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

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

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

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

What is Loneliness?

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

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

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

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

What is Depression?

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

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


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

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

For a Time

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

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

Loneliness Stimulates Stress

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

Is Anyone Listening?

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

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

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

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

Birth of the Social Creature

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

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

Genes that Made It So

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

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

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

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

Genes and Memes

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

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

Building the Market

One of the often-overlooked challenges with a business is building a market. It’s not about constructing the corner grocery. It’s creating an awareness in the mind of the target buyer that they can’t live with the savings, convenience, or opportunity that your product offers. You can spend a lot of money to build a market only to have your leader position overtaken by some upstart that takes advantage of the market that you’ve built. (See Launch! for more on the “first-to-market” problem of education.)

Personal Digital Assistants

Today the personal digital assistant market has given way to the mobile smartphone market. However, in the beginning, they competed with paper. They competed with binder systems by the likes of Franklin-Covey (or, rather, Franklin planners before the merger). Most folks have long forgotten the ill-fated Apple Newton. Few remember the battles between the Palm Pilot and the Pocket PC. However, these were the battles that forged a market. They poured tons of capital into the market and legitimized the idea that you would keep your schedule and your contacts in a small handheld electronic device.

Blackberrys ruled the fruit electronics world as they brought mobile email to the masses. Way before Wi-Fi was popular at your local coffee shop, oversized pagers allowed quick, thumb-based emails to be sent by busy executives and sales professionals on the go. That would all change in 2006, when Apple released the iPhone and swallowed up both the PDA market and the mobile email market. It turned out that Apple was the worm that was eating the other fruit electronics for breakfast.

Apple’s success with the iPhone is legendary, and the praise lauded upon them is appropriate – but it’s important to not miss the market-priming conditions that allowed Apple to be so successful. They failed. They waited for the market to be developed by competitors, then they swooped in and took the entire market.

Search, Just Like Google

For most consumers today, there wasn’t a search before Google. Google is all they’ve known. However, Google wasn’t the first internet search engine. First there was Yahoo, with its taxonomy of links to all the places on the internet that were worth visiting. Though laughable today because of scale, back in the day, it was the way that people navigated this new, vast, semi-charted space of the internet. It was called the World Wide Web (www) back then to distinguish it from the actual computer network, but that distinction has long sense been lost.

As Yahoo’s approach showed its limitations, other players like Altavista came on the market with a search-based approach. However, the problem was that Altavista had very little way of distinguishing the good sites from the useless sites. The singular innovation that drove Google’s early success is the awareness that people are most interested in the research papers that have been cited most. Larry Page and Sergey Brin applied this idea to websites, and the rest, as they say, is history. Google didn’t create the market for an internet search engine – or the internet for that matter. They created a solution for a market that already existed.

For years, I’ve worked with search providers, from Mondosoft, SurfRay, and Microsoft. I’ve watched as they’ve struggled to create a market for enterprise search. The obvious need – to simplify search inside the organization – still struggles to become a market because the problem is too hard – or no one has been able to create the right market for the enterprise search. (Open source solutions like SOLR and the many commercial companies that build on this core haven’t been successful either.)

Building Takes Time

The problem with building the market is that it takes time. It takes resources. It takes a level of investment that most small companies can’t make – and most large companies no longer have the stomach to make. Motorola bet big with Iridium – and lost. There wasn’t a large enough market for satellite phones – yet. (There were other factors like not being friendly, but they are ancillary to the market not existing.)

If you’ve got an innovation that you’re working, on one of the most important questions you can ask yourself is whether you’ll have to build the market or not. In other words, are you creating a solution for a problem that your customers know they have – one that’s crystal clear in their minds? If not, you’ve got some level of market development to do. How much will that cost? How much time will it take? Do you have the stomach to hold on?

If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to look at Good to Great for the Stockdale Paradox (holding on and being flexible), Grit for how to develop that perseverance, and Willpower for the frailties of our willpower.

