Book Review-The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t (Predictions)

People make predictions all the time. They predict that their team will win the Super Bowl, or they’ll win the lottery. These predictions are based on little more than hope. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail- but Some Don’t seeks to set us on the right path to understanding what we can learn from data, what we can infer from data, and what we can’t. By looking at the power and weaknesses of statistics, including both using the wrong model and supplying bad data, we can see how statistics has the power to improve our lives through productive forecasts and predictions.

In this part of the two-part review, we’ll look at predictions.

Forecasts and Predictions

Sometimes in our rush to be amazed at something, we simplify the questions we ask. We fail to recognize that our brain has simplified the thing that we’re trying to sort out (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on substitution). In the case of looking into the future, what we really want is prediction, and what statistics gives us most frequently is a forecast. Forecasts necessarily have a certain amount of error and involve statistical relationships. Forecasts become predictions when they become specific and precise.

Each day when we look at the weather, what we want is a soothsayer to predict what the weather will be like. However, what they offer us is a forecast based on models that result in a chance of rain somewhere between zero and 100%. We look at economists and seek the answer about whether we’ll make more money next year – or not. We want to know whether a risky investment will be worth it. However, economists and meteorologists are subject to the same rules as any other statistician.

While it’s true that statistics can predict – as long as we’re using this in a general sense of the word – events that are to happen in the future, there must always be some level of uncertainty as to whether the event will happen – or not. Predictions are just an attempt to refine forecasts into specific, tangible probable outcomes. Sometimes that process is successful but often it is not.

Falsifiable by Prediction

Karl Popper suggested that every forecast should be falsifiable via prediction. To test a model, you needed to be able to make some sort of a prediction with it that then could be proven false. In this way, you could create a test to ensure that your model was accurate and useful. A model that doesn’t forecast appropriately and that you can’t make a prediction from doesn’t do much good.

Everything Regresses to the Mean

One thing about statistics is that it can tell you with relative authority things you want to know with less precision than is useful. Statisticians can forecast the economy but not predict whether you will get a raise or not. The Black Swan artfully points out the challenges of statistics and modeling when the sampling size is insufficient. Until you’ve seen a black swan, you’ve not sampled enough to make the statistical models work. Until you’ve sampled enough, the noise will dramatically pull your results askew.

With large sample sizes, everything regresses to the mean. We no longer see the outlier, even as something that is distinct and that does happen, rather it gets lost in the law of averages. Tragic events like 9/11 are never forecast using the wrong model. They’re not perceived as possible if they’re averaged into the data. It’s like the proverbial statistician drowning in a river that is, on average, only 3 feet deep – all the depth of the data was averaged out.

Right Model, Right Results

Perhaps the most difficult challenge when working with data is not the data collection process. Collecting data is tedious and needs to be done with meticulous attention to detail; however, it’s not necessarily imaginative, creative, or insightful. It’s the work that must be done to get to the magic moment when the right model is uncovered for working with data. Though statisticians have ways of evaluating different models for their ability to predict the data, they must see some inherent signal in the noise.

For a long time, we couldn’t find planets outside of our solar system. One day, someone identified a detection model – that is, they discovered a theory for the strange oscillations in the light frequency from distant stars. The theory proposed that super-massive planets in close orbit were causing the star to move. This created a Doppler effect with the light from the star causing what we perceived as light frequency oscillations. Consensus coalesced, and the scientific community agreed that this was indeed what was happening. We had found the first extra-solar planet. Almost immediately, we found nearly a dozen more.

These super-massive planets were hiding in the data we already had. We had already captured and recorded the data to indicate the presence of other planets, but we didn’t have a model to process the data that we had to allow us to understand it.

There were plenty of ideas, thoughts, theories, and models which were tried to explain the light variations, but it wasn’t until the consideration of a super-massive planet that we settled on a model that was right.

The Failure of Predictions

We got lucky finding extra-solar planets. The right idea at the right time. It was a good fit model. It wasn’t a specific prediction. With predictions, our luck is very, very poor. The old joke goes, “Economists have predicted nine of the last six recessions.” They predicted a recession where none happened. Earthquakes and other disastrous cataclysmic events are predicted with startling frequency. It seems that everyone has some prediction of something. Sometimes the predictions are harmless enough, like whose team will win the super bowl. Sometimes the consequences are much direr.


When you think in systems, delays are a very bad thing. Delays make it harder for the system to react to a change in circumstances. In the case of the SR-71 Blackbird, the delays in a mechanical system made engine unstarts a regular occurrence. Reduce the delay with electronic controls and the unstart problem is dramatically reduced. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more.) In the creation of vaccines, the delay is great. To scale up production and get enough doses for the country, it takes six months.

What makes the vaccination “game” worse is that vaccines are designed to target specific viral strains. If the virus mutates, the hard work of creating the vaccine may be wasted, as it may become ineffective at protecting against the new strain. Each year, the vaccine makers attempt to predict which variations of influenza will be the most challenging. They start cooking up batches of vaccines to combat the most virulent.

What happens, however, when you get noise in the identification of the influenza that will be the most impactful? From 1918 to 1920, swine flu afflicted roughly one-third of humanity and killed over 50 million. So when there was an apparent outbreak of a strain of it at Fort Dix, who can blame President Ford for encouraging the vaccine industry to create a vaccine for it and encouraging every American to do their part in preventing the spread of the disease by getting vaccinated – and hopefully increasing the herd immunity?

It turns out it was all a bad call. Issues with the vaccine caused Guillain–Barré disease in some. The virus strain turned out to not be that virulent. The noise at Fort Dix that had produced the scare wasn’t a result of the virus’s potential but was instead a result of environmental and cultural factors that allowed the disease to spread at Fort Dix but weren’t generalizable to the population.


A classic statistical way of modeling diseases is the SIR model, which is an acronym for susceptible, infected, and recovered. The assumption is made that everyone who is recovered is not susceptible again, and everyone has an equal level of susceptibility. This simplified model works relatively OK for measles, but fails to account for natural variations in susceptibility in humans. More importantly, the model fails to account for the connections that we have with each other. It fails to account for how we interact.

Another classic example of disease was cholera in London, but it didn’t seem to have any connections. There was no discernable pattern – that is, until John Snow discovered a connection in the Broad Street well and removed the pump handle. The disease slowly dissipated, as Snow had correctly identified the root cause. However, his job wasn’t easy, because people who were far away from the pump were getting sick. Those who weren’t close to the Broad Street pump had hidden connections. Sometimes they lived near the pump in the past and still used it for their main water source; in other cases, they had relatives close by. The problem with forecasting diseases is the hidden patterns that make it hard to see the root cause. To correctly forecast, we need to find and then use a correct model.

An Inconvenient Truth

It’s an inconvenient truth that, in the decade when An Inconvenient Truth was released, there was no substantial change in temperatures across the planet – in truth, there was an infinitesimal reduction in temperature from 2001 to 2011. However, Gore wasn’t the first to claim that there were problems. In 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb. It was 1974 when Donella Meadows (who also wrote Thinking in Systems), Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows first published Limits to Growth. (It’s still on my reading list.) These books both sought to predict our future – one with which the authors were most concerned. Of course, population is increasing, but it’s far from a bomb, and we’ve not yet reached the feared limits to growth.

These predictions missed what Everett Rogers discovered when working with innovations. In
Diffusion of Innovations
, he talks about the breakdown of society created by the introduction of steel axe heads in aboriginal tribes in Australia. They missed the counter-balancing forces that cause us to avoid catastrophe. However, presenting a balanced and well-reasoned point of view isn’t sensational, and therefore doesn’t sell books, nor does it make TV exciting. The McLaughlin Group pundits’ forecasts about political elections are not at all well-reasoned, balanced, or even accurate – but that doesn’t stop people from tuning into what amounts to be a circus performance every week.

So the real inconvenient truth is that our predictions fail. That we overestimate, and we ignore competing forces that attempt to bring a system into balance. In fairness to Gore, the global temperature on a much longer trend seems to be climbing at 1.5 degrees centigrade per year. It’s just that there’s so much noise in the signal of temperatures that it’s hard to see – even over the course of a decade. We need to be concerned, but the sky isn’t falling.

