ve got to break down something that has every appearance of working to get to something that excels at whatever it is.  Sometimes that’s well-worn patterns of interactions with other people including family, friends, and coworkers.  Facing the reality of our lives sometimes means that we’ve got to look towards what isn’t particularly bad but remains broken – or at least sub-optimal.

Acts of Service

One of the most amazing things that I hear from addicts who have been in the program for a long time is that they’re “recovering.”  This is a simple and telling statement.  It’s not that they’ve conquered their addiction, or that they’ve come to terms with their life and are thriving.  Instead, the healthiest members of the community routinely admit that they’re still learning, growing, and healing.  They’re not recovered.  They’re not done.  They’re works in progress.

Humility echoes through their statements.  They’re not thinking of themselves as lower.  Rather, they’re thinking less about themselves and more about others.

This, too, is why 12-step programs work.  They anchor inside of every member that they’re never done moving into the life that their higher power has for them.  For most of the members of the community, the way that they keep this humility is through their acts of service to others and to the community.

Humility

My favorite definition for humility comes from Humilitas.  It says that “humility is power held in service to others.”  That is, I use what strength I have so that I can lift others up.  Humility is power.  It is in having something that you can share.  It’s also in freely giving it to others so that they may benefit from it too.

Humility acts as an insulator from the pain that leads to the desire for the coping skill that leads to the addiction.  Much of the pain we experience is due to our own lack of humility.  (See A Hunger for Healing for more on this perspective.)  Without humility, we feel entitled, and we judge others, because we are unwilling to judge ourselves.

Value-based Happiness

If you want to remain free of the bonds of addiction, the best way to do that is to avoid the places and things that cause a desire for the coping skill that lead to addiction to be activated.  To do that, we need to understand what we can do to avoid situations of unattenuated pain.  That is, while pain is necessary, it should be the right kind of pain, and we should have the right psychological immune system to protect us from the need to seek a coping skill that leads to an addiction.  (See Stumbling on Happiness for the psychological immune system.)

How do we fuel our psychological immune system?  We fuel it with happiness or joy.  The happier we are, the more resilient we are to pain.  (For more about this, see Flourish and Positivity.)  The way to develop a persistent, long-term happiness is to help other people.  When we are in service to other people, we literally build happiness into ourselves.  (See The Time Paradox and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

We must keep our heads in the right place, that we are truly serving others, while at the same time realizing where the rewards are.  Whether they’re grateful or not, we should be grateful for the opportunity to serve our fellow man, and at the same time accept the positive emotions that flow to us in the process.

There are many lists of values that can bring us joy.  How to Be an Adult in Relationships offers the five As – Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing – which bring joy to us through our relationships.  Others list traditional values like honesty.  Honesty leaves us with more of our precious mental resources, because we’re not required to remember our lies or come up with excuses.  (See Telling Lies for the ways which lies trip us up.)

Stable Core

What I discovered in my participation in a 12-step group was who I was.  I knew who I was at one point.  I had a picture in my mind of a time when I knew what my life meant and was going to mean.  Somewhere I had lost my trail.  It took being with people who had great clarity in who they are so that I could remember that picture and use it as a map to find my way back onto the trail.

Once I had found my “stable core” again – the part of me that was unchanging, what Beyond Boundaries would call my “defining boundaries” – I was able to accept that I am both good and bad.  I’m neither worthless nor perfect.  I found a way to know myself again through my willingness to walk into those parts of me that I don’t like to find the splinter and remove it.  I’m far from done, but at the same time, I’ve made a great deal of progress.

In the end, 12-step programs work because they allow people to discover themselves, feel safe, and walk through the pain necessary to heal for good, so they don’t have to use coping skills as often or to such a degree.  The coping skills don’t rule them, and we can all use that.

Footnote

It’s important that I say that unlike most of my posts, this post was developed through the strength of the amazing people I’ve met.  Many members of my broader community provided some input on this posts but I’d particularly like to thank Brad and Ben who substantially tightened my thinking and my language.