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

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

The Consistency Fallacy

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

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

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

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

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

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

More Alike

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

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

Microenvironments and Mutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Investigation

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

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


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

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

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

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

European Orphanages

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

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

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

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

Children Teaching Children

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

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


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

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

Bad Fit Stereotypes

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

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

Battle of Three Systems

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

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

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

Parental Influence

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

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

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

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

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

Following, Fluent, Detaching

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

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

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

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

Learning Through Stories

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

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

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

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

It’s in the Cards

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

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

Seeing Again for the First Time

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

Short Stories

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

Sparks Talk: Enough Scarcity

What do you know about scarcity?  Do you know what it feels like?  More importantly, do you know how to escape scarcity? Maybe you’ve had enough of scarcity, I know I have.  In this talk, I explain what it’s like, and how to get free of it.


Article: The Actors in Training Development: Learning Manager

When looking at a clock, it is easy to become mesmerized by the gears turning. When marveling at the precision and beauty of the meshing of gears, it can be easy to overlook the box that the gears are in. Yes, the gears drive the hands of a clock, but they can’t do it without the structure provided by their case. The learning manager provides the structure for a learning delivery team. When things are running smoothly, no one really notices the value he or she brings.

Part of the series, The Actors of Training Development. Read more…

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Nine Building Blocks

The framework is nine building blocks:

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

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

Customer Segments

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

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

Value Propositions

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


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

Customer Relationships

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

Revenue Streams

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

Key Resources

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

Key Activities

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

Key Partnerships

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

Cost Structure

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

All Together

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

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

Why the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Grant Programs are Irreparably Broken

Innovation is at the heart of America. It’s called “American ingenuity,” and the very systems that are designed to grow it are crushing it. Subsumed by academia to work on worthless projects and stripped of all relative value, the programs that were set aside by the government to encourage the one area of the economy where most innovations come from are being used to fund side projects of professors rather than support and encourage real innovation. It’s a way to support salaries and augment the income of professors.

In this post, I’m going to reveal the painful process that we tried to go through to get a grant and the ludicrous responses that we got – ludicrous until you understand what the system is designed to do and how no one has stood up to change the status quo. In the process, I’m going to reveal our ideas with the full understanding that someone can decide to copy it and do it without us all on the hope that someone will realize the power of the idea and help us find a way to fund it.

To be fair, I recognize that there will be some who will say that this is just another sour grapes post. We didn’t get funded, so we’re going to complain about the system. However, what you need to know is that the post was germinated before we knew whether we would be funded or not. More importantly, the structure of the problem was revealed through a coach – a long-time veteran of the process – before our grant began and was reinforced by another former member of our state’s team for helping businesses get funded. This is a deep-seated problem that insiders can’t expose, because they’re too into the system to publicly share their concerns. To expose the rotten underbelly of the system, I need help you see the system from our point of view.

Our story

AvailTek, has two owners. Terri Bogue and Robert Bogue. Terri is a clinical nurse specialist with a specialty in helping healthcare systems prevent healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). She has a national practice consulting with organizations to help them reduce their infection risk.

Speaking about myself in the third person for a moment, Robert, on the other hand, has written over 25 books, numerous courses, and too many articles to count. He’s been a technologist who has done software development, networking, and application-level solutions development for decades. He’s spent the last 14 years as a Microsoft MVP – an award that’s reserved for select individuals who share their passion for technology with the global community. He’s traveled the world speaking and teaching about software development.

If you were going to put together a two-person team for creating educational technology to help reduce healthcare infections, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that’s more able to execute. The expertise you can’t find in one person you can find in a team that are partners in every sense of the word.

Further, with 12 years in business, we’ve demonstrated staying power. We’re not doing what we’re doing on a lark, or because we can’t find jobs and need something to do so we don’t have to tell our friends that we’re unemployed or looking for work. This is a conscious – and often difficult – choice for us.

However, the very things that make us good at business and creating solutions are the very things that make it impossible to get a project funded. Even if we could literally save ten thousand – or more – people from dying from HAIs, and we can demonstrate costs savings in excess of a worker’s salary each year, it’s not enough in the minds of the academics who preside over the process of awarding funding.

Grant Structure

Most folks have never had the displeasure of writing for a grant proposal. It’s a displeasure, because it’s expected to be academic writing with strict page limits, citation requirements, and the general requirement to try to make the whole work sound more difficult to understand than it needs to be. I’ll focus my attention on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program here, because that’s the program we applied to; however, the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) is similar, only having the additional explicit requirement to have an academic institution as a part of the application process.