Watching the Weather

If you want to find a prediction that’s guaranteed to be wrong, it’s got to be the weather. The oft quoted remark “What job can you be wrong most of the time and still keep your job?” refers to meteorologists. However, in truth, forecasts are substantially better than they were even a decade ago. They’ve done a startlingly good job of eliminating the problems with the mathematical models that generate weather forecasts. Increases in processing power has made it more possible to create more accurate and more precise forecasts. And they’re still frequently wrong. A wise weatherman goes outside and looks at the sky before going on air to share their predictions, because they know that the computer models can be wrong.

The problem isn’t the model. The problem isn’t our ability to model what will happen with the forces of nature. The problem is in our ability to measure precisely the inputs for the model and the inherent dynamic instability of the systems. It was Lorenz that first started the conversation about the butterfly effect. That is, a butterfly in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. That’s a mighty powerful butterfly – or the result of an inherently unstable and dynamic system. A very small change in input has a very large change in output.

As a quick aside, this is where the hash algorithms have their roots. We use hash algorithms to ensure that messages aren’t tampered with. They work by small changes in input resulting in large changes in the output.

The problem with predicting the weather, then, isn’t that we don’t know how to process the signal and arrive at the desired outcome. The problem is that we can’t get a precise enough signal to eliminate all the noise.

Overfitting and Underfitting

In attempts to find the models that perfectly describe the data, we run the risk of two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we can overfit the data and try to account for every variation in the dataset. Or we can look for mathematical purity and simplicity and ignore the outliers – this is “underfitting.”

“Overfitting” mistakes noise for signal. An attempt is made to account for the randomness of noise inside the signal we’re trying to process. The result is that our ultimate predictions try to copy the same randomness that we saw in our sample data. In other words, we’ve mistaken the noise for the signal and could not eliminate it.

Underfitting, on the opposite side of the coin, is the inability to distinguish the signal in the noise. That is, we ignore data that is real signal, because it looks like noise. In a quest for mathematical simplicity, we ignore data that is inconvenient.

Brené Brown speaks of her scientific approach to shame and vulnerability as grounded theory and the need to fit every single piece of data into the framework. (See The Gifts of Imperfection for more.) When I first read this, it stood in stark contrast to what I saw with scientists ignoring data that didn’t fit their model. It seems like too many scientists are willing to ignore the outliers, because their theory doesn’t explain it. In other words, most scientists, in my experience, tend to underfit the data. They are willing to allow data to slip through their fingers for the elegance of a simpler model. Brown and those who follow the grounded theory approach may be making the opposite error in overfitting their data.

Statistical Models

In the next part of this review, we’ll talk about models and statistics.

Article: The Actors in Training Development: Instructors

If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it really make a sound? This question is at the heart of the need for people who help training reach students. It’s only by helping students through the course that it has had any impact or value. There’s no good in a course that sits on the shelves, never to be used. Distribution staff, of which instructors are a part, are the bridge from the completed training to the impactful implementation.

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

Book Review-The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

It was years ago. I was working on a billing system. It was designed to bill based on the amount of time used. It billed in six second increments – 10ths of a minute. It was late, and I noticed something odd. There was a bit of math, but it didn’t add up – or rather it added up a bit too much. It’s typical to have to adjust mathematical errors in code. If someone started and ended in the same tick, you charge them for not zero ticks, as end minus start would imply if they’re the same. Instead, you add one to the math equation to say that there was non-zero utilization. However, the code was written in a way that added this adjustment in twice. As a result, the billing was always two tenths of a minute at minimum.

The problem wasn’t discovering the error, it was the comment that prohibited developers from fixing the bug and an instruction to speak with the manager if there were questions. The double addition could have been an accidental mistake. I remember the math being broken into two places and the correction made in both places. However, the note made it clear that the bug was a known bug. One that was charging people for an extra six seconds for every call. It wasn’t much per transaction. Maybe a few pennies. However, as the story line of Office Space can attest, those pennies add up.

This subtle math “error” is the kind of thing that we encounter all the time, and it’s the subject of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. It’s not about the radical changes in direction that are placed outside our conscious view, but rather the subtle tilting of the scales by placing a finger or two on the final outcome. It’s fundamentally about System 1 lying to System 2, to use Khaneman’s language from Thinking: Fast, and Slow.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Brain

We think that we’re in control. We’re wrong. Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis describes the Elephant-Rider-Path model (which is also covered in Switch). It clearly illustrates that a big elephant (or emotions, System 1, Lizard-brain, or whatever you want to call it) is in charge. The rider gets the illusion of being in control so long as the elephant allows it. Incognito demonstrates through visual illusions and thoughtful stories how much we fool ourselves. It’s spooky how much we believe we understand reality and how much our mind plays tricks on us.

Paul Ekman would undoubtedly, at the very least, have concern about saying that our hidden brain (again, System 1, or whatever you want to call it) lies to our rational brain. In Telling Lies, he clarifies that the liar needs to know that he’s lying. In fact, the stress that lying produces because people know it’s not true is how the polygraph works. (Ekman is perhaps best known for his work in detecting lies or, more accurately, emotions through monitoring involuntary facial muscle movement. You can learn more about his life in Nonverbal Messages.) However, our hidden brain keeps taking shortcuts, tilting the scales, and not letting us in that it’s doing it. It’s lying to us – even if we aren’t conscious of it.

Rules of Thumb

In general, heuristics are great. Heuristics are simplifications. They’re “rules of thumb” that you can use to make complicated things simple enough to be understood. Our brains are great at creating them. It’s hardwired into us to find associations and correlations to see if we can simplify the world. If there were no heuristics, there would be no comedy, as comedy and jokes use heuristics to create the wrong impression. (See Inside Jokes for more on how comedy uses heuristics.) The problem isn’t in using heuristics; they’re a great tool to allow us to comprehend the world around us. The problem is when we use a heuristic that doesn’t apply, or the heuristic hides a bias.

I’m biased to people with straight hair compared to curly– at least, that’s what the Implicit Association Test says. (It’s available at if you want to take it for a spin.) How strong is the bias? I don’t know. The test doesn’t say. It simply says a bias exists. If I were to be interviewing two people for a job, I’d have an ever so small bias to the person with straight hair. I’d be applying a heuristic bias that I like straight-haired people more – and I wouldn’t know I was doing it.

Pervasive Biases

I’m not alone in being biased. You are too. Perhaps not in the same ways, but biased. Consider the work of Dr. Clark who gave white children two different dolls – one of a light skin and one of darker skin – and the children called the dark-skinned doll “dirty” and “bad.” It seems like a clear-cut case of racism. That is, until you realize that the black children he tested next had the same general response. It wasn’t racism per se. It was a generalized bias that permeated culture. It’s wrong, I agree. However, to call it racism would be calling black children racist against their own race. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on these tests.)

On a much lighter note, waitresses who subtly mimicked their customers tended to get larger tips – 140% larger tips. We have a bias towards people that “get us.” We want to be understood, and those that understand us are more valuable to us – both in general and, apparently, monetarily as well. The subtle act of mimicry is interpreted by the hidden brain as understanding and is valued – even if we aren’t informed that the bias is happening.

Competitive or Complementary

Gottman predicted divorce rates at 91% accuracy by watching a short fight. (See The Science of Trust for more.) This was impressive to say the least. He identified factors that he believed signaled intimacy longevity and those that drove couples away from one another. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) However, Abraham Tesser found something else that is different and intriguing. Tesser found that people find joy in others’ success – unless their success was in the same area as they were seeking success. In those areas, if their partner or close friend was successful, they became jealous. Couples that who weren’t emotionally close allowed success in a common field to become the wedge that drove them apart. However, emotionally close couples instinctively found complementary ways of dividing up their tasks.

In essence, they found a way to convert competition into cooperation. Richard Hackman is clear about how to build collaborative teams in Collaborative Intelligence. He explains that systems that create a competitive spirit within the team are corrosive to collaboration. It seems like emotionally close couples sense this and unconsciously move into complementary positions, where they could stay a part of a well-functioning team. Instead of a wedge, it becomes a binding that makes them more dependent upon one another.