Writing for the grant was an exercise in trying to fit the important pieces into cramped confines, and at the same time writing in a precise way that made it clear exactly what we were talking about. Other areas didn’t have page limits, or were so much larger than was needed that we felt bad, because we couldn’t fill the pages. Our citations list was pages long. We knew no one would ever read even a fraction of our citations, but they were there, because you could get extra space in the main areas if you didn’t have to explain things too deeply.

In our case, the key to the solution was in our ability to train environmental services workers on how to clean hospital rooms effectively. We’d leverage augmented reality in the rooms they clean, watch their performance, and nudge them into better behaviors. Expressing that in the structure wasn’t easy – even for a seasoned writer – mostly because of the writing requirements.


Imagine for a moment if you had to cite a reference to everything – or every other thing – that you said. What if every time you said anything material, you had to find a research paper that validated your statement? That’s what writing is like for the grant. You can’t make assumptions or generalizations. It’s like the old quote, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Of course, what they don’t say is that research in general isn’t always correct. In fact, much of the research printed in journals couldn’t be replicated by anyone else.

However, citations are what’s expected in academia. You’re supposed to cite your references. In the real world, citations are rare. They’re the occasional pointer to help the reader understand in more depth, if they choose to. They’re clarifications.

In the end, the need to cite everything makes it easier for academics – because it’s what they’re used to – and harder for innovators, who are frequently without good access to journal articles. Even with the connections that we have, finding all the research wasn’t easy.

Iteration and Adaptation

While citations are annoying, they’re not structurally incorrect, they’re just a barrier that must be overcome. On the other hand, the idea that you have it all figured out, and you know exactly how you’re going to perform the innovation is structurally wrong. Edison didn’t know exactly how to create a lightbulb when he started; no one did. He had a goal and some ideas but no specific path to reach the objective. That’s the point of innovation: a solid direction – a tack – but not an answer on exactly how to do something. After all, if you knew everything there was to know, you wouldn’t need a grant to help refine the idea into the sharp point of a solution.

In the end, this was the undoing of our proposal. I refused to write the proposal like we knew exactly what we were doing. I wrote that we knew the structure of the idea and the science behind why it would work. The problem was I wasn’t willing to spell out in detail exactly how we were going to teach.

This seems reasonable on the surface, that they might resist someone without a finely-defined approach. However, it leaves out the awareness that we cannot plan into innovation. You cannot know what you don’t know until you know it. The point of the exercise is to learn and adapt and create something that works in reality – not on some drawing board somewhere. However, the feedback we got was that we didn’t have a specific plan for how we were going to do everything.

The Feedback

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Each round of the process you get feedback from a few reviewers. These are the folks who presumably read your proposal and were qualified to respond to it. However, the comments were so bad as to be laughable. They requested that we explicitly detail out what we’re going to do – while at the same time maintaining the strict page limits. But those weren’t the comments that were the most troubling.

The point of the grant program is to create innovation. It’s in the name. However, under the category of innovation, in the weakness section, one reviewer literally wrote the sentence, “This has never been done before.” Clearly the reviewer wasn’t able to understand the word “innovation.” How can you have innovation that has been done before? It’s in the definition of the word.

There were comments that the business was small and only included Terri and I as full-time employees. (That’s not technically correct, but let’s not let that get in the way.) The point of a small business grant is to help small businesses. The Bureau of Labor statistics has 74% of all businesses having fewer than 10 employees. 54% of those businesses have fewer than five. Why would you be comment (in the negative category) that there are only two employees? Doesn’t that miss the point – again?

Other comments included things like claiming that we had pasted in a fake arm in our mock-up of the user interface. Little did they know this was literally Terri’s arm with a glove and a microfiber cloth – not some clipart. The reviewer clearly made an incorrect assumption.

Then there was the thinly-veiled attempt to explain that we weren’t academic enough. Terri has a Master’s degree and I have a Bachelor of Science. Neither of us have a Doctorate. One of the comments called for us to have an “educational methodologist.” I’ve been doing education for decades and have delivered all types of educational programs. Never once have I heard someone call for an educational methodologist. I’ve done instructional design. I’ve taught cognitive load and adult learning concepts. The friends we have who are in academia said that the role doesn’t exist. It’s just a way to say that you didn’t have a PhD in education or psychology on the team – without saying it.

The Timing

The program is about innovation. A few times a year (roughly quarterly) there are submission deadlines. You submit your proposal and they get back to you. The problem is that they take longer than a quarter to get back to you. Consider that most proposals require at least one revision – certainly those proposals from people who’ve never done the process before. That is, those who are innovating and not continuing to be frequent fliers to the system will probably need to do a revision. The review process extends from one deadline beyond the next one. So, you have to expect to spend a few months building the proposal, more than three months waiting on the first response, then wait until the next cycle and submit again to wait three months for that review cycle. For those of you doing the temporal math in your head, it’s over a year. To get funding on an innovation you must wait more than a year.

Small Business

While our small business has been in business for a dozen years, most small businesses fail in only one or two. Perhaps there are no innovations from people who start businesses that fail. However, my belief is that businesses succeed in no small part due to luck. While Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared,” there’s certainly something to be said for not having bad luck. Think about the businesses that leased their office space starting in late August of 2001 in the World Trade Center. Full of hope they were going to change the world, until the world changed, and they were at the epicenter.

The process is so bureaucratic and fossilized that it is unable to understand that most small businesses can’t wait a year or 18 months to know if there’s some funding at the end of the rainbow. On the other hand, if it’s not really a business at all but is instead a way for a professor to make some money on the side, well, there’s all the time in the world.

What to Do

The solutions to the problem are simple. Instead of a review board made up of academics, replace them – all of them. Innovation doesn’t come from the “professional” scholars. It comes from the tinkerers and the amateurs who are burning with a passion to make the world better.

The first group of people who could be on the review board are the service core of retired executives (SCORE) that the Small Business Administration uses. While they’ll have the corporate bias of saying no, they won’t be looking for a way to get their projects funded next time. The point is that they’re retired, and they’re looking to give back.

The core of the review board should be entrepreneurs who have innovated. Whether the market ultimately accepted the innovation or not, those people who were able to deliver on the innovation should be evaluating those most likely to succeed. It’s not about what the market will accept. It’s about the innovator’s ability to deliver.

Why It Won’t Happen

So, while it’s simple, it won’t happen, and here’s why. The measurement criteria for success is the number of papers published. For that, you need academia. When you measure success by the wrong criteria – the creation of more research instead of by innovations making it to market – you necessarily get the wrong result. You get what you measure. You get papers, not innovation. You get academic rigor instead of entrepreneurial improvisation.

So, the system is fundamentally broken. It simply can’t produce what it’s designed to produce. You can’t get innovation in a system designed to prevent it from happening, which measures results based on papers instead of products.

A Word on STTR

STTR is even more challenged in some ways, because it presupposes that there is innovation happening inside of academia that needs to be transferred into the commercial markets. My observation is that this happens automatically, whether or not it’s incentivized externally. The university wants to make licensing revenue on the ideas and so will encourage the use of the intellectual property.

STTR follows the same rough process, with different page limits, but I can only assume with the same crazy (or crazy-making) approach. The tragic humor is that the system designed to get innovations to market is overseen by people who have spent their lives in academia and don’t really know how to get things to market.

Our Idea

If you’re interested in partnering on what we’re working on, send me a note. I’m happy to share what we’re going to do in more detail.

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

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

Birth Order

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

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

Situational Personality

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

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

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

Generalization of Learning

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

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

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

Just Showing Up

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

Outside of Bounds

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

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

Groups and Gangs

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

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

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

Peer Pressure

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

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

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

Majority Rules

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

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


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

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

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

Parent-Child Effects

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

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

Working, Death, and Divorce

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

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

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

Sidebar: Public Figures

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

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

Circuitous Routes

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

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

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

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

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

The Grandma from New Jersey

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

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

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

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

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

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

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

Guilt and Shame

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

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

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

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

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

Correlation and Causation

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

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

Environment and Nurture

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

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

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

The Studies

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

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

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

Who and What?

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