Talk is Cheap

William Wundt started a branch of psychology that relied on introspection. The behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner, didn’t like it, because it couldn’t be objectively measured. Even Wundt’s successor William James struggled with introspection not because it couldn’t be objectively measured – that is, it couldn’t be observed. James’ struggle was that one could not hope to be without bias for thoughts and feelings occurring inside themselves.

This is the basis of the hidden brain. Much of what happens in our brains isn’t accessible to our consciousness. Even if it was, it would be distorted to protect our ego. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and Its Defenses.) We can’t directly access our hidden brain through reflection or introspection. We’ve got to get to it another way.

Recently, we’ve begun to discover planets in solar systems other than our own. We’re discovering them not because we can see them. We can only see the effect that they’re having on their stars. Super massive planets in close orbit to their stars cause the star to wobble. This wobble is discovered in a slight shifting of the light spectrum from the star in a repeatable pattern – the Doppler effect on a stellar scale. We can find planets, but only by looking for them indirectly.

We find our hidden beliefs by looking at our self-talk and using tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change that self-talk. We don’t change the hidden brain directly, but rather we train the rider how to better control and regulate the elephant in certain conditions. In general, CBT has been found to be effective. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more on CBT and efficacy.)

Kids Say the Darndest Things

One of Art Linkletter’s gifts to culture is a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” That is, they respond in a “cute” way. Sometimes they didn’t understand the question as an adult would. Sometimes they answered in an honest way that an adult never would. Young children and adults are both guided by the hidden brain, and both have the same biases. The difference is that children will say what their hidden brain thinks where adults have learned to restrain their responses. Responses that in children are “cute” would be appalling from an adult. Often the answers are true – but uncomfortable.

There are plenty of examples of celebrities becoming overwhelmed and saying inappropriate things. There’s even a line of commercials from Snickers talking about people who need a snack. They’ve become other people due to their hunger. Researchers have found that much of this isn’t hunger but low blood sugar. They’ve we able to reduce apparent adult prejudice by simply giving them more sugar.

Carried by Currents

Instinctively, we wait. We wait for some sort of consensus to form. The fire alarm may be ringing. The air raid or tornado siren may be blaring. The overhead announcement may be confirming that we need to evacuate the building. Rather than moving immediately, we’ll instinctively pause, survey the group, and attempt to determine what the consensus is before acting. The larger the group, the longer the delay to reach some semblance of consensus – and the more likely we are to have a problem.

We all think that we’re independently protecting our own self-interests when, in reality, we’re waiting on the herd to move so we can keep from being singled out. Even in non-emergency situations, we by default will go with the flow. We’ll assume that our decisions are ours alone; but if you’re always going with the group, how can you be sure that you’re really making your own decisions? If you’re always swimming with the current, you’ll believe that you’re a better swimmer than you are.

Good Samaritans

The good Samaritan story is relatively well known. A stranger, a Samaritan, saves a man on the road by taking him to an inn and agreeing to pay the fee for keeping them there. (I spoke of this in Book Revisited-Theory U, Organizational Traps, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.) The funny thing is that the research shows you’re better off having one Samaritan come by rather than two. It turns out people are more willing to help out when they’re the only one. Whether it’s picking up pencils or something more serious, the more people there are, the lower the expectation of individual intervention.

Similarly, giving to support a single person is easy. Giving to a cause that would save dozens is harder. Somehow our compassion is easily overwhelmed by a dozen when helping one seems easy. It’s almost as if there’s an internal governor that wants to make sure that our efforts are enough to save a “reasonable” portion of the total. If we can’t get to the belief that we’ll make a substantial difference, we’ll do nothing.

Psycho Suicide Bombers

We assume that anyone that is willing to be a suicide bomber must be mentally unstable. How else could we explain their strange and unthinkable behavior? The answer is that they’re living in an alternative universe of their making. They interact with people who focus them in a direction and they’re teleported along a path until their beliefs and behaviors seem unthinkable to the general public.

It doesn’t take religion to perform this conversion. It doesn’t take mental illness. All it takes to create a suicide warrior is to separate them from the rest of reality and slowly move them to a new reality. Terrorists aren’t recruited by terrorist groups. They volunteer because their ideas have become so distorted that the terrorist group seems like the best option.

Groups of people get together and insulate themselves from the outside world while creating a tight mesh of their reality. The band of brothers is formed through shared experiences. One man marries the sister of his good friend. This happens over and over again until the network of people mostly interacts with itself and not with the outside world – the “real” world. Progressively, their attitudes adjust in ways that don’t make sense to most of us.

In the case of suicide bombers, they come to believe that they’re part of something, that their life will have meaning, that they’ll make a difference. While the terrorists rarely come from humiliation itself, they often empathize with persecuted groups and want to make their humiliation and pain go away. They see their role as minimizing or eliminating those inhumanities.

Don’t Drink the Grape Kool-Aid

Certainly, cults show the same tunnel behavior and cut off ties to the outside world. One tragic example is The People’s Temple religious group, whose leader, Jim Jones, warped reality such that parents killed their children and themselves with cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid, because they believed that they were going to be captured and tortured. Their struggle was over.

They’re not alone. The Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves March 25th, 1997 believing that they would be picked up by an alien space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of us believe that this is an odd way to get aboard a space ship, but the shaping of their belief system was so complete that 39 members of the cult followed orders and killed themselves.

Assault on Ourselves

Too often, our hidden brain ignores the statistics, the logic, and the rational in its pursuit of simplicity. Too often, we do things that statistically make no sense. We’ll drive instead of fly, because we perceive it to be safer when it, in actuality, is much less safe. We purchase guns to defend ourselves when the statistics say that our risk of death is much higher when we have guns in the house. It turns out suicide is a much bigger problem than murder – but our hidden brains are assuaged.

We continue to march on, following the orders of our hidden brain. Perhaps if we learn more about The Hidden Brain, we’ll be able to make better decisions both morally and logically.

Book Review-Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius

Somewhere deep in the recesses of our mind are the recesses from our grade school. Buried by decades of cruft, these memories and others call us back to the state that we had back then when we knew we were creative. It’s a time that we knew we were creative, before we got tied up with how others view us and before the need to be productive and rational. This is the place of Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius.

Claude Baudelaire wrote once, “Genius is the capacity to retrieve childhood at will.” Perhaps that’s why it’s no wonder that Einstein considered his genius the result of remaining childlike into his adult life.

Information Processing

Children learn differently than adults. That’s the primary premise of The Adult Learner. It’s not just that adults have more complex mental models (see The Art of Explanation), adults fundamentally learn differently. The neurology of our brain has changed, and we’re not forming the number of new neural connections that we did as a child. However, more importantly, we’ve developed a usefulness filter for what we learn.

Somewhere along the line, we got exposed to so much information that a switch flipped, and we started filtering what we learned. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on the information overload world we live in today.) The switch that flipped made us more discerning consumers of information. Instead of learning everything, we learned that there were things that we didn’t need to know. We didn’t need to know the number of atoms in a liter of gas at standard pressure. We’d look it up when we needed it – or, in today’s terms, we’d just google it.

So, quite literally, we filter everything coming into our brain for awareness – to fight information overload – and for retention to see if we need to reserve precious brain space for the information, or if we can look up the information again when we need it next. That’s different than what we did as children when everything was interesting.

I can remember playing with paper clips and rubber bands just to see how they work – well, in truth, just to be fiddling with something. It’s been a long time since those days. Now, it seems like everything that I’m working on has some productive or at least semi-productive reason for being.


Too many people have books which are screaming to get out. Too many people want to be more than they are today. Edgar Lee Masters, a poet, laments, “Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances. Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.” (See Start with Why and How Will You Measure Your Life? for more on finding purpose.) The problem with ambition, with the desire to be greater, is that, if you try, you’ll know for sure if you can make it – or not.

In How to Be Yourself, I shared the awareness that it’s easier to project a false image than to be real. Being real means that when you’re rejected you’re really rejected. Ambition is the same thing. You don’t have to face your ego if you don’t try. Try and fail, and there’s a reconciliation that must happen with the ego to figure out why you didn’t achieve your goals. But if you don’t try, there’s no hard conversations to have with yourself. (See Change or Die for more on your ego.)

Masters concludes, “To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, but life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire – it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

Corporate Creativity

There’s a crisis in boardrooms across the country. The crisis isn’t capital. The crisis isn’t communication. The crisis is creativity. Following the rules, being in fear of the next layoff has driven creativity out of the corporate culture, and it may be exactly the thing that organizations need to survive. (See Drivers for Conformity and Originality for more.)

IBM chief executives found that they believed the critical activities for the future included taking balanced risks, considering unheard-of ways, comfort with ambiguity, courage, and different assumptions. These skills are the heart of creativity, and they’re missing.

Creativity springs from safety, as Creative Confidence
compellingly explains. The rounds of cutbacks. The layoffs and restructurings in corporate America have left employees shell-shocked in their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder that has them walking from meeting to meeting like zombies awaiting the zombie apocalypse.

Creating Creativity

Beyond creating safety to try and fail, there are other tools that you can use to encourage creativity. If you’re willing to do the things that you least like to do – in service of important goals or responsibilities – you’ll put your brain on tilt and typically generate unique ideas.

Originals explains that it’s quantity that produces quality. That the best works of artists have come in the periods of their greatest productivity. We can get more creativity by creating more opportunities to produce – without pressing so hard that there is stress on the deadline.

Creativity comes from curiosity. It comes from “can I do that?”, “how did they do that?”, and “what’s making that happen?” If you can instill a sense of curiosity in yourself, you’ll find that you’ve recaptured a bit of your childhood and have opened the door to creativity.


Standing strong against the winds of conformity requires strength. It’s a strength of character that’s rare. When confronted with someone who exhibits character, most people generate respect for that person – even when that person has diametrically opposing views. You can appreciate the conviction of someone’s beliefs whether you agree or not. In fact, this respect is the way that things used to be done.

Before the digital age, when we’re fascinated with the latest tweet about a ham sandwich, the latest Instagram picture of the ham sandwich, and the Facebook post about how you had a ham sandwich two years ago, we used to watch behaviors over a long time. We’d see how people acted when people weren’t watching and use this to judge their character. Now we can see people become popular because of one post. We don’t assume that people aren’t watching, because we know they always are.

We used to have to have conviction to develop a reputation. Today, it is all too easy to manipulate the news stream to capitalize on a meme, someone else’s post, or some passing fad. We don’t build respect that same way that we used to.

The people that we used to learn to respect had one thing on their heart. It was something that they cared deeply for and for which they were willing to toil and sacrifice for. No more.

Lines of Varying Lengths

It was Solomon Asch who was curious about conformity and why people would give up their perceptions for the perceptions of others. In an ingenious experiment, he filled a room with test subjects and collaborators. When the collaborators answered truthfully about the length of line that matched the length of line they were still seeing as a reference, the subjects answered truthfully. As he added collaborators that spoke the wrong answer, he found that his subjects would report the wrong answer like the others had given. This progressed from some of the time to over 75 percent conformity at least once with three collaborators or more answering incorrectly.

It wasn’t that the subjects couldn’t literally see the right answer. It was that they literally couldn’t see the right answer. That is, visually, they saw the same information as before, but the image in their mind’s eye was manipulated to match what the collaborators had said. (See Incognito for more about our mind’s eye.)

Closing in on Creativity

I have no way of knowing what is blocking your creativity. For me, I know there’s a part of it that’s the logical sequential thinking that was the start of my career as a developer. Allowing free thinking isn’t always easy for me. Being unproductive feels like a waste. However, sometimes I need to Unthink. Maybe you do too.

Drivers for Conformity and Originality

Adam Grant (author of Originals) says that there are two paths to achievement. One of those paths is conformity, and the other is originality. They’re the two paths that Robert Frost describes in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” While I can understand Frost’s decision like I can understand Emerson’s decision to write “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” I had no clear answers as to why one would choose one path over another. Grant doesn’t address this question in his book either, so I started digging.

From the point of view of evolution, we evolved to be social creatures, and social creatures by their very nature are created to be concerned with what others think. (See The Righteous Mind for the foundations of morality which lead us to our social nature.) Conformity is going with the flow and staying in society’s main stream. Originality sometimes runs counter to the culture and creates the potential to be kicked out of the group. Historically, getting kicked out of a community was a death sentence, as we needed the relative safety of the community to protect us from predators. Groups and the conformity that they engender are safer.

It’s All About the Safety

After turning over my thoughts and reviewing my notes on dozens of references, including Creative Confidence, Creativity, Inc., The Innovators DNA, and others, I came to the conclusion that the fork in the road between conformity and originality is all about licking and grooming. Before you wonder if I’ve lost my mind, stick with me for a moment because it’s this licking and grooming that helps us – or at least helps rats – feel safe.

Perception of Safety

Michael Meaney studied rats. That’s not all that unique amongst researchers of biological psychiatry and neurology. What’s unique is that he stumbled across a small behavior – licking and grooming – that had a profound impact on the adult lives of his rats. Mothers who licked and groomed their rat pups left them with lower stress and greater confidence for their entire lives. A simple act had a dramatic impact, quite literally changing the course of their lives. They were more independent and traveled further from their mother. (See How Children Succeed for one coverage of Meaney’s work.)

When it came time for Sapolsky to write Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he didn’t miss the work of Meaney as he described the impacts of stress on anatomy. He notes that the stress hormones (glucocorticoids) were lower in Meaney’s rats that had been given extra licking and grooming. In short, the rats had a greater perception of safety than they should have had. (After all, they lived in a lab and, as Taleb in The Black Swan pointed out, any day could be their last day.) Perception of safety is what matters, because it controls how our bodies respond and how we respond.

While rats and zebras started exposing clues to how we perceive safety, it was Reiss that revealed another piece of the puzzle by talking about the different motivators that people have.

Need for Safety

Reiss was trying to figure out why people were different. He was trying to boil the ocean of personalities down to a set of factors that could be considered. He was trying to find a small set of dimensions that could describe a person. In the end, he found sixteen motivators that he believes drives human behavior. (See The Normal Personality and Who Am I? for more details on his thoughts.) There are a few of the motivators that appear – at least on the surface – to be related to the need for safety.

Reiss’ motivators are supposed to be independent variables. They’re supposed to be unrelated; that’s the whole point of distilling the possibilities into the essential motivators. However, when you look at the motivators from the lens of safety, you see several that have influence on perceived safety. Independence is a desire for self-reliance – and therefore a greater tolerance for a lack of safety. Acceptance is the need for inclusion – and thus a higher need for safety. Status is the desire for social standing, which is complicated by originality. Status motivated people must be different – but not too different.

This need to temper differences comes from Everett Roger’s work, as revealed in Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers is famous for his bell curve with innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. He explains how some people will naturally seek out innovation – and some will resist. However, buried in the wealth of knowledge from Roger’s research is the key that, for innovations to take hold, the innovators must be different from the rest. They’ve got to be different enough to try something now but at the same time not too different. They need to be cosmopolitan but not too much so. The risk at a personal level and at the level of the diffusion of innovations is that the innovators will be too different, and the early adopters will never identify with them.

Acceptable Level

The motivators that Reiss’ distilled combine to show us a perspective of risk. Some people will have a high-risk tolerance and therefore a low need for safety, while others will have a small risk tolerance and will have a relatively higher psychological need for safety. Our need for safety and avoidance of risk isn’t a fixed point.

As we seek an acceptable level of risk – a risk homeostasis, as it were – we will adapt to taking more risk in some areas and less risk in others. (See The Medici Effect for more on risk homeostasis.) We will trade safety in some parts of our life for safety in other parts of our life, like swapping energy credits. The safer we feel in one area, the less need we’ll have for safety in other parts of our life. Effectively, we’re managing the gap between our perception of safety and our need for safety.

Mind the Gap

The driver for originality isn’t either the perception of safety or a person’s need for safety; rather, it’s the gap – or surplus – between these two. When you feel psychologically safe and have a low need for safety, you’ll tend towards being original. When you’re threatened and feel little safety, but have a high need for safety, you’ll be more conformist.

The decision between the two isn’t in the absolute of either value, but rather it’s in the relative location of your need for safety and your perception of the safety that you have. The challenge is the gap between them. The same ratio drives not just originality but all creativity.

Originality is Creativity

It’s not creative to be a conformist. It may have some psychological strain as you resolve the conflict between the world and your desires by submerging your desires. You may have to fight to keep your desires from reaching the surface like you would have to fight to keep a kick board submerged in a pool. There’s constant fighting. However, there’s no requirement to be creative when conforming. Conforming is straightforward and in some ways downright boring.

In Creative Confidence, the fear barrier – lack of safety – shows up as the primary barrier to people being more creative. The Medici Effect discusses the need for risk (perceived safety) in innovation. Beyond Genius implores you to find your courage (and lower your need for safety). Extraordinary Minds speaks about how geniuses reframe their failures to reduce their psychological impact. Creativity is risky. Creativity requires that the need for safety and the perception of safety are aligned. And originality is being creative – being willing to break the mold.

Mistakes and Mortals

No matter how much we may think of ourselves few of us think that we’re immortal. We recognize at some level that we’re human and mistakes come with the territory, though we’re painfully challenged to admit our mistakes and make changes. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) exposes some of the mechanisms that we use to protect our ego and save face. Change or Die shares the power of The Ego and Its Defenses. (All 22 major and 26 minor defenses).

One of the terrifying challenges with conformity is the possibility that it can lead to genocide. Stanley Milgram discovered that 65% of people would administer seemingly lethal shocks of electricity when they didn’t see the subject of the electrocution. (See Influencer for more about this gruesome finding.) This partially answers how people can be complicit in crimes and yet not feel the horror. (See Moral Disengagement for more on how this works.)

It would be wrong to draw a straight line between conformity and genocide. However, when conformity is wielded in the hands of an unscrupulous leader, the results can disastrous. Enron’s accounting scandal brought down both Enron and their accountants. It’s not genocide, but the result was the destruction of retirement savings of so many innocent people.

The commonality here is the inability of the right people to speak up. Their need for safety was too high or their perceived safety too low to respond in an original way to a difficult situation. Whistleblower laws aren’t enough to protect people from the harassment they’ll receive back on the job. Losing friendships with your work colleagues may be harder. That’s why it’s important to manipulate the system to create a surplus of perceived safety well in excess of the need for safety.

We’re All Original – In Our Own Minds

It’s the degree of originality that we express that’s the question. We can all point to examples where we’ve been originals. We can point to creative ideas. However, the question isn’t an either-or decision like a literal fork in the path. The question is the ratio between times that we’re compliant and when we decide to be original. It’s when we’re feeling safe enough that we’re willing to be original.

How do we create more original moments? We get our perception of safety higher and our need for safety lower. That’s manipulating our results by manipulating the factors.

Manipulating the Results

The same psychology that warns us of the dangers of conformity gives us clues on how to ensure that the need for conformity doesn’t overwhelm our ability to speak courageously when times call for it. (See Find Your Courage for more on speaking courageously.)

Faith in You

There’s an old Kenny Rogers song “She Believes in Me” that speaks of a guitarist performer who returns home to find a woman that believes in him. The song relates the strength that she imparts with her belief. His belief in his potential to be different and to be successful in changing the world is changed by her belief in him. She raises his perception of safety by reducing the chances of failure.

Having other people have faith in you increases your willingness to embark on a journey to change the world.


If you were faced with an important mission that you believed that you were created to do, how much risk would you take to do it? How willing would you be to stand up on a soapbox and shout your truth to the rest of the world? Most of us would be emboldened with the sense of importance in our goal – in our mission – that we’d throw aside our fears and concerns and charge headlong into unsafe waters.

The importance of the mission can push down our need for safety. Our safety can seem small in comparison with the mission that we were created to fulfill. By pushing down the need for safety, we can create the opportunity for originality. It’s this ability to set people free that has authors and experts practically begging us to create a sense of importance in all we do with everyone around us. (See Start with Why for one example.)


Importance may be about the destination, but it’s passion that is the fuel that helps you get there. Passion is what prompts us to be original now. We may have something important burning inside of us, and it may on its own push down our need for safety and create the opportunity to be original; however, it’s passion that gives us the swift kick in the pants that says be original now.

When someone really buys into the compelling mission and releases themselves to the idea that it must be done, then passion can follow. This passion suppresses, reduces, or merely holds at bay our need for safety.


If you want to make a big change in your behavior from conformity to creativity and originality, the big lever is trust. Trust is the major way to directly impact our perception of safety. Trust creates safety. Trust is, however, not well understood.

Ask anyone what trust is, and you’re quite likely to get a response like “meeting commitments.” In other words, trust is earned. While trustworthy people are people who do what they say they will do, this is about someone being trustworthy – not about trust. Trust is a choice and a gift that is independent of whether the other person is trustworthy or not.

Being a choice, you get to decide whether you’re interested in trusting others – whether they are worthy of it or not. The confusing part is that by trusting others – appropriately – you’ll increase your perception of safety. Measured trust quite literally attunes our mind to a belief that the world is inherently safer. Making a conscious effort to gift others with our trust pays us rewards beyond the confines of our relationship.

Safety is an Abstraction

While we have spoken about safety as a single thing, it is really a collection of feelings about safety. We may feel safe driving our own car – so we feel like a safe driver. However, change the car, add snow to the road, or change the amount of traffic, and suddenly our sense of safety changes. And even if we believe we’re safe drivers we may—or may not – believe we’re safe boat captains or pilots. Safety is contextual and related to the things that we’re doing.

There are many factors that influence our perception of safety that are below our conscious awareness. We feel less safe at work, because we’re struggling with a child at home. We feel more comfortable in our favorite outfit and less comfortable when we must wear a dress suit. We can be more original by simply wearing our favorite clothes – even if that is a suit.

It’s easy to describe in broad terms the need for safety or explain the perception of safety. Both, however, work at a macro and a micro level. We can generally feel safe but feel less safe in a specific situation because of factors that we aren’t even aware of. Perhaps the person we’re speaking with wears a bow tie, and we were scared (traumatized) by someone in a bow tie in the past.

When considering safety, we have to remember that it’s much more nuanced and situational than one broad, sweeping statement. However, the overall perception and need for safety will influence specific circumstances. Some people with a high general perception of and a low need for safety can do something risky like sky diving where others could not. This is true even when they know the instructor personally, they’ve reviewed the safety record of the school, and looked at all the details. Their situational safety may not be powerful enough to override their overall temperament on safety.

Safety Net

If you want to change someone’s temperament for safety, the best thing you can do is create a safety net for them and wait. Wait for them to fall into the net. It might be a simple thing like a meltdown while moving into an apartment or something like buying a tank of gas when they’re completely out of cash. They’re small things, but when they’re well-timed – in a time of need – they’re powerful reprogramming of our minds. Suddenly the world isn’t a scary awful place, it’s a place where there are helpful people.

Safety nets are about helping others know they will be OK. It’s not about the tank of gas, it’s about the way that the support fuels their hearts and minds and reminds them that they don’t have to go through the world alone.


The people who were the most original could be considered polymaths. That is, they were experts in multiple areas. They chose to learn and grow and walk their own path. Da Vinci is perhaps the most well-known with his various forms of art; but don’t forget that he deferred painting the Mona Lisa until he had finished tinkering with optics. If you want to be more creative, more original, maybe it is found not by walking a path, but instead by wandering between passions and trying to figure out your own path from your interests.

Book Review-Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

It was 7th grade. My science teacher wasn’t interested in science. It was where he got assigned to teach. It was his first year. He would read a chapter or two ahead of the class so that he could teach us. He was a good man but was in a bad spot. One day, he was teaching about how heat was an invisible liquid. I – quite untactfully – told him he was wrong. I told him what I knew that heat was the kinetic energy of molecules bumping into one another. He responded well, but honestly, what can you do when you’re embarrassed in front of the class?

Well, in this case, you offer the student the opportunity to play with radioactive materials in the teacher’s work area in the science department. You hand them a Geiger counter and say, “Go have fun.” The radioactive materials were very low-grade materials (as one would expect in a junior high school) so I wasn’t in any danger. However, I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from that teacher. I learned that learning was fun. It was more fun than I knew to that point.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World isn’t about the people who get sent out of the class by their teachers. It’s about how people decide to be original and why the “originals” are so desperately needed.

Conformity and Originality

There are, according to Grant, two paths to achievement. The first is conformity, and the second is originality. Conformity is the easy way. We’re wired with the need for social connection. We’re wired for conformity. Being different – being original – is risky. If you were original, you ran the risk of being run out of the community; historically, that was a death sentence. As much as we would like to believe that we’re independent today, as humans we’ve always been social – and we continue to need that social connection.

Changing Systems

Steve Jobs came back to Apple to save the organization he started from the failure of his NeXT project, which wasn’t exactly a roaring success. The campaign that he and his team created to revitalize the company was “Think Different.” That’s what originals do: they think different. But there’s more to it than that. A reasonable man recognizes that his views are incompatible with the world and changes them. An original sees that the world is incompatible with his views and sets out to change the world. Jobs described this as putting his “ding” on the universe.

Originals realize that the world is a series of systems, and if you can find the right lever, you can move the world. This is a reference to Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Originals look for the systems in things – beyond the mechanical world as Archimedes understood it – and seek to make the right changes in the system to get the resulting changes they want. (See Thinking in Systems for how systems work.)

Vuja De

There’s a running joke around my house that my neighborhood has the fastest home builders. On our walks, my wife is constantly talking about all the new houses that are being built in the neighborhood. Ours is an established neighborhood that finished any meaningful construction over 40 years ago. However, as we’re walking and talking and exploring new ideas, she’s seeing the neighborhood with new eyes and seeing houses differently. These “new” houses aren’t new construction but are a new construction – or awareness – in her mind. She’s literally seeing the same things differently.

We’ve all heard of déjà vu, where we experience something like it happened before; but originals experience “vuja de,” where they experience the same thing differently. It might be a walk in the park, a warm cup of coffee, a Monday morning staff meeting, or some other mundane, trivial experience that we all have. However, they experience it differently.

Bearer of Risk

I’ve been in business (this time around) for over a dozen years. By now, it’s become just what I do. It’s the only world I’ve known for most of my career. Frequently, when I talk to someone, particularly someone in a large corporate job, they say, “I could never do that. There’s too much risk.” I get a similar response when I explain that I took a standup comedy course. (See I Am a Comedian.) The thing is, I don’t perceive my world to be particularly risky.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by economist Richard Cantillon. It literally means “bearer of risk.” An entrepreneur literally bears the risk for some endeavor. The degree to which they and others, like investors, bear the risk may be up for debate, but inherently entrepreneurs bear risk.

The funny thing is that all the entrepreneurs I know are risk-avoidant. They’ve got it coming out their ears and they’re sick of it. The guys and gals I know work very hard to systematically reduce, eliminate, and mitigate risk. Entrepreneurs may be the bearers of risk, but they’re willing to get rid of it at a moment’s notice if they can.

Idea Selection

There’s a popular myth that original people, or creative people, have better ideas. I’d say that this is false. What originals have is more ideas, or, more properly, they have more ideas they allow to flow and be shared. Originals don’t self-censor themselves out of the ideas in their head. They share them, adapt them, and build upon them.

Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., shares how at Pixar all movies suck to start. It’s not that the mastery of Toy Story comes fully-formed out of the mental womb. The process that Pixar uses is designed to refine and improve the story until it’s good. Other organizations employ filtering mechanisms to reduce the abundance of good ideas into a set that can be considered for implementation.

Truly original people can have a dozen ideas that they share while sitting at breakfast. Two things separate the successful entrepreneur original from the rest. First, they let the ideas flow. Second, they select the few best ideas and they execute on them.

Entrenched in Our Ideas

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, explains the Stockdale paradox. It is unwavering faith and the willingness to listen. On the one hand, remaining committed to the original idea; on the other hand, being aware of the absolute need for other people’s perspectives, so that we can inform our direction and our actions.

The problem with all of us is that, as we become experts, we build schemas in our minds – mental models – of how the world works. (See The Art of Explanation for more on our schemas.) More experience means a richer model. The problem is that our models are necessarily incomplete and in some places incorrect. However, the more time that we spend building our model of how the world works, the less likely we are to change it.

Whether it’s the model that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the world is flat, or something more mundane, our view of the world can make it hard to see it as it really is. It means that experts have a hard time contributing anything new to their disciplines after the first few years. Einstein said that if someone hadn’t contributed to science by the age of 30, they never will. While this is potentially outdated and over stated, the point remains that it’s very difficult to shake up the establishment when you are a part of it.

Playing the Portfolio

How do originals avoid the risk and avoid getting entrenched in ideas? The answer is that they intentionally pull in ideas from multiple disciplines. Edison brought in experts in gas lighting, metallurgy, and dozens of other areas of expertise to create his light bulb. He wanted this diversity of thought both externally in the case of experts, but also internally as he sought to build expertise in multiple domains.

By building expertise in multiple domains, he could allow the mental models of the established professions to gently – and sometimes violently – collide and disrupt the idea that there was one right way of viewing the world.

Originals frequently put down multiple bets on the table to spread their risk around.

Playing the Field

Imagine for a moment a roulette wheel like none you’ll ever find in Las Vegas. A roulette wheel can have 38 positions that the ball can fall into (in the US). What if you were guaranteed to get a 70:1 return on your bets? The problem is you can only bet on 10 positions at a time. What would you do?

A typical safe-bet-type person wouldn’t play. They’d look at their odds and say, “I have only a 10:38 (or 1:3.8) chance of winning – those aren’t good odds. I don’t want to risk it.” An original says, “As long as I’m willing to stay at the table for six or eight turns, I’ll come out ahead – way ahead.” The odds are substantially in their favor that, over the long run, they’ll more than double their money. An entrepreneur makes the 10 bets each time. For each square, they place 1:60th of what they’re willing to lose.

Odds are that, within the first four games, they’ll have received their payout. Entrepreneurs use this to change how much they bet.

Pitch Imperfect

Colonel Sanders, the founder and icon of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is said to have heard “no” to his pitch for a chicken franchise 1,009 times before he heard a “yes.” He is said to have pitched his chicken restaurant franchising concept more than 1,000 times before he got the pitch right. (See Pitch Anything if you want more to learn more about pitching.) What did he learn the first thousand times? Like Edison, he learned what didn’t work. Through purposeful practice and deliberate attempts, he eventually found an approach that worked. (See Peak for more on deliberate practice.)

Colonel Sanders was an original not in his idea of franchising. He wasn’t an original in his spices – though they were original. He was an original because he was willing to work hard to execute on his one idea.


In general, procrastination is viewed negatively. We believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and other clichés that have been around since Ben Franklin’s time. However, what if procrastination had a purpose? There is anecdotal evidence and research that, in some cases, procrastination may be a better option if you’re looking for creativity.

It’s important to point out that it’s a specific kind of procrastination. It’s procrastination which is not trying to force a solution before it’s right. It’s starting to process the work to be done and allowing the fact that your solution is incomplete to trigger the Zeigarnik effect. That is, things that are left incomplete and undone have a greater impact in our brains. Our subconscious continues to mull over the problem looking for a solution, even while our conscious processing is otherwise occupied. Our subconscious looks for that bit of dopamine we’ll get when we solve the puzzle.

The Secret to Success is Timing

The argument could be made that Colonel Sanders didn’t improve his pitch. The argument could be made that it was just the right time. When you accept that life isn’t deterministic but is instead probabilistic, as explained in The Halo Effect, you consider that sometimes there’s just a right time for things. You throw the dice and hope for the right results, sure. However, you’ve also got to wonder whether some of what’s happening is just based on timing.

Many of the entrepreneurs I know will admit to a degree of luck and probabilistic determination that allowed them to succeed. A few more recognize that there are times when ideas will work and when they won’t. For instance, when gas prices are low, we can consider transportation optimization solutions. Organizations in general have available funds to make investments. However, the oil and gas industry shuts down all elective projects, because they don’t have the available capital to invest in optimizations.

Friends and Frenemies

We may have been told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, but what happens when you can’t tell one from the other? The research points to increased anxiety. When our friends seem to randomly betray us, the result is stress. If we know someone is not to be trusted, that’s easy. We may not like it, but we understand where we stand. However, when someone acts like Brutus and stabs us in the back while pretending to be our friend, our anxieties are raised.

If we want to lower the stress in our world, it is through escaping (or jettisoning) the so-called “friends” who can’t consistently be real with us by supporting us when appropriate and challenging us appropriately when necessary.

The Gilded Frame

When trying to get buy-in for an original idea, sometimes the direct approach is not the best approach. (See Buy-In for more ideas on how to get buy in for your ideas.) Sometimes we need to package our idea in a way that helps others see that achieving our goals is a way of achieving theirs. People are more likely to support us when they believe that it serves their own needs and values.

Sometimes our ideas are so “out there” that we must create a bridge from where we want to go to where people are now. That bridge can be their goals; it can also be moderating the original idea to the point where it becomes more palatable with the expectation that we’ll be able to reveal more of the idea as things happen. This makes the “crazy” original idea easier to accept and allows people to start walking the path to understand where things should lead – not just how different and scary the world might look.

The Logic of Appropriateness

If one were to use the logic of consequences, no one would ever do anything original. It’s simple. Conformity isn’t risky. Originality is. Conformity is the only choice if you’re evaluating from the lens of consequences. However, that is not the only perspective. Another perspective that breathes life into those who would be called “original” is the lens of appropriateness. From this perspective, we have the option of looking not at the risk of the situation but the need for impact, the need to change the world to make it more appropriate.

Originals look for appropriateness over consequence. They choose to stand out and stand up when it’s appropriate (and necessary) to make the world a better place.

Order of Originality

Just as age impacts our beliefs over time, so to do things like birth order. If you want to make someone care more about relationships, tell them they have only a few years to live, either through a specific communication like the diagnosis of a mortal illness or through the constant subtle reminder of their age. The result is a greater emphasis on relationships and a deemphasis on things. That isn’t to say that the natural biases built up over a lifetime are wiped from the slate, it’s just that a bias is introduced.

So, too, can birth order subtly shift perceptions and lead towards, but not to, different outcomes. Later in birth order, children grow up with fewer rules than their older siblings. In fact, it may be that older siblings are providing some of the child-rearing and in doing so tend to be more lenient.

The impact of these differences in their upbringing seems to be that they are more original. It seems that children who are later in the birth sequence tend to be more original than their older siblings. It’s not that all first-born children are not original or that all later-in-birth-sequence children are original, it’s just that they trend in that direction.

Character Praise, Skill Praise

Carol Dweck’s work on mindset cautions us about instilling a fixed mindset into our children by complementing them for their achievements. (See Mindset for more.) However, the growth mindset that we seek to instill is primarily focused on the ability to help children know that their results can be changed with hard work, and that it’s not some inherent capability that they can’t change.

However, there are some places where introducing some fixed qualities around character can be valuable. Even Dweck recommends praising children for their hard work. This is really to say that we’re praising the child’s character by saying they’re a hard worker. We can similarly praise their courage in being a non-conformist. We can encourage their honor by recognizing their honorable actions and pointing to their character.

Establishing a high moral bar takes advantage of the fact that children tend to rise to the level to which they’ve been labeled. If they’re labeled as a good student, they live that label until they’re challenged. If they’re labeled as a hard worker, they can carry that forward forever.

Cohesion, Collaboration, and Conformity

Richard Hackman talks about challenging intelligence community-based collaboration in Collaborative Intelligence. He speaks of the need for teams to be cohesive and have direction and a level of permeability. He suggests that there needs to be the right level of discomfort in the group coupled with a great deal of trust and respect.

There has been some discussion about how close a group should get with one another for the risk that Irving Janis’ groupthink would show up – however, Hackman doesn’t see it this way. He sees the need for diversity of thought, and that a group would eventually start to think alike not because they got too friendly, but because they had the same experiences.

The idea that groups can become too collegial and unwilling to push back on each other has been refuted, but it’s important to recognize that Hackman’s suggestion for regular small changes to bring in fresh perspectives is important.

Thoughtful Disagreements

“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” says Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, “is the inability for people to have thoughtful disagreements about what’s true.” I’d encourage you to pick up Originals and develop a disagreement about what’s true.

Article: The Actors in Training Development: Author

The phrase most likely to describe the author in the training and development process is “and then the magic happens.” The author is at the core of the content development process. He or she takes the input from the SMEs and the coaching from the learning designer and makes it happen.

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

Book Review-The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – Facebook Friends

In the first part of the review of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, I addressed the direct impact of information overload (it’s here). However, there were many lose ends in the book as it pertains to relationships and how we live with others that bears addressing. We’re not isolated individuals living in bubbles that never intersect. We’re social creatures, and information overload is changing how we relate.

Friends and Facebook Friends

I’ve spoken before about friends. I’ve spoken of the analysis of friends in my review of Analyzing the Social Web, of how technology changes our friendships in my review of Alone Together, and of Robin Dunbar’s work on mapping the need for social connections in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving to name just a few places. Friendship has a fuzzy boundary. What differentiates an acquaintance from a friend from a Facebook friend?

Reason, Season, or a Lifetime

The answer is more contextual and nuanced than we might like to believe. It has been said that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.

Most of us can speak fondly of ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends not because of a lingering longing for them, but because we are acutely aware of how they helped us grow, change, and become better people. In short, they were in our lives for a reason.

All of us can share stories of friends that we had in elementary school who we’re no longer in touch with. In fact, this is the natural state. We’ve culled them from our current friend roster not because we don’t value the bond we had, but simply because our lives have been pulled apart. For some of these friends, we could resume where we left off if they were to suddenly move back into our lives – and for some, we wouldn’t.

There are a few friendships that have stood the test of time that we can truly say are with us for a lifetime. We’ve got old teachers and elementary friends that, though we may not speak with daily, still remain active in the roster of people we would call “friends.”


As I explained in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, even our “enemies” become our friends with shared history. We find the nostalgia of our shared past a way to connect, and in doing so, we make friends of the very people that we would have never associated with.

Friendships, then, aren’t about some single vision of what a friend should be, but are instead a rough understanding of people who have a concern for us. The degree to which they share a concern for our well-being and our assessment of this fact mediates the veracity with which we’ll claim they are a friend.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is the sonnet “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, as a part of the effort to raise money for the pedestal for the statue. The second stanza is:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In determining friendship, we consider how far away from others we are, how far from home we are, and how tired and poor we are. The more alone we feel, the more disconnected, the more likely we are to call someone a friend. We don’t hold one standard for what defines a friend, we have a vague sense of this permeable group. The closest we can get to criteria seems to be intimacy.


Ideally, friends are people with whom you can share a level of intimacy. However, intimacy doesn’t mean the same thing it used to – and doesn’t mean the same things that it means in other cultures. Remember that, historically, we’ve spent 99% of our time as Homo sapiens scraping just to get by. It’s been in the last 1% of our time on the planet that we’ve heard the language from the declaration of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The idea that we had the opportunity to pursue liberty or happiness was a new discovery in the 18th century. (See The Righteous Mind for more about liberty as a moral foundation.)

Happiness, which is the focus of great attention, wasn’t something that most folks aspired to. They were happy with survival. They couldn’t think of what it would be like to be happy. Perhaps that’s why intimacy wasn’t the same thing that it is now. We know that “the presence of a satisfying intimate relationship is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional well-being that has ever been measured.” If intimacy leads to happiness and we had no ability to get to happiness, it’s no wonder that intimacy was different – and is still different in some cultures.

Personally, I believe that intimacy makes more a difference to my life than anything else. I cherish my close friendships and my relationship with my wife and our children. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more on what it means to not have intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy on how to develop it.)

Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

While there’s room for argument, the most powerful advancement in the whole of human history is the concept of time. It is connected to everything we do – though quite covertly. Consider Sapolsky’s work, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which describes our ability to simulate potential future events as the root of our challenges with sustained stress. We all have our own perspectives on time, as The Time Paradox explains. The Rise of Superman explains how flow shuts down parts of our brain, disrupting our sense of time. Time may be the singularly most powerful advancement of humans.

Over the years, we’ve refined time. Railroad accidents caused us to reach a more precise sense of time. We realized that having each local community establishing “time” wasn’t going to work, so we unified our sense of time. We’ve further refined time to allow us to position ourselves anywhere on the earth. At the heart of the GPS system is a very precise time signal, with which, using some math for measuring the propagation delay and multiple signals, we can locate our nearly exact position on the Earth. Our understanding of and fascination with time was what allowed us to make extraordinary discoveries.

However, our sense of time has a more personal impact. It allows us to consider the consequences of our actions and exercise impulse control. (See Willpower for more.) We’re able to see the possible consequences and thereby prevent ourselves from going down that path.

It also allows us to set aside benefits in the present for better benefits in the future. We’re able to pass the marshmallow test. We’ll leave one marshmallow alone for now to get to two marshmallows in the future. This delayed gratification is what allows us to work together to build amazing things. It’s what allows us to work on projects that will pay dividends in the future – even when it’s toil today.

Information Architecture

It’s been years since I started my work on information architecture and how to organize things. Back in 2011, I posted Information Architecture Resources and Questions, which summarized some of the work I was doing on information architecture and the six books that I had read to that point on information architecture. Over the years, a few more might make the list (for instance, The Information Diet). When I started reading The Organized Mind, I expected that I’d find more information about information architecture. I expected to get tips and tricks for organizing information, but I really didn’t get much to help with how to categorize information.

Neurology of Sleep

Sleep seems, on the surface, to be a complete waste of time. After all, nothing happens when you’re sleeping, right? Well, not so fast. Our brains need a way to rehearse what happened during the day and to build links to the things that we learned. Sleep is the critical key to making sure that we don’t lose the experience we gained during the day. Perhaps it’s wasteful to spend a day learning and not sleep.

One of the sad but true facts about structured adult learning is that there’s a “forgetting” curve. That is, you’ll forget some of what you’ve learned over time. There are techniques to minimize the loss of learning, but some loss is inevitable. The hard fact is that after 2 weeks, you’ll have lost about 80% of what you learned – unless you have some reinforcement. That’s assuming you get a decent night’s sleep.

Our brains have been described as a computer, with our memory operating like a hard drive. While there are plenty of holes in this analogy – not the least of which is that our memories are changed and rewritten – but the analogy does hold some value. Our brains are vast warehouses of encoded information. The problem isn’t storage of information. The problem is a retrieval problem. The problem is how do you access those memories that you need when you need them?

Why can a scent remind you of your grandmother’s closet with her mothballs or cedar-lined walls? Why can’t you remember the name of the first girl (or guy) that you ever kissed? What happened to those memories of teachers who inspired you? The answer isn’t that the memories are gone. The problem is that the memories aren’t findable. The threads that lead you from one thought to the next don’t lead to those memories like they used to. The good news is that, during sleep, our brains rehearse and connect the thoughts of the day to other thoughts. Links are built for colors, smells, similar ideas, etc. It’s these links that ensure that we’ll be able to get back to the memories.

The particularly interesting note from The Organized Mind is that each day’s experiences are integrated over a series of nights. It’s not just that first night that is important. It’s important to get good sleep over the next few days. I’ve noticed conference fatigue. By the third or fourth day of the conference, everyone is dragging. It’s like they’re in a bit of a haze. That makes sense if their brains are trying to integrate their learning from the week. If they’re not used to that much learning, then they’re probably exceeding their learning capacity. Said differently, they’re likely to be exceeding the ability of their sleep to integrate their learning.

More Failures to Succeed

Like many other books, The Organized Mind talks about highly successful people as being persistent. However, there’s an important twist. There’s a recognition that you must try many things to see how to become successful. I am reminded that Edison’s first patent was a commercial failure. I’m reminded how many different approaches that my successful colleagues tried before they became successful. Maybe you can start by reading The Organized Mind – it might be just what you need to be able to get more organized and become more effective in your life.

Cost Effective Training

There’s a lot of disruption in the training industry – there’s always a lot of disruption in the training industry. However, this disruption sits along the edges and rarely penetrates to the core. The core of what training does – or, rather, is supposed to do – is improve human performance. It’s a tool, like coaching and productivity aids, that is designed to make humans more productive, happier, and healthier.

We’ve got decades of solid research on how people learn – and how they don’t. (See Efficiency in Learning, The Adult Learner, and The ABCs of How We Learn for a start.) We’ve got good strategies for reducing the gap between what we want people to know and what they actually do. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for an example.) Unfortunately, few practitioners have done much research on what does work and what doesn’t. Instead, they rely on their experience and how they were taught. The thinking goes like this: “If it worked for me to learn, it will work for other people.” Accepting that this is true for the moment, that’s not the point. The point in today’s information overload, high-speed, rapid-change environment isn’t whether it can accomplish the objective. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on information overload.) The question is whether it’s the most effective way to improve the performance of humans.


Efficacy is measured on whether the humans are able to perform the skills or behaviors that the training is designed to enhance. This is balanced against the cost, both in terms of the individual human learner and the effort in producing the training, including its distribution. The largest shift in corporate training over the last two decades (which is a short time in learning terms) has been the shift from instructor-led classroom training to electronic-based training.

This shift is due to the substantial reduction in cost by eliminating room logistics, flights for the parties involved, and the instructor for every delivery. These costs are substantial, and because they are so large, it’s acceptable in many kinds of training to accept lower learning retention rates through electronic learning and still have greater efficacy. So even though we don’t get as far down the road to our goal of total learning, its cost reduction is so significant it has a higher efficacy.

With electronic learning in place, the primary remaining costs are the cost to develop the course and the cost for the consumers to go through it. Unfortunately, the distributed nature of the cost for people to go through the course makes this portion of the educational cost less tangible to managers and leaders who are looking at the costs of a training program. Thus, the primary constraint on costs becomes the cost to develop the course.

Build vs. Buy

This leads to the classic build vs. buy decision. When should an organization build their own content, and when should they buy existing courses developed by others to leverage economies of scale? The rather simplistic answer is that you build when the training needs to be customized to your organization. The problem is that the lines are rarely clear between the need to customize and the ability to accept mass-market training.

Certainly, when training on the processes inside the organization, it’s necessary to develop the content internally. On the opposite extreme, few learning organizations would believe that customizing the introduction to Microsoft Word course makes sense. The rub comes in when we move to the gray areas like customer relationship management (CRM) software or even advanced Microsoft Word. In the CRM example, you may want to teach the skill (adding an opportunity) with the details of the organization’s rules. For instance, you may need to discuss the specific rules for how to rate the likelihood of closing the opportunity based on your organization’s rules. In the Microsoft Word example, you may have a specific location where templates must be stored or a specific set of styles that should be used for larger documents. In these cases, the skills are infused with the particulars of the organization.

Buy and Customize

A strategy for addressing this need is to buy a baseline set of content and customize it. While this strategy sounds good in theory, in practice it can be difficult to do, as content producers are reluctant to share their source materials with corporations to allow them customization. It also requires a set of skills that many learning professionals don’t have. We have SCORM and TinCan, but there’s not one way of doing things that a learning professional can learn to understand how to customize the content. There’s always conventions of the content producer that the corporate trainer must learn ad hoc.

Ultimately, the most effective answer for organizations is to buy content and customize it, but the market isn’t ready to make this a reality for every organization. For the time being, many organizations are going to settle for buying some content and creating other content. Solutions like the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide, which offers simple ways to replace screen shots and edit the items, aren’t common, and they’re likely to not be common for a while.


Article: SharePoint Development in 2017

When SharePoint first came out in 2001, development for the platform wasn’t easy. It was ASP—not ASP.NET, which was the first development approach for SharePoint. In 2003, the platform was migrated to .NET, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it had a proper customization strategy in the form of features and solutions. The world has changed since then, and SharePoint has had several development models come—and one has both come and gone. In this article, we’ll look at the development models available in SharePoint and Office 365 development and explain why one would choose one model versus another.

Full article at Read more…